Eleven Poets Recommend New & Recent Collections

Welcome back to The Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, eleven poets write briefly on some of their favorite recently published titles. This multi-poet/title feature is posted here in April and November. Scroll down to read. The commentary includes:

Lisa Russ Spaar

on Honest Engine: Poems by Kyle Dargan (University of Georgia Press)

Joyce Peseroff

on Forbidden City by Gail Mazur (University of Chicago Press)

Evie Shockley

on Olio by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books)

Jennifer Chang

on River House by Sally Keith (Milkweed Editions)

Kathleen Ossip

on Notes on a Past Life by David Trinidad (BlazeVOX)

Erin Belieu

on Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips (Farrar Straus Giroux) and Smote by James Kimbrell (Sarabande Books)

Dean Rader

on LETTERRS by Orlando White (Nightboat Books)

Sally Ball

on Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: INFERNO by Ed Pavlić (Fence Books)

Amanda Nadelberg

on Primitive State by Anselm Berrigan (Edge Books)

Emilia Phillips

on Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Paula Bohince

on Deep Lane by Mark Doty (W.W. Norton)

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Lisa Russ Spaar

Honest Engine: Poems by Kyle Dargan (University of Georgia Press)

“I am a little world made cunningly,” wrote John Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets, “Of elements and an angelic sprite, / But black sin hath betray'd to endless night / My world's both parts, and oh both parts must die.” The speaker in Kyle Dargan’s fourth collection of poems, Honest Engine, a finalist for this year’s Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, wrestles in the aftermath of similar, self-dividing, obliterating and, ultimately, transformative forces — staggering losses (in family, in friendship, in love), crises of self-doubt (as a poet, as a man, as a citizen of the world), and the mesh of racial, political, and gender-related strife that freshly threatens America in our moment.

DarganCover.jpgDargan is one of the most daring, gifted, humble, and honest poets I know. He is, for instance, unafraid to break through the fourth wall of poetry’s artifice by prefacing his collections with an old-fashioned “author’s note.” In the “lobby” piece preceding Honest Engine, for example, Dargan writes forthrightly about the constellation of swift, stunning emotional blows that conspired to shape the poems that follow. “[I]n becoming a survivor,” he writes, “I found myself traversing a territory of time and space in which each day I would find myself encountering some wrinkle of life . . . [and] seeing our human dilemma anew and questioning what can I afford to continue believing. With maturation there is mounting darkness, but I cannot allow it to be all I see.”

In an increasingly mechanized, technologized, digitized, and binary human realm, what is the role of the honest seer? Is dealing fairly, free from deceit, even possible in our complex and often seemingly virtual time? Interestingly, Dargan was planning to major in Engineering before he began to write poetry in earnest as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and it is worth noting that while “engine” (an old word, c. 1300) typically refers to a mechanical device, especially one used in war, further etymological delving reveals the word’s origin in the Latin ingenium, “inborn qualities, talent,” as in ingenious. Dargan’s poems, then, are the “engines” of his truth-speaking. Or, as he puts it in “We / Die Soon,” “This living — to be erect with song, / and then be bent by it.”

Dargan_0.jpgAnd sing he does, in poems ever attuned to the local in apocalypse. What is “home”? a nation (“The Black, the White — this country’s beloved / abstractions” from “O, Bride”)? What does it mean to deceive? To be honest? To believe? To doubt? What does it mean to be a man? A son? A lover? A black man in America, or anywhere?

The poems in Honest Engine step into the roil of these questions with a fierce intelligence matched by stores of humility and compassion, boldly exploring the “point at which good is susceptible / to chaos’ seduction,” where frustration might tip into violence. In “Beastheart,” for example, the narrator struggles with the anger he feels at white friends who suggest that he find love “outside your race.” Dargan’s narrator goes on to address himself, “Has America made / you inhuman for wanting to love someone / like you, birth someone like you?” In “Capture Myopathy,” Dargan writes,

Men are myths of composure. (They’ll banish
a brother who won’t disguise his fear.) How sage

the moustache, how proven the jaw

on a real man, no?

