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A Treatise on Stars

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. New Directions, $16 trade paper (209p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2938-8

The 13 books from Berssenbrugge (Hello, the Roses) appear in this volume alongside Empathy, originally published in 1989. While the lines of her newest collection extend across the page, the poems in Empathy are broken into shorter lines, more traditional stanzas. For this poet, “love is a measurement,” meaning the crossing of distance or time. But, as the poet writes in a note that opens the volume, while writing those poems, she was already in the process of developing a new voice influenced by John Ashbery and the West Coast “language poets.” Some of those poems trace memories of China, where the poet lived as a child, while others evoke stunning New Mexico landscapes (she recalls time spent in a rustic adobe house without plumbing). These intriguing, beautiful, yet sometimes frustrating poems take shape as explanations that fail, again and again, to explain anything: “Her persistent observation, even after the frost, is of each leaf coinciding with its luminousness, because of its structure as a lighted space and which shows brightness in idea and form.” Lovers of the constellations and abstraction, however, will find themselves at home in the lyrical language. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Anne Carson. New Directions, $12.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-81122-936-4

It is a hallmark of Carson’s style to leave the juxtaposition of two cultural entities unexplained. The latest stirring verse play by Carson (Nox) takes this practice to its extreme, crafting its title (and only) character by overlaying Marilyn Monroe and Euripides’s Helen, who went to Egypt during the Trojan War and was replaced in Troy by an illusion: “I never went to Troy, that was a cloud, don’t forget this,” she declares. Carson doesn’t attempt to create direct correlations, but rather compresses two women who both entranced the world to study loneliness, motherhood, and the motivations and costs of war in the process: “Hell smells stale. Fights aren’t about anything, fights are about themselves.” Carson wades through the implications of certain Greek words, generating some of her signature lyricism: “Sometimes I think language should cover its own eyes when it speaks,” she writes in “History of War: Lesson 3.” While readers will find themselves more readily oriented if they have some familiarity with both Monroe and the Euripidean Helen—especially when Norma Jeane’s daughter Hermione appears, having overdosed, to mark the distance between the two women’s lives—those willing to follow Carson will be rewarded with her ability to conjure a sentence and character beyond any illusion. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Absurd Man

Major Jackson. Norton, $26.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-324-00455-4

In the shimmering fifth collection from Whiting Award–winner Jackson (Roll Deep), Albert Camus’s concept of the “absurd creator,” who creates “for nothing,” inspires a vivid travelogue from Xichang to North Philadelphia to Paris as Jackson’s speaker searches for meaning. Depicting urban scenes, Jackson recalls a “white-gloved/ doorman who opening a glass door gets a whiff/ of a dowager’s thick perfume and recalls baling timothy/ hay as a boy in Albania.” Elsewhere, Jackson’s eye is laser-sharp and wry, observing as “a drug-riddled couple/ shares the smoldering remains of an American Spirit... this city’s updated version of American Gothic.” Throughout the book, Jackson’s weaving of mythology and literary references serve as context for confrontations with personal ghosts, be they “his dead mother reappear[ing] in a storefront glass” or the grandfather who would “look askance at my treasured collection of stemless wineglasses// and fashionable ascots.” Jackson’s speakers affectingly embrace self-interrogations that reckon with “our affair/ far away from my wife and their husbands” or “my children whom I scarred.” In this accomplished work, readers will find that absurdity is only a stop along the road to larger meaning. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Nail the Evening Hangs On

Monica Sok. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (63p) ISBN 978-1-55659-560-8

Through recurring dreams that demand “You must know. Your history,” as well as her experiences visiting Cambodia, Sok’s reflective debut teases out how the trauma of the Khmer Rouge is remembered and retained in the fabric of the country and within her own family. Sok is a Cambodian- American child of former refugees, and her poems have the sharp complexity of a person who embodies multiple identities. “The Americans hate me and I hate them,/ but they’re the only students with me and maybe I’m American too,” she admits. In “Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions,” Sok steps outside herself: “A daughter of survivors stands in the grass among tattered military/ tanks. She is the only one in her family who wants to visit the museum. Siem Reap, Cambodia. Nov 2016.” Sok celebrates her grandmother, to whom the collection is dedicated, and who was a master weaver. This is where Sok’s quiet, unexpected turns shine: “It made her happy/ as she worked on silk dresses/ and her hair never ran out./ Sometimes when she was tired,/ she’d tie it up/ and let all the tired animals around her house/ drink from her head.” Weaving the threads of her family’s stories, history, place, and identity, these poems glimmer with strength and presence. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stranger by Night

Edward Hirsch. Knopf, $27.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-525-65778-1

With this tender and unflinching 10th collection, Hirsch (Gabriel) balances heartfelt elegy with a celebration of the everyday. In these 48 poems of sensory remembrance, any door might open on the past: “Yesterday I climbed the stairs/ and took the ‘L’/ to 1965 /where I was stuck/ in the heart/ of downtown Chicago.” While offering tributes to Mark Strand, William Meredith, and Phillip Levine, Hirsch’s speakers are ready to “let someone else/ stumble past the mausoleum/ and grieve/ under the calm shade.” Hirsch is interested in capturing ephemeral flashes of human vitality with a lyricism that rises from unadorned eyewitness. Yet his reportage is often framed in ironic negation: “Don’t hitchhike/ the Mediterranean coast/ of Algeria/ in the summer of 1971/ with only a worn copy/ of The Plague to guide you.” In another poem, he remembers a chance encounter with a skyscraper window washer (“I felt oddly gleeful/ when I saw him later/ coming off the job safely/ in street clothes, walking on ground”). While later poems address Hirsch’s loss of eyesight, giving resonance to the collection’s title, readers will be grateful the poet’s inner eye remains as observant and compassionate as ever. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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If Men, Then

