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Antes Que Isla Es Volcán/Before Island Is Volcano

Raquel Salas Rivera. Beacon, $16 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8070-1457-8

The emboldening tour de force from Rivera (Poems for the Nation) illuminates tyranny in his native Puerto Rico and reimagines a decolonized future. Rivera reproaches exploitation, entitlement, and bigotry as he calls for unity and perseverance. Though the subjects of these poems blossom from oppression, the poet does not lament: “we live under fascism.// ...you won’t lose what you don’t have.// we live on stolen time.” In his most deceptively simple poem, he repeats “the independence of puerto rico,” separating “the independence” from “puerto rico” through spacing and parentheses, gradually bringing the words closer, then eliminating independence to form the portmanteau puertorico, visually representing a transition toward unity and sovereignty. Cogent allusions and metaphors (including a discourse with Shakespeare’s The Tempest) form vivid and memorable images. A master of aphorisms, his shortest poem is five words: “changing masters/ didn’t free you.” These poems of protest challenge the status quo in a cry for equity that brings Puerto Rico’s heartbeat to the page. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season: Selected Poems

Forough Farrokhzad, trans. from the Persian by Elizabeth Gray. New Directions, $16.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3165-7

This excellent assemblage of the late Farrokhzad’s selected work brings the yearning and sensual lyricism of the modernist Iranian poet to a contemporary audience. Gray’s introduction provides useful context on Farrokhzad’s tragically short life, while her curation captures much of the arc and scope of Farrokhzad’s poetic imagination over the course of the poet’s prolific writing career. Early poems announce Farrokhzad’s dissatisfaction with repressive mid-20th-century Iranian culture: “Weary of zealous restraint, at midnight, in Satan’s bed/ I would seek shelter in the descent to a fresh sin.” Insistence on her own mortality runs through her oeuvre, “I kissed the cross of my fate/ on the hills of my execution,” while she continues to chafe under the strictures of society, “My body no longer fit the cocoon of my loneliness.” Full of powerful and often revolutionary feminist spirit, Farrokhzad’s bold verse should find new readers thanks to this skillful translation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Vinegar Hill: Poems

Colm Tóibín. Beacon Hill, $22.95 (144p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0653-5

Novelist Tóibín (The Magician) delivers a sparkling debut collection shaped by mist and nostalgia, and rendered with precise imagery and dark humor. The opener, "September," closes, " 'Someone told me you were dead.' " Both his short and extended poems include reportage ("Dublin: Saturday, May 23, 2015" takes place on the day same-sex marriage is voted in), a fascination with the small details in paintings (in "Small Wonder," a glass bowl in Veronese's "Annunciation" is "close to not being there") and bleak weather that seems as much internal as external (in "The Marl Hole" the dark is "like the night air itself,/ Released from the prison of outside,/ Tender, persistent, nosing around"). In "Eve," Tóibín's gifts as a novelist shine through as Eve is seen looking back at God and her time in the garden, "when the night sky/ Hardens over us." Would Eve like to return to paradise again? "No, but I would like yesterday to come/ Again, wash itself over us,/ Fondle us with its shredded beauty." These exact and lyrical poems are full of striking moments that will reward fans of Tóibín's fiction and garner new admirers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Today in the Taxi

Sean Singer. Tupelo, $18.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-946482-69-3

The exquisite third collection from Singer (Honey & Smoke) vibrates with the energy of New York City and its itinerant denizens. A taxi driver from 2014 to 2020, Singer captures the complexities of the job in prose poems that document the trips the driver and his passengers take together. In one poem, a mother leaves her baby in the backseat while she retrieves a forgotten item from her apartment, prompting the driver to reflect, "I was nervous. Some people live without contradiction. I remained calm though the situation was beyond the job description." Descriptions of the city blur reality with the imagination: "The air moved across the miles bearlike in the atmosphere; the pale-cherry tissue of darkness and the little alleys on make-believe streets. From there you can feel the plasma of waves." At times, the act of driving becomes a process of merging with the vehicle itself: "We're made of steel and rubber. We only say what is absolutely necessary and try to get many avenues of solid greens." Full of life and wisdom, this generous collection explores the semiprivate, semipublic transactions and negotiations that get individuals from here to there. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Swallowed Light

Michael Wasson. Copper Canyon, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-600-1

"It has darkened here only because the light is inside/ the room," Wasson observes in one of the characteristic studies of perception in his meditative debut. The book's opening poem, "Aposiopesis [or, the Field Between the Living & the Dead]," refers to a hitch or break in speech, which leaves what comes after it unsaid. Fittingly, this collection draws its shape around holes and tunnels, the vulnerability of feeling overcome, the legacy of violence, and the honesty required for truly stating one's feelings: "Are you honest enough to say [/] You've ever/ loved?" Shaped out of contemplation, mourning, and a desire for renewal, these poem carefully build as they consider their subjects. One poem instructs, "Carve the wind apart/ into one single/ lasting answer," which serves as a motif for the poet's own lyric exploration of light, boyhood, and nimipuutímt language and storytelling. A late poem ends with ascendancy, having "let my last/ eye open." These deeply felt pages offer a bold tapestry of imagery and thought. (May)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Lapis

