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(REVIEW) ternura / tenderness by Sarah Sophia Yanni


In this review, Alice Hill-Woods traces the poetics of multiplicity, intimacy, vibrant materiality and energy in Sarah Sophia Yanni’s new chapbook, ternura / tenderness (Bottlecap Press 2019).

[[ CW: body dysmorphia, eating disorders ]] 

> The first page of Sarah Sophia Yanni’s chapbook, ternura / tenderness, published by Bottlecap Press and nesting twenty-three poems, swings open on its hinges, revealing an interior soaked with sensual murmurings. Linen, grease, matted fabric and pastel hues constellate in a saturated portrait of a room. It feels safe to observe and enter, akin to visiting the home of an unfamiliar relative who welcomes you regardless of your emotional proximity. In her artist statement on her website, Yanni explains that ‘a culturally liminal place is most familiar, orbiting the things that are lost in shift’ (date unknown). Indeed, her chapbook reveals a subtle interplay between detailed places pulsating in time, and sketched memories, fluttering with bodily energy, changing form under her agile signature. At points breathless, lacking caesura (‘freshman year’), her poems are also breathy, seductive, playing with space and form (‘home / body’). It is a poetic voice engendered by a gaze that emerges hungry to record minutiae, which are then generously shared with the reader, compiling a vivid smorgasbord of experiences.

> From the outset, I am already aware of the protean potential of translation: ternura is tenderness; tenderness ternura: but in which moments do these language-bound paradigms overlap? How can we trace the difference lost in the shape of mouthing different syllables? Do notions of tenderness shift according to the language in which they are contained and received? Yanni’s chapbook is tender: fabric folds oscillating against skin are soft, redolent of warm glimpses, a heart open to the nature of things. But there is more than tenderness, too: an ache, perhaps, or a harder glare carving its presence into rosier backdrops. The speaker admits: ‘there are certain words | I can’t translate – guey, pedo, me cay bien– | but I know how they feel in my mouth, in yours’ (Yanni 2019: 27). This exploration of linguistic limitations operates with the very tenderness the chapbook’s title lays claim to, considerate and delicate in a way that simultaneously signals strength.

> I particularly relish the astrological assertiveness of Yanni’s poems. In the Roman-numeral-spliced ‘multiplicity’, the speaker states: ‘V. I am a gemini / the reason for my multiplicity / | or at least my primary excuse’ (2019: 4). It brings to mind one of Yanni’s #MicroMeta poems for Metatron Press, which pouts in pastel blue on Instagram:

it’s because I’m a gemini

sorry I yelled and sorry I

cried about nothing except

that it wasn’t about nothing

and really, I’m not sorry

                                (Yanni 2019).

Yanni’s girlish, starry brevity entices users such as girlhowdy69, who declares: ‘these made me tear up’ (Instagram 2019). Being a Gemini signifies more than multiplicity, though, and regardless of your approach to astrological musings it cannot be ignored that Yanni’s writing embodies the mercurial wit and dual energy implied by this zodiac sign. Yanni is half-Egyptian and half-Mexican, and I can defend the notion that her vibrant poiesis has twice the impact, double the deliciousness.

> Materiality is a significant element of ternura / tenderness. Not only do some fabrics indicate lived-in places, but bodies; what it means to touch, to know. It brings to mind Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, in which she argues for the ‘capacity of things […] to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own’ (2010: viii). Different fabrics are endowed with this kind of activating energy. In ‘I know the room in abuela’s house’, meaning is embedded in the shape of ‘curling wallpaper punctured by a golden crucifix’ (Yanni 2019: 2), walls distorted by age and faith, ‘sticky rain’ (ibid.: 7) in ‘why isn’t there an option for mixed race kids’, ‘wet pools / opaque | fabric clinging’ (ibid.: 4) in ‘multiplicity’, rolled and hemmed material in ‘pleated uniform skirt’. The semiotic tapestry is stretched out on to the textual frame for hermeneutic rubbings, like pushing a hand into those dark, velvet boxes in a museum play area, hungry to associate mental image with physical object. This close attention to materials, informing one another, dialogically positioned in alignment with Yanni’s varying narratives, makes for seductive reading.

