Review, Reconsidered

In Denver, at the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) in April, I had the pleasure of hearing Maureen Seaton speak about her work on the panel “Queering Desire: Queer Poets’ Aesthetic Libidos.” As you can imagine, even though the panel was late in the day, it was a lively, and at times even hot, discussion.

Let me be honest: I’ve been in awe of Seaton’s work as a poet since the early 1990s when I read her second book, Fear of Subways. Fear of Subways won the Eighth Mountain Prize. In the early 1990s, I bought almost every book published by Eighth Mountain Press at A Woman’s Prerogative, the local women’s book store in Ferndale, MI. I don’t know why, but I always have had an affinity for publishers and an interest in understanding the aesthetics that shape publishers’ lists. Eighth Mountain Press and Press Gang (in Canada) were my favorite publishers in the early 1990s; each list expressed the aesthetic, political, and intellectual interests I had at the time. In Fear of Subways, Seaton’s poem “White Balloon” mesmerized me. The spine of my copy of Fear of Subways is cracked and the book opens flat to the page with “White Balloon.” The poem seemed to capture my own experiences with AIDS at the time. I committed it to memory. I wanted to write a poem as beautiful and as transcendent as that one.

The panel “Queering Desire” popped with queer poetic luminaries. In addition to Seaton, the panel included Jim Elledge, author of most recently, A History of My Tattoo, and publisher at Thorngate Road, which has brought many new queer voices to the public with the Frank O’Hara Award Chapbook Competition; Jericho Brown, author of the book Please; Lambda Literary’s own David Groff; Ely Shipley, author of Boy With Flowers; and Stacey Waite, author of the chapbook the lake has no saint, which won Tupelo Press’s Snowbound Chapbook Award. This is one of the great things about AWP: talent gathers, banter ensues, sparks fly. Yet, listening to Seaton speak at AWP, I suddenly felt fear in my mind and my heart. Seaton talked about the rupture between poetry and prose that led to her memoir, Sex Talk to Girls. She was earnest in describing her work in the memoir, and her assessment of her project seemed thoughtful and apt. As it often is, it was a pleasure to hear a writer reflecting on her work. So why was I afraid? Fear came from the fact that I had reviewed Sex Talk to Girls for the Lambda Book Report and, I recalled, I was not as laudatory about it as I thought I would be.

This is the truth: I wanted to love c. When I read the brief publisher’s description of Sex Talk to Girls, it reminded me of many of my favorite memoirs or essay collections by poets: Minnie Bruce Pratt’s S/He, Mab Segrest’s My Mama’s Dead Squirrel, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. These books all were published in the 1980s. I was hopeful that Seaton’s memoir would signal a renaissance of memoirs by lesbians.

I also was excited to have the opportunity to review Sex Talk to Girls for the Lambda Book Report. I started writing book reviews seriously about six or seven years ago. Initially, I wrote for online blogs and websites. I was learning the craft of the book review. I was reading intensely and writing intensely. I was thinking about how to read a book in order to review it, how to think about a book in order to write about it, and how to write for this particular genre. I started writing book reviews for a number of reasons. First, reviewing was a way to secure free books — and lots of them. Many publishers seemed happy to send me free copies of books if I mentioned reviewing. A boilerplate letter, email account, and fax machine filled my mailbox with small packages — books wrapped in paper, printed with publishers’ accolades. Second, reviewing was a way to read voraciously and with purpose. Reviewing gave me deadlines and a system to organize my reading, thinking, and writing. Third, reviewing was a way to be published. I confess, I still feel glee seeing my name printed on paper or illuminated on a computer screen.

Book reviewing soon became more important to me than any of those initial craven reasons I had for undertaking it. Book reviewing became a way to think deeply about what I was reading and to engage with books and my own writing. I read Donald Hall’s book Life Work. Hall, like Seaton, has an important space in my psychic past. He was a professor at the University of Michigan, and though he departed well before I arrived as an undergraduate, his spirit seemed to linger on the central quadrangle. Aspiring poets from the University of Michigan all have, I believe, the voice whispering in the back of their mind – what would Donald Hall say? What would Hall think of this? Fortunately, much of his thinking is shared in his many volumes of poetry and prose. In Life Work, Hall describes his own writing practice; it includes book reviewing. I wanted to fashion a life as a writer like Hall, and so book reviewing became a part of my writing discipline.

When I was given the opportunity to review books for the Lambda Book Report, it was a dream come true. I’ve always valued LBR as a source to shape my reading lists. To contribute to it was an honor. Of course, another benefit to writing book reviews, which I haven’t mentioned, is the opportunity to share book exuberance with others, even if it is only on the page. Like most bibliophiles, finding a book that I love excites me and I want to tell others. Writing a book review fulfills that need to tell. Charles Flowers mailed me a galley of Sex Talk to Girls. I packed it up for my trip to Australia that summer.

Flying internationally always requires judiciousness in packing books, something I never achieve, but strive for. I remember clearly the books that I carried with me around the globe. I reread Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness on the long flight over the ocean. I was terribly sick with an intestinal virus, making regular trips to the small, airless bathroom. This time reading The Well, Stephen Gordon’s life seemed preferable to mine. I saved Seaton’s memoir for a post-jet lag time, when I would be in a good frame of mind to read and absorb it, to engage it whole-heartedly and to think about it deeply to write the review.

