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Beethoven Variations

Ruth Padel. Knopf, $27 (144p) ISBN 978-0-593-31772-3

Balancing a historian’s fidelity to archives and a musician’s passion for composition, Padel (Alibi) offers a lavish poetic biography of Beethoven from his birth in 1770 to his death in 1827. The psychological and musical effects of the composer’s deafness are sensitively rendered: “The almost-nothing bone,/ that little house of hearing... the new/ shocked calm of Is it true. Is this/ what it sounds like, going deaf?” Drawing on letters, diaries, and the handmade “Conversation Books” (in which those Beethoven encountered wrote notes to him once he lost his hearing), Padel tracks “the domestic minutiae against which his late style—introspective, cosmic, radical—evolved.” The tumultuous inventiveness of his late style (“havoc on the brink, a jackhammer shattering the night and soaring past world-sorrow”) emerges in the contexts of Napoleon’s violent rise to power and Beethoven’s own illnesses, lost loves, and legal battle with his sister-in-law (whom he called the Queen of the Night) over custody of his late brother’s son, Karl. Padel grows increasingly intimate with her subject, often addressing him directly, and even attempting to intervene in his self-destructive spiral, “trying to cancel/ the mathematics of strain.” Aficionados of classical music may draw inspiration from this ambitiously conceived and realized reconsideration of Beethoven’s genius. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Fiction

Kevin Prufer. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (92p) ISBN 978-1-945588-72-3

“My politics are rickety,” admits Prufer (How He Loved Them) in a cinematic collection that showcases a flair for blurring the line between fact and fiction—a precarious distinction in poetry. Shame and guilt are at the heart of these poems; Prufer staggers short lines across the page, advancing long intertwined narratives that blend the “real” and the fashioned, such as when a film noir plot is paired with a traumatic experience of death. In between bouts of exterminating invasive hogs with a (perfectly named, factually or not) poison called Hog Kaput, a farmer dines with his wife, who sweet-talks away his guilt. Other poems, such as “Wet Leaves,” dig closer to the root of pain and childhood trauma with a light hand. Here, terror is never far from the edges of consciousness, yet is often allayed as in “Cruelties,” which restores the sense of illusion after a gardener has gassed wasps: “the garden is perfect/ this is a perfect garden.” Prufer’s sensitive, strange, and brilliant poems explore darkness and pain with originality and verve. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Doppelgangbanger

Cortney Lamar Charleston. Haymarket, $16 (100p) ISBN 978-1-64259-265-8

The pensive and often playful second book from Charleston (Telepathologies) considers the lasting impact of racism, religion, and masculinity on Black boyhood. These poems are filled with memorable stories and different iterations of the self. Charleston excels at showcasing the fraught representational power of 1990s and early 2000s media, but also in his observations about perception, such as when he writes that “the camera has blurred my edges in the suggestion of motion,” or observes, “I’m beside myself almost always: A side, B side.” Throughout, the threats of racism and police violence are evident, but the Black community is never reduced to being framed as the object of such actions. The collection is full of musicality and rich turns of phrase: “I’m new to his neighborhood. He is equally/ new to mine—the two, divided by a dotted line/ like always, by colors and the casual violence/ that implies.” Charleston incisively brings an entire milieu to life in these urgent, vulnerable, and accessible poems. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Popular Longing

Natalie Shapero. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55659-588-2

The poems in the sharp, eloquent third collection from Shapero (Hard Child) juxtapose the world as it is and as it could be. Shapero has established herself as one of the foremost poets of wit, candor, and verve, capturing the pain of being alive, where “even worse is the other/ way around.” In one poem, she writes, “I was thinking of the times/ I have attempted to exit my body,” before contextualizing, “I was thinking/ of how I’d had nowhere to go.” These poems sit in the “absence of Heaven,” a state of nowhere in which nearly every decision is a wrong decision. They capture this mood with biting humor: “What are our choices,” she asks, “might I suggest/ LESS IS MORE against MORE IS MORE?” These poems are unsparing in their critiques of the self, the greed of capitalism, and violence; yet there is tenderness and human solidarity, a wish for something better, even if it feels like the odds are stacked against humanity, “Unseen as we are in this life.” Shapero is a poet willing to go deep into the collective heart of humanity to find the truth, however it humors or hurts. No book captures the loneliness of witness like this one. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Prometeo

C. Dale Young. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-1-945588-70-9

The contemplative fifth collection from Young (The Halo) explores the places and lineages that provide the raw materials for self-invention and subsequent reinvention. Like the flickering flames of Promethean creation, Young’s poems challenge concepts of uniformity, revealing them to be fleeting and illusory. “Fractured, divided to the quick, I am incapable// of being singular,” he writes of his own ancestry. Young engages with the history of the Caribbean, Europe, and Mexico, a history that is tied to deeper, often hidden realities: “We are of this dirt. We cannot/ be killed off, the old women say. And in the base pairs/ of our DNA, we discover the truth. One can hide/ many things, but the truth is always there.” There is a strong connection between identity and place in these poems, which Young traces in the language of nostalgia and familiarity: “Alone/ on the soft sand, the surf mumbled the old language./ Like my great-great-grandmother who visits me/ in dreams, it said: Salt or no salt, trust no one.” Young powerfully maneuvers through complex issues of multiethnicity and heritage in direct poetic language, inviting readers to immerse themselves in the many truths his collection reveals. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Tethered to Stars

