Book Review

Jessica Cory on
poetry by Julia Spicher Kasdorf
University of Pittsburg Press, 2023


As Is, Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s latest poetry collection, is full of stunning poems that examine grief and acceptance of ourselves, our relationships, and the places in which we find ourselves, not only physically but emotionally. 

The poems that comprise As Is tend to be shorter, many of them no longer than a page, and yet their brevity does not reduce their impact. Spicher Kasdorf is a master of endings as the poems in this collection attest. “Second Space,” for instance, a feminist poem in which the speaker addresses the reasons she puts two spaces after each period, concludes “and tucked that mistake away, like all the rest” in a mixture of saving face and self-blame with which many women are far too familiar. In “American Chestnut Plantation,” Spicher Kasdorf focuses on the region’s long-lost tree, lamenting in the conclusion, “Science will find a Chinese hybrid / and we’re left to settle memory’s debts.” 

The solastalgia in “American Chestnut Plantation” is not limited to simply that poem. This sense of loss tied to one’s environment is pervasive in As Is, as her speakers struggle with how to be an American during the 45th president’s reign, how to be an American abroad in cities, how to become emplaced in a land where one’s ancestors immigrated. In “American Box Turtle,” the speaker recalls her grandfather carving his name and the date into the shells of live box turtles, a violence she wishes she could forget. Yet, as the title of the collection suggests, forgetting is not possible and many times we just have to understand things and peoples as they are, choosing our actions and responses in the moments that make up our day-to-day lives.

As Is returns again and again to its steady foundation of grief and acceptance, even when the speaker desires change. 

One of the strengths of Spicher Kasdorf’s collection is that it does not limit itself to a certain place or certain kinds of relationships. She writes poems emplaced in the Pennsylvania fracking fields and in countries abroad. She writes of what readers assume to be the relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter, of long-term marriages and shorter ones that didn’t quite fit, of relationships with culturally diverse colleagues. These vast swaths of place and interpersonal connection in another writer’s work might create a feeling of uprootedness. Yet, As Is returns again and again to its steady foundation of grief and acceptance, even when the speaker desires change. 

This yearning for change takes many forms in the book. In “Testing,” Spicher Kasdorf’s speakers struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, awaiting an end when there is none in sight, many relying on faith-based practices to get them through. She writes, “We self-isolate / we wave at our neighbors, concoct quarantinis, / listen to quarantunes, queue the quaranTV, sleep.” Yet halfway through the poem Holy days appear, “Priests celebrate / Easter in empty churches,” and the poem ends with an image of “men bob[bing] in prayer on the sidewalk, Torah scrolls / out in the sun as if they were still in wilderness. / No harm will befall you. Nor plague will fall.” The trajectory of “Testing” as it moves from more lighthearted sentiments to struggle and the ways humans endure such struggle is echoed in many of the collection’s poems. For example, “At Cross Creek Park” begins with the speaker using the park restroom “like a fairytale cottage” with its “stone veneer below / chocolate siding.” Yet in just nine more couplets, readers learn that these illustrious restrooms are built in townships that promise “millions” to drilling corporations through their land leases. 

These movements into thought-provoking, enraging, or depressing topics, however, do not make for a message of desperation or despair as one reads poem after poem. Instead, these moments between poems provide necessary pause for readers to consider what they’ve just read and to sit with and process their reactions. Because Spicher Kasdorf’s poems generally begin in a more inviting tone, once the reader turns the page to a new poem, they are not immediately met with a heavy topic or issue and the emotional rise and fall are more akin to the crest and fall of waves rather than a deep plunge into darkness that seems inescapable. 

The organization of the collection helps aid in this feeling of riding emotional waves. Spicher Kasdorf tends to group poems on similar topics together rather than sprinkling them throughout like breadcrumbs. For example, the several poems that seem to be between a mother and her teenage daughter appear one after the other, really allowing the reader to experience the speaker’s voice and understand the duo’s relationship more fully than if the poems were spread throughout the collection. Similarly, the COVID-based poems tend to appear in succession, which lets the reader reimmerse themselves back in that period. 

The one critique I have of this collection is that I wanted more. To be fair, the book is well within the normal page range of poetry collections and perhaps I’m just being selfish. The poems in this collection are quite timely and thought-provoking, and they ask their readers to consider how we negotiate grief, anger, acceptance, and failure in our own lives and in how we relate to others. In our digital, fast-paced, continuous-news-cycling world, this book offers questions and lessons we need in order to be good neighbors, kin, and humans. 

Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.  

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