Must-Read Poetry: July 2019

July 3, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 4 min read

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in July.

In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail

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In her note to this collection, Mikhail explains that she drafted these poems “from right to left and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I only wrote them twice.” Each text, then, is “born on the tip of another tongue”; an original creation that carries a shadow. Her title is developed in the book’s first poem: in Arabic, “Feminine words are followed / by a circle with two dots over it. / They call this symbol the tied circle, / knotted with wishes / which come true only when forgotten / or replaced by the wishes of others.” This feminine sign becomes a source of wonder and longing, permeating Mikhail’s entire collection. Her settings range from Baghdad to Detroit, but are connected by sound and her Chaldean Catholic sense. Are the explosions fireworks, or bombs? Is there a difference to the ear? When in Baghdad as a child, “we played dead: / we killed each other / with plastic weapons”; now those games are no longer played, and the children, “motionless / on the floor,” no longer “laugh / or hold life / and rise.” Mikhail’s solemnity arrives in clean lines and shaped stanzas: “Like communion bread / your words dissolve in my mouth / and never die.” A beautiful book.

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic

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In the book’s title poem, Simic begins with birth: “I was born—don’t know the hour— / Slapped on the ass / And handed over crying / To someone many years dead / In a country no longer on a map.” The narrator wonders about life: “Blessed or cursed—who is to say?” Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States, continues to write terse, witty poems with funny moments that also carry a solemn touch. “Skywalking” is a poem aware of mortality: “Much grief awaits us, friends. / From this day on / We’ll be testing our luck / Like a man stretching a wire / Between two skyscrapers.” Out and up there, folly bound to the wind, “We are likely to forget the man / Waving his arms up there / Like a scarecrow in a squall.” Other poems sneak into the book with breathless, cheeky brevity, as with “Haystack”: “Can you find in there / The straw that broke / Your mother’s back?”

No Matter by Jana Prikryl

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“I think right now readers of all genres put a lot of faith in language and its capacity to reveal—possibly because we live in a time of unhinged political mendacity, so it’s very comforting to believe that literature can provide direct access to someone else’s uncomplicated truth?”—Prikryl has followed that conjecture with her own personal skepticism of language: “For me, the excitement of writing something like a poem usually resides in prodding and questioning the words that claim to represent what my brain claims to want to be saying.” No Matter is full of ambiguity and discovery; poems that move around the linear and logical. Her surprisingly mellifluous order comes, I think, from a spatial sense. From “Real”: “In which the studio / grows L-shaped, with an alcove / for the bed, you modest dream, in which the railroad / widens sideways.” From “Garden”: “I climbed to a railroad apartment / long in all directions, known as an open-plan office / the lights were out anyway / to signify canapés, / at large but shouting / endless prayer.” From “Santo Stefano Rotondo”: “Come, walk this path / between flapping tarps / holding back on either side / construction sites // the way a bedsheet hides” labor; how, “Looking back the path narrows / (memory a scarce resource) / and bends, takes on the gentle / curve of the earth as if in the space / of that city it were given your body / to feel for itself the four inches / up and four inches down / per mile the planet swells.” A deft collection.

Feel Free by Nick Laird

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Laird is by turns witty and sentimental, and I think that mixture compels me more toward poems of the latter mode, as in “Silk Cut”: “I was five and stood beside my dad / at a junction somewhere in Dublin / when I slipped my hand in his / and met the red end of a cigarette.” Years pass, cynicism and pain accrues, and then father and son get a pint. The old man’s “voice tears up a bit // about the emptiness in the house.” Later, “waiting / at the turn for the traffic, / when I find / I have to stop my hand from taking his.” Then there’s the moving lines of “Incantation”: “Depending where one stands, each circle / back is a possible fall, a fail, a spiral, / and I would like you to take a few seconds / to write me out one beautiful sentence / to carry now across the night and ocean.” Feel Free never feels maudlin, though, because Laird reminds us to not get too complacent, as in “Temple of Last Resort”: “I wanted the real God to turn and say //  I was just kidding. // About everything.”

Spiritual Exercises by Mark Yakich

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“For me, being irreverent involves a much deeper understanding of reverence,” Yakich says. “It’s like satire: how does one really fathom something? One makes fun of it in a serious way.” I wouldn’t consider Spiritual Exercises merely a jumpy jeremiad against the titular meditations from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits—I think Yakich is a better poet than that. His new book continues a tradition of Catholic irreverence (we’ve seen it in fiction with James Joyce, John Kennedy Toole, and the legion of the literary lapsed). The best poems in Yakich’s skilled book play with the porous border between the profane and the sacred. The raunch realism of “Biblical”: “Just shy of the surface, fish rise / And die, gleaming more / Beautifully when belly-up.” The curious truths of “Empathy”: “It’s a bit unnerving, for instance, / To watch someone else extract // A broken wineglass from the garbage / Disposal.” And yet, how “oddly satisfying to / Dig out those same shards oneself, / One by one, tenderly, until a finger’s // Pricked.” Empathy, “as a method of penitence,” rarely “soothes”—but “As a display of // Affection, it’s nearly foolproof.” Ignatius, smirking, would be proud.

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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