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Cardinal

Tyree Daye. Copper Canyon, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55659-573-8

“Every road isn’t a way out,” writes Daye (River Hymns) in this striking second collection of poems and full-color photographs that span cities and small towns, focusing in particular on rural, Black communities. The book borrows one of its two epigraphs from the 1949 edition of Victor Hugo Green’s Green Book: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published.” Throughout, Daye investigates where Black people can find safety in a racist America, while memorably cataloguing each area’s complexities and rewards in quiet, nuanced meditations. But the poet’s work also shares a sensibility with Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens—poems like “To: All Poets/ From: Northeastern North Carolina” and “The Motorcycle Queen (for Bessie Stringfield)” track the making of and desire for art. Here, photographs, like the poems, offer a record of a long history of relationships, as one speaker (in a mother’s voice) observes: “I can’t hate a place/ where my grandmother is buried/ beside my other dead in rows.” This book provides a musical, meditative map and account of America. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Cinderbiter: Celtic Poems

Martin Shaw and Tony Hoagland. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-64445-027-7

In the foreword to this lyrical collection of stories in verse and poems, Shaw, a mythologist and storyteller, recalls an afternoon spent with Hoagland (who died in late 2018) looking out at the Irish Sea. There, the joint project, which he remarks has “an oral liveliness to the way the lines skip and twist in their stanzas,” found its origins in a discussion of the story “Cinderbiter.” The result is a book of reinvented bardic lyrics and folkloric sagas. Gems among these include “Deirdre Remembers a Scottish Glen,” a poem full of stunning descriptions of setting: “Glen of my body’s feeding:/ crested breast of loveliest wheat,/ glen of the thrusting lorn-horn cattle,/ firm among the trysting bees.” The speaker describes the glen full of “badgers, delirious with sleep, heaped fat in dens” and “sentried with blue-eyed hawks,/ greenwood laced with sloe, apple, blackberry” before concluding with the striking, resounding final line: “To remember is a ringing pain of brightness.” These wonderful retellings will introduce readers to new and enchanting stories told in a lush, musical way. (July)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tertulia

Vincent Toro. Viking, $20 (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-313534-0

The rhythmic latest from Toro (Stereo.Island.Mosaic) is steeped in spoken word beats as it addresses such contemporary issues as immigration, gun violence, and income inequality. The book is divided into five “acts,” its poems often reading as short and evocative scenes with cinematic imagery. In the opening “On Battling (Baltimore Strut),” descriptions of dancers in a nightclub are juxtaposed with the language of war: “a single shirtless/ seraph unfurls himself/ upon the tarmac. Flexing/ faux leather, he gyrates, feather-/ glides, thunderclaps, then jukes/ toward the 16,000-pound/ armored personnel carrier.” In “Core Curriculum Standards: P.S. 137,” the poet tours a public school: “chip wrappers wet/ newspapers rusty nails/ gym shoe musk/ ambling through unkempt/ hallways fissure fresco/ of soda stains.” The standout poem is the moving elegy “Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead,” presumably written in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. The title phrase is woven throughout as a haunting refrain, while the speaker narrates a litany of atrocities: “Oxygen is put on the black market. Bones are used/ to hold up infected roofs. Unidentified remains/ get poured like concrete into jilted lungs.” While non sequiturs occasionally dilute the poems’ impact, this is an energetic effort by a supremely original voice. (June)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Clearing

Allison Adair. Milkweed, $22 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-57131-514-4

Adair considers in her imaginative debut the intersection of human and animal life, closely examining the experience of womanhood. The nonhuman subjects of the poems are often vaguely menacing, though presented in a way that inspires awe rather than fear. There is, for instance, the unforgettable image of “the earwig/ who, for the third day now, waits in your phone’s receiver,/ pincers sharpening on the stone of their own mercy.” Elsewhere, another insect fantasizes about a recently visited flower: “the wasp who shutters the hive of its compound eyes just to live there, again, in that bloomy velvet.” Adair’s musical language and vivid imagery begs to be read aloud: “this year the scrawny splinters of winter refuse spring’s reckless flesh.” The complexities (and indignities) of being a wife, mother, and person are analyzed in poems like “As I Near Forty I Think of You Then,” in which the speaker views her own mother with greater empathy: “Years my father spent/ quoting the Bible as you swept and stewed, saved,/ let out hems. While we kicked and bickered/ your thirties away.” Like Grimms’ fairy tales, Adair’s poems are dark without being bleak, hopeless, or disturbing. Readers will find the collection’s lush language and provocative imagery powerfully resonant. (June)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Code

Charlotte Pence. Black Lawrence, $15.95 trade paper (102p) ISBN 978-1-62557-827-3

The grief-filled, moving second book from Pence (Many Small Fires) opens with poems on family juxtaposed against violence. Pence has an eye for dramatic detail—of a famous Empire State Building jumper, she writes: “What’s curious, though,/ isn’t the limousine hood that crumpled around her like a black satin pillow...// but on that day,/ she, like the rest of us, dressed for the cold.” The book’s second section addresses the death of Shira Shaiman, a friend who died of cancer. In a prose introduction, Pence recalls that Shaiman’s forgotten MFA manuscript fell out of a box of winter clothes, summoning memories of their friendship (five of Shaiman’s poems are included here). These poems are followed by a narrative sequence about young parents as the mother falls ill with a degenerative disease, and in which Pence presents the genetic code (in a combination of letters) for a number of genetic disorders, including cystic fibrosis and color blindness. A family’s trip to see cave paintings in Spain leads to reflections on gene-editing technology. Pence offers readers a thoughtful look at questions of ethics, hope, and science, and a memorable journey through pain and survival. (July)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Rendang

