So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith (Grand central publishing 2020)
Reviewed by Lisa Slage Robinson
I’ve told everyone, I’ll tell you. I married Bridge because he’s thunder. That man right there is a pack of hungry wolves howlin’ at the moon.
Leesa Cross-Smith explores the complexities of modern love and rediscovers the bold frontier of feminine desire in the highly anticipated So We Can Glow (Grand Central Publishing, 2020) a collection of 42 short stories, flashes and meditations.
What’s so surprising about this collection, is the candor by which Cross-Smith, a self-described Southerner, homemaker, wife, mama and lover of Jesus, addresses women’s obsessions and desires. I found myself reaching for my old and yellowed copy of the nineteenth-century classic The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The Awakening, published in 1899, received positive reviews from the literary critics at the time but was resoundingly condemned by polite society for its portrayal of a woman who rejected the norms of domesticity, and sought individuality and fulfillment of her desires outside of marriage. In the novel, the young, wealthy and white Edna Pontellier, mother to two small boys and wife to a New Orleans businessman, learns to swim and finds her personhood, her longings and gifts beyond mothering and the social scene. When Edna discovers that her desires are unsustainable, she ends her life in the same Gulf waters that awakened her.
Cross-Smith’s sensuous, lyrical musings offer a counterview; not just because she’s writing from a different and more enlightened century, not just because she explores relationships that were once and continue to be in some circles forbidden and unthinkable. We see this in “All That Smoke Howling Blue,” where Mercy lives with two brothers, sleeping with one and kissing the other on the side. And in “Little Doves,” where a garden of women living in a commune offer cultish devotion to a single man. And in “Get Rowdy,” where Rowdy’s girl offers sexual favors to pay off Rowdy’s debts. But also because Cross-Smith finds possibilities within both weathered and stale marriages, and those that are joyful to create additional life, as in “Surreptitious, Canary, Chamomile,” where the narrator is eager to add another baby to her brood:
I wanted my Arizona baby-to have him cowboy-swagger right out of me with a tiny gun on his hip.
Cross-Smith offers a happy perspective where desire is not always illicit, does not always reside in dark places and cheap motels, it is not always borne of privilege, despair, lethargy, ennui. She reminds us that desire can be uplifting, hopeful and universal. It’s effervescent, bubbling to the surface, without guile. Desire can be ultra-feminine – adorned in pink flats and sugary raspberry flavored lip-gloss. Desire can smell like bubblegum and Herbal Essence Shampoo. It lives in domesticity, in marital intimacy. It’s poly-amorous. It’s asexual. It’s colorblind. It rises up to fill the broken space where grief resides. Where girlfriends (with boyfriends) love each other so much that they kiss and kiss and kiss.
In the linked stories “Winona Forever” and “Cloud Report,” teenagers Heather and Crystal binge-watch Winona Ryder videos because Winona reminds them of Crystal’s sister Amber. They start kissing after Amber dies. They start kissing the same summer they lose their virginity, on the same night, to boys whose friendship mirrors their own. Later as an adult, Crystal on her way to Heather’s bridal shower reflects:
We love each other so much; kissing each other makes sense. We’ve always been in love with each other and it’s different than anything we ever felt for a man. Not deeper… diagonal.
Mostly in this collection, desire finds its mark with men, the kind with circular saws and buffalo plaid shirts. Men with grease-dirty hands who labor under cars. Men who can fix things. Men with cowboy hearts who taste like “pepper-metal vodka, the bright, starry bite of lime.”
In the wake of #Metoo, and the subsequent cancel culture, it feels subversive to appreciate men. To allow our female gaze to linger, to crave, rather than revile, the male touch. Cross-Smith acknowledges bad men and problematic/abusive relationships (“Some are Dark, Some are Light, Summer Melts”) but celebrates female agency. Women equipped, forewarned and forearmed. Prepared.
In the poetic lamentation, “We, Moons,” women, the embodiment of Eve, decry the curse of loving men. They are ashamed of this attraction. They assert: “We are complete without them but we want them anyway.” Listen: “We know what we are doing.”
There’s a buoyancy and deliciousness in this purposeful wanting that occasionally tilts towards obsession.
In “Crepuscular,” Lacey falls in love with a nature show TV host. Every night, Lacey watches Abe Forrest, wildlife biologist, as he tags and tracks coywolves [coyote-wolf-dog-hybrids]. From her bed, she admires his short fingernails, his brown cargo pants, his compass, and his Swiss Army knife. She is charmed by his forest ranger words: wilderness, predator, crepuscular. Lacey sends out a mating call. With her emails, she wonders if he is crepuscular like she is, an animal most active on the edges. With her linguaphile’s foreplay, Lacey lures Abe to her house. Like the bowerbird Abe studies, she adorns herself, the dining room table, even the music she plays in shades of blue. A mating ritual ensues.
For Cross-Smith, desire does not abandon lovers at the altar. It can be summoned to rescue a dying marriage, described as a dying wasp in “Low, Small.”
When he came inside from cutting the grass, my husband wove a thick ribbon of good-stinky animal musk from the back door to the bedroom, from the bedroom to the shower. It was leathery, whisky and wood. Beard and muscle, it was breath and sweat…It brought me back to him – a smoky, creepy, long, sharp-nailed carton finger.
Desire sweetly breathes life back into a couple grieving from a miscarriage. In “Chateau Marmont, Champagne, Chanel” and “California Keeps Us” Marco creates a fantasy affair with his wife to help them overcome the loss of their baby. His alter ego M. arranges things, sends her mysterious notes on expensive blue paper and plane tickets to LA. M. orders room service and champagne. M.’s lovemaking allows them to shed their “smothering grief coat.”
The collection has been criticized for its simplicity, its reliance on beautiful imagery without layered complexity. But this criticism discounts the authority of compression, the weight of the consistent messaging throughout. Taken as a whole, the sum-total adds up to a powerful statement of women taking charge of their own sexuality and emotional needs.