EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS

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EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS BY JAKE SKEETS

In his debut collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, Diné poet Jake Skeets crafts an intimate portrait of his hometown of Gallup, New Mexico. Like fellow Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui, Skeets burrows and grounds the reader in image, sound, and movement: “Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone Bruise. This town split in two.” Here, in “Drunktown,” a coal mine and a railroad splinter the community, where “gray highway veins narrow” and “sands glitter with broken bottles.” 

Skeets is unrelenting in his illustration of the relationship between the body and its environment: “broken / clouds sanded down / to metal teeth / carburetor muscle beneath combustion” and “each eye a coal pearl . . .” His queering and embodiment of landscape incites the reader to realize the shifting nature of the body: a body “undresses into nightjars” and becomes “a cloud flattened in my hand. // Your body coiled with mine. Air snakes / over ribcage, cracks into powder.” And, in the vein of the necropastoral, Skeets shines light on an environment saturated with trucks and gasoline, where “his mouth turned exhaust pipe / his veins burst oil” and “he swallows transmission and gasket / bonnet with full wings / torn from his burning back / an eye alters into alternator / the other a hub cap.” He contrasts the dark through his weaving of language into the natural world, writing: “an owl has a skeleton of three letters / o twists into l” and “the letter t vibrating in cottonwoods.” 

This collection’s sublime scenes reclaim visibility in varying degrees of blossom and ash; each poem swells with breath and exhaust. Skeets creates a sonic space of visceral images that smolder in the dark weight of toxic masculinity and the violence within his community. His intimate choreographies of the body, violence, and landscape strive to bridge coal and ash with glinting mirrors of compassion, masterfully traversing and affirming the chiaroscuro of community and self.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns

THINGS WE DIDN'T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL

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THINGS WE DIDN’T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL BY JEANNIE VANASCO

The epigraph and question that opens Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir-in-conversation comes from a poem by Paisley Rekdal: “But what is the word for what I experienced after?” Throughout Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Vanasco undertakes this impossible task of articulating the before and the after of her rape by Mark—a close friend; trying to name, understand, and further the larger #MeToo conversation.

Vanasco’s books is composed of a series of present-day conversations with Mark, where her questions and his answers—their responses to each other—are pulled apart, replayed again and again, weighed and considered. This is not just a book that asks the hard questions of how seemingly good people can do terrible things, or why those we trust choose to harm us, but interrogates why we perform gender, in spite of the damage it causes? Why we buy into societal structures that dismiss and discredit victims?

Despite the weight of this book, despite the painful subject matter, it is Vanasco’s generosity and openness that left me in quiet awe. Vanasco obfuscates nothing, not even self-criticism or doubt or complexity. She writes, movingly: “This is hard, much harder than I thought it’d be [...] I occupy different planes of time. I’m reliving the conversation just as I’m reliving the assault just as I’m reliving my friendship with Mark.” 

And Vanasco displays a gift for listening to those around her—partner, friends, students—that expands these conversations in unexpected and significant ways, into other directions, other spaces, some of them involving revelation, even healing. By inviting the reader into these imperfect conversations, Vanasco opens up space for other difficult conversations, perhaps with our own fathers, brothers, friends, or selves.

Tin House.

—Review by Joy Clark

HOT COMB

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HOT COMB BY EBONY FLOWERS

Hot Comb, by Ebony Flowers, is a collection of poignant comics, some fiction and some non-fiction, exploring the lives of Black women. As the title suggests, hair is the unifying thread throughout these stories. In each, women have their hair relaxed, braided, or curled, an act which both symbolizes and builds intimacy and community. This is how memories are made in Hot Comb, and how stories are passed down. Hair is so bound with identity, it can trigger long forgotten memories. In “Big Ma,” the main character touches her grandmother’s hair at a funeral and is instantly transported to a memory of the time she used to spend with her before family tensions pushed them apart. Interspersed between each story are advertisements for a fictional line of hair products called, “Pinnacle.” Their hyperbolic claims are a playful critique of marketing that is, at best, comical and, at worst, harmful. In the title story, “Hot Comb,” based on Flower’s own personal experience, a young girl (pressured by her friends and magazine ads) begs her mother to let her get a perm, eventually realizing it is not the cure-all she’d hoped. Hot Comb does what all great literature does: it provides both a mirror and a window, reflecting on the Black experience while also allowing other readers a glimpse into experiences different from their own.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Rome Morgan

A GIRL GOES INTO THE FOREST

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A GIRL GOES INTO THE FOREST BY PEG ALFORD PURSELL

In Peg Alford Pursell’s newest flash story collection, A Girl Goes Into the Forest, the stories rarely exceed three pages but traverse a wide sphere of moments. A woman who’s just had a tumor removed kisses her husband’s brother, a man unknowingly wavers between the influence of two powerful women in his life, a musician struggles with her misogynistic father’s household authority, and a mother admits—after her daughter elopes with someone she just met—“I knew there was no stopping my girl from doing whatever hard thing she was determined to do.” Pursell links her stories by organizing them thematically around specific relationships (mother/daughter, husband/wife, etc.) and by framing them with quotations from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. When read in conjunction, the stories create a stunning collage of the presence and the agency of women in the world. Birds in and out of stories. Characters echo the questions asked in the stories before them. Nameless fathers, mothers, brothers, and daughters drift dreamily in and out—until their voices begin to sound similar, like mirrored ripples of the original.

And Pursell captures a deep, collective yearning to know and be known by one another through her references to relationships, fairy tales, and performances of gender. Here, one story ends poignantly on such a longing: “Some creature is nearby, silent in the shadows. Where are you going, sister? it thinks, sending her the thought that makes her aware of a longing. The nameless yearning. Pioneers have always acted on those cravings. Ruts gouged in the pathways like grooves in the brain.” 

