Poetry

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

SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES

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SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES BY JOHN MCCARTHY

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy, winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, is a gorgeous lyrical and focused meditation. It reexamines and confronts the past violence of home, specifically the North End of Springfield, Illinois. McCarthy asks us to look at a place’s “soft violence” that “renders and yields this truth—each place is different / in its silence [. . .] It dares you / to misunderstand its rhythm, its landlocked and landmarked song—” He pushes us to look steadfastly at violence as acts of both reclaiming and sensemaking. In “Callousing,” after the speaker is tracked down and beaten by the Johnson farm boys, he states, “Praise this—this memory I rise with all the days of my life. Praise / this—that which breaks only to harden.” In other poems, the speaker recalls his own inclusion in the everyday violence of youthful boredom, “Most of the time, on uneven ground, / we’d throw hooks and haymakers then backpedal scared.” Even here, McCarthy locates the silent truth, “I was never that skilled at slipping punches or finding angles / or pivoting out of the way. I just didn’t want to be alone.” Scared Violent Like Horses never slips a punch—instead it remembers the punches and locates the bruises until the speaker’s jaw is “a healed bone calm enough to speak of violence, to contain its taste.” His title poem reads, “We needed someone to force us / into confronting the uselessness of our violence,” and McCarthy does this, and more, he asks readers not only to confront the past’s violence, but, more importantly, he provides a model for healing and, if possible, praise for what has happened, for where we’re from, and for where we’ve ended up.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Jacob Lindberg

TSUNAMI VS. THE FUKUSHIMA 50

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TSUNAMI VS. THE FUKUSHIMA 50 BY LEE ANN RORIPAUGH

The poems in Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, by Lee Ann Roripaugh, serpentine and shed glowing skins as they engineer glimpses of Okuma, the town left-behind, and the displaced persons in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In these pages, the tsunami towers as so much more than tidal waves of water, embodying female rage and pain. The pain inundates and varies as those affected by this disaster and Roripaugh’s poems mythicize the tsunami and those caught and displaced. As her poem “tsunami in love: kintsukuroi / golden joinery” explains, in epigraph, the Japanese tradition to aggrandize broken things by restoring them with gold, Roripaugh also restores with aggrandization but pipes not gold into the cracks and cavities, rather a lush density of sounds: “the bent tin cup’s / cool sluice of rinse / poured over skin’s / delicious prickle.” Her poems are thick and slick with crystalline assonance and velvety consonance, so whether they speak of rape and rot, or tsunami snark, they do so with rhyme and lilt.

On the Tsunami in all her grandeur, she is “slippery and apocryphal / as Butler’s lesbian phallus,” or the man nicknamed the hulk for his daily search for his family in the nuclear zone: “I no longer care about being exposed [. . .] maybe it will make me stronger [. . .] like the weird profusion of / of too-bright and hardy flowers . . .” In this manner, the collection oscillates between tsunami portraits­­—from an origin story to tsunami during her emo-phase—to portraits of those who’ve lost their loved ones, their home, their life. These two poles create a balance; one extreme magnifies the tsunami, and the other re-centers this disaster, this collection in the tangible. Gives a body, a face, and a mouth with which to speak to the ex-inhabitants of Okuma and imbues them with lore and repute, which is also an aggrandization—a kiss of golden joinery. With Tsunami vs the Fukushima 50, Lee Ann Roripaugh has written us poetry to infect us as we consume with a momentous voracity that turns its own page.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

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

MAGICAL NEGRO

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MAGICAL NEGRO BY MORGAN PARKER

“Death is the only cultural truth,” proclaims Morgan Parker in her third and latest collection Magical Negro—a stunning compendium of both present and past black experiences which explore themes of personhood, loneliness, displacement, and despair, among others. Comprised of searing commentary on subjects that range from ancestral grief to daily struggle, Magical Negro loses no gumption in between topics. Parker organizes her verses in three large sections—“Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes,” “Field Negro Field Notes,” and “Popular Negro Punchlines”—where each section informs or speaks to the others, and all teem with Parker’s signature abrupt and often surprising humor, putting her extraordinary skills on conspicuous display. “Have you ever felt like a square peg / in a round hole?” Parker asks in “The History of Black People,” the last poem in the first section. “Do you sometimes dream / of a handful of Skittles sprawling on February lawn?”

