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H of H Playbook

Anne Carson. New Directions, $22.95 (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3123-7

Carson’s latest translation of an ancient myth sees her interrogate the excesses and limits of heroism by bringing Euripides’s tragedy Herakles into a modern context. Updating the setting from ancient Greece to an airstream trailer, Carson uses a mixed-media approach complete with cutouts, handwritten text, drawings, and paintings to retell a story of madness while pushing the boundaries of poetry, translation, and the book form. In Carson’s version of the story, the protagonist is not Herakles but “H of H,” simultaneously the son of the god Zeus and a mortal father, Amphitryon, who wonders aloud how difficult it must be for his son to exist as this odd mix of human and divine: “What’s it like to wear an eternal Olympian overall// held up by the burning straps of// mortal shortfall?” The chorus of war veterans wryly consider H of H’s contradictory status as a hero figure who “likes to go berserk” but whose heroism “leaves him/ outsize and outside/ the civilization he’s saving.” Yet the hero remains blind to himself: “I look in the mirror and the mirror is uninhabited.” Weaving together a critique of masculine violence and cultish hero worship, Carson bridges the divide between ancient and modern worlds in this brilliant book. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Afterfeast

Lisa Hiton. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (70p) ISBN 978-1-946482-56-3

In Hiton’s cerebral debut, history intersects with the present through a legacy of tragedy and longing. The Holocaust figures prominently; in “Dream of My Father’s Shiva, Auschwitz, 1942,” Hiton dreams she is searching for a body in a crematorium. Greece is conjured vividly in lines like “The moon/ dusting its skin// a veil upon the Aegean,” and “Away from the ruins, more ruins.” She writes of visiting a lover’s ancestral home in Thessaloniki, once again imagining a Holocaust scenario: “You would hide/ me, you would hide me,/ you would hide me,/ if we were in a different time.” Elsewhere, Hiton offers unique expressions of love and desire—“I reach my hand/ Into your mouth, down through your chest. I turn your heart over.” She poses philosophical questions about the significance of daily life given the weight of history: “Wanting to be extraordinary we made ritual out of our tiny lives./ I’ll tighten the screwtop on the bottle of balsamic.” Hiton’s language is predominantly spare and abstract, making the occasional metaphorical conceit strike all the more intensely. This penetrating collection propels the reader forward by the force of Hiton’s intellectual daring. (Oct)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Howdie-Skelp

Paul Muldoon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-60295-6

Muldoon’s energetic 14th collection brims with the poet’s characteristic wit, employing a seemingly endless array of cultural references and allusions to illuminate the troubled present. In a long poem titled “American Standard” (a reference to the toilet brand), Muldoon recasts T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land into a commentary on America’s continuing moral and political backsliding: “Through fire and flood we rode towards Paradise/ where every disaster’s a natural disaster/ and every word a word of advice/ from the ringleted Buffalo Bill, our ringmaster.” In “Salonica,” a Mediterranean city becomes a symbol for how layers of contested history make it difficult to find common ground, when “in the Archaeological Museum there’s at least one artifact/ from a past we simply cannot reenact.” Muldoon comes close to a statement of intent in a poem referencing space junk: “It’s the artist’s job to collect detritus and guide it back towards earth’s atmosphere/ since it’s in that flash, the flash/ of reentry, that something may be made clear.” Whether appraising Brexit or the pandemic, Muldoon’s acerbic yet thoughtful poems demonstrate his ear for lyric and eye for detail. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Spot Weather Forecast

Kevin Goodan. Alice James, $17.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-22-3

Goodan (Anaphora) writes viscerally of his experience working as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in commanding language that evokes disaster and destruction. Though the book features individual poems titled after their first lines, it reads as one extended piece. His descriptions of flames are hypnotic and breathtakingly visual: “the blue-rooted/ Flame, the mother-of-pearl flicker,/ The radiant-glazed, gradient-whorled,/ The updraft-wafted, drought-kilned/ The beetle-killed kindled... Fire, fire, fir, the dry, dry air alone.” He is equally descriptive in capturing the physical toll of having such a demanding and perilous job: “We give/ Our lungs/ To the fire,/ Their frothy/ Pink and/ Trembling/ Capacities.” This proximity to danger generates intensity in even the quieter passages: “I look down into the valley/ Of my life, cupping an ear/ To hear the sudden chorus/ Of trees ignite.” Goodan includes quotes from fire incident reports and the names for different types of ropes and safety gear: the Pulaski and the “shake-n-bake,” a foil tent used as a “last resort” protective measure that “might just/ Cook you golden brown.” Goodan takes the reader to hell and back in this electrifying collection. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ultramarine

Wayne Koestenbaum. Nightboat, $19.95 trade paper (496p) ISBN 978-1-64362-115-9

The 22nd book from artist and writer Koestenbaum (Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background) distills four years of Koestenbaum's trance notebooks into a puzzling series of vignettes full of idiosyncratic details and questions, and references to painting. "#1 [my prostate a shopping mall]" wonders, "why did I equate words/ and genital sensation?// I remain uncertain about the function/ of suppositories// made a spontaneous/ mark with a leftover tube/ of auratic ultramarine,/ finger-smeared it/ to create abrupt/ punctuating lines—." In "#14 [Homer the entrepreneur of mayonnaise]," Koestenbaum remarks, "tranquilized bachelors in paradise grotto/ query my father's candy// describe spanking in detail/ as new hobby." There is a linguistic playfulness here that will appeal to some readers, as well as an insistence on modernity and the high-low duality of daily experience. However, meaning is often lost in these allusive and illusive fragments: "I devote/ elegiac Rachmaninof ballad/ to Joyce Carol Oates's Blonde,/ appropriate subject for a late/ Romantic threnody." Koestenbaum takes the reader on a strange journey, though those looking for cohesion or meaning won't find it here, and may even find the project impenetrable. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Then the War and Selected Poems, 2007–2020

