Book Review

Editor’s note: This is a review of two books of poetry.

The two debut titles from Gramma Poetry, an emerging poetry press founded in 2016, are fiercely lyric. While approaching resistance from two distinct perspectives, Christine Shan Shan Hou’s Community Garden for Lonely Girls and Sarah Galvin’s Ugly Time both tackle pressing sociocultural constrictions on the body as well as gender expectations. Mounting psychological tensions, which manifest within poems that initially appear sparse, are met with courageous resilience. Each collection firmly recites a laundry list of damages done to the body, as well as how the body has found the means to bounce back from the world’s tendency to wear down the self.

While soft, a no less biting approach takes shape in Hou’s work. Deceptively quiet, Community Garden for Lonely Girls addresses the intergenerational pressures of obedience. Entrenched in cultural expectations, the speaker must navigate the world through multiple lenses of oppression in addition to expectations embedded in familial adages. In “Autobiographical Song,” vestiges of childhood are pressurized through the poem’s condensed, mostly end-stopped lines, where, interspersed between these images, the speaker intones, “The chance for otherness is not an option. / Mother tongue hide from the sun.” And, after describing a pumpkin garbage bag stuffed for Halloween, the speaker proclaims, “Language is wild and radiant to the bone.” The mutability and constraints of language continue to be pressed throughout the collection.

Hou approaches such a task through simple but disjointed sentences, each leaping across a chain of events that oftentimes remains unclear. Although disorienting, this technique gives breadth to the massive silences which amass throughout each poem. For example, the collection’s title poem, with its own internal logical of desire, follows, “I dream sporadically of reincarnation. I wet myself / thinking about the possibility. In movies, wounded / female birds attract fancy men.” These associations accumulate until the speaker admits “how easy it is to / confuse irresponsible behavior for radical politics.”

Many poems tilt in that political direction, addressing the immigrant experience. The speaker’s childhood-self plays in “Immigration Song,” where:

My circles get smaller and smaller until they become
baby circles, then just a baby
Baby pours out of arms
Baby declares autonomy, eats fatty pork
on Chinese New Year

Familial culture continues to pervade these poems. In “To the Kind Hearted Show Proper Respect, to the Wicked Keep Away,” which is located in a section devoted to the rules of the family, the visceral body and desire come into conflict. “Our commitment, our grasping for the unreal defines us. This hot and sticky core implanted in the center of our beings,” the speaker informs. These tensions are perhaps most clearly articulated in the earlier poem “Becoming All Body Is Not What My Mother Taught Me,” which opens, “There is paranoia in immigration. / Clamoring fruits in the kitchen.” The mother’s demands press on the speaker, who “dreamed I refused my own shell.”

This push-and-pull between the corporeal existence of the body and the shedding of the body is best encapsulated in “My Body Conception of Faith Is Sterile and Unscented,” where the digital and physical intertwine. The injuries to the body and mind are hidden when “skin puckers over a whole to seal in past objects.” The historical past becomes physical, real, and kept within the body. In this collection, the body is nearly ephemeral: sometimes all blood, sometimes all ghost.

In Ugly Time, Sarah Galvin’s poems ooze with outrageous humor, turning the sexual gaze on the entire world. Such overt sexuality sparks in the collection’s brief but poignant “On Design,” where the speaker declares, “It’s an ugly time to be alive,” while watching the construction of “hideous condos” around the building in which the speaker attempts to masturbate. And, in “Internet Picture,” which opens with “a naked man with Pokemon underwear / stretched over his face,” the speaker admits to this obsession with sexuality: “You called me crude, and I am— / filthy as my browser history, and often less interesting.” Many poems read as frank admissions, ones that could be received with open arms or quickly forgotten.

While seemingly conversational and straightforward, these poems unpack pervasive American culture through their ridiculous speakers and turns of phrase, hinting at more than just humor. In “Liability Rubber,” the speaker observes children on a playground full of safety features. But the speaker soon compares the climbing children to “the ants / that colonized Jasmine’s bra / when she poured cotton candy corn / down her dress at a party,” and then thinks of a memorable NPR story “about a guy who could / orgasm from peeing in the sink.” This disconnect between the playground’s safety features and adult matters mesh together when the speaker says, “we discourage kids / from participating in reality,” a nod to the separation between worlds.

Poems that act as coming-of-age stories bridge these worlds. When a friend rolls over the speaker in “You Can Determine How Far Away a Storm Is by How Much Thunder Misses Lightning,” the speaker remembers “my blood levitated. // Yet as in a dream / my body refused / to lift my mouth inches to yours.” Although the speaker yearns for her friend, “even after a year in your bed / you introduced me as your friend.” Another instance occurs in “The Human Bubble Bath,” when, after being called a priest by a drunk man while “making out with a girl on the bus,” the speaker wonders:

but I hope I am one,

just because of how it felt on that bus,
where the fog of collective heat on the windows
barely muted deep blue air that shoes nothing

A tenderness pervades these poems, arriving in moments where the harshness of the world may seem too much to bear. Sometimes that sadness consumes an entire poem, like in “The Language of Come,” where speaker recounts knowledge of other people’s orgasms and how one comes to know them. The poem ends with the speaker lamenting:

What I mean is I’m not sad
because of you, I just wish
we could kiss
somewhere that isn’t melting

The male gaze tends to pervert what otherwise may be a lovely moment, and some poems come directly at authority. In the six-line “Politicians,” the speaker warns the politicians “not to use / the drinking fountain / in the corner,” because, as she recalls, when she was there, “the only liquid I could produce / was gasoline.” This collections serves as a firm reminder of bodily autonomy from forces that would otherwise attempt to suppress.

Both Hou and Galvin gaze into the oppressive void of control in its various forms. Although extensive in length, these collections do not drag, as their poems are propelled forward by the need to address such crucial concerns. More so, Community Garden for Lonely Girls and Ugly Time could be characterized as weighty, but not dense—accessible through their sharp language and desire to engage with a world open to change.

About the Reviewer

Alyse Bensel is a PhD candidate in literary studies and creative writing and a 2017-2018 Sias Fellow at the University of Kansas. Her recent poems have appeared in the Adroit Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Quarterly West, New South, Bone Bouquet, and elsewhere. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not of Their Own Making (dancing girl press) and Shift (Plan B Press), and serves as the Book Reviews Editor at the Los Angeles Review.