Nicholas D. Nace in the Boston Review:
In the yet-to-be-written history of school supplies, the 1980s was a decisive period. Back-to-school materials had to that point offered little opportunity for individual expression: the static composition book, the stalwart yellow pencil in which deviations of lead softness constituted a classroom crisis, the enduring four-color Bic with the orange or blue barrel. But when it came to so-called presentation folders, a site of self-fashioning that had never evolved beyond the Pee-Chee All Season Portfolio, there were suddenly choices—choices that were, for most, not really choices: kittens or cars, princesses or footballs, unicorns or dinosaurs. We learned to hold our paper under the sign of the gender presentation that peers and parents expected of us, and we often overrode our real preferences to avoid being ostracized. The folders reflected not only how we saw the world but how we performed in it. Many found this nudge toward normativity comfortable or natural, a move closer to the place we were supposed to be headed. Many did not.
The 1980s, the period in which the tween began to be the focus of relentless marketing, is the time and terrain of the majority of the poems in Advice from the Lights, the fourth collection bearing the name of the author Stephen Burt. While Stephen came of age during this time of Velcroed Trapper Keepers and their slick invitations to compulsion, Stephanie Burt, who went full time as a woman in 2017, never got to experience a childhood of “sparkly rainbow crayons” or an adolescence of “glitter pens.” To be subject to ’80s merchandising was to be subject also to its prefab genders and, for Stephen, its troubling lack of choice. Yet in these poems we glimpse only brief rebellions against gender norming—a lip gloss stolen from a drugstore and toenails painted with Liquid Paper only to be scraped clean at parental insistence. Foiled and forced inside, these impulses now feel like lost cathexes lately resumed. What was for Stephen a formative time is for Stephanie a site of longing, of a girlhood that might have led to her present womanhood. Thus the book embraces multiple sides of gendered choice, imagining being clad in both Doc Martens with their grave semiotics of colored laces, and shoes or bracelets made of “jelly.”