“Dear Outsiders” by Jenny Sadre-Orafai

Dear Outsiders by Jenny Sadre-Orafai (University of Akron Press 2023) is a vibrant tale of two siblings whose often idyllic childhood on the coastline of an unnamed sea changes abruptly. Written in lyrical phrases encapsulated in short prose poems instead of the more traditional paragraphs and chapters, the collection tells the story of the siblings’ transition from living on the coast and loving the ocean to living inland. The phrases and images in these prose poems are all impressive. This is fine-tuned, evocative, and completely compelling book. Dear Outsiders deserves a wide audience. The imagery is singularly sensuous and the themes of grief, being an outsider in one’s own house, and finding solace in memory are profound and haunting. This is, in short, a stunning collection.

Using the first person plural narrative voice of two siblings adds a personal feel and a directness to the poems. The poet immerses readers directly into the siblings’ whole, rich universe of color, taste, feel, sight, and sound.

The use of first person plural conveys the closeness of the two siblings, with more than a hint of “us against the world.” In “Outlines,” for example, “we come out with our hands open, grabbing at / nothing. And, when this house drowns, we’ll be failed sailors.” This closeness is more obvious in a “A Field, A Flood,” which speaks of how “We’re fine around / stairs and large fields. Our legs always synchronized.” And, in “Anchor Bend,” this line leaves no doubt of the profound connection between the siblings: “We feel what the other feels and if one of us / swims too fast, the other’s legs hurt and we both have to take a break.”

Just like the siblings, the father who paints and the mother who plays cards by herself are compelling characters. There is a story arc in these connected vignettes. The siblings’ parents drown. In “Forgiveness Toll” the starkness of the telling line hits hard. “Water / is used against our parents’ bodies.”  After this, the two siblings are moved away from their seashore home to an agricultural inland area. The transition is not an easy one, as to be expected. In “There’s a Gap in the Land,” the two speak: “We want our parents to arrive breathing in / their mouths saying we just wanted to know that you would be okay without us.”

The loss of the parents is compounded by the loss of the sea and of their home. In “At Our Lessons We’re Given a Map,” the siblings mourn:

Water is the width

of one hair, fine and light, almost a pencil mistake on the land.

…We can find a way to live there, pitch a house but not a home.


While a discernable story arc moves through the poems with the natural flow of a narrative, the emotions, perceptions, and images are far more compelling and dominant elements than plot. Still, shadowy, somewhat devilish hints abound as to the parents’ story, without any clear explanation of what caused them to drown. What age and gender the siblings are is never specifically revealed, yet the reference to “we / will always sleep with the dresses our mother made” in “Factors Influencing Life” certainly suggests they are sisters.

Within Dear Outsiders, precise, striking, and original metaphors and similes abound. In “Signs of Water,” a seagull is a “sand dollar beating on the sky.” In “Low Recitation,” the siblings “open the maps like menus. Like we’re ordering for the whole table.” The poem “Growing Our Own Doctor” shares the line “Our mother is the first vow and the last vow.” The mother in “One More Origin Story” is “an orphan from an atmosphere we don’t know.” In “Decoys,” after running up the “tourist trap” lighthouse, “Our lungs are open clams.” In the aftermath of a storm in “Land Survey” the siblings observe “Our / street is a line of branches cleaved by weather.” In “Glory Pact,” “Our home is a snake with pulled teeth.” Taken out of context, such examples might seem strange, but each works wondrously in the whole of its poem.

Reflective of the title, one theme in Dear Outsiders delineates the differences between those who are living their lives by the sea—like the narrators of the poems initially are—and those who are only tourists passing through. The poet writes “It’s not for / the hotel people, people who pay for symmetrical shells.” There are the tourists who hang their hotel towels on balconies like “flags to countries they’ll never belong to.” In contrast, those who live there have a far more intimate relationship with the land and sea. “We speak to manatees in a language we use for dolphins” and have “watched / the oceans breathe our entire lives.”

Grief certainly is also a central theme. Given that the narrators’ parents have drowned, one expects a prevailing sadness and sense of loss in the poems. Dear Outsiders acknowledges this at the beginning with an introductory free verse poem titled “Topographies.” In that poem, we hear something like a chant: “Our mother’s body. / Not our mother’s body. / Our father’s body. / Not our father’s body. / A grief bleating at our shores. / A landscape breaking.” The siblings in the poem “A Field, A Flood” ask “When will we not be hungry for our parents, for the shattering / portraits under our feet?”

Inevitably, the narrators struggle to find reconciliation between the loss of parents to drowning and their love of the ocean. In the poem “Stacks,” some peace seems negotiated between the loss verses the love of what caused the loss. “Without the water, we’d be without our mother. Without our / father, we would lose the / world under our knees. When you love the / beach, you love it no matter what.”

The cover of this collection, designed by Amy Freels with bright, bold colors and a striking design, is fitting as these poems are also bold and filled with color. Within these verses, readers will delight in the hues of blue versus orange beach towels, the two red plastic shovels, a yellow gold chain, blaze orange vests, a stack of pink roses, the “blue on blue” of a pulsing tide, and more. And just as the sharp lines of the cover design are a bit disconcerting (in a good way), so too are these poems.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai

The poet, Jenny Sadre-Orafai, holds an MA and MFA and has taught at the university level for twenty-one years and currently is a Professor of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She is an executive director of the Georgia Writers Association. She is an Iranian-Mexican-American poet, essayist, editor, professor, and writer and the author of Paper Cotton Leather, Malak, and the co-author of Book of Levitations.  A co-founder of Josephine Quarterly, her recent poetry appears in a wide variety of well-respected journals.


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