“Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now” Is a Dark Story of Family, Trauma, and Resilience

"Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now" Is a Dark Story of Family, Trauma, and Resilience

Content Warning

This review contains discussion of parental abuse, ableism against people with autism, alopecia, colorism, and racism.

After her mother’s death, sixteen-year-old Tiffany Sly goes to live with the family of Anthony Stone, her biological dad. However, Tiffany also has a secret: another man named Xavier Xavion thinks he might be her real dad, and he wants her to do a DNA test with him in seven days. With her life upended in more ways than one, Tiffany must make sense of who and what family could truly mean.

Speaking of families, one of the areas where this book shines is that it features a found family as well as a biological one. A found family is the family you make for yourself, as opposed to the family you were born into. Tiffany Sly gains a found family through her neighbors, a Black lesbian beautician named Jo Walton and her eccentric yet wise and kind son, Marcus. Jo Walton becomes a surrogate mother to Tiffany, allowing her to maintain her pride as a dark-skinned Black young woman and giving her a safe space to be herself. Marcus gives Tiffany the space to question how she feels about spiritual faith and death.

By contrast, Tiffany’s biological family is mostly awful, especially her father, Anthony Stone. Whether it’s because of his own self-hatred, his religious faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, or a combination of this with his own upbringing, Anthony Stone is a toxic and abusive parent for almost the entire book. As a light-skinned, mixed Black man who upholds respectability, he discriminates against or punishes anyone who does not fit his ideal, including his own family and his Black neighbors. When he first meets Tiffany, he demands she take out her braids even though they are her protective hairstyle for alopecia, a hair condition she developed due to stress and trauma. A few pages later, he also punishes his youngest daughter, Pumpkin, for being a person with autism.

Stone’s oldest biological daughter, London, is almost as bad as her father. Caught between a desire to please her family and rebel against them, she belittles or ignores Tiffany for most of the book. When London and Tiffany first meet, she makes a rude, colorist comment about how dark Tiffany’s skin is. Later, she films Tiffany falling on the basketball court and then shares the video with her friend, who uploads it with racist overtones added in. Although London swears she didn’t want things to go that far due to how her dad monitors his children’s social media, this is a really flimsy excuse.

In fact, the only family member with minor redeeming qualities is Anthony Stone’s wife, Margaret. Before Tiffany arrived, Margaret went along with whatever Anthony did in order to keep up appearances and prevent Anthony from being too harsh with her. Once Tiffany starts trying to make an effort to understand Anthony and his family more, however, she helps Margaret care for Pumpkin in a way that doesn’t trigger Pumpkin’s autistic meltdowns. Margaret, in turn, is helps Tiffany to understand Anthony’s past with Tiffany’s bio mom, Imani.

In addition to showing how complicated family can be, the book also portrays mental health, grief, and trauma in an authentic light, especially through the character of Tiffany herself. Some of her most memorable internal dialogue showcases her anxiety in a variety of situations, such as riding an airplane or a car. The way Tiffany’s anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder are portrayed, moreover, breaks the stigma surrounding mental health by normalizing taking medication to manage ongoing conditions. Also, Tiffany’s alopecia demonstrates how trauma can affect your physical as well as your mental health.

Yet Tiffany Sly is so much more than her trauma and mental illnesses. She is shown to have a deep love of music as a guitarist; some of the best dialogue has her waxing poetic about albums by The Beatles or the artistry of Nina Simone and Gershwin. Tiffany is also shown to be both a daughter and a granddaughter through her relationships with family members, especially her deceased mother, Imani. Although Imani isn’t physically present in the book, her time with Tiffany lives on through flashbacks and one surprise that brought tears to my eyes.

In fact, Tiffany Sly’s personality and character growth are the sole reasons I was able to keep reading this book. Although Tiffany experiences great hardship, she manages to pull through thanks to her kindness toward her found family and her gradually increasing compassion for Anthony Stone’s family, which grows from her desire for a father. But Tiffany deserves a better bio family than the one she ends up with, and she deserves a chance to choose who she calls her family. As a survivor of an emotionally abusive parent, I can’t say that I was completely comfortable with the ending to this book.

