Civil Service

Claire Schwartz.. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-64445-094-9

The poems in Schwartz’s arresting debut are loosely tied together to form an allegory about oppressive power structures and the harm wrought by even those on the lowest rung of a violent regime. Characters including “the Censor,” “the Archivist,” and “the Stenographer” revolve around “the Dictator.” Schwartz depicts an absurdist cognitive dissonance as these individuals work in service of despotism while going about their ordinary lives, as in “Preferential Treatment,” in which “The Censor uses the black crayon/ to eradicate sex. On payday, he takes/ his wife and son to Shake Shack.” A series of poems titled “Interrogation Room” features a woman named Amira who is held captive and asked questions such as “Do you believe in the nation” and “Have you ever loved an alien.” Schwartz is particularly interested in time and language: “The prisoner// knows she will die inside this sentence... Where the state does not recognize/ your sentence, your sentence/ is administered by the state.” While the overarching story doesn’t coalesce, the many lovely turns of phrase (“This is how she grows old, her face a lake the wind whispers to”) and originality of her approach make this memorable. (Aug.)
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