idiophone by amy fusselman
In the one-woman ballet that is Idiophone, Amy Fusselman dances sensationally. As in any good ballet, Fusselman’s success rests on hundreds of small, flawlessly executed movements. The building blocks of her performance—her first, second, and third positions—are short, straightforward sentences, whose careful construction and brilliant layering enable Fusselman to leap widely. On the stage of this book-length essay, she moves gracefully from the Nutcracker ballet’s past and present to her relationship with her mother and children, her history of alcohol abuse, a slit gong (the titular idiophone) from Vanuatu, the state of female artists, and more.
Above all, Fusselman is curious, deftly mining white space and static to craft a book of whys: (“[w]hy,” she asks, “can’t you just leave one world and move into another?”) and hows and whats: (what, she wants to know, do you do “[w]hen your way of being is an affront to other people? / when your way of writing is an affront…”) It’s to Fusselman's credit that she is as interested in the guts of these questions, their undersides and wiring, as she is in their answers, as well as the vantage points from which they are posed. For Fusselman, no space or person is too small—or too large—to inspire. She is as apt to look to Tchaikovsky for answers (“I need to message Tchaikovsky. I need to message Tchaikovsky about having almost nothing to go on…”) as she is a pair of imagined mice or boxing legend Joe Louis. The result of such wide-ranging inquiry is an essay that sparkles with vulnerability, humor, and insight. “I will be a magician,” Fusselman tells us, “…who explains my tricks.” And what a delight for us to be here with her, under her top hat, her spell.
Rising: Dispatches from the new american shore by elizabeth rush
In her important new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Elizabeth Rush shines a light on the people who make their lives in our country’s most vulnerable places—its disappearing shorelines and wetlands. While she illustrates the landscapes using vivid language and explains ecological principles in engaging and illuminating prose, her real strength lies in her ability to step back and let her subjects do the talking. Because wetlands have long been difficult places to build, Rush explains they “have historically offered shelter to those who literally couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” and many of these people are now out of options. She offers these communities their own agency by including interviews and chapters told from their perspectives. Rather than portraying herself as a hero, she admits that “as a white woman and nonfiction writer, I also know that I have blind spots, biases, responsibilities...I know that simply walking away is a privilege not always available to my subjects.” With compassion and empathy, she searches for solutions alongside climate scientists and experts and constantly asks who those solutions benefit and, most importantly, who would be left out. Rush pushes for answers that benefit all parties. She questions flood insurance policies that require residents to use their payouts to rebuild in the same flood-vulnerable places over and over again, as well as the temporary solutions that allow waterfront properties to retain high property value and thereby attract rich buyers and drive out longtime residents. She insists: “Our collective security will be arrived at, should it come at all, as a result of our ability to reckon with our country’s history and how it has left so very many bodies unjustly exposed to risks that only continue to mount.”
still life with two dead peacocks and a girl by diane seuss
Seuss’s fourth collection of poetry, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is not unlike traversing a manor with many rooms. Each room contains unsettling portraits—bodies (often women, sometimes animals, frequently the speaker) in various poses, ranging from the innocuous to the overly violent. “We do not want / to be strange with one horn growing out of our foreheads. / We want to be what the others have been…” claims the speaker in “Bowl,” yet the thesis of Seuss’s collection seems to be to expose the strangeness of what we normalize and the magnetism of what we do not want to see. These poems juxtapose uncomfortably: American cheese and “recently beaten” bloody mouths, island waitressing and glass-shattered bones, a tenderly held baby and stomping feet...
Much like the girl in Rembrandt’s eponymous painting, readers are made to gaze upon something visceral and whether scenes are meant to be read as brutal or luscious isn’t always clear. Compellingly, the collection is punctuated by portions of the painting, culminating in a full reproduction of the girl admiring the two dead birds. Her poems themselves imitate this crescendo, until we leave (like the speaker in “I Climbed Out of a Painting Called Paradise”) the book—the manor—unsettled by what we have seen, by the discomfort that Seuss wants us to maintain in our daily gaze.
cenzontle by marcelo hernandez castillo
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s first book of poetry, Cenzontle, is a beautiful and dark rendering of life as the other in America. His poems explore the margins; being queer, a Mexican immigrant, among many othered roles. The collection takes on the soul of the mockingbird who soars over the nesting grounds of childhood and family, sexual discovery and marriage, racism and rejection⏤overshadowed by the following request: “Can you wash me without my body / coming apart in your hands?”
It's through Castillo’s use of symbols of light, fields, shapes of water, and hands that he exposes and dismantles notions of intimacy, displacement, and the desire to be found. He weaves the fragility and curiosity in his speaker's voice to images of nature, providing a home within or around each body that the poem takes on: “You open me up and walk inside / until you reach a river / where a child is washing her feet.” With Cenzontle, readers fly too, journeying with Castillo to places of birth, escape, bereavement, and love.
approaching the fields, by chanda feldman
In “Headwaters,” Chanda Feldman writes “I am a river, / rocks are memory: I turn them, / rub them until the rough rounds and is no longer / a sharp to carry.” This is what she does in her debut collection Approaching the Fields, published by LSU Press, through her exploration of lineage, family history, personal experience, and race within her ancestral town in rural Tennessee. Feldman’s field becomes a liminal space where lines meet, where “sentences unravel like leaves / from limbs or a fraying hem” and her lyric ebbs through form and free verse, like the ever-changing topography of the speaker, her family, and the South.
In “Laboring,” the eighth poem of the crown sonnet “But We Lived,” Feldman draws parallels between a woman in labor and the historical labor of the fields through slavery and sharecropping. Quoting midwives, she describes this labor as “equally a place of living and dying—shadow land.” Like this “shadow land,” these poems blur the lines between elegy and celebration. This land is a place scarred by loss on a scale both macro and micro, by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and by countless familial deaths. Loss haunts the landscape, often personified as haints or relegated to lore, where “...those panthers / the old folks talked about, claimed they yelped / like a crying woman. As a child, I didn’t know / that was said to keep me clear of the woods.” And yet, this is a place of family, intimacy and memory, where “My grandmother walked the field road / home to birth my mother in her room.”
Though family homes burn to the ground and the speaker’s grandparents’ “bones rose on floods and washed away,” there grow “roses beneath kitchen windows,” where listening to “chamber music on the stereo, / we’d grill in the backyard, sit through dusk’s mosquitoes / fireflies, junebugs, and moths.” Approaching the Fields walks seemingly irreconcilable roads and unites them in prayer. Fieldman writes of “the soil needing to be fixed,” but her collection reads as an invocation to the strength of her ancestors: “I will die wanting/ To hear again my name in the mouths / Of my old women. Let them call me in / My daydreams on the summer quilt to rise.”
Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy, translated by heather cleary
Like a child born with two heads, Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, translated by Heather Cleary, comprises a bifurcation that appears both antagonistic and intimately bound. In the book’s first half, set in a sanatorium on the outskirts of Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century, a doctor contemplates his awkward infatuation with the head nurse while, in an attempt to unravel a medical mystery, a group of scientists decapitate cancer patients under false pretenses. A hundred years later, the second-half concerns a child-prodigy, a young artist searching for a new project and discovering another person who looks almost identical to himself. Together, the duo travel to the same sanatorium in order to create a truly shocking work of art.
By situating both beginning and end in the same locale, Comemadre creates a full circle of the grotesqueries humans inflict upon one another in pursuit of immortality. The characters are eerie and pathological—a freckled doctor obsessed with phrenology, a woman who wears shirts with the names of different countries to convey her current mood, a photophobic prostitute—and the atmosphere vacillates between absurd and horrific, creating a sense of unease that permeates the text. Read Larraquy to experience a strange waking dream from which there is no escape.
Dualities by Jason Phoebe Rusch
Jason Phoebe Rusch’s collection of poems, Dualities, is a must-read from a new voice within the poetry community. His debut portrays relationships as deeply human and never leaves a character’s complexity undeveloped. While some poems grapple explicitly with gender and sexuality, the thematic range in his collection spans further. He explores gender, sexuality and the patriarchy through the perspective of a transgender writer. "I don’t feel like a man or a woman," Rusch writes, "so much as a Janus-faced alien.” Provocative lines like this one scatter his pages. In “Trans Gnostics,” Rusch proclaims “you will hide / our gospel and write / the TV story…” His work is not interested in the palatable TV version of trans livelihood; rather, it is more invested in showing the facets that TV has refused to record or recognize.
The collection builds a world in which moments as ordinary as pushing a golf-cart become critical insights and the insights reached are often a surprise. Rusch's lines create a lasting impression that leaves us feeling as if we're eavesdropping on a private conversation: “I’d like to be the mythical woman who dreams only / of being made love to on a beach, details obscured.” The raw energy of his poems and his vast exploration of the human experience connects readers to Rusch and his characters, both in their beauty and their mishaps. His rigorous honesty, which creates a vacuum of relatability and inevitably, reminds us of the power of radical acceptance: “I can only be my own permission.” His speaker’s self-examination spans widely, questioning biases, lived experiences and moments in which he has “outsourced the blame for the blank space that’s mine to fill.” No character is perfect: “often we are both victim and perpetrator…” Dualities never veers into one-sided arguments or criticism, but instead creates a complex balance of questions and celebrations of difference.
Through Rusch's poems’ honesty and interiority, his readers gain an understanding of the speaker and characters and watch as the boundary between the interior and exterior world effaces itself in order to create a lasting impression. He demystifies the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the political spheres that we inhabit. Ultimately, Rusch's Dualities illuminates how our relationship to the self, as well as those around us, reflects the greater political questions of our time.
Smoke, by John Berger, drawings by selçuk demirel
Smoke, written by John Berger and illustrated by Selçuk Demirel, is a pictorial prose poem that—from behind a mask of levity and charm—presents a compelling argument about our condemnation of the cigarette.
Berger begins with a brief history of smoking: “We described journeys . . . discussed the class struggle . . . swapped dreams.” His words pop on the pages dominated by white space. Opposite them, Demirel illustrates innocuous smokestacks, ashtrays, squinting individuals taking a drag⏤wherever and whenever they’d like—in restaurants, between games of tennis, etc. Smoke curls from mouths, from trains and chimneys. In one drawing, smoke ascends into a nude silhouette that hovers above a line of old-fashioned houses.
Suddenly the narrative switches. Smoking is declared deadly and becomes a “solitary perversion,” while the environment is polluted with other, deadlier fumes. The smoker, according to Berger, becomes a sort of outlaw, while the real culprits go unnoticed.
An instinct might be to flip through this slim volume and allow its vivid, sensual images and sparse language to pass through you. But Smoke is deceptively simple—its power lies in the careful pairing of the two forms. Digested slowly, this small book produces a mounting tension meant to incite criticism, and cause us to examine our ever-changing societal values.
Divida, by monica a. hand
Monica A. Hand’s second collection, DiVida, published posthumously by Alice James Books, moves through three personas to simulate the atmosphere and spotlight the underbelly of racial injustice in America. Hand dispels post-race arguments: “This place called Manhattan (cluster that once held slaves) / boasted diminished belief in oppression. // It was a lie” and she manifests subversive echoes⏤reminiscent of Berryman’s Dream Songs and Freud’s psyche⏤through her I-speaker’s relaying of the lives of DiVida and Sapphire, offering a steady critique as her personas encounter racism. Hand’s figure, DiVida, often navigates her world by blind complicity, or exquisite naivety, so that she can seamlessly co-exist by playing her part in the white-world that oppresses her. Sapphire, on the other hand, is the outspoken rebel; DiVida’s opposite. In Hand’s poem, “DiVida becomes Captain of the Lacrosse Team,” she encapsulates all three voices to illuminate a schoolyard marginalization by fracturing, where each persona takes on an outcome or reaction. The I-speaker’s basic desire to belong and her pain and anger for being turned away, for not being “natural” enough like DiVida, gives way to Sapphire’s matter-of-fact refusal of the game: “I have been kicked off the team. / DiVida is the only black girl allowed to play. // … Sapphire runs / circles around the field… // Why you wanna play with people who slave you?”
The collection ascends to its hilt in the final poem when Monica, the presumed I-speaker, finally announces herself: “All these voices in my skin / like needles and pins / say speak // say: Monica speak,” bringing the culmination of voices and witnessing to a slippery but total singularity. With DiVida, Hand has left a door ajar for her readers, a lifeline to her double-consciousness, and a work which will continue to speak back.
The body ghost, by joseph lease
In The Body Ghost, Joseph Lease pares back the flesh of his verse until all that remains are the ethereal and essential bones. This far-ranging collection moves from romance to capitalism, to death and back, and is broken into concrete sections which build rhythmically and thematically until the book’s conclusion. Lease’s mastery of prosody is complicated and improved by his use of white space. His intricate metrical style combines with the visuals of the book to create music that drifts across the page. His frequent repetition lulls the reader into a sort of guided meditation as he explores the emotional nuances of the subjects that he addresses. Despite his ruminations on difficult subjects, on “no future” or “death tangles,” there is still an optimism that shines through his collection. “The world is gone,” Lease writes, “the world is back: / and to / your / scattered / bodies go / bless anyone / bless anyone / all / night / I was / your hair.” Salvation comes, he seems to say, from the small and concentrated moments.
The life and opinions of zacharias lichter, by matei calinescu, translated by adriana calinescu and breon mitchell
The eponymous Lichter of the 1969 Romanian novel The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, by Matei Calinescu, translated by Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, would look poorly on the very concept of a book review.
This shabby, wild-eyed, Zarathustra of the streets is filled with the sublime fire of the Lord’s angels. He wishes to turn the world upside-down; to excoriate utility, reason, and possession; uplift perplexity; praise the holiness of beggars, alcoholics, the blind and the infirm (physically or mentally so—ideally both at once); and scorn the very act of writing in favor of the spoken word. “The one-who-speaks requires a spiritual energy and a continuity of creative tension that may be lacking, and often is, in the one-who-writes.” And even then, he is only in favor of divinely inspired spoken words—how would such a person react to a book review, especially one of his own biography?
Zacharias Lichter would probably say something like: “Writing, I’ve said time and again, is a lost cause, a mortification of the mind, the art of creative forgetting, but writing about writing? This may in fact be the most insidious, satanic form in communication in existence!”
The prognosis, dear readers, is grim. But for your sake I will soldier on, hoping only to avoid the wrath of the street prophet once described by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran as “a Baal Shem Tov imagined by Sterne.”
The Life and Opinions is framed as a series of Sudelbuch-esque fragments compiled by Lichter’s anonymous biographer. It contains poems fished out of trashcans, diatribes against psychoanalysis, Lichter’s brief history, anecdotes and anti-picaresques, a mapping of his spiritual metaphysics, and his ranting opinions on everything in the world—mathematics, the elderly, comfort, suicide. . . The text is short yet comprehensive, giving the reader a full picture of a man who reflects Witold Gombrowicz, Pierre Menard, Maria Sudayeva, a thousand eccentrics and iconoclasts whose minds alight with luminous messages for a tainted and fallen world. Calinescu’s Zacharias Lichter is the abyss gazing back into us and our souls are better for it.
The pre-war house and other stories, by alison moore
Alison Moore’s collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, is threaded by a sense of unease that speaks to the uncertainty of life’s calm patterns. Often Moore’s stories upend suddenly by a danger like the steady tow of an undercurrent that should have been evident to readers from first sentence. Her characters, mainly young women, carry spotty histories and face precarious futures. They navigate the emotional conflicts of childhood and the domestic, and time and again find themselves the recipients of unwelcome knowledge. In “Wink, Wink,” one character’s return home prompts her to consider the role that secrets play inside her parent’s intricate relationship and leaves her questioning how well she even knows them.
Throughout The Pre-War House and Other Stories, readers are met with curious neighbors that wander into sudden violence behind closed doors: murderers, and what might be the paranormal and Moore’s writing is surprising and exact and culminates in the title story, the novella which brings the collection to a powerful crescendo.
Hunter and he dog up a holler, by James dunlap
In James Dunlap’s first chapbook, Hunter and He Dog Up a Holler (Swamp Editions 2018), set in the Arkansas delta, “Night ascends slow and half-hearted.” The world is only half lit and the paternal figure who might come at their child’s call is to be trusted no more than the wolf. Two boys bear similar bruises from their fathers, in his poem “Primal Forms,” and drunk on “whiskey’s bitter twang,” they make do with their smaller scale destructions. Once noticing all the cows in the neighbor’s field gathered beneath a single tree, the speaker shoots off a bottle rocket, scattering them and burning down their shelter, while claiming “There’s not much saying / what made me do it.” By the poem’s end, the speaker also acknowledges that he is “happy / to see...something else burning.”
