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Must-Read Poetry: February 2021

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov

Dimitrov’s clever, casual, and inviting lines—“I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately. / I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself”—are especially welcome right now. But this is a complex collection; in “Waiting at Stonewall,” he ponders, 50 years later: “Those of us who resisted heroes / and sentiment. Those of us / who waited and found neither— / not the promised liberation / in marriage, or the salvation / of laws.” Sit down and appreciate “Love,” a long, anchoring litany-poem: “I love religious spaces though I’m sometimes lost there. / I love the sun for worshipping no one.” In “My Secret,” the narrator shares: “I’m suddenly / one of those people / who goes out / to dinner alone.” He knows: “Everyone I love / is disappointed in me.” This is a book about love, yes, but it is also one of the best recent books about New York City. If you love that city, if you hate that city, if you want to understand that city: read this book. His smirks and winks (“Or even worse / they’re going home to cook / and read this sad poem online”) are tender rather than tendentious; we are invited to experience this book. He calls out all of us, “Such righteous / saints! Repeating easy lines, / performing our great politics.” Dimitrov is good enough—his lines are smooth enough—that the guilty will gladly take the punishment. 

Promoteo by C. Dale Young

“As a child,” Young writes in a poem halfway through this book, “I asked my mother to listen to me / while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more / and more odd for their sounds, their structures.” Drawn to syntax and sound, the narrator remembers the repetition of Mass—how he was “trying to master // the language, the very words, fearful they would master / me, instead.” Years later, Young, the poet (and radiation oncologist) has mastered language in this finely wrought new volume. Continuing a tradition from previous books like The Second Person, Young’s narrators have inherited languages of religion and desire, and they intertwine in their ecstasy. “You punish or are punished,” he writes. “It really is that simple. // Dominus, Holy Father. I have hidden myself / in the cane field. I may have sinned.” “Portrait in Ochre and Seven Whispers” is a searing poem of suffering and abuse, beginning with: “To make and remake one’s self is / the artist’s job, I believed. And so, in poems, / I gave myself wings.” The narrator later laments: “You were supposed to save us. You were / supposed to help save our souls. Isn’t that part / of the vow you made to God when choosing / the life you did?” He ends the stanza: “You must have forgotten that. / You didn’t kill my soul. But you didn’t save it either.” An excellent book.

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod by Kathryn Smith

Playful and smart: Smith shows those traits can synthesize into memorable poems (with great titles). In “Most of Us Aren’t Beautiful, Though Some Learn How,” she admits: “I’m back // where I started: stuck in a parable / I cannot, botanically, and do not, // theologically, believe.” In the first poem, Smith writes: “The beauty of birds isn’t flight. It’s how they let / their young cram pointy beaks down their throats.” In “Dear Sirs,” she wonders—if the “traditional forms of revelation” included “interpretable dream, flashes of light,” then what “are some of the modern forms?” It’s a good question, and Smith is comfortable not answering it, resigned to a truth: “I fear that fire // will burn the insides of my eyes, / flames licking the wounds and disappearing / names of the dead.” Smith’s poems often ponder an entropic world through a theology of absence: “It is said in God / there is no darkness. / It is also said / I am made / in God’s image.” In this way, “I am fearfully and wonderfully / made, made wonderfully / fearful.” She concludes: “Surely goodness / will dog me all the days / of my life.” 

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

God in the machine, God is the machine: Frank’s new book is a menagerie of automation, automatons, sentient verse, errant prophecies. She considers the tradition of mechanical Eves: “fetching your tea, serving / you wine,” they “didn’t have a mind” and “were built from the ribs / of men’s brains.” “Oh, man has made her!” Frank intones (long live exclamation points in poems!), “and she is uncanny (and / infertile!).” Man has long made women “in his own image / for beauty and service, oh, man has / made her, a more pliable Eve / with no desire of her own.” I think of how Thomas Pynchon lifted the Luddites from their 19th century economic vengeance to their contemporary technophobia; Frank similarly mines past art, story, and parable for astoundingly contemporary truths. She follows the metaphor of body-as-machine to its logical end: we are all gears, oiled, “no different than that of medieval / mechanical monkeys lining the bridge // in the park at Hesdin.” Eye-opening, jaunty: this is a whirl of a book.

The Readiness by Alan Gillis

What routes these lines take. Gillis begins one poem with an earthworm who “squinches / through soil to ooze in dew, / only to be pincered / in the beak of a crow, // lifted above the garden, the gable wall, into a sky / of porridge / with faint pools of blue.” I’m a believer in poetic surprise (when Frost created that image of ice on a hot stove, he knew that sometimes the ice melted into itself and steamed into the air: no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader, and so on). Gillis delivers, finding the lolling and lyric in the everyday: “get set for the whigmaleeries of the ticking clock, / spilt milk, the mystery / of missing socks, the transport peeve, the hundred-tonne / weight of to-dos.” Maybe poetry isn’t utilitarian in a grand, salvific sense, but it is a cure for language, and it might be a method to sing boredom into beauty. Gillis wants us to be ready: revelations, small and strange, “could happen at sunset / on a sloping lawn. / In a yawning estate / it could happen at dawn.” “Everything changes,” Gillis writes in a later poem. “In this there is no change.” Gillis’s willingness to bounce between jest and earnestness is a good reminder of how comic-poets can stun us with their well-placed truths: “And you know this, / the oncoming day, is nothing / but the night’s brief parenthesis.”

Must-Read Poetry: January 2021

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich 

The book’s first poem, a jaunty etymological journey through the poet’s last name, establishes a folkloric tone to the collection: imagine a trickster who has come from the cold forest one evening to knock on a cabin door. There’s a darkness here foretold by the book’s title, which calls to mind complexity: a God of nothingness, no-thing, absence as an eerie poetic presence. In “Haunted House,” the narrator moves into a home and “gutted it to the bones.” He tore up the floor “to uncover a floor, // sanded tulip poplar to a sheen.” Perhaps that was what stirred the house to “wake,” and its stories came to him: “Now I live here alone with the spirits I cannot see.” Rilke and Roethke haunt this wonderfully melancholic book: “I wanted more—not of summer, // with its swampy air and the nightmare / amphibian whir, but of autumn // with its metallic skies swept with clouds, of the promise of something about to end, // but not yet taken away.” Incantatory, Wunderlich’s poems are perfect for journeying elsewhere—as with “Proposition”: “That the smell of cows drifting in the open window is, indeed, that of a living beast. // That I too am a living beast.” Later: “That we were born suffering, but that we are not meant to suffer.” But what of the title? Where is the no-thing? Everywhere, Wunderlich suggests: “I watch at the edge of the grove, the bees flung out / into the sun. My only life is being spent—today— // the longest day of the year, here on a hill looking out / for a moment and feeling my body unearthed.” Take this book to a silent place, and let yourself go.  

Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch

Lynch can quickly and effectively render uncomfortable moments. In the long first poem, the narrator considers her fractured childhood, how “Not eating was a sign / of grief / in our house.” Her mother “stunned / thin as a rake draped / with her wedding veil, bruised eye / staring out.” Meanwhile, “mouth / stuffed with a fist / lest someone hear,” she recoils in her bedroom. Soon, checked into the hospital with a “yellow wrist ID for the children’s ward,” she sees that “lovers sailed past, / arm-in-arm, ample with flowers.” Lynch’s usage of ample here reveals her instinct for juxtaposition: the world opening beyond a moment of suffering. This sense returns in “Hymnal”: “Book in my hands—thin / & sleek” and “Whelk of syllable, / silk against my cheek, the book is / ballast.” Again, in the poem “Worry”: a hummingbird’s “tiny body throbbed with sound, fast-heaving, clacking / music.” And yet: was the bird “restless prisoner of air or pioneer?” Can any of us ever know?

The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang

Wang’s debut collection, formally diverse and marked with a sardonic tinge, suggests a porous border between the dream and waking worlds. “Who is the woman lurking in the woods?” she wonders in an early poem, recognizing that she is a “fellow traveler,” for “She is lost and I am lost.” Wang drifts between the real and unreal, documenting an almost Yeatsian interest in that third space, a poetic place between, where the absurd is necessary. She imbues her lines with this hypnotic sense: “In the rain, in her head, an elegy for the not-quite-dead.” Among sentences from Cixous, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and others, Wang outlines a poetics perhaps best captured by her reference to Anne Carson, and her translation of Sappho when “brackets appear in the poems where the papyrus has disintegrated, as papyrus is the structure of dreams. Never intact.”

Stay Safe by Emma Hine 

One particular poem that stayed with me from this nice debut was “A Circling,” an understated tale of a man who was attacked by a shark, a “bite of thigh missing, skin like a spider tried / to stop the hole with web.” The narrator can barely look at her great-uncle after seeing his wound, but she becomes so attached to his presence: “By the time he’d died, I’d memorized his shape in the recliner, / the pattern of beer bottles across his floor. Mapping / his aftermath like a frontier.” I’ve been thinking about that dissonance, that looking but not looking, and it is an apt way to consider Hine’s method: a catalogue of bodies spent and passed, of sisters, of those who “want to say that together / we could be two words / the sort that hold hands / but still keep their original meanings.” Hine often returns to shared scars, body markings; in “Still,” the narrator thinks about how her great-grandmother, while nursing her grandmother, saw a foot-long centipede “falling toward her / from a branch, its back-plates twisting.” She moves away the baby, and the centipede, “segmented and heavy, / landed on her exposed breast.” It left a scar that never vanished; Hine’s collection captures that feeling.

Not for Luck by Derek Sheffield 

Sheffield is very adept at finely crafting scenes as the spaces for poems (they expand beyond the time and place of these scenes, but they feel syntactically rooted and united, one by one in the book). An early poem in the collection, “The Scientists Gather at Mount St. Helens,” opens with a question—“What does it mean?”—asked by one of the scientists amid “the wind / of a gray plain” while they look at the “crater’s living steam.” The patchwork of “shrubby trees” among “the clean white spikes / of the countless dead” stand behind them. The poem’s structure suggests a theme and method for Sheffield: what does it mean to be within a world that exists beyond us, longer than us? Melancholy pieces live among heartfelt moments, as in “Daughter and Father in Winter”: “we clap the stuttering // snaps of the kindling / coming to life in the stove.” Later: “More river than daughter / her arms fill with treasures” of rocks, “her pockets // already clack-and-bristle.” Poetry to make you long for moments in the wild. 

The Visible Woman by Allison Funk 

Funk’s newest collection begins with a statement against vanishing; the narrator summons a woman “rib by rib, scapula, tibia,” but “she turns and speeds away / like someone fleeing fire.” The poem establishes an immediate and lasting paradox of body and spirit, request and rejection. In “The Visible Woman,” she affirms: “Mine, too, is a story / of how we disappear” as she considers her childhood assembly kit for an anatomical model of a woman. It was a woman fully revealed, and she now longs “to go back to when I was ten, / to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I’m trying to glue together.” Funk often returns to the body as a source of wonder, fear, and possibility. The narrator’s father in “Blood” goes pale at the sight of any of the titular fluid, “so I learned / to hide my wounds—scraped knees, / little playground injuries, even gashes / that needed stitching.” In “Vespers,” she partially laments: “This late I’m still not in the body / I’m trying to occupy.” This sense comes back in “A Nun’s Prayer,” a revision from Psalm 22: “My God my God,” she calls, “I am poured out // bones heart breast // they stare and gloat over me.” Women are forever revealed in these poems. 

Must-Read Poetry: December 2020

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Nothing but the Music by Thulani Davis 

“Well, this isn’t poetry, I don’t know what it is, but keep writing it.” Elizabeth Hardwick’s advice to her student, a young Thulani Davis, resonated: Davis stepped aside from fiction for some time, and began writing poetry, including work that was performed with Ntozake Shange and Gylan Kain. Nothing but the Music collects work from 1974-1992, often originally performed, with frequent footnotes of date and venue. “I don’t wanna riot / don’t wanna riot / it’s Saturday morning / and I wanna dance,” Davis thrums in “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue,” a poem that begins with play and ends with resonance: “a kid from Brownsville asked me / had I ever seen any violence / that’s why I clean my house / listening to songs from the past / times when no one asked anyone / if they’d seen a town burn / cause baby everybody had.” In “Zoom (the Commodores),” the narrator recalls driving through a thick thunderstorm to Atlantic City to see the Spinners in concert, and when she discovered the Commodores, the “tasteless fleshiness of the seventies,” a pulpy feel she still recalls: “give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City / on the Fourth of July / the corny promises of Motown / give me the romance & the Zoom.” A vibrant and yet smooth collection, steeped in rhythm. 

