Review of decompose by S. Fey

decompose by S. Fey

Not A Cult, 2024

74 pages, $18.95

Review by Donna Vorreyer

In the opening poem of decompose, “my artist friend tells me he doesn’t believe in the color orange,” Fey ends a conversation about color with 

haven’t we always had to make space? At home in the journey.
Something wild between primaries.

This is the perfect introduction to Fey’s collection which wrestles with the inexactness of living, how people are too complex to be simply sad or happy, broken or whole, lost or found, man or woman – there is a whole universe that exists in the in-between.

The common definition of decompose is to decay or rot. But the second definition is to break down into component elements or simpler parts. Fey uses this collection to break down concepts of identity, relationships, and the pain of memory. Poems that sound like conversations with friends often meander toward gut punch revelations, the poems themselves breaking into component elements. Examples of these powerful lines include:

There’s got to be a hand out there that doesn’t cost so much to hold.
from “I haven’t really made up a name for it yet”

It takes seven years for your cells to regenerate. In just//four years I’ll be entirely rid of you.
from “You should always be gentle with yourself”

memory is fickle and changes to protect its keeper
from “Dinosaur Spine”

What may seem like casual diction in Fey’s poems becomes an invitation to sit down beside these poems on the couch. The elevated language of poetry can sometimes build walls, but by accessing a relaxed and familiar lexicon, Fey’s poems become more like conversations that may sound familiar or unimportant, yet reveal deep truths and concerns. This diction is also a way to protect or deflect, a distancing from what hurts.   Despite the pain and loss being described, there is lightness in this armor. 

In “Unclean,” Fey directly speaks to the harm in an almost dismissive way, using Thanks, bro, man, pal, and dude as terms of address. “lesbians are exhausting,” a poem which uses lyric images of hummingbirds, flowers and insects (all footnoted to reference a lost lover), ends with why can’t they just be fucking flowers? In “Cold Turkey,” the heart has retired and collects a 401K, plays golf and poker, watches soap operas, wears a Mr. Rogers cardigan. And in multiple poems, Fey even introduces the meta element of being a writer, interrupting to note the use of an ampersand, concern over the over-use of the “I,” and serving up a line in the autobiographical “bad ideas” which admits I have a deep desire/ for a savings/account and I write/poetry.

Another part of the decomposition in these poems is in the act of naming – naming loss, failures, joys, and fears; naming past traumas; and naming the self. Several poems use two prose blocks with single word subtitles, a form that Fey has dubbed “two sides of the coin.” This invented form uses words that are thought of as opposites to show that both sides of a coin are not separate entities, just different perspectives. Again, that inexactness. Complexity. To this reader, the opposing subtitles in these seven poems also function as a sort of catalog:

  • theory/praxis – technical naming
  • alone/clouded – naming of mindset
  • 2:43 /2:45 – naming of time’s impact
  • upright/reversed – naming of perspective
  • left/kept – naming of memory
  • death/temperance – naming of extremes
  • familiar/blurred – naming of identity

In the end, the decomposition in this collection is really transformation, a naming of damage that has occurred in the past as preparation for moving toward possibility.  In the poem “from the body,” Fey explains

it feels like decay,
&it is, but not in the way
you think right now.

In “Zora gives me a new middle name,” Fey embraces this naming as a stepping stone to joy:

My new challenge to this world:
show me how good it can get.

And in the final poem “when you encounter the devil,” Fey acknowledges the power of the individual self over the “they” of the world:

they decompose you, they feed
they lurch, they petal your cheek
they curse or caress;
it’s up to you.

decompose is a moving and deeply human portrayal of how to live in the liminal space between love and harm, self and world. In “Edwin says I deserve to be loved with precision,” Fey admits, I imagine when I’m loved with precision, I’ll know the weight of it. This weight is ever-changing as these poems break us into our simplest parts, and Fey’s language shifts and bends with each challenge of the breaking.

Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She hosts the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.

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