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Touch%C3%A9

Rod Smith. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $18 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-940696-08-9

Smith (Deed), an editor, publisher, and bookseller with three decades' worth of textual experiments to his name, sets new poetic challenges with these flirty, agile, and occasionally sarcastic poems. Sometimes he makes fun of the digital age: "Loops of the small bowel/ fight spam on the Internet." Sometimes he opens up a pair of words to find hidden import: "Between tortoise and torture you'll/ find and analyze a repetition fetish/ & accidental death." Coherence is something his "wholemeal halfwits in the bunker silo's/ frontal sinus palate polojama" have to seek, and not always something they find. Instead, alert or adrift in their linguistic games, Smith's pages imitate a kind of anarchy, delighting in chaos and inviting us in: his "house/ has a learning & the house/ has a viewfinder—the best/ thing in the house though/ is an anklet," he muses. His jazzy absurdities talk back to the Flarf poets and the earlier L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, but their freewheeling aims bring them at least as close to earlier kinds of aural experiment. Smith's all-over-the-place phrases and apparent stochastic effects will repel some readers, but others will certainly feel at home, saying—along with the poet—"we are the unlikely beings/ & our secret/ is not to// talk about any one thing." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Truth Is We Are Perfect

Janaka Stucky. Third Man (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-9913361-1-1

"In spite of my flesh colored shadow I have no arms to hold," Stucky, publisher of indie house Black Ocean, announces near the end of this passionately direct poetry collection, his first full-length volume after two chapbooks. Stucky's raw works, sometimes composed as fragments or litanies, give a dreamlike power to an antinomian religion of erotic love: "I eat your footsteps in my sleep/ I wake from my animal dream a legend," he announces, in one of many poems entitled "Recreating a Miraculous Object." Buddhist ideas of reincarnation collide with notions of sexual abandon; Stucky expects to "drown beneath the blood that drips/ From your unnamable tongue," and promises himself, or his lover, or the reader, that "Our honest desire will eventually destroy us." His lines—sometimes reminiscent of European surrealism—even revel in that destruction: "When the oracle says you/ I punch the sun." Readers who treasure subtlety and realistic detail above all else might look elsewhere, but those who want to be blown away by love and death, by fear and sublimity, can stay right here. The volume's status as the first single-author publication from the rock star Jack White's Third Man Books (an outgrowth of Third Man Records) could boost the attention it is sure to receive. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Room Where I Get What I Want

S. Whitney Holmes. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-939568-10-6

A controlled chaos percolates within Holmes's debut collection—poetry filled with fantastic frenzy, a silent revolt. "I ache to perform," she writes, "Mother is saying, don't touch, don't touch,/ in time with the pulsing blender." Indeed, this poetry is a wild and captivating performance, one characterized by intimate sharing as much as a distance that leaves readers guessing. This distance is created by Holmes's phantasmagoric world, which bursts with bombastic and absurd imagery: "On an interminable loop,/ that was spring. Birds committed suicide to get back at me, flung/ beak-first to the pavement at my feet. See what you've driven us to. See." A sense of crisis and agony radiates tangibly: "The best animals made me/ flinch, their bodies' flit, fitting together to prove they were alive." Occasionally, Holmes's poems stumble over their own metaphors, which become awkwardly overt; these slips seem out of place in her otherwise subtle work. Also, while her attempts at political expression are laudable, they lack the complexity found elsewhere in the collection. These breaks, fortunately, are rare, and Holmes's kinetic poetry reverberates with energy and emotion. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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North of Order

Nicholas Gulig. YesYes (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-936919-15-4

