Nine Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles

Welcome back to The Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, nine poets write briefly on some of their favorite recently published titles. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and November. Scroll down to read. The commentary includes:

Daisy Fried

on Wannabe Hoochie Mama of Realities’ Red Dress Code: New & Selected Poems by Thylias Moss (Persea Books)

David Rivard

on Bright Scythe by Tomas Tranströmer (Sarabande Books)

Kyle Dargan

on Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (Northwestern University Press)

Dana Levin

on & luckier by Christopher J. Johnson (Center for Literary Publishing/University Press of Colorado)

Safiya Sinclair

on the black maria by Aracelis Girmay (BOA Editions)

Matthew Thorburn

on Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing by Marianne Boruch (Copper Canyon)

Catherine Pierce

on The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger (BOA Editions)

Tyehimba Jess

on Inheritance by Bro Yao [Hoke S. Glover III] (Willow Publishing)

Shane McCrae

on Babette by Sara Deniz Akant (Rescue Press)

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Daisy Fried

Wannabe Hoochie Mama of Realities’ Red Dress Code: New & Selected Poems by Thylias Moss (Persea Books)

Thylias Moss, whose dark, hilarious, visionary poems have for decades addressed violence, humanity, race, womanhood, daughterhood, motherhood, history, art and all kinds of personal and public politics, seems more of an essential poet now than ever. The author of eight previous volumes of poetry, Moss has received MacArthur, Guggenheim and many other awards, but has always flown too much under the radar, perhaps in part because the contradictions that make her wondrous, and wondrous strange, also make her hard to categorize.

Moss.jpgMoss is most often a narrative poet — one for whom narrative is a roller coaster ride and strategy for vision and triumphant imbalance. Early on her poems were likely to be short-to-medium length lines, and written (as also later) from women’s and children’s experience. In “The Barren Midwife Speaks of Duty” the titular midwife says “Childbirth pains / foreshadow what’s to come. Knowing that / I should shove the heads back, / stitch the openings ...” The prose poem “Goodness and the Salt of the Earth” combines — as with much of her later work — trauma and dark comedy. “Somebody’s husband raped you while you were supposed to be in the choir pounding a tambourine, not a chest… ” Church and scripture are seen slant, words plumbed for diverse connotation. Salt for example: people fainting in church are given smelling salts, meat is cured with it. Yoking Jesus’ disciple to a folkloric anti-aphrodisiac, Moss warns “Stay away from angry crowds yelling, ‘Salt, Peter. Salt, Peter.’ Ask the Saint for something else.”

Among Moss’ best known poems, “A Reconsideration of the Blackbird” is a riff on the Wallace Stevens poem. Its 12 (not 13) stanzas consider blackness in the context of racism, and begins in ironic and fearsome malevolence:

Let’s call him Jim Crow.

Let’s call him Nigger and see if he rises
faster than when we say
abracadabra.

The poem is uncharacteristically non-narrative but shares the dark, richly ironic, ultimately humane, almost Brechtian vision that runs through her work. In “Timex Remembered,” the watch slogan, Timex, it takes a licking and keeps on ticking! sets off childhood memories of violence perpetrated by children and by adults upon children. “By fourth grade lickings were like bread crumbs,” writes Moss. “Too many to think about and irritating to the eyes.” Children “[tick] like a bomb,” and children break. Late in the poem, Moss remembers Mrs. Samodale, an immigrant and World War II survivor who lives on a changing block where “Rowdy youth ride by after a riot and tell her / this neighborhood is a ghetto now.” Writes Moss, “Their Afros remind her of barbed wire. / She knows more about ghettos than they ever will.” Mrs. Samodale also ticks: her tongue:

… tch, tch, tch
a long way from Czechoslovakia. There’s no freedom
anywhere, no freedom from the
Timex watch, the accuracy
of its score.

The dark wit that underlies the horror makes horror touch the reader, so that these poems refuse the kind of prurience or mere showcasing of sensibility of lesser poets’ descriptions of violence and suffering.

MossCover.jpgWannabe Hooch Mama reveals Moss’ development over the years as coherent, sustained and admirably unruly. I might love best the poems selected from 1998’s Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, with its melding of reality-narrative, magic, folk tales, and gleeful, sometimes furious wit. The poems from this period are variously formatted, chatty and declamatory, intimate and preacherly. Moss teaches us that restraint is not a virtue; that its opposite may be a victory. Unsummarizable, the long, six-part poem, “Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler,” touches on Salvador Dali, Hansel and Gretel, Susan Smith (who killed her children and blamed a made-up black man), the poet’s own child, and murder considered as baptism.

