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Consider the Rooster

Oliver Baez Bendorf. Nightboat, $19.95 trade paper (124p) ISBN 978-1-64362-238-5

The innovative and ecologically minded third collection from Bendorf (Advantages of Being Evergreen) finds solace in the connections between the human and nonhuman world, centering and celebrating transformation. Many poems assume perspectives beyond the human, as in “What Is a Field?” which asks, “is it a network for stars to enjoy” or “is it a complete cloud system/ full of muscle.” In a poem relaying the story of a neutron star unseen by astronomers for 32 years before its bright reappearance as a supernova, Bendorf reflects on the idea of gender as a journey rather than a destination, “I stood there squinting/ into the heavens thinking if ‘star’ can also be ‘dust cloud’ or ‘nebula’/ or ‘black hole’ then surely gender is far stranger than we’ve imagined/ and much more beautiful, unfurling over decades, a phenomenon.” Other poems highlight the power of Bendorf’s observational writing: “I like to look at what you look at./ Maybe I am looking for a future.” Hopeful and surprising, this inviting volume soars. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Wild

Ben Okri. Other Press, $21.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-63542-292-4

The clarifying poems in Okri’s ruminative latest (after A Fire in My Head) guilelessly connect with the reader: “I need someone to sing/ To, can I sing to you?” As Okri writes in the introduction, these pieces are marked by “a quiet tone” aiming for “true lucidity,” though the simplicity of address does not equate to simplicity of thought. Okri tackles myth and horror just as often as he casts his eye on love and childhood imagination. The dual engines of experience and innocence drive the book’s momentum: “The world is a cauldron/ In which we are mixed”; “The age of magic has begun.” There are also moving elegies for Okri’s parents, focusing on the shifting responsibilities that come with age and the inevitable reversal of care: “I am watching over her./ My turn has come round at last.” The collection is equally interested in themes of reinvention and self-discovery: “You can develop habits of mediocrity/ Just by doing what is required.” Musical and daringly unadorned, these poems offer a memorable and lightly worn wisdom. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Song of My Softening

Omotara James. Alice James, $18.95 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-948579-24-7

The insightful debut by James explores the body and identity with bracing honesty and directness. Fatness and its accompanying social stigma are central themes but make up only one aspect of a more intricate, intersectional perspective. “When you are fat and queer and female and black/ When no one has any use for you except/ Your otherness// When your otherness is a currency,” James writes, laying bare the experience of tokenization and commodification of difference. Many poems ponder the objectification of Black female bodies within a matrix of beauty standards that shift across cultural contexts, from the U.S. to Trinidad to Nigeria, reflected in the speaker’s weary address: “Reader,/ I have been picked up, put down and considered, casually and constantly, which is the privilege/ of beauty.” James plots a difficult course toward bodily autonomy: “No matter how they/ try to claim you, your body/ will never belong to them. It will/ always be ours.” Often transgressive and always enlightening, this provocative collection confronts what it means to see and be seen, to consume and be consumed. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Colorfast

Rose McLarney. Penguin Books, $20 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0143137-52-8

In this life-affirming and refreshing fourth collection, McLarney (Forage) finds beauty in simplicity and experience. These long-lined narrative poems are skillfully rendered, steeped in the southern Appalachia of her foremothers’ kitchens and landscapes. McLarney’s voice is direct and companionable as she traces how the past, which melts away into history and heritage, lives on in the solar plexus of memory. Her poems about a cat rival Christopher Smart’s depiction of Geoffrey in “Jubilate Agno,” capturing the animal’s grace and mystery: “of all the litters ever bred./ And couldn’t the stripes/ of all the tabbies, untwined, turn out to be a single string?” Elsewhere, she considers creation through the stories of Adam and Noah while examining her husband’s ribs: “if he was called keel-chested, at least he might be a boat./ Yes, let him be an ark where a creature can shelter, stay.” Heaven resembles “an empty homestead, set way back from any road,” where the speaker prefers to be. These excellent poems are a testament to finding wonder in the world’s simple truths. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Momently

Black Ocean. Zach Savich, $17 trade paper (68p) ISBN 978-1-939568-77-9

Savich (Daybed) delivers a profound meditation on life’s ephemeral nature in his ruminative fifth collection. These poems capture fleeting moments with a delicate, introspective touch, masterfully blending personal narratives with existential themes. “Given the shortness of life// it’s fine to act like it’s longer,” Savich writes in “featured totalities.” The volume boasts formal and stylistic variety, its language characterized by a rhythmic movement that mirrors the ebb and flow of time in memory: “The compass needle refines until// precision blurs” (“pew”). Savich’s use of white space and caesura slows the reader’s pace of reading, amplifying the meditative quality of these reflections. Lines such as “tell me about the leaves that turn green again// or another green and// never fall” (“scrap diamond”) are rich with sensory details that make transient states of being immersive. These evocative poems mine the complexities of existence and the personal and collective search for meaning. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Fall Creek

Lyn Hejinian. Litmus, $18 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978–1–933959–99–3