While this book tackles mental health, loss, and trauma beautifully, the toxic and abusive parenting of Tiffany’s bio dad nearly undoes all the progress Tiffany makes throughout the book. Due to how harmful Anthony Stone’s parenting is for most of the book, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Dana L. Davis’s Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now to readers. For readers who do decide to pick up this book, be aware that this book contains triggering content.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Mike Von on Unsplash.

On Small and Unusual Spaces

On Small and Unusual Spaces

 

by Valarie Frost

Place has always been a complicated topic for me to grasp; to hold still in the palm of my hand.

 

To paraphrase the big moves in my life: I was adopted from China when I was one year old, raised in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, toured the country as a teenager, and currently reside on the East Coast. Like a horizonless kaleidoscope that transforms endlessly in the light of every slight angle, unusual spaces are the conceptual nodes of a life perceived in remnants. As I write and compile an anthology of sorts about the tiny spaces I’ve inhabited physically, and emotionally from afar, the notion of place morphs into something inconceivably intangible, riddled with the what-ifs of my yesteryears. In spaces where circumstance and spontaneity intersect, the room to vastly dissect notions of self is created.

Small spaces define us because they allow us to reorient ourselves in a reality defined by the fixed settings we’re born into. They brush the tips of our noses, scrape our knees, and we jam our heads into a child’s tactile realm. Defined as we are by the nooks within our larger sense of presence, the composition of our environment dwindles, and we realize that composition itself is indivisible from our situational locus. The center of these small spaces, the gooey impalement in our sternum, is all we have in the long run. To investigate and write about the chimera that are these tiny spaces of emotional heat is to write about the times in between that bridge the present and past; trail markers of our identity. They create us. As someone who’s spent a decent amount of time traveling in these in-between zones, tethered in the liminality of my personal collection of tiny and unusual spaces, I’ve come to learn that spaces are what we take with us after the fact. Small spaces serve as plot points for us to retrace. They’re these ethereal reference points that allow us to lay out ourselves like a character out of a novel.

I used to believe that escaping physically from a place could also release you emotionally—that location alone could ripen the eye and honey the world. But distance only temporarily files down familiarity with the freshness of an unblemished sight. Regardless of where we are, we tend to seek out the same functions of comfort, whether that be the type of crowd we attract or the items we accumulate over time. It makes me think about great writers like the Bronte sisters or Thoreau, who barely traveled far yet still managed to capture the essence of the human condition. Their work interrogates the necessity of excessive travel, but in many ways our civilization today is anchored differently than that of previous decades. Instead of solitude as a choice or purely a condition, solitude has become a form of escapism—the dream we chase after and the chase we dream of.

From Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts, and the unavoidable places in between, travel has always carried an air of distinguishment. The idea of getting a fresh start when you change location is part of an allegory I fell for. With my collection of friend groups, town squares, and signals of a sunny day, I watch closely as they evolve in parallel spaces and often see them develop past myself. I am attentive as time goes on and as I stop to look back. The places I’ve been become alternate timelines of sorts; evidence of what could’ve been. Places move on without you, without permission, but spaces solidify your experience of a place, the space you choose to inhabit or choose to acknowledge or choose to identify with. I’ve become infatuated with tiny and unusual spaces because although they are engrained in the physical world, the value of solitude is all in our heads.

My sense of place was impacted a handful of years ago when my family sold my childhood home and moved out of state. My experience influences my piece particularly heavily because it was a tear in my sense of belonging and broke the bordered shelter that is home. On my last night in town, I was driving home, and I decided to do one last round to all the places that were meaningful to me that I knew I wouldn’t get to see again for the foreseeable future—

The wall of brick behind the high school where I’d pace on overcast days.

The wooded path of dead pines next to the old house.

