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The Wish Book

Alex Lemon. Milkweed (PGW, dist.), $16 trade paper (132p) ISBN 978-1-57131-450-5

"Human dynamo: you must/ Have a good time," Lemon (Fancy Beasts) exhorts in his explosive fourth collection of verse; his agitated, discombobulated alter egos both shock and entertain. Lemon's exclamations, free associations, and volatile images showcase extreme highs and lows as well as constant attraction to the wild life, or to the wildly inappropriate: "It's hard to imagine a day/ when I'm not scratching/ My nuts right at God." But Lemon is no light comedian: his party persona, extroversion, and fragmentary style all look like defenses against Lemon's mortal fears. Those fears, in turn, speak to the medical history—brain surgery, tough recovery—detailed in his 2010 memoir, Happy. In a poem that reads like a nightmare about his hospital stay, "It felt/ Like a vibrating halo had been screwed/ Into my head... a double-decker toy racetrack/ Had been drilled into my skull." Lemon may disorient, or exhaust, readers who want poems with more coherence; his speakers do not develop or change very much, neither within the poems, nor between them. Yet Lemon's enthusiasms, with their "hip tosses & heavy metal"—part sarcastic, part macho, part tender, and always extreme—have found, and deserve to find, serious sympathies. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Jaguar Harmonics: Person Woven of Tesserae

Anne Waldman. Post-Apollo (SPD, dist.) $18 trade paper (56p) ISBN 978-0-942996-81-4

In a book-length poem concerned with expanding and deepening sight, Waldman (The Iovis Trilogy) channels her signature lyric energy through the myths and rituals of the Ayahuasca vine, the plant used as an ancient entheogen and believed to give the jaguar perceptual gifts. "Person woven of sound bands," "person woven of spheres enclosing spheres," "person woven of cruelty," and "person woven of laughter" act collectively as a key refrain in the poem, and its many permutations propel the poem not only musically, but also into the philosophical threshold between one subjective speaker and the myriad external forces that constitute her being. Drawing on everything from the animal to the digital, the scientific to the transcendental, Waldman culls the flotsam of experience to engage the living, perceiving, wounding, and vulnerable elements that make a single entity—be it a singular person, culture, or universe—"seamless and seam-full." Consistent with the poetics of her oeuvre, Waldman's primary concern is attentiveness, and through her language she extends an invitation to "peer into a mystery, its cost/ all creation present to weave itself." (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems

B.H. Fairchild. Norton, $29.95 (332p) ISBN 978-0-393-24026-9

The working-class men of Great Plains small towns face the literary past and the uneasy American future in the moving, pellucid, expertly assembled lines of Fairchild, winner of National Book Critics Circle Award for Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2002). Youth in Kansas, Oklahoma, and West Texas, as well as small-town isolation and blue-collar pride, animate most of his scenes. Fairchild, who teaches at the University of North Texas, also weaves single poems together into an expanding whole: the title poem, for example, introduces Fairchild's star-crossed mentor, Roy Elridge Garcia, as "the only man my father hired again/ after he showed up drunk." Garcia, who died of complications from epilepsy, also attempted a literary career, and so Fairchild, as an homage, reprints Garcia's own prose poems, which in fact Fairchild wrote: Garcia is an invented character, though realistically described. Other characters include "redneck surrealist/ who, drunk, one Friday night tried to hold up the local 7-Eleven/ with a caulking gun," and the "hitchhiker sick to death of hunger," who alongside the poet himself, was "cutting weeds and sunflowers on the shoulder." Fairchild's story-oriented style wears its considerable learning lightly; this sixth collection, his first new-and-selected, might break him out of the critics'-darling status that has long seemed inappropriate for such a democratic voice. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Americans

David Roderick. Univ. of Pittsburgh, $15.95 trade paper (88pp) ISBN 978-0-8229-6312-7

Roderick (Blue Colonial), associate professor of English at UNC-Greensboro, meditates on identity, citizenship, faith, and war in his second collection of poems. He veers between a restrictive summarizing of the American Experience (as in the poem "After de Tocqueville," which references Cortez, Satchmo, Columbus, the Choctaw, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and Jack Kerouac) and more successful examinations of his own particular American identity. The book is split into three sections, interspersed by a series of epistolary poems addressed to a generic "Suburb." Through these he interrogates his tense relationship with this symbol of 1950's homogenization. In the first "Dear Suburb" poem, Roderick admits to being drawn towards suburban sterility, a "need,/ that scared need to whiten/ or clean a surface: plywood or lawn." But he also declares this to be a kind of infestation: "though you live/ inside me, though you laid eggs/ in the moisture at the corners/ of my eyes, I still dream about/ your sinking empire." Roderick's poetry exposes the uneasy correlation between domestic comfort and U.S. militarism: "I think of the Enola Gay parked in the Smithsonian,/ where a woman smashed a jar of blood on its wing./ When I signed my mortgage, I also signed/ for the peonies and for the shield of my yard's/ tall trees." (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Thing Music

Anthony McCann. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $18 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-933517-96-4

McCann (I Heart Your Fate) culls restless poems from vast spaces created by wind, light, and sound; where "leaves twitched/ in the white wind// light entered/ every hole// Everything was noise." The poems treat the reader as a tightly-bound creature navigating an infinite space, with McCann urging an acknowledgement of the inherent energy possessed by any object—energy that gives each thing its own life and thus deepens the uncertainty of how well we know our world. Here, each object brims with greater purpose: "Can't we say that the object is singing, that its absence,/ like presence, is there?" This includes our own bodies, as if the physical self keeps an inner radiance at bay, "like when a head comes off/ and light spreads across the room." In these poems, the body is empty and open, not just receptive but overwhelmed by the world flowing unstoppably around and through it: "I pushed/ my body through// all this/ speed// to you." McCann examines our attachment to the physical world and uses this to build a bridge to the metaphysical; in his undulating world, the physical self is a gift, one that gives us a hand to feel that pulse, a shape in all the noise. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Tahrir Suite