Will Harris. Wesleyan Univ., $15.95 ISBN 978-0-8195-7989-8

“Tjandra Sari,/ I call you wrongly. Rend me/ rightly. Rootless and unclear,” concludes the first poem in Harris’s sonically rich debut, following a page of riffs on the book’s title: “rend, renderer, rendezvous.” (Rendang is a Sumatran stew.) Of British and Chinese-Indonesian descent, Harris writes vividly on language and family, conjuring cityscapes from London to Chicago to Jakarta, continually reimagining his own visions. Amid racism and violence, these poems still manage to sing: “chanting in bloom my soul before/ I knowed it chanting too/ I ran down to the tube and from/ Gray’s Inn Rd to Farringdon to the Golden Lane Estate/ buddleia not buddha chanting in bloom.” While the collection opens with a quotation by Derek Walcott (and questions of empire circle throughout), the book ends with a nod to W.S. Merwin’s poem about failing as a son. Here, Harris offers an urgent and moving exploration of cultural identity and legacy, one made all the richer by its unique narrative structure and playful attention to sound. (July)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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After the Body: Poems New and Selected

Cleopatra Mathis. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-9464486-0-6

Over the last four decades, Mathis (Book of Dog) has quietly crafted lyrically precise, often harrowing poems in which the poet’s “throat is a long avenue of ice,/ cutting the familiar good words/ at their source.” This generous volume draws from the poet’s recorded gifts and losses: poems of early and late motherhood, a child’s mental illness and institutionalization, human and nonhuman deaths within and beyond the poet’s purview. As the poet studies “the art of now and wait, to love/ what’s not a part of me,” the swamps and bayous of her childhood home morph into the woods and coastlines of New England: “Some pinion/ connects who we are with whatever pulls us/ to walk into the evening’s wetland grasses/ in an air made of sounds we listen for/ ...the grace of seeing that will save us.” To these earlier works are added two dozen new poems of extraordinary acuity, many of them attempts to describe the wracking pain as the poet struggles with crippling illness. Rereading the poet’s past work through her present reveals hidden continuities. In these knowing poems, readers may recognize their own humanity, as well as the sometimes-impossible conditions of living. (July)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Arrows

Dan Beachy-Quick. Tupelo, $22.95 ISBN 978-1-946482-30-3

The opening poem to the meditative seventh book by Beachy-Quick (Of Silence and Song) provides a preface, “a wandering/ introduction/ to wonder’s/ barbed dislocations.” What follows are short, spare poems with a beautiful lyrical sweep that explore sensory stimuli (optics, music) and systems of organization and knowledge (religion, ethics, prosody), all with a careful eye for striking imagery and sound: “anger, calm/ it’s only a stone, the mind—/ stone with storm inside—.” Included are also poems inspired by classical writers and stories, some that seem to speak to greater literary motifs: “The wind blows many things off course./ A strong gust tears the winnowed husk in two/ Carries the chaff in different directions... But different versions mostly end the same./ This story is about a man and a ship” (“Theseus’s Ship”). The final poem revels in the collection’s sonic play: “a moth/ and a moth, and a month, or a mouth,/ or is it a month, yes, all torn out.” With a light touch and a clear gift for sound and sense, Beachy-Quick delivers a stirring collection of unusual thoughtfulness. (July)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Anodyne

Khadijah Queen. Tin House, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-947793-80-4

In the formally adventurous fifth collection from Queen (Non-Sequitur), poetry serves as a space for dialogue and investigation about disparate ways of seeing the world. Juxtaposing the quotidian and the extraordinary, the joyful and the violent, and philosophy with the tangibles of lived experience, Queen’s poetics invite wild revisions of artistic tradition: “You feel the sun of unknown experiments,” her speaker warns the reader. The poems in this accomplished volume suggest that limitations in thinking begin in language: “The violence of language in every space/ I enter... I think I am losing everything but my mind.” For Queen, the possibility of social justice begins in language, which she frames as the very foundation of the social order: “Her mother had vision/ & the power in a Black woman’s name/ saves us all.” Like much of the collection, this passage memorably considers the various judgments implicit in language and speech. While maintaining a purposeful relationship between experimental style and socially engaged, lyrical writing, Queen’s collection reads as a testament to the power of poetry to raise awareness and shape the world. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Middle Distance

Stanley Plumly. Norton, $26.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-324-00614-5

Plumly (Orphan Hours), in his posthumous 12th collection, studies his own mortality “like a man in love with something,” as he writes in “With Weather.” In clear-eyed and powerful page-long lyric poems filled with questions and wonder, he takes readers from his Ohio childhood to Europe and into the natural world. Plumly’s life crossed with several other poets mentioned and conjured here, among them Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, and Wallace Stevens. Nature and memory are beautifully captured throughout, as in “Germans,” a memoir piece about 11 WWII prisoners-of-war who helped out with his family’s lumber business in Virginia. “It takes time,” he notes, “by hand, to humble a tree.” In “White Rhino,” the poem that opens the collection, he wonders, “How long a life is too long.” In that poem’s final lines, he describes the rhino’s “great heart lifted down,/ the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry.” That line echoes through the deeply felt poems and prose pieces of this meditative collection. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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