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Must-Read Poetry: April 2020

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Deluge by Leila Chatti

A stunning debut. Chatti enters the Marian tradition of literature with fury, joining Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine as recent works that offer new theory and theology toward the literary Mary. In this God-teeming book, Chatti considers not only herself against Mary—the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an—but all women present and historical against the Marian figure and image. Raised Muslim by her father, her “mother’s family is deeply Catholic,” and she was drawn to the Marian identity across those two faiths, particularly what Mary says in the Qur’an, while giving birth: “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” In Deluge, Chatti emerges from that line with a synthesis of body and spirit, secret and wish, miracle and literal body. “Truth be told,” she starts the first poem, “I like Mary a little better / when I imagine her like this, crouched / and cursing, a boy-God pushing on / her cervix (I like remembering / she had a cervix, her body ordinary / and so like mine).” In other poems, Chatti steps within Mary’s identity, imagining the visitation by Gabriel, “rude / as a dream,” and feeling regret over keeping “my tongue in my mouth.” “Perhaps I’d have been / better off,” she ends the poem, “to be wary, but I’d been waiting so long / to hear God speak—I hadn’t thought to think // of what he might tell me.” In one of several poems titled “Annunciation,” Chatti’s identity folds into Mary as they become one woman who, throughout the book, encounter men (doctors, lovers, more): “I have come to accept the story of my own / obedience.” Each line here a testimony: “You sent a man I could not / look at fully, or touch, he was a flame / which spoke, and I could not / be afraid.”

Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney

McSweeney is one of our most dynamic poets of theme, mood, and syntax, and this new paired collection unifies those ranges in a most powerful fashion. Toxicon examines our necropastoral, digital landscape: “What is it to survive / or lie cossetted in a coma / a bombilation of effects / a thicket of causes—”. McSweeney’s lines and concerns always intersect and interject, as in “Axis”:  “If there is an axis / let it run through my heart / and the heart of my horse // waving this lance like a lancet / toward an abscess in the breast / of the sky, gimlet-eye / into which a planet has just swum.” In ““For Alexandra Negrete,” an elegy for a murdered Mexican worker, she writes  “the sound we call static / is really full of activity / percussing / and injuring itself / and sending the message back / through the sea shell / to the ear canal.” In McSweeney’s poetry, everything surrounding us is active, alive, fervent. Our bodies spasm, jerk, contort: out-of-control, dislocated. Arachne, the second paired text, is a soul-moving song to her daughter, who died so young her spirit rises from these pages: “I who feel so obsolete / An obol and an obelisk / a baffle and a baselisk / With one daughter dead and two living.” McSweeney leaves grief open and breathing: an affirmation that grief can somehow sustain us, give us reason to persevere.


Obit by Victoria Chang

Chang is consistently a poet who resurrects mediums, her work living within surprising spaces and forms, and both exposing and surpassing the possibilities for those structures. In prose poems that channel the obituary style, Chang wonders what death might mean for the living: how lives are filled with passings and grief, and how such pain might remind us what it means to be alive. Chang has the rare poetic talent to follow the edges of dark comedy to find sentiment rather than irony. Her parents loom large here. Her father’s stroke appears in the first poem, and he returns often, as in a voicemail that is poorly documented: “The Transcription Beta could not transcribe dementia. My father really said, I’ll fold the juice, not I love you. Is language the broom or what’s being swept?” In a later poem, she brings her father to an arcade, and, “As if he were visiting his past self in prison, [he touched] the clear glass at his own likeness.” She ends the poem: “He called my dead mother over to see his score, hand waving at me. What happens when the shadow is attached to the wrong object but refuses to let go? I walked over because I wanted to believe him.” When her mother died, and Chang told her children, “the three of us hugged in a circle, burst into tears. As if the tears were already there crying on their own and we, the newly bereaved, exploded into them.” A book that might help us understand the confounding place of loss in our lives.

Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

California: pastoral, urban, suburban—home to myth and magic. Taylor’s book is geologic in concept and theme, both panoramic and particular (her lines are ripe with texture, as in: “Blackberries choke the bike path; / schoolboys squall like gulls or pigeons.”). There’s a self-awareness of identity and place that enables Taylor to write odes that double as measured reflections, as with “Berkeley in the Nineties”: “Too late for hippie heyday / & too young to be yuppies / we wandered creeksides & used bookstores.” Later: “We could say systemic racism / but couldn’t name yet how our lives were implicated.” This youthful freedom and folly is juxtaposed with another California: “In every sale, a list of ways / your home could be destroyed. / Flood, earthquake, fire.” Disruption is inevitable here, and will be watched by the redwoods that “overlook / your fragile real estate.” “Train Through Colma” wonders about the future: “But will anyone teach / the new intelligence to miss / the apricot trees // that bloomed each spring / along these tracks?” Taylor hits the fine note of how nostalgia evolves into worry and lament: “When the robots have souls, / will they feel longing? / When they feel longing, // will they write poems?”

Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres

“Poetry’s slowness,” Metres has written, “its ruminativity, enables us to step back from the distracted and distracting present, to ground ourselves again through language in the realities of our bodies and spirits and their connections to the ecosystems in which we find ourselves.” Metres has emerged as one of the leading Catholic poet-activists. A previous book, Sand Opera, “began as a daily Lenten meditation, working with the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib, to witness to their suffering; it became an attempt to find a language that would sight (to render visible) and site (to locate in the geographical imagination) the war itself, constantly off-screen.” Shrapnel Maps exists along this continuum as a book that feels itinerant, longing for discovery, and fascinating in its conception of neighbor (close and far). “One Tree,” the first poem, arrives like an introductory parable: “They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year.” The tree shadowed their vegetable patch. “Always the same story,” the narrator observers: “one tree, not enough land or light or love.” In “A Concordance of Leaves,” the first extended sequence of the book, the narrator and his family go to Toura in the West Bank for his sister’s wedding: “sister soon you will be written / alongside your future.” She “will find another way / through rutted olive // orchards & soon new sisters / will soften your feet with oil.” “Theater of Operations,” a sequence of sonnets that consider a hypothetical suicide bombing, jar and illuminate: “My tongue wrestles with new words— // so why do I taste metal, like blood in the mouth? / Why do I feel so alive, this close to death?” A riveting, ambitious book.

Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’DonnellO’Connor has a worthy medium in O’Donnell, who has been a perceptive and honest examiner of one of our finest fiction writers (Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor is nicely paired and contrasted with The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor). In this new book, each poem is paired with a line from her letters, stories, or essays. Readers of O’Connor’s correspondence know that she was deft, sarcastic, contemplative, curious: a unique mind that was equally (and paradoxically) at home writing for diocesan publications as she was appearing in Esquire. O’Donnell brings her alive in these pieces. In “Flannery in Iowa,” O’Connor reflects on the “wishes / I brought to that little church. / The swords I laid down on that alter.” In graduate school, “Marooned and alone, I went there in search / of who I needed to become.” The classic line about the Eucharist that O’Connor quipped to Mary McCarthy—”Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”—is dramatized here: “A country and a Catholic girl, I’d come / to the Big City to learn to write, / not to lose the only faith I’d known / and could not live without.” “Compline,” the penultimate section of the book, is melancholy and pensive, and considers O’Connor’s life cut short at 39: “These are my last days, that’s pretty clear— / though sometimes at night I still feel the call / of this life.” A necessary collection for fans of O’Connor, and a welcome introduction to those who want to understand the continuing pull of a truly original writer.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall

With each successive book, there’s even more grandness to Brimhall’s narrative voice. She writes with a commanding sense, with some poems feeling like the voice beaming to Job, and other poems arriving like a hypnotizing whisper at night. “I left the religion, but kept the sin / and its images,” one narrator writes—an apt description of the permeating sense of God and absence in this ambitious book. With belief in the distance, “None of my prayers are questions anymore. / Just aching stanzas full of chrysanthemums dying / on the kitchen table.” “I want out of exile,” the narrator says in the book’s final poem, “and back to a garden where we can confuse / innocence with goodness.” This longing results in a synthesis of the divine and desire. First, in a conceptual sense: “Every fire thinks it’s a part of God, but lightning / is not a promise, a flag is not a shield. Love wants you / to believe that there’s a God somewhere who can // do your dying for you. There are raptures that won’t / come for you and raptures that will.” Then, elsewhere in the book, Brimhall’s narrators blur love and lust—to use apophatic methods. “I want God’s anger / more, want to rouse the Old Testament in me,” one narrator writes—“want to be both hand and cheek. Even when God / flooded the world, he loved it. Even when he promised / to destroy it again with cleansing fire. That’s the way / I want to love.” She writes to Eros: “I worshipped the myth I made of you, but I’m off my knees / now. I want your hands to become language and make me / offer you one thigh at a time.” The blurring of God and Eros, belief and unbelief, are the result of Brimhall’s provocative and powerful language. “We all want / to be broken for one another,” she writes, to explain how compelled we are to touch. “We all want to kiss our names from someone else’s / mouth.” Another masterful book from one of our finest poets.

Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips

Few poets can deliver such weight with such precision as Phillips, who again marvels in this new collection. In an early piece, “On Being Asked to Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing,” Phillips demonstrates the power of metaphor. A forest opens to a clearing, “a vast / meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an /angled argument against despair.” Yet that material might only be weeds, with language and form intermingling, blending, and then separating. “Like taking / a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might / more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point // in twilight where twilight seems most / a bowl designed to turn routinely but / as if by accident half roughly over”: the recursive nature, the mimesis evolving into mysticism—Phillips’s method creates a new, acute world. This is longing! This is what poetry, I think, must do: bring us to the brink, “from the smudged edge of all that / seemed to be left of what we’d called / belief.” The poem ends: “what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give, and you shall receive.” In this book, the language and luster of belief is not mere vestige—it is a liturgy of desire. It is an interrogation of the self: “If as shame is to memory, so too desire, / then is this desire, this cloak of shadows, / that I wrap close around me, that I / refuse to take off?” Phillips is the type of writer to make us believe that, perhaps, poetry truly is the form in which story and song best breathe together.

A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems by Lawrence Joseph

Joseph is a Catholic poet for a real world of sin. In one early poem, the narrator was “pulled from the womb / into this city.” He spent hours in prayer, and even more hours in shame. He proclaims himself “the poet of my city,” the pronouncement more a sense of duty than grandiosity. We get that sense elsewhere: in another poem, the narrator, coy, says “I’m only an accessory to particular images.” In a way, it is the perfect summation of Joseph’s project: the self permeating the work as story and symbol, an act of poetic transubstantiation. In one poem, the poet reflects on Catholic school: the Baltimore Catechism, and how he “prayed / to a litany of saints to intercede / on behalf of my father who slept / through the sermon at seven o’clock Mass.” He recited the Book of Jeremiah in fifth grade, confounding his teacher. Yet despair resides in some of these poems: “Heaven answers your prayers with dust and you swallow it.” “There is a God who hates us so much: / we are given ears to hear ribs kicked in, / we are given eyes to see eyes close / before a city that burns itself to death”—these are words of suffering, yes, but despair does not overtake this book. St. Augustine haunts Joseph’s verse, and when we complete this confession, we feel charged and changed. An important book that begins to collect Joseph’s notable writing.

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

Hirshfield has said that “part of poetry’s core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn’t being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward.” In some poems, Hirshfield makes visible our common world, as when she writes: “I admire the amnesia of buckets.” How they are “simple of purpose.” “A bucket upside down / is almost as useful as upright”; how a “bucket receives and returns all it is given, / holds no grudges, fears, / or regret.” She also mines the most confounding elements of our existence. Her poem “I Wanted to be Surprised” begins: “To such a request, the world is obliging.” She is surprised to learn “the stubborn, courteous persistence” that words like please and good morning might still carry weight, “and that when I wake up / the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain, / the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.” Perhaps what grounds Hirshfield’s narrators is a humble sense of realism. Of life, one narrator concludes: “This did not have to happen. no part of this had to happen.” Existence isn’t arbitrary, but it requires a graceful skepticism: “I would like / to grow content in you, doubt, / as a double-hung window / settles obedient into its hidden pulleys and ropes.” She’s also capable of stinging elegies. “I said,” she begins one short poem. “I believed / a world without you unimaginable. // Now cutting its flowers to go with you into the fire.”

The Painted Bunting’s Last Molt by Virgil Suárez

A book of leaving and longing. The song of “When Leaving the Country of Your Birth” is anaphoric, entrancing: “Will the wind remember your body,” he begins, writing of a land from which the narrator has left. The questions that follow are heartbreaking: “Will your old house stand in the shadows of all the plantains your father planted?” “Who will remember you, child? Who will sigh your name?” “Who will trace the bread crumbs this far out?” That final question returns to a common theme in the book: what happens when we must finally, truly go home? The narrator’s grandmother wants to return to Cuba: “My grandmother says they will return because they miss // their concave lives, and each night, before she puts me to sleep, / she sings a prayer for the worn, the lost, for the unremembered.” Sadly, she tells that narrator that “we live in countries / we cannot possibly die in.” Despite this pain of distance, Suárez captures the glimmer of hope that exists in escape and travel. Excellent descriptions of water, that route of travel, abound: “At night, other than the star-pocked sky, // there is little difference between the slicked surface / of the water and the heavens.” Later: “What I like about water is it knows // how to keep a secret. A body slices / through without leaving a trace, / when you must leave in the night.”

Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez

A book that captures the inevitable, immediate collision between natural and manufactured worlds. Perez pairs his first poem with a quote from Mythologies by Roland Barthes: “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.” Plastic—the manufactured world—is ubiquitous, inevitable. It is the probe that the doctor presses against the belly of the narrator’s wife; it is the bag in which her placenta is stored. Later, it is the material of their daughter’s pacifier, and the pump that “whirrs” as “breastmilk drips into a plastic bottle.” The narrator dreams that his daughter is “composed of plastic, / so that she, too, will survive our wasteful hands.” Even his figurative language in the book is steeped in manufactured language: “Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume.” On Halloween, he says, “let us praise the souls of native youth, whose eyes / are open-pit uranium mines, veins are poisoned / rivers, hearts are tar sands tailings ponds.” Perhaps for this reason, the narrator-fathers of this book have disaster on their minds: “Am I brave enough to bear her // across the razor wires of foreign countries / and racial hatred?” He wonders and worries: “Could I inflate my body into a buoy to hold her above rough waves?” In “Echolocation,” the narrator cooks dinner while his wife plays with their daughter, and he sees a news report about Tahlequah, an orca whale who grieves her dead calf.” Their lives go on—preschool, vaccinations—as the whale carries her dead child “until every wave / is an elegy, / until our planet / is an open / casket.” Elegiac and skillful, Perez’s collection is worth pondering.

To Make Room for the Sea by Adam Clay

Clay once described the poet John Ashbery as a writer “whose work has always struck me as layered on so many levels, though it might seem simple on the surface.” That duality, I think, often resides in Ashbery’s tendency toward the melancholy sense, as in “Vetiver”: “Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay, / As the flowers recited their lines / And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.” Clay shares that graceful and skillful movement in this new book: “Beneath // every question is an elegy, and beneath / every elegy lives the promise that a life / will persist long after its song.” From: “Meditation for the Silence of Morning” “Imagine finding you look at the world / completely different upon waking one day.” Clay’s usage of the second person is an invitation to grief: “You’ve looked out the door each morning // only to find the view’s changed little over time, but life feels / passive and grows more so the further you go from the bed, // quietly unsure of what the day holds.” One narrator concludes that “Life mostly feels like walking the line / between an elegy and an ode.” Clay, like Ashbery, demonstrates that something remains other than despair. There is “some version of hope or comfort / found within each simple slow ritual, // but what to make of life when there’s no ritual / worth praising? Sometimes even starting / to think of an inevitable void is a comfort / we keep for ourselves, a minor way of curbing / the mind from danger.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– A Year in Reading: Jane HirshfieldFifteen Poets on Revision

Must-Read Poetry: February 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Through a Small Ghost by Chelsea Dingman

“I wanted to give you the world.” The narrator of “Memento Mori,” the first poem in Dingman’s new book, speaks those words to the child inside of her. And yet she knows “my body is / the house you will ever forget how to breathe in.” Dingman has the gift to see the world through a wound. In “Intersections,” the narrator encounters a mare “alone in a field, her belly / distended, ribs like ladder rungs.” The occasional wind rustles oak trees, and the mare “spits & shakes” as well. “I’ve seen this before,” the narrator says: “the way a woman’s body reaches // for its own ruin.” There’s wind elsewhere in this book, and its spirit and haunt is the perfect metaphor (I think of John 3:8–“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”). In “Postscript,” she writes: “A wind chime on my mother’s porch. / The prairies. The constant wind / tears through me like a new language. / Like it’s whispering empty empty empty.” These poems are hymns to a lost daughter. An affirmation. “How briefly the body is a story / where everything matters, // even its name.” And: “When the world // shows us that it’s incapable / of mercy, we stay up all night / & practice how to be merciful.” One of the best books this year.

Romances by Lisa Ampleman 

The first two poems of Ampleman’s new collection follow Andreas Capellanus, a likely pseudonym for the author of a 12th century satirical volume on courtly love. Ampleman immediately brings him to the present day with her own form of humor–a little whimsical, a little absurd, always clever (Rule #2: “Unrequited love is like insulation–toxic / cotton candy hidden beneath gypsum board. / It will keep you warm all winter.”). But Ampleman turns in her own direction to create a farcical take on contemporary love, yet one stitched with real sentiment. In “Love-Scrawls,” the narrator thinks about how we “carve trees, scrape the bark to make our confession, / our affinities simplified to initials / in a lopsided heart.” Not to mention the affirmations on bathroom stalls and biceps. We know that “flesh stretches, ink fades,” but love is not logical. Love is unpredictable, of course (this could be the only book to include a sonnet sequence dedicated to Courtney Love–“I transcribe and mimeograph you for the sake / of those who’ve loved and lost, or sighed / over a sonnet.”).  Ampleman is the perfect guide for this subject.

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

In his prose introduction to this collection, Phillips writes that “we all make art with the same material–time, art is made of time.” Time–inexorable, constant, unconcerned with us despite our obsession with it–plays a distinct role in his new book. He imagines history as a lover who “promises you a kiss / When she comes to bed.” Until then, she, “like every night this summer, stays up / To watch her shows.” History wakes you not with the light of dawn, but “just the white haze of her cell. / You stayed half-awake in the lit darkness / Thinking she owed you something.” Maybe a kiss, maybe more, but then the “light turned off as if it never happened. / And nothing came to you because you were / Owed absolutely nothing.” There’s a touch of Stevens here, of Warren. In another poem, “We wander round ring after ring of life, / One after another, blossoms of light / To which we’re but a mere flotsam of bees.” Remember: “Yesterday’s newspapers becomes last week’s / Newspapers spread like a hand-held fan / In front of the face of the apartment / Door.” The truths of Phillips’s book are plain and perceptive, harsh and oddly soothing.

A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok

Sok has an impressive sense of story in this debut collection. In “American Dancing in the Heart of Darkness,” the narrator, of Cambodian heritage, is in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival. She is surrounded by American students, and considers “maybe I’m American too.” She and the other students stay at the Golden Gate Hotel, where she orders room service–“fresh young coconut, a club sandwich, and French fries”–delivered by a “woman with a bruised face and a silver tray” who has to walk seven floors to her room. The woman will make the same trip almost nine times that night to other rooms, American rooms. The next morning, hundreds are killed and injured in a human stampede at Koh Pich, and the narrator hears from her family. The Americans nod in recognition at the horror, but the narrator is no traveler. Confused, and dizzy with grief, she goes “to the Heart of Darkness, the nightclub empty but open. / We dance with Khmer boys.” The calls announcing deaths continue to arrive that night. It’s an early poem in the book, but Sok never lets up, her detailed sense creating almost constant suspense and tension in this collection. A significant new voice.

Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

These are affirming poems–songs, truly. In the title poem, Wesley writes “Let me come to you at dawn, my children, / my calabash, wet from the early dawn’s / water-fetching run.” Wet, tired, and yet determined: “Let me come to you bearing tears on my face / after the war, after the villages have crumbled / under the weight of grave hate.” The power of Wesley’s collected work here is established in the book’s first poem, “Some of Us Are Made of Steel,” blessedly inspirational verse for a world that needs it: “life has made us cry. / But in our tears, salt, healing, salty, and forever, / we are forever. Yes, some of us are forever.” In one poem, Wesley is thankful for graces common and uncommon, including suffering. Such willingness to see the grace in pain informs the rest of her book, steeped in elegies and remembrances that avoid nihilism. “When I meet my mother,” Wesley writes, “she will take / from my tired hands, this bundle of rotten / leaves and the pail of tears / I have brought to her.” She writes of Liberia and war, and leaving Liberia–but hopefully not forever. “One of these days / there will be rejoicing / all over the place,” she promises. “All of us refugees / will come home again.”

Still Life by Ciaran Carson

The late Carson’s final volume begins with the word “Today,” and that first line ends with the phrase “here I am”–an appropriate formulation. His long lines, their ends pushing past the margin and running down the center, create a root in the present. Carson speaks often of his terminal diagnosis in these poems: “How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is going on. / The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left. / And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.” There is a bravery in offering oneself over to elegy, although the book never feels maudlin–owing to Carson’s range, his almost ravenous curiosity.

Must-Read Poetry: January 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era by Chad Bennett

“Isn’t every poem / for someone? Why not you?” Bennett’s songs of longing are clever and carefully rendered—smooth control over lines being only one defining element of this welcome debut collection. Poems switch between first and second person narrator, so that the audience feels like pursuer and pursued, a poetic inversion that is captured through syntax as well: “O light, music, poetry, plague: in a time to come who will remember us?” “Silver Springs,” a periodic poem about Fleetwood Mac and all other things fleeting, centers the collection (when you get to part #23, the page that simply reads “Do you know who you are?,” the question hits). In “Little Spell Against Future Woe,” Bennett again captures those punchy moments that we can’t quite let loose, although they are gone: “No you never recognized, in odd bodies, one who saw you, creature of a moment, unwinding the unmade bed to what pressed along your neck in the back of the cab to the red of your face at the edge of some ruinous night.”  

Little Envelope of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock

Outer space and forest space: There’s a wonderfully varied yet unified bookending to Winrock’s new collection. “In a copse the deer’s body is glass / -felled, is still-beating / cross sections, is abrupt- / bladed. The deer’s body is my body.” Winrock’s narrators seek synthesis with the natural world, a way to understand mysteries and ghosts and visions. Later in that same poem, “Law of Diminishing Returns,” the narrator recalls “two white deer” seen “in the army depot in upstate, / against an apocalyptic sunset: splitting / a landscape into two perfect halves // of light and no light—they were real.” That feeling ascends to the dark heavens, where Winrock writes of spacesuits, distance, and drifting: “I veil my face to keep from beginning // To pre-breathe, to forgo the endless necessity // For nitrogen—our lady of gravity.” And between these planes, there are wonderful poems like “Aubade for Future Resurrection,” with lines that levitate: “The forest refuses to laurel / its leaves around our chalk outlines. And I’m not drunk // enough to admit this must feel like when God stops / talking to even the most devoured in faith.” 

Homie by Danez Smith

“o California,” Smith begins one poem, “don’t you know the sun is only a god / if you learn to starve for her?” The narrator stands at the ocean “dressed in down, praying for snow” because “too much light makes me nervous // at least in this land where the trees always bear green.” The narrator asks: “have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California? / the sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror // all demanding to be the sun.” Among Smith’s many poetic talents is the ability to thread elegy with ebullience—the sweet (maybe even bittersweet) spot between nostalgia and resignation. Maybe that’s why many of these poems route themselves through friendships lost, strained, pulsing, worthy of rediscovering? Smith’s lines will hypnotize you, but also wake you, as in “ode to gold teeth”: “forgive me, forgive me, citizens // of my papa’s dead mouth / i stole you from behind his cold / flap at the funeral, i knew you were / not teeth, but seeds.” As in: “i’m waiting for a few folks // i love dearly to die so i can be myself. / please don’t make me say who.” As in: “i did not come to preach of peace / for that’s not the hunted’s duty.” An excellent collection.

Summer Snow by Robert Hass

From Field Guide, his first collection, to this present volume, Hass has always been concerned with the “language and imagery of place”–and his stated affinity for Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder shines through in his own poetry about nature. The finest poems in this new book, his first in nearly a decade, carry these natural themes–and do so with not a small amount of self-awareness (from “Stanzas for a Sierra Morning”: “You couldn’t have bought the sky’s blue. / Not in the silk markets of Samarkand. Not / In any market between Xi’an and Venice. // Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. / Isn’t that, after all, what a stanza is for”). In “Cymbeline,” Hass offers his ars poetica on this point: “Everything we do is explaining the sunrise. / Dying explains it. Making love explains it.” It’s the type of an admission we see in later Yeats: the acknowledgment of form and function, that poetry can be both art and real. Hass is able to craft both with ease and skill, as in poems like “Dream in the Summer of My Seventy-Third Year,” a graceful consideration of death. In the narrator’s poem, he is “behind a funeral cortege on a mountain road / And decide to pass it.” Unable to, he becomes part of “the caravan / Of mourners.” Snow falls quickly, heavily, and then stops. The poem’s final lines offer a perfect pause: “nothing in particular happens / After a snowfall, except for the intense stillness / In the pine forest the road is winding through.” 

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan

Longer poems seem the perfect form for Sullivan, whose methodical and melancholy lines tell wayward stories. In “You, Very Young in New York,” the first poem, second person creates a pointed intimacy. In this city, “nothing seems to happen. You stand around // On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed, / Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress / With one arm raised, waiting to get older.” Nothing seems to help. In a later section of the poem, the character spends another day inside in a “beige Lego-maze of offices,” steeped in tedium: “You have created a spreadsheet with thirteen tabs, / The manager is giving you hell, ordering sushi, cancelling cabs.” As the narrator says later in the poem, “The thing about being very young, as you are, is the permeability / Of one person to another.” Sullivan rewards the reader for following the profluence of her verse, and the end to the first poem is an elegy for unanswered love, coupled with the generous gift of surprise. Each of these three long pieces feels and flows differently, united by Sullivan’s talent for wit, as well as for the texture of observation: “And the day comes when it is time to visit the living, / When the garden was long with gooseberries / And lightning cracked the teacup of the sky.” 

Must-Read Poetry: December 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart

“Unlike life, / war can be survived.” Barnhart’s debut is full of these sharp, solemn touches about war and the shadow of military service. A former US Army Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barnhart’s book shares the spirit of Phil Klay’s story collection Redeployment: testaments to the lasting memories of lives burned by violence. When he ends one poem “the guns were loud–loud like gods applauding,” there’s an acute sense that Barnhart is especially skilled at capturing the encompassing feeling of war. In the excellent titular poem, the narrator says his sister “had been receiving a lot of calls / from strangers” asking for Elisha, since her number was listed on an escort site. Meanwhile, the narrator, deployed in Afghanistan, sits “in a little plywood room painted red, / hung with pictures of the other guys’ wives.” Bored, he repeats twice that “nothing ever happens.” Barnhart, true to his title, is talented at crafting moments of loneliness–both in scene and in line (one poem, “Survival and Evasion,” is sapped of moisture, so that its lines feel soured and clipped, the perfect tone: “Day nine: turned our tongues to chalk / with unripe persimmons. Used them to bait / a snare instead.”). One of the most important debuts this year. 

I Offer My Heart as a Target (Ofrezco Mi Corazón Como Una Diana) by Johanny Vázquez Paz (translated by Lawrence Schimel)

“Love my scar / discover in its ugliness the perfect geography / where tears find their bearings with laughter.” Paz compels us to look closer, and longer, at bodies worn, stressed, and hurt. Often her narrators are hurt by men–in the shadows and under the light, in the past and in the present. “And they say that I let them,” one narrator laments, “by not squealing madly / shouting my panic / to my friends / saving my family / from the shame.” Paz creates a sense of shared shame; after all, her narrators have inherited so much from their family: “I don’t know at what moment / my sisters inhabited me, / when they looted my room / to install their own belongings / and furnish me with their dreams.” She ends the poem: “I am a hundred women in one / hybrid of virgin possibilities / and I feel on my skin the pain and the laughter / of all the warrior women I inherited.” Paz’s book is full of tradition, tension, and rage: “Without strength to fulfill the vengeances / I wreak every night in my sleep / when I dream that I am another woman / who doesn’t awaken in me.” 

