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A review of Bianca by Eugenia Leigh (Four Way Books, 2023)

“Trauma” and “grief,” or rather such shallow incarnations of serious psychological phenomena that they merit air quotes, have become trendy concepts in recent 21st century discourse and media. Movies and television use the traumatic past as a major plot revelation (The Matrix Resurrections, Succession, Yellowjackets), or the antagonist becomes a walking, talking metaphor for PTSD and unresolved issues (the recent Halloween, Smile). Then, through the wonders of narrative, the troubled protagonist finds an unusually easy solution to their problems, often through violence or a purging event, that allows them to continue carelessly moving forward. The monster is gone! No more nightmares, just closure from here on out!

“What I Miss Most About Hell”, the opening of Bianca, Eugenia Leigh’s second collection of poems, many of them prose, does not see trauma as an eradicable entity to be judged and condemned. The narrator muses, “What I Miss Most About Hell/is prayer.” She was once in a rough place, yes, but she felt truly alive, vital even. “I’d pack a plastic bottle/with vodka, drive/to the crag of my life—/the parking lot of a pancake house—/and scream.” Toni Morrison writes in The Bluest Eye, “There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence.” Leigh knows all too well how this state can be a double-edged sword. She may have been truly awake, but she was also in Hell.

Blood, screams, booze, and cigarettes litter the whole of Bianca, creating a bridge between dark memory and the loving but uncertain present. These poems aren’t triumphant, instead asking how anyone can move past traumatic childhood abuse and violence, especially in an uncertain, apocalyptic time. Leigh writes in “Consider the Sun,”

            Is it better to die in the struggle or to survive it,
            then die decades later alone with a cognac, a book,

            and no fight left in your bones? 

“The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes” and the strongest poem in the collection, “Bipolar II Disorder: Second Evaluation (Zuihitsu for Bianca),” feature the narrator grappling with her twenties, how she hurled herself into self-destruction and binge drinking to cope with PTSD. Where a great deal of media about trauma portrays it as a distinct, villainous persona, Bianca is Leigh’s manic, demonic alter-ego: “My fever, my havoc, my tilt.” “Bipolar II” brilliantly uses the Japanese Zuihitsu form—a series of loosely connected essays and fragments—to revisit memories and reconcile this side of Leigh, as she pounds ten drinks a day and spins around the 101, up until age 33, when Leigh is at last able to find “a framework for my torment. Vocabulary. . . An agent of grace.”

The Paul Thomas Anderson epic Magnolia features William H. Macy as “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, a child star turned stunted, bespectacled adult whose parents long ago stole his money and abandoned him. He yowls drunkenly to some half-interested bar patrons, “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us!” Leigh understands how memory can, just when you think you are safe, jam an icy blade into your gut. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder With Han (한/恨)” and “Prayer With Strawberry Garden” each evoke Bible passages, a childhood raised around churches. The language in the book recalls the stark, clear language of The Book of J too—or does it originate from the constant vigilance which comes with a violent, unpredictable parent? In the former poem, when her husband tries to playfully surprise her, Leigh’s typical terse, careful meter devastates: “I wept. No one prepares you for the terrors of a good man.”

Bianca portrays the lingering, long-term effects of abuse and mental illness with such beauty, terror, and comprehension. The language is shrewd and well-crafted, sharper than the multi-generational knives and weapons Leigh’s child invokes in “Glossolalia.” “Look at him,/oblivious to the weapons/littering his lineage or, God forbid,/possessed by them.” Motherhood here is wonderful as well as utterly terrifying. Leigh fears not just the toxic legacy of her abusive father visiting itself upon her son, but as she writes in “The First Leaf,” “how much of you blights my blood.” She’s also surprised to find her conception of love and compassion changing, that the physical cruelty and violence she suffered is so much worse in retrospect. “When I choose/to be a mother, choose to be tender to my child . . . my fury surges.” A Korean American, the writer describes the “palpable rage” embedded in her culture, but then she also makes the active choice to nurture and love her children instead.

Yes, love. The narrator is understandably surprised to have discovered a path for herself that moves away from cruelty, from self-medication and the death drive. It isn’t easy—"The Commitment to Living Contract” details how her husband hides pills during a suicidal episode and “the first night I woke howling/next to him.” But her family give her reasons to live, not just exist. Leigh concludes in the final poem, “All my life I thought I was hard to love.” Bianca jumps, skips, and hops backwards in time all while steadily tracking, piece by piece, how a person can at last reach the opposite conclusion.


C.M. CROCKFORD is the author of Birdsongs: Poems 2020-2023, out now with Alien Buddha Press. His work has also been featured in the Cleveland Review of Books, Vastarien, In The Mood Magazine, and Poets' Row. Autistic/ADHD and originally from New England, he now lives with his cat Wally in Philadelphia. You can always read more at

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