Eliza Griswold. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-28077-2

Pulitzer-winning journalist Griswold (Amity and Prosperity) examines the relationship between toxic masculinity, violence, and the creation of public narrative in her incisive poetry debut. Griswold suggests that the conventions of storytelling incite and erase violence against historically marginalized people: “Twenty men crossing a bridge,/ into a village,/ is not a metaphor/ but prelude to a massacre,” she warns. She highlights the way language distances viewers from the escalating violence that floods the news, suggesting various power structures inform which stories are told, and which elicit sympathy: “The Fox News guy slipping his phone number/ over the anchor’s desk,/ below the camera’s eye;/ the radio host calling her a failure for/ becoming a mother.” Griswold presents the news as inextricable from traditional beliefs about gender and power. Yet the speaker of these poems, “eager to share any awful story,” frequently calls attention to the variability of beliefs about storytelling, and it is in this instability that she discovers agency, hope, and the possibility of redemption. She writes, as though describing the movement of the poems themselves: “She was warden of an angry garden,/ guarding against what hoped to grow.” This well-timed exploration of violence and language is an exciting introduction to Griswold’s work. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Postcolonial Love Poem

Natalie Diaz. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-64445-014-7

In this exquisite, electrifying collection, Diaz (When My Brother Was an Aztec) studies the body through desire and the preservation of Native American lives and cultures, suggesting that to exist as a Native in a world with a history of colonization and genocide is itself a form of protest and celebration. She explores this idea in “The First Water Is the Body,” cataloguing the destruction of this invaluable resource by those who seek to protect it: “in the U.S., we are tear-gassing and rubber-bulleting and kenneling natives trying to protect their water from pollution and contamination at Standing Rock.” But it’s desire, both in its erotic form and as present in the will to assimilate, that drives the book: “Like any desert, I learn myself by what’s desired of me—/ and I am demoned by those desires.” “These Hands, If Not Gods” opens with a stunning lyrical address to a lover: “Haven’t they moved like rivers—/ like glory, like light—/ over the seven days of your body?” The elegiac “Grief Work” closes the book with a meditation on longing: “my melancholy is hoofed./ I, the terrible beautiful// Lampon, a shining devour-horse tethered at the bronze manger of her collarbones.” Diaz continues to demonstrate her masterful use of language while reinventing narratives about desire. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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To Make Room for the Sea

Adam Clay. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-57131-497-0

In his contemplative fourth book, Clay (Stranger) draws from an impressive repertoire of forms to tease out complex questions regarding time, epistemology, and memory. “If measuring/ one’s life circular/ makes sense of movement,/ then how should/ we muscle meaning/ into days?” he asks in the opening poem. Clay’s philosophical concerns unify: “Where in a moment/ is the music of a dying leaf?” he muses, reminding readers of beauty’s ephemerality and the narratives people create in order to make sense of the world. Yet, as the book unfolds, Clay’s speakers transform this fearful impermanence into “a blur of accidental happiness,” discovering hope and fulfillment in the intricacies of human connection. As though reflecting on the movement of the poems themselves, he writes, “What starts off as nihilistic/ inside the folds of my thinking// usually ends up as stray/ unkempt optimism.” The work’s arc suggests transformation and redemption through formal shifts that amplify the meaning in the poems themselves. “Anything can change, after all,” as Clay suggests in this accomplished, formally dexterous collection. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Pale Colors in a Tall Field

Carl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (64p) ISBN 978-0-374-22905-4

The rich, ruminative 14th book from Phillips (Silverchest) begins midconversation: “—By fire, then, but within view of a rough sea?” it asks as though imagining how someone would like to die. It ends with an affirmation of spring in “Defiance”: “For by then all the lilies on the pond had opened.” These poems, which are filled with longing and a sense of the poet wrestling with himself, are made up of reflections that frequently run over 10 or so of Phillips’s signature long lines. He frequently alludes to water (the sea, a lake, waves, swimming) and juxtaposes memory and the body in resonant ways. His observations spring from probing mundane images (“say of the sea/ what you will, it’s the shore that endures the routine loss”) or by creating startling juxtapositions (“Like taking/ a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might/ more easily disperse”). “My trade is mystery” he notes in “The Same in Sun as It Felt in Shadow”: “how/ all the more powerful parts to a life—as to art,/ as well, when it’s worth remembering—/ resist translation.” While Phillips is enigmatic in these poems, he is never coy, conjuring a rich intellectual and felt life on the page for the reader. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Malevolent Volume

Justin Phillip Reed. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-56689-576-7

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award, Reed (Indecency) cyclones through a dreamscape full of sorrow and protest in his enchanting and enigmatic second collection. Weaving mythology and scripture with literature, film, music, and political speech, Reed offers a historical, personal, and prophetic tapestry that reflects on civil injustice. His musical style is simultaneously his most exceptional and problematic quality; when he is specific, he is scintillating: “There it goes, thin thing,/ cheshiring between trees/ whose reaper-robes/ trail/ their trains deep underground:/ your life, hangin out// like an exposure.” When he neglects narrative in favor of mystery and acoustic novelty, he occasionally overlabors the reader: “In the great whelm of endless, in this iron gullet, Its voices clap a racket. I/ aim my second mouth at more [meat] [leech] [heap] of aperture in Its/ appall.// ...I gift the second mouth into Its chest [heat] [heat] [speech] I was kept/ alive there I cannot be killed for ingratitude.” While some readers may find themselves reaching for analytical assistance (which Reed’s included index provides), this book proves an enjoyable whirlwind with a simultaneously modern and baroque beat. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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