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Soft Targets

Deborah Landau. Copper Canyon, $16 (80p) ISBN 978-1-55659-566-0

The fourth book from Landau (The Uses of the Body) addresses the anxiety of living among dangers potential and palpable, from terrorism to climate change. As citizens, we are vulnerable to those “who want to slaughter us,” and yet, as the speaker remarks, “I had a body, unwearied, vital, despite the funeral in everything.” This proves the central tension of the collection: the speaker is conflicted about how we might go about our days and nights—drinking wine, raising a family—when around the world, threat abounds. Poems in loose couplets, tercets, and single-line stanzas contain Landau’s signature lush, lyrical language (“would you like a lunch of me in the soft/ in its long delirium?”) placed in contrast to the immediacy of “Kalashnikov assault rifles,/ submachine guns, ammunition,” which enact the dissonance of pleasure-seeking while the news “spatulas in on the Twitter feed.” But the very bodies that make us soft targets, Landau suggests, also make us lovers, “lustrous from time to time,/ in a garden, in a city, in a wood melodious with pine.” Through the cadence of these poems, which sometimes resemble lullabies in their dreaminess and gorgeous lyricism, Landau captures the ways humans persist, despite our collective anxiety, in our longing for “something tender, something that might bloom.” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hawk Parable

Tyler Mills. Univ. of Akron, $15.95 (99p) ISBN 978-1-62922-105-2

In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner argued that under the sway of a “universal and physical fear,” writers had forgotten how to attend to “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” In her second book, Mills (Tongue Lyre) proves that Faulkner underestimated a poet’s ability to manage enormous shifts of scale. Questions probe and pierce: “Can I call it light/ knowing what came?” Mills unlooses documentary evidence of bomb testing, deployment, and devastation that intersect with moments of acute self-reckoning: “So I kissed a goat on the mouth. I was warned./ I looked too fast into its eyes, both/ black stitches.” Haunted by the unverified possibility of her fighter-pilot grandfather’s “involvement in the Nagasaki mission,” Mills scans skies for contrails, scrutinizes negatives, reads survivors’ accounts, and sifts through white sands: “I swallow vomit after watching// the island wart into an orange bulb,” but “Gone is the oyster-/ white rocket. You can’t/ take it back.” The poet asks: “Did the garble/ protect this body from history?” Her answer: “The land buries the thing we made to live/ just beyond the imagination.” Here, Mills has written a book for the long nuclear century. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Library of Small Catastrophes

Alison C. Rollins. Copper Canyon, $16 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-539-4

Rollins’s debut is a book of dissonance, with race and women’s bodies proving two unyielding concerns throughout this four-part work. In “A Woman of Means,” Venus Hottentot, the name collectively ascribed to two South African women displayed as freak show attractions in the 19th century, gives permission in the poem’s final lines to “enter—/ the opulence of this rabbit hole.” Research, classification, and even punctuation all provide metaphors and similes that are fresh and sometimes lacerating: “The amniotic sac a dust jacket// for the book of trauma” and “The boy is parenthesis,/ his shoulders curved,/ the huddled wings of a bird.” The library is scored with violence and etched with observations (“only things/ kept in the dark know the true weight of light,” “art is pain suffered and outlived,” and “We are never our own.// This is why we are so lonely”) that are gripping in their originality, precision, and breadth. Rollins conjures Borges and Whitman (“I sing/ the body hydroelectric”) as well as a hundred women poets from Dickinson to Tina Chang to Nicole Sealey in “Cento for Not Quite Love.” In poem after poem, Rollins demonstrates that she is finding her own way, shining a light, making darkness apparent. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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“I”: New and Selected Poems

Toi Derricotte. Univ. of Pittsburgh, $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8229-6583-1

