Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in October.
The Lumberjack’s Dove by GennaRose Nethercott
All praise to book-length poems. Nethercott’s yarn begins with a lumberjack who chops off his own hand. “The hand becomes a dove” and tries to fly away, but the lumberjack strings it to his belt. He “walks out of the forest, the airborne hand fluttering along behind.” The narrator tells us: “You know this story.” It’s part whisper, part command, all curiosity. How do we know this story? We know stories like it—folklore borne of the forest—and we know that our lives and souls are stories. It begins to add up. Nethercott’s narrator is gentle, quirky, playful, endearing: this is a book to read in circles around fires, under blankets, in dark and quiet room corners. Befuddled, the lumberjack wanders and wonders. He “clutches the absent space at the end of his arm.” His dove—his hand, his self—“looks back at him, already forgetting it was ever anything but sovereign.” Nethercott’s book is inventive, unique, and a welcome source of escape—or maybe inscape. The narrator frequently steps in and clears the white space of the page; these addresses are not interruptions, but soft reminders that stories are brought to us by mouths and hands. “Living creatures believe they own something as soon as they love it”: Nethercott’s book feels true as wind, a discovery worth embracing.
The Arrangements by Kate Colby
These are sharp elegies—not quite of the dead, but of the failures of language and connection all around us—delivered with smiles and smirks. To read “Wistless” is to miss summer, to enter the shape of mourning: “In-your-face blooms / now brown, drooped // into black / eyes of dying Susans.” In this space between seasons, we sigh: “Screen door squeaks, / buffeting whump of // unfast ceiling fan.” Colby’s columnar lines feel threaded, a lattice of letters that never feels choppy. The Arrangements carries us to someplace a little dark, a little comfortable. In “The Plunge,” we see: “Black evergreens / pre-dawn, it’s all / there before you.” In that place of “felt darkness,” there is love, picked “like splinters / of light from the light.” Colby is fresh and stirring—“Day doesn’t so much / progress as condense– // rain fills red Solo bowls / for feral cats in the yard”—yet her controlled language is fairly hypnotic, peacefully familiar: “There’s a first time / for everything and // now we’re in for it.”
Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez
Martinez has written of growing up Catholic in Greeley, Colorado, where the stained glass iterations of the Holy Mother blurred into the glass candles in a curandera’s room: Mariology as reflection, refraction. Language as litany, proving ground for poetry. Martinez’s poems are dynamic personal doxologies of Mexican-American tradition and inheritance. In “Family Photo—Mi Bisabuela Con Mi Abuela”: “Maria Beltran would peel the oranges / & all things on the earth’s surface / became navel & hearth.” His poems open and turn; his theme of family feels like a reclamation. In a later photo poem, the woman’s “wedding dress spills // lilies & lilies of sugar mornings”— those ls lifting the image out of memory. His second sequence in the book—a meditation on execution, bodies hung, bodies “unnailed in cross”—is masterful. Based on a postcard set by Walter H. Horne from Mexico, the images are striking: “the second / leans forward into crucifixion // arms upstretched as wingbones / wrought of tar.” Later: “Lined as background stick figures, / a crowd of children gathers dust // & shade beside the spectacle.” He gathers rhythm and reason toward the poem’s end: “if there are tears, there are no homilies; / if there is color, they are bronze; // if there is life, it is public domain; / if he had a name, it is now transnational // confusion / postmarked in relief.” Ambitious and historical, Martinez’s book earns praise.
Things as It Is by Chase Twichell
Twichell’s new collection brings us into the world of her poems through invitation, not interrogation. It is a calm, measured entrance. In “The Missing Weekly Readers,” the narrator and her cousins are at their grandmother’s house during the first big snowstorm: “We sat around the table / in an igloo: the dining room // darkened and hushed, / windows a swollen glow.” After lunch, they brave the storm to loot the next week’s magazines from a mailbox. Years later, still coated with guilt, she tells us: “If you someday find them / in a surprising place, with a note / from some kids admitting to the theft, // please keep it to yourself.” Such union—or communion—with the reader is an offering worth savoring. Yet Twichell’s work is neither innocent nor gentle. In one stanza she describes riding her bike through the ash piles of burned leaves; in the next, she writes of a dangerous man who “liked little girls.” She repeats little, and the horror becomes pungent. Poetic turns like that require real skill, and the awareness that beauty and terror often share the same air. In “Soft Leather Reins,” the narrator and her friend had to release horses tangled in barbed wire. They ride home together at dusk, and “There my knowledge ends.” Twichell lets her poems unfurl into the world, and it is a quiet joy to watch them evaporate.
With the Dogstar as My Witness by John Fry
Fry’s debut begins in the most appropriate way possible for the book that follows: “like a preacher’s son returned to God / —but never the church.” This book is a search for a soul, undertaken by one who has “looked for that angel unawares, / prodigal or pilgrim, saint or sinner, to ask” questions without answers, unless we look to the imperfections of faith. With the Dogstar as My Witness is a document of terrible longing that we are born for, so many hearts “promised benediction, our goodbyes / blackened our altars.” In poems spread across the page—syntactic breaks in breath and hope—Fry suggests that we are never truly content with divine absence. He looks not for substitute, but salves. He travels the wilderness, the desert of desire. He accepts the recognition that “even novenas / can’t coat a stomach already gone.” Fry quotes Fanny Howe in one section of the book, and she is an appropriate patron saint for poetic hearts straining, inevitably, toward God. “say I am:” the narrator writes, “otherwise agnostic, a believer / only when in unison / words are sung-said / beside another, stranger or / familiar, not alone.”
Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang
Marfa is lucky to earn such a quicksilver ode from Yang, whose poems are flexible, expansive, sonorously clever. From “Substation”: “Gray day faraway water-tower potentiometer // enclosed by a series of right-angle triangles, guy- / line hypotenuse cables lengthening to anchor / pole.” Among these manufactured moods, “A small town thrives in the desert.” Yang is so precise in his rendering of myths: “Sunrise over a dirt road / by a low-wire fence, birdsong, / a rooster crows, then distant church bells / pealing arpeggios in the thin air.” Peppered with paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes, Yang’s book is equal parts historical (diary and interview anecdotes from residents), folkloric (“They told us a story about the devil, / mala cosa, small in stature with a beard / whose face they could never see clearly”), and comfortable in contemporary wonder. In one poem, the narrator and friends “sought out the Lights / off an empty highway, not a soul but us four.” On the distant horizon, they see the magic: “hovering / eerily for a moment, chills at being chosen, / growing / brighter than disappearing.” The marvel ends when a police officer’s lights bring their gaze down to earth. His flashlight scans their faces, and he asks them: “You all’re Americans aren’t you?” Their response: “we lied and said ‘Yes.”—a reminder that even though you can capture a place in words doesn’t mean your language and self are understood there.