The Strangeness of the Good by James Matthew Wilson

Wilson aptly begins with “After the Ice Storm,” when a rough storm splits trees and knocks out the power: “One night was all it took to give / What men had built back to the earth.” The piece establishes a tone of something greater; a grander, more mysterious presence than quotidian life. That sense also permeates “Those Days of Weighted Solitude,” a poem that ponders a narrator’s melancholy past. He remembers walking down the “quiet avenues of Sunday morning” and “passing by the large, neglected houses” on his way to church. “Along these ways,” he recalls, “I’d drag myself, head bowed, / The leaf bed softening my steps to silence.” He “bore not just a sense of loneliness, / But sorrow and remorse, and would have gone / Alone, in any case, ashamed to share / With anyone this walk of half-belief.” One his way home, the “Eucharist a dry taste in my mouth,” he “did not know that there would be whole years, / Where neither grief nor joy could pound my chest.” Wilson has an acute sense of the space between faith and doubt—the lingering latitude of weary belief. The book is anchored by “Quarantine Notebook,” a masterful sequential poem that spans March 15-May 17, 2020. The poem is one of the finest, most focused pieces to come thus far from the pandemic. In the sequence’s first poem, a neighbor’s tree has just bloomed: “White blossoms hang like egg shells in the air, / While down the road the restaurants shut their doors.” The narrator drearily goes to a store to buy bags of mulch, and then “toss / Them one by one like limp, resistless bodies.” He begins to shovel and spread the mulch, doing “the small, familiar, yearly tasks / That after a long winter one must do / To overcome its slow decay.” Spring arrives, but without its requisite joy. Elsewhere in the sequence, Wilson writes of celebrating Mass at home, the churches shuttered, and there’s a curiously cavernous, quiet feel to the homebound ritual. In a later poem, he goes to help with Mass at the parish when it is recorded on a Saturday. The next morning, while making pancakes for his children, the virtual Mass plays in the kitchen. His children seem him on the screen. He wonders why “one curious miracle / In many of the saints’ lives is the act / Of bilocation”: the self in two settings. He concludes that “we all want / To be both fully present in the flesh / And yet give some clue that our spirits can / Stretch out beyond themselves, can penetrate / The lives of others in a real communion.” We could use such transcendence right now. 

The Candlelight Master by Michael Longley

“The most urgent political problems are ecological,” Longley has said: “how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political.” Born in Belfast in 1939, Longley has demonstrated that so much of writing “is adoration. For me, celebrating the wildflowers or the birds is like a kind of worship.” This worship is based in a sentiment of dirt and death; a poetics of natural cycles, of human as earth. Longley follows The Song of Amergin with his own affirmation through litany: “I am the pipistrelle bat / At home among constellations. / I am the raindrop enclosing / Fairy flax or brookweed.” Longley’s is a wildly genuine voice; a poet whose talk of mortality is calming. We are here, and then we are not, and yet we live on in the love of others. “I hear the sandpiper from years ago,” he writes, “Just there, at the end of the dunes, a peep / Where the lost burial mound used to be.” He writes of his granddaughter, who “spotted tadpoles / In the rainwater puddle / Under the rustling cattle-grid / That marks a boundary between / Thallabaun and Corragaun.” She returns in the book, prodding him with child-questions: “Which one of my feet is your favourite?” He answers, as a poet: “The one stepping over a skylark’s / Or a ringed-plover’s nest, I’d say.”

Heaven Beneath by Anne Marie Macari

In an essay about the lyric impulse in a time of extinction, Macari has wondered how the lyric form “crosses, even erases, boundaries, connects us to the other and to other worlds, helping us enter the ineffable, to let go briefly our false sense of dominion or safety.” She channels this kenotic gesture in her new book, and follows her lyrics to parts of herself that have drifted away. In one poem, the narrator laments that “I know less than when I was young.” Elsewhere she airily and earnestly writes “Each day I start out I don’t know / where I am, stay with me if you can.” There’s a longing that bursts beneath these lines, as in “I Feel the Need of a Deeper Baptism,” in which she wishes “to be with nettles and thorns / to be with tree stumps, withered fruit, // to be with the drowning dog.” Another poem of the same title, she again affirms: “I feel the need of the hole / in sand that froths // when water’s called back.” Her poems want to stay there, above and alive, as she writes in “Yielding and Simple”: “Don’t go down into heaven, don’t go down / to heaven’s woods, where / deer lead the way into circles  // of birch, through circles and shadows, too fast / to follow.” Perhaps, as she suggests in “Hummingbird Bones,” our mortality is what weds us with the natural world. She thinks of how a child “makes a nest of her palm,” a gesturing cradle for life to rest in—in the same way “a small box, in a museum cabinet” is a resting place for bones. “One day,” as she writes in a later poem, “I’ll let go // this hunger and thirst / to find you’ve / been here all // along.” 

Must-Read Poetry: November 2020

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Together in a Sudden Strangeness edited by Alice Quinn 

“I don’t want to find meaning in it,” Diane Seuss, writes in “Pandemicon.” She’s not surprised “how America can brand even a pandemic, turn it / into a thing.” After all, we’re in “a reality series with viral bread recipes / and optimism,” and perhaps only absurdity can capture the heart of our moment. Quinn has accomplished something dizzying here: arranged a stellar cast of poets, some with Seuss’s satirical eye, others with a fresh deep down sentiment. It is what all great anthologies must be: comprehensive, contradictory, stirring. A prose poetic sequence by Rick Barot includes gems: “During the pandemic, I knew each neighbor by one thing. The neighbors above, the baby. The neighbors below, the dog…I wondered what one thing the neighbors would know me by. What truth an inadvertence could betray.” Jericho Brown proclaims: “I don’t know whose side you’re on, / But I am here for the people / Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning / And close down for deep cleaning at night.” I pause. I think back to those early months of the pandemic, that dull cyclone of despair. What a world we have just lived through; what a world that so many among us haven’t made it through. Traci Brimhall, always sharp in her song, offers a “Plague Diary”: “Today, I walked the worn / shadows to the pond and congratulated myself / on my attention, my ears turned to the blackbirds, // my eyes catching the hawk. Today, my heart, silly little / star cup, measured the odd inches of the crocus.” We can only hope to live the dream lyric offered by Carl Phillips: “Slowly the fog did what fog does, eventually: it lifted.” It is sad that one of the best books of poetry of the year is about our shared pain, but maybe that is the catharsis we need.

