by Stacey Balkun
Sundress Press, 2022
Reviewed by Jessica Kidd
Sweetbitter by Stacey Balkun combines ecopoetry, fairy tale/myth, and coming-of-age to create a veritable playground of reader engagement in this tightly constructed poetry collection. The different elements seamlessly weave together to make a world in which ecological destruction and the self-discovery of teenage years seem like the most natural pairing. With the addition of fairy tale and mythic imagery—especially evoking Little Red Riding Hood—Sweetbitter generates its own compelling rhetoric, and one that feels especially timely post-Roe and in the midst of an environmental crisis.
The book begins with two epigraphs about apples—from Sappho and The Guardian—and already spurs readers into multiple modes of engagement. There’s the beauty and mystery promised by the Sapphic lyric and the menace of this news article title: “Cyanide in fruit seeds: how dangerous / is an apple?” And indeed, these seemingly contradictory epigraphs are a roadmap to the book. Simplicity isn’t what’s interesting; contradiction, change, and different narrative versions ring most true to human experience and create a consistently rewarding reading experience.
After the epigraphs, Balkun orients her readers to the ecological stakes of the collection’s primary location: “The Possumtown neighborhood of Piscataway, NJ is home to a former Union Carbide plant, known to pollute the groundwater, and the former Middlesex Sampling Plant, a testing facility for the atomic bomb.” Now readers must carry this knowledge forward. Each reference to adolescence and coming of age is mixed with the awareness that all the events are playing out in a toxic landscape; the fraught space of growing up is even more complicated in this light.
If the word “bittersweet” connotes something good tinged with the negative, then what does the reversal of this word in the title create for readers? The collection is filled with harsh realities—the struggle of young women to hold onto or gain autonomy and the specter of disease and environmental destruction from blatant mishandling of toxic chemicals; yet there is a sweetness on the margins as well. The poem “No Books Would Tell Us Our Stories” describes Apple-Child and the narrator playing hopscotch in the driveway and suspends the girls mid-jump. In that suspended moment, the world can be innocent, childhood can be an oblivious bliss. The poem ends with two stanzas encapsulating this feeling:
We tossed a peach pit across chalk lines,
committed only to each other, to the bare bones
of summer chirping by as slowly as our limbs
unlengthened, not yet feeling trapped
in a before or after, the air stilled and time
just a caterpillar crawling across my wrist.
These moments of beauty sprinkled throughout Sweetbitter provide a balance for readers that make the emotional impact of this book all the more potent.
The duality of the book’s title also echoes nicely with the way the collection asks readers to reconsider their understanding of tropes and to do some doubling back themselves. For example, fairy tales and myths that traditionally undermine female characters are re-envisioned. “Wolf-Girl” plays off Little Red Riding Hood but gives the protagonist/narrator agency with lines like “I wore a tight red dress / I snarled into the woods” and “I could howl if I tried / I want him gone / I sharpen my teeth.”
In addition, the title’s duality works as a hint for the contrapuntal poems that occur throughout the collection. Each contrapuntal poem is an occasion for the reader to question their initial reading: there’s the poem of the left side, the poem of the right side, the poem made by reading the columns from left to right. And each one seems complete and correct. The reader is given the rewarding task of reconciling their readings and meditating on the different angles of the one poem. The first poem of the collection, “The Water, the Truth, the Water” employs the contrapuntal form to begin exploring a childhood landscape and the author’s drive to use her art as reflection and revelation:
I want to know why I keep scouring /
Nobody ever believed me but the water never recedes
The erasure form provides yet another avenue for reader engagement. With erasure poetry, Balkun invites us to take a fresh look at pop songs and find alternate stories buried in the lyrics. Like the places in the book that provide duality, I find that the erasure poems orient the reader to uncertainty. The text on the page has meaning, rhythm, and implied image, but from the band credits beneath the titles and the white space, it’s clear that something has been deleted. Some readers can fill the space by memory of the song or by imagination, perhaps, but even still, the emptiness needles us and leaves unspoken questions as we navigate the collection. In “A Forest (I),” a song by the Cure is pared away until we get “the girl was / running / again and again and again.” With this erasure, readers are left with lines that echo the pervasive fairy tale rhetoric.
By asking readers to reconsider, re-read, and question as they make their way through its pages, Sweetbitter keeps us active readers learning to navigate this rhetorical space where the mythic and the troublingly real are in constant conversation. As Balkun writes in “The Book of Red”:
A superfund site
on one side of my woods
and a brownfield on the other: more
and more dads got sick but I knew
not to question, not to wander
past the red lawn flags unfurling in the dirt.
Later in this long-form poem, the myth of Atalanta is evoked alongside the specter of puberty:
apples across our paths
but we didn’t stop to look.
We itched where the hair grew
under our armpits.
This crisscrossing of fantastic and realist modes becomes its own language and by the time a reader is deep into the book, they’ve been taught how to navigate this linguistic landscape. It seems appropriate to read a superfund site and the difficult transition into young adulthood through the lens of fairy tale and myth. This exploration of a past not too long gone and a past that keeps haunting the landscape with sickness and environmental degradation is an invitation to walk deliberately into our future, to consider the options and stories we’re facing.