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For the Ride

Alice Notley. Penguin, $20 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-14313-457-2

Notley (Certain Magical Acts) has long been synonymous with the second generation of the New York school, feminist poetics, political dissidence, and, in the last several decades, an epic mode that gives her jittery, particular, and inventive poems a novelistic sweep. This visionary book is a postapocalyptic adventure into an unspecified future, one that begins “in the l’Orangerie in Paris with Monet’s Water Lillies... a room of walls which come alive with images and words... like a mind?” but quickly accelerates into a trans-dimensional and gender-defying odyssey. One (her protagonist) and ones (One’s interlocutors) board an ark made of language to save words from the threat of extinction: “One’s not in time, what’s One in? Chaos, beautiful chaos—,” One observes. What follows is a series of 28 chapterlike poems embedded with smaller poems, which gives Notley boundless opportunities to comment on society (“Some ones are crying... opportune for some leaderly bullshit”) and to hopscotch through thoughtlike threads of language. This is a challenging, visionary work. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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From There to Here: Selected Poems and Translations

Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest Univ., $18.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-930630-88-8

This significant, accessible edition allows readers of Carson, who died this October, to witness the poet’s stylistic transformation across volumes—from long lines to more compressed ones, regular stanza lengths to a looser, free-verse style. What is consistent throughout Carson’s shape-changing verse is verbal playfulness: “Romeo was not built in a day, not to speak of Romulus or Remus—,” he writes in “Romeo,” while in companion poem “Juliet,” he imagines the heroine “fingering the oranges and the greens” in the local Verona Market where she meets her love interest. That same inventive sensibility applies to Carson’s more sinister subjects, such as in “Bomb Disposal,” in which he imagines the work entails “Listening to the malevolent tick/ Of its heart, can you read/ The message of the threaded veins/ Like print, its body’s chart?” This theme reemerges in later poems addressing urban anxiety, as in “Belfast Confetti:” “Suddenly as the riot squad moved in it was raining exclamation marks,/ Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type./ And the explosion Itself—an asterisk on the map.” This book serves as a comprehensive introduction to Carson for new readers, and one to be savored by longtime admirers of the Irish poet. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Nervous System

Rosalie Moffett. Ecco, $14.99 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-06-293021-7

Winner of the National Poetry Series, the contemplative second book from Moffett (June in Eden) sifts through one pivotal event—the poet’s mother’s brain injury after a fall—and how its repercussions rippled across the years that followed. Conscientiously associative, the poem features recurring symbols that represent the event, most significantly the spider, whose web is like the nerves of the brain, “a meshwork of silk rope bridges.” Other themes include vegetation, light and vision set against dark and blindness (she describes her mother as “the one who once shielded me in her body like a lit match”), and memory and dreams. Moffett’s cadence is effortlessly elegant; even her description of head trauma is achingly beautiful: “This, with/ a ringing like what, when shaken, the dead/ lightbulb makes.” Though never morose, the book is suffused with grief as the poet mourns a piece of her mother that is gone and uses that experience to prepare for a later, more final grief, whenever it may come: “the me who’s been/ smoothing a spot in my mind for years, like a dog/ turning in circles.” Moffett creates order out of the chaos in this radiant collection, cataloging the known and unknown into a coherent story for both the reader and herself. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Pagan Virtues

Stephen Dunn. Norton, $26.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-324-00231-4

In this 19th book, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Dunn (Different Hours) offers up the soul of a mature, solitary man who appreciates company, but who finds that love is, ultimately, “a better way to be alone.” The humble pagan virtues he upholds may be less flashy than religious ones, but they provide many “options,” such as “to uphold the beautiful// by renouncing the pretty.” Moving from instructions to his eulogist (“for accuracy you might say/ I often stopped,/ that I rarely went as far as I dreamed”) to the disenchantments of success, he advises the lucky to “try to settle in,/ take your place, however undeserved,/ among the fortunate.” The book’s center is the luxurious pit of “The Mrs. Cavendish Poems,” a sequence that moves through an affair with an unsettled, run-on address to the eponymous lady, plumbing the solipsism of its sorrow: “the sea doesn’t want to be bothered today,/ it merely wishes to behave like a lake/ reflect back a face it believes is its own.../ it would also like to change/ its salty ways, but like you,/ Mrs. Cavendish, it can’t.” Intimations of illness and age are carried forward with small steps of irony and courage in Dunn’s latest, moving work. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/15/2019 | Details & Permalink

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An American Sunrise

Joy Harjo. Norton, $25.95 (144p) ISBN 978-1-324-00386-1

Newly named poet laureate and Ruth Lilly prize–winner Harjo (Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings) intertwines verse with prose vignettes, oral histories, and flash memoirs in this expressive and generous book. In a fable about the origins of the saxophone that “made a rip in the sky,” she writes: “Musicians are musicians, no trick will get by./ You either have it, or want it/ Nothing else will fly.” Harjo exhibits this gift in the tight choreography of these pages, evoking the music of her Muskogee ancestors who were among the native peoples forcibly relocated by Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Music is “a sack that carries the bones of those left alongside/ The trail of tears,” she writes. Harjo offers poems of lament and praise, pleas for patience and calls to action: “In the fog of thin hope, I wander this sad world/ We’ve made with the enemy’s words.” Harjo invites the reader to consider the “many migrations stacked within sky memory,” including, most immediately, “the indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the southern hemisphere.” “Nothing is ever/ forgotten says the god of remembering,” she writes in tones that will speak to readers who are ready to remember, or to learn anew. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry

Edited and trans. from the Persian by Dick Davis. Mage, $45 (340p) ISBN 978-1-949445-05-3