… while the speaker in “Art Project” recounts a year spent inviting any man he encounters who utters the words “I fucked her” to make figurative drawings of what each means by the phrase. “They drew / boulders crushing other boulders / into sand or guns fired point-blank / through panes of ice. . . . // the trend was one of leaving / something marred if not wholly / shattered.” The poem ends:

What if the women are only speaking back
to the easels they see behind male eyes?
Imagine if god had appeared before man
as the self-portrait of a woman. Would they
have listened when she did not sketch
the earth as a body men needed to subdue?

By turns dystopian, optimistic, angry, elegiac, thankful, and drawing on a range of inspiration, from hip-hop artistry to DC comics (Detective Comics / District of Columbia — a coincidence of initials?), from dojo to the Lord’s Prayer, Dargan acknowledges that while none of us is a saint, we are, all of us, children of the universe (“That’s us, / some astronomer gasped” looking down at the pale blue dot of earth in the Voyager’s photograph of earth from space). “Mirror, mirror,” Dargan writes in “Suprematist Sweet Nothings,”

— so many shapes
we become when we see not skin
but our own bald desires grafted
over each other’s soft faces.
Speak your want. Speak my body
into a wind chime — a body
all clanging and imperceptible bones.
Then speak simply
for the sake of breath’s nudging.

[Published April 1, 2015. 96 pages, $16.95 paperback]

Lisa Russ Spaar directs the writing program at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Her most recent poetry collection is Vanitas, Rough. She writes about second books of poems for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Joyce Peseroff

Forbidden City by Gail Mazur (University of Chicago Press)

Forbidden City is Gail Mazur’s seventh book of poems, and at its devastating, honest, and luminous center is the loss of her husband, the artist Michael Mazur. Freud wrote about the way we bow to grief, noting that “It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us.” Mazur examines her response to desolation with unsparing meticulousness. The results are poems that expand our understanding of the consolation of nature, the miracles of art, and the power of imagination.

The book begins with the title poem, and its first lines introduce the reader to everything at stake: “Asleep until noon, I’m dreaming / we’ve been granted another year. // You’re here with me, healthy.” The speaker sleeps the morning away, dream-life the only bearable life. It’s where she hears her husband’s voice: “Time is the treasure, you tell me, / and the past is its hiding place.” How will the poet find her way, alone, into a future that loss has made so bleak? This is the book’s narrative and drama.

MazurColor_0.jpegMazur has written about the world’s natural splendor in lines vivid with color and texture, but in these poems the powers of nature diminish. In “We Swam to an Island of Bees,” the “…forbidding little island” that Mazur “heard the Wampanoag called Get Off It,” is snarled with “thorns and poisonous leaves,” but holds “nothing in that/first chapter of our life that stung.” Gathered with friends to watch a night-blooming Cereus open in “At Dusk, in the Yard,” Mazur, alone, observes “…the spiky white petals / lifting slowly from their homely bud.” At midnight -- “the luscious bud half-open”-- she goes home before “I’d have seen the golden starburst’s / withered casing,/ pale ghostly vessel of the night’s spectacular.” Nature’s briars may not scratch much, but neither can its “ethereal glory” completely console.

The power of art offers Mazur some respite from debilitating sorrow. “My Studio” rings with the repetition of one long vowel sound linking “True Value” with “blew” and “do,” “bamboo” with “view” and “hullabaloos” -- all the “oohs” that accompany unrestrained tears. Some words punctuate the end of a line, other rhymes are internal, but all sound as natural and imperative as a stone bounced to the bottom of a deep well. At the end of the poem, the writer places herself “… still at my desks, it’s all I can do/here in our little dream house at dusk/when the bay turns lavender, without you.”

But it’s the imagination — always exact, sometimes antic -- that offers possible relief. In “Elephant Memory,” the appearance of a colossal beast on Mass Ave – “this sudden elephantine apparition, / this unlikely hallucination”-- creates, like Elizabeth Bishop’s moose, wonder and awe. The LPs, Deco pottery, and Bakelite boxes in “Things,” like the objects in “Crusoe in England,” reek of meaning; Mazur’s litany ends with “Your steel tool-case with molded grooves to fit / each mystifying tool…” and “Art — the walls, the closets, the flat files-- / humming its demanding song. Or not just demanding, generous /….”

