on One Body by Margaret Gibson, Complex Sleep by Tony Tost, and Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone by Janice N. Harrington

Here are three poetry titles published this past year that you may have overlooked or not encountered at all. The succeeding waves of new poetry in April tend to swamp those landed the previous spring and through the year. So I wish these books an extended debut into the new year.

Four additional poetry titles will be discussed in a forthcoming blogpost.

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One Body by Margaret Gibson (Louisiana State University Press)

LSU Press has supported Margaret Gibson’s work since the 1970s. A “new and selected” collection called Earth Elegy was published in 1997. In one sense, her poems are “intimate … tender … acts of exuberant affirmation” as her blurbers suggest. But also, there is a terrible beauty, a vision that eliminates towards the essential. Such parings express someone as much haunted by the world as accepting of it. In her early work, the apt adjective and the eye for quaint detail seemed to reflect too much credit on the looker. One Body is a riper vision. The simple, stark detail is still there, but it points outwards to darker spaces. If anything, she didn’t need the word “oblivion” in the first line of “Cooking Supper While My Sister Dies,” below. The “last meal of sugar water” leads us there.

She takes her last meal of sugar water and oblivion,
the needle keen as a knife, a double-edged bridge

she must cross into the Unsayable. Wait, I say, wait –
but she will not, nor can I go with her, delay

in each grain of rice, exile in the onions I chop so fine
I am word blind, my face wet with the rain

that was her grief, and mine, that we did not love
each other long enough. Black olives, then zucchini

diced, swept into a pan from the wooden board,
a heave offering to the wine-dark sea.

And I must … I can only … I am left with …
this tomato, sun-ripened and taut, tinged green

at the pock where it let go of the vine. Into hinged
wedges I cut it slowly. Slowly. Wanting

her to be like a flower that opens into a summer night
of stars, breath by breath.

Wondering, Is it here? Is it yet? Is it now?

In the best of Margaret Gibson’s poetry through the years, the poems eerily detach themselves from our own readerly tendency to treat them as memoir more measured. “Cooking Supper While My Sister Dies,” with its voice and emotion getting diced along with the food on the chopping board, has an inner tension utterly unique to this particular poem, which now must live alone with itself as a fully realized work of art.

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Complex Sleep by Tony Tost (University of Iowa Press)

In Tony Tost’s poetry we overhear a life-through-words that intersects with the mundane life, the life of transactional language usage, but has practically nothing to do with it. Every poem sounds like a spoken world that none of us was fated to participate in. And yet each poem builds its strange, cohering atmosphere. The effect is one of concentrated mental agility, eye-strain, disjointed myth, and loosened tongues. The cynics may say that Tost is constantly on the verge of saying something but never quite gets there. His community of readers says this highly-constructed voice is there already, in advance of meaning which is always arriving. In the end, Complex Sleep portrays someone experiencing a sort of attenuated decision-making process for deliberating on how to say what ought to be said. Some of the language is a pastiche of the hieratic. Some of it is hyper-conscious of itself as text. And some of it is chatty.

Here’s a section from “World Jelly”:

Words taken
away from families

Worlds hover
above us or not at all

Edgy stress of the social reach
love’s little kite
what’s that swinging

As we now know our medium is
not a making or change
as a parallel I think
you can talk

Rhetorical answers
to actual headlights
in the unbroken slowing
too cold for animals
to decompose

Moving not the objects
but the rugs beneath them

Method dealer

Augury towers
or how to write
mistakes only

The line imagined
as beneath the feet

I read this as a plea for language that can accomplish miracles, not a presumption that Tost’s own language is more revelatory than “traditional” lines of poetry. If he accomplishes the trick in our mind of seeing those rugs move, he also seems to be praying for much greater achievements, for a line that could move us like the people-movers at O’Hare. The yearning is ultimately what gives the poems their poignancy.

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Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone by Janice N. Harrington (BOA Editions, Ltd.)

Janice Harrington published two books this year. Her second children’s book, The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County, came out earlier this year from Farrar Straus Giroux. It’s about a girl in pursuit of a chicken called Miss Hen. On discovering the hen hiding in tall grass with her chicks, she changes her agenda. Harrington’s poetry rests as well on a strong foundation of storytelling and the texture of remembered place. This poet's confidence has two dimensions. Most everything in her work seems to project from a sure narrative center. She knows she can command our attention. Also, from the outset of her poems, the reader feels the narrator’s urgency to make one feel the significance of the tale. Fortunately, Harrington almost always refrains from sounding too demonstrative. But it must be a temptation for someone with her potent talent for telling stories. Here is her wonderful poem “Heat,” a complete incantatory history, full-voiced, perfectly phrased, as hard and true as the material she celebrates:

And the mornings were cast iron.
The men’s overall, the women’s hair,

and the nights were cast iron. The clatter
of kudzu leaves was the clatter of iron lids.

And the flies that settled wore cast-iron wings.
And the stench of the outhouse was a cast

iron stench, and the baby’s cry fell heavy
as a frying pan. And the rain was cast iron,

each splat of gray a skillet lid, each spill
a kettle of potlikker. Their beds were cast

iron and so too the thighs wrapped round
his hips and the way he shook and withered

out. The heat was cast iron, and the greasy
sun dripped its lard light against their skin,

sweat welling like water sprizzled on a hot
griddle. And their skin was cast iron,

and living was fatback, turned slowly
and browned, what you had to eat, even

if it wasn’t the best. And cast iron their sleep,
cast iron their throats and their jubilee.

If a man is paid eight cents for a pound
of cotton that is cast iron too. If he leaves

for Detroit or Kansas City or Chicago, he’ll pack
a cast-iron suitcase and fill it with cast iron.

And if he says, Things’ll be bedda up there,
his smile will be seasoned and impermeable.

There’s no coyness or coolness, not much irony, and no attempt to establish emotional distance between narrator and subjects in Harrington’s verse. In “The Warning Comes Down,” a father returns home on leave with a jar of francs and centimes. “A mason jar of French coins, that is absence. / Loss is the sound of its shaking, how we / were marooned, mother and daughter, / without him, to red dirt, to cleaning / other people’s houses, poke salad, / and knowing we were poor but clean.” The narration is cut clean of psychologizing, obvious in its pitch. This work is brazenly direct and un-trendy. If her lines were less adept and her language inexact, you might accuse her of exploiting our emotions and telling tales too-often heard. But Harrington converts the great personal pressure to explain, recall, describe and relate into convincing, moving poems that stand quite sturdily as stories of their own.