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Inheritance

Taylor Johnson. Alice James, $18.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-13-1

Johnson’s singular debut explores detachment and communion from a Black trans perspective. Their speakers often situate the reader in precise locations, frequently in Washington, D.C., or natural settings outside the city, where one might “[listen] for muscadines swelling in the ditches on the waterlogged sides of the highway.” Yet such locales serve as doorways into a psychic landscape that is often less certain. “Down one road in your mind you are walking alone; down another everyone is your wife,” Johnson asserts in one lyrical prose piece inspired by Miles Davis. In “Trans Is Against Nostalgia,” Johnson finds that “There is a new/ language I’m learning by speaking it.” Such language can be as seductively musical in this collection as it is analytical (“O shipmate,/ our atlas is a chasm/ of ache”). But these considerations of semiotics and meaning are grounded in experience: “Nothing is like jail. Nothing... approximates it. Nothing is like being detained, except for being detained.” Johnson makes the case that “I is a plural state/ of being,” effectively demonstrating the rewards of complexity and multiplicity in these memorable poems. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Wound from the Mouth of a Wound

torrin greathouse. Milkweed, $16 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-57131-527-4

The glittering, energetic debut from greathouse seeks to honor and give voices to all bodies: “Before I could accept this body’s fractures, I had to unlearn lame as the first breath of lament,” she writes. Using images and language with surgical precision, greathouse focuses her energy on the body as the site of a “litany of ordinary violences,” a place where scars become stars, where there is power and fear. Here, the body is a space of pain and death (she observes herself as “the first dead son my mother does not bury”), but also birth, beauty, and transformation. For the speaker, the journey from one gender into another is not a form of addition, but a form of subtraction: “Woman/ by inverse proportion. Last light/ passing through the eclipse of a closing eye.” “I admit, I love most what can be removed from me,” greathouse writes. It is the persistence and desire for survival in these poems that makes this collection unflinching in its vulnerability and its power. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Visible Woman

Allison Funk. Parlor, $13.99 trade paper (70p) ISBN 978-1-64317-193-7

The elegant sixth collection from Funk (Wonder Room) contemplates the lives of women under patriarchy through the motif of artistic creation. In “Cells” (after a series of enclosures by the artist Louise Bourgeois), the speaker admits: “Although self almost rhymes/ with cells, I often feel I have/ nothing/ in common with the body/ I’m in.” The treatment of the body is a concern throughout the collection, which investigates memory and grief while speaking on behalf of the physical. In “Against Vanishing,” the collection’s opening poem, she writes: “Afraid she is about to vanish/ I summon her/ rib by rib, scapula, tibia,/ knowing how perfect she is/ inside where she cannot see.” Bourgeois is a muse and spirit guide, appearing repeatedly in poems about formation and womanhood. In “A Ghazal Written After Reading a Notebook Kept by Louise Bourgeois,” each couplet ends with the word thread: “What’s more, she claims, pain is the business she’s in./ To get out of her mess she’ll follow a thread.// It’s an art, she says to the doctor she sees./ How women sew codes into dresses with thread—.” Readers will find that Funk’s sensitive writing on the female experience is sonorous, precise, and often arresting. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Animal Days

Joshua Beckman. Wave, $18 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-95026-809-2

Beckman (The Inside of an Apple) returns with a collection preoccupied with observation and self-understanding. These six long poems center on the details of nature, balancing a traditional pastoral with harsher images of “toxic air,” “chrome soup fog,” blood, and parasites. The short lines of Beckman’s wave-like form create smaller phrases whose evocative meanings complicate, or even diverge from the direction of the sentence as a whole: “while I/ like an enormous / pillow of much/ on the other hand/ seem to be moving/ all the time.” An unidentified physical pain or syndrome affects the speaker, producing a “sick seeming fever,” and the sensation that their “still chipped hands become poisoned.... Everything I touched caused me pain.” This more visceral engagement produces Beckman’s most complex images, as when he describes “blood shed skin/ and the hair/ that filled my pocket/ and the fat that made/ my mind a thing.” Readers interested in the fragment as a form, or in the relationship of the body to perception will appreciate how Beckman unfolds and rearranges the physical phenomena he describes. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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God of Nothingness

Mark Wunderlich. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-64445-042-0

The superb fourth collection from Wunderlich (The Earth Avails) disarms with its directness, humor, and pathos. The book is divided into four parts and made up of mostly one- and two-page poems, a handful of which are inspired by paintings, and several prose poems. In “Haunted House,” he recalls the renovation of a property in vivid, precise lines full of arresting details: “We tore up a floor to uncover a floor,// sanded tulip poplar to a sheen. I let/ the others unhouse the rat snake/ muscled around the boiler pipes downstairs.” Wunderlich envies the “sublingual exchange” of animals (the cat is “unburdened by the need// to assign language”). In horses, he observes “the vexing condition of their indifference to me/ as it taught me a sharp lesson/ about the harder arrangements of affection,/ it being possible to love another being with one’s fullest self,/ and see how that love could be absorbed,/ lived with, accepted even—and not have that feeling returned.” In “First, Chill,” he writes of secretly admiring “the first hard frost// killing the garden, putting an end/ to its many failures.” Throughout, the moving struggle between the desire for connection with the living and the “bruise” of the ghosts of those who have died rises off the page. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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American Melancholy

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $26.99 (128p) ISBN 978-0-06-303526-3