Matthew Shenoda. Northwestern/TriQuarterly, $16.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3024-1

In this book-length sequence from Shenoda (Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone), "A dictator swallows the clouds for shade/ And the people are left beneath the sun/ As fire rages in their spines." Shenoda merges moments and terms from Egypt's stalled 21st-Century revolution (which began in Cairo's Tahrir Square), archetypes from ancient Egyptian mythology, and even grander visions of cosmic destiny. Three- to five-line stanzas, arranged three per page, follow the quest of a modern-day hero called Tekla (also the name of a Coptic Christian saint), who "could not make himself at home/ Would never understand the distances of heart." Tekla's quest echoes the story of Isis and Osiris, as well as the progress—or regress—of Egypt's revolution. Many stanzas offer stirring but vague political rhetoric: "Justice is the one staff for freedom's flag/ How can we share with the enemy our voice?" Most pages also incorporate pronouncements that could almost have come from papyri: "What becomes of a journey is read in the dust." Some readers will find urgent inspiration. Others may wonder whether Shenoda's disparate materials—at once populist and mystical, topical and eternal, aphoristic and narrative—have, like his traveling heroes and dismayed citizens, not yet found that for which they were looking. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Forgiveness Forgiveness

Shane McCrae. Factory Hollow (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-9835203-1-3

In his follow-up to 2013's Blood, McCrae presents a speaker concerned with the duality of memory who is exploring two concurrent memories: one is of a racist children's book, Little Brown Koko, and the projection outwards into the speaker's own racial identity; the second is one of sexual molestation at the hands of a grandfather. Both are rendered as sides of the same coin and the book's two halves repeat section titles in order to enact the play between them. McCrae's images are explained in one section but presented in the other, and as the book nears the truth of molestation at its core, his language breaks down. For instance, his poem "The Visible Boy" is initially about the book's illustrations and racism in America's history, but it is then flipped to become about a boy being erased by the hand of abuse. The language can be jarring, but it reflects the subject matter. Both Koko and the speaker eventually must face their torment. Koko gets to have coffee with his creators; the speaker watches his abuser die slowly, and then must attempt forgiveness. The form and function don't always cohere, but McCrae admirably explores the forgiveness necessary in racial reconciliation and the forgiveness that one needs to make peace with himself. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bone Map

Sara Eliza Johnson. Milkweed (PGW, dist.), $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-57131-469-7

Johnson's National Poetry Series-winning debut collection speaks to us "from a country near ruin,// from a forest lit only by rifle fire," where "the moon// ... rolls through you/ like a great city before a war." These poems are missives from landscapes so isolated they approximate post-apocalypse: ice fields, ravaged woods, the primordial sea. Johnson's landscapes are often empty, save for the single, clear-voiced speaker and, on occasion, wild animals such as the stag that catches "its antlers on the light's belly,/ spilling purple viscera/ everywhere." Surreal and fable-like, this is not a topical collection, and yet these poems are urgently aware that they were born of and into a world in which "Wind deepens the wounds// I leave with my boots. Nothing// is well." When Johnson's "war drones and swarms," her verbs double as nouns. This concern with the loss of integrity endured in a time of war marks a work that is equally preoccupied with the figuring of personal loss: "Your hands fell through me—/ two lights I almost broke// in half wanting." Johnson's poems, like light, clarify even as they pierce: "Though they cannot be deciphered,/ cannot become lighter,/ all moments will shine/ if you cut them open,/ glisten like entrails in the sun." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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After-Cave

Michelle Detorie. Ahsahta (SPD, dist.), $18 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-934103-54-8

Detorie extracts a poetics "against dying" out of a landscape of ruin and wilderness in this spirited full-length debut. The book comprises three long sequences concerning questions of shelter, destruction, and agency, which, though formally mercurial, remain linked through a single speaker who describes herself as "15. Female. Human (I think)." Materiality becomes a place of confluence for the bodily and the external universe, the man-made and the feral: "we are skin, snow, unpacked/ boxes opened like petals, skin// ... I held a line, a pail, my pockets/ becoming full, the moon/ blood red and lined with fur." The poems remain grounded in the subjective "I" but resist a linear sense of time, leading instead by sensation and image, and sometimes using formatting and typography to invite the reader into an unconventional experience of text, page, and physical book. This sense of play is punctuated by moments of direct assertion. "To insist that something—someone or some being—cannot be imagined is, in fact, its own form of oppression," Detorie writes. Indeed, her poetics struggles against such insistence in service of possibility. Where "The failure to occupy/ breaks apart like soap/ sand salt all/ the things we need/ to name," Detorie wrests a vocabulary of compassion. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Adventure of the Plated Spoon and Other Tales of Sherlock Holmes

Edited by Loren D. Estleman. Tyrus (F + W Media, dist.), $26.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4405-7450-4

For this mixed bag of short Holmes pastiches, Estleman (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula) has gathered eight reprints and four original tales, ranging in date of composition from Arthur Conan Doyle's day to our own. J.M. Barrie's "The Adventure of the Two Collaborators" and Doyle's "How Watson Learned the Trick" are curiosities that require background information to appreciate fully, while Vincent Starrett's "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet" is one of the best of the early imitations. Perhaps the piece most true to Doyle's style is his son Adrian's "The Red Widow," about a nobleman's murder in a moorland castle. Estleman's contribution, the title novella, deals with a subject—white slavery—that Doyle himself would have avoided. Excerpts from such novels as Ellery Queen's A Study in Terror and Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice will whet the reader's appetite for the full texts. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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