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The Earliest Witnesses

G.C. Waldrep. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (130p) ISBN 978-1-946482-48-8

The reverent seventh book from Waldrep (Feast Gently) is a moving meditation on the distinctions between the corporeal and incorporeal, and the space where the two might overlap. The work opens with the lines “I strode into the woods in a brute faith, certain the forest/ would give me what I needed,” perambulating and reflecting on his physical surroundings and internal landscape. “The eye is always a lame master,” the speaker remarks as he contemplates vision as a metaphor for what can and cannot be perceived. The titles of many of these poems reference their settings, from “Blue Heron, Marlborough” to “Pentecost, Risby,” and the delightfully titled “On Being Mistaken for ‘Part of the Art’ at the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh.” Wherever the poet goes, the ethereal is interwoven with the tangible and described in strikingly rich language: “The grapes on the table glitter in the humidifying pleroma: feast of argon, feast of tin. Tear the veil away, earth’s nude calendar of saints.” Elsewhere, he admires the religious inquiries of 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil and declares that time is something “the body registers dimly in its cathedral of cells,/ its telomeres, its intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglia.” Waldrep’s poems sing with a metaphysics and lyricism that is distinctly original and fiercely sublime. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Stay Safe

Emma Hine. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-946448-68-2

In this exuberant debut, Hine weaves a complex family narrative around the constant presence of a story-loving mother and three sisters, who have “always called each other/ by the radio alphabet signs for [their] initials:/ Echo, Sierra, and Juliett Hotel,/names to flare above bad weather.” Hine pilots the reader upward, through images of constellations and galaxies, and then downward, into black water beyond the reach of light, “past glowing jellyfish,/ past lanterneyes, past species, the girls said,/ that over eons had invented their own light.” Through the sisters’ stories, sea and sky come to feel interchangeable, since “Surely space is just another underwater.” The prose poem sequence “Echo Hotel” is a tour de force, tenderly and disturbingly spinning a family story of intergalactic travel: “This is it, folks, you say into the star-stitched quilt of deep space—the field of crumbling asteroids, the nebulas clustered like moths along the galaxy’s bright spine.” Throughout, Hine suggests the presence of hope, “To stay human you have to remember everything we have left.” This excellent work offers a prayer for the current calamitous moment. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lion’s Paw

Kathleen Peirce. Miami Univ, $20 trade paper (78p) ISBN 978-1-881163-68-8

In this gratifyingly dense and philosophically ambitious sixth collection, Peirce (Vault) considers the relationship between perception and the lyric imagination. “When from the wet point on a spiral,/ dreams approach, most nights increase themselves/ like wings, like a tumbler of perfume in flames,” Peirce muses in language as lyrical as it is rife with dramatic tension. One of her many poetic gifts is her ability to offer a sense of urgency while depicting inner experience: “The viewer disregards the view,/ looks neither at the window nor through, but forward/ across the table where the right hand draws a face in profile, whose?, and the left/ is a weight on the sheet.” The syntax and juxtaposition of Peirce’s lines reveal the complexities of self-reflection, and the inexact, self-doubting nature of thought. Elsewhere, she remarks, “Some things are prettier than the day, and some/ will force lightheadedness onto thinking about them.” This is an impressive addition to Peirce’s distinguished body of work. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Renditions

Reginald Gibbons. Four Way, , $16.95 ISBN 978-1-945588-73-0

Gibbons (Last Lake) honors a poetic heritage spanning cultures and centuries in his thoughtful 11th collection. Throughout, he invokes the work of other poets, including Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Bertolt Brecht, and Marina Tsvetaeva as homage to the power of language to reinvent itself. Each poem is a “rendition” of another poet’s work, which allows Gibbons to celebrate the relationship between translation, creation, and artistic appropriation. His riffs on ancient writings reveal surprising echoes to the contemporary world, as in his take on eighth-century Chinese poet Wang Wei’s sense of urban isolation and angst in “On Argyle Street”: “Smoky, cold, broken late-afternoon clouds/ mob eastward. Roaming west, I see on side-/ walks no one I know, no one who knows me.” Memory becomes a way for Gibbons to give thanks to those poets who preceded him and made his own path as a poet possible, as he alludes in a rendition of Nelly Sachs: “A crack zigzagged open in Time// In peeked Memory.” This book is full of deep respect for poets and the languages and cultures from which it borrows, emphasizing the shared connections in poetic tradition, even as it reimagines that tradition. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Made to Explode

