Poetry

GRIEF SEQUENCE

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GRIEF SEQUENCE BY PRAGEETA SHARMA

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

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

Wave Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

ELEVATED THREAT LEVEL

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ELEVATED THREAT LEVEL BY RACHEL GALVIN

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

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

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

Green Lantern Press.

—Review by Emma Jones

THE 44TH OF JULY

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THE 44TH OF JULY BY JASWINDER BOLINA

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

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

Omnidawn.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

EVELYN AS

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EVELYN AS BY CHRISTINE BUTTERWORTH-MCDERMOTT

By reimagining her over and over again as a series of portrait poems—fitting for a girl who spent her girlhood posing for cameras—Christine Butterworth-McDermott offers readers an empathetic biography of the twenty-two years Evelyn Nesbit spent in the public eye while suffering the manipulation and abuses of men in private.

Often, the lenses for these portraits are those of other feminine figures—Eve, Persephone, Schehezerade, Saint Maria Goretti, Rapunzel—and thus interrogate the way narrative has typified and stigmatized women throughout time. Butterworth-McDermott questions the harm done to Nesbit—and all women who have gone unprotected, unwarned into pain: “Which beast for you, Beauty?  / Which red-white-clawed / spectacle / will dance on / his hind legs for you? / Every thing / you’ve ever done / has been a manacle, / soft as velvet or hard / as porcelain.”

However, what stays behind after reading this is the way in which these subjects still must be interrogated, the way in which—even in 2019—“a toy tiger, open-mouthed, harmless / (ready to bite) / the apple, fruit, pomegranate, knowledge / waiting in the wings / There is always red velvet / in the rooms owned by powerful men”. Evelyn As offers hope in its interrogation, in its willingness to confront these beasts and men and wolves, through the strength of women’s stories. It is both confession and apology, both love-letter and call to action, a book that will remind you of the importance of watching and listening to the vulnerable around you.  

Fomite Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

THE TINY JOURNALIST

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THE TINY JOURNALIST BY Naomi Shihab Nye

Internationally renowned writer Naomi Shihab Nye shines in her latest full-length collection, The Tiny Journalist, a compendium of poems coping with war and violence in the West Bank. Nye’s book was inspired by both Janna Tamimi—a young activist who began capturing videos of anti-occupation protests at the young age of 7—and her own Palestinian American heritage.

In deceptively simple syntax and universally relevant terms, Nye’s poems call on us to grapple with what it means to be human in the midst of conflict. Her poems speak for Janna at times, and then, speak directly to her. “You know gazing into a camera / can be a bridge, so you stare / without blinking,” Nye writes in “Janna.” Though Janna might be her “tiny journalist,” it is not hard to imagine Nye herself inhabiting the role—particularly when you learn that her own father was a refugee journalist. The reader can almost feel Nye staring unblinkingly through these poems, demanding peace across manmade boundaries, and though the first half of the book often takes on a childlike perspective, the second half is almost exclusively dedicated to the anguish of adults.

In this latter section, Nye covers loss, grief, hopelessness, and even the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. To a painfully searing effect, she centers her own Palestinian American identity in poems like “Unforgettable:” “The fathers sailed away / planning to return. / Not easily will they forget / a place that let us all / sorrow this much.” In "Stay Afloat," she provides a solution to this intergenerational conflict: "Find a child to be your leader now." Nye calls on the reader to find a child like the ones whose perspectives her poems explore, a child who inherited a war they had no part in, and yet, is determined, out of their own innocence and goodness, to end it.

BOA.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

FUEL AND FIRE

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FUEL AND FIRE: SELECTED POEMS 1956-76 BY FRANCISCO URONDO, TRANSLATED BY JULIA LEVERONE

Fuel and Fire, the selected works of Francisco Urondo, finds a new voice in Julia Leverone’s well-rendered translations. Poet, journalist, academic, left-wing Peronist, and guerilla fighter, Urondo, was assassinated by the US-backed Argentinian government during the Dirty War. The twenty-years of poetry represented in this collection is built on Urondo’s revolutionary ideals, and serves as a portrait of political injustice faced by the Argentinian people, extending sympathy to those suffering under Argentina’s various regimes. Through their politics, the poems land at a deeply humanist center. They are “enamored of the things of this world,” with frequent dedications to figures important to Urondo: poets, musicians, intellectuals, comrades in the Montoneros, Urondo’s own children. In the tradition of Golden-Era Spanish epics, these poems complicate their stance by extending grace towards Urondo’s political enemies. They seek justice through revolution, but also reconciliation, and “hope bitterness won’t intercept / forgiveness.”