The bog where I found a dead squirrel.

The nature park railroad only to be navigated at dusk.

The neighborhood tennis court where I gave someone a black eye.

The greenspace that fueled the children with endless dandelions.

The dusty base beneath the acorn tree where all the outcasts went to play.

The panel of cement where I pulled a three-inch-long splinter out of my foot.

The chilled garage step where I told my Mom I was leaving.

The patch of hallway where I built a trebuchet using floss.

The back deck where I dyed my dog hot pink.

The carpeted corner where I hid from my future.

The space underneath my desk where I stored jars of peanut butter.

The shelf of my headboard that hid my embarrassment.

The wooden stage I performed on with my sister when we were close.

The pillow we declared was only to laugh into at night.

The skylight in ‘Grandma’s bedroom’ that attracted soggy leaves and pale light.

The nerdy inside jokes that lined my mouth.

The back of the closet where I hid just to see if I could disappear.

The sitting branch where I engraved my sister’s and my names into the bark.

The yellow of a blazing day that crisped up the grass beneath my step.

The enormous oak tree that watched over us all.

My essay on tiny and unusual spaces began as an homage to these places and my determination for them not to be forgotten. Small spaces as they were and as we remember them are what we have to move forward with. They’re what we bring along with us. They are coveted planes that remind us of ourselves while allowing us to hide from the dexterity and daedal nature of our situation. While writing on this subject, I came across the word to hide frequently, and, unsurprisingly, I believe this is because isolation is so entangled with escapism. To escape is a luxury, and since we don’t always have the opportunity to run away, tiny spaces aid us in creating emotional bubbles where we can mentally detach from our everyday. Those are the kinds of memories that can resonate with us for a lifetime. Some of them, the ones I look back on often, even escape words. Their familiarity as a pocket of my reminiscence alone surpasses the value of the vision itself—the act of recollection becomes more sacred than what’s recalled. Those are the ones we love, the ones we return to in grim times, the ones that remind us of something we once were caught by. As a writer with this particular focus, to capture these instances is my mission. To let others into our enigmas and to provide reprieve embodies our ability to sympathize and to be understood.

Other spaces offer themselves to us more coyly, in which they only appear to us attached to other flashbacks. They demand us to scan our memory and to pluck out the blooms worth remembering. Only the finest, greenest, thoughts; almost as if we can fool ourselves into thinking that’s what the whole world is like. But when we begin to interrogate ourselves and to look forward in match time, we inherently look back at what we know, which comes in the form of these smaller-than-bite-sized crumbs of an internal space, of the actions we’ve already dotted, and of the experiences whose wholeness has come and gone. Within these small spaces that we recall and the more acute spaces that encompass our recollection of sentience, our lives are stitched together, and we begin to piece together an identity of our life lived.

Vala

About the Maker

 

From Beaverton, Oregon, Valarie Frost (she/her) is a non-fiction writer currently residing in Boston, Massachussetts. Her work centers around the environments we inhabit and the nuances of our perceived identities. She gained a degree in English specializing in Creative Writing from Simmons University and continues to write for local publications.

Akin to many writers, her relationship with writing stems from its ability to heal and to navigate the past. In blurring genre lines, she sees memory as an ever-morphing figure that changes with each recollection. She believes that through the kaleidoscope of reflection, writing can mirror those reflections into the future and provide insight into framing the consequences of our being. In her free time she’s an avid hiker, bicyclist, aspiring climber, and strategist.

Photo by Vlado Paunovic from Pexels.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

Tristan Strong Will Sweep You Away with Epic Adventure and African Folklore

Tristan Strong Will Sweep You Away with Epic Adventure and African Folklore

African mythology and folklore aren’t exactly common knowledge. When you think of gods and goddesses, it’s usually Greek and Norse gods like Zeus and Thor that come to mind.

Now characters such as High John the Conqueror and Anansi, along with their stories, are being introduced to a new generation through Kwame Mbalia’s dynamic middle grade fantasy Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. The book will be released on October 15.

