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My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems

Yi Lei, trans. from the Chinese by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi. Graywolf, $18 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-64445-040-6

In the introduction to this stunning collection, Smith writes that Lei “astounded readers in China when, in 1987, she published a long poem entitled ‘A Single Woman’s Bedroom’... this at a time when cohabitation before marriage was still illegal in China.” But the poem in question isn’t simply about erotic desire—a topic Lei writes poignantly about—it’s on agency and freedom of the mind, as well: “I imagine a life in which I possess/ All that I lack. I fix what has failed./ What never was, I build and seize.” Lei’s poems fearlessly and thoughtfully explore sensuality, celebrating physical pleasure in spite of societal restrictions. Her poems also praise the beauty of the natural world, as in “Glorious Golden Birds Are Singing,” in which she paints a vivid scene through unusual juxtaposition: “Glorious golden birds are singing/ In heavy hexagonal snow./ Gold, brass, bronze, zinc, copper and tin. All are my kin.” Lei’s frankness and lyricism make her a significant voice in Chinese poetry, one that rightfully deserves a wider international audience. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry of Paul Celan

Paul Celan, trans. from the German by Pierre Joris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (608p) ISBN 978-0-374-29837-1

This ambitious bilingual edition completes Joris’s herculean effort to translate all of Celan’s poetry into English. Celan’s experiences of trauma as a Holocaust survivor permeate poems such as “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”): “Black milk of dawn we drink you at night/ we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland/ we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink.” Celan expresses the propulsive, hypnotic unraveling of the world through his fragmented refrain. Elsewhere, he paints himself as a perpetual outsider: “Blacker in black, I am more naked./ Only as a renegade am I faithful./ I am you when I am I.” The importance of seeing and witnessing comes up again and again throughout: “Gaze-trade, finally, at untime:/ imagefast,/ lignified,/ the retina—:/ the eternity-sign.” Joris’s introduction and commentary provide useful historical and literary context. This admirable translation presents the early work of an eminent German language postwar poet to a new audience. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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What Kind of Woman

Kate Baer. Harper Perennial, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-06-300842-7

Baer debuts with a meditative exploration of her identity as a woman, wife, and mother, disrupting mainstream assumptions about femininity. Broken into three sections, the poems center on the roles of lover, wife, and mother, yet as she notes, “You do not have to choose one or the other.” For Baer, being a woman is itself a kind of powerful, dangerous magic: “I can be beautiful/ if I want to. I can take your/ rabbit ears and disappear/ them with my tongue.” In “Female Candidate,” she creates a linguistic collage of key phrases used repeatedly to describe women in positions of power: “I like her but/ aggressive tone/ it’s not that she/ now that I have daughters/ if only she would.” In “For the Advice Cards at Bridal Showers,” she turns worn-out pieces of advice upside down: “Go to bed angry. Wake up with a plan. When/ someone asks for the secret to a happy marriage,/ remember you don’t know.” Baer’s poems unearth the difficulties of marriage, as well as the body after it has given birth (“a deflated balloon. Bruised fruit”). In these confident and fearless poems, Baer suggests that the deepest and most vulnerable love is found in life’s imperfections. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dearly: New Poems

Margaret Atwood. Ecco, $27.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-06-303249-1

Atwood (The Testaments) returns with a sardonic and sagacious masterpiece to add to her significant oeuvre. Fantasy, love, sex, feminism, and mortality are explored with discursive poise and narrative cohesion. Atwood has a knack for creating piquant emotional textures, infusing ideas, experiences, and objects with palpable life, as when she envisions the negative space that will remain after the death of her partner: “That’s who is waiting for me:/ an invisible man/ defined by a dotted line:// the shape of an absence/ in your place at the table,// ...a rustling of the fallen leaves,/ a slight thickening of the air.” Time is perhaps the most ubiquitous variable in her poems; Atwood fuses past and present, resulting in prescient nostalgia for the current moment and for the future. But there is hope here, too, in spaces created by voids. In “If There Were No Emptiness,” she writes: “That room has been static for me so long:/ an emptiness a void a silence/ containing an unheard story/ ready for me to unlock.// Let there be plot.” Combining dignified vulnerability, lyrical whimsy, and staunch realism, Atwood offers a memorable collection that emboldens readers to welcome disillusionment. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey

Amy Beeder. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-1-946482-36-5

The historical and fantastical mingle in gleeful harmony in the richly imagined third collection from Beeder (Now Make Me an Altar). Inventive titles suggest the poet’s varied sources of inspiration; “Letter from Inmate 0709-609” is a riff on a missive from an incarcerated person seeking advice about his poetry. It grows darker as the writer confesses his crime: “...the boys who finally/ found her thought at first dog bones but/ then a sneaker.” Beeder has a penchant for scientific phenomena and the occult, as evidenced in several poems titled “A Practical Guide to Hand Analysis.” Her talent for combining evocative images with rich sensory language is on display in the Thomas Hardy–inspired “Sir Say Pray,” featuring milkmaids “cream-skinned, gathering toad-spume on skirts relentlessly cracking the snails underfoot.” In “Lithium Dreams,” the poet writes an origin story for the salt flats of Bolivia: “Once, volcanoes walked & talked like/ humans. Married. Quarreled & gave birth./ When the beautiful Tunupa’s/ husband ran away & took their only child/ she mourned:/ ...until she made this sunken bed, a dry &/ ragged ice-white sea.” These intriguing poems are a pleasure to read. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Frederick Seidel Selected Poems

