The disturbing cover art of DNA Hymn features a woman whose bloody mouth discharges what appear to be balloons, intestines, or giant molecules. The image seems apt for a collection of poems that freely disgorges both intelligence and emotional wisdom. This book by the semi-pseudonymous Annah Anti-Palindrome waxes conceptual to be sure, but not to the point where each individual poem is negated by an overarching Big Idea. In the introduction, the author explains that “resisting palindromes” derives from her mother’s morphine overdose and her desire as a daughter, both linguistic and existential, to break out of a legacy of violence. The first poem, “extraction,” fittingly takes an epidural as its footnote and birth as its subject: “tooth tile milk moon marrow . clock jaw limb socket hollow ./ split hair curl coil crescent . wet nest yolk part swallow .”chop! chop! read more!
On the peripheries of almost constant domestic emergency and conflict, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s poetry collection Hemming Flames lights up disaster and familial antipathy with humor and endurance. Many of the pieces in this collection share threads of the same story, featuring reoccurring family figures and familiar, though often growing, conflicts. There is an undeniable amount of devastation and trauma inside these family stories, but Murphy’s true skill lies not in showing what’s often the obvious and expected pain of it all, but in bringing a humor and an odd sense of the mundane to seemingly shocking moments.chop! chop! read more!
mother-mailbox is a private life, the private mode of womanhood, made public for all of us who have ever felt empty, questioned if there was more (or made new subs out of Subway sandwich wrappings to feel such a thing) and questioned how we should be feeling, but also those of us who have found beauty and humor in the “fade-proof plum lip-root mess” of it all, for those of us who seek a home within ourselves and those we make of ourselves; for those of us whose mothers or children have made spiraling, fairytale messes in our lives, flitting in and out as fragile as a flower until they suddenly take solid root.chop! chop! read more!
IN LIEU OF FLOWERS by Rachel Slotnick Tortoise Books, 48 pages reviewed by Carlo Matos Rachel Slotnick’s debut collection, In Lieu of Flowers—an eclectic combination of lyric poems, flash prose, and mixed-media paintings by the author, who is also an accomplished painter and muralist—is part in memoriam and part Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The paintings are of particular interest because they play an essential role in how we understand the poems rather than being simply decorative or extraneous as can sometimes happen when paintings and poems are paired up together in such a context. Most are essentially portraits, though not purely mimetic ones. Her paintings have a surreal quality, the edges often blurred as one image becomes another: a beard becomes a fish, a shirt melts into the coral of the sea floor, and flowers, always flowers sprouting where they desire. “I tried to paint my grandfather,” says the speaker, “and the figure … chop! chop! read more!
Jordi Alonso’s collection The Lovers’ Phrasebook shelves itself precisely in the lexical gap between languages, working with absence to depict presence and utilizing singular words to display relationships. These poems are able to gesture at miscommunication and a lack of sufficient vocabulary while also creating space for new conversation. The Lovers’ Phrasebook excels in its bravery and conceptual construction, working to translate without obscuring or whiting-out the original word in favor of an English counterpart. It’s a book that hails the multiplicity of loves and languages, largely favoring an experiential approach to definition rather than a literal one. The Lovers’ Phrasebook is an invitation to re-imagine how we move between languages and what the space in between words and their translations means and can be used for. By placing love in the space between fluency and confusion, Alonso has turned what could have been a dictionary into a romance.chop! chop! read more!
Whipstitches is, at its core, an examination of all the many aspects of a rural home, especially a rural childhood home. The pastoral is tinged with loss and decay because the world is, it is colored by the lives drawing strength from it just as is the earth, and so this small somewhere becomes a whole and complete universe. Randi Ward’s poems are neat and well-edited impressionistic snapshots that interact in a novel way to create depth despite their length. Ward is triumphant in her presentation of a rural childhood; you know this girl. You’ve seen her at a diner or a gas station. Come hear what she has to say.chop! chop! read more!
Only More So is a read for troubled times. War, climate change, cancer—it’s all here in forty-six poems of mid-life contemplation that simultaneously remind us that forgetting the past condemns us to repeat it and that celebrating the remembering is a necessary act of resistance and transcendence. Appropriately, the former sentiment originates not from Churchill, the statesman who appropriated it in wartime, but George Santayana, the poet who believed “only the dead have seen the end of war.”chop! chop! read more!
Throughout Blindsight, the reader is presented with the voice of a poet whose urges to feel and desires to know reflect those universal to humanity. Through his plainspoken language which is, at times, conversational and, at times, confessional we are reminded of our own desires, those things for which we do still burn. We are also reminded of our own blindness, literal and otherwise which obstruct our view, reflecting the world through a glass darkly. But even in the dim light, in the uncertainty, even when, after finally getting what you want, you’re not sure if you’re left “maybe more/ nervous than longing, / maybe indifferent, or regretting”, there is still beauty in this muddled world, even when we are left lying, “mourning among the ruins.”chop! chop! read more!
Poetry is often in danger of being understood as purely conceptual material in need of processing and interpretation in order to become meaningful or real. It can be easy, after wading through stanzas, to lose a grip on time and place and the sensation of occupying a body. However, despite the ethereality and distance from reality poetry often possesses, Caroline Ebeid has proven that it can also be used to ground and remind us of the physical rather than simply blur or distract from it. In her collection You Ask Me to Talk About The Interior, Ebeid employs a sort of “bodily language,” flexing smoothly between word and body until the two seem irredeemably tied. I would argue that Ebeid, and this collection in particular, works to close the distance between words and what they mean, bringing the signified and signifier together on the physical stage of the paper.chop! chop! read more!
In this collection, Karen Craigo continues to question the sanctity of the body in an imperfect world. Studying relationships, motherhood, the body, and the garden, No More Milk blends the sublime with the everyday in a raw and honest sense of awe, baring truths in considered lines and controlled imagery.chop! chop! read more!
