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A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom

Harmony Holiday. Birds, LLC, $18 (60p) ISBN 978-0-9914298-9-9

In this extraordinary book-length sequence of linked prose pieces and lyric fragments, Holiday (Negro League Baseball) considers the role of visual rhetoric, particularly ads, in perpetuating race, class, and gender stereotypes. After presenting an image with two cropped and faceless subjects, the speaker remarks: “We soon discover that the central question is who are we and what are we doing to ourselves? It takes years and years to turn the men real again.” Holiday invites questions of power and complicity in prose that is captivating and deceptive in its simplicity. She jostles hierarchies, mixing high and low culture, destabilizing a familiar language. She asks, for instance, “Can’t we forget all that for now and just play? I am playing all of these niggas. I am singing/ always.” The speaker seems to interrogate the intentions of the work itself, turning a rhetorical space into a stage for delightfully irreverent aesthetic gestures. In doing so, Holiday reminds us of the difference between performance and play, as in “playful lark in heap of museum Styrofoam,” a familiar joy that is not “in the service of the established order of things.” Through Holiday’s singular artistic vision, these remarkable poems reframe cultural exploitation and objectification, offering a stirring social commentary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/17/2019 | Details & Permalink

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To the Wren: Collected & New Poems

Jane Mead. Alice James, $29.95 (600p) ISBN 978-1-948579-01-8

With lyric candor and emotional precision, Mead (World of Made and Unmade) offers her family history, meditations on loss and madness, and the landscape of California wine country in this collected volume. Bringing together seven collections written over three decades, this book makes room for the many facets of Mead’s talents to shine. Her father’s struggles with addiction—along with the profound impact these struggles have on her family—are documented in Mead’s debut collection and reconsidered after his death, leading to meditative exploration of grief and remembrance. Mead bears witness to her mother through a child’s eyes, then, decades later, through the slow process of her mother’s dying. A new poem asks “Do we ever really get to go beyond the story/ we were born to.” (For the speaker of these poems, the answer is a resounding no.) Still, the natural world, in its bounty and brutality, is a grounding force for Mead, a reminder of a time scale beyond the human span. In her commitment to representing experience faithfully, Mead engages fundamental questions about the nature of knowing. Through observation, philosophy, math, science, and prayer, the reader is witness to a mind that submits itself to the world with curiosity and humility in order to see things as they really are. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/17/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Without Protection

Gala Mukomolova. Coffee House, $16.95 (88p) ISBN 978-1-56689-543-9

Baba Yaga jumps the Brighton line in this rambunctious debut by poet and astrologer Mukomolova. Reimagined fairy tales (from “the old country, which is/ only old to me,”) and snippets of Russian appear in a range of forms: prose, narrative, and found poems, as well as lyrics that test the limits of the page. The cumulative effect is restless: “We, the daughters between countries,/ wear our mean mothers like scarves around our necks,” the poet explains; “I was small. I built a self outside myself because a child needs shelter.” Memories of adolescence careen (“Pablo slides his finger through a hole in my tights”), slamming hard against the present (a text message from, presumably, earlier that day). City scenes pop, vivid as street photography. By the end of the book, ex-lovers form a raucous throng: “On all fours// I suck her clit—gentle—she slaps me./ I imagine whipped tips of soft serve.” The delirious poem “Vasya/Venus/Violet/Violent” throws Anaïs Nin into the ring with Courtney Love: “Come brute come violent/ violet, knuckle-rough// I’m infant blonde: weak at the crown.” Some readers will resist the book’s mosh pit ethos, which can make it hard to hear its tender gifts: “She loves me I know// as if love is matter and I hold it.” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Pulver Maar

Zachary Schomburg. Black Ocean, $14.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-939568-27-4