In urgent and unsettling poems that question national mythology, Oates (Tenderness) brings her talent as a storyteller and powers of observation to bear on a variety of American characters and institutions. Oates’s subjects range from Marlon Brando, whom she describes as the pinnacle of the “male predator” who “had thrown away greatness,” to the very concept of American history itself, which Oates addresses as a battered and beaten wreck bereft of any supposed former glory: “Old America freckled with melanomas,/ straggly hair to his shoulders/ like the boy—General Custer, and/ fester-/ ing sores/ on his back, sides, and belly/ has come home to die/ where no one remembers him—.” Many of these poems explore a deep contradiction inherent in the American psyche, as in the poem “Apocalypso,” which uses enjambed lines to playfully capture a morbid fascination with the fragmentation of social order: “Something thrill-/ ing in cata-/ clysm &/ in the col/ lapse of Empires.” Oates’s America is physically and psychologically distressed, but it cannot find solace “seeking milk, love,/ where there’s none.” Written with mournful and harrowing clarity, this collection reveals an America grown accustomed to cruelty and forgetting. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everything

Andrea Cohen. Four Way, $16.95 trade paper (136p) ISBN 978-1-945588-68-6

The playful seventh book from Cohen (Nightshade) opens with an epigraph from Antonio Porchia: “Every toy has the right to break.” The opening poem, “Wrecking Ball,” picks up on this motif: “Its offices are thin/ air. On days off// it still goes in—/ wrecking balls are// workaholics.” Divided into four sections, these short-lined poems often border on the spiritedly surrealist or absurd: prison bars become “stripes pried/ from a zebra’s back,” and in the two-line offering “Safety Glasses,” the speaker announces, “The rose tint/ isn’t optional.” Yet in their absurdity these poems subvert assumptions about a world filled with sorrow, silence, and hurt. A master stylist, Cohen uses em dashes and commas with an exactness that allows each poem to become elliptical and self-contained. These poems take no “thing” for granted, not even the concept of eternity, as Cohen declares in “Openings”: “I didn’t want// forever forever.” It is the wit that astounds here, and an intelligence that sees the world anew. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems

Yusef Komunyakaa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-60013-6

With 140 poems, including 12 new works, this dazzling collection makes a definitive case for the Pulitzer Prize–winning Komunyakaa as a monumental and singular American voice. A jazzy master of enjambment and arresting opening lines, Komunyakaa synthesizes natural history, myth, and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity into sensory acts of witness. Rarely has lyrical precision felt this muscular; Komunyakaa likes to invoke a reader’s senses “as the mind/ runs to keep up.” His connoisseurship of blues, soul, and jazz is vividly rendered: “An echo of Sam Cooke hangs/ in bruised air, & for a minute// the silence of Fate reigns over/ day & night.” Frequent evocations of battle—informed by his own experience of war—provide subtle moral commentary: “After a nightlong white-hot hellfire/ of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,/ plugged into government-issued earphones,/ hearing hard rock,” finding echoes in the microcosmic “Slaves Among Blades of Grass”: “The Amazon ants dispatch/ Scouts armed with mandibles/ Sharp as sabers.” In this roving survey of history and nature, violence often meets beauty, but Komunyakaa never forgets how “The body remembers/ every wish one lives for or doesn’t.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Kim Addonizio. Norton, $26.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-393-54089-5

The cunning and taut lines in the irreverently funny latest from Addonizio (Mortal Trash) reveal a poet teetering on the edge of existential ennui. The collection opens with the humorous poem “Night in the Castle,” in which an artist’s grant has afforded the poet speaker palatial accommodations and she is carried away by grandiose flights of fancy: “I want to stay here & poison the king next/ I want to be a feared and beloved queen ordering up fresh linens &/ beheadings.” Elsewhere, Addonizio responds to Walt Whitman’s contention in “Song of Myself” that he might prefer to live among animals, declaring that animal life is probably not as idyllic as he imagines: “I know you like grass but it’s no fun to be a pricey pre-hamburger/ ruminating with no TV.” A true master of the bon mot, she declares in “Telepathy,” “Men like to say they’re not mind readers, but the ones I’m drawn to aren’t/ readers at all.” Several moments in these poems suggest a universal despair and loneliness that feels in keeping with the present moment, but Addonizio’s incredible comedic timing and brilliance at subverting the reader’s expectations ensures the mood is never too dark for long. These poems are brilliant reflections from the high priestess of the confessional. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Shifting the Silence

Etel Adnan. Nightboat, $14.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-64362-030-5

“I am not in a hurry to live, am not in a hurry to die, but just talking to you,” Adnan (Seasons) admits in her musing and reflective collection about life at 95. Her conversation with the reader covers history, personal recollections, philosophy, mythology, love, and war, with the breadth and generosity of a period in her life in which she claims she has “more memories than yearnings.” Here, sorrow is illuminated by a buoyant honesty. “The pain of dying,” Adnan writes, “is going to be the impossibility of visiting.” Life is revisited again and again in these pages; old friends are named, places from Mount Shasta to Paris are explored, and final hopes are offered (“I dream of a room with no furniture, of a past with very few friends, of a country with no weapons”). Each paragraph in these prose poems pushes against the idea that there is “no resolution to somebody’s final absence.” “I’m telling you:” she writes, “we’re carried by tornadoes we barely notice, whirlwinds we barely feel, aggressions we barely acknowledge, because we’re half awake.” This memorable collection continues Adnan’s legacy as a poet of the personal, political, and cosmic. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/18/2020 | Details & Permalink

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