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Whale Fall

David Baker. Norton, $26.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-324-02063-9

A virtuoso of eco-poetry and acoustics, Baker (Swift) meditates on the nonpareil majesty of the planet with rigorous consideration and reverence. He considers what molds and anchors the soul—emptiness, solitude, sound, love, and mortality, perceiving the intrinsic life of the physical world and complementing this thinking with impressive knowledge of flora and fauna. With death on his mind, he recognizes the impulse to evade its approach (“We live in one time but think in another”) but focuses on the splendor of the present (“in the small brain/ of extinct summers let us be like beaks/ among dark berries along ancient boughs/ even now the clocks in their feather gloves/ are measuring space for the new graveyards”). Dually affirming and humbling, Baker redefines legacy: “When you are gone they will read your footprints...// all that’s left of this life is what remains/ for the next.” Baker’s careful, captivating writing sinks under the skin, summoning a long-forgotten need for stillness, wonder, and attention to the sacrosanctity of the world. (July)

Reviewed on 06/17/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Maybe-Bird

Jennifer Elise Foerster. The Song Cave, $18.95 trade paper (134p) ISBN 978-1-73727-755-2

Foerster (Bright Raft in the Afterweather), a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, delivers a lyrical and multilingual exploration of environment, language, displacement, and violence. The first two sequences borrow from myth and non-fictional accounts, placing the Mvskoke language and southeastern U.S. history front and center: “I cannot language the tree/ or point out the sun’s/ strange amulets.// Enchanted, the heart/ is at liberty/ to ruin itself.// Nature will bring all/ under the great wave/ by degrees.” Throughout, Foerster blends commentary with striking imagery: “What conceit, drawn/ with an American camera—// the scenery of another epoch’s/ slender pines seemed to rest/ as on a robe of marten skins.” The third section in particular bestows careful attention to shifting landscapes, as in “One week away and the forest has changed”: “One week away and the forest has changed./ Measured wind, consistent in its image./ First frost, day’s ghost, chattering red-toothed leaves.” Foerster’s gifts are on display in this conceptually ambitious book. (June)

Reviewed on 06/17/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Sister Tongue

Farnaz Fatemi. Kent State Univ., $17 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-60635-444-5

Fatemi’s insightful and finely crafted debut takes place in the gap between Farsi and English, with poems drawing their roots from visits to family in Iran and the poet’s upbringing in California. Fatemi examines the nuances of language that cannot be translated. In “Untranslated,” she writes: “I was the child I’d never have.// I listened for clues./ I spoke without saying a thing,” later declaring, “In the languages/ of women I could have been// I felt both lonely and contained.” The poem poignantly closes: “I want the foreigner in me/ to meet the foreigner in me.” Elsewhere, she remembers her mother’s efforts to assimilate with striking clarity: “How easily she adopted Easter baskets/ —hollow bunnies in pink foil, eggs in plastic grass—/ wanted us to feel as American/ as our friends,” (“Radish Garden”). In “Sister Tongue,” she reflects, “On the plane to Iran, I inventory what I need. Words, ways to speak them, moments when they matter,” and in a later section, “word in the right place, at the right time, and my head feels saffron bright, pure sunlight.” Fatemi makes language think aloud and sing in these ruminative, beautiful poems. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/17/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Selected Books of the Beloved

Gregory Orr. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (412p) ISBN 978-1-55659-653-7

Orr (The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write) spent over a decade creating this sprawling celebration of the pain and pleasure of being alive and in love with the world. Broken into four sections and spanning multiple “Books,” this collection is a love letter to poetry, using Orr’s words to commit his “bravest deed --/ To wed the world.” Teeming with awe and sensation, these pieces leverage the “occult power of the alphabet” to plumb the depths of the heart, moving skillfully from lust to loss, aging to resurrection, keeping Sappho’s remark that “whatever one loves most is beautiful” in mind. In one magical section, Orr takes the reader to “a place where every poem/ Is a house, and every house a poem,” revealing scenes from Blake’s cottage, Baudelaire’s villa, and Orr’s renderings of the homes of Whitman, Li Bo, and Dickinson. From “word-ships” to “worship” and “wound” to “how/ the world gets in,” Orr plays with language as he expresses his love for his craft. This unbridled pleasure makes the pages of this hefty collection glow. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/17/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Magnolia 木蘭

Nina Mingya Powles. Tin House, $16.95 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-953534-21-7

The self-reflective and often stirring debut from Powles blends poetic forms and understandings of time, place, and language to examine the variations and inconsistencies of memory, pop culture, and inherited narratives. At the center of these poems are glimpses of mixed-race girlhood, including Powles’ expertly examining scenes from the Disney film Mulan while confronting their deeper impacts, “once a guy told me mixed girls are the most beautiful / because they aren’t really white / but they aren’t really Asian either.” Powles powerfully juxtaposes moments of social commentary with insights about language, noting how “in Chinese one word can lead you out of the dark/ then back into it/ in a single breath.” In the prose poems “Miyazaki Blossom,” she writes: “I feel things happening around me that are not real. I must be in a dream, or in a movie, or watching a movie on an airplane in a dream... I hear the wind begin to rise and think of how in movies, the wind is always a sound at first.” This moment captures this intriguing collection’s atmospheric tendencies, moving from real to imagined in ways that linger in the mind. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/17/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Place One Is

Martha Ronk. Omnidawn, $17.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-63243-103-5

