Bethany Mary on “Crumb-sized” by Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock stunned us once before with her poems in “On that one-way trip to Mars,” and now she returns with another astronomical collection, “crumb-sized.” Familiar topics return with new flair and detail, teaching us more about blackbodies and exoplanets, and imparting more awareness on personal issues like dysplasia and queer life. One of her poems ends, “Unhinge each of my vertebrae, jellify me – I was never straight to begin with.” Her merging of a variety of themes creates one cohesive dream world in these pages that demand to be turned, until the book’s spine is as worn as a person’s.

You can be an average person, you don’t have to be an alien, to not understand technology and transportation systems in today’s world. It’s okay to be anxious and lost sometimes. We are both rotting wood and stardust, earthly and otherworldly, and we need to take care of ourselves and each other. Chertock writes one reassuring poem in a list format, a “recipe to reduce pain,” guidelines to taking the most relaxing bath. Her words are proof that the simplest moments can be luxurious, that sometimes we have a lot to say about nothing, that sometimes space can contain us and sometimes we transcend all boundaries, that there will be some things we can never reach.

“You’ll never be 15 billion years old,” she writes, “an age / where objects in space are too far for their light / to ever reach you on Earth.”

The poems are not all laments about bodies and space and the space that bodies take up. One poem specifically is about the mind, a tender snapshot of dementia, showcasing bittersweet love and forgetfulness and the large impact of little errors. A moment of joy and clarity with someone who has dementia is as important as a step on the moon. Chertock reminds us to not take anything for granted, because all life is beautiful, and we never know when it will change or disappear, and how special it might be to others. She writes about the Holocaust, children being bullied in school, the burden of hereditary depression – she reminds us that there are countless forms of pain, and also countless forms of mental healing.

Several of Chertock’s poems nestle close to the heart for people with physical ailments. Her back problems twist in and out of her sentences like a relentless snake, a constant plague in her personal garden, “curved like a heavy tomato / plant that hasn’t been tied up.” Our bodies keep us tied to the earth and gravity pulls our bones down. Space is almost an impossible Eden, a faraway dream that only a few privileged astronauts can reach. Chertock aims one poem at NASA, at not being able to be an astronaut due to the physical qualifications, but it is not a mournful grievance. Her love of space makes her strong, as love makes us all strong.

If you love Chertock’s poems too, follow @Mchertock on Twitter, and check out her website And remember, “Keep magnifying the universe – because it’s still expanding, with or without you.”

(Unnamed Press, Poetry, 2017)


BETHANY MARY works in Minnesota as a life enrichment programmer for older adults with dementia. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. As an emotional advocate for a sexual assault center, she focuses on boundaries and mental health in her own writing. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.