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.


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.

Appreciating the Process: Art Therapy, Poetry, and Grief

Appreciating the Process

Art Therapy, Poetry, and Grief

Appreciating the Process


Thoughts are not always able to be verbally articulated, especially after a person experiences overwhelming levels of stress. Hidden words may struggle to connect or at times feel safer not to say. Art allows us to explore our inner depths, places where words alone cannot go, and provides a way to relate our experiences to each other. Art has a powerful way of revealing our truth, without the requirement of turning each creation into a complete masterpiece. Engaging in the creative process provides a way to safely explore the metaphors of our physical, cognitive, and emotional experiences. These artistic reflections provide a way to observe the poetry of our daily lives.

As an art therapist, I support other people in exploring art-based observations of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I am also an active participant in engaging in the creative process for personal self-reflection and expression. When I am creating, I use awareness of my full body in the creative process to guide what needs to be acknowledged or expressed. What follows is a sharing of how the creative process supports the healing process.

I approached the following art sessions intending to embody the idea of trauma, creativity, and finding your voice—as a collective experience. Yet this project served as a reminder that each piece of art we create, that we put our soul into, becomes an essence or a reflection of ourselves. The progression that follows provides an intimate look into how I used awareness of my physical and emotional sensations, attunement to rhythmic movements, and the process of creating to explore an idea, and it brought me back to the stories I carried within my own body and our need for connection.



Anger. Angst. Resentment.
Anger. Angst. Resentment.

Misalignment. Silence.

Is anybody listening?
Silent nods, blank stares,
Empty gazes.

Is anybody open to hearing?
Cruel eyes,
Smiling lies.

Anger. Angst. Resentment.
Anger. Angst. Resentment.

Distance. Silence.

There is no need for words,
When others no longer hear.

Closed off, shut down.
Anger, angst, resentment.

The overwhelm, firms its grasp
Opaque perseverance
Slipping fast.
Alexithymia, sinking in.

Disconnected. Silence.

The Creative Process


Day 1. Preparation.

The need for release. There is no direction on where I am going, or what I am trying to create. Only the need for movement. Drumming is playing softly in the background, holding a steady beat. Holding space for me and my racing thoughts, a rhythm to hold onto. My body begins to move, as a pulse, the paintbrush on the canvas paper. One is not enough to hold the internal energy that is seeping from deep within me, I need three. It is messy, it is heavy and tight. Slightly chaotic. It feels unresolved. Unknown. Uncertain, to what the next steps are supposed to be.

Materials used: acrylic paint, watercolor paint, canvas paper, string, and twine
I am frustrated with the feeling of not knowing what I am supposed to do.
What my next steps are supposed to be.

Materials used: back of a painting and a flare pen

Day 2.

I return to the canvases, three. I add a little color.
I cannot even look at the other two.
It all feels chaotic and forced. Too busy to begin.

My words and my images are not in harmony.

Day 3:

I need a new canvas, a larger one. Small spaces to create in keep my movements too small, my emotions too constricted, and the tightness in my chest too tense. I need songs that remind me of my father. I squeeze colors onto the canvas, back and forth. Back and forth. I push the paint with exaggerated movements. Side lunging from one side to the other. I turn the canvas and paint all the way around the table. I hear songs that connect me to memories of my father, the tears fall from my eyes. I am still not out of the season of his sudden death, and my body quakes with pain. My chest heaves, and I am reminded of all of the loss, pain, grief, and stress that has been compounding in my body for years. The paintbrush is moving from one side of the canvas to the other, rocking me back and forth. My whole body is swaying with the paint, steadily. A soothing, rhythmic movement that allows my body, my feelings, to soften, to release. I feel sad, but something in me has shifted. I leave the space feeling like I can breathe. I feel the sunshine on my face as I walk towards my car.

Materials used: acrylic paint on canvas
Day 4: Incubation.

From the blank canvas, an image appears. A gesture, a frustration, a disconnected sadness. She is hollow, lonely, barren, and doubting the message of her own voice. Her heart is barely capable of even a gentle whisper, her nervous system taxed, from being on over-alert for far too long. She has resorted to the place of silence; she no longer has the fight. Yet, I want to sit with her, she is quiet, far from perfect or complete, but I want to be there to notice, visually listen, and honor what she may have to say.