Language is almost intuitively understood as a tool for possession—a form of communication which allow us to hold and deliver ideas between minds. However, John Sibley Williams’s latest poetry collection, Disinheritance, demonstrates how language itself is anything but concrete or possessable. By employing themes of abstraction, fictionalization, and absence, Disinheritance depicts a reality that is only accessible through distortion. Williams’ poems hone in on the moments where language breaks off, proves insufficient, or only serves to describe a situation rather than explain it. In this way, Disinheritance investigates how poetry can both be made out of language and escape it. Like a snake eating itself, Williams’ lines often turn back on themselves, admitting that their bodies are made out of English while also refusing to be limited by the borders of their syllables.chop! chop! read more!
When Oswald de Andrade, in his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto), spoke of “Cannibalism. Absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into a totem. The human adventure. Earthly finality,” he might have been speaking of Anthony Seidman’s delighfully profligate A Sleepless Man Sits Up in Bed.
The sheer exuberance and sense of endless imagistic invention is exhaustive and vivifying. Each word is a firecracker thrown at your head, as you run through a maze—both mystic and vulgar, blissful and grotesque, enjoying a scary magic that leaves you rapt.chop! chop! read more!
Communicating soreness, strength, weariness, and victory by tapping a reader’s own muscles for empathy, Melody S. Gee’s latest poetry collection, The Dead in Daylight, uses language to both construct and dismantle bodies and lives. As if preparing an animal for the table, Gee’s poems divide “body” from “life” and “muscle” from “meat.” Divided into two halves, “Separate Blood” and “Bone,” this book reaches out to its reader with both life and decay, fingers extended from the pages to read the pulse of its audience. In what can be understood as taxonomies, eulogies, butchering instructions, and ways to heal a nerve, The Dead in Daylight confronts life and death directly and sharply and softly, a heartbeat edging out from behind every line.chop! chop! read more!
Zach Czaia’s debut poetry collection Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota) is a poet’s response to revelations of sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. When the profane is unearthed beneath the divine, long-laid foundations begin to crumble. Perhaps no more clearly has this been observed than within the Catholic Church, where investigations of sexual abuse have spanned decades.chop! chop! read more!
It’s easy to forget, in the middle of reading a stanza or a paragraph or a recipe for sauerkraut, that language is something constantly occupied with its author’s intention and its reader’s reception — it is not still nor discreet nor impersonal, no matter how inhumane the result may taste. Lucia Chericiu’s poetry collection Edible Flowers, through its personal and intimate depictions of history, home, fruit, bodies, and language, communicates how language is constantly in translation, moving between nerve-endings and letters, and irrevocably infused with the humanity that authored it and the humanity that receives it.chop! chop! read more!
There is Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. There is Ted Hughes’ Animal Poems. And then there is Tongue Screw. May we justly call it confessional? Not without complications. What gave Plath and Hughes, that broken set of matching china, their staying power is not the impulse to tell all, but the containment of raw human experience within a careful structure of implacable imagery. Whether they influenced her, or whether she found her independent way through a haunted yet familiar landscape, Heather Derr-Smith uses the wound of image in each of her indelible poems.chop! chop! read more!
The cover of Sarah Nichols’ latest chapbook is evocative. How do its images prepare us for what’s inside? We are presented with an oversized sun hat and mirror. At first I thought the mirror was a magnifying glass. A beginning note informs us that the text is sourced from Grey Gardens, the documentary directed by Albert and David Maysles. The 1976 cult film profiles Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Beale, two eccentric former socialites who are noted for being Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin, respectively. Together they live in relative isolation amongst raccoons, cats, and fleas at Grey Gardens, their dilapidated 28-room estate in East Hampton, NY. Over the years the women, particularly Little Edie, have become camp icons, remembered as precocious misfits shunned by (or shunning?) upper class morality and ethics. Despite their precarious living situations, the Edies make time for singing, for dancing, for costumes, for pontification, for recalling. Under their rule, Grey Gardens transforms into a space of performances and guises, a seemingly eternal stage.chop! chop! read more!
In her collection Voiceless Love, Katherine Brueck takes to heart her idol Wroth’s enjoinder, finding a personal path to “abusing the sight” with dexterous sleights. Her preface lays out nakedly the autobiographical aims of the book, as something of a manual of solace, rooted in her contemplation of a stark and painful family life, softened somewhat by marriage, an adopted child, and God. There is a pilgrim’s progress explicit in the structure of the book as it moves from friends and lovers through spouse and child and finally to God the crucified. Yet in this age of over-explaining in all literary genres, and gratuitous self-revelation masquerading as confession, Brueck constantly reminds us of the virtues of decorum and the tactical advantages of careful prosody.chop! chop! read more!
I have read Jim Harrison’s 18th volume of poetry twice: once at the end of winter and then again on the day following the poet’s death. Harrison’s themes of mortality, a lust for living, the pleasures of the body in nature, and a fascination with the violence of being remained constant between both of these readings, pulled along by a consistent flow of lush imagery and language that attaches itself to the dialect of the everyday. What changed, however, was Harrison’s almost elegiac, almost premonitory tone: these are poems that have erupted forth from their speaker to mark the very essence of passion and understanding—that life, in all of its intricacies, is finite and unchanging, and one must always heed to the beautiful fury that is the natural and forward-moving world.chop! chop! read more!
With the slightest rotation of its cylinder, a kaleidoscope provides altered views of the loose bits of glass that make up its interior. Tina Barr’s latest collection, the aptly titled Kaleidoscope, applies these slight rotations to the entire world, focusing on human experience—beauty marks, blemishes, and all. From the first line, “As I turn the chambered end,” the reader is sucked into a realm of time and tone-shifting fantasy that manages to stay grounded by direct, no-nonsense accounts of the author’s surroundings. Barr constantly changes directions, as the nominal theme suggests. She takes us to a jewelry shop on the corner of Al Muezz in Egypt, to the Golden Moon Casino in Mississippi, and to a nightclub where a jazz band, “hunts music that weaves itself through air.” This is just a small example of how far the reader mentally travels when reading Kaleidoscope.chop! chop! read more!
