Must-Read Poetry: June 2019

June 5, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 4 min read

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in June.

Sightseer in This Killing City by Eugene Gloria

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“To whom does God pray? Does He ever sleep? / Why did Judas hang himself?” In Drivers at the Short-Time Motel, Eugene Gloria’s debut back in 2000, the young narrator questions his father, who “clears his voice, / says nothing, his silence / the very shape of our distance.” Nearly 20 years later, Gloria’s fourth collection, Sightseer in This Killing City continues his themes of family, silence, and wonder, but his poetry has evolved into an even more deft lineation: original phrasings, unique imagery, and lasting emotions. Gloria is full of surprises. “Apron” gives curious life to the functional garment which is “agreeable / as a kitchen mantle with ripening fruit.” Middle-aged, “the apron aspires to stand before / sinners and saints and carve / verses on stone: Mon Coeur mis à nu, / she’ll tattoo on your chest.” Gloria takes his illuminating eye to varied subjects: the war on drugs, Thelonious Monk, fathers, coffins, Dante, and more. We get the sense that Gloria can write about anything, and can do it well—a rare gift. “There’s only lyric,” Gloria writes in one poem, “the rest is merely prose.”

Robert Schumann Is Mad Again by Norman Dubie

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Norman Dubie once said he composed most of his poems between midnight and 4 am. He handwrote the first drafts, typed the next two drafts on typewriters, read the third draft into a tape recorder (and listened to it again and again, making changes), before reading it the next day at breakfast. “I look at the poem and choose to keep it for more work, or I junk it.” Dubie’s poems have that feel: born of late night frenzy, chiseled into skilled creations that retain shades of strangeness. Some poems, like “Homage to St. Geraud,” blaze in their brevity: “Sometimes believing in the beauty / of the fresh elevated incarnate existences / of the wheel, he wishes instead // for an eternal status, a / stone and fetal sleep / like that of the uncollected dead / under the linen snows on Everest.” Others, like “In the Choir Loft,” stretch across pages, from precision to irreverence and back again. An old church, damaged by fire, has been demolished: “snow collapsed the slate roof / as if in boxes.” The “giant crucifix / launched almost across the frozen pond.” The remaining priest emerges as if from a dream (which, of course, this might be!): “in his nightshirt, / holding a single candle.” He thinks of the ghost of a Nova Scotia nun that he once loved. The old priest “finally confessed / he was boiling eggs” on the gas stove, which lead to the flames. Dubie’s poems often feel a bit askew—but maybe he sees the world a bit sharper than others.

1919 by Eve L. Ewing

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In her introduction to this book, Ewing explains discovering a 1922 government report, The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. Although she was first interested in learning more “about housing segregation at the beginning of the Great Migration” for her most recent scholarly book, Ewing became interested in other passages from the report. “The report,” she writes, “was like an old tapestry with loose threads stick out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave.” 1919 is a worthy result. The book begins with that migration of black southerners to Chicago; an exodus that arrives in a litany of names about to leave. “And the people gathered at the bank and bade them farewell,” Ewing writes, “and the river carried them far from the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of browning blood.” Ewing has powers of inhabitation here: She is with the people during “quiet nights in the railyard” and then alone, in the city, on “hard black ground.” In one poem, “Coming from the Stock Yards,” the narrator speaks about how he “called myself a scholar in Georgia, though that was part fancy,” but in Chicago he must start anew: “each one of us a foundry. / hands to cut, to carry. knees to bend. this is still new to me.” A mixture of grand voices, hushed laments, and ardent dreams, 1919 resurrects forgotten history.

Aug 9 — Fog by Kathryn Scanlan

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The longest text in this book is Scanlan’s introduction. She explains that the contents of the book are “drawn from a stranger’s diary.” She’d found the diary 15 years earlier, among unsold items from a public estate auction. The actual diary is decayed and withering. The pages are no longer connected to the spine; the binding is broken and taped. The diary was written by an 86-year-old Illinois woman, started in 1968 and finished in 1972. Scanlan read the diary, “typed out the sentences that caught my attention,” and then began mixing and editing them. Scanlan feels she has become the diarist, and wonders: “Is it some kind of sacred text—meant for me alone?” Her project will certainly compel strong reaction, but the product is absolutely fascinating. Its poetic identity comes from its epigrammatic structure; its imagistic touch. A dream-like narrative emerges here, as if from the titular fog. “Maude ate good breakfast, oatmeal, poached eggs, little sausage. Maude ate her dinner party good. A letter from Lloyd saying John died the 16th.” The book unfolds this way, in epistle-whispers, all secrets. A terribly melancholic book that somehow manages to carry affirmation; perhaps it is in the transcendence of the old woman’s voice, its dogged survival to our digital present. “All kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc but had a good time, a grand day.”

The Milk Hours by John James

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A single poem never contains a full book, but the titular poem of James’s collection comes close. The first poem, “The Milk Hours,” is invoked to two people: the narrator’s father, who died in 1993, and the narrator’s daughter, born in 2013. The space between those years is poetic itself. The poem’s lines are mysterious, ethereal: “The room opens up into white and more white, sun outside / between steeples.” The milk hours, and their “suckling sound,” are hymns that drift the narrator to sleep—to dream of his father, although perhaps “what gun, what type” used no longer matters. “The chopped / copses glisten,” James writes. “Snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.” Poems in this collection drift to other subjects, but they retain this feeling: souls rooted in the ground. Treed. Planted. “In the catacombs I am impatient. / In this hall shuttling between // one world and the next, from / nothing to being and back again.”

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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