Must-Read Poetry: February 2020

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.

Father, I Found the Movies: Featured Poetry by Chad Bennett

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, the new collection by Chad Bennett. Bennett begins his poem with lines from an unpublished interview from the early 1960s between Warhol and the art critic David Bourdon. The interview proper begins with a Warholian question for Bourdon: “Am I really doing anything new?” Bennett is able to channel that particular magic and mystery of Warhol as he inhabits his persona in this poem.

“Andy Warhol”[Unpublished interview, 1962]
I don’t want to know whothe father of this movementis. In those Shirley Templemovies, I was so disappointedwhenever Shirley found herfather. It ruined everything.She had been having such agood time, tap dancing withthe local Kiwanis Club orthe newspaper men in the cityroom. Those newspaper men,who want everything ruined,don’t want to know whoruined it. So in the city I wasa good Shirley Temple, dancingwith men in the club, or withthis local in a room in the city.
Who was it who was withthose men? Who had the time?The city? (Was I in the city?)It disappointed those in the knowwho so want to know who isor was or had been having who isor was or had been dancing.The city was a ruined temple, ora temple of ruined time,I don’t know. Whenever I hadthe time I know I was good, orfound I had been. In time,I ruined everything. Father,I found the movies.

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Chad Bennett. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books. 

I Wake to Bury You Again: Featured Poetry by Cori A. Winrock

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions, the new collection by Cori A. Winrock. Her lines loll with the rhythm of grief: “I wake to bury / you again, stumbling // for the rotary receiver on its vine— / swinging from the wall of a house.” A synthesis of delight and delirium; memory and mourning.
 
+All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +
Some days no one is my motherbut my mother. & my mother is no
longer a distance that cinches itself—the flush on flush of the new
fever, the baby’s first floral-heat nursed down—with a telephone
call. I could not gather, could notcollect your voice in fits
in tinder in sleep. So the flowerbeds:empty. The endless ringing: all hesitation,
no digging. I wake to buryyou again, stumbling
for the rotary receiver on its vine—swinging from the wall of a house
I left burning small: votivelight throwing off no sound.
In the yard the petals all flame& lantern. In the crib
my daughter moro-s herselfin heartbeat cycles, limbs sparked
apart with shock. The smoke of us bothrises: like a moon: like a pulse. & I am
alone in our surveillance, our time-lapsed fevering burst into a single bloom
: the resurrected echo-light of your ambulancedissolving through the walls.

“+ All By Myself I am a Huge Camellia +” from Little Envelope of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock, Alice James Books, 2020. 

Must-Read Poetry: January 2020

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.” 

Not Even My People Recognize Me: Featured Poetry by Johanny Vázquez Paz

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated by Lawrence Schimel.

Paz offers a lament of identity and appearance; the recurring usage of “they”—both displaced and omnipresent—suggests the narrator’s feeling that her light skin and hair are seen as a curse. She is a “discordant note:” unwanted and unwelcome.

“Milkman’s Daughter”
They saythat I don’t look like what I ammy white skin                           lonely cloud in a shady skymy hair                           rays of a Nordic sunmy hips                           narrow lacking substance and sugar.
They saythat I pronounce words differentlymy diction is too properwithout changing my arr or dropping my essesvery Castilian and beyond mockery.
They saythat I don’t represent the folklore of the peoplethe patriotic symbols, the plátano stainnot even my people recognize me as a daughter;I’m the enigma of a badly conceived graft.
They call me milkman’s daughtergüera, gringa, polacaglass of milk, Casper the Ghostdiscordant note, alien beingthe white sheep in a coppery herd.

“Milkman’s Daughter” is excerpted from I Offer My Heart as a Target/Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana, copyright 2019 by Johanny Vázquez Paz, translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).

Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

Maybe this is the result of going on long runs in the woods, but I am pulled toward itinerant literature: the whisky priest moving across the Mexico countryside in The Power and the Glory, the Bundrens bungling their way across Mississippi in As I Lay Dying, Sethe moving from a past she can never leave behind in Beloved. I like books that move.

On the Road with Saint Augustine by James K.A. Smith moves (and moved me). Smith mines the fascinating life of Augustine, his writings, and how applicable his vision and experience are to our modern anxieties. Don’t miss the “Fathers” chapter, where Smith gets poetic and personal. 

