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Dunce

Mary Ruefle. Wave, $25 (104p) ISBN 978-1-940696-85-0

Ruefle (My Private Party) delivers a giddy, incisive ode to failure, fragility, and unknowing in her 12th book. “It may be our heads/ are filled with feathers/ from the stuff/ we don’t know,” she hazards, tiptoeing through one after another outlandish scenario sketched with uncanny delicacy. Many of these poems conceal sly fragments of lyric allusion or history: “I loved to wander, utterly alone”; “The fourteenth way of looking at/ a blackbird is mine.” Rhymes abound as though refusing resistance to such play, and a poem that opens in euphoria (“What a beautiful day for a wedding!”) ends, just a few lines later, in despair (“I hate my poems”). However, the poet reassures the reader that such states are kindred, even twinned. Ruefle celebrates the world’s imagination and mystery: “I want to thank my clothes for protecting my body. I want to/ fold them properly—I want/ the energy that flows from my hands/ to engulf the world./ Upon reflection, this is not/ possible. Upon reflection/ it is I who am pummeled by/ the world, that vast massage/ machine.” These poems grace the readers with wonder, wisdom, and whim “conducted/ without compromise,” securing Ruefle’s reputation among poets as the patron saint of childhood and the everyday. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Daniel

Aaron Smith. Univ. of Pitt, $17 (80p) ISBN 978-0-8229-6596-1

The direct and vulnerable fourth collection from Smith (Blue on Blue Ground) explores queer identity, masculinity, and mortality, informed by the American obsession with celebrity in its various forms (“My Brad should be Pitt. My Daniel// Craig. My Hardy/ Thomas and Tom”). Smith exalts in sonic play and striking candor, recasting the confessional mode by refusing self-importance. Poems such as “A Critical History of Contemporary American Poetry,” which, among less flattering comparisons, likens Elizabeth Bishop’s critical reputation to Meryl Streep’s, reveal the poet’s impulse for satire in order to deflate literary gravitas. The speakers here exhibit their neuroses with a humorous self-awareness: “I’m mean to men// with perfect throats who take selfies in the mirror/ at the gym: let doors close on them in stores,// never say excuse me if I bump into them.” In “Cosmopolitan Greetings,” the speaker admits: “I’m not afraid to go to the dentist because you’re only naked from the neck up.” These antiheroic personas refuse pat epiphanies yet draw affecting meaning from painful experiences (such as encounters with homophobia) and news reports that show humanity at its worst. Smith’s irreverence elsewhere provides credibility to his political outrage and genuine pathos to the narrative of his mother’s cancer diagnosis. This newest collection offers an expansive, diverse consideration of identity and grief. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Feel Free

Nick Laird. Norton, $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-324-00274-1

In Laird’s precise, energetic fourth collection (after Go Giants), his chief poetic gift—an intimate voice of mixed vernaculars that gets inside the reader’s head—is on full display. Whether bedside with his children, walking “a scrubby acre at Creggandevesky,” watching a sea bass that eyes him from a plate, or navigating traffic en route to his dying mother in hospice, Laird’s line has musical integrity and strength. Infusing the intensity of childhood with the sorrow of losing a parent, Laird explores this timeless subject in “The Folding,” in which he folds paper snowflakes with his children. Here, childhood and parenthood are presented as the same thing, reversed. Before the poem concludes with a gorgeously described snowy day, it observes “that infinite complexity’s composed/ by simple rules.” Similarly, another standout poem in the collection, “The Vehicle and the Tenor,” rises to the manic threshold of grief, the devastating reality of his mother’s dying, “beyond metaphor.” Laird offers the reader a subtle, lasting meditation exploring the family as it was, as it is, or as it could be. (July)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tracing the Horse

