Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

June 5, 2020 | 4 books mentioned 6 min read

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison

coverA unique and memorable collaboration that considers friendship, compassion, and the vulnerability and resiliency of our bodies. Nevison and Brown have collaborated on meaningful prose pieces for The New York Times and Image, and this new book is a collection of verse letters between the two poets. “I am always writing from within my body and with my body,” Nevison has said in an interview. “When I write about disability, I’m trying to render the body in new and exciting ways. I seek to place disability at the center and not at the margins.” In this book, the alternating addresses appear as “Dear M” and “Dear S,” appearing without writer names (although implying Molly and Susannah), creating the effect of this conversation being something other than letters passed and more like a shared catharsis. Among all else, there is love in these letters. Nevison writes “The dream where I’m legless / isn’t a nightmare, and I’m not / afraid.” Brown responds “Let’s go / back to wherever it is / we were made for first,” ending her first response: “Sister, take my hand.” These poetic epistles of friendship are beautiful in their compassion, but the poets remain honest about their bodies. “Half the nights / I don’t know my body when I wake to it,” Brown writes, “and there’s grief in the returning, remembering / pain, familiar as a fist I know.” Later she admits: “Sometimes I think it’s true that nothing’s ours / to keep: no version of ourselves and / not the near-eruption of another heart / beating in sleep, so vigilant with dreaming / you can almost see it.” Nevison’s wavering narratives feel authentic. She longs “to go back to before / I knew my body as shrapnel / and shred,” but also acknowledges her truth: “It’s impossible to go back, / but I want it anyway, endlessly, / the moment I’m a small and tender / beast, the fur of me still matted / by birth’s strange coincidence.” Each section of the book ends with a few poems addressed to “Dear Maker”; here the poets collapse into each other, offering a single proclamation. In lines that capture the sentiment of the entire collection, they write: “Under my body’s din, / a hum that won’t quiet, / I still hear what you’ve hidden / in all the waves of sound.” The field between them, ultimately, is lessened by compassion and understanding. In the end, they proclaim together to their maker: “Even if it’s true that my body’s / just a transitory letter, a note / you sent, a piece of paper / covered with your writing, / I’d like to know what it is / you meant.” 

Tertulia by Vincent Toro

coverToro’s book encapsulates an entire tertulia in print, capturing what Ramón Gómez de la Serna called an artistic “place and event” in the early 20th century. As Louie Dean Valencia-García notes, the Spanish incarnation of the café—as opposed to the French salon—was “held in the public sphere,” where the avant-garde could break established forms (Gómez de la Serna said he chose Café Pombo in Madrid as his tertulia “because there was no better place to sound out our ideas of modernity than in that old cellar”). Toro’s book successfully captures this spirit; it arrives with different shades and sections, unified by his risks (and successes) with poetic language. In poems like “Core Curriculum Standards: PS 137” and “Human Instamatic,” phrases are wrought and wrangled. In the former, there are lists, patterns, objects, and almost tiles of phrases, capturing a dilapidated school: “ambling through unkempt / hallways fissure fresco / of soda stains.” In the latter poem, extreme focus and concision creates new visions: “Handball / court liturgies.” “Expired hydrants / mimic Cepheus, wait to be // rezoned.” “Gas mask revelation, paper lamps / bequeathed to repo lots.” The poem “Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead” documents how, after Hurricane Maria, funeral homes cremated bodies. A powerful poem in its own right, the piece is revelatory to revisit during the collective pain of the pandemic: “The grief-stricken ashes are expelled data / offering contrition to the brass. Crippled / funeral parlors obliterate forensics, the sky / replete with muted quarter tones of lamenting / townsfolk destined to live as smoke.” Death tolls blurred for bureaucratic reasons. The dead, metaphorically, go back into the world: “Oxygen is put on the black market. Bones are used / to hold up infected roofs. Unidentified remains / get poured like concrete into jilted lungs.” “On Appropriation,” an equally complex piece, is one of the finest in the collection. The narrator thinks back to his youth: “We were owning the bleachers at our school / basketball game, ignoring the score, the raucous boilerplate / pageant of male bravado was a flu caught from our fathers’ / garages and sports highlight reels.” In the midst of the jostling, the narrator uses a slur—in jest, but the damage is apparent. He looks to his friend “for backup,” but the lack of support is “a frigid reminder that being spawned / from the same archipelago did not mean I could claim / ownership of their blackness, for I would never be placed / into a lower track at school before even being tested. My tint / had never provoked purse clutching.” Awareness and vulnerability in this collection are complemented by empathy, as in the playful but sincere “Ofrenda for Tom the Janitor.” “If no one else // will sing for you, Tom, I will,” the narrator writes. “Tom, with a paunch like a cast-iron stove and hair receding // like coastal banks, old leather shoes clomping through unkempt / stairwells. I will speak of you.”   