Dearly by Margaret Atwood 

“Were things good then? / Yes. They were good. / Did you know they were good? / At the time? Your time?” I like when I find a poet’s book that feels transcendent, like the poet’s anchor in time, and Dearly reaches that level of permanence. Atwood can spin lines both gentle in piercing, as in “Salt,” how the “mellow lamplight / in that antique tent” was “falling on beauty, fullness / bodies entwined and cherishing, / then flareup, and then gone.” A later poem starts: “One day I will be old, / you said; let’s say / while hanging up the wash— / the sheets, the pillowcases.” The fabric holds “their white smell of June rain.” Atwood always winks before her lines become sentimental (“and your brain sang Yeah yeah yeah / like a backup group, / three girls with long legs / and thigh-high boots.”). But she returns to this sentiment, as in “September Mushrooms.” “I missed them again this year,” the narrator laments: “I was immersed elsewhere / when the weather broke / and enough rain came.” Atwood is interested in memory here, and domestic curios; how a narrator saves passports in the same way she saves “those curls / culled from our kids’ first haircuts.” We hold on to the idea of memory more than the memories themselves: “Why was I wandering from here to there / to there? God only knows.” What these narrators do know is mortality. “Things wear out,” unfortunately. “Also fingers. / Gnarling sets in. / Your hands crouch in their mittens. / Forget chopsticks, and buttons.” Remember: “The body, once your accomplice, / is now your trap.” 

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems by Yi Lei (translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi) 

Lei died in 2018, and these selected poems—each dated at their conclusion—offer a route and a timeline through the work of this important Chinese poet. In “Picnic,” “Daylight tumbles down the grassy hill / Where we feast on spiced fish, / And the whiskers speckling your chin.” The narrator wonders why her companion doesn’t let his “beard go long, shambolic / Like a sage or savage?” She adds: “Just once, I’d like to be a savage,” the lines ending with an ellipsis that wanders into wonder. “Love’s Dance,” a long, early poem in the collection dazzles in Smith and Bi’s translation: “Your animal heat, heart in full gallop. / I gripped you with my heels, fingers / Knotted into your hair.” Later in the poem she writes: “I want to feel / Civilization flourish and fall. // And I want to live to tell.” She proclaims: “Let bodies go to Heaven! / Let souls go to Hell!” Short poems, like the five-line “As Clear and Thus as Virtuous as Glass,” arrive with equal power: “To see through me, you need only glance.” In “Talking to Myself,” she wonders: “Do I really believe / The fiercest flame / Is silent?” She offers more necessary questions in “To the Viewer”: “Whose hands scrub clean the soul? / Whose eyes cleave the future? / Whose mind fathoms God’s intentions? / Whose compassion undoes affliction?  // Whose? / Whose?”

Rosetta by Karina Borowicz 

“The whiskey stink of rot has settled / in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies / rises when I touch the dying tomato plants”—so begins “September Tomatoes,” a poem deep in Rosetta, but which captures Borowicz’s skilled sense (I felt it to be a cross between Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath’s pastoral verse). The poem is a lament for change (“Something in me isn’t ready / to let go of summer so easily.”) and also manages to drape the present with tradition, as when the narrator recalls the songs of her great-grandmother: “Songs so old / and so tied to the season that the very sound / seemed to turn the weather.” That sentiment explains the first poem of the collection, “The Old Country”: “I was nourished / by nostalgia for a place / I couldn’t remember.” Borowicz captures that intangible but rich feeling of inheriting a world and words that are beyond anything we can directly experience. It can infect us, as one narrator wonders: “Does it matter / that everything I’m living / is memory / that nothing happens / anymore / for the first time.” Rosetta is a beautiful book; there are gifts here, as in the way Borowicz offers gentle truths: “The original wind has not yet / stopped. Generations of hawks / have glided on the same gust / that pulls me now down / a busy street.” 

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort 

“We walk into a book the way we walk into a garden,” Mort has said in an interview. “There are several paths we can follow on our walk, we can smell things before we even see them, we can hear things without ever seeing them, colors and textures complement each other.” Music for the Dead and Resurrected feels made for such meandering, from the figurative descriptions that capture the bending of time and the stretching of pain, to other lines that feel hypnotic, recursive, even jarring. “Not books, but / a street opened my mouth like a doctor’s spatula,” she writes in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica.” The texture of her lines almost seem to tickle: “In the State Archives, covers / hardened like scabs / over the ledgers.” In “Genesis,” she admits: “I prefer apples that roll / far from the tree.” She concludes a later poem with a lament: “And instead of evening prayers / I plead / with myself / to just leave you / be, my dear, my // undear Lord.” Mort’s take on “Psalm 18” includes a question: “How could it be that I’m from this Earth, / yet trees are also from this Earth?” A dizzying imagination permeates this book, one that we can trace back to childhood, as in “An Attempt at Genealogy”: “Days of merciless snow in the kitchen window— / snow was deposited like fat under our skin. // How large we grew on those days! / So much time spent at the kitchen table / trying to decide where to put commas / in sentences about made-up lives.” Meanwhile, the real world is strange enough. “Of the empire’s fall / I heard on the radio / while waiting for a weather forecast,” she writes in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue.” “Chlorine, opium of the pupils, / granted us purity, absolution of sins / for our grandfathers / whose heroic deeds / festered under torn book covers.” A rich collection with language so sharp it unnerves. 

A Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan (translated by Pierre Joris) 

“It was a landscape where both people and books lived,” Celan wrote of his homeland. As Joris notes, Celan was “reticent of speaking of private matters,” so the paucity compels us to return to the poems. The pieces in this collection were mostly written and published during the 1950s. “Your hair waves again when I weep,” he writes in “The Years from You to Me”: “With the blue of your eyes / you set the table of our love: a bed between summer and autumn.” “In Praise of Distance” concludes: “In the springs of your eyes / a hanged man strangles the rope.” Celan’s syntax intertwines the mysterious and macabre, revelatory in their juxtapositions. “Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends,” he writes in “Corona,” and I am carried, perhaps gently—in the way that only a master can carry—to the final lines: “It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom, / that unrest’s heart started to beat. / It’s time for it to be time. // It is time.” I’ve drifted to and from Celan over the years, and the return is always heartening, his melancholy a permeating force. “Mouth in the hidden mirror, / Knee before the column of pride, / Hand with the stanchion,” he begins “Into the Foghorn”: “hand yourself the darkness, / say my name, / lead me to him.” “I have never written a line that did not have something to do with my existence,” Celan wrote in 1962. “I am, as you can see, a realist in my own way.” I have always taken Celan at his word, perhaps paradoxically (is there any other way, truly, to read verse?): his spareness, his dreaminess, his anaphoric refrains. “Mute autumn odors. The / aster, unbent, passed / between homeland and abyss through / your memory. // A strange lostness was / palpably present, you could / almost have / lived.” The poetic skill of the soft line break, like an outstretched hand as the poet walks away.   