MazurCover_0.jpgMazur braids together art, imagination, and the natural world in “On Jane Cooper’s ‘The Green Notebook’.” Mazur has always written deftly about how thinking feels; here she performs, stanza by stanza, the ways both understanding and feeling evolve through language. Her close reading of Cooper’s poem is dramatic, posing a series of questions, including, “Is there wistfulness in her voice?” “Greenness is all. / But is it all?” The knot at the poem’s center is a quotation from Cooper: “It seems I am on the edge/of discovering the green notebook containing all the poems of my life, / I mean the ones I never wrote….” “Rueful, a melancholy idea,” Mazur writes; “Annihilating.” As one poet identifies with the other, parsing the potential of a life’s work “unwritten,” Mazur’s responses guide the reader to adjust, backtrack, counter, and affirm an ever-deepening involvement with both as sensual, feeling, uncertain human beings. Nature green and hot, the music of Haydn, and “The life of the artist, the life of making” —“surely,” Mazur concludes, they are “ongoing.”

In Forbidden City, Mazur struggles to find a way to live in time while the wellspring of her life exists outside it. Though the journey through grief is endless, in “Morning Letter,” she’s up and writing, not lost in sleep; the last line of “Grief,” the collection’s final poem, includes in its conditional future tense the possibility “that in black ink my love may still shine bright.” The book includes an elegy for Alan Dugan which is possibly the best poem ever written about a committee meeting, and one about the pain of reading “awful poems late at night.” In its passion and invention, line by line, Forbidden City reveals Gail Mazur as an artist writing at the height of her powers.

[Published April 25, 2016. 70 pages, $18.00 paperback]

Joyce Peseroff’s new book of poems is Know Thyself, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston where she directed the MFA program during its first four years.

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Evie Shockley

Olio by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books)

I don’t want to overstate the case, but there is no way around it: Tyehimba Jess’s Olio is a tour de force. It is as inventive and ambitious a collection as I have seen in years; formally dazzling, well researched, and beautifully choreographed. The cover design tells you — right up front — a couple things you need to know about Olio: first, that this book is partly about the trickiness and unreliability of vision and, second, that there’s more than one way to read many of the poems found within. That these two aspects of the book are related is no coincidence. Olio tells us a story, made up of many interlocking stories, about African American life, history, and culture from the waning days of slavery into the moment when the New Negro Renaissance was taking shape — and the mask of minstrelsy is the visual image and cultural trope that carries us through. The cover, with its three O’s suggesting the eyes and mouth of an abstracted face, sets up that theme with subtlety and humor.

JessCover_0.jpgThis collection, however, is as much about sound as it is sight. The elusive central figure of Olio is Scott Joplin, whose influential rags show up throughout the book as often as his name, though he never speaks directly. We come to understand him and his genius through a series of interviews with people who knew him, collected by one Julius Monroe Trotter, a young, war-scarred man whose mother played the “rags” for him during his childhood, impressing upon him “that here was our voice unlocked from the keys. Our voice hammered on the strings,” in Joplin’s syncopated music. These interviews, which function like extended prose poems in two voices, have some of the most evocative descriptions of music and musicianship you could ask for. Ms. Della Marie Jenkins, Joplin’s nurse in his last weeks, facilitated his final performance, which took place in the hospice’s great room: a “raggedy” ragtime, “loose in some parts and painful tight in others. Heard a cakewalk in there,” she claims, “but then the walk started to lean too hard and got drunk off its own sway.” Another pianist, John William “Blind” Boone, with whom Joplin appears to have had a friendly rivalry going for years, spoke of hearing Joplin at the piano in his hotel room one evening, “playing a storm” — not “playing up a storm,” the conventional figure of speech, but creating a sonic “cyclone,” an emotional tempest — sounding as if “he was inside that piano, fighting to get out from between the strings and hammers, and at the same time . . . fighting his way inside the music.” For all their lyrical language, the interviews give us only fragments of insight into Joplin’s life, much as his compositions do. Our racism-ravaged history has swallowed him nearly whole; we can see him only insofar as we can hear him, or hear about him, secondhand.

