the new order by karen E. bender
Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.
The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”
SKY WRI TEI NGS by NASSER HUSSAIN
From Coach House Books, Nasser Hussain’s collection SKY WRI TEI NGS operates within the three-letter bounds of existing airport codes. His resulting poetry is inventive, playful, and never breaks form, making the read a bit of a grownup Where’s Waldo as the eyes try to spot the words inside these trios. Sketches of the globe with flight routes drawn between airports appear throughout—as if to show us the journey the poem has traveled to come into being.
But Hussain’s poems do more than merely play with language and airport codes, they play with familiar narratives too—riffing and rewriting them—from biblical stories to famous poems and poets. “TEN DRR BUT TON (FOR GER TIE)” is one such example, a whimsical allusion to and after Gertrude Stein: “ROA STA COW; MUT TON; BRE AKF AST; SUG ARR; / CRA NBE RRI ESS; MLK; EGS; APP LES; TAI ELS; / LUN CHH. . .” There is even a Dr. Seussian poem, “THE CAT THE HAT,” still composed from airports, but in all lowercase for an emphasized feeling of story-time. To its end, SKY WRI TEI NGS is always clever, often funny, and globally conscious, and without doubt, the perfect companion for your next delayed flight.
condomnauts by yoss, translated by david frye
In a future where a stripped planet Earth can barely sustain life, humanity seeks refuge in the stars—but is surprised to discover that the galactic frontier is already occupied. How is mankind expected to establish itself among an impossible array of life forms (including telekinetic insectoids and gelatinous hive-minds) while being several millennia behind in terms of technological advancement? Turns out, there’s a universal language: sex.
Despite differences in genital structures and chemical compositions, sexual ambassadors known as “condomnauts” ensure galactic peace and prosperity through intimate interspecies pacts. Yoss’ erotic cli-fi adventure follows narrator Josué Valdés through time, across space, and into hundreds (if not thousands) of beds in search of new territory. Josué, a condomnaut of significant skill, hopes to achieve legendary status by discovering and claiming an unoccupied planet for humanity in the name of the Catalan settlement. Yoss dramatizes familiar national tensions on an astronomical scale by organizing human communities into recognizable units (the “European Union,” for example, or the German colony of “Neue Heimat”), each of which has its own agenda. As we learn more about Josué and what drew him to the condomnaut career, we learn how not every colony has mankind’s best interests at heart.
Yoss’ novel is funny, visceral, political, and filled with “pleasure, pleasure pleasure. Wet, splashing pleasure.” Condomnauts is everything a good space opera should be—far-reaching, glimmering, gut-wrenching, perilous—but stickier. Much, much stickier.
woman world by aminder dhaliwal
Woman World compiles Aminder Dhaliwal’s popular Instagram comic about a world in which men have mysteriously gone extinct. Although this premise has been explored in comic books before, Dhaliwal’s characters experience less apocalyptic panic than low key curiosity. What did men look like? Were high heels a type of construction boot for creating tiny holes? In a world without men, does feminism still exist?
But characters don’t spend too much time puzzling over the past and its obscure artifacts. They’re too busy with day to day concerns like relationships, self-care, and building a new society from the ground up. It doesn’t include old social stigmas—some women go nude, others wear a hodgepodge of clothing, and no one frowns at a fart joke. And while this isn’t a complete utopia—women still struggle with external obstacles, as well as internal ones like anxiety and self-confidence—at the end of the day women support each other and differences are celebrated. And that is what is most endearing about this book—imagining a world where women feel free to be their authentic selves, no strings attached.
a Key to treehouse living by elliot reed
Elliot Reed’s debut novel takes the reader on a Huck Finn-esque journey via encyclopedic entry. Reeds offers us a glossary of the language used when growing up alone in a small, Midwestern town, ranging from terms like PODUNK TOWNS to FAULTY WISHING and presenting in spaces as wonderful, strange, and lonely as childhood itself. Reed doesn’t simply offer this glossary, but rather with this form, he tracks the life of its composer, William Tyce, as he moves through his adolescence uncovering the mysteries of why adults do things like leave their children or burn down houses. Each detail, whether a musing or observation, offers insight into the compassionate and resilient developing philosophy of its narrator. “When it feels as if things are getting away from you,” William writes in his entry on NEXUS, “I’ve learned, it is best to tie up what you can, hope it’s enough to float on, and hold on to the knot where it all comes together.” A Key to Treehouse Living holds a nexus out to the reader of every moment—from William’s days building and defending tree-forts to his life-endangering moments on a handmade raft—with each entry placed so precisely and lovingly as to hold the entire book together as it sails.
Bitter orange by claire fuller
Set in the summer of 1969, Claire Fuller’s sensational story of guilt, voyeurism, and sexual obsession burns deliciously while it holds a mystery open at the center, until its final moments. From her deathbed, Frances Jellico recalls meeting and living with Clara and Peter, a seductive couple, in an ornate, decaying mansion. Here she quickly finds herself lost in the beautiful maze of their charms and lies. As an aging, socially inexperienced academic who’s used to caring only for her ailing mother, Frances is surprised and then delighted by the intensity of their friendship that catches her in an all-consuming and decadent spiral toward catastrophe. The glamorous couple, and even Frances herself, are just as enigmatic and damaged as the mansion they are meant to be surveying—peel back another layer and something new and crumbling waits.
Fuller’s language too is as hedonistic as her characters—dark, atmospheric, and bittersweet—lingering just long enough to grab at your senses. A mystery lies at the heart of this slippery novel, unfolding piece by piece, and never quite what it seems. For as soon as you have the story in your grasp, Bitter Orange darts away, proves you wrong, and drags you in deeper and through to the very last page.
The Son of black thursday by alejandro jodorowsky, translated by megan mcdowell
Those familiar with the surreal landscapes and sheer unpredictability of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films will find that The Son of Black Thursday, a retelling of his childhood in Chile, is a remarkably cinematic novel. In this new translation by Megan McDowell, readers of English are gifted with a further look into the boundless imagination of the artist.
The story begins in the bleak, mining town of Tocopilla in the 1930s and is populated by an eccentric cast: Sara Felicidad, his giantess mother who doesn’t speak but sings in arias; Raquel Lea, his twin sister who recites verses as a baby and eventually grows fat from all of the poetry inside her. There’s also the Rabbi, a ghost who has accompanied the family for generations. “Without him,” Jodorowsky writes in his introduction, “I never could have put down roots in this world that is made, to a large extent, of aggression.” This is precisely the type of world in which Alejandro’s parents find themselves. The country’s government headed by Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, and Jaime, Alejandro’s father, becomes convinced he must murder the tyrant. He sets off on the mission, leaving his family behind. Without her husband, Sara Felicidad shrinks into herself, hides her “long, sensual hair [in] a severe bun,” and opens a litany of businesses in Santiago. While Raquel Lea is sent away, young Alejandro grows up with his mother in shops like “The Eighth Chakra” and “The Apple of Harmony,” absorbing the wild stories around him. Jodorowsky seems to use this novel to repurpose some of the pain from childhood. He rewrites his parents—who he has referred to as “distant” and “oppressive”—into dream-like characters and he mythologizes every event, blurring the line between what is real and imaginary. As in his cinema, the audience of The Son of Black Thursday will gladly suspend their disbelief to witness the captivating and delightfully off-kilter scenes of Jodorowsky’s early years.
xoeteox: < the infinite word object > by edwin torres
XoeteoX: < the infinite word object > by Edwin Torres refuses to be held. The poem slides off the page. The poem tells us, then retells us, and then tells it slant—then untells us—the story by a logic, neither circular nor a straight line. Still Torres maneuvers us through this performative mind-meld via arresting hybridity; concrete poems with superimposed, runaway text; fablesque prose poems; and somethings else. Read it to see. His range presents XoeteoX as both palindromic art object and ars-poetic investigation into new and old ways of thought—as they apply to poetry, identity, societal attitudes and understandings, among other applications. See how he uses analogies to unfold one poem: “to sit with a book’s silence / is to deepen the silence / to power a book’s loudness with yours / is to fuse your silence / with a page—is to power / your private world . . .” Or, how palindromes create a lather in this one: “This year will / be here, still, as a comment on every year. Age moves forward stepping through time. Age / is a coward, gnippets hguorht emit . . . // . . . I, as palindromic yob, stand as I.” Torres manifests himself, and his readers, by his act of writing. He calls forth what is unknown by naming it thusly, and dissolves any easy logics by troubling them in momentous, springboard fashion. With XoeteoX, Torres invites us to enter into this heady performance with him to reach past and on to the next truths and our future selves.
