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No Matter

Jana Prikryl. Crown/Duggan, $15 (112p) ISBN 978-1-984825-11-7

In this atmospheric second collection, Prikryl (The After Party) catalogues an urban dreamscape full of unexpected revelations and slow transformations. Titles often serves as the opening lines of poems, lapsing into contemplation the way a city wanderer might examine each passing street: “Little York, every great/ city leaves a little city in its wake.” Repeated titles (“Anonymous,” “Waves,” “Sybyl”) create a strange, lulling music as Prikryl’s poetic line shifts deftly from stream of consciousness to piercing insight. Many of these poems grow to a point in the style of lyric essays. “Upper East Side’s where you want to cultivate friends,” the speaker declares in “Stoic:” “In this city friendship’s/ the main mode of disaster prep./ Basements and subbasements busy/ with boilers....” But lest the poems appear merely rhetorical, Prikryl delivers poignant closure: “I found it in myself because I had to,/ the one or two things that/ make it endurable here, and what they/ boil down to is indifference.” Elsewhere, Prikryl’s forms innovate to invoke their topics, as in one of several “Asylum” poems, in which the speaker battles insomnia with attention to actual things—“like when I can’t sleep I say to myself/ the the the the/ the.” In this striking book, readers are privy to a mind’s ongoing conversation with New York. (July)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hard Damage

Aria Aber. Univ. of Nebraska, $17.95 (102p) ISBN 978-1-4962-1570-3

Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, Aber’s ruminative lyrical debut tracks the movements of a twice-emigrated poet in poems that are personal and confessional. “Enshrining what cannot be held/ of what went missing,” many of the poems assemble memories, family stories, and news reports to offer a portrait of a young person coming to terms with leaving her ancestral home for a country that has invaded it. “How much/ of my yearly tax is spent to bomb/ the dirt that birthed me?” she asks. “Is memory a privilege?” “To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue/ pears laced with needles. I had no life/ in Kabul. How, then, can I trust my mind’s long corridor,/ its longing for before?” Throughout, poems shift between stories of her family’s life in Afghanistan, her father’s life in Germany, and Aber’s own life in the United States. One section is made up entirely of associative meditations on words in German and English, and language remains a constant locus of anxiety and inspiration: “As if an Irlicht sweet with sirens,/ language lured me in, then punished me for believing in its palace.” Though not every poem here may achieve its ambition, the book engages with important geopolitical events. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Visual Inspection

Matt Raider. Nightwood, $18.95 (150p) ISBN 978-0-88971-356-7

The fifth book from Canadian poet Raider (A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle over the River Arno) originates from an “eyes closed walking tour” that he took through a part of downtown Kelowna, British Columbia, near where he lives. The result is a series of associative meditations about nonvisual knowing, “To follow is to be guided... Walking, we map a space in time. What exists in that space.” He posits that poetry can be as physical as it is visual, reading it, as much an act of the body as of the mind. The writer’s voice is intelligent and engaging, offering many interesting observations on a range of topics encompassing Wallace Stevens and Robert Hass as well as Richard Florida’s “creative cities” theory (copious footnotes are included). But what drives the narrative is the gradual unfolding of Raider’s disability—an immune disorder that results in debilitating pain—and how friends and family create and inform his reality. Attempts to see the unseen (including First Nations people, whose lives and languages are still evident, though often ignored) blend with the attempt to understand oneself, given the knowledge that “touch is never innocent.” This hybrid text, part lyric essay, part poem, offers a vision that poets will be drawn to. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Fortune for Your Disaster

Hanif Abdurraqib. Tin House, $15.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-947793-43-9

