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Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult

D. Nurkse. Knopf, $27 (112p) ISBN 978-0-451-49480-1

Former Brooklyn poet laureate Nurkse (A Night in Brooklyn) transports readers to the “imaginary past known as The Last Days” in his 11th collection, rendering his own haunting version of the story of Tristan and Iseult. The collection follows the narrative of the medieval legend by threading together a mosaic of monologues, most of which belong to Tristan, who talks of his battle wound (“it hurt always, like another soul”) and catalogues strange encounters while hunting. Tristan observes Iseult with wonder and doom: “we were not made for each other,/ but to be the other’s obstacle,/ cherished and loathed like the self.” Nurkse’s Iseult is stoic; her actions prove her to be self-sustaining and magical. Tristan confesses, “I thought we would negotiate/ in the wild, she would be less a Queen./ But no. Each day she wears her robe and crown/ more imperiously, though they are pollen and dew.” Minor players benefit from Nurkse’s crisp attention to detail and knack for contextualization. A character named the chronicler, for example, “chooses fresh pumice and abrades the vellum—/ caul of a stillborn calf—and starts to doodle/ in the soft margin.” Nurkse makes this familiar story something alien, new, and fascinating; like the potion that Tristan and Iseult share, it’s easy to fall under his spell. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Imaginary Royalty

Miranda Field. Four Way, $15.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-945588-01-3

This long-awaited second collection from Field (Swallow) ebbs and flows amid the passing of time and the shifting nature of familial connection. The book builds in the impressionistic manner of memory: snapshot by snapshot, Field’s narrator shows a “nebula of sisters” growing into mothers, even while each remains a part of the original family. A long elegiac poem anchors the collection; one sister has suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Field captures the self-annihilating nature of grief: “the heart, blindsided, stunned, needs urgent care, but instinctively eats dirt.” The living remain seated around “the mute, the frightening fourth mother.” They exist in a state of shock, but put themselves to work as a “clean-up crew after a memorial, before which all were birthdays.” Later in the collection, Field references a Japanese forest known for suicides, noting phenomena there that haunt visitors who “first blurt out then refuse to speak again of what they’ve seen.” Time cycles; winter comes and “creatures pass through killing frosts and starving times” before emerging once again. Field’s lyrical, personal collection clings to love as the only way “To find a stopping place for the endlessly vagrant self.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Children with Enemies

Stuart Dischell. Univ. of Chicago, $18 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-226-49859-1

Dischell (Backwards Days, Dig Safe) elevates ordinary moments in these poems of deep attention and patient detail. Amid a world full of worries, there are cows in a field reminding us that they are “Asleep all night on our hooves,/ Our fears are common, our sounds monotonous.” There’s a strawberry at the perfect moment of ripeness, “shaped like a big toe, plucked/ in California who-knows-when,” waiting to be enjoyed. And Dischell writes of receiving a glance from a potential admirer that “strummed once across the strands of my DNA.” The speakers in these poems admit to being watchers, as in a revelation about passing the same stranger every morning, noticing that “She owns several coats, all of them/ The same length.” The poems often feel suspended in time, moving between memory, history, and present moment: a young man leaves the Bronx to fight in the Spanish Civil War, dying in the Pyrenees; remembering the moment he left, his former lover turns “her face in the direction she thought was Spain.” Earnest without being cloying, Dischell writes as if he’s thumbing through a photo album, wishing to fill in the missing details just outside each frame. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Children Are Reading

Gabriel Fried. Four Way, $15.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-935536-94-9

