reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“I wanted to offer a break, a reprieve. Freedom from forms,” writes Jan-Henry Gray in his debut collection, an innovative and searching book that interrogates structures, legal and literary. Taking apart documents that exist ostensibly to confer legal status to immigrants and same-sex couples, Gray marries found language with his own to expose governmental bureaucracy for what it so often is—a tool for political and social subjugation—even as he invents a new poetic form in its voice: “what’s [your husband’s] mother’s name / we may videotape you / where did you buy your rings / bring an interpreter.” Concerned also with widening literature’s formal scope to include and apply to experiences of the historically un-, under-, and misrepresented—“As a corporeal intersection of both undocumented and queer identities, my body is seen by many as unnatural—a site of horror, a target of the phobic.”—Gray turns to the lyric essay as a site of possibility, one where he may “arrive on the page, messy and edgeless.” Meta- cognitive and openhearted, this book offers itself as a kind of instruction manual for how one might identify structures in writing and in the world that are designed to limit access, rather than grant it—as well as how one might resist and reinvent them: “You don’t know how to say it. You speak in the language you are learning to master. The doors of the building open. You watch as the others exit. Then, another word approaches.”

This review originally appeared in in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2019.