Hejinian (The Unfollowing), who died this year, was a founder of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s. In this atmospheric latest, she exposes “sharp shapes of syntax/ from a forest as absences rise/under guests of meaning.” A “fall creek” is an apt metaphor and vehicle for poetry and consciousness itself: “river and river refueled refilled refigured remembered/ crisp and cold as a Gravenstein that Antarctic/ of apples in shadows/ and green ales with authors.” Hawks, cataracts, executioners, motorcycles, the hauling of carbon, and such memories as “a blue Schwinn/ and a basket of syncopated pebbles” surface against “mica light” as each line turns away from what’s expected toward surprise: “thought into fruits on a grandmother/ of trees aproned somewhere/ raptor-forested/ with gray-green philosophy.” A note credits British poet J.H. Prynne with the concept of “driftwork,” which seems to apply to Hejinian’s drifting thought practice on the page. Meaning becomes purposefully provisional, an artistic statement in itself. Readers willing to go with the flow will be riveted. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Beforelight

Matthew Gellman. BOA, $18 trade paper (102p) ISBN 978-1-9601-4510-9

Gellman’s affecting debut is filled with heartbreak, transformation, and light. Family members (mother, father, younger brother, an imagined sister) appear throughout, along with lost boys and men, some of whom are childhood friends and others intimate partners. In “Tyler,” the speaker is one of many tough boys “filling another boy’s bedroom/ with the softer parts of himself.” Metaphors bring humans and nature into sharper focus, as in “Mother, After the Hurricane” (“there’s hardly a stammer in the sky”) and “St. Timothy’s School, 1975” (“our loneliness is a lineage heavy as a heatwave,/ inevitable as a blizzard”). The struggle to grow is infused with longing and an apparent urge to make a difficult past nostalgic. By the book’s final poem, “Alpenglow,” the speaker says he is “not turning/ from loneliness, really, just learning/ to treat it as wind, to make a meager meal// of what boyhood of lacquer and moody/ I clung to.” In these beautiful poems, Gellman resists and airs the sources of his pain, finding a way to accept who he was and who he has become. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Risk

Rusty Morrison. Black Ocean, $17 trade paper (62p) ISBN 978-1-939568-76-2

Morrison’s controlled and inventive latest (after Beyond the Chainlink) employs a rigid syllable count that she describes as a way to “experience limitation as event, not aftermath.” Most entries consist of two seven-syllable phrases per line, divided by an extra space, which visually manifests as a middle margin or a spine of white that moves down the center of her poems, breaking up thoughts in unexpected ways. Her interest in limitation and control is reflected in lines about calorie intake (“Self-starving as protection/ isn’t only about food”), and Morrison is sharply self-aware about self-imposed restriction: “You want to/ trust that starving yourself seals/ what’s inside you. As safe as/ any fridge’s door. Meaning/ seepage is containable. The containment guaranteed.” The controlled structure of these poems allows for a nuanced exploration of the self, language, and others: “Here are five people/ in line at the ATM/ so separately together—/ requires a vigilance/ easy to mistake for calm.” In another piece, she bridges the gap between her own existence and a panhandler she regularly passes on the street. Through formal restraint, this collection effectively probes the secret pains and constraints all people experience. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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a little bump in the earth

Tyree Daye. Copper Canyon, $22 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-55659-688-9

The abundant third collection from Daye (Cardinal) lyrically charts the history of a Black community residing on a hilltop town in North Carolina. “Do-si-do,” an early entry, begins with a child whose thunderous dancing quickly develops into a community-wide song about the kinship between past and present expressed through the land itself: “the storm’s rhythm was caught/ & cornered inside us/ older than the hill’s first field of cucumbers.” In a poem about two sisters whose mother “ate clay & lived/ to be one hundred and three,” Daye perceptively records how ancestral practices rooted in the land have changed over time. Though such acts “scared/ the Bible songs out most of us,” one sister continues to eat clay to maintain a connection to her mother and the land. Daye finds unique ways to share in the making of a community record by collaging historical documents and photographs in several poems, observing in one prose passage, “When we say we remember, that memory is happening. We are there.” These graceful and intelligent poems honor those who have come before through the vital work of remembering. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Hereafter

Alan Felsenthal. The Song Cave, $18.85 trade paper (96p) ISBN 979-8-9878288-5-4

Felsenthal (Lowly) weaves together the physical and the spiritual in his ethereal sophomore outing. Lush and evocative, these meditative poems transport readers to serene landscapes and reflective inner worlds: “Across the waning crescent/ as silver pennies drop, pods/ of honest light shine on/ the night blooming, jasmine stars/ lay out their scent, a poppy speaks” (“Of Climbing Heaven and Gazing on the Earth”). In “Elegy” and “Before Lighthouses, God Wrecked Ships,” Felsenthal juxtaposes natural elements and human emotions to explore the tension between science and religion: “electrolytes are hard to see/ though they’re everywhere./ Recover quickly/ commands the blue bottle./ When will I be able to leave/ this planet, you asked. Months/ for some, hours for others, I read/ in the hospice brochure. The Earth/ alights on the edge of the ether. Calcium/ in the crust, in the air, in water.” Felsenthal powerfully declares that “the future was memory/ and that was enough for God.” These profound yet accessible poems offer solace and insight to those navigating an unsettled existence. (June)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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