Despite the intense violence, one senses the speaker’s tenderness and that the violence rendered is an act of survival rather than indulgence. There are uneasy, troubled moments of slippage between this violence and tenderness. In the poem “and the blade whistle,” the speaker’s grandfather works a slingblade after beating his wife. The grandfather is an imposing and terrifying figure wrapped in sinew, but still a grandfather, still comforting when the speaker nestles in his arm⏤“like a horse hair on barbwire”—only inches from a sharp edge. In a similar moment of slippage, the speaker imagines “Unkilling a Deer.” The knife “[seams] back its rent robes” instead of cutting; “blood crawls back up the groin;” and the dogs “spit up chunks of bloody deer heart.” These gruesome moments all accumulate in reverse until the speaker is again, “just a boy,” as if undoing the destruction of this deer can win him back some innocence.
By the end of Dunlap’s vivid and starkly beautiful collection, he concludes “it all has to mean something to live in a land that has broken better men.” But, we see that the land doesn’t only produce things stunted and wrecked by inhospitable people. “It takes a certain kind of person to know what is born of this place.” There is destruction and lives overrun by violence, and there is also the “generations of good tomatoes” and “the way the sun strikes the face of Petit Jean Mountain.” There is room for beauty and life and James Dunlap has the character to unflinchingly sift it from the generational sickness that haunts these pages.
The Kremlin ball, by Curzio Malaparte, translated by jenny Mcphee
“One cannot pretend that in a revolution only the guilty die,” exclaims the eponymous narrator of Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball. “Imagine such a thing! Someone has to die. In fact, the death of someone innocent is always much more useful than the death of someone guilty.”
Set in the decadent, corrupt 1920s of Soviet Russia, the novel treats the communist aristocrats as fictional characters. It’s not so much that the novel has a disregard for true events, as the events are superfluous to the novel’s aim: a portrait of those lavish personalities on the cusp of destruction by firing squad, the last of Lenin’s cohort annihilated. Demise has not yet happened for the characters of The Kremlin Ball, who cavort with foreign ambassadors and, above all, gossip. Malaparte, an Italian and guest of the Soviets, is privy to the secrets of the whisperers. His status as an outsider enables him to speak his opinions freely, viewing Soviet society from both sides of the glass.
Malaparte is bedeviled by the issue of religion in Russia’s new communist heart. Where does Christ fit in this loudly, mockingly atheist realm? Furthermore, where is death? Malaparte’s musings on the fate of the old guard—among them such characters as Leon Trotsky’s sister—are both referential and, thanks to Jenny McPhee’s translation, effortlessly flowing. The narrator’s speculations about the aristocrats are interwoven with colorful traceries of Moscow. As the dream of communism sours, Malaparte explores the repressed sentimentalism and despair of his hosts, and the ominous shadow of something more dangerous than idealism.
The iconoclast's journal, by terry griggs
Grif and Avice are newlyweds, but Grif isn’t sure he wants to be. The Iconoclast’s Journal opens with a strange phenomenon, ball lightning, interrupting a very normal occurrence—cold feet. The first half of the novel follows Grif as he stumbles, quite literally, into one adventure after another, treating each with bewilderment and hope. The narrative never clarifies what Grif is searching for, nor what he hopes to find in these odd places, among which are a darkly comical family home, a rocky island in the middle of a lake, and a tilting hotel built by a thirteen-year-old boy. The story is strongly picaresque, in the irreverent manner of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, although Grif’s muddled emotional motivations require some patience on the part of the reader.
The humor is punctuated by moments as tragic as they are comic, when human vice and natural disasters have dark consequences. The setting is Canada at the end of the nineteenth century but the language is modern, just one of the novel’s challenges to cultural expectations. The novel’s second half brings in the much more complex Avice, a jilted newlywed who, to be fair, doesn’t particularly fit into stereotypes. The same might be said of every character Grif and Avice encounter. One priest nabs rare books from the archbishop’s library while another drinks morning coffee out of a chalice during consecration. This relevant iconoclasm is best indicated by Grif’s wry mental dialogue: “He suspected that God had an unsophisticated sense of humour, roaring at these vaudevillian entertainments, the pratfalls and comic disasters to which humans were given.”
screwball, by anne kawala, translated by kit schluter
A hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual art, Anne Kawala’s Screwball is a gathering of flotsam and jetsam exploring geographic and mental extremes. Across the Arctic Sea, a modern-day huntress-gatheress floats on an iceberg with her children, while feminist anthropology is discussed in a disjointed notebook and, everywhere, language is distorted into something strange and something new. English, French, and German transform into each other and scattered throughout the text are star charts and drawings of birds.
This strange, shaman-trance of a book must have posed a unique challenge to Kit Schluter, the translator, who proves tenacious and crafty in his transformation of both French into English and vice versa. Time and again Schluter finds myriad inventive ways to create the right words to describe skeleton women, dissolution of causality, and a family adrift in a cold and distant sea.
Joan Darc, by Nathalie quintane, translated by sylvain gallais and cynthia hogue
Nathalie Quintane’s Joan Darc, translated from the French by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, more often asks the reader to imagine the titular saint as an adolescent sitting with her flock, than as a martyr burning at the stake. This collection, which follows Joan of Arc’s life from young woman to execution, is much more interested in the person than the legend. It shows that the shepherdess, in becoming a general, wasn’t “loosed and lost along the way, but projected, expanded and improved.” Quintaine’s use of language and form—switching between styles, fonts, even points of view—highlights the complicated nature of Joan’s existence and serves “as proof that she had two lives.” Even as the collection’s form gallops across the pages with frenetic energy, the language of the verse remains simple and direct. Hogue and Gallais expertly recreate this tension in their translation; however, their greatest accomplishment here is the way that they guide such a quintessentially French figure and story so naturally and compellingly into English.
Cruel Futures, by Carmen Giménez Smith
Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection of poetry, Cruel Futures, is comprised of forty-two sleek and cogent poems. Like that of the mollusk who sucks an irritant and spits out a pearl, so too has Smith sucked the trending irritants of past and present-day America, her own life—the language of academia, and of academics, the stale bourgeoisie, the voices biting back—and she’s crafted opalescent poems. Poems, though elegant, are anything but delicate. Some strike like curses witchly cast on domineering attitudes and figures in power, while others twist with introspection. Her speaker examines herself with wonder and admiration for her body, but never in a vacuum: “So luxe, my belly. I can think of about five non-related people I would let lick my belly all over. My / belly is not political resistance—Alas,” and then with imagination, with what-if hanging in the air for a body without determining desires and histories leached to its ground floor: “the way my body should feel in the world / if it wasn’t shaped by external forces.” In turning inward, Smith elucidates a complicated, messy identity that both demystifies and parallels the self to legend, as in her poems “Dear Medusa” and “Oakland Float.” From the latter, “I was just sparks flying,” her speaker tells us, “but still the sparks were connected and made me extra and awake.” Here we see that it’s through the loudness, the chaos, the mongrelness—similar to what Smith has named, her extrapoetics—that her speaker becomes extra, spectacular, Medusa’s “devoted disciple.”
But it’s Smith’s control of the line, the lyric, her use of compression, wry humor, and pointed candor that makes the book’s captivation one that truly endures. She delves into familial issues: child-rearing; sick, aging parents; and mental health with care and magnanimous transparency. Cruel Futures is an insurmountable labor that Smith has carved from a world of grief, but retains love and humor that renders her devotion a masterpiece.
Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener, translated by jennifer adcock and lucy greaves
The most striking quality of Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s fearlessness—her ability to broach any topic without the slightest flinch, however unfamiliar or achingly personal. In “Guru & Family,” Wiener spends two nights at the home of an infamous polygamist on the outskirts of Lima. She enters swiftly into the world of Badani and his six wives—tracing their genealogies, discussing female ejaculation, and taking a private belly dance lesson from La Gatita. In “A Trip Through Ayuahuasca,” Wiener purges with tobacco leaves and then, guided by a shaman in the Amazon jungle, takes her prescribed dose, later emerging from “the mosquito net as if from a white uterus.” Then, in the compact and rhythmic “The Greater the Beauty, the More It Is Befouled,” Wiener opens with an anecdote about one of Freud’s patients, a Russian aristocrat who suffered from body dysmorphia, before she deftly segues into her own obsessions, with interludes of Nietzsche, Bataille, and others.
Wiener’s essays do not deal solely in sex, as the title of the collection may suggest, but in the exploration of identity and gender. How are we to make sense of our own bodies and the bodies of others? Why is it that we—with the internet at our fingertips—supposedly know more than ever, yet often experience less and are less open to the experiences of others? Wiener urges us to ask these questions in order to uncover the artificial boundaries that have confined us to our own experiences. With a voice as unapologetic as it is searching, this gonzo journalist delivers her findings on a wide variety of topics, from egg donation to prison tattoos to BDSM. Nothing is off limits to Gabriela Wiener and she spares her readers no detail of her adventures. The result is Sexographies—an addictive and darkly funny collection that surprises at every turn.
Who's who when everyone is someone else, by C.D. Rose
C. D. Rose’s second novel is a book for people who love books, especially academics who love books. The story is a close and uncomfortable examination of literary habits and Rose's first-person protagonist addresses readers directly within the confines of a well-ordered form. His novel encapsulates the period from when the narrator arrives in an unnamed European city to the time he departs, having delivered at a university ten lectures on great but forgotten books. The narrator’s improvisation and choice of books, as well as his search for remnants of an obscure author, reveal the mechanics of his brain, whose flaws are more attributable to whimsy than illogic.
The story is sharp with observations of literary culture, and the power and failure of literature to change the real world. The narrator’s wry humor often shades his interactions. In one scene, he attempts to participate in a dinner conversation with intellectuals but “the Eminent Writer had ceased listening to me before I had even finished speaking. Such, so often, is the power of truth.” Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else experiments with the boundary between abstract and concrete. We rarely learn names and receive little in the way of resolution, but the story is peopled with eccentricities of place and personality. The narrator is preoccupied with the word oneiric and touches his face when stressed. Yet he has no backstory and, as far as the narrative is concerned, no future. The novel is carried by small jokes and wisdoms, an overriding self-awareness, giving credence to the narrator’s wonder. “Strange,” he says, “how so often the most unlikely places house the oddest treasures.”
Pearls on a branch: Oral Tales, by najla jraissaty khoury, translated by inea bushnaq
In Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales, Najla Jraissaty Khoury collects thirty folktales from over two decades of travels in Lebanon. Here she’s compiled the stories shared among women that are filled with ghouls, princes, cunning young girls, and animals that talk. Frequently, fathers and husbands are outsmarted by daughters and wives, and peasant girls catch the eyes of princes and charm them into royal marriages. As with most folktales, these stories often seek to teach a lesson, but this lesson is not always what western readers expect. In “Abu Ali the Fox,” Abu Ali decides he will no longer eat his fellow animals, leading his neighbors—Hen, Rooster, and Partridge on a pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way he gets hungry and devours the first two, but Partridge escapes, believing that Abu Ali could never change his ways.
Khoury tells us that her tales are published “exactly as I received them from the mouths of the storytellers, who told them as they had heard them from their parents and grandparents.” These verbatim renderings, translated from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, allow the reader to hear the voice of the teller, instilling each tale with multi-generational echoes of meaning. These stories are charming and subversive, often hilarious, but always sincere in their telling.
For Isabel: A Mandala, by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by elizabeth harris
Part mystery, part romance, and part meditation on cosmic matters, For Isabel: A Mandala follows Tadeus Slowacki as he searches for an elusive childhood friend, whose involvement in subversive politics placed her in danger. This is no ordinary quest, however, and Tadeus is not a typical protagonist. “Think of me as a pulsar,” he says. “I come from a place where splendor reigns.” These hints are our sole guiding lights regarding his afterlife. Though dead, Tadeus returns to Earth to discover Isabel’s fate, encountering those who helped her along the way, including a Catholic priest, a musician, and a poet who communes with spirits.
For Isabel resists grandiosity and thrives in quiet moments of human connection. Elegant but unpretentious, Tadeus’ reflections raise a scaffold of nostalgia and loss centered on his deeply held remembrances of Isabel. He recalls their escapades in France, catching frogs and bringing them home to eat: “People thought we were nuts, which we enjoyed, because at that age you enjoy such things.” Elizabeth Harris’ translation from the Italian preserves the meandering, dreamlike atmosphere of the story, the concentric circles of meaning around reconciliation and the unbounded nature of time.
You Envelop Me, by Laynie Browne
In the mouth of a flower, a dying woman stretches out. A white dove pours bourbon onto a fire, in a place where second lines are formed by poets and gods alike. Laynie Browne’s latest book of poetry negotiates the ways in which we inherit, perform, and endure loss. Guiding the reader through rites of birth, to death and beyond, You Envelop Me is all at once atemporal and in real time. The quiet wake of Browne’s verse comes to rise in fever dreams; moments of radically singular, melodic grief fall with composure onto the percussive hymns of tradition and what can constitute our shareable world. This is a soaring collection whose flight explores the tangential transformation of poetic form alongside the varying stages of grief and loss. “Conceiving a wing-ed book,” Browne writes, “is beginning to sort one’s thoughts,” and here the verse is flush-left, safe, and ordered. This soon gives way to an almost erratic form, as words "fall, bend, warp" across the page in a section that explores divination. The grounded structure of Browne’s later prose poems carefully explore “[a] world permanently different with the beloved removed,” wherein every second is “a moment lost, a moment anticipating drowning.”
Neither liturgical nor crude, reading this text is to hold calling hours for the many deaths within ordinary moments. The delicate reverence of this work asks us to examine in what ways do we speak to the divine? What antiphonies do we perform in the absent hermeneutics of a day? You Envelop Me gives visible trace in its soft reply, a requiem bound in “[a] book—whose wings—swallow me.”
Her mother's Mother's mother & her daughters, by Maria José Silveira, translated by eric m. b. becker
Maria José Silveira’s novel, Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters, translated by Eric M. B. Becker, traces the matrilineal ancestry of a family throughout Brazil’s history. Beginning in 1500 with the arrival of Portuguese ships and a Tupiniquim woman named Inaiá, each woman’s life is detailed in full before the focus passes to her daughter, ending in 2001 with the most recent descendant, Maria Flor. Each woman’s story, though shadowed by the events that came before her, is illuminated by her own unique personality. These episodic narratives chronicle the changes to the customs in Brazilian culture, fads that come and go, as well as waves of political and social movements.
These women’s trials are woven with the history of Brazil, creating a powerful critique of patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. The indigenous woman Sahy, the first of several characters to be enslaved by the Portuguese, is an interpreter of dreams, a woman who feels deeply in touch with the natural world. After her capture, she becomes disassociated from her own life, “and soon reached a stage in which she was always beyond, the stage where she could accept and contemplate the world as a passive observer of the infinite human capacity to inflict suffering.” The author’s own personal trials are ingrained here, as well, for similar to the character Ligia, Silveira was accused of subversive activities by the military dictatorship and was exiled to Peru in the early seventies. Tragedy and joy unite to form holistic portraits—the women of Silveira’s novel may be constrained by the time periods they live in, but they are not the product of them.
wade in the water, by tracy k. smith
In Wade in the Water, U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner for Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith weaves together past and present, personal and political in ways that are at once urgent and timeless. Using a variety of forms⏤traditional and non-traditional, short verse and long fragmented pieces, found poems and erasures⏤Smith ponders historical and contemporary injustices with as much nuance and intelligence as she does private, localized subjects like motherhood, and vast, infinite ones like eternity.
At the cornerstone of her collection is the long-sectioned poem, “I Will Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” whose lines are drawn entirely from letters and statements from African-Americans during the Civil War⏤both enlisted men and their families. And though Smith has arranged these lines⏤for instance, she presents one letter as a sonnet⏤the voices that sound are those of speakers from the past. She preserves misspellings and other idiosyncrasies from the originals, resisting the temptation to poeticize. Instead, Smith opts to put these voices in conversation with one another and with the present reader. The final section features haunting statements from black soldiers whose names were recorded incorrectly in order to prevent them from claiming their pensions: “My correct name is Hiram Kirkland. / Some persons call me Harry and others call me Henry, / but neither is my correct name.”
