Book Review

poems by Katerina Stoykova
University Press of Kentucky, 2024


In her latest collection, Kentucky poet Katerina Stoykova explores the universal themes of love and loss, belonging and longing, grief and rebirth. Within these eighty-plus radiant poems, with an experienced eye, she examines what it means to be “here” versus “there”—geographically, but also psychologically. Stoykova, who emigrated to the United States from Bulgaria in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, aptly titles her book, Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House. Her poems narrate Stoykova’s own journey from a landscape of personal restraint and domestic abuse to a place of greater freedom, following her hard-earned escape from a series of cramped cages toward a house built on her own terms, constructed of her own actions.  

While many of Stoykova’s lines simmer with sly humor and playfulness, her intimate confessional poems spill out in a stream of stark images and memories not uncommon to the immigrant experience. Fear. Rejection. Misunderstanding. Loneliness. The virtue of universality aside, Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House reflects Stoykova’s unique journey, that of a woman aching for autonomy. Within her poems’ pulsing narrative arc, Stoykova blends the rhythms and beats of her risky self-survival story with an exuberant set of love songs to the poet’s chosen home, America, and its liberating force. On the opening page, she writes: 

America, you are so big. I feel 


Not the spider,

But the web itself.

Elsewhere, in a gloss on what may be William Carlos Williams’s best-known poem, Stoykova writes: 

So much depends

the kindness of others
to make

a foreign country

white chickens
and all.

Culturally relevant. Candidly personal. And crafty in all the best ways. This is a book with a structure that balances real-life suffering with a convert’s over-riding desire to believe in the future. The sacrifice of everything that one knows is the poet’s answer to the call of independence. And yet, there is so much lightness in this collection. So much air and thrill and pleasure. Details of daily life collide with moments of reflection and remembrance of the long road she’s taken. The challenges are understood, rather than named, but the specifics of a transplanted life (basement rooms, a chocolate chip cookie) lie exposed, line by line.

America, do you remember—three weeks upon landing, I sobbed 
in the basement of the English Language Multicultural Institute 
out of the most confused loneliness known to my being. 

A computer technician named Mitch found me,
took me to the café and bought me my first chocolate chip cookie. 

Everything got better after that.

Stoykova tells her particular immigration story in bits and
pieces, weaving a narrative out of fragments from family life, motherhood, divorce, and reinvention to bouts of depression,
fear, and unshakeable shame. 

Each section of this collection opens with one of Stoykova’s odes to America. Their titles echo a theme: America, you made me; America, you watched me change; America, would you be a part of me. And my favorite, just five short lines, speaks for many Americans—not just for those like the poet—who started out elsewhere. The language in these miniature odes is ordinary, everyday, simple, and yet implied is a complex relationship between nation and citizen —personal and affectionate, yet not completely at one with the other. 

America, it’s complicated.
America, please,
don’t be mad. There are places
in me so distant
even you can’t expand.  

These declarations may bring to mind Walt Whitman’s poem, America. Its opening line, for example: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” But even more so, one might hear echoes of Whitman’s last line: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.”

Stoykova tells her particular immigration story in bits and pieces, weaving a narrative out of fragments from family life, motherhood, divorce, and reinvention to bouts of depression, fear, and unshakeable shame. The poems that line up after each love song are darker, more metaphorical, rich with images that quickly shift from harmless to threatening. After an egg is broken open in one poem, an attempt to pour it back into its shell, its former home, ends in failure: “… now it no longer fits, so you must either leave some behind or never / stop going back and forth. . . . This is what it feels like to immigrate.”

Throughout, there are non-human creatures inhabiting Stroykova’s poems. Snail, bird, moth, fish, butterfly. These symbols of movement and change—plodding pace, seeking light, carrying one’s home on one’s back, metamorphosis—appear like signposts for the poet’s safe passage. Questions (existential, for the most part) also weave their way toward resolution. “What happens to the wave / who returns / to her own sea?” “What’s between me and being fine?” And of course, the essential mandate for all writers and readers: "What happened?"

What happens to the speaker of these poems as she makes decisions, large and small? She is lost, then found, then lost, then found, again and again. She meets friendly strangers as well as unkind intimates. One of the longest (three pages) and most powerful poems in the collection is “Sus-toss,” titled after a Hopi word describing the “disease suffered by individuals who move to new lands.” In this poem of couplets, the new immigrant’s challenges are outlined. Here are a few selected lines out of many that evoke that feeling of being in what the novelist Italo Calvino has called “no place,” where a “sense of isolation is felt.” 

Sus-toss is a disease that makes you not want the things you want.
Sus-toss is the disease that sends different parts of you / to live in different places.
Sus-toss makes you seek proof that it was all worth it.

The book’s structure rounds out traumatic stories and confessional reflections with mostly hopeful love songs to her new homeland. Stoykova cleverly uses this structure to create balance and rhythm, quietly stirring the pot of memory. We meet her father, husband, lover, son and friends along the way. We witness conversations with new acquaintances, passersby, mentors, all of whom either pick the scab or provide a salve for of her loneliness and grief. We even meet the speaker’s shame in a poem that ends with this stinging truth: “If you want shame done right, you have to do it yourself.” We sense threats to the speaker’s safety in a prose poem titled “Some Catastrophes Approach Slowly.” And we pause to consider similes and metaphors like “the regret and the shame, fluttering like a cape close behind” and a “Bible-thick litany of losses.”

Elsewhere, the book plays with words, comparing Bulgarian rhymes with English ones. Some poems take the shape of a scene from a play or an interview format. Recurring words appear. For example, the word “balcony” shows up several times, an image that suggests watching life go by without participating in it, a noun that signals separation, confinement, captivity, aloofness—emotional states investigated in Stoykova’s poems. 

Stoykova’s book couldn’t be more timely. Immigrants at our borders, legal and illegal, are a hot topic in the media and on the campaign trail, as are (sadly, still) issues of female autonomy. This lyrical link to today’s political scene is one more reason to heed these poignant, powerful poems. Katerina Stoykova show us what it’s like to make a life-rearranging choice— to willingly leave behind everything known to make friends with the unknown, perhaps with the unknowable. 

Louisville native Dianne Aprile is the author of five books, including a collaboration with the late Louisville artist Julius Friedman—an anthology of brief poems and fine art photographs, titled The Book—and with Indiana printmaker Mary Lou Hess for The Eye is Not Enough. Her poetry and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and in newspapers. She has received fellowships, grants, awards and residencies from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, Hedgebrook Writers and Washington Artists Trust. During her 30-year career as a journalist, she was a Sunday columnist, an arts writer/ reviewer and part of the Courier-Journal team that won a staff Pulitzer Prize in 1989. She was also co-owner of a downtown Louisville jazz club, The Jazz Factory, with her husband for five years. Since 2001, Dianne has served on the faculty of Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann School of Writing. She is currently writing a Kentucky-based memoir.

Read all of Still: The Journal'past reviews


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