Seventeen Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles

Welcome to the Seawall’s annual spring poetry feature. This season, seventeen poets write briefly on some of their favorite new and recent collections. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and December. The commentary includes:

Lisa Russ Spaar on Nitro Nights by W.S. Di Piero (Copper Canyon)
Marilyn Hacker on Child: New and Selected Poems by Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet)
Jake Adam York on Spit Back A Boy by Iain Haley Pollock (Univ of Georgia)
David Wojahn on Memorial by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber)
Donna Stonecipher on Woodnote by Christine Deavel (Bear Star Press)
Zach Savich on Afterimage by Damon Krukowski (Ugly Duckling Presse)
Chloe Honum on Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall (Norton)
Patrick Pritchett on Threshold Songs by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan)
Tara Betts on me and Nina by Monica A. Hand (Alice James)
Ange Mlinko on Collected Poems by Peter Redgrove (Jonathan Cape)
Ed Skoog on Curses and Wishes by Carl Adamshick (LSU)
Catherine Barnett on All Of Us by Elisabeth Frost (White Pine) and Nick Demske by Nick Demske (Fence Books)
Martha Silano on The Cupboard Artist by Molly Tenenbaum (Floating Bridge)
Elizabeth Robinson on Enigma and Light by David Mutschlecner (Ahsahta)
Tyrone Williams on l.b., or the catenaries by Judith Goldman (Krupskaya Books)
Kathryn Stripling Byer on Lie Down With Me by Julie Suk (Autumn House)
J.W. Marshall on Gaze by Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions)

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Recommended by Lisa Russ Spaar

Nitro Nights by W. S. Di Piero (Copper Canyon)

A New Jersey native, I am drawn to the exhaust-stink of turnpike rest areas, to graffiti-scribbled, pigeon-limed bridge pilings, to murmurations of starlings above the traffic-congested jug handles and privacy fences of suburbia. An atavistic attraction for this species of beauty has long compelled me to the poetry, translations, and essays of W. S. Di Piero. DiPieroCover.jpgIt is a beauty Di Piero himself calls, in an essay on Dante, “hazardous” — “angular, and fragmentarily expansive-- / Big Bang beauty.” Oneiric, kinetic, cinematic, fugal, inclusive, Di Piero’s most recent collection of lyrics, litanies, and prose poems arrests the reader not only with his familiar acid bite of voluptuous street-wise music, his mix of Old and New World confluences (Dante, William James, Hopkins, Dickinson, Crane, Whitman), but also with an intensified and intimate vulnerability, complicated by fear (“joy’s twisted twin”), the aging body, the inexorability of change, and a restive, “fatal cherishing” of this world. Here is “Only in Things,” the opening poem, with its clear nod to William Carlos Williams:

Some days, who can stare at swathes of sky,
leafage and bad-complected whale-gray streets,
tailpipes and smokestacks orating sepia exhaust,
or the smaller enthusiasms of pistil and mailbox key,
and not weep for the world’s darks on lights, lights on darks,
how its halftones stay unchanged in their changings,
or how turning wheels and wind-trash and revolving doors
weave us into wakefulness or dump us into distraction?
This constant stream of qualia we feel in our stomachs.
The big-leafed plant lifts its wings to greet the planet’s chemistry,
the sun arrives on rooftops like a gentle stranger, rain rushes us.
love to love, stop to stop, these veins of leaf, hand, storm and stream,
as if in pursuit of us and what we are becoming.

DiPiero.jpegWhat Di Piero has written about Hart Crane in an essay called “Force” might also describe the vital, precarious accomplishments of his own recent poems: “Crane’s gift was to articulate feeling not by skeining statements around the armature of anecdote but by dissolving anecdote into the very muscle tissue of the verses . . . meaningful not for what they said but for how they moved—poetry as animal presence.” For me, Di Piero makes a poetry of somatic wresting and charisma, language possessed by “tiding cadences, the contractions and loosenings of texture, the excitement of consciousness lived out right there at the nerve ends of syllables . . . [the] sheer force of form.” Ever the work of an essayist — as in making an assay, a trial, a try, an attempt — these new poems signal that Di Piero, afoot with his vision, is very much on the move, paying attention, as always, at the “threshold / between us and the trench, / us and whatever’s there / underworld or overworld / where certain friends say / they will, at the end / of the things of this world, / be laid to rest, / but ( I say ) what rest?”

[Published December 13, 2011. 96 poages, $15.00 paperback]

Lisa Russ Spaar is Director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia. Her third volume of poems from persea Books, Vanitas, Rough: Poems, will be published in 2012. Every Monday she blogs about poetry for The Chronicle.

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Recommended by Marilyn Hacker

Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 by Mimi Khalvati (Carcanet Press Ltd.)

Mimi Khalvati is a British poet, born in Iran, who has worked in the theater and is a co-founder of the Poetry School in London where she teaches. Her six previous collections of poems were all published by the Carcanet Press.

KhalvatiB.jpegIt is a joy to have Mimi Khalvati’s New and Selected Poems, with their simple and resonant , and yet passing-strange title, Child. Khalvati’s is a poetry , like Vuillard’s or Bonnard’s canvases or Persian miniatures, in which ostensible subject and ground are worthy of equal attention, where every word, accent, metaphor, resonance or full rhyme, plays a necessary part and merits notice. Hers is a poetry in which the largest themes – exile, mortality, war, maternity, the intersection of cultures – are evoked and limned by means of bright, significant detail.

Khalvati’s attention to small things -- the color of a primrose petal , the intense sweetness of white mulberry, the ingredients of a stuffed aubergine dish ,a black hair on a bathroom tile – is so focused and accurate that a reader can almost forget the power of synthesizing intelligence and craft that has been brought to bear in limning and juxtaposition. The poems seeming domestic confront exile, madness and death, as in the sequence “Sundays” where the larger situation of a mother and son preparing Persian food for lunch with an urban London backdrop is gradually implied -- or the long lyric set in Spain with echoes of Lorca that reveals itself slowly to be an elegy for a contemporary poet friend. After reading or rereading one of her poems, I find implications and repercussions of the detail, on a persona, on a history, continue to resonate, indeed, as they do in reading a passage in Proust.

Mimi Khalvati has been praised as a consummate artist of the sonnet form. The book includes her magisterial “heroic crown” of 15 sonnets, beginning and ending with the each of the lines of the “master” sonnet opening the sequence. The poem has a typically modest title, “Love in an English August,” and an introspective dailiness, but it catches the reader up short with the modulations of its virtuosity :

On hold. And I was never one for half-
etched outlines, loose holds on reality,
but with wingtips skimming grass and its rough
nap pricking shins, wind in my hair, with every …

KhalvatiCover.jpgKhalvati has renewed in English the Farsi/Urdu ghazal – along with the Kashmiri-American poet Aga Shahid Ali -- in its “strict form” including a rhyme and a repeated word or phrase, and her ghazals range from a wry eroticism to political witness. She is also an inventor of innumerable nonce forms, long-breathed or concise, epigrammatic or lyrical, in particular in the selections from “Entries on Light,” a book whose formal constraint was that each poem should arise from an observation of the light of the day/night of its composition – and then go anywhere it would.

This collection highlights the internationalism of a poet who is at once quintessentially English – and a Londoner -- in so many of her landscapes and references yet often drawing on the other (Iranian) history and language underpinning this. In the construction of this new book, attention widens from the awakening of awareness of language in its plurality to an Andalusian screen of land-and-waterscapes, from Shanklin Chine on the Isle of Wight to a Mediterranean of the mind.

[Published December 1, 2011. 180 pages, $21.95 paperback. You may order the book at Carcanet's website by clicking here]

Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books of poems, most recently Names (W.W. Norton, 2010) and an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (University of Michigan Press, 2010). Her translations from the French include Amina Saïd’s The Present Tense of the World (Black Widow Press, 2011) and Hédi Kaddour’s Treason (Yale University Press, 2010).

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Recommended by Jake Adam York

Spit Back A Boy by Iain Haley Pollock (University of Georgia Press)

Pollock.jpgIain Haley Pollock’s debut volume Spit Back A Boy — 2010 winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize — is a shapeshifter that keeps saying, in so many different ways, how varied, how complex the African-American poetic idiom is, how complex the American poetic idiom is: as soon as you think you know how this book works, it’s gone in another direction.

The book opens, in “Rattla cain’t hold me,” by evoking a work song and then developing out of that historical form’s sweat-distilled urgencies its own music, tight and muscular, brawny with a historical memory of work—of what it’s made and what its makers make of it:

Day levels to dusk, and they remind us
of rolled-down windows, night breezing through,
of driving nowhere, mileposts like drifting sparks

along the darkened shoulder, of R&B hooks
they emptied from their lungs like the rotting sweet
of old mess from a vase. We will loose them.

And all our sadness will be old Arkansas,
rural and misspoken, its roads smudged
by the fog’s blue prints …

This is a kind of elegy to one of the blues’s deepest roots, as well as an homage, though maybe we should think of this as what elegy is capable of after whatever’s to be elegized is already gone: memory whose object is almost out of reach. This poem’s an ars poetica that’s benchmarking Pollock’s time and place against Sterling Brown’s and Robert Hayden’s.

Spit Back A Boy continues, in its early movements almost ventriloquizing Nathaniel Mackey (“Point of Origin: Lancaster”), Natasha Trethewey (“The Recessive Gene”), Kevin Young (“Longing as Hoppin John”), and Amiri Baraka (“Killadelphia”). But like any good blues musician, Pollock doesn’t repeat the past: he exceeds it, even as he acknowledges it.

Spit Back A Boy offers some spectacular excesses, in that regard. In “Hart Crane as Jim Crow,” Pollock manages to elegize Crane, in a rhythm that echoes The Bridge, as a tragic and self-abnegating figure consumed by his own racism, by the cancer of his racial and familial privilege. The cross-fading of pathos and indictment is delicate, masterful.

