Twenty Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles

Welcome to the Seawall’s annual fall poetry feature. Below, twenty poets write briefly on some of their favorite new and recent collections. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here annually in April and December.

The commentary includes:

David Rivard on Helsinki by Peter Richards (Action Books)
Hank Lazer on Yingelishi by Jonathan Stalling (Counterpath Press)
Elaine Sexton on Black Blossoms by Rigoberto Gonzalez (Four Way Books)
Nick Sturm on I Am Not A Pioneer by Adam Fell (H_NGM_N Books)
Anna Journey on Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen (Steel Toe Books)
Michael Collier on Coral Road by Garrett Hongo (Alfred Knopf) and Sand Theory by William Olsen (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)
Jennifer Barber on Ghost in a Red Hat by Rosanna Warren (W.W. Norton)
Joshua Weiner on Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose by Bernard Spencer (Bloodaxe Books)
Amanda Auchter on The Lifting Dress by Lauren Berry (Penguin)
Brian Teare on Kintsugi by Thomas Meyer (Flood Editions)
Barbara Ras on Dogged Hearts by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press) and Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye (BOA Editions)
Rusty Morrison on Flower Cart by Lisa Fishman (Ahsahta Press)
Daniel Bosch on Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Farrar Strauss Giroux)
Randall Mann on Red Clay Weather by Reginald Shepherd (Pittsburgh)
Julie Sheehan on All Of Us by Elisabeth Frost (White Pine Press)
Philip Metres on Toqueville by Khaled Mattawa (New Issues)
Dora Malech on Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon (University of Akron Press)
Aaron Belz on Things Come On by Joseph Harrington (Wesleyan)
Victoria Chang on Sanderlings by Geri Doran (Tupelo Press)
Daniel Lawless on Kindertotenwald by Franz Wright (Alfred Knopf)

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

Recommended by David Rivard

Helsinki by Peter Richards (Action Books)

No form would seem more at odds with the ellipticism and fragmentations of our current period style than the epic poem. An aesthetic whose primary effect is that of simultaneity, and whose pleasures are those of chance and receptivity, makes an unlikely vehicle for story. The audacity of Peter Richards’ Helsinki is that it subverts the accepted wisdom that narrative is either unnecessary or impossible when composing with methods that are “indeterminate.”

The result is a book filled with duende, one of the very few written in the last twenty years that could be said about. Composed in densely lyrical, fairly brief sections, Helsinki begins with what initially sounds like a strange field report written during debriefing. “In time” is the phrase that kick starts the action, an idiomatic eternity that cannot be escaped:

In time I came to see death was the hay
binding one soldier to another and my own
death would appear partially lit as during
a nighttime operation the moon barely attends
whereas I with new density carry on as before

Richards.jpgThat wildness and richness of vision runs throughout, but the character of the narrator so established in these lines anchors it in a psychological complexity—vulnerability, rage, fear, tenderness, bafflement, melancholia, disdain, awe, and horny self-amusement are churned through with a rapidity driven by musical invention but somehow wholly consistent in how it is all the speech of single person.

Robert Duncan once complained that the LANGUAGE poets had failed because they had no stories to tell. Duncan might have been pleased by the obsessive-compulsive mythologizing of Helsinki’s character-filled underworld, with its tenderhearted berserker soldiers, its tentacled erotic starlets, metabolizing bees, and “loose cloud/of animal gadgetry eating air and chrome alike.” An air of perverse Ovidian transformations hangs over Richards’ landscape, transformations that are intended to uncloak rather than disguise:

It’s one of the qualities underground
we each appear indelible visible
precisely as ourselves …

The story, as Richards describes it during readings from the book, is about an anonymous army officer—a war criminal—who has died during a campaign, though he often seems unaware of his death. The action sometimes occurs in this soldier’s past and sometimes in an undetermined future. Often, it’s hard to tell if the events are taking place in classical antiquity or a Nordic Middle Ages or a post-apocalyptic empire or Fallujah circa 2007 (and this ambiguity will certainly annoy some readers). In fact, everything might be happening within the inexplicably surviving consciousness of this dead soldier—if this sounds like a science-fiction fantasia, oddly enough it doesn’t come off that way in the telling. “I’m just someone caught up in the need for air,” the narrator says; and he’s a sort of enigmatic everyman trapped in events that echo uncomfortably with our own moment in time.

In one of the earliest sections, one particular passage reads like a first-hand account of an atrocity that could be bylined either Ciudad Juarez or Helmand province. What’s feels unique and personal (not to mention shocking) is the mix of ritualized tribal revenge killing with tender erotic memory and thuggish bravado:

When we came upon this large orange hide
staked to the ground by three orange feathers
I knew one of our boys lay headless beneath it
but from the air who could tell he was one
of my own or that I would come to remember
his face what restraint he brought to my tent
at night his anxiety that seemed to smile upon
me same way a white dot begins to ripen inside
this one mountain of Nice a face of sad orange
decorative stone where I lay surviving the prattle
but losing the kiss until finally I gave his name
to the mountain the campaign all night the full
story how for sixteen hours I hung from the beams
of the parliament ceiling and while the jeering
population looked on I could hear in the blackout
the plan for one day holding their lives in my hand

“The basic outline of my story is evil,” admits the narrator, which isn’t to say that it’s unremittingly brutal and horrifying. Helsinki swerves frequently into the erotic life of its speaker, often with a weird humor all its own. The center of that life is a woman named Julia, who might best be described as a dominatrix disguised as an iridescent hummingbird born from a discarded horseshoe:

I could say she was an extraordinarily practical green flying horse
such was the thrift by which she enjoyed warming her body
at the hearth of its own luminosity…

RichardsCover.jpegSometimes vengeful and cruel, Julia is almost always willing to get it on with creatures both human and nonhuman. Her handmaiden is a fantastic, tentacled, multi-nippled monster with “the balls of a horse but the face of a girl,” who the narrator refers to as a “herrick.” In the end, Helsinki’s blend of eroticism and humor may be as alarming as its air of violence and rampage.

One might say that a reader is “immersed” rather than given a path through Helsinki’s rich underworld. At times I wished that Richards had provided more of the direct framing that he gives listeners at readings. A little more back-story and connective tissue would not destroy the complexity of the book, and the gain in narrative clarity would have been a plus.

Nonetheless, whatever demands Helsinki makes of a reader are bound up with its ultimate seriousness and Richards’ risk-taking as a writer. While its method of composition can hardly be described as avant-garde (its use has been around at least since Apollinaire’s Alcools, and the aesthetic is widely practiced by contemporary poets of various generations), Richards does seem to have accelerated its processing speed. Thanks to his syntactical deftness, one feels carried by the music of that processing.

Peter Richards’ method suggests a view of time and space similar to that of Bell’s Theorem, a theory of quantum mechanics that states that previously “entangled” systems and particles may continue to exert influence on and communicate with one another even when separated by light years. The phrase sometimes used to describe this is “spooky action at a distance.” It fits Helsinki to a tee.

(Published April 1, 2011, 90 pages, $16.00 paperback)

David Rivard is the author most recently of Otherwise Elsewhere (Graywolf Press) – reviewed here by Ron Slate. He teaches in the University of New Hampshire’s MFA in Writing Program.

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

Recommended by Hank Lazer

Yingelishi: Chanted Songs Beautiful Poetry by Jonathan Stalling (Counterpath Press)

StallingCover.jpegIf we say that the 21st-century belongs to China, we probably imagine that we have made an observation that is principally an economic statement. I think that such a perspective misses the boat. In fact, the slow boat not to but from China is linguistic. Yingelishi is a remarkable work and perhaps the most astonishing first arrival – a scouting party – for the more substantial boat that is surely on the way.

Stalling’s odd book takes up residence at an intersection of two languages, “as Chinese makes a home in English, / becomes English / without having stopped being Chinese.” As Stalling’s introduction informs us, “On any given morning, / hunched over on benches / or pacing back and forth, / students in China are reading English aloud from textbooks.” Yingelishi: Chanted Songs Beautiful Poetry makes poetry out of this unique moment of fusion, collision, and collaboration – “the opening of Chinese vibrations/ beneath the surface of each English word.” Such a moment and location of intersection, though, is not merely one person’s uncannily perceptive poetic construct. In fact, in China today “more people are studying English than there are Americans alive (over 350 million).” It is literally true that there are more speakers of English in China than in the US, and that the putting of English into Chinese characters (and thus the sounding of English in another language), Sinophonic English, is itself becoming “a significant global dialect of English.” As Marjorie Perloff has observed of Yingelishi, 'it is a book that is “pointing the way to what a truly global poetry might look like.” The result, as Michelle Yeh notes, “is nothing short of magic.”

Stalling’s book of poetry successfully avoids becoming merely a humorous annotation of the oddities of this homophonic immersion in English. His book is no gimmick; it is not a simple display case for Chinglish or for the Charlie Chan-like pseudo-pidgin that gets mocked in popular cinematic culture and elsewhere. Stalling’s poetry comes out of more than ten years of experimentation and composition (after Stalling, who began studying Chinese as a middle school student in Arkansas, became fluent himself in Chinese). The resulting book of poems truly cannot be adequately explored in this brief review, for the book is remarkable in many ways. Even as Stalling explores the material of standard language-learning textbooks, the storyline that emerges, particularly in Traveling, the concluding section of the Yingelishi, is painful and emotionally moving. Other pages achieve their own engaging lyricism and wisdom. In an overarching way, Stalling’s Yingelishi is an important document in what might be labeled as an emerging transpacific poetry and poetics, or a transpacific imaginary, a field where the writings of Yunte Huang assumes a pre-eminence (his critical book Transpacific Displacement, but also the book of poems Cribs and the translations in SHI as well as Huang’s more recent book on Charlie Chan), and includes as well Rob Wilson’s writing, Susan Schultz’s Tinfish Press and journal and Glenn Mott’s book of poems Analects.

The format for each page of Yingelishi (which also bears the subtitle Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics) includes five iterations: first, the phrase under consideration is presented in Chinese, then in English, and then in a transliteration of the English phrase as it will be heard and appear in Chinese; then, the English phrase appears in a Sinophonic (or homophonic) translation (in Chinese characters); and then the Chinese characters from the Sinophonic translation are translated into English. Here is a typical page:

S35C-111120510280-1A_1.jpgWhat most amazes in this process – which sounds intricate, but when listened to, is quite easily apprehended – is when the simplest of phrases yields, through this process of sounding and re-sounding, a brief lyrical moment of great beauty:


Of course, one of the first phrases of use to a Chinese speaker beginning to learn English would be “I don’t know English.” In Yingelishi, that phrase (in a slightly more substantial version) becomes:


In the poem that introduces the book, Stalling indicates: "What emerges on the pages / is a figment of a transpacific imagination, / a dimly remembered dream of translingual consciousness / born in the strange half-light of cross-linguistic procreation."

I have left the most astonishing aspect of Yingelishi for last: there is yet another transformation of this multilingual sounding. Stalling has been able to take these pages and have them become a libretto. An online supplement provides a full audio production of the work in two different readings: one with instrumentation and one without. After working with musicians and artists in Yunnan, Stalling was able to collaborate on a recording with a Chinese vocalist (Miao Yichen) who also plays the guzin on some tracks. A performance of the work took place on July 22, 2010, in the 15th-century Confucian Hall of Great Justice on the campus of Yunnan University.

Stalling.jpegStalling’s plot summary helps us to track the narrative that emerges from sounding the multiple dimensions of a common phrase book: “an accented English libretto that tells the story of a Chinese speaker who uses Sinophonic English to negotiate the trials of traveling to and becoming lost in America, a tragedy in fact, since the protagonist is robbed soon after arriving in America and is left alone in an alien land with no friends, no money, no passport, and no way to understand the English language that appears to have swallowed her or him whole.” In this intersecting space of phrase book, chanted song, poem, and translations in multiple directions, “the accented voice that tells the story never fully becomes English because it never really stops being Chinese.” At the website, where you may listen to the opera, Stalling offers this explanation: “the English libretto of this ‘opera’ is written in Chinese, so when it is said aloud, the English speaker will hear an English poem, while a Chinese speaker will hear/read a series of Chinese poems, the poetry lies in the darkness between.”

Trust me: you will have a blissful, provocative 16:20 experience when you tune in to this intriguing operatic composition! For in the final analysis, I value Yingelishi so highly for the same reasons that I enjoy other forms of poetry: for the obvious integrity and thoughtfulness of the composition; for its adventurousness, beauty, and initial strangeness; and for the way that it repays re-reading and re-listening. Jerome Rothenberg, who calls Yingelishi “unprecedented,” finds that his reading and listening experience “grows deeper & richer from one immersion to the next. Yingelishi, once entered, has enough pleasures to last a reader’s lifetime.”

[Published June 15, 2011. 100 pages, paperback, $15.95.]

Hank Lazer’s seventeenth book of poetry, N18 (complete) will be published by Singing Horse Press in early 2012. N18 is part of a handwritten twenty-notebook project, The Notebooks (of Being & Time). For more about the shapewriting of the Notebooks, click here.

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

Recommended by Elaine Sexton

Black Blossoms by Rigoberto González (Four Way Books)

GonzalezCover.gifThe first word in Rigoberto González’s excellent collection is “strawberries,” followed by a stigmata, and in subsequent pages and poems: a red shirt, ruby heart, a red lake (as the lung of a bottle of cranberry juice), bleeding skulls, and more. It seems red is the dominant color fueling Black Blossoms, an encyclopedia of red, with gray playing second fiddle fusing a vivid succession of phantasmagorical poems with “the sutured centers of ... gray vaginas,” “gray wings/ crushed into exotic fabrics too thin for winter,” elephant trunks, and a lover, whose “skin shades to gray.” A sweep of geographies from Mexico to Madrid, New York to Seattle carry these tightly structured narratives with references as far reaching as Otto Dix and Goya to Lizzie Borden and the Brothers Grimm. Peopled mostly by the stories of women – their struggles, their voices – each poem sings and stings with the dark heart of the familial, often employing the intimate triangulations of mother/father/child as characters mature but never leave their emotional baggage far behind. Betrayal, revenge, abandonment stain like watermarks.

In “Blizzard,” a speaker of unspecified gender, in the back seat of a car, relates to the news of another couple trapped by a storm, who “survived one week on saltine crackers and body heat.” And continues:

Mine is a tube of toothpaste in my bag and a man
in town who thanks me for opening my left nipple like a rose
at the prompting of his lips. When he turns his back to me
in bed his skin shades to gray and I know about the dead
who roll their eyes up to memorize the texture of their graves.
If I should freeze to death the muted explosion of my heart
will not betray me. The science of weather will have
its own sad story to tell when I am found, ten-fingered
fetus with a full set of teeth locked to a knucklebone.

In this book, the dead refuse to stay dead. The speakers are often women, as with seven of the poems that comprise the final section of the book. We hear from a mortician’s mother-in-law, his sister, his daughter, his Goddaughter, and step into their complex inner lives. In “The Mortician’s Bride Says I’m Yours,“ a confession:

As I rub my foot with oil I also mourn the pain
slowly vanishing. It’s one more precious possession gone.
Oh the devastating truth of loss, oh mercy. I have been
parting with myself since birth ...

Gonzalez.jpegThe 30 poems in Black Blossoms offer a sampler of magical realism, muscular syntax, and searing lament. Each voice inhabits gender, class, and historical context with an uncanny authority as the author shifts from poem to poem. Rigoberto González, who is also the author of a memoir, two novels, two bilingual children’s books, and a collection of short stories, is a wordsmith of the first order. He returns to poetry with this third collection, full of biting metaphors and memorable portraits, a singular pleasure to read.

[Published October 11, 2011. 76 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Elaine Sexton’s poems and reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Art in America, Poetry, Pleiades, Oprah Magazine and elsewhere. Her most recent collection is Causeway (New Issues, 2008).

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

Recommended by Nick Sturm

I Am Not A Pioneer by Adam Fell (H_NGM_N Books)

The last page of Adam Fell’s I Am Not a Pioneer contains a transcript of a casual message from the poet to an anonymous friend with all of the names and specific references blacked out. The note, an unexpected afterword devoid of irony, is a touching mix of devotion, humor, profundity, modesty, and rawness that gets right at the busting, incongruent heart behind these poems. The following excerpt secures a belief that this collection instills early on, that this is the voice of a poet who wants to talk right into his readers, a voice that wants to be more than a voice, but a body, a being right next to you, another human stumbling and crashing against all this relentless, incredible confusion.

speaking of shitheel thoroughfares and Deadwood and Calamity, I keep thinking
what Jane says to Joanie in the first episode of the third season: Each day
takes learning all over again how to fucking live.
i have nothing to say about that. just wanted it here, for our record. Its
enough to just sit staggered for a moment. that’s all I really want. the briefest
flash of awe. like a tornado snapping power lines.

FellCover.jpgWhat we say and how we exist, Fell suggests, is a matter of having an intense, intimate relationship with our own human error. And what’s the error? Simply that we exist and are therefore fallible, compassionate, monstrous. The poems in I Am Not A Pioneer are built to both harness and magnify these errors, assembling a lot of god-awful, hope-ridden truths “for our record,” a conversation that is not only necessary, but that links us through all of the wreckage: “be safe and safe and safe,” Fell writes, “we need each other.”

This need, this hope, is amalgamated and manifested throughout the book, as the obsessive force behind Fell’s poems. In “Friend Poem,” Fell questions the nature of absolute belief by presenting a kind of allegory in which a speaker imagines a friend being chased by religious zealots. Crossing a rope bridge over a river, the bridge collapses, throwing the whole group into the water.

And the religious zealots will crumple with me
and flail with me and when we descend into the river
together, they will no longer be religious zealots
but condensed packages of nutrient-rich materials
that will flow to the sea and become food
for the living snow that drifts
through the baleen of enormous creatures,
feeding those creatures and keeping them
safe and happy and full
in the collected deepness of their bodies.

After being dispersed back into the natural systems that both nourish us and guarantee our obliteration, ideological convictions are rendered inert and meaningless. No matter how much we think we know, the poem seems to suggest, our bodies will eventually give out, give themselves back to “the flooding world that is the collected / deepness of all of our bodies.” Though the ever-present prospect of our own destruction instigates fear and self-consciousness, it is exactly those moments of awareness that allow us to rally our hearts against the world’s indefatigable bullshit, ushering in a hope for the now, for this moment here, together, whether we’re hanging from the precipice or already washed away.

The poem “A Man Who Does Not Want to be Identified Nor Explain His Situation Sits Down” excavates even further into the body’s transience, pointing not only to individuals, but our culture at large, how it warps and consumes itself, paves over history, and in doing so, each of us. At a Native American site where “[i]n the recreational area, people are buried / in a mound in the shape of a heron,” the only thing that attracts the speaker’s attention are the “red lights of the cell tower across the river” in a “Wisconsin, emptied / of its old concussion of distance, // left with only the logic / of abandoned materials.” Having misplaced value with convenience, artifact with artifice, we are left cheapened, lost, though, as the poem suggests, we retain the ability to look back into ourselves where “[t]here is still life in the drainage of our skulls, / in our least love and cry and synapse.” Again, despite the forces arrayed against us, the hearts of these poems thrive.

Fell.jpgHowever, the world of these poems is not always so broken. Every poem in I Am Not A Pioneer is rigged with at least one line whose images and juxtapositions ripple through the rest of the poem, triggering all kinds of emotional fall-out: “My cellular heart glows open. / Above me, sparrows, / make their nests in the skylights” (from “Near an Empty Fountain in the Foodcourt”); “I’m still hung-over / from two nights ago; // the lake is beautiful” (from “Ten Keys to Being a Champion On and Off the Field”); and “the sun [is] playing Wrestlemania / in the hallway of two mountains” (from “At Acadia National Park, The Morning of Peter Jennings’ Death”). Prizing recklessness over procedure, these poems light up with the urgency of their own being, making way for a contemporary imagination that is as buoyant as it is penetrating.

Fueled by the compression of Fell’s language and his mastery of the line as a thing with which to twist and energize expectations, lines such as “[t]he cautious leaves of the city’s trees fall only / on those who need to be touched,” (from “Friend Poem”) reveal a world motivated by the kind of tenderness and compassion that lies in the background of many of these poems. “Slow Dance Slower” puts this dichotomy on display with the success of its music, describing how

Devotion extends forward
despite our bodies’ failures.

But our devotion, our devotion
is a doused thing of crumbling glow,

its human insides camouflaged
by our blackout city’s quieting coals.

Later in the poem, Fell describes how “we unfake our blood, // reach out to each other” as “[r]oses spill into the parking lot, / nuzzling sport utility vehicles.” Saturated with a kind of intolerable beauty, groping toward the hope of each other’s bodies, resilient in spite of themselves, these poems remind us that regardless of how horribly the world, or our own choices, dampen the celebration, each moment should be lived passionately, with risk, and with a compassion so immediate it hurts. I Am Not A Pioneer dances when it shouldn’t, quotes the Romantics on the nightly news, and is joyfully irreverent. “The moon pulls each wave to us,” Fell writes, “and taxes can never be taken out of that” (from “Ten Keys”). Adam Fell is asking us to occupy our hearts. It would not be a bad idea to rise to the task.

[Published May 1, 2011. 100 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Nick Sturm is a graduate student in the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Dark Sky, Forklift, Ohio, H_NGM_N, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, Sixth Finch and TYPO.

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

Recommended by Anna Journey

Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen (Steel Toe Books)

“Let’s start with the alphabet,” suggests a woman in Elizabeth J. Colen’s prose poem, “The First Three Letters,” in order to persuade the speaker/new lover to memorize her name instead of a phone number. Colen writes:

What I didn’t say is that the mole is all she’ll leave
behind. Dark white behind my irises, a memory in negative. There’s a
whole ocean behind that spot and she’s making out letters on the page,
she’s watching them appear. Her name could be anything, I don’t trust
her. Her face rusts in my hands.

Colen.jpegCinematic, musical, fragmentary, and obsessively psychological, “The First Three Letters” embodies the larger project of Colen’s prose poetry collection Money for Sunsets (winner of the 2009 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry and recent nominee for the Lambda Literary Award): exploring the lyric capacity of the prose poem and the writer’s central preoccupations with loss and need in a restless bayside town. In Money for Sunsets we find lovers who no longer shower together because of the anger beneath one woman’s bathing gestures, children who live on a flood plain and lose their fingernails to water, a couple at a bar whose card game “resembles a dogfight on mute,” a remote chain smoking mother, and a moonshine-tipsy teen who holds her lover’s sandwich, “the dressing of which melted into the bag in the shape of Australia.” As Colen writes: “In this town nothing stays.”

I’ve found the term “Lynchian” often arises in discussions of Colen’s collection. What does such a comparison mean, though, poetically speaking? Is it the poems’ grotesque imagery and psychological unease? Is it the book’s discomfiting sexual encounters? Is it the similarity between Colen’s Bellingham — the collection’s Pacific Northwestern backdrop — and Lynch’s fictional Twin Peaks? All of the above observations get close, but I’d like to arrive at a more particularized argument.

In the essay, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace offers us a definition of “Lynchian”: “the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.’” The first sentence of Colen’s initial poem, “11 Bang-Bang,” perfectly illustrates Wallace’s notion of Lynchian: “Box of hair on a beach.” What at first seems a stylish absurdist fancy swiftly turns elegiac: “Scattered and new, ashes. A fine-feathered boy made of glass.” We discover a group of mourners have gathered on the beach to scatter the ashes of their friend, a war casualty (“11 Bang-Bang” is military slang for an infantryman). Colen’s final four sentences enact, through terse syntax, hypnotic assonance, and the repetition of images and phrases (the fragile “boy made of glass,” the saved hair, the box of ashes), the obsessive catalogues of grief, where there is no peripheral vision, only an unbearable focus on the inadequate substitutions for absence:

They wouldn’t let us see his
face. Scattered and torn, a boy made of glass, shattered. Golden hair
pressed into the child’s book of verse. Seared locks in a chocolate box,
the smell of candy and burn.

What’s particularly Lynchian, in this case, isn’t merely the strangeness of the poem’s dramatic conceit or the evocation of grotesque imagery; it’s the combination of the macabre (the charred hair of the dead soldier) with the mundane (the chocolate box) that creates a peculiarly unsettling, Lynchian sort of irony. It’s the “Seared locks” smell of slaughter contained within a cheerful grocery store package of confectionary: “the smell of candy and burn.” In the first third of the poem “Flood Plain,” Colen writes:

She was in love with the doorbell, the men who came, the orange
blossom scent the porch gave off when she reached to get the mail.
The car out front leaked oil and the pavement, which leaned into the
curb, was split by this thin blackness like the steep creek bed dividing
us from town.

ColenCover.jpegIt’s not the sharp contrast between the “orange blossom scent” of the porch and the “thin blackness” of leaking motor oil that make Colen’s poem Lynchian. It’s the way the daily goings-on of a lower income family separated from the town by a flood-prone creek take place amid the alarmingly grotesque: “We were so hungry then, our calluses yielding to yellowed teeth, nails coming off in the water.” Unlike the little girl who is “in love” with the men who appear to help the family during flood season, the child-speaker leans back, at the end of the poem, to observe the destruction and grows perversely enamored with the rising water’s transformative powers, “pleased at all the wet.”

Colen’s title poem sets forth a similarly giddy fable of destruction as two friends visit the beach and imagine the horizon’s “visible red line” an apocalyptic signal:

You grabbed rocks to fill your pockets in case it came to that. You
imagined wild dogs and truculent boys. Your jacket became bulky. I
thought better of it, thought less weight the way to go, in case the water

The Lynchian elements here involve two pals frolicking on a pier at sunset as they negotiate the best ways to properly drown oneself, with gusto:

The wind picked up. The seagulls played with it, unflappable
and grey in the last light. You were black against the red. I could not
see your eyes. You said, “I’d like to thank the academy,” and jumped
off into the waves.

Before the form of the prose poem became commonplace in contemporary letters, Baudelaire wrote to Arsène Houssaye about his dream of “the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.” Surely, Colen’s supple undulations and rugged jibes push the prose poem to its lyrical extremes, where, instead of Baudelaire’s derelict Paris, Colen leads us through her wayward bayside town where a suicide bows in front of a sunset and thanks the academy before leaping, where “wild dogs and truculent boys” abound, where “nothing stays.”

[Published June 1, 2010. 90 pages, $12.00 paperback]

Anna Journey is the author of the collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (Georgia, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston, and recently received a fellowship in poetry from the NEA. She teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California.

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

Recommended by Michael Collier

Coral Road by Garrett Hongo (Knopf) and Sand Theory by William Olsen (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)

HongoCover.jpgGarrett Hongo in his lyrical memoir Volcano (1995) writes, “I had grown up in Los Angeles, hankering a little for Hawai’i all my childhood, had returned periodically, to O’ahu and my Kubota grandfather’s home there, in order to keep it part of my life.” By the time Hongo had written that passage he had already published two books of poems, Yellow Light (1982) and The River of Heaven (1988), both of which made increasingly detailed approaches to the material that would come fully alive in his memoir. Now, with the publication of the magnificent Coral Road, his first book of poems in twenty-three years, we see Hongo returning to O’ahu and his grandfather’s home on the North Shore in Kahuku, not only as memoirist and documentarian but as mythographer, cosmologist, and elegist.

Out of “hankering a little for Hawai’i in his childhood,” Hongo has made one of the most sublime and thoroughly modern renderings of Romantic recollection that can be found in American literature and he has done so by fusing the metaphysical lyricism of Emily Dickinson via Charles Wright with the materialist lyricism of Walt Whitman via Philip Levine. In this passage from “Kawela Studies” you can hear Wright (“Pipers scooting like feathered gray race-cars accelerating ahead, / The shark’s fin-and-tail in the surf the first plainsong of the morning, / Gloria of the bobbing turtle just offshore the second.” And with only a stanza break, he shifts tone so that we hear Wordsworth’s Prelude as well as Levine (“I came here once when I was nineteen and near fully a Mainland kid by then, / Slept shrouded on the beach in a GI-surplus mosquito net, smoked Camels and Marlboros / Days playing cards with cousins — nickel bets, peanuts, and pidgin all in the mix -- / Dripping bottles of Primo beer our cold drink, raw fish salad our chaser.”

Hongo.jpegAll throughout Coral Road there is a capaciousness and generosity as well as a scrupulousness of vision that is extremely rare in contemporary American poetry. The poems bear witness not only to the richness of cultures fractured by emigration and the attendant historical circumstances and vicissitudes that follow such fracturing but they also bear witness to the power of the obligation we feel to remember and revivify — restore — culture and family, and in this way all of Hongo’s work can be seen as an extended elegy. Listen to these lines from “Bugle Boys”: “As I am Kubota’s voice in this life, / chanting broken hymns to the sea, / So also am I my father’s hearing, / fifty-five now and three years shy of his age when he died, / My ears open as the mouth shells of two conchs, drinking in a soft, onshore wind.” It’s hard to imagine that a generation of poets has not had the opportunity to read a new book of poems by Garrett Hongo but Coral Road is certain to wake them up to his work as well as to the marvelous possibilities of his full-throated voice.

* * *

The “Theory” part of William Olsen’s utterly haunting new book is couched in propositions of belated joy. “This treasure,” he writes in “Dune Grass,” “so openly fragile it’s beginning / to dawn on me that we should all be singing.” Yes, “singing,” not crying, not solitary grieving but a celebration in recognizing the belatedness in everything, that, for example, “the lake is the ghost of a glacier, the clouds / are ghosts of the lakes.”

OlsenCover.jpgThe “Sand” part is time, mortality, and the way it is seen in the shifting, refashioning landscapes of nature and human relationships: “For however much I meant to find human likeness / down on its knees, its hands churched together, / there’s more room than ever for the booming distances/ and sand enough for wind to blow beyond/ all of us who [are] abandoned” (“Dune Grass”).

At times, Olsen’s consoling, calm, extravagant intensity sounds like Whitman, i.e., “I am a part of everything invisible.” “I turn myself away each night and day.” “I do not think it any different than midnight sky.” “I see myself disturb it with every step.” (“Sand Theory”). And while his ruminations may be prompted by the exterior world, by things, places, and people, they quickly and inevitably find their way to interior emotions and deep feeling. A Bachelard quotation that serves as an epigraph to “Cabbages Across from the Manitou Islands” — “the earth is the subconscious of the subconscious” — describes perfectly this interiority with its psychological and metaphysical penetration, a penetration that results in a profoundly spiritual agnosticism, as if nothing in experience proves or disproves the existence of god. In this way the poems are able to take the shape, literally and figuratively, of a pure, sublime, and deeply sincere response to everything Olsen encounters and, like Whitman, Olsen sees everything, down to the “tiniest corrugations on lake / pebbles showing from under, in cloud light, to cloud light, / in clarity, with clarity, as these clouds / gather the light of all the sunny days.” (“Sand Theory”).

Olsen.jpegOlsen has forged an idiom in Sand Theory that is so supple it accommodates a wide range of formal strategies, including prose poems and an intriguing fourteen-part, journal-like meditation, “Voice Road.” His syntax is instructive for its ever-branching clauses that suspend and delay the destination of their sentences and as such it is a model of a discursive mode handed down to him from Jon Anderson and Larry Levis.

William Olsen has always written thoroughly original books of poems, and Sand Theory is no exception, but it carries the force and insight of a life spent fashioning a language to match his experience and as a result we experience it as a moment of high achievement and also an indication of Olsen’s future work.

[Coral Road was published September 27, 2011. 120 pages, $26.00 hardcover. Sand Theory was published February 9, 2011. 96 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Michael Collier is the Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Maryland, an editorial consultant for poetry at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His most recent book of poems is Dark Wild Realm (2006).

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

Recommended by Jennifer Barber

Ghost in a Red Hat by Rosanna Warren (W.W. Norton)

The poems in Rosanna Warren’s outstanding new collection, Ghost in a Red Hat, look hard at mortality, at the excesses of our society, and at the poet’s younger self. It’s as if Warren, known for her elegant lyricism, has dared herself to penetrate that lyricism in a new way. “Mistral I” is a case in point. The poem opens with a beautifully rendered landscape: “Two donkeys graze in a meadow of wild golden buttons. / Scents of eucalyptus and honeysuckle mingle in morning air.” Yet it isn’t long before the sun’s intensity starts to remind the poet of something else altogether:

… the sun bores into and into the petalled whorls of the golden flowers
like radiation, the whole meadow bristling with a heat that destroys and sustains.

The poet thinks of her friend who is undergoing radiation treatment; she hopes that the treatment will “let him grow into his longer story.” The landscape is no longer beauty made manifest; it has become associated in the poet’s mind and ours with a difficult biological truth.

Warren.jpegSeveral poems in the collection reference the illness and death of the writer Deborah Tall, Warren’s close friend. “For D.” begins with a plane flight. The poet observes “…streaks/of creamy light through cumulus,” an image that rapidly transforms into a “mattress’s innards ripped.” Again we are not allowed to linger in a daydream of beauty; the reality of Tall’s illness will trump such impulses. The poem offers a persuasive portrait of a friendship that has lasted through the writing of many poems and the rearing of children and into middle age. But the two women, who have lived their lives in parallel, are suddenly in different “countries”:

… again I am making my way toward you
from the far country of my provisional health,
toward you in your new estate of illness, your suddenly acquired,
costly, irradiated expertise.
You have outdistanced me.

Both women are writers to their core, a fact that becomes abundantly clear in “Notes,” which describes one of their last phone calls, with Tall in a hospital room, Warren at a B & B “half a continent” away. Warren takes notes during their conversation “…in ink / so emphatically black it splodged / through to the other side of each notebook page” and says of Tall, “… You wanted / to finish your poems….” That one of the two should be facing death is something Warren struggles with in poem after poem, finally saying, in “Charon”: “Dear friend who spent years conjuring your ghosts, / how did you, so abruptly, join them?”

It is indicative of this collection’s range that poems of personal grief co-exist with poems that examine the larger culture. In “Earthworks,” Warren explores the life and vision of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) as he undertakes the great project of creating Central Park. She imagines Olmsted imagining a place where “ward heelers, dandies, urchins, freed slaves, desperadoes/gents and ladies, the halt, the swift, the lame -- / might come, might be drawn forth in courtesy, might // harmonize Democracy is space / in which we flow …”

WarrenCover.jpgIn other poems, Warren provides contemporary glimpses of public spaces. In “Forty-second Street,” she says, “You could fall there among kegs and cardboard cartons/spiderwebs and planks The brokers and the broken // pass on the street…” In “After,” Warren describes New Orleans, post-Katrina: “The highway straight to end of the world skims past / a ruined mall, Kmart with roof stove in/acres of parking lots where weeds judder through cracks.” The devastating flood isn’t the only misfortune New Orleans is suffering from; the “acres of parking lots,” as for cities and towns all across the country, reveal a commercial culture hell-bent on stoking consumption. “Write an inventory, make an index, stutter a psalm,” the poet says, three acts that involve a reckoning with the ruins, both natural and manmade.

The book’s masterful title poem employs a different kind of reckoning. The poet, in middle age and “of sensible girth,” looks back at her younger self: “I remember //starving. / I didn’t know why. // I practiced being a ghost.” And so we enter the mind of girl who has turned her intensity on herself and her body during a stay in Italy:

… it was picturesque, I was not

picturesque. That was the project:
I gnawed stale bread, roamed vineyards and olive groves,
drew portraits of artichoke plants under twisted trees,

recited Petrarch and grew

so thin I was a dazzling
knife blade in my new white pants.

The picturesque is never the whole story, the poet seems to be saying; it is only by admitting to the complexity of our past and current selves that we can begin to grapple with the bewildering nature of experience.

[Published March 28, 2011. 107 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

Jennifer Barber is the author of Given Away (forthcoming in 2012) and Rigging the Wind (2003), both from Kore Press. She edits Salamander at Suffolk University in Boston.

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

Recommended by Joshua Weiner

Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose by Bernard Spencer (Bloodaxe Books)

Have you heard of Bernard Spencer? I hadn’t. He’s not even included in the Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, Keith Tuma’s monumental recovery project, which ten years ago reestablished the presence of an avant-garde in the more conventional narrative about modern poetry in the UK. Like Lynette Roberts, whom Tuma included and helped bring back into focus, Spencer was born in 1909. And as with Roberts, there’s a strong flavor of European modernism running through his work, though less obviously by virtue of disjunctive techniques (as one finds in her poems), and more in terms of a personal visionary quality, one that you might associate with Montale, Seferis, and Elytis, all poets he translated.

Spencer.jpgBorn in Madras, India, he grew up in England, bumped shoulders with MacNeice and Spender and Auden (and Betjeman too), but was never of their circle. After college he spent most of his life abroad as a member of the British Council (Athens, Cairo, Turin, Madrid, Ankara, Vienna). His involvement in international modernism was as an intrepid stranger in communities where little English was spoken; at the same time, there’s something durably, intractably English about his poetry, a kind of intimately voiced prose element that recalls Edward Thomas, or the open rhythmical swing and naturalist surrealism of Ted Hughes.

While in Egypt during World War II, he became part of a group in Cairo, associated with Lawrence Durrell and Keith Douglas, and edited an ex-pat magazine, Personal Landscape, issues of which have become collectors’ items. He’s seems quite clearly now to have been the best poet of the lot.

“Personal Landscape” is a phrase that captures some of the strongest qualities in Spencer’s poetry, which is often set in real locations, in particular situations, but from a solitary, idiosyncratic vantage conveyed in lines that unfold with a strong prose cadence and startling, mysterious images.

I first came across his poems about five years ago, when I was reading around in Edward Lucie-Smith’s Penguin paperback anthology, British Poetry since 1945 (1970), trying to fill in some mental mapping as I worked on a collection of essays about Thom Gunn. (I don’t much enjoy reading anthologies, but making these kinds of discoveries is one of the things they’re good for.) There were two poems tucked between W.S. Graham and Roy Fuller, “Night-time: Starting to Write” and “Properties of Snow.” The first begins:

Over the mountains a plane bumbles in;
down in the city a watchman’s iron-topped stick
bounces and rings on the pavement. Late returns
must be waiting now, by me unseen

To enter shadowed doorways. A dog’s pitched
barking flakes and flakes away at the sky.

Such writing immediately caught my ear (like that plane, buzzing into my personal space). The aural image of the doubled flakes is arresting, inventive, weird, and somehow natural to the sound of barking (the hard kays). There’s a formal shapeliness and ease, an attention to acoustic correspondences that is not insistent, or pedantic, but attentive though coolly engaged. A late-night suspension of floating-mind-in-preparation.

The second poem begins, “Snow on pine gorges can burn blue like Persian / cats; falling on passers can tip them with eloquent hair / of dancers or Shakespeare actors . . .” Who was this guy? The poems were more intimate and stranger than anything in the post-war period before 1955. Bold, sensitive, particular, quietly visionary, the poems have a sense of an individual breathing; one felt the coming-into-contact-with a heretofore unknown intriguing person — one of the deep appeals of reading new poetry. The poems sounded very contemporary.

SpencerCover.jpgA Collected Poems had appeared from Oxford in the early eighties. It was hard to find; there wasn’t much to go on. Now Bloodaxe has issued a new edition of Complete Poetry, including all of the translations and a good selection of prose (essays, interviews, notes, travel writing, an obituary for Keith Douglas), scrupulously edited by Peter Robinson. The best poems were written between 1947 and 1963, and are of immediate interest; the earlier stuff is somewhat in the key of Auden. But the volume as a whole is beautifully balanced in its portions, and reveals a poet who didn’t shake the world, but wrote honest, observant, often startling poems. He still gets unfairly pegged as a minor poet because he didn’t strain after big ideas, old mythologies or new ones, comprehensive social insights, or stylistic trickery. His feeling for poetry’s occasions places him more easily in a later generation; and in his prose he proves to be well appreciative of what younger poets in the late fifties had to offer. He died in 1963, under mysterious, odd circumstances. It was a terrible death-year for poetry: Frost, Williams, Plath, Roethke, Hikmet, MacNiece. By comparison, Spencer’s passing did not receive much notice. (He had published only two books.)

If your interest in poetry is fed by tracing its role in cultural teleology, you probably won’t find time for him. He won’t fulfill anyone’s recovery agenda. But if you think of poems as companions through life, then he’s a good bet and worth getting to know.

[Published August 9, 2011. 352 pages, $34.95 paperback]

Joshua Weiner is the author of two books of poetry, The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants, and the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (all from the University of Chicago Press). He teaches at University of Maryland and lives in Washington D.C.

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

Recommended by Amanda Auchter

The Lifting Dress by Lauren Berry (Penguin)

I’ll admit it: being a Southerner, I love a good Southern Gothic. I was raised on Faulkner, O’Connor, Lee. Fortunately, Lauren Berry’s debut collection, The Lifting Dress (selected by Terrance Hayes as winner of the 2010 National Poetry Series Award), doesn’t disappoint. Keeping in the vein of other Southern Gothic writers, Berry’s poems weave mystery, coming-of-age, and familial dysfunction to create a narrative arc rife with tempered sensuality.

Berry’s poems in The Lifting Dress are brave and exacting. The collection builds from the moment after the speaker is raped and continues through the tumultuous fallout. In the first poem, “The Just-Bled Girl Refuses to Speak,” the speaker is being interviewed by a doctor who pleads with her to speak. Berry writes:

Like any panicked schoolgirl, I’m inarticulate
and constantly introduced

to beautiful things. Today it’s a doctor
who says,
Young La-dy! and demands

Young La-dy, you cannot keep that garden

in your throat. How will we ask you questions?
How will you sip from the glass of water

and tell us what he did to you?

BerryCover.jpgBerry’s skillful attention to line breaks here (and throughout the entirety of the collection) does exactly what line breaks are supposed to: create tension and subtle meaning. In this poem, Berry uses the line to juxtapose “beautiful things” with the doctor who is attempting to examine the speaker post-trauma. The outcome of this is striking: the speaker finds beauty — even in dark circumstances — in the doctor who wants to help her. There is much vulnerability in this work, and Berry’s poems work to create moment after moment of provocative confessions in the young speaker’s life.

The Lifting Dress is filled with these striking moments where beauty meets the tragic. Take, for example, “Seventh Grade Science in the Partially Burned Classroom”:

I knew there were red wolves in my body, knew
what went past my lips was adding to me.

In the middle of the night, I’d wake in sweat

with a little more breast, already shifting
from the thing virgin in my skirt. I could leave her

in my skirt if I burned it.

There is a lot of red throughout The Lifting Dress: red wolves, the red carnation that fills the speaker’s throat in “The Just-Bled Girl Refuses to Speak.” Red, for Berry, is the color not just of the burgeoning passion of the speaker, but of danger, which is fitting for a collection so concerned with sexuality. In “Seventh Grade Science in the Partially Burned Classroom,” red becomes the wolves that live in the speaker’s body. Here, the wolves are the animals of desire that wake her—both literally and metaphorically—to the budding breasts, the burning skirt.

The speaker in Berry’s collection offers confession in a tone that does not seek pity, but instead gives insight into the vulnerability of a young woman who finds herself, among other things, alone with what she calls “The Big Man” in “Be a Good Girl, Don’t Tell.” In this, perhaps one of the most disturbing poems (and, it should be noted, disturbing in the Gothic-style) in the collection, the speaker lifts her head “from a man’s ink-stained hips / and attempted to tell him, / It tastes like poison.” Much like the speaker in “The Just-Bled Girl Refuses to Speak,” the speaker in “Be a Good Girl, Don’t Tell” cannot speak and instead wipes her tongue with a page from the telephone book. In this, the speaker devours the words she cannot utter in order to replace the man’s taste in her mouth. This single act is crux of Berry’s work in The Lifting Dress: how to reclaim the self through words when speech fails.

Berry.jpegIt seems like many first books by younger poets deal with coming-of-age to some degree, but Berry’s collection surpasses them by foregoing sweet boyfriends and loves lost in favor of a dark mythos that combines the vulnerability of a “hungry child, knelt // over smashed color” (“In The Abandoned Apartment Behind The Ice Cream Parlor”) with the triumph of a woman who, in the end, digs the carnation (“Revising What Is Mine”) from her throat in order to find the words that piece her life back together. In “My Father Takes Me Into The Backyard So I Can Become a Woman,” Berry pieces together a creation myth with the father as a “backyard priest” who drops stones into the daughter’s throat. Berry writes:

Father yes. I’m a body of water now. I am stones and I am swamp and I sink
children under the weight of my river, rinse blood from their tongues.

I take a sip of water. He drops a stone into my throat. I take a sip of water.
What am I made of when he says,
Watch how your body endures?

The body endures much in Berry’s collection. At every turn, there is danger, even in one’s own house as in “The Big Man Visits His Landlord’s Daughter” where a sister’s tooth hangs from a doorknob by dental floss. Berry’s use of specificity, however direct and at times, yes, disturbing, is spot-on and gives voice to a world as lovely as it is damaged.

“Words are the poison I name,” Berry writes in “Be a Good Girl, Don’t Tell.” These poems push “against / the places [we’re] never allowed into” (“In The City Parking Lot, The Last Night”). This collection is filled with the energy of words that allows a glimpse into an otherwise private world of budding sexuality, taboo, and familial dysfunction. Berry has given us a book that, as in “In The City Parking Lot, The Last Night,” untwists the chains of girlhood in order to realize that “the holiness of childhood is heavy.” In this, The Lifting Dress is an exciting debut that offers honesty and above all, beauty.

[Published May 31, 2011. 80 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Amanda Auchter is the founding editor of Pebble Lake Review and the author of The Glass Crib, recipient of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award judged by Rigoberto González. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and teaches creative writing and literature at Lone Star College.

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

Recommended by Brian Teare

Kintsugi by Thomas Meyer (Flood Editions)

Meyer.jpgLet’s suppose an elegy might contain any or all of the following: an account of the deceased; the facts of their death; descriptions of the elegist’s grief; a meditation on the larger implications of the death of the deceased and of death in general. Let’s also suppose that — depending upon the poet, the historical period and culture, and the identity of the deceased — the elegy’s larger occasion might be theological or philosophical reflection, biographical tribute or autobiographical narrative, or an investigation into the nature of language as a medium for grief. Let’s also make it safe to suppose that the elegiac text might also perform the traditional ritual duty of consolation by attempting to repair the tear left behind in the social fabric by death.

Given these suppositions, I’d like to argue that the elegy’s already complex generic tropes are made differently complicated when the one who has died is a lover or long-time companion. Because eros in its largest sense is epistemological, a way of knowing self and other and the real, the loss of the beloved to death constitutes a wound to how the elegist knows not only the deceased, but also her/himself and the real—this wound is especially deep if the elegist’s experience and concept of eros have not fully accounted for the fact of death. What gives elegy and its language their intensity is that they are ultimately the way a tree in time has grown over the barbwire that once enclosed it: though mourning is a form of healing, to know the world after elegy is paradoxically to know that erotic knowledge integrates into itself the shape of what’s wounded it.

A memorial to poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, Thomas Meyer’s partner of almost forth years, Kintsugi is a particularly moving example of elegy as a registration of the wound dealt by death to an erotic epistemology. “Kintsugi” is the Japanese practice of using gold-laced lacquer to repair broken ceramics, and Meyer places a definition of the word on the page preceding the first poem, a placement that practically guarantees readers experience the poems metaphorically. But it is an elegant metaphor for elegiac practice — a careful repair of erotic fragments — and as Meyer suggests at the conclusion of “New Poem,” the book’s penultimate poem, the elegy’s shattered vessel can’t help but function as a substitute:

Once when the poem
was a bright, shiny thing, think
what it could or would do …

The logical conclusion
is that

everything that goes
wants to be
its place holder.

If loss creates a profound confusion between what is lost and what the elegist substitutes for the one lost to death, kintsugi as a metaphor likewise begs the question of tenor and vehicle. Clearly the poet is the ceramicist, but is the poem the lacquer and the real the broken vessel? Is the real the lacquer and the poem the broken vessel? Is the elegy’s epistemology the lacquer and the past the broken vessel? Or is the elegy’s epistemology the lacquer and the body of the deceased the broken vessel? Given that “everything that goes/wants to be/its place holder,” this game of substitution can go on and on, a fact that suggests both the richness of Meyer’s chosen metaphor and the canniness of his choice to let all possible tenor and vehicle relationships remain in play.

MeyerBW.jpegMost attentive to the mind in mourning and to the mind mourning in language, Meyer allows the seven poems of Kintsugi to forgo narrative, sequential and discursive completeness in favor of voicing “The call that goes unanswered.” “To talk with the dead about desire,” Meyer asks late in the book, “Is that / what the poem has left us?” Prioritizing the fragmentary and haunted quality of elegiac epistemology, Meyer’s poems don’t attend to the generic tropes of elegy so much as invoke them as a collateral of the mourning mind. Thus elegy plays out most concretely in the sensibility of the poet, a seismograph calibrated to the smallest of tremors: “not rhetoric or suddenness, but a/quickening of moonlight if that can be imagined.” What I love most about Kintsugi’s performance of elegiac epistemology is its juxtaposition of imagistic precision with fragments of rhetoric and narrative, as though the mind were at once transcribing and describing and revising, as at the opening of “Open Window,” the volume’s third poem:

Sudden flicker. Light, late afternoon. Bird. But
in that instance something expected. Some one
or thought. Gone. Here then not. The air
holds its shape a moment more. An instant
outlasts its own emptiness …
In Chinese a hand reaches for the moon
to mean “have” or commonly “be.”
To have to be. Or not. Grab
the moon or blot out its light.
There’s no timing to these things.
Unless it’s all timing. A beat impossible
to catch …

Thus time and timing play a defining role in Meyer’s rendering of elegiac epistemology: the elegy is always essentially belated, its language a reach that grabs nothing but the ambient qualities of after. “What / had I expected? Ghosts? Haunted details?,” the poem “Endings” asks before answering itself: “I don’t know. Unless loss does away / with the previous itself. It must.” The essential tragedy of after is that the elegist’s sense of being in time has been wounded by death in the way that a syncope is a heart attack as well as an off-beat rhythm. Such syncopations find their way into the book not only through a tendency toward stuttering self-interrogations and -corrections, but also through images touched upon briefly in one poem and returned to in passing in another. “Open Window” is the title of one poem, and “Open Door” another, and these phrases, among many others, return in the poems as images and phrases. Such echoes constitute a kind of delayed, rhythmic off-rhyme, not unlike the one between “waiting” and “wanting” that Meyer most favors. Take this passage from later in “Open Window”:

Open book. No, open door. But why not?
Book. Door. Table. Chair. Blank
slate. Book. Over and over until there
is no over. The mind, the heart—whatever
holds—runs out …

As this excerpt suggests, Kintsugi as a whole plays itself out in slow small repetitions whose seemingly bad timing surprises before resolving into “symmetries disguised as / asymmetrical.” The subtle awkwardness of this formal invention lends “Last Poem” its start and its startle: “Is this that? Let go. Sameness troubles me. / Table. Chair. Whatever. I know when I see it. // Things come and go.” Not only does “Last Poem” reiterate “Open Window” with a troubling sameness and articulate the return of things that had come before, but it is also not the last poem of the book, a fact whose “sudden ‘aptness’ draws/home the absence of well-being.” This phrase perfectly characterizes Meyer’s remarkable achievement in Kintsugi, a book whose profundity, formal resourcefulness and wisdom I’ve only begun to gesture toward. “How / to make a picture of / all that is taken / away?” is the book’s central question, and, as is its habit, the book supplies its own answer: “Honey in the difficult/pattern of dark and light.” Though Meyer’s linguistic poise and precision indeed recall the characteristic gold-laced lacquer evoked by the book’s title, lines such as these remind us that, though once shattered, the vessel’s form holds true because of kintsugi. And despite its brokenness, the elegy’s core principle of memorial remains to give it purpose, as evidenced by these remarkably sly and poignant lines:

I can’t look at these flame azalea in bloom
and not think:

at least until those I love
and those I want to impress
have seen you.

[Published November 15, 2011. 80 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Brian Teare is the author of three books of poems: The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map and Pleasure. His fourth book, Companion Grasses, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2013. An Assistant Professor at Temple University, he lives in Philadelphia where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.

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

Recommended by Barbara Ras

Dogged hearts by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press) and Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye (BOA Editions)

Archilochus, the 7th-century Greek poet, has been oft-quoted for his enigmatic and somehow endearing statement: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” At the risk of being unduly reductionist, I want to borrow Achilochus’ categories to describe two books I recommend: “Dogged Hearts” (Tupelo 2010), by Ellen Dore Watson and “Transfer” (BOA Editions 0000), by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Let me pause for a moment of full disclosure: both these poets are friends. This is the first time I’ve written about any of their many publications, and I do so now because of the thrill and pleasure both these books have given me.

Ellen Doré Watson is like the fox that can jump many feet up in the air from a standstill, survey the world, and ask:

How can a wave / blossom / stallion / wound
be that lavish?

WatsonCover.jpegAnd indeed lavish, ravishing, and ravenous characterize Watson’s poems — whether in voices of a host of singular others addressing the “dear rash world” (section one), or the middle section’s “Tess and Baker,” alternating between an impasse and a tango as they ruminate on their dissolving marriage (section two); or first-person lyrics capacious in their range. Sprinkled throughout are short prose poems, each title beginning with “Speaking Of . . .,” that show Watson in yet another mode, more meditative, more loosely meandering, yet delivering shining language and long leaps:

Nightly she wonders what looms between her and the bloody meadow?


Pity the poor rocks . . .those bloodied by the verb ‘to stone.’

And elsewhere:

Another taproot day, and we think gouache, oil the sump pump, we sing the sideways relation of sedentary to mud.

Music and singing abound, but it comes to us, as often as not, aslant, oblique, but always alert to the brash pleasures of the only world we’ve got:

Because God or no god are both monstrous.
Because wrists don’t age. Because kisses
or memories of kisses. Because

hull and grave equally ravish.

Watson.jpegThe sheer amplitude and abundance of “Dogged Hearts” amazes, but I am also smitten by Watson’s talent to take the world into her poems with easy movement, enabling her, for example, in a lines about crows to make facts her own, transform observation into language of a higher power. So simply, yet powerfully she writes about their raucousness in poems about the failure of love:

No wonder they call them a murder.


Nests are tragedy waiting to happen.

In Dogged Hearts Ellen Doré Watson proves that she can write about anything. But make no mistake—this is not randomness. This is a poet open to the world, taking in all of it and shaping it into poems full of audacity and hope. A poet who remind us with tenderness:

“Delicious, the fear the ocean holds in the dark.”

* * * * *

Nye.jpegThe poems in Naomi Shihab Nye’s Transfer, each as various as stones in a village, circle around death of her beloved father, Aziz, a devastation so large it becomes the one big knowing (like the fabled hedgehog’s) that animates this volume. Through elegy after elegy we come to know the journalist he was, lover of stories, exile in the U.S. from his Palestinian homeland, and the poet’s touchstone in family and in life. Thus, Nye writes:

Maybe it’s our duty to be shaped a hundred times by the same stories.
We think we’re telling them
But really they’re keeping us alive,
memory oxygen breathed in and out.

Included here are penetrating and poignant portraits of other losses — Arab homes razed by bulldozers, young boys killed by Israeli bullets, the dislocation of a people from their ancestral land, the death of the monumental Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

For those who would never walk a field, never bend down,
he found a way to carry the cry of a lost goat and
the cry of a people, without stumbling.

A triumph in the book is the second section, written in the voice of Nye’s dead father, taking poem titles from his notebooks.

Nothing would fit for years.
They came with guns, uniforms, declarations.

LIFE magazine said,
‘It was surprising to find some Arabs still in their houses.’
Surprising? Where else would we be?
Up on the hillsides?
Conversing with mint and sheep, digging in the dirt?

And from the poem “A Kansas Preacher Called Me Muscleman”:

Bethlehem used to be right next door . . .
If you smell the skin right on my wrist here,
you’ll detect the scent of rain on stones
right where you climb down those old stairs
to the church, you can come with me if you want to.
I think you can hear Jesus cry too.

NyeCover.jpgThough Transfer contains poems that wander in Berlin, and look a squirrel in the eye, the heart of this book is the love of a daughter for her father, his life, and though the poet’s grief is palpable throughout, it is cast in wise lines like these, always rescuing memory to keep it alive:

Every scrap of DNA, he’s listening.
There’s a way not to be broken
that takes brokenness to find it.

The uncommon power of Nye’s poems comes from plain speech, direct address, an intimate, quietly keening note under her questions, the impulse to call out again and again to the lost, the cleanness of the writing so pure, so primal. Throughout Nye’s work, but especially here, in Transfer, we feel the poet offering poems like olive branches—hopeful that if it’s done often enough someone will take it. And even in loss she incorporates another of Archilocus’ maxims: “Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree you give way to sorrow."

[Dogged Hearts, published September 15, 2010, 92 pages, $16.95 paperback. Transfer, published September 6, 2011, 88 pages, $23.00 hardcover/$16.00 paperback]

Barbara Ras’ most recent collection is The Last Skin (Penguin, 2010). She is the director of Trinity University Press.

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

Recommended by Rusty Morrison

Flower Cart by Lisa Fishman (Ahsahta Press)

FishmanCover.jpegIn Flower Cart, Lisa Fishman’s found language, quotidian lists, and enigmatic aphorisms are fresh-cut from life and exude Guiles Deleuze’s premise that “Nature is not attributive but rather conjunctive: it expresses itself through ‘and’ …not ‘is.’” No characteristically predictable this is governs Fishman’s choices, which would be most writers’ default stance. Rather, she exposes the nature of experience in all the weedy variety of its inherent this-and-this-ness in phrases that range from surprising explication (“It was the hidden quality of genitals / originally compared”) to radically renegade revelation (“Then the quotidian could enter/ zero as a great / divide”). Here are life’s alternations and entwinings, attractions and distractions — all its nuance and abruptness. While most poets focus a reader’s attention on each selected and cultivated idea reaped from experience, Fishman’s diversity draws our attention to the carrying force, the and-ness of life’s motility, the cart—with all its roughshod tilt and unpredictable over-flow made apparent. Fishman provokes her readers to look beyond striking particulars to the ways that the divergent accumulation offers us a glimpse of the actual in all its mercuriality. And, she lets us catch sight of the agent pushing that precariously brimming-over bounty before our eyes.

I am not making any noise
I am telling you the truth
I am going to

“I am not making any noise” might irreverently allude to the silence of an authorial voice when read, regardless of the noisy trouble its particular provocations might arouse in the reader. Here, the double meaning of “I am going to” proposes a hedging of the truth as equally as it suggests that any truth-telling can only be a semantic going toward the most veracity that a speaker can manage. In what may first appear to be a glancing witticism, Fishman reminds us that there are often many shades of meaning in even our simplest communications and that honest “telling” is a work-in-progress attuned to language’s ever-shifting accuracies and ego projections. The humor of the first line’s double-meaning flows into the second and third’s wry seriousness of truth-telling as a “going to”-ness, never an “is”-ness. Here is a lightness kin to what Calvino’s extols in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Rather than weigh us down with explication, Fishman offers quizzically shifting phrases aerated with surprise and illumination.

In her lightness, Fishman enacts Deleuze’s proposal that the “nature of things is coordination and disjunction,” and in her playful paradoxes we sense how the two can exist concomitantly. We find in Flower Cart not only the experience of insight disclosed, but the explication of its disclosure immediately questioned in cuttings of language that are as fresh and ephemeral as any wildflower bouquet.

thought, thawed,
caught, gone
gauze, cause

Fishman.jpgIn many cases, significance arrives in a phrase’s lyric alliteration, rather than exclusively from the language’s accrual as clearly cultivatable meaning. As Paul Valery mused, in poetry we can experience a “hesitation between sound and sense” in which the soundings of words can lead us to alternative intuitions that our normal, logic-driven progression of thought would not.

Both of the quotes above come from a section in Flower Cart that begins with a photocopied spiral-bound notebook cover, which touts its brand name as “Herald Square” and its description as “A notebook for speed and efficiency … the leaves turn swiftly and lie flat … the book will stand alone for transcribing.” In this section, much of the language seems like a slightly skewed “transcribing” of a life — snippets of overheard conversations, various lists of daily tasks, observations of oddly banal minutia, sometimes-disjointed sometimes-oddly-compelling collections of associative or alliterative words rich with the subliminal fertility that a writer might choose to collect. Each of these brief entries — or call them stanzas or segments —must “stand alone,” with the otherwise blankness of the page as the only support construction. Yet a surprising number act upon me as a homeopathic tincture: these minute doses of a stranger’s life evoke in me an intimacy and recognition that no artfully extensive description could replicate.

In Flower Cart, other found materials — which include a 1901 fill-in-the blanks record book for “Trees I Have Seen,” a 1916 letter from the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture assessing corn samples — cohabitate with agitating aphorisms, distinctly articulated details of dailiness, and language so closely interrogated that the letters of some words become undomesticated, and are re-introduced into the wilds of new insight and possibility.

not Language
not Object

material mater(ia)
i, a (matter / mother)
whose rib floats, ribbon-

Fishman avoids elaborate or lush embellishments of the figurative in her language use; rather her passages often function as bare, though at times breath-taking, bearing-taking. Her focus allows us to observe language itself acting upon the speaker as agent of inspiration. In this way, the next-, the and-ness of experience becomes the illusive and allusive subject we are following. In Flower Cart, we glimpse perception enlarge its ways of carrying the world. We watch new thought in the act of arrival, as it acquires its next expression in words, which are the primary “cart” that carries the world to us. And we can appreciate each incremental expansion of awareness, which might be a movement as simple as

mouth to ear or a gesture
tensing its legs

[Published May 1, 2011. 88 pages, $17.50 paperback]

Rusty Morrison is co-founder and co-editor of Omnidawn Publishing. She received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American poets for her collection the true keeps calm biding its story (Ahsahta Press, 2008). Her chapbook Book of the Given just appeared from Noemi Press.

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

Recommended by Daniel Bosch

Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

In the sixteenth of the thirty verse paragraphs of “Venus Velvet No. 2,” the third and longest of the six poems that make up Heavenly Questions, which is a singular poem of loss, the speaker’s husband, gravely ill, and having fallen asleep, drops “an ancient paperback // Of Buddhist parables that fell away // When I retrieved it.” The speaker’s gaze falls on a page where a seeker, Ananda, has questioned the Buddha about the importance of beauty:

Oh say not so, Ananda, say not so,
Buddha replied, when his pupil-companion
Came to him, and sat down to one side,
And set aside his begging bowl, and said,
“My teacher, isn’t beauty half the goal?
For doesn’t half the holy life consist
Of drawing near to beauty, step by step?”

Oh say not so, Ananda, say not so;
Not half, he answered. Say it is the whole.

Call me Zeno. Step by step, and even if I only reach half my goal, I shall try to show you, in an argument from part to whole, that this passage is as beautifully constructed as it is powerfully true — about poetry, and about Heavenly Questions.

Schnackenberg.jpegConsider how the first nearly palindromic line encloses the seeker’s name between commands from the Buddha that Ananda mend his speech a little. Consider how that first line returns, wholly, near the end of this verse paragraph, but crucially not at the end, which would slightly overvalue its values. (Everything uttered in Schnackenberg’s verse is care-full; Oh say NOT so, the Buddha admonishes, rather say SO.) Consider how when the phrase “he answered” comes, it takes its place between two brief caesurae, a deliberate parallel with the place “Ananda” had taken. (The acolyte’s name dissolves in an account of the teacher’s teaching.) While you are looking at caesurae, note how Schnackenberg shifts their positions from line to line, so alive is she, especially in a passage drawn from a tradition centered on meditation, to the ramifications of control over one’s breath, to thematic possibilities in tiny pauses. Consider also how Schnackenberg’s textural exploitation of long O sounds for end rhyme and internal rhyme within that line (“Oh,” “so,” “so”) is picked up in other lines as assonance in “bowl,” “holy,” “goal,” and “whole.” Rhymes stud the passage, an elaborate working up of sound in tension with its simple diction. Full rhymes, like the silent caesurae, do thematic work, as when “side” is full-rhymed with “replied” and “aside” (both sides of the argument in one line), then slanted against “set” and “said.”

It might be said, too, that Schnackenberg’s decision to employ end rhyme’s sonic closure only very intermittently traces the speaker’s difficult negotiation with the end of her husband’s life. The range of literary references here spans the globe — “Venus Velvet #2” is set in Massachusetts, not in India — but Schnackenberg’s prosodic choices plot a history of English poetry. Schnackenberg’s blank verse evokes the triumph of drama and the beginning, in the late 16th century, of the long decline of narrative poetry, for in the shadow of Shakespeare and Marlowe story-tellers had begun to experiment with prose and to invent, over and over again, the novel. (In the 20th century somebody taped a DNR sign to the foot of narrative poetry’s bed; yet in my opinion, “Venus Velvet #2” recovers some ground for poetry’s claim to preeminence in narrative.) And the concluding line of the passage is both strong iambic pentameter and an Anglo-Saxon hemistich, and thus a kind of memento mori for a foundational strand of our verse tradition that is too often elided.

SchnackenbergCover.jpegI introduced myself as Zeno because I know that in the midst of a paragraph like the one above some readers shall ask earthly questions: who cares about all this loading of every rift with ore? Why should it matter to me that Schnackenberg makes her verse so dense, and densely historical, and with such care? I look to the Buddha for my answer. With regard to poetry — as distinct as it may be from the holy life — beauty is the whole, the ethical and the aesthetic converge. The exquisite structural patterning and the interpenetration of somatic event and semantic and historical understanding that some people mistake for decoration has always been and will always be that which distinguishes the sacred from the profane. The intricate and yet utterly lucid, even plain-spoken verse paragraph above is only a tiny part of “Venus Velvet #2,” and it is not anywhere near the most powerful — I have deliberately left those passages for you to discover. But in it you can feel how different from ordinary speech is the expression of a consummate artist like Schnackenberg. In Heavenly Questions she has extraordinary things to say about life, death, and beauty; but not only that, she has found the six most beautiful ways to say them.

[Published September 27, 2011. 64 pages, $13.00 paperback]

Daniel Bosch’s Crucible was published by Other Press. His transformation of a poem by Mikhail Lermontov (via Vladimir Nabokov) recently appeared on Slate.

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

Recommended by Randall Mann

Red Clay Weather by Reginald Shepherd (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Shepherd.jpegReginald Shepherd died in 2008 at the age of 45, leaving behind the luminous poems of Red Clay Weather. According to the astute introduction by his partner Robert Philen, Shepherd was writing right up to the end (he wrote the final poem, “'God-With-Us,'” just two weeks before his death). Shepherd had meticulously chosen the work that would become the manuscript — but, and I find this detail moving, he didn't have the time to order the poems. Philen, who humbly lets us know that “I knew him and his work well enough that I have been able to arrange his poems into a sequence he would have been happy with,” has a fine critical eye, and the poems as they are placed almost perfectly tell the story — and carefully resist the story — of, as Shepherd puts it in his allusive “A Shoulder to the Wheel,” “… a body of work, a body / of words, never enough confusion / between body and soul ...”

Let's take the opening poem, “Days like Survival” — the title of which speaks to the knowing ironies in Red Clay Weather — that all important “like” in the poem-title both a linguistic distancing from the truth and an admission of choice: the speaker has chosen survival, even if the writer does not survive the choice and knows he will not survive, and the choice is in many ways not his. And the poem’s first line, “Beginning in the midst of things”: Shepherd is a writer who so often starts his poems in medias res, but further, each beginning — of this book, of each poem — inevitably is a beginning, a middle, and an end, as this is posthumous. So much has happened, and we are but one line into the collection!

Reginald Shepherd was our pitiless poet of language, myth, landscape, the body — the poverty and beauty and interchangeability of all of these. The poet has “biohazard blood” and “calcium‑deficient bones”; language is a dry failure, as in “And Therefore I Have Sailed the Seas and Come”: “Everything there was a quotation of itself, 'warehouse' / and 'access road' and 'four‑door sedan'…”; the sky is “an ordinary nameless sky / with nothing to declare” (“A Man Named Property”). And yet. This is not a book of failure, but of acceptance and mortality — as in the poem “Given Distance,” where the speaker concedes that “music can make anything / sound true,” and “the grass is in need,” but, in lines of mild delusion and/or defiance, ends: “All this / that's been poured into me can see me // disappearing, chooses not to.”

ShepherdCover.jpgAnd I very much admire his brutal turns back to his difficult childhood. In “My Mother Dated Otis Redding,” the poem begins in near-tenderness, the first line and a half thus: “My mother is laughing in the hallway with her friends / I don't much like.” That first line is the only moment of pure lightness; at that first line-break, the argumentative breakages begin, so that by the ending one is left with “my mother standing in the hallway / with a paper cup of Tanqueray, or lying / in the hallway in a pool of her own shit.” I like, too, Shepherd’s device of distancing the pain of some of these childhood pieces with the second person. Here’s an example, in “Falling”: “You share a bed with your mother in the two-room tenement / walkup, because you're afraid to sleep on the living room sofa on / account of the rats.” And in the poem “Flying”:

Your stepfather who attacked your mother
with a butcher knife, was that before or after the restraining order,
who cut all the wires inside the new tape deck she bought you (“I'm
going to make it like a vegetable”) because he thought she spoiled
you, and she did. But you weren't his son and it wasn't his money.

Now that I’ve started quoting this book, I can’t stop. What follows are just a few of my favorite lines in this remarkable book: “He tastes of salt and disappearance” (“In the Badlands”); “News / is a desperate mystery, isn't it...” (“Seize the Day”); “The dead move fast, nowhere / to nowhere in no time at all” (“Play Dead”); “the smell of money / smothers commodity gardens and yards” (“What It Is to Burn”); “My mother was the murderous flight of crows / stilled” (“My Mother Was No White Dove”). I could go on and on.

I recently had a conversation with a poet I admire, and the topic was, more or less, poetic bravery. She was skeptical, and so am I, mostly, about the idea, but I think as Reginald Shepherd lays his writing bare, his poetic self, and offers the reader the opportunity to grieve not necessarily for but with him, producing, say, the last of Red Clay Weather just before he passed, I’m inclined to think that writing is an act of bravery, and of faith: “nothing lasts of us // but teeth and mineralized bone / the sediments keep safe sometimes,” he writes in “Once Thought to Have Been Destroyed.” The lasting poems of Red Clay Weather deserve to be kept safe.

[Published January 30, 2011. 88 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Randall Mann’s most recent poetry collection is Breakfast with Thom Gunn (University of Chicago, 2009). He co-authored the textbook Writing Poems (7th edition, Pearson Longman, 2007).

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

Recommended by Julie Sheehan

All Of Us by Elisabeth Frost (White Pine Press)

Poem after poem after prose poem in All Of Us plays desire against its true love, loss. A recurring speaker yearns for a child even as she is losing her mother to dementia, then death. The mother, “trying to extinguish desire before it could start” in her children, will later lose the ability to identify them, much to her daughter’s grief. Bodies fail, or suddenly become other than what we thought they were, or their occupants become conscious of them in new, unexpected, inappropriate or untimely ways, resulting in a sense of sometimes comic dislocation. In one poem, a man suffers temporary amnesia, and if that weren’t dislocation enough, the title is “This Sort of Thing Could Happen,” that word could throwing the events of the poem onto an even more provisional plane.

FrostCover.jpgAnother example of dislocation is “Visit,” in which a perfectly sane friend slaps her child. The poem is framed not as a direct narration of the event, though, but as a speaker trying to imagine her friend’s behavior: “Since she told me what happened,” it begins, “I keep trying to picture it — how it could have happened.” There’s that wary conditional tense again. “Secret” narrates an icky, hilarious college anxiety dream involving a sadistic French instructor. It ends not with the dream’s end, but with the dreamer’s college roommates, who try to wake her up and “stand afraid, shivering in their flannel nighties,” so that we land on their bewildered perspective. A poem set in the hospital is craftily titled “This Body, Which Has Always Claimed to Be You.” Alternative realities materialize suddenly, as if any given set of facts, any narrative, any identity, has a separated-at-birth twin, ready to pop up behind you in line at the copy shop.

Frost.jpegThere’s a lot of twinning in All Of Us, as you might expect from such an emphatically plural title. Kidneys come paired in one poem; in another, “image and epic” are the sweet monikers for two possibly incompatible lovers on a subway platform; in a third, a couple prepares two wills, identical in substance, with only the proper nouns for beneficiary and alma mater differing. “Two Stories” presents competing accounts of a last wish, one in which the deceased wants to be buried, the other, cremated. “Two Versions“ explores the decision of whether or not to have children, with one member of the unnamed couple pro and the other con. “They keep going over the future in two versions,” Frost writes, in a wonderful bit of twinning that describes both the high stakes of their debate and its immateriality.

So it’s not that loss is desire’s true love; loss is desire’s twin, and together they are simultaneously fertile and childless, at least in Elisabeth Frost’s imagination. The poem “Dogs” gets at this paradox with Frost’s characteristic concision, irony and sense of humor:

After the divorce, the one who wanted a baby buys a dog despite a tiny apartment and no money. The dog is sick. It needs expensive medicine and dog sitting while the owner works a low-paying job as a sign language interpreter. A second dog is bought to give the sick dog some company. This one barks, requiring costly obedience classes. Meanwhile, the former spouse, still in the couple’s original apartment, passes the pet store twice a day. Taped to the window, photos show pets and their new owners, including the ex and the two dogs, which are sick and disobedient, not unlike the children they never had.

The paradox at the heart of this beautiful book is that depravation is both the precondition for and consequence of creativity — and, it may be, true love.

[Published April 19, 2011. 96 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book: Poems & Otherwise, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award and NYFA Fellowship in Poetry. She teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.

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

Recommended by Philip Metres

Toqueville by Khaled Mattawa (New Issues)

Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville, his fourth book of poems, is an experimentally-daring meditation on what it means to be a poet at the center of American power. But Tocqueville, in contrast to his lyrically-driven previous work, pronounces that it no longer suffices to sing, even to sing of dark times, as Bertolt Brecht proposed. Rather, through the poetry of Mattawa — born in Libya and for years an American citizen — we become witnesses to our own implicatedness, our own vulnerable privilege.

Mattawa.jpegWhile the first poem is entitled “Lyric” — and begins, “Will answers be found / like seeds / planted among rows of song?”— the lyric “I” of the poet pulses through the entire collection, through its wider networks of imperial history, global economic flows, and Machiavellian politics, emerging in the diverse voices of a Somali singer, a Sierra Leonean victim/perpetrator of atrocity, a gallery viewer of photographs of Palestinian exile, a factory worker in Georgia, Ecclesiastes as insurance salesman, a terrorist, a State Department insider.

The keynote poem of the book is “On the Difficulty of Documentation,” a dialogic meditation on the role of art in a world of violence. The poem takes as its mediating occasion a photographic exhibit of Palestinian refugees. Here, Mattawa quotes liberally from two poets, as if in dialogue: Sir Thomas Wyatt, of the Renaissance courtly love tradition, and Bertolt Brecht, of the school of alienation and political action. As the poem reflects on the refugee pictures, Mattawa zigs and zags between poetry’s desire to herald the beautiful and its desire to be truthful—between art and history, between transcendence and wound. It ends with Wyatt rather than Brecht, but such a tilt does not suggest that beauty wins. The deft collage of photographs and poetry quotes builds, until Wyatt’s own words — “they flee from me” —becomes more than a courtly love elegy:

And what of that look, and the all too human?

To be enthralled

and fain know what she hath deserved (Wyatt)

the squalor that makes the brow grow stern
the just anger that turns a voice harsh. (Brecht)

What else could she do, as she parts, but softly say,

Oh dear heart, how like you this? (Wyatt)

And I recall how

They flee from me, gentle, tame, and meek
how they range
Busily seeking with continuous change. (Wyatt)

In the end, Wyatt’s lament becomes a lament of the political poet, who sees the refugees themselves disappear from his language, from the wider narrative of human rights, displaced by a state that was meant to instantiate the rights of another genocided people.

MattawaCover.jpgTocqueville is an exceedingly difficult book to excerpt; its central poem, “Tocqueville” — which includes many of the voices referenced above, is a tour-de-force globalist polyphonic collage — extends through the middle twenty-six pages of the book. Here, we feel the poet linger on the dark abyss of global connectedness, of its profound alienation, without any Friedmanesque elation. Mattawa recreates the poet’s role as global Tocqueville, but this prophetic Tocqueville has none of the adoring tone of the original Frenchman; he has seen too much. Instead, among other things, we witness to the words of a man who is compelled by soldiers to beat his baby son to death:

They found me in the house with my baby child. They’d already killed my wife in the field. They told me to place the child in the mortar we used to mash cassava. Then they handed me the club and told me to bludgeon my child, or they would kill me. And I did as they said. Afterwards, they cut off both my arms and let me go.

In this poem, Brechtian alienation trumps the poet’s longing for the beautiful.

Relatedly, the three “Power Point” poems are masterful forays into a poetry that cognitively maps the global networks of power and privilege; part shooting script, part dread epic, these poems include choruses, lyric jolts, embarrassing sexual liaisons with hotel maids, and Ihab Hassan-inspired postmodern graphs of the temporally-proximal deaths of Anna Nicole Smith, Gerald Ford, Saddam Hussein, and James Brown.

Tocqueville is a lyric that repudiates lyricism, an unrepeatable experiment, a witness to blindness, a shooting script without camera or bullet. In it, Mattawa takes no casual or cynical distance from the operations of empire; he situates himself, and all of us, in the middle of it, and asks us not to look away, but to lean in and bear its weighty implications.

2011 has been a real annus mirabilis for poet Khaled Mattawa. Not only did his poetry garner the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Arab American Book Award (for Tocqueville), and his translation of Adonis the prestigious Griffin Prize, but his hometown Benghazi began the revolt to overthrow the decades-long dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya. But Tocqueville reminds us not to move too quickly to declare revolutions successful.

The poet C.D. Wright once wrote that some of us come to poetry not for pleasure or instruction, “but to be changed, healed, charged.” Mattawa’s book changes us, but by wounding us; it gives us a charge—the power and duty that is the privilege of poetry.

[Published April 5, 2010. 71 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Philip Metres is the author of a number of books and chapbooks, recently abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine Press, 2011), Ode to Oil (Kattywompus Press, 2011), and To See the Earth (Cleveland State, 2008). He teaches at John Carroll University.

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

Recommended by Dora Malech

Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon (University of Akron Press)

HarmonCover.jpegLe Spleen de Poughkeepsie reads like an elegiac mosaic. Refusing to culminate in solace, the terminus of a classical elegy’s arc, this collection “is context / not event,” as it accretes moment upon moment of mourning and consolation, taking the reader not to a tourist destination, but inside a life lived and a place observed. We inhabit the “absentminded particulars of ruin” in this post-industrial American city, paradoxically universal in its specificity.

Harmon’s is, indeed, a “devotion untelling itself as it goes.” Restless enjambment subverts our expectations, as the sentiment of “we perish quickly, / but not quickly” becomes “we perish quickly, / but not quickly // enough,” as “sell me some” becomes “sell me some / -thing better,” as “a folk song of fire” turns out to be “a folk song of fire / escapes.” Lines seem to promise revelation, (“it will come to me:” “the reason:” “the last / legitimate wreckage:”), but Harmon’s revelations rarely obey punctuation’s introduction. Harmon’s are slow-release revelations:

The crux of small words: folding

chair seats changing hands without a vote,
blinds never raised at the house

across the street, and we forget
that our neighbors have died or been

handcuffed: but in a slight portrait
of mediocrity and boredom, the artist

has neglected a signature: the
recurring optimism of sycamores

and rhododendrons as sirens wake us up
again and the inner landscape reboots itself

As in Baudelaire’s Spleen, there is a pervasive sense of the speaker as observer, of one passing through not only one’s place, but one’s own life, at a distance. There is the tension between detached irony and compassion in lines like “…they are / rebuilding the city / from a hatchback filled / with day-old loaves and all / the appropriate resentments:” and “some citizen’s idea of myth, the boys outside // the 7-Eleven who stand away from a truth / about the flimsiness of captivities”; the speaker acknowledges the accompanying “ninety percent chance of fickle indifference,” of being “exhausted from waking up,” yet against the odds, empathy and wonder seem to rise up again and again.

In poems that locate themselves in such keen observation, I come to appreciate the charged moments of ambiguity, as in one prose moment: “I wanted to inspect the most dissolute voltages. The residue of a holograph. My property was a girdling root, but the desolation was real.” This unmooring, followed, in the next poem in the collection, by the lineated “To be freed from the burden / of being no more important / than anyone else” is a kind of exhilaration, as are the shifts in diction. One prose poem careens from the colloquial “mattress chucked in the backyard dumpster” to the heightened rain that “performs sorceries of dissolution” (reminiscent of Coleridge’s frost that “performs its secret ministry”).

Harmon.jpegReading this collection, I thought of the thrill I got upon first reading Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes preaching “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” I thought of the Williams poem “Dance Russe,” in which the speaker (and I) “‘am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, / I am best so!’”
I thought of the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi,” for though this is not a book that fetishizes poverty or decay, it constantly asks us to reexamine the imperfect and the transient, to keep our eyes open to “a form of beauty nobody realized was beautiful.” In Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, Harmon’s speaker is both a lone flâneur and our intimate passeur to “Poughkeepsie.” I see its “intolerable surfaces, but still / I could stare out her window all day.”

[Published January 14, 2011. 78 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Dora Malech is the author of Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009) and Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011).

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

Recommended by Aaron Belz

Things Come On by Joseph Harrington (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

Numbered lists, stray paragraphs, illustrations, excerpts from letters and official documents, poetic lapses. Joe Harrington’s Things Come On takes “poetry” in a direction with which most readers are probably unfamiliar and some might be uncomfortable. It is a poetics of disconnection and discontext, not a pleasant progression of line and verse.

Harrington.jpegBut unlike many verbal collages, this one takes a chronological and personal trajectory, so it’s not hard to read straight through. The subject is twofold: Harrington’s mother’s treatment for breast cancer and the Watergate scandal, both of which happened in the early 1970s and are remembered by the author in tandem. The method of presentation, beginning with a page of prose testimonials about the personality of Elizabeth Peoples Harrington next to a photograph of a “HER SIZES” card, probably used as a husband’s shopping guide, and continuing with the author’s memories of watching Watergate unfold on television while his mom smoked cigarettes on the “rough avocado-colored upholstery of the couch” behind him, gives readers the sense of leafing through a scrapbook.

But this scrapbook is both meticulously and imaginatively assembled. Freely interweaving quotes from Nixon and quotes from his mother and her doctors, among many other verbal and visual artifacts, Harrington is able to explore themes such as denial, failure, false diagnosis, ineffective treatment, the “official version” versus real-life experience, with a humanity that comes from having survived and spent decades pondering the events in question.

I’m accustomed to reviewing books of poetry full of individual poems that I can look at individually in a sequence I can think about, so Things Come On is harder to talk about intelligently. Content yourself with a bit of structural analysis, or at least description: The book is divided into two parts titled “Investigation” and “Resignation.” After these sections are nine pages of “Notes” in small type, reminiscent of Eliot’s famous The Waste Land footnotes.

Near the beginning of the first section, Harrington interposes his own words: “A memoir is a mirror with a memory. But if memory becomes corrupted and crashes, then order flails to reflect things just as they were:” What follows is a list of key Watergate dates. The first seems straightforward enough: “June 17, 1972—Watergate burglars arrested.” The second merges Watergate information with cancer-related language: “October 10, 1972—Washington Post reports that FBI has diagnosed pattern of systemic metastatic sabotage conducted by White House biopsy operatives.” The final begins with Watergate information, then moves to an editorial (poetic) perspective, and concludes with explicit information about Harrington’s mother: “November 7, 1972—Nixon re-elected in landslide. Non-normative nuclear families—cancerous shame face built on sand slide. Mother-made Family, the Beast—the Breast—diseased, covers it up—nuclear family therapy.”

I suppose the degree to which readers will appreciate Harrington’s method in Things Come On will match the degree to which they’re willing to accept the connection between Nixon/public and cancer/private—the overlap of lost or missing records, the incessant question of dependability of information, the collapse of authority (president/media/doctor/parent), pain of failure, and the effacement/revision of self that occurs as a necessary result.

HarringtonCover.jpegOf course, there’s a certain genius—a literary genius, that is—in the metaphor Harrington constructs. As I have said to my “Intro to Lit” students again and again, literature is likeness. Impossible to escape the metaphorical relationships Harrington explores. In that light, Things Come On might be regarded as one long metaphysical poem—a postmodern metaphysical epic, maybe. It presents its device in the first few pages, and it never alters; that device’s firmness makes Harrington’s circle just, so to speak. He’s free to produce all the illustrations and documents he wants, and not only free to but justified in doing so. So what we look for as readers is how surprisingly and richly (how wittily) the author investigates his central metaphor.

My answers to those questions are “very surprisingly” and “very richly.” The broken artifacts are not manipulated but arranged and tinted by Harrington’s artfulness. Actually Things Come On reminds me a lot of (I’m sorry) The Waste Land in its fragmentation and intermixing of multiple tones and texts, its command of language and of cultural history, and its presentation of a particular moment in time with a haunting awareness of all that had gone before. Surgeons and investigators mingle, helpless to stop or even slow declines that are occurring along the same time line. Then on page 44, under the header “Constitutional Crisis”: “Perhaps this isn’t an analogy ... perhaps it is the record of a person’s death. Or a history coming apart. A descent into the underworld, where Ulasewicz taped a key to the bottom of the locker. Presenting skullduggery; oncology astrology indicated.” That’s Watergate attorney Tony Ulasewicz, finding himself in a Dantesque decline, and we half-expect Madame Sosostris to make an appearance. And she sort of does.

Reading Things Come On doesn’t really feel like reading Eliot at all, though, nor is it metaphysical in a textbook sense. It is a poetic dossier that imagines our lives, public and private, occurring in the same plane, informing and explaining each other. It’s a poet coming to terms with his own history as it merges with our shared history, finally confessing,

“And so, to that plutonian shore I came, having failed to recognize instructions for closing the womb. // Or more precisely, ‘Do not be dead.’”

[Published April 4, 2011. 108 pages, $22.95 hardcover]

Aaron Belz is the author of Lovely, Raspberry (Persea Books, 2010). He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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

Recommended by Victoria Chang

Sanderlings by Geri Doran (Tupelo Press)

Doran.jpegOftentimes the biggest news story gets the most attention, the loudest most rambunctious child in class sucks up the teacher’s energy, or the hippest most innovative poetry collection draws the year’s praise. In our culture where sometimes strength is often equated with loudness, there’s the risk of overlooking some of our quietest voices. When I read Geri Doran’s second book of poems, Sanderlings, I am reminded of all the rewards of deep thought, of slow thought, and of careful attention. Doran rewards the patient reader with beautiful imagery and turns of phrases. Her descriptions of natural landscapes are fastidious—the reader can feel that the author had no rush to get an idea or thought out. Each word, each phrase, each line seems to capture a precise thought and the reader can almost feel the treacherous vast land between the author’s thought and the words on the page.

Doran’s love of nature is apparent. There are few people who populate her poems and there are few artificial physical structures like buildings (there is only a rare “cement municipal building” in the poem, “A Man Walks”). On occasion, there is mention of war as in “In the Valley of Its Saying,” where the speaker is frustrated with poetry and its seemingly uselessness to mitigate war: “Blood on the mouth and blood on the tongue, Iraqi blood shed under the watch of a televised world. Old ways./Nothing written has caused one useless whit of change.”

DoranCover.jpegDespite these occasional mentions, Doran’s work lives in the natural world. Her natural imagery is quiet, yet powerful. In “Impedimenta”, “Earth stretches up/her grass-stained fingertips” and in “A Man Walks,” the aging process is described as “just the stretch of skin/over the bones he was given at birth”. Also in “A Man Walks,” a leaf rises in the updraft “toward a seagull pulled slender by flight”. What’s exciting too is how the speaker can occasionally have more volume, as in “Pigeon,” an aurally taut nine-line poem that starts like this: “Victor of filth: flinging lettuce-husk, your province flag …” and continues like this: “Dirtybird, with your neck-thrust walk / and orangeade eyes, now you sit so blankly still / in the window …” and ends like this: “Dirtybird, harbinger of citymorning, hallower of grime, / greybird, pluckbird, O bring us your sunup, your percolating tut of day.”

But what I ultimately love most about the book and Doran’s work is how the poems’ images couple with a deeply probing and questioning mind so that the images open up and in the process, the mind too opens up. In the poem, “Aubade,” Doran writes: “What the stars have by night / we reach for in words, by day, / mourning not for the thing, or the lack— / mourning the distance we must travel to get it.” There is wisdom here, there is a probing mind here, and I feel fortunate as a reader to experience both through these poems.

[Published July 30, 2011. 72 pages, $16.95]

Victoria Chang’s most recent poetry collection is Salvinia Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008).

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

Recommended by Daniel Lawless

Kindertotenwald by Franz Wright (Alfred Knopf)

Although two epigraphs are offered from Blanchot and H. Phelps Putnam, a third for this new collection of prose poems from Franz Wright could very well have been a line from E.M. Cioran: “We are all deep in a hell, each moment of which is a miracle.” More than that, however, Cioran is, it seems, a presiding spirit here, whether the author knows him or not, though well-read as he is, I assume he does. The Romanian-born philosopher’s famous bleakness, his épuisement and off-hand erudition, permeate these pieces, and his mastery of the aphorism and the macabre vignette are alive and well in Wright’s Kindertotenwald:

True concentration is effortless. It is the happy shedding of time, of consciousness itself; the latter appearing to function almost autonomously, the former passing in lucid and controlled euphoria. At this very moment a soundless scream is unfurling inside my head.

We are monsters and beget monsters… murderers murdered by murderers…born with a taste for revenge …

Or, speaking of Teresa of Avila, whose corpse in its failure to decompose in a timely fashion frustrated the acquisition of relics by her associates and was finally set upon by one of her intimates:

… none other than Teresa’s longtime acquaintance and confidant Father Gracian, who comported himself from the first in the most discreet manner…stole into the glowing silence of her room with the kitchen’s meat cleaver concealed in his sleeve and a cutting board tucked deftly under his arm, and, coughing loudly to cover the sound of the blow, hacked off one of her weightless white hands.

WrightCover.jpegStill, it is those “weightless white hands” that mark the work of the poet/storyteller rather than the dedicated philosopher; if as noted Blanchot, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the book proper, make brief appearances, how much more often do we find ourselves in the company of Trakl, Goethe, Basho, Desnos, Rimbaud, and, of course, Father. And these are only the explicit references. If so inclined, the reader of Kindertotenwald can pass any number of happy hours playing the parlor game of allusions and influences: among others, to my mind, notably Bly, in “Dead Seagull” and the opening poem “Wintersleep,” about a blizzard in Minnesota; Borges (“The Abandoned Library”); Kafka ( “… the mole is deep under the ground at the moment, methodically inspecting even its most remote and peripheral cells…); and Rilke ( “How much you have longed for these crooked and overgrown paths overlooking a violent sky, a bright stormy sea”). But above all there is Simic, whose fans will appreciate Wright’s take on the former Poet Laureate’s tone of familiar address (“grave little bookworm with the odd name”; “Where is your hand now, architect of the unseeable…”) and gentle mockery (“All of the Sylvia Plath fan clubs will be meeting on campus tonight…”). Wright has found the key to Simic’s dark prop room of “… wheelchairs and crutches … a lone white winged cane,” where we find “Sister Moth chewing and chewing through the night” and, quite improbably, yet another “three-legged dog.” Kindertotenwald has been translated as “Forest of Dead Children” -- presumably the dead child in Wright himself among them; it is also a forest not of symbols but of dead, or one-day-soon-to-die, poets.

A dark forest it is, too, as Wright’s many readers will expect and be pleased by, here situated sometimes in the New York or Vermont or Maine of the author’s youth, but most often in a sort of half-hallucinated Mitteleuropa with “graves in the snow” and a psychiatric hospital in place of a cheery schoolhouse. In other words, the usual Wright-ian mental landscape through which the poet limps –- there is much limping -- fingering again the rosary of his obsessions: the nature and consequences of grief, loneliness, hope, guilt, doomed childhood, desire, compassion, the enigma of language and brutality. But isn’t this the problem with – of -- Wright? High Mass or Taylor Swift concert, there is real force in collective repetition, in finding one’s voice multiplied in entreaty or romantic angst. Force, but rarely revelation. In “After Midnight,” for example, the narrator has good news: “soon we shall be part of all that we now merely see …” A fine line, but less fine for those who have read his earlier work God’s Silence, where we read “… Soon/so soon I’ll be a part/of all that I/now merely/see.” Or again “…to be here, actually/be/what up until now I/merely daily/see…” Unfortunately, this is not the only current instance of self-plagiarism. To his critics, Wright has not only acquired the habit of suffering, but commits the cardinal sin of its habitual expression. And some of those critics would go further, questioning the value of that suffering itself, finding in it (as others found in Cioran’s) an unflattering tendency toward a kind of playground negative self-aggrandizement -- my suffering can beat up your suffering -- an elected hell-by-proxy that is fraudulent, whiny and unseemly in one over thirty, much less fifty. (Although to be fair that is a case which has not been made as often for Artaud or Lowry).

Wright.jpegWright remains a poet of great promise, odd as that may sound regarding one with nearly a dozen books and several remarkable translations under his belt. At his best (freest, most playful) -- he can hold his own with Desnos, or even Peret, in the creation of arresting images. For example: the “greyhound-colored smoke” from “Letters”; an eighth-grader who returns from school to find an empty house and “wanders through the oddly spacious rooms like a paralytic in the bathtub while the nurse goes to answer the phone” from “The Lesson”; “your solitary smile dark crimson poppies no one has ever looked at” from “Kore”; in “Deep Revision” a leather-palmed glove encasing a human hand like “a gorilla’s … struck by lightning.”

And it is a delight to find subtlety here, of the kind that redeems an otherwise pedestrian line like this, from “Can You Say That Again,” a poem that begins, “My stepfather was busy splitting my stepmother’s skull with an ax” and concludes with “the sound of their voices like faraway choirs heard while dying by the fire for the cause.” (italics mine.) In the more common iteration of contemporary prose poem, the initial statement would have kicked off an increasingly absurdist, neo-Jarry-esque neo-Edsonion narrative, allegedly ennobled by its deadpan delivery. Instead, Wright gives us deepening mystery and, yes, beauty: “a conical mountain rose in the distance, a road winding around and around it like the thread of a screw, on it children in white chadors descending slowly in song (the two of them reborn in their company) ... Each then releasing from hands now unfolded from prayer scarlet moths who darkened the air…” And then that uncanny, just-so last phrase.

Finally, leaving aside largely academic considerations of the prose poem form itself (uncodified, heterological) Kindertotenwald is in important ways a memoire, a roman a clef whose subject is almost always singular, the heightened gossip of the writer’s own flailings, faulty judgments, binges and indefensible acts, aired not always for reassurance or profit, but true self-instruction. There is something of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation here in its religious rigor and backdrop of solitude and felt absence , and the cold and slightly ingenuous yet piercingly lucid self-examination of Barthes by Barthes; much more of Pessoa’s journals’ nimble mysticism (also much closer to Wright’s syntax, as this snippet from that work illustrates: “Suddenly, as if magically destined to be operated on for an old blindness with unexpected results, I raise my head from my anonymous life to understand how clearly I have existed.”) But perhaps nearest to Kindertotenwald is the masterful Jean Follain’s seemingly artless recollections of his childhood village, Canisy, of which Wright’s book is almost an inverted image. Whereas Follain offers the reader a powerfully affectionate and intimate childhood world, it is one beneath which terrible forces course like an underground river, waiting to rise and sweep it into oblivion:

The toy was locked away in the cupboard in the big bedroom with the brown-flowered curtains trimmed with grosgrain and buttercup gold satin. Next to it were a chess board and chess pieces with those horse’s heads, fair and dark, that I managed to get my hands on at last and where they were allowed to stay for the sake of a little peace and quiet, I was told, that is, so as not to put up with my screaming. Scattered, lost, are those steeds from the chess set now; they will turn up again one day, excavated from the earth.

Wright gives us instead a harrowing, near-apocalyptic vision of the terrors of the day-to-day, past and present, counterpoised by a deep vein of subterranean sweetness that will sweep him into a different kind of oblivion, imaginatively “I am slowly being lowered into a place of light” and startlingly literally, as in “I am In A Chamber Of Lascaux, ” where the artist – Wright’s dreamed of stand-in one must believe -- in “the Sistine darkness” with “nothing but his scarred nameless hand and a mind repeatedly struck by lightning-brief instants illuminat[es] things that no one else can see.” A little later in the same poem, he will reemerge in the thirteenth century, a figure of “infinite humility … happiness … a nameless genius hiding away, for the eyes of the unseen alone, high up in the shadows of Chartres’ northern wall his God Creating the Birds Sees Adam in His Thoughts.” Such, too, is the maddening nature of Wright’s work: for is this reverence or merely self-regard? Both, probably.

[Published September 6, 2011. 128 pages, $26.00 hardcover]

Daniel Lawless is the editor of Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry, which can be found at

And the repeated lines and

And the repeated lines and phrases are deliberate "refrains". As everyone knows, school makes you stupid. CW school, imagine Blake and Rimbaud in one.

It must be so strange to get

It must be so strange to get up there with your book report and make the kinds of comments when , of course, you know perfectly well that in terms of the art and the craft of words, you just aren't yet up to licking the shit off the bottom of my shoes. And that reminds me--why do I never see you young academic fuckers who have spent your whole lives in school and will spend the rest of it there--why is it none of you ever read something like Eliot's criticism and realize that he had no time to waste on writing about what he disliked--of course he did suffer from that flesh eating envy and shame you all do--to spend your life in school, a poet--a poet! He formed his aesthetics by writing about what he loved, with reverence and enthusiasm. If it weren;t for the creative writing scam, the sheep and the other suckers helping to enrich the schools, teaching their low level classes and happy to give the money right back to them, guys like you would still be around but you'd be one of the countless bloodsucking cranks drawn lying in wake at night in terror that someone, somewhere might really have a gift for poetry and be defending and standing up with reverence for it at this moment. Around the clock. While the "poets" leave class, and fly somewhere to entertain more academics, round the clock, I've just signed two more contracts for books with Knopf. I sat up in ICU after a lung removed and finished KTW...But for what. Guys like you? No, pal. But you will never know the answer, wouldn't understand it, and btw write some of the flattest prose I have ever seen, maybe work on that a little. FW

Re: Wright

There might have been considerable declensions in the correspondence. And i could have missed them. If so, I'll regret saying that this is one of the strangest comments I've ever read. Not even sure to whom (or what) it was addressed. Unsure, concerned, and now exactly, that I know the reasons for this ire. Was it the review? Jeez. You fellahs really like to get stuck into it, don't you? Are the stakes that high now? In Oz, we'd say, big girls' sweaters.