Fady Joudah. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-57131-534-2

“My mourning/ is an animal and my animal a constellation,” writes Joudah (Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance) in his meditative fifth collection. Through his ever-exact images, Joudah lays bare the sadness that plagues and binds the earth—a tree is cut from the ground, lightning strikes a highway, an old neighbor finds herself living alone. This is a treatise on cosmic unity that does not shy away from grief, but that yearns for the immense, abstract sense of possibility, believing that “a heart remains a heart in its beyond.” The reality of belonging to a nation and of global capital tethers humanity to the planet, but more often, mortality is the binding element. “Hospice is a dollar sign,” he writes, “Pandemics are a long view.” The clarity of Joudah’s imagery is countered by a complex choral voice that feels at turns analytical and biblical in its rise and fall. Each poem seems to be spoken from various perspectives, the roving voices echoing and replacing one another in their observations until both the speaker and addressee dissolve. “You’ll be everywhere,” one poem closes. Joudah offers a nuanced vision of what connects man to the cosmos in this deeply searching book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Black Girl, Call Home

Jasmine Mans. Berkley, $15 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-593-19714-1

Mans (Chalk Outlines of Snow Angels) reframes the classic bildungsroman as a book-length poem sequence in this bold take on race, gender, and sexuality. Gorgeously precise in their diction, these poems span a range of forms, including lists, lyric strophes, aphorisms, and found language, and are unified by a shared investment in posing complex sociopolitical questions through deceptively simple personal narratives. For example, in “Momma Said Dyke at the Kitchen Table,” she writes: “Momma said/ so you gonna be a dyke now?// As if she meant to say,/ don’t you know/ how hard it already is.” Like many poems in the book, these lines call attention to structures of privilege and oppression within the Black community. Mans investigates the sources of division within historically marginalized groups with an emphasis on toxic masculinity: “I’ve never seen my father cry/ or speak of his mother’s death./ He doesn’t talk about his brother,/ the one that passed away.” Mans refuses binary distinctions, revealing that the ways society thinks of masculine power proves as harmful to men as it does to women. This is a timely and powerful book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Magpie and the Child

Catriona Clutterbuck. Wake Forest Univ., $13.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-930630-95-6

Irish poet Clutterbuck’s debut is a tender, haunting portrait of grief, magnificently crafted out of unimaginable loss. The first half features scenes from the Irish countryside relayed with stunning lyricism: “bird flick against light/ louvring open the sky// and deepest green/ eight at evening/ where the long grass/ stands uncombed.” Interspersed with this sparkling imagery are scenes from the poet’s earlier life, reflections on time, and references to the challenge of maintaining religious faith in the face of tragedy. There are also poems about a miscarriage and a second pregnancy, the hushed waiting for a new life to begin (“I crouch in the house of my coming child, the webs of this cocoon life in my mouth”). The book’s second half deals more directly with Clutterbuck’s grief through a long poem titled “Thre-nodies for Emily,” featuring the poet’s thoughts and experiences after the death of her 10-year-old daughter from an undiagnosed heart condition. She captures the bewilderment that often accompanies death: “and still the traffic comes, morning sits on every surface,/ a crow calls, cutlery rattles in the kitchen/ and a keyboard begins to patter-jab.” Emptiness suffuses this poem as a physical presence, but so does an inspiring, dogged perseverance to carry on. This impactful work captures the grieving process with artful clarity. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Blue Divide

Linda Nemec Foster. New Issues, $16 trade paper (74p) ISBN 978-1-936970-72-8

The poems in the accomplished 12th book from Foster (Amber Necklace from Gdansk) cohere in their lyric commitment to “that idea of blue. The expanse of the landscape that can’t/ be contained in a single image.” These poems range widely in their settings, from Dresden to Detroit, Krakow to Hawaii. Blue sky, blue damask, and “the blue divide” of ocean that separates North America from Europe refract in a glimpse of the poet’s own mother, “Her blue eyes swimming in the immigrant’s/ version of hide and seek,” as the woman washes “the blue/ of heaven until it shines like a word/ that has yet to be invented.” In other entries, works by Italian masters and contemporary artists come alive through vivid descriptions of color and texture, as does “a faceless socialist/ painting Sobieski’s palace frescoes/ by number.” For Foster, words themselves are a tangible medium, variously inflected, misheard, and treasured: “Language of bark, leaves, stones, mud;/ of fog sleeping in the marshes and sun caught/ in tangled branches. Language of amber/ sinking into its inclusions and rain falling/ from its clouds.” Rich with closely observed detail, narrative depth, and poignant historical reflections, this is a generous and beautiful collection. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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frank: sonnets

Diane Seuss. Graywolf, $16 (152p) ISBN 978-1-64445-045-1

The ambitious fifth collection from Seuss (Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl) includes 120 sonnets that take the reader on a ride of wild abandonment and exuberance to counter the deaths (her lover’s, her father’s, and her friend Mikel’s) that suffuse the work. While Seuss breaks conventional sonnet rules of meter and rhyme, these 14-line poems are both taut and free. “The sonnet,” Seuss writes toward the end of the collection, “like poverty, teaches you what you can do/ without.” She tackles addiction (“the brood of meth and Thunder-bird whose amniotic/ sacs were tinted blue he harrowed us unbarrowed us he sparrowed us/ and nailed us then he jacked our 7-Eleven and he hauled us up to heaven”), farm animals (“it’s this spring the twin/ lambs seek, and yes it’s green and yes it’s sweet, without the tinny aftertaste/ of pail, and so they wander off the trail”); Jesus (‘‘the most daddyish daddy-man of all”); and poverty (“finding out/ what I called violets was really petrified chicken shit”), finding lyricism in every corner. Seuss’s intimate candor and musical ear make this an inventive and unforgettable book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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