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A Certain Roughness in Their Syntax

Jorge Aulicino, trans. from the Spanish by Judith Filc. Tupelo, $16.95 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-1-946482-02-0

“I am the scribe of the Party and of declassified files,” writes Argentine poet, translator, and journalist Aulicino in this 50-part poem, his first to be translated into English—an account of Old and New World battles against the totalitarian spirit. Aulicino composes with a journalist’s sense of scene and a poet’s eye for imagery, leading readers through cities that do “not stop making noises” and the “repetitive world” of “barbarians and jungles.” The poem, presented in en face translation, traverses ports and eras like a container ship full of the industrial world’s “overproduction,” moving between “foreign coves./ Hong Kong or whatever. Sumatra.” An ever-present undertow of violence marks the work, evidenced in the mutating refrain “and yet, armies.” Aulicino also references an array of artists, writers, and historical figures. With an almost sardonic deadpan, he jumps seven centuries in two lines, weaving the prescient words of a 12th-century sultan into the fate of Nazi general Friedrich Paulus: “You cannot,/ said Saladin, start a siege with forces at your rear./ The circle closed on Von Paulus.” He later collapses time again, describing Attila behind the wheel of a Porsche. “The state of eternal destruction is his certainty,” Aulicino writes of his Attila—a sentiment that the poet undoubtedly shares. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Wild Is the Wind

Carl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (80p) ISBN 978-0-374-29026-9

Phillips (Reconnaissance) hazards a visit to an emotional territory reminiscent of Dickinson’s “wild nights” in his 14th collection, in which he faces the unavoidable question: “Don’t you want to find happiness?” These 35 poems are as haunting and contemplative as the torch song for which the collection is named, and the work coheres through images of the sea and navigation, compasses and charts. The possibility of love is a risk taken under the “bright points of a constellation missed earlier,/ and just now seen clearly: pain; indifference;/ torn trust; permission.” The explorer must to “say no to despair.” The nautical conceit merges seamlessly with Phillips’s more familiar metaphorical terrain of earth and sky (“leaves swam the air”). He startles readers afresh with his talent for transcendent metaphor leavened by rueful humor—“The oars of the ship called Late Forgiveness lift,/ then fall. The slaves at the oars/ have done singing—it’s pure work, now”—and displays a well-honed ability to draw on varied literary sources in a register that’s both academic and vernacular. As ever in his work, emotional dynamics resist easy resolution and the speakers unsparingly evaluate both the self and exterior world. Skillfully balancing philosophical discourse and linguistic pleasure, Phillips’s much-admired capacity for nimble syntax unfurls like a sail, “each time, more surely.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Pray Me Stay Eager: Poems

Ellen Doré Watson. Alice James, $15.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-938584-68-8

In her lively and thoughtful fifth collection, Watson (Dogged Hearts) considers the characteristics of and what is contained within such grand abstractions as loyalty, humility, disquiet, and jealousy. To unpack words that try to abstract “everything,” Watson includes three “Field Guides to Abstraction” and odes to several specific concepts. One Watson prizes appears in the penultimate poem: “I want eager. Pray me. Astonishment. I’m courting/ this best of abstractions.” Other poems feature list fragments, dialogues, proofs, and prayers. These poems can be remarkably sassy, as in the closing lines for “April Eclogue,” when Watson writes, “You say we’re all shameless with it—ongoingness./ I sigh, set my jaw, I mean to green into my wreckage.” She simultaneously attends to words and wordplay—and the larger narratives set up by such titles as “Learning to Sail at 57 on Father’s Day.” Towards the end of “Hermitage” Watson writes, “This is not strictly a story”—and she’s right, it isn’t. These poems are musical meditations on what cannot be narrated, but must be prayed or sung: “I who don’t pray/ want to prayer you to the next/ world, wondering will I be this/ stubborn?” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Leprosarium