Sandra Beasley. Norton, $26.95 (88p) ISBN 978-0-393-53160-2

The vibrant fourth collection from Beasley (Count the Waves) offers a litany of sensual pleasures and careful self-reckoning. Playful considerations of peaches, fried fish, grits, and other foods serve the poet to wide-ranging ends. Imagining the painter Marc Chagall transplanted from Belarus to Biloxi, the poet rhapsodizes about the silver fish native to the Gulf: “holy mullet would/ ring over his rooftops—// mullet, on violin—rooster/ and mullet, mullet and goat,” and muses, “how one// can scavenge the bottom/ and still rise, without apology,/ by the silvered dozen.” A series of ekphrastic prose poems at the book’s center describe national monuments, relying on their less than subtle ironies. On Roosevelt’s memorial: “This sculpted wall is supposed to speak of WPA, CCC, the alphabet agencies. But its Braille dots are oversized beyond any one fingertip. This is gibberish, a visitor says, feeling the spaces between.” Throughout the book, the poet contends with the pain of coming to terms with her Southern white heritage. A poem about whiteness, in which “my performative strip of self/ still trash[es] up the place,” ends with an ancestral invocation: “Virginia, my ghosts/ need gathering./ Come to the table/ and sit, goddamit. Sit.” Beasley uses her trademark humor and wit to explore the heavier parts of personal and national identity in this energetic and varied outing. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pink

Sylvie Baumgartel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (80p) ISBN 978-0-374-60120-1

In the confident second collection from Baumgartel (Song of Songs), she kindles the imagination in unadorned, self-contained poems that explore femininity, love, sexuality, and violence through the lens of art and history. One of the poet’s strengths is her ability to approach grisly subjects without hesitation or theatrical indulgence. She unflinchingly recounts a group of priests who raped deaf boys, describes the childhood trauma of watching another child drown, and conjures the scene of a psychotic teacher French-kissing his prepubescent student in a school yard. Baum- gartel’s matter-of-fact tone suggests the grim recognition of the world’s ugliness, but also highlights her sardonic zest, such as when she portrays a geriatric mother’s unwitting transformation into an undesirable turtle that sneaks chocolate “from no one who cares.” Elsewhere, her pithy insights are striking in their simplicity: “Pink is manners &/ The color of least/ Resistance./ Studies show that pink/ Calms the male &/ Excites the female./ In color theory,/ Pink means unconditional love.” Occasionally, the writing can feel one-note, lacking in formal and lyrical variety. Nevertheless, Baumgartel offers a kinetic and transgressive testament to an age of violence, strangeness, and bewilderment. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Grief We’re Given

William Bortz. Central Avenue, $16.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-77168-219-0

The innovative debut from Bortz considers the relationship between anxiety and solitude, the body and grief. While unified by shared thematic concerns, these poems traverse a wide range of forms, including lyric fragments, elegies, litanies, and erasures. Bortz’s strength is his fearless experimentation, which allows for a series of surprising formal shifts, illustrated by his definition of “Language—/ an unwrinkling of plagues.” Several poems are gracefully aphoristic, as in “Hope, Breaking, Knowing,” which remarks that “a wish is the bone, fractured/ asking to be mended/ hope is the bone/ never learning/ it can be broken.” Elsewhere, the speaker defines freedom as “choosing where to bury/ beneath what grass/ facing which cardinal direction/ toward which home/ recognizing the body/ having the body/ having the body to bury.” This sort of careful amplification is common throughout the collection, which, though occasionally veering into abstraction, never loses sight of its quiet cataloging of pain. Bortz delivers a subtle portrait of violence and endurance, and an intriguing work that places varied experimental forms in dialogue with one another. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Love and Other Poems