Surreal fables, staccato vignettes, and sardonic hilarity foment into a work of bafflement and intrigue in the fifth book by Schomburg (Mammother). Throughout, Schomburg uses humor and absurdity as a means to amuse while eliciting feelings that might otherwise not fully emerge, such as when he describes the freedom of overcoming hardship: “It feels good outside of the burning car./ Things look newly like a taco./ Even the flowers bloom.” However, in other moments, the absurdity—enacted through minimalism, wordplay, or muddled semantics—can interfere with otherwise clear impressions: “The enemy wears/ yr uniform. I eat/ a yellow orange./ Real life is/ the easiest kind/ to fake.” In “Sadder Than You” he comments on the current age of universal angst and the spectacle it has become: “For my birthday party/ I want to impress everyone/ by standing at the bottom/ of a giant vat while it fills/ with concrete.” In “The Last Leg,” he strings together brief moments of disappoint and irony, the poem’s apex leaving the reader with a guilty grin: “The cat fell/ asleep on/ top of me./ When I woke up/ it was dead./ (True story.)” Schomburg is a comedic king, his work, a rabbit hole of innovative, whimsical darkness. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps

Rob Schlegel. Univ. of Iowa, $19.95 (59p) ISBN 978-1-60938-645-0

Winner of the 2018 Iowa Poetry Prize, the dazzling third collection from Schlegel (January Machine) is part fable, part meditation on fatherhood. Many of these poems are set in nature, which can be sinister (the place where “the owl made a nest in my dry mouth”), but also the site of stark, wonderfully crafted images: “Addicted to starlings/ the sumac shines.” Schlegel’s poems unwind with a logic all their own that is still somehow comprehensible: “But language is not my first language.” These poems are full of pitch-perfect internal rhymes with well-orchestrated line breaks: “such violent forces. The children’s/ voices. I talk to my doctor, but forget/ his orders.” Schlegel captures the everyday wonders of raising children and the requisite fears, such as hoping that a child’s quick temper is not a sign of more significant issues to come. Elsewhere, Schlegel is playful, as in the poem “Searches,” which, presumably, recounts a list of recent questions posed to the internet: “Will juniper berries make me crazy/ Can I really eat breakfast at Tiffany’s/ What if an asteroid/ What if a Metroid/ How do moons sex.” This slim volume covers remarkable emotional terrain with perceptive insight into fatherhood and the inner workings of a poet’s associative thought process. It is rich and complex but utterly accessible, with lyrical lines that beg to be read aloud. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Crazy Bunch

Willie Perdomo. Penguin, $18 (128p) ISBN 978-0-14-313269-1

In the latest book by Perdomo (The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon), the “Crazy Bunch” refers to a rotating cast of characters from an East Harlem block. The people who move through these pages are casually introduced (“Jujo spit and spit and spit and spit.// Popeye had a villainous laugh.// Dre loved to crash revivals”). Their slang, shibboleths, and habits are presented with an immediate intimacy, as if the reader affectionately knows each or grew up on the same street. Perdomo sprinkles in riffs on Gwendolyn Brooks (“Okey Doke/ Flat Broke// Hang Out/ No Doubt// Black Out/ Death Count”), dialogue, rules and lists, Santería ceremonies, and funeral rites, creating both a novella-in-verse that tells the story of a weekend in Harlem and a compelling portrait of a time and place long gone. Perdomo’s masterful eye and ear stand out: the musicality of these poems is as rich as the detailed histories of the people inside them. By the end, the reader, too, yearns for the past and all the people lost in these pages: “Who among us believed in the great scheme of life and still had enough stage presence to carry the night?” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ridiculous Light

Valencia Robin. Persea, $15.95 (64p) ISBN 978-0-89255-496-6

The debut from Robin is suffused with a nostalgia in which the past—reframed and reexamined, and often radiant with joy—seems to be eternally recurring in the present. In “Milwaukee 1968,” the speaker recalls a sudden reversal in her childhood, hearing the James Brown lyrics “I’m black and I’m proud” and feeling suddenly empowered by her skin color: “it was as if the sun had come out of the closet, as if the moon was burning her underwear... we marched up and down the street singing ourselves into brand new people.” Robin provides a glimpse into the quintessential poet’s mind: “Imagine if instead of leaves, the sky fell, imagine it happened at the same time each year; little clumps of blue everywhere.” It’s the thought process of someone at home in her own thoughts, unabashed about bringing others in, no matter how intimate or silly, such as in an ode to freshly-cut grass that states gleefully, “take me to the bridge and shake me like a rug over my neighbor’s black-eyed Susans.” Robin’s reverence for memory is refreshing in that she neither pines for nor regrets the past; she merely appreciates it for what it offered and how it has informed the present. Whimsical and contemplative, Robin’s experience as a visual artist lends the book a flourish of vivid imagery. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Little Million Doors

