The Year of the Femme

Cassie Donish’s poems do several kinds of work—at first they ask the big questions, like whether the Gordian Knot or Mobius Strip of gender can ever be set free from its binds of paradox, or where precisely does the crux of the sex/gender question live in us? The answers haven’t landed, and the poet allows the unknown to take up space... Donish sends their heartbroken and passionate voice into the world and the world catches it. Soon that voice is wreathed, garlanded, full of pollen and rain and clover and indigo—everything further broken, messy, lovely, loving, wild, and utterly itself, and it’s in that state that this voice, lush yet precise, is then thrown to us, the reader sighing with pleasure and pathos. A bold and redemptive truth is found here, not reliant on answers for its power and meaning. —Brenda Shaughnessy


To grow up with a father
Who does not want
To be in the world

To be told from a young age
By a father
That he has trouble

(In the world) that he
Has trouble and to grow up

With a sister who
Has trouble being in the
And another sister who

And there was a second father
Who also
And as an adult she has

Trouble finding those
Who do not
Have trouble / She finds this

One beautiful / Later
Finds that he / Like her
Fathers and sisters

Does not want to be
Has trouble being
But the feeling

Of being with those who
Is so familiar her limbs
Go limp with trust

The Tower

The answer to the technician’s riddle was the word torque. Rotational force. You found yourself at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by the dispersed light of stars. Pressure breach. The sound of a single gasp. On the escalator, the inky stamps of leaves. A season of lust has something in common with any season. You touched me like you were recovering a past. I twisted myself into the blue-green rope that would save you, I threw myself down to you, willed you to climb out. Please recover. Let’s take the elevator, fifteenth floor to ground level, walk out of this building. Walk away from this story. I’m haunted by the endings I imagine. How fear rends. It won’t happen that way, I repeat to myself over and over. When time stops, each cell in my body will unlock. Each contains the same image: a face. The mouth gapes open, but there is no sound. Nothing to defend.

Meanwhile, in a Galaxy

You can’t sleep, there are little apples
                                                           in your eyes

Go to the orchard

Constantly lit
                              in the middle

Of the city
                      the city

Next to the lake
                           that will swallow

The city whole

We’ll sit on a rotting bench

A burning field
                         covering our legs

No, it’s a blanket

Textures are rough
                                 in the psych unit


You need raspberries

Pistachio ice cream

And startled animal drawings

You need boxes to put
                                         things in

And boxes to take
                              things from 

Hey you, what’s wrong

With having feathers

Let’s talk about what’s wrong

With our categories

Hurry up, paint an androgynous bird

On my stomach

What’s wrong

With being a bird


When the sun has almost set

We rush outside
                              and head toward the edge

Of the property

We want to see
                       the light bounce

Sitting on a rotting bench

Watching the city sky grow dark

We have to sing now

Because each tooth
                                 is a sparkling gallery

On whose walls

Are projected scenes

From old musicals


Daylight glinting off dimes in the grass

Daylight, and our teeth don’t feel
                                                           different yet

Daylight on top of the city, on top
                                                          of the lake

Daylight through a sieve of fingers

Mimics the skyscrapers


Dusk, and dusk
                             of dusk

I’ll go to the Ministry of Health

Dressed in a gown
                                  of peripheries

You’ll go as the violet-green swallow

A summer resident
                                 in the salt marsh

I’ll even (yes) I’ll
                  build you wings

A Fold in the Act

                standing at the frozen fountain’s
edge, she recalled sitting down
at the table of laments

for a meal of ice
and ideas—how the mouth
of the man across from her

was an unsteady line, the lamplight
a whorl of pale weeds;
how suddenly she was outside

and couldn’t re-enter the house:
a dollhouse. The two
figures inside—she saw

herself through frosted glass—
were static. The interior appeared
as a fallow field. A thing is always

doubled by also being
an example of itself, she thought.
Yet there are moments when objects—

his wristband lying
on the kitchen counter, the sharp
knives shining in the dresser drawer—

snap into being, are only
themselves, irrevocably,
unequivocally. In fact,

this happens regularly—
and it proves… and it proves…
she imagined a mirror pivoting back

and forth so that it reflected,
alternately, a figure,
and a reflection of the figure

                                in another mirror—

from The Year of the Femme

Someone said a journey starts with voice. I grew up swimming in a slow-moving river, in words like sister and girls. I knew a waist was supposed to be soft, knew when it should be covered, when revealed. Now I move through terminals, other places move through me, other words. I follow a sign, I refuse to neaten the disorder. Each object is assigned a role, a gender. Eye shadow. Boxers. Musk. Bruise.

The pleasure he said   /   Finding one’s way

In a new body   /   My star anise

My amber, powder   /   His eyes I painted

Touched his wrist   /   Felt a pulse

There   /   (I felt her pulse


Your heart is beating, yes, despite your scars. Here is a recorded scent. Tell me, we say to each other. Say there will be sunlight. In public I wear lipstick the color of rust. I tell you about my sexual fantasies. How I’m a man in them. How it’s been this way for as long as I remember. Your body is wrapped in ribbons of water. I remove my tie. I could cover your body with mine. I could make it warm. Don’t go under.

Passing windows   /   Am I in that frame

Your first skirt   /   Blossoming

A name’s transparence   /   Fluorescent lights

The ringing knocks   /   The wind out of me

Could I breathe where   /   (A carved ankle


A warm day in May waits on the other side of the sun. It’s several years earlier. Some buildings haven’t been built. I think you were a woman even then, but the face was blurred. Someone spoke with your mouth. Someone spoke with my mouth. The word spectrum becomes an obtuse angle, temporal. You say your voice is deeper than how you imagine it. Lately, if mine is recorded, no sound plays back.

The café   /   The balcony upstairs

Could see past   /   The monkey puzzle tree

Its green fish bones   /   Waxy scales

We the thick   /   Buds in the park

The far mountains   /   (The past—