Eight Poets Recommend New and Recent Titles

Welcome back to “Poets Recommend,” The Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature, posted here in April and November. This season, eight poets write briefly on some of their favorite recently published titles. Scroll down to read. The commentary includes:

Dean Rader

on Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press)

Daisy Fried

on Inheriting The War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees edited by Laren McClung (W.W. Norton)

Wesley Rothman

on Semiautomatic by Evie Shockley (Wesleyan University Press)

David Rivard

on TechnoRage by William Olsen (TriQuarterly/Northwestern)

Alan Felsenthal

on Quickening Fields by Pattiann Rogers (Penguin)

Emilia Phillips

on Scale by Nathan McClain (Four Way Books)

Shane McCrae

on Even Years by Christine Gosnay (Kent State University Press)

Kimberly Grey

on The Children Are Reading by Gabriel Fried (Four Way Books)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dean Rader

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press)

Poetry is not autobiography, and yet, there is an unavoidable impulse to read a contemporary poem through the lens of the author’s life. Many readers find themselves wondering if the experiences and emotions and confessions in a poem are those of the author, or if they are constructed by the author and mouthed by a speaker. I try not to ask myself these questions, and yet, even though I know better, I ask myself these questions.

As I was reading Javier Zamora’s engaging Unaccompanied, these issues, thankfully, never really came up. This intrigued me. What is it about this book, I wondered, that is alleviating my anxieties? I think the answer to this question is one of the reasons Zamora’s captivating debut has garnered so much advance attention.

Zamora.jpgZamora, who was born in El Salvador, made his way to the United States in 1999, at the age of 9, to join his parents, who had already fled El Salvador years previous to start a new life in the San Francisco Bay Area. His book and his story coincide with national discussions of immigration, DACA, and the construction of a wall between Mexico and the United States. Unaccompanied is not so much a chronicle of his years in Salvador and America, but an interrogation of timely events that have come to define both his identity and the identity of two radically different nations.

Unaccompanied is powerful in part because it is unaccompanied by artifice. There are no masks in the book, no tricks. The poems are lyrical but straightforward. They feel honest, candid, urgent. They also feel accessible. This is because on one hand they utilize elements of confessional poetry (actual events, real people, specific locations, expressed feelings of guilt or shame) but are, thankfully, free of the bombast and overindexed personal drama. I am reminded here of David Yezzi on confessionalism. For Yezzi, confessionalist poems are marked by their “sense of worn-on-the-sleeve self-revelation and their artful simulation of sincerity . . . Confessional poems, in other words, lie like truth.” One never gets the sense that Zamora lies to his readers, even when he admits, in the opening poem, to lying:

TO ABUELITA NELI

This is my 14th time pressing roses in fake passports
for each year I haven’t climbed marañón trees. I’m sorry
I’ve lied about where I was born. Today, this country
chose its first black president. Maybe he changes things.
I’ve told Mom I don’t want to have to
choose to get married.
You understand. Abuelita, I can’t go back
and return.
There’s no path to papers.

I love the tone of this poem. It is at once certain and uncertain. It begins with the self but then as quickly migrates out of the self to the nation and then to his grandmother. Those pivots triangulate the self in an engaging way, and the line about “path to papers” yet again turns the lamp away from the poet and shines it on policy.

“Confessional poetry,” writes James Breslin, “often presents not an exposure but a mythologizing of the self.” This apotheosis of selfhood, of self-suffering, is the main reason I don’t love confessional poetry as much as I could. However, the absence of self-mythologizing is one of the reasons I like Zamora’s poetry as much as I do. Take these lines that appear near the beginning of “Nocturne:”

I threw that black mug at your face after gin, after tequila,
I’m sorry. I drank too much. I drink too much,
I know. It wasn’t me who threw it,
I said, but it was.

Or this short section from “Deportation Letter:”

It was a hill like this. I was tired. I couldn’t keep running and fell. If it wasn’t for the women who went back to pick me up from the shore, I wouldn’t be here.

Or this segment from the long poem “June 10, 1999” that closes the book:

I didn’t recognize Dad
different from pictures

he remembers the smell
shit piss dust in your hair
he says now
crying

Mom had a bag with Nikes
Levi’s
Star Wars
Episode One shirt

I left my ripped clothes
inside a Ross fitting room

I’m tired of writing the fencethe desert
the van picked us up
took me to parents
I’m tired it’s always that

ZamoraCover.jpgWhat characterizes all of these moments in Zamora’s poems is his uncanny sense of proportion. He “confesses” a great deal, but nothing is overblown. If anything, his experiences (and emotions) are tamped down. Understated. Underplayed. He even expresses weariness, in this last poem of having to write and re-write his story. The self is not inflated by telling; rather it is enervated by it.