Carl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-60376-2

Combining new and old poems from the last 13 years with sections of his lyric prose memoir, "Among the Trees," this selected offers admirers of Phillips's work a chance to revisit his masterful poems, and new readers an opportunity to see the evolution of a vital presence in American poetry. There is a deceptive looseness in Phillips's poems, which are conversational and intimate, heightening the poet's abiding concern with nuance. He begins "The Difficulty": "It's as if the difficulty were less about what happened—/ the truth presumably—than how little/ what happened resembles the story/ of what happened." Often, he lays two ideas side by side as a way of exploring how beings (fathers, lovers, dogs, to name a few) affect one another: "what isn't love—at all—/ can begin to feel like love" ("Of California"); "as if to be plundered meant at least not being alone" ("Among the Trees"). These lyrically rich, insightful poems are full of palpable aching—"like the rhyme between lost/ and most"—and a human urge to understand. This remarkable compendium is a testament to the spirit of Phillips's work. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Hope This Finds You Well

Kate Baer. Harper Perennial, $12 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-06-313799-8

Baer (What Kind of Woman Are You) offers an earnest and original sophomore collection of erasure poems. Baer collected the countless responses to her blogs and social media posts, which ranged from obscene attacks to ardent appreciation. Treating pieces authored by those she calls "Strangers on the Internet" as raw material, the poet used a "black out" technique to remove words and discover hidden poems therein. A misogynist rant (e.g., "women WANT a male leader") is reduced to "read a book." A letter from a fan ("thank you for your emotional labor and for your words") gives rise to "women have a life to live. I want that for you." The transcript of Trump's notorious pussy-grabbing comment becomes "women—don't wait. You can do anything. You can do anything." Some readers will delight in wordplay that twists an opinion into its opposite or enhances a fully formed idea. Others may grow restless, longing for more invention. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Constellation Route

Matthew Olzmann. Alice James, $17.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-23-0

Conceived as the assembled contents of a mail carrier’s pouch, the intimate and affecting third book by Olzmann (Contradictions in the Design) presents the poet as sender, receiver, and courier. He marvels at the medium’s special delivery: "This always stuns me: the way an envelope arrives; how we/ still reach toward one another, how this correspondence/ endures: one figure approaches your door with a satchel/ full of sand, pigeon feathers, sorrows, and names." Letters to and from poets and friends are interwoven with poems of unconventional dispatch: "Letter to My Car’s Radiator," "Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope," and "Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in America." Topics range widely from poetic craft to racial identity and the climate crisis. Arcane facts and technical vocabulary drawn from the history of the U.S. postal service (itself an endangered institution) flower into metaphor: day zero, wing case, phantom route, daylight container—"How impossible is this: to reach across time/or oceans to say the one thing you need to say?" In language at once direct and artful, Olzmann memorably explores the question of how one might speak across the gulfs dividing humankind. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Aux Ark Tryptich

Cody-Rose Clevidence. Nightboat, $17.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-64362-112-8

The luminous fourth book from Clevidence (Flung Throne) takes a demonstrated interest in gaps and redaction. In the most frequent example, the poet reduces "the" to simply "th," working against the article's purported singularity, and focusing instead on the word as a unit of sound. The first section, "Poppycock & Assphodel," is presented in narrow columns and fragments, often with lines of only a few words guided by rhyme and interruption as much as by sense. There is a Hopkins-esque sprung rhythm throughout that is strong and inviting in this first section; like Hopkins, Clevidence finds tension between wonder at the natural world and the pleasure of artifice: "I resent th' lily its bloom," they write, "I regret th' dawn of its loom." The middle section, "Winter," shines as it opens onto more straightforward emotion: "I do not accept/ this bell in me." In the collection's long third section, "A Night of Dark Trees," the poems often engage with mythological or biblical allusions, which are not quite as stirring as the intricate language in which they play out. Any reader rightly enthralled up to that point, however, will be happy to see this book's dazzling journey to its end. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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All the Flowers Kneeling

Paul Tran. Penguin, $18 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-14-313684-2

"My purpose is precision," Tran writes early in their vivid debut, and they fulfill this purpose, telling hard truths with clarity while exploring the legacy of American imperialism and the effects of sexual violence on the body, mind, and imagination. "What we made," they write, "what he made/ my body do with his body/ day and night, night and day, wasn’t love./ [...] I stayed to stay alive." Clarity, however, doesn’t mean resolution. Tran’s poems are curious and searching, especially as they wrestle with the contradictions of trauma recovery, a process that erodes the "membrane between reliving and relieving" deep pain. These poems embody a spirit of inquiry in their forms, too, many of which are Tran’s own. Each provides a unique doorway into the subject matter, what Tran, in the book’s notes, calls a way "to resist as much as possible to import, cleanly and clearly, lessons learned from one experience to another." As such, the entries posit that, for trauma survivors, the journey toward healing is rarely straightforward. These searingly honest, beautifully told depictions of survival and self-love will move and challenge readers. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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