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Joy Clark

GRIEF SEQUENCE

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GRIEF SEQUENCE BY PRAGEETA SHARMA

“The only thing I can find to do is mourn my husband like a / teenager,” Prageeta Sharma writes in her collection Grief Sequence, which traces the sudden and brief window of her husband, Dale’s, battle with cancer and the first year that follows his death. Sharma scrutinizes and investigates nebulous grief, attempting to make sense and to maintain herself as sorrow surrounds her. “I’m exposed and I knew that was the last thing / you would ever have wanted for me. To feel so abandoned like / a Victorian book.” Like these lines, Sharma shares many wrenching and dramatic moments—but when else is melodrama appropriate (earned) then after the death of a beloved? There is so much generosity and bravery within each utterance, offering an intimate view of the life adrift, in a shrouded haze. And even more than her openness, Sharma steels her poems with a critical eye that hunts for and assembles logic—making sense everywhere. She scrutinizes the choices made and what was said; what is felt. (As perhaps only a poet knows to proceed.)

But the collection is not only a sequence that interrogates and orders grief, rather one that considers and centers the poet within the grief. When the poem, the words reached for, is another betrayal: drained, inadequate. “I understand how the poem can land on its nothing . . .” goes one early poem, and later in her sequence: “Poetry can be long and ripe, but it can be puny, too.” In almost a mirror death, Sharma floats through her living after-life until she partakes again. There is a second season for self and love; it is a simultaneous coexistence: “. . .your poems . . . You light them with two selves and don’t / wait for anything to flicker false.”

Wave Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

BLOOMLAND

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BLOOMLAND BY JOHN ENGLEHARDT

An apposite novel echoing the current state of America—where mass shootings have become more American than apple pie—John Englehardt’s tremendously affecting debut, Bloomland, explores one such horrific event. When Eli, an increasingly misanthropic student eventually reaches a point of no return, he unleashes the full potential of an assault rifle on his peers in a university library during finals week, leaving twelve people dead. 

Delivered in revolving accounts in the immediacy intrinsic of the second-person viewpoint by a first-person narrator, who lies always somewhere on the periphery, Bloomland provides the impetus of, and no excuse for, the young-man-turned-domestic-terrorist’s cowardly act of violence. The novel follows Eli’s existence before and after the shooting, along with the lives of Rose, a teenage woman attempting to camouflage her past while away at college, and Eddie, a young professor who loses his wife in the massacre. The pages of Bloomland are graced with empathy and anger; confusion alongside profoundly powerful insight and understanding of the post-traumatic psyche: “You can’t see all the votaried windows. How the red geraniums in front of our houses will no longer just be red geraniums, but ones that exist in a new world, where even a color carries with it a memory of pain,”  

Gorgeously written, intrepid by design, and deeply disconcerting in its authenticity, Bloomland is a remarkable achievement and stands out as an incredibly important novel of our time.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

ELEVATED THREAT LEVEL

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ELEVATED THREAT LEVEL BY RACHEL GALVIN

“Sometimes I’ve said good morning when I meant to say what is that hideous thing,” writes Rachel Galvin in Elevated Threat Level, a collection concerned with the power of media, the repetition of history, and the assault of violent images that saturate our modern world. While the subjects of these poems are, indeed, “hideous things,” Galvin injects lyricism—sometimes puzzling, always fresh—into each line or phrase, which makes for devastating and beautiful writing.

In reading this collection, I was awestruck by Galvin’s control of the line; the poet is able to suspend readers in unfathomable, perfectly-rendered moments. One such moment occurs in “Age of Contagion,” where Galvin writes: “Meanwhile, a child’s spine was being stretched / by special South Korean machines / until his body curved into a bridge. / He blinked there for a while.” A stanza break follows the final line, supercharging the image she captures: a perfect view of shock and horror. 

I cannot sugarcoat it. These are difficult, painful poems—but Elevated Threat Level did not dishearten me. For every boy transformed into a bridge, there is a “. . . holy meanwhile, in Haiti / one girl survived by eating fruit leathers for three days.” There is faith here.

Green Lantern Press.

—Review by Emma Jones

THE 44TH OF JULY

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THE 44TH OF JULY BY JASWINDER BOLINA

Jaswinder Bolina’s latest book, The 44th of July, surrounds readers with the current climate of our divided country. His speakers shifts from witness to outsider to stealth transgressor, while his poems move quietly—measured and musical—with rhythms so deft the criticisms and wit unfold unexpectedly. Through his deliberate and attentive forms, he echoes the strategic footwork immigrants and POC master to navigate and survive the United States—though, Bolina underlines not everyone survives: “assemble // the tiny caskets, / the toddler-shaped // ones” from “Inaugural Ball,” and here from “Rubble Causeway, Rubble Clinic”: “leave her body for the crows, / but the morgue is still there with its bone show.” The 44th of July denies readers an indifferent oblivion and escape from the political consciousness and horror of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. The collection refuses blind-eyes, even when reminiscing in “In Memory of My Vices,” even when world building the fantastical in “New Adventures in Sci-Fi.” For the latter, see how Bolina manifests a utopia neatly before us by contrasting it to the American dystopia: “Everybody has a porch swing the beat cops wave to // when they pass. They don’t protect us bloody. / They don’t police the teeth out of our heads . . .”

His representations of this nation are vivid, chilling and accurate—balanced but made all the more real by the humor. Bolina rewrites the so-called American Independence from marginalized perspectives, highlighting the harm meant for the other; delivered by speakers on the margins, in the heart of the Midwest.

Omnidawn.

—Review by Madeline Vardell