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Barbara Tomash. Black Radish, $17 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-9979524-6-9

With great dexterity and a touch of alchemy, Tomash (Arboreal) examines lexical semantics through contemplating series of prefixes and what each is capable of prompting. Tomash refrains from revealing the full words that she conjures from each prefix; the poems cohere in the manner of a collage of various incomplete definitions. It’s an absorbing linguistic expedition that will leave readers puzzling out the words being delineated and their relationships with each other. Many of the prefixes repeat, such as “ex-,” “trans-,” “twi-,” and “ideo-.” Tomash’s poems function as much more than a means to interrogate linguistic possibilities. They start to become small worlds in themselves, abstract but meticulous. Within one of the “[twi-]” poems, for example, Tomash writes: “the same plane of atoms that share/ the light between/ the subdued just after.” The organizing principles vary as well, as with this “[ideo-]” poem that eschews stanzas in favor of colons: “the object pictured is supposed to suggest : not the object pictured : muscular activity : often blindly arise : rather than a word : their nature & source : but not the object pictured : the object pictured : but motivated by an idea blindly.” Enigmatic yet welcoming, Tomash’s poems illuminate hidden relationships buried in language. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Next Crystal Text

Melissa Mack. Timeless, Infinite Light, $20 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-937421-26-7

Mack combines the intensity of a polemic with the inquisitiveness of an essay in a debut collection that rebukes the form of the gemstone as a conceptual model for poetry. Instead, Mack describes how such gems elide the histories of labor exploitation and colonialism that produced them: “It’s so clear—these pretty things, they come from somewhere—but we let them be emblem.” Mack divides the book, which is really one long poem, into five sections, each moving between historical fact, luxurious description, and ruthless self-incrimination. “A relation, dispersion.// We see what the crystal’s electrons reject/ the rejected emits,” Mack writes, noting the self’s transformative capabilities. While the work here considers what it might be like to be intoxicated by beauty (gems—“so complete and so ravishing—are like steps that lead into eternity and beyond”), the poem always returns to the “actual work of mining,” how “it was meant to be burdensome.” A glossary is included, defining such terms as cabochon and matrix, but it’s almost unnecessary. In Mack’s work, these beautiful but secretive words parallel the status of crystals and crystallike forms in the world, such that “pendaloque-cut emeralds have become emblem of the world-end.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The End of Spectacle

Virginia Konchan. Carnegie Mellon Univ, $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-88748-631-9

Konchan questions notions of selfhood and the ways it can be constructed in her graceful debut, calling upon such varied characters, symbols, and historical figures as Dolores Haze, the Virgin Mary, and the Tree of Life. Here, initial appearances are often deceptive. The essence or purpose of an object undergoes constant metamorphosis or is otherwise obscured: a sumptuous “bath/ of sublime temperature” is drawn for “purely decorative” purposes; teenagers dive into a pool, “thrashing their way into form”; and the body is framed as “a segment of prehistoric road/ A buried stairwell with only the top stair obvious.” Language and its uses come under similar scrutiny, seen as neither innocent nor neutral. In hell, for example, one is “led to a table of rhetoric./ Its edges are beveled and smooth.” Konchan’s collection is in many ways about the implicit responsibility of the observer and what observing contributes to the purpose of art. “Search not, art critic, for the moral lesson/ —famine, fire, flood—in this frame,” Konchan writes in a poem after Gauguin’s painting “Nativity.” Throughout this spare and subtle collection, Konchan confronts the discrepancies between substance and appearance: “the broken object/ in this painting is not my body, it is me.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Druthers

Jennifer Moxley. Flood, $15.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9981695-3-8

