Review of Heidi Czerwiec's Conjoining (Sable Books, 2017)

Fusion & Fissures in Conjoining by Heidi Czerwiec

review by Stacey Balkun

Czerwiec sees the sights. Many of the poems in Conjoining, including the centerpiece poem, are based on true stories, myths, and exhibits. We’re brought to Chernobyl after the horrific events, led through the exhibits at Body World, and told an odd yet true tale in “The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits,” which begins: “Mary Toft knew how it felt with child— / three birthed, one dead . . . That August, a large lump of flesh bled / from her body, and by October, rabbits.” We learn how Mary pretended to birth bunnies, and yet was discovered for her falsity: “rabid with fervor to birth, quaint / trickster, canny coney, cunning cunt” (42). A detailed “Notes” section at the end of the book documents this as well as the other source texts, putting these poems directly into conversation with other types texts in an act of conjoining form.


Czerwiec is a master of understanding and subverting form. So many science and nonfiction-based texts depend on structure, and so there’s a formal obsession at play in the poems found here. Several “nonnets” appear. These non-sonnets are all so close to a sonnet, but subvert the form just so: an extra line, or a missing line. Syllable counts that are just barely off, just by enough to remind us that we’re in a competent poet’s hands; one who knows what a perfect specimen would look like, but also knows nature doesn’t abide by such rules. Similarly, “Villanelle, Fucked Up Beyond Recognition” plays with the form of a villanelle, and what it means to fuck it up. It’s not fucked up. It’s perfect.

Contrapuntal poems like “Double-Exposure: Mermaid/Sirenomelia” use form to imitate the doubling or half-ness of the poem’s content:

I’m every sailor’s fantasy—
                                    if you catch my driftI’m tail
They want to conjoin with conjoined me
                                    (truth me told, more -bait than jail-.)

What a voice, what a form! We have this fantastical, sexualized mermaid on one side, and the voice of a speaker affected with sirenomelia, known as Mermaid syndrome: a rare deformity in which the baby’s legs are fused together. The beautiful collides with the realistic, humanized, darker side. The contrapuntal form allows us to  read either voice separately, or conjoin the two together, perfectly mirroring the stakes of this collection.


Oh we’re in good hands. The poems in here possess striking aural qualities. Czerwiec recognizes the poet's tasks of making words sing, and she draws from all aural traditions, from epics to nursery rhymes. A frequent use of couplets pays homage to the great epics, and wordplay is just as prevalent as formal play in poems like “Conjoining” (4) and “Doggerel,” a poem about a “dog girl”:

. . . By dressing me
in an embroidered bodice, Bruxelles lace,
they thought to make of me an absurdity,
thought to make me finer, even svelte.
But no brocade so fine as my own pelt.

Word play, rhythm, and rhyme drive this poem, but its heart is heartbreaking: the story of a speaker who is thought of as a beast, and yet has this rich inner life as a girl with emotions of her own. An overwhelming sense of empathy and focus on the tension between history’s treatment of such characters and their interior landscapes come together, over and over again in the pages of this book.


Try it yourself! A writing prompt:

“. . . We who did not exist

beyond embrace now exist excised, exorcised,
a brace of bodies, the bridge abridged.”

—Heidi Czerwiec, “Conjoining”

Find a news article in the “strange news” section; it could be about people, animals, or even the environment. Read it closely and take notes. Write a poem in two columns: the left column will use the third person, discussing the topic as a news article would. In the right column, envision the voice of the person/creature/plant/landscape. Fit these columns together as a contrapuntal poem. As you write, think about sound. Try to end on a rhyming couplet that ties the two sections together.

Stacey Balkun is the author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, Muzzle, Bayou, and others. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft.