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Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis


An excellent collection that leads with her new poems, finely attuned to the body and aging. “Bed-Bound” begins: “I live in the seam of stitches and throb.” The narrator wakes to hear the “insistent / ceiling fan above, dull blade / covered with detritus, spinning / to a vague thunder.” Mathis knows the power of pacing and line breaks. “Time creeps”: a phrase stabbed in the middle ground of the poem. “The storm of tiny bugs / the heat brought in, hovering / over the skin of pockmarked fruit.” The narrator quarantined, with “nothing but pain to consider.” Time will pass. Bodies will age. Yet: “it is patient— / so patient, pain is.” The theme returns in “After Chemo,” when mice “took the house” because they “never expected me back.” “My house is a sieve. In and out they go / with sunflower hulls, cartilage bits, / nesting, nesting.” Mathis considers aging further in “Not Myself”: “For the first time, I could see a link / between me and all the other / impossibly dead, or the one who had gripped the dead / in their arms.” There is an elegiac strain to these new poems: a mother bemoaning the passing of her elders, lamenting the turn of her own body, hoping for a long life for the young. Readers new to Mathis will appreciate her selected work that follows the more recent material. “The Perfect Service” is one of several great poems about parenting: “The truth is, the child protects me, takes away / the obligation to be someone other than myself.” The narrator watches her child move in the spring, “his clumsy feet / hidden in the grass, his fat palms in the thick / clumps of narcissus, everything’s naked.” She wonders how “he might disappear / if I turn my back.” Her child would enfold into the world, escape, but “what about me, / how could I face all this beauty in his absence?” Other selected pieces ponder nature and death—inevitable processes. “In Lent”: a deer dies near a gate. “Do I have to watch it be eaten? Do I have to see / who comes first, who quarrels, who stays?” She wonders “which flesh preferred by which creature— / which sinew and fat, the organs, the eyes.” Mathis suggests that we are surrounded by ferocious appetites. “And I hear the crows, complaint, complaint / splitting the morning, hunched over the skull. / They know their offices.”

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald


A hazy, mysterious, transporting book by the Oxford professor. Oswald’s epigraph notes that when Agamemnon journeyed to Troy, he paid a poet to watch his wife, but the poet was rowed to a stony island. The bard has drifted, off-course and forgotten: left “as a lump of food for the birds.” The book is suffused with a shifty, macabre feel of disembodied spirits and chants, an ingenious method of capturing the eerie sea. Oswald captures the feel in her lines: “As the mind flutters in a man who has travelled widely / and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere.” Even stories “flutter about / as fast as torchlight.” Fate speaks of the poet stranded on a stony island, where “he paces there as dry as an ashtray,” blithering errant poems, watched skeptically by the sea-crows: “what does it matter what he sings.” Oswald’s description sings throughout. Seals breathe out “the sea’s bad breath / snuffle about all afternoon in sleeping bags.” A little dazed ourselves, we can easily imagine “hundreds of these broken and dropped-open mouths / sulking and full of silt on the seabed.” Among this ancient world, Oswald drops prescient lines: “there are people still going about their work / unfurling sails and loosening knots / it’s as if they didn’t know they were drowned.” A purgatorial sense pervades the poem, capturing the terrible and magnificent sea: “a man is a nobody underneath a big wave / his loneliness expands his hair floats out like seaweed / and when he surfaces his head full of green water / sitting alone on his raft in the middle of death.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi here, a wild vastness beyond us: “Let me tell you what the sea does / to those who live by it first it shrinks then it / hardens and simplifies and half-buries us / and sometimes you find us shivering in museums.”

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie


“In terms of poetics and philosophy,” Solie has said during an interview, “I do find the limit of language a profound and powerful zone. It’s where failure becomes energy.” The Caiplie Caves ponders that zone of linguistic border and failure, especially what happens when we see the progression of a narrator’s ruminations. The collection begins with a prefatory note that tells the story of Ethernan, a 7th-century Irish monk who went to the Caiplie Caves in Scotland “in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active.’” Framed and interspersed with these monastic contemplations, many poems in the collection are anchored in the contemporary. The interplay between imagined past and literary present creates a rich effect. The contemporary sections are rife with great lines: “My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.” Others stir with their figurative language: “but for the banks of wild roses, the poppies you loved // parked like an ambulance by the barley field.” Solie’s verse feels operatic at points: “Our culture is best described as heroic. / Courageous in self-promotion, noble / in the circulation of others’ disgrace, // its preoccupation with death in a context of immortal glory / truly epic, and the task becomes to keep / the particulars in motion // lest they settle into categories whose opera / is bad infinity.” Among these present concerns, Ethernan continues to contemplate, often with wit: “In this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape // thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice.” He is not the type of person “who leads others into battle // or inspires love.” The devil is in the discernment: “if one asks for a sign // must one accept what’s given?” After all, “I wanted an answer, not a choice.” Ethernan’s life is long gone, but his spirit allows Solie to make contemplation a form of haunting: “I have outlived my future, why invite its ghosts // to bother me where I sleep?”