Must-Read Poetry: October 2020

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

The Historians by Eavan Boland 

Poetry “doesn’t make things happen. What poetry does, if anything, is show that something else happened at the same time.” Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, and her devotion to the art of poetry wasn’t without an awareness of the limits of art. She lamented that in Ireland, “we’ve always had this terrible gap between rhetoric and reality.” She wrote that the “position of women poets in this country is one thing. The shooting of a baby or a woman or a man on his own doorstep is quite another.” Boland’s realist sentiment imbues her poetry with a certain presence: her views feel well-earned. The Historians, her final book, is a necessary volume. The titular, sequential first poem ranges from the narrator’s mother, who “spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms” to “old Ireland,” where she sees “candle smoke rising towards / the porcelain / yellow faces of the sanctified.” Later, she writes: “I was born in a place where rain / is second nature,” where “rain was a dialect I could listen to / on a winter night: its sibilance.” There are gently heartbreaking pieces here, such as “Be”: “All I know is / as the light went my / infant daughters / were asleep in it, / brightness arcing towards / a cambered distance.” Forgive me for reading a poet’s final book in the enveloping shadow of her passing, but there is an acute power here, as with poems that end with lines like this: “I should have taken more care.” Boland has left us with gifts: “I remember how I longed / to find the plenitude and accuracy needed / to bring words home, / to winter hills, fogged-away stars, / children’s faces fading into sleep. // Now I wonder / if it was enough.”

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

“Arriving in the night / All my forgotten prayers,” Ali writes in “Recite,” the first poem of the collection. “Not prayers really / Nothing to ask for.” After all, “God’s like a misfit / You don’t fit he don’t fit.” Ali’s masterful turns of phrase and feeling make this book feel both encompassing and particular.  The book is anchored by the long titular poem, generous in scope and sense . Born in London in 1965, Sheila Chandra was part of the Indian pop band Monsoon in the early ’80s before going solo. She stopped singing in 2009 because of a rare condition; it hurt gravely to sing or speak. “Laughing and crying also cause me pain,” she wrote in an interview. For Ali, Chandra is a guide and muse; he is entranced by her past voice, for  “Who can in syllables like / Sheila Chandra moan us.” She sings without words / Because a word is a form of rage at / Death.” Before her disease “she sang / In Uzbek contorted her tongue around / Words she never knew learned.” Ali is saddened by her lost voice, but his poem and book know the world moves in strange ways: “In a world governed by storm and noise why / Then should a singer not fall silent.” He lives among her absent song, reflecting back to the book’s originating poem: “Nor do I always turn to the tenor stricken / I have no fear of god but of being / This archangel unfolding to emerge / From god into form.” Such is life: “there is no beginning to any song only the place / the singer picks up the tune.”

Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez

“Sometimes I search for the exact day / I stopped dreaming in the language / that sings my name.” Gómez mines the tactile spaces between cultures and tongues, tinged with the melancholy concern of how it feels “to watch something slowly drift / away without knowing if it might / ever find its way back.” This concern of distance from origin—this unfolding of who we truly are—never ends: “Eleven years later, when you no longer eat pizza / or speak Spanish, when your father’s profile invades // your clenched jawling, you borrow his brisk gait, / his snort, his face. People say you look white. / Your father never does.” Fatherhood—as both father and son—permeates this collection. In “Revisionist,” the narrator’s precise amnesia results in forgotten names of his children, though “each time, / I am called by the wrong name, // I almost correct him, then wonder / the cost of each small revision and / how it might change that sprawling // unknown in the distance.” The narrator wonders if he “might someday need his tools / to right my own family again.” Fractures arrives with the tensions of such precipices.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)

Seungja’s first published poem appeared in 1979, and eight volumes of her poetry have appeared since—most recently Written on the Water (2011) and Empty Like an Empty Boat (2016). Kim and Hong deftly deliver Seungja’s inventive lines, which command our attention from the first poem’s final stanza: “That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.” Seungja’s imagery and metaphors sting. In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she writes of another’s tender touch during winter, until their departure in spring. “Lilacs bloomed like ghosts / but you didn’t smile, even from that far place.” She is “stung in silence,” and makes a vow: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you. / I want to steal into your warm light / and be stung for the last time / and die forever.” Her narrators are singular and assertive: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend.” In “Sleep Comes Without Its Owner,” she warns: “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child.” She will “go all alone / with my old body soaked in poetry and blood.” Seungja believes in poetry—it is not quite an optimistic belief, but it is an art of necessity: “poetry is charting a way,” and in doing so, “leaving a trace of the way.” She places parentheticals within her poems as more than asides—they are new routes of feeling, and they range from solemn reflections to flits of beauty: “(A child is eating / an apple outside the window. / I watch her / savoring / a world.).” Seungja offers those comforts, despite the overbearing feeling that life weighs so much: “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me.” 

Field Music by Alexandria Hall

An engaging debut, steeped in place: “Nothing ever stays / where it ought: runoff dragged into the river / by summer rains from shit-covered fields— / my thickly perfumed Vermont.” In the book’s first poem, she describes how morning glories “creep up the shafts of the garden / vegetables, their seductive curls choking / out my small plot.” After all, sometimes “we can’t see / the dangers we feed, that we nurture.” In “Geosmin,” the narrator ponders: “Her shoulders were much smaller / than mine. I wasn’t sure // how to touch them. If a man / ever felt this way about my body, // how could he / go on touching me?” Touch pervades this book: “I might hold myself like that, // too tightly. I can feel the weight / of my hand resting on my leg / but not the pulp of my thigh // at my fingertip. There are, I’m told, / two sides to touch.” The contour of her syntax reflects this touch, even in the curve of her description: “Stray dogs dodging cars at the Oxxo. / Water level marked on the bluffs. The peonies / gutted and collapsed on the driveway in June. / I am undone, not by grief, but abundance.” Hall suggests that all we can do is reach for each other: “That night we lay strewn on the grass, / a product of restlessness, like garbage / combed through by skunks who, / though they’ve had their fill, / keep searching through the scraps / of plastic. I held my fingers out / to find yours.” 

