Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Year of the Femme

By Cassie Donish

Reviewed By Kelly Weber

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Late in The Year of the Femme, Donish’s speaker says in the poem “A Fold in the Act,” “The interior appeared / as a fallow field.” Interiors and the fullness thereof feel at the heart of this book, a gorgeous kind of phenomenology that questions pronouns, desire, categories, queerness, and how a mind moves through the world as body. Or, rather, the body is the interface of the mind. The speakers of the poems of The Year of the Femme feel at once ghostly and embodied, interior and exterior found at the ecotone of dailiness, thistle, lipstick. This book asks what it means to be in the world, in a Heideggerian sense, when our perception is inextricable from the language that binds us to body and to one another. Such binding feels both the crisis and release of these poems, as they grapple with internal thought as a landscape as real as the exterior, physical world and with trying to find a way to see without categorizing.

In that sense, I’m reminded of Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought in its use of word and world and thought—almost vibrating together—to explore consciousness and how such a thing is developed inextricably from body and environment. Yet in its repetition and precision, The Year of the Femme has echoes of Gertrude Stein. In the opening poem/section, “Portrait of a Woman, Mid-Fall,” the speaker reflects, “It’s important to have a little certainty / It’s important to believe in calm rather than calamity,” and, “Is there a way to slip out of a binary into a body . . . / The leaves are especially yellow and she enjoys it / She finds her own enjoyment disconcerting.” Here, there is a kind of Steinian repetition of what something is and what it is not, while beautifully juxtaposing the concrete natural world with declarations of how living in that world is felt, is thought. The trick is that thoughts are part of the natural world.

In Donish’s poems, abstract declarations of thought—of the experience of having a thought and having a feeling—are just as real and revelatory as skeletons, nightingales, frogs. The experience of desire, of naming such a thing desire or joy, is just as tangible as those concrete things. In The Year of the Femme, we as readers are reminded freshly again and again of what it is to have a body-consciousness shaped by language. “Nightingales and frogs, enter the ward / Yellow star-thistle, settle invisible disputes / Ivory skeleton, deal with internalized hate,” the speaker seems to almost chant in “Modern Weeds.” These lines seem at once like a list of symbolic meanings attached to each concrete natural thing—what thistle and frog call to mind—and like they hold both the concrete and abstract details in equal measure. Thistle and disputes: they can both be held equally by the line, simply placed next to one paratactically. Each is beautiful to behold—what the mind sees, what the mind thinks.

Indeed, the beauty and fact of the mind throughout The Year of the Femme feels quietly astonishing. In “Portrait of a Woman, Mid-Fall,” the speaker observes “She is selfish because she wants what she wants / She doesn’t want to negotiate about where to live or how / There are already enough limits on that.” How incredible, to claim and insist on the existence of such interiority and desire, the fact of it. As they explore gender, sexuality, orientation, and pronouns, Donish makes a space for desire as much as they make space for the dailiness of life. In “Desire and the Social,” the speaker offers a kind of phenomenology of desire:

. . . Desire is singular,
individual, physical, it is
psychological, at the restaurant
her hair was in her eyes
and I wanted to push it aside.

. . .

see, beauty is in the eye of
society, lust is in the body
of society, the animal of me longs
for other animals of my kind,
this long is shaped by phrasing . . .

The binaries of individual and group, language and world dissolve; all longing is shaped by phrasings as well as held by society as a whole, a kind of membrane or organism that filters all experience, for better or worse. As the speaker says in “Modern Weeds,” this seems an ethos of “Say again: here, alive / Not to designate, but to speak.” That feels the core of the ethical work this collection does, saying again and again what is alive while trying not to designate but rather to say, to shape language in the mind and in the mouth. In “Insomnia,” the speaker similarly is

. . . thinking about the ‘mystery of thought.’ I’m
not thinking about it in a complicated way. Just how
we can’t actually ‘see’ or ‘hear’ thoughts, and how if
someone does ‘hear’ what’s supposed to stay inside
their head, that puts them in a certain category.

The Year of the Femme articulates and embodies that thinking while questioning those categories, trying to find ways to not categorize their speakers or who or what appears in these poems. It’s deft, smart work, and yet, as the speaker notes, it’s not “complicated.” We’re invited in.

The titular “Year of the Femme” seems the culmination of that work, as gorgeously lyrical as it is smart in its questioning of body and gender and pronouns. The speaker reminds us “Your heart is beating, yes, despite your scars” in a poem that’s a deft mix of prose stanzas and lines broken by slashes, as each slash becomes a kind of beautiful scar. Each line feels nothing short of revelatory for both speaker and reader:

                                                                  . . . I grew up
swimming in a slow-moving river, in words like
sister and girls . . .
Now I move through terminals, other places move
through me, other words. I follow a sign, I refuse to
neaten the disorder. Each object is assigned a role,
a gender. Eye shadow. Boxers. Musk. Bruise.

The questioning of sign and signifier, the many kinds and ways of being body Donish makes space for in this poem and throughout the collection, feel so deeply necessary. In the final stanzas, the speaker hopes “now that I was wrong. That I can be good. That I won’t / drown with the weight of trying. The act of caring. / We both reach for the mascara.” That care is present in every sharply observed detail of body and environment.

Landscapes internal and external abound in The Year of The Femme; it is a fallow place, indeed. Donish offers us space and reminds us the way we exist, over and over again, by speaking without designating. “What exists, exists / Suddenly, but is transparent,” the speaker observes in “Heat Waves.” What a beautiful encapsulation of the work of this collection.

Kelly Weber holds an MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. She is the author of the chapbook All My Valentine’s Days Are Weird from Pseudo Poseur Press, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qu, Mud Season, Entropy, upstreet, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Frontier Chapbook Prize and Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize, and her work has nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journal Award. She has received professional support from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference workshop and served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. She lives in Colorado, where she enjoys exploring the outdoors. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.