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Ganbatte

Sarah Kortemeier. Sarah Kortemeier. Univ. of Wisconsin, $16.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-299-32514-5

Kortemeier’s lyrical debut takes its title from the Japanese word for “do your best” and offers a travelogue of world historical sites. Poems drift from Hiroshima to Ground Zero, Stonehenge to Machu Picchu, sifting remnants, describing objects that are cordoned off or displayed under glass, recording snippets of Japanese and German, and registering limits and regrets: “The tiki head I brought back from New Zealand/ stands for no one’s death in particular,/ no one’s particular face.” Elsewhere, the poet admits she cannot “remember a single face” of those with whom she climbed Mt. Fuji, nor does she remember if she asked her German host “about the war.” Failures of nerve and of memory send the poet “to rediscover” details from a tour of Auschwitz recorded in “the little notebook” she carried through Europe, but these efforts are always insufficient. “This is what comes of lonely planets and NPR,” she quips, equating “trying on blouses” with “trying on languages,/ temples, rice fields.” At times, it’s hard to distinguish the poet’s ready admissions of ignorance from reluctant claims of touristic innocence, which get her out of “having to explain what [she] does not understand.” “When I speak, I transform,” the poet admits, almost giddy with the poetical possibilities of mistaken idioms and mispronunciations, but ultimately opting against a more ethically oriented poetics of witness as she strives to live up to the goal set by the book’s title. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/14/2019 |

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Gatekeeper

Patrick Johnson. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-571-31526-7

In this impressive and formally versatile debut, Johnson places the lyric in dialogue with a host of nonpoetic forms, among them diagrams, numbered lists, and maps. “It’s different in the lab; dissection is bloodless,” he warns early in the collection. Johnson frames beauty and transcendence as a source of authority equal to the language of formal scientific inquiry. “Speak from a place of reversibilities,” he advises, as though describing the poems’ own provocative movements between types of discourse. Johnson’s strength lies in his ability to reflect on his own unexpected juxtapositions and wild associative leaps: “The dream has not only shown me history in reverse but somehow changed it,” he writes. Johnson calls attention to his own agency in inhabiting language, “In this moment I realize I have a level of control,” framing his practice as a poetics of intervention. The work is filled with self-aware poems like this one, which reflect on their own philosophical underpinnings, and Johnson’s formal experimentation compliments the poems, involving and implicating the reader in their critique of linguistic hierarchies. “The individual becomes invisible,” he observes, positioning the reader as collaborator and coconspirator in this thought-provoking collection. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Dispatch

Cameron Awkward-Rich. Persea, $15.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-89255-503-1

Cave Canem–fellow and Lambda Literary Award–finalist Awkward-Rich (Sympathetic Little Monster) holds self (“the pith of me,”) assuredly at the surface of his powerful second collection. Imagination emerges as a strategy for black trans survival: “if I have to I’ll shape a window/ to the universe adjacent calm/ my blackened heart.” Weighed down by the “brutal choreography” of violence against black, queer, and trans bodies, the poet reestablishes buoyancy through will and formidable artistry: “now I have a choice/ repair a world or build/ a new one inside my body.” In a linked series of poems that share the title “[Black Feeling],” the poet wakes “alone in the manic dark/ head in [his] hands ringing// &ringing, faithful/ goddamned blood alarm” or rides, anonymous, on a bus through the city, “circling like animals, like prey.” “Either way,” a refrain reminds, “there you are in the room with your body.” In countless rooms, poetry plays out the “perfect skein/ of my living, brazen/ misplaced song”: “I think gunflower & here’s a field. Here’s a room/ where every bullet planted blooms,” and “here’s a room/ where everything you’ve lost is washed ashore.” In these poems of bracing clarity, national violence is unflinchingly and meaningfully confronted. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Gloss

Wendy Barker. Saint Julian, $16 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-1-732-05425-7

Barker (One Blackbird at a Time) moves easily between literary forms in her graceful seventh book. Presented as a sequence of linked pieces that consider identity, woman- hood (the poet’s mother, in particular), and the experience of cultural otherness, Barker creates a dialogue between prose and verse, as well as traditional and experimental poetic techniques (“From one life to another,” she writes, as though describing the work’s skillful shifts between rhetorical modes). Indeed, Barker’s poems offer different conceptual lenses for the same experience or stretch of time within the narrator’s life. “How you can fold yourself in on yourself,” she emphasizes, “How you can take your own layers and tuck them into creases,” layering possibilities over the same experience, observation, or narrative. Here, self is seen as other, “a way to lighten the weight inside,” to lessen the heft of a sprawling past by cultivating critical distance. As much as this collection is populated by myriad voices, it is haunted by “a silence glistening through sudden empty/ space.” Barker’s dexterous shifts in form compliment the book’s central questions and themes, offering a richly complex interrogation of family history. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Little Envelope of Earth Conditions

Cori Winrock. Alice James, $15.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-06-3

The highly original second book from Winrock (This Coalition of Bones) erupts with sound and imagery that gives shape, color, and texture to grief. The book’s title draws from historian Douglas Lantry’s explanation that “a real space suit is a little envelope of earth conditions.” Broken into six parts, Winrock explores the knowledge gained through pain. There is the ambulance, “O little empire of emergency, O altar of resuscitation,” that brays throughout as grief embodied, and then there are the space suits—how to sew them, get into them, and get out of them. This motif reemerges until Winrock admits, “I can no longer tell the difference between Uhaul & ambulance, beekeeper & astronaut.” Bees and honey buzz around the spacesuits, and the stitches in the suits appear visually in the work as little plus signs that break up sections and punctuate some of her poems: “the sound of a heavy dress +/ dragging + particular + so particular + we are continuous + & appearing + not at all/ like a mirror + see-through & astoundingly + not at all.” This heartbreaking, unusual, and precise collection treats grief with all the complexity it deserves. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Homie