Materials used: charcoal on canvas.
I am no stranger to this stressed lady
My body carries her, true
Nightly stirs, daytime blurs
Keep pushing, something will break through

I am no stranger to this overwhelmed companion
I know her palpitations, all too well.
The story, the tears, the defensive ire
I know her, all too well

I am no stranger to this grieving teacher
I know her lessons all, too well.
A baby who never had a chance to cry
Clenching tears for what never came, to be, true

Adjust, attempt, adapt
Creatively reframe, rename, re-remember
The narrative rationalizations I convinced myself to be true.
Find a beat and continue.

Strength lies deep within you.

Day 5:

Barren. Visceral. Unstable. Volatile.
Sensations arise.

Not knowing what to focus on.

Materials used: charcoal, dead flowers,

Elmer’s Glue, acrylic paint


How do I use my voice
When I have forgotten how to speak?
Or perhaps I am just too scared to hear
what the truth may have to say.

The words remain, inward, somewhere

Drifting aimlessly

Day 6: Illumination.

Smothered. Seeking safety by numbing,
a self-induced haze.

Sensing a spark, grasping for a lifeline through the fog.
Not wanting to be alone.

Materials: paint, pastels, and wine.
The silence fogs like a cloak
Clasps like a cinch
Clouds the horizon
And tunnels the peripheries.

There is no narrator in real life,
Depicting every detail, every injustice, poetically
Only palpitations and bodily sensations
Living proof that my mind and my body
Narrate the stories differently.

The stress, the trauma, the blocks
The disconnect.
The children’s cries, the lack thereof
The tears for the past, and the future
The heroes fallen.
The stories, re-written
The swells that regularly flood through
The sleepless nights
The empty meals
The longing for something new

Each little pebble, a fleck in the stone
Weighing heavily on Broca’s burden
Keeping us speechless, numb, and hollow.
Empty. Barren. Collapsed.

My dormant dorsal vagal
Keeping me frozen and unable to engage, relate
Disconnecting me from the words
I may someday want to say.

Day 7.

Sitting with uncertainty, seeking community. I sit with her, she sits with me, over my morning coffee. We sit in the sunlight, craving connection, she urges me to use my resources, seek support. Reminding me that healing does not happen in isolation. We reach out to those closest, supposedly, safest to me. I pour a second cup.

“What is the red stuff?” and “Is this about menopause?” I am questioned. No, and through your projections my experiences no longer get to be about me.

Due to our lack of a beautiful and elegant description, perhaps it’s just embodied uncertainty.

“What about her eyes?” I hear compassionately; she is not yet able, or ready, to clearly see.

I realize I no longer can tell the difference between her voice and me.

“The head is like a landscape.” “So much movement and energy.” Through others shared and non-responses, I remember the story lies within me.

Materials: coffee and sunshine
Healing doesn’t happen in isolation.
Words, often empty, are rarely, enough.
Left brain doesn’t quickly assimilate,
without stimulation from the right

Two wings of the same bird,
So tremendously lost in flight.

Healing takes commitment
A desire to stay consciously awake
To recognize, feel, and allow sensations
Embrace, here and hear, now, today

Day 8:

Reconnecting to my rhythm
Reminded me to rock, to move, to sway
To nourish, to celebrate, and soothe my system,
In an instinctual, ancestral way

Re-establishing my sense of calm
A parasympathetic revival
Lifting my chin out of my shame
Possibly preparing, contemplating
For what it would be like to

In a most, communal way

With heart lifted towards the sky
Possessing a posture of dignity, curiosity ignites
Movement, paint, and clay
My body knows the way.

My body tells the story
It is up to me to learn to listen to what each sensation has to say.
Survival instincts, slowly, can be re-written.
Through images and synchronicity,
Words, again, can find their way.

From our art,
Images, then words, come from the heart.
And true integration, connection
Rhythmic regulation, pulses in.

Healing, a slow and steady progression,
A rhythm that needs but a beat to begin.

