Seventeen Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles

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

Joel Brouwer on Lake Superior by Lorine Niedecker (Wave Books)
Brian Teare on The Weeds by Jared Stanley (Salt Publishing)
Catherine Barnett on Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (Graywolf) and Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidlmayer (Triquarterly)
David Wojahn on Child Made of Sand by Thomas Lux (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Julie Sheehan on You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis (Coffee House Press)
Ken Chen on Poems of the Black Object by Ronaldo Wilson (Futurepoem Books)
Philip Metres on Alight by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press)
Cynthia Hogue on Whelm by Dawn Lonsinger (Lost Horse Press)
Michael Klein on Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman (W.W. Norton)
Tom Sleigh on Crookedness by Tsvetanka Elenkova (Tebot Bach)
Chloe Honum on Render / An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell (Cleveland State Poetry Center)
Randall Mann on Appetite by Aaron Smith (Univwersity of Pittsburgh Press)
Aaron Baker on The Vital System by C.M. Burroughs (Tupelo Press)
Elizabeth Robinson on Fault Tree by kathryn l. pringle (Omnidawn Publishing)
Wesley Rothman on Duppy Conqueror by Kwame Dawes (Copper Canyon Press)
Kate Gale on Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins (Penguin)
Jenny Factor on A Wild Surmise by Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press)

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Recommended by Joel Brouwer

Lake Superior by Lorine Niedecker (Wave Books)

Lorine Niedecker’s late marriage to Al Miller in 1963 (she was sixty) was a mixed bag. Miller turned out to be a heavy drinker and somewhat overbearing, but the marriage did enable Niedecker to quit her job as a custodian at the Fort Atkinson Hospital and to read and write full-time. She also had more time to travel, and in the summer of 1966, she and Miller took a road trip around Lake Superior. Before and after the trip, Niedecker did extensive research on the region, taking particular interest in its colonial history and geology. She kept a detailed record of her firsthand impressions on their tour, from the price of gas to the sight of the freighters at Sault St. Marie stained red by their cargoes of iron ore.

Niedecker.jpegThese notes are fascinating in and of themselves, and really could be regarded as a kind of long poem. They go well beyond Niedecker’s initial research and into repeated drafts of the eventual poem “Lake Superior,” combinations and recombinations of phrases, quotations, dialogue, ideas, and images. The notes total around 300 pages; the poem clocks in at around a hundred lines. As she wrote in “Poet’s Work,” Niedecker conceived of the poet’s workplace as a “condensery.” The notes show us, though, not only how much raw material she gathered before conducting that condensation, but also how vigorously and extensively she manipulated that material. In a sense, “Lake Superior” could be considered the residue of the dynamic creative activity Niedecker conducted in these notes.

This volume from Wave Books presents “Lake Superior” in its final revision, along with a variety of additional documents: selected passages from the notes; an essay on the poem by Douglas Crase; three letters referencing the poem that Niedecker sent her friend Cid Corman in the summer of 1966; selections from Corman’s translation of Basho’s travel journals; selections from Wisconsin and Michigan travel guides Niedecker worked on for the WPA; Aldo Leopold’s “On a Monument to the Pigeon” from A Sand County Almanac; excerpts from the writings of Pierre Esprit Radisson; and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s account of his 1832 expedition to the Mississippi River’s headwaters.

None of this material is new or unavailable elsewhere. Wave Books has simply collected and compiled some extant texts to surround and inform Niedecker’s poem. Some of the choices, like Niedecker’s notes, her correspondence with Corman, and Crase’s essay, make obvious sense, and suggest we might view this book as a critical edition of sorts. Other selections, like the WPA guides, are more tenuously connected to the poem, though still not entirely out of place. Yet other documents, such as Leopold’s essay and especially Corman’s Basho translations, seem associated more by the editors’ intuition than anything else. At least I think they are. Maybe they have more direct relevance to “Lake Superior” than I realize? Niedecker took a journey, as Basho did, yes. And she mentions in her poem the extinct passenger pigeon that Leopold hymns, yes. But did she draw directly from these texts? She may or may not have, I don’t know, and there’s no contextualizing apparatus here to enlighten me.

A sharp exhortation from the cell where I keep my scholarly conscience locked away suggests I mention that Lake Superior would have benefited from some such apparatus. An introduction to explain why the editors chose to include what they did, some notes on the poem and the other documents, a bibliography, and so forth. The book neglects even to name its editors; the publisher’s web site says it was simply “edited by Wave Books.” The heroic and stalwart Jenny Penberthy, who has been editing and championing Niedecker for more than twenty years (and who is presently at work on a book concerning “Lake Superior”), is thanked on the permissions page, but apparently had nothing to do with this edition.

NiedeckerCover.jpgSo while this book may have some of the trappings of a critical edition, it isn’t one, and rather than natter on about what it’s not I should probably say what it is. It’s weird, and it’s a delight. You can, and should, read “Lake Superior” in the larger context of her oeuvre by getting hold of Penberthy’s excellent, indispensible edition Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works, but there’s a distinct, unique joy in reading the poem in isolation like this, akin to the pleasure in taking home one perfect stone from your visit to the lakeshore. The poem itself is vintage Niedecker, written at the zenith of her career. It’s terse, compressed, allusive, spiny, but shot through with flashes of humor and gentle empathy. Her interest in geological strata is among the poem’s subjects, as well as a metaphor for its strategy, as again and again Niedecker moves fluidly through layers of the region’s history – prehistoric, aboriginal, colonial, contemporary – dramatizing the inevitability of change and insisting on an essential sense of permanence. Or to put it more succinctly, as Niedecker did in a 1945 letter to Louis Zukofsky, “Time is nuttin in the universe.”

In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

*

Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters

Sault Sainte Marie — big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework

The waters working together
internationally
Gulls playing both sides

Douglas Crase’s capacious, idiosyncratic, and insightful essay, as arch as it is smart, elucidates Niedecker’s thematic concerns and formal innovations beautifully, and also thoughtfully situates “Lake Superior” in the tradition of the Emersonian sublime. After picking your way through the spare lines of Niedecker’s poem, it’s a pleasure, and a revelation, to hear her chatty, laughing, everyday voice in the letters to Corman. The antique vocabularies of the Schoolcraft and Radisson excerpts and the flattened language of the guidebooks remind us of how expertly Niedecker plays with registers of diction in her poem. The cumulative effect of Lake Superior the book is not unlike that of “Lake Superior” the poem. An invisible hand seems to have selected and arranged layers of assertion and association in such a way that each aspect of the work seems both to reflect and illuminate the others. I have a notion that there should be a copy of this lovely, enigmatic edition in every motel room nightstand from Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie.

[Published April 2, 2013. 104 pages, $16.00 original paperback]

Joel Brouwer’s most recent book of poems is And So (Four Way Books). He teaches at The University of Alabama.

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Recommended by Brian Teare

The Weeds by Jared Stanley (Salt Publishing)

Stanley.jpegAt the recent 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics at UC-Berkeley, there was a lot of talk about the range of affect in contemporary poetry about the environment. As might be expected from a body of literature that has developed in tandem with environmental activism, much discourse between poets, scholars, and activists was given over, on the one hand, to a sense of shared emergency about global warming and energy crisis and, on the other, a collective mourning of the accelerating disappearance of species, habitats, and clean water. But just as much discourse was devoted to arguing for the necessity of affective work rooted in direct encounters with specific biomes like marsh or particular species like redwoods. It’s not hard to imagine these arguments emerged in part from a distrust of poetry’s alleged inwardness and its habitat of books, classrooms and libraries. During excursions into the field, participants were encouraged to form spontaneous relationships with place and things—the kind of relations that generate an array of feelings and forms of language that might touch upon but largely lie largely outside of crisis and melancholia.

Fittingly, on the panel “The Book as Ecopoetic Instrument,” poets Tyrone Williams, Brenda Iijima, Jared Stanley, and Richard Greenfield asked us to think of ecopoetry as similarly instrumental. Each panelist in their own way urged us to consider readerly acts as always taking place in place, in relation. Stanley, in his wonderful talk “Reading the Rocks,” further urged us to consider

the special kind of reading that takes place outside the context
of books, to present poets with a set of ideas about how to make
work that is less
about ecology, how to make poems that project
“sentence-thoughts” beyond the horizon of the next sentence
and into the phenomenal
location of the act of reading.

Given that Stanley lives in western Nevada, on the far edge of the Great Basin Desert, which is an interesting and challenging place as far as phenomenal locations go, his talk made me go back to his most recent book The Weeds with a renewed sense of curiosity about how he preserves, in the context of print publication, “the special kind of reading that takes place outside the context of books.” For surely this form of reading poses some of the great ethical-aesthetic questions facing contemporary ecopoets: how to bring encounters with phenomena over into language without losing the strangeness of the world’s otherness? How to communicate the value of location, encounter, and alterity without lapsing into purely human projection or preachiness?

StanleyCover.jpgHappily, The Weeds is endlessly suggestive of answers to such questions without ever lapsing into the Romantic’s pat appropriation of landscape or the activist’s flat didacticism. Instead, Stanley’s ecopoet is, as he appears in the final prose section of the book’s title poem, “a kinetic realist dependent on wind and light, reading and moving as a polyphonic weed, moved by an idea that is not the stripe above the jay’s eye.” Which is to say that these poems move quickly through postmodern means of collage and parataxis, take place not in an idealized Nature but in human-inflected bioregional landscapes, and constantly negotiate encounters with other species while reveling in the weirdness of human language encountering itself. Take another excerpt from the title poem’s final prose section:

I try to explain to Derek that I like to talk to animals, and that
weeds talk back, I don’t exactly like it, but I slept in them, they
keep the objects thrown from car windows off my head but not
out of it, the weeds and me, it’s inelegant, but under-feathers
stick to the conversation, even when it wanders and the winds
subside, so there’s a little veracity, real as the day smell of lingering
onions is lingering, dream and remember and wake-up as we go
down, post-cthonic, you’d think we (the weeds and I, and a car)
would’ve already made a utopia, for example, a weed with zig-zag
happiness inside itself, when I press my eyelids inside myself,
endangering sight in the song and design of them …

Stanley’s vision of inter-species relation is practical and animist, rational and supra-rational; his ambition for “a little veracity, real as the day smell of lingering onions” renders species’ mutual sheltering and regard both humorously “inelegant” and uncomfortable. In the same way that the weeds hold the speaker’s sleeping body and keep him safe from car-born projectiles, the speaker’s consciousness and language make a place for the weeds, but neither kind of space is a utopia. The objects thrown from car windows remain in the speaker’s head; “I don’t exactly like it,” says the speaker about his conversation with the weeds. But he nonetheless goes on to juxtapose a vision of weedy interiority, a “zig-zag of happiness inside itself,” with the “song and design” behind his own eyelids—gestures that might be ethically problematic if the run-ons didn’t undermine the authority of grammar to posit subject and object power relations as well as cause and effect. The commas cleave in both senses of the word, enacting a grammatical boundary between speaker and weed that keeps them in indeterminate but constant inter-relation. Such cleaving is the messy drama of hybridity, the way towns in Nevada blur into desert at their edges.