Other ambitious poems from this collection include an erasure of the Declaration of Independence, another drawn from slave owners’ letters, and the found poem “Watershed,” which juxtaposes lines from a New York Times article about the company that makes Teflon, Dupont, who knowingly poisoned water sources in West Virginia.
Wade in the Water is unflinching. It doesn’t forgive, nor does it forget. One early poem in her collection damns: “Those awful, awful men…Whose wealth is a kind of filth.” Still Smith offers respite and ends the collection on a note of hope⏤blurring past, present, and future⏤looking back over “a long age” and finally, looking forward: “Then animals long believed gone crept down / From trees. We took new stock of one another. / We wept to be reminded of such color.”
The Science of Lost Futures, by ryan habermeyer
A large severed foot of origins unknown. A woman who becomes a snow leopard, another who catapults into the sky, and a collection of historical torture implements. These are a few of the details of Ryan Habermeyer’s worlds, fabulist spaces in which the absurd is more real than the normal. The questions posed in his collection, The Science of Lost Futures, are weirder but no less complicated than other moral quandaries. What does one do with a dead, racist grandmother brought to life by a flood? In the case of “Valdosta, After the Flood,” the answers are sometimes straightforward—put her back in the water—and sometimes maddeningly elusive. As with the daughter launched into the sky in “The Catapult of Tooele,” few characters get what they want, or what they believe they want.
The collection is fascinated by butterscotch candy, parsnips, and infertile or miscarrying wives, and the dearth of female narrators is remarkable. Often women are the subject of the stories, while perplexed men attempt to understand them. In “Everything You Wanted to Know About Astrophysics but Were Too Afraid to Ask,” a man’s romantic partner literally turns into a black hole. The collection is an assemblage of oddities with deeper, quietly poignant undercurrents. From “The Fertile Yellow,” a man swimming in a grocery store full of egg yolk says, “Nobody believes this is the way their life will turn out.” The humor of Habermeyer’s ironic moments make the collection a worthy read. With characters who worked as a “window display model at a mortuary” and reflect that they are “nothing more than God’s pedicurists,” The Science of Lost Futures keeps its promise that the ridiculous is often the clearest path to the real.
Auden, the psalms, and me by j. chester johnson
In J. Chester Johnson’s Auden, the Psalms, and Me, the poet recounts his experience as W.H. Auden’s replacement on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Book of Psalms, included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Poet Elizabeth A. I. Powell says the collection provides an "understanding of how language and poetry can elevate us spiritually through history, in dark times and light.” Despite wading through weighty discussions⏤not only of the techniques and technical aspects of poetic translation but also of religious translation⏤Johnson never loses his reader. Instead, he balances the technical and the theological with persona, as his voice is all at once knowledgeable, analytical, and poetic. His prose remains delicate, ornate, though still accessible, detailing not only the person of Auden⏤his loyalty to the original translations in the Book of Common Prayer⏤but also his grappling with the past, present, and future. Through Johnson’s lens, we more fully grasp the poet's struggle to reconcile past meanings and modern times. His thorough investigation of the histories of his subjects, the Psalms and Auden, coupled with his own experience on the drafting committee all paint a picture of both Auden and the work of poets as a whole. And so, the book asks readers to step into, immerse themselves in poetic tradition. More than anything, J. Chester Johnson’s Auden, the Psalms, and Me leaves readers with the sense that the work of the poet is never complete⏤to the very end, the poet continues to negotiate the changing times.
Not Here, BY Hieu Minh Nguyen
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s second book of poetry, Not Here, is a stunning release from Coffee House Press that realizes the intersections of trauma and identity. Its poems braid together the many threads of survival, sexual abuse, erasure, and the ongoing systemic and material manifestation of threats toward queerness and POC. He makes vivid and brutal the self-imposed guilt of the survivor: “Somewhere in my dreaming I allowed this / to happen” and he weaves his many subjects throughout each poem. From the culturally negated trauma of a boy sexually abused by a woman, interpreted as a masculine accomplishment: “—attaboy—ay!boy goodjob-buddy,” to his seamless shift to racial violence, seen as a cultural accomplishment of whiteness: “show me what the Midwest did to that rice-blood//waytogoCharlie! That’s how you do it,” Not Here is carefully invested in the stakes of its subjects, in unsettling and uneasy moments of truth.
And the book opens with and frequently returns to one of seven “White Boy Time Machine…” poems, which act as the fraught touchstones of the collection—again replaying the attempts on the speaker, his erasure manifest. Not Here is a collection of survival, surviving all the weight that gathers and bears down and Nguyen never gives or settles for easy answers. Instead, he acknowledges that life, that being here, is not an uncomplicated thing but a worthy thing, and one that his collection continuously points toward.
Banthology, edited by Sarah cleave
Compiled as a response to Trump’s 2017 travel ban, Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave, presents voices from all seven banned nations in conversation and offers readers insight into not only the dislocation and dangers that inhabit their realities, but also the joy and magic that censorship threatens to strip away. The representation offered by these translated stories covers a wide array: from people in transit to people stuck in airports, assisted by healing jujube trees or fake passports, to people living in bomb shelters or a floating city named Schrodinger that just wants to return dead American tourists to American soil. They vary from darkly magical to darkly funny to darkly real—often genre-blurring—due to the strange, dystopian nature of the ban itself.
However, the collection maintains consistency in how it addresses issues of displacement, arrestment, and the longing in between. Rania Mamoun captures this with poignancy, in “Bird of Paradise,” when noting: “a wound has grown within me, as great as the distance I longed to fly.” But the collection also looks outward, at those responsible. In “Return Ticket” Najwa Bin Shatwan’s floating city discerns: “They never think about the outcome of their actions or understand how they affect us. But I suppose the real disaster would be if they did know and truly understood, and still did nothing to change.” Banthology is a collection that doesn’t just ask for knowledge and compassion, but prompts action, accountability, and change.
Orlando, BY Sandra simonds
Sandra Simonds’ latest from Wave Books, Orlando, is relentless as a fever-dream, composed of her two long poems “Orlando” and “Demon Spring.” Through these two poems, Simonds’ speaker apostrophizes the city known for Disney and false fantasy, Orlando, Florida, that has witnessed the speaker’s life, specifically her relationship with her abusive ex. “Orlando /…to address you is weak, pathetic, and once home, the clouds become a picture of things / I did to Craig…” The poem “Orlando” sparks with sensation. Its long lines and frank prose, embedded with italicized excerpts of the speaker’s past diary entries, build the context for the speaker’s character, establishing a pattern of suspicion and self-doubt. The speaker accuses Craig⏤an accusation that seamlessly shifts onto Orlando⏤of reading her diary and finding it (her) lacking: “what spasmodic teenage language crossed with erotic energy and bubbling lyrics / of pop songs folded you in, made you want to read more, then close the diary / in disgust…” The city of Orlando represents all that this speaker has failed, is anti, refused, and despises in herself and Western society: artifice, cruelty, consumerism, capitalism, pornography, misogyny, etc. “Orlando, place of raw material, place of affect, / place of lush box, the pulse so lush / it makes the live version of history / stream before you like tears.”
When her collection shifts to “Demon Spring,” Simonds reshapes her language, employing a range of long and short lines, varied punctuation, and sections that move readers through layers, as if descending Simonds’ own inferno. Her address widens past Orlando to include her ex’s lover: “I like your blue dress, Molly / It reminds me of my old body. / I try so hard, Molly.” Through this apostrophe Simonds’ speaker picks up and sets down her many subjects⏤at times as a conceptual interrogation of the subject⏤and braids it tightly to the autobiographical details of her speaker’s life, so that the real and the imagined life become indecipherable. Sandra Simonds’ Orlando moves intensely, nimbly, and with exacting intention. It recasts place, as well as the stories of the past and present, and the speaker who tells.
the Brahmadells, BY Jóanes Nielsen, Translated by Kerri A. Pierce
Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells is a sweeping novel that spans the start of the 1800s to the new millennium, chronicling the lives of a connected group of people residing in the port town, Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. The novel follows the Geil family, nicknamed Brahmadella, along with their travails, loves, enemies, livelihoods, and downfalls through the generations. The history of Faroes forms the milieu for the characters’ dramas—the measles epidemic, the agitations for independence, and the anti-union violence. Sometimes characters are caught up in action, and other times important historical events remain merely background as Nielsen focuses on the individual.
Family and history are the obvious themes in this book but a third current runs through, tying the other two together in a troubling fashion: “There is hardly any other country, or indeed any metropolis, in which mental diseases are so frequent in proportion to the number of people as on the Faroes.” Readers can trace the genealogy of madness within the Brahmadella clan, including the hot-tempered Nils Tvibur, the disturbed and accusatory Betta Geil, and the brutish Hjartvard—all culminating in the violent climax of the book. Here, in Jóanes Nielsen’s Faroe Islands, scars are a type of curse, and wounds inflicted can ripple outward to hurt people long after both perpetrator and victim have passed. And yet, far from being a pessimistic condemnation of human cruelty and the tyranny of blood, The Brahmadells provides readers with moments of compassion and tenderness, sometimes in surprising ways: a 19th century father refuses to forsake his homosexual son, a soldier saves a woman from assault at the hands of Danish officers, and a young boy with a medical disfigurement is taken in by a reclusive, sun-worshiping farmer.
And The Brahmadells is exceptional in that few contemporary works of Faroese literature exist in English. Translator Kerri A. Pierce does a wonderful rendition of the almost saga-like tone of The Brahmadells, bringing the large, century-spanning cast of characters to life. An unforgettable masterpiece, one can only hope that this novel heralds a wellspring of translations from a land often overlooked.
the second o of sorrow, BY sean thomas dougherty
Sean Thomas Dougherty begins his fourteenth book, The Second O of Sorrow (BOA Editions), asking the question that has loomed large over writers these past few years: “Why Bother?” Why bother writing poetry when a disgruntled white boy can kill seventeen of his classmates? Why bother when black bodies are erased by officers in the courts and the streets? When our President is signing hate into law? Grief haunts his collection that refuses to turn away from “the quiet click of [Death’s] bony fingers.” When the speaker’s daughter asks why police killed Tamir Rice, the speaker zeroes in on the details of her body. She sits in his lap. Chewed bits of a flower’s petals dot her lips. Behind her, the swing “hangs itself slowly in the dark.” Bodies are fragile, too ready to be taken away in this world where “every time we kiss we are saying goodbye.”
Dougherty resists the urge to provide easy answers. Despite the declining health of the speaker’s partner, he doesn’t turn toward religion. He imagines himself carrying a machete “To cut off the wings of the angel.” There’s a keen distrust for the academic institution: “The poem is the first breath and the last death. It is as hard it is said for a Professor to enter the Kingdom of Poetry as it is for a camel to fit through the ‘e’ of Helvetica. A Poem is not an Academy of Poets. There is no Academy of Poets.” So where does one turn? As Dougherty asks in that first poem, “Why Bother?,” he provides a bold answer. “Because right now, there is someone / out there with / a wound in the exact shape / of your words.” Words may not change the living conditions of our violent country—they certainly cannot change our mortality, the loss that comes heavy with the death of a loved one—but they can be held up to the wound, measured against it, and provide one with a sense of togetherness. Others have wounds of the same shape who have survived to weave words that gleam. With The Second O of Sorrow, Dougherty has made something beautiful for us that does not erase the pain, but shares it with us, lets us know we do not hurt alone.
Destruction of man, BY abraham smith
Story, labor, and hymn cohabitate the rust-strewn fields of Abraham Smith’s fifth full-length book, Destruction of Man. Smith’s speaker, being “one [of] such hickness sir,” is in turn gracious and irreverent, celebrating generations of symbiosis between the land and our animal bodies, yet the same mouth that shapes “land farms you / touches you / tractor and dips / a tongue in every word / of land and of you,” evokes also the “bog barf rheumatic” and “piss like a bullet in the ground.” Beauty exists in the world on Smith’s page—a beauty that oozes, shudders, cusses, curses.
Structured as a long poem divided into twelve titled sections, Smith’s words beg for an ululating tongue to sing them from page to air. “it sometimes seems / i take aim at ghosts with ghosts,” the speaker confesses, and in this we see that Destruction of Man does precisely what its title invokes. Through haunted language, Smith sets in motion a series of slow explosions in the book’s characters, landscapes, semantics, and even in us, the readers. That said, Smith takes care to rebuild what he deconstructs. The book’s final image—a figure “bare and bared and / new to young” sprouts like new grass in a field, waiting to see what elements (man or rain or rust) determines its mature form.
the Farm, BY Héctor Abad, Translated by Anne McLean
In The Farm, Héctor Abad turns memory into “a cork in a whirlpool, circling around the same things all the time.” Set against the stunning landscape of Antioquia, the novel revolves between the lives of the three Angél siblings and their reflections on their family’s farm, La Oculta. To Antonio, the small farm is not only a paradise, but an artifact of his ancestors, whose history he has painstakingly researched and compiled. For Eva, the house is a dark reminder of her near deadly run-in with Colombia’s paramilitaries and their attempt to seize the land. And for Pilar, the eldest, La Oculta is “the resting place” where she will live out her days with her beloved Alberto, analyzing the lives of her siblings.
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, Abad’s prose shines with the dreams of the Antioquian settlers who attempted to create a utopia for their descendants. But the novel also casts shadows—nightmares taking the form of guerrilla kidnappings, threats and massacres of the paramilitaries, and the ghosts of all who have drowned at La Oculta lake. The Angél siblings recount, assess, and cross-reference these events into a comprehensive portrait of their family, revealing how a land’s history can bind or divide our families, while always calling us to return home.
Milk, BY dorothea lasky
From Wave Books, comes curdling through life-stuff, Dorothea Lasky’s fifth full-length collection of poetry, Milk—in various shades of blue, green, red and cream. “Milk it connects,” Lasky tells us. From "Twin Peaks" and Anne Sexton’s ghost to breastfeeding and miscarriages, Milk’s subjects swirl across the page, swimming between iconic and intimate scopes. “You say you let yourself go / Maybe you didn’t / Maybe you should squeeze out / Everything you have,” and her speaker does, moving at a speed that doesn’t always wait for the reader. Lasky’s collection is one of reinvention. Here modern tropes and archetypes are baptized and reborn, often by fusing, where motherhood bleeds into fairytale but in a slithery shade of green. Her speaker longs for some other time (but what time?) while so very stuck in the present, forcing her to confront belonging, aging and current day-to-day: “I write down words in my room / For a thousand hours and no likes // So, instead of the Internet I will make a shop…In my dirty leopard coat it will be 1992 forever.”
For all the humor and sneer, Lasky’s poems tread the waters of stark fears of mortality, propagation, and innate monstrosity: “the trap of your life / Is that you’re trapped in this body / And even though you search / For twenty to eighty years for the demon…The demon / Is you.” Yet, somehow, her speaker carries on through all life’s suffering—by the cosmic force of Lasky’s lyric and whimsy, “Because despite it all / She lived / You know” and so, with Milk, readers may find kaleidoscopic stories for survival too.
Yellow Negroes and other imaginary creatures, BY yvan alagbé, translated by donald nicholson-smith
“Yellow Negroes” was first published approximately twenty-years ago, but it’s creator, the French-Beninese artist Yvan Alagbé has been layering this titular story with parallel and intersecting narratives ever since, leading to his collection of graphic short stories: Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures. While Alagbé was involved in the creation of two of the most influential anthologies in French alternative comics, L’Oeil carnivore and Le Cheval sans tête, this collection—never before available in English until rendered from French by the translator Donald Nicholson-Smith—is not interested in conventional comic forms. It chooses instead to rely on expressive brushstrokes in black ink, the simplicity of which is instead more focused on drawing out the complexity of physical features and emotive gestures.
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures explores the destructive legacy of French colonialism and illuminates the lives of the marginalized. In its title story, undocumented Beninese immigrant Alain, along with his sister Martine, and their friend Sam become the objects of obsession of former Algerian police officer, Mario, who is complicit in the brutal suppression of dissidents during Algeria’s war for independence. When left alienated from the new, independent Algeria, as well as from France, Mario lives in a limbo of historical erasure and wracked with guilt. Desperate to find a place for himself, Mario leeches onto the young immigrants, creating a miserable cycle of dependency that leads to a tragic end. Above all, this collection is urgent and timely—it handles the impossible situations of its characters with tender care, exposing the absurdity of racism.