This resonant second collection from cultural critic, essayist, and poet Abdurraqib grapples with physical and emotional acts of violence and their political context. Woven throughout these lyrical meditations on racial tension, heartbreak, friendship, and pop culture, 13 poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” display Abdurraqib’s technical dexterity, particularly with enjambment (“Forgive me, for I have been nurturing/ my well-worn grudges against beauty”), while creating a sense of conditions both inescapable and irresolvable. Abdurraqib’s background in music criticism informs an imaginative series engaged with Marvin Gaye, which in its more effective turns (“your mama so black she my mama too”) combines pathos with affectionate humor. Several poems titled “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die” explore the human cost of playing God, while elsewhere, poems provide visceral eyewitness sense of everyday life with precise insights: “The mailman still hands me bills like I should be lucky to have my name on anything in this town.” More confessional poems, such as “And Just Like That, I Part Ways with the Only Thing I Won in the Divorce,” create a narrative continuity with the poet’s previous collection; these speakers’ losses may suggest that “true wealth/ is the ability to embrace forgetting,” yet such wry commentary reveals its own hard-won, defiant resilience. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ringer

Rebecca Lehmann. Univ. of Pittsburgh, $17 (70p) ISBN 978-0-8229-6595-4

Part eco-poetic, part confessional, the second book from Lehmann (Between the Crackups) transports the reader to landscapes internal and external with acerbic wit and renegade fury. Notably, Lehmann’s feminist indignation leaves readers with a feeling of wry endearment: “Softness is a chapped nipple./ You wanted broad sad bitches against your head/ like an electrical storm.//... The world is an old grave. Woman sparkle like cheap/ glitter from its bottom.” Lehmann challenges readers to consider the narrative of their lives and embody the natural beauty of the world: “Be the ecstatic middle night. Be the light through yonder window./ Soft, be the lilac branch breaking.” Though her sentiment is consistently poignant, the poet occasionally overexercises metaphors and stylistic choices, resulting in a forced sheen or labored wonder: “Why is the bumblebee yellow and black? Why does the snow recede/ from the back porch like waves of sadness.” Considered overall, Lehmann’s latest book offers readers a sagacious and kinetic whirlwind of unrest and gratitude for the world. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Diurne

Kristin George Bagdanov. Tupelo, $12.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-946482-28-0

Chaotically weaving witticisms, adages, and inquiries with metaphors and non sequiturs, the second book from Bagdanov (Fossils in the Making) attempts to embody the mystery and mayhem churning beneath the surface of everyday life. These poems contemplate the frivolous and frustrating, as well as environmental destruction and the existential struggle to find peace. In their most evocative moments, they are delightfully droll—“I manage my carbon footprint by holding my breath,” and “I just showered with a moth and the feeling was mutual”—or elegantly grave (“A burial creates the illusion of resolve”). However, Bagdanov’s intellect and vision is overshadowed by a disregard for narrative and an overreliance on elusive certitudes. Though the reader may loosely tie each end to the next, the poems occasionally ramble enigmatically: “Many still set the aesthetic against the political// Method to hypnotize a shark: tickle its snout// Mine is the last to emerge// My urine tells me to drink more water.” Similarly, Bagdanov’s use of metafiction is at times rollicking, but superfluous at others: “My mother just texted to see if I could talk but I said I was in the middle/ of something, which I am.” Not all readers may take to Bagdanov’s distinctive brand of off-kilter invention. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Breaking/For Good

Matt Hart. YesYes, $18 (102p) ISBN 978-1-936919-66-6

Hart (Debacle Debacle) reveals in his skillful sixth book the instability in experiences and interactions with remarkable craftsmanship and command of imagery. “My arms are open/ to all the murderous/ possibilities,” he declares early in the collection as he sets out to reveal what lies just below the surface of perception. “It is Friday,” he writes; “Vermont is still Vermont,/ whether anyone notices/ or not, I’m a panther,” he muses in lines that meditate on the limits of interpersonal connection and the solitude of inner experience. Yet despite posing skeptical philosophical questions, the speakers of these poems persist “in defiance of the great/ distances between us,” the poems themselves full of engaging and often humorous turns, as in “Johnny Cash Joe Strummer:” “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash./ I have just stepped out of a limo./ You should thank me and believe me/ because I have written/ some really classic American songs.” In passages such as this, Hart revels in the impossibility of his own rhetorical situation, suggesting that poetry affords a testing ground for ideas and speculations, and seemingly implausible models of the world around us. This book stands as an accomplished addition to Hart’s innovative body of work. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