PollockCover.jpgThere’s a sensitivity to Pollock’s work — or to Pollock — that drives him to (and enables his poems to) register finely the negotiation between different valences of Anglophone culture and local or personal iterations of that culture. In “Black Irish,” for example, the intersection of cultures produces some ugly results, gustatorial and linguistic. The poet foresees: “Sixteen hours hence, on the water closet floor at the in, I’ll vomit in the shape of the Congo (country, the big one, not river), / and Naomi, who at first accuses me of indulging in an excess of Jameson and Guinness, will realize I’m sick.” Pollock infects and inflects the idiom, which can signify the dark-haired Irish, even as the Irish virus infects him. The collision is graphed in the poem’s cross-cutting of racial attitudes, which the poet deftly supplies:

Across the road a donkey grazes on tufts of grass in a field, and because I associate Ireland with cops and books
(beer would be stereotypical, and the time’s before noon), and because as a black boy I learned a healthy fear and disdain of all police —
though I’ve had nothing but helpful run-ins with the law (likely because
I’m often confused for white),
as when earlier this week in the rain, golf umbrella impairing my sight, a
black boy pulled a gun (chrome appearing in streetlight
like a shark from the depths of an aquarium tank) and took my wallet, and
a black (not black Irish, but black black — in Philadelphia
we have a black mayor and many a black) cop came to the house and
called me down and made me feel safe —
I ask my wife if she can guess the donkey’s name, and when she can’t, I
punch-line:
(Donkey)xote, and Naomi rolls her eyes, and I find
myself cracking up.

The poem’s twists here say something of how tangled our language of race makes our thinking and how tangled our suspicions make the world in which we move, producing crossings both strange and strained as the pun, that make us laugh even as we’re going a little crazy.

Pollock shows, again and again, his and his poetry’s capacity for response, tuning in to the difficult public discourses of race and history and to the delicate and necessary serenades of love and family, and, beautifully, to the moments when both languages sound at once, offering the poet an arena for struggle. In the book’s closing poem, the poet accompanies his wife to the burial of her grandfather, and the occasion offers the poet a chance to examine his reflexes and to open himself to love’s transformations:

Cousin Seymour, a slight, devout man, breaks
our silence —
We should be the ones to bury Jack,
not them — and Naomi’s father takes up a shovel
and steps toward his father’s grave. I back away,
onto a gravel path, bristling to think that
them
is the three grave diggers, that them is us, dark people.

But while the men and boys, passing the shovels
between them, cast dirt onto the coffin,
and the grave begins to fill with the smack
and roll of dirt clods on the casket lid,
while Will, a great-grandson, struggles
to balance a load of soil on a shovel blade,

I recognize that Seymour meant them who are not
us, our family,
them not fused with us by life
and faith, who do not suffer now when we
have cause to suffer. And as our family leaves
for the reception and the days of sitting shiva,
I know that when I die, our children, our grandchildren,
they will grieve for me with shovels and their hands.

Spit Back A Boy’s is a strong embrace. Iain Haley Pollock’s world is full and unsimple, but never without a chance for grace.

(Published June 15, 2011. 72 pages, $16.95 paperback)

Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems, most recently Persons Unknown (Southern Illinois University, 2010). He is an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Denver and during 2011-2012 a Visiting Faculty Scholar at Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.

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Recommended by David Wojahn

Memorial by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber)

Although Graywolf issued a selected volume of her work a few years back, British poet Alice Oswald is still little-known on this side of the Atlantic. She is, however, a poet of some reputation in the U.K., having won the coveted T.S. Eliot and Forward prizes, among other awards and distinctions. Born in 1966, and the author of only four collections, she is still a relatively young poet, but I will go out on a limb here and say that in Oswald’s case the hype that has accompanied her career thus far is entirely justified; she seems to me the most exciting poet to emerge from Great Britain in a good long while.

Oswald.jpgOswald specializes in two kinds of poems. One is a short lyric, often written in fixed form, and more than a little Hopkinsian in its linguistic compression and ardor. Here’s the opening of a characteristic effort in this mode--a sonnet entitled “Prayer”: “Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand / With time bent down into my reach, I touch / The circle of the earth, I throw and catch / The sun and moon by turns into my mind.” This may be the kind of writing we have heard before, but not for a long while, and rarely done as skillfully. Oswald’s other mode is another kind of thing entirely, a long poem of the sort that harkens back to High Modernism. “Dart,” the poem which established her reputation, is a snaking and ruminative effort of nearly fifty pages. It concerns “the language and people who live and work” on Devonshire’s Dart River, a choral endeavor where the voices of the poem’s many speakers entwine and fuse into what Oswald in her prefatory note calls, “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.” It’s a notable contribution to a subgenre that the poet John Matthias has termed “the pocket epic” — a large, sweeping, and abiding poem of some twenty to fifty pages, ambitious in intention but not afflicted with the grandiosity of, say, The Cantos, or A, or Paterson. My personal hit parade of pocket epics would include Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” McMichael’s “Four Good Things,” Transtromer’s “Baltics,” Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” Bunting’s “Briggflats,” and Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” among others. In Memorial, Oswald offers us another of her pocket epics, based upon Western literature’s Mother (Father?) Of All Epics, The Iliad.

Re-toolings of Homer are of course nothing new. There’s a wonderful historical sampler of them that George Steiner edited for Penguin in 1996 (now sadly out of print), entitled Homer in English, in which readers are offered translations and sometimes delightfully oddball riffings on Homeric themes that range from those of Chaucer and Chapman to Walcott and Logue. And, speaking of Logue, in some respects one might characterize Memorial as the antithesis of Logue’s “War Music,” a work that has always struck me as a bit cartoonish in its violence, anachronism, and vernacular swagger. If you like “Clash of the Titans” you’re apt to also like “War Music;” it’s a poem that seems to demand 3-D glasses. Memorial is an infinitely more somber affair, yet in its quiet way it is every bit as much the radical linguistic tour de force that many readers claim “War Music” to be.

OswaldCover.jpgMemorial is by no means a narrative poem. Of the wrath of Achilles, the bickering of the gods, and the struggle for possession of the body of Patroklos, we hear nothing. Instead, we open the text to find on its first several pages a column of some two hundred names, a partial catalogue of those warriors, both Achaean and Trojan, whose deaths are recorded in Homer. They are mainly the grunts and subalterns who appear fleetingly in the poem, the walk-ons who we know nothing of save for the manners of their demise, the characters given a line or two by Homer as javelins enter their eye sockets or sword blows send out a spray of arterial blood. They’re names you passed over when you read the poem in your Western Civ class — the likes of Isos and Coon, Dolops and Pylon. The poet’s goal is a simple one: to appropriately eulogize the life of each man on her very lengthy list, as though Oswald were going back in time to perform the Mycenaean equivalent of Last Rites. As Oswald writes in her preface to the work, “This translation presents the whole poem as a kind of oral cemetery—in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing.” Each eulogy is divided into two sections; one is conventional—the poet utters a laconic graveside obit for the deceased, army-chaplain style, the salient details only. Here’s Oswald’s account of the demise of one Scamandrius:

SCMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man’s land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can’t help him
His accurate firing arm is useless
Meneleaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point came out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

This is in fact one of the longer examples of this sort of eulogy. The absence of punctuation and the minimalist lack of adornment remind us a bit of Merwin; the language manages to be atavistic, but it also is blessedly free of the sometimes bombastic gestures that afflict even the sturdiest modern renderings of Homer. (Lattimore and Fitzgerald look positively gaudy when compared to this.) But Oswald’s most striking accomplishments are the passages which follow each of her eulogies. If the latter passages are mean to pay somber tribute, then the former are meant as threnodies and laments. In order to render such keening —and what would have been the Bronze Age equivalent to “Amazing Grace,” sung by battle-weary hoplites at a graveside? — Oswald does not attempt to replicate music. She instead chooses to improvise off one of the most familiar of Homer’s poetic devices, the extended simile. Thus, the passage above is followed by a stanza break, and then by this:

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

This is a typically canny example of Oswald’s use of metaphor. The simile unfolds with particularity and grace; it may seem at first to apply only obliquely to the death of Scamandrius, but then we’re reminded of how definitively warfare and injury infantilize their victims: the dying want, above all, to cling to mother. (Homer knew this quite well: remember the famous scene in Book Five of the poem, where Aeneas, felled by the rampaging Diomedes, is saved from death only because he has called out for his mother Aphrodite. And black box recordings tell us that the most common word uttered by pilots before the crash is “mother”—and I suspect this is not because the 11-letter epithet has been truncated.)

Yet what is most audacious about this gesture is not simply that brilliantly worked-out similes such as this are offered some two hundred times over the course of Memorial: Oswald also repeats each such stanza. After a stanza break, the simile is uttered again, verbatim, with no variation. So Oswald’s two hundred-odd “memorial similes” in fact number over four hundred, with a few additional such stanzas appearing at the close of the poem as a kind of coda. It doesn’t take long for us to get used to this device, nor to see how integral this strategy is to the poem’s structural success. The repeated stanzas deepen, complicate, and ritualize the poem’s elegiac intentions. And, because the similes are so dazzlingly rendered, we’re rarely tempted to skip over the repeated stanzas—doing so would almost be an injustice to those who Oswald mourns.

Memorial is a remarkable accomplishment, containing some of the most original and moving verse I have read in years. Although the Faber edition is a bit hard to locate here in the States, I gather that Norton is issuing an American edition sometime later this year. This is a very good thing indeed.

[Published October 6, 2011. 84 pages, £12.99 paperback]

David Wojahn’s eighth collection of verse, World Tree, was issued last year by the University of Pittsburgh Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Recommended by Donna Stonecipher

Woodnote by Christine Deavel (Bear Star Press)

Christine Deavel’s Woodnote makes me want to throw away my computer, move out of the urban apartment I live in and into a house in the country, write letters on real paper, and start a herbarium in which, like Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, I collect specimens of the flora around my new country house and study them. It makes me want to become an identifier of bird feathers. To befriend a squirrel. And it does this not because Deavel has written a book of nature poetry advocating back-to-the-land principles or anything like that, but because Woodnote invents a new species of nature poetry, or something like it, applying sophisticated and innovative formal devices to matter to reimagine and refresh our perception of and interaction with the still very material world around us.