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

“When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing.” Adnan’s prose-poetic rumination on death would strike a chord at any time, but it feels especially apt in this moment of protracted grief. Peppered with questions—“There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone?”—Adnan’s lamentations are recursive and soothing. To live is to die, and the poets can ease the passage. “My thoughts drip,” Adnan writes, “not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about.” She ponders how we “try to subvert the gods, buy their powers, corrupt their souls.” She wonders: “Can we keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days?” Her rhythms make all things new, big and small, including the unread books that line her shelves: “They’re so aloof, so silent. I spend hours next to them.” Among this accumulated sadness, there might be only one balm: “Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” 

Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are nine notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Horsepower by Joy Priest

One of the best debuts of the year. An early poem, “American Honey,” begins: “It’s easier than you thought—leaving.” Two moves here—the second-person framing and the em dash—give the line power and profluence. From the start of this book, Priest is a captivating guide. “Your long-built dread / dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black / Appalachian sky” portends a recurrent theme of narrator-as-phantom, of transfigured characters. Her storytelling sense is formidable: “Now you can be a girl / on the back patio with three white men & you can leave / with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.” Pitch-perfect lines abound, as in “Blue Heart Baby”: “Every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own // bitterness.” Priest is so adept at sketching place; elsewhere she writes “The darkness / up to our chins. The sky // a bowl of blinking lights above us.” Priest shows that mimesis is about feeling more than realism—the world wobbles while it spins, and her lines have a preternatural ability to reflect this. From “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess”: “Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes / In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet // Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head / Like a crown.” She’s equally adept at sketching scenes. In one poem, the narrator is sitting in “my mother’s white Plymouth” below the “Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights— // Their appliance buzz.” Her mother, inside the story, has been “stunned-still at the sight of my father, // Possibly a mirage.” The narrator’s father is an arresting character in Horsepower. “He sees the world in us. / Knows the huge, abstract names // for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self.” He’s a phantom in his own way, and when we read lines from the final poem—“I’m leaving / & being left. Looking for you / In all your haunts”—their worlds unite.

Be Holding by Ross Gay

The lyrical elements of basketball—hardwood and asphalt, hustle and strain—couldn’t find a better laureate than Gay. Sports, in the end, are about controlling our bodies, bending them toward our wills (especially basketball, in the constrained space). Be Holding is a book-length paean to Dr. J., among other wonders. Gay’s collection includes a hilarious early footnote for the uninitiated to Julius Erving (“You could just look on any of the video algorithim machines…or, better yet, you could just ask an elder.”). Gay invites us into his process, as the clip of Dr. J’s baseline levitation in the 1980 NBA Finals becomes a source of meditation, a recursive fount of energy. He ponders the typical admonition of frustrated coaches: “keep your feet! / again and again, // which makes the leaping—leaving your feet— / sound sacrificial.” Like the doctor himself, Gay’s ability to linger in a moment captures the richness of basketball-as-story: “—have you ever decided anything / in the air?—” The classic video clip brings Gay to other places, times, and subjects, including his youth. “I, too, am a docent / in the museum of black pain,” he writes. “my own white mother // how many times told / by white people // that brown child is not yours, / that curly-headed sun-loved thing // you nurse and whose ass / you wiped the shit from // and whose very body you bore / of your florid gore.” Gay delivers beautiful lines throughout: “my body is made of my father,” he notes: “I sometimes will study // my own hands, / which are his hands, // recalling the way he held / my brother’s and my heads // through the crosswalk.” A unique work of form and substance.

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Gifted in the art of the long poem, Chakraborty, also includes dialogic poems, epigrammatic pieces, and verse essays (with appearances by Foucault, Spinoza, and Dürer)—all pieces touched with the elegiac. In an early segmented prose poem, she offers an apostrophe to the reader: “I am also writing his poem as a fable because at times I have been afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by way of disguise.” Now, she writes, “I tend to think of obstruction and clarity alike as acts of definition.” A centerpiece of the collection is her masterful long poem “Dear, Beloved”: “Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me / all the days of my life, as surely as I know the beasts / I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise, / are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.” Some lines that stopped me: “The secret / about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound / like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks / of the river dark.” In the book’s final poem, Chakraborty writes “There is a space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window. When I next speak, I / will do so through that window”—and it feels absolutely true.

Blizzard by Henri Cole 

A bee swarms out of a black-red peony, and “I am waving / my arms to make you go away. No one / is truly the owner of his own instincts, / but controlling them—this is civilization.” While peeling potatoes, “I put my head down,” and “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought.” Black mushrooms are found, and “Sometimes, / when I’m suffocating from an atmosphere of restraint / within myself, I fry them up in butter, with pepper and salt, / and forget where the hurt came from.” The early poems in Blizzard immediately establish a hypnotic refrain of syntax and focus—no easy feat for a poet to wrest us from the world that quickly, and let us live elsewhere awhile. From “To a Snail”: “It’s a long game— / the whole undignified, insane attempt at living— / so I’ve relocated you to the woods.” His typically concise form never feels inert or bloodless: there’s a sense of poetic calmness or transcendence to his method of staying in a moment and watching, contemplating, speaking. His lines arrive within the tunnel of each poem, but feel like little gifts to carry elsewhere: “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” The book’s second section pivots to an earthly, funereal concern about decaying bodies and anxiety. A gray and white dove that slammed dead into a picture window: “We buried it—in some distorted version of its normal self— / folded in a white cloth napkin in the backyard. / Still soft enough to be cut into like a cabbage, I thought, / I’m glad I’m not dead.” “Agnostic and uninsured,” a later narrator laments, “I eat celery, onions, / and garlic—my Holy Trinity of survival.” These lamentations take a different, more sensuous turn in the third section: “Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. / In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.”

Owed by Joshua Bennett

“You contain / multitudes & are yet / contained everywhere you go.” From “Token Sings the Blues”—the first poem in Bennett’s skilled collection—on forward, Owed is a song of identity. An affirmation of how the narrator’s sister says “You. are everything” and the honest melancholy that “on your best / days above ground you / believe her.” In “Barber Song,” Bennett sings of “Postmodern blackness black / -smith,” how someone can make “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking.” How the barber is a “biweekly / psychoanalyst, first stop / before funeral, before / wedding & block party.” Yet there’s also a finely tuned sense of entropy in this book: “I’m pretty good / at not loving / anything enough / to fear its ruin. / The cruel speed / of our guaranteed / obsolescence suits / me.” One way against the storm, one measure of survival, is “how I lend my hands / to lyric’s labor, as if forsythia / or chrysanthemum could bloom from black / ideas dancing across a screen.” Bennett manages to do so with pieces that are nearly hymnal, as with “Mike Brown is a Type of Christ”: “By which I mean, mostly, that we gaze upon the boy / & all of our fallen return to us, their wounds unhealed / & howling.” And in one of the sections of the “Reparations” sequence: “But what modern-day / black son wasn’t born / knowing how to pray?” Bennett ends with a poem that follows Langston Hughes, and is much about America as it is about being a father and son, and about dogged hope for “some vast and future country / some nation within a nation.”

The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson

An ambitious new book, as Chiasson plays and prods with time, source, structure, and the spectacle of creation. The book’s first poem, a consideration of a 2017 mural by the artist David Teng Olsen, begins the fracturing—“Through his eyes I see in the dark. / I see through change the static”—which ends with the narrator’s son questing Chiasson’s cover of Bicentennial. Fathers and sons become an emblem for this book, which begins with a poem in four phrases—a porous narrative of fragments, dreams, and daydreams. There’s a self bursting against the world here (Chiasson has said in an interview: “I’m fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.”). T.S. Eliot haunts these poems well (“I owned ‘East Coker’ on cassette. / We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” “Over and Over,” the final section of the initial poem, invites the reader to “turn over / her hands to expose her palms,” and to later step away from the page and screen and “ponder who imagined whom.” The titular poem bleeds across adolescent wonders. While the Circus Camp “patches its tents” and at the Farm Camp, “a goat behind a wire fence / prepares to be clumsily milked,” the “Hard problems at the Math Camp wait / all winter for solutions; / engorged sums hibernate / and dream of consolation.” The ultimate equation is youth: “the absolute value of fifteen / or how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division / of days into hours, minutes, seconds.”

Wonder & Wrath by A.M. Juster 

“Wood sways and mutters; palsied shutters bang. / The call has come.” “November Requiem” rests nearly in the middle of Wonder & Wrath, the poet and translator Juster’s latest, but radiates throughout the book. Juster is a poet of control—carefully pared lines whose concision creates profluent energy, as in the start of “Behold”: “Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields / so that both empty lanes extend like grace.” That feeling carries the end of “Epilogue”: “There are no robins hymning / or gawkers at this scene— / only a lowered sun, / raw cries of crows, and dimming.” A particular standout here is “Inertia”: “High glinting leaves, / glazed by the post-storm light, / are hushing dark / in reassuring waves.” The calming of gl and s sounds lull the reader into an elegiac state, followed by “Our lichen-clad / old maple lost three limbs / to rain that felt / like reprimands from God.” In Juster’s work, the divine is present (and omnipresent), as well as the sense that our existence is part of a sometimes confounding by always certain scheme. “The world turns liquid,” he begins “Vertigo,” as it “reels and rolls, / as gravity // veers at angles.” His insights are often welcome, as in “Fruit Flies,” which opens with a useful reminder: “They are the best, as pest invasions go: / no bites and no disease, just clouds of small / tan smudges spawned in week-old grapes.” Although they “flit and frustrate,” and “outsmart you with their tiny brains,” just pour “some white wine into a dish, and wait.” They cannot resist. “They soak in joy, relax, then drink no more / It’s no surprise—you’ve seen it all before.” 

Runaway by Jorie Graham 

“My Skin Is”—as Graham’s title begins one poem—”brought to you by Revlon, melancholy, mother’s mother, the pain of others.” There’s a sense of breathless exposure to many of these poems, the long lines reaching across stanzas, their tendons the regular em dashes that serve as both pivots and locks. Graham suggests that something new is among us: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch. Before, they are / transparent.” One of the finest pieces here is “The Hiddenness of the World”: “The lovers disappear into the woods again.” War, blizzard, life accumulates: “But the lovers are in the woods again, the signifier is in / the woods, the revolution of the ploughshare in, clod-crumble in, cloud- / tumble, hope and its stumble in.” It’s within association that the poetic form carries its most force, how lines can carry subjects amongst other subjects (and amongst ourselves), so that the narrator must wonder: “Do I have to end // in order to begin, I ask the light that lingers on the trees—between the / trees—the lovers have disappeared again.” The book’s final work, “Poem,” offers a way forward: “The earth said / remember me. The earth said / don’t let go, // said it one day / when I was / accidentally / listening.”

Red Stilts by Ted Kooser 

I’ve come to believe that a Kooser collection is best thought of as a gift: he never ceases to offer a gentle correction to blurred visions of the world. A Kooser poem often arrives in a flash, and then enters the air: as with “Ohio Blue Tip,” which is a single sentence of a man lighting his pipe “with a stick match pinched from the trough / of the matchbox holder nailed by the door,” and the play of the flame before “the thin curl / of smoke as it lifted away from the tip / and then vanished, and it seemed he could / read something special in that, but he / never would say what it was.” In dredging memory from the past, Kooser offers a way for us to do the same—I think of the opening lines of “Helping”: “Our basement floor sloped to the linty lid / of a drain, with a muddy-smelling darkness / through the holes.” The simple (yet skilled) gesture of layering detail without oversaturation, the prayer-like return to the past. Another single-sentence gem, “Tarnish,” begins so appropriately with the word “unrolled”—as in the revelation of the past in the form of family silverware, “gone ghostly / with inky fingerprints of tarnish,” found in an attic chest. How those fingerprints “have been feeling / their way forward through time / in the manner that flat black paint / on the back of a mirror picks its way / through to the front.” Consider the gentle “Tree Frog”: “Late evening, a velvety black / beyond the high windows, and on one / a tiny tree frog with its legs spread / presses its soft, white belly to the glass. / This night it gets to be the evening star.” Few poets can continue to reveal the world book after book like Kooser. A beautiful collection.