Gatekeeper by Patrick Johnson

Fragmented and fractured, Johnson pushes this book to its structural limits–and the result is a successfully jarring and disturbing collection. This is a book of the internet, and of our internal selves: of pursuit, lust, and a closing into the spirit. Prose-poetic pages offer intermittent, dramatic scenes that create a narrative through-line for the book: the narrator, curiosity piqued by the possibilities of the hidden and deep web, begins searching and stalking that space. Johnson’s vision here is a world that we all dabble in–at the least the surface of it, on which these very words are being read–but Johnson pushes us lower, invites us in, and wonders what would help when we follow this medium to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. “We talk for months without exchanging names,” the narrator says of his relationships with Anon, a phantom voice, a source of distant intrigue. Johnson takes on a breakneck feel in the book, and when he steps out from the online space, as in poems like “black mirror (slowly),” the dystopia remains. Even though the narrator takes a break from the computer, he longs for a return: “This desire, an impulse, undoes me.” Is this digital love? Gatekeeper offers uncomfortable possibilities.  

Life Poem by Bob Holman

Holman wrote Life Poem in 1969, when he was 21. There’s been a lifetime between that manuscript and now–a lifetime during which Holman has been an activist, poet, professor, promoter of poetry, and more. When Holman cites the Jesuit critic Walter Ong, S.J. in his foreword (“life fits into poem the way that meaning is nested in sound”), it feels like we are entering into a pleasant and quirky time capsule, and Life Poem delivers in the book proper. “desperate now, i’ve started to write everything that comes into my head” the narrator begins, and he does collect varied streams and rivers of consciousness in looping lines. “what if i laughed louder? / could you believe me then?” the narrator asks, his lines frenzied but never inane, delivered with dizzying wordplay (“university students of the world, ignite!”). Other sections are deceptively, powerfully solemn: “we’ve begun pulling men out of Viet Nam! / hooray! we shout, yea, the boys are coming home! / only they aren’t coming home–they’re being sent to the Middle East / wars should be fought under supervision of mothers / and all the boys must be home by eleven.” 

Must-Read Poetry: November 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf (translated by Yael Segalovitz)

“I can’t speak about it in Hebrew, but in English it’s easier. Maybe because for me the English language contains distance. Hebrew is too intimate.” Shimon Adaf wrote Aviva-No as a book-length elegy for his sister Aviva, who died suddenly at 43. Originally published in Hebrew in 2009, Adaf’s collection appears here in English for the first time, with a skilled translation by Segalovitz. Adaf composed the collection during the year after her death, so he “was forced to spend part of the year of mourning in two worlds, the one of my childhood that had been infused with the presence of my sister and the one of the present, in which she was terribly missing.” The coexistence of Hebrew and English reminds the reader that this is a book of occasion: on outpouring of grief, confusion, and the slippery attempt to capture both through language. The book is steeped with arresting scenes like the poem in which Adaf’s mother explains to the grandchildren that “we will / never see Aviva again.” He hears his mother cry, “not that howling lamentation, just the flow / of one whose strength vanished in the flame.” Afterward, his mother comes to him, and said “how simple it is to see / in the dark, like an ember glowing wild — / losing a child means always losing a child.” A book of remarkable power.

Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker

Crooker often returns to her ekphrastic influences (as she did in Les Fauves and More), and here she crafts some wonderful pieces about aging—our bodies slowed down, spread, inevitably solemn. On the ekphrastic side, there are pieces following Hopper, Mackintosh, Cézanne, Renoir, Derain: “Even the shadows scream for attention.” Most consuming in this collection, though, are the moving poems of memory and worry; of fractured past and uncertain present. In “Personal History”: a narrator writes of the light she lost, “Her skin, on my fingertips, / petals of heliotrope.” How the “pollen of memory clings to my sleeves. / As small as the wind’s shadow, the fleeting / glimpse of her face.” Elsewhere she writes of late September, “how the light is beginning to dim, / tarnished like old silver rubbed thin, / a note from a lover read over and over.” Later, in “Corvus Triolet,” the snowy yard is “full of crows, / their voices ragged scraps of pain.” Their presence “reminds me still that grief is slow, / it comes again like a refrain.” She writes of a Marian statue on a back road near Auvillar, France, “in the midst of a harvested field, stubble at your feet.” Her lines are written with a beautiful chord of melancholy: “Your eyes are cast down, hands folded, lips closed. / Nearby, in a neighboring tillage, someone / in a sunlit vineyard is turning the blood / of ordinary grapes into wine.”  

Black Mountain Poems edited by Jonathan C. Creasy

John Andrew Rice, one of the founders of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, claimed “our central and consistent effort now is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not results; to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves.” The poet Charles Olson, who taught during the final decade of the college’s existence, told Robert Creeley, “I need a college to think with.” The vision of Black Mountain was of community and collaboration, and Creasy’s approach is a holistic one—he widens the scope to not merely students and professors, but those influenced at a distance. Included here: Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Cage, Hilda Morley, among others. A fine, pocket-sized companion to an important artistic moment.

Alisoun Sings by Caroline Bergvall

Alisoun Sings completes a trilogy for Bergvall, following Meddle English and Drift. She has described this final book as “my take on Chaucer’s wonderful loud-mouth liferider proto-feminist Wife of Bath.” In her Prologue/Preface, Bergvall writes that she senses Alisoun “coming through as a concert of sounds and lives and purposes from a vast patchwork of influences, events, and emotions that accord with her, and revitalise her presence among us.” The result is part experiment and part experience, delivered in “transhistoric English.” The language evolves here, making Alisoun solidly in the forgotten and misunderstood past, while invading the present. This is a manifesto, an affirmation of identity, a recognition of a voice finally given shape. Alisoun says: “first left me reminde youse Im a local lasse. Yes not rose nor trained articulat, yet a wyse woman with appetites. I have lived and live on.” And she continues. 

Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright

“I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both. / I come and go in myself / as though from room to room, / As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit.” Oblivion Banjo spans from Hard Freight (1973) to Caribou (2014), and the healthy selections capture Wright’s particular magic—his leaning lines, his probing questions, his invitation for us to join the worlds of his poems. In one poem, he wonders about St. Thomas and the “wound that cannot be touched.” “Wish him well,” Wright says. “His supper was not holy, his gesture not sinless. / May ours be equal to his, / whatever sky we live under.” His questions spur and sometimes singe. Elsewhere, Wright offers calm melodies, even within tense moments. The ending of “Appalachian Lullaby” is prayer: “Gently the eyelids close. / Not dark, not dark. But almost. / Drift away. And drift away. / A deep and a sweet repose.” 

Must-Read Poetry: October 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in October.

Railsplitter by Maurice Manning

Manning’s collection of poems written through the persona of our sixteenth president begins, appropriately enough, with an exercise in persona from the man himself. Dated July 19, 1863, Lincoln’s short satire channels the voice of General Lee: “The Yankees they got arter us, and / giv us particular hell.” While the piece isn’t his best work (he wrote a fair number of poems), it is appropriate for Manning’s difficult project: how to write new and arresting work in such an established voice? The key, perhaps, comes from Manning’s perception of poetry as rooted in theatrics: he imagines writing poems “that could be performed on a stage with a set.” That mixture of oration, space, and the certain surrealism of theater matches well with Railsplitter. In “Transcendentalism,” he starts: “One of the things the actor’s bullet failed / to do was to interrupt the rhythm // of thought, the flow of the mind as it moves around.” Witty, whimsical, and imbued with the strangeness of the afterlife, Manning’s Lincoln is an endearing, complex narrator. A favorite among favorites is “The Smell of Open Ground in Spring.” Unmarked family graves surround the narrator. Those dead, like so many “innumerable / existences” who “have come and gone and gone / to dust.” He thinks of his mother’s death, and thinks of the power of poetry. He concludes: “While irony may wrap itself around / a poem, the true poem in the end / escapes the shroud. It’s the art of resurrection.”