Tristan Strong is a twelve-year-old boy grieving the loss of his best friend, Eddie, and smarting from being defeated in his first boxing match. While visiting his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, he accidentally unleashes an evil haint and creates a hole between the real world and a magical world of African American folk heroes and West African gods. Now he must work together with them and undergo an epic quest to retrieve Anansi’s story box to save the world.

One of the best aspects of this book is how accessible the folktale and mythology characters are. These characters are modernized without losing their roots and inspire awe with their strength, humor, and sprinkles of humanity. One of my personal favorites is the character Gum Baby, who was originally a doll the trickster Anansi made to capture a fairy. Although she is commonly known by the sometimes derogatory term “Tar Baby,” the author makes her a fully fleshed-out character who is spunky, hilarious, and a clever fighter.

Another notable aspect of the book is Tristan Strong, the protagonist. Having been exposed to so many images of Black boys and men who are pressured to be hypermasculine at all times, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tristan Strong be a bit insecure and emotionally vulnerable. It is heartwarming to see him grow as a character and come into his own as a hero and as a person. One of my favorite parts of his character arc is Tristan slowly facing his fear of heights. Initially, he screams really loudly at being in the air, but eventually he comes to realize there are things more important than his fear.

In addition to Tristan himself, his friendship with Eddie, another Black boy, is wonderful. Even though Eddie has passed away, he lives on in a journal of stories and memories that become increasingly precious to Tristan. Tristan’s flashbacks to good and bad times with Eddie are a key part of Tristan’s coming to terms with his grief and his journey as a hero.

In fact, Eddie, Tristan, and Gum Baby are just a few of the amazing cast of characters in this book. There is also Ayanna, a Black girl who has the makings of a strong leader and fighter. Another Black girl, Thandiwe, is a fierce warrior who reminded me a lot of Dora Miljae from the Black Panther comic books. Although I would have liked to see more Black female folklore and mythical characters in addition to Gum Baby, I did enjoy seeing two of them embody Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.

Having been exposed to so many images of Black boys and men who are pressured to be hypermasculine at all times, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tristan Strong be a bit insecure and emotionally vulnerable.

In addition to the characters, the world building is also very well done. Although there is a lot to keep up with without a map or index of places, I found the author’s decision to make the world of the African folk heroes and gods parallel to the real world compelling, especially given how that world has allegorical references to postcolonialism and slavery. Some parts of it are dark, but it is subtle enough that middle grade readers won’t be terrified. Also, the world building as it applies to the book’s main antagonist is brilliant.

All in all, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is a dazzling adventure that will sweep you away. Reluctant middle-grade readers will tear through the book’s four hundred pages for the action and magic, while older readers will appreciate the book’s in-depth world building. It is a grand start to a new series and a perfect introduction to African myth and folklore.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

top photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

 

We Are Made of Woven Memory Circles

Raki Kopernik’s book of prose poetry The Memory House covers a lot of territory — both literally and figuratively.

In four sections, the poet tells the story of three generations across three continents, contrasting kibbutz and urban life, communal living with single-family homes, dating, love and family dynamics. The poet’s voice inhabits grandparents, parents, and her own memories, with wishes for family and future. Throughout these particular and personal stories, there is a thread that opens up the individual story to make a wider, humanistic claim. It begins with the two-page preface to the book but has its clearest articulation on page 22. In the middle of narrating her family’s emigration to Israel, these lines: “Three quarters of a century later, in 2016, Syrian refugees on illegal boats, same, trying to escape into Europe. Same thing. Same.”

In the spirit of disclosure, I direct the press that published Kopernik’s book — we’re an embedded press at my university, and our students worked with the manuscript to learn editing, book layout, and the ins and outs of taking a manuscript to finished book. Our art students designed the cover (beautifully articulated ears of wheat) and created original artwork for the interior pages. Working with the students, they pointed out a number of things that inspired them about Kopernik’s book — how her forms invited them in, somewhere between storytelling and the poetry they were used to; how her long lines and details allowed them to picture the scenes she described, the fields of wheat and sunflowers, the groves of fruit trees; her sudden bursts of humor; the way food and taste threaded throughout every moment — cucumbers, butter, pears, and chocolate.

