They teach us the gods prize girls
who take up the least amount of space
but I still can’t help wanting to be found.
– From “जनमभम ि(Ten-Week Confessional)”
Topaz Winters centers identity and belonging throughout So, Stranger, her most recent full-length poetry collection. Splitting her time between Brooklyn and Singapore, Winters offers a layered and thoughtful critique of the immigrant experience in America, the nuances of her relationship with her father and how borders operate in our lives. She writes with self-awareness and wit, allowing herself the space to be both overtly poetic and bracingly literal.
She separates the collection into six sections, each one beginning with an Ars Poetica. These poems are intentionally metapoetic, with speakers who fuse philosophy and metaphor to unpack the function of poetry at various points in one’s life. They also track a linear path that moves from feelings of alienation to self-acceptance and healing. Winters invokes Richard Siken in Ars Poetica V: I Want to Know What the World Knows, a poem in which the speaker and the page converse about the speaker’s identity. Ultimately, the speaker concludes that “the most beautiful poem/is the absence of mothers who forget./Everything else is just space on the page.” These lines exemplify Winters’ ability to infuse otherwise simple language with overwhelming emotion and meaning.
So, Stranger is framed by a pair of poems that ground the collection in a concrete journey. “Departure Time,” the first poem in the collection, presents a speaker who attempts to shut out their surroundings with noise-cancelling headphones, but cannot ignore a woman crying next to her in the bathroom. Within this moment, the speaker comments that “There has to be a word for the kind of/loneliness shared by two, a loneliness/big enough to rechristen itself as lineage.” This sentiment carries through the collection, contextualizing the many poems in which Winters grapples with her lineage and the various ways that identity affects her sense of belonging in different spaces.
The final poem of the collection, “Notes on Arrival,” shows a speaker taking control of her experiences. She displays an autonomy and confidence that is absent from “Departure Time,” helping to solidify the narrative arc throughout the collection and move readers toward a place of self-acceptance and self-love. The poem centers the concept of improvisation in moments of crisis, illustrating the necessity of living in the present and the power of pressing on even when the way forward is unclear. The closing image brings father and daughter together: “He welcomed her as if the emergency/were over, as if home were a nickname/for the first day of both their lives.” These lines offer closure and relief to one of the relationships Winters most foregrounds throughout the collection.
Ultimately, So, Stranger demonstrates the award-winning prowess Winters has for writing that is at once notably accessible and emotionally fraught. This is a collection that will appeal to new and seasoned poetry readers alike, as it offers both a cohesive narrative and technical device in equally masterful language.