Samuel Binns




In So Far So Good, a master of the science fiction genre, Ursula K. Le Guin gathers poetry written in the final years of her life and leaves us a valedictory collection rich with wisdom. Here Le Guin paints images of wind, rain, seasons, sleep, darkness, old age and death—across seven sections—and with an omnivorous sense of language, music, and curiosity for the world. The poems are sonorous and spellbinding––flowing with a lingering cadence that echoes deep within the reader.  

Some poems wrestle with the journey and destination of the body and soul: “I think of the journey / we will take together / in the oarless boat / across the shoreless river.” In others, Le Guin yearns toward mysticism: “to your soul I say: / With none to hide from / run now, dance / within the walls / of the great house.” She reflects upon old age and affirms its ramifications, writing that “all earth’s dust / has been life, held soul, is holy,” and commanding the spirit to “rehearse the journeys of the body / that are to come, the motions / of the matter that held you.”

Each poem within So Far So Good is a journey that beckons its readers to set sail, to pay attention, and to flutter in the wind. Le Guin finds delight in the dark mysteries of life and conveys her own experiences with a kind of urgency. Her poems root themselves in the natural world to incite inner transformation: “The world may be as it used to be / but I am altered, I the eye that sees / all half known, half strange as if newborn / and fresh to its mortality.” Just so, Le Guin’s So Far So Good guides us, with dreamlike imagery, through the waters of mortality.

Copper Canyon Press.

— Review by Samuel Binns




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.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns




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.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Samuel Binns




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.

New Directions.

—Review by Samuel Binns