What I notice each time I re-read the book is how the poet’s voice and memories are bound up with her mother’s. Section One begins with her mother, “My mother lived on a moshav,” and tells how that came to be through the stories of the previous generation: an old British airport hangar, but before that a grandmother in a prison camp in Palestine, and before that both grandparents’ arrival by boat, and before that Romania. In the midst of these early pages, these primal stories, the poet tells us her mother’s first memory, “a dog barking behind a screened door, its mouth full of sharp teeth and drool, its legs taller than her three-year-old self.” Kopernik then makes the all-encompassing move, “her memory could have been any year, any country.” What child doesn’t have some terrifying memory lodged somewhere, what child doesn’t remember some beast at the door? It is the twining of these — these small anywhere-moments with the larger stories of families making and re-making, migrating & moving — that accomplishes the large and small of The Memory House. Two pages later, we are granted the title line, after more moments that refract the mother’s memories through the poet-daughter’s voice: “Our memories tangle into a single memory house.”

“Three quarters of a century later, in 2016, Syrian refugees on illegal boats, same, trying to escape into Europe. Same thing. Same.”

Because Kopernik’s book can be read as narrative or as a traditional poetry book, I don’t want to give away the ending — there are moments of resolution there, even if not in the mode of plot reveals. There are four sections overall: the first tells the story of the parents, growing up and meeting, emigrating to America; in the second, we encounter the poet herself, visiting Israel for summer vacations, staying back on the kibbutz with her maternal grandparents; the third tells the story of the paternal grandparents; in the last section, we find out the spare story of what happened when the parents arrived in America, how the poet’s family began.

In telling her mother’s story, Kopernik lingers on her mother’s dreams and desires — to stay on the kibbutz, to be surrounded by family, to begin a family of her own. When she falls in love with the man she will marry and start a family with, she resists him after he leaves for America. There are images of the mother-to-be, her care for her siblings, her developing instincts learned alongside the communal values of the kibbutz. She tells the story of her mother plucking a stinger from her brother’s face, giving him her precious squares of chocolate. She tells how the young woman pretended to mother her younger brother, seven years separating them. How she wanted four children. How even if she didn’t like the food served in the bet yeladim, she “knew not to complain about food.” In this inhabiting of her mother’s memories, Kopernik’s voice rises, moving up and up to survey not only her own family’s story but encompass the stories of others, to demonstrate one way to inhabit the past — through memory, through experience, through language.

In Section Two, when the poet visits her parents’ homeland, she writes:

Sometimes the Midwest smells like the Middle East in the heat of summer.

The smell of, nothing matters but this moment.

You might not think of the Middle East like that if you only know it from the news.

Experience has more dimensions than media. You don’t know the whole thing unless you can feel it on your skin, through the holes in your face.

“Everyone wants the sweet middle. The core. What they think is the soul.”

But she’s told us all this before. We just didn’t have the stories yet — about Uncle Chocolate, who always brought chocolate. About the kibbutz pool, playing with the children, about the time a shallow dive left blood in the water. About how “puberty ruined everything.” About the rarity of pears — the sweetness of compote. In story after story, so many circling around meals, and food, and taste, there are the pleasures of sweetness — offered as gifts, made with love, created and cooked alongside family and the extended family created by the kibbutz. And there is the sweetness that is recognized because the thing offered is rare, or precious, not easy to find or keep — like the store called Kol Bo, which means “everything in it,” but the name is a misnomer. The daughter-poet, the American daughter-poet, points this out — her voice wry and laced with nostalgia.

