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Load in Nine Times

Frank X Walker. Liveright, $26.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-324-09493-7

Walker’s excellent 12th collection (after Love House) captures the Black experience before and after emancipation in intimate and expansive poems. It opens with an 1841 newspaper clipping from Henderson County, N.C., announcing a $30 reward for a runaway slave. Walker experiments with forms and styles, from free verse to more structured compositions, masterfully blending personal narratives with broader historical themes. In a poem in the voice of Margaret Garner, a formerly enslaved woman who killed her infant daughter rather than allowing her to be forced into slavery, the speaker declares, “Don’t call me Murderer./ Step back from all this./ Stop eyeballing me and the sharp sharp blade./ Take a closer look at the white men... I spared my baby girl not from this life/ but from my life.” Throughout, Walker draws on the emotional and psychological dimensions of poetry to transform slavery from historical fact to lived experience. “Grove” centers on the observations of a Black soldier enlisting in the Civil War alongside other Black men, describing the line of waiting men as “a grove wanting to be a forest,/ ready to see what kind of wood we made from.” These vivid and evocative poems underscore the struggles Black people have faced while offering beautifully crafted, illuminating reflections on those experiences. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Reader, I

Corey Van Landingham. Sarabande, $17.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-956046-25-0

Drawing its title from a line in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”), the inventive and lyrically precise sophomore outing from Van Landingham (Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens) is organized in five sections, the majority of its poems titled “Reader, I” followed by a bracketed portion: “Reader, I [swore I’d be a casual bride].” This conceit successfully ties the poems together and implicates the reader as it brilliantly challenges some of the stereotypes of marriage through personal reflections and literary motifs. The opening prose poem sets the stakes: “[Reader, I was] according to Virgil, always a fickle, unstable thing. Woman. Wyf. Merger of wife and man. To indicate: not-girl. Not-yet-claimed, not-yet weeping. And aren’t they often weeping?” The long poem “The Marriage Plot” features lyric sections that capture some of Van Landingham’s atmospheric writing at its best: “On the Romantic Danube// river cruise my mother booked/ for us a month before/ my wedding, I watched her dance// with a stranger// to a halting ‘Blue Moon’/ broadcast live to our stateroom./ The sunset// having annulled itself// hours before, somewhere between/ Krems and Vienna, it seemed// we were floating in deep, dark space.” This accomplished book is rife with searing and affective musings on love and matrimony. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Geometry of the Restless Herd

Sophie Cabot Black. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-55659-692-6

Cabot Black’s stunning, fable-like fourth collection (after The Exchange) urges readers, “do not expect the known; you were not there.” This unusual and poignant volume is equal parts gothic and pastoral, full of incisively written imagery characterized by sparse stanzas that allow each line to shine: “everyone wants to be near,/ To manage the animal, the range/ of the easily lost.” This sentiment is echoed again in “Almost Aubade” (“who came first/ now lost”), where absence and presence preoccupy the speaker. In the second section, Cabot Black reveals that “To be mistaken/ For another might be to survive.” Yet the poems in this collection run no risk of being mistaken for another poet’s oeuvre. Singular and striking in their movements and tone, they are a testament to delicate beauty. Cabot Black walks the tightrope between the gnomic and the visceral, and sticks the landing with the utmost skill and tenderness. (May)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Hold Your Own

Nikki Wallschlaeger. Copper Canyon, $18 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-55659-683-4

In this self-reflective and candid fourth collection, Wallschlaeger (Waterbaby) explores the Black female experience in formally varied poems (crisp couplets, prose poems, and some that use caesuras and white space) to powerfully parse the layers of past experiences and the injustices of modern life. “How to Write a War Poem” opens the collection, introducing the reader to Wallschlaeger’s satirical, questioning, yet inviting tone: “You must feel helpless—That’s what brought you here? You’ve been watching the news?/ You feel outlaundered? By selfhood, extravagance, and targets?” The next poem, “Freedom on Earth Ain’t Enough for Me,” takes flight from her interest in analogies between the human and natural world, and the ongoing plight of women: “Two male cardinals fight/ over trees for territory,// ancient story orbiting/ into supernova.// ‘Fe-males’ nowhere to/ be seen, particles of a// solar system delayed.” “How to Survive Confusion” advises: “1. Lean on pride. Gas yourself up on a regular basis. Admire your legs. Smile./ 2. Take long walks. Talk consolingly to yourself. Bring a friend who can laugh.” Amid difficult reckonings with race and gender, Wallschlaeger delivers a memorable woek that honors resilience. (May)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Chimera

Phoebe Gianissi, trans. from the Greek by Brian Sneeden. New Directions, $15.95 trade paper (102p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3782-6

Gianissi’s ambitious and often vivid collection, her third in English (after Cicada), features genre-bending poems drawing on three years of field research on the goat-herding customs of the Vlachs, a people of Northern Greece and the Southern Balkans. The opening poem sets the stage for her experiments in voice and interest in the relationship between humans and animals: “the narrator says:// goatfold of Yannis Mourtos in Kalamaki Larissa./ 750 stock, 700 females. goats.// two winters I went among the fold with Chara/ I saw the animals scream and fuck/ (when the human let them)/ I saw the animals being born/ (with the help of the human)/ I saw the animals graze/ (led by the human).” Combining field recordings, state archives, and ancient texts, Gianissi’s poems feature philosophical and academic reflections that can sometimes drag: “The herd isn’t simply a society of animals... domesticated animals, monitored and controlled and intended for consumption. I’ve just spoken about domestication, about indoctrination, about appropriation... the herd is a group of animals raised with the purpose of being used and consumed by humans.” By contrast, “Darkness Again” offers some of the best of her lyric writing: “for years the dead didn’t bother us/ we tucked them one by one into the earth.” Readers will find this strange and captivating. (July)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Mother

