David Brunson

WHAT'S IN A NAME

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WHAT’S IN A NAME BY ANA LUÍSA AMARAL, TRANSLATED BY MARGARET JULL COSTA

“Despite all, I speak of names: / because I cannot find / a better way:” writes Ana Luísa Amaral in her brilliant new collection, What’s in a Name, forthcoming from New Directions. The poems here are translated from the Portuguese into understated, lyrical English by Margaret Jull Costa—poems that are concerned with the power and limitations of naming the world. They read as intimate conversations between the poet and reader, in either the early hours of morning or the late hours of night, where small, everyday moments quickly spiral into great cultural, historical, and even cosmic significance. In the poem “Definitions,” a friend of the speaker must choose between buying a blue or white jacket. Soon, the color white becomes the moon, a "moss-free wall," "the way a cats walks." Amaral connects these images, by the color white, to Emily Dickinson’s "the White Sustenance-- Despair." For Amaral, this white sustenance is "the innermost part, or the part imagining / the unimaginable." It is the blank page.  

Like Dickinson, these poems inhabit a lush inner life, one that “does not pass / quietly—”. In “Casualties of War,” the speaker shakes “a tiny speck / from this sheet of paper” which in a matter of stanzas becomes “a flamethrower of inflammable fluids / with a past waiting to attack.” After meditating on her own cosmic insignificance in “Differences (or minor glimmerings),” Amaral writes across “this sheet of paper. Which is what will remain. / As a book: interstellar ring, / like an onion awaiting a moonlight / other eyes cannot see.” In these pages, the inner life becomes external and the external world becomes internal. Words, which always “grow shorter / when said,” slip away from the things they name. And yet, the poems always land somewhere deeply human, with compassion for friends, for daughters, for refugees and the victims of war. These poems challenge us, asking: “Is it the light that’s late, or our / configuring gaze? / And the years translated / into our language, the millions of light years / made space-devouring / waves, do they cause space to collapse or to soar?”

New Directions.

—Review by David Brunson

HALF-HAZARD

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HALF-HAZARD BY KRISTEN TRACY

Kristen Tracy’s collection Half-Hazard, winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson First Book Award, was twenty years in the making. And so, it should come as no surprise that time plays a pivotal role in this outstanding collection. Time is the medium across which cruelty unfolds towards the plants, animals, and people that we share the world with—and it is the medium through which we bear witness. Often, as described in “Gardening on Alcatraz in July,” the speaker and the human world around her are “cutthroat plants overtaking other plants.” Time spells the ends of things: the ends of love, life, faith and tradition; and the perpetuation of others: of violence, prejudice, mistreatment of animals. She asks “How much can a reservoir / hold in the dark?”

These poems shine brightest when Tracy positions herself at the center of these questions, using her own personal choices and growth to face these fears. In “Urban Animals” she writes, “think I can take my conscience out for waffles / and sit in a comfortable booth / and not feel the universe pinch me / with its guilt.” This is a collection that explores conscious choice and empathetic action, the ways that the decisions we make can help battle the timelines of our own cruelty. Because, beneath those “cutthroat plants,” volunteer gardeners uncovered the “Bardou Job rose, thought to be extinct.” This collection eloquently demonstrates that “The things / we kiss good-bye make room for all we kiss hello” and that “we should all bear witness to what we didn’t expect to see.”

Graywolf Press.

—Review by David Brunson

ANAPHORA

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ANAPHORA BY KEVIN GOODAN

Kevin Goodan, in his third collection, Anaphora, forthcoming from Alice James Books, conf.ronts 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.”

Alice James Books.

—Review by David Brunson

NORTH AMERICAN STADIUMS

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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.”

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by David Brunson