Joplin.jpegTrotter’s quest to capture Joplin’s deeply moving story, in other words, succeeds in failing, or despite failing; in the process it serves as one of the book’s two through-lines. The rangy series of prose poem interviews is complemented by nothing less tightly constructed than a heroic crown of sonnets in the voices — individually and collectively — of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Beginning with the poem entitled “Fisk Jubilee Proclamation” (“O, sing . . . undo the world with blued song / born from newly free throats. Sprung loose from lungs / once bound within bonded skin”), the crown collects the origin stories of the original members of the choir. One woman, Eliza Walker, learned to sing by listening to her mother’s “woolen hum” and “blazing hymns,” which kept her family warm through cold, antebellum winters; Greene Evans learns “to bellow [his] . . . almighty light” in the tradition of biblical Joshua’s horn and the “Union bugles,” “tearing down Jericho’s walls” once and again. The Jubilee Singers’ triumphant cultural, political, and economic work, “hauling hand-me-down hymns ‘cross every nation’s / heart,” makes a powerful and telling counterpoint to the part-redemption/ part-declension narrative we get about Joplin and his secular music.

With this double-helix serving as the book’s spine, Jess weaves around it seven sections of poems featuring a variety of additional African American figures from the realm of Civil War-, Reconstruction-, and post-Reconstruction-era culture —popular and literary — and a few contemporary and future white Americans who are their owners and their shadows, their antagonists and their interlocutors. Those who are fans of Jess’s earlier collection Leadbelly will be glad to discover that his double-voiced poems are back, in the form of “syncopated sonnets.” In this form, we encounter the intertwined voices of conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy:

Here — this is our story I want you to hear —
our own duet. Listen to how we’re boundin unison. Listen to the grace we have
-- one body crooning two notes. By God, we’re
like sympathetic strings. Each sung soundringing within me and my other half.

In these opening lines of “Millie-Christine’s Love Story,” Millie’s b rhymes diverge, visually and sonically, from her sister’s, even as they share the a rhymes — and, moreover, a third poem emerges when you read right across the caesuras that divide lines two and four. As “freaks of nature,” they traveled the same entertainment circuits as other performers Jess’s poetry evokes, including Bert Williams and George Walker (the wildly successful black blackface minstrels who billed themselves as “Two Real Coons”), Sissieretta Jones (operatic singer), and “Blind” Tom Wiggins (another preternaturally gifted pianist). Other cultural figures with more complicated relationships to minstrelsy’s mask also have their say, also sometimes speaking at or through one another. For example, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington cohabitate in a “double-shovel” (a variation upon the “golden shovel” form created by Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks); Jess anchors this poem with piercing lines from Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” Meanwhile, Henry “Box” Brown, who famously mailed himself North in a crate, takes up residence in “Freedsong” poems that pointedly echo and revise several of John Berryman’s Dream Songs, haunted by and haunting Berryman’s Henry (aka “Mr Bones”). As with the central sequences on Joplin and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, we learn in these sections’ poems what factors and forces pushed the various figures onto the road and the stage, and what life in the spotlight was like for them. Pain and loss are steadfast attendants of these narratives, even after emancipation and the end of the war — no surprise to anyone who has studied the Nadir, as post-Reconstruction America is sometimes called. Jess underscores the witness in the poems with a huge table of lynching statistics and “rationales” and, further, offers a muted, but disturbing, recurring roll call of black churches that have suffered violent racist attacks, spanning from 1822 to the present.

Jess.jpgI have barely scratched the surface of this thick testament, which is packed with surprising language, information, and poetics. Olio is a long but never tiresome poetic performance that demonstrates what Jess has learned from the lives and art of the mesmerizing, death-defying performers who come (back) to life in his poems. This book was about ten years in the making, and it shows, in the painstaking craft, the rich mix of diction, and the thematic coherence. Jess is a blues musician himself, and his knowledge and love of the black musical tradition irradiates this work from beginning to end. Should I conclude without mentioning the fold-out/tear-out pages? Or the many directions in which you can read some of these poems (e.g., top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, diagonally, interstitially)? Should I stress that this book is an amazing way to learn some important history? Should I remind you that everything that’s true is not fact? Or should I just stop here, so you can go chase down your copy of Olio now?