Diana Marie Delgado. Boa, $17 (112p) ISBN 978-1-942683-87-2

Delgado’s stirring debut offers a ledger of the violence inflicted on female bodies within La Puente, located in the San Gabriel Valley of greater Los Angeles: “Men are the only islands/ I’ve ever lived on./ I’ll never get away.” “Now in the middle of my life,” she declares, “my journey is to forgive/ everything that’s happened.” Within Delgado’s poetics, forgiveness stems from the creation of beauty. As the book unfolds, Delgado situates the violent oppression of migrant women against a backdrop of the natural world; “The moon’s gone down again,” she explains in the title poem. Here, the speaker’s internal life is projected onto a desert landscape, as Delgado provocatively challenges the boundaries between interior and exterior, self and other, individual and collective. Despite its timely narrative arc and provocative political resonances, most of the work’s aesthetic choices rely on familiar images. “I rode through the stars,” she writes, “through streets where the wind talked to us./ Savage birds called out; I looked up and listened.” Some readers may wish for a more capacious definition of beauty than “birds,” “love,” and “the stars,” but Delgado’s vulnerable, deep exploration of the self is memorable. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Levee

Paul Otremba. Four Way, $15.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-945588-41-9

Otremba (Pax Americana), who died last month, grippingly explores physical and metaphorical violence within familiar literary forms. “If you introduce dialogue/in the first act,” he warns, “they still demand/ a little death before it’s over.” Like much of the book, these lines appear in neatly structured stanzas (couplets, tercets, quatrains, and lyric strophes dominate here), a stylistic choice that amplifies the work’s disruptive qualities. Though creating the semblance of order, Otremba’s writing dexterously reveals the artifice inherent in the structures imposed upon language. “If the room’s constrained,/ the marshal’s in cahoots with the camera,” he writes, suggesting that grammar, syntax, and narrative, like the manipulation of a camera’s angle, offer an arbitrary lens through which to view experience. By the end, some readers may feel that the provocative tension between order and chaos suggested by the title is not fully exploited. “It’s a luxury to be this calm,” says the speaker of “Old Long Silence,” a proclamation that appears early in the collection and characterizes the voice of many of the poems. Yet Otremba’s command of form and structure, and the scope of his exploration, make this a worthwhile outing. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Forage

Rose McLarney. Penguin, $20 (70p) ISBN 978-0-14-313319-3

McLarney (Its Day Being Gone) takes up the challenge facing all poets writing in the era of the sixth extinction: how to match the highly personal, lyric impulse to species-wide, even planetary imperatives. “In my life, I have made unusually much time for looking,” the poet writes in one of this haunting book’s many ambivalent gestures: at once almost embarrassed by her own powers of discernment, yet also sure of the world’s need for high-minded interventions; “There’s a dwindling woodland beyond the window/ turned away from, by me in my admiring, by art/ finding its ending.” Rhetorical questions abound as poem after poem delivers elegant, if also familiar epigrams: “Who doesn’t know Audubon shot the birds he admired,/ stuffed them to make models?” and “Wildflowers tend to themselves// while all people plant these days are satellite dishes.” McLarney settles easily into the posture of generalized, humanistic guilt: “Yet we all want the measures, so much extension,/ even of these days,” as if there are universal sentiments that “the small/ mind asks when someone speaks/ about the big picture.” Readers will revel in the work’s undeniable beauty and smarts. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Refugia

Kyce Bello. Univ. of Nevada, $14.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-948908-34-4

In Bello’s tender debut, mothers and children tend to a resilient Earth, even as anxiety about climate change overwhelms the landscape. Exploring the setting of the author’s home ground in northern New Mexico, Bello notes “Every planting season,/ worries of drought or calamity// fall silent as cisterns brim/ with the late snows of winter,” an observation that does nothing to dispel fears for the next season. A series of poems, each named for spaces whose climate persists despite widespread change around them, seek to emphasize the relationship between the scale of human life and geological time, noting how “we are barely a consequence.” A particularly powerful thread is Bello’s meditation on the shifting nature of belief in an age of impending apocalypse: “I am sometimes religious,/ but I do not know if it is god I believe in, or apples,// or if there is any difference.” If the poems sometimes overexplain their observations, losing some of their delicacy in the process, the most careful constructions still shine: “Yes, that is spring hatching between my hands.” Bello’s depiction of impending catastrophe serves as a vivid reminder of humanity’s role in its prevention. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Father’s Day