Moxley (The Open Secret) reveals herself to be a poet’s poet, delving deep into poetic tradition while employing language that is often archaic, her poems flitting from free verse to traditional rhyme schemes. The poems are not distinctly old-fashioned, but they can feel quaint, as in one of the collection’s odes to middle age: “Although I dance I am not young,/ Neither am I old./ My knees in plié creak,/ My breasts are feeling low.” Moxley draws much from 17th-century English poet-cleric Robert Herrick in particular, and her appreciation for a bygone era of language provides opportunities for droll innuendo and double entendre; a poem referencing Cupid’s arrow, for instance, is titled “The Old Prick.” She elegantly characterizes poetry as a vehicle for immortality: “A stellar music, soul-tuned./ Infinite this language, though the receptor, flesh portal/ (called human) is not.” Elsewhere, Moxley praises the pleasures of encountering another reader’s marginalia in a book and riffs comically on imaginative definitions of “penetralium.” In “The Honest Cook’s Insomnia,” Moxley proffers sage culinary advice that works as a metaphor for the writing process: “Do not cook to impress/ others or conform/ to their tastes.” In keeping with her own advice, Moxley proves herself a remarkable wit and an advocate for poetic tradition. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of the Dead

Muriel Rukeyser. West Virginia Univ., $17.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-946684-21-9

This reissue of Rukeyser’s 1938 collection proves that the poem has lost none of its power––and, in fact, has gained resonance. Considered a foundational example of documentary poetry, it chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931, in which hundreds of Union Carbide and Carbon workers were exposed to silica dust. It is estimated that 764 workers died of the lung disease silicosis, making it “the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history.” Rukeyser weaves together observations of her trip to West Virginia (“the most audacious landscape”), congressional testimony about the disaster, and workers’ conversations and letters, borrowing her title from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The poem is put in context with an extended introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, a West Virginia–based writer who lives five miles from where the disaster occurred. Moore gives valuable background about the tragedy––especially in fleshing out the racist elements of Union Carbide’s treatment of black miners––and adds lyrical, highly personal reflections on the evolving meaning of the poem. As Moore mulls the long history of environmental and health disasters that have befallen West Virginia, she notes how Rukeyser’s poem offers “a story of dignity and resistance that was yet to be told.” Innovative, gorgeous, and deeply moving, the work more than deserves a rereading: “planted in our flesh these valleys stand,/ everywhere we begin to know the illness,/ are forced up, and our times confirm us all.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Wonderland

Matthew Dickman. Norton, $26.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-393-63406-8

“I am always doing this. Walking around the old neighborhood, always/ sixteen, moody and stealing cigarettes,” writes Dickman (Mayakovsky’s Revolver) in a collection concerned with those liminal, adolescent years when the forward motion of growing up is both necessary and dangerous. The poems are ferocious and hardened by a backdrop of addiction and poverty. Dickman recalls his sister battling addiction while taking care of him and his twin brother, “her heart like a sack of rabbits, skull-sized/ motors in the dark,” and a neighborhood where the “men happen to the women/ and the women happen to the children,” with each new day arriving “like a van/ with its windows// painted black.” A series of poems marked by the hour runs through the collection, beginning at one a.m. and progressing in stages to midnight. Here, Dickman departs from his broader narrative using chant-like anaphora: “This amphibian inner-organ green./ This smoke./ This pillowcase and razors and salt and trying to be a human being.” For Dickman, the wilderness of youth becomes a kind of wonderland: “when I think of the second grade I think about fall leaves,/ black oaks, and urine.” In Dickman’s poems, readers observe as the bright-eyed potential of youth is shattered by the devastation of adulthood’s onset. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Post Traumatic Hood Disorder

David Tomas Martinez. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-946448-09-5

Martinez follows his acclaimed debut, Hustle, with a series of lyrical riffs on American culture that juxtapose literary erudition and swaggering vernacular. Though his canonical touchstones include Robert Frost and Countee Cullen, the ivory tower Martinez constructs is a playfully phallic one, where “to think in grunts and finger points,/ admittedly, is not beyond me.” Self-implicating and parodic of masculine paradigms, these poems reveal an ear honed on poetic tradition and hip-hop (“About suffering they were never wrong,/ the old rappers”) and explore intersections of identity with strikingly musical results: “in this/ skin i am/ more wit/ than man/ and to/ white/ men i/ am no/ whitman.” Martinez largely avoids sweeping rhetorical generalities in his visions of social change; rather, history is embodied in the immediate and personal, as when he writes, “What’s in the attic/ but a vacuum-packed/ subconscious, a few// moldy berries of memory,/ a few buried Members Only/ jackets.” To his sonic dexterity and associative collage Martinez adds a dash of humor tempered by inventive precision: “The late-afternoon light entered/ the living room through the barred/ windows like a boxer through ropes.” Martinez understands that change is microcosmic—that “when// most folks say they want to change the world/ they mean their own.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Girl with Death Mask

