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This, Sisyphus

Brandon Courtney. YesYes, $18 (82p) ISBN 978-
1-936919-70-3

In clean tercets and couplets, the poems in this second book from Courtney (Rooms for Rent in the Burning City) proceed with artistic restraint, skillfully orbiting question of pain, redemption, and the limits of the human body. “Who else can I blame for my body?” a speaker asks, gesturing at the “ruins he has made.” As the book unfolds, Courtney’s artful, understated poems and formalist sensibility mirror the containment his speakers experience in their corporeal confines. “Pitiful body, devoured by sea,” the speaker of “Lazaretto” laments. Though unified in their recurring themes, the poems in this finely crafted volume vary widely in their specifics, leaping gracefully from images that may as well be culled from contemporary headlines, “the dead Iraqi/ in the dairy box,” to the afterworld of Greco-Roman mythology. Courtney reminds readers that “both the living and the dead” are inherited in his portrayal of the physical body inevitably tempered by history’s social constructions and imbalances of power. Yet, for a project that grapples with questions of history, suffering, and the body, there are few moments in which Courtney allows the poems to “strike discordant notes.” Despite a stylistically conservative approach, his work proceeds with lyricism and grace, noting that “every name you’ll ever hear is human.” (May)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write

Gregory Orr. Norton, $26.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-324-00235-2

At first plainspoken and clever, Orr (River Inside the River) pushes conceits until they are revelatory in this deceptively simple book. These are mostly short poems with a handful of several-page odes (to “Nothing,” “Some Lyric Poets,” “the Country of Us,” and “Left-Handedness”) in which Orr works through issues of belief (even as he declares he is “done with God”), love (even as he declares through the title poem that he’s written the last one on that subject), and trauma (even as he spells out that the coincidence of “Two boys, my father and I// Barely in their teens,/ Killing two others they loved/ By accident” isn’t “credible”). In “Ode to Nothing,” Orr plays with the word nothing: “Nothing is the secret force/ At the heart of it all” and “The wisest among us/Always believed in/ Nothing,” until it becomes a comforting entity. The gruffness rife in these poems gives way to love, which entered when Orr was “broken/ All the way to the center.” In this collection, he offers silence and language as a way to heal. (June)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Vasko Popa

Vasko Popa, trans. from the Serbo-Croatian by Charles Simic. New York Review Books, $16 (160p) ISBN 978-1-68137-336-2

Dark and fabulist, tender and unsparing, and sparkling with folklore and fractured modernity, Popa’s poems offer allegories at once global and deeply Slavic. “You pace back and forth/ Along your private infinity,” he writes, departing from the socialist realism that surrounded him. Simic, who has been translating Popa (1922–1991) for almost three decades, calls the poet’s work “a mix of native and foreign influences and the product of [his] own ingenuity.” This selection organizes work from across Popa’s lifetime into 11 sections, outlining an oeuvre at home among unreal objects, fantastic animals, bleak poverty, disturbing games, trembling mortality, and the insidious specter of larger, darker motivations driving nearly everything. “What’s up now,” he asks in “In the Moonlight:”—“It’s as if flesh snow like flesh/ Is beginning to stick to me.” He demurs: “I don’t know either/ It’s as everything is starting again/ With an even more terrifying beginning// You know what/ Can you bark.” While some of the later poems lack the inventiveness of his middle and early work, this offering nevertheless reveals an icon of the 20th century, torquing language and time back toward something fearful and animalistic. (June)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Sightseer in This Killing City

