1919

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Must-Read Poetry: June 2019

Here are five notable
books of poetry publishing in June.

Sightseer in This Killing City by Eugene Gloria

“To whom does God pray?
Does He ever sleep? / Why did Judas hang himself?” In Drivers at the Short-Time Motel, Eugene Gloria’s debut back in
2000, the young narrator questions his father, who “clears his voice, / says
nothing, his silence / the very shape of our distance.” Nearly 20 years later,
Gloria’s fourth collection, Sightseer in
This Killing City continues his themes of family, silence, and wonder, but his
poetry has evolved into an even more deft lineation: original phrasings, unique
imagery, and lasting emotions. Gloria is full of surprises. “Apron” gives
curious life to the functional garment which is “agreeable / as a kitchen
mantle with ripening fruit.” Middle-aged, “the apron aspires to stand before /
sinners and saints and carve / verses on stone: Mon Coeur mis à nu, / she’ll tattoo on your chest.” Gloria takes
his illuminating eye to varied subjects: the war on drugs, Thelonious Monk, fathers,
coffins, Dante, and more. We get the sense that Gloria can write about
anything, and can do it well—a rare gift. “There’s only lyric,” Gloria writes
in one poem, “the rest is merely prose.”

Robert Schumann Is Mad Again by Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie once said he
composed most of his poems between midnight and 4 am. He handwrote the first
drafts, typed the next two drafts on typewriters, read the third draft into a
tape recorder (and listened to it again and again, making changes), before
reading it the next day at breakfast. “I look at the poem and choose to keep it
for more work, or I junk it.” Dubie’s poems have that feel: born of late night
frenzy, chiseled into skilled creations that retain shades of strangeness. Some
poems, like “Homage to St. Geraud,” blaze in their brevity: “Sometimes
believing in the beauty / of the fresh elevated incarnate existences / of the
wheel, he wishes instead // for an eternal status, a / stone and fetal sleep /
like that of the uncollected dead / under the linen snows on Everest.” Others,
like “In the Choir Loft,” stretch across pages, from precision to irreverence
and back again. An old church, damaged by fire, has been demolished: “snow
collapsed the slate roof / as if in boxes.” The “giant crucifix / launched
almost across the frozen pond.” The remaining priest emerges as if from a dream
(which, of course, this might be!): “in his nightshirt, / holding a single candle.”
He thinks of the ghost of a Nova Scotia nun that he once loved. The old priest “finally
confessed / he was boiling eggs” on the gas stove, which lead to the flames.
Dubie’s poems often feel a bit askew—but maybe he sees the world a bit sharper
than others.

1919 by Eve L. Ewing

In her introduction to
this book, Ewing explains discovering a 1922 government report, The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race
Relations and a Race Riot. Although she was first interested in learning
more “about housing segregation at the beginning of the Great Migration” for
her most recent scholarly book, Ewing became interested in other passages from
the report. “The report,” she writes, “was like an old tapestry with loose
threads stick out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel,
see what new thing I could weave.” 1919 is
a worthy result. The book begins with that migration of black southerners to
Chicago; an exodus that arrives in a litany of names about to leave. “And the
people gathered at the bank and bade them farewell,” Ewing writes, “and the
river carried them far from the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of
browning blood.” Ewing has powers of inhabitation here: She is with the people
during “quiet nights in the railyard” and then alone, in the city, on “hard
black ground.” In one poem, “Coming from the Stock Yards,” the narrator speaks
about how he “called myself a scholar in Georgia, though that was part fancy,”
but in Chicago he must start anew: “each one of us a foundry. / hands to cut,
to carry. knees to bend. this is still new to me.” A mixture of grand voices,
hushed laments, and ardent dreams, 1919 resurrects
forgotten history.

Aug 9 — Fog by Kathryn Scanlan

The longest text in this
book is Scanlan’s introduction. She explains that the contents of the book are “drawn
from a stranger’s diary.” She’d found the diary 15 years earlier, among
unsold items from a public estate auction. The actual diary is decayed and
withering. The pages are no longer connected to the spine; the binding is
broken and taped. The diary was written by an 86-year-old Illinois woman,
started in 1968 and finished in 1972. Scanlan read the diary, “typed out the
sentences that caught my attention,” and then began mixing and editing them. Scanlan
feels she has become the diarist, and
wonders: “Is it some kind of sacred text—meant for me alone?” Her project will
certainly compel strong reaction, but the product is absolutely fascinating.
Its poetic identity comes from its epigrammatic structure; its imagistic touch.
A dream-like narrative emerges here, as if from the titular fog. “Maude ate
good breakfast, oatmeal, poached eggs, little sausage. Maude ate her dinner
party good. A letter from Lloyd saying John died the 16th.” The book
unfolds this way, in epistle-whispers, all secrets. A terribly melancholic book
that somehow manages to carry affirmation; perhaps it is in the transcendence
of the old woman’s voice, its dogged survival to our digital present. “All
kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc
but had a good time, a grand day.”

The Milk Hours by John James

A single poem never
contains a full book, but the titular poem of James’s collection comes close.
The first poem, “The Milk Hours,” is invoked to two people: the narrator’s
father, who died in 1993, and the narrator’s daughter, born in 2013. The space
between those years is poetic itself. The poem’s lines are mysterious,
ethereal: “The room opens up into white and more white, sun outside / between
steeples.” The milk hours, and their “suckling sound,” are hymns that drift the
narrator to sleep—to dream of his father, although perhaps “what gun, what type”
used no longer matters. “The chopped / copses glisten,” James writes. “Snowmelt
smoothes the stone cuts of his name.” Poems in this collection drift to other
subjects, but they retain this feeling: souls rooted in the ground. Treed.
Planted. “In the catacombs I am impatient. / In this hall shuttling between //
one world and the next, from / nothing to being and back again.”

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