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Still Life

Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest Univ., $13.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-930630-91-8

The visually rich and contemplative posthumous collection from Carson, who died in October, draws from memory and ekphrasis, bringing to life works by Cezanne, Poussin, and Caillebotte, among others. Aware of his impending mortality, Carson uses memory to savor the present beauty of life on Earth. In “Claude Monet, Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1880,” he considers a pot of daffodils upended by a vandal, reflecting on the endless names of colors and various names for flowers themselves, the “many/ shades of meaning” bestowed to language. The poem concludes: “It’s beautiful weather, the 30th of March, and tomorrow the/ clocks go forward./ How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is/ is going on./ The days are getting longer now, however many of them I/ have left./ And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily/ outlast their end.” In “Basil Blackshaw, Windows I-V, 2001,” the poet asks his wife “for the umpteenth time/ What you think about when you think of Blackshaw’s Windows,/ when I spy you/ Through the bay window tending to something in our/ minuscule front garden.” Celebrated paintings here serve as personal monuments. This beautiful collection offers a lasting, life-affirming tribute to human relationships, memory, and the shared experience of art. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Rain Barrel

Frank Ormsby. Wake Forest Univ., $13.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-930630-89-5

Reaching back to remembered and imagined times, Belfast poet Ormsby (The Darkness of Snow) gives new life to old ways of knowing and writing in this frank and yearning seventh collection. “The whole season has come to this,” he writes about “the last/ October leaf”—but also, perhaps, about the book’s modus operandi: “a holding on so that the letting go/ might seem to us like chance.” Spare lines, tightly reined, deliver sure choices (“The minute we stop to listen/ the evening includes/ us and the white-throated birds,”) and emotionally evocative descriptions: “the air clamorous/ with the language of dogs’ names.” Simple objects, no less sacred for their simplicity, here assume center stage. Short poems track the eponymous rain barrel from its installation through its many uses, to its recent replacement by the new model, a barrel, which “half the size/ does not command half the respect.” The poet gazes with a clear eye into “the faceless, curled future” as a bomb ticks, undetected, in a woman’s suitcase while she waits at the airport gate. Graves are tended, “search parties re-form” and “Somewhere to the left of my soul,/ there is a wake in progress,/ all day, every day.” While some readers may resist the book’s nostalgia for the past, others will admire its reflective and precise vision. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Inherit What the Fires Left

William Evans. Simon & Schuster, $16 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-982127-39-8

Evans (Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair) poignantly addresses in this vulnerable collection his experience raising his daughter in the suburbs while reckoning with the memory of his own father and childhood. In three titled sections—“Grass Growing Wild Beneath Us,” “Trespass,” and “Aging Out of Someone Else’s Dream”—Evans recounts the mundane moments of pride and learning that come with fatherhood, as well as the larger systemic threats and legacies of violence that underlie his experience as a black American. In “Waves,” his daughter asks a question about the ocean, which brings to mind the slaves forced to cross the Atlantic. The poem closes with acknowledging another threat: “On the ride home, after I have/ quieted the bark, an officer/ pulls us to the side of the road/ and asks me whose car I am driving/ my family home in.” In “Pledge to Raising a Black Girl,” he asks, “How do you know what you have a taste for// if you’ve been told never to show your teeth?... The elders want us to raise// girls with a song in their heart, but we only respect/ the classics if they respected us, which is why// if you ask me how I’m doing, I say still breathing.” These poems offer sensitive portraits of race and fatherhood and richly explore the past while providing hope for the future. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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In the Lateness of the World

Carolyn Forché. Penguin, $24 (96p) ISBN 978-0-525-56040-1

In her first collection in 17 years, Forché (Blue Hour) powerfully weaves poems of witness, a travelogue steeped in elegiac contemplation of life in Finland, Italy, Russia, and, most affectingly, Vietnam. These 41 poems vibrantly catalogue human artifacts and those of the natural world. In “Hue: From a Notebook,” she writes: “There was then the whir of stork wings, and bicycle chains ringing./ It is still now the way the air is still just before the mine explodes.// Once we fired at each other. Now we pass silence back and forth.” Throughout, the speakers are meditative but unflinching in the face of war’s aftermath and ecological crisis: “From here a dog finds his way through snow with a human bone... Even the clocks have run out of time.” “Museum of Stones” displays a delightedly crackling verbal texture reminiscent of poems by Seamus Heaney (“stone of cromlech and cairn, schist and shale, hornblende,/ agate, marble, millstones, ruins of choirs and shipyards”). Such weights anchor Forche’s genuinely moving consideration of “ours and the souls of others, who glimmer beside us/ for an instant... radiant with significance,” communicating an urgent and affecting vision. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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All Heathens

Marianne Chan. Sarabande, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-946448-52-1

Chan’s skillful debut is a lustrous collage of first-person, persona, and epistle poems populated with Filipino holiday reenactments, Catholic saints, karaoke, a chorus of family members, and the dead who insist on return and whose memory drives the speaker to seek a world beyond the colonialist history of her home country. Stories of the early movement of Italian conquistadors—in particular Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s scribe and world circumnavigator—become a mirror for the speaker’s own global migrations and investigation of her native language, Bisaya. “You were a tourist, Tony, and now so are we,” she writes. The roving speaker of these poems attempts to reclaim a white man’s translation of a “heathen” tongue as a means to her family’s origin story, as well as to memory itself. Her repeated return to trying “to remember the Bisaya word for remember,” an absence of language experienced as a void, finds resolution. “I’m writing this down,/ like Pigafetta, alongside his list of words, all of them ours, all of them/ heathen,” she says. This debut tenderly articulates the intersection of cultural history, the loneliness of migration, and the generosity of familial love. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World

