Gwen Mauroner

WE BEGIN IN GLADNESS: HOW POETS PROGRESS

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WE BEGIN IN GLADNESS: HOW POETS PROGRESS BY CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER

We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress, a new book of essays by Craig Morgan Teicher, takes readers on a poetic journey through the development of voice by examining how the works of several poets changed over the course of their careers. In this insightful and delightful collection, Teicher looks at his own poetic development alongside others to show how our voices develop together: “Poetry is a conversation, an extended one, occupying, perhaps the span of an entire life.” His collection moves through these three sections—Beginnings and Breakthroughs, Middles and Mirrors, and Ending and Enduring—highlighting the poets Sylvia Plath, W. S. Merwin, francine j. harris, and Louise Glück, and referencing many more. Between these chapters, a constellation of connections weaves together their histories to show how poets both influence and are influenced by one another—how some poetic voices keep growing even after death, as others continue the conversations they started. Teicher’s essays present many things that change the ways that poets write over the course of their lifetimes; other writers, new knowledge, new perspectives, the desire to stay relevant: “Seeking to extend their conversations, to home in more precisely on what they believe and feel to be true about language, poets change their poems.” Not all poets change for the better, Teicher points out, some reach their peak and then stay within the same style, and some become over-confident after reaching success and then decline. The remedy for this is to keep exploring: “A poet’s voice must indeed be found; each poet must venture out to find it.”

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner

DISSOLVE

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DISSOLVE BY SHERWIN BITSUI

In Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, a book-length sequence with a single poem acting as preface, the Diné poet and Whiting Award winner examines and reinvents language. Here, punctuation marks engage with the landscape, “Hyphens sash the tree line’s dashes; / sleep seeps from its turquoise wails,” as Bitsui examines the ways in which places and people both create and are created by language. Merging images from urban and rural places, Bitsui insists that his readers remember “What crows above a city’s em dash, / doused in whale oil, / hangs here—named: nameless.” In this surreal and imagistic lyric, landscapes are always in motion—in process: “Slipping into free fall, / we drip-pattern: the somewhere parts, / our shoulders dissolving / in somewhere mud.” Elements of nature are active and given their own agency: “Falling from their cut hair: / hearth sounds sunlighting / the hallway back to then.” Sunlight becomes a verb, an action, that can be performed by sounds as the senses and the landscape come alive. Images circle around, blurring and fading and then returning, creating an experience like moving through the dark. We can only see what Bitsui carefully illuminates in front of us, “Mother, hovering / above cellphone light,” and “The city’s neon embers,” the rest swirls somewhere at the edge of the senses, until we are guided, once again, toward the light.

Copper Canyon Press.

— Review by Gwen Mauroner

CITIZEN ILLEGAL

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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.

Haymarket Books.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner

RISING: DISPATCHES FROM THE NEW AMERICAN SHORE

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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.”

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner

EYE LEVEL

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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?”

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Gwen Mauroner