Forgive me the spoiler, but L. J. Sysko’s debut poetry collection The Daughter of Man ends with the most comprehensive set of notes I have ever seen. These five pages of notes, so exhaustive they almost form a poem unto themselves, cover everything from an unlisted quote by Andy Warhol to S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders to the definition of a Dorito. All is unraveled, all secrets revealed.
There’s something of a valley girl Beowulf in this listing off—a counting of the spoils, a hoarding, a piling. Indeed, there’s something of Beowulf (perhaps especially Maria Dahvana Headley’s irreverent, near-feminist 2020 translation) to the book at large, a sense that our speaker is recounting an epic poem in the classical sense, a tale of great consequence, one that spans a lifetime. The book’s sections follow the stages of a woman’s life in an intentional subversion of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey: Maiden, Warrior, Queen, Maven, Crone. In accordance, “Barnegat Light,” the opening poem of first section “The Maiden,” drops the reader right into the speaker’s early years: “In the ’80s, my sister—Homecoming Queen / and Prom Queen—with Tawny Kitaen-teased hair / and big boobs . . .”
The Daughter of Man relishes in its high-low mix, bouncing from figures of Roman myth and artists like Magritte and Artemisia Gentileschi to the concept of shipping, as mentioned in “Everything’s Elegy”:
There’s no “ship name”
for Jupiter and Metis, for what a hack
without compunction will do to a Titan,
let alone a myth.
On that “low” end, references here are generally situated within a particular pop culture milieu, one that conveys the truths of a very specific kind of Gen X or early millennial eighties and nineties girlhood: Nirvana, Donna Summer, a Very Special Episode recorded on VHS and Betamax.
In the book’s introduction, Patricia Smith, who selected The Daughter of Man for publication as a finalist in the Miller Williams Poetry Series, calls Sysko “the irreverent namer of things.” I would go so far as to call her namer and collector. Reading The Daughter of Man is, in many ways, like walking through an antique mall, observing with delight and fascination the relics of an era past but not, you suddenly realize as you reach out to touch one, that past. Both imagistically and synesthetically, the scents and textures vary, as do the colors, though they mainly follow the cover’s bubblegum palette: purple wisteria, the “yellow-pink September” of the poem “Pool.”
“Landscape with Wisteria” tells the story of a burgeoning third-wave feminist consciousness:
In high school,
a young, feminist
relative to men.
The development of that consciousness serves as the root of the heroine’s journey throughout: the speaker’s growing attunement to her own body, her recognition of how that body might be used for or against her, the pain it creates, allows, and endures. Repeated references to Gentileschi, the female baroque painter most famous for her depiction of Judith slaying Holofernes, reify these struggles as core to the book’s argument: man versus woman, desire versus violence. In “Bisected Girl with Vagina,” a troubled conception of consent begins in adolescence:
. . . she’d remember
No, the idea of No, I
won’t let you in
But it’s not all pain, or at least the pain isn’t all bad. Sysko finds equal joy in the stereotypes of both slut and witch, in the mind-body split, in both the perceived power and powerlessness of women. On a literal level, the English teacher’s lesson “Landscape with Wisteria” seems to stick; many of these poems (see “tablescape”) take up physical space on the page, perhaps in an effort toward reclamation.
The varied jewels of Sysko’s hoard make this book worth reading. These poems have wonderfully glib titles like “What’s stupid” and “The Yassification of Dolly Parton.” (I have to admit that, upon reading the latter for the first time, I yelped with excitement.) They’re sometimes marked by subtle internal and end rhyme (“. . . laughing so hard / only he can hear. Rings mark the years”). There’s a close reading and unpacking of the acronym “M.I.L.F.”: “The M’s self-explanatory. / The I / is a boy-man’s first-person perspective…”
It’s worth noting, though, that these sugary pleasures of sound and humor don’t preclude gravity; within the sweetness, Sysko addresses such topics of as her Jewish grandparents’ escape from Germany (as in “Kristallnacht”) and sexual assault (as in “Date Rape”). Power and control drive this book, and particularly the weight of misogyny looms over it all, providing a veil through which Sysko can pierce, giving readers something to root for.
To frame the way gender functions in The Daughter of Man—threaded tightly through every word, even when it turns invisible—we might return to Headley’s translation of Beowulf: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days, / everyone knew what men were.” From those very first lines about her sister’s hair, Sysko gives us a clear picture of what a woman is too: beautiful, royal, humiliated, untouchable, too touchable. Back then, everyone knew. Everyone still knows.
About the Reviewer
Ellie Black is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi, where she also received her MFA. Winner of the 2023 Pinch Literary Award in Poetry, she has work published in or forthcoming from Ninth Letter, Mississippi Review, The Offing, Black Warrior Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. Her criticism and nonfiction can be found in the Georgia Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fandom Spotlite, Pleiades, and the Adroit Journal.