Fried (Making the New Lamb Take) treads the line between childhood fantasy and the stonier realities and realizations of adulthood in this fairy tale-inspired collection. Describing a children’s theater performance, Fried writes, “Their play’s an eerie thing; it’s full of unintended truths/ that border on fact—of misconceptions that ring true.” This is the darkness that he weaves throughout his work; the great terror is not children disappearing in the woods but the dreary grown-up understandings they gradually form. Some of these revelations include disenchantment with childhood heroes, which Fried captures in dark “unpublished” excerpts of Beatrix Potter stories and by describing the staged “Meeting of Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s Alice), 80, and Peter Llewelyn Davies (J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan), 35, in London, 1932.” In this way a book that might have been saccharine or banal becomes as multilayered as the finest fables, stories that are simultaneously about innocence, illusion and its loss, and the power of storytelling itself. Fried’s subtler messages are directed right to his grown-up readers’ hearts: “Who escapes/ the fetishes of childhood that others make?” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Calling a Wolf a Wolf

Kaveh Akbar. Alice James, $16.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-938584-67-1

“Regarding loss, I’m afraid/ to keep it in the story,/ worried what I might bring back to life,” writes Akbar as he opens his much-anticipated debut collection. Though loss infuses the Divedapper founder and editor’s work, he animates myriad human struggles—addiction, estrangement from one’s body and language, faith and its absence—with empathy, intimacy, and expansive vision. These poems define life as an act of faith; “so much/ of being alive is breaking,” yet we choose to go on. Addressing God, he pleads: “Do you not know how scary// it can get here?” Discussing embodiment, Akbar writes that “everyone/ looks uglier naked or at least/ I do,” while elsewhere exalting the body and its complex wants as “a mosque borrowed from Heaven.” A breathtaking addition to the canon of addiction literature, Akbar’s poetry confronts the pain and joy in denying oneself for the sake of oneself. He suggests redemption without ignoring the violence that attends it: “it’s never too late to become/ a new thing, to rip the fur// from your face and dive/ dimplefirst into the strange.” Akbar’s poems offer readers, religious or not, a way to cultivate faith in times of deepest fear: “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Silk Poems

Jen Bervin. Nightboat, $15.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-937658-72-4

In this skillfully constructed and conceptually arresting book-length poem, poet and artist Bervin (editor, with Marta Werner, of The Gorgeous Nothings) probes the intersections of language and biological form. The poem’s form and structure is modeled on silk’s DNA structure. Narrated from the perspective of a silkworm, Bervin’s sardonic lines challenge the artificial distinctions between text and the material world: “AREYOUSURPRISED/ IQUOTEAPOET// DONTBE/ WE INVENTEDLANGUAGE.” For Bervin, the “MULBERRYLEAF” and its “NECTARFLOOD” represent the original language, as their luminous particles cannot exist without a framework, a grammar, to give them order. Bervin reminds readers that, to understand these careful and intricate constructions, one must learn to see on a smaller scale: “THEEGGS/ STARTINCUBATING// WHENTHEBUDS/ ONTHEMULBERRY/ ARETWO/ CENTIMETERSLONG.” The work also operates as an exercise in listening and measurement; given the close proximity of the words, readers must discover the divisions between concepts and cadences for themselves. Yet the sparseness, brevity, and economy of the lines create a textual terrain filled with silence. Bervin’s inspired interdisciplinary work is one of her finest achievements. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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From Unincorporated Territory [Lukao]

Craig Santos Perez. Omnidawn, $17.95 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-63243-041-0

This fourth installment in Perez’s “from Unincorporated Territory” series marks an important shift in aesthetic strategy and lyric impulse. The three preceding books—[hacha], [saina], and [guma’]—interrogated America’s colonial legacy and continuing military expansion in Guam using a wide array of appropriated text and formally varied lyrics that intersperse English and Chamorro. Some of those same elements are found here, though these poems are decidedly shorter, less frenetic, more formally conventional, and more narrative-driven. Centered on the birth of his daughter, this collection is first and foremost a family story and creation tale, albeit one in which the details of Guam’s ecological and cultural degradation, American militarism and capitalism, and the diaspora of the Chamorro people and language continue to play an important part: “is this the sound// of our ancestors pulsing/ your taught skin drum \\ // pele dances toward [us]/ \\is our house prepared// for birth \\ the ocean absorbs/ carbon dioxide then acidifies// \\ whales, birds, and fish/ change migration patterns// \\ my mom calls from california,/ talks drought and wildfires // // [neni] will be born in april/ of the hottest year in history.” Perez condenses his overarching sociopolitical concerns, bracketing the story of pregnancy, birth, an uncertain future, and a celebration of new life. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Uncommon Type