Frederick Seidel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-26081-1

This selected, spanning half a century, demonstrates that Seidel’s renegade candor has only sharpened with age. With an erudite lexicon, staccato and ambling vignettes, and a frequently debonair tone, Seidel’s poems combine the sensibilities of the Greatest Generation and the Beats. They document a lust for life through a blunt and sensual dreamscape punctuated by labyrinthine conceits. The speaker’s carnal appetite is balanced with Romantic sentiments, “Your eyes gazed/ Sparkling and dark as hooves,/ They had seen you through languor and error./ They were so still. They were a child./ They were wet like hours/ And hours of cold rain.” Elsewhere, lust is intertwined with subservient reverence and theatrics: “You look like a field of flowers./ You look like flowers in a vase./ You look like brains and breasts./ You act like life stabbing death to death.” This book offers a slice of Seidel’s life: the amorous, the dark, the indulgent, and the restless mind captured by a master of craft. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Floaters

Martín Espada. Norton, $26.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-393-54103-8

The visionary latest from Espada (Vivas to Those Who Have Failed) combines a sharp political awareness with a storyteller’s knack for finding beauty and irony in the current moment. Espada writes on an immigrant experience, in which “We smuggle ourselves across a border of a demagogue’s dreams” and “In the full moon of the flashlight, every face is the face of Guillermo.” His poems challenge the idea of an invented immigrant other (“Conquerors sailing the world mistake my body for an island./ They navigate into hurricanes and blame me when the ships vanish”) and reasserts the humanity of the marginalized. In “That We Will Sing,” Espada describes a poetry class in which recovering addicts spontaneously sing a poem to the instructor: “and so their voices became human again,/ not the baying of wolves to be shot on sight by police after sundown,/ but church voices, school voices, voices before the needle flooded/ their bodies and drowned all the songs, all the poems they knew.” Drawing on history, personal experience, and keen observation, this impressive collection is unique for the way it captures the world-weary voice of a poet and political activist who doesn’t simply call for change, but offers a sense of the long, difficult struggle toward justice. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Blood Feather

Karla Kelsey. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (105p) ISBN 978-1-946482-41-9

In her highly imaginative fourth collection, Kelsey (A Conjoined Book) presents the interior monologues of three female characters. The first is an actress who struggles to differentiate what is real from what is character or persona. She feels her world is constructed on artifice: “and rain has/ a way of showing costumes for/ what they really are those diamonds are/ rhinestones and my waist measures 17/ inches because of pills shapewear and/ cigarettes.” Kelsey astutely poses questions on identity: Is there an intrinsic self, or do we only exist through our relationships to others? The second woman feels defined by her husband’s successful career as an architect. Though she may be his “muse,” his work becomes something tangible in the world while her own philosophical reflections remain ethereal: “while the/ husband referred to across texts as/ master as genius as star fuses/ with concrete steel and glass I/ become thought dispersed.” She is consumed by thoughts of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, and the concept of molting becomes a rich analogy for personal evolution. In the third section, which is the most abstruse, a film director meditates on the legacy of Ukrainian American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Kelsey’s speakers are original and distinct, fueling a discussion of artistic expression through a feminine lens. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Century

Éireann Lorsung. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-57131-483-3

“I am trying to perform an excavation of a whole way of thinking,” Lorsung (Her Book) writes in her vivid and ruminative third collection. Lorsung’s project is one of both witness and revision, using “a language more open// than the language of forms” to contemplate acts of violence across history. From Pripyat to Nagasaki to Iraq, these poems investigate colonial, historical, and genocidal violence on both an everyday and mass scale. Some images are staggering in their vision; describing the horrors of radioactive fallout, she writes: “Some of their skin moved off of them as they ran, a very simple melting, like/ watching a person step smoothly out of themself.” Acknowledging that “The danger is beauty,” Lorsung uses her poetry to subvert the ease of resolution. She interrogates the privilege of whiteness in order, as she explains, “to make the testimony.” The result is a book full of investigative critiques of historical, often violent moments, in which there is “almost no language left at all.” Hope persists, however: in witnessing the past, Lorsung writes memorably toward a future. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Arena

Lauren Shapiro. Cleveland State Univ., $18 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-88083-472-5

“How insular, I mean lucky,/ to be sitting/ in the arena, to be outside/ the center,” writes Shapiro (Easy Math) in this careful exploration of the line between participant and observer to trauma. Poems and photographs referencing an unnamed arena event full of fire and cheering spectators anchor the collection, which also lives in the destabilized space around a father’s multiple suicide attempts. Uncertainty over the status of his body spirals outward until all bodies become questionable: “I was six when the body forever/ jumped from a bridge thirty when/ the body tried again and again.” In another poem, she describes a brother “blown into loss like living/ nothing, breathing as if his body/ were just his body.” Shapiro excels at moving between tonal registers, and the collection’s “I” and “you” shift according to each poem’s descriptive, lyrical, or collage mode. The closing lines of “Negative Transfer” enact the moment between an outcome and the present in which it has not yet occurred: “If I keep picking bits of thread/ from the sweater, eventually/ the whole thing will disappear.” In this dark and imaginative collection, Shapiro offers a moving vision of witness and grief. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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