Review: “Better Luck Next Year” by Ally Malinenko

Better Luck Next Year by Ally Malinenko
Low Ghost Press
126 pages
$10.00 – Purchase directly through Press (see below) or Amazon

Malinenko’s new collection, of poems, documents how expeditiously life changes, in this case when you discover you have cancer. In the first poem, “The Day Before,” Malinenko recalls a carefree day where she spent time with friends drinking, laughing, and completely unaware that life would change. At the end of the piece, she advises, “But don’t be sad. Not everyone gets such a beautiful rain-soaked night to disappear into.” Then in the last stanza, she asks, “Like something out of a story, wasn’t it?”

This hauntingly terse last stanza, this seemingly simple rhetorical question, is a perfect set up for this entire collection in that the poems that follow show the range of emotions that a person coming to terms with a life-altering experience encounters.

In “Exam Table Paper,” she shows how denial sets in immediately when she says, “and I will think that she is not giving me bad news because people with such nice faces explain about misunderstandings not diagnoses.” Then she shifts moods by ending this piece, “And I am lying here now shirtless looking down at my own nipple whispering Fuck no.”

Throughout the collection, she bounces through emotions in a raw yet organic way which gives the reader pause. I read this collection three times and had to put the book down several times during each reading because the emotions are that intense and relatable. In “The Things I Thought of When the Doctor Told Me I had Cancer at Thirty-Seven,” she shows how the process of dealing with life altering situations can turn your mind inside out when she begins to look for a reason for the diagnosis. She writes, “luck bad luck karma and[RS1] then I run through every lie I ever told every cruel thing I have done.”

Even though Malinenko is discussing how cancer changed her life, her multi-dimensional self-exploration allows the reader to appreciate how any life altering experience can disturb the way we once saw ourselves and our placement in the world. In “Taken,” when the reality of how radiation treatment could impact her future decision to have children, she considers how resolve softens, “There is a hard cold difference between setting down something precious and having it pulled from your hands still wet with afterbirth.” The fact that the narrator is keeping her diagnosis a secret from her family because her mother is battling cancer at the same time adds a complexity shown in pieces like “Telling My Secrets.” In this piece she writes, “Okay, I say I’m ready even though I’m not because I will never be ready to look my parents in the eye and tell them all about those little tumors that sprouted inside me like mushrooms.”

Throughout these poems, Malinenko’s voice burgeons which allows the reader to appreciate just how unpredictable life is. The last act in the last poem of the collection reinforces the narrator’s desire to take control over the situation, “and I took the ribbon pin off my bag because I am not a warrior or a survivor but just a woman trying to live with a disease and I hurled it over the wrought iron of the cemetery fence and I kept walking not caring to see which grave it landed on knowing that at least it wasn’t mine.” While the heart of this collection is about cancer, the veins that pulsate throughout are about the struggles humans come face to face with and how we emotionally navigate through difficult times.

To order Better Luck Next Year, send a check (made out to Kristofer Collins) for $10 per copy. $3 shipping on the first + $1 each additional to Low Ghost Press 4911 Coleridge Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201.