Ultimately, these poems are concerned with the tangible world—a romanticism of the here-and-now. Urondo writes that “Cruelty doesn’t frighten me and I always lived / floored by good alcohol, a well-written book, perfectly done meat.” Such sentiments often risk bravado, but in Fuel and Fire, these small material luxuries represent the spirit and culture of the Argentinian people. His concern for his country is demonstrated again and again. He has grown tired of witnessing this “sad story of a defeated / people, of degraded families.” In his poems, language becomes the people’s weapon in the struggle for justice. “I Want to Report,” a poem that recounts a police raid of Urondo’s residence, demonstrates this idea best: “I file / this report, / especially for the loss / of weapons and poems, since both are unrecoverable. They / have been stolen from the people of the republic, / to whom they naturally belonged.”     

Lavender Ink / Diálogos.

—Review by David Brunson

NIGHT ANGLER

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NIGHT ANGLER BY GEFFREY DAVIS

Geffrey Davis’s latest collection, Night Angler, explores the complexities of memory, landscape, and identity. From love letters and prayers surrounding youth, fatherhood, and family—to a river that holds the solace of fishing and life in the South—the book constantly evolves. His narrative poems comment on the mistreatment, the wonder, and the hope surrounding black lives, not only in the South, but in America as a whole: “. . . so why then, while / fishing shores of the Mississippi, do I feel and fear hooking a diaspora of / drowned faces?”

Davis also casts and reels in other themes to recall his experiences as a father, son, and person of color, including light, water, and music. The images he creates wade between the gloom of trauma against mind and body to the courage that faith brings, if not from earthly fathers, then from a heavenly one. “Let there be fight and faith / still in me / Lord / Let this man / teach another to move / through / the nothing / that begs / to be feared.” Night Angler journeys you through childhood to parenthood, through violence to peace, and through the wilderness to home, leaving you disarmed.

BOA.

—Review by Jenee Skinner

SOFT SCIENCE

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SOFT SCIENCE BY FRANNY CHOI

Soft is not the word that comes to mind when reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science. Donna Haraway’s “excruciatingly conscious” might surface rather, yet Choi offers us this mode. Then, what is soft science? what is it if not a science with give? Her collection necessitates a giving away to and an absorbing of while her speakers perform by the same intake of information on the internet as a smart bot. Choi moves inside and beyond the hegemonic barking that storms online platforms—squashing that which falsely clicks into place, bending over to screenshot before all that which has brutalized—as she examines life in the age of smartphones and SmarterChild through the many-sided lens of Asian femininity and queerness. Some of her poems fracture language and white-space, revamping familiar forms, like her glossary and sequence of Turing-test poems. The structures of these forms act not as the bones of the book, but a chrysalis that signals an ongoing state of becoming. Opening Soft Science is the following quote from Haraway, which anchors and gives a lens to our understanding, “We are excruciatingly conscious of what it means to have a historically constituted body.” Choi’s Cyborg poems most overtly interrogate the ways in which the (female) body is constituted, man-created, and expected to perform thusly. Note here, in “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” how the speaker is described as much like a machine as the scientist’s machine-turned-daughter is human: “I once made my mouth a technology of softness [. . .] I made the tools fuck in my mouth [. . .] until they birthed new ones. What I mean is, I learned.” A few lines later, we see the daughter-bot’s manner of learning runs parallel: “The scientist’s daughter married the internet, and the internet filled her until she / spoke swastika and garbage . . .” Even with her insistence that humans are cyborgs, Choi doesn’t forgive anyone for their participation in racism, garbage politics, rape culture, and the commodifying gaze. Instead, Soft Science becomes a study of how the internet is the window to the collective unconscious and the smart (soft) bot, programmed by only what is found there, a mirror.

Alice James Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell