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An American Sunrise

Joy Harjo. Norton, $25.95 (144p) ISBN 978-1-324-00386-1

Newly named poet laureate and Ruth Lilly prize–winner Harjo (Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings) intertwines verse with prose vignettes, oral histories, and flash memoirs in this expressive and generous book. In a fable about the origins of the saxophone that “made a rip in the sky,” she writes: “Musicians are musicians, no trick will get by./ You either have it, or want it/ Nothing else will fly.” Harjo exhibits this gift in the tight choreography of these pages, evoking the music of her Muskogee ancestors who were among the native peoples forcibly relocated by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Music is “a sack that carries the bones of those left alongside/ The trail of tears,” she writes. Harjo offers poems of lament and praise, pleas for patience and calls to action: “In the fog of thin hope, I wander this sad world/ We’ve made with the enemy’s words.” Harjo invites the reader to consider the “many migrations stacked within sky memory,” including, most immediately, “the indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the southern hemisphere.” “Nothing is ever/ forgotten says the god of remembering,” she writes in tones that will speak to readers who are ready to remember, or to learn anew. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry

Edited and trans. from the Persian by Dick Davis. Mage, $45 (340p) ISBN 978-1-949445-05-3

Davis, a poet, scholar, and translator of Persian literature, delivers an anthology that provides ample context for readers looking to explore Persian poetry written by women from the Middle Ages to the present. “A significant feature of Persian poetry,” Davis writes, “that distinguishes it from most verse written in European language is that almost all of it—from the earliest poems, to the present day—remains relatively accessible to a contemporary speaker.” Among the contemporary poets included in the anthology is Pegah Ahmadi (born in 1974), an Iranian political refugee and one of the translators of Sylvia Plath into Persian. “Why in the depths of no-progress is nothing moving?” she asks in an untitled poem. “Language is a cutting off of terror/ look, blood doesn’t flow from the wrist,/ and neither does it clot/ and I, whose eye was an open history of intensity,/ throw a razor into the abyss.” With its subtle, comprehensive history of how female poets have responded to political upheaval throughout the centuries, this work provides readers with a thoughtful and thorough introduction to Persian poetry, and the important role that women have played in shaping it. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Space Struck

Paige Lewis. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-1-946448-45-3

“Give me more time// and I’m sure I could make this funny,” Lewis states in this vibrant debut collection, an exquisite feast of the brutal and the irreverent presented by a modern voice. Lewis writes to capture apprehension and urgency: “I’m/ the vice president of panic, and the president is/ missing,” and “most of what I see, I see through the gaps/ in my fingers,” as well as to broadcast love and vulnerability from an unstable world, “like a pilot turning off her engines midflight/ to listen for rain on wings.” Here, the unfathomable is rendered plausible as birdwatchers invade the poet’s home to see the last ivory-billed woodpecker, demanding “postcards/ and T-shirts,” and “an avian-themed carousel.” Lewis receives visits from God and St. Francis, is sassed by God’s secretary, and harbors ghosts between their teeth. They observe tiny men on their beloved’s eyes, musing, “when you press your palms/ against your eyes, do they see/ the sparks of light and create new/ names for stars?” Like the natural environment that they often reference, Lewis’s poems are sincere, strange and vulnerable, a combination that makes this work both fragile and vital. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Geometry of Shadows

Giorgio de Chirico, trans. from the Italian by Stephanie Heim. A Public Space, $15 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9982675-4-8