Kathryn Cowles. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-57131-502-1

A book-length sequence of linked poems, collages, and hybrid texts, the innovative latest from Cowles (Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name) uses text and image to explore the strangeness inherent in everyday experience. Cowles’s collages do not serve as mere illustrations, but rather complicate, call into question, and layer interpretations onto the poems proper. Her approach to defamiliarizing mundane tasks (“Every morning we open the curtains./ Every evening we sit on the porch”) is multifaceted and intriguing. As the book unfolds, her stylistic gestures juxtaposed alongside collages combining photography and text evoke the strangeness in that “same view of the terraces” and “the sky in the late afternoon.” However, the writer occasionally loses sight of deeper meaning in her weaving of the two forms. In “I AM ON A PLANE,” Cowles writes: “Have I been/ on a plane/ the greater part/ of the day?/ I believe I have.” Here, Cowles strives for a refreshing simplicity of presentation, but ultimately fails to do justice to the complexity of her thinking. Readers will nonetheless find Cowles’s latest book an intriguing approach to exploring representation and narrative. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Deluge

Leila Chatti. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (74p) ISBN 978-1-55659-589-9

Chatti turns fear and shame into empowerment in her unflinching debut as she relays her tumultuous journey as a young Tunisian American battling an illness that resulted in continuous uterine bleeding. Chatti explores the cognitive dissonance of maintaining faith despite inherent religious misogyny. These poems are confessional, proverbial, and fatalistic, yet still maintain humility and agency over her story and pain. An example of her stylistic finesse and metaphorical mastery can be seen in her poem “Tumor,” in which she laments her illness by wrapping her words into a spiral “nimbus,” the text waning as it curls to the centerfold: “it requires... to speak on its behalf, to determine its name... it resembles too, I think, a fruit if fruit were buried, a chthonic pomegranate, a Pompeian fig cocooned, or else the dark concentrate of the moon, one of its seas, or the orphan planet of the dead, motherless stone, God of No and Never.” Chatti translates a gritty, traumatizing experience into a hypnotic, transcendental topography of the human spirit. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Rift Zone

Tess Taylor. Red Hen, $17.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-59709-776-5

In the preface to the ambitious third book from Taylor (The Forage House), Ilya Kaminsky describes the work as “many investigations of American fear.” While fear may be a subtext to these poems, they are an exploration of American violence and fragility, amplified by the fact that the poet lives in El Cerrito, Calif., a city that sits atop the Hayward Fault. Taylor’s poems are often made up of multiple sections, in a controlled sprawl that mirrors the area about which she writes so richly. A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Taylor explores her own identity, reminding readers of the foundation and origins of American violence. One poem opens with “Tonight the train shuts for another death./ Jumper: Third this month,” and it is followed by another that begins “& after the vermillion opera curtain/ rose on Giovanni raping/ the tiny distant woman on the stage,/ we drank champagne at intermission.” In these layered poems, Taylor often steps beyond herself to address her own privilege: “Sometimes I think that all/ privilege is/ is some safer vantage/ for watching the trauma, America, happen,” she observes. Taylor vividly and memorably renders the complexities of an America of violence and rifts. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Witch

Philip Matthews. Alice James, $16.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-948579-08-7

In this accomplished debut, Matthews frames the occult as a source of power and agency for historically marginalized groups, the LGBTQ community foremost among them. “The priests went away nodding/ that an amputated arm was a failure,” he writes in the opening poem. As the book unfolds, witchcraft, ritual, and occult texts become a rich source of alternate histories, which reveal the subjective definitions of the sacred. “Each chakra described with a different number of petals/ pédale; pédé: faggot,” he writes, challenging the power structures dictating definitions of holiness. Though gracefully unified by these thematic concerns, the book takes a capacious approach to form, placing literary tradition in conversation with more experimental gestures and juxtaposing unusual typography alongside tercets. He writes in “The Tranny Ballet”: “I bent/ around/ my sister,// gazing towards an orbit and following. The audience/ were too much to think about, I thought, and turned my attention/ to smaller flashes.” “I am hot in this rage where I have been/Transformed,” he writes in “Crown and Crowning.” These formally dexterous poems offer a dynamic approach to the exploration of identity and mysticism. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Toxicon and Arachne

Joyelle McSweeney. Nightboat, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-64362-018-3

The psychologically rich latest from McSweeney (The Commandrine and Other Poems) is haunted by an excruciating event that is alluded to throughout but only briefly described. With references to a toxifying Earth filled with weapons of war, drones, and digital overstimulation, McSweeney presents the loss of a child to a public facing the end of the world. In doing so, the internal and the external calamities echo each other, allowing a plethora of lyric forms (short and long poems, sonnets, villanelles) to cast mourning rites for her child, for the planet, and for life itself: “a plastic jug rides a current with something like the determination/ that creases mine own brow/ as I attempt to burn my lunch off/ the determination of garbage/ riding for its drain/ hey-nonny it’s spring/ and everything wears a crown/ as it rides its thick doom to its noplace.” Formally brilliant, emotionally heartbreaking, and considerably terrifying, this is a stunning work from one of poetry’s most versatile experimentalists. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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