Golden Ax

Rio Cortez.. Penguin, $18 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-14-313713-9

Cortez maps untrodden historical and speculative terrain in poems of stunning breadth and intimacy in this exquisite debut. Cortez, whose family moved from Louisiana to Utah following Reconstruction, coins the terms Afropioneerism and Afrofrontierism, apt expressions for the poetic ground she covers. Early poems in the collection establish the stakes: “I am a child feeling/ extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,/ is not enough.” In “The Idea of Ancestry,” her use of heavily enjambed, unpunctuated lines creates a sense of continuity between the speaker, her ancestors, and the West they share: “to know that my people/ heard the aspen too/ makes this my sweet place/ even if the world has come/ between us and the canyon/ I know the world/ has placed us here exactly.” Later poems move from the speaker’s childhood in Utah to her adulthood in New York, reflecting on class, race, and womanhood with wit and lyrical subtlety, as in these lines from “Black Frasier Crane”: “Isn’t this the hardest/ work? To be happy// when you already/ have everything.” Unflinching and generous, this bold collection opens new vistas in contemporary Black poetry. (Aug.)