Day 9. Verification

Sill perhaps unfinished. Still okay with uncertainty. Following my own guiding light.
Learning to listen to what is within.
Seeing more clearly, a celebration of colors.
Embracing the night and the beauty for what has been.
The scars, they may remain, but I am open to embracing the change.

Material: paint, pastels, graphite, patience and love
“Are you okay?” I hear my dear ones say.
Emotions are raw, intense, and a little scary.

I know, I have lived with them,
That same, exact way.

There is no need to silently carry the fear, together we can face,
we can feel, we can hear.

Remember to see, remember to question.
Seek connection and be truly seen in return.

Find comfort in knowing, you are not alone. Have hope your art will continue to light your way home.

The Healing Process


Trauma chose me. Trauma chose me to feel it, to sit with it, to study it, and to learn how to heal it. Through personal and shared experiences, I have learned that healing is rarely a beautifully crafted poetic publication. Words, no matter how well composed do not remain intact when a nervous system fully activates and shuts down. When one feels completely numb to connection, curiosity, and inspiration. Yet, making art can connect us to thoughts and feelings when words cannot be articulated. Personally, I know what it is like to not have the words to describe my experiences. Art is my language. Art is how I find my voice. Art is how I learned to reconnect to my physical and psychological sensations, and how I learned to heal.

It is impossible to walk through this life and not feel the overwhelm of stress, trauma, or grief. There is no shame in your feelings or the lack of resources you may have been taught to rely on to allow you to express your feelings safely. There is no need to hurt others to make your pain heard. The situations that you may have faced, been born into, are not your fault. If you are feeling blocked, overwhelmed, or numb to the pleasures around you please know you do not have to forge your path alone. Art therapy can be a wonderful support and resource on your journey of healing and finding the beautifully authentic, you.

Alanna Shaikh headshot

Artist Statement

Alyssa Gruett, MS, ATR-BC, LPC, RYT 200, is an artist, a board-certified art therapist, a licensed professional counselor, an art educator, a yoga teacher, and a student. She is also more than her titles and the letters after her name.  She is a friend collector, a barefooted wanderer, a somatic experiencing enthusiast, a provider of hope and a compassionate listener. Alyssa loves hugs, ceramic coffee mugs made with love and getting lost in nature with her family. She believes art can break us open, and act as a guiding star that teaches us about ourselves and the world around us.

In her professional life, she is the Director of the Expressive and Therapeutic Arts program at Marian University, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and is currently in the process of setting up a community-based art therapy studio in the Fox Valley area. If you are interested in learning more about art therapy, please feel free to contact her at alyssa@afieldofjoy.com or visit her website at afieldofjoy.art.


Skein to Skein

Skein to Skein

by Charles Valle

Content Warning: Death or dying; pregnancy loss.

Minutes after we directed the doctors to turn off the ventilator, we knew our limited time with Vivian was ending. Certain moments remain a blur. The nurse disconnecting monitors and tubes, say, or swaddling Vivian’s lifeless body in the hot air balloon–patterned hospital blanket. Screen memories, perhaps.

Other moments remain quite vivid—the pathways to recall so well-travelled, they will be with me until my death. I recall the urgency of finding my camera to make sure I captured photos of my wife, Kathleen, holding Vivian for the first time. I recall the awkward transfer, the anticipation of what holding Vivian would feel like. And I held her. And I recall my surprise at how heavy 8 pounds, 3 ounces felt. Her full dead weight. Her head on the crook of my right arm. I recall trying to remember every feature of her face knowing I would never be able to hold her again.

While I was holding Vivian, a well-meaning nurse asked us if we wanted to have a harpist come and play in the room. I remember being so confused by the question. It was so far out of the possibilities we had been preparing for during the previous nine months. We had not considered that variable in the calculus of parenthood: a harpist playing in a cramped hospital room for my dead daughter. I may or may have not lost my shit at that point.

There were lots of other questions that day from the NICU doctors and nurses that I cannot remember responding to. I was clearly in some catatonic state. And, much as in the subsequent months after Vivian’s death, I recall watching people’s mouths move and attempting to process their words and, as if escaping my body, I would see myself attempt to answer. One of the questions concerned Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a remembrance photography organization, and whether or not we wanted them to take photos of Vivian. We must have answered affirmatively, because a week or two later we received black and white photos of Vivian—even more beautiful and heartbreaking than my jagged memories.