obits by tess liem
Tess Liem’s debut full-length collection, Obits, centers on an essential question: Can poetry mourn the unmourned? In a seemingly messy but, nevertheless, effective and triumphant collection, her speaker grapples with this uncertainty by setting out to write obituaries for those who have none. Liem’s poems, or obituaries, encompass varying proximities—from those distant to her speaker, mass death victims and the fictional Laura Palmer—to the intimacy of her own aunt. Though she fails epically to complete this task, the journey is a rewarding one. Not only does it display Liem’s prowess for invoking something inimitable in her readers, it also comments on the profound nature of poetry itself. In “Call it,” Liem admits, “I wanted a poem to be a throat clearing // My misunderstanding . . . // To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom, / is not to speak // of the fact that some people have their hands / around other’s necks.” Liem’s Obits may fall short on its journey to grieve all of those unhonored, rich lives, but it more than succeeds in awakening the reader and will ultimately leave you wrestling with your own ideas about death and elegy.
wild milk by sabrina orah mark
Wild Milk is equal parts setup and punchline, a brilliant logic of surreal, layered humor that skips its way towards deeply-felt truths. Author Sabrina Orah Mark, who has previously written two books of poetry, offers us short stories that blend fairytale, Who’s-on-First-style drollery, and current cultural moment to deliver back a clearer version of our own warped reality, often presented through the lenses of mothers and daughters. Here, Mark says, is a world of women, of makers and givers who are caring for others—sons, presidents, students—even as they work to understand themselves. It is to our benefit that Mark routinely shrinks this world down (“Father has been getting smaller. Yesterday he towered above me. Now he comes up to my knees”) and blows it back up (“‘By the time they arrived,’ I explain, ‘the daughters had turned.’ ‘Rotten?’ she asks . . . ‘Gigantic,’ I repeat. ‘And mealy. I sent the whole bin back’”), blurring the realms of adulthood and childhood to better illuminate the emotional realities of both.
The stories in Wild Milk are linked by their language—Mark is quick to remind us, in stories like “My Brother Gary Made a Movie & This is What Happened,” that we can use words to play even as we push against them, struggle to select the right ones—and relative brevity, their strangeness and whimsy, and also, often, by the delightful threading of images from one story to the next. In this regard, Mark is as much juggler as she is philosopher and jester, remixing milk, eggs, bones, oranges as she throws out questions: “‘Have you ever believed . . . in something much, much bigger than you?’”; “‘If you love Poems so much, why don’t you marry Poems?’” It’s a testament to Mark’s exceptional skill as a writer that we exit Wild Milk agreeing, assessing the bright, poetic language that she wields so well here and asking ourselves: why can’t we—indeed, why don’t we all—marry this book?
the lake on fire by rosellen brown
Rosellen Brown’s The Lake on Fire is a stunning work of historical fiction, filled with the sights and sounds of the Gilded Age in Chicago. The novel begins just as Chaya and her family arrive, with other Jewish immigrants, tentatively hopeful for a better future in this new land where they might become Amerikaners. Instead, the families find themselves with little money. Stuck on a hardscrabble farm in Wisconsin, Chaya and her autodidact, thieving, younger brother, Asher, begin to yearn for the possibilities of an education and the vivid worlds found in Chaya’s books. After the siblings escape the bleak life to which their family has surrendered, they arrive by train in Chicago and the novel breaks open into the diverse bustle of the city.
Brown’s story rotates between Chaya’s precise, colorful perspective of the world and Asher’s quick, computational observations of the events and the places around him. The Chicago of Brown’s imagining comes alive in the movements—swishing skirts and bobbing hats. Her young characters’ perspectives absorb and enrich the reader at each interaction, as they juggle new English words and their old language, and calculate the expectations of strangers. The Lake on Fire is a coming-of-age story filled with compelling characters all trying to navigate their own shifting identities.
puro amor by sandra cisneros, translated by liliana valenzuela
Sandra Cisneros’ bilingual chapbook, Puro Amor, features original artwork and story by Cisneros and translation by Liliana Valenzuela. The narrative centers on a quirky married couple—Mister and Missus de la Rivera—who live in a distinct house, dubbed by the townspeople, “la casa azul.” Mister works as an artist and Missus remains consumed by domestic duties. Cisneros shows that though Missus cares deeply for her husband, she feels most gratified when tending to her eclectic array of adopted animals. For crowding the empty spaces in “la casa azul” are “six hairless dogs,” “a little fawn who tap-tapped her way throughout the house like a blind woman,” “nervous tarantulas,” “lethargic iguanas,” and “a passionate, possessive macaw,” all seeping their way into every aspect of Missus’ life.
Puro Amor explores perspective dually, giving readers both an intimate view of the protagonist’s daily life and the perspective of the townspeople looking in. The townspeople have distinct opinions and a strong perspective. They chime in with dubious comments, “what a lot of trouble and work,” in reference to the extremes that Missus undertakes in order to care for her animals and partner. The fluctuating perspective grants readers the simultaneous participation in the familiarity of the Missus’ chores, and the outside criticism of the townspeople—a juxtaposition that gives room for Cisneros to be both silly and reverent in her exploration of the inherent arduousness of partnership, and ultimately to show that animals do give the purest love.
hearth: a global conversation on community, identity, and place edited by annick smith and susan o’connor
Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place is a multidisciplinary and multicultural anthology, edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor, exploring the physical and spiritual manifestations of home in the era of the Anthropocene. This compilation of poems, stories, and essays—divided in three primary sections: “Heart,” “Earth,” and “Art”—moves us to rekindle our local and global communities. Dedicated to those who have lost their hearths and seek new ones, it explores themes of vagrancy, displacement, expatriation, immigration, family, climate change, technology, politics, loss, and discovery. Contributors include: Geffrey Davis, Gretel Ehrlich, Jane Hirshfield, Barry Lopez, and Bill McKibben, who provoke with questions of community and open doors to a wider discussion for making the world a more nurturing place. And a small but wondrous section of landscapes, from Brazilian photographer Sabastiao Salgado, supplements the conversation.
The anthology explores the full weight of the spaces we inhabit, the spaces of belonging. “Our hearth is our home in ever-expanding circles of connectivity—local, bioregional, continental, planetary, solar, galactic, and cosmic,” writes Mary Evelyn Tucker. It has always been a gathering place, a shelter, and a sanctuary that provides refuge. But from climate changes, wars, refugees, evolving technologies, to natural disasters, for many, the hearth becomes problematic. Here is a book for our real or imagined hearths, prompting us to discover and redefine them. Gretel Ehrlich offers: “Home is anywhere I’ve taken the time to notice. Where there is no ‘I.’ It shouldn’t be called a sense of place, but a flat-out, intimate sensorium where Emerson’s dictum suddenly makes sense: ‘I am nothing. I see all.’” Hearth serves as a guide and a tribute to our collective struggles and the many possibilities of home.
the taiga syndrome by cristina rivera garza, translated by suzanne jill levine and aviva kana
A prowling wolf cub. A feral adolescent, staring in from the boreal forest. Tiny, doll-like creatures performing in the back of a strip club. These, among others, are the inhabitants of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome, a peculiar mystery that draws from both Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood even as it refuses to fall into fable. Here, instead of a crimson-cloaked girl, is a grown woman, a modern detective who accepts a case that will take her into the titular Taiga in search of a recently-departed woman, whose subsequent letters lead her former husband to believe she secretly wants to be pursued.
The resultant investigation is both bright light and shadow, a slow tightrope walk towards the cold, coniferous Taiga and its cache of strange secrets. Rivera Garza maintains resistance to the traditional fable. Routinely her detective-narrator breaks the spell of her story, reminding us of the act of her telling, through commentary on her word choice (“‘Breathlessly,’” she notes, “is an adverb with rhythm”) and the presence of a literal translator accompanying her through the forest. In their breadth and variety, Rivera Garza’s words—wonderfully translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana— also resist fable. In the space of a single short chapter, the author moves from delicate and beautiful (“The booming of the sky made me tremble. The wing beats of birds with no names, that couldn’t have names. The violently clashing branches”) to strictly anatomical language (“The masculine hand on the lower edge of her jaw. Below, the submandibular glands, the submental ganglia. Underneath, the veins and facial arteries and stylohyoid muscles. . .” ) proving hers is a book of raw nerves, exposed skin, but also hardness: sinew and bone. For the detective-narrator—and, indeed for us readers—Rivera Garza’s pages are these things and more. What she has created here is a diary of longing, anxiety, trauma; a record of the tension between our deepest, most personal forests and the ways that we choose to preserve them.
not everything thrown starts a revolution by stephen s. mills
Stephen S. Mills’ Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution bridges two centuries to connect its reader to the larger questions of oppression, violence and the human condition. The book begins in the early 18th century, following Mary Agnes through her trials and tribulations of marriage, childbirth, and execution. Midway the collection moves to current day New York with a narrative that runs parallel in its exploration of relationships, despair, and the criminal justice system. The line between true and imaginary memories blur throughout. Poems, like “Self-Portrait as a Danny Lyon Prison Photograph from 1968 at The Whitney,” use ekphrasis to further blend historical contexts into a collective memory—a place where past and present are interwoven, if not mirror images. Mills’ stylistic choices reflect the speaker’s need for answers with frequent parentheses and questions that remain unanswered.
Though Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution does not promise answers, it does remind us that we tend to look at the wrong facts. In “Self-Portrait As Unconscious Man at Bathhouse,” Mills ruminates over the police’s desire to find out “who” the man is by finding their identification: “None of this tells them who he is. / Or why. / Or how.” Other poems, such as “You Don’t Look So Violent,” directly question our misperceptions. Here, Mills writes “. . .the voice that leaves these lips is not violent // not masculine/ manly / straight-acting/ sounding.”
With both sections, Mills’ poems present a moving picture of the US criminal justice system across centuries. His two speakers’ shared preoccupation with death, the state’s impact on life, haunts from one section to the next in its familiarity. Mills’ use of dual narratives to explore violence, execution, and injustice ultimately show us that times change but the criminal justice system and its impact on the human experience remains.
things to make and break by may-lan tan
In her debut collection of short fiction, May-Lan Tan riffs on themes of connection, intimacy, and absence. Her characters share cigarettes and common emptiness, masked beneath their speculation on impossible futures and pasts. In “101” the narrator conjures a child she never had, in “Legendary” a woman stalks her boyfriend’s ex, while in “Candy Glass” an actress thinks of her ex-lover who’s decided to “stick a flag in my lawn and go to church every Sunday, and marry a man . . . be part of the superstructure.” The stories all adopt the faulty eyesight of youth—the teenager in “New Jersey” panics as sexual orientation comes into her peripheral; the daughter in “Date Night” sees the world clearer after her mother has a seemingly sexual encounter; and both Laurens in “Laurens” are blind to the violence rushing towards them, but through their haze, our own eyes widen.
Each of Tan’s stories offer a new divergence from commonalities, a new way of looking at the friction between hunger and consumption, through a variety of scenarios. The characters range from a neglected child to an actress in Hollywood and the actions range from a mother who goes on a date to a dancer who is crucified by an unknown customer. Despite these ranges, the tender and desperate core of the book stays consistent. “I want to be filthy with beauty . . .” says one narrator say. “I want to be heart on bicep, balls in throat, with my best friend’s eyes in my pocket, and a flaming comet of hunger clutched in my fist like a pet rock.” In “Transformer,” one of the strangest stories in the collection, a woman recounts her encounters of intimacy and each lover morphs into the next, seamlessly, allowing only a brief moment for them to make their impression and often still carrying ghostly traces of past loves. The desires sparking in Things to Make and Break spark again and again—as individual as heartbeats, as intertangled as cigarette smoke around fingers.
scribe by alyson hagy
Set in an alternative history where civil war and epidemics have brutalized America into an unfamiliar, sparsely populated, ghost of itself, Scribe is a novel that leaves readers hungry for more details about its compelling world. The protagonist, an unnamed woman, barters in letter writing—the written word now holds powerful spiritual significance—and lives in Appalachia, in her family’s old farmhouse. Regarded as a witch by the Uninvited, a nomadic tribe that stays on her land, as well as her distrustful neighbors, the protagonist meets Mr. Hendricks—a man with a past perhaps as dark as her own. They soon strike a deal, and thus begins a series of events which force the unnamed scribe to confront a past that she has desperately avoided and journey to a mysterious crossroads.
Alyson Hagy’s Scribe is rich with mythology and appeals to readers of southern literature and folklore and fans of paranormal alike. Hagy’s descriptions of an abandoned rural south unsettle in their familiarity, yet are laced with warmth. Her characters are survivors burdened with sin and guilt, which bears them to further action. An original addition to the post-apocalyptic genre, Scribe reaffirms the power of the pen and the surviving quality of the human spirit.
anaphora by kevin goodan
Kevin Goodan, in his third collection, Anaphora, forthcoming from Alice James Books, confronts violence and suicide in an impoverished rural community through a fiery litany of elegiac poems. Often by stream of consciousness, these poems confront violence to others and to the self. The speaker has discovered death’s underlying language and this is a community where “we roar / with violence granted we fuck and hang.” Goodan reclaims the dead, brings them back to “our little moments of shine.” His poems burn their ways through recurring phrases and images—rope, a water tower, embers, dogs, chromaticism, Houdini—in a way that translates the world of the living into the world of the dead. We’re in dangerous waters here, and Goodan is keenly aware that many do not make it back: “I think about god how / untranslatable his actions are.” Anaphora is an elegy in honor of those lost in translation, those who never make it back. The speaker’s rage builds climatically and then crack in moments of earnest and unbridled grief: “someone cut my cousin down please / goodbye goodbye cut him the fuck down.” These poems are for “Jimmy found blue in the noose / spactistic like Houdini / picking the locks of god.”
testimony of circumstances by rodrigo lira, translated by thomas rothe and rodrigo olavarría
During his lifetime, Chilean-poet Rodrigo Lira never saw the cult-following that his poetry would achieve, and still, in much of North America and for most English readers, he remains an unknown. Translators Thomas Rothe and Rodrigo Olavarría, and Cardboard House Press, have righted this with the release of Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances. In this bilingual edition, which closely follows Lira’s posthumous Proyecto de obras completas, but with notable additions—one from which it takes its title—Rothe and Olavarría have reformed his poems in English with attention and care that captures the frenetic energy of Lira’s work. Their opening translator’s note offers key historical and biographical contexts and illuminates their perspicacious attention to, and labor over Lira’s poetry.
There’s nothing simple about Rodrigo Lira’s multilayered and intertextual lyric-poetry. His long stretching poems slip in various other languages; obscure references; and use playful, inventive word-play—not to mention a catalogue of footnotes and meta-poetic turns. Apart from the richness of his stylistic verse, his poetry communicates both a personal and a social pain, paralleled by loneliness. The first poem, “Grecia 907, 1975,” even begins with his speaker’s long hypothetical scream, in response to bureaucracy, etc. “Any moment now / my patience will snap and I’ll scream” and it is a scream so powerful that it both destroys and amasses with other voices: “the effects of my scream will multiply once all / the kooks start screaming and I’ll have accomplices . . .” Lira manifests a cold frustration for formal society and the government, and then a pride for the people of Chile too, particularly for the youth: “let us lift / up / our / hearts, because / —although this era isn’t giving birth to even half of one, / school girls keep drawing them / on their knapsacks / and now that practically no one tags / bathroom walls, / in Santiago de Chile, at least, / Young people / write.”
