Honeyfish

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Must-Read Poetry: April 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in April.

Honeyfish by
Lauren K. Alleyne

There’s not a page in Honeyfish untouched by grace and grief. In
“How to Watch Your Son Die”: “His name // will become a strange music / in the
foreign instrument of your voice.” The masterful “Killed Boy, Beautiful World”
sings and stings: “How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds /
tumbling in streams of white, / the sky dappled, then clear, / then blotted
with rain; the news / of death and more death.” And yet: “you want to hold on
to it, / this life that breaks you again / and again.” Viscerally real poems
invoked to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice live next to poems of metaphor, as
with “The Pain Fair”: “The opening act is breaking / all manner of things open:
/ wishes, bones, hearts, glass / eyes, brains.” The crowd applauds “politely:
we know / this is nothing impressive.” Next, the magician commands from the
crowd “first heartaches, first betrayals, / they resound like phantom /
symphonies, notes swelling / our chests like air into balloons.” A unique
talent, Alleyne’s skilled lines levitate with something more: passion, grace,
and a willingness to ask questions that linger. “Heaven?” ends with one such
unanswered question: “How many angels weep / when a black girl is torn / into
wings?” An excellent book.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown

“I mean, don’t you want
God / To want you? Don’t you dream / Of someone with wings taking you / Up?” Brown
has a preternatural sense of pacing, which I suspect is one reason why he’s one
of the most commanding of contemporary poets. Gravity in verse goes a long way,
and Brown’s lines feel well-worn, fully-thought, complete. From “As a Human
Being”: “There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve. /
They sit apart from each other / The way you and your mother / Sat on opposite
sides of the sofa / After an ambulance came to take / Your father away.”
Effortless, we know, is never really without effort, but Brown’s flowing lines
are still worth commending—poems moving from God and gifts to the detritus of
our plans and pains. In “Foreday in the Morning,” the narrator thinks of his
mother, who “grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her
porch,” and told him “I could have whatever I worked for.” Her faith in the
world came from God, but the narrator is “ashamed of America / And confounded
by God.” Haunted by God, possibly, though Brown’s narrators often find faith
elsewhere: “Some people need religion. Me? / I’ve got my long black hair. I
twist / The roots and braid it tight.” A book pierced by a devotion to desire, The Tradition is a powerful
collection—an affirmation of love. “I thought then / Of holding you / As a
political act,” the narrator says in “Stand.” “I / May as well have / Held
myself.”

Hawk Parable by Tyler Mills

We really don’t spend a
lot of our lives looking up—the sun steals our sight, or we might trip over our
own feet—though Mills’s new book might send readers outside to stare and wonder
how bombs have soiled the sky. A rather ominous endnote, “My grandfather’s
possible involvement in the Nagasaki mission has remained a mystery,” helps
frame this book, stitched together by anecdote, folklore, blurry memory, rumor,
and archival reels. Many of Mills’s narrators are shocked by the sky; in “Exposure,”
“I was hanging the baby’s diapers on the balcony / when I noticed / a
multicolored parachute / floating in the sky.” Hell might burn below our feet,
but there’s a devilish tinge to what falls from above—and Hawk Parable tells a recursive story of how atomic tests reel on an
infinite loop. In one poem, the narrator thinks of the Enewetak Atoll tests: “I
swallow vomit after watching // the island wart into an orange bulb. Just
before, / birds glanced off the shimmering water.” Three-quarters of the way
through the collection, Mills detours into prose poems that are associative and
essayistic—another mode in her attempt at reconciliation with the past. Her
frequent return to test sites in the book is apt, as if we are asked to
consider the steps necessary toward destruction: methodical, meticulous, messy
steps.  

Brute by
Emily Skaja

“What I want is a permanent
figure / I want a marker here to separate / The Time Before from The Time Now.”
The first section of Skaja’s debut ends with a poem of exile: self-imposed,
absolutely necessary, freeing. She quotes a crisp line by Lucie Brock-Broido—“After
Pennsylvania, I couldn’t breathe”—concluding a first quarter of the book that
sketches Philadelphia in terms of struggle and suffocation. The narrator of
these poems is smothered by an abusive man and the city’s “hot pavement.” The
book’s second section, titled “Girl Saints,” is a scream of freedom. They’ve
had enough. “Our hands bled. We saw Rorschach blood in our wounds, Pietà in egg
yolks.” Women “bled on our white clothes—we bore them redly // to the table.” “Girl
Saints,” the lead and titular poem of the section, arrives like an anthem. Other
poems, like “Dear Emily,” are whispers to the past: “Easy to disown the girl
you were / at 23: fluffed dove-gray / & bridal, eyes up, prim bird claws /
pink on the brute arm / of your first wreck.” There’s everything in this strong
debut, including the occasional reminder: “I need to remember how to be a body,
more than a chalk outline filled in with cedar shavings, doubt.”

The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil

Ypil’s observant poems are
direct and eye-opening. Often a single line creates a gap in the narrative that
allows us to step inside and wonder. “The nature of a city depends on the
direction its people are moving. In the morning, towards. By evening, away.”
Later in “The Nature of the City,” a profoundly lucid prose poem, he continues:
“It takes bringing something into the heart of a city then back out into its
tributaries, to raise the price of one’s possessions. This principle applies to
one’s hopes and desires as it does to chickens and vegetables.” A later poem
with the same title offers a new perspective: “The nature of a city depends on
the combination of views it could be seen from: by high noon or night, by
backstreet or avenue.” Ypil’s lines carry the authority of aphorism without
ever feeling pedantic. His stories are gentle and clear, as in “The History of
Towns”: “The history of towns is always / the history of looking back.” By the
time you’re done contemplating the truth of an early line, Ypil offers another
accuracy: “A family is only as good as the father / who is gone.”

Herod’s Dispensations by Harry Clifton

Dublin-born Clifton, who
has left and returned to his home country several times in his life, creates a
feeling of inevitability in this new collection. He has called form in poetry “emotional
mathematics—the need to resolve something inside that is chaotic before it does
damage,” and even his open lines in Herod’s
Dispensations feel gently tense. He is wracked, and wrecked, by God. “I
never belonged in my father’s house,” he writes in “Endgame,” “His unread Bible
on the shelf / My silent coming of age.” He thinks of the Beckett play as he
spends “a Sunday afternoon / Without God,” thinking about “Those who can never
do themselves in, / Those who can never pray.” He finds curious kin in the
Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, “who would hang by his own rope / of
Catholic heresy.” The narrator, himself a “soul-abandoned body,” thinks the
controversial priest a brother, who “died, a pastor without flock / In a New York
room—anathema, frozen out.” They are both “Gnostic, heretic.” Yet the narrator
can’t help but hum the tune of that old religion, in “Death’s Door”: “Christ,
the weight of that coffin.” He’s tired. “Please, can I die now? Tired, I
straighten up / The whole of life behind me.”  

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