ELJ Publications, 120 pages
reviewed by Camille E. Davis
In her debut book of poetry, Louder Than Everything You Love, Nicole Rollender introduces herself as a voice that is polyphonic, startling, and necessary for the modern audience. When a contemporary woman is bombarded with messages that she cannot control her body, Rollender reaches through time to remind women of their own fierce strength. Rollender does this by considering prominent Biblical women, Rollender’s female ancestors, and her own daughter. She achieves this by deeply inquiring into her own faith, heritage, and even her mortality.
The true elegance of Louder is in the way it slowly opens, as if Rollender’s neo-confessional speaker were quietly opening up her chest cavity, so that the reader could see her very bones moving. Rollender realizes this feeling through a masterful sense of pacing, an ambiguous temporality, and a lyricism that is gorgeous, haunting, and moldering. I say this because the poems in Louder frequently place the reader in very pastoral landscape, where things may bleed and die in a wooded bush, but where the reader cannot fully track if it is taking place in the past, present, or future. This affect culminates in a mysterious mist-like atmosphere pervading the entire collection.chop! chop! read more!
Frost said that, like an ice cube on a hot stove, a poem must ride on its own melting. It’s an apt description of the poems in Kenny Williams’ Blood Hyphen, winner of the 2015 FIELD Poetry Prize. Take the book’s opening poem, “About the Author,” which begins:
The genius of Diogenes:
all his books are lost.
But really that’s the genius
of the books and not the man.
If I can speak for the man,
his diet of worms and onions
makes me feel like a pig
when I go to the store
and it’s midnight
and the store is closing.
Riding on its own melting, the poem proceeds by continuously undermining itself. The genius of Diogenes isn’t really the genius of Diogenes but rather the genius of his books—all of which are lost. So to be ingenious, a piece of writing should not exist—a darkly funny argument that undermines the very act of writing the poem in the first place. The speaker then proposes to “speak for the man” Diogenes—but does no such thing, instead talking about his own experience in the grocery store.chop! chop! read more!
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz remains Mexico’s greatest mystery. Born in 1651 out of wedlock and between social classes, intensely devoted to knowledge—having had discussions with Isaac Newton—and to Catholicism, she died forty-four years later despised by the male authorities of the church, but canonized as part of the literary godhead of the Spanish Golden Age. The haziness of these seeming contradictions evoked in the glorious 20th century Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, a sensation of the enigmatic which he captured in “Wind, Water, Stone”: “Each is another and no other.” It’s appropriate, then, to see Enigmas publication; it is a work whose title is a reflection on both de la Cruz’s existence and poetry, and also on the amorphous gulf between language and meaning that translators of poetry attempt to concretize.
At least that’s what Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal seems to get at in her manifesto-ish “Translator’s Not-(Subtractive Letter).” Much as she describes her aesthetic decisions, “through Neo-Baroque deletion of first person yet a postmodern acceptance of my identity,” the note evokes the characteristically astringent intellect of poststructural feminism. Also in Villarreal’s note, she insists her “polar associations to sound and form” embodies Gloria Anzaldúa.” I could go deeper down the spiral, citing Villarreal’s interest in “all of Sor Juana’s enigma translations…hyperlinked to each other” and her obligation “to pick a unifying aesthetic that would point to naked sound.” All I’ll say, however, is that Engimas is szygy: the rare coincidence of planetary alignment.chop! chop! read more!
POENA DAMNI TRILOGY
Z213: EXIT, 95 pages
WITH THE PEOPLE FROM THE BRIDGE, 61 pages
THE FIRST DEATH, 35 pages
by Dimitris Lyacos
translated by Shorsha Sullivan
reviewed by Justin Goodman
“What does the future, that half of time, matter to the man who is infatuated with eternity?”
In France, in 1960, this question pressed itself upon the Romanian-born Emil Cioran. Histoire et Utopie was published, likely to the same acclaim (and rejection of acclaim) that marked all Cioran’s career after 1950. Six years later and southeasterly, Dimitris Lyacos would be born in Athens. Despite the distance, Lyacos’ recently translated Poena Damni trilogy revels inside Cioran’s head.
The composite units: Z213:EXIT, With the People From The Bridge, and The First Death, are ridden with the lack of euphony that belongs to the invisible canon of defeat to which Cioran belongs. Understanding is a place, for those of this school of thought, towards which knowledge only exacerbates the distance.
The translator of the triology, Shorsha Sullivan, who is also a Classics professor at Leeds College, distinguishes Lyacos from the Greek poets that “slide easily into the mainstream of European Modernism” and those localized poets whom “lose [their] savour in translation.” “Lyacos’ case differs,” Sullivan continues, because “he speaks to us as fellow human beings from an almost non-local viewpoint, using western tradition but not committing himself to any side.”
It does make one wonder what can be said of the Ancient Greek traditions Lyacos borrows heavily from: the Chorus in the trilogy’s second installment, With the People From the Bridge, comes to mind; the odyssey of Z213:EXIT; the brutal abstractions of Greek sculpture in The First Death; and how this contingency is taken into account when writing “a version that could possibly make sense in the context of our own tradition.” But Sullivan lets this doubt suffice as an answer: “Could this version have been produced originally in English?” Recognizing the fact fails to answer it, let alone, comfort us; only discomfort translates, bringing Poena Damni to a truly real fluid-filled birth.chop! chop! read more!
by Carey McHugh
Augury Books, 72 pages
reviewed by Clare Paniccia
In approaching Carey McHugh’s American Gramophone, one might first consider this question: What is the song of America, or American culture? It’s easy to jump to the obvious conclusions—the United States has strongly defined itself through its velocity, whether in industry, technology, or commercial growth, and its music has become largely representative of these themes, with contemporary pop artists representing the almost-electric shine of the digital age, rock bands highlighting the working-class, and country groups crooning over the “loss” of an easy-going, slow-paced lifestyle.
