Love is considered one of the great topics of poetry (along with sex, death and war), but most of the time, readers and writers alike tend to assume that that means romantic love. There’s a lot of poetry about new relationships, marriage, heartbreak – but that’s not all there is to life or art, and Shelby Eileen’s brilliant chapbook sunfish examines a very different kind of relationship; the mixed blessing of family and heritage.
Eileen’s work is confessional poetry at its best, moving between intimacy and distance, bitterness and nostalgia, pain and love with a gentle touch. The poetry manages to be both intensely personal and relatable for everybody with a difficult home life, working through emotions about their parents and grandparents, and bearing intergenerational trauma they had no part in. Of particular note is the poem on page 41;
mothers and daughters were not
meant to go to war against each
so why was I born with a battle cry
for her blood
how does she do that thing
that thing where the sound of her
voice makes me want to unhinge
It’s hard to say whether or not this is as common an experience as it feels like, but I still remember the way my teeth would rattle in my head during screaming matches with my mother as a teenager. It’s one that media has stolen and turned into a trope, another thing to make fun of teenage girls for, but Eileen has taken it back and given it the weight it deserves.
Out of all the sections, the one about mothers and daughters is the one that hit me the hardest. However, the book ranges through Eileen’s relationship with their father, their zaidy, their bubbie, and even the concept of family and Jewishness itself. There is a constant tension at work, pushing-pulling between Eileen’s desire for freedom, their queer identity, their desire to be better than their family’s mistakes; and their craving to belong, the hope that if they say the right thing, do the right thing, the hurt will heal.
i need her to be smart
I need her to be grateful
The only part of sunfish I found frustrating was the lack of poetry titles. On one hand, this added to the sense of flow – the idea that each poem flowed into the next, in a stream of consciousness. On the other hand, it makes it hard to point to the parts that grabbed me and didn’t let go. It worked for Emily Dickinson and it works for Shelby Eileen, but I just hope the page numbers carry over between editions!
It’s also wonderful to get to review another Canadian poet; Canada’s poetry scene is one of my favourite circles, and this is one of my favourites I’ve read from it in a while.
Shelby Eileen is on Twitter at @briseisbooks, and sunfish is available for purchase on Amazon here.