One of Susan’s soft-lipped boys plunged
at the age I was for my first baptism, naked
under the white robe and not aware
of how much of my wet self
the preacher’s hand covered. He was holy
and I was becoming that way. Last chance
for the Tarzan holler. Those boys too

are believers. Everyone believes something.
Susan Smith will get better, believe it or not.
Premonition of amnesia. She’s not alone …

After Tarzan Holler, Moss wrote Slave Moth, a verse novel about a slave girl, and in quick succession, Tokyo Butter, a book of linked poems about a missing cousin and a missing college student. The selection from Slave Moth opens with a description of the master’s grandmother dead on the porch, “her mouth wide open / and so sweet of Tennessee whiskey / that it was full of bees when they found her … // like little angels in their best yellow-striped Sunday suits …” Says Varl, who writes on stolen cloth she pins under her dress in a kind of self-cocooning:

Angels touched you without being seen,
luna moths flew into the cabin, my dream of freedom
acting as a flame. I could feel the tails of luna hind wings
tickling my eyelids, but by the time I opened my eyes
they were gone.

The new poems here are interesting, and difficult. Still wild and wheeling, they’re less connected to a discernable narrative thread. The volume’s title poem, which deals with DNA, the color red, and dresses, announces something about where the poet is now:

I have learned to be still
I have learned that I don’t have to go anywhere
to find that center of the universe
Anything can be that center.

That makes sense, for a poet who never stays where she is, who never ever is content—as so many mid-to-late career poets—to write pale versions of their past work. This poem ends in praise:

O it’s so amazing
that everything that passes through
fits.

“Amazing” is a good word for Thylias Moss, and this book.

[Published October 17, 20-16. 256 pages, $29.95 hardcover]

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poems, most recently Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (Pitt, 2013). She teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

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David Rivard

Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane (Sarabande Books)

Sixty years after he began publishing in Swedish, fifty since he started appearing in English translation, the late Tomas Tranströmer offers an endurance test by which to measure all other poets — the concerns and stylistic means he employs in his poems continue to resonate, despite having been forged at the height of a Cold War, existentialist culture. The last decade has seen a flood of new translations, reissues, and special editions, both before and after Tranströmer’s long-anticipated winning of the Nobel Prize in 2011. Patty Crane’s exacting but fluid new selection, Bright Scythe, clarifies one of the reasons for the continuing fascination: Tranströmer’s faith that the imagination is at the root of the self, a source of both awe and responsiveness in a world full of social forces that tend to deaden us.

Like being a child and an enormous insult
Is pulled over your head like a sack;
Through the sack’s stitches you catch a glimpse of the sun
And hear the cherry trees humming.

< (“Like Being a Child”)

TranstromerCover.jpgIn his introduction to Bright Scythe, David Wojahn comments that “liminality” and a concern with “ensorcelled places” have always been at the heart of Tranströmer’s work. There is a strong sense in this poetry of a private space at the center of the social self, an interiority that is vulnerable to history. I can’t think of another poet whose work has so insisted on the value of privacy, a privacy that is anything but solipsistic.

Bright Scythe makes us aware of the essential need for solitude in a world only too ready to convince us that the self is a “brand,” one that is visible mostly when it posts on social media platforms; or worse: that the self is a mere statistical point in the “big data” sweeps being conducted in the name of marketing, international finance, and the “war on terror.”

THE STATION

A train has rolled in. Car after car stands here,
but no doors are opening, no one’s getting off or on.
Are there any doors at all? Inside, it’s teeming
with closed-in people milling back and forth.
They’re staring out through the unyielding windows.
And outside, a man walks along the train with a maul.
He’s hitting the wheels, a faint ringing. Except right here!
Here the sound swells unbelievably: a lightningstroke,
a cathedral bell tolling, a round-the-world sound
that lifts the whole train and the region’s wet stones.
Everything’s singing! You’ll remember this. Travel on!

With its concise images and metaphors, aphoristic statements, and straight forward diction, Tranströmer’s poetry has always seemed to lend itself to translation. Crane’s efforts, aided here by her work with Tranströmer’s wife Monica, feel as close as we have gotten yet to the stylistic resonances of the original Swedish. In particular, she remedies the occasional prosiness of previous versions by Robert Bly and Robin Fulton, bringing an energetic nuance to the way Tranströmer creates activity on the level of image and syntax. Fulton, for example, gives us this sentence from the prose poem “Madrigal”: “All the living creatures that sing, wriggle, wag, and crawl!” Here, the exclamation takes the form of a summary catalog, and it feels a little static. Crane makes singing a condition of physical being, as much a bodily movement as wriggling or crawling are: “Every living thing that sings wriggles sways and crawls.”

transtromer.jpegTranströmer’s clarity is deceptive — his images are rarely illustrative, and arranged as they often are in juxtapositional structures they seem to echo with other, invisible layers of consciousness. The contexts implied by these images often seem fuller than can be comprehended immediately, as if we can’t see all their sides. The interiority of Tranströmer’s speaker is not a closed space, its walls are porous; and history often charges this privacy in ways that cause it to leap associatively between moments in time, between memory and the body, between the political and the spiritual, between the natural and communal. For Tranströmer, it’s this porousness that makes us particularly vulnerable to what might be called “the dark matter” of modern life. As he writes in “Baltics,” “Each thing has acquired a new shadow behind the usual shadow,/ and you hear it dragging along even when it’s totally dark.”

