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My Baby First Birthday

Jenny Zhang. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-947793-81-1

The daring second collection from Zhang (Dear Jenny, We Are All Find) brings together more than 90 poems that, using rage and humor, both critically and flippantly address American and global culture. Zhang takes on racism and Asian stereotypes, sexism and gendered violence, class terror, and what it means to be born into—and defined by—oppression from the start. The poems frequently articulate their anger at the wealthy, and a culture that valorizes them. In “ted talk,” the speaker remarks: “it became stylish to be poetic/ for the end of the world... would it be so wrong to wish/ everyone with global entry be grounded/ until extinction is off the table.” Similarly, in “needs revision!” she says: “no to thinking everything can be/ outsourced/ someone has to feel it/ it might as well be me...everyone with secret wealth/ publicly fetishizes rich people’s ideas of thrift.” The more personal and familial poems in this collection, however, move toward a kind of young adult writing, and rely on provocation and sexual imagery. In this stirring book, Zhang offers a bounty of memorable lines that celebrate and question the difficulties of womanhood and survival. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Concordance

Susan Howe. New Directions, $15.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2959-3

Howe (Debths) frames poetry as a space for dialogue between traditions, literary forms, and artistic mediums in her meditative 11th work. Presented as collages, which cull text from the correspondence and personal papers of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller, Howe’s poems skillfully demonstrate the range and possibilities of collage. Indeed, the gorgeous hybrids range from experiments in syntax to art pieces and visual poems that suggest the material nature of the archive, embodying the idea of literary inheritance. Many of these texts share an interest in challenging received ideas about logic, rationality, and sense-making: “There is no other way Eve the unknowable author of life will live to teach others, bruising the Serpent’s head from years of treading water under history,” Howe warns. As the book unfolds, logic that usually governs narratives is challenged as Howe reveals associative and dream logic that has been “treading water under history” all this time. “Recovering the lost is like entering enemy lines to get back one’s dead,” she declares. Full of thought-provoking juxtaposition, Howe’s latest is beautifully executed and astonishing. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia

Kiki Petrosino. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-946448-54-5

In this deeply felt fourth collection, Petrosino (Witch Wife) investigates her family tree—especially its roots in Virginia—and reports back on this exploration and its gaps. Petrosino’s modes and poetic forms are manifold, always attending to the strangeness of language that attempts to capture time. Results from a DNA testing kit become erasure poems which “cluster and/ spread/ and/ trade/ and/ carry” across the page like the DNA itself as it traveled in the bodies of her ancestors. A crown of sonnets winds together the losses of history, the loss of more immediate family, and structural racism. “Neat trick, close shave,” Petrosino writes about her experience in college, “How was I the dream, the hope, of the slave?” Moments like this, which consider the impact of the past on the present, achieve brilliance: “Only a few of our names survive./ We left you this: sudden glints in the grass/ The rest is grown folks’ business we say. Yet/ you keep asking who owned us.” The final poem, called an “Interlude,” suggests the book’s ongoing inquiry. This is an important and remarkable exploration of heritage. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Fish & The Dove

Mary-Kim Arnold. Noemi, $18 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-934819-88-3

In this accomplished debut, Arnold interrogates identity and received modes of storytelling. “I keep company with ghosts,” her speaker declares, “[I] prefer the dead to the living/ grief the cave of wonders I’ve walled myself in.” As Arnold registers these paradoxes, she moves gracefully between traditional forms and innovative hybrids. A series of linked lyric pieces unfolds into fragments and visual experiments with gray scale, palimpsest, and erasure. “I read the history books but all I find is/ perpetual war/ state of alert/ perpetual fear,” her speaker observes. For Arnold, the question of who has the agency to chronicle—and erase—history looms. “They give her a chapter in their history books—/ call it ‘Woman’s Rule’/ but manage to make it about men,” she asserts. Retaining agency over the narratives of history remains indelibly linked to traditional modes of storytelling: “As if history’s frayed threads aren’t unraveling,” she remarks, as though reflecting on the poems themselves. Arnold proves as self-aware as she is subtle, gesturing to the performative quality of her language, and reminding the reader of its politically charged intent. This book is a rare achievement, and Arnold is an exciting voice in contemporary poetry. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Play for Time

Paula Mendoza. Gaudy Boy, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-9828142-7-7

In this agile debut, Mendoza flits from sex to violence to loneliness and longing, weaving a tapestry of emotion. Often, the poems are built on imaginative premises. In “Behind the Shelf,” a “tall man” keeps containers of blood “catalogued by the breath which shimmered or seethed, by what press of flesh effervesced these shining viscosities.” These specimens are from “the first time you fell in love,” for example, or “when you hated your mother.” The speaker of several pieces is a “femme-dom” with intertwined plans of seduction and destruction. Elsewhere, Mendoza references other art forms, describing scenes from imagined movies as though she were the director (“Blurred at first, the woman sharpens as she walks toward us”). In “Making New Friends,” she admits, “I think of a joke and devise contexts to precipitate my telling this joke. I think of the person I will tell it to...Every day entire conversations play in my head.” Mendoza’s inventive skill with language is often remarkable (“some mornings abacus and other nights veruschka in the bed on fire :: tinder even if shivered leafless :: forsythia for instance”) though this same skill occasionally borders on the nonsensical or cute (“Your episteme is my ontology”). A clever wordsmith with a canny perception of the layers of human emotion, Mendoza is a poet to watch. (May)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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July Westhale

