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The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom

Hannah Gamble. Trio House, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-949487-08-4

The colloquial, quirky second collection from Gamble (Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast) considers the challenges of womanhood through an anthropological lens. "Women wear skirts/ but still try to keep things out and men wear pants/ though their dicks are always trying to get out/ and see the sun," she writes in "The Sun and Open Air." Women's bodies frequently appear in this collection, often as something to keep vigil over: "Analyze the risks/of becoming a ravine./ Compare those with the risks of becoming a well/ with a wellbolted lid." Gamble lingers in sinister moments, as when a man transitions from flirty to predatory: "I was pushed into a doorway by a man from the pub.// I knew I couldn't fight him off, or that even if I could,/ there would be 5 others like him waiting." Yet despite the threats that come with getting close to someone, these poems move with tender vulnerability and care: "Good is the thing I stopped/ trying to be but you are where I want/ to put every good thing about me." Gamble's writing is candid and energetic as she confronts a fraught subject with intelligence. (July)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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West Portal

Benjamin Gucciardi. Univ. of Utah, $14.95 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-1-64769-040-3

This moving debut contemplates the responsibilities humanity has to both the living and the dead. Gucciardi draws the reader's attention to the relationship between care and its mournful etymology when he writes, "The word care has roots in the Gothic kara—/ to cry out with, to lament." Care becomes a portal through which ghosts may be encountered. The speaker's sister haunts many of these poems, with Gucciardi lingering on quiet moments of care extended to the deceased: "My father's hands/ on my sister's corpse,/removing the ring/ from her septum,/sliding it on his pinky,/ brushing her bleached/ bangs into place." Gucciardi also depicts the city he calls home, San Francisco, as a kind of ghost of itself: "streetlights/ shine down on the tent city across I-80,/ the rain letting up and the clouds/parting, the night swelling with AM/ radio and umbrage as Saturn's rings slip/ out of focus in the telescope I found by/ the tracks and swore I'd finally fixed." Brimming with pathos, this memorable collection finds epiphanies in small moments of grief that connect the living to the dead. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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This Alaska

Carlie Hoffman. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-1-945588-92-1

Alaska serves as the physical and figurative setting of Hoffman's introspective debut. Hoffman's poems reckon with family, desire, grief, and bereavement through the lens of the state's harsh coldness. As the speaker states in the opening poem, "I was so young before New York/that I believed loving myself each day/would be easier there." Later, in "Winter," she recalls the process of tending to seagulls exposed to oil, memorably stating, "because I am// youngest, because a hunter's moon/is how I locate heaven, I take the gull// down the wharf, kneel in an untouched/tract of snow, and quiet its skull with rock." Beauty and violence coexist in Hoffman's writing, drawing memorably from one another. As the poem "Overnight" asks, "Who are we if not images/that betray us? The street is quiet.// Snow begins in the leaves." This is an enjoyably atmospheric debut. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Green Knight

Anonymous, trans. from Middle English by Bernard O'Donoghue. Penguin Books, $13.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-313623-1

As O'Donoghue (The Seasons of Cullen Church) explains in the illuminating introduction to his verse translation of the 14th-century epic: "Gawain survived by chance, when many anonymous poems of the same kind did not, and was hardly mentioned—or read—until the nineteenth century when it was first printed." He later notes "The poem's modernity has been repeatedly acknowledged and reproduced," which explains its lasting impact as one of the two great Middle English long poems alongside Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Despite the difficulties of translating the verse, which is impossibly alliterative in the Middle English original, O'Donoghue brings striking scenes to life, as when Gawain decapitates the Green Knight only to watch the head roll on the floor, and his enemy take "hold of his beautiful head and [lift] it up... holding his head by the hair with his hand." The knights stare on, stunned, as the Green Knight mounts his horse: "The king and Gawain then/ laughed at this green man./ But they had to face the truth/ that it was unnatural." This translation brings to life a classic that readers will want to revisit. (July)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Purgatorio

Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, $18 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-64445-057-4

Following the 2013 verse translation of Inferno, Bang (A Doll for Throwing) returns with a rich and propulsive adaptation of Dante's 14th-century text. While Bang's tercets maintain a casual musical cadence, her use of modern references give the text a contemporary feel, as when the speaker sees Usain Bolt: "While keeping his eyes fixed on us, he said,/ 'Fine, Mister Lightning Bolt, you go right on up.'// I now realized who he was." Elsewhere, the MGM logo appears: "He spoke not a word to us/ But let us keep coming, watching us warily,/ Like Leo the Lion posing for a close-up.// Nonetheless, Virgil kept moving toward him, asking/ If he'd please be willing to show us the best way up./ Even then, he didn't answer the question// But instead asked where we were from and what life/ Was like there." The notes on the Cantos are just as engaging, as when Bang remarks in a note for line 136 that "Virgil has no patience for this kind of self-pitying indolence." Bang's sparkling 21st-century adaptation of Dante's lesser-read masterpiece packs in rewarding surprises at every turn. (July)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Not Yet: Poems on China Two Raw Fish Poems from Japan American Poems Seasoned with Chinese Experience & New Poems