The preface to the collection begins with a description of how there were no gardens, only dust, “the water sparse.” Prickly pears imported from Mexico, a fruit with “a tender heart at the barely visible center.” Kopernik makes the connection quickly, the heart of the cactus like Israel: “everyone wants the sweet middle. The core. What they think is the soul.” She names a literal place, she names an imagined place. She introduces a memory-place, peopled with loved ones and secondhand stories. Then she tells us, “borders are imaginary lines made up by people.”

Purchase The Memory House

About the Author

Raki is a Jewish, queer, experimental fiction and poetry writer. She is the author of The Other Body chapbook (Dancing Girl Press), The Memory House (The Muriel Press 2019), and The Things You Left (forthcoming Unsolicited Press 2020). Her work has been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Blue Lyra Review, El Balazo, Duende, and others. It has also been shortlisted and nominated for several awards, including the Pushcart Prize for fiction. She lives in Minneapolis.

Top photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

My House of Mysterious Compartments

Tara Burke’s poetry collection Animal Like Any Other (Finishing Line Press) has compartments:

poems about growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about living with her girlfriend surrounded by dogs, about the painful dissolution of that relationship, about desire and sex, about new love, and several long poems that braid all these aspects of the poet’s life into a kind of manifesto. The forms switch between a maximalist prose that sweeps across the page without punctuation and resists known syntax, and tight lineated forms of unctuous imagery. The poem “Declaration” includes the line taken for the title of the collection and describes the making of steak. With the lines “massage a bloody loin / with bare hands [. . .] press salt into its flesh / and press the ruminant / into my hot iron pan . . .” my mouth waters – the poet goes on to declare:

“Domesticitycan be radical.Can be lesbian.These are good waysto stick it to the man:cook food, lovewomen, enjoystaying home.”

By recounting childhood, memories of growing up amidst parents’ sometimes simmering or submerged anxieties and anger, the needs of brothers, each well-defined moment becomes almost incantatory. The background is cast in plain language (blue and grey and tan), the details everyday, but images swim up from the long lines. In the house on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, “we didn’t believe in weeds.” The speaker’s mother would plant things and move things there at the edge of the woods, including stones she’d found “here and there intending toward beauty.” In another of these childhood poems, a vignette about the child-poet ignoring her mother’s entreaty to stop, she says she was “unclear of no and its partner shame.” In “How We Purpled the Road” we see two unaccompanied children, their unsupervised play, the wonder and danger of it. Purpling is the crushed fruit of blackberries and the bruises earned; the poet says, “immediate regret is a bruise I know well.”

By recounting childhood, memories of growing up amidst parents’ sometimes simmering or submerged anxieties and anger, the needs of brothers, each well-defined moment becomes almost incantatory.

Interspersed between these memory-moments are love poems, which seem to be about both finding one’s person as well as finding the self. The structure of moving between the early childhood poems and the adult poems make sense, as they suggest another kind of knowing and coming of age. The clarity of the language rings true: “I want this body / finally mine, naked, covered / in glitter and chicken feathers.” It is straightforward and defiant and joyful, tinged with the awful fantastic. Soon though, the beloved becomes a source of worry – long before the poem-story begins to hint at how the dissolution will happen, the speaker hints at meaningful differences between them; her girlfriend is a police officer, and the speaker wonders about her job, things she may have to do. “How will you see this world / with your gun? Is there anything / we can protect?” This too ties back to the childhood poems, when the poet tries to understand her father. In the poem “Inside Me” the reader sees the father, over and over again – in his chair, smoking, hauling rocks, always working. This poem is one of those that ranges across the page, with little breaks for breath, few guideposts of phrasing or punctuation. It ends with the resonant line: “there he is inside me singing what a surprise when I realize it’s not a song but a sob” – there’s no period. The poem ends, but it doesn’t end. The sob catches in the throat, nowhere to go.

It is straightforward and defiant and joyful, tinged with the awful fantastic.

