Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy
Poetry | $20
80 pages, 6×9 in
As a stopped clock is right twice a day, so book blurbs are right a few times a year. On the back cover of Joanna Klink’s fourth book, Terrance Hayes declares, “As soon as I finished this beautifully unassuming and assured book, I began reading it again,” and for once this familiar hyperbole turns out to be just; the collection feels so whole and cohesive that on finishing one immediately goes back to read the opening poems with more attuned eyes. Likewise, the jacket copy’s phrase about “a self fighting its way out of isolation, toward connection with other people and a vanishing world” describes the energy of these poems accurately, if a bit melodramatically.
The wholeness and cohesion come about by a variety of means. The turns in the figurative language consistently surprise without ever seeming strange for the sake of strangeness, always mysteriously right:
no light of the fixed stars, no flashing in the eyes,
only heather pared by the dry air, shedding
a small feathered radiance when I looked away,
an expanse whose deep sleep seemed an unending
warren I had been given […]
Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Dawn Lundy Martin
Nightboat Books, 2015
Poetry | $15.95
104 pages, 6 x 9 in
Dawn Lundy Martin’s two previous collections, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (2007) and Discipline (2011), were remarkable both for the rigor of their investigations of identity (family, ethnic, political, gender, and sexual) and for the formal risks she took in conducting those investigations. Martin’s poetry is a high-wire act, a combination of audacity and control, and she likes to work without a net.
Her new book’s title raises the specter of confinement—a circumstance that occurs throughout her text, not only in imagery drawn from slavery and incarceration, but also in the citing of discourses designed to contain and set limits. Hegemonic voices periodically run vertically down the page, like prison bars:
“The Irish, the
Iberian, and the
Negro are of
is paralleled elsewhere by a diagnosis of “nymphomania.” The text’s first-person voice wants to believe there is an elsewhere, but the way to it is hard to find: “We labor in our attempts at rebirth. Remain inside enclosure, wood box.”
This Is the Homeland
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.
The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading
Octopus Books, June 2014
Few books of poetry this year will have a more interesting back story than this one. Born in China in 1944 and raised in Singapore, Wong May came to the United States in the 1960s to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between 1969 and 1978, she published three collections of poetry with Harcourt Brace. Then, rather abruptly, no further books.
Poet Zachary Schomburg came across Wong May’s first book, A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals, in an Akron public library and was sufficiently intrigued to investigate. It turned out than Wong May had married an Irish physicist, moved to Dublin, and raised two sons. Although she published virtually nothing, she had continued to write poetry. Since Schomburg is one of the many contemporary poets who has a sideline as an independent publisher, we now have Picasso’s Tears, a handsomely-designed (by Drew Scott Swenhaugen) hardbound volume, 286 pages of poetry and an interview (more precisely, a 12-page answer to the question, “How has your relationship to poetry changed since 1978?”).Continue Reading
Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
If you were among those persuaded by Thin Kimono (2010) that Michael Earl Craig was a poet to watch, you may consider your intuitions confirmed. Talkativeness dwells a little more deeply in the voice of that earlier volume, becoming more at home in it, but still capable of surprise.
Craig’s territory is contiguous to the domains of Ashbery, Tate, and Dean Young, but a little further off the interstate, a little lonelier. The natives are kindly but unlikely to offer help unless asked. For that matter, you might get further by simply paying closer attention.
The book’s epigraph, from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states, “No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant.” But—the following volume seems to ask—how confident can we be that any remark is irrelevant, when it may connect intimately to the topic at hand by unguessable, labyrinthine subterranean channels? How do we know that the apparently tangential is not, in fact, the royal highway to the real?Continue Reading
Wave Books, April 2014
Rachel Zucker is a writer of daunting productivity. The Pedestrians is her sixth poetry collection since 2002; she has also published a memoir, co-authored a book about home birth with Arielle Greenberg, and co-edited two anthologies—this in addition to having three boys of (on the evidence of this volume) moderate-to-high boyishness. Moreover, The Pedestrians could easily be considered two books.Continue Reading
Shearsman Books, April 2014
The greater part of Jim Goar’s The Dustbowl is a poem or sequence also called “The Dustbowl,” which the jacket copy describes as “a collection of serial poems.” These poems are, on average, about ten lines long, made up of short, staccato sentences or phrases, often enjambed, and some deliberate compositional process has clearly taken place—a chart at the beginning of the book shows how the fifty-five poems of “The Dustbowl” were taken from a run of more than ninety. But we do not know what the principles of inclusion or exclusion were, or in what way the poems are serial.
One would like to know more, for “The Dustbowl” makes compelling reading. If one were to fall asleep some afternoon having just learned that John Steinbeck published The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (an adaptation of Malory) as well as The Grapes of Wrath, and then dream a braided dream of Okies pursuing the Holy Grail, and were Godard then to edit that dream, one would have something a little like this book’s title poem.
Ahsahta Press, September 2013
With the proliferation of graduate programs in creative writing, the day approaches when most poetry published in the United States will have been written by people with graduate degrees in writing poetry—a prospect that may launch a thousand jeremiads. But I will not complain, so long as the academicization of American poetry means we will be getting more books like Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses.
Ives’s poetry is aware of its own processes—as in “Early Poem,” which enumerates its one hundred sentences as they occur (“In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something”). It is also aware of its own awareness of its own processes, as when the eighty-third sentence forgets to count itself, prompting the admission, “sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn’t you already know that this would start to happen.” For some, this will seem like disappearing down the meta-poetic rabbit-hole. But the rabbit-hole, remember, is one of the ways to get to Wonderland.
Canarium Books, April 2013
I brought this along on a recent visit to my doctor, just in case there was a wait; as it turned out, I read the whole book and started again at the beginning—not only because my doctor was running an hour behind, and not only because it was a better alternative than People, but also because it is a book that envelops and surrounds, creating a space one cannot easily leave. A doctor’s office, too, seemed an eerily suitable place to take in Fernandez’s meditations, which trace the shore where the mind meets the body.
Subito Press, December 2012
[Note: P. Scott Stanfield holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Recently, I challenged him to see how many references to other works and artists he could make in a single 500-word review. He gets one point for each, or two for any he hasn’t used in a previous column. Last month’s score: 29; this month’s score: 17; all-time record: 31.
—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor]
In the Venn diagram of twentieth century American poetry, we tend to imagine the poetry of political commitment and the poetry of formal audacity as inhabiting non-overlapping circles. In a recent review of Adrienne Rich’s final collection, Ange Mlinko emphasized these boundaries in asserting that Rich’s “impact on poets of the last couple of generations has been weak,” because her audacity was in her politics and not in her language. Exceptions come to mind—Robert Duncan, Ron Silliman—but our most politically radical poetry is often pedestrian, and our most formally radical poetry often hermetic.
In twenty-first century American poetry, however, the two circles are intersecting more frequently. Juliana Spahr has been combining radical form with radical politics for years, as have Lara Glenum and Kathleen Ossip. The marvelously strange poetry of Mathias Svalina is another example.Continue Reading