The prophetic 12th book from Ronk (Silences) provides a portrait of eco-apocalypse. The first half focuses on the threatened natural landscapes of Northern California, the ravages of climate change, and the legacy of settler colonialism against the Wiyot people of Humboldt Bay, (“Whose scavenged past do we walk on?” Ronk asks). Whirring with closely studied observations and layered lyric reflections of natural and made-made worlds, these poems ask the reader to “give in” to what Ronk calls “place-time,” a “third// bifurcated sense of in-between, a position re-evaluating/ itself.” From this place, the fullness and vulnerability of our world can be considered. “It all comes full at me at the edges––” she writes, “reeds, rushes, sedges, hodgepodge tilted and crosshatched... dandelions, plastic cups, weedy, tossed-aside, ever-present Queen Anne’s lace... the thin backbone of a county.” The second half of the book is situated in scorching Los Angeles, where the homeless sleep in cardboard houses while “gentrification [serves] up exquisite/ sandwiches on tiny tables.” Ronk shows that all bodies—human, water, land, and politic—are interconnected, asking “what place might humans have in the aftermath.” These unflinching poems look hard a humanity’s future. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Against Heaven

Kemi Alabi. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-64445-082-6

Winner of the Academy of American Poets First Book Award, Alabi’s ecstatic debut pulses with the language of Black queer joy. Simultaneously a celebration of the body and a story of resisting the oppression that polices it, these poems offer a condemnation of the racist, classist, and sexist foundations of what Alabi calls “empire,” epitomized in religious belief. The first line of the first poem, “How to Fornicate,” pulls no punches as it sets the tone: “After killing your god, hotbox the gun smoke.” Alabi adeptly incorporates poetic forms ranging from erasure to the golden shovel, remixing inherited language from Louise Glück to Cardi B: “Splayed open slow, tempting a spill, grateful to be devoured like I’ll/ Make my giggling groommates, spit-tethered hips churned tender flip.” As the speaker in these poems abandons the colonizing mindset of empire, they wonder, “If forgiveness, uncoupled from the cross at our jugular, was a song we could know.” Powerfully polemical, this impressive collection exclaims a message of liberation from body to the body politic. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Queer Nature

Edited by Michael Walsh. Autumn House, $24.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-63768-038-4

This significant anthology features three centuries’ worth of more than 200 LGBTQ poets’ writing on the natural world. Walsh defines nature poetry broadly and deeply. “Many of these poems,” he explains in his introduction, discuss “appetite, body, death, desire, gender, habitat, home, hope, love, metamorphosis, monstrosity, nation, race, and of course, sex.” At the heart of his project are two questions: “Who belongs here and why? Who and what gets to be natural?” Walsh’s contributors provide luminous, curious variations, answers, hypotheses, and questions of their own. June Jordan observes a “profusion of certain/ unidentified roses... abiding in perpetual near riot... and... promiscuous cross-fertilization.” Robert Duncan’s tells of a meadow “that is a place of first permission.” Audre Lorde speaks of an “ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.” Indeed, in many of these poems, the body becomes the landscape. “What would it feel like if I loved/ this body?” Jubi Arriola-Headley asks, “Like I was/ a beacon, a craze, &/ folk flocked to me, flies to honey,/ maggots to rotting flesh.” This beautifully curated anthology reshapes the genre of nature poetry and awakens readers to its richness. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Owl and the Nightingale: A New Verse Translation

Simon Armitage. Princeton Univ, $19.95 (152p) ISBN 978-0-691-20216-7

Delivered in a spirited iambic tetrameter, Armitage’s translation of “a quarrel that continues for the better part of eighteen hundred lines of verse, in a style or genre sometimes described as ‘comic debate poetry,’ ” brings to life a dispute between its eponymous creatures. It’s one of the earliest literary works in Middle English, whose date of composition remains unknown, and its rhyming couplets give the poem (and the fighting) a steady rhythm, capturing moments of unexpected philosophical depth as well as bawdy hilarity. Neither bird is above physical insults, as the nightingale declaims: “Your coal-black eyes are weirdly broad” and “You roost by day & fly by night/ which proves that something isn’t right.” The owl accuses the nightingale of “witter[ing] like an Irish priest.” These quarreling creatures often quote King Alfred (“Those mixing with a filthy kind/ shall never leave the dirt behind”), though the owl occasionally imparts even wiser adages, “For as a rule, a thing that pleases/ rankles if it never ceases,” “treachery becomes disgrace/ when played out in a public place.” The facing Middle English text provides a foray for the curious, and Armitage’s introduction expertly sets up this singular work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2022 | Details & Permalink

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A Country of Strangers: New and Selected Poems

D. Nurkse. Knopf, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-32140-9

Spanning 30-plus years and 11 collections, Nurkse’s poems are as fresh and bizarre as ever, lingering at checkpoints, border crossings, transit areas, and “that uncertain moment/ between false dawn and dawn.” Nurkse’s portraits of travelers—with “their suitcases tied with twine, their sacks made of canvas sewn shut, their boxes”—are skillful sketches of forced displacement, as strangers navigate “the sour box” of a tenement’s elevator. These poems are varied in their subjects, exploring illness, the 9/11 attacks, divorce, the poet’s experiences teaching at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, and biological phenomena. “We know the coming disaster intimately but the present is unknowable,” Nurkse observes, and the present is where his poems are sharpest; a new baby is held “safe on that journey/ away from the body,” and a bee circles a house “diligently, like a toy airplane.” These small moments are among the many gifts this memorable collected edition offers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/24/2022 | Details & Permalink

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