sunfish by Shelby Eileen: lemon language, families and love

sunfish lemon language

mothers and daughters were not meant to go

to war with each other

so why was I born with a battle cry for her


Shelby Eileen, author of the fantastic poetry collection ‘Soft in the Middle‘, presents the reader with ‘sunfish’, a new book exploring a fractured family and the ways in which grief and love can intermingle.

The collection is loosely structured in four main parts: poems/letters addressed to her father, mother, Zaidy (a Yiddish word meaning ‘grandfather’) and Bubbie (a Yiddish word meaning ‘grandmother’). In each, the reader receives a brief insight into Eileen’s relationship with them.

I thought that the mother and Bubbie sections were particularly strong, although this may be because I had a personal connection to these relationships. In particular, I related to the ‘lemon language’ that her grandmother taught her, and their connection in being women who are ‘hard to love’.

Throughout, Eileen references her Jewish faith and ancestry, describing her relationship with it alongside her grandparents, who passed away years ago:

‘you’ve left me a religion that I love

but a religion that I was made a stranger to

I wish you had been there to stop

our history and culture from being made


Mental health is another area that she explores throughout the collection, asking her grandmother ‘how many times did people call you crazy‘. And although she clearly has a lot of complicated and twisty emotions regarding this topic, I really loved how it wasn’t at all bitter or caustic. Instead, it felt like she was softly prodding a bruise, just to see how much it would hurt.

She also briefly touches upon her sexuality, wondering if her grandmother would approve. If you’re looking for more about sexuality and relationships, I would take a look at ‘Soft in the Middle’, Eileen’s debut poetry collection.

Although ‘sunfish’ is a short collection (fewer than 100 pages), I felt that its sharp and succinct style really allowed Eileen to quickly get to the heart of her family, and the complex histories (‘like riddles/like math’) of the relationships. Her newest collection, ‘Goddess of the Hunt‘ will be published on February 20th, 2019.

Trigger warnings: death of a family member, grief, mourning, emotional abuse, ableism, mention of knives, mention of blood, strong language, anti-semitism.

About the author:

Shelby Eileen is a Canadian writer in a perpetual state of stress concerning her unmapped future. Eileen studied at Brock University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. She uses the knowledge and skills gained from her degree throughout her daily life, even if others hardly notice that she does so. One of her many dreams is to live alone in a little apartment with a cat and good writing energy. Connect with her on twitter @briseisbooks.