Kerri Webster. Wesleyan Univ., $15.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-8195-0007-6

An epigraph from Oscar Wilde, "Where there is sorrow there is holy ground," is one of several that opens the introspective and conversational latest from Webster (The Trailhead). Investigating death, including that of her mother, a mentor, and a friend, these poems circle grief in four sections of prose, list, and long lyric poems that make intriguing use of white space. In "Elegy," Webster writes, "And I was equal to my longing:/ the mums blackening;/ sorrow a carboned figurine;/ the firmament steaming; your ashes/ interred in the boulder;/ the ugly birds crying dolor dolor dolor." In "Primrose, Orchid, Datura," she declares "-blossoms collected in jars,/ granite thieved from silt. I napped and architected/ a decadent inwardness." This entry, which displays Webster's gift for moving and surprising imagery, ends: "Once I was a girl/ who wore feathers and ivory, a woman who let/ the tap run in the desert past all decency. Forgive me." In "Against Shame," she writes, "For the scroll of lamentations, no remedy. Your ravaged arms, your garnet light, your when, not if: poison mistranslated as honey." Webster's expert use of form and evocative vision make this affecting and memorable. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Heart First Into This Ruin: The Complete American Sonnets

Wanda Coleman. Black Sparrow, $22.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-57423-253-0

In this essential collection of Coleman's signature "American Sonnets," critical poise and dazzling imagery are on resounding display. Coleman throws herself "heart first into this ruin": the ruin of America, of love, and of the body. Relentlessly reinventing the inherited sonnet form, her poems offer a critique of "creative capitalism," "brutal powers," and "this sham world." Each dizzies with imagination and her ever-present wit: "i cannot swim/ and i have been refused a mae west." Jostling between centuries-old language and the intimacy of the colloquial, Coleman becomes a kind of "rebel angel," fully invested in desire and what stands in the way of the heart. A poem after Robert Duncan admits, "o memory. i sweat the eternal weight of graves," while other sonnets ask "toward what" our society travels, and argue against "the killer humdrum of life without fulfillment." Transcending and outlasting eras, Coleman's incisive poems sing out against long-standing inequalities. This complete edition offers an indispensable look at one of the most important and surprising voices in American poetry. (June)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Casual Conversation

Renia White. BOA, $17 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-950774-55-5

In this urgent, vehement, and sardonic debut, White questions the status quo, public and private discourse, and hope. As a salient motif, she invites the reader to reassess their perceptions: "congratulations,/ you have chosen what makes it easier to not see me with difficulty. I understand/ how hard it can be to know in order for you to eat, someone else had to starve" ("november 9, 2016"). In the trenchant "lump," White envisions creating an illustration for the police: "in this part the girl is without head./ I draw her bone-jut and sweet—/ an extravagant lump referencing what isn't present." She proceeds to powerfully declare that "perhaps a headless girl can be imagined humanely./ perhaps this girl will be treated as if she were/ headed...// gonna make me a girl you can't knee press,/ officer. Make her of ground she's already down on.// you can't tell her ‘get down' further if she is/ ground itself." The language throughout is textural, limber, and torrential, suited to be read aloud as White captures the daily struggles faced by women of color. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cain Named the Animal

Shane McCrae. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-60285-7

"Your English is dead yet it tugs away from you/ Like a strong dog fighting a leash," McCrae writes in his powerful eighth collection. For a collection that uses the word heaven often, rarely has salvation felt more tenuous. Building upon the biblical world that McCrae has fashioned across previous books, questions of life and death give rise to poems exploring the possibility of redemption, including a series in which a robot bird leads the speaker through hell, where the speaker's body is torn apart before being reassembled: "The coming back together was/ Agony greater than the flying/ Apart had been." There's something terrifyingly amiss but prophetic and necessary in McCrae's vision of the world, his spiraling syntax perfectly capturing contemporary peripatetic experiences in "Nowhere is Local": "I've never anywhere I've/ Lived before wanted to be buried where I've lived/ But have ignored live-/ long all my life the longest part of life." This dazzling collection tests the limits of language, memory, and mythmaking in wildly inventive, often devastating ways. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/15/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Paradise

Victoria Redel. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-954245-13-6

The stunning fourth collection from Redel (Woman Without Umbrella) is her most ambitious yet, a reflection on exile, migration, and diaspora that is at once intimate and sweeping. Drawing on family histories known and imagined, the poet ranges across time and place. “I reached my body into another century,” she writes. “If I’m walking a path hugging the Hudson,/ how is it I’m in Romania, birthing my mother in a high bed,// in another home the family abandons just in time?” A first-generation American of Belgian, Egyptian, Polish, Romanian, and Russian descent, the poet searches for stories of lineage: “What is my city? My country? Is homeland... Every city,// a boat to a next refuge.” She reckons with multiple positions: “We tended. We kissed. We starved, fattened, raped./ We hung up, hung out. We shot, shattered, raped.” Stunned by complicity, she asks: “How could they hold our hands if they knew/ what we’d done with our hands.” For all of the brutality captured, Redel’s writing shows a constant and tender regard for beauty: “All those years of worry when I might have chosen wonder.” Readers aching for poetry of compassion and consequence will embrace this bold book. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/22/2022 | Details & Permalink

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