Must-Read Poetry: August 2020

- | 1 book mentioned

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

An excellent second collection. “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel,” an ambitious sequence told in shifting intervals, tells the story of those crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona. The water station barrel provides a much-needed salve from the treacherous journey. In the far-reaching poem, dreams, hallucinations, memories, and desires intertwine. No matter what his subject, Corral is a gifted storyteller, precise and dizzying with his imagery: “After my mother’s death, I found, in a box, / her wedding dress. / As I lifted the lid, a stench corkscrewed / into my nostrils: /the dress had curdled like milk.” Later: “Dusk, here, is stunning. Yesterday, I woke to ants crawling / over my body, / to ants crawling / over / the body on the cross around my neck.” I can’t help but linger over his finely-wrought phrases that anchor each poem, as in “Saguaro”: “Sonoran / pictograph ablaze // in cloud shadow, / glass lighting.” From “To Juan Doe #234”: “In Border Patrol / jargon, the word // for border crossers is the same whether / they’re alive or dead.” Corral can capture a world in a poem’s single scene, as in “Córdoba,” when the narrator looks at his reflection in a bathroom mirror. “I reach / to clean, with my thumb” the mirror “speckled / with toothpaste” and blood, but he quickly pulls back his hand. “I don’t touch mirrors. It’s wrong, / my father always said, // to touch a man.” An accomplished book in both style and sense.

Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae

McCrae is a contemporary mythmaker, a poet who is able to lift his art to a spiritual plane. His new book continues a sustained, complex engagement with the ineffable. In “The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World,” “clouds was the last word / He heard the other angels shouting as / They shoved him,” his body too far to hear them, but he “saw their mouths making / Shapes that were not clouds.” McCrae’s method of snipped lines—imbued with breath-spaces—create discrete phrases within each line, creating a layering of the abstract and specific. Near the end of the poem, “as he fell he watched the clouds / Becoming strange    abstract    the way another / Angel would watch a species go extinct,” the effect feels hymnal, symphonic. His ambition and fervor bring to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins, as does his interest in the body as image of God. The angel drifts through these early poems: he “wanders…through centuries of cities / And countries and millennia of cities / And countries and of women and of men.” Next is a sequence of poems about Jim Limber, an adopted, mixed-race son of Jefferson Davis, whose own ethereal drifting sometimes mirrors, sometimes inverts the view of the angel. Limber “yelled when Yankees took me” from his family, and in that way, “home / Follows your sorrow   so it is like Heaven.” Heaven is where he might soon go, and where he wonders if he will become an angel himself: “Will I still be my body if it changes.” Limber and Davis speak in “Old Times There,” a short verse play embedded in the book—which is followed by sections on Limbo and Heaven, where Limber used to hear “the older slaves / Talking about   the fields of bliss.” In Heaven, “They get to keep their bodies    and their minds die.” McCrae is one of the finest poets of God and the unknown.    

Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

harris’s poems teem with emotion, but there’s a control to her lines that feels so clever—as in “Junebug,” the lines “All night I put up your / bad plans on a map” can unfold in so many directions, but the subsequent lines offer even another route: “Your hands / go sideways, like a diagonal gnat / of blankets.” harris has spoken about how poets should play with language, and inherent in her play is a willingness to shift and swing among time and subject. Later in “Junebug”: “in her // photographs she has on the best / lip gloss I’ve ever noticed. Maybe now that I have // stopped flailing my arms and throwing / myself against the walls.” Poems like “Unlike my sister” reveal that harris is original in syntax and rhythm: the poems in this collection never play quite the same song, as if their form keeps us active and alert. “I don’t have children I won’t bring to the city,” the narrator starts, “or to the city beach, or the monkey bars. / I don’t curl my eyelashes in the mirror with a whiteness. or a woman. or an iron bar.” Poems like “Tardigrade” often seem like they are written to a recipient, imbuing the poems with an acoustic touch—perhaps a warning: “I’m not saying close your eyes. I’m saying / don’t look up from your food. your table. your beer. The room is dark for a reason. keeps / everyone at a distance.” 

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen

Her new book opens with a flash of prescience: “In the Event of an Apocalypse, Be Ready to Die,” says the title, “But do also remember galleries, gardens, / herbaria.” Anodyne is full of these “repositories of beauty” among distress, enabling Queen to refute suffering with flits of joy. “The Rule of Opulence” is a beautiful meditation on transcendence: “Bamboo shoots on my grandmother’s side path / grow denser every year they’re harvested for nuisance.” The narrator’s grandmother has, for nine decades, “seen every season stretch out of shape.” The narrator contemplates her on Mother’s Day, although she’s “always disbelieved permanence—newness a habit, / change an addiction—but the difficulty of staying put / lies not in the discipline of upkeep,” she ponders, but in the world’s constant nature. After all, there’s “nothing more permanent than the cracked flagstone / path to the door, that uneven earth, shifting.” Lines from a later poem echo Queen’s refrain of how we might remain in our entropic world: “Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies // Looped into every surface, looped // Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter.” 

Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia

Reflecting on “Warrior Song,” one of the first poems in his debut collection, Garcia has spoken of his usage of first person plural in the poem—how that conception of “we” rather than the “I” of earlier drafts felt more appropriate. “Nothing I have done has been on my own. Our communities—we—have been resisting together.” That collective spirit anchors “Warrior Song”—“When we had no faith luck / was our faith. When we have finished / death will be our luck”—and Garcia’s entire collection. Here the collective is fraught with tension, as when “mom didn’t know I was gay / because she chose not to see,” and later, “My father // didn’t raise me to be a girly man, a fact that might bother him, / except for the other fact: he didn’t raise me.” Garcia returns to a refrain of poems titled “The Language in Question” that ponders language, meaning, and result: “defying gravity after all // isn’t the same as flying”—taken together, these poems affirm identity through distinction, and offer the narrator power. “Confession: during prayers, I don’t close my eyes,” Garcia writes. “Nobody knows this except the other people who don’t close their eyes.” 

Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

“Why is it so tempting / to say the love of a thing / is dependent on its loss?” Hankins considers the paradoxes of holiness in this new collection, his questions often focused on our distance from the divine. It is only human, of course, to seek to lessen that distance, through contemplation or remaking the divine in one’s own image: “I could not presume to know the Maker’s mind, / but I know something of my own— / I could not bear / to make sure magnificent and fleeting things.” Hankins’s narrative voice reaches toward that imperceptible but desirous bridge between mortal and immortal, temporary and eternal. In “Even the River,” “All of nature / seems to address and blame me.” The narrator, physically penitential with “palms upturned,” also offers his “willingness to hold / the guilt that finds no other place to rest.” The natural world returns often in these poems, as a spiritual presence, a creator of awe (in both its inviting and troubling senses): “I feel so far from the meaning of the earth. / It is silent. It lives but does not speak.” And even when we do get seemingly close to the heart of it all—the beautiful vanity of affirming the self—the narrator ultimately ponders Ecclesiastes 1:2-4; that soon enough we become nothing but vapor.   

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.”