by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
Persea Books, 2017
$14.83, purchase at bookshop.org
Review by Rachel M. Dillon
If I were to take a rocket to outer space, I’d want it to be the liberatory, tender, deftly-crafted machine Gabrielle Calvocoressi builds in Rocket Fantastic, their third poetry collection. In a range of forms, these interlocking, carefully ordered poems explore concepts of gender and sexuality, identity and perception, and mythical ways of engaging with—and sometimes becoming—other beings when labels are removed.
In an opening “Note for the Reader,” Calvocoressi explains that in many of their poems, “the symbol is used as a pronoun…simultaneously encompassing and fluctuating, pronounced by me with the intake of breath when a body is unlimited in its possibilities.” There is a playfulness in Calvocoressi’s choice to repurpose a musical sign, the segno, into a pronoun; in doing so, they acknowledge the arbitrary confines of gendered labels, and the ways that poetry allows us to expand beyond words. is the pronoun attached to the Bandleader, a recurring character who reads as both a sexual partner and, perhaps, a deeper representation of Calvocoressi’s relationship to their own identity. The Bandleader poems—almost always with bleeding titles, often about watching the Bandleader from afar—thread through the collection, supporting its intricacies like veins on a leaf.
The joys and complexities of watching are a focus throughout Rocket Fantastic. Calvocoressi considers what it means to watch and be watched; how we look within, and how those outside of us—people, animals, and the natural world—see us back. The collection begins with “Shave”, a poem in which the speaker embodies a male deer while describing the process of shaving their neck:
Like the buck I am I turn my head
side to side. I hear the leaves
rustle. I shake my head a little
and birds reel ’round the forest.
Here, the speaker not only sees the buck, but becomes him, illustrating a deeper kinship. They move as the buck moves, they hear what the buck hears. In a later poem, “Fox,” the speaker locks eyes with a fox and writes: “…We were one // in our wondering. Which is not to say we were connected / or that she was mine in any way.” To Calvocoressi, finding oneness with animals is not akin to ownership. Instead, it’s a way to understand human identity and place in a more-than-human world.
Calvocoressi’s deep observations of people and animals are a vehicle for reimagining conceptions of sexuality and gender. Returning to “Shave”: towards the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledges, then defies, the rituals pressed upon them by gender norms. They write:
Yes, I was a lady once but now
I take the blade and move it
slowly past the jugular, up
the ridge of my chin where
the short hairs glisten. I was
once ashamed. It was a thing
I did in private. My own self
my quarry. No more.
This is just one moment that highlights Calvocoressi’s ability to be fearless yet restrained, fierce yet graceful. One Bandleader poem culminates in a series of questions: “Is the Bandleader a man? / A woman? Am I? These are questions // that don’t matter to anyone.” (from “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure”). Gabrielle doesn’t try to answer all of the big questions that make up their identity; rather, they present their beautiful brain on the page, scattered and bright as the stars.
The Broadsided Poem:
“Rosary Catholic Church.” words by Gabrielle Calvocoressi and art by Alesia F. Norling, published in August 1, 2010.
Reviewer Rachel M. Dillon is a teacher, poet, and book reviewer from Boston, Massachusetts. She recently completed her MFA in poetry at Boston University. She is the newsletter manager at Beacon Hill Books & Cafe, the email marketing manager for The Adroit Journal, and a poetry reader for the Los Angeles Review.