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Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Univ. of Arizona, $14.95 trade paper (90p) ISBN 978-0-8165-3402-9

Through a poetics of resistance, Jetnil-Kijiner bears witness to the atrocities suffered by the inhabitants of the central Pacific Marshall Islands. As the first published Marshallese poet, Jetnil-Kijiner addresses in a woman’s voice pressing themes surrounding the Marshalls, such as nuclear testing, militarism, rising sea levels, and racism. Renewing the archipelago’s matrilineal traditions, Jetnil-Kijiner presents women’s stories—from her mother, grandmother, herself, and others—to re-center an indigenous feminist contemplation and resistance against state-sanctioned violence. In the poem “History Project,” she recalls the history of nuclear testing in the islands through her own memory of researching it as a teenager; the fate of the project echoes that of the islands. Moreover, these poems bear witness through the body, which figures prominently. As Jetnil-Kijiner writes “your/ body/ is a country/ we conquer/ and devour.” She reclaims body and poetry through utilization of lyrical, visual, and narrative modalities, adding to the growing body of Pacific Islander poetics. Reclaiming the Marshallese symbol of “a basket whose opening is facing the speaker,” which is also used to describe female children, the collection begins and ends with two versions of the title poem. Breaking the white space of the page, Jetnil-Kijiner’s words trace the outline of an open basket; one thread testifies, and the other concludes with a dream: “dreamt// my words// were// a current// flowing// to greet you.” Against visions of a rising tide, Jetnil-Kijiner offers healing and justice through language. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry

Dean Rader. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (110p) ISBN 978-1-55659-508-0

Rader (Works & Days) samples and remixes with aplomb, combining references to everything from Paul Klee to al-Qaeda to the Sonic Drive-In in a second collection that is as rich in content and broad in scope as the eponymous online encyclopedia. “Frog Considers Slipping Toad Pop Rocks™,” for example, begins in absurdity but ends in profundity: “Is there a better way to show/ devotion than to help someone burst from within?” Equally impressive is Rader’s understated mastery of form: the collection includes a ghazal, a villanelle, sonnets, and haiku, not to mention numerous metapoetic inventions, as in the poem called “Democracy or Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Last Lines.” Such ranginess can, at times, slip into shagginess—not every poem here earns its place. The peaks of his varied terrain are those with the most immediate stakes, where his generous personality meets political urgency, as in his series of American allegories, which interrogate whiteness through the ’68 Olympics and use Hieronymus Bosch to think about poverty. “This is for daybreak/ and backbreak, for dreams, and for darkness,” Rader writes in “America, I Do Not Call Your Name Without Hope,” and, indeed, few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Make Yourself Happy

Eleni Sikelianos. Coffee House, $18 (170p) ISBN 978-1-566-89459-3

In her latest collection, Sikelianos (The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead) employs her joy-demanding title as more than a refrain, cleverly letting it unfold as a humanist battle cry amid the earth’s downfall. It is this search for happiness that unites the disparate topics in the book’s three sections. Sikelianos begins by writing about ordinary things: family history, meetings with a hand therapist, a daughter. Lines such as “cookies will make you happy” resound. This is joy as obsession in everyday ways. In the latter two sections, joy-as-conquest expands to animals and ecosystems. The poet’s philosophical and analytical musings merge as she delineates, in elegant staccato lines, dozens of animals that have gone extinct, largely by humans’ hands. “The last cow was killed for its excellent meat/ Had they been mistaken for sirens would the flesh have been/ so sweet,” she writes of Steller’s sea cow, a mammal gone extinct by 1768. To conclude, Sikelianos takes inspiration from Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system or, in other words, a science experiment that ostensibly rebuilds the world. “When did my ambidextrous happiness impinge on amphibians and spell apocalypse,” Sikelianos asks; a big question for herself, for her poetry (so indebted to nature), and for all creatures still seeking happiness. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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In Full Velvet