Smith recently talked all things Augustine (and more) at Seattle’s Hugo House with Garth Greenwell, whose novella Mitko I’ve been returning to recently for a sense of moving—of syntax and sense, in his Augustinian moments and even the smaller touches (“After crossing a little wooden footbridge, at the middle of which I stopped for a moment, peering at the churning waters and feeling their vibration in the structure that held me above them, I found a small cafe nestled in a bend in the river, on a plot of land the waters had spared.”). How that sentence moves, the commas like gestures—handing one phrase over to another.

I’ve been moved often by the poetry of Rose McLarney (including her new book, Forage), so I was pleased to see her co-edit a book with Laura-Gray Street: A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia. It is a treat to hold and a pleasure to look at: beautiful illustrations paired with place. There are poems here to the Single-Sorus Spleenwort and the Wine-Leaved Cinquefoil; to the Eastern Wood Rat and the Northern Long-Eared Bat; to the Black-Throated Blue Warbler, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Painted Turtle, the Mottled Sculpin, the Fat Pocketbook Mussel, and Thorell’s Lampshade Spider. There’s even a poem to the American Caesar’s Mushroom: “As the slender stem rises, red / And relentless as mountain sunrise, / As coal fires burning around us.”

Even the Dark by Leslie Williams moves in its own way, from pauses to prayers (one of the latter starts in the eye of a bird: “It sees magnetic fields and ultraviolet light. As it flies, horizons stay precise.”). Her book is a great one to end the year on, or perhaps to start the new year with: “You could pine / for solitude and then complain of loneliness.” I like how her poems pull me here and there, and leave me elsewhere. “What’s a life for?” she asks, mid-poem. Let’s read and figure it out. Or just wander.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

We’ll Laugh About It in the Morning: Featured Poetry by Graham Barnhart

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from The War Makes Everyone Lonely, the debut collection from Graham Barnhart.

In “Somnambulant,” moments of precision—”white sheets turned down // to standard,” a “perfect perforated line”—contrast with the dizzying dullness of military exhaustion: the body ready, the body worn down. Barnhart, a veteran who served as an Army Special Forces medic, creates a tense world that burns into memory.

SOMNAMBULANT
The barracks was Army-green wooland white sheets turned down
to standard, six inches below the pillow,a perfect perforated line
across every gray bunk frameto the gray lockers lining the walls
and blocking the windows.At night, the moon passed
through seams between the lockers,flashing like a film reel
if you walked the dark roomfast enough. Now and then
on fire watch, when you were walking,and the moon was flashing,
and the sheets were disheveledby the sleepers, someone might jump
to attention, for some dreamt ofdrill sergeant screaming.
I told her all of this when she found mestanding in the bedroom doorway.
Just order me back to bed.We’ll laugh about it in the morning—she laughed then too.

From The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart. © 2019 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission.

Must-Read Poetry: December 2019

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.” 

The Dead Do Not Return: Featured Poetry by Barbara Crooker

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Some Glad Morning, the new collection by Barbara Crooker. “No one gets excited when they see sparrows,” the narrator writes—an apt metaphor for how Crooker looks at human bodies aging and worn, in fear of being forgotten. Crooker’s lines are often steeped in melancholy, but her sense is powerfully redemptive: Those gone from us are still part of the fabric of this world, woven into our longing and our memories.

“Absence”

Sparrows for sorrow. One for everyone you’ve loved,the missing. Count them under the feeder: one two threefour five. Mostly whitethroats, singing O Canada orOld Sam Peabody, depending on where you come from. Drab at a distance, but boldly striped when you get close,bodies of tan and brown, stark white throats, a splotch of sun between eye and bill.

No one gets excited when they see sparrows, although the rusty cap of a chipping sparrow signals springwhen they come back. The dead, though, do not return. Spring brings splashes of color: orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, all back from the tropics.But my interior weather is winter, where the missing gather by the fire, then vanish like smoke. The bare tree limbs, the black and white landscape punctuated by the muted palette of brown. And below the feeder. juncos in their gray and white vests, house finches drab as Wednesday mornings, goldfinches stillin their dull winter garb. And sparrows. And sorrow.Come back, we shout, into the wind that scatters them.But they’re gone.

“Absence” from Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker, © 2019. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University Pittsburgh Press.

Must-Read Poetry: November 2019

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.”