“New Year’s Day” is a central poem. In a small moment, the speaker sitting in a sun-drenched kitchen, her girlfriend preferring the more shadowed living room, a whole continent of differences between them become visible. “Oh I think I was lucky I trusted because time was your gift to me then” – the reader can feel that time is running out. “She doesn’t love light like I do” and we know that light means so much more than light. When the poet mentions taking her mother’s advice, we know that all of those childhood moments, those poems that cannot be contained are contained in her now, purpling her, and it doesn’t matter which room they sit in this morning – dread hangs over the prose stanzas, as if even poetry is out of reach. A few poems later, the couple has moved and the poems begin to speak of predators – things that threaten them, their dogs, the goat they’ve taken to keeping. The speaker admits “so I pretended like I always do / that I wasn’t afraid.” After leaving the home they had together, she confides “I was half myself and maybe / it was never the hungry coyotes / but the whole of my bloodstream howling.”

“She doesn’t love light like I do” and we know that light means so much more than light.

The poems so far have a natural trajectory: childhood stories that explore early memory and the parental relationship as a potential model, the self in love and loss, the aftermath of relationship and rediscovering the self. What these poems are building to are some incredibly moving long poems that weave all of that together and speak in a full-throated cry, somewhere between manifesto and affirmation. The poems “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” “Queer Girl,” and “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty” are all breakneck poems – read-aloud poems – poems built upon the foundation of what comes before them in this collection, and owing a debt to the careful building of voice that Burke takes her time with in earlier smaller moments.

What binds all the poems together in Animal Like Any Other is the insistence of both the ordinary and revolutionary-ness of desire. To want another so badly that nothing matters – not the dog-hair on every surface, not that she may someday kill someone and you’d have to live with it. It is the very ordinariness of this want, this love, that ultimately (or so the poet imagines) causes the end of their relationship. In “Exercise in Which a Poet in Heartbreak Finds Herself in a Writing Class with Fiction Writers and Doesn’t Leave, Rebels a Little, Learns to Put Characters Under Pressure,” she tries to inhabit her girlfriend, to understand how and why she asked her to leave. To understand how too much love can be oppressive, too easy, not enough and too much. In “Queer Girl” – again, refusing to use anything like a sentence structure – she rails against the restrictions of women’s and girls’ sexuality, their wants, their smells, and the way their expressions of self are policed, writing “her body a light I turned to and no I do not care that her body as light may be cliché to you fuck your rules fuck your right or wrong words for poems for sex.” In “Blue Body Hungry for Origin or Certainty,” alternating prose stanzas and right-justified fragments are nearly-affirmations. The poem revisits the landscapes of the poet’s life: blue mountains, red dirt and dust, green trees. It calls the reader back to the body, embracing curves and movement, singing a song of love and lust. The body is love – art is love – this life we make, riddled with loss and hardship, but also striving toward each other – is love.

What these poems are building to are some incredibly moving long poems that weave all of that together and speak in a full-throated cry, somewhere between manifesto and affirmation.

There are no compartments in the poem “Blueberry Pancakes.” The poet, Tara, writes of her work, engaging with students, worrying about them and their lives. She writes about “when language feels like self-indulgence” and not caring whether “they learn to cite in the correct tedious format.” She writes about her adopted pit bull, who growls in her sleep, “unsure if it is today or yesterday unsure if she’s ever really safe.” But mostly she writes about her mother who made blueberry pancakes at Christmas, the berries “came from a box saved from leftover canned berries in the Jiffy muffin pre-made mix” frozen in Ziploc bags throughout the year.

“on days like this when I know we’re all dying we’re going to drown or starve or be shot on this

hot earth together but not quite together enough I wish instead we were some semblance of that

family you tried to keep simple together drowning it all in syrup—

I wish my lips were sticky and blue—

on days like this all I want is to eat, have home back, say thank you”

Burke reminds us at the end of her collection the way we crave sweetness, some memory of home, some warm body to hold us. The final poem returns to the goat she cared for at her home with her girlfriend, the goat they kept safe from coyotes, and milked each day. She’s gathering the milk, “warm / like warm and sweet like sweet, / clean like clean.” It’s an anti-maximalist moment at the end, a closure that brings us into the space of another animal, close enough to feel the heat of its body, our breath and its breath.

