The moment I learned of Elizabeth Tsung’s book, I reached out to her, practically begging to read it. As a girl who spent a good chunk of time and a number of points not feeling pretty, the title called to me immediately.
But the book itself, beyond the title, continues to call to me even weeks after I’ve read it, even after a second, third read.
Packed with one-liners and lengthier poems, “all girls will not feel pretty at some point” is a truth supported not just by statistics, but by Elizabeth’s own narrative. She gets real with us, not holding back behind flowery language or ducking beneath complicated structure.
Still, though, she maintains her vulnerability among stunning lines and a softness that digs deep. Combined with illustrations by Trevor Williams, this debut hurts over and over and over again, going beyond the simple hurt of feeling ugly and talking ugliness in all of its forms. What does it mean to grow? What does it mean to shrink?
One of the most cutting lines for me was the extraordinarily short one below, with the photo via Elizabeth’s Instagram. It’s incomplete without the artwork, and yet so strong, each word a scream.
This work is a vulnerable work, but it is not one about victimization uncomplicated by martyrdom. It’s about being hurt, and hurting. Those who hurt the worst can hurt the worst. We can all become, in our own way, monsters.
The narrator is open in her emotions. There is never a sense that something is being suffocated, but the pacing does have the feeling of quick, nearly hyperventilating breathing. It’s a truth seeking to escape.
Reading it feels like drinking milk too quickly, like needing nourishment and finding it and not knowing how to stop.
don’t wipe my tears away for me
they’re mine and mine alone
wallow with me and i’ll follow you forever
This narrator doesn’t wallow through darkness. She nearly dances. It is not positive, or negative, but is instead ambitious in its unwillingness to ever pick a side. We are all meant to think about this, at length.
For such a short book of poetry, and one of so few words, it is one of many quivering, sparkling emotions, trembling in search of warmth, self, and home.
(Ugly Sapling, Poetry, Paperback, April 2016)
RACHEL CHARLENE LEWIS is a 23 y/o biracial bisexual essayist who has been published in The Normal School, BOAAT, The Offing, and a couple other places. She has worked with The Fem, Paper Darts, Bodega, Sugared Water, and other publications. Her essay, “Choosing War,” won a contest judged by Steven Church, and her essay, “What if all I ever do is separate flesh from sky?” was a runner up in the Feminine Inquiry Spring 2016 Nonfiction Contest. Her poem, “Dusting,” was a finalist in the 2015 Princemere Poetry Contest. She reviews books for Maudlin House. Rachel tweets and is on Instagram as @RachelCharleneL.