For months after, I would stare at those photos every day. At night when I couldn’t sleep, or staring out windows during work, daydreaming, the photos would haunt me and appear as if drawn by Caravaggio—severe contrasts of a fading reality with such a clear focus on the different parts of Vivian’s body.

My first attempts at writing about Vivian, and the grief work I was undergoing, were abject failures from a creative production perspective. Much like the initial impulse to find my camera and capture moments, my initial poetic instinct was to capture: the loss, the rawness of the trauma, the muddled mess of emotions that I couldn’t quite process, etc. The writing was therapy. My creative output consisted of fragments, broken lines, phrases unturned.

The years following Vivian’s death were, unsurprisingly, the most difficult of my life. Kathleen and I resolved to move forward. Moving forward meant integrating back into normal society—all the trappings and gestures of living in the United States during late stage capitalism. It meant negotiating the twenty-first-century spaces as a BIPOC poet: assigning, interpreting, and prioritizing meaning to the partisan theatrics, the accelerating wealth inequality fueled by Quantitative Easing, social media’s unveiling of racial injustices, the affects of disruptive technologies, the effects of climate change.

Moving forward also meant trying to have children again. We were very fortunate. We’d never experienced as much relief as we did when hearing the cries of our second child, Ivan. By the time our daughter, Olive, was born, our integration back into normal society appeared seamless. Most people had no idea just how broken we were.

Like most working poets, I struggle to find time to write. Scribbles on receipts, napkins, the marginalia on work notes, texts to myself, email drafts. The skeins of poetic fragments continued to pile up. In my upcoming book, Proof of Stake (Fonograf Editions), there’s a playful nod to Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12 where I talk about my poetics of grief: “An integral / Lower limit memory / Upper limit intertextuality.” In thinking about grief and loss, I was always interested in the concept of displacement, area, and volume. Can we quantify grief? What are grief’s boundaries?

My personal experience with grieving taught me that my emotional responses occurred in waves. Similar to the stock market or equities charts, my grief would encounter resistances and supports. Up, then down, ad infinitum. There were long periods of consolidation. Supports breaking down. Higher highs. Lower lows. It’s maddening. It’s also completely fascinating to me.

Below is an excerpt from my elegy to Vivian. Knitting and weaving from various skeins, I ended up with a fifty-nine-page elegy that ruminates on a wide range of subjects, from the effects and winding paths of disruptive technologies, such as paper and cryptocurrency, to critiques and observations of art movements, diasporas, social unrest, and the history of the Philippines.

from Proof of Stake


And the portability of grief is such a wondrous thing
The transit so efficient
Every circumstance so easily succumbing
To tenebristic splendor
The unsettling realism of the eyes you never opened, Vivian,
The lifeless hand that could not grip my trembling fingers
Follow me across continents
From Europe to Asia, the dark
Background persists with single sources of light
Shining on different body parts
One day, it is your perfectly-shaped eyebrows
The next, the meconium spilling out of your nose,
Your mouth. I close my eyes in Cambodia and see
Your hands. I wake up in Iceland and the light focuses
On your chin, your lips. In Singapore, I burn incense
And imagine your voice. In the Philippines, I scatter
Your ashes on the leeward side of hope
And reflection, the prismatic nature of remains
Ashen and oaken, bits of bones
So far removed from any sense of
Purpose or structure
Mourning in residue
The structures of grief pressed
And dried. Textures so indecipherable
They disorient with ease
Emotional glyphs asperating sullied surfaces

Jareen Imam author photo

Charles Valle was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to California when he was seven years old. He holds an AS in Chemistry from Saddleback College, a BA in English from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in Poetry from University of Notre Dame. Since 2006, he has served as one of the Poetry Editors at FENCE Magazine. Charles currently resides in Portland, OR, where he works as a Change Manager for Nike as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC). His first book, Proof of Stake, will be published by Fonograf Editions later this year.

