Shannon Vare Christine on L.J. Sysko’s The Daughter of Man

Perhaps it is a human tendency to catalog, organize, chronicle, and analyze, in order to make orderly logic out of abstract concepts and quandaries. During almost every single life event or diagnosis, there is a sequential step-by-step listing of the stages or phases that the person can expect to encounter. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a cancer diagnosis, all propel those affected to turn to a list constructed by an expert via careful research, in order to have concrete ideals to grasp onto through the uncharted journey ahead. In The Daughter of Man, L.J. Sysko sheds light on the five junctures women endure in their lifetimes, via the female narrator. Society has long thrust constraints upon women sharing stories about their own biological processes, whether it be menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, sexuality, or menopause. They are forced inward to bury their narratives and to question themselves and their choices. However, through the lens of these five eras, L.J. Sysko lauds earlier myths and traditions, yet likewise cracks them wide open, in order to engage the reader in an essential dialogue focused on an array of often socially taboo topics. This collection as an interrogation of womanhood leads to the discovery that as women: “We are scientist and subject, / and our experimental outcome: / Oh, we want.” 

This image and emotion of longing is pervasive across the entire volume, in varying forms and constructs. At times, the speaker is in control of this feeling or the situation that incites this physiological response, while in other instances, she is the recipient of a character’s unwanted projections. The book’s opening poem, “Barnegat Light,” features a flood of allusions, whereby pop culture references collide with classic artistic and literary time periods and characters. This aptly sets the stage for what’s to follow in other forms in later poems, yet there is a thread of emergent sexuality woven into the lines. A slipped bikini top in the ocean, which results in an exposed breast, creates a distraction on the beach, as everyone is uncomfortable with this sudden display of female nudity. Yet every character in the scene needs to wrestle with their wide range of reactions. These initial experiences that “maidens” are thrust into become formative moments in the development of their individual identities. Young girls try on varied roles, as they play games in which they are witches, pop singers, or moms, while simultaneously wielding a power they do not even realize as their own. As in the poem, “Pockabook,” “We made adultness out of / pretense” trying on the varied roles of women available to them, as younger children they were “clutching dusk / like its acquiescence to night owed to our skilled negotiation —-.” There is a nostalgic playfulness at work in this opening sequence with an abundance of nods to 1980s mass-produced American suburbia. Yet all the while, the disparities between the expectations of girls and boys abound, penetrate these early memories of the speaker, and appear to be passed down generationally. As this section ends, the perceived notion of authority and control over one’s own environment and body dissolves as the maiden develops into the warrior, who needs to protect herself from the predatorial clutches of those around her.

The ending lines of the final poem, “prom” foreshadow what is to come as the speaker moves from “The Maiden” to “The Warrior.” The speaker descends the staircase to meet her date while “her future / packed like a corsage / in plastic...hinges creak    satin sweeps...her little sister holds the light coffin.” These funereal images prepare the reader for the maiden’s burial of herself and her autonomy at the hands of a predator. During her earliest formative years, the speaker creates an armor for herself, as all young girls are taught to do. However, while girls are being taught lessons of protection, some boys are being trained to take what they regard as theirs. The speaker uses images of birds to recount her date rape and the aftermath of this event. While the poems comprising this section are rife with pain and grief, there is somehow also a meditative, yet warning tone to them. The speaker is “a gull dodging a heedless boy,” as she insists that she should “Maybe warn the birds instead,” and “This is what they do / when they break your wing / for you.” But this speaker does rediscover her strength again, as she moves to reclaim her rape, to rewrite her narrative, in the hands of feminist artists and achievements. 

Historically, there are a multitude of ways women have systematically had their identities stripped from them, whether it’s by removing their sexuality, distorting their roles, or removing their names. As the speaker regenerates herself, she explores the women who are survivors of the Holocaust, Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher, as well as female subjects of paintings, in order to glean knowledge of how they fought back and persisted. This series of poems travels back and forth between scenes of the universal embodiment of female warriors to scenes of women gazed upon in paintings pinned and immovable. With each forward and backward motion, the speaker wrestles with her own views of herself and tries on a litany of descriptors, titles, and personae for herself. She investigates what it means to be “The Daughter of Man,” while feeling like a “Monster,” “Not Drowning,” a “Helpless Spectacle,” wondering about “What I’ve Been.” The speaker uses a myriad of proper nouns to stick placeholders in her core beliefs as they exist within the setting of each poem. Eventually, these designations become less of an indictment, and more of a reckoning, an awakening, by which the speaker uses “Beauty,” “Wisdom,” “Agent,” “Hearts Repairs,” and “Better,” to restore that which was previously lost or taken.

These self-revelations pave the way for the speaker to move into the “Queen,” “Maven,” and eventually, “Crone,” stages of her life. The previous experiences have certainly shaped who she is and will become in these latter ages and poetic chapters. This version of the speaker teems with sexuality and absorbs energy from the male gaze, as she rails against the societal implications that “The Maven” has now reached peak sexual appeal. She is “a rainspout panting,” who is done with the “dumping (of) misogyny’s contents,” and all should beware for “I was taught to speak fluently the language / of my oppressor.” The speaker is clearly now ready to leverage the rules and demands she has internalized all these years, in order to battle the “hypothetical hostile” demons who continue to lurk. L.J. Sysko utilizes the extended metaphor of invasive wisteria, which can be interpreted as the patriarchy, misogyny, or the cynicism that women need to root out of their lives over and over. While the wisteria has a short bloom cycle, the roots run deep and are hard to destroy. And yet, “Time lapses blue to blue / with bees pulling day’s / gold lamé curtain” as “Earth’s a / fragrant, peachy thing” and the speaker implores her lover to “Hold me how a tree / holds / its / fruit.” The reader can only imagine that this speaker will be allowed the time and space to be nurtured and ripened, and then released as soon as this cycle has ended.

These scenes filled with lush, bold, and colorific imagery dissolve as a tonal shift marks the speaker’s final stage of womanhood: “The Crone.” This aptly captures the despair of an “Age of Overwhelm” as the speaker heeds nature’s warnings of “Gone is gone,” but also reflects “I was always pulling something behind me.” Care needs to be taken, in order to heal herself, to undo her past, as this will all shape her, returning in varying forms, as she continuously learns and relearns what to let in and what to let go. “The whole snack makes us hungrier when we began because nostalgia isn’t filling, it only raises more questions the way ethnographers, never satiated, studied only themselves.” The speaker delves into her childhood and mines the past for nuggets of crystallized truths, buried long ago:

“I want to go.
To a place where what swirls beneath
our surface is only:

                                                                            B   E   T   T   E   R”

While the topics contained within L.J. Sysko’s poems in this work don’t fit neatly into their corresponding sections, but moreover spill one into the other, there is reassurance in the end. A final revelation that the archetypal Crone stage is not the end, as long as women are willing to continuously fight to overturn this death sentence and label, doled out by men who seek to eliminate women’s voices in this world.

Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. She is an alumnus of The Community of Writers and Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. Her poems are featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism were published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, Compulsive Reader, The Laurel Review, Vagabond City, and Tupelo Quarterly. Archived writing and more can be found at, her periodic newsletter, Poetic Pause, and on Instagram @smvarewrites.