To me, this reveals Zamora’s interest in writing poetry as opposed to autobiography. I say this because everything is in service to the poem but in a way that makes the reader feel invited and included rather than performed to. Zamora eschews ornate forms and elevated diction, both of which can, by extension, valorize the self through their own loftiness. Instead, his diction is more like William Carlos Williams or even late James Wright. At times, he channels Pablo Neruda, who is arguably the most successful modern poet at merging common speech with uncommon events, as in the opening lines from “El Salvador”:

Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb
will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face,

kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster,
don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios

stain you with pollen. Every day cops and gangsters pick at you
with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty.

Here, Zamora on El Salvador enters into conversation with Neruda on Chile. That list of strong images, that willingness to call out national leaders, that tendency to personify elements of the earth echoes Neruda but is also all Zamora.

I want to call attention to Zamora’s sense of craft here, because, as Junot Diaz notes, writers of color are almost never asked about their work as art. It is usually mined for themes, content, and culture. Zamora’s pacing and tone are enviable. I know of few poets able to speak directly and also lyrically. I also admire his facility with the line. He knows how and when to break a line, when to extend a line, and when to make the line buoy by way of spacing.

I am also intrigued by his endearing use of the persona poem. On five different occasions, Zamora writes a poem in first person, but at the end of the poem includes a quotation indicator such as “— Dad, age 11” or “— Tia Mali, age 16” or “— Mom, age 13” to indicate that the speaker of the poem is not “Javier Zamora” but a family member as a much younger person.

This is a bold move.

There are so many ways this could have gone wrong. The poems could have come off as maudlin or sentimental or juvenile or nostalgic or artificial, but none of them do. These poems, like the entire book, evince power through humility and vulnerability. But, more importantly, through technique and vision. This is a book whose many virtues extend beyond mere timeliness.

[Published September 5, 2017. 108 pages. $16]

Dean Rader’s latest collection of poems is Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon, 2017). He is a professor of English at the University of San Francisco.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Daisy Fried

Inherting The War edited by Laren McClung, foreword by Yusek Komunyakaa (W.W. Norton)

Perhaps it’s pointlessly obvious to say that present-day politics and economics in Vietnam and in America have their source in the American War in Vietnam (as the Vietnamese call what Americans call the Vietnam War). In the U.S. a lot of what we hear about that war is from old movies, or by way of memorials, or through Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau, and other literature of that era. We don’t hear very much, on this side of the world, of the experience of the other side (a major criticism I heard of the recent, otherwise well-reviewed, Ken Burns documentary The Vietnam War was that it is America-centric). And perhaps we don’t hear or think much at all about the way that the next generations, born to survivors of the conflict on all sides, experience life in ways the rest of us might not suspect. Yet there are thousands upon thousands of people whose parents were made by and scarred by that war. Inheriting The War, an intelligently-curated and diverse anthology, is written by those people.

McClungCover.jpgLinh Dinh, born in Saigon in 1963, came to America in 1975. One of his two prose pieces in this collection, “Prisoner With a Dictionary,” begins “And so a young man was thrown into prison and found in his otherwise empty cell a foreign dictionary.” The young man, over years in the cell, memorizes almost every definition in the dictionary without being sure what the words he memorizes actually mean. It’s an ingenious and moving fable about the loss of one language, and the failure to gain another to replace it — and a way of talking about the experience of the refugee caught between two languages, who feels orphaned in both.

Emily Brandt’s father served in Vietnam, and she herself has facilitated NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop for Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Her lush, economical lyrics tell stories that look at present and past. “Cork” begins with an image of a cork bobbing in a sink full of dishes, and describes the uses of cork in aviation. “Cork can be harvested a dozen times / before the death of the tree,” writes Brandt, who also recounts the father’s story of a war buddy shot down, imprisoned seven years, who comes home and kills himself. “Cork” concludes by addressing the father:  

The bark
of the cork oak deadens vibrations in the walls of the plane.
Your bark. What has been cut from you a dozen times Dad?
Sometimes you sit so still.

The MacArthur and Pulitzer winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ father was a Vietnam vet. Her play “Father Comes Home from the Wars” gets staged as a Civil War drama that draws from Ulysses’ homecoming in the Odyssey. The excerpts in Inheriting the War are easy to read as based on Parks’ own father’s homecoming from Vietnam. It’s comic and serious:

FATHER: Hi honey, Im home.
MOTHER: Yr home.
FATHER: Yes.
MOTHER: I wasn’t expecting you. Ever.
FATHER: Should I go back out and come back in again?
MOTHER: Please.

Is all art about war experience about all war? Maybe. Nguyen Phan Que Mai was born in 1973 in a village in northern Vietnam and grew up in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. Her three poems in this volume, translated by Bruce Weigl and the author, focus on women’s experience of war. “Quang Tri” (the location of a major battle iduring the Tet Offensive) begins:

The mother runs towards us,
the names of her children fill her eye sockets.
She’s screaming “Where are my children?”

My father was too young for Korea, too old for Vietnam. My parents took my brother and me along to peace vigils once or twice; otherwise the whole thing stayed remote. Yet many in my generation grew up with parents deeply affected by the war, or were themselves directly affected by it. This anthology will be important news to some, shared experience to others. And if our country seems to have doomed itself, this century, to perpetual war, perhaps this book is also a reminder that war is never really local or limited.

Inheriting the War is full of riches and — unlike so many contemporary poetry anthologies, however skilled — full of necessity.

[Published November 7, 2017. 400 pages, $19.95 paperback]

Daisy Fried’s most recent poetry collection is Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice (University of Pittsburgh Press). She teaches creative writing in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Wesley Rothman

semiautomatic by Evie Shockley (Wesleyan University Press)

no phrase that droops or wants
out of the sun survives long. but the rest

run wild, flush vivid, throw shade, deluge fruit,
lavishly express their dissonant root.

(from “senzo”)

When and how one comes to poetry may be more interesting considerations than why or that this happens. “When and how,” at least, may reveal something special. When I was a graduate student in 2011, recently in love with the poetry of Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Harryette Mullen, Douglas Kearney, and Yusef Komunyakaa, Evie Shockley’s the new black was a sequence of flares and mashups and history lessons and visceral, utterly honest declarations, confrontations of the most poignant and transformative sort. Her consistent blend of formal innovation, linguistic sizzle, and conceptual rigor makes for exceptional poems. I couldn’t wait for her next collection.

Shockley.jpegWhat is continually captivating, energizing, and mystifying-in-all-the-best-ways about Shockley’s poetics is a sort of balance between absolute clarity and blurriness. Out semiautomatic’s gate, with “that’s a rap (sheet music for alphabet street),” we’re given a prose poem, no caps, question marks and double colons set apart from words, a disorientation from typical typography, plus a thicket of sound association, improvising and tugging us through. And yet, this collage comes together seamlessly, all of the sounds tweaking one word to another, enough to be different and coherent:

do i have the rite to write the body ? the right body to remain silent ? habeas corpus, to have the remains dans mes mains, my main man, handy man, unhand me, uncuff me, so i can speak in my sign(ifying) language

The first question of this excerpt puns well, but we’re asked to read it accurately: the ceremonial rite, then the “correct” body, then the right to trial, then what is left in hand, to work with, freely, unrestrained, honestly. The poet unites a sense of sound with sense-making, and implores us to wonder who makes the rules, here in the poem, as well as here and there in the world.

Throughout, we hear disoriented familiarities, as with “weather or not,” in the portion, “i was still bleeding from yesterday’s sound bites, and the coming elections were breeding candid hates by the hand-over-fistful. there’d been an arab spring.” Shockley spins and distorts clichés out of their clichéness, and then while we’re dizzy as if from spinning, facedown around a bat, the poem knocks us on our sobered ass, “but it was winter all summer in america.” Her linguistic and formal invention works us through matters, often ironically, of climate change or sex trafficking, racism or misogyny, always with a stern dose of urgent honesty. It’s as if we’re having fun amid some chaos and destruction, usually to find out we’re somehow culpable for it. This quality to which I’m so drawn is unsettling, disturbing, the experience of being grabbed and shaken, first vigorously, then violently — wake your daydreaming ass up!

ShockleyCover.jpgThere are visual innovations that reorient what might fly in a poem, as with “buried truths” (stanzas made to look buried among a catacomb of “≈” signs), or “truth in advertising” (a nutrition facts table), or “keep your eye on” (a mélange of italics, all caps, no caps, font sizes, textual gradation, spacing, and punctuation). There’s a frenzied array of form, a vigorous grab for the new, a willfulness to create and shape and invent that which hasn’t yet existed, but will be our future. New formal shapes disorient, draw interest, sure, but they are the embodiment of agency, of questioning, of crafting that future.

There are futures that will never be, addressed throughout this book. There’s got to be something that implodes in us when we see poems so futured, about people who were denied their futures. There’s got to be something in us that gets switched on, some boiler that becomes lit or some empathy that moves us to think and act and vote and speak in the interest of life, in the interest of love.

These are not cynical poems; they expose and make new what we already do, what we may too easily forget or ignore. They are weighed upon, they are moanful, they find their second and third and fourteenth wind. They exist to make something happen. And they succeed.

we
spoke with freedom andour speech
of freedom spokelouder than
blues than badges ourspeech of
freedom spoke over theirloudspeakers
our freedom spokeover their barricades
and onto this page
¡yes!one freedomled to another

(from “of speech”)

[Published October 3, 2017. 104 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

Wesley Rothman’s new collection of poems is SUBWOOFER (New Issues, 2017). He is a Teaching Artist for the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

David Rivard

TechnoRage by William Olsen (TriQuarterly/Northwestern))

A friend of mine, hearing that I was going to write about William Olsen’s new book, emailed me this estimate of Olsen’s stature within his generation of poets: “Maybe we’ve all walked versions of the walk but that fucker has always been ‘deep in tides of his own,’ right from beginning.” He was quoting from Merwin’s poem about John Berryman, but the comment was a reminder that there are few among us capable of submitting their gifts (and their lives) so wholly to the demands made by the art. Such submission requires bravery, passion, stamina, among other qualities almost always in short supply, whatever the period. Neither is possession of these qualities a guarantee that one’s work will get the attention it merits. William Olsen’s poetry has long been among the most essential of our time, and TechnoRage is a book that deserves the widest possible audience.

TechnoRage is Olsen’s sixth collection. Like his previous books, it shows him to be a master of an enviable range of forms: everything from metered and rhymed verse to improvised fields of collaged fragments and ‘samples.’ He has always had an ear to die for, one that weds dense sonic textures to moments of intense perception, a sort of deep description that seems to hover in the layers between subjective and objective experience without quite deciding which is which:

Gust smattered gobs of snow glommed to spruce

limbs

shingled white, then, through snow fume, a hint

of living green,

the ecstatic without the static, without confines.

“Hallucinatory realism” might be one way to describe this as a form of literary practice. It’s as if the Robert Lowell of Notebook or History had been reengineered with some of the DNA of Lorine Niedecker, or as if the treads of a heavyweight battle tank had been replaced by the wings of a bird prone to experiencing unexpected visions, the range of its flight almost unlimited.

OlsenCover.jpegLike Niedecker or James Wright, Olsen is a profoundly Midwestern poet, with a core solitude that draws as much from the lakes and forests of Michigan as it does from a consciousness aware of itself as one creature among many. If he’s deeply local in this sense, some of what he’s charting in TechnoRage are the particulars of a larger world in crisis, a crisis that is physical, economic, political, and spiritual — you could say it involves global warming and environmental degradation, or the consequences of post-industrial capital, but what these poems really speak to is the strange displacement of humans from nature via a kind of rage that is hidden in the unconscious motives for technological innovation, as if separating ourselves from nature will make it easier for us to destroy ourselves. Because maybe we have that kind of death wish. What makes reading Olsen so different from other poets on the subject is his sense of self-interrogation and paradox in thinking through the implications.

And if the lake was going to die, at least the shore

grew over with bristling cottonwood saplings

rooted to sludge—acrid sun-bleached algae.

The dock was a gangplank to water too shallow to drown in.

And the canoe remained upside down all year round,

and the whole enterprise of saying something with decency

never seemed quite heartwarming enough once

the climate of our opinion also started warming.

[“Posthumous Cabin”)

If there is a quiet but persistent anger in all this, there is also in Olsen’s writing an attempt to enter the earth’s grief, and a compassionate understanding of the difficulty of doing so, thanks to a woundedness at the heart of the human self. “Everything/I say of the world/is less true of/the world//than of myself,” he writes in “Dusk.” If Olsen goes to nature for consolation, a balm for this woundedness, he seems at the same time to be acutely sensitive to a distance that won’t easily be overcome. In “Our Heron,” he writes, “if we draw too near the heron, it will go, meaning that for it we will have gone.” The heron is both an absence and presence in the souls of the squabbling man and woman who watch it, both the bird and the couple visible to each other only in a particular, peculiar kind of twilight: “A heron is ‘how to’ book on twilight. Open anywhere. ‘How to’ is a lonely phrase. Lonely is a start. Try saying so. Try making up and try inclusion. Try twilight.” How to do all that is a question that resonates throughout TechnoRage. This prose poem — so delicate and rock-sturdy at once — suggests an answer, maybe the only possible answer, a certain kind of kindness that feels as unsentimental and clear-headed as anything in Basho’s journals: “For twenty odd minutes we’d watch for the heron while we brushed mosquitos from one another’s faces. The mosquitos would have drowned in our hearts if they could have.”

Olsen_0.jpegThe compassion that runs through this book feels hard earned, the product of an insistent self-confrontation, an accounting in search of a possible forgiveness, and a full encounter with bodily pain — in this case, a back pain that “feels like an impaled pickax” (“Early Murder”). What’s remarkable is how the poems maneuver through all the thinking and feeling that surrounds this very nearly unbearable suffering, so that it takes on a shape as a sort of negative space, as much metaphysical as physical. In this space, Olsen makes some surprising, unsettling connections:

Understanding becomes all warning. Some specifics still sound the same as always, like cardinals and their hot-iron scribble. But primarily everything says more is coming. It may wish itself to be otherwise, but chronic pain, like love, gives me more everything it’s already given. I begin to reside in a fear I can’t frighten myself out of.

(“Bright Day of the Body”)

It isn’t that Olsen is drawing an equivalence between human suffering and the damage inflicted on the planet by humans, but simply that the experience of one might make the other less abstract, more visible. If such an understanding is possible, this book would call it the necessary empathy.

(Published June 15, 2017, 104 pages, $16.95 Paperback)

David Rivard is the author of Standoff (Graywolf Press), winner of the 2017 PEN/New England Prize for poetry. He teaches in the University of New Hampshire’s MFA in Writing Program.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Alan Felsenthal

Quickening Fields by Pattiann Rogers (Penguin Poets)

“I am not a scientist. I want that always clearly understood.”
- Pattiann Rogers, from “An Interview with Richard McCann”

If the authors of my middle school science textbooks had encountered the poetry of Pattiann Rogers, I might have become a scientist. In the hands of Rogers, science can make you cry. I did.

With a stern incredulity at the common misconception, my sixth grade science teacher repeatedly told us that we must always use the proper name for a star-shaped echinoderm: “It’s a sea star, not a starfish.” It never was a fish and calling it one was equivalent to misspelling a close friend’s name. She was, of course, correct. We must know and say the names of living beings around us, even if they cannot.

Rogers.jpegThe poems of Pattiann Rogers say the names aloud — “The snail, Helix hortensi, being multi-dimensional / touches in any moment many more things than one.” Rogers makes the universe local. It’s a thumb-sized garden snail we’re being told about; he might be outside your window licking a hickory twig right now. Here, he gets an entire poem — “The Woodland Snail at Twilight” — and by the end you come to feel that he deserves the entire Milky Way. The logarithmic spiral that is his shell connects him to beaches, hurricanes, galaxies, all shaped similarly — “He has claim therefore to intimacy / with the eight webbed coordinates of the sea.” He has a nobility of existence that becomes apparent to us through the poet’s observations. Rogers uses this mollusk to remind us of her fundamental principle — “Watch now and be alert.” It’s an invitation, like “See what you can see” in another poem. But it is also a warning that sight is not more important than feeling: “Although he had eyes, he could never / see the stars because his heart / had no place for them.”

In the final stanza of “Calling to Measure,” we hear deep grief and longing on earth, echoed in the heavens:

Where is the tablet, where the rule, where
the steel weights, the balance, the book,
properly to make measure of a loss
so grand and deep I can spread and stitch it
to every visible star I name — Arcturus,
Spica, Vega, Regulus — in this dark
surrounding dark surrounding dark?

The poet is trying to measure her pain, to “gauge my cold by the depth,” in order to understand it. This “matching / and measuring, comparing” is an obsession that extends to everything in sight. Each star named is the brightest star in its respective constellation — Vega is the brightest star of Lyra, Spica of Virgo, etc. What is visible is brightest, presented in contrast with its opposite; “dark” appears three times in two lines. It ends in a question: where but in the darkness can we go to look for light?

RogersCover.jpgBy naming, a “sacred litany” of things is summoned, brought to life and animated, quickened. The title of Rogers’s thirteenth collection of poems, Quickening Fields, might refer to the moment a field (terrestrial or not) comes to life. Though a new collection, split into eight sections, over half of the book is comprised of early poems that were published in journals, but didn’t make it into earlier books. New poems appear as well. Rogers is the kind of poet — so adept and precise — whose B-sides are actually A-sides. It’s difficult to say anything about her that’s better than what she has said herself in essays and interviews.

Of poetry and physics, Rogers says in an interview: “Einstein used to say a scientist is like a seamstress who makes a coat and holds it up to the universe to see if it fits or not. If it doesn’t fit, he takes it back to the workshop and works on it some more.” The poems of Pattiann Rogers feel as though they’ve been tailored for a new scientific age. In fact, our age may not have caught up to her cosmology. As dead stars collide to warp space, confirming Einstein’s waves, we receive new visions of space and of ourselves in relation. Quickening Fields is more about the search for knowledge through the action of language than the chaos of information; ultimately, it arrives at a certain conclusion about the solace and consolation of words; and ends on the word “healing.”

[Published June 6, 2017. 128 pages, $20.00 paperback]

Alan Felsenthal runs a small press called The Song Cave. Lowly, his first collection of poems, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Emilia Phillips

Scale by Nathan McClain (Four Way Books)

“We’re unprepared // for our little disappointments,” writes Nathan McClain. These lines offer an apt entrance into the concerns of his first poetry collection, Scale. With its poems about the end of a long-term romantic relationship and the ongoing challenges of a relationship with one’s father, Scale chronicles the world-transforming revelations present in the small but nevertheless devastating moments of the everyday. “Aubade with a Multitude of Birds” demonstrates this brilliantly, with a speaker awoken in the early morning hours:

Still dark and already
the stupid birds are at it

outside the window
how could anyone possibly

be prepared for what
clamor they make

What begins as an irritated litany of complaints against the birds soon resonates with more consequence, especially when an undefined (but implicated) “we” is introduced in the statement, “this hour we’ve lost.” The poetic form of the aubade traditionally features two lovers saying goodbye at dawn, after a night together. Here, however, the implication is that this couple has been together for some time and that they may not last through a metaphorical night:

and maybe this noise
is really an alarm

a red bell
in each bird’s throat

announcing that
something is coming

something terrible

McClainCover.jpgAlthough there’s a tendency in these poems for their speakers to see personal meaning, perhaps even symbols or signs, in the world around them, the connections never feel forced or false; there’s no ridiculous superstition in these poems either, despite the fact that they honor the speaker’s tendency to project personal emotion and circumstance onto image. Take, for instance, the end of “Watching the Horticulturalist,” in which the speaker reflects upon home improvement endeavors that haven’t gone smoothly. “I’ve bruised myself / (more often than I should),” he says, and readers should be primed to read “bruised” as literal and figurative, given the context of the domestic space and McClain’s economy of meaning making; the speaker continues, noting how he’s “unskilled / at steadying the nail,” and then asks:

How many holes had I

left in our walls?

I suppose it doesn’t matter.

All our pictures fell.

One might read the “holes...in our walls” as those made by hammer and nail, but one might wonder if there might be another kind of hole, one made by the fist. The pictures falling and shattering on the floor betray the state of this relationship, one that’s falling apart itself, “fragile as glass is”. McClain much prefers to allow his imagery to do the work of delineating conflict and tension in his poems, rather than signposting a dramatic situation with exposition. In “Love Elegy with Busboy,” McClain uses the “spotless” table, cleared away after a meal, to introduce the idea that the speaker wants to start over with the lost love, and “Through My Kitchen Window” the “too much salad” made gestures at the fact that the speaker is left alone, looking outside the home.

Although the book carries a lot of heavy subject matter, McClain demonstrates a tenderness unparalleled in other first books in recent memory. This tenderness, however, is entirely human, and it admits its inadequacies. In “After Word of My Uncle’s Illness,” the speaker drives his mother “the many miles to see him / but won’t know which radio station is best for filling that frequency / of silence.” Toward the end of the book, the speaker of “Consolation” imagines a hypothetical situation — “Let’s say, waiting to board the plane, / you noticed a woman on her cell phone / her phone call was bad” — and asks, “What do you say?” to her, in her distress. He later admits that it was a real situation and that he “said nothing”:

When we were boarding the plane,
as others fished through their carry-ons

for tissue, nothing. I thought, soon
we’ll be past all this. You’ll feel lighter.

The poem’s final line, however, offers a coded self-indictment of the speaker’s self-delusion: “This is what I tell myself.” It’s as if the speaker knows and refuses to know what his moral imperative is, how much tenderness and empathy to show, and this becomes a motivating question in this book, especially as it relates to looking outside the self, often at others and their struggles.

McClain.jpegIndeed, the book often talks about looking and interrogates the gaze, as with “Penelope, Birdwatching” who asks in a parenthetical, “Is it wrong to watch?” Elsewhere, McClain puts those questions of looking into action through ekphrasis, with subject art by Edward Hopper and David Siqueiros. “See? / Hopper was obviously lonely,” McClain writes and, with an unexpected turn, continues: “Why else would he paint her, my mother / sitting there like this?” Within this book is the essential question of the first-person point of view: how else can we write if not from the perspective of the individual, the I? Within the self and the signifiers (family, culture, art, memory) that engender selfhood, McClain perhaps argues for hope: “it’s hope that brings me to the window,” he writes, and it’s hope the reader will find here, at the clear and delicate glass of these poems.

[Published March 7, 2017. 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016). She teaches at Centenary College.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Shane McCrae

Even Years by Christine Gosnay (Kent State University Press)

Back in February, I was scanning the table of contents of the at-the-time latest issue of Poetry, looking for a new poem to share with my students, when I came across a name I had never seen before: Christine Gosnay. I flipped to her poem titled “Strangers” rather than the one titled “Listening to Townes Van Zandt” because I had never listened to Townes Van Zandt before and because most folks seem like strangers most of the time. And I saw these opening lines:

Tremendous orange things are happening somewhere.
I lay a wooden stick for stirring on the white note
on the desk. I lay a stain on the clean note.

Somewhere things are happening. Marvelous orange
and purple things. Flooding rivers at dusk, wheels threading
roads in the desert. Strangers. Strangers. Sea.

And I was immediately convinced, and knew right away I was reading a poem I was going to love for the rest of my life. The poem goes on in the above fashion, building something like a narrative, though it’s an impossible narrative, because it happens in no particular place, though it happens, like all narratives in poems, exactly where the poem happens, and that is simply more apparent in “Strangers,” until it reaches its to my mind perfect conclusion:

Somewhere, things are happening. You are lying in the white bed
beside the sea with coffee. I am lying in the white bed.
Tremendous strangers. Blind roads in the sea.

Gosnay.jpegReader, I admit it’s possible I’ve been taken in because orange is my favorite color. As far as I’m concerned, tremendous orange things are happening everywhere orange is, all the time. But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. Usually, any piece of writing that attempts to make a virtue out of vagueness fails as writing, but the vagueness of “Strangers” is the channel through which its overwhelming power builds. It is a poem desperately in tune with the present moment, a moment in which it is possible for people to connect with each other and yet remain just as much strangers to each other while they are connected as they were before they connected. It is a poem not about inscrutability, but impossibility. And it is a miracle of a poem because, like all the miraculous best art, it gives from a space from which giving previously seemed impossible.

You see? I was convinced. I am convinced.

And so I waited for Gosnay’s first book, Even Years, to be published. So long as Even Years had “Strangers” in it, I wasn’t going to be disappointed. Imagine my surprise when I read Even Years and realized that even if it didn’t have “Strangers” in it (but it does!), I would still love it. Even Years somehow makes its own space at the outer edges of the plain style, which, I know, sounds a bit paradoxical — after all, the plain style is all middle, isn’t it? Apparently, it isn’t:

There is the stone on the neck, the tilt against
The ring it’s made or hasn’t made, the tilt against

What animals I see by now, I have seen twice.
In my heartsdream I bait the shrill crickets,
Dressed up as a violet glove in the familiar art of names.

Gosnay.jpgThose lines from “Pneumonia” demonstrate a few of Gosnay’s regular techniques. First, Gosnay understands that one must make the reader comfortable if one hopes to disorient them, and so her phrasing is consistently plain. She achieves her disorienting effect through meaningful departures from standard grammar — and notice that the primary departure here happens between stanzas, allowing Gosnay to utilize space in order to maximize the disorientation. Second, we also see here the use of a nonce compound, “heartsdream.” Such compounds occur throughout Even Years. Though “heartsdream” might seem like an obvious compound, it is strengthened by the context in which it appears, particularly the line in which it appears, and has an outsized affect on the rhythm of the poem.

All of this occurs within the boundaries of the plain style — the speech is plain speech; it is merely deployed in a way that removes it to the edges. That is the most striking quality of Even Years — it removes itself to edges. As Gosnay writes in “The Night Temple,” “To make something is to beware it.” These poems not only beware to the edges of the everyday, they beware their readers as well.

[Published August 31, 2017. 88 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Shane McCrae is the author of, most recently, In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan, 2017). He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kimberly Grey

The Children Are Reading by Gabriel Fried (Four Way Books)

Louise Glück wrote, “We see the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” In The Children Are Reading, Gabriel Fried’s fascinating and peculiar second collection, we are given a new chance at seeing, simultaneously, the magical entrancement of childhood against the magnified awareness of adulthood. The speaker moves back and forth in time (sometimes the child again, sometimes the parent observing his children) as he makes the difficult discovery that knowledge may only be complete in these dual places, where “We are almost out / too far, in a space / barely safe and daring.”

The book’s tension exists in an exploration of the imagination and its perpetual functions. The poems weave in and out of playful sequences, sometimes riddle-like, sometimes akin to nursey rhyme, but always dark and ominous, on the edge of some secret discovery. The “story” itself serves as a mythical thing that has the power to transform us (imaginatively, of course, but also viscerally through an imagined physical experience):

After I returned, forewarned,
from the storyteller’s home,
I lay in bed on my side, like a patient:
knees bent, back to the room.

The story had slid inside me;
I could feel its end
(who can tell head from tail?)
latched against me, hooked

to my anus and nostrils, so that
when I moved or even thought
of moving it pulled me
to myself, opening me

to every intensity.

One can’t read these striking and affecting poems without thinking of Wallace Stevens and his idea that the mind is “a violence within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” Fried is concerned with telling the full truth about the imagination, its dark origins and its function as a landscape of escape where both magic and danger exist and are always possible, no matter your age.

FriedCover.jpgIn the poem “Alice Meets Peter” Lewis Carroll’s Alice meets J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan in London, 1932. Alice is 80 and Peter is 35, both transformed against their mythic qualities: “She has shrunk for good by now, / and he’s grown up in spite of everything.” Fried’s intention becomes clear as he asks the question: “Who escapes / the fetishes of childhood that others make?” It’s apparent there’s a danger in storytelling, both in the well-known tales we pass down generationally and the stories we tell ourselves, privately, to quell our own anxieties and fears.

The fantasy of childhood is never far in these poems, but Fried makes it known that we will never fully get there either. His ability to hold these two knowledges simultaneously is what astounds the most, as seen in “Scold,” a persona poem from a child’s perspective: “You treat imagination like dammed water, / letting out a little at a time, hoping it will / generate the proper energy … I’m a child. You think / that I’m a metaphor, that you can / learn something from me.” Fried provides us a lens from both places, through the child’s eyes and through the parent’s. He knows that something happens to us when we become adults, a disappearance or distortion, where we become, in ways, unrecognizable to ourselves (as in a child’s rendering of a parent) “a portrait that we cannot stand to face.” But these poems show us that childhood has its own distortions too.

Fried.jpgJust as the whimsy ditty of the black plague continues to delight, so too, do these poems in their musical enchantments and their often surreal physical adjustments to how imagination and stories will continue to transform us through each stage of life: “If you sit in a field for long enough/ the field becomes you./ Swallows circle your neck,/ a fox reverses through you like a dream.”

I couldn’t help but think of Russell Edson’s odd poem “Antimatter” as I read this incredible book. Just as this poem, The Children Are Reading works masterfully to create simultaneous worlds of seeing, a new constructed kind of imagination that feels truer than what we had before:

On the other side of a mirror there’s an inverse world, where the insane go sane;
where bones climb out of the earth and recede to the first slime of love.
And in the evening the sun is just rising.
Lovers cry because they are a day younger, and soon childhood robs them of their pleasure.
In such a world there is much sadness, which, of course is joy …

[Published September 5, 2017, 70 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Kimberly Grey is the author of The Opposite of Light, awarded the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and published by Persea Books. She is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and teaches and studies at the University of Cincinnati.