Jenny Johnson. Sarabande, $16.95 (72p) ISBN 978-1-941411-37-7

In this stunningly lyrical debut, Johnson probes issues of queer culture and love from an array of existential perspectives, creating a melodic and thought-provoking symphony on queer identity. This enchanting display features gay bonobos; “a streaming metropolis of// masculinities vested in/ tweed, plaid, velvet, seersucker”; and nods to the queer literary canon, such as references to The Price of Salt, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gertrude Stein. A friend performing karaoke is described as “gleaming like a gem on Liberace’s finger.” In “In the Dream,” Johnson powerfully captures the psychic scars that manifest from living in a homophobic culture, while celebrating the spirit of community that flourishes only among the persecuted. In “Aria,” she crafts a sonnet crown about music, gender, solidarity, and suffering that is almost impossibly elegant. Johnson is a romantic, and she exhibits this without a hint of self-consciousness, declaring “I long to be leaf-whelmed,/ lit by fire pinks and wild sweet Williams,” or even more ornately, describing how the “lanceolate leaves/ of the flame azaleas along/ the shoreline shiver in the/ wind.” At one moment, Johnson muses on the potential pleasure of having a tail, romping “in a midnight alley, flashing my snowy underside like a switchblade.” The metaphor perfectly epitomizes the beauty of this miniature opus, alternately joyful and heartrending, achingly bittersweet. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Cinder: New and Selected Poems

Susan Stewart. Graywolf, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-55597-763-4

Spanning 35 years and six collections, this generous assemblage showcases Stewart’s accomplished and ongoing exploration of poetry as musical, embodied thinking. Stewart’s work finds continuity across a range of styles and approaches. Whether lush or stripped-down, her poems are grounded in a deep, assured prosody. She uses received forms and experiments with new lyric possibilities while remaining steeped in tradition. And regardless of pace or breadth of topic, Stewart is always dedicated to awakening the sensual qualities of language. Throughout, Stewart’s poems carve a space between knowing and unknowing, inviting the luminous and the obscure in equal measure. In a new poem she writes: “The corners, the edge, of each/ thing exposed:/ you walked into a new transparency.” It is typical of Stewart’s poetics that visibility arrives through a partial shrouding. By leaning far into the uncertain and the unseen, Stewart retrieves moments of clarity. Expression breaks into refrain, echo, an occasional moment of onomatopoeia, even stutters, visual caesuras, and, in a new poem, unsounded symbols: “* blank fog// misting// starless// fog ## and mist// descending// the windlass/ winding static.” If, over the decades represented here, American culture has become increasingly frenetic, Stewart’s work has responded inversely, increasing patience. At her best, Stewart primes readers to listen with the attentiveness from which her poems arise. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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An Affair with Beauty: The Mystique of Howard Chandler Christy

James Philip Head. North Loop Books, $23 (292p) ISBN 978-1-63413-882-6

Head’s glowing and revelatory biographical novel chronicles the life of Howard Chandler Christy, a talented painter of celebrities, dignitaries, and beautiful women, whose models were known as Christy Girls. Born in an Ohio log cabin in 1872, Christy’s talent was apparent from a very young age; at 18 he went to New York to study at the Art Students League, where he was singled out as “brilliant” by his teachers. Christy was a magazine illustrator in his early 20s, followed by a stint as a sketch artist in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Back in New York, Christy became a well-paid illustrator, then shot to fame with his Christy Girl portraits and large-scale historical murals. His famous painting of the signing of the Constitution hangs in the U.S. Capitol. Christy’s second wife, Nancy, was his model and muse until his death in 1952; the narrative is mostly from her perspective and from reminiscences or writings ascribed to her. Abundant anecdotes provide insight into Christy’s personality, life with Nancy, and philosophical musings. Head emphasizes that Christy’s lifelong obsession with beautiful women, the “romanticized, statuesque goddess,” was as much about inner beauty as physical perfection. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Ties

Domenico Starnone, trans. from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. Europa, $16 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-60945-385-5

