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Mothers over Nangarhar

Pamela Hart. Sarabande, $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-9464-4826-2

Rich with literary, political, and geographical references, Hart’s debut collection details the journey of a mother whose son is serving in Afghanistan. The five-part book weaves prose poems, a sestina, and a landay (a Pashtun folk form) alongside free verse. The speaker, who “read[s] history/ to ward off unknowns,” remembers too that her “son’s first gun was a dinosaur.” In “Praise Song” she invokes Homer, but keeps the reader in the present: “I sing of your boots caked/ In clay rough with hours// of the IED you don’t step/ On and the dog who finds it.” The speaker visits a shooting range (“To know what you know I load/ seventeen hollow-point// bullets to nest/ in the chamber”) and reads Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Hart gives voice to Thetis (Achilles’ nymph mother), a detainee in Guantánamo, and a young girl who visits her former-soldier father in jail. Glenn Gould, Emily Dickinson, and Picasso appear alongside “Grace,” “Joanie,” and “Mary Jane,” women who are mothers or wives of soldiers. Hart’s drive to keep looking and listening while “the long war goes on” reads like a fundamental act of compassion. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland

DaMarris B. Hill. Bloomsbury, $25 (192p) ISBN 978-1-63557-261-2

Through poetic memoir, biographical sketches, and archival black-and-white photographs, Hill’s first full-length collection gives voice to the history of black women in the United States who have undergone incarceration and oppression. To be bound suggests to be trapped; however, Hill’s poems illustrate how oppression can summon inner-strength, resistance, and revolution. While many of the freedom fighters spotlighted in the collection endured tragedy, Hill suggests it would be limiting to label these figures as tragic or doomed. Their narratives are not cautionary tales of defeat, but nuanced testaments of survival and ascension. In “Miz Lucille (an echo poem for Ms. Clifton),” Hill writes, “i stand up/ in the world that gift wrapped me for ruin/ i stand up/ and mark the script.” Hill’s deep admiration for poet and mentor Lucille Clifton serves as a touchstone, a way to rise above everyday struggles. In “Claudia Jones,” Hill envisions the activist and writer’s story as one of redemption: “How many/ ways did you write women? How / many ways did you right women?” For Hill, a bound woman overcomes oppression through her legacy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Loves You: Poems

Sarah Gambito. Persea, $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-89255-495-9

This third collection from Gambito (Delivered) is part verse, part recipe book. The recipes take on the quality of verse while the verse begins to take on the simultaneous invitation and instruction of recipe, with gorgeous, rich sensory details infusing both. Divided into sections headed by the five flavors (“Umami,” “Sour,” “Salt,” “Bitter,” “Sweet”), the book explores parenting, identity, and language itself. Gambito frequently deploys the cento form to canvass language and the way it can be used to fetishize, aggress, and degrade. The blunt power of the end-stopped line is alive in Gambito’s hands. In “First Born,” she writes, “Basically: my wish is that you are never, never pierced through the heart.” Elsewhere, the recipes are accompanied by emotional framing, such as “Watermelon Agua Fresca (For When You Need Me).” The collection explores the sensation of remembering as much as the memories themselves: the specific domestic nostalgia triggered by the scent of a meal or the gut punch of a repeated insult. The recipes feel like meditations, rituals in the midst of life’s chaos and unpredictability. A compelling book that only adds to Gambito’s stirring oeuvre. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Avalanche Path in Summer

Susan Tichy. Ahsahta, $18 (128p) ISBN 978-1-934103-85-2

In her third collection, Tichy (Trafficke) offers an homage to both the literature of mountaineering and the poet’s beloved Colorado Sange de Cristo Mountains: “the ‘perfectly transparent story’/ of a fault-block uplift range, two to three miles/ above sea-level.” Analogies and dialectical relations between hiking and reading or writing accrete. “For a mountain can take you// Out of yourself, or in,” as both exterior and interior realms (“Which is self/ Which is world,”) disclose the histories of their making and their delineation. The book’s signature rhetorical device is the switchback: “devote the day to surviving the mountain/ (that’s meant to say surveying, sorry).” The poet juxtaposes her own phrases and narratives alongside fragments from British sources such as John Ruskin, Nan Shepherd, and Robert Macfarlane, and lines of Chinese poetry in the Daoist and Buddhist traditions. While its syncretism may recall Gary Snyder, this book privileges body over text, “One foot/ in front of the other foot, crossing the force// of stunted bristlecone.” The poem functions as a seismograph, as if both the terrain and the human body that scrabbles over its surfaces and missteps occasionally (“Palm-path-pain/ step-stop-stipple,”) are as fragile and as contingent as the pages we hold in our hands, “memorizing the slope like a book I know/ will burn.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Piece of Good News

Katie Peterson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-23279-5

In the fourth collection from Peterson (The Accounts), a typical poem moves by visceral detail rather than by association or logic, with many spectacular arrivals that overwhelm the journey: “there should be a word/ for when events are natural/ but their order makes no sense.” A poem called “The Sentence” is indeed one sentence that climbs gorgeously to the top of a mountain, exposing glacier, lake, and wildflower, to snag on an aspen carved by a couple “who loved themselves so much they stayed right/ there with their knives until they finished their names.” Elsewhere, light leaking through a barn roof becomes a metaphor for how knowledge enters as brilliant fragments, “nearly splitting/ the sides of the bushel basket.” These poems burst into consciousness: a child meets John Lennon through her mother’s tears at his death, knives and scissors are the implements of love. The heart of the collection is “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead,” a sequence of haiku-like poems that navigate the aftermath of a mother’s death: “Her shopping list, years after she was gone./ The pleasure of organizing need.” “Self Help,” which begins, “The eye is the lamp of the body, so I tried/ to make a world when all I ate was light,” gets bogged down in a forced digestive conceit. But “The Economy” makes elegant work of the same theme: gifts that must be spent. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Flame

