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99 Poems: New & Selected

Dana Gioia. Graywolf, $24 (208p) ISBN 978-1-55597-732-0

Gioia (Pity the Beautiful) displays his immense talents for structure and for tackling difficult subject matter in this first new and selected volume of his career. A major figure in the late 20th-century return to formalism, Gioia works largely within tight arrangements of meter, though he usually eschews rhyme, and employs simple metaphors and straightforward narratives to reach an emotional core. In “Planting a Sequoia,” about the death of Gioia’s firstborn infant son, tragedy and heartbreak are expressed in plainspoken terms: “In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth—/ But today we kneel in the cold planting you.” The book is organized by theme—mystery, place, remembrance, imagination, stories, songs, and love—and Gioia’s careful diction and dedication to the line lend gravitas to even the most quotidian subjects. Even where he breaks his adherence to classical forms, as in the humorous “Title Index to My Next Book of Poems,” he follows tight organizational principles. Similarly, the form of the opening poem, “The Burning Ladder,” reflects its subject: the dream ladder of the biblical Jacob. Readers searching for classically styled poetry that is unflinchingly sincere and honest will find what they need in the voice of this master poet. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Book of Exit Strategies

Jamaal May. Alice James (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-938584-24-4

May follows his brilliant debut, Hum, with poems that are at once an extended ode to his hometown, Detroit, and a resounding protest against the many violent and oppressive ills that plague America, including gun violence and racism. The poems soar when May finds their center and grounds them in lived experience, revealing his genius for reframing old concepts into new images: “Coming black/ into the deep south,/ my friend says,/ is like returning/ to an elegant home/ you were beat in/ as a child.” Similarly, when May lets his subconscious roam, each line seems to turn the next like a skeleton key opening an endless hallway of doors: “I am trying to say/ the neighborhood is as tattered/ and feathered as anything else,/ as shadow pierced by sun/ and light parted/ by shadow-dance as anything else.” Yet given the ambitious nature of the work, it’s an uneven read. Some heavy subjects, such as war, are approached with grand metaphors instead of hard-hitting, grounded images. Other poems seem too overt in their intellectual or humorous intentions to maintain an element of surprise. These are presumably the growing pains of an excellent young poet treading unfamiliar ground, and like the Detroit that May describes, these poems are full of both shadow and light. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rapture

Sjohnna McCray. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55597-737-5

In his debut, McCray, winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman Award, focuses on family, particularly on the ways modern romantic relationships can mirror those of previous generations. In mostly chronological order, he progresses from the meeting of “the unassuming black and the Korean whore/ in the middle of the Vietnam War,” through his Ohio upbringing, to present-day America’s struggles over racial and sexual identities. McCray mythologizes his parents, but presents them as outsiders, and in a relatively brief space, he addresses 50 years of family history while navigating the realities of being gay and biracial in America. The speed of this progression blurs the lines between parent and child. His parents’ wartime romance feels quick, necessary, and unsexy. It is a world where the sound of a lover in a bathroom signals “more emptiness to come.” It is also a place where the “ghosts present// in the DNA” are on display. McCray’s poems about his childhood can drag, but he skillfully creates parallels between his parents’ relationship and his own: “No line will ever begin,/ ‘As I lovingly look at my sleeping wife.’ ” For both parents and child, time seems to have passed rapidly; relationships have become necessities that are also safe havens from the world outside: “A light from a porch nearby.” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Trouble the Water

Derrick Austin. BOA Editions (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-942683-04-9