Empire of light, BY michael bible
Michael Bible’s Empire of Light tells the story of Alvis Maloney, an orphan who finds himself in a small North Carolina town after accidentally causing a stranger’s death. It is here that he befriends Miles, the aimless star quarterback, Charlie, the high school janitor, and Molly, his first love. When their lives intersect, a unique friendship is built upon a foundation of drugs, rock’n’roll, and ennui. This almost sounds like the ingredients for a bildungsroman stamped with the DNA of Holden Caulfield, but Michael Bible destroys the old paradigms of this genre and rebuilds it by taking risks with his prose, especially in its lyrical language and energetic voice that hurls his readers forward: “There were ghostly shapes of light on the lake. The insects pulsed in the trees. Something incommunicable rose between us. A charge of electrons in the air. We talked about whatever.” Bible’s many descriptions of light create an overexposed, dreamlike aesthetic, and Maloney’s first-person narration sporadically projects hallucinations in which he finds himself traveling on horseback through a mystical, western landscape: “I named my horse Forever. He was chasing a swarm of crimson butterflies. I saddled him up. He wore an old eye patch over his good eye that made the bad one better.” Michael Bible, much like Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah, renders the familiar in surprising ways, and the many turns of Empire of Light result in a euphoric, one-of-a-kind novel.
waiting for tomorrow, BY nathacha appanah, translated by geoffrey strachan
Nathacha Appanah’s Waiting for Tomorrow is a meditation on how otherness and selfhood are shaped by the dull pressures of time and society. The novel follows Adam, an old-fashioned architect from the French provinces, and Anita, an ambitious writer from Mauritius who “bridles at the prospect of becoming a woman like so many others.” The couple eventually settles in Adam’s hometown, and for a time Adam thrives in this traditional space while Anita is haunted by her aborted writing career, feeling lost in her own foreignness and her newfound motherhood. Both she and Adam find solace in their au pair Adèle, an undocumented immigrant who is fleeing a past marred by personal tragedy. Through these complex and portentous relationships, Appanah depicts a domestic landscape in which sacrifice is primarily female and foreign, sensed but not understood by the men in the novel.
The novel ends in high drama—with lives cut short and dreams unfulfilled, with Appanah making it painfully apparent that life is little more than a collector’s inventory, a long list of choices and consequences that live on in our memories despite our best efforts to forget. Waiting for Tomorrow aches with longing, either to fulfill one’s destiny or to “rummage about…to seize and root out the tiny…stubborn and vital spark” of survival, a demonstrative reminder that for many, “tomorrow” is simply a euphemism for non-arrival.
AMERICAN LETTERS: WORKS ON PAPER, BY GIOVANNI SINGLETON
giovanni singleton’s second full-length collection from Canarium Books, AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper, is an ingenious hybrid work—as much poetry as art object and musical score. It demands its readers’ collaboration, their imagination, especially in her mesostic and concrete poems saturated with sites for improvisation. Similar to singleton’s first collection, Ascension, her second is an experience of acute listening. Her readers listen suspended, as if to jazz musician Alice Coltrane, but not only to each note that singleton plucks from the harp, but for the spaces that exist between notes, between white-space and letter, image and text. singleton stretches these spaces across thirteen chapters, testing our notion of the shape of the poem. Here we are no longer committed to the uniform dictation of the Word document. The page has become the canvas, and her collection propels readers forward, as though moving through an exhibit, growing further entrenched in the silence, the unspoken steeped in both personal history and shared heritage.
The objective distance in this book between speaker and reader and speaker and “I” is most diminished in her final chapters where poems like “Bingo Queen” are intimate and autobiographical. In other poems, the I-speaker, or i-speaker, is more conceptual—a challenge to POV, to language, to our individualistic driving—pushing us to consider: who is driving? And the collection resists narrative, for “The only ‘story’ is the one never told or sold out.”
AMERICAN LETTERS is far from subtle in its critique of the systems at work in American catalogues. The diminishing letter I in her penultimate chapter, “eye of the be/holder (Take 2),” while it may be interpreted in various ways, surely represents those oppressed, erased and excluded from history and current dialogues. singleton’s speaker reshapes language to work against these powers that reduce her, name her: “I quit the uppercase G to reclaim my own authority. // Make a different G, a Vimala G composed from two sized C’s.” And it urges: “Standup the / stereotype. Watermelon out with the bathwater. Let us rejoice and be clean. Clean. / Clear. Unambiguous but not unanimous.” singleton’s book requires that we listen long enough, we retrain our ear to hear, our eye to see, so we might (re)examine our violent histories, our violent present, and question our imposed placement and identity.
The end of peril, the end of enmity, the end of strife, a haven, By thirii myo kyaw myint
In The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint explores the beauty and the pain of constructed realities—the stories we tell and the worlds we build for ourselves. This debut book curves in on itself, doubling back and retracing its steps to create an ever-more intimate portrait of a woman between two cities: the domed city of her youth, which was built by her grandfather, and the titular harbor city, which once acted as haven for an ancient king under attack. Though long past, the history of this harbor city is very much alive in the narrator, as she is a descendant of both the city’s king and those who attacked him. “The city fell and the two peoples are one people now,” she tells us. “In my body, I am one person.” This comingling of attacker and attacked sets the stage for what might be called a book of blurring. Pressing reality mingles with myth and the spectral dead exist among the living. So, too, are lines blurred between human and animal, corporeal and natural: blooming trees swell and curl tendrils round a dying father; a sleepless princess carves the moon with her sharpened hair.
Perhaps the most significant blurring is the one between the narrator and her mother: “My mother,” she says, “…did not want to be reminded of the permeability of the body, of my body, which had invaded and opened hers.” There is also the narrator’s concern for her own baby, a child she winds close like a spool of thread and worries over. “I want it [the child],” she says, “to better understand what it is like to be a woman, for the baby may one day become a woman…The choice of gender the baby will one day make is heavy.” Musings like this one call us to reexamine motherhood—what does it mean? What does it require? And where—if ever—does it end?
Ghost Of, By Diana Khoi Nguyen
Selected by Terrance Hayes as the winner of the Omnidawn Open, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is a book of stunning verse and innovative visual constructions. Poems become mirrors, wedges, eels, fish in a pond, and Gyotaku that Nguyen pairs with snapshot photos from her childhood. This is a collection about leaving, about absence—a mother fleeing Vietnam, an infant, “two minutes after [she] was born,” already making her “first evacuation,” and, most of all, a brother leaving emptiness behind him in death. In her poem “Family Ties,” Nguyen remembers the evening her brother “cut out only his face from every / photograph in the hall.” The reader sees these photos, disfigured, layered like a stutter, the brother’s form removed, yet made more visible by its absence—a ghost’s empty silhouette, a white hole that Nguyen fills with verse on the opposite page. Here’s a world where poetry is what comes into the gaps, what fills the voids, where poetry might fill what grief leaves behind.
betwixt-and-between, by jenny boully
In Betwixt-and-Between, Jenny Boully captures writing life as if from behind glass: sometimes reflecting the often indistinguishable human loves and losses. Boully’s fractal essays were written over the course of her own writing life—some are more than fifteen years old and some only recently formed—and all reflect a measure of truth about the stages within a writing life. In “The Poet’s Education,” Boully looks directly back to her time in grade-school with transient children, MTV’s 120 Minutes, and formative poems by Lucille Clifton and Donald Justice. In “On the EEO Genre Sheet,” she contemplates the connections between being mixed race and writing mixed genre. Later, in “On Writing and Witchcraft,” she morphs into her one-time belief that herbs and spells could make her desirable: “the craft of writing as getting someone to love me despite how dark I might be.” Several of her essays, such as “Fragments,” present correlations between love, heartbreak and writing through its obsessiveness and focus on “the brittle nature of things” that “makes us love them and wish to preserve them.”
Boully’s main concern in this collection, however, seems a kind of preservation, whether in her personal essays or her more academic ones. She writes of her connection to the desire to transmit oneself across the galaxy, and in “On the Voyager Golden Records,” she says: “[p]erhaps I believe that by building this monument of remembrance I can propel myself into the future and make it so that I truly exist.” It is this preservation of moments, images, and thoughts that make Boully’s writing a glimmering landscape, a series of more-true-than-true snapshots which capture what it means to exist simultaneously within and without the page—a kind of existence that can only be shown through imagined loves, daydreams, moths, memories, hunger, outer space, and electronic bleeps.
Red Colored Elegy, by Seiichi Hayashi, translated by Taro nettleton
Seiichi Hayashi’s graphic novel, Red Colored Elegy transports the reader into the lives of Ichiro and Sachiko, two young artists propped up on the spindly hopes and empty promises of their decade, poised for heartbreak. So influential during its original 1970s release in Japan, it inspired a love song. This modern translation by Taro Nettleton manages to capture the novel’s original intimacies and relationships and to transport its cultural concepts and domestic difficulties into the present. Ichiro, an aspiring comics artist, sees his own life through the lens of his unwanted and dismissive career in animation. At once loving and alienating of everyone in his life, he grapples with his own depression in the face of his father’s ongoing suicide attempts. And Sachiko, a young animator striving against the industry’s glass ceiling, struggles to reconcile her career hopes, her romantic desires, and her family’s pressure for her to be a traditional wife and mother.
Each new panel of Red Colored Elegy surprises and innovates in its unique and stylistic fusion of French New Wave and alternative Japanese manga. Despite the stark minimalistic style, or perhaps because of it, the quickly connected pieces of Ichiro and Sachiko’s lives become hyper-realistic, as sharp and narrow as their many breakups and jealousies. It is the intersection between animation and comics, between the practice of art and the practicalities of life, and between the needs and desires of two young artists that make this graphic novel a quiet but powerfully enduring masterpiece.
Zolitude, by Paige Cooper
Paige Cooper’s finely-crafted debut collection, Zolitude, crackles and spits with intelligence. Cooper has honed a style that lends itself to unusual, crystalline landscapes ranging from—an environmental camp on some soon-to-be-flooded Canadian islands to a crowded German brothel “beside the boarded library and neon bathhouse,” in a city bereft of men—and from a housing development covered in a frozen fog in Riga, Latvia to an isolated settlement on Mars. Even worlds that are familiar are made strange in Paige Cooper’s lucid imagination by the presence of extinct or mythical beasts. In “Spiderhole” we learn that the tourist-traps of Vietnam now use enslaved dinosaurs, and in “Moriah” the threat of a carnivorous roc looms around a group of cloistered sex offenders.
Cooper’s use of such disparate backdrops and characters could risk the collection’s cohesion, but the similar hearts residing in each of his stories preserves it. Characters wander through difficult relationships and wade their overwhelming sense of purpose. In “Ryan & Irene, Irene & Ryan” a music executive tries to protect a client coming out of an abusive relationship, but her nightly lucid dreams run parallel to her actual life, making it difficult for her to determine what is real and what is dream. And Cooper’s prose has a similar effect. It “runs in tandem harness with reality, but it is separate and unique. It’s hard to twist out of...Time fogs like it’s long gone already.” The stories in Zolitude require you to immerse yourself, to lose yourself, your sense of time, if only to briefly inhabit their desolate and exquisite worlds.
we, the almighty fires, by Anna rose welch
Anna Rose Welch, in her remarkable debut We, the Almighty Fires, asks the reader to “Picture a stained glass window shattering / to let loose hymns.” These poems do just that: interrogate, and ultimately, destroy the boundaries between the physical and the holy. Much like Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Welch shows how both the altar and the bedroom are synonymous landscapes of the sublime: “the altar makes even you feel / both sacred and conquered. We, the patron saints / of unkempt cotton, of friction against a wall.” Welch explores this unflinchingly. She stares into the face of trauma, violence, and the concept of sin by reimagining Old Testament narratives. In “Story In Which I’m Renamed Eve And Just Don’t Give A Damn,” Welch writes that “to realize desire / is as much a purpose as anything else.” The Great Flood is also reimagined and its waters flow like blood throughout these poems. Like the body, these waters can become sites of violence and repression. In her persona poem “Noah’s Wife,” the speaker is swept into Noah’s patriarchal world: “There was nothing left of the earth to cling to, everything blue and hidden.” However, these waters can become the site of transformation: “the river will have no mercy except to lift all things toward sea,” settling on the image of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus: “a woman born on / the crest of sea, divine in every detail.” Welch’s collection constantly pushes itself towards a state of empowerment and bliss. It overflows with celebration of sexuality and desire—for “Even the garden / can’t help but burst open, poppies / exploding unapologetically from delicate stems.”
white decimal, by Jean daive, translated by norma cole
In White Decimal, Jean Daive asks emptiness to speak. He draws from minimalism, from a “white decimal / at the edge of space,” from the way an “avalanche remakes absence,” and he interrogates the image of white superimposed on white. With each layering, Daive limits and focuses his palette with reverent restraint. His verse breathes through the sparseness and the rhythm of his lines. It stretches out to fill and embody the white space that surrounds his poems. This is a collection where each image, each phrase, each syllable is carefully curated and arranged in an attempt to discover the thing that “haunt[s] what absence no longer holds.”
And it is as a master of curation where Norma Cole’s skill as a translator shines through. It’s clear, in this bilingual edition of the book, that Cole has given each word of Daive’s original its due; each rings out in English as measured and unwavering. Like trying to pinpoint a “white insect” in “boundless snow,” White Decimal is a collection most interested in what’s revealed from searching.
Eye Level, by Jenny xie
Winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Jenny Xie’s first full-length collection, Eye Level, takes the reader on a journey along the borders of language and thought. This collection moves through dislocation, displacement, migration, and impermanence, as Xie remarks, “Funny, the way we come to understand a place by wanting to escape it.” Based in many places, these imagistic meditations and observations record the speaker’s travels with deft precision and verbal restraint, making ample use of white space and silence. Moving restlessly, Xie is always observing—always wondering what it means to observe and to be observed. In rich sensory detail, she describes local culture, food, weather and then moves on, reminding us “Beauty, too, can become oppressive if you let it, / but that’s only if you stay long enough.” She watches as “someone sweeps thick cockroaches from the floor, someone orders oysters on ice,” takes note of “the outlines of bungalows in the distance—impossible to part the seen and / unseen. What’s here and what isn’t.” Her keen eye searches out what hides just around the corner, above or below eye level, and wonders what it means to notice what others do not. Xie complicates seeing, interrogates perspective, asks, “What atrophies without the tending of a gaze?”
Rail, by Kai Carlson-Wee
From BOA Editions this April, Rail is Kai Carlson-Wee’s first full-length book of poetry. It includes 45 poems that, to reference the Theodore Roethke quote introducing the book, don’t just “dream of journeys repeatedly” but often take place mid-journey, whether train-hopping through the great plains or dumpster diving in the middle of the night. Rail is a fierce book of survival and recovery, a book where the speaker explains: “I say I am / working to make myself better. Learning / the rhythm and speed of my heart”—and invites the reader along on this journey. And the journeys in this book are not mere dreams; they are authentic and well-formed realities. Poems that venture into the forgotten fringes of America, where a girl named Saturday plays guitar under a tarp in Seattle, and a homeless man named “The Cloudmaker” gives the speaker unconventional, timeless advice: “This life… / is one of those fake plastic rocks in the garden / you break with a hammer to get out / the key.”
Rail exists in the between and liminal. It does not seek the easy answer, nor shy away from difficult pasts or uncertain futures. No, it grinds on—praying for many things, but most of all, surviving, asking that you listen closely to the clacking tracks. And it’s safe to say, you probably haven’t heard a survival song like Rail’s before.
THE ICELANDIC CURE, by J.D. MOYER
In J.D. Moyer’s The Icelandic Cure, Jane Tokugawa is the lead scientist sent to investigate whether new genetic therapy treatments in Iceland risk inciting a global epidemic. Each chapter reads as one of Jane’s journal entries, detailing her suspicions and discoveries about the truth of the Icelandic medical advancements, as well as her own government’s interests. The chapbook prioritizes a well-paced plot and subtext-laden dialogue over description, including atmospheric details that would have solidified the setting. The nuances of characterization are successful in rendering believable Icelanders and motivationally complicated Americans.
The primary impetus for Moyer’s chapbook is the morally ambiguous matter of genetic engineering, which should haunt any advancing medical establishment. Moyer’s research into neurology and gene therapy gives Jane a credible persona. Her intellectual progress as she unearths fragments of the mystery is lovingly tied to the ever-greater—and ever more crucial—questions of self-determination. While Moyer presents Jane with an emotional arc that is somewhat threadbare, this minimalism leaves ample space for all the ethical discussions which form the heart of his story. Jane writes, “Who wouldn’t fix a genetic flaw or two if they could?” Beyond the human desire for personal improvement, the consequences of this technology involve systemic corruption and the preservation of our right to choose.
NORTH STATION, by BAE SUAH, Translated by Deborah Smith
A good collection of short stories is like a siphonophore: although made up of a number of individual organisms, they all fit together so organically that, to an outside observer, the collective forms a coherent whole. The stories in Bae Suah’s North Station perform such an act. Like a beautiful and mysterious Portuguese man o’war, themes, motifs, and images within are interlaced and woven throughout the seven pieces to create a romanesque, hermetic atmosphere full of intricacies simultaneously scintillating and opaque.
Suah constructs a refined labyrinth that’s not for the faint-hearted or shallow reader⏤from the twists and turns of very first sentence: “Yang had had countless harsh words thrown at him over the course of his life...he discovered that one of his castigators was no happier once they were rid of him, in other words that there was no correlation between their misery and Yang himself, and that this lack of correlation might have been all that ever lay between them, his timid heart found it strange, and faintly baffling.” Following this starting point is a dive into a world of transnational wandering, death-anxiety, confused identities, and missing sunglasses.
The influence of German literature on Bae Suah’s writing is undeniable too. From its allusions to Walser and Erpenbeck to the existentialist musings on the absurdity of life in the face of death, North Station represents cultural hybridity, a joining together of the semiotics of East Asia and Central Europe. The language, facilitated by translator Deborah Smith, invades the reader’s mind like a heady smoke, leaving in its wake a profound sense of loneliness and wonder.
From Lone Mountain, by John Porcellino
From Lone Mountain is a five-year collection of stories and comics from King-Cat, the self-published zine which, over the past three decades, has earned John Porcellino a cult following. Porcellino’s pairing of minimalist drawings with his unfiltered observations of nature and his own interior struggles results in a refreshing voice—one that is intimate, unpretentious, and instantly recognizable to readers. His central preoccupation in this series, as it moves from Denver to San Francisco and back to Denver again, is the concept of home: “Now I don’t even know if I know what ‘home’ means anymore,” he confesses. “It’s not necessarily a physical place, right? But maybe it’s that place where we feel connected to the meaning of our own lives.” In spite of the loss of his father and his beloved cat Maisie, Porcellino continues to connect with the world around him. In the issue “Places,” we inhabit the towns and neighborhoods that formed him. Overlooked, little known places such as Scott County, Kansas, where, below the plains and croplands, he and his friend discover an oasis of crayfish “waving their happy claws,” or Dekalb, Illinois, where he reflects on his warehouse job and the evenings of refried beans that led him to pack up and move away from a comfortable, yet unfulfilling life.
Porcellino invites his readers along on a road trip with him—a slow, deliberate one. And thankfully, with such an observant guide, nothing seems to go unnoticed: not crane flies or catalpa trees or the “size, location, and position of the heart”.
SUBTERRANEAN, by RICHARD GREENFIELD
Steel yourself for Richard Greenfield’s third collection, Subterranean, a potent series of lyrical elegies. Subterranean’s deeply blurred and layered meditations on loss and rot consume its readers on a skittering journey across liminal borders and landscapes littered with bankruptcies. Here we have debt and we have death. Its speaker walks a desert where the borders of the dead and the living blur at “this edge effect—this overlap” and the speaker, the “orphan of collateral damage” is witness and observer. “They say ‘tender and tender / means ‘pay’ I say tender / but mean ‘soft’ they win...my estate and my / epitaph”. In these poems, the loss is all around, and not just through the speaker’s grief for the deceased father, but through the junk mail, the vulturing collection of crows. Greenfield dives us into analogies beneath our daily consciousness—the surety of our mortality as to our morning mailcarrier who brings us bills, propaganda, our complicity and avoidance of the system: “when the apocalyptics / knock I will not answer and they will leave / their brochures”.
The fluidity and plurality of forms in Subterranean echo the layers and multiple sides of grief the speaker travels, and as a stabling ground, the reoccurring black pages of his “Transcription” poems, riddled with em-dashes, return the book again and again to a mourning song, “—earth / swallow this energy—turn it gold in the morning— / take the nighcrawler in my dooryway away”. And yet, among all of Greenfield’s sobering observations, there persists the intent to exist beyond or even within the overlapped ground. Over and over again, he directs “look at the wound trying”, “look at the wound trying to stand” and maybe at the book’s end it does, when we finally approach hope, the possibility of a “new ground”.
THE NATASHAS, by YELENA MOSKOVICH
In The Natashas, Yelena Moskovich embarks on a jarring exploration of the inseparability of name and identity. The plot centers around Parisian jazz singer, Béatrice, and aspiring actor, César, who spend their lives haunted by nicknames, watching as their own fates are borne out on other people’s tongues. At the same time, Béatrice’s sister meows in conversation as her boyfriend’s “kitty cat,” and a woman named Sabine spends her entire life vehemently instructing others to call her “anything but that.” And then of course are the ever-present Natashas, those who have been stripped of age, interiority, and potential, whose name serves as a reminder that society exerts a control over its members even as they fight to create themselves. “Whether she is Pavla or Olena or Salomeya, to the customers, her name is Natasha.”
Moskovich’s imagery in the novel is hypnotizing; blankets on the floor are “bunched like spat-out gum,” cigarette smoke “crashes like watercolor” against a wall, a man’s voice is “as soft as a boiled fish,” and a question can seem “a room full of empty shoes.” The text stacks its scenes like building blocks, creating a mosaic of surrealist serendipity in which everything you think you know dissolves, again and again. Likewise, the characters live an “inter-frequency existence,” caught in the static between two channels, privy only to snatches and symbols as these realities bleed and swerve. The Natashas presents a Murakami-esque pictogram of incomplete data that will mesmerize the reader long after the last page has been turned.
Von Spatz, by Anna Haifisch
In Anna Haifisch’s absurdist graphic novel, visionary artist Walt Disney suffers a breakdown caused by artistic self-doubt, disillusionment, and perfectionism. To restore him back to health, Walt’s wife, Lillian, delivers him to Von Spatz Rehabilitation Center. Apparently tailored to artistic clientele, its unconventional grounds include a penguin pool, a hot dog stand, an art supply store, and personal studios. There, Walt spends his days with artists Tomi Ungerer and Saul Steinberg, both artists who, like Disney, stray from realism to relay deeply imaginative and surprising images.
By acting out the struggles of the average artist with these iconic figures, Haifisch makes us see these struggles in a new light. The world she creates is strange—characters all have animal heads, and Walt suspects he spots Spongebob under a beach blanket. Nevertheless, they go about mundane activities: Tomi takes his cat to the vet, Walt struggles to use the copy machine, and all three draw constantly. The three artists have so much to gain—recognition, connection, comradery—but to do so they must risk vulnerability and failure, sharing their drawings and accepting each other’s callous critiques. These “tortured artists” are not romantic figures, instead they are comically thin-skinned and grouchy. “The complete and total arbitrariness of the world as well as my sense of self hits me,” Walt thinks, before jolted out of his thoughts by a man nearby who “eats like a crocodile,” no doubt due to his crocodile head. “Have some dignity, moron,” he gripes. Still, their depression and anxiety is both realistic and relatable. With its simple, unvaried lines, offbeat color palette, and scrawled lettering, Von Spatz takes its audience into the mind of visionaries, where the border between the real and the fantastic often blurs, and creativity can be both destructive and liberating.
TOMB SONG, by Julián Herbert, translated by Christina MacSweeney
In Julián Herbert’s Tomb Song, the accomplished author consoles and celebrates his dying mother. She is music, he tells us, but also virus, plot point (“What will become,” he queries, “of these pages if my mother doesn’t die?”), body in hospital bed, and parent: a Mexican prostitute who raised Herbert with an awareness of and a great appreciation for literature. Here, the author is both young boy and mature writer in his prime, exploring and exploiting the elasticity of genre as he flits enviably, effortlessly between memoir, fiction, and essay. A childhood spent traveling Mexico is an exercise in character building and a memory; a trip to Cuba is wild bender, fictive construction, fever dream. The result of this genre-bending is clever humor and radiant vulnerability; here, we feel, is Herbert laying himself bare, pulling the curtain back to reveal the parts of himself that both shape and interrogate his world.
Throughout the book, Herbert’s points of artistic reference are both old and new, as wide-ranging (Thomas Mann, David Attenborough, the boy band Menudo...) as they are fearless in their audacity (the stolen penis of a Lego giraffe in Berlin, for instance). Translator Christina MacSweeney bends and serves with Herbert’s text, preserving a cadence that elevates this book beyond genre mixtape to swan song. The prose swells, dives, and crescendos, offering the recursive pleasures of a well-arranged symphony even as it tackles new ground. To ask where Herbert is ultimately going becomes beside the point; his finely-drawn loops of thought reward and challenge readers as they double-back, turning inwards to more keenly examine the book’s central questions: how does the landscape of one’s childhood shape one’s adult self? How can we convey complexity, sincerity, memory, truth—as we perceive them—on the page?
If there is an anthem, of sorts, in this book, it is Herbert’s repeated borrowing of a phrase from Oscar Wilde. “I am simply a self-conscious nerve in pain,” Herbert proclaims, quoting Wilde, and he’s right; it is our pleasure, as readers of Tomb Song, to witness this raw nerve’s transmission of pain, memory, genius.
Registers of Illuminated Villages, by Tarfia Faizullah
Tarfia Faizullah’s second collection, Registers of Illuminated Villages, sings with many voices, in multiple languages. The book opens and closes with quotes from Nina Simone: “I do not count the time” and “I do not fear time,” with the closing lines revising the opening. The title of the first poem is also revised—“Register of Eliminated Villages,” a near-match to the book title, but with a distinct difference—the eliminated become illuminated. These lyrics speak of grief, trauma, and human suffering; yet beyond a series of shrouds (gauze, mesh screens, bodies “hidden by cotton or lace”...) light always glows. Faizullah insists that hope can be found in prayer and song, in the daily rituals of cooking and reading, or in a cab ride, though it is often fleeting. These pages are violent and haunted by the voices of the dead, yet insist on endurance: “I did not die. I did not die” and new beginnings, always with the possibility of “the world [as] an orange freshly peeled.” Time is cyclical and she keeps returning, revisiting, determined that this time, something will be different: “In the end, / there’s only one way to begin / an origin story: at the beginning. I know / a good one: a monster named Joy- / in-the-Margins learns the nature of light / by revising the dark into song with every / register of her seven tongues. / Ready? Let’s begin.”
footnotes in the order of disappearance, by fady joudah
Fady Joudah is a remarkable poet of great intellect and vision—qualities that are on prominent display in Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, his fourth collection of poetry. These poems blur boundaries between speech and silence, science and myth. They cross borders, both in terms of geography (the poems take place in France, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Texas among other locations) and in terms of language (the poem “Body of Meaning,” for example, combines the language of medicine, physics, Star Wars, and Greek mythology).
Though they often seem quite public in their concerns, these poems also feel intensely personal and vulnerable, and their undercurrent is one of love and togetherness. A poem titled “An Algebra Come Home”—about an immigrant selling fruit in a Paris market—plays on the original Arabic meaning of the word algebra: a reunion of broken parts. When a customer finally buys four peaches, “one for each chamber” of the heart, the salesmen declares, “Gorgeous, you’re the one who’s mended my heart.”
Joudah’s thought-provoking and imaginative juxtapositions shine throughout, as when he professes, “I’m a terra rist a maqam of earth”—a line where the ambiguities of syntax suggest terra as in earth, rist as in to engrave, maqam as in both the Arabic musical mode and the tombs of Muslim saints.
These poems never balk at addressing war, peace, identity, gender, or love, but they always resist simplification and sentimentality. “If only / reality didn’t lay siege to my head / I’d celebrate existence,” Joudah writes in the book’s middle section (a collaboration with Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji). Later in the same poem the poet laments that “cruel people…curse beggars / who don’t speak their language and the beggars / go on singing for them.” These poems are pertinent and immediately alive. This collection is not only a deeply rewarding and enjoyable read; it’s also an important one.
Neapolitan Chronicles, by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee
Neapolitan Chronicles finds pain beneath the illusions maintained about post-World War II Naples. Three of the book’s five sections are fictional stories of women seeing the city anew and finding in it a frail and fading hope for the end of suffering. In “Family Interior,” Anastasia Finizio is growing older while she cares for her relatives. Her ebullience at the rumored return of a romantic prospect is crushed by her bitter relationship with her mother and siblings. The small joys of the characters are undermined by the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the jealousies of other inhabitants, such that the pristine Naples of myth, “bathed by the sea,” is in truth a disguise for “amorphous poverty, silent as a spider.”
Silence characterizes Ortese’s Neapolitans, real and fictional, whose emotional devastation and physicality are precisely rendered, from the “small woman, completely bloated, like a dying bird” to the nonfictional writer Compagnone, who sees the lives of Neapolitans “as if in the caves of Lethe: a swirl of souls, restless ghosts upon nature’s deep waters.” The mood and linguistic accomplishments of the collection are compellingly captured by Goldstein and McPhee’s translation. The metaphors are original and give a sense of profundity, especially about poverty, a stark image of which is captured in “The Involuntary City,” a journalistic account of life in converted housing in one of Naples’ poorest districts. The poor create a “carpet of flesh” and the data about them is “of an almost astral depth,” yet the writers Ortese interviews in “The Silence of Reason” have no words to rectify this horror.
Ortese’s vision of Naples may be decades old but it resounds today. The complicity of Neapolitan writers and the middle class is enabled and compounded by politicians “in a state of nebulous, secret corruption.” The pursuit of truth is hampered by the apathy of the populace, who have internalized their suffering and come to believe in its endlessness. “Everyone was indifferent here,” Ortese writes, “everyone who wished to survive. To become emotional would be like falling asleep in the snow.”
the Möbius Strip Club of Grief, by bianca stone
In The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, Bianca Stone moves like Dante through an imagined underworld: a club where the “the dead don’t want your tips. They just/ want you to listen to their poems.” Stone guides the reader along the strip club’s meandering halls, each poem leading somewhere unexpected, somewhere inevitable, exploring loss and grief through the burlesque, through Emily Dickinson, through feminist text, through birdsong. The afterlife that she creates —original and evocative in its imagining —resolves itself into an elegy for Stone’s grandmother, Ruth, whose presence rings throughout the collection. The collection’s title is inspired in part by her grandmother’s poem, “The Möbius Strip of Grief,” and Stone explores the relationship between the generations of women in her family, turning her eye from grandmother, to daughter, to “the gentle climate of mothers.” Moments of joy and conflict are layered over one another in a palimpsest of grief. Stone’s verse is immediate and accessible —here, the dead are just beyond our fingertips, and grief’s a reason for gratitude.
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi
Ada is born the daughter of a human, the daughter of a god, and the vessel of ogbanje. Although the novel opens with her birth and follows her through childhood, this narrative isn’t concerned with telling a linear story. It focuses instead on the story of spiritual self-knowing, the cracks and fissures, the symmetry and splintering. Because Ada is also others, the narrative splits into chapters, some narrated by a “We,” some by Asughara, and some by Ada herself—each with their separate ideas and interpretations of events. The bulk of the story is spent in Ada’s early adult years, after a traumatic experience initiates the birth of a new voice within her—Asughara. Where Ada is quiet and religiously troubled, Asughara steps in to protect her, by using her body for sex and power. What follows is a long dialogue between these two voices within one body as they struggle to understand one another, and to reconcile their separate existences in the heart-darkness and betrayals of the world around them, moving from Umuahia to Virginia to Brooklyn.