Admired by poets Sylvia Plath and John Ashbery, Scuola Metafisica cofounder de Chirico was known primarily as a painter who influenced surrealism and had a penchant for the neoclassical. Here, though, Heim has assembled the first English-language collection of de Chirico’s poems, including short, fragmentary lyrics; long, dense poems of considerable complexity; and prose pieces that resemble autofiction and flash stories. As this intriguing book demonstrates, de Chirico was committed to inter-genre thought and practice, what he called “that/ sacred temple where two Goddesses hold/ hands: true Poetry and true Painting.” De Chirico’s voice is worldly and roving, “Winter will come loosely dressed with a Browning/ in the pocket of its trousers,” and the modernity of Paris gives “the impression of being in a giant jack-in-the-box; of finding oneself before the open curtain of a marvelous theater.” At its best, de Chirico’s writing is unified by a surprising sense of history, humanity, and a baroque absurdity: “One day I too will be man of marble/ Widowed husband on the Etruscan sarcophagus.” While some of the work reads more like diary entries, this is an interesting window into the life of an important and unusual artist. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Soundmachine

Rachel Zucker. Wave, $20 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-940696-86-7

In this artfully layered fifth collection, Zucker (The Pedestrians) punctuates 25 lyrical essays with “myriad things I should never say to you or to anyone.” Spontaneous and shifting from “I” to “she,” these pieces defy genre and interrogate the role of wife, mother, and artist as fixed identities: “Every night I turn off the light & take off my motherskin,” she writes. In poems such as “Song of the Dark Room,” which situates the reader “in this honeycomb with three boys & books & comforts & consumables,” Zucker expertly deploys the catalogue technique: “What the wife has tried: Ambien, counting sheep, apple cider vinegar... rice sock, homeopathy, fear of morning, prayer.” Depicting both the pleasures of long marriage and its tensions with sharp humor and vulnerability (“I’m leaving, the Husband texts. In this context it means he is coming home. I’m going to bed, I respond, which means, in a way, I’m leaving”), Zucker’s speaker looks both inward and outward, confronting mortality firsthand as well as the larger politicized prospect of it (“human forms turned away from each other: bordered, detained, toxic poisons seeping creeping across the borderless natural world”). Zucker renders even the simplest inquiries—such as “hasn’t anyone tried to stop this?”—resonant and profound in this restless and thoughtful book. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New & Selected Poems

Gillian Conoley. Nightboat, $19.95 ISBN 978-1-643620-11-4

Over the course of her career, Conoley’s style has developed from lyric poems recounting a Texas girlhood, to fragmented sequences that play with language and perspective, to roving, cinematic poems that address history, art, biography, and language. Winner of the 2017 Shelley Memorial Award, Conoley makes this transformation visible in these selections, which the poet has organized into sequential, thematic sections independent of her seven collections, introducing unfamiliar readers to her aesthetic preoccupations and concerns. Conoley’s turns of phrase are often surprising: “In the morning the river is busy/ dividing an uncracked code.” Resembling the poems in Peace and The Plot Genie, the eight new poems included shimmer with a techno-political, sometimes post-human voice: “[W]hen can we/ lift off a redacted divinity;” and “I say welcome to our infinite, unmerciful, eternal estrangement, home/ to the girl from Oaxaca crossed over// a placenta’s swell.” While this book won’t necessarily recontextualize Conoley’s oeuvre in the American canon, it provides new and exciting work alongside a broad introduction to an idiosyncratic and innovative poet of the American West. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Heed the Hollow

Malcom Tariq. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-64445-009-3

Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Tariq’s daring debut explores the intersection of black, queer, and Southern identity through the concept of “bottom,” both as a sexual role and a position in the social hierarchy. The conceit is often playful, as in the repeated phrase “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,” which is woven throughout the collection: “His Tastykake/ cake/ His Doublicious Kandy Kake/ cake cake/ the bounce/ of his Little Debbie/ cake.” More often, this concept makes erotic submission continuous with historical traumas, torquing familiar expressions: “Take this moan as historical rendering,/ my downward-facing sigh. Thy rod/ and thy staff they come for me.” Charting a journey from Savannah to Michigan, Tariq’s confessionalism can be direct, as in the title poem (“I take my own pills as I once learned/ to sign for my mother’s birth/ control. Preventative measures”), or suggestively and wittily oblique: “He’s never had/ a black man. I’ve never had myself.” Readers of Robin Coste Lewis will appreciate Tariq’s archival erasures, while Natasha Trethewey fans will appreciate a journey to South Carolina’s “Ellis Island of Slavery,” where “baby strollers and casual dog walks/ file before a single marquee meant to hold/ place for history.” Reckoning with historical atrocities and making use of a variety of formal gestures, Tariq triumphs in creating his distinctive brand of blues. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Atopia