Beneath these surface associations, however, McHugh challenges our initial question with a more stripped-down idea—what if America’s song isn’t something you can quickly flip to on a radio? What if America’s song is something that deviates completely from the mainstream—something pared to its most visceral form: an instrumental, organic, and natural tone? Think of the vibrating note of a fiddle, the deep strum of a guitar, and bare, haunting vocals. The sounds of folk and Americana that seem to eek out of valleys, creeks, and forgotten forests—quietly shivering their way into the undercurrent of the American everyday. These are the notes that wind from McHugh’s own gramophone, characterizing this dark collection with a taste of folklore and caution that asks the reader to step out of his or her American associations and return to the frontier’s beginning—the land at its most original, and its most severe.chop! chop! read more!
MASKS AND ICONS
by R. Daniel Evans
Blurb, 82 pages
reviewed by Shinelle Espaillat
In his fourth poetry collection, Masks and Icons, R. Daniel Evans examines the complexity of love and desire, and exposes the ways in which these emotions both intersect with and deviate from each other. Evans brings a microscope to the multiple small evidences of love in the world, using the lens of art to view the beauty and pain of interpersonal connection, inviting readers to look through the mask of the self and perceive the extraordinary.
Section I, “From The Land of Walt Whitman,” focuses on the intimacy and inner-life of a speaker’s relationships with individuals, beginning with a one-sided conversation with Whitman himself. The narrator sits on a beach, fairly melting with desire over a distant beauty to whom he never speaks, but whom he imagines as Whitman’s muse. He wonders how, with such an object of desire near him, Whitman “ever got any poems written,” noting, in this metaphysical moment, that desire is an obstacle to his own work. Sexual desire, then, is all-consuming, and the speaker suggests that poets instead mine the world at large for the rich possibilities of interaction, with the vibrancy of the natural world, with the music of the oppressed, and then to write poetry that speaks America.chop! chop! read more!
by Ernest Hilbert
Measure Press, 96 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
From his debut Sixty Sonnets to All of You On The Good Earth, Ernest Hilbert has made a name for himself as a dedicated formalist. His latest, Caligulan, is no exception: you’ll find no free verse here.
Hilbert is at his best when the content of the poems plays against the formal constraints. Take “Barnegat Light,” for instance:
The gull pulls bags from trash and drags them clear.
He’s big as a cat, a blur of snow and soot.
He pokes until debris spills down the pier.
He’s clumsy, and somehow he’s lost a foot.
Chewed off? A winter fishing line? Wedged in boards?
The stump’s a small sharp spear that stings the bird
If ground is touched. He soars to foggy scree,
Alights but flaps to halfway hang in air, spurred
By pain to perform endless pirouettes.
The tightly elegant form contrasts perfectly with the unsettling pain and violence of the scene described; one senses the formal control is the only thing between us and the chaotic world the bird inhabits. It’s hard not to read this as an ars poetica: the bird has lost a foot (ha!) and is now “spurred / by pain to perform endless pirouettes,” like the formal pirouettes of the sonnet. There’s the slight misstep of “if ground is touched”—a moment of awkward syntax in which the form seems to control the poet instead of the reverse—but in context, it’s forgivable: the image of the bird makes us understand why rigid form is of the utmost importance to this speaker. The poem’s ending brings the point home:chop! chop! read more!
by Rocío Cerón
Phoneme Press, 145 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
Cerón’s creation can best be described thus: she summons words. Like iron filings to a magnet, they come into an order that feels inevitable.
Pulsar body, delicate hibiscus flowers or mangrove
Palm: residual beauty of misery/
In this penchant for naming, her exquisite and casual catalogues could pass as still life. But her poetry, technical yet drenched in sensation, scientific yet opulent in the manner of natural history, is propulsive, as she pushes herself, and us, to the far limit of the mind’s ken. In “Sonata Mandala to the Penumbra Bird,” echo seems to precede sound:
Hyperboreal smell: wild mist of civet musk.
Body’s simple landscape, dermal aura, death.
Scent of tea and points of star.
Affect falls dense, and what might feel like lacunae or mere white space in the work of another poet, figures as sensation. Feeling crowds and suffuses each gap. It is not so much a matter of a reader making logical leaps (though they can be made) as it is of following the quick pulses that run through the lines. Politics figure as oblique, yet Cerón is quite capable of brief, cutting critiques of the history and politics of America:chop! chop! read more!
SUPPLICATION: Selected Poems
by John Wieners
Wave Books, 216 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
I’ll admit upfront that, prior to receiving Supplication, Selected Poems of John Wieners, I knew very little about Wieners or his work. Biographically, I knew he was a Beat Poet and member of the San Francisco Renaissance. The only poem I knew was the titular poem of this selected, “Supplication”:
O poetry, visit this house often,
imbue my life with success,
leave me not alone,
give me a wife and home.
Take this curse off
of early death and drugs,
make me a friend among peers,
lend me love, and timeliness.
Return me to the men who teach
and above all, cure the
hurts of wanting the impossible
through this suspended vacuum.
This is Wieners at his best. The first stanza shows his trademark gifts: a willingness to use an elevated rhetoric that risks—and resists—sentimentality, and a powerful longing for what cannot be. How is poetry to provide success, companionship, marriage, a home? Wieners knows as well as the rest of us that it doesn’t work that way.
