Wayne State University Press, 2023
224 pages, $24.99
Reviewed by Daniela Naomi Molnar
Can a literary form—the form itself—be subversive? Can a form facilitate modes of expression or thinking that have the power to challenge dominant ideologies? This collection thinks so. The lyric essay, the editors believe, is “a space of agency for writers whose experiences are routinely questioned, flattened, or appropriated.” The lyric essay allows these marginalized writers to bring their overlooked or dismissed truths to light: “It’s a form uniquely suited to telling stories on the writer’s terms, without losing sight of where the writer comes from and the audiences they are writing toward. When we tell the stories of our lives—especially when those stories challenge assumptions about who we are—it is an act of resistance.”
The editors of this collection don’t attempt to answer the pivotal question embedded in this claim: what, exactly, does the word “resistance” mean? A capacious abstraction to begin with, it’s a word we’ve all heard a lot since 2016 and, as happens with words, styles, or social configurations that hold dissident potential, its meaning has been systematically voided over the past eight years by the semiotic siphon of consumerism. We’re now routinely told that buying a particular product can position us as part of a movement for “resistance” or that “resistance” can be as seamless as incorporating the right hashtags into one’s social media posts. The word has been declawed, hollowed out, and filled with a tepid broth of tame consumer mannerisms that challenge precisely nothing.
Resistance: from the Latin re, “against” + sistere, “stand firm.”
Because the editors never assume the (admittedly formidable) challenge of defining what they mean by “resistance,” the reader is left to assemble a meaning through the essays themselves—a slippery task. Here’s what I gleaned:
Resistance: The conveyance of a personal story exploring questions of identity using formal literary variation such as blank space, visual or typographical experimentation, fragmentation, and bricolaged cultural forms1 to interrupt, complicate, or expand the narrative’s meaning. The story must also be written by a person whose identity is considered “marginal” in relation to dominant culture.
Resistance: An account told from a circumferential vantage via an experimental form.
Of her tenacity as a writer, Toni Morrison declared, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. I claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” This understanding of the value of the marginal echoes bell hooks’, who sees the margin she learned to inhabit as a young Black woman not just as a site of deprivation and oppression, but as “a site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.” So, for hooks and Morrison:
Resistance: The margin’s gift of creative, counter-hegemonic thought.
For hooks and Morrison, to abandon the margin for the center would be to surrender a vital and essential point of view. Marginality, hooks states, is a site “one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”
Crucial to hooks’ understanding of the margin’s gift of resistance is its characterization as “radical,” a word which stems from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” Picture a tree’s root system. It extends down and out, almost entirely out of view. Forming a wide circle around the tree, its root tips branch and reach, connecting with mycelia and other trees’ roots. This ever-expanding, active, convivial, hidden margin is the source of the tree’s nourishment.
Resistance: Radical possibility gleaned from the margin.
Resistance: Nourishment pulled from the marginal fundament which offers the strength to stand against.
The lyric essay is an experimental form, and therefore part of a longstanding insurrectionary instinct embedded in experimentation to, in the words of poet Myung Mi Kim, “tend poesis” by using language to question language. Kim has written eloquently about this endeavor:
[Experimentation is a way] to register, notice, discern the necrotizing effect of cultural norms motivated and maintained by ideologies of monolingualism, pathologizing of difference, and capitalist will. … There is an intrinsic link between diminishing biodiversity and diminishing language diversity, high prestige languages perpetuate a hegemonic agenda, infrastructures of dominance consolidate and regiment the primacy of fluency, legibility and readability.
Experimental writers resist by widening the margin of what counts as “good” literature by making “visible the habituated, codified, acculturated (and their normatizing function)” (Kim). In this way, experimental writing is often an enactment of ethics, or a method by which to puzzle through a radical understanding of oneself and the world through disruption and re-visioning. While experimental writing can be simply playful or pure experimentation in the vein of art for art’s sake, experimental writers are more often making ethical statements or asking sociopolitical/ethical questions through their alterations and re-imaginings of language. And, even more than content or style, the movement, gesture, and force of form is often the medium for this exploration. The form itself can spark radical possibility that welcomes a radical perspective.
To read a lyric essay is to be asked to move through space, time, narrative, or rhetoric haphazardly, leaping across chasms of associative logic. The reader is asked to open up, rearrange, and reconfigure her preconceptions of how a text “should” perform its textuality. Experimental texts challenge the reader, placing intentional and conflicting demands upon comprehension. The best lyric essays refuse to, as the editors write, show “their full hand,” instead choosing to foreground the reader’s subjectivity, pressing a reassessment of her habituated understanding of language, manifesting a core belief of experimental writing: words make worlds. This is writing that asks the reader to resist—to stand against her expectations, to welcome a rupture in belief through which new roots might grow.