In his debut collection, Austin maintains that fraught balancing act of being lighthearted, even convivial, in the face of worry and distress. He also deftly manipulates the tension between beauty and artlessness, sensitivity and violence, as in the poem “The Bait,” in which he writes “your kindness,/ drawing me out of myself, is not a knife/ entirely.” The speakers of these poems often feel like hyperintelligent yet emotionally guarded friends who, as an evening wears on, begin to reveal their wounds. The atmosphere is as humid as the Florida landscape Austin brings to life, full of heat spells and sweat-slick bodies. Occasionally the descriptive language and religious iconography can grow as heavy as Floridian air, as when the vellum of an illuminated manuscript is “supple as with her tears,” but the abundance of such acts feels generous. Look at all of this, the speakers seem to be saying, the beautiful and the repellent at once. This collection is well-suited to readers prepared interrogate what they love and what they distrust. In Austin’s hands, the exquisite can be ominous while the grotesque can turn charming, and his poems wisely assert that the world is unforgiving and yet full of mercy—that one can question beauty and yet still be beholden to it. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda

Pablo Neruda, trans. from the Spanish by Forrest Gander. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $23 (160p) ISBN 978-1-55659-494-6

Recently discovered within the “jungle of the poet’s manuscripts,” these 21 untitled and previously unpublished poems, produced between the early 1950s and Neruda’s 1973 death, continue his tradition of political engagement, love of homeland, and exaltations of nature and romantic love. Several poems coincide with his period of odes, including one to his Chilean compatriots: “My people/ never hold back,” he writes, “they know/ hard times,/ and they go on.” Ever the romantic, Neruda describes a lover as one who has “come from a race of wild roses” and through whose kiss “my lips came to know fire.” He addresses his younger self with wise words for any would-be poet: “keep your silence/ until the words/ ripen” and “arrive into your radiance,/ without forgetting the state/ of oblivion.” Poem 19 offers comic relief as an anti-ode to the telephone, the “black apparatus/ that even with its silence insults me.” These captivating poems are presented separately in English and Spanish, and annotated with contextual notes and background information including dates, interpretations, and descriptions of the documents themselves. This is Neruda at his finest, his eloquence and passion skillfully arranged in an accessible yet profound package. Illus. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Woman of Property

Robyn Schiff. Penguin, $20 (96p) ISBN 978-0-14-312827-4

Few collections this year are likely to match the subtle intelligence in this third outing from Schiff (Revolver), whose syllabic stanzas, intricate syntax, and polymathic repertoire owes more than a bit to Marianne Moore. A few of its 16 poems are brief, but most stretch their legs, as well as their subject matter to include viral contagion, suburban homemaking, tornado sirens, minor court disputes, Greek tragedy, fairy tales, cave art, and the anxieties of new motherhood: “Guests/ come and go and// I rest my rest on the baby’s head, which/ has an opening, and/ consider Justice.” Infant vulnerability, for Schiff, recalls the vulnerability of Americans—to each other, to external threats, to disease, to breakdowns in infrastructure or civic trust. But as political as Schiff gets, she is more often inward looking, trying to understand her own fears and dependencies: “The temptations of self-sufficiency/ are great, but not great/ enough,” she writes in a poem about pregnancy that is also a poem about lobsters in restaurant tanks. Extraordinarily long sentences can be hard to decode, but none are impenetrable, and most introduce punchier follow-throughs. Schiff’s first books took material from songbird biology, jewelry design, and gun manufacture: this one pulls material from anywhere and everywhere, and she fashions it into her sharpest lines yet. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Unfollowing

Lyn Hejinian. Omnidawn (UPNE, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-63243-015-1

Transfixing and restless, Hejinian’s book-length series of elegies takes its title from its central formal constraint: each line is a non sequitur from the preceding one. The mere fact of proximity of course invites a sense of relation, a persistence of meaning that Hejinian (My Life and My Life in the Nineties) concedes: “O experiential friend, let us kiss and make sense.” Though replete with the pleasures of juxtaposition, nonsense, and surprising resonance, Hejinain pushes disjuncture beyond lyric play at the peripheries of reason. Throughout, one has the feeling of reading against the grain; while the reader’s approach is sequential—and indeed the book is a numbered sequence—each new line re-centers (and thereby de-centers) the shape of the poem, such that the kaleidoscopic nature of the project pulls against the linear nature of the codex. Hejinian adds to this formal tension by using a 14-line form that in every other way rails against the traditional qualities of the sonnet, including wildly different line lengths, thematic expansiveness, and ultimate unresolvability. This book is jam-packed with imagery of all stripes, exclamations, aphorisms, facts, lies, and flights of rhetoric and imagination. While Hejinian’s form addresses the incoherence one feels in the face of death, the content responds with defiance. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Olio