Jennifer Givhan. Indiana Univ., $10 ISBN 978-0-253-03279-9

Givhan (Protection Spell) crafts a clear-eyed narrative of Latina womanhood in this lovely collection ripe with longing, hope, and broken faith. Trauma operates like an inheritance; it’s expected for Givhan’s speaker as she matures out of girlhood. The opening poem, “Lifeline,” sets the tone, foreshadowing the running theme of painful sacrifice in the name of love: “For my slit skin you pricked/ your own called us blood buddies.” Givhan refuses to sugarcoat the horrors, tragedies, and pain such sacrifice entails. Givhan’s protagonist is a survivor of constant physical and emotional dangers; in “Billiards,” the speaker laments the realities of her environment: “I’m trying to remember// it’s not her fault or his We’re all/ pawns in this game of bullshit// Is this how it is where you live.” Though her path to womanhood is littered with loss, she endures. In the title poem, for example, artist Frida Kahlo symbolizes the challenges of girlhood when the speaker confesses, “when I was a girl & never imagined/ the funerals I’d/ become.” Love is never easy here, and Givhan’s speaker expresses this sentiment in relation to motherhood: “My daughter looks/ away uneasy// as if she understands/ how long// I’ve longed/ for redemption.” Givhan explores the dark sides of adolescence and womanhood with searing imagery and a healthy dose of empathy. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Red Word

Sarah Henstra. Black Cat, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2655-9

Young adult author Henstra’s first adult outing is an incisive campus novel. Set in the mid-’90s, the story follows a group of four sorority-bashing, fraternity-loathing ultrafeminists at an unnamed Ivy League university, most of them lesbians who live in an off-campus house they nickname Raghurst. Karen, a Canadian, becomes the girls’ fifth housemate and distinguishes herself from the pack by dating Mike, a member of one of the most notorious fraternities, Gamma Beta Chi. When word gets around that the good-looking Bruce Comfort, another Gamma Beta Chi, got a girl on campus pregnant and refuses to take responsibility, Raghurst ringleader Dyann concocts a plan to roofie the fraternity at their own party. But a female partygoer gets caught in the crossfire and gang-raped after accidentally consuming the drug. The result is a campuswide debate about what exactly happened that night and who is responsible. Henstra portrays Greek life in a harsh light and doesn’t hold back when describing the excessive drunkenness, debauchery, and deplorable misogynistic attitudes at Gamma Beta Chi. Though the parts of the story that take place 15 years in the future seem underdeveloped and a few aspects of the Raghurst–vs.–Gamma Beta Chi saga don’t fully ring true, the novel raises essential questions surrounding class privilege, rape, and gendered power dynamics on campus. Agent: Monica Pacheco, the McDermid Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Graffiti Palace

A.G. Lombardo. MCD, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-16591-8

Lombardo’s auspicious but exhausting debut breathlessly tracks Americo Monk’s tortured journey through Los Angeles during the 1965 Watts Riots. Monk is an overt nod to Odysseus, not a warrior but a scholar of graffiti. He documents the beautiful, portentous runes tagging his burning city, putting down drawings and notes in a blue notebook he nearly gives his life to save. As Monk staggers southward through the mayhem toward his home on the harbor, he encounters, among myriad others, members of a cult of Muslims called the Fruit of Islam, Chinese gangsters at war over fortune cookies, a Japanese woman claiming to be propaganda mouthpiece Tokyo Rose, various voodoo priestesses, brutal cops, and a stranger named Tyrone, “the blind madman with the satellites and ringing phone booths,” likely a stand-in for Homer himself. Monk’s girlfriend, Karmann, waits, like Penelope, among men who want her, her needle that of a record player, marking the time until Monk returns. Everything in this novel is a reference to something else: Media Environmental Displays, USA, a billboard company advertising addictive skin-lightening products, is just one of many clever examples. The language and story are bloated, which softens the impact the novel could’ve had. Nevertheless, Lombardo’s voice is promising, and readers will be intrigued to see what he comes up with next. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/12/2018 | Details & Permalink

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