With words scattered like seed across the page and slashes signaling breaks in the landscape, Gulig's debut dances on the fault line between ecopoetics and postmodern love as he dredges up harrowing poetry in the tension between the two. The staging of the ambiguous drama in Gulig's poems hearkens less to Jorie Graham than it does to Charles Olson, and one can even hear Gulig's fragments being read over snapshots of the natural world in which they occur: "No one sung/ to me of me except the shore I sung to." Gulig's poems are both elegies to the past—a time in which "we spoke in/ wind"—and emblems that mark that past as definitively over. The heart of this debut is the poet's conviction that he can pinpoint a way of living in the world as it is now, a fact made "harder now that there are centuries// before us." Part of this restorative process is forming new words, such as "burnfield" and "earthwarmed," out of physical and linguistic natural resources, but another aspect is speaking the truth that our emotional and natural landscapes can never, and should never, be static. As Gulig phrases it in his own particular idiom, "here, the ground is where there isn't." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Names of Birds

Daniel Wolff. Four Way (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-935536-52-9

Wolff's first poetry collection since 2001's Work Sonnets is a transcendentalist map of the human self, produced through the study of birds. Season by season, beginning with fall, he describes the mating patterns, calls, and daily rituals of over three dozen birds. Asking readers to consider their wildness as reflected in human personalities rather than the typically anthropocentric envisioning of human traits in wild animals, Wolff captures the moody antics of a mother Blue Jay, the aggressive lovemaking of ducks, and the "drunken dance" of a Hooded Merganser. He imagines that human sorrow follows migration patterns like those of birds—going south and following an "inner compass," but inevitably returning. In his most curious poem, Wolff searches for a connection between what is seen and what is heard, conceiving for instance that the speckled pattern of the Downy Woodpecker is an outward indication of how it alternates between silence and loud tapping. Wolff transforms sensory experiences into a string of neverending questions, each subjectively answerable by assimilating the subtle truths of the natural world. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Making Maxine's Baby

Caroline Hagood. Hanging Loose (SPD, dist.), $18 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1

Hagood follows her self-published debut collection, Lunatic Speaks, with a brave and innovative poetic exploration of the grotesque yet mystical universe of Maxine, an educated woman in New York City who copes with the trauma of sexual abuse by leaving society to live in the subway. The book's narrative begins with chilling musings on suicide as Maxine searches for novelty and meaning in the world around her. She considers the parallels between horror and wonder, decides that understanding one's trauma cannot undo its damage, and proclaims that it is her recluse life—her "separateness"—that "saves her." Hagood meticulously expresses Maxine's contemplations with empathy and urgency. However, she also sets her audience up for estrangement by obscuring Maxine's view of her own existence with overdone metaphors and wordplay ("feed your plants and water your children"), by not explaining Maxine's journey of undoing, and by endowing Maxine with maudlin sensibilities (for example, she wants a baby in order to "fill this hole in her"). But even though the work falters on these accounts, Hagood took a worthwhile risk in attempting to empathetically express the beauty within such a disrupted mind, a mind that "wonders whether the streetlight that glows through her, leaving her half holy, half insane, is an affliction or a benediction." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Angel Park

Roberto F. Santiago. Lethe/Tincture (Ingram, dist.), $13 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-1-59021-090-1

Santiago's debut collection reads like the hidden history of a family, full of the sort of stories normally relegated to whispers in secluded corners of gatherings—or stories that disappear into graves, untold or forgotten. In three sections, Santiago traces childhood through early adulthood. The poems drift close to early-1990s confessional style but are more in the vein of persona poems, though they retain a strong unified voice. In sections titled Home, Away, and FarAway, readers follow a pan-gendered person(s) as they move from a confining traditional upbringing toward personal fulfillment. An older brother runs away from home and becomes a "staged collection" for the enjoyment of older men; a high school dean refuses his Hispanic students access to an important test; a bride defiantly walks the aisle at her wedding though her family disapproves of her fiancé. Through deceptively simple language, these anecdotes map the history of ignored and silenced people; the simple act of existing outside any normative mold becomes a sort of performance art, whether it's during a simple interaction on the subway or in imagining a secret transgender history of Queen Elizabeth I. Santiago's poetry explores queerness in all of its forms, a taste of the past on the tongue. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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River House

