Gatekeeper: Poems

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Colvin, Awkward-Rich, Sarginson, Grey, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jeffrey Colvin, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Saskia Sarginson, Iona Grey, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Africaville: “Inspired by Africville, a neighborhood in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Colvin’s intriguing and memorable debut shines a light on a little-known black experience: the freed slaves from the Caribbean and U.S. who established a community in Canada in the 1800s. This family saga extends from 1918 to 1992 and focuses on descendants of the Sebolt and Platt families, who are joined when Omar Platt has an affair with Kath Ella Sebolt in 1936 right before his accidental death. She gives birth to a son and leaves Halifax for Montreal to further her education, meeting her future husband there, a white man who adopts baby Omar, renaming him Etienne. Etienne moves to Alabama in the 1960s, passes for white, marries a white woman, and ignores the black side of his family to such an extent that his own son, Warner, doesn’t find out about his black heritage until after his father’s death. Colvin expertly weaves in the subject of owning one’s heritage as Warner comes to terms with his Canadian past and the tragedies that dogged the Sebolts and Platts. The book covers much territory—the black experience in a small enclave in Canada and Etienne’s and Warner’s grappling with their racial identity—and sometimes these varying plots feel like they belong in two different books, making for a novel that feels diffuse. Nevertheless, this is a penetrating, fresh look at the indomitable spirit of black pioneers and their descendants.”

Dispatch by Cameron Awkward-Rich

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dispatch: “Cave Canem–fellow and Lambda Literary Award–finalist Awkward-Rich (Sympathetic Little Monster) holds self (‘the pith of me,’) assuredly at the surface of his powerful second collection. Imagination emerges as a strategy for black trans survival: ‘if I have to I’ll shape a window/ to the universe adjacent calm/ my blackened heart.’ Weighed down by the ‘brutal choreography’ of violence against black, queer, and trans bodies, the poet reestablishes buoyancy through will and formidable artistry: ‘now I have a choice/ repair a world or build/ a new one inside my body.’ In a linked series of poems that share the title ‘[Black Feeling],’ the poet wakes ‘alone in the manic dark/ head in [his] hands ringing// &ringing, faithful/ goddamned blood alarm’ or rides, anonymous, on a bus through the city, ‘circling like animals, like prey.’ ‘Either way,’ a refrain reminds, ‘there you are in the room with your body.’ In countless rooms, poetry plays out the ‘perfect skein/ of my living, brazen/ misplaced song’: ‘I think gunflower & here’s a field. Here’s a room/ where every bullet planted blooms,’ and ‘here’s a room/ where everything you’ve lost is washed ashore.’ In these poems of bracing clarity, national violence is unflinchingly and meaningfully confronted.”

Gatekeeper by Patrick Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gatekeeper: “In this impressive and formally versatile debut, Johnson places the lyric in dialogue with a host of nonpoetic forms, among them diagrams, numbered lists, and maps. ‘It’s different in the lab; dissection is bloodless,’ he warns early in the collection. Johnson frames beauty and transcendence as a source of authority equal to the language of formal scientific inquiry. ‘Speak from a place of reversibilities,’ he advises, as though describing the poems’ own provocative movements between types of discourse. Johnson’s strength lies in his ability to reflect on his own unexpected juxtapositions and wild associative leaps: ‘The dream has not only shown me history in reverse but somehow changed it,’ he writes. Johnson calls attention to his own agency in inhabiting language, ‘In this moment I realize I have a level of control,’ framing his practice as a poetics of intervention. The work is filled with self-aware poems like this one, which reflect on their own philosophical underpinnings, and Johnson’s formal experimentation compliments the poems, involving and implicating the reader in their critique of linguistic hierarchies. ‘The individual becomes invisible,’ he observes, positioning the reader as collaborator and coconspirator in this thought-provoking collection.”

The Wonderful by Saskia Sarginson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Wonderful: “Sarginson (The Other Me) crafts an unusual, bittersweet coming-of-age novel that’s also a fascinating mystery steeped in Cold War history. Ruby thought she had left her lonely, emotionally desolate childhood in Norfolk, England, behind when she married Todd, a dashing American fighter pilot. In 1957, however, Todd receives a new posting at a U.S. airbase in England, close to where Ruby grew up, and they move there with their 12-year-old twins, Hedy and Christopher. Hedy is tomboyish and brave, often sticking up for her fragile, dreamy brother, who avoids his painful scoliosis (and equally painful back brace) by escaping into an imaginary science fiction universe. Life on the base is lonely and claustrophobic—as Christopher claims to hear screams and see mysterious lights, and as Todd’s behavior grows increasingly erratic, the family arrives at a breaking point that leaves Hedy on her own, contending with profound losses. Over the following 20 years, Hedy gradually grasps—and then confronts—the lies and misperceptions that, she comes to realize, characterized her childhood. Sarginson effectively interrogates the power of storytelling to engender catharsis and healing but also to deceive others and destroy relationships. Portions of the early sections are presented from Ruby’s and Christopher’s points of view, but as the narrative develops, it becomes Hedy’s story of reclaiming the truth and redefining the past. Set against a historical backdrop that will surprise many readers, Sarginson’s novel movingly captures the private and at times painful evolution of a resilient and inventive protagonist.”

The Cupped Field by Deirdre O’Connor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cupped Field: “Readers will need to quiet themselves as they lean into the hushed subtlety of O’Connor’s formally precise second collection (after Before the Blue Hour). The book reflects a sensibility of belatedness: ‘What is the word for not having been/ in the room, for missing the turn?’ Elsewhere, a car-struck doe lies dying, “awash… in glass and fur,” while the poem resolves with Dickinson-ian imagery: ‘the ocean// closing over, its great rolling horses/ corralled, a finger of sun/ holding the horizon down.’ In such moments, the poet calls into question the very conditions that make possible the tranquility from which emotion is recollected: ‘this now,/ no, this now,/ which, when I write it down,/ becomes this snow,// this snow, a way of covering things,/ the ethical problem,/ privilege of saying, I am here,/ in this calm place,// while elsewhere girls are being stacked/ in trucks.’ And yet, the contours of such privilege remain merely suggested, however apologetic (‘as if my special/ self-knowledge should translate into something’). Readers will find a poet who masterfully serves the elegiac mode she favors: ‘the mystery within trumping/ the mystery without.'”

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Glittering Hour: “A nine-year-old child pieces together clues to her mother’s wild past in this slow-building but dramatic historical tale of love lost and familial secrets uncovered from Grey (Letters to the Lost). In 1936 England, Alice Carew is sent to live with austere grandparents after her parents leave for Burma. Her only entertainment is her correspondence with her mother, Selina, who sends her clues to a treasure hunt that gradually reveals the story of Selina’s life before Alice was born. In 1925, Selina Lennox was one of the ‘Bright Young People’ whose outrageous behavior often featured in gossip columns. Though Selina’s parents urged her to settle down with staid former soldier Rupert Carew, bohemian artist Lawrence Weston captured her heart. Told in a series of extended flashbacks, their romance is vividly drawn and heart-wrenching. Together, Alice and the reader come to understand that Alice’s origins are not what they seem—but that’s not the only secret the family is keeping. The novel’s final twist is a devastating blow that more than makes up for some plodding plotting during the buildup. This sweeping history is sure to be a tearjerker.”

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.” 

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