What is stunning about Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater is its bold, unwavering testament to the queer body. It opens doors to an identity that is inherently metaphysical, that cannot be neatly boxed into a hegemonic culture. Emezi writes with palpable urgency her testament to being and braving a body that resists Western binaries and scientific analysis, and that sometimes resists its own being. Freshwater brings us to these uncomfortable, bodiless spaces, reminding us that “the space between life and death is resurrection. It has a smell like a broken mango leaf, sharp, sticking to the inner rind of our skin.”
love, by Hanne Ørstavik, translated by Martin Aitken
Hanne Ørstavik’s Love follows eight-year-old Jon and his mother Vibeke as each wanders the night in a cold, snowy village in northern Norway. From the first page, Ørstavik’s understated prose and sparse dialogue trace a relationship between mother and son that is as dry and powdery as Jon’s failed snowballs. As the novel flits effortlessly between these two points of view, the reader is swept up in two separate egos, each on a muted quest for the human connections they are unable to accept from each other.
Ørstavik is at her most striking when capturing the spirit of inexperience: Jon’s quiet acceptance of the world around him and his unselfconscious interactions with it, as when he puts a whole cookie in his mouth “and tries to suck it soft without breaking it,” offer a sweet genuineness to the novel. But what feels natural and sympathetic in the son gets twisted in the mother: with a thousand “maybe"s and “must be"s, she explores justifications for peoples’ behavior in a desperate and immature attempt to provoke intimacy between herself and others. In Love, the disingenuous folds into the organic as if into a batter; the novel feels constantly on the verge of something irrevocable. This tension lingers like cigarette smoke in the cold, ultimately bringing Vibeke and Jon together again at the end of the night, but further apart than either of them ever fully realize. Martin Aitken is to be applauded for so conscientiously bringing this soft-spoken, full-hearted novel into the English language.
red winter, by Anneli furmark, translated by Hanna Strömberg
In Anneli Furmark’s latest, social democrat Siv has fallen in love with Ulrik, a Maoist many years her junior. Like the bitter winter air that writes itself on their faces, the affair casts an icy glow on all it touches, namely Siv’s family and Ulrik’s political position; as a member of Sweden’s communist party in the late seventies, Ulrik is meant to convert social democrats like Siv rather than fall for them and risk revealing party secrets.
Unfolding in tense, careful prose and shadowy blue and orange watercolors, Siv and Ulrik’s story is equal parts cold—the endless winter, Siv’s pull away from her husband and children, the desolation both she and Ulrik are pushing against—and inviting, due in large part to Furmark’s keen ability to access the deeply interior and the expansive, the majestic, sometimes simultaneously. In one such scene, Siv’s daughter Marita wades serenely through a golden forest of thawing snow; in another, Siv muses on loneliness as her world is shown from above, a bird’s eye study in blue and black squares, circles, and curves.
Yet for all its magnificent stillness, Red Winter howls with unease. The question—is it possible for Siv and Ulrik to be together?—nests inside their relationship, waits for them around corners like an unwelcome stranger. There it is during an unexpected run-in on the sidewalk, as Siv whisks her daughter along and Ulrik attempts to sell party newspapers; there it is, too, in the unrelenting eyes of Ulrik’s party boss; there it is, once more, in the eyes of one thickly-bearded communist who leers at them from Ulrik’s bedside. “Can you take that picture down?” Siv says. “Marx?” Ulrik responds. “Why?”
Underscoring this tension is Furmark’s clever use of red—red books scream their political weight against the muted blues of the communist party’s local headquarters; cherry-bright stripes and plaids weave their way through the characters’ sweaters. Even the matching red tea kettles (one at Siv’s home, one at the party headquarters) burn with pressure. Though the twin kettles never appear in the same place, Furmark has made it easy to imagine them whistling to one another across town, two notes of lovesick, impossible brightness in the freezing dark.
goddess of democracy, by henry wei leung
Henry Wei Leung’s collection, Goddess of Democracy: an occupy lyric, explores the complications inherent in freedom and protest, focusing in particular on the 2014 Umbrella protests in Hong Kong. The collection, selected by Cathy Park Hong for the Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize, begins with a startling encounter with a dead body in “Preamble: Room for Cadavers.” Here, it becomes clear that there are no easy answers; the body is person and object, erased person and everyone, facing the risk of dissolving at any moment. The Goddess of Democracy, a plaster replica of a statue, haunts these pages in various states of decay and neglect, acting as a symbol for a protest that had no headquarters but that moved around and was in some ways invisible—in the very air. The danger inherent in protest becomes even more palpable when the Goddess disappears or goes silent unexpectedly. And at the same time, we are asked to question the very ideals being fought for: “What if freedom just means shopping?”
The collection’s third section is made up of prose pieces that help explain, give context, and ruminate in a way that requires an outpouring of words: “It is possible that none of us have the right to live as we do . . . So thank you for standing alone. For your misunderstanding, for your pained cry. For this dust of words, for the longing to be at all, for we are all afraid in the end.” These words situate the Umbrella protests in a history of protest without simplifying, and broaden the reader’s view. Leung implicates readers and absolves them in the same poem; while the collection speaks about a particular protest, it also speaks to the individual. Indeed, the collection is dedicated: “for your freedom.”
virgin, by Analicia Sotelo
Analicia Sotelo’s stunning first full-length collection Virgin, selected by Ross Gay as the winner of the Jake Adam York prize, explores the layered and intersecting roles of Sotelo's Latinx speaker: daughter, lover, and writer. Sotelo’s book is situated in a hybrid space of autobiographical retelling, retold with ample license and penchant for art. There are no pretenses here or self-idealization when the speaker announces: “We’re all performing our bruises,” and the reader digs deeper for her directness. The speaker works towards self-realization and self-preservation from a micro and macro level, not only interested in the personal, the familial, but also issues of colonization and assimilation: “Out here, where the sand is so white, / so Westernized, how could I not / sink into it / & burn with questions / like what am I doing here”? Sotelo’s speaker is all at once chatty, pulling the reader close: “A man walks into my kitchen in athletic shorts. / That’s the joke—a man, in my kitchen,” and staggeringly mythic: “Now I have three heads: one / for speech, one for sex, // and one for second-guessing” and it is this reeling dance with her reader that allows Sotelo’s collection to move between low and highbrow subjects, to include poems about barbeques, Giorgio de Chirico, and Greek mythology and never lose speed. Without exception, Virgin is a must-read—and a delightfully gripping way to start poetry in 2018.
in every moment we are still alive, by TOM MALMQUIST, Translated by Henning Koch
When Tom, the narrator of In Every Moment We Are Still Alive, learns that his wife Karin has an incurable illness, he is abruptly confronted with the meaning of family and grief as his life unravels. Though it would be easy to explore such subject matter in ways that feel overwrought and saturated with emotion, debut author Tom Malmquist steers away from sentimentality through prose that renders events objectively, allowing his readers to experience the whirlwind of tragedy without any superfluous details. Malmquist’s syntax is clean, sparsely punctuated, often times minimalist in its style, yet ambitious in its vision, and its effect is urgency on the page: “I look up: first I see the oxygen tube, light blue, looking like part of a toy as it hangs down between Karin’s oxygen mask and the respirator, which makes a recurring crunching sound as it synchronises with Karin’s rising and sinking chest. . .” Sentences like this one, in addition to the relatively long paragraphs found throughout the book, give readers the sense that they, like Tom, do not have much room to breathe as they learn the complexities of both Karin’s illness and the struggles of being a single father in mourning. And as Malmquist jumps back in time, allowing readers to see what Tom and Karin’s life was like before her illness, Tom’s flaws become apparent; his volatile personality complicates the reader’s understanding of his relationships with both Karin and his immediate family. Ultimately, both these jumps in time and Malmquist’s incisive prose paint a full and complex portrait of a man overwhelmed, and the transformation he endures as he becomes a father.
heartland, by Ana Simo
In Ana Simo’s debut novel Heartland, the excruciating collapse of our barely-recognizable society is dwarfed by the frenetic musings of the novel’s protagonist. So paranoid and magniloquent is the novel’s narrator that the large-scale political upheaval underscoring the story seems almost inconsequential. Instead, readers are drawn into a complicated web of spurned love and lethal revenge as the narrator wrestles with ghosts from her past: family, “friends,” former lovers. The failed writer-turned-grifter never names herself as she narrates with an irreverence that is at once hilarious and unsettling; every stroke of linguistic dexterity is matched with something gritty, even crude, resulting in a register that is as complex as the interpersonal dramas pervading the novel.
Set largely in the hyper-wealthy suburban ghost town of Elmira (and the peripheral Shangri-La, home to Elmira’s lower and working class), Heartland queers the world and the self through the eyes of someone whose definition of truth and justice is in constant flux. With language and at times uncomfortably close critical observation, the novel seems to ask: how far can we dissociate from what we know and expect? How strange can we make ourselves to ourselves? Of her own reflection, the narrator says, “The bathroom mirror showed a naked female of the human species emerging from a sulfurous cloud…This was the person known as I.” So does the entire novel distort the typical, the easy, and the comfortable. No observation is low stakes; instead, the reader must constantly ask, breathlessly, feverishly: wait, wait, what exactly am I looking at, here?
Missives from the green campaign, by david armstrong
Missives from the Green Campaign provides glimpses of a world in which the purpose of war is environmental preservation. While many of the rituals of army life remain the same, from hazing to the power dynamics of an authoritarian hierarchy, the conceptual twist of the chapbook is that each soldier must nurture a plant whose survival is intrinsic to his own. The first-person narrator’s drive to nourish is sometimes more destructive than helpful, leading him to adopt a hapless comrade and amateur philosopher, Hershel, who struggles with the rigidity of military life.
David Armstrong shorts world-building and character development in favor of exclusionary details and inventive language. Lying in their bunks at night, the narrator says of Hershel: “I heard him shift on his cot in the darkness, saw out of the corner of my eye the moon-grown obscurities of his rumpled blanket reforming.” The story’s dialogue and cultural associations best convey the wistfulness of its reflections, while the frequent use of blank space, created by truncated chapters and minimalist scene descriptions, amplifies the somber mood. Subtle moments carry much of the story’s emotional weight, as when one chapter ends, “I kept my lily hidden, safe, in the darkness near my heart.”
kitaro's strange Adventures, by Shigeru Mizuki
In Kitaro’s Strange Adventures, the fourth installment of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro series, we follow a community of supernatural but benign entities known as yokai through a selection of adventures from the larger GeGeGe no Kitaro narrative. These stories portray something like a commensalism between humans and yokai, with rat spirits, anthropomorphized eyeballs, flying cloth creatures, and many other elements of Japanese folklore fighting malicious demons on behalf of mankind—though mankind is not always thankful (or even aware) of Kitaro and co.’s efforts.
Kitaro’s Strange Adventures easily juxtaposes dry (and at times irreverent) humor with grim elements of horror and myth: on one page, the nebulously “good” Nezumi Otoko knocks himself out with the fumes from his own vengeful flatulence; a few pages later, Kitaro squares off with the joy-devouring Iyami in his eerie forest home, a porous mushroom-shape stilted on tall, gnarled roots. Mizuki’s art enacts this juxtaposition, too, through the parallel of his jovial characters and dark landscapes, such as the seemingly innocuous Kitaro traversing dark, thickly shaded mountain ranges to the rhythmic “clip-clop” of his iconic sandals.
Each story tells a tale of community effort rather than individual heroism. Though Kitaro is referred to as the “protector of the innocent,” he is rarely able to overcome evil on his own. Only by fighting alongside his yokai friends and family can Kitaro take down the many threats that come his way—a practice, possibly, that proximal human societies would do well to emulate.
Silk Poems, by Jen Bervin
Jen Bervin’s collection Silk Poems makes up one component of her larger three-part project that explores the compatibility of silk and tissues of the body through biology, culture, and linguistic imaginings. Each of her poems appears in all caps, centered on the page, and with absent punctuation, which lends itself to a blurring between discrete words and a sense of fluidity with regard to their meaning. Silk Poems moves through complexities. There isn’t a single way to read Bervin’s collection. In one reading, the mother silkworm represents resilience: “SOSHE / SPITS // AND MOVES / HERWAYOUT // A BATTERING / RAMBREAKING // THREADSWITHTHETENSILE / STRENGTHOFSTEEL // ANDREMARKABLE / ELASTICITY” and in another, the book as a whole becomes a meditation on time. Each poem uses couplets, mirroring the duality of this work. The speaker of Bervin’s poem acts as both sage and comic, exploring the text and the textile, the sense of the union of the silkworm and the poet: "AREYOUSURPRISED / IQUOTEAPOET // DONTBE / WEINVENTEDLANGUAGE.” Reflecting Bervin’s project as an interdisciplinary one—where she consulted and researched across many fields—Silk Poems asks to be read through various lenses, so its reader can return to it again and again for a newly charmed and deeper understanding.
palaces, by simon jacobs
Simon Jacobs’ debut novel Palaces explores a disturbed punk’s experience in a post-apocalyptically uninhabited world, specifically the mansions of the wealthy, where lavish expense is coupled with a disdain for preservation. The novel’s intentionally confused logistics demand that the reader disregard conventions of time and plot. The first-person narrator, John, is a feverish young drifter who constructs his own narrative arcs in search of true feeling, sometimes at the expense of his partner, Joey, who is addressed throughout as “you.” John and Joey occupy the homes and thus the lives of the rich but even in this surreal, depopulated landscape, are unable to escape the strictures of class: “We’ve had no shortage of luxury bathrooms since we left the city, but the fact remains that we are bodies left to starve in someone else’s finery.”
The novel’s coming-to-awareness of gender and class can be read against Joel Thomas Hynes’ We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, another story of counterculture and the consequences of systemic power. John’s antiestablishment impulses, at times infused with dark humor, are predominantly guided by a strange sort of déjà vu that amplifies the horror of denial and violence. The tone lingers between nostalgia for the worlds we build and dread of the worlds we inhabit. Palaces is about the desecration of our trust in society and in each other, and the coping mechanisms we invent to live with these losses, because, as John says, “There never was any going home.”
EMPTY SET, by Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Translated by Christina macsweeney
Empty Set is a marvel of form; Verónica Gerber Bicecci charts her narrator (also Verónica)’s struggle through a maze of confounding relationships with diagrammatic renderings of the same, offering a visual perspective on her subject that perfectly captures a young woman’s desperate search for connection and meaning in life’s looming trivialities. In short, pithy bursts, she offers up details of interactions with lovers, family, animals, and the dead, and everywhere she finds incomprehensible clues to a mystery whose very nature is itself unknown: the rings in trees, the gifts her cat brings her through the window, email chains, uncrackable codes in abstract paintings. Through Observation Reports, drawings, and bold strokes, Verónica attempts to organize “a set emptying out little by little. Disordered fragments. Correction: shards,” into linear narrative.
Though Empty Set may reduce Verónica’s world to labels and diagrams, the novel is anything but reductionist. Consistently innovative and heartrendingly reflective, Bicecci provides a satisfying slice-of-life story despite leaving so much unanswered. From the dropped pronouns in Christina MacSweeney’s artful translation to the mysterious absence of Verónica’s mother, we learn that “the things we can’t see don’t hide themselves in the shades of gray, or in the white or black, but on the fine line separating those two totalities.” Here is a reluctant testament to the fact that beginnings and ends are never as streamlined as we would like them to be; life is riddled with false starts and false summits, and exists only in the border lines that must be drawn to become visible.
Witch Wife, BY Kiki Petrosino
Like a water witch running a dowsing rod over the dirt, the poems of Kiki Petrosino’s third collection measure out the angles of the world’s curves, finding them in the speaker’s thigh gap, the fins of seahorses, or at Jantar Mantar, a gigantic Indian sundial that “curves away into slices of egg.” In “Political Poem,” the speaker teases through various incantations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe,” through the “arc of green fireworks in spring” to the arc of her own spine until “bodies, berries, beaks, barns” are all collapsing toward justice.
Unfolding over four sections—each sprinkled with villanelles and other crackling formal quirks—Witch Wife deftly slides back and forth between the humorous and the devastating, between the guttural and the cosmic, between the conditions of America and the particularities of the speaker’s own body. The body is “runny custard . . . with its buried corkscrew of hate.” The body is “botched,” is prophesied to have “a good belly for twins.” Motherhood, for the speaker a subject of yearning, fear, and revulsion, is a tension at the collection’s heart. In “Ghosts,” one of many poems in this collection haunted by the ghost of Anne Sexton, mothers “wear the moonrise like lace.”