DeavelCover.jpgThe poems are full of matter in both senses of the word, and Deavel is exquisitely attentive to both: “Yew needles / Who wept these?” In this small couplet reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker, Deavel restores the lost magic of childhood perception to our everyday experience of matter: maybe the yew needles didn’t just fall off a tree, maybe a dryad shed them while mourning a dying bluebell. In a section of one of the several long poems that anchor the book, “Hometown (Over and Over),” a voice asks questions such as “How big was the town?” and is answered by: “One crockery bowl filled with red leaves.” Indeed, a hometown is nothing if not a state of mind, a collection of material in the mind in the form of memories or memory-spurs. Stuff. In the poem, as in many in the book, Deavel gives herself over to elegy and a trace of wistfulness while never abandoning a gentle sense of irony and a persistent wry sense of humor (“I unroll like a bank of clouds / over the town // I darken it / with my massive self”).

In the highly affecting long poem “Woodnote,” Deavel in several movements uses the running theme of wood in various states of nature or culture as a leitmotif through her exploration of loss. I am particularly enamored of this section:

Ho ho! The wooden spoon!

What a lovely twist or joke or divinity!

In the soup pot, the wood is a tree again

and finds its water,
and its little bit
of sustenance
from the garlic and the ginger.

O the wooden spoon is a tree again

and
who can keep from crying.

The almost inevitable swerve into singsong at the end enacts grief in the most disarming, and effective, way.

Deavel.jpgIn the final long poem, “Economy,” Deavel makes use of the 1914 diaries of a female relative she has inherited to explore both dailiness, here as experienced by a woman in the days before “time-saving devices,” and the metaphysics of text itself, how it transcends distances of space and time and creates a space for empathy between inalterably separated (even if related) people. As the poem acutely asks, “Sometimes it is hard to remember who is alive and who is dead. And what is someone you’ve only met through a book, dead or alive?” In this poem, Deavel gives generous space to Sarah’s diary entries, weaving them in and out of her own writing, grouping the entries around themes, so they look like this:

:: A gloomy day :: A delightful day :: A heavy frost but nice day ::
A pleasant day :: A misty day :: A snowing day :: A little warmer

These quotidian entries act as a counterpoint to Deavel’s musings, especially on the desire to write—“It is tempting to write that Sarah’s 54 years—nearly 54 years—of diaries, her purchase and filling (almost) of 54 diaries was a way for her to do more than breathe.” That may be as good an answer as any to the question of why we write—because we want to do more than breathe. Sarah’s similarities to herself intensify the question—“I am confused about art and the making of it. Is it better to make the mediocre because it allows you to get up every day? Or is it better to stop.” There is nothing remotely mediocre about Woodnote, and we can be grateful that Deavel decided it is better not to stop.

[Published September 1, 2011. 92 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Donna Stonecipher is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press, 2008).

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Recommended by Zach Savich

Afterimage by Damon Krukowski (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Early in Afterimage, his lovely belles-lettristic “non-book” about memory, personal history, and lyricism, Damon Krukowski describes a book with a title “so compelling” (What Is To Be Done?) he’s “kept it on the shelf all these years, just to read the spine.” He stores other volumes near it — “The Language and Thought of the Child. Growth and Structure of the English Language. The Forest of Symbols. Writing Degree Zero. On Collective Memory.” This inventory, which Krukowski compares to “one of those embarrassingly overdetermined dreams in Thomas Hardy,” could serve as an index to Afterimage: through pensees that “sum together” much as the books in his library do, Krukowski delves into the potentially “nonsensical, scrambled, non-linear” landscape of personal memory and its lexicon.

Krukowski.jpegThe signposts of this personal landscape vividly accrue (“imported soap, Easter candy, magazines, an enema kit, plantains, meat, packaged break”; “plants we have never seen, growing on each side”; “the small utensils we bought to cook our meals”), even as they meet the inscriptions and anecdotes of collective history; Krukowski’s meanders “back and forth across the map” come to “trace a familiar route,” which culminates in a poem borne of his recollections. For Krukowski, a poet and a musician (most famously, in Galaxie 500), it seems that “the consolation of poetry” allows one to “make something out of what cannot be used” in ways that narrative and exposition, with their more conventional modes of significance, struggle to. As in the films of Chris Marker, which Krukowski refers to, this lyrical significance emerges from phenonmena caught live, captured before the freshness of perception disappears into plain comprehension (“the details are repeating,” Krukowski shrugs during one anecdote). Instead, we see the map that is made from one coming up for air, glimpsing the shore, then plunging again before he’s found his bearings.

KrukowskiYang.jpegThis approach may sound dizzying, but the effect is graceful and intimate, producing a book that is less a theoretical tract than a notebook a friend might give you, having realized all of our secrets are similar so that now we may “live with no secrets from anyone.” It helps that the book itself could be placed on the shelf Krukowski described, partly from the orienting relevance of its title—Krukowski describes the mind’s need for continual interruption if images are to lodge in it, if those images are to appear in motion — and partly from the gorgeousness of the book’s design. Much as the character “N.” appears throughout the book, showing that individual experience often includes another and thus contrasts uneasily with collective identity, the photographs of Krukowski’s wife and collaborator, Naomi Yang, bookend the text.

Krukowski’s writing often seems like it could be subtitled “Things Seen While Singing,” and Yang’s photograph have a similar sense of “life visible to a person on the run”—rapt images of a doorway flanked by weathered boards, effulgent with bicycle tires like fungi billowing from a split trunk; a honeycomb coral of shadow above a crack in plaster; sky and verdant horizon framed through a circular hole, as though everything we see is some planet’s sun. The variety of her shots, like Krukowski’s quick movement among Paris, Japan, New York, doesn’t feel frenetic but assured and calm. Throughout the book, there is the soothed (because exhausted?) disorientation of a traveler’s “long walk through neighborhoods not meant for walking in.” The street you are looking for suddenly appears. Or a man pouring a foreign liquor from a paper cup onto the ground does. Who can say if we are lost?

KrukowskiCover.jpgSuspicious of simple chronology, aware of the famous distortions of memory and narrative, Krukowski often tries to correct for the “destructive bits of story in [his] life, swept together like crumbs” in his earlier writing; Afterimage frequently directs this correction toward Krukowski’s father, toward the child’s burden of being “unfit to tell” a family story yet having been “cast in the role regardless.” In Krukowski’s case, this family story includes a trans-Siberian train from a prison camp, the learning of English from films (a detail that seems increasingly apt, given how Krukowski’s phrases lead with the eye), and the assimilations and omissions both of immigration and of the peripatetic mindset that marks Krukowski’s travels, that marks his theory of “the afterimage” and vision.

But I’m particularly refreshed by how, in taking on these topics, Krukowski remains skeptical about memoiristic writing that is “just complaint,” that is “decadent, self-indulgent,” reflecting “bourgeois ideals of efficiency, productivity.” Seeing himself writing, Krukowski sees that “every man in this neighborhood is eating croissants, and writing,” that the attempt is typical. In response, Krukowski’s writing retains the lyricism of his poems as he strives to “include it all.” His book should be a model to poets who, too often, turn from poetry when they write autobiographical prose; they show us the genre’s conventions in the life of a poet, rather than a poetic enhancement of those conventions. One can cite cynical motives for poets who make this turn—dogged nonfiction may seem to offer glossy recognition and the chance to be an example of Successful Literary Diversification—but also artistic ones, since, simply, it’s hard to keep writing poems, to stoke early lyrical fervor into an accomplished mature style. You can get TB or follow Rimbaud into the Dutch Colonial Army, or you can write dutifully crafted prose.

Krukowski’s “non-book” offers another route. By resisting the uncritical narration of memory and the separation of the lyrical and the narrative, Krukowski shows us moments in which those modes blur and memory grows richer. Watching a saxophonist fill his instrument with water so that “a watery solo follows: bubbles of air emerge from the mouthpiece, and float up to the ceiling,” Krukowski realizes this image has been prefigured by a poem he wrote years ago, as though poetry offers pre-emptive or even prophetic memory—or at least introduces an image into the mind’s reel that one is then readied to find elsewhere. Krukowski retitles the poem. In the book, the textural effect of this correspondence feels like whoosh, as we realize the trappings of memory are also trapdoors that cause us to continually retitle, continually compose. It’s like when his father believes one of Krukowski’s poems is based on a story the father has never told Krukowski. Like when Krukowski describes a musician mentally overlaying the music he’s performing with other rhythms, other songs. Like the correspondence between a smell and — not just a memory of a country — an entire country.

I’m tempted to keep listing these moments, to keep wandering among them, as Krukowski does. Innovative writers often speak of trying to write in line with our actual experience, so that writing reflects how we see; Afterimage reflects how we remember, which is at once removed from experience and, like reading, its own experience. The effect is memorable, yes, but one thing it makes you remember is the enlivening strangeness of memory itself.

[Published November 15, 2011. 80 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Zach Savich is the author of three books of poetry, including The Firestorm, and a book of lyric prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand. He teaches at Shippensburg University.

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Recommended by Chloe Honum

Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall (Norton)

BrimhallCover.jpgThe poems in Traci Brimhall’s second book, Our Lady of the Ruins (chosen by Carolyn Forché as the winner of the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize), take place in a world that is falling apart, a world in which all wars and plagues merge together, in which history and myth intertwine. The opening poem, “Music From a Burning Piano,” starts with an instruction: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues / in a city made holy by pilgrims who wander to it.” And so begins a profound journey of ruin and survival. Along the way the reader meets prisoners, prophets, ghosts, priests, monks and, most important, a group of women whose voices form a chorus as they wander in search of a god who just might be “so reckless, so lonely, it will love us all.”

At its core, Our Lady of the Ruins honors the lost histories of women during times of war. Despite the carnage that surrounds them, Brimhall’s women speakers persist in viscerally experiencing the world. The poems are intensely lyrical and full of striking sensory detail. Murderers in prison “see their deaths in the sweat darkening / our dresses.” A mandrake found “growing beneath / the feet of the garroted man” tastes “like a libertine’s semen and sweat.” In “To My Unborn Daughter,” the speaker tells her daughter what she will inherit:

This is yours—this cup of rain we pass as we sing.

This is yours also—what a man will do for a woman.
He will lay her in sage and empty his spurred heart

into her mouth. She will listen with her body until
he is relieved, the way the moon is relieved

when it tells its secrets to water by lying down on it.

Although beautiful, Brimhall’s images are never merely ornamental; there is always something vital at stake. “To My Unborn Daughter” is ultimately cautionary. The poem ends: “Stranger inside me, when you are born, I will give you / / a closed book and ask you to never read it, never rest, / never forgive a man who wants to save you.”

