I think I finally have the answer if someone ever asks me who my favourite poet is. Longtime readers of my reviews will know of my ambivalence towards poetry. I don’t want to malign an entire form, yet at the same time poetry has never transported me the same way a novel does. Until, that is, I started reading amanda lovelace’s poems. My reviews of the mermaid’s voice returns in this one and her earlier works in the women are some kind of magic series attest to the power their poetry holds for me. lovelace fell off my radar for a bit until my bestie Rebecca reminded me that there are more books of their poetry that I have yet to read! Rebecca even lent me her copy of break your glass slippers, but here’s how you know I was really hooked: before I had even finished it, I ordered the rest of lovelace’s books that I didn’t already own. I will enjoy spending the next few months catching up on that catalogue.
As with the rest of their books, this one comes with a brilliant, detailed list of trigger warnings at the front. My review will mostly discuss the topics related to abusive/toxic romantic relationships and friendships.
It’s so interesting to re-read my reviews of lovelace’s previous trilogy and note how I have or haven’t changed from the Kara who read those books. Maybe I need to revisit them. I read the princess saves herself in this one 4 years ago, and my life has changed so much in those 4 years—I had just bought a house, was just starting to make the adult friends that are the bedrock of myself today, and of course I realized I am trans and came out. When I read those previous books, I was coming to them as someone who thought she was a feminist but cisgender man, an ally who hadn’t experienced directly the misogyny often laid bare in those poems. This is my first time reading lovelace’s work from the conscious position of being a trans woman.
Thankfully, I have not experienced many of the traumas within these pages. I have the privilege of being thin in our society, and I have never been in any romantic relationship, let alone an abusive one. Yet many of the themes in these poems resonate with me still. As the series title suggests, you are your own fairy tale. Many of these poems are about finding the strength to help yourself while also recognizing who in your life is a positive influence, a source of strength and succour rather than a drain. They speak of change, the ability to change and transform oneself.
One of the poems near the end the book begins with “maybe i was never given a fairy godmother…” and ends with “i handle things that i never, ever could have handled before. / —if that’s not a true transformation, what is?” (emphasis original). I think many trans people, perhaps in particular trans women like myself who come out to themselves and others later in life, have moments of wishing for a fairy godmother who could change their bodies like magic. As lovelace gently yet soberly reminds us, the fairy godmother isn’t here. You have to make your own magic, but you can make your own magic.
I love how this book is structured. In the first part, the poems come in pairs: the left page is a poem from the point of view of someone else, or from the narrator’s less charitable internal psyche. It is a poem of doubts, half-truths or untruths whispered into the narrator’s ear about her body, her self-worth. The right page has the heading “fairy godmother says” and then a poem from the point of view of the fairy godmother, someone or some part of the narrator whispering truths of strength in her ear. The dualistic structure remains throughout the book, but after the first part the fairy godmother heading disappears, perhaps symbolizing the narrator’s growth in becoming more comfortable articulating her own truths. This structure reminds me of the power of a book of poetry; although individual poems did jump out at me throughout the collection, the pairing of poems together like this enhanced how much I liked each one.
Plus, if I am being entirely honest, almost every single poem in this book is fire. I kept turning the page being like, “Goddamn”—that is, if I wasn’t sniffling with tears triggered by the words of the poem previous. It was this intensity that motivated me to go out and buy this book even before I had finished it. I knew I needed this—I needed it for myself but even more so to share with others when I could.
Without going too much into particulars, I have a very close friend who has been in an abusive romantic relationship. I knew her prior to the start of this relationship, was with her every step of the way through its beginning, and I am currently witnessing what is hopefully its end. So many of lovelace’s poems hit me like a ton of bricks here because they describe what my friend is experiencing, at least as best as I can tell as an observer. I let her borrow my new copy of this book, and she agreed that it resonated. The way that an abuser manipulates and gaslights one, and the need to recognize how “people have a habit / of telling on themselves.”
lovelace builds on top of this commentary of rejecting abusive behaviour with a plea for us to remember the power of friendship (and in this particular context, female friendship). It’s really difficult for me to pick a favourite poem in this collection, but if I had to, I might say it’s this one:
there is something
about the friendship
between two girls,
all they ever want to do is
protect, protect, protect.
my advice for you:
don’t take her for granted.
As an asexual and aromantic person, this encomium of friendship is a welcome contrast to the insistence much of our society makes that romance is at the pinnacle of a relationship hierarchy that relegates friendship to a lower tier. The whole extended metaphor of this book is meant to push back against the Prince Charming narrative that we feed women from birth: you will find the One; he will be a man; he will sweep you off your feet and take care of you—and if that doesn’t happen, it’s because you did something wrong, because you are broken, because it’s your fault. When I thought I was a man, this narrative smothered me because there was no one of any gender I cared to sweep off their feet—I was content being “just friends” (even though there should be no just about it). Then I met this close friend I mentioned, and she became this amazing, platonic presence in my life that made me feel even more whole than I was without her. She knew me before I realized I was trans; she accepted me the moment I came out to her.
As I gradually found myself, our friendship revealed itself as the female friendship it has always been. The poem I quoted above works for me because in many ways I am the one who fiercely wants to protect her, from her relationship woes as well as other knocks in life—but ours is a reciprocal relationship, and equally one might say she desires to fiercely protect me, both in terms of my vulnerability as a trans woman but also in general simply as my friend. I feel that word “unearthly” so hard. I often struggle with language to describe our friendship, for I feel that it transcends what most friendships (even best friendships) have, having qualities that a romantic relationship might without the actual, you know, romance. So I appreciate Lovelace attempting to convey those types of feelings of connection.
In the end, this is a poetry collection that is beautiful on every level. Structurally, stylistically, and content-wise, I appreciate all of it. Take it from me as a reluctant reader of poetry, as someone who does not much enjoy grappling with metre and metaphor, symbols and scansion—these poems spoke to me in a way poetry doesn’t often achieve. I’m glad that such powerful messages found their way into my life, that they help articulate and remind me of the powerful friendships I have, and of the power I have within myself.