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Riven

Catherine Owen. Misfit, $19.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-77041-524-9

In the deeply intimate latest from Owen (Dear Ghost), she catalogues the time after her partner’s death of an overdose and her move to an apartment by Vancouver’s Fraser River. “This/ gorgeous, tormented river,” with its pollution and its seasons, serves as subject, canvas and constantly shifting companion to the poet’s grief. “When I think of the river/ I am not wholly never not thinking of you,” Owen writes, as she records the activity on the water, where “slate boats yank salmon nets whose/ dark beads draw birds.” Owen addresses many yous in her poems, one flowing into another as the addressee moves from her late spouse, to the river, to her current partner. Owen uses hyphens inventively, such as in “fish-tinsel,” “vole-slickery,” and “winter-sparse,” as well as em dashes to create moments of hesitation. Broken into four parts, the collection features a series of aubades and ends with a long poem titled “The River System,” after a piece by Quebecois poet Louise Cotnoir. In this final poem, Owen shifts away from the Fraser River to imagined tributaries: “the River of Ineffable Bloodline/ cannot really be looked at/ it is a wet thread in the duvet,/ a damp channel of reverie.” Owen takes a single landscape and imbues it with the wrenching intricacy of grief, letting it move through her, letting it stay, but also letting happiness in to cohabitate. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2020 | Details & Permalink

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DMZ Colony

Don Mee Choi. Wave, $20 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-940696-95-9

The stunning third collection from Choi (Hardly War) is a feat of docupoetics, collage, and translation that bears witness to unheard voices from the Korean War and the Park Chung Hee military dictatorship. Choi braids personal and political histories, including her family’s flight from South Korea, her father’s work as a photojournalist, transcriptions of conversations with activist Ahn Hak-sop, and imagined accounts of eight orphans who survived the 1951 Sancheong-Hamyang massacre. These accounts serve as crucial investigations into the role of translators as “practitioners of memory.” “The language of capture, torture, and massacre is difficult to decipher,” Choi writes, “It’s practically a foreign language.” Thus, Choi’s project is one of interpretation—between Korean and English, text and image, transcription and imagined experience—which becomes “an anti-neocolonial mode” and a way to remember victims of state violence. Choi creates a logic and language that carves a space for counternarrative, and that questions what it means to be human in the face of ongoing wars. “Our eternity of war!” Choi writes, “Are we orphans of beauty? Are we angels of eternity? Who are we, really?” Virtuosic in its range and empathy, this is a book that shifts the reader’s understanding of historical narrative from one of war to one of flight. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Insecurity System

Sara Wainscott. Persea, $15.95 trade paper (78p) ISBN 978-0-89255-504-8

The sonnet gets a makeover in Wainscott’s inventive debut. Employing a technique that’s less bricolage than mash-up, the poet builds on “borrowed language” from artists as divergent as John Milton and Bruce Springsteen, from ancient myths to YouTube. These poems have an enchaining structure, such that each poem’s first line picks up sounds, images, or ideas from the final line of the previous poem: “mold the lyrics into signs” sets up “Told the lyre: how the head sighs,” and “the scarab in the supplicant’s ear” spills into “Scars grow supple as they heal.” Here, the spirit of play is ever present: “To make a bird/ you have to break some eggs. Throw yourself// to the sky and see what comes down.” A wry, philosophical seriousness couches the stressors of everyday life: tax men, time cards, “a bitch whelps on a nest of bills.” Lyrical moments carve out places for reflection: “Making meaning leaves out far too much,” the poet admits. The speaker is wildly observant, though cautious, as though she might cut herself on her own words. This productive ambivalence makes for a bracing, impressive effort. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Not Go Away Is My Name

Alberto Ríos. Copper Canyon, $17 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-587-5

This striking 12th collection from Ríos (A Small Story About the Sky) draws its energy from the space between active resistance and sturdy persistence. “I will wait, said the wood, and it did,” begins one poem, while this patience is transformed into a more explicit political stance in another, from which the collection takes its title: “You win. You have always won./ All I can do is not go away.// Not go away is my name.” A vibrant attention to color animates even simple descriptions—the poem “A Quiet Evening in August” begins with the observation that “it is dusk. Earth eats the dragon./ The singed edges of sky orange// Fire in red smoke plumes everywhere,/ Lavender, finally, lavender and gray// The great bruise of the moment in the sky,/ Weak yellow smudges framing the end.” This work captures Ríos’s singular voice at its best. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Year of the Dog

Deborah Paredez. BOA, $17 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-950774-01-2

The powerful second book from Paredez (This Side of Skin) invokes a wide range of literary forms and artistic mediums, including rhymed verse, prose poetry, photographs, and archival material, unified by an ongoing concern with the past and its quiet presence in the cultural landscape. As Paredez writes, “Trudell signals his location over the radio: Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people.” These poems suggest that a shared repertoire of symbols, myths, and stories proves essential for fostering a sense of community. Yet, at the same time, this vocabulary must be expanded, revised, and modernized in order to be of service. For Paredez, the individual experience is rich with family narratives and shared memories, as well as the larger movements of culture: “When I enter/ this world,” she warns, “I’ll enter as Hecuba... purpled/ and yelping griefbeast,/ my mother’s spangled handiwork.” In addition to offering expertly crafted voices, Paredez has a gift for storytelling through form. This is an astonishing book. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Words Like Thunder

Lois Beardslee. Wayne State Univ., $18.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8143-4748-5