Lira may have written in the 70s, in response to the oppressive climate of his own government, but hold his poetry up and it is an unnerving lens for the present day, America and elsewhere. We should all take up the pen, like Lira, write against the suffocation of the factory, but first, turn to Testimony of Circumstances, enter into conversations with Lira and beat back our solitary sub-lives, choose to hear, more than survive.
once and forever: the tales of kenji miyazawa by kenji miyazawa, translated by john bester
Reminiscent of the anthropomorphic animals that inhabit Aesop’s fables, Kenji Miyazawa’s tales in Once and Forever are set in a world where some animals talk, wear clothes, and interact with humans on a regular basis. Miyazawa, though considered a popular children’s author in Japan, is very much a fable writer for adults. Since his death in 1933, his popularity has continued to rise, with much of his work adapted into film and anime. His stories, while whimsical, often leave readers to navigate their dark endings—there are no didactic morals attached to these tales, though the ghost of some unlearned lessons may haunt the characters, as well as readers. “The Bears of Nametoko” is one such tale. Here, Kojuro doubts his need to kill the bears for their healing livers, and the bear who kills Kojuro questions his own act of preservation. Or in another story that haunts, “The Restaurant of Many Orders,” two starving hunters find an unlikely restaurant, in the depths of the woods, but when the orders posted on the restaurant’s door ask them to remove their clothes and then season themselves, they begin to wonder who the clientele of this establishment actually is . . . Translated from the Japanese by the late John Bester, Miyazawa’s tales are modern fairy tales that will interest readers of all ages.
the governesses by anne serre, translated by mark hutchinson
Mark Hutchinson’s translation of Anne Serre’s elegant French novella, The Governesses, brims with restless energy and fairy-tale eroticism. Addictively sensual and subtly violent, the titular trio of governesses emotionally manipulate the house staff, ignore their pupils, and devour handsome strangers who wander to their gates. They perform for the old man watching them through his telescope, always aware of his gaze. Stunning, selfish, and seemingly ageless, like baroque sculptures come to life, the governesses explore the house’s enchanted, endless gardens, packed with every place and experience that they’ve ever known, and explore their sexual and romantic power over those around them.
In her simple, elegant style, Serre often directly invites the reader into her carefully crafted, waking dream world, and shows us all the contradicting sides of these women, their strengths in the strangeness of their world and in their own exceptional loveliness, as well as their weaknesses when the realities of the outside world invade their home. Like the book itself, they are at times frenzied, while at others, they turn dark and sweet, never fully forming, never submitting to capture. Anne Serre’s debut in English, The Governesses is exhilarating and hedonistic, an enchantingly dark French fable that delights to the last line.
an untouched house by willem frederik hermans, translated by david colmer
Willem Frederik Hermans’ An Untouched House provides a wrenching glimpse of a Dutch soldier’s experience several years into World War II. The atmosphere of the novella is surreal in its believable disorientation. The sparse but precise prose captures a sense of desolation, a meaninglessness at the heart of the war that emerges in innumerable casual atrocities, from murder to the destruction of art. The unnamed narrator’s psychological trauma manifests as confusion and resignation layered over his raw and equally unnamable longing. “I no longer knew how tennis was played,” he relates. “I didn’t know what the net, the white lines, the tall white chair, that heavy roller in the corner meant.”
The narrator attempts to reconcile barbarity with the veneer of civilization that he discovers in a remarkably, almost miraculously, untouched house in the middle of a bombarded European town. Inside the house are wonders foreign to the narrator—lush furs, a piano, hot water. How can such a place exist? As the narrator unravels the mysteries of the house, the truths he learns are neither reassuring nor beautiful. The line between war and culture, violence and peace, is indistinct, an illusion ultimately incapable of concealing the interdependence of the two, and the artificiality of our loyalty to either.
american fictionary by dubravka ugrešić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać
Twenty-four years after its debut in English, a new edition of Dubravka Ugrešić’s 1993 essay collection American Fictionary is here. Previously published as—Have A Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream—Ugrešić’s American Fictionary displays the darkly comic, genre-bending prose that has long established her as a commentator on the breakup of Yugoslavia, the rise of mass consumerism, and the plights of displaced persons. Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać, established Ugrešić translators, offer English readers a deft rendering of her prose, marked by wry observations and a dizzying associative capacity.
Ugrešić presents each essay as an entry in a fictional dictionary, but her organizing principles are poetical, not alphabetical. Careening through, we swerve from tyrannical hairdressers to Bollywood television to the degeneracy of muffins and the supremacy of bagels. En route, we pass a smorgasbord of mundane objects imbued with insidious meaning (instruction manuals, closet organizers, Coca-Cola bottles). Between these pages, “white is black” and “loss is gain,” New York collapses into Zagreb, and the homeless mingle with the bourgeois. American Fictionary captures not only the chaos of war-torn Yugoslavia—which “transforms its history into senselessness”—and American capitalism—which “transforms its senselessness into history”—but also the yawning space between, a realm inhabited by those like Ugrešić: lost, seeing double, born in a place that no longer exists.
In the years since Ugrešić penned these essays, they’ve only grown more relevant. The chaos of the Balkans has sprouted tendrils in Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, and the White House. Reality television continues to remake reality. The phrase have a nice day has gone global, but Americans have dropped “that exaggerated yodel at the end of the phrase” and now utter it “with far less feigned enthusiasm than before.” As Ugrešić writes in “P.S.,” “the point of republishing this book is to encourage a new reading of the earlier text, a dialog between two moments that are a quarter century apart.” We can hardly imagine a more opportune time to revisit American Fictionary.
you darling thing by monica ferrell
“What’s conceivable and what’s happened lay side by side,” reads one line from Monica Ferrell’s latest poetry collection, managing to capture the spirit of the entire book, which travels between fictive worlds and reality. You Darling Thing visits and re-visits coupling, courtship, and marriage from the perspective of familiar myths, tropes, and literary brides—like Emma Bovary. Her poems sink readers with whimsy into grim spaces: the desire for a partnership that numbs and consumes, by which Ferrell means snuffs out. Take the youth who wishes to be hunted and kept, preserved as a timeless trophy: “Every sixteen-year-old girl likes / A murder for an admirer.” In moments like this, Ferrell controls and weighs the poetic line to maximize how cavalier, how reckless this attitude, this wish, is. It interrogates the drive toward courtship, a must or a want? For love or demise? “One moment it’s for death, / The next love / So these two confuse . . .” Her brevity and precision is balanced by the occasional multisyllabic, decadent, word that offers readers an opulence like a cold marble in the mouth. The subjects of You Darling Thing continue seeking and pondering their unions, planning their ends before they’ve begun—entirely programmed, err—designed for them. And perhaps it's because of this non-choice that resentment festers for the ritual and tradition of courtship—for the beloved, the counterpart, the eclipse.
The children's war by c. P. Boyko
C. P. Boyko proves the broad reach of his talents in The Children’s War, a collection of six stories that range from novella to play to traditional short-story. His characters here are often intelligent and emotional, resulting in explosive conflicts; whether the setting be an oppressive school, an ever-busy factory, or the frontlines of a war between the armies on an unnamed island and its interfering super-power neighbor. From the thoughts of a sleep-deprived Army doctor, comes her gruesome play-by-play of that day’s casualties—or was it yesterday’s? She can’t quite remember. Meanwhile, bullets twang and whistle like snapped cables over the head of an ambulance driver who cons and lies his way into a war he cares nothing about. In “The Takeover of Founders’ Hall,” students bear witness in a journalistic fashion to their march and occupation of the university president’s office.
Tackling the theme of power and the struggle for authority, Boyko’s characters fight against superiors real or imagined, as in the case of Lord Admiral Whiskers The Most High, the feline king over a land of talking cats. Though the choices these characters make are not always effective, it is clear that Boyko understands this truth: action is always human and, even in failure, is often beautiful.
slum wolf by tadao tsuge, translated by ryan holmberg
Tadeo Tsuge’s Slum Wolf, a collection of stories from the sixties and seventies, translated by Ryan Holmberg, conjures a fantasy of post-war Japan that is as bleak as it is raw and energetic. With loose lines interspersed with careful details, Tsuge creates a world of forgotten ruins, populated with forgotten people, impoverished and marginalized. These stories don’t offer the hope for a better life waiting somewhere outside the world of the slums, yet moments of calm and deliverance are achieved in the connections between people, in the bonds that can form even under the harshest conditions, and offer a reprieve from poverty and trauma.