Matthew Zapruder. Copper Canyon, $17 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-578-3

In his poignant fifth collection, Zapruder (Sun Bear) recounts collisions of hope and despair, privilege and privation, and of finding joy on the precipice of disaster. As the title suggests, fatherhood is an overarching theme, an experience that, for Zapruder, came with the wrinkle of having a neurodiverse child: “our son who/ remembers every song/ would not speak like/ all the others/ moving deeper into/ places we could not go.” But like any father, the poet is moved to wonder at every detail that makes his son a unique being. Throughout, he addresses and alludes to fellow poets, living and dead, recalling James Tate’s penchant for perambulating “the little town checking up/ on nothing saying behave/ thyself to squirrels outside.” Though he will never become a “master of industry,” he invokes Ginsberg to “promise/ I will put/ whatever is queer/ in my shoulder/ to the infamous wheel.” Zapruder both elevates poetry and resents its elevation, imagining the afterlife as an awful poetry reading, and describing one of his poems as “painfully hilarious in its sad failure.” Imbued with this self-awareness, he presents powerfully nuanced and vivid verse about the limitations of poetry to enact meaningful change in a world spiraling into callousness; yet despite poetry’s supposed constraints, Zapruder’s verse offers solace and an invaluable blueprint for empathy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Erou

Maya Phillips. Four Way, $15.95 (124p) ISBN 978-1-945588-38-9

In Phillips’s scintillating debut, domestic turmoil is transformed into Greek mythology as fate and bloodline frame the legend of her life’s tragic hero: her dead father. Here renamed “Erou,” this character is a vortex of dark matter, a “silver-tongued” tempest of deceit and hedonism with a “smile sharp enough to wear even a diamond down to dust.” With macabre precision, Phillips describes his phantom as “the appetite that outlives him... (one that) eats// himself out of the grave, dines on the neighborhood,/ chews our house down to its bones.” Although permeated with ambivalence, Erou’s redemption prevails as Phillips acknowledges that he no longer has the opportunity to absolve himself, and that his heart, at its core, was heroic: “The hero dies because there is nothing else/ left to do.//... The hero dies because it is nobler to do so./ The hero dies because it is safer to do so./ The hero dies so we understand he is the hero./ The hero dies so he understands he is the hero.” Executed as a modern epic poem that blends urban decadence with transcendental pathos, Phillips eviscerates the idea of pedestrian exchanges. This impressive work invites a discourse that redefines the depths of desperation, forgiveness, and acceptance. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Solar Perplexus

Dean Young. Copper Canyon, $22 (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-572-1

“I don’t know what people mean/ by reality,” Young (Shock by Shock) writes in the first lines of his celebratory 15th book of poetry, his first since a heart transplant in 2011. With a transformed attention to life’s shifts and minutiae, Young’s signature unmoored poetics style is filled with quick shifts and leaps as he examines life’s surreal moments and unexpected humor. Indisputably, Young’s poems unfold in ways that are impossible to paraphrase: “As in a love affair. As when a trumpet/ hovers in the air. The average cloud/ outweighs a bus. That strewed dust above/ is the universe.” The first half of the poems collected resist narrative, or even the perspective of an “I.” “The ultimate monster is always the self,” Young notes, and when the self does appear in these poems, it often does through ungrounded observation, such as “I myself am a top.” Throughout, Young reflects on the effects of poetry on language and his own life: “Poetry, I love/ you certainly without any irritable/ reaching after fact. Resistance/ makes you shine.” There lies a particular pleasure in the deeply interior logic of these poems. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2019 | Details & Permalink

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