Sandra Simonds. Wesleyan Univ., $15.95 trade paper (102p) ISBN 978-0-819579-04-1

In this fatalistic seventh collection, Simonds (Orlando) offers a sequence of untitled poems concerned with ecological and political disaster under the immobilizing force of capitalism: “Kierkegaard says anyone who follows through/ on an idea becomes unpopular. And also/ that a person needs a system, otherwise you/ become mere personality.” These “systems” are under Simonds’s scrutiny, as she weaves the language of social media with dialogue and reportage: “I allow myself to listen to the news/ on the car radio,” she writes, “some reports of ICE officers/ removing a woman with a brain tumor from/ a Texas hospital—taught my kids/ to walk to school. It’s all/ I can do; it’s all I can do.” In the penultimate poem, Simonds appears to anticipate the reader’s response to this position: “You thought you had called/ a doctor/ but it was just me,/ The Hollows./ Knock knock.” The mystery of this moment, with its Dickinsonian capitalization, is rare in these pages, but it magnifies the book’s burning anger and questions around the purpose of the poet and poetry. Simonds paints a careful portrait of the struggle to embrace difficult realities in an age in which it would be irresponsible to ignore them, even if doing so offers no easy path forward. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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American Faith

Maya C. Popa. Sarabande, $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-946448-46-0

The poised debut from PW poetry reviews editor Popa is a book about the things and people—such as a boy from summer camp who was beaten to death by his mother—that “No logic, no language will bring... back.” These carefully tuned poems dramatize a classical sensibility shaken awake by the ceaseless shock waves of Trump’s America, where “The season turns over/ with perfect indifference,” and even “The Bees,” as the title of one prose poem claims, “Have Been Cancelled.” How, the poems wonder, can one come to terms with the realities of this dark moment but through understated irony: “The principle of the gun law is that anyone/ should have the right to buy what may kill/ a room full of people—this failure is freedom.// I’m sorry there can’t be more poetry in this.” Child of immigrants, teacher, woman in a vulnerable body, the speakers of Popa’s poems seek to set the record straight, knowing how little anyone listens—to poetry, of course, but to other people in general. “I want a kind of betterness./ Want it desperately. Is that faith?” she asks. There are no good answers to questions like this, which it is the job of poetry to ask. Popa’s questing and questioning lyric poems are kind company amid the uncertainty of the modern world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Aviva-No

Shimon Adaf, trans. from the Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz. Alice James, $15.95 trade paper (111p) ISBN 978-1-948579-05-6

Presented alongside the original Hebrew, this poetic sequence is a cry of denial and grief at the loss of Adaf’s sister, Aviva, who died suddenly at the age of 43. The poems function as prayers for her soul as each of the 43 sections assumes a linguistic or religious pose: “Just before I foll asleep I tin/ I soot rite in a language where/ I am deft to de pulse of words,” Adaf writes. Grief spreads around Aviva’s death: “She had a heart heavier than the ocean/ my mother/ and it sank.” Sderot, a mortar-bombed city close to “the darkness beaten over Gaza” is where the poet was loved and tutored by Aviva, as he recollects “and here you set me down, showed me/ the books.” Surrounding this tragedy is the enduring landscape of war, in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv as elsewhere: “And the smell of tearing flesh/ will cling to the sidewalks, to the climbing prices/ of apartments.” If love is “to place in another’s hands/ the right to make us lonely,” this moving elegy asks reader to situate themselves amid the suffering of others. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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