Chad Sweeney. Nightboat, $15.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-64362-000-8

Written after the death of the poet’s father and during an autistic episode, poet and translator Sweeney (Arranging the Blaze) masters the art of understatement in this book of forthright and delicate poems. Spare couplets carry untitled, unpunctuated poems full of probing questions: “the body// A lantern how/ To say it// It it,” and “What is it to live/ Is to want to live,” as well as moments of synesthetic experience: “House in a/ Street of houses my/ Hands in the trees for bells.” Grief is the ostensible subject throughout, offering a searching elegy: “for years I could not// Answer a music in pain the undying// Will undying in the dying grass.” But sorrow gives way to other emotions: “I’ve tried to hold/ to anger a snow// Delineates the thin/ Winter// Branches.” Emily Dickinson’s influence is palpable throughout this meditative book. Yet the speaker recognizes that affective attunement and scrupulous observation will carry us only so far: “But I am a tree of no branches/ Tree of no tree,” and elsewhere, “I am looking but there is no/ Me to do the looking.” What knowledge we gain, the poet hazards, might be found through absence and negation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Pet Sounds

Stephanie Young. Nightboat, $15.95 (96p) ISBN 978-1-937658-94-6

In her fourth book, Young (Ursula or University) explores the complexities of sexual relations in a capitalist society. Throughout, she alludes to diverse cultural artifacts, among them Troilus and Cressida, the music of Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead, and the orca Tilikum and his captors. “I’m quick to reconcile difference,” the speaker says. True to form, these poems often read as efforts to resolve contradictions through narrative (the speaker’s own coming-out story, for instance), an endeavor that proves at turns self-conscious, parodic, and deadly serious. “Unmake that problem,” the speaker proclaims, evoking the power of counternarratives, while elsewhere, she admits: “the path direct, had failed to keep it.” As Young delves into the philosophy of sex and love, the poems are often abstract rather than grounded in tangibles, a choice that may strike some readers as discordant with the content of the poems. In “Congenital,” she writes, “dispossession and constraint// the shape our togetherness took/ not exactly our decision/ not exactly not.” Young examines both individual powerlessness and complicity, offering a complex and rewarding framework for contradiction. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Tiny Journalist

Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA, $24 (112p) ISBN 978-1-942683-72-8

This latest collection finds the acclaimed Nye (Transfer), daughter of a Palestinian refugee, arguably disproving William Carlos William’s adage that “it is difficult to get the news from poems.” In 70 lyrical meditations populated by protesters, students, street sweepers, carpet weavers, and others seeking to endure the unendurable, Nye demonstrates poetry’s ability to vividly portray the lives behind the headlines. The speakers of these poems are most effective when matter-of-fact: “I knew the man down the alley by the market/ who dragged his leg. He was out there, smoking,/ almost my whole life.” Such snapshots immerse the reader in a Palestinian village community, bringing home the devastation of tear gas, bombs, and international indifference. Nye is critical of euphemistic reportage (“ ‘Deadline for Demolition’/ as if cruelty had its own calendar/ a banker or a businessman”) and at times plainspoken and aphoristic in the manner of Szymborska, effectively conveying conflict’s human cost. In “No Explosions,” the speaker observes, “To enjoy/ fireworks/ you would have/ to have lived/ a different kind/ of life.” Even when using a more lyrical register, Nye’s desire for poetry to break the fourth wall and challenge the reader’s complacency is palpable. “When Facebook says I have ‘followers,’ ” she says in the voice of Janna Ayyad, the young Palestinian activist from whose story the collection draws inspiration, “I hope they know I need their help.” (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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