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A Woman Without a Country: Poems

Eavan Boland. Norton, $24.95 (64p) ISBN 978-0-393-24444-1

“What do we grieve for/ when we leave a country?” inquires Boland (Domestic Violence), the Irish poet, anthologist, and Stanford professor, as she follows the lives of her mother and grandmother through the central lyric sequence in this compact eighth collection. Those lives raise once again the questions that have occupied Boland’s career: what does it mean to be an Irish woman artist, leaving and then returning to “a place, or so it seemed,/ Where every inch of ground/ Was a new fever or a field soaked/ To its grassy roots with remembered hatreds?” Boland’s free verse can pause to focus on single images, and on single resonant terms: “elver,” an eel and a color, and a word “for how/ the bay shelves cirrus clouds/ piled up at the edge of the Irish Sea.” She also takes time to relish ancient authors, such as Ovid, who “made the funeral smoke from the mercenary grave/ Spiral up to become a flight of birds.” Her powers may not be gainsaid, yet it may be hard for any but Boland’s committed fans to find her breaking new ground; a confirmation rather than a discovery, these earnest poems show what it takes to make “a hymn/ to the durable and daily implement, the stored/ possibility of another day.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Slant Six

Erin Belieu. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (68p) ISBN 978-1-55659-471-7

Belieu oscillates between dark humor, self-consciousness, and pointed satire in a fourth collection that’s equal-opportunity in its critique. In the world of these poems, no one is innocent; everyone is confined to the complexity, absurdity, and, above all, fallibility of their human condition. “O America,” Belieu writes, “we don’t mean to disappoint,/ but every lover comes/ with fulsome jiggle,/ some pudding/ packed in the U-Haul,/ a mole we want to believe/ could be viewed as a beauty mark.” It is often smaller, quotidian gestures and occurrences that serve to ignite the poems’ fire. In “Time Machine,” an act of road rage on the part of a Volvo driver with a “Commit Random Acts of Kindness” bumper sticker leads to a brilliant meditation on the nature of memory and identity: “Time unspools, and here I sit/ road-rashed, knotted in the service/ ditch of my humiliation.” Anchoring the work is a conversational, lyrical speaker willing to implicate herself as part of the political and social constructs she criticizes, as when she depicts a Southern American culture still reeling from its history of social injustice, and even the Civil War: “Don’t tell us/ history. Nobody hearts a cemetery/ like we do.” It’s a fantastic collection; Belieu desires not to dress issues up but confront them. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret of Hoa Sen

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, trans. from the Vietnamese by Bruce Weigl and Nguyen Phan Que Mai. BOA (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (148p) ISBN 978-1-938160-52-3

Que Mai, a translator, poet, and winner of the Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association (for 2010’s Freeing Myself), collaborated with poet and translator Weigl for this collection focused on the lingering physical and psychological effects of the Vietnam War. These straightforward, personal poems lament and celebrate with the landscape—the smells, colors, and people of her country—that is their touchstone: “I sing for you the highland’s waves, softening the stone shore./ I sing for you storks’ wings of the south./ I sing for you the northern sunlight’s grassy fragrance/ carrying you towards your river home.” But Nguyen also sings for the alienated orphans of the Vietnam War; for garment workers in Bangladesh; for the victims of Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines; and for mothers across the globe in perilous circumstances. “The curves of the village temple,/ the Persian lilacs’ purple,/ the sunset with low-flying stork wings,” Mai writes with a nostalgic yet detail-oriented eye. “Because I keep my homeland in my heart,/ my harvest is rich,/ all year round.” Dual-language edition. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Poetry Deal

Diane di Prima. City Lights (Consortium, dist.), $12.95 trade paper (126p) ISBN 978-1-931404-15-0