Top photo by Munro Studio on Unsplash


National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

April is National Poetry Month, so I wanted to celebrate it with some Black YA novels in verse.

Novels in verse are my personal favorite YA subgenre because they combine poetry with narrative storytelling to enhance the thoughts and experiences of the characters. As a teen, the first novel in verse I read by a Black author was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which was about a diverse poetry club at a high school in the Bronx.

Two decades after its publication in 2002, there are now a plethora of middle grade and YA novels in verse by Black authors old and new. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I get excited whenever I see a new novel in verse. I love reading them and seeing different poetry forms used and experiences told. Here are some of the most compelling Black YA and middle grade novels in verse.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This is more of a collection of poems and visual art than a novel in verse, but I’m including this book because it’s become one of my new favorites. Using the Golden Shovel poetry form, Grimes takes one line or short poem from a Black female Harlem Renaissance poet and uses it to make her own poem. The book itself is formatted so you read the Harlem Renaissance poem first and then the poem it inspired Grimes to write. Each set of poems is also accompanied by visual art by Black women, including Vashanti Harrison and Shada Strickland. As a whole, the poetry and illustrations work together to bridge the past and present.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington

A novel in verse aimed at a middle school audience, this book tells the story of Keet, a young Black girl from Alabama who loves talking and tellling stories. When she moves away, she isn’t sure how to cope until a fishing trip with her grandfather teaches her how to listen before speaking. However, her grandfather suddenly has a stroke and that makes him feel further away from her. In order to reconnect with him, Keet must find her voice again through stories.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

In an elevator, a teenaged Black boy named Wil is on the way down with a gun in his waistband to take revenge for his older brother, who was murdered by someone in the neighborhood. But each time the elevator stops on a new floor, Wil is visited by ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows about revenge and emotions. Through a true-to-life cast of characters and powerful verse, Reynolds delivers a poignant tale of gun violence through both its victims and those left behind. This book lingered in my mind long after I read it because of how skillfully Wil’s conscience is represented and questioned through the characters and words.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Filled with both music and poetry, Solo features the tale of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star named Rutherford. When Rutherford’s legacy threatens to overwhelm him, Blade finds a letter about his parentage that leads him to Ghana. From there, he undergoes a journey to find out who he can become outside of his father’s influence and whether he can live up to the expectations he has for his life. I really appreciated how Alexander wove together various cultural influences, such as rock music and Ghanaian culture, to shape Blade’s character development.

Every Body Looking by Candice Ihoh

A coming-of-age story starring a first-generation Nigerian American female protagonist, this book explores the impact of heavy familial expectations and the desire to break free and express your true self. When Ada attends a HBU, she finds herself following her passion for dance while exploring her sexuality. At the same time, she also comes face to face with past issues as she tries to claim ownership over her body and future. It is rare to see a YA novel set in a college space, so finding one that is also in verse is extra special.

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.

“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

Grief that results from the loss of a loved one is something we all experience at some point. Experiencing death as a teenager or young adult is especially painful, however, because these are formative years when having your loved ones around is crucial.

In Ashley Woodfolk’s 2018 book The Beauty That Remains, Autumn, Shay, and Logan gradually learn to cope with their grief and become connected by their mutual love for the band Unraveling Lovely.

Told through the viewpoints of the aforementioned characters, The Beauty That Remains provides a strong, intricate narrative about grief that is very notable. In the initial aftermath of their losses, each of the characters copes differently. Autumn tries to go about her daily life as it was before the death of her friend Tavia but soon finds herself sending emails to Tavia and pushing away Tavia’s brother, Dante. After her twin sister, Sasha, dies, Shay attempts to run away from her grief. Finally, Logan deals with the death of his ex-boyfriend Bram through self-destructive behaviors such as drinking.

In addition to the leads, their lost loved ones are fully fleshed out characters who have a presence in their lives even after their passing. Tavia, aka Octavia, is boisterous, loving, and inspirational; she is a nice foil to the quiet, introverted Korean artist Autumn. Sasha’s enthusiasm about music is both painful and comforting to Shay, a Black indie rock music blogger. Bram’s troubled and gregarious nature haunts gay red-headed musician Logan to the point where he can’t write songs, but he can watch his ex-boyfriend’s old YouTube videos.