I’ve come to love The Weeds because of the many ways it “direct[s] us toward…the horizon of the surrounding ambient space—in which reading’s horizon is the full sensorium, not just (or only) the next sentence” (“Reading the Rocks”). The marvelous title poem is only one of many in which Stanley’s speakers attempt to articulate knowledge gained from readings bounded by “the full sensorium” of either Northern California’s central valley or Nevada’s high desert, a region whose flora subsist on 7-12 inches of precipitation a year. The title poem is also only one of many that touch upon and return to the weed as both fact and figure, the one thing that helps the speaker “make [his] mind less of an emergency/and more of a habitation.” One of the great wisdoms of The Weeds is this: our feelings regarding ecological crisis are, after all, human emotions, and as such they can become just another damning aspect of our ecocidal self-regard. And though Stanley’s poems certainly never abandon the knowledge of crisis, they counter it with immersion in intimate relation, arguing that to meet other species with companionate good will, humor and curiosity might encourage us to live differently on the earth. As he writes of one such encounter:

Can we say it, that weeds are the intelligence of a disturbed earth?

They seem inert and don’t reassemble the sky around their emblems.
You can’t not run your hands on their leaves

fending you off
you and your weed whacker; it’s pyrrhic for somebody.

[Published July 14, 2012. 84 pages, $15.95 paperback original]

Brian Teare’s fourth book of poems is Companion Grasses (Omnidawn). A former Stegner and NEA Arts Fellow, he now teaches creative writing at Temple University.

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Recommended by Catherine Barnett

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (Graywolf) and Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidlmayer (Triquarterly)

Just last night, driving to Provincetown, Massachusetts, I saw a huge bright and colored light shoot across the sky and thought I must have imagined it, or seen a flare, an early spring firework. I didn't think much more about it but went to sleep in a lonely mildewy room at the edge of the world, reading Mary Szybist's second book, Incarnadine.

This morning I somehow awakened to a view of the bay (which had looked like a parking lot when I'd gone to bed), to the news that 1,200 other people along the eastern seaboard had seen the fireball (and posted sightings on the American Meteor Society website), and to Szybist's poem, "How (Not) to Speak to God."

SzybistCover.jpegThe poem, whose form had perplexed me when I first encountered it, now makes sense; one of the more audacious formal experiments in Szybist's second book, "How (Not) to Speak to God" has an empty circle at its center and lines that radiate out like spokes -- they are "spokes," fragmented "spokennesses"-- each of which begins with the word "who" or "whose" and describes "God" "who can feel without eroticizing everything"; "who could be a piece of flame, a piece of mind simmering"; "whose face is electrified by its own light." The emptiness, the circular space at the center of the poem, might suggest our not-knowing, an ongoing state of mystery, praise, and lament that is at the center of Szybist's collection. Woven throughout the book are various kinds of mysteries and mysterious, sometimes deeply unsettling, sometimes very beautiful "annunciations" into whose company the fireball streaking across the sky seemed to belong. The presiding metaphor/story of the Annunciation has theological, linguistic, and political echoes.

Although much of Szybist's book looks and sounds conventional, there are other language games played throughout the collection, games that are especially successful in that you may not even realize they're happening. (I'd greatly admired "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle," for example, without realizing it's an abecedarian: "...I can't /find her hands. Where does this gold / go? It's like the angel's giving / her a little piece of honeycomb to eat. / I don't see why God doesn't / just come down and / kiss her himself.") Some philosophers argue that when we play games we're really trying to figure out what we can do to the world and what the world can do to us; these poems explore this same irresolvable and ongoing exchange.

What I most admire in the collection is the unusual combination of intimate speech, experimentation, and engagement with other texts and stories drawn from the larger world -- texts and stories taken from historical documents, political hearings, from the local newspaper. I'm a little ashamed to say I love the quality of love that infuses the poems, the attentiveness, the quality of patience and mystery and a kind of maternal understanding. See especially "Night Shifts at the Group Home," a beautiful strange night-watch; the speaker, working or volunteering in a group home, describes a resident: "She was old,"

older than my mother: manic, caught
up in gibberish, determined to
sleep on my cot --

At first it was just to
quiet her. I could only sleep
if she slept, and I needed relief

from myself. That is how she
became a body next to mine ...

Szybist.jpegA very different kind of helplessness seeps into night's sleep in "So-and-So Descending from the Bridge," a meditation on maternal violence and yearning.

With its quiet compassion, plainspokenness, unearthly music, and innovative formal inventions--which function almost like flirtations, a kind of promise of another system of knowing/thinking/feeling -- Incarnadine leaves me, as Szybist writes, with "the happy idea that what I do not understand is more real than what I do ..." Szybist repeats "happy" so many times in "Happy Ideas" that the word, and the world (with all its un-understandability), becomes echolalia, glossolalia, irony, truth, promise, and lie.

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For more than ten years, I've kept Heidy Steidlmayer's graduate thesis on my bookshelf next to Louise Bogan's essays and poems; Heidy and I went to graduate school together and I recognized even then what a terrifically gifted and fierce poet she is. She introduced me to Bogan; she taught me to pay attention to etymology; she told me I had to work harder; for each of these I am grateful, as I am now for her first book of poems, Fowling Piece, which I recommend for its strange, strained, stained-by-death-and-grief music that echoes Plath, Bogan, and maybe a little Stevens; Dickinson is here, too.

Steidlmayer.jpegSteidlmayer's thesis (Seeing at the Violet Hour: Etymology and Poetic Diction) investigated how a study of etymology can unlock a poem's deeper meanings: "Of course," she writes near the end of the thesis, "etymology is not the only lens by which to view this poem, but it was my way of endeavoring to become what Donald Justice terms 'a good reader' -- one who attempts to wrestle with the inscrutable." Reading Fowling Piece I'd say Steidlmayer's inscrutables are also her central concerns: "oracle", "eternity" (eternal); "death"; "redemption"; "love"; "invisible"; "nothing." Her "nothing" is calmly terrifying: In "The Eye Patch," for example, she describes "the nothing that now wants everything / that has become my eye --" and then repeats the single syllable "see" to make a haunting half-riddling song: "the blackness of the patch tricking / my palsied eye into not-seeing as it sees / in the round sea of its dark cup." The poem "Limbo" opens with a nod to Stevens's nothing: "Because there is nothing there is that is not / worth dying for ..."

Steidlmayer's mythical, biblical, and medical allusions are not staid or lightly worn; rather they are pulsing with human urgency and catastrophe, with love and need, with fear and a steely (like the knife-edge that recurs throughout the collection) courage. I find quiet allusions to Dante's circles of hell -- in the circles the skater skates; in the MRI machine in which the speaker finds herself "Midway ... conveyed from within"; in the skater's "dark / rink of eternal morning."

SteidlmayerCover.jpegLike Szybist, Steidlmayer makes the stuff of the world numinous even when (or because) it keeps escaping us--"I've been wearing this blue veil / to show my part in revealing // I've been touched more than once / by an invisible light." A peacock that needs burying is "an armful of iridescent death" (reminiscent of Bishop's rabbit in "The Armadillo," described as a "handful of intangible ash"). Rarely has anyone -- well, yes, of course Bishop -- so animated the act of description: thing and place become language itself, or vice versa. In the tension between Steidlmayer's line and syntax you can hear loads of Plath and even some Berryman; hers is a muscular, musical line inhabiting (or inhabited by) a wild exact vocabulary I rarely encounter in contemporary poetry. She breathes life into the English language, using unfamiliar words in everyday settings: ampoule ("flickering in its ampoule"); unction ("the sap of unction"); ootheca ("the froth of the ootheca"). The beauty of these original poems is equaled by their power to freeze time, and space, and the soul, like "the stases of ice beyond // this wintry affinity."

[Incarnadine -- published February 5, 2013. 72 pages, $15.00 paperback original. Fowling Piece -- published February 8, 2012. 80 pages, $16.95 original paperback]

The fireball may be seen by
clicking here.

Catherine Barnett has received the 2012 James Laughlin Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers' Award, and the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers. The author of The Game of Boxes (Graywolf Press, 2012) and Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Alice James Books, 2004), she has been the visiting poet at Barnard College, currently teaches at the New School and NYU, and works as an independent editor.

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Recommended by David Wojahn

Child Made of Sand by Thomas Lux (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Over the course of forty years and twelve collections of verse, Thomas Lux has created a body of work of such consistency and excellence that I sometimes fear he is the victim of his own success. Ever since he arrived at his mature style with 1986’s Half Promised Land, he has been so dependably good, his strategies so engaging, his technique so accomplished, and his approach such a satisfying mixture of wit and pathos, it may well be that some readers have come to take him for granted. One can hardly call this dependability an aesthetic shortcoming. Unlike a good many of his generational peers, Lux’s work has never devolved into self-imitation, self-importance or mannerism. There’s none of the drama of anticipation that attends the arrival of a new Lux title in the way there is for fans who await, say, a new album by Bob Dylan or Neil Young-- where one is faced with the dubious pleasure of wondering whether the upcoming product will be a masterpiece or a fiasco of wretched self-indulgence. No, Lux is instead, simply and durably good, and his new volume contains some of his best work, and his best is very fine indeed.

Lux.jpegI would also venture to say that Lux’s consistency arises from a moral imperative as much as an aesthetic one. Like so many of the poets born in the 1940s, he cut his teeth on the neo-surrealism and caffeinated absurdism that was all the rage in the late sixties and early seventies, and in Lux’s first few collections we hear echoes of many of the usual suspects of the era — a little James Wright, a little O’Hara, and a lot of the early James Tate. But by the mid-nineteen-eighties Lux had extricated himself from that style: the daftness and imagistic pyrotechnics of neo-surrealism were replaced by a more scrupulous (but every bit as inventive) approach to the image, and irony and whimsy by something that would best be described as wit —wit in the tradition of the metaphysical and cavalier poets. The poems now became more burnished, more linguistically sly, and — most importantly -- aimed to tutor and to teach as much as to entertain. The transformation Lux undertook at this time is similar to that of a small number of his generational peers — I think of Marvin Bell, Stephen Dunn, and especially of the late William Matthews -- who abandoned neo-surrealism for something like neo-Horatian-ism. If there’s a guiding principle behind Lux’s mature method, it’s the sturdy but unfashionable one that Horace sets forth toward the end of his Ars Poetica. “Poetry wants to instruct as well as to delight;/or, better still, to delight and instruct at once.” (This is David Ferry’s translation.) In fact, Lux says very much the same thing in an especially characteristic poem in Child Made of Sand which begins by reminding us that “a delivery of dung/interrupted Wordsworth as he drafted ‘Intimations of Immortality.’” Lux loves this sort of irony, but not so much to prevent the closing of the poem from being as earnest as it is quirky:

Wordsworth the elder
obtained a sinecure selling stamps,
wrote many bad poems, and,
truth is, he
is immortal,
or as close as a corpse can get, would be
for the first four stanzas of “Intimations”
alone.
Those stanzas alone.
Anonymous — “Western Wind” —achieved the same with four lines!
No piece of art is perfect.
All it has to do is stay around
for two hundred, or five hundred
or a few thousand
years. It (art) always changing; us,
not so much.