Davis, a poet, scholar, and translator of Persian literature, delivers an anthology that provides ample context for readers looking to explore Persian poetry written by women from the Middle Ages to the present. “A significant feature of Persian poetry,” Davis writes, “that distinguishes it from most verse written in European language is that almost all of it—from the earliest poems, to the present day—remains relatively accessible to a contemporary speaker.” Among the contemporary poets included in the anthology is Pegah Ahmadi (born in 1974), an Iranian political refugee and one of the translators of Sylvia Plath into Persian. “Why in the depths of no-progress is nothing moving?” she asks in an untitled poem. “Language is a cutting off of terror/ look, blood doesn’t flow from the wrist,/ and neither does it clot/ and I, whose eye was an open history of intensity,/ throw a razor into the abyss.” With its subtle, comprehensive history of how female poets have responded to political upheaval throughout the centuries, this work provides readers with a thoughtful and thorough introduction to Persian poetry, and the important role that women have played in shaping it. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Space Struck

Paige Lewis. Sarabande, $15.95 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-1-946448-45-3

“Give me more time// and I’m sure I could make this funny,” Lewis states in this vibrant debut collection, an exquisite feast of the brutal and the irreverent presented by a modern voice. Lewis writes to capture apprehension and urgency: “I’m/ the vice president of panic, and the president is/ missing,” and “most of what I see, I see through the gaps/ in my fingers,” as well as to broadcast love and vulnerability from an unstable world, “like a pilot turning off her engines midflight/ to listen for rain on wings.” Here, the unfathomable is rendered plausible as birdwatchers invade the poet’s home to see the last ivory-billed woodpecker, demanding “postcards/ and T-shirts,” and “an avian-themed carousel.” Lewis receives visits from God and St. Francis, is sassed by God’s secretary, and harbors ghosts between their teeth. They observe tiny men on their beloved’s eyes, musing, “when you press your palms/ against your eyes, do they see/ the sparks of light and create new/ names for stars?” Like the natural environment that they often reference, Lewis’s poems are sincere, strange and vulnerable, a combination that makes this work both fragile and vital. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Geometry of Shadows

Giorgio de Chirico, trans. from the Italian by Stefania Heim. A Public Space, $15 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9982675-4-8

Admired by poets Sylvia Plath and John Ashbery, Scuola Metafisica cofounder de Chirico was known primarily as a painter who influenced surrealism and had a penchant for the neoclassical. Here, though, Heim has assembled the first English-language collection of de Chirico’s poems, including short, fragmentary lyrics; long, dense poems of considerable complexity; and prose pieces that resemble autofiction and flash stories. As this intriguing book demonstrates, de Chirico was committed to inter-genre thought and practice, what he called “that/ sacred temple where two Goddesses hold/ hands: true Poetry and true Painting.” De Chirico’s voice is worldly and roving, “Winter will come loosely dressed with a Browning/ in the pocket of its trousers,” and the modernity of Paris gives “the impression of being in a giant jack-in-the-box; of finding oneself before the open curtain of a marvelous theater.” At its best, de Chirico’s writing is unified by a surprising sense of history, humanity, and a baroque absurdity: “One day I too will be man of marble/ Widowed husband on the Etruscan sarcophagus.” While some of the work reads more like diary entries, this is an interesting window into the life of an important and unusual artist. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Soundmachine

Rachel Zucker. Wave, $20 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-940696-86-7

In this artfully layered fifth collection, Zucker (The Pedestrians) punctuates 25 lyrical essays with “myriad things I should never say to you or to anyone.” Spontaneous and shifting from “I” to “she,” these pieces defy genre and interrogate the role of wife, mother, and artist as fixed identities: “Every night I turn off the light & take off my motherskin,” she writes. In poems such as “Song of the Dark Room,” which situates the reader “in this honeycomb with three boys & books & comforts & consumables,” Zucker expertly deploys the catalogue technique: “What the wife has tried: Ambien, counting sheep, apple cider vinegar... rice sock, homeopathy, fear of morning, prayer.” Depicting both the pleasures of long marriage and its tensions with sharp humor and vulnerability (“I’m leaving, the Husband texts. In this context it means he is coming home. I’m going to bed, I respond, which means, in a way, I’m leaving”), Zucker’s speaker looks both inward and outward, confronting mortality firsthand as well as the larger politicized prospect of it (“human forms turned away from each other: bordered, detained, toxic poisons seeping creeping across the borderless natural world”). Zucker renders even the simplest inquiries—such as “hasn’t anyone tried to stop this?”—resonant and profound in this restless and thoughtful book. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New & Selected Poems

Gillian Conoley. Nightboat, $19.95 ISBN 978-1-643620-11-4

Over the course of her career, Conoley’s style has developed from lyric poems recounting a Texas girlhood, to fragmented sequences that play with language and perspective, to roving, cinematic poems that address history, art, biography, and language. Winner of the 2017 Shelley Memorial Award, Conoley makes this transformation visible in these selections, which the poet has organized into sequential, thematic sections independent of her seven collections, introducing unfamiliar readers to her aesthetic preoccupations and concerns. Conoley’s turns of phrase are often surprising: “In the morning the river is busy/ dividing an uncracked code.” Resembling the poems in Peace and The Plot Genie, the eight new poems included shimmer with a techno-political, sometimes post-human voice: “[W]hen can we/ lift off a redacted divinity;” and “I say welcome to our infinite, unmerciful, eternal estrangement, home/ to the girl from Oaxaca crossed over// a placenta’s swell.” While this book won’t necessarily recontextualize Conoley’s oeuvre in the American canon, it provides new and exciting work alongside a broad introduction to an idiosyncratic and innovative poet of the American West. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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