In the second section’s final poem, she engages again with the progression of time, stressing, “I am only as lonely / as anybody else . . . It isn’t / summertime.”  From “It was Summer Now and the Color People Came Out Into the Sunshine,” the last poem in the book, Parker provides stunningly powerful descriptions of famous black people, past and present in communication and simple acts of overlap: “Martin Luther / King Jr. Boulevard kisses the Band-Aid on Nelly’s cheek. / Frederick Douglass’s side part kisses Nikki Giovanni’s / Thug Life tattoo. The choir is led by Whoopi Goldberg’s / eyebrows. The choir is led by Will Smith’s flat top,” before ending with the deceptively simple, “It is time for war.”

“I worry sometimes I will only be allowed a death story,” Parker says in another poem. Magical Negro is so much more than that.

Tin House.

—Review by Hiba Tahir

MOTHERS OVER NANGARHAR

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MOTHERS OVER NANGARHAR BY PAMELA HART

Pamela Hart’s first book of poetry Mothers Over Nangarhar redirects our attention back to the home and the family that soldiers leave behind during a time of war. This book that is “Somewhere between theory and therapy” according to Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ introduction, toggles between news stories, personal anxieties, and shared fears. In Hart’s poems we hear the voices of mothers, partners, and friends who obsess over the few scraps of information they receive about loved ones halfway across the globe. Many of these poems work in the space of contradictions. Hart describes the usefulness of Kevlar when it comes to conflict at the same time that she points out its blind spots: “there was no Kevlar for heart disease / or her sadness.” The reader is asked to understand a world where the same kind of fibers are used for bulletproof vests and reeds for musical instruments. Not only are the poems situated in the very real concerns of bodily harm and conflict, but they are also deeply thoughtful about what it means for someone they love to be a soldier.

Hart’s poems work like a “contour drawing” that recognizes the disconnect between the object of study and the art that is produced; they never take their gaze off of their subject, but continue to circle the unknown closer and closer. This book feels extremely universal in its ruminations on loss and fear, but also deeply personal: “My pencil working its way into the story if a son.”

Sarabande Books.

—Review by Hannah Bradley

LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD

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LYRIC POETRY IS DEAD BY EZEQUIEL ZAIDENWERG, TRANSLATED BY ROBIN MYERS

So the rumor goes, Lady Lyric is dead. Ezequiel Zaidenwerg reports every way how in his sensation, Lyric Poetry Is Dead, with space for conspiracy theories to report of her sighting and escape. Each poem broadcasts anew; gossips and stirs the pot; one ups and redacts, chronicling narratives interspersed with Argentine history, celebrity and lore. The bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press, translated by Robin Myers, transmits to English the experience of reading Zaidenwerg in Spanish (a worthy feat) and includes drawings by Carmen Amengual and notes from poet and translator alike. The poems all begin in similar ways: “Lyric poetry is dead. Or so they say” but diverge in tone and cadence, and not only in story, so one never tires of reading or grows to expect the next line. There are moments of hilarity, like this one from the poem that opens the book which ends with lyric poetry’s liquidated estate and her properties include an “incredible variety of mirrors.” In other moments, the poem becomes accusatory and gives pause as the reader is charged with murder, and still other poems circumvent death entirely and boast of lyric poetry’s resilience: “but she is alive and she / is always coming back.” Lyric poetry becomes both the vehicle for Zaidenwerg to reimagine many histories and allude to other literary greats, and the poetic subject and star of her own legends. Just so, Lyric Poetry Is Dead is waiting to rise up like Lazarus and delight you over and over again.

Cardboard House Press.

—Review by Madeline Vardell