INSECURITY’S KINGDOM

The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X
and her earrings dangle like Damocles’s sword.

As a spotted butterfly turns invisible in a field
so the demon blends in with the spread open newspaper.

A helmet worn by no one has taken power.
The mother turtle flees, flying under water.

Our endangerment is real, these poems seem to say, but our hope begins to take shape in the transformations that occur in the deepest places in the imagination.

[Published November 15, 2015. 240 pages, $17.95 hardcover]

David Rivard is the author of the recently released Standoff (Graywolf Press). He teaches in the University of New Hampshire’s MFA in Writing Program.

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Kyle Dargan

Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)

In “dark times” (though, depending on who you are listening to, when are we not in such times) many readers call out to poets with the expectation the bards of the day will come bearing hopefulness and renderings of our world that might remind us of how happy we should be to have been granted any time at all on this verdant mass looping though the solar system. “Happy?” poses the title of the poem that opens the second section of Vievee Francis’ third collection Forest Primeval. Francis’ speaker answers “I would not say so. Rather settled / in this moment where no axe falls”— settled in an environment ostensibly “idyllic.” But it is not the trees and birds and berries that put this speaker at ease. Rather it is the absence of violence: “Before the mountains, I knew the incinerated/ cities. I knew another South, but that / was before I was another.”

Francis.jpegThe poet, too, lives in the violent world we hope she or he may give us reprieve from or redeem. Sometimes, the poet knows too much of this world to sing, unequivocally, of hope. Rather than saying the salve we think we need, the poet simply says this world, I have been able to, and will continue to, survive it. And Vievee Francis definitely comes across as such a warrior poet, bearing survival’s light, in this unpretentious and unflinching collection — a recent winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.

The forest of popular folklore and fairytale is an environment filled with magic and merriment. And desire danger — Francis’ poems remind readers of those particular elements as she reenters and complicates the emotional atmosphere surrounding familiar characters. In “Beast and Beauty”— whose title points to such revisioning — the speaker is not merely a woman whose heart has melted in sympathy over the Beast’s existence:

I prayed my breasts
would magically spill from the zipper. I wanted to feel my calloused heels
on his thighs. I wanted to
linger ‘til dawn. His pared nails scratched
an itch that had alluded me for years. I cried as if I were slicing onions
in his kitchen. He was a good mother. He held me, like a daughter,
as if I was just as beautiful, as he believed me to be.

A reader may develop a different kind of empathy for these figures as rendered by Francis — having them placed on an emotional spectrum much more complicated than that of merely sad beginnings or happy endings. The voice in this book can both speak (of the wolves) “when I meet the one who ain’t a wolf / I’ll let you know” and (to the wolves):

I’d blame you but I’ve got my own obsessions I’ve got my own
instrument meant to draw down the moanand these lickswellI’d

say we are kindredyou and I on all foursor two
each holding on to that thing we need any way we can

FrancisCover.jpgAs you might notice from the previous excerpt, Francis is not averse to playing with space in the book. Though the majority of the poems adhere to the left margin and reach across the page in longish, sinewy lines, pieces like “Wolf,” “A Song on the Ridge” and “Still Life with Dead Game” isolate text in set and random patterns that create within the poems call and response exchanges and columns that function independently. The collective aesthetic speaks both to elements of African-American southern culture — such as the ring shout or spiritual — and this fracturing and narrative-within-narrative approach Francis takes to familiar fairytales and biblical stories.

It would be a disservice to the book to not mention one standout poem in particular, “Taking It.” The speaker as survivor of violence and as violent warrior co-exist so fully in the poem that it is difficult to find any comfort as one exits the piece. Francis writes:

Girls pushed but I punched. Pulled one
down by the hair and kneed her as my head bled.
Girls didn’t punch until high school. I had always
punched.
What kind of girl are you?
The kind who wants to live, I said, and I did want to
until I didn’t anymore.

After bearing witness to what bends but does not break this speaker, you’d be a fool to agree when she asks later in the collection “You think I don’t/ know who I am?” After reading Forest Primeval, it should be clear that few contemporary poets know and are rendering their lives as wholly and bravely as Vievee Francis.

[Published November 30, 2015. 92 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Kyle Dargan is the author of Honest Engine and three other collections of poetry from the University of Georgia Press. He is an associate professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C.

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Dana Levin

&luckier by Christopher J. Johnson (Center for Literary Publishing, Mountain West Poetry Series)

Even before Election Day, contemporary American poetry was in the process of rooting down once again into Whitman’s project: to take on America, its great democratic experiment, as subject, object, foil, and dream. I think of Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s The Verging Cities, Joel Brouwer’s Off Message and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Each of these books, and many more published over the last two years, are oriented towards the civic: what is it to participate — wholeheartedly, ambivalently, or under duress — in the diverse, idealistic, violent, hypocritical, grand drama of America?

JohnsonCover_0.jpgIn such a milieu, its striking to come across a book of purely lyric poetry, especially a debut: for emerging poets in particular, to be inclined toward subjects and angles of approach that don’t conform to trends can be a fraught prospect, especially when trends and political urgency align, as they assuredly do now. Yet into this moment comes &luckier, Christopher J. Johnson’s debut book of vivid, idiosyncratic, stubbornly and gorgeously lyric poems.

The classic lyric poem is brief, emotive, and subjective. It asks: who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be a body on earth, to have a mind inside a body, and a spirit I can feel but cannot locate precisely?

What’s a soul for, i can’t master its use;
it damages my mouth& fails so in my groin.
How’s it strange, always longing
so that i cannot be alone,
is it incomplete, malformed?

(“I know my death”)

It’s tempting to say that the concerns of the classic lyric poem are universal; after all, who doesn’t have a body? Feelings? A mind? A murky feel for spirit? But it’s in the details of the individual body, how class and race and gender, sexual orientation, health and government, the luck (or disaster) of parenting, impress and have impressed upon it, that the quality of universality breaks down. Rather, I would say that the concerns of lyric poetry are eminently sharable, oftentimes relatable, empathetic, to a reader’s own experiences of being alive:

What a lush world it is: preparing for events
&exonerating one’s self w/ friends…
…We’re all jack-o-lanterns;
terrifying, fragile faces,
brief small flames&
all in the head.

(“What a lush world”)

Johnson’s work has this feel of sharability. In part, this is due to the highly subjective yet impersonal quality of these poems: we do not learn much autobiographical context from them. Reading a poem like “Having shut the door on my extended facts,” it seems Johnson treats himself as type as much as singular ego:

Having shut the door on my extended facts,
turned my key& told myself that life, this life,
is the tune that sounds thru my instrument;
saying, so often i have aired the ways of a man:
gesturing w/ umbrella, man in brown coat;
man descends a staircase
in a tie w/ cigarette; often, man on park bench;
man w/ black socks looks into mail box ...

Johnson_0.jpgIt makes sense, then, that Johnson’s thoughts turn often to humility, a word located in humus, Latin for ground, earth. In the book’s opening poem, “We have forgot our gods,” Johnson counts himself “indebted to the sparrow, nasturtiums, / nettles& pollen grain … to each season, / inert sand& the weather’s whim” and asserts, “i came here thru the same table as the cockroach / &couldn’t have w/out his persistence.”

“Nasturtiums” and “inert sand,” “grain” and “whim”: the poems in &luckier offer immense sonic pleasure. Many of them seem near sonnets, or end with the sonnet’s impulse towards the encapsulating couplet (here a tercet):

Our kindnesses& dourness, all of our faces
will wash from the page. We will return
like ribs to a ribcage.

(“It occurred to me”)

Reading &luckier, I was reminded at times of the Elizabethan poets, the classic haiku masters and British Romantics, a little bit of Millay and a pinch of Berryman: poetry past echoes strongly through &luckier’s pages.

I was Johnson’s teacher once, in the early 2000s, when he was a prodigiously talented undergraduate. But I can’t count beyond my two hands the number of times I have looked at his poems since. I don’t recommend &luckier out of familial loyalty, or because I assume Johnson as proxy for myself; I recommend it because the poems are terrific and are wholly Christopher J. Johnson’s own. They perform their own kind of civic duty: a call to not forget about the interior life, even in an age when the crises of the exterior demand so much of our attention. Indeed, to ask the foundational questions — Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be a body on earth? — is an imperative, as we hurtle with dread into a deeply uncertain collective moment.

[Published November 15, 2016. 76 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Dana Levin’s new book is Banana Palace (Copper Canyon). She serves each fall as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.

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Safiya Sinclair

the black maria by Aracelis Girmay (BOA Editions)

“Naming, however kind, is always an act of estrangement,” writes Aracelis Girmay in her astounding collection the black maria, where she journeys across vast lyric distances of loss, the violent centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and African diaspora, rewriting the silence of “waters made dark with millions / of names & bodies.” By parsing the historical and linguistic estrangement between world and black body, between the language of here and not-here, Girmay explores naming, and the impossibility of being named by that which does not love you; how “even ‘moon’ can’t carry the moon.” How does a poet navigate this loss? By deftly embodying an oceanic thinking, Girmay bears witness to the sea as history, the sea as executioner, the sea as a dark reflection of selves past and present, all wrought raw through her captivating language and unflinching eye. Always, the sea is a lasting record of a “greater silence,” a dark history, “the flat surfaces of / our passages / above which, again, / we are the shipped.”

Girmay.jpgGirmay’s poetry entrances with breathless beauty as she carefully traces the sea’s dark history from 1702 to 2015, addressing the anguish of the African diaspora in a long cycle of poems called elelegy, noting the “consequences of a thoroughly post-colonial legacy, which often leaves its subjects with lack of other choices but to attempt to flee/leave into the diaspora.” In tender tribute to those we have lost and what we have lost, Girmay sings a plaintive sea, its “grief & wounds on display,” including the recent deaths of the estimated 20,000 African migrants lost on sea-voyages to Europe. Girmay deepens each loss, line by line, as through a repetition of waves, describing how the “long, dark skin of the water” holds these centuries of tragic memory just below the surface. Masterfully trawling this memory up, she gives her poet-self over to the sea, offering “the single word of my body,” and affirms: “Now I am ready to lay myself down //…to sing / of home in the horrible years, & to fill // my language, like the stars do, / with the light…of a future tense.” The poet’s body becomes as full and powerful as the gravid ocean, which holds all our bones and songs and secrets, coming alive through the voices of her sister-selves, called Luams.

The sea is a site of origin for the poet herself, linked to calling and re-calling up the past, where language and culture is transplanted by the dark waves of displacement, burying and uncovering her past self and present self, from Luam to Luam. What has been lost? Girmay seems to ask, writing from her own cruel exile: though her listening ear once knew “sea” as a first word, it’s a word now lost with time’s passage, as her Eritrean ancestors fled into the diaspora, leaving her poet’s ear now “black & fool of her language.” Many of the poems in the black maria follow this dire inquiry of loss — what does the wide estrangement between language and world make of us? The distance of understanding between us, as between moon and sea, distorts our history and its erasure. The language given by the new world eclipses the old language swallowed by these dark passages, claiming what has been irrevocably lost.

The book’s titular second section conjoins this past violence with the present, heavy with the memory of the European ships that heaved “with the weight of black grief, black/ flesh, black people, across the sea,” and by imagining language as a realm of estrangement and misseeing, as much as the sea is a realm of loss, Girmay subtly explores how this estrangement births even more violence against black bodies today: “Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, / Rekia Boyd /… these are also three of the names of the black maria,” she muses sombrely, in elegy. What makes Girmay a truly remarkable poet is her ability to pay tribute to our loss without lingering on the wound, choosing to transform it instead through her unmistakable way of seeing the world. Here grief is still buoyed by joy, by elelegy.

GirmayCover.jpgThe black maria is rich with countless descriptions of the sea, and Girmay manages to make each seeing new, nimbly crafting each poem to possess and plunge the reader into its glimmering pages, offering us an ocean full of voices, full of historical remnants, where the sea’s memory “has long skin” and “delivers /…reams of paper, the ink & messages & shells telling us ‘goodbye.’” Girmay’s music carries us, wave after wave, like a radio station playing a Tigrinya song, across and across the “beckoning blue muscle, / a kind of beast pawing… /always carrying some otherelse/ almost here.” Not only does she reach a hand into the heart-root and depths of the reader, she fills the page with urgent breath, line after line, a singing that asks you to listen, to lie down, be washed clean in its waiting ocean.

“I will try to build // a shore for you here,” Girmay promises, ending this incredible collection the same way she began, in tribute, speaking to her Luam-self, but also to the ancestors, for all their words and names sacrificed to the sea, in hope that by making a home in the poem, she may also make a home for what was lost:

let me tie
the breath that I borrow to
the breath that you borrow, let
them meet through the green
that is you & that is me,
& knowing what we know now
of history & of love
let us name every air between strangers “Reunion.”

How I look forward to returning for the breath between these pages, again and again.

[Published April 12, 2016. 120 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Safiya Sinclair is the author of Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) and a recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

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Matthew Thorburn

Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing by Marianne Boruch (Copper Canyon)

“To look and look, is all,” Marianne Boruch writes in Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, her ninth book of poems. That could be her motto. Boruch is a poet of sustained attention, a writer who looks and looks until she sees. Her curiosity is both deep and wide ranging in this substantial new collection which, at more than 120 pages, contains nearly two books’ worth of poems. She reflects on her younger days, considers the lives of ancestors (as well as birds and other animals), explores Scotland, imagines the inner life of Emily Dickinson, and teases out how certain things work, or got their names, or became obsolete—from gargoyles and letterpress printing to “parlors” and “living rooms.”

Here as in her previous books, Boruch’s witty, shrewd attentiveness leads to poems that show how a moment or a particular day — or, for that matter, one’s whole life — can feel odd and sad, sometimes funny, and occasionally touched with wonder. She conveys historical and technical information with a light touch, as in “Progress” where she describes:

how a lock knows its key, how the key’s
little nicks and bites code fate: not
unlatch but
continue, not release but come through.
Because it’s ancient: there is
no progress, only a deepening. Or not even that.

I heard progress is a modern invention, post-
bubonic plague. Right up to the airplane, the double sink
and running water, earlier
the milking stool, and monogamy in some places.

That “in some places” is a very Boruchian touch of humor. That “I heard” is a classic Boruch move, too — her sly off-handedness, as if to say that conversation is still underway, important issues are still being hammered out.

BoruchCover.jpgIndeed, one of her great strengths as a poet is her willingness not to impose an understanding on her observations too quickly. She doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out — though she loves to puzzle her way through the messy details of life. “Not that I understand things,” one poem in the book begins, while another notes, “A lot starts that way: inexplicable.” (This quality also makes her a fantastic essayist.) She is a describer who might envy the explainers, but ultimately is wise to how little we can truly explain.

Boruch’s poems often convey a sense of the mind in motion — the poet thinking aloud, second-guessing and correcting herself as what she sees (or hears) gradually yields insight. For instance, her poem “Island” begins like this:

Out there a boat because
the sound of a boat, a low repeated whistle.
Because one wants to,
one wants.

What’s with this
one, doing it all from a distance.

Boruch.jpgNotice how the poem almost immediately shifts into reverse—from her initial statement (line 1) to an observation that supports that statement (line 2), to a reason for the observation and/or the statement (lines 3-4), to a self-critical question about why the poet would phrase her reason the way she did (lines 5-6).

As in the lines quoted above, Boruch sometimes seems interested not so much in reaching a destination, but in simply staying in the moment to see how it will unfold. “We’re Not Insects” — one of those poems that launches right in off its title — illustrates how that willingness to step forward only very slowly, from thought to thought, can create a startling, beautiful poem:

WE’RE NOT INSECTS

though we keep time, sort of.
And make our own
white noise. Ask the half-deaf who
lean closer, every word
bottom of a well, under rock and water
and here comes the bucket on a rope,
hitting the mossy sides
the whole way up, here where
cicadas begin in the body, all
its pools and deeps
and dusk. Insects that never
entered the garden by
invitation but their
triumph, their pulse and
their pulse --

Near the end of the book comes “Reading in Bed” in which a couple is about to go to sleep, but first the speaker reads a poem to her partner. The one who listens does in fact drift off, but then snaps awake again: “here you / come to: I was listening.” Lingering on that very human moment, the poem closes with words that reflect how insight and wonder unfold gradually in Boruch’s best poems, and that suggest how her poems might best be read:

the best way
to honor any poem, waking
up to it, I think.

[Published July 26, 2016. 127 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Matthew Thorburn’s new fourth book is Dear Almost (LSU). He works in corporate communications and interviews writers for the Ploughshares blog.

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Catherine Pierce

The End of Pink by Kathryn Nuernberger (BOA Editions)

Midway through the poem “More Experiments with the Mysterious Property of Animal Magnetism (1769),” Kathryn Nuernberger’s speaker asks, “Have I been forthright yet?” The question is central to this powerhouse of a book, and in each of these poems, the answer, resoundingly, is yes. That forthrightness is precisely what makes this book so remarkable. Nuernberger’s poems engage with difficult, sometimes brutal questions of mortality, identity, sex, and loss with an even-handedness that is at once comforting and unnerving.

A number of the poems in The End of Pink use centuries-old scientific texts and case studies as jumping-off points. One of these, “Rituals of the Bacabs as the Strange Case of Kate Abbott,” dovetails a 17th century woman’s worsening illness with the speaker’s own miscarriage. The poem offers up this gutting take on pregnancy and loss:

… And if
I’ve learned anything, it’s every time you go to a doctor
they put something metal in your vagina and sometimes it’s sharp
and sometimes it’s not and sometimes your baby lives
and sometimes she does not and sometimes you stop bleeding
and sometimes you start. The doctors always have a reason
and you are always expected to believe in reason.

It’s a devastating poem, which makes the revelation of its ending even more startling. In the final lines, Nuernberger manages, marvelously, to capture the shock of the miraculous:

Eleven years passed unnoted, then this: Saw K. Abbott today
in the marketplace. Inexplicably well, mother to two. Shall I tell you now
about my beautiful child? Shall I tell how she’s going to live forever?

Nuernberger.jpgThe book’s third section deals at length with the speaker’s miscarriage at 16 weeks — “a wasn’t, a fantail of wasn’t” she now refers to as “the white peacock I keep behind my ear” —and her experience as mother to a little girl, now two. These poems give voice to the tenderness and pain attendant to both motherhood and grief. In “My First Peacock,” the speaker reflects on being asked if her young child is her first. To avoid making askers uncomfortable, she replies in the affirmative: “So I say, Yes. And I say / how very emerald joy is, / how very leafed with lapis and gilding.” There is legitimate joy in these difficult poems, a joy that’s all the more potent for how it lives alongside longing and anguish.

The emotional heft of The End of Pink is balanced by sharp humor. In “I Concede the Point, I Concede the Point, I Concede the Point,” a genius treatise on everyday harassment, Nuernberger writes, “A Man called me a man-hater once. I didn’t hate men before, but I did after,” a line that might itself function as a perfect epigram. Rather than settling for the tidiness of epigram, however, the poem goes on to explore the speaker’s evolution from passivity to action: “Ever since I started itching for A Man passing me on the street to say ‘Smile, honey’ just one more time, men have taken up demure nodding. A Man can tell when a woman is looking for an opportunity.” Here, as in many of the poems in The End of Pink, humor ices a cake made of knives.

NuernbergerCover.jpgThe list of things-to-admire about this book goes on and on: the keen self-awareness, on display in the title “Ways in Which the Saint Girl Is and Is Not Me; Also, So What If She Is and What If She Isn’t”; the way contemporary culture and history are expertly interwoven with the personal (“When I was a wife and a mother and a responsible member of the electorate and was remembering but not telling how I was once a zombie-mermaid girl, senatorial candidates at podiums were describing rapes like twittering invitations until it seemed a thousand-million fluttering rapes had perched on the comments field of the Huffington Post …” from “P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid Exhibition as I Was Not the Girl I Think I Was”); the way these poems are willing, thankfully, to make big claims and use big images (“I came once upon a doe licking the face / of her stillborn fawn and that nuzzle alone / should have shattered all the leaves / and all the stars,” from “Zoontological Sublime”); the deep, abiding empathy throughout.

In this extraordinary book, the body is both torment and miracle, and loss is something nearly palpable, something we might tuck behind the ear “where we keep what we cherish.” Each one of these arresting poems reads like a reckoning — fierce, and beautifully forthright.

[Published September 13, 2016, 96 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Catherine Pierce’s newest book, The Tornado Is the World, is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in December 2016. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

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Tyehimba Jess

Inheritance by Bro Yao [Hoke S. Glover III] (Willow Publishing)

Deep in the folds of Inheritance, Yao Glover dedicates a poem to Lucille Clifton with the question...

when they speak of craft
i wonder….

if i am good enuff?

The obvious answer to this reader is, of course, a resounding "Yes!" But the answers that Yao gives in this necessary book lie beyond 'craft.' They lie in the necessary conversation Yao has with and beyond himself, the place where we are privileged to listen in, to find parts of our own lives, parts of our families, pressed between the pages and lines of his deep-rivered and ever-revelatory poems.

YaoCover.jpgI'd heard of the legendary "Brother Yao" Glover for years before I finally met him sometime around 2005 or so, through the auspices of a witty, dangerous, hectic car ride courtesy of Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was introducing me to DC. I had just met Betts, and he was taking me to his then-workplace, the famous Karibu Books founded and co-owned by Yao.

I'd always heard DC poets talking about Yao with such reverence -- they brought to mind a much older man than the one I finally encountered when I walked through the doors of Karibu. Yao seemed not much older than me, had a ready smile, and was super focused on his business as a way to reach out to the DC community. At the time, he had a bookstore business that at its height included six stores and 45 employees -- largest Afrocentric bookstore chain in the United States. Nevertheless, he seemed to be able to carve time out of his day to care about the average customer, he seemed to really care about mentorship and community.

None of this has anything to do with what one might call the 'craft' of his first, remarkable, and luminous book of poetry -- but it definitely has much to do with the heart behind the craft -- the engine behind each poem in this volume that seems to pull and push and bear forth intimate and vulnerable visions of family and community, that mends a broad synthesis of history with fishing rods and a father's hands. In this debut, Glover brings us poems that reek of drum and cityscape, that sing of fried wings and lottery tickets. Here is an inheritance of lyricism that stretches back to put one in the mind of Etheridge Knight and Henry Dumas and Lucille Clifton in a broad plateau of ancient blues.

BroYao.jpgInheritance is an apt title, as Yao's father and mother stretch their arms throughout this book, reappearing time and again with bait on the line, with a slow dying, with a mother “like those old and scratched records/ in the morning just below your voice.” With a father's “bloody hands shoved in my face/ "look, / i want you to know / where we come from." Such vivid family portraits are a tale told and retold in this book, in lyrical layers that orbit Yao's sun of family and patchworked inner faith. While plaintive and soaked in the everydayness of life, Yao's imagery and metaphor skillfully raise the tension and risk in his voice - a voice laden with questions of integrity and purpose. Throughout the body of the book, we realize, layer by layer, a father's daily bread of dutiful detail. A son's loss and constant searching. A husband's longing. We come to know a lifelong devotion to blackness even when “it looks like me, it looks like you. We / are all naked there. nothing but shadows. / my friends in the night are swallowed up / sometimes they look like enemies.”

Throughout Inheritance, Yao retraces a lineage that cherishes the everyday vulnerability of self-retrospection, a tenacity of spirit necessary for growth and survival throughout the turn of the 21st century - with constant invocations of the past. In "black arts," he confounds and compounds the difficult, conflicted history of a movement's ideology that reckons and wrestles with the messy realities of family ...

blind and bleeding in the books scream
in the dry throat until i cry. a fist
coming out of my mouth is made of my
mother’s brown paper bag, my daddy’s
smile laced with vodka, my grandfather
beating the skin off of my uncles, haunted
handed down. profundity of thought,
death and mayhem, black wings
of the white state, black scream like smoke
coughing in the house, hacking up slavery.

It's this kind of constant questioning through conflict that keeps readers on their toes throughout Yao's carefully crafted pages -- his interrogation of identity challenges the reader to abandon trope and signifier -- to pay attention to the deep listening of the author. It's a book that pays and repays each time one enters its door. I'd urge readers not to overlook this sturdy shotgun house of poems. It's a sincere and bone-marrowed prayer, quietly but insistently awaiting your touch.

[Published August 1, 2016. 78 pages, $17.95 paperback]

Tyehimba Jess’ second poetry collection is Olio from Wave Books. He is an Associate Professor of English at the College of Staten Island.

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Shane McCrae

Babette by Sara Deniz Akant (Rescue Press)

I teach Sara Deniz Akant’s “motus-2,” a poem from Babette, every chance I get. This is the poem in its entirety:

two beings who – they know each other
but only with fine eyes
the five-eyed motus draws his mother
he weeps against the rocks

each lock they proved saw nothing but
regard the wilting salt
a ball of meat – a cooling pool
he sought the thing they sought.

As you can see, Reader, it’s only eight lines long—but so far, I have found it inexhaustible.

And I think of “motus-2” as emblematic of Babette, though it differs from most of the poems in the book in its regularity — eight iambic tetrameter lines, and a rhyme in each stanza. Babette is the most musical book of poetry I’ve read in years — I would go so far as to say it’s one the most musical books of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s unusual for a poet to make her mark with her music, especially nowadays, but Akant’s music is irreplaceable, and often almost perfect — on the evidence of Babette, she seems to me to have the best ear since Berryman, though her music isn’t much like his. Here, listen again — this time to the section of the multi-section poem “ghost” called “driving through a really empty room,” again in its entirety:

it was intensely morning-still, a moment-in-surprise, surmised
by the common-everything, the grave-off heat, off-heat
besides – it was in silence we were out, were we but out and passing
by – the grasses blown, their distance shone – a different kind
of knowing.

Akant.jpgThat section is, again, iambic, with an elision at the beginning of the second line. I see one medial trochaic inversion, beautifully executed after the comma in the third line (and here Akant does a neat metrical trick: ordinarily, “were” would carry more stress than “out,” making the foot before the comma a trochee, but the speech pattern emphasizes “out,” making the foot an iamb — Akant picks up and restores that “were’s” lost stress in the trochee after the comma, which is just hella rad). Mostly, however, the section is regular, and the music sings forward — the elided “by the,” indeed, only serves to speed the music up.

But music alone wouldn’t be enough — Noel Gallagher was, and sometimes still is, great at writing music, but his words were often at odds with it, and were thus suitable only for yelling (thanks, Liam). Akant’s mind moves with and through her music, so that her music is thinking, and vice versa. Occasionally, lines and sometimes even whole phrases — maybe even whole poems — are obscure, but it is never a frustrating obscurity. And it is, again, Akant’s music that keeps frustration at bay. The most difficult passages in the book are often eased by music — not so that they become cloying or soporific, but so that the mind is pleased by the sound, rather than irritated by the difficulty. As a consequence, I’ve often found myself re-reading lines and phrases and poems just to hear the music again, and thereby resolving the difficulties I initially encountered.

AkantCover.jpgMuch of what Akant does seems to arise from an engagement with medieval English poetry, and she deploys Middle English throughout the poems. I don’t want to make too much of this, however—you will note, dear Reader, that there is no Middle English in the above excerpts (there is the tiniest bit of Latin, the usage of which is, in its way, of course, somewhat medieval). Akant’s medievalisms function, I think, not only as bearers of music (medieval English lyrics are flush with music), but as links to a tradition Akant, on the evidence of the poems, seems both to love and to feel somewhat uncomfortable with — the medievalisms wedge her in, but then she is wedged in. Much of the book, in fact, seems concerned with simultaneously felt love and discomfort — “the five-eyed motus draws his mother / he weeps against the rocks” — just as Akant’s use of Middle English also creates a simultaneously experienced now and not-now. The exercise of so much negative capability — which, really, is the same as saying “the exercise of so much genius,” isn’t it? — might be unhappily disorienting were Akant a less-skilled poet. But at this moment, when never has seemingly become now, Babette is the book I most often return to.

[Published November 1, 2016. 100 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Shane McCrae teaches at Oberlin College and the Spalding University low residency MFA in Writing. His most recent books are The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea, 2015) and In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan, 2017).