Eugene Gloria. Penguin, $18 (96p) ISBN 978-0-14-313384-1

The fourth collection from Gloria (My Favorite Warlord) explores disorientation and displacement in urban environments. The city of the title (Houston) could be any city that reveals one’s own foreignness: “my cousin sick/ and so I came with only Roethke’s line: ‘On things asleep, no balm.’ ” Born in Manila and raised in California, Gloria speaks for the “All-American Alien,” the title of the last section in the book. The speaker is a restless traveler, spouting Byron, spinning Coltrane, bobbing through Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot in France, Spain, and even the Andes “where I’ve never been.” He tells stories, one of having been beaten up by a gang of white boys in his suburban neighborhood (“A Psalm for Beauty and Violence”) as the poems assume different forms: sestina, ghazal, Golden Shovel (a contemporary form invented by Terrence Hayes to honor Gwendolyn Brooks). The word Nacirema, a neologism from anthropology that derives from American spelled backwards, recurs throughout the collection, challenging readers to reimagine the familiar as the unknown. For Gloria, reexamining with a new eye proves generative: “each day/ turns into lines I am waiting to write.” In the tradition of Whitman and the Beats, Gloria’s “discourse of bleeding utterances” memorably charts cities, countries, and her own family. (June)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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& more black

t’ai freedom ford. Augury, $18 (104p) ISBN 978-0-9995012-1-4

“Is this body possible? or do i/ merely exist as melancholy gesture—” asks Ford (how to get over) in her second collection, a double-sided book of rapid-fire lyrics that consider black art in America. “when whitewash tries/ to render your black spectacular irrelevant/ your heartbeat whisper: i be i be i be,” she writes. Elsewhere: “fuck flux: this universe tryna render you/ redundant... gravitate/ black and rotate that axis till this universe/ (((collapses))).” Throughout, black visual artists (many of them New York–based) provide inspiration and sounding boards for Ford’s own generative impulse, filling the book with visual references and a kaleidoscope of experiences that shed light on Ford’s own contribution. Many of these poems approximate sonnets in 13 and 14 lines, as in a series that stretches across multiple pages to relay a personal narrative amid a larger cultural history. While on occasion, the poems seem to offer formulaic experiences and stereotypes without fully exploring their deeper implications, Ford’s sharp humor and unflinching gaze make this an engaging and wide-ranging work. (July)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Come Closer and Listen: New Poems

Charles Simic. HarperCollins, $24.99 (96p) ISBN 978-0-06-290846-9

Pulitzer-winner Simic (The Lunatic) has mastered a deceptively simple and straightforward lyric style that has served him well over two dozen books of poetry. His latest is no different in this regard, noting (and plucking) “the cunning threads/ By which our lives are rigged.” Simic’s world is a quiet one, though its quietness is haunted with echoes of wars, scams, loves had and lost, and a wry smile that seems to know the score no matter how dark the world gets. “They say Death/ Hid his face in his hood/ So he could smile too,” Simic writes, “I like the black keys better/ I like the lights turned down low/ I like women who drink alone/ While I hunch over the piano/ Looking for all the pretty notes.” These poems are often slyly funny, emotionally generous, and wrapped up in the lives of the people they depict—children at play, men and women in private moments, mythical figures and deities outside their myths. Some of the new poems, such as “The American Dream,” arrive as premade classics, evoking times past in a stilted, twilit present and reminding readers of Simic’s keen eye for the restless, the absurd, and the enduringly human. (July)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Government Lake

James Tate. Ecco, $16.50 ISBN 978-0-06-291471-2

In this imaginative second posthumous volume after Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Tate (1943–2015) offers his last absurdist fables, including one discovered in the writer’s typewriter after his death. If the poems of Tate’s career—which included winning the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize—have frequently invoked death as one among several transformations, its presence in these poems is particularly striking: a fox eats a house full of chickens, a snake kills and replaces a pet dog, and a nun spontaneously combusts and reappears at the edge of a crowd. The rest of the book investigates impermanence with Tate’s signature combination of sly humor and poignant sincerity. But the pivots of this collection are the workings of memory or language: “Not quite. Oliver sat in his chair like a man in a mudhole. Oliver sat in his chair like a pixie on a rosebud. I think that might be it.” When Tate brings these linguistic shifts to the voices of his speakers, the poems are among his best, as in the title poem: “ ‘What about that man out there?’ I said, pointing to the tire. ‘He’s dead,’ he said. ‘No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,’ I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. ‘Now he’s dead,’ he said.” These prose poems offer a familiar reentry into the humor and unexpectedness of Tate’s world. (July)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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100 Poems