Ex-kamikaze pilot Keisei Sabu’s reckless brawling becomes the stuff of legend in the slum. His antics echo throughout the collection like a ghost, that of a man who never expected to find himself growing old. The disciplined soldier turned company man, Ryokichi Aogishi, finds that his past traumas and regrets keep a comfortable middle-class life just outside his reach. These characters—as well as the drunks, vagrants, and prostitutes that reside among them—are striking in their expressions, contorting in a way that defies realism, but instead achieves a naturalistic translation of emotion with a spontaneity of gesture. One can feel Tsuge’s desire to preserve a sketch of this moment in time, not with a moralizing or political aim, but simply to carve a space where post-war trauma can exist undisturbed.
baby, i don't care by chelsey minnis
“This poem is so fucking showy. / But you’re going to take it,” declares the speaker of Chelsey Minnis’s latest book. Baby, I Don’t Care takes direct inspiration from vintage films and the Turner Classic Movie channel, airing as a swanky monologue where “People in their nightgowns smoking cigarettes, they give great speeches.” With top-shelf brandy and a satin-noose, this meta-poetic collection, driven by the lyric-I, is a long and stormy love affair with riches and gratification. Through section after section, with curt titles like “Golddigger” and “Threats,” Minnis stacks verses like stacks of money, how we imagine this speaker might take a drink, neat and plenty. Her speaker—a self-aware, indulgent, and shallow tough-cookie—revels in her bratty vampiness poem after poem. “I like to scream in a satin bed / and get a baby bunny as a present. / I can’t stop thinking of myself and what might be to my own / advantage.” Continually, the speaker mocks the power struggle between her, the beautiful damsel, and her silent partner, an unnamed darling moneybag and she toes the line of female propriety. “One minor grievance is a handsome man. / I want to look at him but I don’t want to listen to him. / Am I allowed to say anything? Or should I just go lie down in my / coffin?”
Despite or because of the nonchalant directness of greed, a serious current runs beneath, bringing forth how this cinematic era minimized female intelligence as well as the desperation of the female figure in her limited agency, “Something matters, but what is it? / A window with a very long fall underneath?” Baby, I Don’t Care is a work of monstrous appetites—it’s insatiable, sensational, in need of the gaze while always playing indifferent to it. Like a cat toying with a bloodied mouse grows bored and leaves it to bleed out, Minnis’s speaker is merciless in her needs and yawns in the face of their destructions.
north american stadiums by grady chamberS
Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, Grady Chambers’ debut collection, North American Stadiums, grapples with the weight of memory in all its forms—cultural, familial, and personal. These poems are raw. They run long, but are unpretentious—the collection travels through the Rust Belt, encompasses the experiences of friends, family, factory workers, baseball spectators, and veterans as the speaker recollects and observes from a place “where I could be alone / but everyone I love could reach me.” Though the melding of the personal experience, such as talking to a homeless man (“I gave him money / and listened to a story about his sister. I should have held his hand.”) to the political (“Honors to the writers of the Great Manifestos”), Chambers seeks to close the gap between internal and external narrative. It is in this gap that the speaker finds “darkness filling / the absent forms,” where memory and guilt, both cultural and personal, can ferment. And yet, these poems travel towards forgiveness by fighting the ways that “silence / slides through years.” This is no easy road: “You might return alive / but with a stripe of filmstrip in your brain / shining with something living / while it burns.”
narrator by bragi Ólafsson, translated by lytton smith
Lytton Smith’s English translation of Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator is as compelling and readable as it is bizarre. Our narrator, G.’s otherwise mundane day is interrupted when he spots an old romantic rival, Aron, at the post office. Abandoning his task, he proceeds to stalk his perceived adversary through the city of Reykjavik, casting suspicions about Aron’s actions, and reminiscing about his unrequited love. G. is both endearing and vaguely sinister as we move through his surreal story. The more we learn about his life, his past, and his views of the world, the more we question the truth he is presenting to us.
Ólafsson bends rules of tense and perspective, and Narrator is made all the better by it. Hopping between first and third, between past and present, these breaks in form capture G.’s erratic temperament, and explore the psychic distance between character and narrator. G. strives for objectivity, wants to cast himself as the hero, but cannot help slipping back into his own obsessive, unreliable mind. The kind of novel that teaches you how to read it while you’re reading it, Narrator asks odd, fascinating questions about the function of the narrator as a character, and the reliability of self-reflections and our accounts of ourselves.
shit is real by aisha franz
Aisha Franz’s graphic novel Shit is Real is a quiet, dream-like look into the life of a young woman, lost. After a difficult breakup, Selma finds herself unable to relate to friends or accomplish simple tasks, and sinks into a state of depression—portrayed by Franz as a stark, alien desert on the outskirts of civilization. Desperate to be pulled out of her life, when Selma learns that her stylish neighbor has left on vacation and forgotten her keys, she tries on her life like an ill-fitting hat. Her emotions rise off the page, each disappointment, each small struggle breaks the heart.
But here in a world that comes across both strange and frighteningly realistic, Franz is able to comment on the concept of social currency as self-worth and the strangling hold of technology on society. With her bold style, Franz magnifies the ways in which abstraction conveys emotional truth beyond the capability of realism. Characters don’t just express embarrassment. They melt off the page. Loneliness and hope are experienced in the space of a large, sparsely populated fish tank. A unique portrait of modern loneliness, Shit is Real explores what it means to be lost in one’s own life.
the carrying by ada limón
As with the glowing genius of Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón’s latest collection, The Carrying, from Milkweed Editions, is a generous examination of life and death from vantages that continually surprise. Her poems deliver the weight and the breadth of her speaker’s grief for her mother, her identity as a WOC, her fertility struggles, her own newly married self, and so much more. The collection in its potency and stretch resists the saccharine. Instead, it makes readers reel with its poignant grit. It's early in her collection, in poems like “The Vulture and the Body,” when her speaker’s drive to her fertility appointment brings her more roadkill than life and she wonders: “What if, instead of carrying // a child, I am supposed to carry grief,” that we begin to see the wide catch of her title. The Carrying is all the speaker holds and is beholden, the good with the bad, the resisted with the embraced—the carrion with the carried child—and never in binary oppositions, as the quote from Joy Harjo which opens the book exemplifies: “She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. // These were the same horses.”
While each individual poem is a thing to admire—its own sharp prize—Limón’s ordering of each poem and her collection's three sections is nothing short of mastery. “Bald Eagles in a Field” which faces “I’m Sure About Magic” which is in turn followed by the “Wonder Woman”; or “Killing Methods” followed by “Full Gallop” and then “Dream of The Men”; and "The Cannibal Woman” up against “Wife” are just a few of the ordering strategies that leap out—as if to trample—and raise the collection to heights, its readers to feats of emotional endurance that overwhelm and satisfy. “I will never harm you, your brilliant / skin I rub against in the night, / still, part of me . . . // . . . wants to snap her hind leg / back, buck the rider, follow // that fugitive call into oblivion.” Much like the rubbery-legged exhaustion at the end of a well-matched race, The Carrying floods you with endorphins, rendering you emotional jello, but leaves you wondrously gratified and seeing the world from new angles.
poso wells by gabriela alemán, translated by dick cluster
Making her debut in the English language, Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells (translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster) is a darkly comedic, wildly energetic, and relentlessly intrepid bricolage of genres whose narration expertly cycles a unique roster of characters. Although not found on any map, since “The last time anyone did a topographical survey, that huge mass of mud dredged from the estuary was still part of the river,” the Cooperative of Poso Wells transforms into a boisterous political battleground every election season. And, why is that? Simple: from the hope of potentially tapping its well of “Hundreds of thousands of votes,” through empty promises and the distribution of false hope. During one campaign, a histrionic presidential frontrunner and his elite are all electrocuted on stage, leaving only Vinueza, his remaining competitor in the race for the presidency, alive—though moments after the tragedy, he mysteriously vanishes. Vinueza isn’t the only person missing from Poso Wells—women routinely disappear. When the fervent columnist Gonzolo Varas catches wind of this, he sets out to uncover the truth. The story unfolds from here peppered with rambunctious, insightful, and poetic dialogue. Alemán blurs the typical lines of story, allowing Poso Wells a far reach to captivate a broad audience, and without a doubt, it will.
citizen illegal by José olivarez
In his stunning debut collection, Citizen Illegal, José Olivarez explores the complexities of an identity in flux, reminding his readers “it’s hard for one body to contain two countries, / the countries go to war & it’s hard to remember you are loved by both / sides or any sides, mostly you belong to the river that divides your countries.” Simultaneously critiquing the systems that create borders and embracing the culture that thrives between them, Olivarez refuses to let any narrowing labels to be placed on anything. He always interrogates perspective: “everything in me / is diverse even when i eat American foods / like hamburgers, which, to clarify, are American / when a white person eats them & diverse / when my family eats them.” Embracing this multiplicity, Olivarez constructs a narrative where differences coexist—the past and the present, adolescence and adulthood, the hypothetical and the real, belonging and banishment, tears and laughter, the United States and Mexico—breaking down boundaries between these worlds and yet never fully arriving in either. Olivarez carves out a place where Mexican-American Chicano identity can exist on its own terms by defying definition. In “My Family Never Finished Migrating We Just Stopped” he writes “i have a theory. / some of our cousins don’t care about LA or Chicago; / they build a sanctuary underneath the sand, / under the skin we shed, so we can wear / the desert like a cobija.” Citizen Illegal acts as an oasis for acceptance and resistance—an ode of gratitude for in-between spaces.
