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Let It Be Broke

Ed Pavlic. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (134p) ISBN 978-1-945588-45-7

The powerful, ruminative 11th book from Pavlic (Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno) tracks the movements, crises, and severed realizations of an intellectually ambivalent, multiracial speaker in a legally complex and interpersonally troubled social world of the United States. “The poet” is “at the movies one eye on the man coming through/ the entrance the other// eye on the route to the emergency marked: exit.” The book’s middle section, “Documentary Shorts,” features shorter, lyric poems, while the long sequence “All Along It Was a Fever” is rich with direct and emotionally charged lines informed by the weight of history, fatherhood, and sexuality. Pavlic emphatically and attentively observes and riffs on what unites and divides people within countries, races, families, and even among individuals. “The bars of the cage are made mostly/ of the nothing between them,” he writes. “What,/ exactly, are they (you think it matters who?) shooting at.” This suite of poems is an impressive, revolutionary exploration of America’s violent history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fantasia for the Man in Blue

Tommye Blount. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-945588-49-5

Opening with a line from Hilton Al’s essay “GWTW,” (shorthand for “Gone with the Wind”) the searing debut from Blount is magnetic and controlled. Through charged words, masterful line breaks, and ekphrasis and persona pieces, these poems blur the line between intimacy and violence. Describing a fight with his brother, the speaker asks, “do we, in our hold, this hug, this pushing,/ not appear as feuding lovers?” Blount’s subject matter ranges from gay pornographic film actors to the art of Henri Matisse and Kehinde Wiley. He celebrates the strength of female impersonators Lattice Royale of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame and Savannah’s Lady Chablis. He updates Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” to a modern and explicit “Arcane Torso on Grindr,” exploring both queer desire and the potential violence of that desire: “our bodies are records of where we’ve been.” Visiting a historic site early in the morning, Blount observes, “it makes for a lovely setting for white/ weddings, picnics, guided tours./ I’m afraid of this big house/ when it is dark like this;/ when I am dark like this.” Blount memorably and viscerally explores the intersection of power, sexuality, and race. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Queen in Blue

Ambalila Hemsell. University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-0-299-32664-7

Hemsell’s startling and ecstatic debut situates American citizenship and domestic life in the shifting “whole unknowable cosmos,” rendering marriage, motherhood, and home maintenance in electric, sensory detail. In these 46 lyrical, mostly first-person poems, Hemsell bridges the underworld with the natural world, such that mothers after childbirth “find in our ears the somber phonetics/ of cold black stars and black ripe berries.” Yet, for these speakers, maternal life is a basis for larger, more troubling considerations of the military industrial complex and relative privilege. “Passport” observes how “some bones are/ revealed by ultrasound/ others by sonic/ boom”—and confesses, “All my dreams of war/ involve children./ All my dreams/ of motherhood/ involve war.” In one of four sections, Hemsell pushes Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland into new psychological territory; the title poem finds the Queen of Hearts emerging into reality and “finger[ing] the undergrowth,/ raspberry bushes thorny and/ infinitely wilder than her own/ roses, so cultivated, so restrained.” Hemsell’s highly musical style is at its best in restrained slant rhymes (“See the fragile and freckled egg, the symbiosis of wasp and fig”). Even when grappling with forms of violence, Hemsell’s speakers leave the reader feeling “dead sure/ of the weird beauty,/ planetary and human.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Miraculous, Sometimes

Meg Shevenock. Conduit, $16 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-73360-203-7

Divided into five sections, Shevenock’s contemplative debut is a hybrid of poetry and prose pieces that beautifully combines memory, desire, and trauma. Throughout, Shevenock unearths correlative images that speak to the book’s primary concerns: “When [desperate], Exhibit A: plastic shopping bag trapped in the branches of a tree, inflates and deflates with every gust. Lung of the universe, in pure garbage.// The miraculous, sometimes.” Original descriptions also portray the relevance and experience of memory: “Each visit to the house made my narrative more precise, like beads passed along a needle, threading me to the moment at the kitchen sink, my body blurred into a girl on any day, doing the dishes, even as soot blackened the porcelain basin.” Other lyrics are more elegiac, as the speaker wishes increasingly for a child: “Want is a circle with no relief. So I nurse nothing, unless I nurse myself into silence—.” With stirring, visually rich juxtapositions and subtle insight, this book announces Shevenock as a notable voice. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry

John Murillo. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-945588-47-1

The lucid and urgent second collection from Murillo (Up Jump the Boogie) is composed of 18 lyric poems bookended by a sonnet crown sequence meditating on the deadly shooting of three Brooklyn men. Unflinching and self-implicating (“your hands will shame you often”), Murillo’s speakers paint vivid portraits of neighborhood life, entwining past and present in “the sudden, overcast quiet of the past tense.” These poems juxtapose bruising firsthand experience against dry conceptual categories (“On Lyric Narrative,” “On Confessionalism”) with a dexterous sense of rhythm and internal and end rhyme as influenced by The Notorious B.I.G. and Elizabeth Bishop. Murillo’s rage against stereotypes and systemic injustice burns through these poems, which are often self-critical of enclaves (in a typical moment, cops watch protesting poets “No doubt amused. As when/ a mastiff meets a yapping lapdog”). In “On Prosody,” a childhood memory is triggered by overhearing neighbors fighting, revealing Murillo’s brilliant associative control. Wearing its formal mastery with a light touch, the book shapes firsthand experience into memorable meditations on cultural moments past and present, individual and collective. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Nineteen