In the second stanza, we see Wieners wrestling with another of the primary concerns in his work – “early death and drugs.” Remember that we’re in the ’50s and ’60s, the peak of a glamorous bohemian drug culture. Sometimes Wieners indulges himself in fantasies of this life – but he’s at his best in moments like this, when he explores the painful realities of the drugs that he uses and that have killed his friends. And again, we see that longing: poetry won’t give him love or timeliness—at best, it will “lend” them.chop! chop! read more!
HOW TO BE ANOTHER
by Susan Lewis
Červená Barva Press, 81 pages
reviewed by Carlo Matos
In How to be Another, Susan Lewis explores the full range of the prose poem form. These poems read like short speculative essays in the tradition of Montaigne, which is to say they have a metaphysical or epistemological bent to them. “Most knowing goes unlicensed,” says the speaker archly in “Introduction to Appreciation.” We are not dealing in this book with the esoteric details of autobiography or memoir but with the broader experiences of humanity as a species. How to be Another isn’t concerned with the kind of surface empathy or watered-down existential day-seizing of self-help books (as the title might suggest) but is instead a work of anthropology—though, clearly, these perspectives must intersect to some extent. For example, the speaker of “Introduction to Narcissism (III)” says, the “point is, self-awareness confers little evolutionary advantage. We are not wired for objectivity.” However, later in the same poem, the speaker acknowledges that the “pain” caused by self-awareness “is relentless, staying with you longer than any friend or flattering memory.” The shift to the second-person pronoun is telling for although the “you” is largely rhetorical in nature, it is still much more personal than the third-person perspective of the rest of the poem. Evolution itself is not the problem; it’s the fact that our species has evolved, or so the poem seems to suggest, to a point of diminishing returns.chop! chop! read more!
by Rod Smith
Wave Books, 112 pages
reviewed by Brandon Lafving
Poetry these days is unglamorous, but at least it’s fun. At most, it’s fun. Rod Smith’s Touché plays, but you would have to call it mischievous because it hits you with über grit, and not one punch is held back.
“Everything I have written is trash. I have not / even the strength to love. Let it go.” The blunt emotion of these lines is the impulse of “Buoyancy”—the cathartic moment of a tormented artist who is filled with self-hatred and guilt over his inability to love a woman more than his work, and his work at all.
The pathos is so real to me—the hapless raising-onto-pedestal of a woman—the inevitable transition to thoughts of writing: “I have to write past this obsession / with you, Nora, with an invalid / admiration in the learning. You’ve / got the idea. I’m a calf. & the victory / of the light. // Does it go on? The poem I mean.” I am pretty sure I felt this way last week. Touché, indeed.chop! chop! read more!
by Susie Timmons
Wave Books, 181 pages
reviewed by Clare Paniccia
So often we find a characterization and romanticization of New York City within literature and film—the city forming a metaphor for struggle and loss and surrounding a scene with an obvious reminder that time (or taxis) waits for no one. If we close our eyes and imagine “New York,” we might see towering skyscrapers, new-age coffee shops serving only one type of organic bean, streets marred with the remnants of garbage and posters… This is the city that we know—the one that pulses continuously in our veins and invites a feeling of hunger or thirst, in that we cannot be satiated unless we are wholly involved in the movement, in “it.”
I find it important to imagine my own relationship to the city before interpreting Susie Timmons’ three-volume collection of poetry, Superior Packets, which takes on its own characterization of a late twentieth-century New York. Any place, the city or otherwise, can mold to the individual experience—within spaces and locales we encounter our own subjective realities that form the basis for our relationship to that particular environment. Out of these subjective events, these memories, we create our own understanding, our own identities that take on pieces of these locales as fragments of our individuality.chop! chop! read more!
by W.S. Di Piero
McSweeney’s, 63 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
Giacomo Leopardi speaks of two essential kinds of imagination: strong and promiscuous. The first is “weighty, impassioned, melancholic, with deep emotion and passion, all fraught with life hugely suffered.” The second is “playful, light, fleet, inconstant in love, high spirited.”
The W.S. Di Piero of The Dog Star, the one I first encountered as a reader, is of the strong variety, as in his depiction of a somber Whitman attending injured soldiers and offering introspection on a Civil War battlefield in “Walt, the Wounded.”
A small fire still burns in the nursery.
Rice and molasses simmer on the stove.
Children will have to learn to ask for less,
less from the elephant dawn that chilled
across the heights where Lee held his ground.
Or there is the dark homage “To My Old City”: “diesel fume and bloodspoor streaked / on wet streets, and cars biting evening papers / from the black newsstand.” In it, memory figures as corrosive.
Surely all poets offer changes in mood, even within a single book, but underlying shifts in temperament happen over time, if at all. And with the appearance of Tombo, I may observe, without being accused of vicious gossip, that Di Piero The Strong has turned promiscuous.chop! chop! read more!
by Danielle Vogel
Noemi Press, 78 pages
reviewed by Amanda Hickok
It’s so often that a book of poetry can be thought of as a static object, a collection of disembodied words that are supposed to transcend the body and voice of their author on the page. And it’s so often that poets are bodiless, as poetry—no matter how much it is about bodies—must be divorced from its corporeal source and recipient; that a poet writes for an anonymous reader who in turn reads nobody behind their words. However, and perhaps ironically, poetry’s meaning comes at least in part from its resonance within these bodies, in its ability to stir in them a visceral reaction. Danielle Vogel knows this, addresses this with a forceful intimacy between poet, reader, and page that is both beautiful and challenging in a breaking-the-fourth-wall kind of way, in the vulnerability it necessitates that we are so often sheltered from.
Between Grammars, a book-length poem, begins with an equation of text and body—epigraphs that include “we melt into each other with phrases… We make an unsubstantial territory,” from Woolf, and “Language is a skin,” from Barthes, and then a prologue in five volumes: body, letter, page, book, body. It’s significant that we start with VOLUME: BODY and circle back to it, volume itself as the attempt to unfold the hidden dimensions of these relationships, and the cyclical trajectory as the making and renewal of meaning in the body. The next section begins WATERSHED, and I can almost hear the tearing of the thin membrane between body and text as seamless contiguity floods the boundaries.chop! chop! read more!