Space Struck by Paige Lewis

One of the best debuts of the year. Poem by poem, Lewis builds a menagerie of mood and matter. In “No One Cares Until You’re the Last of Something,” “a line of binoculared men” have come to the narrator’s house bearing “buckets of mealworms.” An ivory-billed woodpecker on the narrator’s back porch has captivated these anxious souls. Decked in “splendid hiking shorts,” the bird-watchers “press their noses against my sliding glass door” and seek entry. At night, the narrator turns off the lights, but soon the visitors make a nest of the home: “They remove their shoes and lie down on countertops, / in closets, and underneath my staircase. Wherever / there’s space, they fill it—body against tired body— / pressed close as feathers.” A Lewis poem can go anywhere. “Saccadic Masking” is visceral, internal. “When They Find the Ark” is clever. “The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal” is hilarious. “God Stops By” is curious—a trademark Lewis piece. There, God offers the narrator fat from his steak, but the narrator passes: “it’s hard to feel hungry / when everything in this world tastes small  // and wrong, like rubber grapes or sun-boiled / eggs.” Space Struck demonstrates range, delivered in comedic lines that reveal a unique humor. “Build me a house with so many rooms,” one poem begins—an apt metaphor to capture Lewis’s approach. 

Nervous System by Rosalie Moffett

“I’m seeking to understand my mother’s brain and life post severe concussion,” Moffett has said of the long, titular poem in her new book, “and also grappling in a larger way with my fears and horror of having a mother, who, like all mothers, is mortal. Often, I’m casting around for a way look in—to the body, to the brain, to the ‘beyond’—but can only do it by trafficking in the seen world, in the world we all share.” Nervous System builds with sometimes bold, sometimes weary stretches toward that lost sense of understanding that comes from an injured brain. A “bright midday” head injury causes a concussion: “a shell, cool well / of clues.” Her bed-ridden mother “relearned the names / for things—flood, daughter, glove—lights // flickering on in her planetarium.” We grasp for metaphor when we need representation, and Moffett lunges and leaps there: “I’ve drawn a lot of pictures / because it’s hard for me to believe // in anything / that hasn’t been made / into something else.” Nervous System works so well because, in addition to her relational language, the long poem is steeped in flashback detail, and the inextricable link between mother and daughter: “I am gentle, patient, easy to awe. This goodness I got // from her is bound / to be yoked to a curse—no bargain / is so good.”

Can I Kick It? by Idris Goodwin

“Black art is inherently about disruption—that’s what jazz is, that’s what hip-hop is,” Goodwin once told American Theatre. Goodwin was talking specifically about his plays, but that sense of disruption is central to his new book of poems. Mixes and revisions abound here. In the collection’s first poem, “Back to the Afro-Future, 1965,” the narrator messes with stereo equipment and old record players to “blend the Temptations into the Tops.” Soon he is lost in the moment and its meaning: “I start cutting it up / crab, transform / scratch, blend”—his lines moving from sentences to phrases, a fissure in the poem and memory. “Break Down,” a poem in response to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s admitted 80s-era blackface, follows those faultlines of both culture and language: “Rap make you wanna be another man / You Black your face, Black your face // It’s not racist, you’re such a fan.” “Of the Lord” is a poem invoked to classic skywalker Dominique Wilkins: “We like our names with / Peaks, slopes, and vowels // We like our names to be aerial / and aural, throat and teeth and tongue / Our names gotta be songs.”  

Bodega by Su Hwang

These poems demand to be sounded-out and savored. “Manholes hiss secrets,” Hwang begins one poem. “Inside: a transistor radio with foil-tipped antennae sputters the Yankees doubleheader.” We are in a Queensbridge bodega owned by Korean immigrants, and the narrative eye and ear is gentle, encompassing, hypnotic. “Gust of wet heat enters with an elderly Nigerian man wearing a beret & wooden cane in the other—his salt-and-pepper hair gathered into a seahorse.” Hwang is adept at capturing action and setting, as well as more intangible touches: “How far do you have to travel to arrive / at dying,” she writes in an elegy for her grandmothers. Some poems swoop across the page, riding sound and form; others, like “Latchkeys,” are pointed narratives contained by closed spaces. In that poem, the narrator is with her brother, waiting for her parents to come home. When their “headlights cast shadow / puppets against the living / room wall,” she and her brother scramble to seem responsible: studying biology, playing the upright Yamaha. Her father would head into the backyard “to hit / a golf ball on a string / while mother silently made / dinner: rice, kimchi, Spam / as we three listened / from different corners / of the house / to a tiny white ball / greeting iron.” A strong debut.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here
are eight notable books of poetry publishing in September.

Forage by Rose McLarney

McLarney has been a gifted
storyteller since her first book, The
Always Broken Plates of Mountains
, but I dare say that she’s getting even
better, more hypnotic. She’s one of our finest poets of the wild: her notes of
appreciation are grounded in a love of careful cataloging of the world through
language. There are the paired, almost petite lines of “Pet” about a cat: “How
long I watched, how I loved // to watch, and how I tried / to make him a little
home. // But what is wanted wants / to leg it elsewhere, no matter.” Gentle
lines, but the poem ends with a start: “He would slaughter // his way back to
solitude.” McLarney is masterful at those turns—an awareness of how quickly
life can jolt. That range is also present in “And Still I Want to Bring Life
into This World.” The narrator is driving home from a doctor’s appointment,
listening to a radio broadcast—the words reverberating within that small space.
The broadcaster speaks of “failed fields, washed over.” A dying world. The
narrator can’t help but turn the pain inward: “I can think only of the news //
that I may have no children, when there are more / than the world can manage to
keep alive. // Must the answer be only the variety / of grief? If not to envy
all the irrigated orchards bore, // to sorrow for the trees, sprayed and
sterile?” McLarney’s environmental threnodies move from the quick truth—“Wildflowers
tend to themselves // while all people plant these days are satellite
dishes”—to a sense that has been accumulating across all of her books: how do
we hold on to despair, and dust, and memory? A gorgeous book.   

Ringer by Rebecca Lehmann

“Elegy for Almost,” a poem
that sits halfway through Lehmann’s collection, took my breath away. “It was as
simple as this: I really wanted you / and then you were gone.” Those first
lines—finely-timed and direct—speak across the page and toward the soul. Throughout
her poems, Lehmann is well-paced, creative, and constructive, and the result in
this poem is a powerful song of grief. “I was unconscious when the doctor
slipped / her instruments in and took you out: / sac with no heartbeat,
placenta that wouldn’t / let go its hold, raspberry sized cluster / of cells
that didn’t put together right. / My love.” And then from that stanza to
17-year-old memories: driving, “stoned, around the Wisconsin countryside,”
drifting over the yellow line. Wondering: “Why do I think of those far away
days now, / and again and again?” Ringer
teems with excellent poems, including the title piece, which offers many truths
in a single page. “Each morning trumpeted into being with a chorus of baby
squawks,” the refrains of her life. It is a poem about motherhood, about
occupying space in this weary world. Snow clings to curbs, even as daffodils
push through mud. Life, all around her, tries its best. The narrator brings the
stroller around the block, again and again, the cycle bringing her back to her
son’s birth, when “two medical students / held my legs and joked about going to
the gym. The epidural coursed / strong medicine into my spine. The anesthesiologist
flitted in / and out of the room like a large hummingbird.” Lehmann, generously
and gracefully, swings us through entire lives.

Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder

“When I was fifteen / I suddenly knew / I would never / understand geometry”; where Zapruder begins his poems, and where he ends them, are often quite different places—and that is one of the joys of Father’s Day, a heartfelt, melancholy collection. Often his columnar style naturally guides our eyes: he’s a poet of syntactic movement, often spare with punctuation, instead letting the lines themselves do the lifting. In “When I Was Fifteen,” he remembers “those inscrutable / formulas everyone / was busily into / their notebooks scribbling.” The narrator had his own talents. He writes the story of the field hockey star for the school paper, and then gives his history notes to her. She “took them / from my hands / like the blameless / queen of elegant / violence she was.” Zapruder has a great way of mapping our interiors, as when the narrator, wrapped-up in his down jacket, walks home and “listened to / the analog ghost / in the machine / pour from the cassette / I had drawn / flowers on.” Other poems are wry jabs, as with “Generation X”: “I was born the autumn / after a wave of flowers / swept the land // too late to appear in even / one poem by Frank O’Hara,” and “The Poetry Reading”: “At the poetry reading I am listening / to the endless introduction. / The young poet waits / for a cloud of applause / through which he will go / to his doom.” You’ve got to laugh at po-biz to stay alive. Also: stay for Zapruder’s beautiful afterword.

Daybook 1918: Early Fragments by J.V. Foix (edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti)

Foix is the pen name of Josep Vicenç Foix i Mas (1893-1987), a Catalan poet once lauded by Harold Bloom but largely neglected by English language readers and critics. Venuti does a necessary service in translating and curating these unusual and intriguing pieces. Daybook 1918 includes prose poems and fragments which Venuti notes “endows recognizably Catalan customs and geography with a surrealist quality” through a particular process: “Foix developed a method that favored not automatic writing, freed from rational control, but rather a combination of dream and hypnagogia.” Venuti is a sage and lyric guide through Foix’s strangeness. In one untitled piece, the narrator begins: “She assured me that two hundred young men lived in the village, each the owner of a black horse like mine.” No such thing is true, the man learns, as the “stables lie empty, as do the houses. Only my horse and I wander the village, night and day, through the labyrinth of its shadows.” Another piece, “Without Symbolism,” offers some: “The conductor of the municipal band is so corpulent that he takes up half the square. When he extends an arm, all the village children stretch out their hands to turn somersaults as if they were on the horizontal bar.” Foix’s poems are probably best read between midnight and dawn—or any similar time when we are most attuned to our shadow selves. Added bonus: a few excellent essays on poetry, consciousness, and art by Foix.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

If you’ve somehow never experienced
the work of our new poet laureate, Harjo’s new book is a great introduction.
From “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / To the need of stars /
To know themselves against the dark.” That reflexive turn—themselves—which could be so heavy and stodgy in the hands of a
lesser poet, becomes illuminating here. Sunrise, sunset, morning, night, pilgrimage—much
of Harjo’s book is about movement northward and drifting south. An introductory
note recalling the 1830 Indian Removal Act offers a roadmap to her central
theme: the desire of indigenous peoples to return home. In certain ways, this
happens through story: “I leave you to your ceremony of grieving / Which is
also of celebration / Given when an honored humble one / Leaves behind a trail
of happiness / In the dark of human tribulation.” She writes: “Once there were
songs for everything, / Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting, / For eating,
getting drunk, falling asleep, / For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” An American Sunrise affirms Harjo’s
identity as a poet of testimony. “Let’s honor the maker,” she ends one poem. “Let’s
honor what’s made.”

I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn

“Haecceity,” writes Flynn,
is a word “almost impossible / to pronounce,” but means “thisness, as in here / &
now”—which makes it quite useful. Flynn’s poetry does this: a little turn
or refraction to refocus our gaze, moving from words (their sounds and shapes)
to bodies (our sounds and shapes). “In / the end I held your arms briefly /
over your head & // warned that I was in no way / safe,” the narrator says.
He is “often not filled with any great love // for—of—God,” but “then, briefly
& wholly, your / thisness, like
// beeswax, it / filled me.” Wholly and holy, Flynn’s poems feel encompassing. Yet
there’s a tender fear of that action, as in “Life is Sweet”: “I worry sometimes
// how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem.” That’s a
refreshing worry. Flynn, who has powerfully mined his own life within his
poetry and prose, carries a particular caution in his lines. In “Saltmarsh,” he
writes of finding “a book, splayed / open, spine broken, // facedown in the
flattened // grass.” Turned-over, the “words // slide off the page as if each /
were a bug // that dies in sunlight. It’s how / I want this // poem to be—unreadable—
/ not at the beginning // but by the end.” The words dissolving; the poem
becoming us and everything around us.

A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib

“& I tell my boys
there is a reason songs from the 90s are having a revival & it’s because
the heart & tongue are the muscles with the most irresistible histories.” Abdurraqib’s
lines lunge; his titles blur into the text. There’s real energy in this book,
and there’s also a compelling sense of love, longing, and loss. His poems hold
hope, but a measured one: “If one must pray, I imagine // it is most worthwhile
to pray towards endings. / The only difference between sunsets and funerals //
is whether or not a town mistakes the howls / of a crying woman for madness.” In
a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time
Like This”—a question that is, tellingly, also a statement—Abdurraqib delivers
some of his most pointed lines: “maybe all the blues / requires is a door /
through which a person / can enter and exit.” He ends one poem: “a father
stands / over his crying son & hisses / I’ll
give you something to cry about / as if he didn’t already / bring a child
into a world / that requires neither of them.” A deft collection.

Valuing by Christopher Kondrich

Valuing opens with an apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.” Her words mark this collection. “It is alright,” Kondrich writes. “You may dwell in me.” Elsewhere: “In order to be immortal you have to be invisible to the part of you that knows you have to die.” Kondrich’s poems have the curious gift of being gently abstract—not vague, but broad, perhaps even kenotic. From Caedmon: “I sit with my head in my hands, turned / against everything. I’m facing what I think // is the wind. It has the eyes I’ve sought, / the skin I’ve felt under stone.” This outward sense makes many of Kondrich’s poems feel like hymns released into the sky. Valuing is a refreshingly sincere and skilled book about the ineffable: “Friend, if you are there, / come to meet me. I am drifting devoured. / I am ready to say goodnight. / Come meet me so I can release it.”

Must-Read Poetry: August 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in August.

Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague

“Because without words
what are we // but ourselves—inarticulate as the sky.” Teague’s poems, so often
first anchored in singular moments, evolve into mazes of time and space, as
with “The Giant Artichoke.” The narrator, thinking of herself as a child,
remembers her mother reading highway billboards, her words filling the space
left wide by grief. “I learned love,” the narrator says, “as rituals of hunger,
a nest of thistles / around the heart.” Later, “Matryoshka (as Madness),” a
poem perfectly suited for its columnar form, begins with conjecture: “If you
could start / at the center: nest / a solid self inside / a safer self / like a
house / so no one sees / all the ways you’ve / twisted open, copied /
yourself.” Her narrow lines feel more insular than claustrophobic; walls in
which the narrator must reflect herself. She is “trapped inside wood / inside
air inside wood / like a prayer in a crucifix / you don’t know how to / believe
in, the church / only as solid as / the ripped-roof blue / the congregation /
stares into in Siqueiros, / their prayers like a windbreak: / pale trees in the
sure belief / of storm.” Teague’s poems turn and turn, their lines moving
about, I never feel lost in her work. One of my favorites in this accomplished
collection is “Sketch: Charcoal and Body on Paper.” The narrator thinks about models—college
students like her—“who posed for Beginning Drawing, / insecurity slipped off
their shoulders / and draped over chairs.” She thinks about their “faces / when
I’d pass them later in the hall, out of place, / too intimate to look at.” What
she is really thinking about, though, is herself: “What I feared of my skin— /
its proportion, perspective; the way I was always / and never really posing.
How I wanted that beauty / that knew how not to care: let people / stare. Let
them mismeasure, / smudge pages with charcoal, erase me.”

100 Poems by Seamus Heaney

Heaney once said “my way
of knowing that I’m being myself is to be displaced from home, and I think I’ve
almost created conditions of being at home and not at home, at once. I think
that’s the way most people grow.” His legacy continues to grow. Six years after
his death—and in anticipation of his forthcoming letters and biography—arrives
this welcome collection of work that spans his entire career. There’s a nice
personal touch here: the poems were selected and arranged by his family:
“Perhaps inevitably,” his daughter writes, “the resulting selection is imbued
with personal recollections of our shared lives.” The poem begins with his
iconic “Digging”—a mainstay of classrooms, and yet still a poem that resounds. Another
classic, “Blackberry-Picking,” feels fresh again. 100 Poems captures one of Heaney’s greatest gifts: the power of
single lines. From “The Forge”: “All I know is a door into the dark.” From
“Into Arcadia”: “It was opulence and amen on the mountain road.” The feathery
sounds of “The Lift”: “A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.” And
his words can still coax tears, as in his elegy, “Clearances”: “So while the
parish priest at her bedside / Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the
dying / And some were responding and some crying / I remembered her head bent
towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives — / Never
closer the whole rest of our lives.”

Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith

“What propels us back into the hard grind of art, of birth, is a remembering that, as writers, the becoming and re-becoming of our writing corresponds to the new becomings of ourselves.” Smith, whose prose is also a gift, feels like she captures that sense of new becoming in Be Recorder. Her poems often glance back toward childhood (our life’s first revision and becoming, and for Smith, the genesis of her narrative sense). In “Boy Crazy,” sirens, cicadas, and “the drunk boys who howl / into the trees at 2 a.m. infect / my window while I sleep” bring the narrator back “into a girl I once was, / calling for love into a sky transected / by power lines until sunrise when the town / tightened into itself.” The poem “Self as Deep as Coma” begins “When I was a girl, I thought clouds were God, / and that we dialogued about sin, / which mirrored my desires” and ends wonderfully: “When I was a girl, I collected reams of paper, soothed / by the white over and over, the hope of starting / from blank. I hoped to endure being well enough, / to conjure a new bright vessel because I wanted to live.” Be Recorder is full of such conjuring, including the titular, long poem centered in the book: “though I was born in America / I wasn’t born American / I know it’s hard to understand.” And, again, a return to her past: “I forget,” the narrator reflects, “my real vocation / not executive / not supplicant but / stepping back into daughterhood.” This long poem, at moments symphonic, is often wise: “let’s admit to our own complicity release into / the wound because imagine it’s like a rose / blossom of scarred red tissue not beautiful / but layers and layers of lesions / layered over with more scar then more wound.”

To the Wren: Collected & New by Jane Mead

“I think I am by
temperament inclined toward repetition as a structuring element, one that
tempers the adventure, structures the movement toward the unknown”—Mead’s
repetitive methods (call them anaphoric, incantational, or perhaps simply
natural) are one of her most distinctive and hypnotizing features. Her poems
churn, accumulate, and arrive. Mead complicates and expands the identity of an
environmental poet—her natural subjects so often dressed in sadness. In
“Sparrow, My Sparrow” she writes: “What is a prayer but a song of longing /
turning on the thread of its own history?” The poem ends: “I feel myself loved
by a voice in the wind— / I cover my ears with my palms. / The whole world
rocks and still / the cold green river does not spill.” “Hint” continues her
work on nature and grief: “There are geraniums / on the doorstep, bug-eaten //
at the blossom and at / the leaf: you can pinch off / the dead parts, you can
// water, you can turn away— / but you cannot stop yourself.” I like that
tension in Mead’s work: how we live within a world we must care for, but which
resists our urges. And yet we can’t help but rightly praise its beauty, as in
“The Geese”: “Their call, both strange / and familiar, calls / to the strange
and familiar // heart.” An expansive collection that reveals Mead’s talent.

Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger

Biddinger’s prose poems
are eccentric, meandering, and surprising. The first poem of the collection, “Historical
Achievements,” ends: “One year I wrote ‘mouth’ across my knuckles for Halloween
and exited the pep rally before the microphone was switched on, flocks of
balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.” The
sentence is pure Biddinger: funny, dizzying yet specific, and grounded in a
pleasantly wistful storytelling (her poems don’t often feel melancholy, but
they do contain absences—incomplete stories—which offer pauses of sentiment
within her play). Partial Genius is
unlike any book of poetry that you’ll read this year; a credit to Biddinger’s
voice, and the range of her interests. There’s much to quote here: “Let’s
listen to Black Sabbath and inhale the rage of vinyl car seats”; “At
christening I gripped chain crosses that relatives slathered around my neck. My
mother refused the heirloom ankle bracelet, claiming it looked like bondage,
but I don’t think she meant it that way”; “When I was declared free of
scoliosis, something lifted out of me . . . At the Walgreens, I exhibited
radically poor posture and bought candy cigarettes, which never made it out of
my sock drawer.” A little joy can go a long way in poetry.

The Only Worlds We Know by Michael Lee

Lee’s poems often follow unique routes, as with “Hum,” which begins with a hovering fly “touching me lightly / before lifting off surprised, as I am, / by my warmth.” A little stunned, a little curious, the narrator is frozen: “this buzzing I cannot kill.” He can’t swipe the fly, but he also “cannot touch the ones I love // made small by love.” The poem gently moves to a second-person recipient—“I try to resurrect you here— // where you live now—on the haggard wings / of memory.” It’s an early poem, and a good indication that Lee has a careful, and yet open, approach. “The Study of Knives and Music” is a particularly inventive piece: “The knife / remembers when it was bone, when it lived // inside an elk or man and kept the rind / together until it didn’t, / until the body // was used against itself.” To follow that line with a question—“Do you see how / everything returns to its maker?”—reflects Lee’s method of turning his poems toward us. His flexible second-person returns elsewhere, as in “The Construction of Lies and Memory”: “Even if when you turn / to stare upon it, until your eyes / widen and dry, it feels / almost as if it’s staring back / and shimmers and blinks / like you, certain, but not.” A strong debut.

Must-Read Poetry: July 2019

| 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable
books of poetry publishing in July.

In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail

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

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

“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

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

“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.