Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in June.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
“I wanted to have my form and explode it too,” said Wanda Coleman of sonnets. Hayes names her with gratitude in this book. Athletic, punchy, sardonic, and swift, Hayes delivers his sonnets with a smirk—and also some sadness. Penned during the administration of the “failed landlord,” his poems are immediate, and though they are all titled the same as the book, they are varied. “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Our feelings and our fears bound in the box of a sonnet. “I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart. / Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.” We get the sense Hayes absolutely loves poetry, and yet: “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Poems, especially sonnets, suffocate. “My problem was I’d decided to make myself / A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly. / It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.” There’s blood in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, but Hayes reminds us: “Still, I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.”
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward
A memoir in verse, powered by the strains of family separation, sexuality, and dreams. Daley-Ward grew up West Indian and West African in largely white Chorley, England—where her grandparents raised her in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. She longs for her mother’s love—“Mummy was soft. Warm-milk soft / and everything written in our paperworlds/ made hot, small sense”—but her mother needs to work nights, so she falls into a world of stern faith and high expectations. Grandma “is short and round, always cleaning the house to perfection.” Granddad “is ever so particular.” He “spends an hour deliberately washing his face and trimming his beard each night after dinner. His copper shaving kit is gleaming, his routine precious.” Their love is strict, and she wishes to be with her mother again. Daley-Ward is also beginning to be noticed for her appearance: by men, by teachers, by women. She knows from both Disney and the Song of Solomon that “beauty makes people stay…beauty makes people listen to you.” She loses control over her body, as she is photographed and judged and coveted. The Terrible unfolds as a verse drama: a feverish tale of the perils of modeling, of how our bodies get away from us. A reminder: “You may not run away from the thing that you are / because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you / breathe.”
The Body Ghost by Joseph Lease
“You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.” Joseph Lease’s description of his poetic technique is doubly accurate: It captures his own mode and method but also makes clear his connection to Robert Creeley. Perhaps possession is the better term, borrowing Susan Stewart’s idea of how there is a haunting of meter, rhythm, and feeling to lyric poetry that transcends the poet’s own hand. Lease’s poems, centered and evenly spaced, feel strangely eternal. There are peculiar and precise phrasings here like “the elegies / are taking off their clothes,” capturing the feeling of arising from mourning, but Lease’s most powerful poetic touch is his recursive energy. Lines and words overlap, their meaning turning as if they are a water wheel: “one story—the boy and the wren—the / wren and the night—the face in the / house—your lips slip the night—your / face slips your eyes—your eyes slip / your yes—love like flying—.” Esoteric in its essence, Lease’s poetry is flesh without the bone, a welcome, curious escape.
Of Marriage by Nicole Cooley
The routes and ruts and rewards of marriage live in Cooley’s new book. “Marriage,” she writes, “over and over a re-telling. A dress to wear for days on end. A dress to shuck off, stuff under the bed.” Her long lines feel like stabs of perseverance: “When we fight. I make and unmake the bed, fold on the sheets with small blue flowers / in the shapes of stars to imitate the sky, unmake a space for us to slide inside.” In Cooley’s vision of marriage, memories are constant. The present is a reel of the past. To be married is to be bonded: “We’re roped // We’re stitched // with loose, looped yarn. We’re threaded. We’re the quilt still / unfinished, unbacked, unraveling, batting loosening.” Her play with language doesn’t neuter the word, nor does it diminish the beauty and surprise of its gift. Of Marriage moves from humor to sentiment, as in “Marriage, the Museum of Papermaking”: “Last glass case: here is a card composed of small dark windows. // Look into the stereoscope to see the future: / the light was cool and loose that day. My hands on your back. // Our old selves still unlocatable, written and crossed out.”
Her Mouth as Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons
“Etched into each fallen leaf is a diagram of a bare tree.” A line such as that, direct and new, sits me up—and Her Mouth as Souvenir is filled with similar precision. From “Event”: “During the flood, I was robbed / in the church parking lot. / The monofilament bobbed / to the surface, but not before // I saw myself facedown in the river. / Before we lost our phone chargers, / but after the excommunication.” Confusion, corralled for the reader: “You used to think those lights / were signal mirrors flashed // by angels until you learned / they were just protein particles / suspended in the vitreous.” A little strange, a little surreal, these poems are moments of struggle. Some scenes exist without resolution. A sequence of love poems offers a little salve without salvation. The narrator of “Origami” laments, “I can pinpoint the exact moment / I become boring, but only in retrospect.” She thinks of other people, other windows—like the one an astronomer looks out, how “turbulence / makes stars shiver and wink.” Her poems often bound from place to space and back again, as in “Do Not Leave This Box,” which begins with a warning to avoid “heat and sunlight,” moves to a stockroom, where a woman “unbinds the plastic-bound / boxes from pallets that arrive in trucks,” the type of boxes that were “expertly assembled / in the Zhejiang Province.” There, a world away but connected by cardboard, a woman’s hidden ornamental boxes under her mattress: “On the lid of the smallest / is a woodcut of a crane, for luck.”
Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones
Gentle, conversational, introspective: Jones’s biographical, narrative poems exist without artifice and pretense. In “The Biscuit Tin,” he recalls his father’s Kodachrome slides: “I remember him sitting in the dark / behind the projector, the beam of light / shooting across the room, / the white screen filling with image after image, / the sound of locks opening.” Among an “audience of ghosts,” his father explains the photos. A genuine, earnest sense of wonder permeates Stranger on Earth. Melancholy and moving, “The Hidden Meadow” tells the story of how a boy would lie in high grass and “disappear completely.” There, “I made sorrow’s shape.” Jones is the type of poet to send readers outside, or even to look within ourselves for emotions that we’ve taken for granted. In “Nocturne,” “when the children / have gone to bed,” his wife sits at the piano and plays Satie, “the melody / a serene flowering / so quietly intense, / so lucidly palpable / the children in their beds / hold their breath.” A calming poet of family and feeling and optimism.