Presented as an interconnected sequence of “new and used Anishinaabe prayers,” Beardslee’s timely debut places age-old poetic traditions in dialogue with contemporary ones. These carefully linked texts take the form of flash essays, micro fictions, and other kinds of hybrids that resist genre categorization. Throughout, the speaker expresses her fear that tradition will be forgotten: “Back home, the piebalds lived business as usual... Praying out loud in desperation, with no new generations/ To come home and renew their songs and stories with changing histories and lessons.” Beardslee inhabits and revises the received tropes of storytelling, from oral tradition to the strictures of traditional poetic forms like couplets, tercets, and quatrains. Indeed, the speaker of these hybrid pieces describes her search “for coping mechanisms and transformations among changing environments and unpredictability.” These “changing” conditions give rise to literary collage, hybridity, and experimentation within received structures. True to Beardslee’s artistic intention, this book explores tradition through innovative techniques that will appeal to 21st-century readers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mother House

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Wake Forest Univ., $13.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-930630-92-5

In these precisely rendered, meditative poems, Ní Chuilleanáin (The Boys of Bluehill) weaves brief but impactful stories about a cast of characters, such as “The Russians in War and Peace/ before the failed abduction, the smokers/ outside the slow café, watching/ the slow goods train stretching itself out—,” nuns in a cloister (“The oldest of all the sisters has to string/ little pink beads on the edge of Agnus Deis”), and the imagined life of a woman in a traffic jam and a cobbler in an Italian town. Ní Chuilleanáin’s lines are musical and exact: “She worked on with the rake/ thinking of the rolling wave,/ an eye watching for the car” and “At the end of the garden where the tall trees shivered/ the river was in spate,/ We walked down there at dawn to get rid of the noise/ of the night’s debate.” Offering vivid portraits of Ireland and beyond, this atmospheric 12th collection reaffirms Ní Chuilleanáin’s place as one of Ireland’s greatest poets. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Spawn

Marie-Andree Gill, trans. from French by Kristen Renee Miller. Book*hug, $18 trade paper (90p) ISBN 978-1-77166-597-1

A coming-of-age story unfolds on the shores of Quebec’s Lake Piekuakami in the spare, meditative fourth book from Gill (Béante). Divided into sections (among them “The Rampart,” “The Reserve,” and “Adolescence”) these short, untitled poems evoke their setting, the Mashteuiatsh Reserve (the life cycle of the ouananiche tribe serves as a motif throughout the collection), investigating colonial impact while weaving elements of resilience and chance: “day and night the dandelions push/ through cracks in the cement// and before us, the lake/ a luck/ the lake.” This last line repeats in other contexts: “A luck: the arena at night and making out/ behind the police station/ the northern lights dancing on nintendo/ chicken buckets... And the lake, a luck, the lake.” The question of fate appears elsewhere, “how to augur anything/ but crooked miracles/ anyway.” Gill’s political concerns are lightly handled by these precise lines, as she writes in “The Reserve”: “I am a village that didn’t have a choice.” The journey of Gill’s lyric speaker is at once relatable in its particulars and distinctively evocative. Miller’s skillful translation makes vivid a landscape and language that will transport readers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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God’s Green Earth

Noelle Kocot. Wave, $17 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-950268-02-3

In poems of praise and wry warning, Kocot (Phantom Pains of Madness) explores “the dissembling moment.” “I give you this,” the speaker says, “I emerge/ With a gift to give you, you/ Who are so far and boundless.” Often, the speaker’s offering is oracular: “Take my word for it—this/ Machinery of salt and earth/ is slowly writhing.” Jolts of wit and outright self-mockery temper the book’s loftier utterances: “I can’t remember the days,/ Nor the weeks or months/ Or hours,/ Or the conversations I had,/ Nor with whom./ If you don’t believe me,/ Take a walk inside my head.” In light of the “unreachable shine of language,” poetry serves as a transfer of energy: “It’s the mode, not/ Necessarily the essence, that/ Drives me,” the speaker admits. “See that blade of grass sprouting up/ From a verb, the only one we have/ Ever needed, and it is rightly called to love.” The object of this verb is poetry itself: “Poetry, you are mine, and I will/ Go anywhere with you. A gap in the mind,/ A spangled street, my spine, perfect erect now,/ Chooses these words, yet it is as if I have no choice.” At once modest and resplendent, this is a profound affirmation of poetic necessity. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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All the Gay Saints

Kayleb Rae Candrilli. Saturnalia, $16 trade paper (82p) ISBN 978-1-947817-12-8

The visceral second book from Candrilli (What Runs Over) is a series of love poems offered through ekphrastic responses to the paintings of Hernan Bas. The first piece, “WHEN I TRANSITION, WILL I LOSE MY TASTE FOR THE STORM?” corresponds to Bas’s painting of “a landscape to swallow you whole,” and references the speaker’s impending “top operation,” in which they will lose their breasts. The body is a central concern in these poems, complicated by questions of power and agency, as the speaker notes: “I have a right to take what’s not mine:// this is what men and the earth have taught me” and “sometimes I dream I never left the fields/ in which I was unwelcome.” In “MY HOROSCOPE IS MY FUTURE HUSBAND’S HORO-SCOPE & WE ARE BOTH CHANGING SO QUICKLY,” the speaker contemplates physical changes to the self and its implications: “Husband nothing is holy/ like self-construction.// Our fathers built staircases/ & we are bringing/ sledgehammers to our bodies so gently/ only we can hear this pleasure.” Through vivid language and subtle insights, Candrilli offers a sensitive, beautiful exploration of the body’s transformations. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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