Not only do the lead characters cope with their grief differently, they also get help for it in different ways. Logan is forced to see a psychiatrist by his parents after he gets caught with his father’s liquor. Following an emotional breakdown, Autumn slowly learns to open up to Dante, her older sister Willow, and Tavia’s ex-boyfriend Perry. Meanwhile, Shay gets an unexpected intervention that leads her and her mother to different support groups. It is moving to watch each character find solace in someone or something they didn’t think would help them process their grief.

All of the characters show how complicated and messy grief can be. Sometimes, grief will make you lash out at loved ones, avoid them, or self-destruct. These responses are neither healthy nor excusable, but they happen. Grief can also result in strong physical reactions, such as the panic attacks that Shay has. Autumn’s sister Willow sums up the situation well when she says that Dante and Autumn have suffered “a great trauma.” Given that some people think grief is a temporary mood, like anger or sadness, it is gratifying to see grief depicted as something that strongly impacts mental, physical, and emotional health.

As a result of coming to terms with their grief, each of the lead characters is able to see “the beauty that remains,” which can be understood as the good things they still have despite who they have lost. Not only do they have loving friends and family who are still alive, they also have small and big things in their lives that they can enjoy. For Autumn, it’s drawing and reading books. For Shay, it’s running track. And for Logan, it’s writing songs. Yet the common love they all share is music, especially the band Unraveling Lovely.

Most of us know that music can be a powerful way to soothe and convey feelings that are otherwise difficult to express. When seen through the lens of grief, music can be both painful and wonderful. This is demonstrated when Shay walks out on a live performance of an Unraveling Lovely song that was sung to Sasha before she died. Music is a coping mechanism for all the characters, but they engage with it in different ways. Shay is a music blogger for her and Sasha’s website BAMF (Badass Music Fanatics), Logan is the former vocalist and songwriter for the band Unraveling Lovely, and Autumn listens to music, watches music-inspired films, and has Unraveling Lovely’s former guitarist Dante as her love interest.

While there was much about The Beauty That Remains that I enjoyed, I would point out that the book’s huge cast is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and orientation, and almost every character plays a role in the healing the lead characters undergo. On the other hand, there were times I mixed up the characters or forgot who certain ones were, especially those who were in different bands. However, this did not ruin my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, The Beauty That Remains is a raw and liberating meditation on grief and music. Grief is a traumatic experience that everyone deals with differently, but this book shows that with help, you can still have wonderful things in your life despite the loss you’ve experienced. With music as their common thread, the characters blog, sing, and listen to words that bring them solace and keep the memory of their lost loved ones alive.

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 Stas Knop from Pexels


So Much of a Mother Is Liquid

So Much of a Mother Is Liquid

A Review by C. Kubasta

In the second poem of Callista Buchen’s new collection from Black Lawrence press, the phrase “clouds made of mouths” reminds me why I love poetry—why I can’t help but read it aloud, repeating moments like that over and over.

It first happened with the phrase “a caught moth” from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live with Her Faulty Heart.” I’m a sucker for assonance, the soft echo of vowels that expand on the tongue, weighting the palate. A few pages later in Buchen’s book, I’m reminded why I love prose poetry. In the densely stacked paragraphs, images and lines swim up out of some ether for the reader to find. Without the neutral space of the page as guide, readers themselves are searchers, seekers. I find “this grounding in proximity”—in Part I of a book that traces a story of mothers: daughters-who-become-mothers, mothers-who-grieve, mothers-who-become-mothers-again-but-carry-their-grief-with-them-as-they-mother.

The structure and language of Buchen’s collection establishes both a chronology of a specific story and a tangling of this chronology. Recurring metaphors include liquid (water, milk), construction (road, cement), and various threats. The second poem in each section has the same title, “Flashes,” and its own particular form—discrete lines separated by plenty of white space. The first few iterations of this poem note dangers and potential safe spaces—like a description of a basement during a weather drill, or a mother’s worries and her constant vigil. Pronouns lace throughout the collection, an ever-present “you” that can mean any mother. Woman is italicized: Woman. Mother is too. There is an imperative voice addressing readers.