THE REFUSAL OF SUITORS
Noemi Press, 97 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
This chaste book could be titled The Story of O. Ryo Yamaguchi rhapsodizes, if more quietly, in the mood of Keats when he exclaims “O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”:
O machine, O accord, I no longer ask the things I need
not ask . . .
the slow atmosphere of story has refused too long
to seat my rhythms, and I
have refused to elaborate myself through its lines.
His drama of sensate consciousness is based on the refusal (ergo the title) to follow the suit of narrative poetry, in favor of the mind’s free play. Yet one may legitimately ask, as we sometimes do of historical novels, whether the writer courts anachronism or rather renews the proposition. In the case of Yamaguchi, the answer is complex.
Many times I found myself wondering whether this one-vowel incantatory tendency was a tic or sprang organically from what I am tempted to call “new lyric.” “O youth, o conflagration, O end of summer parking lots”; “O office of elaborate letters, O remark”; “O here is the work”; “O John the Baptist”; “O hybridized floral shift.” All this is contained in a single poem, and there are many like it. Bemused, I could say at least that the tone is not ironic, as in Laurie Anderson’s suburbia-mocking “O Superman/O Mom and Dad.”chop! chop! read more!
by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press, 102 pages
reviewed by Camille E. Davis
Jessica Goodfellow was trained as a poet and a mathematician. In an interview with The Japan Times, she admits that as a child she would “recite poems, usually rewritten nursery rhymes, where [she] would change the words to what [she] wanted…but with the rhythm of the rhyme behind it.” However, her family, though never precisely dampening her poetic spirit, pushed her to explore her natural ability in mathematics instead. She came to reconsider her career choice when she found herself deeply unhappy while pursuing a Ph.D. in microeconomics and econometrics at CalTech.
So it is not surprising that Goodfellow is completely at ease when flirting with poetic mathematics. Her first book of poetry, Mendeleev’s Mandala, sprinkles logic equations to the meat of its poems. Goodfellow is interested in the crossroads where mathematical logic and history meet both free verse and more classical poetic forms. Split into five sections, Mandala also feels like a compilation of Goodfellow’s work. The fifth section incorporates Goodfellow’s first chapbook, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland, and thus Mandala feels like a reverse chronology.
A poem in the first section that typifies Goodfellow’s ability to tear down the stereotypes associated with the division of a “left brain” to a “right brain” is “Imagine No Apples.” Within the poem, Goodfellow twists the form of first-order logic. Unlike say, Inger Christenson, whose poetic form in alphabet is structured by using the strict rules of the Fibonacci sequence, Goodfellow uses mathematics abstractly, and not necessarily in form or meter.
From the very first stanza of “Imagine No Apples,” Goodfellow subtly upsets stereotypes by stating, “All beginnings wear their endings like dark apples. / A is for apple. B is not for apple. / C, also not for apple. And so on.” In this, she is playing on two givens: the first, of a child’s introduction to the alphabet beginning with “A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Cat” and the second, of formal logic equations that states, in this example, “If A is not B and C is not B, then A is not C.”chop! chop! read more!
RUNAWAY GOAT CART
by Thomas Devaney
Hanging Loose Press, 80 pages
reviewed by Anna Strong
Early in Runaway Goat Cart, the latest from Thomas Devaney, readers get a found poem of language that has come from a diary found in a darkroom at Moore Women’s College of Art, dated 1972. The writer of the diary is unidentified, though she records the speech of a few of her friends. One of these, Susan, from the haze of cigarette smoke and darkroom chemicals, offers two startlingly clear statements about photography and art that also serve as a guide to reading Devaney’s text. The first, dated November 9:
Susan says it’s forbidden for our pictures to echo
the objects they depict; nothing looks like that,
she said, but it’s allowed, it’s allowed
for the world to look the way it does.
Fine words those.
The second, dated less than a month later, reads:
Prints are not reproductions. Susan said this is a mistaken idea.
What you’re looking at is a photograph: how something looks there.
Taken together, Susan’s sage advice about how to look at a photograph (or take a photograph) tells readers much about how to read Devaney’s poems. So many of the best poems in Runaway Goat Cart take us deep into memory, and on the surface, those memories seem to be rendered exactly: all the names of the neighborhood children recalled, the feel of a baseball bat in the palms, the house fire burned into the mind as though it is happening in front of Devaney as he is committing it to paper.chop! chop! read more!
I FOLLOW IN THE DUST SHE RAISES
by Linda Martin
University of Alaska Press, 63 pages
PLASH AND LEVITATION
by Adam Tavel
University of Alaska Press, 85 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
On finishing these two books of poetry recently published by the University of Alaska Press, I felt like a smug bigamist who can’t decide between two pretenders for his love, so chooses them both. I don’t regret this lack of choice, for each has its charms, and they can’t be reconciled.
Linda Martin’s I Follow in the Dust She Raises is the kind of poetry that invites the word luminous, so impoverished by overuse it can no longer light the inside of a bulb, much less invoke noonday. Too many blurbs have been attached to a series of lesser books that make the mistake of working nature by subtraction—assuming that an endless wheat field with a tractor in it under an immense Nebraska sky—offer a limned absence that by itself could bring us to metaphysical tears. Borges came closer to the truth when he said, speaking of the pampas, that each object in them was separate and eternal. To simple but potent effect, Martin starts from zero and works by addition.
Yes, Martin’s book does have wheat fields and lines not spare or clean but rather precise and without waste, but they are plants that populate a luxuriant human world.chop! chop! read more!
BANNED FOR LIFE
by Arlene Ang
Misty Publications, 81 pages
reviewed by Carlo Matos
Arlene Ang’s Banned for Life is obsessed with bodies, especially dead bodies. In fact, there is a reference to a corpse in nearly every poem in the first section and in many cases the corpses are literally present. And in the poems that do not have corpses, death is often not far or on hold. In “Mountains,” for example, the subject of the poem is referred to simply as “the body:”
With both hands, the body touched
itself where the physician
lingered with the stethoscope . . .
on that part where everything went wrong.
The “body” of “Mountains” might be the mother figure of the next poem, “To Sweat,” who has cancer. In these poems Ang demonstrates how the ravaging power of a disease like cancer can trap us inside our own bodies or reduce our humanity to its component, material parts.chop! chop! read more!
THE 8TH HOUSE
by Feng Sun Chen
Black Ocean Press, 93 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
Aphorism is the thought slot of our time. Philosophy has turned cuneiform. The ambitious poem-cycles that might once have been written through urgent, incessant movement, seeking enjambment as a fugitive does a street corner, with muscular metaphors in hot pursuit, now favor the end-stop.
Feng Sun Chen, in The 8th House, practices this art of the succinct.
No organism is ashamed under the knife.
A woman’s body is an angel factory.
When I pick up a book and open it, it is dead.
Even in Chen’s first person stanzas, we get a colder intellect, rendering emotional candor into sedate masochism.
I like it when you look at me with disdain.
I say things that make you want to hurt me.
This is the real thing, severe as winter
part icicle that cannot be smashed
part that parts leaves nothing to fill, only futility fills.
But although nothing free-floats, it’s hard to point to a firm scheme. The principle of recursive imagery, twining time and again around the broken spine, holds this book together more than any set of explicit ideas. Most of all, there is the image of water. “The dead lover seeks wetness;” “Very moist and quiet and dripping;” Manatees mistaken for mermaids, steaming shame, magma, jelly, tar, spinal lubricant, mucus, foam, dark lymph, viscosity of wood, and of course the sea. Feng Su Chen signifies in effluent images, in a long concatenation that expresses itself as an extended thought wave. To this extent, she revives the spirit of the poem-cycle, and it is chiefly in this way that she resembles those expansive bards seeking to create the über poem.chop! chop! read more!
THE SUGAR BOOK
by Johannes Goransson
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 184 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
Antonin Artaud gave us the Theater of Cruelty. He “for whom delirium was/the only solution/to the strangulation/that life had prepared for him.”
Now Johannes Garson, in the ironically named The Sugar Book, gives us a poetry of cruelty. It is the necessary car wreck that brings the Jaws of Life. The book is a whisky genre-bender in a haunted Los Angeles, where the “I” walks out on his son, fucks the homeless, reflects on scrotums, obsesses about tits, his hard-on, hot bitches, taxes, capitalism, the value of poetry (it’s worthless), noctuid larvae, and “the sepulchral chambers of the law.” Like many outrageous, seemingly misanthropic writers, he is at heart a moralist. The first section in fact contains a poem about immigration (as always, among many other topics). “The Law Against Foreigners Involves Mostly the Body” offers this withering insight:
It’s also interested in my body when dogs bark at my
genitals but it pretends that’s just evidence of a social
conscience. It wants to find the human in me, even if it
takes ripping this lamb mask into a thousand shreds and
hanging it up on the wall.
And feign outrage when I grow numb.
The speaker’s scathing appraisals scald himself, because conscientious objector or not, he is part of the law. Political poetry often gets a deserved bad name, but Garson hits themes hard yet moves along, often in the very next phrase, to trenchant comic appraisals of his own filthy habits, lit up by indeterminacy.chop! chop! read more!
by Julie Carr
Solid Objects, 82 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
The first order of a book of poetry, irrespective of its particular style, is to give pleasure. It’s that simple. Whatever releases the dopamine from the nucleus accumbens qualifies. This was my experience with Julie Carr’s Think Tank. I suspended immediate comprehension, simply following the text’s pulses and impulses. Pick a through line: trail the images from start to finish, or the sounds, until understanding accumulates like dewdrops on a Maine slicker.
This is a volume of extraordinary discipline, cerebral yet appealing, loose and playful:
Yeast minutes leap to
swamp the city’s borders
Honk geese: soprano, duck duck
hobbles, belly first a girl-falcon spins
a headlock is to a hat as a tourniquet is to a condom
a headlock is to a hat as a paring knife is to tongue
I could go on giving examples.chop! chop! read more!
AND THE GIRLS WORRIED TERRIBLY
by Dot Devota
Noemi Press, 80 pages
Dot Devota, in her book, And the Girls Worried Terribly, puts aside marriage to man, woman, or God and marries self to self. Through bizarre and delightful celebration imagery, Devota leads us to conception through physical and mental violence.
Devota’s title has been carefully selected from a caption in Oliver Statler’s The Black Ship Scroll. In this historical work, Statler writes of an instance when Japanese singing girls were to have their photographs taken by foreigners, “and the girls worried terribly,” that “the soul might leave to take up residence in the ‘new self.’” It is from the concept of these two selves that Devota’s book is threaded and spun.
Even from the start, in frantic, dream-like sequences, the reader encounters creatures spawning from a vibrant and rapidly shifting earth—both of which are dependent upon the speaker. Bees, compared to champagne bubbles, become excited by mascara-laden eyelashes instead of blooming flowers. In this universe, bees are drawn to women instead of natural blooms— connecting nature to the self in alluring and magnifying ways. The speaker, in fact, finds her voice “amplified” by nature in her poem “iii…chop! chop! read more!
RED JUICE: POEMS 1998–2008
by Hoa Nguyen
Wave Books, 245 pages
reviewed by Kenna O’Rourke
Hoa Nguyen is a poetic tease: her retrospective Red Juice is a decade’s-worth of poetry that tantalizes with glimpses of self-awareness and familiarity just as soon as the lines lose you in non sequitur and obscurity. The poet flutters between intense clarity and seeming nonsense (albeit eloquent nonsense), forcing the reader to dwell over her deceptively short poems, grappling with gut-reactions to the way the work appears on the page.