Code by Charlotte Pence

A book suffused with genuine optimism—without sentimentality. An early poem in the collection, “The Weight of the Sun,” sets the pensive stage. The narrator is “tilting / the rocking chair back and forth / with my toes,” a rhythm that carries her through a 4 a.m. feeding. She looks outside, and wonders if “everyone on this block” is “wishing for sleep, / for peace, for the coming day to be better // than the last.  She stares at the blades of grass; realizes that a red fox “is the one who / flattens the path through the lawn.” Her mind wanders: “Behind every square of light flipped on, / someone is standing or slouching, // stretching of sighing, covering / or uncovering her face.” Other poems, like “While Reading About Semiotics,” deliver sharp moments of dread, as when a cottonmouth seethes, rushing toward her “with its wide ghost of throat.” It’s a great, odd image. Pence often has a pleasantly sideways manner of looking and layering, as in “Lightening,” which plays with the multiple connotations of the word. “You are dropping, / my baby. Twisting / your way down.” The word, the narrator notes, is also used to describe “the moment before / death. Another release.” Yet there’s no etymological explanation “for such a linguistic hike.” She wonders this wordplay while walking “these brown woods / where deer thin / to vines.” Similar playfulness exists in the meandering “Zwerp”: “Three mud- / puddle frogs // leap-flee / from me.” The frogs “take light — / blur it, bold it — / with long, slick / legs, all muscle // memory / of place and space.” One late poem, “I’m Thinking Again of That Lone Boxer,” reveals her range in subject and style. The narrator watches a man boxing in Baltimore’s Herring Run Park: “City gridlock stood / beside him as he slipped and bobbed, countered / and angled.” She thinks for a moment about herself, about motherhood, but is drawn to the man’s precise swings. She won’t call him a dancer; he’s “a man fighting in an empty / field against himself,” and the sight stirs her: despite him being ready to land or receive a punch, “how / can I not believe in the possibility of peace?”

Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

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

A 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

Toro’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

For 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

The 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?” 

Must-Read Poetry: May 2020

| 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, edited by Leah Silvieus and Lee Herrick

An anthology that should become a mainstay of poetry classrooms. “It is always the right time for faith and the spirit. It is always the right time for poetry,” the editors write in their introduction. The anthology begins with a long poem, “The City in Which I Love You,” by Li-Young Lee, which sets the appropriate tone of wonder and seeking: “Is prayer, then, the proper attitude / for the mind that longs to be freely blown, / but which gets snagged on the barb / called world, that / tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer // would I build? And to whom?” Several excellent poems here from Matthew Olzmann, a poet both clever and soulful (one trait of a great anthology is that it sends us searching to find more work). From his “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”: “But this is how faith works its craft. / One foot set in front of the other, while the wind / rattles the cage of the living, and the rocks down there // cheer every wobble, and your threads keep / this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. / I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across.” In a later poem of his, an ecumenical prayer: “Our Father, who art in / heaven and also / the centipede grass and the creek / and the engine that warbles / roadside.” The anthology includes “Grace,” a lovely elegy by Joseph O. Legaspi for his father. A carabao “pulling a wooden cart hill-high with watermelons” arrives on the narrator’s street. His father “watermelon lover, scanned the stacked pyramid, held up a dull fruit.” He gave it “a gentle knock,” his “knuckles // bounced off the bell-domed curve, he listened, eyes / closed.” The narrator “watched him then, as I always did, / man of eternal theater, of elegant fingers, this Lazarus / figment memory I call poetry, my father full of grace.” There are poems here that also sound the faithfulness of doubt, like “Vestige” by Michelle Peñaloza: “The creak of pews makes my knees ache, / my palms and fingertips kiss.” The visceral, tangible roll of rosaries connects the narrator with her mother: “I envied the faith she found.” She, though, has other devotions. “I count the day’s / miracles: the sweet butter on wheat toast, / the abundance of coffee, the predictability of doors, / opening and closing.” 