This passage is both stylistically and thematically emblematic of Lux’s method. His subjects are often so relentlessly ingenious that my first impulse is to wonder how Lux will bring the poem off. Witness this list of a few of his titles: “The Moths Who in the Night Come to Drink Our Tears,” “The Anti-Lunarian League,” “The Underappreciated Pontooniers,” “Boy Born with a Small Knife in His Head,” and “Like Tiny Baby Jesus, in Velour Pants, Sliding Down Your Throat (A Belgian Euphemism).” This is the imagination of someone who has amassed an old-fashioned Cabinet of Wonders, and whose sensibility owes more to vaudeville than to Andre Breton. But Lux for the most part avoids the easy tour de force he is so capable of, in part because his writing is nimbly associative and its pace so propulsive. We don’t really have time to regard the title of a poem such as “A Frozen Ball of Rattlesnakes” as arch, given how quickly the opening is able to beguile us:

How’d they get in a ball?
What do they mean by a ball, how many in it,
And do you mean stone-frozen?
Or do you mean dormant, sluggish, half-hibernating?
Snakes can do that, right?
Rattlesnakes live in other countries too.
There are many species, right?
I’ve seen copperheads and cottonmouths
in some mountains
and a few desultory streams I knew….

This loopy sort of speculation goes on in similar fashion for several more lines before Lux gets to his point, which manages to be unabashedly didactic while at the same time grimly startling:

Lincoln used the phrase, metaphorically, more than once.
It’s a good metaphor, easy to read, vivid. Metaphors
should be, and sometimes
should terrify. A man chops
off another man’s head, props
the corpse sitting up against a roadside pole
and places the man’s head in his hands,
on his lap.

I know of some readers who complain that all of Lux’s poems look and sound the same, and in some respects they are right. Nearly all of the poems are between thirty and forty lines long, and Lux has an almost pathological aversion to stanza breaks. But so much goes on within Lux’s signature block stanzas that the form rarely seems repetitive. The ending of “A frozen Ball of Rattlesnakes” is a case in point. The fusillade of internal and end-rhyme (chops/props/corps/lap), the quirky enjambments and the antic shifts in diction all conspire to make for a grisly sort of Shock and Awe.

LuxCover_0.jpgChild Made of Sand does not differ significantly from the volumes which Lux has published during the last two decades, save for the fact that (although this is hard to believe in the case of a writer who is so energetic) the poet is now eligible for Social Security, and there is something of a valedictory element to the book that isn’t found in Lux’s earlier work. The book pays homage to his chosen masters —there are affecting elegies for Mandelshtam and Vallejo. There are some canny meditations on mortality, and a sequence of poems deriving from the poet’s childhood in rural Western Massachusetts. These latter poems are more narrative than Lux’s usual fare, and seem a bit like the darker Frost and a bit like Groucho. Here we’re told the consequence of a horse dropping dead in a field:

My father said: Happens. Our neighbor,
named Malcolm, walked back to his place
and was soon grinding toward us
with his tractor’s new backhoe,
of which he was proud
but so far used only to dig two sump holes.
It was the knacker who’d haul away a cow.
A horse, a good horse, you buried
where he, or she, fell, Malcolm
cut a trench beside the horse
and we pushed him in.
I’d already said goodbye
before I tried to close his eyes …

A knacker, as Lux tells us in his laconic endnotes to the volume, is “the guy from the glue factory.” (One of the pleasures of reading a Lux collection is that you always finish it with a slightly larger arsenal of oddball special facts.) Although Child Made of Sand is informed by a spirit of leave-taking, this is a poet who vows not to go gentle. The book’s final poem is built around a characteristically cunning Lux-ian conceit, but it is also tenderly self-reckoning. The poet offers us a kind of précis for a promised memoir — not surprisingly, it’s witty as hell, but not far at all from the spirit of George Herbert’s later poems. Indeed, the closing of Herbert’s “Bitter-sweet” could almost serve as an epigraph for “Outline for My Memoir.” Here’s the end of the Herbert poem: “I will complain; yet praise; / I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet dayes / I will lament and love.” Now here’s the end of the Lux:

My thirties? Wore funny glasses.
(Maybe a two-sentence self-deprecatory joke?)
My forties, fifties? The best part
was a child, named Claudia. I could say some funny
things about her, but so could every father.
Besides, family is personal, private
blood.
(With above exception of daughter, those two decades:
a paragraph, maybe two if I insert
journal entry on day of her birth?)
I can’t bear to write of her mother, whom I hurt.
Lately? Read like a hungry machine,
in a new room, in a house I love; there is still
my child to love, and friends,
and a beloved, named Jenny.
My vital signs are vital.
I tend a little garden, have a job.
(No way I could write more than a few sentences
in these years
under the sentence, again,
of happiness.) If I live a hundred lives,
then I’ll know more truths, maybe, and lies,
to write
my memoir, novella sized.

Let’s hope that Lux’s vital signs stay vital — and so uniquely and resonantly vital --for many years to come.

[Published November 27, 2012. 80 pages, $23.00 hardcover]

David Wojahn’s eighth collection of verse, World Tree, was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, as well as the Poets’ Prize. 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 Julie Sheehan

You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by anna Moschovakis (Coffee House Press)

In her notes, Anna Moschovakis suggests that You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, a beautiful and crafty collection, occurred by a kind of automatic subjugation to four randomly chosen books “from the shelves of the Bibliobarn, a miraculous used bookstore in South Kortright, NY.” I don’t care how miraculous a bookstore is, this collection did not write itself. Equally unrevealing is Moschovakis describing her use of those texts entirely in the passive tense: “Language is borrowed, premises are adopted or argued with, tones are emulated or thwarted.” Thus poetry is written by Anna.

MoschovakisCover.jpegI’ve noticed that reviews of You and Three Others also tend to lapse into the passive tense. From an unsigned one on poetry.org: “Ideas about choice (and indecisiveness), consumption, comfort, indulgence, and the evolution of collective vocabularies are explored, using the rhetoric of Internet-speak, ethics texts, historical anecdotes, and argument.” From Matt McBride’s review in H_NGM_N, “In the poem, desperate [sic] texts on topics ranging from John Ruskin to per capita meat consumption in 1900 are brought to bear….” From Collin Schuster’s review on The Rumpus, a trifecta of passive sentences: “We are taken back to 1917, the origins of ‘Modern industrialism,’ workers, comforts, waste. It’s as though you are being plotted on a map, the axis or ‘axes’ or access of it. You are getting asked to interpret it, to ‘choose.’” From Guillermo Parra’s review in Galatea Resurrects, “The reader is thus carefully initiated and filtered through the work of the poem, which occurs in the future, when the book has been put down and its narratives begin to settle in the mind.” Whatever authority Moschovakis cedes, or pretends to cede, to the Bibliobarn, the act/art of ceding infiltrates her reviewers’ prose.

Let’s put this passivity to bed, where it belongs. We know who’s in charge the minute we start reading. Even her signal phrases assert Moschovakis’s imaginative control and sense of humor, sounding, as they do, right out of Genesis: “It has been said,” goes one. “Finally, he arose / and said,” is another.

Moschovakis’s project in this book is to approach distinctions between the material world and the abstract — between things (and, problematically, the words we use to denote them) and the conclusions we draw from things, which we form into theories. From “procedure” to “Scientology,” from “logic” to “law,” she treats pretty much every system of abstraction we have. While she may claim to have chosen them arbitrarily, her four Bibliobarn books are very busy arguing theory in the sort of overconfident way their titles, which she uses for the four main sections of You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, suggest: “The Tragedy of Waste,” “Death as a Way of Life,” “The Human Machine,” and “In Search of Wealth.” We have to read her opening line, “The problem is I don’t care whether I convince you or not,” as a little joke at the expense of these appropriated texts’ theoretical earnestness. It’s also a dare.

Immediately, Moschovakis thrusts the “you” and “three others” of her title into a logic problem, a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma, with “two canoes, your tent, your axes,” and that lake. It’s a test of material shortage, of the virtues of the concrete over the abstract. Here are the first results:

One had brought back poisonous toadstools
One had lain down on the beach
Had cut down tall trees for —

The characters in the poem are already in trouble. The poet, however, is not. The topic, as many reviewers have noted, is ethical choice, but it’s the “you and three others” in the poem eating the ill-chosen poisonous toadstools. Moschovakis’s choices — and she controls the words we’re reading — all seem spot on.

Let’s also point out that eating poisonous toadstools, while an unhealthy choice, is not unethical, unless you knowingly feed them to someone else. It’s what she later calls a “material error.” She develops this distinction between a system of ideas and things in the next line: “We start not with theory but with tangible performance.” Ethics arise, then, out of a history of actions. First comes the “tangible performance” of poisonous toadstools on the human body, and only later do we confront the ethical choice of whether to use them to harm others.

Consistently, and in a variety of ways throughout the book, Moschovakis traces theory back to some tangible component. Here’s a fanciful example, using word play to take an abstract word back to a concrete one:

(“The theologians” is an attractive phrase sounds laughable but
with an underbelly like all my subjects)

(It also reminds me that the words “theology” and “logic” are
related by the root word, “log” and that when I was young a
log was a bridge that got you safely to the other side)

Moschovakis.jpegFrom “theologians” to “log,” the passage gravitates toward tangibility, as, we suspect, do Moschovakis’s sympathies. For one, she’s an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse, known for the physical beauty of its books. For another, her method in You and Three Others is collage, which depends on the tangibility of its materials. The book fairly bristles with bits and pieces: historical figures flash by, then a scrap of dialogue, perhaps, then some found text, then population figures and a résumé, separated by Prisoner’s Dilemma-type interpositions, like “A glass of milk / or / a cigarette / but not both.” She cribs concrete nouns and their modifiers from ads to make this paragraph, from a subsection called “An Analysis of Advertising:“

We must pick and choose:

smiling faces, shining teeth , schoolgirl complexions, cornless feet, perfect-fitting union suits, distinguished collars, wrinkleless pants, odorless breaths, regularized bowels, happy homes in New Jersey (15 minutes from Hoboken), charging motors, punctureless tires, perfect busts, shimmering shanks, self-washing dishes . . . backs behind which the moon was meant to rise!

Each concrete noun is paired (passive tense) with a commercial adjective, the “public” language we have come to agree will denote the benefits of those things. A careful reader of Wittgenstein, Moschovakis is hypersensitive to the public performance of language. But choice is illusory — the adjectives have already decided for us that these nouns are good and that we want them — and in this performative way the passage critiques the passivity of consumption.

Reading can be dangerously passive, too, which is why I found the passive tense in so many of her reviews distressing. On the other hand, I found it hard to keep out of my own (see above). Moschovakis opens You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake with, “The problem is I don’t care whether I convince you or not,” but she also makes it awfully difficult for readers to retain their agency. Something persuasive is going on. To return to that opening section, the logic problem of what you and three others will do with “two canoes, your tent, your axes,” ends badly, but not in the way I expected. I was expecting the characters to build bad theories. Instead, “you” the reader gets into trouble, not from building bad theories, but from submitting to Moschovakis’s charms. (“Oh, watch the inventors!” Moschovakis warns, and she is the ultimate inventor.) Toward the end of the section, Moschovakis undoes her own title. All along, “you” were “approaching a lake,” but no, she tells us, that’s a misperception. “The error is material—it’s an island ahead. You are already in the lake.” Yikes! Prepare to be in over your head, though you’ll get a little apology toward the very end of the book:

Dear Second Person, I have treated you wrong.
I have been unfair. I have taken advantage and had
unreasonable expectations.

[Published January 18, 2011. 132 pages, $16.00 original paperback]

Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book, Orient Point and Thaw. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in The New Republic, Parnassus and Yale Review.

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Recommended by Ken Chen

Poems of the Black Object by Ronaldo Wilson (Futurepoem Books)

“The collective body--that phantasm with which I share blood, history, and hips--goes for a stroll. Ambling, lumbering, hobbling in a monstrous mass, more male than female, urban than rural, angry than forgiving, the collective body is reminiscent of some creatures from a fifties sci-fi flick, bigger than a house.” --Lisa Kennedy, “The Collective Body” in Black Popular Culture

Unlike most things, the human body grows more excessive the more you take things away from it. Say, clothes or prudence. Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object is a paean to the body after it’s been stripped of things like underwear and subjecthood. His poems undress the self from the body, letting the limbs thump nakedly onto the ground (where they, perhaps, vogue and pop-lock). Catalogued rather than named, the body disaggregates into its constituent ur-atoms: slugs and snails and puppydog tails--or to quote the Wilsonian equivalent, “the inalienable piss slit and perineum, agape.” The genre of “horror” captures some of these poems’ atmosphere of occult, erotic, choked viscera, but provides an inapt categorization: the body differs from horror in being paradigmatically natural--and yet such primordiality is perhaps what makes the body seem so horrific. In these poems, sex is the antimony of love and body horror.

Wilson.jpegThe “black object” in the title refers, of course, to the black male body, that hulking golemic bogeyman, beloved of the frisk and baton, making frequent cameo co-star appearances in the Afrophobic American cine-mind as King Kongist Caliban (e.g., Willie Horton, O.J. Simpson digitally darkened in Newsweek). (You may be familiar with the body’s alter ego: the sacrificial Isaac, e.g. Rodney King or more recently, Trayvon Martin and Kimani Gray.) Poems of the Black Object opposes such objectification, but not in the way you might suspect. First, these aren’t poems of humanization. Unlike the poignant images of striking Memphis sanitation workers carrying signs saying, “I AM A MAN,” these spry, bristling, category-splattering poems turn the objectification up to eleven, seeking to learn less from ennoblement than an amused debasement. Here is some of his vocabulary: “ooohhh ooohhhhh... cock a diddle”; “Herman hung a horse shoe on his hard cock”: “You are not sure if it is quite joy when you see the wound”; “Yes he’d want it: 64%”; “Ape, I am preoccupied, a frozen heart fires into his body like fetid flour.”

Second, these poems object to a more subtle racial imprisonment: the way in which a clumsy multiculturalism can lead to self-stereotyping and a kind of mythologization of identity. This doesn’t mean one should abjure the rough magic of race, like a liberal integrationist, but more accurately see race as, in the words of Stuart Hall, a “floating signifier.” Race is a verb, not a noun -- a racializing process, rather than than some authentic alchemical element locked deep in your self’s core. A co-founder of avant-black poetry group, The Black Took Collective, Wilson writes a racial poetics that is less call and response than, in his words, “cull and repose,” as much “wine and cheese” as “pop-locking arms.” The book is not just a poetics for a writer with a liminal racial identity (Wilson is a queer, half-pinoy black poet), it marks the strange perimeters, the desperate liminality of bodily identity itself.

WilsonCover_0.jpgIf race is not a given, not a problem that can be finally solved, then it is a kind of moving object, repellant to definition. Poems of the Black Object is an asymptotic, obsessive book searching for a more accurate, more impossible way to track one’s own racial positioning. The poems aspire less to the well-wrought urn than to the performance, which is the affect of self reinvention. Performativity hovers over the book as a kind of atmosphere. Wilson ventriloquizes a faux-Shakespearean persona (critiquing the master-slave dynamic of The Tempest) with the chatty orality of a blogger on a sugarhigh. In some sections, Wilson writes more flatly, such as when he describes a catalog of black selves or when he recounts his dreams, our most contingent narratives since they are most intimately and lease consciously our own. In the most recognizably “poem-like” sections, he writes with a scalpel. This is a shapeshifting book, its gestures Rabelaisian, anti-categorical, liberated, and spry.

Wilson’s publisher, Futurepoems, should be acknowledged for publishing a number of messy, sculptural, wildly intellectual titles in a poetry milieu when so many poems, both anecdotal and experimental, seem to aspire to disinfectant. I turned traitor on such neo-modernism when I realized there were more ideas per word in the raw than in the cooked. Poems of the Black Object is a rolling, puzzling meatball book that has more thoughts per poem (and more different kind of poems) than any recent poetry book I can think of. The book often vibrates with a kind of stark Websterian hallucinogen. At his best, Wilson writes with an onomatopoeia of ideas.

[Published October 15, 2009. 112 pages, $15.00 original paperback]

Ken Chen is the director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. His poetry collection Juvenilia was awarded the Yale Younger Poet Prize in 2010.

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Recommended by Philip Metres

Alight by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon)

JoudahCover_0.jpgAlight, Fady Joudah’s follow-up to his Yale Younger Poetry debut The Earth in the Attic (2008), lives up to its title. While the themes and stories of the first book also wend their way through this collection — the experience of displacement and diaspora, the ethical complexities of doctoring to the suffering and the traumatized, the possibilities of poetry in the face of violence and oppression — Alight never plods, never explains itself. More elliptical, more compressed, more broken, Alight nonetheless flickers and scintillates, gambling all on song.

I have noted the fluidity and shifting of place and idea in Joudah’s memorable first collection. But there was also plenty of writing anchored syntactically that allowed the eye to focus and get comfortable. For example, in “Atlas,”

This blue crested hoopoe is whizzing ahead of us
From bough to bough,
The hummingbird wings

Like fighter jets
Refueling in midair.

If you believe, the hoopoe
Is a good omen,

The driver says,
Then you are one of us.

Though the simile leaps from the hoopoe’s flight to the poet’s sense of the overwhelming (in the literal sense of the word) operations of militarism and empire, the poem clearly takes place in a cab ride with a local African driver.

Consider, by contrast, the opening to Alight, the aptly-titled “Tenor”:

To break with the past
Or break it with the past
The enormous car-packed
Parking lot flashes like a frozen body
Of water a paparazzi sea
After take off

And because the pigeons laid eggs and could fly
Because the kittens could survive
Under the rubble wrapped
In shirts of the dead

And the half-empty school benches
Where each body sits next
To his absence and holds him
In the space between two palms
Pressed to a face/
This world this hospice

Alight’s shifts are tectonic—syntactic and psychic, economic and geographical. Notice, for example, the utter absence of punctuation, and the cantilevered enjambments. This is a collection of poems entirely without punctuation (except the occasional prose pieces). More than simply the “skittery” poetry of Tony Hoagland’s anxious classification (the post-Ashberyian poetry of juxtaposition and ellipticism), Joudah’s poems instantiate the simultaneities of a cosmopoetics, a globally-inflected poetry that alternately ruptures and sutures our sense of belonging and separateness.

Joudah.jpg“Tenor,” to take the opening salvo, is a poetic manifesto, a proposition of a poetry that neither abandons the past nor worships it. The question that Joudah poses is the choice between “to break with the past” (i.e. modernism) or “break it [the past? poetry?] with the past.” For the poet, the claims of modernism feel limited and even dangerous in light of what modernism has wrought—even today, the privileging of innovation as such seems to rhyme with the endless diversification of commodities. The uncertain “it” of “break it with the past” is never resolved; we wonder whether the poet simply reflects on the overpowering nature of the past to destroy poetry, or whether the right kind of remembering could possibly break the mythologies of the past. Such lack of resolutions, in Joudah’s deft hand, seems strategic rather than sloppy.

“Tenor” leaps from the packed airport parking lot’s flashes of sunlight against the metal glass (and all its linguistic plosives) — itself an image of capitalist prosperity in the First World — to the scene of rubbled buildings and the ironic survival of kittens in the clothes of the dead. In the global reality, such scenes are just a flight away, and sometimes less than that. The use of “because” without concluding the thought is suggestive of the way in which the poem is not going to provide answers, but rather an opening to a sentence which the reader must somehow fill in. The next stanza’s leap — stanza, after all, means room—is to a primitive classroom, where the students are both present and absent, half-alive and half-haunted by the ghosts of others. It could be describing a game of hide-and-seek or something more ominous, in a place where whole peoples are vanquished and disappear. In the hands of a Palestinian-American writer, such vanishings echo doubly and poignantly.

But this poem’s architecture of ruined fragment is not the end, after all, given its final line; since the world — always a place of dying — is compared to a hospice, a place where the dying can receive some last dignity and comfort.

Joudah’s poems — savvy about their place both as exilic poems and as embodiments of the global imaginary — blur the senses of place/identity/time into how we actually experience them, as simultaneities, implicitly question narrative’s ability to overclarify and exclude the rich irreducibility of our felt experience.

Occasionally, in life and in such poetry, ubiquitous fractures and lacunae feel overwhelming, and one longs for moments of clarity. Thankfully, Alight isn’t entirely composed of leaps and fracture. “Mimesis,” one of my favorite anecdotal poems of the collection, allows us a window into the legacy of diaspora, and how we live in a web (an image from Joudah’s first book as well) that is all too easily-ruptured:

My daughter
wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking

She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?

That child is mother to the man, to twist Wordsworth. It is always uncanny, I think, how children both reflect back our conscious and unconscious worldviews, and also come to show us forgotten paths of our own being.

JoudahB.jpegAlight, incidentally, is being released simultaneously with a series of poems marked by an even greater sense of compression and fugitive transience, the digital-only collection Textu, composed of poems written exactly at 160 characters, the maximum length of a text message. Joudah, it appears, takes Dr. Williams’ prescription pad and raising it into the digital age, and taking it far out of Paterson. Wherever Joudah goes next — toward the maximalist epics of the late Darwish, or increased ellipticism and minimalism of the text poems—I’m bound to follow.

[Published May 14, 2013. 110 pages, $16.0 original paperback]

Philip Metres has been awarded an NEA fellowship for 2013. His abu ghraib arias won the Arab American Book Award in 2012. He teaches English at John Carroll University.

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Recommended by Cynthia Hogue

Whelm by Dawn Lonsinger (Lost Horse Press)

In Dawn Lonsinger’s Whelm, received categories, genres, and generic expectations unfold and reformulate in ways that astonish and delight me. The volume is full of that most ancient of lyric genres, love poems — love found, lost and mourned — but the narrative thread is so subtle, the textual turns and linguistic swerves of the poetry so dazzling, that the “story” functions almost chorically. It tethers the soaring, dancing poetic voice like the kite’s string to the body’s hand. To give an example that comes early in the volume, I take Part I of “Why Deluge,” quoted below in full:

because fruits have no mouths
you follow me into the pelted fields
where there is no way out of this —

storm windows sparking,
the delta splintered within us like veins

we touch our flinty skins together, but nothing
leaks inside aftermath, my pining deep enough
to trawl, my knees caught in the damp twine
of our historic sleeping

my skirt soaks up the whole of the landscape,
ankles damp and root-like in love

there is no use
in asking why we are grown over, at this
point adjourned

somewhere the sloths so gloss
& grown-over & holding on

LonsingerCover.jpgIs the deluge actual or emotional? The answer to such questions in a Lonsinger poem is, as with the poet whose words give the volume its epigraph, Emily Dickinson, Yes. Readers will enter these poems for the texture of the story, the languaged matters of love. We enter to glory in the impassionate words, unexpected word choices (“pelted fields”), and the deep layering at the level of music (internal rhyming of pining and twine, for example, and the slant rhymes like use, this, and gloss, the assonance of sloths and gloss).

We enter as well for the way Lonsinger mindfully reflects on all that has touched her. “Why Deluge” takes us through a magical deltic world of so delicately sustained metaphor that when “the whole of the landscape” of the poem stabilizes into image, we’re literally out to sea (see), where “ablution seeps into us // through wounds,” the water tangles “in a foreclosure of rocks,” and “the mind” has swayed “back and forth for 3,000 years” dusting off “our things/ with the promise of salt.” Such imagistic resonance proffers not determinative resolution, but an opening wide of thought that is characteristic of Lonsinger’s best poems.

Also characteristic is the conceptual brilliance of Whelm, beginning naturally enough with the connotations that “whelm” activates: meaning both M.E. overwhelm and O.E. helma to handle (O.N. hjalm, rudder). Whelm suggests both to be deluged (hurricanes, floods, waters and seas roil through these poems) and to steer through that which would engulf us. To put it another way, these poems serve as rudders navigating us into the territory of terrestrial sublime, as both love and mourning naturally are, but soundings of climate change (“Aquaria”), 9/11 (“Hawaii of Mourning”), and man-made, industrial destruction (“Centralia, PA”) enlarge Lonsinger’s field of vision. As one poem muses about the evolutionary phenomenon that crying replaces speech,

Maybe when you cry you break
with form, end up rippling through . . .

(from “The Flood is a Figure of Speechlessness”)

Such poems bring into sudden focus moments of insight, not spiritual epiphany so much as trans-formative approaches to the representation of embodied emotional truths, the corporeal phenomenology that Lonsinger so exquisitely tracks. The line break on “break” in the couplet above makes both formal and semantic sense, of course, casually revising Wright’s famously sentimental epiphany. In contrast, the ending of Lonsinger’s line is annotated: the “break,” when it comes, is “with form” (emphasis added). This moment is a good example of Lonsinger’s nuanced precision. The thinking-through of the poem’s formalism, as it impacts the poem’s emotional field, can be perceived at the level of such details as the idiomatic prepositional phrase. To “break with” form is at once formally to interrupt the line, to deploy form to create the break, and also to raise the spectral aesthetic (im)possibility of leaving form behind altogether—an ontological concern on which Whelm ruminates.

Lonsinger.jpegIn place of formlessness, Lonsinger marshals formal investigations — at the level of morpheme, parts of speech, signification and substance. There are witty prose poems in Whelm, as well as formal homages to Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, which balance the more experimental investigations into what the poet Brian Teare has termed recently the “postmodern lyric.” A good part of the reason that Whelm is such an inspiring volume to read—the “whelm” of discovering a powerful new poet through the poems gathered and ordered into her debut collection—is what I will dub (tripling up the alliteration) Lonsinger’s linguistic lightning, which supples the space of the poems and therefore the reading of them with ozone-like fresh air! I’ll close with a last example, the deliciously analytic, elegiac, and droll “Knee-Deep,” quoted below in full:

The body – god box – holds
the stuffing, blunt-winded plot,
until it doesn’t

tissue of tiny details
soaking up gestures of wedding
parties, neurons, steering wheel,
sugar bowl, the solarium

the nectar ebbs from the design

an autopsy, the openings filled with liquids,
already locked-out of the house, embarrassed

The river bank has been dented—
material ghost, the knees lock-kneed, knee-deep

What is left is fact and its antihistamine

Carry it to the river and drop it in. Watch it give in
like a vocabulary greased, the fish unlocked by their own

removable beauty

Echo the ocean of you when you (carrying the description)
are gone. So swam the surplus, blindingly bright, away

We mark in these poems the sweep of the wave (carrying the experiential description, the fact and its antihistamine) that is Lonsinger’s poetic intelligence, comprising a movable beauty, the oceanic sounding lifting and moving us, which we feel somatically long after we have left the shores of Whelm.

[Published April 1, 2013. 108 pages, $18.00 original paperback]

Cynthia Hogue has published seven collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, both in 2010. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University.

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Recommended by Michael Klein

Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman

Dickman.jpegMatthew Dickman’s rapturous new book of poems, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, begins with a poem called “In Heaven” and ends with a poem called “On Earth”, setting the reader on a reverse path to enlightenment so that one ends up where one usually begins. In this, his second book, Dickman’s telescopic eye and quick thinking conspire to make sense of the kaleidoscopic world made of children and teenage girls, firecrackers, broken bottles, dogs and hummingbirds flying or strewn along the road of youth and cultural malaise. We also, importantly, enter a world that is made out of the living and the living who are barely living and the dead who are not alive but who are living, too.

And it’s a book that is supremely haunted by the thirteen poems in the center – all of which face with some anger and subtle self-proclaimed drug-induced mania the death of a brother. So, they’re restless – these poems – but they’re not antsy and the light doesn’t cure and the dark doesn’t kill. There’s only – to borrow the title of Jason Shinder’s last book: Stupid Hope and Dickman is much more concerned with collecting evidence of that hope than he is in analyzing it:

I’m sitting beneath the bent
live oak, wishing the plane blinking above me
was a satellite that would shoot images
of my older brother back down into my brain
so I could print them out
and paste them on the wall …

Mayakovsky’s Revolver is constructed like a body that can fly. “In Heaven”, the section which begins the book and “On Earth”, the section which ends it, are the wings. The body is represented by the middle section (“Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral”) where the dead brother is and those central poems – deeply subjective and spare – are marvels of honesty and cinematic pacing and imagery. Here’s the beginning of the title poem:

I keep thinking about the way
blackberries will make the mouth
of an eight-year-old look like he’s a ghost
that’s been shot in the face. In the dark I can see
my older brother walking through the tall brush
of his brain. I can see him standing
in the lobby of the hotel,
alone, crying along with the ice machine.

DickmanCover.jpgWithout the image – one senses with Dickman (and I keep thinking of movies here) – there is no poem. And while that initial flash could stop a writer from seeing, Dickman takes on the image to trigger not only the narrative but the narrative behind the narrative – the winding way in which we come to a place of having to face only ourselves. In this title poem, there at the gate and that Edward Hopper-esque image of “him standing/in the lobby of the hotel,” a lost man in a public room – trying to understand how living failed him. Now he’s a force made out of memory and Dickman sees him more clearly by holding him up to the light of his culminating heartbreak.

Marie Howe once said that a poem is something that holds living and dying at the same time – that knowledge that we are alive and that we know we’re going to die. And while Dickman comes to his own work with the grace and cost of that wisdom, there’s an important glance in Frank O’Hara’s direction in Mayakovsky’s Revolver (the voice saying just try not to listen), mixed with an exhilarated desperation of a junkie looking for a fix of something that might kill him but actually saves him instead:

Outside
it has just begun to cool down
so I can take a walk if I want, see if there’s a moon
somewhere above the movie theater,
some summer stars
up there, some planet to go with the grass I’ll lie on
next to the school, a big field
where someone is asleep
or passed out, where a dog
overcomes a dead bird.

That saving also has to do with honoring and even romanticizing the brother (“He looks like Gary Cooper”) by keeping him alive (“You have not died yet”). We know the brother doesn’t die until the poet, himself, is done with living and in that middle section’s shattering concluding poem (“Anything You Want”), the brother finally succumbs to a gravestone’s chilly acknowledgement – delivered as part parody, part something Stephen King might have dreamed up:

…The other one,
my dead brother, is sitting
in the dark in the graveyard, his back leaning back against his name.
I’m walking with my favorite drug
inside me.

Like so many of the poems that make up Mayakovsky’s Revolver, “Anything You Want” is haunted as much by its generosity as it is by its refusal to count what has already been lost.
[Published October 1, 2012. 92 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

Michael Klein’s lastest book of poems is The Talking Day (Sibling Rivalry Press). He teaches in the MFA Program at Goddard College in Vermont.

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Recommended by Tom Sleigh

Crookedness by Tsvetanka Elenkova, translated from the Bulgarian by Jonathan Dunne (Tebot Bach)

Tsvetanka Elenkova's oblique lyrics might be described as a way to think through your life if your life has been touched by Christian iconography, particularly the Eastern tradition of icon painting, by the sights and sounds of modern cities, and by a sensitive alertness to the minutiae of nature—water drops, the way flowers furl and unfurl, the interplay of light and shade. History and private life, as it plays out in her poems, is more the collocation of these qualities than an announced subject.

Elenkova.jpegHer temperament is a quiet one, uninterested in showy gestures, whether poetical or political. She grew up at a transitional point in Bulgaria's history—as if there were any other kind for this war-torn crossroads between East and West. Born in 1968, she spans the generation that grew up under Communism, but saw it transform into democracy—sort of. The Communism of the Balkans—an intensely nationalistic pride in local culture, and a deep skepticism about Communism as both an institution and an ideology—and the democracy that replaced it, are in certain ways depressingly similar: wide-spread corruption, the bureaucrats from the old regime the same as in the new. Given such a jaundiced relation to political reality, her view of it is necessarily ambivalent. And you might say that this ambivalence has translated into a style that embraces paradoxes, but feels no need to resolve them. Her poem "Collusion" admirably displays this by remaining resolutely hard to pin down, whether in its syntactic or intellectual commitments.

In the poem, "one click" (of a trigger? a locked door?) results in you're being "on the outside"—though on the outside of what is more difficult to say: a community united by hate, by militarism? Or is this "outside" more a form of spiritual alienation, the sign of a divided self?

One click
and you’re on the outside
or have lost a finger
children especially
with every folding-unfolding
of wings
I saw on TV
the loading of cartridges
of tubes for gas
buttons even –
the tapping of blind men’s sticks
on studded pavements by a crossing –
this absolute unconditional fit
whatever comes before
though often it’s euphoria
has nothing in common with
a gentle knock at the door

This poem is typical in its use of juxtaposition ("blind men's sticks" with "tubes of gas") to suggest political and moral commitments that resist easy analysis: are the blind men the victims, or the avatars, of state violence? Similarly, "the gentle knock at the door" could be sinister, soothing, or both. By the same token, the quality of the "euphoria" also remains ambiguous: is it war hysteria, the high of going into battle, the Christian militant "marching as to war?" And is that "gentle knock at the door" what Osip Mandelstam would hear as the civilizing knock of a world humanism that values human solidarity as part of our better natures: the natures that partake of every "folding-unfolding of wings"? But even that image refuses to resolve into angelic intimations—it could simply be a natural, animal process that can't be assimilated to human purposes, whether for good or evil.

ElenkovaCOVERC.jpgBut the way these poems avoid direct statement isn't spiritual inertia or stylistic caginess, but the bedrock of their moral integrity. The poet's devotion to registering the literal sound of blind men's sticks, as well as that tapping's potential symbolic value, is what gives many of her poems the aura of fragmented perception. But that fragmented perception never flaunts itself as a method, as so much contemporary American poetry seems to do. Perception, after all, is never a method—it's an experience, an experience that makes objective Elenkova's lightning shifts between mind and sense, her intellectual ponderings and her perceptual acuity. When she says in her poem "Altar" that the "other side of perspective/ is dimension/ near-far light-shade," you can sense the seamlessness between "perspective" and "dimension" as technical terms in painting and philosophical concepts—a seamlessness that indicates that fragmentation of syntax in her work is a spiritual necessity, as opposed to a rote stylistic maneuver.

Elenkova's devotion to dramatizing these quick shifts between mind and eye, eye and heart, help to give her poems a spiritual immediacy that bypasses the formalizing rituals and conventions of most religious poetry, whether those rituals and conventions be Christian, Buddhist, or what have you. It's as if she writes a devotional poem that's stripped of any conscious designs on the reader—as if the intensity of her experience is overheard as opposed to broadcast, shared out unawares, rather than being pressed into our notice. The essence of these poems is a prayerful relation to the world, but without being directed to God, or asking for something in return for her belief. All the poet asks is that language, as it makes its way to the page, remain vital and alert, as it embraces human conundrums and paradoxes.

[Published March 21, 2013. 58 pages, $16.00 original paperback]

Tom Sleigh is the director of the creative writing program at Hunter College. His most recent poetry collection is Army Cats (Graywoilf Press, 2011).

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Recommended by Chloe Honum

Render / An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell (Cleveland State Poetry Center)

HowellCover_0.jpgRender / An Apocalypse, Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut collection (selected by Nick Flynn as winner of the CSU Poetry Center First Book Prize), is both haunting and healing. The design and structure of the book resembles an almanac. The poems employ a knowing voice that instructs: “How to Build a Root Cellar,” “How to Plant by the Signs,” and “How to Kill a Hog,” to name a few of the many how-to poems in the collection. These poems guide us—practically, emotionally, and spiritually — in remembering the basic necessities of survival.

Howell creates an atmosphere rife with hunger and need. Her language is stark, concrete, and elemental. Dirt, hay, shovels, animal blood and feces—the poems urge us to reconnect with these things, to look unflinchingly at the animal world in all its gore and beauty until we see ourselves staring back.

The poems describe the slaughter of animals in detail, daring us to look away. The stakes are high, for in the world of the collection detachment is sin. In “How to Kill a Rooster,” the third poem in the book, we are told to tie the rooster by his feet to the clothesline, cut his throat, and watch him bleed.

Watch his wings spread
and flap and flap and

while you watch this desperate bird
and think to yourself

I will never be like him

remember in the end you will
drop him in boiling water

pluck each of his oily feathers
between your fingers

Remember in the end
you will taste him

for good

Howell’s speaker is at times menacing, and always unsparing, yet a strong undercurrent of tenderness runs throughout the collection. This tenderness draws the reader close. The speaker imparts knowledge insistently, wanting us to remember how to feed ourselves and, just as important, how to stay emotionally attached to the world—to preserve the integrity of the mind. For example, “How to Build a Root Cellar” ends:

To build a root cellar

borrow cold from the ground
Dark from the night

Dig into the hill
Dig on the hill’s north side

Call your own name until
you have one

You have one
You have one

Howell’s commitment to staying connected to the earth is especially powerful when juxtaposed by bloody imagery. In the middle of poems about viscera, bone, and marrow, we are blindsided by stunningly beautiful phrases. Take, for example, “How to Cook the Lungs,” which appears about three-quarters into the collection. The poem begins with a stern, exacting tone. However, as in many of Howell’s poems, reverence and mystery soon enter in a way that is both organic and startling.

They cannot be kept
Feed them to your children

Feed them to the dog
Boil them with the heart

which no one eats alone
Boil them with the backbone

Who knows how the breath of god
cooks down to mash

Howell.jpgRender / An Apocalypse is divided into three sections. While the first and second sections consist mainly of how-to poems, the third consists of a single long poem: “A Calendar of Blazing Days.” Here, the lines lengthen and the tone becomes more meditative. The speaker’s vision takes a dark turn: “Since there’s nothing else to kill / take the slate rock piled out back / and target blue jays as they hawk.” Yet all is not lost. If we are willing to bind ourselves to the earth and its creatures, there is hope. Herein, the speaker presents us with a purpose that speaks directly to the present: “These are the blazing days / and you are asked to love.”

Howell has written a book of urgency and tenderness, worry and wisdom. Without a trace of irony, she uses imagery rooted in the past to speak to the present. The result is a chilling, beautiful, and necessary collection. The poems in Render / An Apocalypse will stay with you long after you close the book.

(Published March 1, 2013, 88 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. You may access her web page by clicking here

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Recommended by Randall Mann

Appetite by Aaron Smith (University of Pittsburgh Press)

SmithCover_0.jpgThe book of poems I turned back to most frequently in 2012 was Aaron Smith's Appetite, a current Lambda Literary Award and Thom Gunn Award finalist. There's so much to admire: the unrepentant queerness; the free verse that unfolds effortlessly on the page (which he makes look easy, but it isn’t); the unsparing take on the world (“This is the life we asked for, / and it’s everything we expected,” he writes in “West Side Highway (Meditation)”). And I have to say I really like that Smith is a bit angry, though not in a showoff way, not as a performance for the reader's benefit and sympathy and admiration. He writes openly about sex, but wryly, often related to the disappointments during and the cleanup after. American poetry could use more anger and more sex.

Smith upends our expectations. In "Sometimes I Want a Gun," the speaker begs his mother not to tell his father he's gay. The beating the speaker gets is, smartly, suggested rather than overt, but what surprises is the paternal care as his father tells him two things: "Don't tell your mom about this again" and "Does it bother you when I take my shirt off?" I admire how conversational this is, how it's as if Smith and I are in the same room; it’s as if Smith letting me in on something, risking saying something perhaps he should not. Consider these lines about two strangers on a train:

Her boyfriend has backed her against the railing.
He keeps opening his mouth and putting it on her face.
I hear their mouth sounds, and I hate them.

I want to say something cliché like: get a room.
I want to say something like: you take for granted
how easy you have it. Sometimes I want a gun.

This is just a moment in this fine, risky, dry-eyed, riled-up poem, but there's much to laud in these six lines. Formally, I love that it's in tercets — bringing to mind that there are three people in the situation, the couple and the voyeur — the emphatic end-stopped lines, and the judicious use of enjambment, that "you take for granted" that just hangs there, accusatory yet wounded. I also appreciate the subtle distancing of the speaker from the actions unfolding in front of him, i.e., rather than kissing, the man is putting his mouth on her face; there isn't the sound of passion, but rather, "mouth sounds." And these observations are perhaps as much about the distance between straight and gay as they are the self-forgetting of public love, which, for some, punishes those in close exclusive proximity.

Smith.jpegSmith has a neat trick of turning even the elegiac celebratory. In "Film Short: Husband and Wife in a Grocery Store," the speaker spins something everyday, a trip to the store with a former teacher for something sweet, into a confection of introspection, where so much—the teacher's cancer, the speaker's coming-out story and the liberation of telling the teacher, the strangeness of that curious moment when a teacher moves from teacher to friend—is offered lightly, that by the last line, when both are "grabbing handfuls of cake, and eating it," the reader appreciates this small moment of freedom, even as the penultimate line, “— (nobody is sick) —" suggests the inevitable despair, the limitations of such freedom.
This book is in many ways about the layers of judgment, of the self, of the perils of the speaker being judged by the situation of the poem and, by extension, the reader. And of course it lays bare the notion of judgment along the way.

A good example of this is "Antibiotic (West Virginia, 2010)," in which the speaker — "So I won't have to face a doctor, / won't have to get the speech, the look, / I pay out-of-pocket online" — drives 45 minutes to a little clinic to get checked for, confirm, an STD, where it's "one woman in a tiny room," and "even this woman will judge." But what I like about the poem is the speaker's self-awareness, for when he says "she does judge," it's only in reference to her saying "let me shut the door," hardly an accusation, and in this the poet carefully reveals his own projection, which is of course at the heart of feeling judged. "I've dated someone who is a liar," the patient lies — this is just a case of having sex with someone he didn't know. The poem ends with his plea "I'm not a whore," which seems in equal measure for the nurse, the reader, and himself. I want to read a poet who not only can risk judgment but can also call into question that risk.

There are moments of true emotional nakedness in this book. I love the poem "After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong about the Sadness of Men Who Love Men," how the speaker slips away from a poolside scene in Palm Springs and listens to the gaiety overheard, the "crash / of laughter," the questions and offhand conversation, the "hands smacking / the skin of men." And when someone says "Has anyone seen Aaron?," rather than jump up and rejoin the party, the speaker prolongs longing, pretends to sleep, lets his friends look for him. I am moved by the ending, this universal yet somehow specifically queer need to be missed by one's friends, which have a way of becoming more one's family than one's family: "You want / to remember this. You've waited / your whole life for them to miss you."

SmithB.jpegThe last poem in the book, a little piece called "Train (Hymn)," offers a lovely moment—I would venture to say that many of us living in a city have had this—when you are sitting across from someone beautiful on public transport and watching him without watching him, adding a fiction: this man is reading Che Guevara, and the speaker wants him "also to be / a revolutionary," and "to eat peanut butter sandwiches / in bed." It's an instant filled with fancy and ache, one that passes and means nothing maybe, except in that moment, when it means everything. Smith ends the poem and the book with a solitary line, "(look at me)," which is, like the book itself, subversively simple, startlingly subversive, indirect in its directness, evasive in the appropriate ways, bracketed in mystery, and filled with hunger. These are the poems I want to read.

[Published December 2, 2012. 64 pages, $15.95 original paperback]

Randall Mann’s third collection of poems, Straight Razor, is forthcoming from Persea Books.

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Recommended by Aaron Baker

The Vital System by C.M. Burroughs (Tupelo Press)

BurroughsCover.jpegA first collection of poetry is often a book about origins (autobiographically as well as aesthetically). And CM Burroughs’s first collection, The Vital System, begins with a poem that goes all the way back to her own literal beginning—the trauma of a premature birth. The poem and the poems that follow are remarkable not only for their harrowing subject matter but for their demonstration of how subject matter can put enormous pressure on technique, allowing the poet to make original and exciting formal discoveries. I can’t think of anyone else who is writing poems quite like CM Burroughs’s, and this is a book that deserves all the attention it will undoubtedly receive.
The first poem is titled “Dear Incubator,”:

At six months’ gestation, I am a fabrication born far too soon. My body, a stone in a steaming basket.
I remember you.
—[Figureless]
—A black kaleidoscope. Turn. Turn. The dangerous loom of the loom of you. Patterns pressing
upon—me inside. Nothing luminous as my mother’s womb. This second attempt at formation; a
turn.

Formally, the poem is restless, wrenched, constantly questioning and revising itself on the fly, and the attempts at “formation” ultimately have as much to do with constructing a poetic self as constructing a poem. The poem’s eccentricities of form and structure arise organically from the intensity of the subject matter, and it never comes across, as this approach sometimes can, as gimmickry or a straining for surface originality. The poem’s conclusion:

Is it your fault? I don’t know. I was in a state, I’ve explained. I don’t know what you let in…
Perhaps. Do you know lovers ask about these scars. Touch these raised scars.

So much has happened. I’m black. I have a dead sister. I love you, but, and believe this,
I mostly want to talk.

In this poem, as in many others, Burroughs addresses and implicates the reader as well as those to whom the poems are ostensibly addressed. Nevertheless, she insists on reminding us that, “I mostly want to talk.” These are poems are not only about what’s being said—they’re consciously aware of, reviling in, and highly suspicious about the very act of saying anything at all.

BurroughsPodium.jpegA highly original feature of this book is Burroughs’s uncanny and fascinating ability to write about being black, being female, and her own sexuality, in ways that manage to be direct without being dogmatic, and oblique without being evasive. Her descriptions are vivid, but they are often framed within mysterious, psychologically dislocated occasions. In “Artist’s Delight,” she depicts herself as a semi-sexualized subject of a painting who resides in and is dependent on the artist’s whims; the painter is male, and the poem’s tensions arise from her simultaneous willingness and resistance to being the artist’s “subject” (in all the meanings of that word). “He paints a field around me./ My legs curl/ under; I am happy here.” But then later, “When he is unhappy with/ so many things, he stabs the forests/ behind me, and these bolls in front.”

The poem can be read as a commentary about imbalances in racial and sexual authority, and it can also be read as an examination of an artist’s internal relationship to and exploitation of the self. After all, in these poems at least, the artist who is painting the world around CM Burroughs is CM Burroughs herself. While Burroughs is intensely interested in all of these subjects, she is also interested in absolutely shattering the frames that surround them. She begins another poem with, “Once I wrote a poem larger than any man, even Jesus.” It’s good to have among us a new poet of such outsized ambition and ability. This book is an impressive debut.

[Published October 31, 2012. 63 pages, $16.95 original paperback]

Aaron Baker’s first collection of poems, Mission Work (Houghton Mifflin 2008,) won the Bakeless Prize in Poetry and the 2009 Glasgow/Shenandoah Prize for Emerging Writers. He is an Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing program at Loyola University Chicago.

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Recommendded by Elizabeth Robinson

Fault Tree by kathryn l. pringle (Omnidawn Publishing)

Fault Tree forges a route through the contingent and the interrelated. Its depiction is of a strange and often-threatening world. Despite this, the book’s navigations are both pointed and reflective. The epigraphs that preface the poetry clarify that a fault tree is a “failure analysis” that studies an undesired state by way of the contingencies inherent in “lower-level events.” pringle discharges her distinctive language into these events, arresting if only for a moment, their inevitable trajectory into the next moment. These poems do address the ethical and the political (for instance, medicine, the military-industrial complex, and the various exploitive economies of the U.S.). And typically, I find poetries that engage with politics too prone to set up dictatorial kingdoms of their own: “Reader, you must think and feel as follows.” Happily, this is not what pringle does. Rather, she uses (admittedly oblique) narratives motivated by the accounts of variably reliable narrators (“i awoke/to find my phone and computer lines tapped. THIS, I can prove…beeps on the line/signaling the arrival of the robots. they break/in on my calls…”

Pringle.jpegDoes the reader want to scoff at these speakers because they are whacked? No. The poems are studies in boundary: What is lucid and what is irrational? Did this happen then or now? Am I speaking or are you? Where, exactly, are we? The humbling acknowledgement of Fault Tree is that despite our inescapable relatedness, “95% of living is lived in quiet/it is hard to observe.” Pringle is engrossed in the question of identity, but this is identity-as-mutable, continually revised by context and time. Every narrator, in other words, is unreliable (“my sustaining wall was outwardly intact/eroding from the innermost parts”) and thus there’s a refreshing bravery to pringle’s recognition that “I see what I think I see/engagement takes practice.”

In an interview with Alli Warren, the author stated:

“I consider poems (words) environments. It is important to me that readers feel autonomous and feel compelled to enter the environment and move through it how they please. But it is also important to me that the book is its own environment and leads the reader through it, too.”

Let me then register pringle as an expert guide. Fault Tree captures the contingencies of its analysis and transforms them into reciprocity. Thus, at first the reader may puzzle over who the narrator (or narrators) of this poetry is — the author? an historic figure? But this comes to matter less and less where moments of disorientation become part of a larger intersubjectivity and the reader inevitably implicates and identifies herself in the urgent quandaries the book presents. Despite their topicality, these poems reach right through specificities of context to knot the reader in the tangle of time and mortality.

PringleCover.jpgIt’s the wrestling with time and mortality that elevates this book from intelligent poetry to something more — a project that upholds and even creates humanity, “my daily guarding of the plight of us.” In my own life right now, mortality is writ large as insuperable obstacle, blunt fact. Perhaps this is why I found Fault Tree so moving — so poignantly a failure analysis of an undesired state. As with few other writers I’ve encountered, pringle wriggles around the rigidity of time: “if time bends/then bend back//if it suits you.” That’s a casual-sounding statement, but it’s preceded by the concession that all this is “a corrective manner of speaking/and the redundant nature of presence/recalls a past/fit to be/or suited to be//embarked or embarking.” So embarked, we move through time with a painful sense of its limitations, its rigidity, its finitude. Neither pringle nor the reader can really redress this, yet pringle suggests, in her transit through persona and context, that imaginative acts of humor and empathy do make our relation to time more supple.

“if recognition is destroyed,” the poet asks, “what then of attachment?” Of course this begs the question of recognition. I am reminded of a statement made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty that says, in effect, “We promise to love forever when our promise and our love can be ruptured instantly by an illness or an accident.” pringle’s poetry works in this vein of recognition, embarked or embarking through the contingencies that cannot be said away. Yet if, as pringle writes, “each space/was made/a place of words,” then what we cannot say away, we can at least, right now, wake up to say to each other.

Maybe the consolations of this poetry are a little brutal. Still, their blunt ethics make the ground beneath one’s feet feel solid, if only for a second of two:

survival is that
you make it difficult
to fall apart

The contingencies shift again, the poem takes up its language, the moment creates a new speaker. “I know I'm writing a book when I've disappeared from it,” pringle told her interviewer. In Fault Tree, the poet guards “the plight of us” by constructing, but also dissolving, the contextual markers that prevent us from being aware of how those same boundaries can shift, recede, and form a larger sense of attunement.

[September 1, 2012. 96 pages, $15.95 original paperback]

Elizabeth Robinson’s most recent books are Counterpart (Ahsahta) and Three Novels (Omnidawn).

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Recommended by Wesley Rothman

Duppy Conqueror by Kwame Dawes (Copper Canyon Press)

Matthew Shenoda, in his brief introduction to this volume of Kwame Dawes’s new and selected poetry, brings acutely to our attention that international poetry, perhaps more broadly international literature suffers a serious neglect in America. A reader’s approach to the title of Dawes’s book may attest to this somewhat provincial awareness. With full disclosure, I did not know what I was beginning when I first read the title. Shenoda helps: “the title Duppy Conqueror is borrowed from the Bob Marley track by the same name and was chosen as a kind of moniker that embodies Dawes’s poetic aesthetic. In Jamaican culture a duppy is a malevolent spirit often working towards a harmful outcome. A distractor of humanity, a spirit whose aim it is to derail the conscious struggle of people fighting for a just and right world.”

Dawes.jpegIn conversation with Marley’s sentiment, Dawes’s conqueror of duppies is free from torment, free from provinciality, free to see and do it all. This rather substantive collection works the title through so many guises. Dawes is a conqueror. His poems struggle and conquer. The sheer breadth and tact of his forms and content present an incredibly free range of the art and intellect. And as Craig Morgan Teicher observed in a brief look at this new and selected volume for NPR, “While Dawes has long been a force in various forms of art […] this book […] will bring him to the notice of a wide audience for the first time.” Duppy Conqueror is published by Copper Canyon Press, a highly regarded American publisher of poetry, which is a change from the majority of Dawes’s former 15 collections of poems largely published in the UK. Duppy Conqueror can serve as a warrior for, a conqueror of our sometimes limited view concerning world literatures. Dawes and this prolific survey of his poetry will fight for a just and right growing of our literary and poetic awareness.

Browsing the contents page and then wading through these deft poems, the frequency and consistency with which Dawes has given the world his poetry since 1994, not unusually publishing multiple books in a single calendar year, is truly impressive. Dawes published two books in each of the following years: 1995, 1996, 2006, 2007, and 2009. And Duppy Conqueror offers a rather generous helping of new poems from a forthcoming collection, August: A Quintet. With this vivacity and generosity in mind, we make our way into and through these poems.

DawesCover.jpgWe journey Jamaica, North Africa, the American South, London, New York, and always a speaker’s struggle with the world around. We hear from Bob Marley and August Wilson, Kamau Brathwaite and Ishmael Reed, Grateful Dead and Burning Spear, from Toots and the Maytals, the bible, and Derek Walcott. Dawes sings dedications for Rwanda and Sudan, for loved ones and icons. Every piece, no matter how imaginative or plainspoken, is tethered to something or someone tangible, politically, experientially, personally. These are poems of the world, of the poet’s life in South Carolina, in Jamaica, in a world that is constantly morphing and tormenting, interacting and deeply affecting the people, nations, and continents across the globe. Not only has Dawes’s poetry known international stages, but it speaks a universal language of human experience, concern, political and social strife, and what it means to be a person seeing, knowing the world.

From Prophets, Chapter XVII, “It is the Cause (Belleview Ska),” we’re given an epigraph by the Jamaican poet Anthony McNeill, “Love is Earth’s mission / despite the massed dead” followed by a meditation on a scene involving legendary ska music trombonist Don Drummond, at one point watching and entering the musician’s state of being:

And when the Cosmic journeys after
the falling of his mind in Belleview’s silent
dust, it is the murderer’s gaze that leads,

as with fired missionary zeal, white shirt
tucked tidy, standing there with three
days’ sweat and as many sleepless nights

in his eyes, he guides the traffic
in Cross Roads’s crisscross of lanes with his finger,
a rotating compass making perfect circles.

In his head the blast of horns,
the impatient expletives are applause;
the rotten fruit, bouquets of roses.

It’s challenging to pull single sentences, sound bytes from Dawes’s poems — they are such rich and full-rolling experiences. His sentences and stories, poetic exposition and truly audible language cover so much ground and work their density with tact and effectiveness. This particular poem builds a story around a Jamaican trombonist, it uses clear and poignant references to Shakespeare’s Othello and multiple historical/mythological figures, captures a physical location as well as social culture, and does all of this with well-crafted lines, tercets, and parts. This is not uncharacteristic of Dawes’s work. He employs his imagination and poetic prowess with a hugely expansive knowledge and experience base built from a rather worldly handle on literary canons and with a particular attention to African, Jamaican, and African American histories.

Dawes offers a voice of vigorous conviction, lunges headlong and full blown into the issues of humanity that matter: wars of all kinds, racism, bigotry, the problems of cultural and historical blindness, international ignorance and silence. In a new poem, “Soldierman,” Dawes looks to a thread of history, beginning with the sound of English with a British accent, connecting to stakeholders of tobacco and cotton, leading to a “blues man / still picking on his guitar and stumping,” lending to the white folk passing by, and landing in the present:

here in this country
of mud, white pussy and death,
you have your gun, you have
your boots, you got your cigarettes,
and you know the taste of killing,
how the world don’t stop when
a white man takes a bullet
[…]
Here you understand your only
nation, you have no choice,
you are either nothing or a damned
nation, and you salute that flag,
call the cracker, your brother,
and march on, damn it, match on!

While Dawes may himself be a duppy conqueror as Bob Marley was, and Duppy Conqueror showcases these vital poems, poems full with vitality, poems that struggle and conquer their own tormenting duppies, the poet will not relent. There are many duppies of the world yet, of America, of politics and societies. Duppy Conqueror is a ‘new and selected’ that battles fiercely for and with a worldview. Dawes educates and enlightens with these poems, with his prolific presence, and with a boundless conviction.

[Published May 14, 2013. 302 pages, $20.00 paperback original]

Wesley Rothman serves Ploughshares as senior poetry reader. His poems and reviews have appeared in Bellingham Review, Rattle, The Rumpus, Paper Darts, Newcity, and others. He teaches writing and cultural literatures at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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Recommended by Kate Gale

Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins (Penguin)

Why do we come to poetry in the first place when we could be doing anything else? We could be drinking wine, beer, tequila or sake. We could be hanging out with friends, we could be watching sports. We could be walking or hiking or kayaking. Who are we when we decide to be involved in the peculiar art of reading and thinking about poetry? Especially in a country that does not value poetry. Does not value this specialized art form. This heightened way of speaking. This way of seeing the world twice. Milosz argued that poetry must deal with one of the major problems of the modern world: The lack of moral foundation. We live in a post-God world and in that world anything is possible.

RobbinsCover.jpgEnter Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins published by Penguin and blurbed by Ange Mlinko, Sasha Frere-Jones and my dear friend Ilya Kaminksy who loves the “wild mixture of pop-culture and the English poetic tradition.” Kaminsky, who knows how few youngsters read poetry rather than listen to rap, encourages kids to read this. “Mothers of America! Let your kids read some of this wild, brave, real verse,” he says.

I brought this book to my first day in the graduate MFA program where I teach. I read the poems and heard them bouncing off the walls of the classroom. The words bounce. They bounce and pivot and clear the jumps and hurdles. It’s hard to imagine many serious poets liking this poetry or even being able to wrap their heads around it.

Because we come to poetry in America for serious thoughts, for grandeur, for ideas plugged into enormous white space where they float exactly like canoes out on a lake in a starry night. Something clean and epic, something that has echo. Read meaning. We come to poetry to enter the cathedral of the mind. To stare up at the rafters and understand how the cathedral was built. What mind invented these lofty spaces, these ideas? What mind constructed the grand imposing beams that hold together this accomplished space for thoughts, for ideas to swarm. We bring to poetry our own beating heart and it speaks back to us.

But what if it doesn’t? What if it isn’t written to speak back to the heart? What if we are so accustomed to thinking poetry should have a heart entering a cathedral that we can’t hear a different kind of music? This poetry has no soul. We come to poetry to enter the wilderness soul of the universe and there is none here.

In “Affect Theory,” he writes,

Every last one of my thirty-eight years
Would fit inside Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer
Thirty-eight clans, thirty-eight Care Bears,
And all I got’s this lousy T-shirt.

He’s playing with murders, cannibalism, pop culture and yes, like Matthew Dickman, poetry that’s derived from T shirt slogans. It is as if there were not anything to write or think about in the world of any importance, so we simply write about the most trivial things possible as a sort of mess of words, a joke. Unlike American Psycho, which both celebrates and informs us about the triviality of American culture, Robbins isn’t trying to warn us about the evils of anything. He’s toying with his audience. He’s toying.

In “Modern Love,” he writes,

My neighbor’s whales keep me up at night.
They may not mean to, but they do.
I turn on Shark Week, plan a killing spree.
I’m all stocked up on Theraflu.

While we’re taking pop culture and stomping around the grounds of poetry with it, let’s rhyme. People like rhymes and they remember rhymes and let’s sample, like we’re DJs from the great poets because those great poems ring in our ears and confuse us as to what we’re listening to. Is it poetry, is it a great mind speaking? Or is it someone laughing in the kitchen at us because the joke is on us.

Perhaps more troubling is the poem, “Remain in Light,” which references the killing of Rachel Corrie by bulldozer on March 16th, 2003 by Israeli Defense Forces. Robbins says,

Next year in Jerusalem
Rachel Corrie stops somewhere waiting for you.

From commentary at a bar, you expect this. From poetry, we have come to expect something profound. Some level of language that brings us to new understanding. But Robbins doesn’t indulge in profundity. He stays surface. He’s having so much fun, and if you miss that with this collection, you’ve missed everything.

In “My New Asshole,” he writes,

My new asshole says so much.
My new asshole is being bullied.
It occurs to me I
am my new asshole.
I am talking about myself again.

Robbins.jpegIf you hate this poetry, it’s because you’ve taken those last two lines too much to heart. You think he is an asshole for corrupting this ancient art form. You think he is talking to himself. You think he’s a douche bag. If you have room for his book on your shelf of poetry as I do, it’s because you also have room on your DVD shelf after The Hours and Burn After Reading, for Half Baked. I keep this book close to Half Baked and Galaxy Quest so I can experience them together.

[Published March 27, 2012. 88 pages, $18.00 paperback]

Kate Gale is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of Los Angeles Review, president of the American Composers Forum LA and author of six books of poetry, six librettos and one novel. Her forthcoming book, Goldilocks Zone, will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in spring 2014.

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Recommended by Jenny Factor

A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings by Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press)

If Eloise Klein Healy’s lifetime body of poetry were given to readers as a prescription to help one clamber back out from the anxiety, alienation, and distortion of the day-to-day, this poetry would return the reader’s body to the land of the senses, and her mind to the land of empathic human connection.

And so, in the opening section of this New and Selected, our speaker discusses what to hang just over the bed with her roommate (an unnamed other, whom astute readers of her early work will know is possibly a husband):

You don’t care, you don’t look
at walls. It took me a long time
to understand that difference between us.

HealyCover_0.jpg“Every item in a room influences me ... tunes the air,” she continues. Then through the filter of this imaginary and speculative landscape, Healy weighs the differences, conflicts, and confluences of her relationship. Today, we read this funny little dialogue about hanging art, a poem slightly New York School in the way it carries its associations and language (“‘You might see it while we’re making love.’.../ ‘I won’t see it unless I hit my head on it...’/...I have seen things coming at my head/like this...”), and our sense of vital and ordinary human connection grows --the compromising, the taking measure of another’s similarities and differences. But “Furnishings” is not written yesterday. Its year is 1976. And this poem--whose valence is deeply resonant to any reader in a relationship--is in fact the meditation of a speaker considering life, art, the imperfection of the ordinary self alongside what it might and might not mean for two women to furnish a future life together.

And so it becomes easy to understand why A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings is a revelation. Poems we may have read once several decades ago--for content (and for young lesbians like I was, to be summoned into a community of women, into our own identity, and its possibilities)--turn out to have been all along brilliant little vehicles of craft and sound, poems enduring as flint about flat-out human nature and connection, poems not just of identity, but of a way forward together on this new western coast of immigrants and possibility. Poems of imagery, of religious background reconfigured into a culture of caring, of philosophy, feminism, thought and sound.

An elegant sense of repetition and deep pattern breathes up into Healy’s work:

She wants the blossom.
She wants the seeds in the grass.

She wants the beautiful thing.
She wants to eat.

She’s like a person.

She wants the beautiful thing.
She wants to eat.

(from “The Grackle on the Lawn”)

Although Healy’s voice may be Midwestern by way of El Paso, Healy’s love affair is for Southern California ... a landscape of sinewy diverse people, palms and underground rivers, wild life, suburbia, and winds, our stories brave:

I like to ride the fast lane,
es muy caliente
and under me a red chile siren
pepper peppers Alvarado with cop sauce

(from “Entries: L.A. Log”)

There’s a deep fanciful vein to Healy’s imagery. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she borrows a different worldsphere to overlay her sensory present.

In “Living Here Now”, a poem about the death of the poet’s father, extended metaphor allows the speaker to inhabit a map, the mismade geography of loss: “My father’s dying/resembles nothing so much/as a small village /building itself/in the mind of a traveler/who reads about it/and thinks to go there....”

...I miss
some of the streets,
get lost, get lost.

I find I’m no tourist anymore
and settle into the oldest human assignment.
Bury your father and live forever
as a stranger in that town.

In the Forward to Eloise Klein Healy’s recent release, Alicia Ostriker describes Healy’s voice, precisely: “flat-accented Midwestern, never apparently agitated, a voice that knew about work, a voice with a matte surface and brass undertones, a voice that...was steered by common sense, insight, and a lot of human decency.” “Her compassion,” Ostriker continues, “insists on the details.

Healy_0.jpegAnd so it’s in the details that Healy finds (a) the act of mass in the treatment of her partner’s post-operative wound-cleaning (“Latin from the Mass”), (b) the act of redemption in a trip to the grocery store on a church-less Sunday (“Redeemed”), and (c) in several poems across three decades, Healy provides a moving reconsideration of her hotel-keeper mother, and their relationship of respect and loss.

In the “acknowledgments” to A Wild Surmise, Healy writes: “I have been fortunate to live in a vibrant poetry community in Los Angeles, though we have definitely been under the radar much of the time.” She continues, “These poems all share one thing besides me having written them--another person cared about them, listened to them...They are all public acts...meant to live in the world.”

And so it seems to me that A Wild Surmise is designed to live in the world, to be co-created between the poet-speaker and reader-listener.

In fact, not only can we hear Healy’s voice through the imprint of a strong speaker on the pages, we can hear her literally. QR codes on the top right-hand corners of certain pages link the print poem to an audio-recording of Healy, offering readers a virtual at-home reading.

Healy’s “wild surmise” takes its title from John Keats; its poems reference friendships with May Swenson, Gil Cuadros, Lynda Hull, Alicia Ostriker, Luis Alfaro, Maxine Kumin, and many many others, alongside reader-relationships with Sappho, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Wang Wei, Van Gogh, and Chinese brush painters. Healy writes the world liveable, not immutable (“It’s all softening like old chenille.../this wildness...” at work on her in “I Live Where I Live”).

I’m not lost and I’m not leaving
I’m out here in the night...
...practicing the distances in me.

(from “After the Last Call Home”)

This sayer knows she can only trespass so far into the reader’s imagination without our collaborative ‘abiding’. But she’ll step out with us as far as we let her--with a voice intimate and honeyed, authentic and generous, on page and in audio-recordings. Let’s welcome her home.

[Published March 1, 2013. 248 pages, $19.95 original paperback]

Jenny Factor is the core faculty in poetry at the low-residency MFA program of Antioch University Los Angeles. Her first book, Unraveling at the Name (Copper Canyon Press) was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

Poem mining

Thank you so much for these posts. I look forward to them. I always increase my reading list after viewing.