Lise Goett. Tupelo, $16.95 trade paper (86p) ISBN 978-1-946482-03-7

A chorus of variously injured and ill pilgrims seek solace and God, finding neither, in this intricate but uneven new collection from Goett, the follow-up to her 2002 debut Waiting for the Paraclete. In these pages life is “a fever in which we sweat/ the virus of indifference out,” and the poems too wring out indifference through heightened diction and torqued syntax. The result is often wonderful, sometimes overly strained; individual poems stand out more than the collection as a whole. Goett continuously seeks to name despair in order to move toward a more intimate relationship with the self and the world. “Every era has its St. Prassede wringing her bloody sponge,” Goett writes. “When did it become/ our nature to help the tyrant to survive?” The poems struggle to understand an ongoing history of multifaceted oppression through relentless regular stanzas and her frequent investigations into the canon of Western visual art. Goett knows how to make her readers squirm, and when she’s at her linguistically contorted best she offers complex understandings of the ways pain, disillusionment, and hope intersect. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Indictus

Natalie Eilbert. Noemi, $15 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-934819-71-5

In her dizzying second collection, Eilbert (Swan Feast) hypnotically propels readers through the relentless emotional turmoil experienced by victims of abuse. Her poems address both the natural resistance to and the inevitable necessity of exploring one’s own trauma. Eilbert sets the stage for that process through a confrontation with the unsaid: “Let me say of language that it is my currency and performs best when it is stripped of decorum.” Her style is genuine, generous, and unlabored, yet enigmatic in places. “You want to be turned in the dust because/ the dust makes you holy, the dust dries you/ out, the dust dusts your dust as oceans unto/ oceans as shame unto shame,” she writes. “The white lurch of a face is male. See/ how he sees me as dust dusts the dust, the dust’s instructions?” When Eilbert elucidates her abstractions into more tangible metaphors, her brilliance shines through: “Noise of a club// circles back in like a saccharine plague./ The sound of man like the fat that hugs the/ plunged sword.” Equally wise and perplexing, Eilbert’s poems reflect all the troubling ways “we understand others by breaking them apart.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Möbius Strip Club of Grief

Bianca Stone. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-941040-85-0

Balancing a confessional voice with humor and portentous imagery, Stone (Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours) explores grief, familial connection, and the small things that sustain life in her startling third collection. Readers encounter feuds with Anne Sexton’s nieces and a hereafter where the dead perform for the living. But Stone’s great achievements are two sequences that share an awed admiration for the female mind. The first, “I am Unfaithful to You with My Genius,” is an ode to women writers and their “demon of genius—mad genius,” inspiring the poet to devotion: “like Antigone I would ruin myself for you.” The second, “Blue Jays,” pays homage to the poet’s mother, and by extension all women (“Mothers are all I have ever known”). Stone captures her mother’s eccentricities and burdens with heartbreaking clarity: “your genius trapped like a moth on the screened-in porch of your pain.” The book ends in a somber elegy for America—“I feel the phantom limbs of my predecessors/ waving in the air,” Stone writes—putting an exclamation point on a collection that features a bravely vulnerable beating heart hidden beneath layers of irony and clever misdirection. Stone is the child of her muses, Sexton and Emily Dickinson, and it is an odd but delightful union. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Horn Bückel

Peter Imsdahl. Apple Box, $12.99 trade paper (229p) ISBN 978-1-535-11552-0

Imsdahl’s charming slice-of-life debut follows American Paul Klose, an amicable English teacher who arrives in bucolic Horn Bückel, Germany, in the mid-1990s. He rents a room near the school where he has acquired a temporary teaching position, and quickly learns that the accommodations he’s taken come with a strange requirement: he is to be the town’s sexton, with duties ranging from ringing the church bells to digging graves. Klose’s superior, Pastor Grob, is an angry man whose wife is as lustful as her husband is contentious. The couple wears on Klose’s patience as he develops friendships with Horn Bückel’s eccentric inhabitants, including the previous sexton and wise storyteller Otto Schwalbe, town gossip Mrs. Stamm, and farm girl Appel, whose “long-legged gait” is capable of “suddenly making the day warmer.” This tale of one town, its citizens, and an American visitor is delivered in a witty voice that accentuates Imsdahl’s burgeoning talent. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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New York