On top of it all, Witch Wife is tremendously, darkly funny. In the afterlife, the speaker’s exes “rise up from their Mazdas & adorn themselves in denim.” Certain to make many ‘best of’ lists for poetry this year, Witch Wife is not one to be missed.
I KNOW YOUR KIND, BY WILLIAM BREWER
Set in Oxyana—a nickname given to the author’s hometown of Oceana, West Virginia—William Brewer’s first full-length collection opens with a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “‘I know your kind,’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.’”
Indeed, Brewer begins in I Know Your Kind the work of unraveling assumptions about addiction and about the people of Oceana. The book, which was chosen by Ada Limón for the National Poetry Series, moves through cycles of detox, overdose, resolution, withdrawal, relapse, death, and grief, taking readers through the steps as it shines a light on addiction from a wide range of perspectives. In the opening poem, Brewer paints a typical day in this town: “Not Hog Hill where Massey Energy / dumped cinder, the gray waste / between breaths, poisoned trees / black like charred bones / where we burned cars while girls / wrote our death dates on our palms / with their tongues…” In voices that are manic and breathless, lucid and gut-wrenching, Brewer reminds us that change can be possible, but might be very hard to come by in a place like this.
MYCOLOGY, BY JOAN WILKING
Joan Wilking’s Mycology is a thriving ecosystem. In this keenly imagined and fully realized novella, the winner of Curbside Splendor’s Second Annual Wild Onion Novella Contest, the lives of three characters—blue eyed, golden haired Luca, a handsome young man grappling with his past; clever, introspective Charlotte, a career driven photographer; and Martin, a successful composer and burgeoning mycologist trapped in a failing relationship—flourish separately and then together as they weather the expected (their artistic careers, their romances, their past selves…) and the unforeseen: the height of the AIDS epidemic in America.
Like the oak tree that falls at the opening of the book, spawning the growth of poisonous mushrooms, the characters’ interrelationships spawn resilience and temptation. In short, vivid chapters Luca, Charlotte, and Martin are pushed and tested by loss, indecision, curiosity, and memory; they emerge, over the course of the novella, as luminous and real people, each as bright and raw as the red of a scarlet cup mushroom. Wilking’s sharp prose and striking images brim with life and reflect back her characters (she describes for instance, “a pine tree, still standing, split and charred by a lightning strike”) even as her plot burns and poisons, creating for readers a field guide for not only how to find chanterelles but how to fight one’s way through adult life and its curveballs. Indeed, Wilking’s fine book is an ideal read for anyone looking to study not only the natural world, but the mycology of the human mind: the lethal, the surprising, the wondrous.
The Cataracts, BY Raymond McDaniel
At the heart of Raymond McDaniel’s fourth book of poetry, The Cataracts, is sight and its opposites—blindness, reflections, distortions of light and dark. McDaniel is a poet of great intellect and wit who thrives on opposites; no sooner are we invited to answer questions of philosophy, metaphysics, politics, or spirituality, than we are reminded that this world is one of multiplicity and paradox—that staring directly into the sun will blind us, and therefore we must gaze at “never the thing itself and always its reflection.”
The scope of the subject matter here is as wide as the multitudes that these poems suggest. Poems about X-Men, Star Trek, and Micronauts are placed alongside poems about unjust landlords (spelled “Land-Lords, to make strange the relation between the former and the latter”), fighting on the beach, and “the sighted Audrey Hepburn” as “the blind protagonist” in the film Wait Until Dark.
“Humans are different, and not,” the poet writes in “This is Going to Hurt,” suggesting the impossibilities this book grapples with: whether we are predators or prey, whether we are different than we were in the past, whether we might ever answer these or any other questions with certainty. “One way to be in error is to assume that what there is to know / requires that one merely look around,” McDaniel writes elsewhere in this collection. Yet this gripping book never gives up hope that we might find answers to the existential questions that it simultaneously believes unanswerable. And with McDaniel’s keen insight, we just might.
The Mannequin Makers, BY Craig Cliff
Colton Kemp, window dresser in Marumaru, New Zealand, owes everything to his wife Louisa; when she dies giving birth to twins, he loses not only his inspiration, but his ability to connect with the world. Sixteen years later, it’s 1918, and he has raised his children to be living mannequins; as such they captivate the townspeople, particularly Kemp’s talented rival, a mute known only as The Carpenter. What follows is the slow-burning fallout of impulse, as characters stumble blindly through their own illusions, some searching for, some staunchly refusing “the simple connections…screaming out to be made.” As the twins’ innocence and their father’s egomania lead to ever-more devastating complications, we get swept up in a tale of secrets and survival that spans a generation, revealing little by little the lengths to which we will go to protect ourselves from the truth.
In Craig Cliff’s world everything breathes, from floorboards that “rumbled like an empty stomach,” to a figurehead so lifelike she is given lines of dialogue. He dresses loneliness in its most dramatic garb, lacing it with vice, virtue, and dispassion, and casting it all in the gnawing shadow of grief: for lost loved ones, for rash decisions, for the isolation that comes with victimhood. In The Mannequin Makers Cliff molds his narrative with tools as various and original as The Carpenter’s, ultimately revealing just how easy it can be to mistake living flesh for carved wood, daydreams for reality, and silence for unpardonable guilt.
Of Silence and Song, BY Dan Beachy-Quick
In Of Silence and Song, Dan Beachy-Quick presents meditations, essays, and other snippets: images, fragments, poems. The book’s pages are haunted by writers of the past, mostly poets, whose words mingle with Beachy-Quick’s own. He touches books they have touched, examines their minds by reading their journals, visits their houses to walks their steps, always looking to learn from them, “As the old masters who, to learn proportion and figure, drew studies of the masters before them, so poets in antiquity used to return to themes explored by those before them, truing their song by the measure of others’ singing.”
From the New Horizons probe at the edge of the solar system, to paleolithic cave paintings, with plenty of conversations with his daughter in between, Beachy-Quick covers a wide array of subjects with deft strokes, holding up both silence and song, both day and night, to examine their paradox. He measures the depth of knowledge by admitting what is unknown, struggles to express ideas that defy language, and searches for the boundaries of a poem on a page: “Sometimes I think it can be heard in no other way, that song—the one you cannot sing. And then I think, you can put your ear against anything, any made-thing, and hear that supernal vibration that is paradise, I mean the wind speaking, I mean the actual poem, the un-making one, the un-made one we can only glimpse by the making of our own.”
THE BOOK OF FORMATION, BY ross simonini
Ross Simonini’s The Book of Formation deftly interrogates how we become who we are. The book examines two charismatic talk-show hosts, Mayah and Masha Isle, who popularize a philosophy known as the “personality movement,” which represses both personalities and memories in exchange for new ones. Through interviews with Masha conducted by an anonymous journalist-narrator and intermittent sections of prose, the book scrutinizes the ethics of the movement as both Mayah and Masha prey on their gullible followers, and later allow their practices to take ominous turns. Though the narrator is skeptical of the movement at first, his fascination with it intensifies as his health deteriorates. As doctor after doctor is unable to properly diagnose him, he finds himself seeing the movement in a new light, and eventually chooses to partake in it.
The novel pivots between moments of hilarity and the bizarre as Masha adopts new personalities, becoming an infamous cultural figure who suffers from borderline megalomania. At its core, the world Simonini crafts is riddled with believers who mirror America’s present state of vulnerability, and susceptibility to being coaxed by grandiose figures. Ultimately, this original and thought-provoking debut questions whether our obsession with how we as Americans portray ourselves is problematic or inherently human.
Bunk, BY Kevin Young
In Bunk, Kevin Young pursues a timely examination of the hoax in American culture. He characterizes the hoax—a phenomenon idolized by literary icons such as Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville and popularized by P.T. Barnum—as distinctly American, birthed by nation building and the urge to create a shared mythology. With wry humor, Young analyzes moments when folks got the wool pulled over their eyes without protest, building to an argument that makes this book unique: the theory that effective hoaxes, the ones that take hold in the public imagination and proliferate, are rooted in racial stereotypes, exoticism, and societal divisions, exploiting them for fame and fortune.
Young marks the early era of the United States as the Age of Imposture, but transitions to what he describes as our current Age of Euphemism, where the acts of misspeaking and misrepresenting culminate in a kind of willful forgetting, and an assertion that truth is, in fact, irrelevant. With terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” our current climate is the ultimate aggregation of the hoaxes that Young documents. The purpose of Bunk seems to be to remind us that, at this point, we have two choices—accept the world we’ve built or begin to exercise truth again, slowly, relearning this skill before its importance is wholly forgotten.
A Beautiful Young Woman, BY Julían López, translated by Samuel Rutter
In Julían López’s English language debut, A Beautiful Young Woman, the narrator tells the story of sharing the Buenos Aires apartment of his youth with his young mother, a vivacious woman who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. At the time, Argentina was under the control of a dictatorship. This book is meditative, driven by images that flow one to the next and seem to follow the logic of dreams. Like the nature of recollection, the narrative is sensual, recursive, and sometimes pointedly inaccurate. Readers that enjoy lingering in a story’s physical details will absolutely love this book.
The present of the story is not firmly grounded in boyhood or manhood, but straddles both, channeling early sexual revelations through the language of a fully awakened man. The narrator remembers a mother who is trapped in the era when she disappeared. She is pensive and larger than life, frequently brooding about the apartment, answering strange phone calls, and then leaving urgently, only to return hours later seeming more relaxed, “more of a woman” (23).
Throughout the book, eroticism ignores taboo. The narrator’s childhood took place in a world of doting women. His encounters with other children are few and far between, but frequent are encounters with pineapple fizz, peppermint liqueur, and Delifrú, and even more frequent are sightings of glossy hair, large bosoms, and flushed women’s faces.
A Beautiful Young Woman is written for readers who are comfortable with ambiguity, who are not in a hurry and do not need things to be explicit, who enjoy complex systems of metaphor, with shifting objects playing roles that themselves shift. It’s written for readers who especially appreciate when a writer can—in the medium of long and beautiful sentences—reveal to them the idiosyncrasies of their own minds.
Dead Girls, BY Emily Geminder
Emily Geminder’s debut collection, Dead Girls and Other Stories chases ghosts, some otherworldly, others internal. Geminder offers a distinctly female perspective, often through a collective, yet sharply personal narrator. History pulls along the underside of these stories, both individual and global, deepening her world and connecting her themes across time and circumstance. “History only looks heavy and solid,” she tells us in “Choreograph.” “In fact, it won’t ever stay still.” In “Phnom Penh,” four female reporters come to Cambodia “to replace a dead girl,” each of them believing that they are her, that they will share her fate. Set amidst the distant aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, the narrator of “Coming To” explores connections between experiences of female fear, lost consciousness and spiritual possession. “Something inside me has come dislodged,” the narrator tells us after one of many fainting spells. “The ghost on my chest comes and goes.” In the titular “Dead Girls,” a young reporter attempts to gain a sense of safety by taking a workshop on human dissection. She struggles to write about global murders of women and girls, while her own sexual assault still haunts her body and feeling of self.
Geminder has an ability to give her words life, to render her themes experiential. Characters discuss a fragile connection to gravity, and at times we are the ones who come untethered. Ghosts flit through each story and we as the readers are left haunted. In a way, these stories themselves are ghosts, they burrow into the mind and endure.
Thousands, BY Lightsey Darst
Reading Lightsey Darst’s third book of poems, Thousands, is not unlike devling into a diary. In dividing her poems into five sections, each demarcated by date and place, Darst creates for her readers the feeling of well-crafted journal entries, not only in form but in content. As the book progresses, we see the advancement of a finely-wrought emotional trajectory peppered with a menagerie of modern content: books and articles the speaker plans to read, quotes she overhears in coffee shops.
The subject matter of the poems spans everything from unfulfilling employment to sex and relationships; from moving across the country to current events. With entries that vary in their poignant beginnings (“Dear Bernadette,” “dear spirit,” “ Dear why and dearer winter, /dear how and dearer hour,”) the author addresses and readdresses issues that feel extremely personal and confessional, yet also uniquely universal. As they carve their way through this markedly contemporary landscape, Darst’s readers will likely have trouble separating the dreams, desires, and fears the speaker expresses from their own—the text of these poems is everything you might catch yourself thinking, and everything you might hope someone else could share with you.
Augury, BY Eric Pankey
Augury, Eric Pankey’s thirteenth collection of poetry, employs precise nature imagery to perform its own divinations. These poems seem to exist in an alternate reality, where magic unfolds next to the mundane and the past blurs with the present and future. Here, magic and faith become interchangeable, as “We abandon magic for faith, faith for science, / for which magic / seems an apt substitute.” Pankey bravely abandons certainty, and instead embraces the quest for knowledge. His poems are filled with serpents, owls, and other familiars, which act as guides. He searches nature for the truth, calling on all the sciences to try to explain “theories on the flight of birds / the motion of waves, perspective / and optics; pages embossed / with rosemary leaves, a beetle’s / wing-husks,” but in the end acknowledges that such truth is ultimately unknowable, embracing the mystery of what science can’t explain: “Memory, like a net, is more negative space than positive.”
PROMISE AT DAWN, BY ROMAIn GARY
Promise at Dawn is, above all else, a son’s love-letter to his mother. In this compelling and humorous memoir, Romain Gary lavishes attention and affection on the woman who went through Herculean efforts to provide for him in the years preceding the Second World War. As the two fled west from Lithuania to France – Gary’s adopted homeland and a place his mother spoke of “as other mothers speak to their children of Snow White and Puss in Boots” – his mother supported them and always provided “that daily miracle,” a beefsteak for his lunch while she went without. Proclaiming him destined to become a great artist, his mother encouraged Gary to design a “pen name worthy of the masterpieces which the world was to receive” from him. Gary took these words to heart. In fact, John Markham Beach was one of Gary’s several pseudonyms, and the memoir itself is self-translated.
In his prose, Gary gives us an honest portrait—he bares himself to his readers, exposing his doubts and his faults as well as his kind and intimate acts, what he calls his true “great services to humanity:” rescuing an exhausted hummingbird trapped in his apartment, fulfilling a promise to tell the “famous and the great of the world” the story of Mr. Piekielny, a peasant of Vilna. But time and again, Gary comes back to his mother’s love. He muses that perhaps “it is wrong to have been loved so much so young, so early. At the dawn of life, you thus acquire a bad habit, the worst habit there is: the habit of being loved.” This habit—of being so intensely loved and expected to succeed— becomes the driving force of Gary’s life: why he writes, why he joined the military, why he strove to become the ambassador of France. Gary’s love and gratitude are clear; here we see him giving thanks.
Houses of Ravicka, BY Renee Gladman
The newest addition to Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Houses of Ravicka is an effortless waltz between dream and reality. This surreal, three-part novel begins with the story of Jakobi, the gender-flickering comptroller of Ravicka whose job it is to find no. 96, an elusive house in the district of Skülburg that lies on a “parallel geoscog referential” to its chimerical twin, house no. 32 in cit Mohaly. Though not an easy journey (Jakobi is, by turns, anxious, lonely, hungry, and vexed, in part one, and distracted in part two by long-lost friend Hematois), it’s a wildly rewarding one for readers. In prose that is funny, elegant, and highly original (among the words Gladman invents: gurentij, tij, pareis), Gladman grants us access to new parts of Ravicka, a place that is equal parts city-state and “strange, unknown body that seemed to be in conversation with its inhabitants and seemed to believe direct communication was possible.”
In part three, the text both advances the plot and hovers just above it, becoming a poetic meditation on what it means to see, to be seen, and to create in Ravickian architectures of time and space. Ultimately, it is the tension between these more cerebral flights and the mundane—more so than plot or language—that moves Houses of Ravicka forward: the way Gladman’s keen sense of the ordinary (Jakobi enjoys lamb for lunch, discusses tea with a colleague) rubs up against the wonderfully imaginative (twin pairs of houses that move, and act as guides to one another) and even the philosophical. All of these levels (the quotidian, the abstract, the speculative…), Gladman is telling us, are not only worlds we inhabit, but invitations; each of them is an architecture we must care for, must grapple with, must construct.
