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Village

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-56689-661-0

Diggs (TwERK) delivers a potent second collection that explores themes of place, poverty, and trauma. Weaving German, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Tsalagi (the language of the Cherokee Nation) into her writing alongside brand names, music lyrics, and vivid descriptions, Diggs creates a unique sonic landscape for the poems that all but asks for them to be read aloud. Diggs offers instructions for how to celebrate her when she dies, (“Make/ certain that no one/ is ashy at the festivities”) and how to organize her father’s room as an altar (“vomit. eat. drink. punch. vomit. curse. sleep”). Other poems focus on the poet’s mother’s debilitating alcohol consumption: “diss dis ease :: dizzying :: not at ease.” In “Artist’s Statement,” Diggs writes that her mother’s experience was an embodiment of so many “seeking/ a better life up North & the many who did not accomplish such.” Yet Diggs has found ways to sing out through hardship, dedicating linguistic monuments to those in her Harlem community that stepped in to care for her. This is a dazzling and impressive work. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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From From: Poems

Monica Youn. Graywolf, $17 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-64445-221-9

Youn deconstructs in her piercing fourth collection (after Blackacre) Asian American identity to examine its many fragments. “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like/ revealing a nipple in a dance,” Youn writes in the opening poem, “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë / Sado),” establishing the tone of the inquiring and powerful pages that follow. In “Deracinations: Eight Sonigrams,” Youn dissects her childhood and young adulthood, recalling the encoded colonialism in Curious George books, being subjected to racial slurs by a bully, and searching fruitlessly for other Asian poets to emulate, “seeking/ a racial exemplar, an icon.” Youn demonstrates a mastery of the existential, declaring perceptively in “Study of Two Figures (Midas / Marigold)” that “Death is a wish to improve one’s surroundings./ Which is to say to be dissatisfied with one’s surroundings is a form of death.” The long prose poem, “In the Passive Voice,” is a virtuosic performance addressing, among other subjects, the challenges of maintaining racial solidarity under capitalism. Intimate yet expansive, Youn’s poems bring remarkable depth, candor, and intensity to personal and social history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Four in Hand

Alicia Mountain. Boa, $17 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-950774-86-9

Mountain (High Ground Coward) delivers a work of raptured lust in this skillful consideration of romantic vulnerability: “This is no return ticket between us...// Walk the highest hill until you see that/ what you buried can’t be driven out of me.” As a member of the LGBTQ community, that vulnerability includes the realities of discrimination (“there is no making public/ how we push and pull in dark corners./ The beehive whispers when it sees our/ hands touch)” as well as potential violence (“Redblooded and blueblood and violet./ Pulse and pierced dance floor hearts.”). In a poem allotting one word per line, Mountain evokes the seismic plummet of climate stability and the weight of individual responsibility: “ruin/ mounting/ with/ each/ storm/ if/ this/ must/ be/ elegy/ it/ has/ been/ earned.” She seamlessly weaves narratives through the work’s four heroic crowns of sonnets, which are full of lush language, understated quips, and sonically stirring phrases. “This book is a monument to touch,/ even with its hands in its pockets,” she promises. And, indeed, these sprawling, inviting pages deliver by revealing Mountain’s intimate and dynamic voice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Exceeds Us

Leah Poole Osowski. Saturnalia, $18 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-947817-54-8

Love, illness, and the natural world are central to the expansive world Osowski (hover over her) crafts in this ruminative outing. Appropriately, the book takes its title from a line in Rilke’s second Duino Elegy—“For our own heart always exceeds us”—capturing the scope of feeling Osowski mines in poems that use white space to create a visual rhythm and evoke the jaggedness of thought. The opening poem, “Temporally,” speaks to her interest in the ephemeral and mutable self: “I want to change enough times/ as to be hardly/ recognizable as mammal./ Sweet fin-legged future, with your salt skin and baleen teeth, beat me/ against the reef, force a different mode of breathing.” Aquariums, fish, and distorted views are motifs that appear elsewhere, as in the syntactically dynamic poem “Like a Gill Becomes a Scar,” which opens: “Amphibian means two lives/ they drink through their skin/ mouths closed I fill// John’s water glass past/ the top he lowers face/ sips the rise off the rim.” These memorable pages are full of richly imagined descriptions that stir and unsettle the reader. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Door

Ann Lauterbach. Penguin, $20 trade paper (110p) ISBN 978-0-14-313737-5

In this vivid 11th collection (after Spell), Lauterbach’s careful diction ranges from plain speech to densely packed sound collages. “I wish to be clear,” she writes, but “I object/ to the literal.” Elsewhere, she claims “words are like small magnets,/ pulling other words toward them.” The eponymous door recurs throughout: “Tenuous, the wire or thread, or single line/ drawn across, edge to edge,// or down to the wedge between/ frame and floor, like a slip of moonlight.” Lauterbach brilliantly demonstrates how words have mutable meanings, as when a “slip” (a garment to be worn) is reframed as an exit: “The southern sky has turned peachy./ I would like to wear it out tomorrow/ as a slip. And so slip/ through a hole in the sky.” As well, the poet portrays consciousness as “filmic,” full of appearances and disappearances, and tinged by an underlying sadness: “I/ went through hoping to greet you/ on the dark side.” These perceptive entries offer a captivating reflection on the range of inner landscapes and the powers of language. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Couplets

Maggie Millner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (128p) ISBN 978-0-374-60795-1