Sally Keith. Milkweed (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-57131-465-9

In this heartbreaking and robust poetry collection, Keith (The Fact of the Matter) explores the complexity of the mind in the midst of grief. The work consists of 63 untitled, numbered poems, reflecting the age of Keith's mother when she died. Keith's poems intertwine Jacques Lecoq's concept of the neutral mask with the poet's efforts to relearn how to behave, react, and move the body after loss—to be "ductile, as in, to be flexible, to be able to be deformed." Every observation realigns itself to the permeating experience of loss and the determined preservation of memory. Keith's poems never exceed a page and are built primarily of couplets and tercets; they possess a quiet music, and their intricate scatters of thought bear witness to the intimate struggles of mourning. "You erase the voice from the answering machine./ You move the clothes from the floor or tossed on a chair.// You hope to talk in different ways./ You drive, you eat, you move." Keith skirts the edges of thought, wandering from literature to the river house where her family spent time, a space that holds the strong presence of her mother. "That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me," Keith reflects, "yet, I cannot help but crave conclusion." (May)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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No. 4 Imperial Lane

Jonathan Weisman. Twelve, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3045-8

Weisman, a New York Times economic policy reporter, successfully weaves a captivating story in his fiction debut. In 1988, David Heller, an affluent American college student on exchange at the University of Sussex to escape a home life consumed by grief, decides to extend his stay in order to spend more time with his British girlfriend. He takes a position in Brighton as a caregiver to keep his residency permit. Inside No. 4 Imperial Lane, David meets middle-aged Hans Bromwell, the quadriplegic he must care for; his sister, Elizabeth; and her beautiful teen daughter, Cristina. The Bromwells, children of the late Gordon Bromwell, a Tory member of parliament, live in the eccentric squalor of lapsed aristocracy; they make do through the sale of their remaining antiques. Elizabeth dreams of getting a job—it'd be her first—but her only education was from a tutor who knew nothing but Shakespeare. David finds himself drawn into the Bromwells' world. Through letters and stories, David learns of Elizabeth's marriage to a Portuguese military doctor and their life together in Africa in the waning, bloody days of the Portuguese empire. Weisman brings a reporter's sensibility to the chapters in Africa, but doesn't let it overshadow the storytelling, which has all the action and suspense of a good war story. The link between the third-person account of Elizabeth's time in Africa and David's first-person narrative in Brighton can feel disjointed at times, but Weisman imbues David with enough emotional heft to bridge these two stories about relationships, grief, and knowing how to return home. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Ambassador's Wife

Jennifer Steil. Doubleday, $26.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-53902-9

Steil, (The Woman Who Fell From the Sky) worked as a journalist in Yemen, and that experience clearly paved the way for her excellent debut novel. Miranda, an American artist, has recently married Finn, the British ambassador to Mazrooq, an impoverished, desert Arab nation (and fictional stand-in for Yemen) on the Arabian peninsula. Miranda is adjusting to her pampered and protected life as an ambassador's wife, complete with servants, bodyguards, visiting dignitaries, and diplomatic social events, in a violent country beset by poverty, illiteracy, civil strife, and terrorist attacks. She clandestinely teaches oil painting to Muslim women, a taboo act in Mazrooq. Finn also has a guilty secret, related to a disastrous event during a previous posting in Afghanistan. Miranda is kidnapped by terrorists while on a hike, beginning a horrifying ordeal of captivity; Finn is replaced as ambassador, but he refuses to leave without his wife, frantic with worry and despair. Miranda is only kept alive to breastfeed a tiny, malnourished baby girl, not knowing the significance of the child. Months pass without any word—no ransom demands, no claims. The story becomes increasingly high-stakes, culminating with betrayal and violence. This is a well-crafted, fast-paced novel, packed with ample suspense to keep the pages turning. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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