Terence Clarke. Astor & Lenox, $15.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-9860582-7-1

This gem of a collection by Clarke celebrates the art, passions, and people of New York City. After a brief, sweet look at inadvertent eavesdropping on mass transit and the kindness of strangers in “Everyone in L.A.,” Clarke begins in earnest with “The High Line.” He uses this uniquely New York landmark as the linchpin of connections between the robustly American New York and the New York that is a microcosm of the world, in this case bringing together corporate lawyer A. Pollard O’Rourke and the Dominican-American former goatherd Eshu Basoalto. Each story that follows is suffused with love of one form or another, whether it be romance or deep-felt caring for others. Art, too, fills these pages, ranging from the delicious but simple culinary creations in “The Sandwich” to abstract sculpture in “Thank You, Pierre-Auguste.” War is also a theme throughout: it shatters the lives of characters as different as Coptic Egyptian sandwich maker Muhammad, Argentine banker Romero Heflin, and photographer Bouquet Alonso. There are no weak stories here. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Girls in the Picture

Melanie Benjamin. Delacorte, $28 (422p) ISBN 978-1-101-88680-9

Benjamin (The Swans of Fifth Avenue) escorts readers through the rise and fall of Hollywood’s silent film era by following a friendship and creative collaboration that helped birth the earliest movies: the fruitful, testy bond between the “scenarist” and eventual screenwriter, Frances Marion, and Mary Pickford, a troubled early star. The novel is framed by a reunion late in their lives, in 1969, but focuses on the 1910s and ’20s: Marion’s and Pickford’s meeting, initial closeness and collaboration, marriages and tragedies, and diverging fates in Hollywood. Chapters alternate between the two women’s perspectives—Marion’s sections (written in first person) buzz with her idiosyncratic understanding of her place within the silent film industry, but Pickford’s (puzzlingly, in third person) are used to move the narrative forward and feel lackluster in comparison. Benjamin’s prose and particularly her dialogue are flatly contemporary; conversations between characters lack period nuance, and, while Marion’s and Pickford’s protofeminism is based on substantial research, it is telegraphed mainly in clunky 21st-century sound bites: “[men] felt that a woman among them was an aberration of nature... and assumed I was there for one purpose only.” However, the heady, infectious energy of the fledgling film industry in Los Angeles is convincingly conveyed—and the loving but competitive friendship between these two women on the rise in a man’s world is a powerful source of both tension and relatability. Agent: Laura Langlie, Laura Langlie Agency (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hap and Hazard and the End of the World

Diane DeSanders. Bellevue, $16.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-942658-36-8

DeSanders gives readers a glimpse of postwar America through the eyes of a curious and thoughtful girl in her smart and subtle debut. The unnamed preteen narrator lives in suburban Dallas and is stuck between childhood, like her younger sisters (her parents’ clear favorites, if you ask her), and the adult world, which she is left out of and often doesn’t understand. She relates a mix of lighthearted experiences—an almost mythical appearance by the Easter Bunny, family dinner shenanigans, and her father’s intense passion for cars—and foreboding currents of darkness, as with the looming fear of nuclear annihilation and her father’s violent temper. The question of Santa comes up throughout, and the narrator’s changing thoughts on the possibility of his existence mark her growth toward adulthood. Although the narrator comes to life as she works through the problems of young adulthood—learning about God, stealing for the first time, seeing her mother age—it is the depiction of suburban life and the changes that swept through America after WWII that bring the book to life. While more of a set of interconnecting sketches than a single narrative, DeSander’s book offers a modest but moving example of a family trying to make life work. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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