The poem “Storytelling” makes this conflation of mothers explicit through the children’s book Blueberries for Sal. Who else remembers this book? Is it just me?—I read it to the children I cared for year after year, can picture it now. “Always the same story, the single color illustrations, me reading, my mother reading, her mother reading. What it means to be innocent.” Innocence can mean so many things, but here, at this moment in the collection, the poem appears amid poems about the loss of a baby, a birth. In the poem “Loss,” one of the mothers (I think of all the speakers as mothers by now) says, “I am grief. I am double and half [ . . .] I can be a coffin.” Immediately following that poem is “Kinds of Trucks,” which trucks in construction metaphors (hard hats and steel-toed boots and cement—all about building and safety and protection), and the mother writes, “Somewhere, a woman plans an arboretum, thinks, this morning I am domestic, this afternoon I am wild.”

One of the central poems in Look Look Look is “Metaphysics”—a short poem that encapsulates much of the poems’ multilayered depictions of motherhood. Aside from the second poem of each section, it’s also one of the few lineated poems. Because it so deftly captures the conflict at the center of the collection, it’s worth quoting in full:


Our most ambitious work: mother as birthplace, where woman becomes location.

Someone singing: rejoice! A body in service, a graft here, a graft there.

Call and response: how she (nearly) disappears inside ritual and imprint.

Let’s situate: Where were you born?

In a (nearly) different life, the child stands between her parents: a record, a stain, a

            photograph of the future.

Contextualize: There, says the child, pointing toward her mother, home.

Later, how (nearly) altered: child becomes mother, the X on a map.

Call and response: why didn’t you warn me?

A prayer: but who would believe it? says the mother, and turns on the music.


To cast out from this poem, mother(ing) as work/location/disappearance figures heavily. Mother as seen by child, as connected to child, as once-child. The call and response sings throughout Buchen’s poems: the daughter becomes a mother and has a daughter. How much should she tell and when? And would she have listened anyway?

Perhaps if you are a mother, you do not need to know the story, any exact parameters, to know what kind of grief Buchen delineates in certain of these poems. Perhaps the dedication “For caregivers and those who nurture them . . .” is enough. Perhaps by the first line in the first poem, “Here are the wings we imagine, women, printed in blood, muscle . . .” you are already halfway into some ur-story, or some memory-place. You understand the story begun from this early scene: when “women sit in a circle, nursing. They could be knitting, could be planning a war.” As a not-mother, though, there were many things here I did not know—and for me, poetry has always been one of the ways I come to know things: through its sounds, and uncommon language, and juxtaposition of raw and lush. In “Remnants,” the mother tells how when filling out forms “even at the optometrist’s,” the number of pregnancies and the number of live births don’t match. “The third child that is the second child, any day now. She smiles like people do when they say that.”

If the collection has a kind of dénouement, it is the mapping of the mother’s body after the birth of the third-child-who-is-the-second-child, the way the title poem, “Look Look Look,” invokes this body:

Later, I read that the cells of children move through the placenta, latch on to the mother’s

lungs, liver, brain, her skin. The daughter’s cells, the cells of the new baby, the cells

of the baby that was lost. All the people of this body. A fissure leads to fog.


In “Quick Change,” the mother writes about stored bodies she keeps around the house—in the coat closet, under the bed, in the garage. She calls them “the spares” and declares it “better this way.” In poems in the last section, the mother writes about the dark line down her belly, how it doesn’t fade, separated muscles, “the distance between wrecked and whole.” The poem goes meta, referencing itself, what will and won’t work as a metaphor. It ends with “The body as a poem, what won’t grow back.”

About the Author

Callista Buchen is the author of Look Look Look (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Double-Mouthed (dancing girl press, 2016) and The Bloody Planet (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her work appears in Harpur Palate, Puerto del Sol, Fourteen Hills, and many other journals, and she is the winner of DIAGRAM’s essay contest. She teaches at Franklin College in Indiana, where she directs the visiting writers reading series and advises the student literary journal.

 Top photo by Becky Phan on Unsplash

Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.