Danez Smith. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-64445-010-9

Smith (Don’t Call Us Dead) presents an electrifying, unabashedly queer ode to friendship and community in their exuberant and mournful second collection. Smith alternates colloquial and lofty language, often within the same poem, and eschews most punctuation and grammatical strictures. In “ode to gold teeth,” the poet writes of their grandfather, “gold gate of grandpa’s holler/ midas touch his blue hum/ honeymetal perfuming prayers,” later referring to him as the “OG of the gin sermon & front-porch pulpit.” These poems are a celebration of black culture and experience, and a condemnation of white supremacy and its effect; in “dogs!,” Smith excoriates racist dehumanization: “i too been called boy & expected/ to come, heel.” In “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects,” Smith explores conflicting feelings related to an HIV diagnosis—simultaneous devastation and relief (“it felt like i got it out the way, to finally know it”), acceptance, and shame (“i braved the stupidest ocean. a man. i waded in his stupid waters”). The collection’s final poem, “acknowledgments,” is a beautiful love poem to a best friend, one that is as heartfelt as it is quotable: “if luck calls your name, we split the pot/ & if you wither, surely i rot.” Smith is a visionary polyglot with a fearless voice. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Selected Poems of Tu Fu

Tu Fu, trans. from the Chinese by David Hinton. New Directions, $18.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-81122-838-1

Hinton translated the first full-length verse translation of Tu Fu (712–770 CE) to be published in America in 1989, and this newly translated and substantially expanded edition celebrating the 30th anniversary of that publication recasts the Tang Dynasty poet’s work for the new century, allowing poems rich with subtle insights on morality and history to find a new audience. With powerful, elegant lines, Fu contemplates the personal and the public, the unusual and the routine, all with a keen eye for visual detail: “Foundering rain, reckless wind: an indiscriminate ruins of/ autumn. Four seas and eight horizons, the whole world all// one cloud—you can’t tell horses going from oxen coming,/ or muddy Deep-Flow River from crystal-clear Moon-Field.” Elsewhere, the bloody An Lushan Rebellion, which resulted in the deaths of millions, pulsates behind Fu’s measured writing: “Sword and spear, those grand human affairs:/ turn, look away, and it’s all one single grief,” and “True and false// surely differ, but they’ve been blurred together for years.” New readers of Fu will find a captivating voice and a stirring, lasting vision of political unrest. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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13th Balloon

Mark Bibbins. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-577-6

The achingly beautiful fourth collection from Bibbins (They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full) is a book-length elegy to a lover who died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. “Not lovers/ though we loved,” Bibbins writes. “Not boyfriends though we were/ friends and still/ boys in most ways when you died.” The collection’s title references a memorial to this beloved, the release of 12 balloons, crossing time to position the book as the 13th component. It’s a move emblematic of the book’s powerful ability to stitch the past to the present: “There are days when everything feels like a metaphor/ for your having died// There are days/ when nothing does.” Bibbins is attentive to time’s passing, not easily captured in traditional notions of fading: though the speaker doesn’t “have that many/ memories of you left,” the gift of The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara that he keeps at his bedside testifies to the persistence of the beloved’s presence. The scope of this darkly humorous and always tender book paints a portrait of grief as a fellow traveler that morphs but loses none of its power over time—a power readers will be lucky to experience. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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For the Ride

Alice Notley. Penguin, $20 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-14313-457-2

Notley (Certain Magical Acts) has long been synonymous with the second generation of the New York school, feminist poetics, political dissidence, and, in the last several decades, an epic mode that gives her jittery, particular, and inventive poems a novelistic sweep. This visionary book is a postapocalyptic adventure into an unspecified future, one that begins “in the l’Orangerie in Paris with Monet’s Water Lillies... a room of walls which come alive with images and words... like a mind?” but quickly accelerates into a trans-dimensional and gender-defying odyssey. One (her protagonist) and ones (One’s interlocutors) board an ark made of language to save words from the threat of extinction: “One’s not in time, what’s One in? Chaos, beautiful chaos—,” One observes. What follows is a series of 28 chapterlike poems embedded with smaller poems, which gives Notley boundless opportunities to comment on society (“Some ones are crying... opportune for some leaderly bullshit”) and to hopscotch through thoughtlike threads of language. This is a challenging, visionary work. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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From There to Here: Selected Poems and Translations

Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest Univ., $18.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-930630-88-8

This significant, accessible edition allows readers of Carson, who died this October, to witness the poet’s stylistic transformation across volumes—from long lines to more compressed ones, regular stanza lengths to a looser, free-verse style. What is consistent throughout Carson’s shape-changing verse is verbal playfulness: “Romeo was not built in a day, not to speak of Romulus or Remus—,” he writes in “Romeo,” while in companion poem “Juliet,” he imagines the heroine “fingering the oranges and the greens” in the local Verona Market where she meets her love interest. That same inventive sensibility applies to Carson’s more sinister subjects, such as in “Bomb Disposal,” in which he imagines the work entails “Listening to the malevolent tick/ Of its heart, can you read/ The message of the threaded veins/ Like print, its body’s chart?” This theme reemerges in later poems addressing urban anxiety, as in “Belfast Confetti:” “Suddenly as the riot squad moved in it was raining exclamation marks,/ Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type./ And the explosion Itself—an asterisk on the map.” This book serves as a comprehensive introduction to Carson for new readers, and one to be savored by longtime admirers of the Irish poet. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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