Makenzie Campbell. Central Avenue, $14.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-77168-186-5

Titled after the age at which the author wrote it, the second book from Campbell (2am Thoughts) fits into the growing category of poetry finding its audience through digital platforms such as Instagram. In spare poems with aphoristic lines and short prose segments, the book speaks to adolescent pain and suffering. “READ WHEN: you feel heartbroken,” a note remarks. “Find excitement in your solitude, there may come a day when you never get to live on your own again... I love you and I hope you love you.” To call these short meditations undeveloped would be missing the point; they appear intentionally set on sameness, offering raw, unpolished moments of feeling. In one poem, Campbell summarizes her generative process as follows: “I see things./ Then I feel things./ And then I write them.// The cycle.” Several of these poems provide motivational instruction: “You have a story worth telling./ Why don’t you stay awhile and entertain us?” and “Do not be afraid if you are/ the first print on an/ unbeaten path.” Moments like these will feel overly familiar and simplistic to serious readers of poetry, but these emotional snapshots may resonate with a younger audience. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Neck of the Woods

Amy Woolard. Alice James, $16.95 ISBN 978-194857-907-0

Woolard’s gripping debut opens with and circles a mystery and trauma: “It ends with the house in the sky/ Slamming back onto its acreage. The girl// Inside is not the same girl who lived there in/ The beginning—hide the pieces, where they may be found.” Woolard’s whiskey-soaked Southern landscape has echoes of Oz: “No kidding! A house killed my sister too, I’m telling you. It didn’t fall/ On top of her, no, but it snipped off a little lock of her each day.” For Woolard, houses have transformative power; they can kill you in bad weather or a fire, or they can simply outlast you: “a house is the largest tombstone we make.” The houses in these poems are haunted as their speakers are by memory: “Listen, set/ The turntable’s dusty needle gently on my shoulderblade./ You’ve got me down to my unmentionables.” Woolard’s writing is full of memorable juxtapositions and turns of phrase, among them: “I was asked to show up with a side-dish. I made/ A slaw of my longing” and “whiskey moves through me like/ it’s checking me for ticks.” This debut offers a troubled journey delivered by a voice the reader will want to keep listening to. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Brand New Spacesuit

John Gallaher. BOA, $17 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-950774-03-6

The thoughtful fourth book from Gallaher (In a Landscape) carefully balances an unspooling lyric style with sadness about the trappings of aging. “Like how grandma thought LOL meant Lots of Love,” he writes, but “now you’re the grandma. Great. But someone has to be the grandma.” This dense collection, whose 76 poems are made up of lines that nearly always reach to the right margin, searches for clarity amidst confusion and mental association: “I’m thinking a sequence/ is this worry I have, to happen in a line, to see it that way just to tell it.” The strongest moments emerge from perceived connections. In “Like Mixing Chemicals Just to See What They Do,” Gallaher describes the relation of this style to his mother’s Alzheimer’s, observing that “as long as I have something/ to say, as long as I’m here saying it, then I have validation/ that I’m here, that I’ve not lost my mind.” Gallaher’s persistent questions reveal a mind that is both minute and momentous, logical and surprising. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Love Child’s Hotbed of Occa-sional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts

Nikky Finney. Northwestern Univ., $29.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8101-4201-5

National Book Award–winner Finney (Head Off & Split) returns with her first collection in a decade, artfully interweaving memories from her life with episodes from throughout black history. A number of these poems are either “occasional” poems, written for occasions such as Smith College recognizing its first black graduate, or “hotbeds,” short and intense prose poems. In these, Finney reflects on a first trip to Africa—“O Motherland, I am hurtling to you through the sweet black night,” and her childhood in South Carolina—“We are children fat with Newberry summers and we will have cabbage for dinner whether we like it or not.” Finney frequently explores how black men and women built America, metaphorically and literally, as in “The Thinking Men,” a poem about the enslaved builders of Wofford College who were not permitted an education themselves. The collection is filled with images of ephemera, including a Valentine note from the poet’s father, and a 1985 flier for a reading she gave at a Kroger bookstore. Finney’s skillful, sweeping epic ambitiously connects personal and public history. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Sky Contains the Plans

Matthew Rohrer. Wave, $16 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-950268-04-7

The latest from Rohrer (The Others) is a surreal experiment in which the poet conceived of each poem’s title and first line immediately upon waking, then crafted additional lines around the initial dream-state premise. In the afterword, Rohrer notes his surprise that these lines were often “extremely mundane,” but the poems themselves are anything but, a testament to his skill. The opening line, “Then he was thrown out of Espresso Royale” is upended by what follows: “for calling the devil up from a cup of tea.” Rohrer’s language and imagery are subtly evocative, “the wind that is like a moth’s cough in the universe,” and his concepts are occasionally humorous. In “Conserve-a-Lawyer,” he expresses bewilderment about an imagined organization protecting those in the legal profession. “Conserve-a-Lawyer?/ they don’t need/ to be saved/ they’re all over/ driving shiny cars/ down my street/ much too fast.” Elsewhere, dream-state Rohrer describes waking up beside a lover, “hungover, shredded cheese in the bedclothes.” The collection is imbued with a loving domesticity as the poet reflects on his life with his partner and children: “This home is the light I always dreamed there’d be.” Serene, odd, and quietly captivating, this is a celebration of the unconscious mind’s delights. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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