The Park by John Freeman

Freeman’s pensive volume is a fascinating consideration of the park as a place of preserved wilderness. “We / stop, in mourning, / sensing everything / we’ve lost. We call / that ceremony / a park” he writes in the prefatory poem; wildlife passes through those spaces, yet it is only humans who need to ponder the relative absence of wildness elsewhere. The park is an injunction against the neutering of civilization. As Freeman etymologically notes, “It took the overrunning of London / by its immigrant population in 1680 / to turn the word into the spot we’d / park humans, so they could stumble / around in bewilderment at how time / is translation, change is nature’s time.” As he demonstrates in “Walks in the Dark,” layers abound in these considerations of wild spaces. While a child, the narrator entered woods “stark / and bluish-green, lit / by our candles, ninety / young singing boys, / walking to the lake” while “holding our / fathers’ hands.” The woods “darker still because of those / teardrops of light.” The lake’s “black / water absolutely waveless,” the candles floating. Yet the morning after, the narrator “learned / the lake was a reservoir, / water we stole / from the trees that gave us / shade.” He followed the water to the dam “holding back the hoarded / water,” the flow “clogged / with the candles, which were / soggy and gray and not at / all like prayers.” In the end, as Freeman writes in another poem, perhaps the purpose of parks “is to temper the machine / in us.”

White Blood by Kiki Petrosino

Another ambitious volume from Petrosino. Revelation through ancestry test: a narrator wonders how genetic history routes our lives, and how we are to fully reckon with our past, known and unknown. An early section of the book is a skilled double crown sonnet that begins with acceptance—to college, but also the intellectual structure of America—that feels more conditional and tenuous with each successive line. She wonders: “Of those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took. / I took it hard.” She feels like a specimen, a test: “Since I was a living lab / I scythed, skull-clean / my crop of hair.” She “hummed in botanical Latin / the notes of my glasshouse / erudition.” Intensely aware of the economics of the campus, she thinks of her ancestors, and her admirable vulnerability contains despair: “How was I their dream, their hope? / Born too late to know them or walk / the perimeter of their graves / deep in the next country, next / planet, where I couldn’t read the land / or speak the right words in the woods.” Throughout the book, her narrator can’t escape this self-analysis, this worry, this reconsideration, as in “The Shop at Monticello”: “I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies / into money. Now, I have money to spend on little trinkets to remind me / of this fact.” An intriguing collection that weaves themes of lineage and the paradox that race and identity are wielded as souvenirs: commodified souls. 

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

While living in Louisville, Ky., Lucy Bakewell Audubon wrote to her cousin that her husband, John James, “is constantly at the store,” and that she wishes there was a library or bookstore nearby, because she “should often enjoy a book very much whilst I am alone.” Her correspondence is replete with similar longings. Lucy is often a biographical complement to her husband, or worse, a clarifying footnote. Yet in this poetic biography, Dowd accomplishes the complex task of affirming Lucy’s own life, while also illuminating her husband’s talents. In a September 1804 poetic epistle to her cousin, Lucy writes: “As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised / to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.” They marry several years later, but their relationship is defined by distance; if not at his general store, he is “off hunting rabbits, or sketching them, / or racing his fine horse.” Dowd also writes several monologues through John James’s voice. “Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,” he thinks, but “I cannot see it,” for he is “amid the bales and boxes, / flour bins and raisins, and the wooden socks.” He ends the poem: “I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families, / while something in me sighs that I am not.” Longing and sacrifice pervade this book. One of the few placid moments appears in Lucy’s December 1824 letter to her sister Eliza: “Be happy for us, Sister. Once more we sing.” Soon the couple would be separate for three years while he worked on and promoted The Birds of America, but that sentiment of hope and return carries through Dowd’s work.

So Forth by Rosanna Warren

Warren anoints the ordinary with reverent elegy. “Northeast Corridor” is a wildly accurate sketch of that route. The rider: “Catechist of gnarled oak trees, marshes, suburban marinas, / cinders, and gutted mattresses.” The view: “A dilapidated barge, half-sunk, hunches from slime. / Chain-link fences, dim factories, tumble of trash down a bank– / my country, my countryside, hurls itself away // as twilight catches in each broken window.” The bridge and play of “my country, my countryside” is one example of Warren’s sense of the tragicomic. “The horizon’s illegible. We have left / shingled houses, sidewalks, picket fences behind in a blur / back where we made the childhood promises. / We signed our names but wrote in invisible ink”: few poems capture the region with such perspicuity. She also brings such lucid vision to prosaic spaces, as with the first lines of a later poem: “The poster in the doctor’s office proposes / Eden: varicose peonies tilting / over a lapis lazuli pool. / Blossoms lush, carnal, and tipsy / as aging courtesans.” Warren is able to channel, or conjure, a sense of earnest malaise: “If it’s a god // who touches us when we lose ourselves / he’s the briefest of flashbulbs, the image cannot endure.” This melancholic, skilled sense extends to the unique final section of the collection, mostly set in the forest: “We tread on silver flakes and shadows. / Downward, ever downward, to the meadow / where the ghost lily, late summer wraith, / gapes, ash-pink, with news / of the underworld dusted on its tongue.” 

Must-Read Poetry: April 2020

| 1 book mentioned 1

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.