Incest, BY Christine Angot, Translated by Tess Lewis
Christine Angot’s Incest depicts a whirlpool of suffering. Here, the reader is inextricably pulled into a vortex of lust, violence, and incest, into a world where the tragedy of love is having “your own self torn away,” where the lines between father, lover, daughter, water lily, and dog become blurred and confused. With a raw and frenzied form and an unabashed honesty which blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, Angot presents an earnest attempt at self-analysis through writing. After all, the narrator argues, “writing is a kind of rampart against insanity.” In Incest, it becomes a tool with which to wrestle with and untangle issues of family, mental health, and sexuality in light of the narrator’s recent, passionate lesbian affair and the echoes of her incestuous relationship with her father.
The exquisite frenzy of the novel is captured masterfully in Tess Lewis’ translation, which preserves not just the passion and the mania of Angot’s narrator, but her wit and her wordplay as well. Lewis has managed to get inside the narrator’s head and translate her essence and energy, as well as her words, perfectly into English.
THEY CAN't KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US, BY Hanif Abdurraqib
Following two chapbooks and one full length book of poetry, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays unabashedly invested in emotion. From his candid admiration for Carly Rae Jepson—the “most honest pop musician working”—in “Carly Rae Jepson Loves You Back,” to his exploration of fatalism in early 2000s’ emo and scene culture in “Death Becomes You: My Chemical Romance and Ten Years of The Black Parade,” Abdurraqib’s essays strike like the voice of a friend in the settled silence of a communal bonfire. These essays are about music, sports, blackness, place, kinship, loss, and more—and in all of them, Hanif Abdurraqib is present, not just as writer, but as a feeling-breathing-loving body bearing witness to all of the events that occur therein.
Abdurraqib’s form ranges from lyric to journalistic, and he often weds the two to create a voice that both informs and affects. In an essay on folk punk and substance abuse and small town Midwestern malaise, he writes, “& the headline said ‘WE WILL NOT LET THIS DESTROY US’ & above it is a picture of a mother pulling her young daughter’s frail body close to her chest…& in her eyes she is daring all the devils of hell to come & take what is hers.” What we learn about loss and catharsis in this essay (and many essays), then, is underscored by imagery, gritty and unflinching. These essays resonate because of their vulnerability, their ability to speak readers into a landscape of heartache while refusing to abandon them there.
Gospel of Regicide, BY Eunsong Kim
Eunsong Kim’s debut collection of poetry, Gospel of Regicide, celebrates the traitor situated against systems of power and whiteness—in two parts. In her first section, “Regicide,” Kim quickly gives way to the problems of the deeply rooted narrative. “They are a collection,” she tells us, “of revisions upon revision that roam my / memory which means they / are utter lies and my only foundation.” As her poems unfold, she writes and unwrites stories of love, of Christianity, of money, of POC and assimilation. Her language, form, and the scope of her speaker shift in resistance to the currency of the cage, captor, and category, and while Kim’s work resists outside naming, it is without question a collection named for the killing of kings. The speaker’s ability to thrive depends on his dethroning. The desire for regicide is given in the voice of the traitor, the betrayer—the Judas in all her subversive refusals. In her collection’s final section, “The Gospel,” there is no patience for meaningless good intentions. She demands more urgency, more action, more eradication. Get “committed to the fundamental destruction” and above all, pay attention; Kim’s written us a creed “to divest destroy revolt” and whatever we take from this book, may we heed her gospel, “treachery is not a moment / but a lifetime commitment,” and unwrite our part.
Moonbath, By Yanick Lahens, Translated by Emily Gogolak
Moonbath follows the Haitian community of Anse Bleue through generations of political and personal turmoil. The novel, narrated in collective first person, is propelled by the alternately bleak and redemptive stories of the Lafleur family, whose children come of age under tyranny. In a time when men are rewarded for viciousness, matriarch Ermancia teaches her daughter to trust in silence, to never betray the “quiet lands that man never penetrated, except with the ignorance of a conqueror.” In this world, Lahens tells us, power resides with the wealthy and corrupt but also in dreams and the invisible. Religion, nature, and human existence are inextricable in a community desolated by the erasure and abuse of its most vulnerable members.
The novel’s compelling momentum in the first half devolves into frenetic pacing in the second, while its real poignancy lies in the reveries of its narrators, who find precious a world often darkly shrouded. The novel’s mythic atmosphere is enhanced by Lahens’ meditations on personified nature, and Emily Gogolak’s translation preserves a bare and moving voice throughout: “Only later did we see death spread over us like a frightful sun.” The community finds refuge in the redemptive power of the unseen, which gives voice to the voiceless, in this life or the next.
Ars Botanica, By Tim TaRANTO
Tim Taranto’s heart-sick, heart-healing memoir Ars Botanica invites us into pages where grief and love are pressed and dried like wildflowers. Part epistolary and part field book, the memoir is a space for Taranto to chronicle a specific period of time in his life, beginning with his diagnosis of alopecia and rediscovery of sense of self. The book centers around a lost love, layering both the sunlit romance of the early days and the mourning of break-up with equal reverence. The catalyst for both the book and the end of the relationship is a terminated pregnancy, which Taranto writes to as “Catalpa,” grieving what could have been while creating joy around the worthiness of living in love.
Subject matter so tense could easily become emotionally burdened, but Taranto allows the reader generous breath with descriptions of plants and mushrooms discovered, teas brewed, flowers observed. Furthermore, Taranto’s letters lead him to gentle meditations on art and religion, friendship and mental wellness, as he explores Iowa and travels away. Late in the book, he muses, “The experience of having someone understand you, to see the reflections of your hopes in another, to bear witness to the bright pith of another’s being, those are the events in nature that can neither be heightened or diminished through words.” This willingness to admit limitations and to try anyway is exactly what makes Ars Botanica so compelling. Taranto’s prose honors the most fractured, unknowable parts of life.
The Doll's Alphabet, By Camilla Grudova
The Doll’s Alphabet, Camilla Grudova’s debut short story collection, splits open a dollhouse of domestic life and allows us to examine the magical dystopian interior. Characters are beset by complications of poverty and want in grotesque, haunting ways. In “Rhinoceros”, a woman searches for inspiration for her artist husband in a zoo where animals are seemingly extinct, in “The Mouse Queen” a mother must provide for her twins after abandonment by a husband who accused her of having sex with ancient pagan gods, and in “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead” a couple wrestles with moving in together after society forces them to get roommates. Unlike many dystopian settings, Grudova does not focus on the mechanics of how society operates in a macro sense, other than reminding us that food is scarce, spaces are crowded, and, as a poster says in “Waxy”—“Do Not Let Your Man Loiter.” Instead, she concentrates her efforts on creating chilling scenes of sickness and starvation within the domestic space, deformed babies and transgressive bodies emerging from the pages in consequence.
In many ways, each story is like peering into a little house. Sewing machines, tinned meats, rodents, works by Ovid and Tchaikovsky—these are the objects that litter the floors of these stories, and they seem to demand attention. But Grudova’s images also offer strange glimpses into human interiority, giving shape to unknown emotions. In “Agata’s Machine,” a character describes a bride’s armpit as “the place where the body leaves its imprint on fabric most intensely, those pathetic, damp, and silent mouths of the heart.” Grudova offers us a long look at the mouths of the heart, perhaps even inviting our own.
Catapult, By Emily Fridlund
Catapult, Emily Fridlund’s follow-up to her debut novel, History of Wolves, is a collection of stories that pulse and push. Selected by Ben Marcus as winner of the Mary McCarthy prize in short fiction, these eleven stories investigate desire, exploring the spaces between love and obsession, affection and fixation, disdain and apathy. With sharp prose and dark humor, Fridlund exposes characters yearning, and often failing, to connect, to break free. In “Marco Polo”, a husband obsesses over his wife’s abnormal sleep pattern, imagining a lover in the next room with her while he lies awake in bed, his mind “scraped open, empty.” The narrator of “Here, Still,” preserves a longstanding friendship out of guilt; “It is the same,” she tells us, “as being in love.” In “Lock Jaw,” Craig tries to maintain the status quo in the face of his wife’s sickness, pacifying her worries about the future of their family, “feeling with a pang just how easy it is to agree to things when you know they’re temporary.”
The characters in Catapult throw themselves at the elastic borders of their lives, sometimes punching a hole, sometimes rebounding. Fridlund keenly observes the scrapes of the everyday, recasting these narratives with new, vividly drawn characters that surprise and disturb.
The Smoke of Horses, By Charles Rafferty
The Smoke of Horses, Charles Rafferty’s twelfth work of poetry, includes 56 prose poems that initially seem self-contained, but soon enter into a larger conversation with one another through repetition, reappearance, and meditations on particular images. Images of birds watching lovers kiss, Magellan, and plastic grocery bags purposefully litter the poems and in each appearance, the meaning of image itself is renegotiated and rearranged in a way that nudges the reader to further excavate how images inform our connection to human history, past and present.
In Rafferty’s poems, a shared world exists, one seen in “Antique,” when the speaker states, “Even now, I’m told, every breath I draw some atoms that Jesus once breathed, and a little bit more of them from Hitler and Reagan.” The logic of each image haunts the speaker, and, in turn, the reader; though single images are often exhaled until they become unrecognizable, their lineage remains nonetheless traceable, a move which Rafferty invites the reader to participate in through poems such as “Catena.” “If you look hard enough,” Rafferty says, “you can see how da Vinci made Pollock inevitable. It has never been otherwise. We share 15% of our genes with mustard grass. You can see how a swamp becomes coal and then stack exhaust and finally a melting continent.”
IN The Distance, By Hernan Diaz
The musical prose of Hernan Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance is as rich and surprising as the quest that the novel’s protagonist, Håkan Söderström, embarks on through the volatile American West. After unforeseen circumstances send Håkan from Sweden to Gold Rush era San Francisco, he finds himself alone, destitute, and facing a vast language barrier. Among swindlers and bandits, he journeys through barren deserts, salt flats, and expanses of mountains in search of his brother, and, along the way, becomes infamous.
Though it successfully mines many elements of a classic western novel, In the Distance is far more than a western. The meticulous care with which Diaz has clearly crafted each sentence proves he is a highly versatile author, one who is virtually limitless in scope. In this novel, one of the most captivating aspects of his prose is his skillful rendering of the utter confusion that Håkan often experiences while threatened and spoken to in English. This confusion enhances the plot and amplifies the mystery of the bizarre, life-threatening situations Håkan encounters, while simultaneously heightening what’s at stake for him. In a similar fashion, Håkan’s limited range of speech emphasizes his solitude and individuality, and at times even threatens his sanity. Ultimately, it is a combination of nuanced characters like Håkan and finely-tuned, lyrical prose that enables Diaz to wildly succeed here in humanizing an often mythologized time in history.
Beyond the RiCE Fields, by Naivo, translated by Allison M. Charette
Beyond the Rice Fields, the first Malagasy novel to be translated into English, tells the story of Tsito, a slave boy, and Fara, his master’s daughter, as they grow up under the shadow of 19th-century colonialism. Their lives, both together and apart, deliver elements of a classic love story, yet beyond the couple’s whispered promises, Naivo’s unflinching realism leaves no room for such idealized tenderness. Tsito and Fara exist in a divided Madagascar, in which Western culture and Malagasy tradition each seek to maintain a foothold among the people. As a new sovereign enacts violent measures to quell the growing threat of Christianity, the country is thrown into chaos — entire families are brought to trial, clans are massacred, and suspicion is everywhere. In its emotionally detached renderings of industrialization and its honest portrayal of individuals watching helplessly as their country turns against itself, the book is as much a commentary on the ruthlessness of colonial-era indifference as it is a primer in the universality of the human experience. And as the characters fall victim to the indiscriminate paranoia that fuels national politics, hope and despair rise and fall like a sine wave, pulled from its axis by the force of competing faiths. In Beyond the Rice Fields, the turn of each page is the flip of a playing card; as the conflict builds, Tsito and Fara’s fate becomes increasingly more precarious, and we find ourselves praying alongside those standing trial: “We ask that the outcome be favorable. We ask that the verdict be just.”
The Glass Eye, by Jeannie Vanasco
Jeannie Vanasco’s memoir The Glass Eye weaves together stories of grief, obsession, and mental illness in an account of self-exploration that acts as an on-again, off-again commentary on the genre of memoir itself. The text centers on a daughter grieving the loss of her father, whom she promised a book. Parallel to this loss is the author’s struggle with mental illness — diagnosis, hospital stays, re-diagnosis, balancing medication, etc. — as she navigates finishing her college degree, entering the workforce and subsequent graduate programs, while also maintaining relationships with her mother, come-and-go friends and boyfriends, employers, and her own research. It is this research into the dead half-sister with whom Vanasco shares a name that serves as another critical throughline, a product of Vanasco’s grief and mental illness, and sometimes also, a cause.
This text succeeds primarily in its capacity to document grief and complicated family history as they relate to the individual. The author’s plea, implicit and explicit, is that the memoir be enough to honor the memory of her father, while recognizing the inherent futility of that task. Though the intersection of the author’s own mania with the extensive catalogue of her writing process will appeal particularly to those in the writing community, Vanasco’s memoir is valuable reading for anyone who has ever tried to create something. Artists of all stripes will see that it is, in fact, Vanasco’s tireless self-awareness of her own role (as memoirist, as careful practitioner of her craft) that allows The Glass Eye to function as a fruitful addition to the genre.
Advice from the lights, by StephANIE Burt
Stephanie Burt intermingles narratives of youth, female selfhood, memory, uncertainty, and the curiosities of animal life in Advice from the Lights. Burt’s fourth book challenges the reader to look more deeply at the everyday (both a flashlight and hermit crab are meticulously examined in this collection) and to seek humor in human experience—at one point, a group of intersex people rob a store after sucking liquid tranquilizer off a businessman’s nipples. These and other accounts prompt the reader to “be/a child, or be like a child,” and to think critically about contemporary culture, politics, and language. Ultimately, though, Burt is interested in selfhood, in the ways we each make decisions, take (or don’t take) accountability for our actions, and grapple with intimacy. This preoccupation with intimacy is perhaps best displayed in the titular advice from the lights: “You will want for nothing,” Burt tells us, “and you will never be heard.”
Some Say The Lark, by Jennifer Chang
Jennifer Chang’s second book, Some Say the Lark, exists in a state of constant movement. Chang expertly guides the reader through streets, forests, trains, bare fields; always searching, writing against loneliness. It is through this restlessness that Chang finds connection: to the natural world, to the city, to family members and loved ones, to history. Surprising and intimate, by turns both tender and fierce, this book offers readers a glimpse into the inner turmoil of navigating life after loss.
These lyric poems are spare and tender, invoking familiar worlds with evocative strangeness. Chang’s natural landscapes—rendered with stark imagery—create the emotional landscape, a state of being in which the tendency is to note absences (“No more birds,” she says, “trace the coast”) while simultaneously solving for ways to fill them: “In winter / you have to know the bark to know the tree, / you have to look hard and not doubt / the spine and bole.” The resiliency and faith Chang strives for makes these poems important in a world too often resigned to despair.
This collection offers poetry as a pathway toward hope and forgiveness, a way of communing with something greater, asking, “What does it even mean to write a poem?” and answering, “It means today / I’m correcting my mistakes. / It means I don’t want to be lonely.” Offering bright red birds among cold and bare winter scenery, this collection resonates with longing.
The Kites, by Romain Gary, Translated by MIRANDA RICHMOND MOUILLOT
Set at the outbreak of World War II, The Kites is the story of Ludo, a young man living in a small town in Normandy, gifted with an eidetic memory and hopelessly in love with a Polish aristocrat named Lila. Ludo lives with his uncle, one Ambrose Fleury, a man who dedicates his life to crafting intricate and beautiful kites, renowned throughout France. As battle spreads across Europe, Ludo and Lila are separated, and the protagonist finds himself enmeshed in the burgeoning Resistance movement. Told in airy prose as graceful and billowing as Fleury’s own creations, The Kites regales the reader with a complex tale of love, madness, struggle, and a nation desperate to hang on to its cultural heritage in the face of an all-consuming totalitarian regime. Though the characters are awash with emotions and quirks that make them feel like real human beings, they retain a grandiose, literary aspect, worthy of the likes of Proust or Gide. And if Romain Gary is the master kitemaker, Miranda Richmond Mouillot is the skillful flyer of Gary’s work in English translation; she has a keen sense for when the text is best served by sticking close to the original French, and when it should soar away into new and beautiful constructions.