Reading the book becomes an accomplishment, a brain teaser; steeping the simple language in one’s thoughts to draw out the meaning seems as much a part of Nguyen’s poetry as the words themselves. For all of its length, Red Juice is rewarding—its complexities reveal themselves in intricate patterns of meta-referentiality, historical weight, even humor.
One has to wonder if Nguyen presaged the collection, time-stamped in its very title, as she wrote these poems seven-to-seventeen years ago: they drip with a sense of history, whether the recent past or the Neolithic. With titles like “Dream 5.22.97,” the reader can’t help but picture the Nguyen of the ’90s knowing that cataloging her poetic chronology would be useful in the future.chop! chop! read more!
A QUESTION OF TRADITION: WOMEN POETS IN YIDDISH, 1586-1987
by Kathryn Hellerstein
Stanford University Press, 496 pages
reviewed by Alyssa Quint
Poetry by female Yiddish writers has become the tree that falls in the empty forest of Jewish literature. As a discrete body of work it resonated only faintly with the same Yiddish critics and scholars who gushed over male Yiddish authors. English translations have become an important repository of the dying vernacular of East European Jews but, again, not so much for its female poets. Women’s Yiddish poetry finally gets its scholarly due from Kathryn Hellerstein, long-time champion of the female Yiddish poetic voice, in her comprehensive and accessible account, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586-1987.
Hellerstein organizes her book around the concept of a literary tradition as invoked by the likes of T.S. Eliot in his monumental essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” To Eliot’s eloquent if male-dominated and Eurocentic discussion of what “compels a man to write,” (my italics), Hellerstein counters with a chain of women who work off the energy of the East European Jewish female experience with its idiosyncrasies of language, religion, gender, and culture.chop! chop! read more!
THE GHOST IN US WAS MULTIPLYING
by Brent Armendinger
Noemi Press, 94 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
It has been thirty years since Bernstein, Hejinian, McCaffery, et alii stormed the gates of poesy—twenty since some of them hitch-hiked up to Buffalo. Depending on where you sat, they were either a palliative or a wound—in either case, necessary. They ran over the daisy with a lawnmower, the better to see the fibers of its petals. In a preface some time back to a re-issue of The Sophist, Ron Silliman mourns that “seventeen years later . . .[it] doesn’t look as radical to the eye as perhaps it once did.”
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They accomplished what they set out to do and thus of course Bernstein’s work looks more familiar. There is a time to shoot down the rapids with funky alphabet soup spraying in your face, and another to issue out into a broader and slower expanse of river, where you can put your head up and see the sandstone cliffs. The essential debate of whether a word is a word or a picture will go on forever, without closure, as it should. Beyond anyone’s manifesto, how much rhetoric and how much lyric, how much narrative propulsion and how much regress, are good for the brain game once known as verse, goes under negotiation with every keystroke of every poem.chop! chop! read more!
IN THE EVENT OF FULL DISCLOSURE
by Cynthia Atkins
CW Books, 95 pages
reviewed by Arya F. Jenkins
Questions about the past, memory and legacy interlink with everyday images that haunt the reader in Cynthia Atkins’s second volume of poetry, In the Event of Full Disclosure. Atkins’s poems arch into a tree extending way beyond herself, into family, society, and community, while inviting the reader to share in her concerns. If there is wholeness and power to be achieved, the poet seems to be saying, it is recognizing one’s humanness and interconnectedness…chop! chop! read more!
HOW WE CAME UPON THE COLONY
by Ross White
Unicorn Press, 24 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
Ross White’s first chapbook, How We Came Upon the Colony, transports us to a strange world where the contemporary and the ancient commingle, and where nothing is ever quite what we first expect. Take “Downturn,” which opens:
What’s gone remains gone. When the Library at Alexandria
burned, scroll lit scroll. Whole languages died there.
The Colossus at Rhodes, felled by earthquake,
was eventually disassembled under the orders of the caliph,
carted off by camel, and smelted like scrap….
THING MUSIC by Anthony McCann Wave Books, 113 pages reviewed by Matthew Girolami Anthony McCann’s newest collection, Thing Music, is not unlike a player piano, only instead of standards it plays John Cage or even Merzbow. That is to say, that while the reader recognizes McCann’s Thing Music to be poetry as one recognizes Cage’s compositions to be music, the common associations with either art—melody and harmony, form and line—are rearranged, actively dissonant, and yet nonetheless beautiful. Unlike familiar emotional confirmations found in melodrama or more confessional lyric poetry, Thing Music’s reward is one of discovery: of new pleasures found in innovative poetic forms, and of newfound emotional connections made with the imagery and diction belonging to those forms. That is not to say Thing Music overtly plays with common poetic restraints; rather, the collection challenges the idea of form through its overall free-form stylistic execution, only leaving recurring motifs … chop! chop! read more!
THE SEARCH FOR HEINRICH SCHLÖGEL by Martha Baillie Tin House Books, 352 pages reviewed by Jamie Fisher “ERRATICA” Think fast! ____’s fourth novel navigates the tension between fact and fiction, readership and voyeurism, the impersonality of the archive, and the personal voice of the archivist. If you guessed W.G. Sebald, you’re not far off. He was known for writing in luminous ellipses around historical catastrophe, particularly the Holocaust, with an intellectual restlessness mirrored by his travels. But the author in question is Martha Baillie, and the book not Rings of Saturn but The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. Baillie likes to lay her influences plain; she has named Sebald as one of the patron gods of “elegance and lucidity” guiding her previous novels. In The Shape I Gave You, a novel studded thickly with “archival” photographs, she obsessed over authenticity and travel. Her Incident Report was narrated entirely through (admittedly unorthodox) … chop! chop! read more!