Tom Hanks. Knopf, $26.95 (416p) ISBN 978-1-101-94615-2

Oscar-winner Hanks’s debut collection is a wide-ranging affair of 17 stories threaded together by the recurring image of typewriters—some stories, like the intriguing “These Are the Meditations of My Heart,” build entire narratives around the machines, while others mention them in passing. In “Alan Bean Plus Four,” one of the collection’s best entries, four friends decide to build a backyard rocket and orbit the moon. These same characters star in two more stories, the enjoyable bowling yarn “Steve Wong Is Perfect,” and the less noteworthy “Three Exhausting Weeks,” which uses standard romantic comedy tropes in recollecting a wacky and doomed relationship. Hanks’s stories sometimes lead to pat, happy endings, but not always—“Christmas Eve 1953” develops a simple holiday story into a rumination on war. Similarly, “The Past Is Important to Us” employs a sharp, unexpected conclusion to elevate a story of time travel and romance at the 1939 World’s Fair. Hanks’s narrators speak with similar verbal tics—multiple narrators say “Noo Yawk,” for example—but the stories they tell generally charm. The only true misfires come when Hanks breaks away from traditional structure: the story-as-screenplay “Stay With Us” drags, and faux newspaper columns by man of the people Hank Fiset start clever but turn grating. 250,000-copy announced first printing. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Virtually Perfect

Paige Roberts. Kensington, $15 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1009-3

Roberts’s debut novel is both entertaining and incisive. Thirty-year-old Lizzie Glass feels she’s already a has-been. Her television cooking show, Healthy U, has been cancelled, along with her magazine column. Her only way to make ends meet is to take a summer job as the live-in private chef for millionaires Jim and Kathryn Silvester at their Jersey Shore beach house. As she meets Silvester family members and friends, Lizzie’s life will be most affected by the Silvesters’ 23-year-old daughter, Zoe, who has a successful “clean living” health website and brand. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s mom, Susan, has her own problems that she doesn’t want to burden Lizzie with, but ultimately Susan’s and Zoe’s lives intersect and Lizzie is determined to help. Lizzie’s intelligence and moral compass ground the story, and although she is flawed herself, her self-awareness makes her an inspiring heroine. Readers are treated to ample helpings of snappy dialogue and vivid characters. The book contains plenty of humor, but the ending turns more serious, giving readers some food for thought. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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To the Back of Beyond

Peter Stamm, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, $15.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-59051-828-1

Stamm (Agnes) takes readers on a dazzling journey through Switzerland and matrimony. Thomas, following his return from a family vacation, suddenly decides to exit his garden, leaving behind his wife, Astrid, and their small children, Ella and Konrad. Thinking about how his marriage has stagnated and unable to arrive at a solution, Thomas wanders without aim, barely stopping to eat and sleep and using limited resources to survive. His roaming takes him to a brothel, through miles of woods and forest, and from village to village. Back home, Astrid is left to tell her children their father has vanished and to cover for Thomas, lying to his employer and those in the community about his whereabouts. She eventually reports Thomas’s disappearance to police despite fears of being ostracized by the community. On the suggestion from one of the officers, she uses online statements of Thomas’s bank transactions to track his movements near Lake Zurich. Stamm’s superb descriptions of alpine nature and internal human conflict (Thomas, wandering through the Alps, often reflects on his wife and family fondly but doesn’t want to return home) are aided by Hofmann’s excellent translation. Even when Thomas’s actions cause pain for those he has promised to love, his introspection makes his impulse to walk away from everything less condemnable. This is a moving work about freedom and wanting. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/18/2017 | Details & Permalink

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