Must-Read Poetry: April 2019

April 3, 2019 | 6 books mentioned 5 min read

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in April.

Honeyfish by Lauren K. Alleyne

There’s not a page in Honeyfish untouched by grace and grief. In “How to Watch Your Son Die”: “His name // will become a strange music / in the foreign instrument of your voice.” The masterful “Killed Boy, Beautiful World” sings and stings: “How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds / tumbling in streams of white, / the sky dappled, then clear, / then blotted with rain; the news / of death and more death.” And yet: “you want to hold on to it, / this life that breaks you again / and again.” Viscerally real poems invoked to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice live next to poems of metaphor, as with “The Pain Fair”: “The opening act is breaking / all manner of things open: / wishes, bones, hearts, glass / eyes, brains.” The crowd applauds “politely: we know / this is nothing impressive.” Next, the magician commands from the crowd “first heartaches, first betrayals, / they resound like phantom / symphonies, notes swelling / our chests like air into balloons.” A unique talent, Alleyne’s skilled lines levitate with something more: passion, grace, and a willingness to ask questions that linger. “Heaven?” ends with one such unanswered question: “How many angels weep / when a black girl is torn / into wings?” An excellent book.

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The Tradition by Jericho Brown

“I mean, don’t you want God / To want you? Don’t you dream / Of someone with wings taking you / Up?” Brown has a preternatural sense of pacing, which I suspect is one reason why he’s one of the most commanding of contemporary poets. Gravity in verse goes a long way, and Brown’s lines feel well-worn, fully-thought, complete. From “As a Human Being”: “There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve. / They sit apart from each other / The way you and your mother / Sat on opposite sides of the sofa / After an ambulance came to take / Your father away.” Effortless, we know, is never really without effort, but Brown’s flowing lines are still worth commending—poems moving from God and gifts to the detritus of our plans and pains. In “Foreday in the Morning,” the narrator thinks of his mother, who “grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her porch,” and told him “I could have whatever I worked for.” Her faith in the world came from God, but the narrator is “ashamed of America / And confounded by God.” Haunted by God, possibly, though Brown’s narrators often find faith elsewhere: “Some people need religion. Me? / I’ve got my long black hair. I twist / The roots and braid it tight.” A book pierced by a devotion to desire, The Tradition is a powerful collection—an affirmation of love. “I thought then / Of holding you / As a political act,” the narrator says in “Stand.” “I / May as well have / Held myself.”

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Hawk Parable by Tyler Mills

We really don’t spend a lot of our lives looking up—the sun steals our sight, or we might trip over our own feet—though Mills’s new book might send readers outside to stare and wonder how bombs have soiled the sky. A rather ominous endnote, “My grandfather’s possible involvement in the Nagasaki mission has remained a mystery,” helps frame this book, stitched together by anecdote, folklore, blurry memory, rumor, and archival reels. Many of Mills’s narrators are shocked by the sky; in “Exposure,” “I was hanging the baby’s diapers on the balcony / when I noticed / a multicolored parachute / floating in the sky.” Hell might burn below our feet, but there’s a devilish tinge to what falls from above—and Hawk Parable tells a recursive story of how atomic tests reel on an infinite loop. In one poem, the narrator thinks of the Enewetak Atoll tests: “I swallow vomit after watching // the island wart into an orange bulb. Just before, / birds glanced off the shimmering water.” Three-quarters of the way through the collection, Mills detours into prose poems that are associative and essayistic—another mode in her attempt at reconciliation with the past. Her frequent return to test sites in the book is apt, as if we are asked to consider the steps necessary toward destruction: methodical, meticulous, messy steps.  

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Brute by Emily Skaja

“What I want is a permanent figure / I want a marker here to separate / The Time Before from The Time Now.” The first section of Skaja’s debut ends with a poem of exile: self-imposed, absolutely necessary, freeing. She quotes a crisp line by Lucie Brock-Broido—“After Pennsylvania, I couldn’t breathe”—concluding a first quarter of the book that sketches Philadelphia in terms of struggle and suffocation. The narrator of these poems is smothered by an abusive man and the city’s “hot pavement.” The book’s second section, titled “Girl Saints,” is a scream of freedom. They’ve had enough. “Our hands bled. We saw Rorschach blood in our wounds, Pietà in egg yolks.” Women “bled on our white clothes—we bore them redly // to the table.” “Girl Saints,” the lead and titular poem of the section, arrives like an anthem. Other poems, like “Dear Emily,” are whispers to the past: “Easy to disown the girl you were / at 23: fluffed dove-gray / & bridal, eyes up, prim bird claws / pink on the brute arm / of your first wreck.” There’s everything in this strong debut, including the occasional reminder: “I need to remember how to be a body, more than a chalk outline filled in with cedar shavings, doubt.”

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The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil

Ypil’s observant poems are direct and eye-opening. Often a single line creates a gap in the narrative that allows us to step inside and wonder. “The nature of a city depends on the direction its people are moving. In the morning, towards. By evening, away.” Later in “The Nature of the City,” a profoundly lucid prose poem, he continues: “It takes bringing something into the heart of a city then back out into its tributaries, to raise the price of one’s possessions. This principle applies to one’s hopes and desires as it does to chickens and vegetables.” A later poem with the same title offers a new perspective: “The nature of a city depends on the combination of views it could be seen from: by high noon or night, by backstreet or avenue.” Ypil’s lines carry the authority of aphorism without ever feeling pedantic. His stories are gentle and clear, as in “The History of Towns”: “The history of towns is always / the history of looking back.” By the time you’re done contemplating the truth of an early line, Ypil offers another accuracy: “A family is only as good as the father / who is gone.”

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Herod’s Dispensations by Harry Clifton

Dublin-born Clifton, who has left and returned to his home country several times in his life, creates a feeling of inevitability in this new collection. He has called form in poetry “emotional mathematics—the need to resolve something inside that is chaotic before it does damage,” and even his open lines in Herod’s Dispensations feel gently tense. He is wracked, and wrecked, by God. “I never belonged in my father’s house,” he writes in “Endgame,” “His unread Bible on the shelf / My silent coming of age.” He thinks of the Beckett play as he spends “a Sunday afternoon / Without God,” thinking about “Those who can never do themselves in, / Those who can never pray.” He finds curious kin in the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, “who would hang by his own rope / of Catholic heresy.” The narrator, himself a “soul-abandoned body,” thinks the controversial priest a brother, who “died, a pastor without flock / In a New York room—anathema, frozen out.” They are both “Gnostic, heretic.” Yet the narrator can’t help but hum the tune of that old religion, in “Death’s Door”: “Christ, the weight of that coffin.” He’s tired. “Please, can I die now? Tired, I straighten up / The whole of life behind me.”  

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

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