“In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife.” Vanda writes this to her husband, Aldo, who hasn’t come home for six days. It’s Naples, 1974, and Aldo and Vanda married young, and now, when intellectuals have decided that “fidelity is a virtue of the petty bourgeoisie,” they’re stuck. Or she is: Aldo has found love and happiness, and stays gone for four years. We learn that in the second section of the book, its longest, narrated by Aldo after the apartment he and Vanda share has been broken into and trashed, their beloved cat disappeared. Although they reunited decades ago, Vanda and Aldo are still furious, and as he sorts through his demolished possessions, Aldo tells his side of the affair. The problem is that he tells and tells, displaying little self-awareness and seemingly expecting sympathy he may not have earned. Anna, Vanda and Aldo’s daughter, middle-aged and scarred, like her feckless brother, by the breakup and the resumed marriage, is no picnic either—angry, manipulative, greedy. Though Starnone’s willingness to let his characters—particularly Aldo—incriminate themselves can be read as writerly confidence, the novel, despite being slim, feels long. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Next Year, for Sure

Zoey Leigh Peterson. Scribner, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4585-8

After years of serial monogamy, Chris has, he assumes, finally settled down with his girlfriend, whom he dubs “Kathryn the Amazing.” Nine years into this relationship, however, Chris can’t stop thinking about a vivacious, gregarious young acquaintance, Emily. With Kathryn’s reluctant blessing, normally risk-averse Chris embarks on a relationship with Emily and tacitly encourages Kathryn to explore other relationships as well. This experiment in polyamory, however, soon highlights homebody Chris’s weaknesses, not to mention his inability to forecast the potential pitfalls of such an arrangement. A certain amount of introspection is bound to accompany decisions as life-altering as those explored here, but at times the self-reflection and second-guessing threaten to entirely halt the narrative’s forward momentum; the novel is almost entirely lacking in either humor or sexiness. The structural playfulness that characterizes many of the novel’s later chapters offers some respite, but feels tacked on when compared with earlier chapters’ more conventional storytelling. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Gargoyle Hunters

John Freeman Gill. Knopf, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-101-94688-6

Gill, who has written extensively about New York City’s architectural gems, makes his fiction debut with a coming-of-age tale about preservation and its discontents. The result is flawed but intriguing, a structure whose outward charm conceals some hidden cracks. In the late 1970s, the young narrator, Griffin, lives in an Upper East Side row house with his sister, bohemian mother, and the steady stream of down-on-their-heels boarders she takes in. Living downtown, his mercurial father restores antique architectural decorations, often pilfered from one of the many buildings slated to be torn down by “brutally efficient” demolition contractors as the city continues to “cannibaliz[e] itself.” Dad enlists the nimble, eager-to-please Griffin in his thieving efforts, which involve prying gargoyles perched on Manhattan’s historic buildings, then a more ambitious effort: to “steal a building.” The portrait of Griffin’s father has some nice touches—he is the kind of man who takes his baby out for a midnight walk and returns with a terra-cotta bust strapped onto the carriage—but he comes across less as a rounded character than an eccentric tour guide holding forth on ornamental features, lambasting philistine developers, or speechifying: “The lives lived by generations of New Yorkers in and around a historic building give it all kinds of layers of collective meaning—a patina of memory and grime and experience.” Griffin himself is a winning narrator striving to map his place within urban and familial landscapes in a bewildering state of flux. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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All Grown Up

Jami Attenberg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (208p) ISBN 978-0-544-82424-9

Attenberg’s (Saint Mazie) new novel is a bildungsroman with a twist, adapting a coming-of-age narrative to a protagonist who is not as young as her immaturity sometimes suggests. In her 30s, New Yorker Andrea Bern is a gifted artist whose talents don’t quite extend to mastering adulthood as those around her understand it. While her friends dedicate themselves to building families or careers and her brother and sister-in-law cope with a terminally ill child, Andrea seems stuck in a holding pattern. She abandons the art making she loves, clings to a dead-end job, and embraces drinking and rote sexual encounters; though not making much headway, she sees a therapist for nearly a decade in an attempt to grapple with inner wounds, notably the overdose death of her musician father in the family apartment when she was 13. The novel’s darkly comic voice is a delight to read, capturing Andrea’s sharp insights as well as her self-destructiveness, while brief chapters that shift back and forth in time effectively convey both the chaos and the stasis of her personal landscape. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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