Embedded in this collection is the notion that the writers’ marginal perspectives can reach not just other margin-dwellers, but inhabitants of the cultural center. This anthology amplifies by amassing disparate voices into a motley chorus. It is a megaphone, a node. By gathering voices, it assembles a new collective audience. Listen, it says, to us.
W. S. Merwin’s “Elegy”, in its entirety:
Who would I show it to
Resistance: Stipulates listening. And often, listening in ways the listener hardly understands.2
The most lyric lyric essays in this collection—the ones that most prioritize space, silence, musicality, ambiguity, refusal, disjunction, interruption, and non-linearity—are, to my mind, the most radical, and as such, do the most vital work of resistance.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s brilliant work of redaction, “The Story You Never Tell,” is one beautiful example, stretching silence into new forms while simultaneously foregrounding that silence, rendering it intrusive, deafening, elephantine, demanding attention rather than ongoing disregard. This piece is near the beginning of the collection, while many of the other essays that push the lyric envelope, including stunning essays by Jennifer S. Cheng, Chloe Garcia Roberts, and Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, are buried in the middle of the collection. The essays that begin and end the book—typically the most-read works in an anthology—are far more formally straightforward, closer to our staid expectations of prose. This is an odd decision by the editors, and one that seems to undermine the collection’s potential power.
But I do understand this editorial decision, which points to a difficult question embedded in all experimental forms, which demand modes of engagement that necessarily involve some challenge or discomfort. Who will do the work of listening in this way? I know many smart, caring, curious people who will not. Most people, ultimately, will not find their way into demanding artistic forms. Does this mean that experimental forms are pointless? I don’t think so. The experimental, the avant garde, always precedes more popular forms, those that tend to offer their ideas directly and with ample aestheticization. Just as consumerism can and will hollow out subversive ideas, it can also translate subversive ideas into seductive cultural products that have the power to tip the status quo. Once this occurs, the redefinition of common sense can be swift. But this inward filtration of ideas from margin to center takes time and always begins underground, at the radical, the root.
Torrey Peters’ horrific, appropriately unrelenting essay “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay,” compiles account after account of grisly, horrifying murders of trans people from the “Remarks” section of a 2014 official report called the “Trans Murder Monitoring results.” Did my stomach turn and my heart ache in response? Yes and yes. As an artist and a lifelong social justice activist, was its information new to me? No. Will the people to whom this information might be new, the people who suffer within the bigotry of transphobia read this piece? Almost certainly not. Is it important that Peters wrote it? Yes. Is it an act of resistance?
Who would I show it to
These challenging questions to which Peters’ essay points also point to what I see as a flaw in the book’s curation, its unstated rules of marginality. Who qualifies as marginal? Whose voice is radical? Whose voice counts in the work of resistance? According to this book, the voices that count are those that possess one or some combination of the following identities: LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, immigrant, or female. Indubitably, these voices have been historically “questioned, flattened, or appropriated,” silenced, ignored, and undermined. To begin to create a new balance, to override their historical silencing, they now deserve amplification. And, what other voices count? If the goal of resistance is to reach from the margins to the center with ideas only the margins can supply, who else is on the margin?
“I am always working, and I am always behind,” writes Wendy S. Walters in the book’s final essay, a powerful piece that elliptically considers questions of sustenance through the lens of water and blood. The speaker is experiencing torrential, rain-borne flooding at the same time that she is experiencing internal blockages and floods of blood. Both water and blood are vital fluids, essential to survival, but when imbalanced, both can be deadly. Time and money are other sources of sustenance the essay considers. “We both think of money as a way to mitigate pain,” she writes of a conversation with her sister. “We confessed that we wanted to walk more, to spend more time with our families, and to work on our own terms.”
Walters is a Black woman with an elite academic position that, if her essay is to be read as nonfiction, is so demanding and exploitative that she feels she cannot ignore an email even while she is in a hospital bed with a life-threatening condition. In describing the feeling of being “always working” and “always behind” and in confessing her extremely sound desire to have a work life that doesn’t impinge on a capacity for love and connection, she’s articulating an oppressive socioeconomic reality that nearly everyone in our culture faces regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, physical ability, age, etc. The only determining factor that excuses one from this erosive, all-consuming condition—a condition that, crucially, often obviates a capacity to resist in collective ways—is class. If you have a lot of money (by which I mean a lot, not just upper middle class or wealthy, but very, very rich), you are excused from this losing game. Otherwise, you are not. You are always at a lack. You are always too strapped for time to feel much, to care much, or to read demanding literature.