Jake Skeets. Milkweed, $16 (96p) ISBN 978-1-57131-520-5

Winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, Skeets’s searing debut is set in Gallup, N.Mex., the so-called “Indian Capital of the World,” plagued by alcoholism and violence, where the poet came of age as a young queer man. Skeets’s imagery is luminous and dark in turns, his short, heavily punctuated phrases generating a staccato rhythm (“Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp”). Sex and violence are intrinsically linked in Gallup, at least for men, who “only touch when they fuck in a backseat/ go for the foul with thirty seconds left/ hug their son after high school graduation/ open a keg/ stab my uncle forty-seven times behind the liquor store.” The poet’s sexual awakening is described with a predatory tinge, as a series of brief and clandestine encounters in backseats and bushes: “He bodies into me/ half cosmos, half coyote.” Gallup’s topography of train tracks and coal mines is depicted with bleak realism through Skeets’s trademark brevity: “Men/ spit/ coal/ tracks rise/ like a spine.” Skeets subtly rebukes the hypermasculinity that breeds homophobia and violence and excoriates the centuries of oppression that have caused the scourge of alcohol abuse in Native American communities (the poem “The Indian Capital of the World” enumerates a series of alcohol-related deaths drawn from Gallup newspaper headlines). Skeets’s raw debut offers beautiful imagery and memorable emotional honesty. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Hardy Tree

Linda Bierds. Copper Canyon, $17 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-576-9

In this erudite and ever-dexterous 10th collection, Bierds poignantly juxtaposes terror with beauty by excavating the literal and symbolic role of language. Through an assortment of poetic techniques including pastiche, erasure, and acrostics, Bierds reimagines and expands on the musings of Vladimir Nabokov, Alan Turing, Virginia Woolf, and WWI-era poets, utilizing their diverse insights and experiences to unveil moments of vulnerability, violence, and desperation in the world. Bierds considers the catalysts of progress and the elliptical nature of human existence as “a looped orbit, half/ doomed to the past as we wheel forward.” She questions the artillery of destruction with the grace of nature, such as how “So many poisons// smell like hay. Or lilacs. Or geraniums” and how the zeppelins consumed the sky like “a sudden moon...a massive, white,/ gondola-cratered fullness...Except for the terrible drumming.” In a deceptive and bewildering world, she describes the need “to speak in codes, in key-clicks and ciphers,” referring both to language as a weapon of war and poetry as a vessel to translate the inexplicable. Bierds’s poems transform the surreal into the tangible, challenging readers to reconsider the realities that daily life might obscure. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame

Julia Guez. Four Way, $15.95 (84p) ISBN 978-1-9455-8837-2

In this direct and imaginative debut, Guez weaves disparate images to grapple with the stages of modern life. From the eight-page poem “Katabasis,” a hallucinogenic visit to the Underworld during childbirth, to the final poem, “Concerning This New Fear Something Will Befall You—Which, Of Course, It Will—And What Then,” Guez references building a family (“The wifely chamomile and Klonopin/ no help, have a saltine”) and pairs the canonical with the contemporary (“Still Life with Vicodin” and “Still Life with Worsening Income Inequality”). In “The New Cartography,” the speaker is “rereading the Odyssey alongside/ What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” even as the poems question the need and ability of “trying to order all of this in language...// (as if nothing exists outside of what we name...)” Guez’s influences range from Anne Carson to Wallace Stevens to Emily Dickinson, but her imagery of “leafless ampersands” and juxtapositions, “the Klieg lights, a bandoneon, the terrible swing of a censer,” are all her own. This expansive debut helps readers to see the world and the stages of life afresh. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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