Stanley Moss. Seven Stories, $23 (160p) ISBN 978-1-64421-127-4

Combining poems written during 2020—2021 with works from two previous collection dealing with Chinese experience (Moss taught English in China 30 years ago), this thoughtful assemblage celebrates Moss's deep love for Chinese culture and writing. Speaking of Chinese characters in "The Hawk, the Serpant, and the Cloud," he writes: "Writing contains painting and painting writing./ Each is bird and sky to the other, soil and flower." In "Alexander Fu, Musing," one of many poems about a child, the speaker touchingly recollects, "My mother rocks me to sleep, singing/ a Chinese lullaby about crickets playing./ It's not easy to know so little,/ but I wake to wonder, I touch wonder,/ I play with wonder. I smile at wonder./ I cry when wonder is taken from me." In contrast, "Alexander Fu to Stanley" opens: "Big fool, my ancestors understood/we live in two societies: time and that other society/ with its classes and orders, which you, Mr. America,/ like to think you can ascend or descend at will." These poems offer a touching tribute to an endlessly rich culture Moss has spent his life admiring and engaging with on the page. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Goldenrod

Maggie Smith. One Signal, $20 (128p) ISBN 978-1-982185-06-0

Smith (Good Bones) continues to explore her major subjects—America, grief, and her role as a mother—in her rewarding fourth collection, finding ways to celebrate the concrete and everyday while mourning violence and heartache, and weaving humor and hard-earned optimism throughout. The title poem opens self-deprecatingly: "I'm no botanist. If you're the color of sulfur/ and growing at the roadside, you're goldenrod." Elsewhere, she points out that autocorrect "doesn't observe/ the high holidays," changing "Rosh Hashanah to rose has hands." There are moments of serious and troubling reality, as in a poem that connects a nature documentary to the president calling undocumented immigrants "animals," or when she asks, pointedly without a question mark, "How do we live/ with trust in a world that will continue/ to betray us." The subsequent poem, "In the Grand Scheme of Things," ends "We say that's not how// the world works as if the world works." Smith ties in the craft of writing in various poems, giving it metaphorical significance: "How/ fragile it is, the world—I almost wrote/ the word but caught myself. Either one/ could be erased." This empathetic, wise, and honest collection is brimming with poems full of heart and feeling. (July)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Diamonds

Camille Guthrie. BOA Editions, $17 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-950774-45-6

In Guthrie's introspective fourth collection, she explores with humor and honesty the loneliness of being divorced at middle age. Literary and historical references abound as Guthrie muses on the potentially magical qualities of Sylvia Plath's prom dress, or imagines she is dating John Keats. Perhaps the funniest entry in the collection imagines a potential dating profile for 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. In response to the prompt "What I like," Bosch declares, "I like flanged mermaids who flirt with anonymous knights, visors down, both terminating piscinely." In the title poem, she addresses Judith Butler in a housework-inspired lament: "Judith Butler, I am calling you out/ here in the kitchen where I'm unloading the dishwasher/ performing my gender as I am wont to do." As the poem progresses, Guthrie (Articulated Lair) expresses nuanced feelings of guilt for her privileged life even as she wishes for more. Occasionally, the poems lean too much into cleverness over expressing a genuine sentiment ("So pathetic no wise investments/ Should've bought a 7-Eleven on a busy corner/ When I was seven or eleven"). Though the collection is mixed, readers will enjoy how Guthrie plumbs the depths of her vast literary knowledge. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Amanda Paradise: Resurrect Extinct Vibration

CAConrad. Wave, $18 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-950268-42-9

"We are too fragile for the/ world we are making," writes CAConrad in the riveting latest installment to their "(soma)tic poetry rituals," which respond to interpersonal violence and damage to the earth. These pages explore extinction and the "vibrations" of species which have been lost: "telling someone who they are/ instead of asking is where/ extinction gets its start." The language takes on small but sinuous shapes separate from the page's left margin, and many are love poems written in a collage-like style. The epic sequence "72 Corona Transmutations" reflects on intimacy and mourning as shaped by the AIDS crisis and Covid-19. "All I have ever wanted was to/ forge the English language into/ a spear," CAConrad writes, but not in order to harm others; instead, they desire their own transformation, to "drive it into my heart." This book cements CAConrad as a deeply original voice committed to plumbing humanity's plights in unusual ways. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Against Silence

Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (80p) ISBN 978-0-37460-351-9

"We were born into an amazing experiment," opens a poem early in Bidart's striking eighth collection, his first since winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. The poem promptly revises that statement: "At least we thought we were." If Bidart is famous for his soliloquies and the essayistic quality of his lyric long poems, his new collection amplifies the undercurrent of uncertainty that has always supported those forms: "Dreaming, I dreamt the basket I held held/ words." His shimmering language is on display across the philosophical, autobiographical, and devotional styles these poems adopt, employing his signature play with capitalization and quotations. In "Hour of the Night," he writes: "The terrible law of desire is that what quickens desire is what is DIFFERENT." There and across the collection, Bidart intermittently turns to his family's complicity in racism with mixed results, but always with pathos as it explores formative childhood scenes. As the collection ends, Bidart returns to questions of mortality, finding in the present moment a mixing of times and of states of being: "Tonight, I abjure the wisdom, the illusion of/ forgetting." This collection is another memorable contribution to Bidart's oeuvre. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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