Must-Read Poetry: March 2019

March 4, 2019 | 6 books mentioned 6 min read

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in March.

Tap Out by Edgar Kunz

A whirlwind debut. Stories of sclerotic lives told in wrought images, Kunz arrives with real poetic talent. In the first poem, “After the Hurricane,” the narrator’s father sleeps in a van by the Connecticut River, where he “can see the Costco // parking lot through the trees.” Estranged from his wife, he’s hit bottom, scraping sustenance from kidney bean cans and tuna tins. “Wrinkled plastic piss bottles line the dash.” Kunz pulls us into his poems and keeps us there through crisp detail. The narrator’s father returns often, as in “Natick”: “Silence we passed back and forth between us, like a joke.” In the car, father holds his hand—“Nail beds packed with grease. / Knuckles more scar // than skin”—to his son’s, tells the boy he has piano hands. The son “was ashamed, and hid them in the pockets of my coat.” That shame evolves into poems like “Close,” when the narrator’s father, fresh off a work shift and a little drunk, teaches his son how to drive. “We meet / at the end of the loaded bed, exhaust / and brakelight pooling around our knees.” (A hint: trust poets who show back to you the images you’ve seen in glimpses and tucked in the back of your mind.) The son loves the father; he hates the father. Tap Out lives in a bittersweet world, and does so well, but there’s also fine touches here: a mother who has had enough, a son who sees beauty in loss, and in “Farmsitting,” a narrator who, in order to fall asleep, “counted / the measures ticked out // in the porcelain tub, slow drip / to keep the pipes from freezing.”

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The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy

To call a collection both ambitious and pleasant is hopefully not an unacceptable paradox—it feels like the right description for Shaughnessy’s fifth book of poems. Her book is ambitious in concept and structure—a dystopian world in which the COO (Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), fresh off cute YouTube videos, “took over every computer, grid and control center”—and capable of melodic sweetness: “I am a self-cleaning animal and my children were born glistening under all the soft tree leaves, breathing.” Woven into the book’s speculative moments are glimpses of motherhood from this world: a six-year-old girl named Simone who thinks time is “unknowable,” and a boy, Cal, of whom she thinks incessantly. In “Nest,” the narrator is “in a cabin up in the New Hampshire / woods, in order to write.” Cal, “coughing and gagging,” probably from allergies, possibly from something else, is home with her husband. She wonders: “Why am I up here / writing in the woods when my family needs me / if all I’m doing is failing to kill innocent wasps / and writing this, this poem I’ll never really finish.” It is her full-throated poems about Cal that meander among her wild experiments in syntax, epistolary, and lists that make The Octopus Museum a breakthrough book.

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The Last Visit by Chad Abushanab

“The Factory,” a terse, dizzying poem, appears early in this fantastic debut. “Husks in shadows just outside of town: / a rusted mess, a postindustrial tomb.” Here “men with bloody lungs keep / coughing up clots like overripe berries. / Their wives beside them pretend to be asleep, / imagine different endings to their stories.” The Last Visit teems with distressing images, offered with fury and skill. In one poem that introduces the book’s major theme, a narrator wonders about his abusive father: “what made your cruelties grow / unwieldy.” He stares at portraits for hours, seeking an explanation, and then remembers, in another poem, how his mother would bring him to a store “to pick / some cheap toys” after each family fight. “She wore / green bruises below her eyes. / Her split lip kept her dabbing blood / with Kleenex—a poppy flowered rag.” The narrator and siblings dig “through crates of army men,” who they’d line up on their bedroom windowsill. They’d chosen maimed soldiers who “could not raise their voices despite / their mortal wounds, their missing limbs.” The Last Visit is peppered with poignant, curtal ghazals, including: “When my father left for good, we were living in the desert. / I wouldn’t cry for him. My eyes became a desert.” Horrors real and cinematic blend together, as in poems like “A Haunted House,” “Halloween,” “Drive-In,” and “Poem Begun in a West Texas Corn Maze”: “I listen for children shouting through the dried- / up stalks, but all I hear are whispers and crows, / what few remain.”