I admire the breadth and scope of Brimhall’s book, and both her lyrical grace and intelligence in grappling with themes as immense as war, savagery, and exile. How does she prevent such enormous subject matters from capsizing her collection? Part of the answer lies in the sturdiness of her craft, another part in the permission she grants herself to exercise the full reach of her imagination. Many of Brimhall’s poems have the quality of dreams. The atrocities the speakers witness bewilder them, of course, but the collapsing world also lends their voices a kind of freedom. Transformation is everywhere. A windmill set on fire becomes “a prayer for the damned.” In “Inheritance,” a woman delivers daughters and abandons them, “in a thicket where aspens quake with the old / ecclesiastical terror, and blackberries still red / on the branch ripen into their second birth.”

Brimhall’s chorus of women seeks a god who might give meaning to their experience, perhaps even save them, but they also honor mystery and doubt. Biblical language and rituals play a strong part in the book’s structure. It is not faith in religion, however, but faith in mystery that sustains these women. Take, for example, the gorgeous closing lines of “Sans Terre”:

It’s not the grail we want, but to journey towards
our longing. We want to find the tomb empty.

Reveal yourself, we whisper when we mean to say,
Refuse us the moonburnt body. Remain vast and wild

and unknown. A song lives in the robin whether it sings
or not. Therefore music. Therefore masquerade.

Therefore mourners planting ghost orchids means
they saw your wounds close as they reached to touch them.

Brimhall.jpegBrimhall deftly guides the reader through an emotional landscape of fear, loss, hysteria, and beyond, onwards toward the possibility of salvation. The women “heal / whether we want to or not.” In “Jubilee,” the last poem of the collection, the speaker emerges “red and reeking with the journey.” Yet her spirit continues on. There is still mystery — a reason to hope — among the ruins. The poem ends: “I am harrowed, hallowed. I am stone, stone, / I have not trembled. Love nails me to the world.”

A powerful book of terror and wonder, Brimhall’s poems speak to history as well as to the present; they pay tribute to the ongoing but largely silenced stories of women during times of and war and exile. Our Lady of the Ruins is a brutal, breathtakingly beautiful, and important work.

[Published April 2, 2012. 96 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Chloe Honum is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Southern Review and elsewhere. Find her online at www.chloehonum.com

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Recommended by Patrick Pritchett

Threshold Songs by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan)

At the threshold of this intense, visionary book, stands an epigraph from Beckett’s homage to his father, Company, like a lean solitary dolmen marking the descent to the underworld: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” To stand at a threshold, to hover in its precincts, on the verge, at the cusp, means to invite a certain kind of transmission; a certain porousness. It is to place oneself in between, belonging neither to one place nor another, but committed to the more difficult site of unease; an unease between self and other, nearness and distance, present and past, the dead and the living, logos and its ghosts. To write at the threshold is to consent to Stevens’ assertion that in the poem the poem “we live in a place that is not our own.”

Gizzi.jpegPart of the reason Peter Gizzi’s remarkable new poems, his most powerful yet, have stirred such unease in the form of back-handed praise (Dan Chiasson smugly labels Gizzi “a lunch pail mystic”) is that they dare to inhabit a psychic and spiritual terrain where language confronts with stark, uncompromising honesty the threshold of song as it pushes against the enigma of loss, the place where the acknowledgement of language’s finitude is, finally, the horizon of our exile and belonging.

What is so startling about these haunting poems is the ecstatic charge they give to this recognition. The pathos of desolation is harrowing, but also renewing. For if the trauma of loss rends us, out of this gash a strange gnosis may emerge. It’s as if Orpheus, after losing Eurydice, began to speak in her voice. Gizzi is not merely elegizing here; he is rethinking the very basis for lyric, testing it continually against its subjective limits by making the experience of the irretrievable the core of the lyric voice. Pinocchio’s Gnosis is a case in point: a tour de force, yes, but calling it that suggests it’s merely a display of ludic virtuosity. Here the poet enters a vertiginous free fall. The catastrophe of loss threatens all signification. Yet the poem also reminds us, as Rilke says of Trakl, that “falling is the pretext for an inexorable ascension.”

Funny how being dead troubles the word. I am trying to untie this sentence, to untidy the rooms where we live. No words in the soup, no soup in this sky, no more history written onto onionskin, peeling onion skins …with a magical broom, the wind sang sweep, like an oar in air we ascend. We power the instrument and apply a salve, uncover the ghost behind fig. Mistake it for an omen then quiet the cloud, the cloud just there seen through a cataract.

And in a magnificent riff on Hamlet’s “quintessence of dust” speech, the poem asks:

What is a man but a paper miscellany, a bio furnace blowing coal, a waste treatment plant manufacturing bluster, an open signal full of seawater, a dark stranger turning over the dark next to you.

GizziCover.jpgThreshold Songs attends to this miscellany, the messiness of contingency, with a grave and urgent nuance, a careful listening for where syntax can reach into affect. Reading these poems is like being overtaken by the uncanny feeling that, as Gizzi writes in “The Growing Edge,” “it’s Sunday in deep space.” To claim, as one reviewer does, that they foreclose discovery, is to deeply misread the cognitive work they do, which is undertaken as the pursuit of the limits of elegy and its weak messianic power to intervene. Lyric is typically understood as the consoling affirmation of voice. These poems drive beyond that. In Adorno’s words, they “sound forth in language until language itself acquires a voice.” Undertaken not as attempts at closure, but a witness to the impossible crux of song’s burden, they sustain the power of the threshold between mourning and melancholy, striving to metabolize traumatic loss without dissolving that loss entirely. To paraphrase Kierkegaard on anxiety: “whoever has learned to live with loss in the right way has learned the ultimate.” To assimilate loss completely would be to falsify its meaning.

Consolation – the thing we go to the poem for – is here, but in a different key: dissonant, refractory, circled uneasily, sometimes nearer, sometimes only felt from a distance. The loss persists, reverberating, expanding to encompass a larger measure of the world and how the self undergoes even its own dissolution. The music derives from the acuteness of this weird, humbling pitch. It penetrates everything without quite destroying it so that it becomes its own form of consolation. As in the opening of “Analemma”:

That I came back to live
in the region both
my parents died into
that I will die into
if I have nothing else
I have this and
it’s not morbid
to think this way
to see things in time
to understand I’ll be gone
that the future is already
somewhere
I’m in that somewhere
and what of it

Or plangent imperative which closes “History is Made at Night” (a nod to Frank Borzage’s exquisite 1937 melodrama):

A kind of vow like poetry
burning the candle down.
Bring back the haloed reverie.
Music, retake the haughty
night sky. Its storied rays
its creak and croak
its raven’s wing tonality.

The short lines compress anguish into a flat plain voice, the syntax bending the argument with loss into something else, lifting loss against the walls of song where language strains but doesn’t quite break. In poems like this one, and True Discourse on Power (“Because a sound a poor man/uttered/reached my ear I fell into song”), the real task Gizzi takes up is how we know and experience our categories for knowing, which are, finally, categories for tabulating and confronting loss. Death challenges epistemology at the most fundamental level. The result is a poetry of relentless, even excruciating, inquiry, tempered by a tenderness for what is broken or hurt or incomplete. A kind of nakedness emerges – a laying open after history – that is complex, rather than simple, and utterly necessary.

Threshold Songs has been misread by reviewers because the contemporary critical vocabulary for understanding a genuinely spiritual poetics is so impoverished. Written under the sign of Beckett, whose complex sense of failure endows the via negativa with a comically forlorn sense of hope, a difficult gnosis of unknowing permeates Gizzi’s defiantly open, questioningly elegiac tone. These poems achieve a lived sense of finitude that is at once anchored in the body and dispersed by spiritual longing, a desolate hunger for intimacy which is ratified by its own search. “Bewilderment,” Fanny Howe tells us, “is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconciliability.” Or, as Gizzi writes in an earlier poem, “The Outernationale”: “Start from nothing, and be/long to it.” To sing at the threshold is to suffer the shipwreck of that enjambment, then stand in bewilderment at how far a song might go.

[Published September 15, 2011. 108 pages, $22.95 hardcover]

Patrick Pritchett’s most recent book is Gnostic Frequencies (Spuyten Duyvil, 2011). He teaches at Harvard University.

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Recommended by Tara Betts

me and Nina by Monica A. Hand (Alice James)

Hand.jpegMonica Hand’s debut collection displays vulnerability in the parallel narratives of a young girl growing up in the New York area and the life of pianist and vocalist Nina Simone. The poems unfold to reveal a young woman who is neglected and abused by her father yet longs to listen to and revel in Nina Simone’s music. The poems addressing Simone examine her struggles with racial discrimination from childhood that impeded the possibilities for her career as a musician.

As the book develops, readers can see how the speaker who listens to Simone expresses disenchantment with familial and romantic relationships as a child, a lover, a parent, and eventually a grandparent. At a certain point, Simone cannot be the speaker’s solace. Nina Simone is a reflection of her life as a Black woman in America. This mirrored gaze shared by the two characters makes me and Nina stand out from previous collections focusing on musical icons. It is one of the few contemporary collections where an artist who happens to be a woman functions as its central figure.

These deliberate choices underpin the narrative with a sort of negative capability that occurs when music is somewhat of a solace, but sometimes the music is not enough for listeners, or even the gifted and famous Simone.

HandCover.jpgSome forms that Hand employs include anagrams reminiscent of poems in Terrance Hayes’ collection Hip Logic, a poem arranged in columns that can be read horizontally or vertically (“Libation”), the connotations and denotations of a word (“Snuff”), the zuihitsu popularized by Kimiko Hahn in Mosquito & Ant (“Zuithitsu on the Lover Who It Might As Well Be Spring”), the Bop created by Afaa M. Weaver (“Daddy Bop”). There are numerous epistolary poems addressed to Simone, sonnets, and persona poems in the voices of various people throughout Simone’s life. One of the most interesting anagram poems is “Eunice Waymon” (Nina Simone’s actual name):

My name an omen
My name sin

my name
my name a moan

Nina
Nina Simone

Another anagram poem that caught “Jim Crow” describes the policies that thwarted Simone’s career as a youthful, budding musician who eventually attended Julliard and became internationally celebrated:

you in the balcony black as bitter crow

tell Jim
tell Jim

we ain’t scared no mor
we ain’t scared of him no mor

tell Jim
tell Jim

we are to the cor
impenetrable

tell Jim
tell Jim

he had better watch out for my mo
jo

Hand varies the form and the voices in her poems deftly into a contemporary blues that speaks to a woman’s creative challenges and within the stream of family that flows in unpredictable rhythms.

[Published February 14, 2012. 96 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Tara Betts is the author of Arc and Hue via Aquarius Press/Willow Books. She is a Cave Canem fellow and is a lecturer in creative writing at Rutgers University.

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Recommended by Ange Mlinko

Collected Poems by Peter Redgrove (Jonathan Cape)

Sometimes I think I must read too many British poets. William Carlos Williams’ scathing appraisal of his peers (like T.S. Eliot) who ran off to the Old World still resonates with a warning against — what, snobbery? Escapism? But poets from the U.K. make the English language strange to me again in a way that American poets don’t often do (in fact I’d go so far as to say the typical American poet tries to make the language as familiar as possible).

The twentieth-century Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a long poem called “The Kind of Poetry I Want” and it begins:

A poetry the quality of which
Is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
Its materials founded, like Gray’s, on difficult knowledge,
And its metres those of a poet
Who has studied Pindar and Welsh poetry,
But, more than that, its words coming from a mind
Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers
Of human lives—aware of the innumerable dead
And the innumerable to-be-born …

Redgrove.jpegPeter Redgrove, who died in Cornwall in 2003 at the age of 71, is one poet that answers to MacDiarmid’s description. At Kaboom Books here in Houston, I picked up a copy of Redgrove’s The Weddings at Nether Powers and Other New Poems. The copyright is 1979. The poems seemed to be about all sorts of things: nature, history. The vocabulary was all over the map: botanical, zoological, classical, Biblical (MacDiarmid’s “difficult knowledge”: check). The first poem, “The Visible Baby,” was effusive with similes and metaphors for a firstborn child that bordered on surrealist — or Blakean in its visionary, enraptured simplicity: “A large transparent baby like a skeleton in a red tree,/Like a little skeleton in the rootlet-pattern” (MacDiarmid’s “stand made against intellectual apathy”: check.) Observing fossils in a Cornish museum, he imagined in “Fossils”:

A charge of canister-shot along the deck of the Frenchman,
Boatswain Bull received a shot which passed through both cheeks.

A West Indian, off Flushing, laden with
Rum, sugar, indigo and white cotton, foundering,

The beaches sticky for weeks ...

As an opening, this is hard to beat: first a gunshot, then the image of commodity sugar making sands sticky after shipwreck (the surprising image that itself makes the poem memorably “sticky”). The lines proceed on a combination of close looking (at the museum pieces) and vivid imagining (“here Nelson lay/preserved in rum” … on this trestle rested / Wide-eyed in honey, golden Alexander.”). It’s expansive, maybe even wordy (Pindar was wordy!), but it is the farthest thing from self-involved: it is the rumination of a mind that has, as MacDiarmid instructed, “experienced the sifted layers on layers / Of human lives.”

Redgrove has a reputation as something of a mystic, but as far as I can tell it’s the mysticism of the naturalist: the recycling of atoms was his reincarnation; digestion was his alchemy. (He first trained to be a scientist at Cambridge, but was called to poetry in the end.) From “Or Was That When I Was Grass,” a first-person account of a fly being eaten by a spider, to “The Tapestry Moths,” he celebrated the Ovidian transformations that attend upon the food chain. The latter poem in particular is a masterpiece (this essay by Jo Furber is a terrific exposition) and extends the metaphor of digestion to even the psychic life: it open with the speaker observing the moths feeding on some ancient tapestries: the tapestries recreate themselves on the wings of the moths; the moths transmit these designs to their offspring by genetic code; the eggs are unwittingly eaten in a melon that gives a man dreams — he dreams the very scene that was on the initial tapestry. It’s undoubtedly a strange poem, as original and unrepeatable an experiment as they come. But it bears witness to a process that braids nature and mind together — a real and true process that Keats and Shelley and Blake and Shakespeare recognized. They too are collaborators in “The Tapestry Moths.”

In the end I suppose I’m impressed by Redgrove’s work not because he makes the language strange again, but because he makes the universe strange again. Take “’Er,” a poem built on the arbitrariness of a single morpheme:

They call the Bulls “’Er!” “I’s a-going to see ‘er fuck,”
“’Er’s got a chill from the wet pasture,” “’Er’s worth
All the farm put together” and this a tobacco-brown bull
With tight rust-curls between neat moon-horns,
A dewlap like the Chancellor’s wig, and a pizzle
Like Adam-tongue for “thrust”: in ‘Er’s herd
Among ‘Er’s wives and so much chewing inwardness,
‘Er’s pizzle orders the meadows, as thunder does.
Bo-opis potnia Here: “cow-eyed Mistress Hera…”
‘Era can’t be a Bull! …

RedgroveCover.jpgFrom a country dialect's 'Er to Greek goddess Hera, this pastoral comedy teaches us something about the inseminations of language by way of a pun. Its ur-syllable permeates our speech —t he poem alone gives us pasture, Chancellor, herd, inwardness, orders, thunder, purpose, scamper, Farmer, rider, Hero, serves. You could say the small cosmos of this poem revolves around this primal syllable, but it isn't a small cosmos at all: it is the cross-dressed pagan gods blessing the conception of new life in a profusive meadow "in the trampled grass that seeds." Seed-syllable! Redgrove's poems are visionary and strange and yet for people, for "the innumerable dead / And the innumerable to-be-born." Creative and procreative are one.

[Published February 20, 2012. 528 pages, $35.00]

Ange Mlinko’s most recent book is Shoulder Season (Coffee House). She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.

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Recommended by Ed Skoog

Curses and Wishes by Carl Adamshick (LSU Press)

Like wood that has been heavily notched, the poems in Carl Adamshick’s debut collection, Curses and Wishes, have the feel of long use, of intimate and familiar grooves, smooth sometimes to the touch, at other times rough and splintered. He writes short poems of exquisite suggestion and long poems of visionary explication. Any alert graduate of an American high school could place Curses and Wishes in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River Anthology, sharing as it does a placid Midwestern surface that masks beneath it ambiguity and complexity, but this is really international poetry: its geography is really chorography, the study of what is unobserved and borderless. Adamshick dissolves America into a form, turns of thought, shapes in the air, with a subtly detached, dissident vision.

The committed imagism of his short poems offers a percussive clarity, and like any rhythm is as much about its rests as about its notes: what is left out moves us as much, if not more than, what is left in.

MEMOIR

I feel something impossibly small
that might become pain

as I slide a piece of paper
under everything
my mother has said.

AdamshickCover.jpgThe title is partly tongue-in-cheek, referring to the vogue of memoir, and the tendency of contemporary poetry to be autobiographical, to distinguish the writer’s life from the six billion others through details, sensation, and sentiment. Here, though, the structure and substance of memoir become one. No details, no sensation, no revelation, only a breath-stopping emblem of memory and poetry. It starts as if still parodying the memoir—“I feel”—but by the third word the speaker has fractured the promise of the title’s humor, with the indistinct “something.” What unfolds from there is the entirety of the poet’s autobiography, an elaboration of the old joke about how many poets it takes to change a light bulb: “Two: one to change the bulb, and one to stare out the window, look at the rain, and think of his mother.”

Whether you buy the idea from psychology that all human speech begins in the infant’s crying for its mother, this poem testifies to at least one individual’s poetic impulse toward this tableau. And how powerful is that “slip”! We slip paper under doors, sometimes under an insect to carry it outside, because paper is very slight, and “everything/ my mother has said” must be immense. Are the casually posited “everything” and “something” the same in this poem? One thing is impossibly small (suitable for a small poem) and the other thing is incalculably large, although without weight. A complicated matrix of dependencies emerges in these five lines, baffling until they are resolved the way the poet resolves them, with brevity and composition. The small thing only “might become pain,” in the second line. The poem is a snapshot, not a film.

On the facing page of “Memoir” is “New Year’s morning,” another quickly-tied knot that asks something of the reader:

New Year’s morning
A low, quiet music is playing—
distorted trumpet, torn bass line,
white windows. My palms
are two speakers the size
of pool-hall coasters.
I lay them on the dark table
for you to repair.

AdamshickB.jpegI hear the music at first literally, “low, quiet” perhaps because a well-celebrated Eve has led to a hangover, perhaps because the speaker is simply a quiet, orderly jazz aficionado: the trumpet’s distortion and the bass line’s tear could be due to a fuzzy needle, a bad radio signal, or intentional fragmented composition, perhaps Miles Davis and Ron Carter playing with an effects processor; but then, after a nice, orderly line break, we are presented with “white windows,” which in order to admit into this grouping we may have to redefine what sort of “music is playing” low and quiet this morning, as the year begins. Not music at all, maybe, but the torn, distorted self that has somehow managed to achieve another year. Judging from the state of the speaker’s hands (speaker!) and how they are arrayed before us, repair must begin immediately. His palms are on our dark table, either the counter where the repair arrangements and payment are discussed, or the work table itself, where we, as the professionals the poem has made us, will use our craft to restore them. And then we may listen clearly to the music he has to say.

The masterpiece of Curses and Wishes is “Our flag,” which reminds me of Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” (although I have heard Adamshick at a reading resist this, swearing that he is unfamiliar with the poem). Like Auden’s (and Homer’s) shield, Adamshick’s flag is an impossible object that comes to stand for the poetic imagination. The flag “should be green/to represent and ocean,” at the start, plausibly enough, but by the twelfth line:

It should have a wound,
a red river the sun must ford
when flown at half-mast.
It should have the first letter
of every alphabet ever.

And soon

a birthday present we open
upon death, the abyss we sleep
under. Our flag should hold
failure like light glinting
in a headdress of water.
It should hold the moon
as the severed head
of a white animal
and we should carry it
to hospitals and funerals,
to police stations and law offices …

The flag, like the entire book, lifts off from there.

[Published April 22, 2011. 64 pages, $17.95. Recipient of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets]

Ed Skoog is the author of Mister Skylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) and the forthcoming Rough Day. He lives in Seattle.

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Recommended by Catherine Barnett

All Of Us by Elisabeth Frost (White Pine) and Nick Demske by Nick Demske (Fence Books)

I’ve known Elisabeth Frost through her work as a scholar and professor at Fordham so I picked up her new book, All of Us, as a friend and colleague, simply out of a desire to support her. But that’s not what kept me reading it, nor what brings me to this page now: rather it is the sense of solitude I found in the book, a loneliness accompanied by a kind of bawdy humor and a vast empathy that makes me want to recommend her book.

Frost_0.jpgDivided into five short sections (each of which opens with a lineated poem followed by six prose poems) and a coda, the collection moves back and forth between memory, elegy, and the defamiliarized perceptions of a watching, wary speaker, a speaker who resists pathos but nonetheless has heart even in her journalistic alienated observations. The poems are micro-stories, deft and piercing. There’s a surreal quality to the poems, which are spoken in flat, naturalistic tones. The book explores the impossibility of communicating, whether between lovers or between an aging, cognitively impaired parent and a grown child. Even when the poems could be melodramatic -- ”Escort” uses the word “scream” three times -- they are very contained, eerily so.

FrostCover_0.jpgFrost weaves the elegies for her mother into a strange song that is half praise, half lament not only for the mother but for the other alienated individuals who pass through “this hive.” The last sequence before the coda is profoundly unnerving for those of us who live stacked one on top of the other: a portrait of the inhabitants of an apartment building and their tiny irregular patterns, the sequence shudders us with our own vulnerability. I hear echoes of Lydia Davis, Gertrude Stein, Claudia Rankine, Marie Howe, Lyn Heijinian, Kafka, and Rilke. (Compare “Two Stories” to Rilke’s “Washing the Corpse.”)

Demske.jpegA very different approach to elegy and an entirely different music and form show up in Nick Demske’s book, Nick Demske. I found this book totally by accident, by the serendipity that is the nightmare of the AWP Bookfair. I was on my way somewhere, or away from somewhere, when I hit a bottleneck in front of Fence Books. There was a tall skinny half-man half-boy with a ponytail blocking my way. We got to talking, and as happens too often at AWP, I felt obligated to look at his book, which I was sure I’d have to buy but wouldn’t want to read. He apologized for the poems, saying they were vulgar. I opened it at random in the crowded hall and saw in the first poem I read that this wasn’t just a case of someone young and hip and ironic; beneath the young hip irony was pure heart and sorrow, and that’s what spoke to me. I said he wasn’t fooling me with his in-your-face pyrotechnics -- the jump cuts, the radical (and to my ear and eye beautiful) enjambments, the irony -- but felt as soon as I opened the book that at its heart was sorrow and so I loved the pyrotechnics, which heightened the sorrow and diminished it, simultaneously. (This feeling was confirmed once I read the whole book, though other readers seem to get happily sidetracked--reasonably so--by the anger and social commentary and romantic/sexual glee.)

DemskeCover.jpegHe told me he’d written the book while his mother was dying, a fact that permeates the exuberant intelligence flooding these poems. It’s as if the speaker, who gets “severely depressed whenever [he] pays attention” is trying to hide the fact that he has “an overactive sympathy gland.” If you want the kwik version of the poems, read the last one in the collection, “Feels No Pain,” which is both bald and heartbreaking. I marvel at the tension between surface and subtext. Demske revitalizes the sonnet, following--and diverging from--Berryman, whose handprints are all over the poems. I also hear echoes of Dickinson, Shakespeare, cummings, Crane, and Ben Lerner here. Read these poems “and weep, bitterly, at the grammar they defile.”

Sure, I skip over some of the raunch, some of the Onion-style humor, because it’s apparent that all this irony is very much in the service of protecting what we can’t protect. The poems are spoken by someone who wants to blind you into thinking he’s insouciant, careless, raunchy, trendy, and the tension between this show and the heart that drives the poems, combined with the wonderful formal play (lines are so radically enjambed, words broken midstream without hyphens) and exhilarating diction (get out your OED), makes me a convert to the beautiful wreck and possibility that is Nick Demske.

[ published April 19, 2011. 96 pages, $16.00 paperback.
Nick Demske published October 1, 2010. 88 pages, $16.95 paperback]

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Recommended by Martha Silano

The Cupboard Artist by Molly Tenenbaum (Floating Bridge)

TenenbaumCover.jpgThe Cupboard Artist tells the story — in startling cascades of images; in wafts, hums, and staccato clangs — of one woman’s journey toward finding “her own / garlic way. // Flat of the knife and a fist” (“Emphatic Numeral”). The woman of whom I speak is none other than The Cupboard Artist, Tenenbaum’s speaker in this jaunty collection — a gal who, when the book begins, has a penchant for “buying the right spaghetti sauce to end up with the right quart jars.” This obsession with “pulling no more than a quart of rice from the bins, / no leftovers, no more / two tablespoons twist-tied in plastic-bag balls” is directly proportional to the impossible task of knowing/being known by her doesn’t-like-picnics and mess-making main-squeeze. Admiring the glass jars is a not-so-thinly disguised cry of pain— “hopes he will love her, the cool glass / around baby lentils, the speckled and fat Christmas limas,” The Artist turning to “the tallness of tarragon vinegar,” the loving of “one thing endlessly behind another coil after coil, the gleam” as the tentative lover grows increasingly tentative.

The first section ends with one of my favorite poems in the book, “Birthday Cake,” wherein the speaker bakes her beloved a chocolate delicacy even though she knows he doesn’t like chocolate. She is determined to make him happy the way a 50s housewife would spend the day in her housedress scrubbing floors for her Man, and yet it’s clear from line 1 (“She’s a cartoon”) she knows her efforts to please him will be futile. Despite her wisdom:

this time, this chocolate, this time, surely, besides,
the broken chunk-edges all the way
from Holland were already oozing.

Later in the poem she reveals the cake he wants is locked up in his dead mother, in a very specific spice, but he can’t remember exactly which one. While of course her cake, her attempt to make him something perfect and lovely, ends in failure:

Too heavy, he says, too tender, too sweet,
too risen, too ribboned, too spun up in wisps.

Such a gorgeously heart-breaking couplet – the seemingly-effortless alliterative quality of risen and ribboned, the assonance of wisps, all the s’s sizzling, the eh in heavy, the eh in tender, the ee in sweet. Tenenbaum’s music is flawless in this poem, and this ear-candy sweetness fittingly signals the last poem in the collection where Mr. Wrong appears.

In contrast, Section Two begins in upbeat wonder. In “Ode to the Ugly Colors,” shades once considered blotchy or burnt,

Hair-ball beige, rust that spots
every single snapdragon,
mustard of 70s telephones …
Sing to her now, blotchy green, underside
of a sunflower leaf that will be completely dead tomorrow.

In this poem, where the ugly colors “have / the most beautiful names,” the speaker has begun to embrace all that is “Murrey, claret, bloodstain, myrtle” as she loosens her grip, accepting an imperfect, uneven world. Being served with a notice to vacate doesn’t hurt the process, either: “Life here approximates the truth at last, / a veil, transparent—“ (“During the Forty-Five Days of the Landlady’s Notice”). This movement toward chaotic acceptance appears as well in the poem “For practice, let something stay broken.” Stop trying to tidy and repair, she tells herself:

Keep on paying insurance though the car won’t go,
don’t fix it,
dead on the street, gray and flaking.

The final poem of this middle section, “The Swings: A Research Proposal” is a lyrical and metaphorical masterpiece, Tenenbaum describing their evolution (“Someone needs to begin”), their associations with early sexual experiences, and their tetheredness (“Swings can’t escape the earth to which they’re limbed by a pin”). It’s also Tenenbaum’s chance to remind us that with each rising swing, the rider is given a choice: “leap from high” or “wait for absolute / stop.” It’s time to let go of all those lame clichés about romantic love conquering all, to stop clinging to handed-down notions of coupled bliss.

Tenenbaum.jpgIn the final section, a paradigm shift occurs within the Cupboard Artist’s inner and outer selves. The one who fussed in her kitchen, who ached to intuit and/or satisfy her partner’s every need, is, gasp, “Painting a Room Spanish Gold,” “turning her own music / up loud when no on is home.” This tour de force primer (pun intended!) has Tenenbaum’s Artist scraping off childhood’s useless rules, metaphorically peeling the paint from her past selves. Ignoring what she knows, she throws caution to the wind, foregoing “priming twice with anti-mildew / poison, gloves, a mask, and all the windows open.” Instead, she opts to go wild with her “lollipop stop sign” brush, must hold herself back from “kicking the pail, smear [ing] yellow all over / her face like a crazy person.” Though she knows this new brightness, too, will fade, just as “continuous workmen / sandblast the Golden Gate Bridge,” is the inevitability of decay and death a reason to not paint at all? Hell, no! The last poems continue in this emphatic, “pink dawn viburnum” way. In “Motions for the Nightime Cat, the “room grow[s] lighter, lighter” and, in “Brewing Green Tea in a Glass Percolator After the Regular Brown Teapot Has Broken,” the self opens out to the far reaches of the universe, and back in time to civilization’s start:

Three steepings,
the tea man said I could squeeze from the leaves,

and it’s true if you don’t mind tea weaker and weaker,
radio waves from the mother ship
thinning, fading,

you alone on the new planet, nothing
to do but start civilization over. Maybe you’ll do it
your way this time …

By the book’s end the speaker is once again cleaning out her house, but in a whole new way. Instead of hording or ranting, she is blissfully letting go, the sponge having “No path now, but wet all over” (“Housecleaning, Autumn Equinox”). No more will she allow herself to wilt in a thirsty marriage (“Will love again, but … only if it is done with peach walls …”… “if it comes with her music” –“Emphatic Numeral”). By the final poem, the speaker has journeyed far from her place of snit and sorrow, heeding the words of the psychic who insures her, in “What the Psychic Said,”

you make
your own ticket, a painting of everything: borders, thickets,
bluebells, oaks, ponds, oxbows, lips, elbows,
dangles, triangles, Jack-in-the-pulpit, love-in-a-mist …

Published January 24, 2012. 69 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Martha Silano’s books are What the Truth Tastes Like, Blue Positive, and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, an Academy of American Poets “Noted Book” of 2011.

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Recommended by Elizabeth Robinson

Enigma and Light by David Mutschlecner (Ahsahta)

The classical sense of ekphrasis of a rhetorical device in which one medium of art in relates to another descriptively. This interaction would then lead to a deeper realization of essence or form. David Mutshclecner’s poems in Enigma and Light both embrace and sidestep that Platonic ideal in their interactions with visual art — as well as philosophy, theology, and modernist literature. Their mode of extrapolation is never simply descriptive. Poem by poem, these works bring image and idea together to generate warmth, motility, credulity, and unknowing. Each vision of wholeness takes its cue from the local — the piecemeal, but evocative sample — in the way, for example, that Agnes Martin’s marks and Gertrude Stein’s coexist in a cosmos where they are “both inter-patterning one another.”

Mutschlecner.jpgIn the riveting poems of this collection, Mutschlecner essays a complicated relationship with the transcendent and the ideal. His Catholic faith is evident, but his ideas are constructed dialogically, bringing together an often unexpected array of thinkers and artists from Marc Chagall to Herman Melville to the Gee’s Bend Quilters to Karl Rahner and Saint Faustina. Mutschlecner’s combined eccentricity (in what other mental universe would Robert Ryman and Nicholas of Cusa come to populate the same poem?) and intensity of attention result in a deeply distinctive vision of the world. That is, the poet’s sheer originality prevents the poems from suggesting a reductive, and therefore unproductive, mode of transcendence. The essential—rather than essence—that arises in Enigma and Light is instead oriented to a something that understands itself as operating, in the present at least, with frank partiality:

What is the soul

but a whisper
whirled into form
that knows itself by the matter

of its tramping song
by night. By night
one need leads to another.

If the soul is thus an essence, it carries with it its own provisionality: breath, movement, and need. Or, as Mutschlecner tellingly asks elsewhere, “How is it in this mess/of pigment, color’s praxis seems intact?” The transitory quality of the whisper, the murk of mixed pigments, both draw the praxis of the essential forward—as need, as faith—when in our mortal experience we find “the world a reversible/fabric—it keeps on going.”

MutschlecnerCopverB.jpgTwice in the collection, Mutschlecner cites Pound’s reference to a “radiant gist.” For Pound this radiant gist was the constellation of perception brought about by the image. “Gist” itself can be defined as “the main point or part” of a larger idea or thing. In these poems, however, the radiant gist is communicated as numinous, a “patterned event” or “vortex,” again in Poundian parlance. This pattern, composed of elements supercharged with the divine, surges through creation, the gist always modified by its dynamic radiance. This manifests in the poems and their many voices as a communicative but erratic dispersal, an almost Gnostic diffusion of the divine whose radiance motivates the ongoing activity of creation.

Mutschlecner’s poetry is obviously suffused with the philosophical, but it is not dry or inaccessible. I said before that his focus is intense and his curiosity idiosyncratic. These attributes serve as great virtues within the poems. His evident enjoyment of paintings and texts permits him to work them into meditations arising from the most banal moments of his daily life (e.g., the light coming through venetian blinds or the observation “Today’s pedestrian phylacteries: iPods fastened to the arm”). Art and belief are indeed continuous with each other and with the most daily of tasks, because the pleasures of (any) pattern are concordant with the pleasures of faith and meaning.

The material, sensuous world is part of a larger revelation if, as this poet suggests, we find ways to move with it as part of the pattern. So Mutschlecner can insist that “It was an art action / when Karol Wojtyla / processed through the streets of communist Krakow // with an empty frame / that once held / an icon of the Mother of God” and similarly see the trace of a public grace in a man walking to and from work wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of the sacred heart. In one instance the image is present by its absence, in the other instance it is present in its banality, but what remains constant is that both images are in transit:

graces
signal
each other:
walking in the image,

resting in the image.

What is the difference between art and theology? If Mutschlecner wants to so closely equate the two that they become difficult to distinguish I, for one, am eager to follow. After all, he cites Oppen’s assertion that “We are not judged // but by a direction” and Enigma and Light gestures us toward “a flight past sight’s extinction.” His caveat within the radiant gist of human experience is that we proceed with humility, unsaying as much as we venture to say, so that every movement toward is a rocking and oscillation acknowledging its happenstance and partial nature. Mutschlecner attends this impasse with something like awe. Where human fragility and ignorance might give rise to grief, he responds to

the balance point itself as affirmation:
the nothing/not nothing

the Dickinsonian dash,
the white cracks in the black
pavement on the first

snowing day of winter—
some sort of inversion or conversion
where yes wells in the willed silence.

Enigma and Light offers up a poetry unlike anything I’ve recently encountered: intelligent, fearless, engrossed in the rigors of its own journey.

[Published May 1, 2012. 96 pages, $17.50 paperback. You may link to Small Press Distribution to order by clicking here.]

Elizabeth Robinson is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Three Novels (Omnidawn). With Colleen Lookingbill, she co-edited As if it Fell from the Sun: ten years of women’s writing (Instance/EtherDome). She is currently the Hugo Fellow at the University of Montana.

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Recommended by Tyrone Williams

l.b., or the catenaries by Judith Goldman (Krupskaya Books)

In the United States it would be difficult to imagine an insurgent art, however radical or marginal in its nascent formation, which has not found itself installed in academia as an upgrade or, as in the case of hip hop studies, establishment, of a tradition. Yet, this process of acculturation (different from canonization) may be a long, perhaps interminable one, as we can see with, for example, Language Writing or flarf. Still, as Judith Goldman writes in her new book of poetry, l.b., or; the catenaries, “Context hacks away at what / in us asks / to be uncompared.” The long reach of the law — in every sense and formation — is figured here as inescapable catenaries that bind the one and many.

Goldman.jpgTaut here, slack there, these poems, however radical in subject matter and form, are variations on Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and Eliot’s and, arguably, Pound’s The Waste Land projects, the ur-texts of almost all post-Romantic poetics, however divergent in practice. Specifically, Wordsworth’s and Eliot’s “justifications” of their respective projects, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) and “Tradition and the Individual talent” (1919), not only denigrate a contemporary poetics in order to clear space for a “new” practice understood as a return to a lost or marginalized tradition, but they also confound the relation of criticism to creative works since it is impossible to say “when” the poems and the critical texts were first “conceived,” extant drafts, marginalia and correspondence aside. We may know when some of these “ideas” — creative and critical — were first set to paper, but we do not know when they were first conceptualized (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” may be the exception that proves the rule). Moreover, because Wordsworth and Eliot influenced, and were influenced by, their relationship to significant mentors/protégés/friends — Coleridge and Pound — it is sometimes difficult to parse out authorship without reducing “ideas” to “influence” and valorizing “creativity” as “inspiration.” Taken together, then, these issues of temporality, influence, inspiration and poetics make it extremely difficult to “weigh” and assess, to analyze and interpret, without falling back on default positions and academic categories often backed up by case law (e.g., the evolution of the concept of the author).

l.b. or; the catenaries follows Wordsworth’s and Eliot’s leads and beyond; Goldman extends the former’s poetics, a man speaking to other men in their “natural” language, to its logical conclusions, invoking not only the languages of non-men (e.g., Wordsworth’s “women,” Eliot’s Jews) but also those of non-human figures (animal, rhetorical, mathematical, mineral and philosophical) who were always in relation to social commons even, especially when, they constituted the uncommon. Of course, Wordsworth and Eliot insisted on, as well as presumed a relation to, a commons (a man speaking to other men may, at times, “slip into…delusion,” identifying “his own feelings with theirs”), but it is on this point that Goldman’s project diverges from theirs: she shows how every commons remains dependent on the uncommon for its own identity.

Thus, its concepts and values — including linguistic ones — are sustained by both what lies beyond and what remains “hidden” within its borders. And vice versa: “the extension Cord,” a set of lyric bursts that close the book, conducts in both directions. The counter-clockwise poetics of the Preface describes a circle — we must return to the past to rejuvenate the present — that is time measured by a clock or watch, analog or digital. Clockwise and counter-clockwise mirror one another (“So I turn to face me Latterly”). As Eliot does in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Goldman acknowledges the impossibility of any final break from cultural, historical and social formations which, from the point of view of the individual, can only be miniscule (“I find myself fastened with strings to the floor”) or gargantuan, especially when one of those formations is the individual per se:

Thank you,
I know my way out

The subsequent self-reflexive self-lacerations — who doesn’t want to be “uncompared”? — serve as fodder for l.b. (as I will refer to it henceforth), a dizzying romp through the dystopias of a nightmarish Wonderland.

True, then, to its specific forebears and burdens, l.b. is a wobble and dance at the precipice of “poetry.” Just as Wordsworth “created” a lexicon based on the “everyday” language of “ordinary men,” Goldman draws on the language of folklore, children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and popular culture, from the 17th c. to the present, in order to calculate the social cost(s) of speaking, of writing, of entering the world as a subject who is supposed to know. l.b. weighs the individual (“…the Something what/ remains when blood is dried and flesh wasted”) in relation to its putative social identity (its “I”), a one in relation to an other “in” the same body. This endlessly multiplied doubling is refracted through social, cultural and political formations. And, again, vice versa. Thus, l.b. is also a weighing of the human cost that sustains capital, a taking measure of the time of labor and its concomitant alienation.

GoldmanCover.jpgNot surprisingly, then, the figure of the clock opens this book twice, as alphabetical overture (“Groveling A/ bee//lingers orifice to orifice//erratic hour’s aura, or a…”) in the poem/preface titled “Motorcade.” Goldman’s assonant parade of “or” sounds framed by “A” and “a” already point to another time and place within—not outside—linguistic norms. The apotheosis of time (and denigration of a temporality) foreshadows the poem entitled “[WATCH IT, I’M GOING TO] dream within dream” where the noun and verb forms of “clock” and ‘watch” link the time of dead labor to corporeal punishment under Bentham’s panopticon. The funereal/celebratory facets of “Motorcade”—two sides of the same coin—invoke the “Groveling” “bee” of Marx that, however superior as a constructor of “her cells,” pales beside the “worst architect” who erects his building in his imagination prior to its concrete actualization. This engendered culture/nature divide is merely one of the prejudices l.b. hammers away at, flailing and failing. For this book remains framed by its preface, “motorcade,” and its epilogue, “extension cord,” the series of short bursts of fancy that conclude the book. These chains, these catenaries, are reproduced in the book in a number of different schema. For example, “I was Referred to” begins with a line that will be repeated throughout the poem: “I was referred to counseling” — Discipline and Punish meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mania of the individual is tied to the mania of social reproduction, from the frenetic grammarian (a kind of Boy [King] George indeed) —

I drunk dialed, manic
comma, comma, comma, commaflage,
comma, comma, comma, comma
give me pause, comma

-- to The Third Policeman —

Thirsty lost currency, thrust trusty
No don’t but th’ Murkey turn-key — Clang! Glossed

In this topsy-turvy world of the quotidian every gesture is referred, disposed of its specificity: “This kiss in reference to.” l.b. makes visible the invisible dark matter underlying and binding the visible universe we call “reality.”

[Published October 4, 2011. 220 pages, $17.00, paperback]

Tyrone Williams teaches literature and literary theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His most recent collection of poetry is Howell (Atelos Books, 2011).

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Recommended by Kathryn Stripling Byer

Lie Down With Me by Julie Suk (Autumn House)

Over the past year we’ve mourned the loss of several women poets who lived well into their eighties and beyond -- Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and Wislawa Symborska. All the more reason, then, to celebrate a poet still alive and flourishing well into her latter years, with a new collection, Come Lie Down With me: New and Selected Poems recently out from Autumn House. To say that I’ve admired Julie Suk’s work for years, even decades, doesn’t begin to explain why I value her accomplishment. Trying to do so gives me, shall we say, poetic pause. Suk knows all about that kind of pause, that catch in the weave of thought and image that shifts a poem from its surface elements downward to its profound depths. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Suk has lived most of her adult life in North Carolina, but her poems often range far from the familiar ground of home and family, though there are many that fearlessly enter that dangerous territory beset by shadows and misgivings.

SukCover.jpgWhat does a Julie Suk poem sound like? Well, a good place to begin is to describe the way her poems strike my particular and often demanding ear. And to do that, I must call up the sound of violin strings woven from strands of the Golden Orb spider, three hundred of them, to be exact, all female. (My thanks to National Public Radio for this illumination.) Known for their intricate, strong webs, these spiders spin silk that’s tougher than the Kevlar used in bullet proof vests. Yet, all the while, their webs shimmer like gold in the light. A lot like Suk’s poems in this gathering of poems that spans four decades. Tough and elegant. Compressed and powerful.

Now in her late 80’s, Suk has remained as skillful in her later work as in the early poems from her first collection, The Medicine Woman. While retrospectives and memorials for well-known poets fill the literary news, the living, breathing Julie Suk has gone relatively unnoticed, especially in her adopted state of North Carolina. Under the radar she has woven her poems, well-nigh invisible on the Southern poetry scene. That tough yet elegant voice has gained more recognition outside her native region than within it.

The timbre of those golden-orbed strings has been described as “soothing,” but that’s not how I’d describe a Suk poem. Here is an early one from The Medicine Woman.

PICTOGRAPHS

A pine-still night presses needles through sleep.
Not enough wind to carry the clouds.

Moon
Catching the leaves
That whisper in hollows.

Lost
Wax to your metal
And you where I want

The two of us sweetgrass
Woven to hold
The buried
Familiar.

Heart pumping
As if it had pipes through the wilderness.

Suk.jpegThe sexual pull of night and body pulses through this tightly woven little poem that introduces elements of what I call the quintessential Suk voice, every line plucked cleanly, resonating, like a -- well, like a golden-orb spider’s web. Suk finds in visual art and archaeology the pathways into her emotional terrain. Her poems often remind me of pictographs in their determination to get down to the grit of experience. Imagine a human hand pressed hard into desert rock, relishing the touch of flesh to warm stone, leaving its imprint in red pigment. The sweetgrass of human bodies woven together. The “buried familiar” of human desire.

Julie Suk may be one of our most forthright poets of the erotic, the pure carnal pleasure of the physical body, as she expresses in these first lines from “Mortal Taste,” a poem in her collection Heartwood (1991):

The year I traced over pictures in Paradise Lost,
mother complained. What she couldn’t read
was the body I craved
pitched head-first and naked from heaven,
flesh and its rabble of feathers
an unquenchable fire.

That human fire animates a new poem that in itself might serve as a manifesto for Suk’s craving to experience the human in all its many passions and torments.

WHAT WE KNOW IS NOT WHAT WE FEEL

which explains why we shiver
when the heedless stars swing by.

Come see,
says my son,
the lens of his telescope
momentarily focused

beyond
what I want to believe--

that the earth is not
the last place we touch,
our song whisper rant
not drifting off
without route or shore.

I trace lines but find
no discernible shape for Vesta
Omega Aquarius Cetus

no trail marked
THIS IS THE WAY,

nothing
of anger sorrow love
or the foolish wishes
we wept and fought for

not knowing they seldom
come true, hope
the most savage lie.

And there in the lower sky,
Venus--

no, a night flight
flashing through trees
and beyond,
and I’m not aboard,

am left, you could say,
like the aura of a burned-out star,

the body,
that incorrigible flirt,
still leading me on.

Deathbeds, burned out stars, flesh burning against the flesh of another – in Lie Down With Me, a woman’s life in full gleams, woven into poems that resist annihilation and despair.

{Published September 5, 2011. 205 pages, $19.95 paperback]

Kathryn Stripling Byer’s sixth collection of poetry, Descent, is due from LSU Press in autumn 2012. Earlier collections have received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and The Hanes Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She lives in North Carolina where she served for five years as the state’s first woman Poet Laureate.

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Recommended by J.W. Marshall

Gaze by Christopher Howell (Milkweed Editions)

Howell.jpegFor many years now Christopher Howell’s poems have sung a seductive song to me through their tonal blend of weariness and delight. Howell does not investigate language with language, and he does not engage in the collaged narrative. In this way the poems in Gaze are somewhat old school — fabulist stories, quiet lyric explosions, and recollections of childhood. What sets his work apart is his use of language to explore each moment being told. He doesn’t engage in empty gestural phrases, no points of understood common reference where I feel the writer chumming up to me, hoping to be endearing by telling me something we both already know. As an example of Howell’s distinctive narrative skill here’s the beginning of “Asylum: The Morningside Hospital Farm for Eskimos Driven Mad by Change”—

Morning or evening at the east edge
of the orchard
where a wire fence leaned against the grass
we might see them dazed
in blue pajamas
as they tended their herd of listless Guernsey’s,
in the course of which, sometimes,
they wandered
clear to the fence line and stared into us
as though we were distance
or fog
and they water
lapping a rocky beach, miles from the sea.
What therapeutic scheme
has sent them south
into our rainy and alien greenery, no one asked
or knew.
When one or two, almost by accident,
would scale the wire and find themselves
among our peach trees, silent men in white
materialized
and dragged them, with purgatorial kindness,
back
to the fields of their nether life.

The poem begins with placement, with a James Wright simplicity, and then proceeds. Surreal imagery, “as though we were distance,” conveys the oddness of the situation, and then we get to “and dragged them, with purgatorial kindness.” I stopped reading at that phrase. I knew, palpably, the experience. Not the dragging or the being dragged, but the “purgatorial kindness.” I have received and have delivered purgatorial kindness in my life, but I didn’t know the name of it until I read this. Learning the real names of things is a reason I continue to read poetry. “Asylum:…” continues, with a stately kind of elegance, to its inevitably sad close.

This brings me to an aspect of Howell’s work I admire greatly. Where the default of much contemporary American poetry seems to be either the ironically comic or the surreal or their Siamese twin-ness, I find in his work a deep experiential sadness, a grief, which I value greatly in art.

Autobiography is not central to his work, at least in any overt “look at me” way, but I know Howell’s daughter, Emma, died in an accident and that loss haunts much of his poetry. There is an almost unmentionably prosaic kinship then between Howell’s work and the poetry Paul Goodman wrote after the death of his son. But where Goodman’s is a more on-the-sleeve grief Howell’s is wearier, more haunted. Here is an excerpt from his “After Three Years”—

My pockets are empty
again.
I hum a tune in case she might be
near enough
to hear as I go along

the path we used to travel, holding our lives
in front of ourselves like
robins’ eggs

brought down by wind and still
miraculously unbroken.

And now I’ll be perhaps a touch callous and go perhaps a touch off topic by taking a glance at the manner in which both Goodman and Howell address “God” (pardon the quotation marks, my atheist slip shows). It is of course preposterous to extract a philosophic understanding from the use of the word God in a poem. And of course each poem is a thread in the poet’s overall garment, which in turn is only cloth on a body. Given that, let’s take a look.

Here, from Goodman’s lovely book North Percy, is “For My Birthday, 1967”—

O God who wear a heavy veil,
I do not need to know what is real,
yet lead me further where the real is
although that way is rough. Your mysteries

are probably too hard to live with
at least for me who draw my breath
short by art and my perverse ideas,
and now it has been six and fifty years.

And this, from Howell’s poem “Tale of the Attempt to Return Our Separation” —

Greatness beyond measure, love
beyond doubt, we wished to bring Him
these
so that we might once again
like Him and He
like us, mortally awake inside the trouble and beauty
of that burning tree
of which we did not eat.

To this purpose and this dream
we sought Him all our lives, each
shouldering the extra burdens as others fell away
into the magic of finitude, each
singing Here oh God are the bones
of our brethren, given for thee.
Stretch out thine arms, receive them that they may join with
thee again and all existence be
a single flame.

HowellCover.jpgGoodman’s supplication in this poem and Howell’s quest for an equality, “that we might once again / like Him and He / like us,” make for an interesting contrast. There is no judgment to be made regarding the appropriateness of response to profound loss. Each of these poets has produced beautiful, aching work infused with personal grief. An existential sharing I gladly partake of.

The last thing I’ll say of Howell’s poetry in general, and the poems in Gaze in particular, is that he is not engaged in the book-length work, the “project” in the term that has been about run into the ground. He is, as I said earlier, sort of old school, writing and publishing this poem and that poem. Gaze is a gathering of such individual poems I am very pleased to have read and to own.

[Published January 3, 2012. 96 pages, $16.00 paperback]

J.W. Marshall co-owns, with his wife, Christine Deavel, Open Books, a poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. His first book, Meaning a Cloud, won the 2007 Field Poetry Prize and was published in 2008 by Oberlin College Press.