I read the book in a rented house in Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales. It was winter in Australia and cold, especially in the mornings and at night. The house that we rented had been built by hand. It was literally a straw house; bundles of straw were stuffed between beams then mudded over. The house combined indoor and outdoor living with ease and simplicity, and, like many homes in Australia, there was no central heating We woke each morning to stoke the fire, which after forty-five minutes warmed the whole living area, although the bedroom was never toasty; we huddled under thick down comforters at night. I remember reading Sex Talks to Girls in the early morning, my fingers exposed and cold; I remember reading it mid-afternoon, outside, warmed by the sun.

What I regretted about reading it in Australia, though I love remembering that vacation, the sun, the food, the people, is that I couldn’t consult my other Seaton books to compare and contrast this book with her earlier books of poetry. This is one of the other joys of the practice of book reviewing. Book reviewing gives you an opportunity to follow the development of writers over time. Writing a book review invites you to read back through an author’s oeuvre and to read back through the other books and writers that have influenced the book that demands your attention at the moment.

Had I been at home and not at the bottom of the world, I would have returned to Seaton’s early books of poetry, The Sea Among the Cupboards (New Rivers Press, 1992), Fear of Subways (Eighth Mountain Press, 1991), and Furious Cooking (University of Iowa Press, 1996). I might have returned to her collaborations with Denise Duhamel in Exquisite Politics (Tia Cucha, 1997), Oyl (Pearl, 2000), and Little Novels (Pearl, 2002). Rereading the poems might have changed how I thought about and wrote about Sex Talks to Girls. In the absence of my books and with cold fingers and marveling at the sapphire blue of the southern coast of New South Wales, I read Sex Talks to Girls and wrote the notes that would eventually become the review for the Lambda Book Report.

In the end, I liked Sex Talks to Girls, but I didn’t love it. There, I said it. Even rereading it recently, I feel the same. I like it; I don’t love it. It is not such a bad thing to like a book; there are many books that I don’t like; there are even a few that I’ve picked up this year that I haven’t finished because I disliked them so much. Still, I’m keenly aware that simply liking a book for me is not enough; my emotional landscape easily allows me to love a book and there are four or five levels of praise above that. Besides, I wanted to love Sex Talks to Girls. I just didn’t. This reminds me of nearly a dozen women in my early twenties, who by all external factors, I should have loved, but I didn’t love them either.

Fortunately, I didn’t write anything so banal in the review, but here is the sentence that haunted me at AWP:

At its best, the tone and refraction result in vignettes that are engaging, well-paced, and entertaining. By the end, however, what comes through is less the narrative of a life and more the artifice of caricature. Unfortunately, the many delightful vignettes that are gathered never quite cohere as a whole.

I think I missed the point in the statement about “the artifice of caricature.” Had I reread the Seaton and Duhamel collaborations prior to completing this review, I might have said something different, something, perhaps, more generous. And returning to that assertion – “delightful vignettes that are gathered never quite cohere as a whole” – I question my own judgment. Why must they cohere as a whole? Who made that so? Perhaps part of what Seaton was doing was working against coherence and unity.

Ultimately hearing Seaton discuss Sex Talks to Girls at AWP made me think about the book in new ways, and it made me think about the pleasures and perils of reviewing. In my review, I didn’t account for Seaton’s intention with the book as an expansion of genre to capture a “rupture between poem and prose.” It’s an ambitious project and one that I admire and respect. I might have evaluated the book differently with the lens of that intention. That lens might have moved me from like to love. I hope. I wish.

All of this is to say: reviewing books is challenging work. I notice, when I am reading the new Lambda Literary online, how quickly I skim the words of the reviewer, how easy it is to move to another page, to not recognize the time and consideration that goes into writing a review. This is one of the perils of book reviewing, but one of the pleasures of reading.

Returning from AWP and rereading my review of Sex Talks to Girls, I thought I might want to retract it or substantially alter what I said three years ago. What I really want to say is that Seaton is an extraordinary poet and writer; thinking about her memoir in relationship to her desire to rupture the division between poem and prose changes how I read the memoir. What is important, though, really important, is that part of why I write reviews is to be on a journey of reading and writing with other writers. Maureen Seaton is a favorite companion of mine – that’s what I didn’t say and what I wish I did.


“To love something you know will die is holy.”
—Kaddish, AIDS Memorial, New York, 1987

The air is gravid with life,
the cloudless sky swells
with souls, ascending.

I’m in charge of one young soul
tied to my wrist
with a string that won’t break.

St. Veronica’s, the end of June:
You weep beside me, hold
a candle steadily near the flame.

Earlier we were two ladies
shopping on Broadway. I recall
your wire of a body,

the delicate arc of ribs
and small breasts above—this
as you quick-changed

in search of something radical,
feminine. Your terror of pink
amused me. You said:

Don’t tell anyone
of this sudden reversal. I said:
I will, but I’ll change your name.

Linda, it’s the letting go
that terrifies: the night air
alive with rising ghosts,

the cries of strong men
grieving in each other’s arms,
the ease with which we love.