Legendary feminist Beat poet di Prima (Pieces of a Song) delivers her first collection in more than two decades. Recounting a life in poetry, her commitment to progressive thought and action, and a half-century of Bay Area culture, crises, and change, di Prima writes at the top of her game in a city where, “dig it, City Lights still here, like some old lighthouse/ though all the rest is gone.” Poems in her plainspoken, arrow-true style are bracketed by the acceptance address she delivered when named San Francisco poet laureate in 2009. “I would have to say thank you to all sentient beings,” di Prima declared, and through this volume, her heartrending love of the Earth, the mind, and art is on stunning display: “Poetry can bring joy, it can ease grief... Poetry is our heart’s cry and our heart’s ease.” She mixes observations on the state of the nation with history (“Remember Sacco & Vanzetti/ Remember Haymarket/ Remember John Brown/ Remember the slave revolts/ Remember Malcolm”) and personal narrative. Di Prima recalls the time an institutionalized Ezra Pound told her that “poets have to eat”; rarely has a poet left so much bread on the table for future poets. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Missing Pieces

Henri Lefebvre, trans. from the French by David L. Sweet. Semiotext(e) (MIT, dist.), $13.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-58435-159-7

Each sentence or phrase in this haunting project from French poet and publisher Lefebvre (not to be confused with the Marxist philosopher) describes something lost, erased, destroyed, or otherwise unfinished within the life of an artist. Some seem frivolous: “Tintin’s bedroom doesn’t appear in a single album by Hergé.” Others are serious: “The composer Max Deutsch mercilessly destroyed his musical scores, having chosen to leave no trace other than teaching.” A few subjects are terribly sad, and very famous: the ancient library of Alexandria; the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad, the art that perished with the World Trade Center, and a broken litany of lives, books, manuscripts, and visual art destroyed during WWII. The destroyed volumes of Thomas Mann’s diary are there, as are Sylvia Plath’s never found, perhaps never written, sequels to The Bell Jar. David Sweet provides clear, idiomatic translation of the work Lefebvre published, in installments, 10 years ago. These postmodern memento mori may lose their force read all at once. On the other hand, gathered all in one place, unrelenting, they feel more like the American conceptual poetry of recent years. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mature Themes

Andrew Durbin. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-937658-23-6

Fantastically aberrant, Durbin’s debut collection of hybridized essay, fiction, and poetry establishes the young writer as a legitimate talent. In short sections that move rapidly from fiction to fact, prose to line break, and back again, Durbin wantonly attaches his poetic mind to a broad range of topics. One piece, “Warm Leatherette,” finds room for Lil Wayne and the poet Joan Retallack, for volcanic eruptions and police brutality, for Selena Gomez and endlings (the last individual of a species of subspecies). As voices erupt with philosophy and critical theory at the least appropriate moments, and prose suddenly funnels into concrete poetry, Durbin maintains a surprising cohesion. Perhaps this is because of the project’s own idiosyncratic engagement with culture, both pop and otherwise—Durbin pursues the social but is not exactly impassioned. He daydreams about merging with a computer in order to more fully experience Google Earth, “magnifying the normal imperfections and irregularities of the earth so that the planet is rendered transparent, misshapen and yet intoxicating in its languishing distinction from the real.” While so much contemporary writing that engages with pop culture and our digital moment feels flat or misguided, Durbin makes full use of the tools available to him. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ending in Planes

Ruth Ellen Kocher. Noemi (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (108p) ISBN 978-1-934819-36-4

This sixth effort from Kocher—one of two this year (the other is Goodbye Lyric)—resounds with frighteningly deep feeling and makes a big presence out of physical form, even though these pages are also full of white space. Long lines, sparsely arranged on the book’s extra-wide page, suggest travel as a way to flee, and to understand, romances gone wrong. Kocher’s attempts to extend and to define the poetic line work alongside, or else against, her scrutiny of erotic dependence and painful independence: “You are Not what he expected Not so tall Pretty for who you are,” she writes, “He says all of this simply snapping his fingers You are to be You be what was Like All transitive.” Such goals, such exclamations, place Kocher (like several other Colorado poets) on ground cleared by C.D. Wright. But her sense of space—and her ways to track the wish to flee, the sense of fear in a landscape—lets Kocher stand out. “Do not believe the freeways either,” she warns. “The freeways cough with you so you’re not alone// Your sediment Your ditch not particularly rare A burnt spot in the rug not undone.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Divine Nothingness: Poems