after the winter by guadalupe nettel, translated by rosalind harvey
In her novel After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel depicts solitude in its many forms—as a loveless affair, for example, or a one-bedroom apartment during an endless winter. First, we meet Claudio, who keeps everyone at a distance, including his older lover. He only shows tenderness to his Upper West Side apartment, which he prefers bare, free of any living thing. “Protecting it from any intruders,” he says, “is my way of honoring my sanctuary and of turning it . . . into the mausoleum where I would like to be buried for all eternity.” Then there is Cecilia, a Mexican student in Paris who lies awake at night, listening to her neighbor’s sobs. She turns toward the wall, as if to offer her ear, only to retreat into herself once it all becomes too much to bear. Nettel allows these stories to unfold separately, side-by-side, before they inevitably intersect. Her characters’ mental states are described with precise language, mirrored in Rosalind Harvey’s translation: “I was weighed down by the present,” Cecilia thinks to herself, “the lack of meaning in my own life, the enormous space between my breastbone and my back, never my own death, let alone old age, which I thought of as so far away.” There are many similarities between Cecilia and Claudio—their difficult childhoods in Oaxaca and Havana, their ruminations on death—but what most connects them here in After the Winter, what Nettel understands with such sensitivity, are the contradictory desires we have to both live alone in our apartments, our self-made mausoleums, and to escape them, to leave them behind and seek out human connection.
the final voicemails by max ritvo, Edited by louise glück
In his second collection of poems, The Final Voicemails, the late Max Ritvo pulls back the curtains of the rooms that occupy his body and mind. Ritvo passed away after a long battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, but here, in these pages he still welcomes us into his home furnished with pain, loneliness, and joy all abound with his signature wry humor and transcendent hope. His poems are unapologetically vulnerable, and he champions for a deep richness of experience: “Let room mean death or room mean life, / but let the room always be full. / Down with the Landlord! / He is leaving you empty!”
In his struggle between his terminally ailing body and his distressed mind, Ritvo elevates and finds safety in the stillness of the body over the entropy of the mind. Though the mind can be possessed with self-pity, the body dances. As his mind becomes exasperated (“sometimes your brain is as unwelcome / as muscles or guns”), he pays more attention to the current that runs through the body, a “general current / one feels through all forms / of refreshment: the down of sleep, the up of water.” He finds solace and retreats into the meditative and miraculous nature of breath: “For a moment, my nose / had to deal with so much violence / just there, in the air trying to reach me, / that there was no time to think my violent thoughts.”
Ritvo calls us to celebrate life and tenderly affirms that all pieces of existence, no less his own, are vital instruments: “Sure my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too.” He fills an empty stage with music, composing his own afterlife and prophesying blissful reincarnations: “I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs / and if I am ever a thought of my widow / I’ll love being that.” In The Final Voicemails, Max Ritvo, "carrying the words, / shaking with tears," sings with a language of love and generously invites us into the hospitable shelter he designed for himself.
Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner
“The future is throttling towards us and it’s loud and reckless,” warns Erika Meitner in Holy Moly Carry Me, her fifth collection of poetry. She cautions: “We are under the care / of each other and sometimes we / fail mightily to contain the damage.” Though deeply in conversation with the past and present, Holy Moly Carry Me also grapples with the uncertainty of what’s to come in spaces rampant with mass shootings, racism, and war: “I have two sons, and / I can’t protect either / of them from anything / at all.”
Meitner writes boldly and unapologetically about the public sphere, but each poem is as intimate as it is grand. For instance, one poem about helping a stranger choose gift wrap at a dollar store turns into a meditation on several of the book’s major themes—memory, truth, love for one’s neighbor, religious faith, gun ownership/violence, motherhood, infertility, and adoption—to name a few.
Her sense of humor is on display throughout as well: in “Post-Game-Day Blessing,” the speaker chaperones her son’s first-grade class through a college campus littered with discarded G-strings, beer cans, and condom wrappers and she blesses each item in turn. And if we are ever unsure how sarcastically we should read these crude blessings, by the poem’s end, we believe Meitner as she praises the winning team for “being able to hold on despite / the onslaught.”
As much as anything, Holy Moly Carry Me is about navigating the world’s disorder (“the space between the hole and the holy”) and finding a way through the brokenness—finding “in our actual steps,” as one poem’s speaker puts it, the “song / that’s not quite song.”
Be with by forrest gander
In his new collection of poetry, Be With, Forrest Gander overflows with vulnerability and brings forth "a eulogy, or a tale of my or your own suffering.” The title, stemming directly from the words of Gander’s life partner, the poet C.D. Wright, who passed away two years ago, tugs at the abyssal rift of a heart mourning over the loss of a loved one. As writing into grief is to write into a deep, raw silence, Be With begins with silence: “It’s not the mirror that is draped, but / what remains unspoken between us.” This silence echoes throughout the book as Gander navigates through a labyrinthine canyon of bereavement, where his “grief-sounds ricocheted outside of language.” Wallace Stevens, an influence of Gander’s, writes that “Death is the mother of beauty,” and Gander does not turn away from grief but dives into its awful and cathartic cascading beauty that wavers between gravity and weightlessness.
As the cover art and caesura within several poems illustrate, “Every event ⏤ drags loss behind it.” The absence manifests itself on the page as words reach and call out to each other across the chasm of white-space. Gander beckons us to cross a bridge to other ranges of his life, such as a handstone, the Mexico–United States border, his mother’s pain and lapses of memory, ultimately arriving at a littoral zone, a series of ecopoetical entrances and exits accompanied by photographs.
Be With serves as a memento mori as Gander asks, “You who were given a life, what did you make of it?” He prompts us to cherish our memories, which return “strangely as fog / Rising just to flatten ⏤ under the bridges.” Although he laments with a tightened throat, his lyrical heavings gush forth an intense beauty that affirms the struggle through life’s deepest hollows. Gander brings to light his efforts of “being with,” his listening into, his resilient conjunction against a fissure shaped by death confirming that there is nothing closer to grief than love.
Revenge of the translator by brice matthieussent, translated by emma ramadan
In recent decades, the translator’s footnotes have fallen vastly out of favor and now are considered distracting, unnecessary, pedantic, and imply a lack of trust in readership. In our age of smartphones and informational websites, the perceived need for them, for direct explanations of foreign nuance, has waned, but little has been said regarding the mighty footnote’s literary potential . . .
French author Brice Matthieussent seeks to correct this oversight with his novel, Revenge of the Translator. Through this experimental form, Matthieussent takes on the role of Trad, the translator of an American novel, Translator’s Revenge, which casts the tale of the disgruntled American translator, David Grey, and his attempts to translate French author Abel Prote’s latest novel. Quickly, the narration-via-footnote becomes so fed up with the original text—its misattributions, its overwrought prose, its misinformed assertions about the craft of translation—that Trad decides to edit and remove offending parts of the work, piece by piece, until all that remains is his mounting scathing commentary. “I reside here below this thin black bar,” the first note begins, inviting the reader into the translator’s humble, subterranean abode. From there we are taken into a benthic world of rebellion from below, an erudite realm whose keeper plots a novelistic subversion of literary tradition.
Revenge of the Translator was translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, the well-deserved winner of the 2018 Albertine Prize for her English rendition of Anne Garréta’s Not One Day. One can obviously see the difficulties this book must present in translating it—the shifting allusions, the reliance on constant mutation of the phrase “translator’s note,” the inversion of French and English wordplay. One also wonders if the temptation existed for Ramadan to find novel ways to insert herself into the text, for certainly she shares in the glory of this book’s resounding artistic success. In fact, considering the content of this book, it is quite possible that Revenge of the Translator may find literary viability solely in its translated form, fulfilling the promise of providing a platform for all those who labor to bring a work onto the international stage.
feeld by jos charles
“ i am off corse speeching off ivorie / i am off
corse speeching a mouthe / over detremind bye ants”
Let’s say it’s July, you’re reading feeld outside an Arkansas Walmart waiting for your tires to be rotated. Let’s say an older gentleman catches the corner of your eye, pulls up in a white pickup, and rolls the window down. You’re a reader? Here. This book will save your life. There is a Jesus pamphlet flung in your direction, an intrusion into your space, and this cis-hetero-normative oil change energy is driving you nowhere good. The parking lot: populated by shop-carting ants. Your options: laugh, cry, keep reading. You fall back into feeld’s pages.