Purchase Animal Like Any Other

About the Author

Tara Shea Burke is a queer poet and teacher from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hampton Roads, Virginia. She’s a writing instructor, editor, creative coach, and yoga teacher who has taught and lived in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado. She believes in community building, encouragement, and practice-based living, writing, teaching, and art. She is the author of the poetry book Animal Like Any Other, from Finishing Line Press (2019). Find more about her work and www.tarasheaburke.com

Top photo: Animal Like Any Other front cover

I Wore My Blackest Hair

When I think of National Poetry Month, I think of high school me, trying to write thirty poems in thirty days with my slam poetry team and writing in slim but full notebooks and yelling verses into graffitied alleys in downtown Ann Arbor. When I think of National Poetry Month, I think of longtime friend and poem writer Carlina Duan, who wrote in the corners of that high school with me. Who, as we both have grown and continued writing and studying and publishing, has been adding her vital voice to the poetry world.

Duan’s first book, I Wore My Blackest Hair, published by Little A in 2017, is a love letter to Chinese American girlhood. Her careful, musical, and visually rich poetry navigates the complexities of identity, family, love, and self-definition. In the book, Duan wrestles with her origins, her relationships with her parents and sister, and pieces of herself that she has lost and found. Duan’s images are bright, fresh, and comfortingly uncomfortable in their vividness; each poem is a bright and shimmering painting that bounces off the page.

In her work published since I Wore My Blackest Hair was released, Duan’s poetry sings with similar, necessary music. In two poems published by Peach Mag in 2018, Duan’s carefully woven words kaleidoscope with sound, specifically in the poem “Can You Speak English Yes or No”: “roman / alphabet digging at the space between my gums. Consonants / dropped like bricks, I chew their weight. always some man / telling me what I am, what we already know. say it right / say / it / say— can you read / can you speak / English / English / yes, /no.” Duan’s realization of the self is brave, unafraid, and real; it physically descends upon its readers and invites them to hold these worlds in their mouths.

Recently, Duan has also written poems about basketball, myth, language, and love. Every time I read a poem by Carlina Duan, my heart jumps in my chest. I read the poems aloud over and over, and we are in our high school creative writing workshop again, trading small scraps of paper scribbled with notes and our favorite lines of poetry. Reading a poem by Carlina Duan is like that—it feels like she is sharing something with you: handing you a neatly peeled orange, a photograph speckled with age, a music box, a memory that you have the privilege of seeing in spectacular color. This National Poetry Month, I encourage you to seek out Duan’s work and relish in the joyful, fiery, mythic beatings of her heart on the page.

Links to work/interviews:

“‘The Situation Is Gratifying,’” Winter Tangerine.

“I Wore My Blackest Hair: Two Poems (Excerpts),” The Margins.

“Rein,“ Narrative Magazine, First-Place Winner of the Narrative 30 Below Contest.

“Alien Miss,“ Tupelo Quarterly, Finalist in the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest (TQ14).

“Mary,“ Black Warrior Review, Finalist in the BWR 2017 Poetry Contest.

“I Promise I Won’t Cry,“ wildness, Pushcart Prize nomination.

“Can You Speak English Yes Or No” and “In The Modern Encyclopedia For Basketball,“ Peach Mag.

“You Can Find Familiarity in Any Space You Go: A Conversation With Carlina Duan,” VIDA.

About the Author

Sara Ryan is the author of the chapbooks Never Leave the Foot of an Animal Unskinned (Porkbelly Press) and Excellent Evidence of Human Activity (The Cupboard Pamphlet). She was the winner of the 2018 Grist Pro Forma Contest, and her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Pleiades, DIAGRAM, Booth, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountainand others. She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas Tech University.

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.