Gerald Stern. Norton, $24.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-393-24350-5

“I was/ born at the end of an era, I hung on with/ my fingers then with my nails,” writes Stern (In Beauty Bright), who on the cusp of turning 90 may now be doing the best work of his career. Admired for decades for his gritty, demotic, heartfelt verse, he won the National Book Award for This Time (1998). The informal advice and blue-collar detail are still present, but his late-life poems are far weirder and less linear. “Mouse Trap,” a success in Stern’s familiar voice, remembers “the name of/ the ball of fur my former wife and I/ delivered to the animal rescue... outside of Easton,” whereas “Limping” begins with, “Space again for a predatory wasp/ to sing you to sleep.” More surprises await, as do many memories of the 1930s and 1940s. Stern’s free verse—derived from William Carlos Williams—repudiates old rules while not quite creating its own: his incidents take on their own life, chaotic yet restrained, broken but passionate. Stern’s poems have the vigor and the pathos of “a meadowlark you held in the cup of your hands/ and how you reached down to kiss her wet feathers/ and she bit you twice, on the lip and the left cheek.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Deep Code

John Coletti. City Lights (Consortium, dist.), $13.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-0-87286-649-2

“I don’t want much but I want ALLLLL the experience,” exclaims Coletti (Mum Halo), and he gives examples: “put on Charlie Rose/ eat cupcakes/ HELMET SMASH/ read the birth story/ over iPhone.” The momentary exuberance, the concision, the dependence on newish technology, and the slightly slapdash feel all typify Coletti’s new poems, which work hard to sound up-to-date. At the same time they can be very literary, like late moves in a Brooklyn-based game whose prize is the right to be called avant-garde: “Gasoline: Toys” (perhaps a nod to Gregory Corso) views “The Roman tomb of/ Shelley/ no longer in fashion/ like unto choir bullies infected by/ Bergson in a hissy/ the best of the Gowanus/ belched.” Coletti takes cut-and-paste techniques from the recent past and attitudes, “at ease/ w/ not being at ease,” from the perpetual confidence, and the insecurity, of bohemian youth. The right readers might find in his columns of phrases—some vaunting, some tongue-in-cheek—a badge of belonging. Yet his leaps and deletions make him less “alt-lit” than very late—maybe even too late—Flarf or New York School; skeptics might wonder whether his names and allusions land him on the wrong side of the time line, whether the poems are too often built not to last. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett

Edited by Seán Lawlor and John Pilling. Grove, $30 (528p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2308-4

Beckett, known for his novels and plays, also sporadically wrote short poems, in French and in English, and translated French and Spanish-language poems. His verse of the 1930s echoes the stern, dry sensibility of his great plays: “the churn of stale words in the heart again/ love love love thud of the old plunger/ pestling the unalterable/ why of words.” Translations can echo Beckett’s concerns, but not his style: “What darkness in my conscience and what dread/ and what a nausea of self-disgust!” explains his version of Manuel Jose Othon. Later work encompasses compact stanzas (all from 1976–1980) that Beckett called “mirlitonnades” (roughly, “trashlets”), mostly in French, though the English group includes the amazing “ceiling”: “lid eye bid/ bye bye.” Beckett’s sound play became as dense as his sadness, with the characteristic voice of a life very near its end: “steps sole sound/ long sole sound/ on all that strand/ at end of day.” This edition, compared to previous collections, includes ample annotation and offers a greater range of the verse that Beckett did not collect, or publish, during his life. Agent: Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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