Tyehimba Jess. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $25 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-940696-20-1

Encyclopedic, ingenious, and abundant, this outsized second volume from Jess (Leadbelly) celebrates the works and lives of African-American musicians, artists, and orators who predated the Harlem Renaissance. Among its compendium of forms and characters is a series of sonnets tracking the uplifting performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the career of the once-enslaved autistic piano prodigy “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The orator Henry “Box” Brown, who famously escaped from the South in a crate, tells his own story by rewriting—taking back, as it were—some of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” Elegant paragraphs trace the career of the expatriate sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis. Above all, however, the volume celebrates—and works to redeem, against old stereotypes—ragtime music and the ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Prose segments that carry the force of historical novels portray imaginary interviews, during the 1920s, with real people who knew Joplin: the interviewer, a disfigured WWI veteran, serves as a stand-in for Jess himself. Line drawings by Jessica Lynne Brown, exuberant typography, and the innovative layout reinforce the grand tribute that Jess’s words project: “the nocturnes boiling beneath the roof of my mouth extinguish each burning cross,” the singer Sissieretta Jones says, while Joplin himself explains what he meant to do: “lookin past the past and syncopatin into the future.” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hill

Jean Giono, trans. from the French by Paul Eprile. New York Review Books, $14 ISBN 978-1-59017-918-5

In this 1929 classic, an elegiac ode to Provence, Giono tells a simple tale of peasants living in a valley. At the outset we are introduced to 12 characters living in four houses at the foot of a hill. In one house is Gondran, Marguerite, and her father, Janet. In another is Cesar Maurras, his mother, and their young welfare worker. Besides the inhabitants of the other two houses, the only other resident of the valley is Gagou, a strange outsider. Giono describes every element of the surrounding French landscape in luscious detail, but it is the hill that physically and spiritually dominates the land. Giono delights in watching his characters interact and go about their business of drinking wine, making up stories, and contemplating normal human unhappiness. In terms of traditional plot, very little happens. In an effort to rid the valley of bad fortune, they go hunting for a rogue black cat. Soon thereafter, disaster strikes when the natural spring that supplies them with water runs dry and a fire breaks out. The villagers struggle to find water and control the land, because they care so deeply about “this bit of earth that’s ours, these houses where we’ve all been through so much.” The ultimate gift of Giono’s short novel is that it allows the reader to travel back to a distant, almost primitive time in rural France. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rare Objects

Kathleen Tessaro. Harper, $25.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-235754-0

Tessaro’s (The Perfume Collector) sixth novel navigates a complicated friendship between two damaged young women in 1932 Boston. After finishing secretarial school, Maeve Fanning moved to New York to seek her fortune—a venture that lasted less than a year and ended with a stay in a mental institution. Now she’s returned to her native Boston, and in order to put New York behind her, she decides to reinvent herself. She dyes her red hair blond, shortens her name to the less Irish-sounding May, and fibs her way into a job as a sales clerk at Winshaw and Kessler Antiques, where her penchant for embellishment proves to be an asset. May’s cover is nearly blown when young socialite Diana Van der Laar recognizes her from their shared time in the mental institution. Bound by this secret, May and Diana become fast friends, and May’s suddenly swept up in the wild social scene of Boston’s upper crust. An illicit affair with Diana’s dashing older brother complicates the friendship, as does Diana’s own secrets. To varying degrees of success, Tessaro overlays a historical setting and antiquated moral code onto some very modern-feeling situations. An intriguing correspondence between May and the shop’s mysterious absentee co-owner brings further entertainment and character insight, though it doesn’t fit seamlessly into the rest of the plot. Still, Tessaro’s complicated heroines—and the shattering reveal of secret after secret—will keep readers guessing until the final page. Agent: Jennifer Joel, ICM Partners. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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