Derricotte (The Undertaker’s Daughter), writer and cofounder of the Cave Canem Foundation, is a seminal figure in the American poetry community. Drawing from five previous books spanning over four decades, this retrospective volume unflinchingly explores the author’s complex experiences as a light-skinned black woman in America. “For years, to avoid conversations that would take/ a lifetime, minds purposely dulled for generations/ (‘Single consciousness,’ Dubois might have called it),/ I would say when introduced—to avoid later embarrassment/ For us both—I’m Toi Derricotte, I’m black, and stick my hand out.” Poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Anne Sexton, as well as artists and performers such as Natalie Cole, Billie Holiday, and Alice Neel appear throughout the collection. In raw, confessional poems, the speaker chronicles the abuse she experienced at the hands of her father, as well as the graphic, stunning and powerfully feminine experience of a natural childbirth. Derricotte’s attention lingers on places of struggle where life is at its most vibrant, urgent, and surprising: “to hold that pain/ until it writes a poem, to hold it/ for years until you learn both the holding and the writing.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Low Passions

Anders Carlson-Wee. Norton, $26.95 (95p) ISBN 978-0-393-65238-3

The debut from Carlson-Wee (whose poem “How-To” in the Nation was the subject of controversy last year) is restless and searching, taking readers through the truck cabs, living rooms, dumpsters, freight yards, and railways of America’s wide middle, a place where “Each day against all this/ breaking news, another stranger [is] saving you.” With a strong eye for fleshing out character in a few simple lines, Carlson-Wee introduces the reader to pastors, bosses, one crazy cousin in Fargo (poems about whom recur throughout the book as both comic relief and a source of despair), a “father walking into every dream,” and a brother who is a burden, blessing, and companion. Violence pervades the collection, with brothers lashing out against each other both as children and adults. The kindness of strangers and the pride of a hardscrabble ethos are recurring themes, as in the poem “Pride,” in which Carlson-Wee tallies the value of the food for which he’s just dumpster dived while strolling through the store. Readers looking for a dose of Americana will feel like they’re beside Carlson-Wee, catching “a ride from a farmer hauling a trailer/ stacked with hay bales three-high. When he asks me/ where I’m going I say as far as you can take me.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tsunami vs the Fukishima 50

Lee Ann Roripaugh. Milkweed, $16 (95p) ISBN 978-1-57131-485-7

The fifth collection from Roripaugh (Dandarians) is dedicated to the survivors of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, a combined disaster that breached Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. The Fukushima 50 were power plant employees doomed to radiation poisoning as they selflessly attempted to stop the leak, while the government repeated “diajobu,” all is fine. In one moving poem, an abused, orphaned girl pretends to be “gangster moon rabbit” to comfort herself. When she takes her grandmother oranges, they are, ironically, the “safe-to-eat kind/ from Hiroshima.” The tsunami makes repeated appearances in female guises. In “Emo Tsunami,” her manic, malevolent art is a “failed star’s self:/ a pogrom of beloveds/ a covey of towhees/ an escargatoire of sunflower, a yoke of artichokes/ a fluther of jellyfish,/ a bouquet of axalotls.” She is a ghost demon, Medusa, Dark Phoenix, or “a cryptic giver of gifts:/ all Joy Air Freshener’s/ diaspora of aerosol cans, a boy’s lucky soccer ball/ head-butted from the waves.” From origin tale to glossary, anime battle to leisure ocean cruise, “barbed wire that interns her” to “shoes that pinch” and “jeans that ride,” Roripaugh’s wave rises above tragedy and the shock of a real-life nightmare. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love

Keith Wilson. Copper Canyon, $16 (80p) ISBN 978-1-55659-561-5

Wilson’s debut explores love, violence, isolation, and enduring uncertainty. Beneath ostensible happiness, the speaker exhumes ambivalence through stark honesty: “Loving is a misnomer, because you are expected// of your heart’s opinion on a sentence that is never completed,/ even as you’re having it.” He explores ineradicable heartbreak with surgical precision: “Inspiration/ is the deadliest radiation./ It never completely leaves the bones.” Wilson’s work is rich with dynamic musicality, which he masters through a staccato progression of images: “A half-life without you / in my dreams /// how i had you / caramelized black /// mold / at heart /// i hold / i know / i have / my lowest hum /// cyanide / my zeal / ethereal.” At times, however, the fragmentlike abstractions leave the reader without the guidance of a clear narrative: “All of space/ cannot be space. Arousing// patches in the grass. A mouse,/ I never said to you. Invasion of clover, black// pollen of your hair. Only yesterday/ I said I love. The opposite of stars.” Wilson’s collection is romantic yet world-weary, bereaved but fortified—a kindred reflection of the heart in the modern world. (May)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Brute

