Sundress Publications, 2018
80 pages, $15
Review by Amy Miller
Sometimes the pull of a poetry book is its story. Sometimes it’s the writing. In rare and satisfying instances, it’s both.
That’s the case with Danielle Sellers’s full-length poetry collection The Minor Territories. This is a book that keeps a laser focus: on a marriage seemingly doomed from the start, the widening fissures, the disjointed long-distance wait of a military wife, and a heart divided between the realities of the marriage and the memory of an earlier relationship that looms over the present like an alternate universe, a road not taken. Then there’s the aftermath, the untidy business of how a marriage unravels, and of the violence that the world often encourages men to do until they bring it into their homes.
Of course it’s not the first story on a difficult divorce; reading The Minor Territories, I constantly thought of women I know who lived through, and fled, similar experiences. But the beauty of the book is in the telling of this specific story. Sellers is a talented poet whose spare language and razor-sharp images paint the world of this marriage, with very few strokes, in startling detail. I kept admiring what she left out; she wastes no words and lets the scenes unfold with just enough information to indelibly draw the picture, then wisely moves on. In such tight writing, the cleanly wrought details that remain pack even more power. Sellers is too smart to tell us what it all means, to reduce it to an aphorism; we know, we feel what’s going on, each in our own way, as in these lines from “Fall Wedding in Georgia”:
We said our vows without meeting eyes.
The elevator down was quiet. We ran
to the truck under the sting of cold fast rain.
That night, we had a reservation
at a mansion turned bistro.
The sky hid its diamonds.
But beyond the unsteadiness and pain of this ill-fated marriage, Sellers also lets us glimpse a miraculous, unexpected outcome: her daughter, described in such unconventionally loving scenes that, again, I couldn’t stop picturing my own friends who are completely devoted to their small daughters. In Sellers’s lines, you hear the aching, die-for-you love, and the looming fear of the facts of life that her daughter will come to know in time, particularly about romance and marriage. Here are passages from “Heroine, Cherub-Squat in Diapers”:
The dogs are gods to be scolded.
She is often wrong. In this small house
we orbit each other, always in motion.
The shape on my body is famous
to her. I am moon and sun and the light.
Learning patience, her fingers work a puzzle.
She turns the wooden pieces forward and aft.
Try as she might, the star will never fit the heart.
With those quick, surprising cuts from line to line, The Minor Territories reaches a new level of complexity in the daughter poems—the gift rescued from the tragedy, and, poignantly, also a result of it. The lingering image is of two refugees who can only rely on each other from here out—a story that single mothers know well. That kind of bittersweetness permeates The Minor Territories, but, by sheer force of Sellers’s elegant, surprising wordcraft, the book is also pleasurable from beginning to end. To experience a powerful writer rendering a quiet corner of the world in all its beauty and brokenness: That is the making of good poetry, and a good read.
I couldn’t let this review go by without mentioning how I came across The Minor Territories. Its publisher, Sundress Publications, offers a great little deal in their online store, the “Sundress/SAFTA Mystery Grab Bag,” advertised as “a specialty grab bag of Sundress titles, merchandise, and swag,” and I couldn’t pass it up. They had me at “swag,” to be honest, and that didn’t disappoint, either; the package included a sweet Sundress tote bag and some greeting cards with photos of the animals at their residency location, Firefly Farms. It also included three books, each a surprise to me—and one was The Minor Territories. On some level, I don’t know how authors feel about their books being part of a grab-bag giveaway, but it worked out pretty well. I’m a fan of Danielle Sellers now.
Amy Miller’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Barrow Street, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, RHINO, Terrain, Tinderbox, Tupelo Quarterly, and ZYZZYVA. Her books include Astronauts (Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize, Beloit Poetry Journal) and The Trouble with New England Girls (Louis Award, Concrete Wolf Press). She received a 2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship.