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Skyward

Philip David Alexander. Now or Never (LitDistCo, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-988098-21-0

Alexander's fourth novel (following Peacefield) could be described as a taut and adroit crime novel, but that doesn't tell the whole story. It is quirkily funny, in a way that sits comfortably among books by Carol Shields and Trevor Cole, and Ethan Coen's screenplay for Fargo. Alexander is assured enough to add thoughtful flashes of Twin Peaks–style weirdness to the mix, including a lonely clairvoyant cop, a "bush-league drug lord," and a creepy annual fair in semi-rural Skyward, Ont., where three men have vanished over three consecutive years. The arch but fond depiction of small-town life in southern Ontario's factory, farm, and fast food franchise belt begins with a drunk driver and a wintry stolen car chase. Keeping readers enjoyably off-balance, Alexander opts for four different narrative perspectives (two police agents, one townie whose bad attitude and quick fists land him in trouble, and "The Pursued," whose fondness for joyriding in expensive cars is just the start of a list of crimes). While focusing, as in a police procedural, on the trial-and-error tracking of the elusive thief, this intriguing thriller also provides satisfying glimpses of the characters' unsettled lives as they deal with work politics, post-retirement dreams, childhood traumas, and affecting matters of the heart. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World

Kim Kyung Ju, trans. from the Korean by Jake Levine. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-939568-14-4

In his English-language debut, Korean poet and performance artist Kim calmly renders a world in which inert objects assume human traits, while humans themselves become mere traces. The human characters who populate Kim’s formally varied poems remain eerie and impermanent, detached from their place and time: a “never existed baby” cuts sunshine with scissors, and there are rope-jumpers “with duct tape over their mouths” whose “bodies disappear a little more in the air” every time they leap. Even family members become more body part and clothing item than personality, such as the mother whose decades-old floral underpants stay uncannily fresh “No matter how many people touch them.” In contrast, Kim personifies nonhuman subjects with bodies, feelings, and desires: there’s a well that “develops eyes” and a “long tongue,” and a room that nightly “flies to the outside of space” and proclaims its loneliness, the feeling of which is compared to “the time it takes to understand the music of your body.” Several long poems weave through time and conflate temporal points, lending the collection a feeling of grander scale. Kim leaves his readers with a sense that there are bigger, more permanent things than people. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Pillow Book

Suzanne Buffam. Canarium (SPD, dist.), $14 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-0-9969827-0-2

Buffam (The Irrationalist) records a journey through sleeplessness in this varied, charming collection. Along the way she reveals that, as panaceas for insomnia, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote lists. Abraham Lincoln took midnight walks. Tallulah Bankhead paid a series of young caddies to hold her hand in the dark, as did Marcel Proust.” Three elements reappear to give structure to the speaker’s nights: stories of her daughter (known only as “Her Majesty”), Sei Shōnagon’s original Pillow Book, and the speaker’s vivid recollections of her psychedelic dreams and imaginings. Shōnagon’s early 11th-century Japanese collection of observations and lists that “have survived the tempestuous centuries” sets the precedent, its own ambiguity allowing Buffam’s work to undulate among poetry, a history of pillows, and family memoir. Lists also break up her musings; instead of counting sheep, she names “Moustaches A to Z.” Beyond their silliness, the lists intimate how the mind cranks after dark. “The Scarlet Pillow. In Search of Lost Pillows. On the Origin of Pillows. Moby Pillow,” the speaker drones, despairing of “ever solving sleep’s riddle.” But there is no solution, only deep scrutiny of everything related to pillows and sleep. Insomniacs and the well-rested alike will feel a kinship as Buffam’s rambling nights coalesce into a beautifully contemplative, deeply personal work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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H Poor Love Machine

Kim Hyesoon, trans. from the Korean by Don Mee Choi. Action (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-900575-75-4

In this translation of her 1997 collection, acclaimed Korean feminist poet Kim (Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream) overturns poetry from every angle and through enjambments replete with the grotesqueries of vomit, eyeballs, rats, and more. Kim’s poems do not shirk from , but instead shriek at , with a sense of inventive and irreverent disorder. She dizzies readers and seduces them into a surreal realm of corporeality: “He picks up a teardrop with a pair of tweezers.” The monstrous body remains a vital figure in these poems, and Kim’s speaker assumes imaginative and precise postures of disfigurement. In “Sunstroke,” for example, she writes, “As my eyes open/a flock of crows darts out from my ears/Their beaks poke at my pupils.” Like the crows Kim describes, her poetry ruptures the reader’s senses repeatedly. Throughout, Kim’s poking and prodding remains directed primarily at the speaker’s own body: “When I tear the screen of my body/holograms burst out/and I can go to you.” The playful nature of the poems may disguise the darker and more political undertones of the collection. As Kim embraces that which terrifies, she presses readers to ask themselves, “Have you ever turned on the light inside your intestine?” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Wine-Dark Sea

Mathias Svalina. Sidebrow (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-1-940090-05-4

In a deeply bleak fifth collection , Svalina (Wastoid) departs from the tone and diction of his prior work to compose a threnody where “emptiness pulses/ like a stick” and “asphalt spills/ into the caesura.” The poems proceed in series: each shares an obsidian tone, an austere shape, and the collection’s Homeric title. Where Svalina’s formal consistency previously highlighted madcap inventiveness, here it reinforces a sense of grief. “I want to show you/ what I saw/ in the glass,” he declares in the collection’s first poem, before confessing in the second that “there is so much/ I can’t form/ that is true.” These concerns about language’s inefficacy are no mere game: depression wracks this speaker (“If I had will,/ I’d be dead,” Svalina writes at one point) and the lyric provides little relief. “Exit this poem for me// show me a way,” one later piece reads in its entirety. What provides balm is a shared sense of purpose: “All these books can’t/ stop a stripmine,” but they can connect individuals. “In the sun I carry/ everyone I know & I/ am carried on their backs,” Svalina writes. His latest may be a heavy book, but, for anyone who’s ever made “an undetectable/ plea,” it’s one worth carrying. (May)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Missing Museum

Amy King. Tarpaulin Sky (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-1-939460-08-0

“As one would startle the sun, Amy King’s poem understands her first,” writes King (I Want to Make You Safe) in her fifth collection, as if anticipating frustrated readers. King is anxious to assert that “understanding” is not a part of the book’s project, but rather a condition that one must move through like a person hurriedly moving through a museum. In these poems, “gestures pass for us/ tailored, we shirttails seeking supervision.” Cascades of largely unstructured gestures towards politics, nature, and technology are peppered with attempts to explain compositional choices: “We stood/ in the room’s disintegration,/ matter apart—a shapeless science apiece,/ looking for form.” The book argues with itself, asserting that being a poet means “To never know and, unknowing, get on with it” even as it claims elsewhere that “your emotions are an intelligence,/ and if you don’t take care, cultivate how you learn/ from wounds to them, then you will be a dumb genius.” Struggling to strike a balance between cultivation and honest unknowing, King’s collection is by turns raw and unsatisfying. Though King understands that “This isn’t America, though I am,” she falls short of addressing the ways in which building a personal museum of gestures can confront societal ills. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Power Ballads

Garrett Caples. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $18 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-940696-36-2

Caples (Complications) fills his newest collection with musicality and pathos, anchoring his playful language with ardent longing. Just like great power ballads, these poems are maudlin yet still authentically moving. Most are either sparse, in stanzas no longer than four or five slim lines, or big blocks of prose punctuated and propelled by Caples’s brilliant rhythm and wordplay. He announces his love for this play with the first poem, “Avid Diva,” though he sportingly avoids extraneous trickery . For instance , his line “love instead noodles nile delta blues at 79 rpms. the rpgs of love explode at the antipodes of saint dope island and carnal canal” could take many pleasurable hours to unpack. Caples opens with a Bob Dylan epigraph, and his lyrical play evokes Tom Waits and other great late-20th-century troubadours, particularly in “Road Song for Juan & the Pines,” which finds the speaker listing the location and pursuits of his friends: “i’m in the mission/ with micah & patrick ... maia’s in chinatown/ erin’s chicagobound,” Caples writes, ending with the bluesy “& SHE still lives/ two blocks away/ and tears me up inside.” A love song to Oakland, to idols, and to love itself, Caples’s raucous, tender, and tuneful collection lives up to its title. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Radiant Companion

Matt Hart. Monster House (SPD, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-0-9860461-6-2

In this companion piece to his sixth book, Radiant Action, Hart further explores the position of art in daily life, and its ability to transform us and our surroundings and provide comfort, connection, and insight. Through poems that are more formal than those in Action, Hart dwells in a world where Whitman can be an effective antidote to violent horrors and the contents of a grocery list are fodder for a reflection on linguistics. Hart urges his readers “to bewilder and to be wilder.” “You have to keep it up—the dailiness// and simplicity, the astonishment and love,” he writes while embracing “the discomfort/ of being anew, aghast, and aglow.” It is all in keeping with his signature “ferocious wonder” laid out in odes to black coffee, his daughter’s prattle, and a caterpillar named Laundry. Both books feature charmingly academic analyses of punk songs; here, Hart describes Jawbreaker’s “Chesterfield King” as “a punk rock conversation/ poem in the romantic/ tradition.” But this volume shows Hart’s doubts, the cracks in his artistic armor, and the possibility that redemption is “an idiot’s pipe dream.” Hart’s pleas and prescripts for a better world may be romantic, but he sees the bigger picture: “Who has time/ for poetry has more time than they deserve.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Archeophonics

Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan Univ., $24.95 (98p) ISBN 978-0-8195-7680-4

In his eighth collection, Gizzi (In Defense of Nothing) continues his quest to renew lyricism, to find “a language to eat the sky” and “say goodbye” to the receding past. Like James Schuyler , from whom the book’s epigraph is pulled, Gizzi is an acute chronicler of atmosphere, and many of these poems find the poet in uncertain emotional and physical landscapes, struggling to write his way into the future. “I wanted out of the past so I ate the air,/ it took me further into the air,” begins the sequence “A Winding Sheet for Summer.” Longtime Gizzi readers won’t find many surprises in this tenuous, overcast collection—“I’ve been here before,” he writes in one poem—but his ear remains as appealing as ever, and his paratactic syntax still surprises line by line: “You wonder summer’s terabyte/ here on the terra forming/ floating and atomizing,/ giving over to shadow,/ then a muffler rumbling,/ distant engine, a little cozy.” Stylistically, the collection is nearlyimpeccable but a bit weightless; its major struggles seem either intellectualized or kind of off-stage. At their warmest, Gizzi’s poems offer genuinely moving confrontations with mortality, history, and tradition: “This hammering/ thing, life as I’ve/ known it, know me,/ is over. I might as well/ say it./ The apples lie/ scattered on the ground.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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H Bestiary

Donika Kelly. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55597-758-0

In her astounding debut, Kelly, winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Prize, catalogs creatures familiar and mythical as she turns monsters into recognizable portraits of humankind . The poems employ language that sinks its teeth in at vulnerable moments, easily piercing the tenderest spots: “Freedom is a thread of light snaking/ the canyon like an ant through a conch.” Despite the collection’s eponymous grounding theme, Kelly doesn’t strictly use mythology to teach a moral lesson. She sets the tone with “Catalogue,” outlining with care the anxiety and excitement of growing up: “You grow. You are large./ You are a 19th century poem./ All of America is inside you.” Poems such as “Fourth Grade Autobiography” explore childhood memories with precision and clarity. Kelly’s speaker recalls flashes of neighborhood parties at a time when youthful innocence starts to crack. “My favorite things are cartwheels, salted plums,/ and playing catch with my dad,” she writes. “I am afraid/ of riots and falling and the dark.” The compact scenes of the poem “How to Be Alone” burn like a hot knife to an open wound; the speaker’s loneliness becomes armor in the wake of her mother’s death and father’s violent transgressions. Kelly’s creatures howl and whimper as she imparts emotional truths: “Love,/ I pound the Earth for you. I pound the Earth.” (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/30/2016 | Details & Permalink

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