Emily Pettit. Carnegie Mellon Univ, $15.95 (64p) ISBN 978-0-88748-648-7

Through a series of opaquely confessional reveries, Pettit’s second collection (after Goat in the Snow) speaks of loss, vulnerability, and adaptation. While exploring societal validation, self-destruction, and the limitations of compassion, Pettit’s focus fluctuates alongside her formal and stylistic choices, oscillating between candid prose and abstraction. Her best lines are subtly emphatic and empathic, such as when she describes living functionally in society as the ability to “determine nothing and move forward,” acknowledging those considered “dysfunctional” as disciples of truth, and those considered “functional” as disciples of logic. Her most evocative work combines visceral expression with incisive metaphor, as when she explores the nature of emotional rebirth: “What makes the breakdown taste like this?/ Your bones are new every eight years.” At times, Pettit’s metaphors can take perplexing turns, alienating the reader: “You think about how you are holding/ your hands. Just remember, someone/ really loves forks. I describe the fool that falls./ I have a thing, thing. I like things like that.” Kinetic, vulnerable, and unapologetic, Pettit delivers a book that, although enigmatic at times, inspires catharsis and self-acceptance. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lethal Theater

Susannah Nevison. Ohio State Univ, $16.95 (78p) ISBN 978-0-814255-16-2

The title of Nevison’s second collection (after Teratology) is drawn from ethnographer Dwight Conquergood’s article “Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty.” In these poems, Nevison leads us behind the scenes of a part-researched, part-imagined American prison system: “In the surgical theater, draw back the curtain so one can see the scene as it’s been staged. Drape a sheet over the body before you begin.” Nevison explores moments in history when prison inmates participated in dangerous medical experiments, such as the dermatological testing that occurred from the 1950s to the ’70s in Philadelphia. While Nevison’s first collection explored disability—including her own—through a zoomorphic lens, comparisons between prison inmates and animals do not prove as affecting in this collection: “The bars lash light across his pupils, eyes unshining, unlike those of better animals who stalk at night.” Elsewhere, the incarcerated are described as “men deemed beyond/ repair work their daily recognitions:/ they toil and repeat their movements,/ until they replicate an old domestic rite,/ how wild dogs came down the mountains/ to sleep beside us, how over time/ we let them.” At a time when writers and readers are questioning the appropriation of others’ voices in poetry, this collection provides fertile ground for conversation. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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How to Dress a Fish

Abigail Chabitnoy. Wesleyan Univ, $14.95 (152p) ISBN 978-0-8195-7849-5

Chabitnoy’s impressive debut grapples with the legacy of a great-grandfather sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the consequences of colonial erasure. These poems reckon with loss and survival, incorporating primary source texts (boarding school records, redacted fragments of historical and official texts) alongside family photographs and notes responding to Alutiiq language and myth. In “FAMILY GHOSTS HISTORY,” multiple voices (indicated by typography and white space) haunt an official record. In another poem, a box made up of black lines fills most of the page, framed by a description of “A space that unlike a slate can not be written. A moth-eaten hole.” Other poems question who narrates stories and why. The speaker also investigates her own position uncovering a complex heritage as a descendant of U.S. Indian Boarding School policy: “There was just a boy/ and they took from him his words/ so he could not speak with others/ so he could not know there were others.... Can I say these things if I am not that boy?” These poetic reanimations map new possibilities for affinities and kinship, honoring the storyteller and the poet to “take our ears seriously.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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What’s in a Name

Ana Luísa Amaral, trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. New Directions, $16.95 (160p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2832-9

Amaral offers provocative reframings of familiar texts, from Old Testament stories to Shakespearean tragedies, in her second book to appear in English. As she revisits narratives from a predominantly male literary tradition, Amaral gives voice to female characters who existed on the peripheries of these stories: Lot’s Wife considers her “namelessness”; Juliet imagines a life that is “ungovernable”; and a female speaker indicts Janus for his privilege, the “luxury of looking.” Amaral’s persona poems gradually defamiliarize canonical texts, shifting their focus and intent. Through poems made up of orderly looking lines and stanzas, Amaral carves a space for fragmentation, uncertainty, and meditative silence within the repertoire of inherited forms. In “Things,” Amaral considers the arbitrariness of the signifier, challenging the very foundations of the social order: “That’s why, and despite all, I speak of names:/ because I cannot find/ a better way:” By ending the poem with a colon, gesturing toward the page’s blank space, Amaral invites the reader to complete the philosophical work that she has set in motion. In this accomplished volume and translation, Amaral’s subtle experimentation makes strange an artistic repertoire we thought we knew. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Birches

Carl Adamshick. Four Way, $15.95 (88p) ISBN 978-1-945588-24-2

In his fourth collection (Saint Friend), Adamshick revisits the age-old form of the elegy, placing it in dialogue with his New York School influences. Through an extended sequence in which the speaker meditates on the loss of his mother, Adamshick searches for that “light in the apse,” redemption in the wake of tragedy. The formally innovative, fragmented forms of the poems are nevertheless accessible: “His bicycle/ black on the grass/ black on the towpath/ one pedal dug into the earth/ black in the fallen leaves.” Adamshick’s poems are most compelling in moments like this, in which an image stands on its own, generating possibilities for interpretation. Elsewhere, however, the relative accessibility of the poems detracts from the collection’s otherwise evocative sensory details. In “Weakness,” Adamshick writes: “I want what you want/ I’ve always wanted what you wanted,” drawing away from tangible imagery in favor of exposition. Though poignant in its presentation of familial loss, this book may leave readers wanting more mystery from its narratives. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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