Momentary intrusions like this are what Jos Charles pushes back against throughout her entire collection:
“ speeching off trees
from the inside / u can growe
deer 2 one / onlie from the inside / I took pryde”
In feeld, Charles is breaking language in order to rebuild a system of knowledge that lives outside the context of the cis-heteronormative. But Charles’ gentle takeover of language is less bent on deconstruction and more bent on rebuilding. She writes:
“i 2 rejekted a whord
onlie 2 see it grone
tangibel / “
feeld creates a linguistic realm that both disorients and resituates the reader, reversing the relationship of a transgender speaker to the cis-normative majority, and ultimately disempowers normative language through her creation of a separate world—by invention and syntax and stark imagery.
“ the sirfase extends / &
it is tragyck / being undre
stood / any 1 off us wuldve dropd
more / if wee culd ”
Perhaps Charles drops more in her lyricism than the reader initially notices: subtle word changes (surface to sirfase, whole to hole, understood to undre & stood) create double-meanings and powerful new connotations for these word-tools through which we make meaning. The field of value we create within ourselves so often starts with the language we learn and utilize. To undermine and recreate our tools of value is a revolutionary act. Jos Charles’ feeld unpacks and repacks the histories of each word with compelling lyricism, recreating the metaphors we live with and subscribe to inside.
Perennial by kelly forsythe
Kelly Forsythe’s Perennial comes at an important time—amidst our country’s ongoing conversation about school shootings, which have grown commonplace. Her poems meditate on survival and the trauma of Columbine, as well as the aftermath. The collection leans into and interrogates memory, masculinity, childhood, and grief in the face of tragedy and violence—how and who we blame, how and who we don’t. In Forsythe’s poem “1999,” the speaker looks at herself just shortly after the shooting, in unabashed conversation, “Lord, forgive me the chat rooms. I am only an observer, I am only a witness to events . . . The recoil from his shotgun caught him straight in the face, breaking his nose, causing it to bleed . . . he looked as though he had been drinking blood . . .” The intensity found here captures the swell of trauma as it only amasses, with little to no reprieve—her language is beautiful, but the reader is always aware of where they are in the poems—the historical and emotional gravity of Columbine is never lost. From “Planer Notes, 7th Grade,” “By the end / of April, we were / examining our own / potential for violence. / It wasn’t that he was less / immaculate. Safety // had changed & no one / was ready; we were / hitting the windows / with our palms, asking / to be looked after . . .” To the end, Perennial is intimate and unflinching in its capacity to pull the reader into these moments—beautiful and frightening in its emotional unfurling. It is not a light read, but it is a vital one.
Lost and found: mittens, Miep, and shovelfuls of dirt by Alison leslie gold
Alison Leslie Gold's memoir, Found and Lost: Mittens, Miep, and Shovelfuls of Dirt, is a compilation that reflects on the decline and the loss of loved ones and the memories and possessions that they once held dear. Gold is best known for Anne Frank Remembered, an autobiographical account, written with Miep Gies, over Gies' and her husband’s time spent protecting the Frank family from Nazis in Amsterdam. Themes of remembrance pervade every line of Found and Lost, including the moments from Gold's life that brought her to the Gies family. Gold’s desire for a sense of purpose, to move beyond her struggles as an alcoholic and single mother, led her to them. Her memoir re-sketches the aging process, the loss before and after dying, and the grief and acceptance that surrounds what comes to pass: “Though every clock in the house shows a different time since Jan died, she [Miep] lives apart from time, sails quietly on, contending with old, older, oldest age.”
Found and Lost is littered with an array of descriptions via letters, vignettes, and essays, including other scattered details like—a scam email, her parents' canceled NYT subscription, piccolos in pipes, and Medvedev's cat Dorothy. Surely by this memoir, Gold finds who and what was lost to her, as well those who know her now: “As a writer, I've tried to 'translate' what's been rescued into wordswords addressed sometimes to the living, sometimes to the dead, picking from little bones, skulls, and relics tossed from graves.”
this book is not for you by daniel a. hoyt
“Books [are] made for shit like that. They are the friends you can absolutely rip apart. Snap their spines and see if they care,” says Neptune, the narrator of Daniel A. Hoyt’s This Book Is Not For You. Neptune is good at ripping apart his own narrative, sometimes mid-telling, forcing the reader to patch together the violent trajectory of his life, from childhood abandonment to “safety skinheads,” from homelessness to accusations of murder. Hoyt begins every chapter as “Chapter One,” just one of the many ways he forces readers into the immediacy of the moment, the imperfection of each beginning, middle, and end. When Neptune’s mentor and surrogate mother is murdered, he runs from the law—fighting, drinking, and fucking his way through beginning after beginning. And despite his intelligent and biting sense of humor, we’re reminded time and again that he’s only nineteen—his life has been nothing but false starts cut short by brutality and poverty.
But the noir-like grime of Hoyt’s novel is no match for the love that Neptune has for the relationship between author and reader. His tone, though purposefully repellent, contains a quality of intimacy that is unavoidable. He asks readers to examine a self-inflicted, comma-shaped scar at the beginning of the novel, tells us what pages to skip, what pages to dog-ear, and shortly after remarking that books are made to be destroyed, he admits: “I consider reading a form of prayer. And you should too. You’d feel holier already. Even reading this piece of shit would classify as spirit work.” Neptune invites us to prayer in loneliness and fistfights, cigarette burns and explosions, and we are all a little more spiritual for the partaking.
a lucky man by jamel brinkley
Jamel Brinkley's short-story collection, A Lucky Man, delves into the lives of black boys and men through the NYC landscape of sex, isolation, and familial growing pains. He writes, “For most people there is a gap, for some a chasm, between the way they dream themselves and the way they are seen by others. That gap might be the true measure of one's loneliness.” Each story reflects the anger and pain wrought from losing someone or something invaluable to one’s identity—the loss of innocence and trust in a stepfather, the decline of a marriage, the vanished popularity and validation in high school, and the death of a best friend. In both functional and dysfunctional ways, each protagonist tries to find a way to reconcile themselves to their new reality. Some take capoeira classes with a sibling, delete questionable pictures off their phone, have sex with an old flame in a Catholic church, or enter into a relationship with a deceased friend's partner and child. “I realize now how strange it is to exist otherwise, especially in a big city, and I marvel at people rushing, rushing, rushing, headlong into things, how full of trust they are, how they can't see what often lurks behind the floating vapor of a smile.”
Brinkley’s stories read as portraits, which not only show the effects of masculinity, abuse, and poverty in the black community but also capture the solitude and what it is to come of age here. Above all, A Lucky Man captures universal emotions so that all readers can empathize with the specific trials experienced by these "lucky men."
eleanor, or, the rejection of the progress of love by anna moschovakis
In Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, Anna Moschovakis brilliantly sketches two women as concentric circles. In the inner circle, there is Eleanor, a writer in search of her lost laptop; in the outer, there is a narrator writing her way through the story of the aforementioned Eleanor. Though the book—a meta-mixture of story, authorly rumination, philosophical musing, and literary and syntactic analysis—could perhaps feel heady or jumbled in the hands of a less careful writer, what Moschovakis achieves here is a deft examination of selfhood and the ways it may be made manifest through language. Here, in Eleanor, is a fictional author who shows us the narrative choices she’s made and why she’s made them, created by a very real author whose intellectual velocity only compounds as she interrogates where writer ends and character begins.
For Moschovakis, this space between writer and character is a unique vantage point from which to query contemporary politics, technology, philosophy, and love. Over the course of the book, we move from coffee shops in Brooklyn to farm communes in Albany to nightclubs in Addis Ababa; from vaguely defined relationships to unrequited advances to one-off hookups. Of particular note are the narrator’s thoughts on her character’s sex life, made all the more insightful when presented against the reactions of a male critic who reads the Eleanor manuscript: “...depictions of sex and sexual dynamics in novels,” the narrator muses, “especially novels by women, tend to invite a particular kind of dismissive critique, or else sensationalism…” Moschovakis is particularly astute when focusing on the inner self, the commingling of mind and body in the form of desires, impulses, processing power. Her narrator writes, “‘when Eleanor sleeps, the rearrangement of her mind’s furniture happens without her direction…the things…have themselves become unfamiliar, that they are in effect strokes of genius, sui generis acts of the imagination: that they are novel.’” So, too, does Moschovakis’ book seem to arrange itself as we move, dreamlike, through it, encountering a singular architecture of novel and novelist that challenges us to read and think towards new possibilities, new heights.
let me be like water by s. k. perry
In her debut novel, Let Me Be Like Water, S. K. Perry explores the long stay of grief after the loss of a lover. Holly moves to Brighton to be near the sea after the death of her boyfriend. While she seeks to process this unplanned loss, she craves isolation. But then she meets Frank, a retired magician who has also lost and grieved the love of his life. Frank initiates her into “his collection of broken people” and between home-cooked meals and cold swims, book clubs and bar nights, Holly begins to slowly loosen her desperate grip on her pain.
Though this love-lost scenario runs the risk of sounding maudlin, Perry writes in short, vignette-like sections that move between Holly’s present grieving and past happiness with her boyfriend Sam. These passages fluctuate between the dark and the light, the deep and the shallow, much like water. Despite the raw sorrow of Holly’s narration, she uses a sharp eye to describe little details in the landscape and facial features, which holds the reader’s head up above the emotional turmoil. Most importantly it is how Perry writes Holly’s strength of desire to recover which carries her prose forward. Despite bad days and setbacks, Holly wills herself—and the reader—into better places. By Christmas, she drunkenly observes, “I pray for flowers to grow out of my hands and for the wind to play me music, and think that if there is a God, he shouldn’t need us to tell him what it is that we need.” As readers, we don’t need her to tell us what she needs either, but instead we become like water, in its many movements alongside her.
The despair of monkeys and other trifles by françoise Hardy, translated by jon e. graham
At seventeen, Françoise Hardy lands a contract with Vogue record company. Later that year, she hears “Tous les garçons et les filles” on the radio, alongside Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan. The elation she feels at her sudden rise to fame is complicated, however, by her self-doubt: “No, I truly never imagined that the world of song would open its doors to me so easily,” Hardy writes, “Nor that they would close immediately on a gilded prison where, like it or not, I would spend the rest of my life.”
In her memoir, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, Hardy distances herself from the public persona that was crafted for her long ago. Determined to escape her role as style icon and muse, she focuses on her growth as an artist. She does so by discussing her insecurities—the discomfort she felt in her body as a young woman, the jealousy that plagued her relationship with her husband, actor and singer Jacque Dutronc. She writes, too, of the spiritual grounding she found outside her musical career, through the birth of her son and her lifelong study of astrology.
For fans of Hardy and her contemporaries (Serge Gainsbourg and France Gall, among others), The Despair of Monkeys is indispensable. It tracks the connections between the musicians and producers of the time, as well as the evolution of the Yé-Yé movement, the pop style that first captivated French audiences in the early sixties. Hardy’s memoir is sure to pique the reader’s interest with charming, celebrity-filled anecdotes, and it will also sustain it with her acute self-awareness, and her willingness to be vulnerable before her audience.
if you have to go by katie ford
In Katie Ford’s four-sectioned fourth collection, If You Have to Go, readers find themselves in indifferent rooms where the walls quit or remain standing regardless, like shrugs of the shoulder. The end of a marriage reveals the false promises believed since childhood—the kingdom—the house with a white-picket fence and 2.5 kid—is flimsy at best, a farce. The house is decaying. The mildew spreads. Her poems capture this stark truth: even as one’s sorrow all encompasses, the rest of the world either changes or doesn’t but it remains unmarked by that suffering. Ford’s poems ride the grief and surprise of existing inside this world indifferent to one’s pain, beside an absent God: “Do you think I don’t know when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored”?
Graciously, Ford offers her readers more structure than her speaker finds through the crown of sonnets found in her second and largest section, “The Addresses.” Her sonnets fashion a steady current that moves readers forward. Each poem bleeds to the next. Not only the walls of the rooms decay, so do the distinctions between poems and their echoes create an insistence that blots out foundational beliefs: “And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” And still, the final two sections of If You Have to Go move beyond sonnets to deliver a quiet relief to readers. Here in “Psalm 40,” in particular, the speaker reaches resolution—accepts her life lived and her life to be with a modest zest: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love,” and so her readers too are left with a lightness to look forward—to life, to more from Ford.
Night unto Night by Martha collins
Like Day Unto Day, Martha Collins’s follow up collection, Night Unto Night, consists of six lyric sequences written through several self-imposed restraints. Thus, the poems feel as though they are in an elegant vise. Each section is comprised of a fixed number of lines, most often six or seven; however, the tightness of this form is balanced by the playfulness of its language: “. . .will not rejoice in the death of even / this settled account this late / taken down yet I yet . . . // my 3:00 a.m. robin in darkness / cannot drive out darkness sings / for his hour, sings for the light.” At the line level, Collins’s language moves elegantly, making her restraints seem effortless while also containing immense energy and precision. She displays a masterful ability to work within limitations and then to maximize them, so as to only enhance her work. And, although each section interacts with time-contextual subject matters that are explained in her endnotes, the poems themselves paint an expansive emotional portrait: “7 / My friend is gone, / body inside body / of earth, sea / of atoms, she is, / her husband said, in a state/of grace and will / be forever. // 8 / Waterfall sculpted itself into water- / fall, using cold / to mold itself solid / and still, as if to / be forever / falling without ever falling.” Night Unto Night completes the twelve-poem sequence began in her previous book with an ethereal clarity that invites readers in and keeps them close.
The strange by jèrôme Ruillier, translated by Helge Dascher
The first of Jérôme Ruillier’s graphic novels to be translated into English, The Strange, offers readers an intricate and poignant exploration of the daily struggles faced by an undocumented immigrant in a fictional, amalgamated Western city. The protagonist, a “strange” in this new city, starts his journey with nothing but hope and a small amount of money, both of which are siphoned away as he is pushed into a corrupt, unbearable cycle of abuse, xenophobia, and betrayal. After the brief opening the protagonist’s language isn’t translated on the page—instead, his story is told by those he encounters. Some help him, some fear him, but rarely does anyone understand him. It is only through their eyes that we see the protagonist and even to the reader, he is a “strange.” Rather than inviting us into the protagonist’s head, we are invited to witness the facts of his circumstances, his constant fear in this new place and the hostility he encounters from every direction.
Ruillier’s straightforward and striking style lends itself perfectly to the themes of the novel, and the simple, limited color palette points the reader’s focus to the elements that the author chooses to highlight. By depicting the characters as non-human animals and stripping away all real world identifiers of people and place, Ruillier gives the novel a sense of global authenticity. The Strange is a universal story, an unflinching portrayal of the vulnerability of the undocumented, and a commentary on the rights and comforts taken for granted by those who so harshly judge the “strange.”
The Chandelier by clarice lispector, translated by benjamin moser and magdalena edwards
“She’d be flowing all her life. But what had dominated her edges and attracted them toward a center, what had illuminated her against the world and given her intimate power was the secret.” From its opening lines, The Chandelier is a daunting and deeply consuming experience. Clarice Lispector’s second novel, what we might think of as a coming-of-age story, has been effortlessly rendered into English by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards. The translation feels effortless in the sense that it retains Lispector’s elegant and inventive language. Effortless because it reads not as a translation but as a profound character study of a woman who is as much of our time, our consciousness, as she was when this novel was first available to Brazilian readers in 1946.
The Chandelier presents a certain re-prioritization by Lispector. Plot, for one, is second to her poetics and structurally, the novel avoids pause or interruption—there are no chapters and few section breaks. It is easy for readers to get lost in these sentences, in the rhythm spurred by repetition, in Lispector’s use of ethereal language. Virginia’s existential fears and desires are described at length: “Atop each day she’d balance on the tips of her toes, reads one passage, atop each fragile day that from one instant to the next could snap and fall into darkness.” The dialogue, both external and internal, is often as inscrutable as Virginia herself. There is, however, a loose chronology tracking Virginia’s childhood at The Farm and stretching into adulthood where we find her in an unnamed city, attending dinner parties, and taking a lover. Virginia’s family looms as a constant presence in her life, despite the distance she puts between them. Long after her submission to them as a girl—to her brother Daniel, in particular—she finds herself in the delicate position of growing into herself and away from their influence, a tension that persists until giving way altogether.
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.”
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.
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.
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.