More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems edited by Lisa Russ Spaar

coverFor me, an anthology is impressive when something about it feels very particular—theme, subject, style—and yet the book as a whole feels expansive and universal. Spaar accomplishes both here in a well-selected presentation of poems that investigate the self. In her introduction to the collection, she posits that “twenty-first-century proliferation of self-portraiture is so rampant that it’s possible for viewers and readers to become inured to its magic, craft, and power.” In her view, it was not until “the appearance of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that the practice of writing deliberately identified self-portrait poems appears to burgeon in America.” This collection is the opposite of empty gazes; the pieces are steeped in self-doubt and vulnerability. From “Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror” by Mary Jo Bang: “My eye repeats horizontally what I by this time already know: there is no turning back to be someone I might have been.” Resignation and acceptance are countered with the lack of agency captured in “Self-Portrait with Demons” by James Tate: “I am / sorry my car is wavering. // It hauls me. I am not / in control anymore.” To live, perhaps, is to accept that we are here for the ride, as in “Self-Portrait at Treeline” by Anna V. Q. Ross. “My body moves ahead of me / into underbrush,” she writes. “I am shadow, / fern, ripple.” Then there’s “Written by Himself” by the always-wonderful Gregory Pardlo. He delivers grandness in his voice and reach; the self becomes almost infinite. “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” “I was born” is a refrain in the poem: an affirmation that yes, for some time, we exist.

The Clearing by Allison Adair

coverThe opening poem in the collection feels like a fable and nightmare; a scene out of time. “We’ll write this story again and again, // how her mouth blooms to its raw venous throat—that tunnel / of marbled wetness, beefy, muted, new, pillow for our star // sapphire, our sluggish prospecting—and how dark birds come / after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.” We leave the poem a little scared, a little curious, and certainly more aware: The Clearing meditates on what is asked of women, and what is taken from them. The prose poem “Letter to my Niece, in Silverton, Colorado” ponders the years of our lives that are gone forever: “Someday you will watch your mother lean on the rim of the sink to wash dishes in a way she never has before and you will wonder if she was ever young.” The narrator recalls that “It used to be that idling cars might have stopped for the tide, to watch it slide its wet hands up the day’s sand line. But dusk grew tired of resisting, I guess.” A similar glimpse into a forgotten time—of youth, and perhaps of risk—arrives in “Hitching”: “Hoops pierced into high cartilage because we weren’t afraid // at twelve to get into a stranger’s Chevette.” The narrator tells us the story “as if there were grace— / ful streetlamps craning toward us, as if nostalgia drips like a willow / from my mouth. As if you, Reader, and I, have no reason to regret.” Regret plays a complicated role in “Crown Cinquain for the Tattooed Man I Refused,” a powerful piece about how what is refused is not necessarily forgotten. She remembers his “thick, bruised Hebrew, scripture-stung skin,” and wonders: “What would have sung in us, / what prayer worthy of the temple / we were?” 

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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