Via Negativa. Kore, $16.95 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-1-888553-92-5

In this stunning work, Westhale (Trailor Trash) interrogates the vocabulary used to speak about desire, the divine, and literature. Presented as a series of linked lyric pieces, the book spans a range of forms, including lyric fragments, single strophes, and prose poems, gracefully unified by an ongoing concern with the damage done by language, as well as its redemptive potential. “I am not a star. I am not a star. I am a mechanical. I mean, her. I mean. Dear god,” she writes in “SAINT AGATHA: PATRON SAINT OF BELL FOUNDERS, WET NURSES, RAPE VICTIMS, BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS, AND SICILY.” With subtlety and skill, Westhale reminds the reader that sensory experience is irrevocably changed once it is relayed in language. The provocative poems are frequently voiced by visionary speakers: “Broken like a double-yolk/ in a skillet, I have found/ vision, o lord, I your weary/ chef coming off the graveyard/ shift.” Here, the poem reads as a corrective gesture, an attempt to restore mystery to our lives through language. Westhale delivers a book full of mystery, beauty, and possibility. (June)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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In the Field Between Us

Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison. Persea, $15.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-89255-514-7

In this ethereal series of epistolary poems, two disabled poets build their own language of imagery and landscape where trees ask the question the speakers relentlessly examine: “what would you weather just to call yourself alive?” In Brown and Nevison’s intimate correspondence, the body is a site of complex dualities. The poets build a refuge, a place in which they can exist in many forms, sometimes even without their bodies: “On this other/ shore, where we/ have disembarked/ our bodies like the boats/ they are.” Divided into four sections, the epistles orbit events of irrevocable medical intervention. The sections titled “Aftermath,” “Recovery,” “Operating Room,” and “Pre-Op Holding Room” force the reader to move chronologically backwards through these stages. While almost all of the poems are letters between the two authors, each section also contains poems addressed to “Maker,” someone both spiritual and surgical. “If I can’t/ know my body before/ it was riven,/ show me/ your hands,” the poets demand of this entity. Brown and Nevison explore the body in all its contradictions: as a site of mourning and of celebration, and as a burden and a source of vivid brightness. (June)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Country, Living

Ira Sadoff. Alice James, $16.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-948579-10-0

Sadoff (History Matters) considers the relationship between the individual and the collective in his formally dexterous eighth collection. Here, forms change shape before the reader’s eyes, from prose poems, to couplets, to luminous fragments. The book’s formal diversity speaks to Sadoff’s subject matter, reminding the reader of the artifice inherent in imagining cohesion, whether of a country, a literary genre, or even a family unit. “Since this is a story I’m flying/ over apple orchards and airports,” he writes, drawing attention to the pretense of a unifying narrative. Yet the poet also acknowledges the glorious multiplicity inherent in stories. “How many sides to a story?” he asks as the poem transitions from “the desultory frontier of ocean” to gunfire and grief, and back again. Narrative is framed as a form of power and agency: “Oil told the story here, the way the Triangle fire told the story/ of the Weinbergs, Greenspans and Cohens.” Fittingly, the book ends at a moment when “there was no story/ to our little ranch house/ so you couldn’t hear a thing.” Sadoff evokes complex philosophical ideas with a deceptive simplicity throughout. This is an accomplished addition to his impressive body of work. (June)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through

Edited by Joy Harjo. Norton, $19.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-35680-9

This comprehensive anthology presents the work of 161 Native American poets from nearly 100 indigenous nations and spanning from the 15th century to the present. Each section represents a different region of the United States and is introduced with information about the Nations that live there. The poetic styles and personal experiences are endlessly variable and consistently fresh. In “Shrinking Away,” Jim Northrup recalls his struggle with PTSD after serving in Vietnam: “Survived the war/ but was having trouble/ surviving the peace.” Samuel Sixkiller (1877–1958) attended the Carlisle Indian School, where he was class poet in 1895. His ode “To Class ’95” represents the tension of the school’s assimilationist project and the longing for home: “When shall the culture, the art and refinement/ Drive from our minds, roving thoughts of the past?/ Shall broad education, or savage confinement,/ Conquer the Red Man now fading so fast?” Tommy Pico and Natalie Diaz represent the newest generation, who honor those who came before while providing a look at life on the reservation today. Across centuries, regions, languages, and styles, this well-crafted anthology is perfect for Native American poetry courses and anyone looking to expand their knowledge of indigenous literature. (Aug)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Without Dragons Even the Emperor Would Be Lonely

Ninso John High. Wet Cement, $25 trade paper (148p) ISBN 978-1-7324369-4-7

In this distinctive assemblage of text and ink paintings exploring Zen forms, High (Bloodline) offers koans and parables printed in handwritten font alongside striking ensoˉs (hand-inked circles). While the font can be difficult to read, it reinforces the relationship between writing and painting as gestures of the body, a theme throughout much of the collection: “The body speaks./ When you hear it, you/ awaken in the dream.” In seeking a language of simplicity, the poems occasionally fall flat, and references to a travel narrative suggest something that might have helped a reader unfamiliar with High or with the specifics of Zen practices connect with the collection. However, the ensoˉs are stunning, featuring different color combinations and textures and losing none of their power across the book. While High’s language doesn’t always match the tension between abstraction and embodiment achieved by the ensoˉs , the handwritten style allows for surprising relationships between text and image. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/15/2020 | Details & Permalink

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