Seamus Heaney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (174p) ISBN 978-0-374-90701-3

Five years after the death of the celebrated Irish poet, Heaney’s family has compiled 100 poems from his 12 books. This compilation opens with the classics, including “Digging,” a contemplative ode to the poet’s father, a potato farmer, that transports the reader to the County Derry of Heaney’s youth, with its “cold smell of potato mould” and “the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat.” In “Mid-term Break,” Heaney offers an affecting meditation on the death of his younger brother, and a lasting reflection regarding societal expectations of male enactments of grief. Heaney’s musicality and admiration for human labor is evident in poems such as “At Banagher,” which narrates a visit to the tailor: “So more power to him on the job there, ill at ease/ Under my scrutiny in spite of years/ Of being inscrutable as he threaded needles.” A series of poems called “Singing School” explore Heaney’s Catholic school education with equal parts wonder and melancholia, sympathetic for the boy he once was: “On my first day, the leather strap/ Went epileptic in the Big Study,/ Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads.” Heaney’s wistful elegies for people, places, and things that have been lost are stirring and heartfelt. This book offers a perfect entrance into the Nobel laureate’s work for new readers and a potent assemblage of his best for ardent fans. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Be Recorder

Carmen Giménez Smith. Graywolf, $16 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55597-848-8

An autobiographical speaker (a mother and first-generation American) catalogues the flotsam and jetsam of late-stage capitalism in the stunning sixth collection from Smith (Milk and Filth). With a prophetic voice rooted in awareness of a dying planet, 20 poems and a middle lyric sequence are impressively served by Smith’s ear for pithy encapsulation: “why am I the locus of your discontent/ and not your president.” Smith’s speakers frequently turn to dark humor: “you can shape/ my toil into a robot with nearly real skin,/ but you can’t touch the feeble efforts I make to retaliate;” “should I mother or write/ serve art or the state.” Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Smith’s writing is its refusal to downplay the speaker’s complicity in a Darwinian system of profit, in which shopping at Amazon equates to “baring my economic thorax.” The lyrical prose piece “Ars Poetica” turns ambivalence over the purchase of a video game into a meditation on impersonal cosmic forces, ending in a dystopian, speculative chronicle in which an airplane is described by future humanity as “a ship powered by bones that flew in the air without moving a single feather.” Smith’s image-driven metaphors circle the “molten core of the real,” articulating shared dilemmas while jolting the reader out of complacence. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Safe Houses I Have Known

Steve Healey. Coffee House, $16.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-56689-561-3

The singular third book from Healey (10 Mississippi) juxtaposes lyric strophes against striking erasures of white typeface on black pages. These poems include passages culled from CIA training manuals, a gesture that reveals the book’s interest in spectacle and spectatorship. As Healey’s speaker recognizes that “we were watched from outer space,” the reader, too, is implicated in the book’s portrayals of surveillance. Healey warns, “Everyone is a suspect./ Everyone is Colonel Mustard.” Pairing formal poetic lines with conceptually driven fragments, Healey carves a space for innovation within received forms. By blending personal narrative and found language, he evokes, and reverses, the power dynamics implicit in surveillance. In “I Can’t Say This to You,” he writes: “I fold laundry while/ a concealed camera moon watches me/ through the living room window folding/ my elbows and knees into neat stacks/ of body while eyeing the moon cookie/ waiting on a plate for me to eat it.” Here, the mechanism of surveillance becomes the object of scrutiny. The poems in this book rely heavily on the intrigue of the speaker’s experiences, while dramatic shifts in form add an additional layer of interest. (Sept.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review mistakenly identified this book as the author's second.

Reviewed on 06/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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