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There are primary and secondary definitions of sisterhood: one relating to blood sisters, and one relating to any community of women. In her second collection of poems, Julie R. Enszer holds both definitions close with evocative results. Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press) offers mesmerizing narratives and observations, as well as surprising intersections of culture and the burden of loss.
One loss in particular anchors the collection: Enszer’s sister Lara, who died in a car accident when Lara was twenty-three. Grief permeates the collection, yet is never predictable. Enszer shows grief that is laced with relief, regret, affection, and humility. In “Doppleganger,” it’s a simple observation (“I am startled / by how much / Claire Danes looks / like you”) that leads to the melancholy question of what music her sister would listen to these days. Enszer’s gift is how she articulates her own vulnerability in any experience, the takeaway slicing through, as in “Doppleganger”’s final lines: “My musical / tastes are pedestrian. / I take few risks / I want to live.”
Surprising pairs juxtapose themselves throughout the collection. “Six Conversations About Cancer” intersects the helpless observations of a friend’s cancer with Kanye West and Biggie Smalls lyrics, hip hop acting as a placeholder for life before cancer. It’s a pairing that could fail in lesser hands, but Enszer’s poems are bold, unmistakable in their focus. “Hamster,” begins with an epitaph from Grace Paley’s poem “Responsibility,” then makes a glorious leap from death of a childhood pet to litany of heart-breaking failure:
It was the first time I realized
what happens if I don’t fulfill
Since then, I’ve failed many things.
Psychics in college and
organic chemistry. The Women’s
Crisis Center –closed because
I didn’t raise enough money
Many friends now dead from AIDS.
The city of Detroit–burgeoning
on a renaissance, needing
young residents. I moved away.
My sister. I meant to call her
the night before the fatal car accident.
The queer relationships that peopled Enszer’s first collection are still here: “my wife” appears frequently, a proud and loving turn of phrase, as well as the politics of domesticity, explored in “Zyklon B” and “Pesach 5766.” And “My Father’s Pornography” beautifully pin points the psychic shift of a young woman who will grow to love women. The narratives and experiences found in Sisterhood were destined for poetry. A collection so packed with loss could bloat with grief, but each poem shows fantastic control, every experience edited into something full of observation, daring, and the ache of those of us who are inexplicably chosen to live.
By Julie R. Enszer
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420574, 94 pp.