Is wealth (and its corollary, class) closely tied to race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, etc.? Yes, of course, and several essays in this book touch on class by way of these factors. But not a single essay in this collection directly addresses class as its own form of oppression, an oppression that spans positionalities, that is suffered by many who also possess forms of privilege. For example, a cis, hetero white man without access to generational or earned wealth certainly possesses several forms of privilege granting him cultural centrality. But his daily experience of “always working” and being “always behind” would be the same as Walters’. He’d be forever racing to attain an impossible ideal, fighting for spare contemplative moments in which he could make his art or love his loved ones.
Focusing exclusively on identity markers to the exclusion of shared economic oppression—what much of this country’s left is currently doing, and a stance this collection replicates—puts power squarely in the hands of those who most benefit from our fundamentalist capitalist nightmare. The more we divide ourselves, the easier we are to conquer. The busier and more constantly behind we each are, the less time we have to truly connect with each other, and the more prone we are to dig our heels into our carefully managed identities—our personal brands—protecting with increasing ferocity and umbrage the one thing we’ve been taught we can control.
In the essay just before Walters’, Melissa Febos writes, “Reinforcement is more comfortable than subversion.” As inspired as I was by this vital anthology, and as grateful as I am for its existence, occupying as it does an important role in the literary landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have looked like to make an anthology that fully, radically embraces the discomfort of subversion. Even resistance is prone to conformity of thinking.
And, this book is a treasure. I suggest you read it. One of the most beautiful—because most freeing and honest—aspects of the lyric essay form is that, like its human authors, it’s free to hold multitudes, to harbor internal disagreements, to contradict itself.
One essay in this collection that elegantly models this internal disagreement is Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s “Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit,” in which the speaker, a queer, Black woman, embraces uncomfortable contradictions like wanting and not-wanting to accompany her beloved cousin, a police officer and a white woman, on her rounds for fear that she’d be witness to white officers beating a Black person. “My cousin is my cousin,” she writes. “She is my blood. But so am I black. My father is black. She’s white. But her children are black. Our affiliations are bleeding all over the place.” This sort of messy bleeding is distressing, tense, and real. It’s also where the lyric essay can really shine, in the irreducible disjunctions of which word and world are made.
Robert Hooke’s 1665 book Micrographia was the first published account in English of what the world looks like through a microscope, offering written descriptions and detailed engravings of his observations. Before moving on to such curiosities as a fly’s eye or a flea, he focuses on the apparent mundanity of a period, that familiar full stop. Whether a crisp letterpress printing or a fine mark with a pen, this apparently clean point is revealed as a barbed, bedraggled splotch.
The end isn’t. What appears to be a full stop is actually a messy bleed. (Says the microscopic, says everything, observed closely enough.)
1 Such as annotating a dictionary with personal stories or filling out a bureaucratic form with lyric meditations on home.
2 A paraphrase of Lia Purpura: “There exist ways of listening the listener hardly understands.”
Daniela Naomi Molnar is a poet, artist, essayist, and pigment maker collaborating with the mediums of language, image, paint, pigment, and place. She is also a wilderness guide, educator, and eternal student. Her book CHORUS was selected by Kazim Ali as the winner of Omnidawn Press’ 1st/2nd Book Award. An entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia states, “Molnar pioneered the notion that art can speak to climate change.” Her work is the subject of a front-page feature in the Los Angeles Times, an Oregon Art Beat profile, a feature in Poetry Daily. Her next books include: Light / Remains (Bored Wolves Press, 2025), a hybrid of poetry, essay, and art; PROTOCOLS (Ayin Press, 2026), a poetic erasure of the antisemitic book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and her long poem “Memory of a Larger Mind” will appear alongside photographs of glaciers by Julian Stettler in The Glacier is a Being (Sturm & Drang, 2024). Her visual work has been shown nationally, is in public and private collections internationally, and has been recognized by numerous grants, fellowships, and residencies. She founded the Art + Ecology program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and helped start and run the backcountry artist residency Signal Fire. A 3G Jew and the daughter of immigrants, she is a diasporic student of the earth.