Copulative pleasures abound in this spectacular debut that cloaks memoir in rhyming couplets and prose poems. The autofictional plot reads like a fairy tale: a woman in Brooklyn leaves her old life with “its familiar openwork/ of sex and teaching, kale and NPR// and the boyfriend at the center I revered,” for a woman, “My eye loved// everything it fell upon./ And then one day it fell upon/ a mirror. And he was nowhere/ in the mirror. And she was everywhere.” Love and lust find uncanny expression under poetic constraints (“isn’t love itself a type// of rhyme?”). The rhymes are at once delicious—at times gasp-worthy—and yet so expertly deployed that they become “a shape that feels more native than imposed.” “Those days, I was something else:// a soft vacuity. A sort of net./ No guilt, no age. No epithet.” As the perfectly paced narrative unfolds, self-scrutiny about life and writing deepens; love becomes “the engine of self-knowledge.” Exploring the question of how exactly to tell her story, the poet admits: “Sometimes when you sat down, alone with your mind, you felt you were performing both parts of an elaborate duet.” Erudite but never overbearing, this is a remarkable achievement. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Chrome Valley

Mahogany L. Browne. Liveright, $26.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-324-09227-8

Browne’s moving latest (after I Remember Death by Its Proximity to What I Love) commemorates the struggles of Black women, drawing on episodes from her life and stories from family members. While these poems vividly relay the threat of violence (“the gun answers the door before/ anyone ever knocks”), they also crystallize moments of intimacy. In “Goodnight, Moon,” Browne captures the shared sense of hope and exhaustion of the lover waiting for her beloved to come home: “& the moon wishes someone would wait/ for her to return to the apartment/ & the moon is gracious & giving & who will hold her when she nods herself almost awake/ exhausted & dilapidated across town/ into a too small prewar apartment/ & the moon cannot remember when there was a warm palm to wipe away her tired.” Other poems highlight Browne’s concise lyricism, as in “Cutlass”: “there is a gun/ silver/ rusted/ cutlass 2 door sedan/ grey hoody: you./ there is a gun/ rust/ the color of forever/ your play-brother/ got a lead foot.” These are powerful poems of witness and reckoning. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Buffalo Girl

Jessica Q. Stark. Boa, $21 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-950774-88-3

In her arresting latest, Stark (Savage Pageant) remixes “Little Red Riding Hood” to explore the threats of patriarchy and her mother’s experience immigrating to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. Drawing from versions of the fairy tale across centuries and continents, Stark considers the multicultural affinity for “stories about little girls in danger.” In some poems, the girl is Stark’s mother, looking for a way out of war-torn Vietnam: “Red sought another errand after// the collapse of her country’s face.// What would she give, a mouth/ asked, to secure safe passage?” Elsewhere, the girl becomes the story’s villain, as in “Impact Sport,” which begins, “By age 15 I was a hungry, red wolf.// I worked at JoAnn Fabrics one/ summer—scowling women forming// lines at the back of my hangover.” Intermingled with the violence of war is the violence of sexual assault and racism, particularly as experienced by a child: “I was genuinely curious, too... about mongoloid: a word// that sounded like a broken bird in flight so terrible and magnificent.” Accompanying the text are stunning mixed-media pieces made from the poet’s mother’s black-and-white photographs taken in Vietnam. This collection is a beautiful, formally inventive representation of diasporic longing and feminist resistance. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World

Pádraig Ó Tuama. Norton, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-324-03547-3

“The poems collected in this anthology ask essential questions about how to thrive in a complicated world, about how to love when life hasn’t been easy,” Ó Tuama writes in his preface to this sensitive anthology that builds on his podcast of the same name. Offering keen reflections on poems by Margaret Atwood, Ilya Kaminsky, Ada Limón, and Ocean Vuong, Ó Tuama juxtaposes critical insights with appealing personal anecdotes (“There are poems I repeat to myself, almost like a hum, or a prayer, or a spell,” he writes, elsewhere noting, “The first poem I wrote was an idiotic one about a ten-foot dog. I was twelve.”). The book’s epigraph borrows lines from “Consider the Hands that Write This Letter” by Aracelis Girmay, a poem also included in the collection: “I pray for this to be my way: sweet/ work alluded to in the body’s position to its paper:/ left hand, right hand/ like an open eye, an eye closed:/ one hand flat against the trapdoor,/ the other hand knocking, knocking.” Ó Tuama has succeeded in organizing a valuable introduction to poetry for those just familiarizing themselves with the form, and a timely way to renew and deepen that appreciation for seasoned readers. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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Might Kindred

Mónica Gomery. Univ. of Nebraska, $17.95 trade paper (94p) ISBN 978-1-4962-3239-7

In this verdant and lushly sorrowful debut, Gomery bears witness to migration, grief, family, queerness, and love. The opening poem, “Self-Portrait with Airplane Turbulence,” makes a claim for the collection’s interest in self-definition and its descriptive power: “I don’t know what I am, but I am not/ one incarnation. 7 miles over the city/ the plane bucks between tar-coated angels// and night’s groaning light bulbs.” These poems come alive in a “great field of language,” with Gomery inventing new verbs (“Tendergentled, gendercracked”) to approach her subjects. The ancestors Gomery addresses in these poems “have planted and tended gardens of blue sage,” and the light is “made plaid with trees,” reaffirming her commitment to establishing a sense of belonging for voices that are marginalized or forgotten. “All of us breathing, all of us threaded by salt,” she writes, paying tribute to “many lives” that are “at stake.” These generous and sensitive meditations on belonging and the first-generation experience cast intimate light on shared human experiences. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/20/2023 | Details & Permalink

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