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Emporium

Aditi Machado. Nightboat, $16.95 ISBN 978-1-64362-029-9

Winner of the James Laughlin Award, the expansive collection from Machado (Some Beheadings) is both luxurious and cerebral, funneling her debut’s torqued syntax into a fever dream of “the silk route upon which I came.” “She said nothing but lacquer,” Machado writes, “Lacquer on this. The brain/ like a jelly, something trapped/ in it.” And though “The silkiness/ of the route was of an old time,” the scene of the emporium of the title challenges commerce: “& even money isn’t quite like money,” she observes. Not all moments strive for this ornate aesthetic; the book is equally striking when it lands a more self-contained desire or observation (“Let us make it lovely again,” she writes, and elsewhere, “I feel simply feelings”). Machado triumphs at never succumbing to predictable conclusions while searching for the individual amid the system of capitalism: “I am reporting on a country, peeking over the fence,/ shrieking, look! look! an interiority! such a/ private, green/ articulation!” This delightful book is full of depth and discovery. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Funeral Diva

Pamela Sneed. City Lights, $16.95 ISBN 978-0-87286-811-3

The memoirlike latest from poet, performer, and visual artist Sneed (Kong and Other Works) evokes a queer and Black coming-of-age story and its wider cultural resonance. Vividly capturing an array of formative relationships with friends, lovers, and family from the late 1980s and early ’90s, Sneed’s recalled experiences take the reader from the Boston suburbs and AIDS pandemic-era New York to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Essays such as “History” and “Ila,” reminiscent of writing by Hilton Als and influenced by Audre Lorde, cross-pollinate with poetic considerations of the present. Frequently, Sneed’s tone is affectingly elegiac: “And all those gay boys I met and worked with at a restaurant in Boston,/ who disappeared like thousands of bits of paper,/ wind just simply took.” Yet just as often, this voice can be wry and lacerating: “This is some high-wire sawed-in-half lady shit/ This is like some Hannah Arendt the banality of evil and/ the bureaucratization of homicide shit.” Sneed’s speakers welcome complexity in poems like “Bey” (“I have to say I envy Beyoncé/ That she gets to show up after the fact in New Orleans”) and “Survivor,” which traces the speaker’s uneasy feelings about daredevil swimmer Diana Nyad. In this book, bracing honesty reveals both the necessity and the costs of resilience. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Twice There Was a Country

Alen Hamza. Cleveland State Univ., $18 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-880834-80-0

Language, family, love, politics, and displacement are the primary subjects of Hamza’s elegantly terse and perceptive debut. Within these poems lies nostalgia for the emotional and physical terrain of Hamza’s childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as for the fleeting present. He addresses this feeling obliquely, but also directly through droll sentiment: “Nostalgia is taking less and less time to appear./ I’m nostalgic for things I did last month./ At night I sigh about the morning. Do you think/ that would be a good placard to bring to a rally/ about health-insurance reform?” He celebrates inevitable futility and embraces the myths one cultivates in search of inner peace: “I too// poke life in situations of constraint and extract/ the juices. Life is not a steak, nor is devotion/ to breadth a sexy quality in a thinking creature,/ yet this knowledge helps the way vinegar/ applied to feet reduced childhood fevers.” His refreshing pithiness is met with lyricism and wordplay that evokes both whimsy and vulnerability. This collection is a kaleidoscope of imagery and innovative adages that leave the reader with a sense that despite the unforgiving nature of time, this is a world rife with humble wonders. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Historians

Eavan Boland. Norton, $26.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-324-00687-9

Boland (A Woman Without a Country), who died in April 2020 at the age of 75, showed a lifelong commitment to illustrating the lives of women in poetry and worked to correct historical omissions and readings. It is apt, then, that in this stunning volume, the final poem—a public work commissioned by the UN on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Irish women’s suffrage—engages with this subject directly in what is otherwise a resolutely personal book. Working from a definition of freedom as “a voice braided/ Into the silences of other women/ Who came before,” she writes: “Say the word history: I see/ your mother, mine.” Many of these poems double as ars poeticas—poems about the making of poems—and are among the very best examples of this genre. The opening piece, “The Fire Gilder,” is one, fusing a portrait of the poet’s mother with a meditation on craft, and introducing the motif of light and shadow that saturates this luminous book. “How often I long to lift/ my words high. How/ often nothing is raised/ and nothing brightens,” she writes with characteristic humility. “How will we see inside it,/ our own dusk?” Boland’s final book is both a perfect introduction and retrospective, offering a profound and restorative reading experience. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Let Me Tell You What I Saw

Adnan Al-Sayegh, edited by Jenny Lewis, trans. from the Arabic by Ruba Abughaida et al. Seren, $14.99 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-78172-602-0

Iraqi poet Al-Sayegh is expertly contextualized and introduced to English-speaking audiences by Lewis in this first dual-language volume. “Uruk’s Anthem,” excerpted here, has the scope of an epic, exploring themes of violence, political unrest, and apocalypse with a momentum and music that is entirely Al-Sayegh’s own. Lewis aptly states the work “might best be described as a modernist dream-poem that frequently strays into nightmare, yet is also imbued with a unique blend of history, mythology, tenderness, lyricism, humor and surrealism.” Between vivid and brutal war scenes (Al-Sayegh was forced to fight for eight years in the Iran-Iraq war) blossom moments of tender lyricism: “I crawl between the graves and our mines.... my clothes wet with clouds/ and my heart a haven for finches.” Throughout, political unrest is rendered urgent and visceral: “scatter the earth as an epitaph/ between the grave of the Minister/ and the masses.... I see the girls/ go down to the spring/ to gather stars’ eggs.... My heart searches between drawers and airports/ for her hair.” Readers new to the poet will find the momentum and energy of Al-Sayegh’s writing vital and unforgettable. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Riddle Field