Alex Dimitrov. Copper Canyon, , $17 ISBN 978-1-55659-599-8

“Love is hard to account for,” writes Dimitrov (Together and by Ourselves) in his joyous and captivating third collection. These memorably voiced lyric poems find his speakers expressing love for things local and cosmic. Driven by unsatisfied appetites, “broke and lonely/ in Manhattan,” Dimitrov’s urbane, wistful speakers recall those of Frank O’ Hara (a muse invoked in the epigraph and several poems), transcribing city life through taxis, bars, clubs, and restaurants. The tension between connection and distance frequently finds humorous expression, as when a speaker observes how “kids race toy boats in the pond/ and the dogs are on leashes,/ tied to their humans and better behaved.” Meditations on humanity’s search for meaning are handled with wit and vulnerability, while the book’s final section, the 14-page “Poem Written in a Cab,” breaks the fourth wall in a captivating performance of selfhood (“I have never wanted to be myself./ What a ludicrous obligation!”). Ultimately, it’s the sensory that keeps people tethered, suggests Dimitrov: “Every time I feel close/ to understanding the world... I rise, attending to [the kettle]/ with annoyance and the pleasure/ of the unmade cup of tea.” In this affecting collection, his most fully achieved thus far, Dimitrov provides the reader with a needed celebration of pleasures. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Perseverance

Raymond Antrobus. Tin House, $16.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-951142-42-1

“All good words in sign are said with the thumb,” a sign language teacher declares in Antrobus’s moving debut. Exploring his early experience of deafness, Antrobus invites the reader to feel the frustration and emotional complexity of navigating through the world: “I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter.” Language and communication become touchstones of the collection; poems like “Aunt Beryl Meets Castro” evoke Jamaican patois (“Listen listen, you know I/ met Castro in Jamaica in/ ’77 mi work with/ government under Manley”). Equally memorable is Antro-bus’s consideration of his embattled identity: “There is such a thing as a key confidently cut/ that accepts the locks it doesn’t fit.” However, it’s his evocations of his late father, a Jamaican immigrant who battled alcoholism and faced British policemen “who didn’t believe he belonged/ unless they heard his English,/ which was smooth as some uptown roads,” that gives the collection its heart. What might be gimmicky or sentimental—the poem “Thinking of Dad’s Dick,” for instance—becomes moving and memorable: “He knew he wouldn’t live/ to see me grown... He had to give,/ while he could, the length of his life to me.” In these pages, Antrobus’s evocative, musical honesty is unforgettable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Index of Women

Amy Gerstler. Penguin, $20 (112p) ISBN 978-0-14-313621-7

Gerstler (Scattered at Sea) brings her customary wit, playfulness, and emotional range to poems that expose the contradictions in ancient and contemporary concepts of femininity. These poems—some dramatic monologues, others more quiet lyrics—vividly render their chief thematic concern. Unsatisfied with “these endless ill-fitting versions of womanhood,” Gerstler summons the voices of women “such as she, swallower of swords, sorrow, and semen... she who is a physical stud.” Gerstler subverts the conceit of women as objects in a poem in which a tube of toothpaste, a lamp, and a butter knife all begin to criticize the speaker who muses, “How long have objects been/ nursing these grievances?” Another poem reverses the male gaze, resulting in the male object crystallizing into just another piece of art to be consumed by hungry connoisseurs: “We imbibe his rich shadow. Milky light/ showers down through skylights and we guzzle/ that too, open mouths glowing like kilns.” This wonderfully intelligent and imaginative collection upends conventional gender norms in favor of illustrating womanhood in all its idiosyncrasy, complexity, and fullness. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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