Emily Skaja. Graywolf, $16 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55597-835-8

Early in this lyrical debut, winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award, the speaker notes: “In my new life whatever I claimed/ I didn’t feel it was mine.” Skaja’s poems search for this “mine” as noun, adjective, and verb, exploring experiences of violence in an abusive relationship and their transformation into beauty. In one poem, the speaker names herself “a hairpin curve” and “cyanide stowed away in an apple seed”; in another, she reminds us that “to tell it once is not enough.” As the collection unfolds, a Greek chorus of named women appear as support, highlighting the strength found in community and shared experience, as well as the viewer’s tension of witnessing a relationship from the outside. In “[Remarkable the Litter of Birds]”, one of the book’s most moving examples of the complexity of self-making, an encounter with a member of this chorus leaves the speaker filling “my mouth with bees I tried to speak through the bees,” to name love and violence together without reducing them to one or the other. Skaja’s ability to hold contrasting feelings in relation yields the tenderness and triumph of this book. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Nightingale

Paisley Rekdal. Copper Canyon, $16 (97p) ISBN 978-1-55659-567-7

In her fifth book, Rekdal (Imaginary Vessels) reenvisions Ovid’s Metamorphoses to offer a haunting meditation on the vulnerability of the body and an exploration of how one goes on living after literal or metaphorical loss. In one poem, a woman experiences her child’s gender transition while undergoing treatment for cancer, losing a daughter but gaining a more fully realized, authentic son. In “Pasiphaë,” a woman clings to her dog after the death of the man they both loved, their grief symbolized by their shared flea infestation. At the book’s core are two related poems, “Philomela” and “Nightingale: A Gloss.” In the former, Rekdal pens a tale of receiving a sewing machine from her grandmother, while the latter deconstructs all that was left unsaid in that story. Philomela’s rape by Tireseus is used to disclose the speaker’s own experience with sexual assault, juxtaposing this narrative against passages of literary theory and poetry by Shelley, Keats, and Czeslaw Milosz. This, too, leads to metamorphosis: “Perhaps it is sentimental to suggest violence has given me meaning, that the heart of poetry was ever and only silence. Madness to say, yes, there’s pain, but would I have changed without it?” Here, Rekdal translates pain into redemption, so that a loss is not an ending but a transformation, in this riveting poetic alchemy. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tribunal

Lyn Hejinian. Omnidawn, $17.95 (88p) ISBN 978-1-63243-066-3

“I am a human in the absence of others of a yet better red,” begins the latest from Hejinian (The Book of a Thousand Eyes). Organized as a three-part trial, the book articulates a timely political consciousness: one of war, fascism, and a “not necessarily melancholy deactivation of will.” “A Human of Mars” follows a protagonist on a colonized Red Planet, weaving in the mythos of the Greek god of war in short, lyrical paragraphs: “Humans are myths, at war with one another”; “Pigs burrow, asphalt chokes, buildings arrogantly rise and crush./ That’s what I am.” “Time of Tyranny” moves readers to the present in a sonnet series throbbing with humanity (“we force to act, we force to micturate, we force to gadgetize instantiate, frame, monetize, grade”), in which weapons meet echoes of past political events. “Ring Burial” posits “a work of art [as] a prophetic loan, drawn on fugitive premises,” attempting to peer, though writing, into “The deep tomorrow.” Throughout the book, Hejinian poses a crucial question of art and herself: “Do I only simulate dissent,” she asks, ending the question with a period. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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