One imagines this first existing as a notebook, non-committal if tending toward provisional completion, then, as Stein might put it, becoming what it became. In his most explosive work, Trilce, César Vallejo’s more formally complex poems are not necessarily more ambitious than those done in prose, in which he tends to offer greater immediate clarity, yet equal force. In fact, some of these explorations are more heightened and exploratory than the often-sentimental and casually conventional Human Poems.chop! chop! read more!
A few days after I finished Catherine Pikula’s chapbook I’m Fine. How are You? I read the following sentence: “I would like to make a book out of crumpled-up pieces of paper: you start a sentence, it doesn’t work and you throw the page away. I’m collecting a few … maybe this is, in fact, the only literature possible today.” The sentence came in the last hundred pages of The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. And while the “today” referenced above was Italy in the 1960s, the description was oddly reminiscent of the small, thread-bound chapbook published in 2018 that I’d recently put down, I’m Fine. How Are You?chop! chop! read more!
Excellent writing is often lauded for its ability to transport and disembody the reader, to enrapture so completely that its audience floats along the sentence and forgets their place in the room. Meghan McClure’s Portrait of a Body in Wreckages does not do this, instead, much of its excellence is found in its proficiency to embody the reader, to address them in their own physicality, and move along the level of the cell as well as the sentence.chop! chop! read more!
Amy Saul-Zerby’s new collection, Deep Camouflage is the manifestation of heartbreak. It is the fables that spawn from moments of empathy and melancholy. It is the conversation that a poet has with their reader. More than most poetry collections, Saul-Zerby’s is a sequence that asks to be read all at once.chop! chop! read more!
Whereas his previous book references artists, movements, historical figures, and myths, Jampole has made the bold choice here to work from two overarching cultural touchstones. Rather than searching for the vocabulary it shares with the reader, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month undertakes the creation of a new such vocabulary altogether. The result is two series of poems that sit on the edge between the particular and the universal, the everyday and the extraordinary, the true and the beautiful.chop! chop! read more!
The poems in Sarah Marcus’ book, They Were Bears follow a young woman, the speaker of most of the poems, who pursues discovery and sensation in the remote corners of the American wilderness. The narrative shapes this wilderness into a wide-open expanse characterized by uncertainty, wonder, and menace. The backdrop also shifts from unpeopled natural settings to the speaker’s agricultural childhood home and to the industrial sprawl of Cleveland. The book’s three untitled segments each alternate between lyric poems and prose poems, and all use bears and other animals as central to their imagery and symbolism. Poems in the book discuss a variety of themes, including family, sexuality, and womanhood. The primary foci of the work as a whole, however, seem to be overcoming trauma and embracing nature. Together, the poems tell the story of a woman defined by her passion and resilience in the face of a harrowing past.chop! chop! read more!
Divided into four sections, Deborah Burnham’s poetry collection Tart Honey seems cut into citrus slices— edible, organic, and aware of some lost and bodily whole it re-composes in the formation of its parts. The poems feature modern relationships with too much absence, a dissolving picture of Apollo 13 soon taken over by a persona attempting to collect her body into experiencing her partner, and paintings with colors that spill into cells, among other simultaneously harmonizing and divisive images.chop! chop! read more!
Headlands Quadrats and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad speak to anyone who appreciates poetry, and lovingly handcrafted poetry chapbooks. Both works strike a delicate balance between lyric and narrative modes—the former leaning further into lyric and the latter into prose narrative. Headlands Quadrats will be especially notable to those with an abiding interest in ecopoetics, and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad to those drawn to feminist poetics, Marxism, and humor.chop! chop! read more!
Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel.chop! chop! read more!
Situated between a national and a personal history, Kiki Petrosino’s poetry book Black Genealogy sifts through the past in search of lost identity, language, bodies, and self-possession amidst the legacy of the Civil War and slavery in America. The book details an exploration of both a familial and a larger American reality through the lens of a contemporary African American persona.chop! chop! read more!
The poetry of Light into Bodies begins and ends with a theme of identity while its pages flutter with the imagery of egrets, pigeons, swans, and starlings. Nancy Chen Long presents the complexity of exploring identity from multiple perspectives—from the viewpoint of a mathematician, from a child whose mother repeatedly becomes the property of other men by the “generosity” of her own father, to a daughter’s experiences growing up in a multi-cultural home and discovering the nuances of relationships in adulthood. The poems stitch together an intricate lace of childhood memories, family stories, myth, and Asian-American experience with a thread of women’s issues intertwined throughout, each conflict woven within the next to create the speaker’s complicated identity.chop! chop! read more!
Completely mundane happenings take on significant meaning in Chloe N. Clark’s The Science of Unvanishing Objects. Everyday things like butterflies, telephones, and mirrors assume a role beyond their normal functions. Likewise, ordinary events such as conversations between strangers and seeing a lover naked for the first time become catalysts for a deeper understanding of the universe. Through her explorations, Clark repeatedly returns to loss, a major motif in this collection, which is amplified by recurring narratives centered on missing women.chop! chop! read more!
Muriel Leung’s Bone Confetti is an open door into a house of mourning; an exceptional look into the aftermath of loss, and in turn, an examination of what it is to love someone. A challenging collection of lyric and prose poems, the poet manipulates the space where words are carefully placed and the space where there is nothing. The theme of the book is grief, and it is palpable. It is disorienting and enveloping, but manages to avoid being overly sentimental, allowing it to be both intimate and universal. The poet stated in an interview that “applying the role of politics to the personal grief of loss was very important work to do . . . It became a way of understanding this loss as tied to a history that’s larger than me.”chop! chop! read more!
In Nico Amador’s Flower Wars, the lines of poetry are full of flesh and voice, both of which are sure of their uncertainty and masterfully show the reader that, if we would trust an author to write their own poem, we should absolutely trust someone with reordering, preserving, mangling, and or perfecting the syllables of their own humanity. If you are a person and or a body, Flower Wars is relevant and vital reading.chop! chop! read more!
Plainspeak, WY is impressive in its attention to detail and draws clear connections from matters of the earth to matters of the soul—and back again, repeatedly. The poet’s central obsession is depicted, in fact, somewhat subtly, on the cover of the book as a topographical map. Atop a cool, arctic blue, several thin black contour lines unevenly work their way around one another and connect to make shaky targets that reveal the gradual shifts in Wyoming’s terrain, formed largely, of course, by the glaciers that have so ensnared Doxey’s imagination. Plainspeak, WY, ultimately, is about the inevitable erosion of the human heart, as mirrored by the slowly eroding landscape of the northwestern United Stateschop! chop! read more!
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!