m.s. RedCherries. Penguin Books, $20 (144p) ISBN 978-0-14-313783-2

Cheyenne poet RedCherries debuts with a potent and immersive narrative work about a Native American woman raised by non-Native parents and her journey back to her birth family. Addressing the systemic oppression of Indigenous populations, the collection opens with references to a child being sent to a residential school, and her mother dying in a mental institution as a result. Elsewhere, a queer woman returns to the reservation to some consternation from residents, until the community drops its bigoted beliefs, at which point she is revered: “A union of two Cheyenne women was understood to/ be sacred because Cheyenne women are sacred.” One of the standout poems, “engine injun,” tells the story of a Cheyenne woman who travels to San Francisco in 1969 to take part in a large powwow and learns about the part-Native heritage of Neil Armstrong, who lands on the moon that very night. Elsewhere, a speaker addresses her mother with awe, “You would wake up, brush your hair, put on your denim jacket and become the 1970s cowboy everyone wanted to be.” The collection celebrates this mother, who was the speaker’s connection to the Cheyenne world and was taken from her at a young age. The result is a confident and arresting account of loss and the search to rebuild community and identity. (July)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Bluff

Danez Smith. Graywolf, $18 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-64445-298-1

Smith’s searing fourth collection (after Homie) offers a powerful self-indictment of art and the artist in an age of social and political collapse. Rooted in critical self-awareness in the midst of ongoing racial violence, mass protest, and political division, the poems showcase Smith’s growing skepticism toward poetry that is simply performative in its politics or that fails to radically engage with reality: “poetry/ happens, something to do with my hands/ that’s not jailtime, why lie tho, i’m a/ coward, a slave to slavery, it makes me a/ salary.” In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police, Smith chronicles protests in the Twin Cities, telling readers, “if the cops kill me/ don’t grab your pen/ before you find/ your matches.” Animated by an insight born of anger, Smith demands an attention to the present as an antidote to a future that seems increasingly unlikely: “love me now./ tomorrow has no face.” It’s a necessary and challenging jolt to the system. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Reconstruction of the Poet

Zbigniew Herbert, edited and trans. from the Polish by Alissa Valles. Ecco, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-288319-3

This spectacular compendium from Polish poet Herbert (1924–1998) consists of writing previously unseen or only available in periodicals. As the introduction notes, many of the poems were not collected elsewhere to avoid causing political difficulties for their writer. Three plays are also included, written “when Herbert was studying philosophy, trying his voice, and articulating his purpose in the face of the hardening of Stalinist rule in Poland.” Herbert takes on big subjects, including Homer, Socrates, and art itself, offering a fascinating look into a complex mind. As well as adding to Herbert’s epic “Mr. Cogito” sequence, the collection includes 32 posthumously published poems, which are wise, sophisticated, and full of feeling: “my poor kingdom the kingdom of doubt.” Herbert elegizes his troubled generation of writers, “all of us volunteers in the cruel war called literature,” alongside heartbreaking love poems and pointed meditations: “Everything that can be achieved/ by so-called art/ is contained in the concept of reconciliation.” Delicate, perfectly pitched, and rich in insight, this volume reveals an essential body of work. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Joy in Service on Rue Tagore

Paul Muldoon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (128p) ISBN 978-0-374-61421-8

In this expansive outing, Muldoon (Howdie Skelp) displays a certain ruefulness, despite being in full command of “that much-vaunted consistency of tone” (as one of the poems puts it) readers have come to associate with him. Muldoon draws connections between unlikely sources, which lends his work a rambunctious, metaphysical undertone. But there’s an overtly political edge to many of the entries here, blending periods and layering symbols to tackle contemporary and historical disaster and subtly explore “the appetite for killing without qualm.” “So much else has vanished/ from our lives,” Muldoon writes, hitting a lightly apocalyptic note. Odessa becomes twinned with Ross’s Mill in Muldoon’s native Ulster, and there are warnings for despots, from “a body hanging upside down by a hook/ like a goat hanging in a souk” to a prediction for Putin: “His poker-face and his death-mask/ will be one and the same.” Muldoon continues his propensity for the longer poem in sequence and the chiming, lexical harmonies with which he makes symphonies. Lyrical, forthright, and playfully sophisticated, these are poems with a bounce to their step and a finger on history’s pulse. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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I Love Hearing Your Dreams

Matthew Zapruder. Scribner, $26 (128p) ISBN 978-1-66805-980-7

This elegiac and ebullient collection from Zapruder (Father’s Day) weaves through several forms of heartache and loss. “I keep learning if you don’t write it down/ the thought just flies away,” he writes, intent on fixing the materials of dreams, memories, and other disappearing phenomena to the page. The feelings and needs of others are central (“at last the museum/ has become/ a museum of empathy”), as these poems look backwards, almost against their will, recognizing that “life is elsewhere and the past/ always misremembered,” as it’s painted diligently in “the perfect color/ for disappearing/ at night into the deep/ park.” “All solutions are suboptimal” faced with the dilemma of revisiting difficult losses and fleeting joys, but relief, Zapruder suggests, is equally to be found in what was always innately impermanent: “none of us could stop/ laughing at ourselves which in those/ holy wasted days was everything.” These pages are rich with elegies for friends, loved ones, and strangers, but even these are self-conscious about the bind of time and the desire to seek a do-over: “what would/ a perfect elegy do? place the flowers// back in the ground?” Zapruder delivers a work of remarkable wit and disciplined emotional attentiveness. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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