“Everything Shows Its Life:” Resilient Queerness in Jason Purcell’s Debut Collection, Swollening

Cover of Swollening: The text at the top of this image reads "POEMS" in black next to "JASON PURCELL" in pink. In the bottom third of the image, in the center in black, is the book title, "swollening". Under the title text are six abstract flowers, possibly tulips, with pink and red buds, green underneath, and purple at their roots. The background is plain beige.

Swollening by Jason Purcell

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2022

112 pages, $15.95

Review by Emily M. Goldsmith

Jason Purcell’s debut poetry collection, Swollening (Arsenal Pulp 2022), explores the intersections of liminality—living queerness and chronic illness. In one of the book’s first poems, “North of Nipissing Beach,” Purcell writes, “Even this memory is queer / these are the terms of this space.” As the reader navigates the poems in Swollening’s 107 pages, they find that even this collection is queer. Purcell has provided, in the pages of their collection, a respite from a world hostile to queerness. The use of the word “queer” and my assertion that Purcell “queers” our reading experience is purposefully crafted by the poet. By queer, I don’t mean solely non-normative, and I mean more than just an LGBTQ+ author with LGBTQ+ content. Within Purcell’s collection, queerness becomes a beautiful and powerful thing, an alternate way of being, a position of fluidity and self-acceptance, and a space for negotiation. Purcell embraces this power. The speaker of these poems is not necessarily free from the constraints of a hostile world, but they freely exist in their contradictions, pain, and fears as a queer and chronically ill subject worthy of a full life. 

Published one month after Paul Tran’s All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin 2022), these two collections both consider violence, trauma, gender, and bodies in vulnerable ways. While Tran’s collection also investigates U.S. imperialism and navigating life as a Vietnamese-American, Purcell dives into their personal experience with chronic illness, and through that investigation, the reader encounters additional critiques of healthcare and government systems. Certainly, both Tran’s and Purcell’s collections witness the resilience of queer people while they also consider the uncertainty of a future. 

Purcell opens their collection with an untitled invocation, “I call you / my body to me.” This calling of the body to them is how the reader enters the pages of Swollening, stepping into a world of disconnection and connection, loss and celebration, and death and life. The collection is divided into three sections: (I) “Things swallowed,” (II) “Sickness is not a metaphor,” and (III) “If I had a window, it would be open.” Purcell’s poems dance and writhe through these three sections with a raw honesty that is one of the most powerfully compelling things about this collection.

Purcell writes in “Wroxton, Saskatchewan,” only a few pages later, “There, the small box of your life, that contained / everything and so little of it.” With emotive and emotionally evoking words, Swollening asks the question, what is in a life? What does a life contain? And, ultimately, who deserves life? A full life? Swollening answers in “a word like guilt”—we all do, and “Look how limp we forward.” 

While the first section introduces pain, fear, queerness, longing, and love, the second section of the collection explores life with pain and life navigating illness. Purcell writes in an untitled poem, “Pain is what interferes, what cuts up.” The poems in this collection play with white space, sometimes dashing across the page or cutting lines in half with great distance between them. These moments of detachment and additional space reflect the thematic contents: as pain cuts and interrupts life, these lines are cut and interrupted. 

The marks of pain are sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. Similarly, chronic pain and disability can sometimes be visible and invisible—making the experience of validation difficult and advocating challenging. In “Recovery,” Purcell writes of this marking and subsequent loss:

Everything shows its mark.
The loss of small things:holidays, nights out, dinners with friends,
and the arrivalof medication, heating pads, long nights
in bed.

The poems in Swollening insist upon alternate futurities. In a time and cultural context where disability is considered a site of “no future,” in the words of the scholar Alison Kafer, Purcell’s imagined futures generate possibility and reject strictly heteronormative and able-bodied futures. In “ruinous women,” Purcell informs their reader, “It is laughter from the future, / finally the sound / of the other side of shattering.” Amidst the future’s laughter, Purcell’s imagination asserts in “danse macabre,” that “We dance toward utopia.” Additionally, in the poem “Long shadows,” Purcell suggests we “Stop the unnecessary work and let our bodies heal, feel joy, feel pleasure.”

Purcell’s determination to experience life beyond the small box where life is contained or the liminal space where any marginalized person is sequestered rises off the page, turning even an ordinary poem into a force for liberation.  

There is mourning in pain and illness—separate from mourning death; some parts of life look different after an illness or living with chronic illness. Purcell tells us of this pain in “fertility,” “Holding my / own dead self in my hands. An artifact of neglect that rots and teems / with life.” Death and life co-exist in a body surviving pain and illness. The poem “danse macabre” tells us of the body’s experience:

This world that has maligned
our deviant bodies is ending, and we dance
our sick disabled dance, carrying each other
past the shaking lights of refineries and the deep pits
of derricks, away from the cavity white world of extraction.

Purcell imagines, in this poem, that the world where sick and/or queer bodies are defamed or called “deviant” is ending, and at the end of this world, these bodies dance, carry each other, and move beyond. This communal experience evoked in this poem captures the spirit of Purcell’s collection. In emotional healing, in restoration and reclamation, is community. 

Swollening’s poems are about carrying on, dragging on, or limping on. These poems don’t give up, though they break in places. As Purcell plays with memory and experience, they also meditate on inadequate insurance, debt, crisis, and the state of the world. Amidst this meditation is consideration of gender, masculinity, and simultaneous disconnection. Purcell reflects in “Not in your lifetime”:

She remembers gender. She remembers the future. She
remembers everything that doesn’t matter anymore, perhaps never
mattered. She goes on.

The “she” in this poem remembers gender and the future, the speaker tells us that both don’t matter, and she goes on despite this. Is there a kind of grief in a possible lack of future? Sure, but there is also liberation in accepting what “doesn’t matter.” 

The poems in Swollening are accessible, and this collection isn’t just for capital “P” poets. Anyone willing to pick up a poetry collection in a bookstore can find their way into this book. These poems can teach us about resilience, ourselves, and the world around us. While the closing poems in the book feature a slight tonal shift that some might find jarring, the penultimate poem titled “ruinous women” honors destruction before celebrating renewed life with friends in “in the garden with my faggots,” the overall message of the collection is clear: hope persists. 

Purcell insists on seeking life amidst despair as they write in an untitled poem, “We have learned to make life, to walk / long distances, to be together, to coax from the rubble / a sign of life.” There is a determination among these pages to “coax” life from death or deterioration.  This is a collection of pain, fear, and mourning. One that doesn’t shy away from the realities of the climate crisis, violent love, and hostile experiences—simultaneously, Purcell’s poems do not emote hopelessness; there is hope in living breath found in these poems. These poems breathe and encourage living in reclamation and among community—to love life, not a life absent of pain, but amidst it. 

Emily M. Goldsmith, who has short dark brown hair and brown eyes, looks directly at the camera with a soft smile. They are wearing a sleeveless black collared shirt. The background is light grey-blue, almost cloud-like, and unfocused.

Emily M. Goldsmith (they/them) is a queer Cajun-Creole poet originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They are currently a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. Emily received their MFA in Poetry from the University of Kentucky. They are the managing editor of Product and Giving Room Mag. Their creative work can be found in The Penn Review, Bullsh*t Mag, Fine Print Press, Vagabond City, and elsewhere. You can find them online at emilymgoldsmith.com