Derek Thomas Dew. Univ. of Nevada, $17 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-948908-76-4

Dew debuts with a thought-provoking contemplation of the role of memory in shaping the present moment. In sweeping, Whitmanesque lines, the poems read as a conversation between a past and present self, or a dialogue between parts of consciousness. “I’ve hated that creek since I was three apples high. It’s incapable,” the speaker writes in response to his own description of a creek in the poem’s opening line. Dew’s innovative approach to polyvocality relies less on exposition or narration than on his choices in form. “And if the hill is still blue smoke when the snow climbs to counters, we’ll surely freeze,” his speaker warns the character who voiced the preceding, nonitalicized line. Throughout, Dew engages ambitious philosophical questions while building narrative tension, maintaining a riveting sort of mystery: “the moon outside, an unknowing.” By leaving much unsaid, the collection cultivates and sustains an aura of inventive possibility. Dew is an exciting and complex new voice in contemporary poetry. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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An Incomplete List of Names

Michael Torres. Beacon, $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8070-4674-6

In this innovative debut, Torres calls upon a wide range of traditional and postmodern forms, including prose and verse hybrids, couplets, lyric strophes, and fragments, unified by a concern with how writers can work within inherited constraints to expand the possibilities within them. “I’m leaving you with this,” Torres warns, “a heap of words. Names layered between/ the stanzas of a poem that ends just before it rains.” His poems are most moving in moments when experimentation and rebellion are met with a startling self-awareness, the lines reading as a reflection on his own craft and relationship to the reader as he contemplates boyhood and cultural assimilation. Many of these poems are remarkable for their dramatic tension, even as they reflect on ambitious questions of language, privilege, and power. He writes: “Thick glass between us, my brother and I each reach/ for a phone receiver. Mom and Dad behind me. His voice/ chipped with static. We have thirty minutes starting/ seven seconds ago.” In this accomplished volume, language can be the “thick glass between us,” impeding connection and understanding, but Torres’s writing offers a vision that is startling and far-reaching. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics

Edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel. Nightboat, $19.95 trade paper (462p) ISBN 978-1-64362-033-6

“shit, what the hell/ have I built,” writes Zavé Gayatri Martohardjono in a poem featured in this exciting and frank anthology of works by trans writers. Readers may have difficulty parsing the foreword’s distinction that poetry “isn’t revolutionary practice; poetry provides a way to inhabit revolutionary practice,” but they will feel the intensity and timeliness of the entries, such as in Harry Josephine Giles’s series of poems titled “Abolish the Police”: “ ‘Do you imagine,’ I say,/ ‘That I am not disturbed?/ I wish I could imagine an end/ to police untouched by revenge.’ ” Quieter moments of lyric observation are less common but nevertheless striking when they appear, as when Charles Theonia writes, “the pink of us is inside and highly specific.” The essaylike prose pieces mixed in helps characterize the history of trans activism, moving away from the demand that trans writers narrate their embodied experience—as Aaron El Sabrout asks, “What if my body was just a body?” Instead, this anthology imagines poetry as a resource by which the community might stand “against capital and empire,” using language to reimagine collective struggle. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Music for the Dead and Resurrected

Valzhyna Mort. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (112p) ISBN 978-0-374252-06-9

The elegiac third collection from Mort asks searing, meditative questions born from war, massacre, and famine. “What has kept us alive,” Mort asks before answering, “Our death songs.” These poems are indeed lyrical death songs, bearing witness to horror and wondering “How could it be that I’m from this Earth,/ yet trees are also from this Earth?” Mort’s work contrasts suffering and tragedy with the persistence of the natural world: “Of the empire’s fall/ I heard on the radio/ while waiting for a weather forecast.” Life continues, but Mort questions the complexity of idealism and corruption, and a world in which “Justice has turned out to be/ more terrifying/ than injustice.” She asks, “What to do about the etymology of us?/ Our etymology?” The stakes of humanity are central to Mort, who seeks to offer a voice to those denied one throughout history: “Have I told you about how much I live inside your stories and not reality?” These are poems of reclamation and resurrection; to live in them is to confront the hard work of witness. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tiger Girl

Pascale Petit. Bloodaxe, $16.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-78037-526-7

The vibrant poems on animals and nature for which Petit (Mama Amazonica) is rightfully known are fully realized in this dazzling work. Petit considers her family history, her grandmother’s Indian heritage, and the folklore that fills the speaker’s mind with images of animals, night markets, and shouting vendors. Petit’s gift for luminous juxtaposition shines: “The night is black as bear fur// its muzzle bleeding after eating honey/ baited with explosives.// How many rupees for the galaxies/ in a gallbladder?” Later, in the poem “In the Forest,” she describes the hide of a creature as “arabesques of bulldozed gardens,” declaring, “If it were possible to remake the creature/ from its pelt, I would do it// but the man sold the pelt/ because his family was hungry.” Petit’s poems are rich with such dramatic turns, offering her glorious imagery momentum. “My grandmother... for whom I would weed the world,” she recollects in one of the many poems that draw their energy from the woman she describes as “a hybrid rose... her face the map of India when it’s summer,/ the map of Wales in winter.” This mesmerizing collection is full of delights. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/16/2020 | Details & Permalink

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