> Site-specific worship blurs into the lust for home-space, the contingent sequences of what is homely melting into the transcendent. Glimpses of rituals rolling wavelike into ordinary spaces reminds me of Lila Matsumoto’s Urn & Drum (2018). Yanni’s ‘In / Between (ii)’ paints an image of ‘baskets of warm bread, tiny plates of chopped | tomatoes’ (2019: 8) alongside a ‘church that echoes’ (ibid.), reminiscent of Matsumoto’s ‘Morning’, in which the speaker orients themselves towards the sensory dew of the kitchen; ‘pinching | the plates between pinky and thumb I dip them one by one | into the water which undulates with fresh promise’ (Matsumoto 2018: 23). Kitchens, then, may be interpreted as sites inscribed with the potency of interlocking communities waiting to share words or food. In ‘In / Between (iv)’, the speaker demands recognition for this sacred space: ‘of course, I’d | reply, what could be safer than Abuela’s | kitchen’ (Yanni 2019: 20). The semantic circling back to Abuela across the textured landscape of the chapbook is indicative of this character’s weighty presence, an enabler of tender exchange.

> Yanni’s formal technique treats text with a controlled awareness; in many of her poems, stanzas are portioned out, resisting gluttonous reading. This consistency appears to be an extension of the speaker’s experience of a suggested eating disorder. For example, in ‘multiplicity’, the speaker confesses:

for two summers I let myself rot / a raw

throat coated with slime / anemic faint purple


(2019: 4)

The forward slash – oblique, repetitive, leaning into the next breath – is paradoxically simple and multivalent. It feels era-specific, reminding me of glossy pamphlets of song lyrics inhabiting CD cases in the early 2000s. It is also textually divisive, a knife slicing into lines that have already been broken off by enjambment, and, although subtle, her use of punctuation feels deliberate, pregnant with feeling. In the same stroke, the poems quietly interrogate discourse around consumption. Whose gaze is the girlish body-form configured to? The speaker presents the body as a site of restraint upon which violence is performed, corporeally exhibiting ‘a doctor’s delight’ (Yanni 2019: 4) and ‘the thrill of smallness overlapped | with fainting in public’ (ibid.: 18). Flesh-and-memory-laden erasure is mourned, her poem ‘yesterday’s desires’ a complex eulogy for time tainted by dysmorphia. Although grief is not a domineering element of Yanni’s chapbook, it may still be considered part of tenderness’s symbolic vacillations. To look back on a body warped by illness takes courage, an inspection softened by gentle awareness.

> Orchestrating an impasto collection of emotive and tonal shifts, from softly spoken to defiant, it is clear to me that Yanni’s poetic presence is waxing, a glimmering orb amongst other contemporary constellations. Reading one moreish poem catalyses an urgent desire for the next, a clever domino effect that interlinks subjective schemas with well-articulated energy. Finally, I must confess: the Gemini in me stretches towards the Gemini in the text, and, for a moment, I can feel the familiar closing-in between speaker and reader that can only occur with such tender momentum.


Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter (Durham: Duke University Press)

Marchigiano, Ariana. [@girlhowdy69]. January 2019. ‘these made me tear up’ [Instagram comment]

Matsumoto, Lila. 2018. ‘Morning’, in Urn & Drum (Bristol: Shearsman Books), p. 23

Yanni, Sarah Sophia. 2019. ternura / tenderness (Bottlecap Press)

Yanni, Sarah Sophia. 24 January 2019. ‘it’s because I’m a gemini!’, Metatron Press @metatronpress [Instagram post]

Yanni, Sarah Sophia. Date unknown. ‘artist statement’, <> [accessed 20 October 2019]

ternura / tenderness is out now and available via Bottlecap Press. 


Text: Alice Hill-Woods

Image: Bottlecap Press

Published 17/11/19


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