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Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy

“I’m becoming a prayer / I never said for myself.” McCarthy’s book of Midwestern threnodies begins in image and ends in solemnity. In the first poem, the narrator’s pickup truck spews smoke from the engine. Under the trunk, he finds that a “mangled cat mats the crankshaft and fan belt, / fur-shredded and soaked.” It’s a morbid scene, unfolding as rain pounds the street, a shower that seems constant that year. “Switchgrass quivers in every direction. / It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.” These poems are filled with a “lost boy” who is meticulous in his observations of the staid world surrounding him. The August sun burns everyone, including his “sweating” mother, who “has stuffed pie tins behind our porch lights // to keep the robins from nesting.” She is stuck in her house as this boy is stuck in this middle world, an only child left to his imagination. He thinks himself a scarecrow, who “pretends // that his reflection is his brother or that all the puddles together / are a group of siblings that understand his strange body.” McCarthy’s poems are profluent stories—a joy to marvel at this skill, impressive considering the book’s bleak landscape.

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Forest with Castanets by Diane Mehta

A beautiful book. “My America is half blessed, halfway to exuberance” Mehta ends one poem, her lines replete with sorrow and mysticism. “Elegy: A Jewish Death” begins “My moon-walking mother flies sideways in the yard. / Black fences spike and spiral to contain her.” There’s a levitation to her lines, leading to the first section’s conclusion: “She shadows me, a rococo menorah, / arms holding prayers up, pulling light around me.” Mehta traces the gentle and eccentric routes of spirituality, with an emphasis on spirit: “She exits my longing, shifts // like the sea at dawn into simpler / things I’d like to believe will find me later.” She centers the book with fifteen “Unholy Sonnets,” with lovelorn, savvy lines: “Ravaged, unredeemable, I melt into my feet / Murderously myself. I long for peace but (admit it) / Laser cut and polish grief.” Prose is tucked among her verse—I hope more poets follow her lead, and be generous with genre—making Forest with Castanets a uniquely arranged collection. In “Sex & Sensibility,” she considers the anniversary of death and divorce, and the frayed relationships that follow. She thinks about the struggle for rediscovery: “I had a married self, a mother self, and a sexual self, but I had no ‘alone’ self and thus no creative self.” She’s a talented essayist, and the hopeful conclusion of her second essay leans into more poems, starting with “Churchgoing”: “If love is divine then what am I / when they are so full of love / excelling? I believe in showing up. / The sermon starts.” She concludes: “These open-hearted beaches are so pure they choke me. / I prefer the cold, hard pews and visitor seating. / I prefer to be deranged and read these pretty prayers / as evil in my feet taps out a little more universe.”

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Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Kaminsky, on moving between and among tongues: “What’s important are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, ‘slant’ moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.” Kaminsky’s second book—which I suspect will be spoken about for years to come—is curved with beautiful oddities of phrase (even the book’s Dramatis Personae, in describing the townspeople, includes a phrase about how “on balconies, the wind fondles laundry lines”). A play in verse, a novel in verse, collective pain in verse—classifications are unnecessary here, as Kaminsky’s book is at its soul a story. Although public assemblies are prohibited when occupying forces “march into town,” the people of Vasenka perform puppet shows. Petya, a deaf boy who is front and center, sneezes, and draws the military attention. Reprimanded, the boy spits at a Sergeant, setting the rest of the book in motion. The entire town becomes silent. Unable to hear, they search for themselves. In one poem: “You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens.” Soon, an inability to hear becomes an ability to see: “our men, once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts— / deafness passes through us like a police whistle.” Deaf Republic is a book of transcendence. See a lullaby: “Little daughter / rainwater // snow and branches protect you.” See an elegy: “Six words, / Lord: // please ease / of song // my tongue.” “If there is no argument inside my work,” Kaminsky has said in an interview, “my work is worthless. For several reasons, there is only one thing I demand from my own lines, or from any poetry I love—I want to read it and to have a sense of having lived. I want to find a texture of life in the lines.” Deaf Republic arrives, textured and alive.

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is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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