[Published April 5, 2016. 235 pages, $25.00 paperback]

Evie Shockley is the author of the new black and a half-red sea (poetry collections), as well as the critical book Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

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Jennifer Chang

River House by Sally Keith (Milkweed)

In River House, Sally Keith writes about, through, and around the death of her mother, but she bypasses the conventions of elegy – lament, memorializing, and consolation – to explore that fraught and most mundane aspect of mourning, living after loss. Broken into sixty-three sections of fifteen or sixteen lines that are further broken down into tercets, couplets, and single lines, the fragmentary construction of River House belies the ambitious expansion of Keith’s book-length poem, which meditates on the “shape of a year.” That year is unspecified, at once containing the mother’s death and leaping back into distant and recent pasts and then ever forward to a vague present, suggesting how grief cheats the clock. Consequently, the mother’s death sparks the memory of the earlier death of a grandfather and of a friendship in Spain with a woman whose own loss imbues her with wisdom the poet receives skeptically. Keith is a skeptical poet, attentive to how meanings diffuse. Meeting her wonder with a healthy dose of doubt, she writes of time’s open form: “A year is a circle / If not a point around which experience spirals.” River House abounds with such restless intellectual energy, hazarding explanations only to gently resist them.

About her project, she writes:

I know the two sides
Of writing poems after people you love who are gone.

At home from my window the night sky angles oddly.
You cannot see this if the blinds are closed.
If the blinds are open the neighbors can see in.

As always there are two distinct groups,
The one that cares and the one that does not.

I like light. Otherwise, I think of myself in the middle.

Here, knowledge gives way to observation and then to self-reflection. The poet-speaker must weigh being in a world that now “angles oddly” against exposing too much of herself, blinds open. There is no easy solution, and the mind in action in passages like these exposes Keith’s grief as a kind of quiet philosophical devastation. “What kind of metamorphosis is death: beautiful or utilitarian?” she asks.

Keith.jpgBeautiful and utilitarian would justly describe River House. The title refers to a family house on the Rappahannock River that becomes unnecessary after the mother’s death. Cleaning the house out, and then letting it go, emphasizes the materiality of loss — the body gone, the family diminished —, but it illuminates how the emotional power of houses and mothers rests in part on their symbolic nature. What is a family without a house, without a mother? How does one live without the material form and the affirmative symbol of either? The clarity of Keith’s uncomplicated language serves the vastness of her inquiry, and ultimately River House reaches far beyond mere meditation to invite the reader into this inquiry:

One world leads into another without introduction.

“The tiniest fragment is the entire mirror,” writes Lispector,
“Remove it from the frame and it spreads like spilling water.”

Loss of dimension, the year turns and there isn’t a seam.

In lines that seem newly sprung and extemporaneous, Keith eliminates the seams between memory, observation, and thought, and finally between living and dying.

In his introduction to her first book, Design, Allen Grossman identified Keith as a poet of experience. This continues to be true in her fourth book; however, rather than constructing a body of knowledge or a narrative, experience now alights on immediacy and is sensual, fleeting, and citational:

Enter whatever is loud. Metaphors for desire are old.

In the opening poems of Anne Carson’s Decreation
She addresses her mother, “Love of my life.”

Drag of the sea returned to the earth in a crash.
Beware of the rocks, beware of the sun.

KeithCover.jpgWhere these lines occur and what happens in them are questions that diminish the ambient intelligence at play here, whereby “whatever is loud” is also provisional. Keith’s citations aren’t rigorously curated, and this roving dispersion of voices conveys her own doubt in putting an experience of loss into language. Thus, the section ends with a sly act of avoidance, “My mother appears to me again in a dream. / The sea doesn’t care how heavy you are.” The poet does not indulge in the details of the dream, only in the recurrence of dreaming. But the mastery of Keith’s River House is in her beautiful yet troubling resignation that grief recurs, even when a loss is singular: “Why do we spend our lives naming / And re-naming the simplest human experience?”

[Published April 21, 2015. 96 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Jennifer Chang's second book of poems, Some Say the Lark, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in 2017. She teaches at George Washington University and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Kathleen Ossip

Notes on a Past Life by David Trinidad (BlazeVOX)

David Trinidad’s most recent book is a chronicle of his time living in New York, spanning the 1990s with a couple of extra years at each end and one section of flashbacks. It’s a setting that now seems as distant as O’Hara’s jazzed midcentury metropolis does, and like O’Hara, Trinidad contributes to mythmaking. But in this book, the speaker eventually takes the role of anti-O’Hara, peering behind the glamour of life in the quintessential city of strivers to reveal its harshness and loneliness. In the beginning, though, he moves from Los Angeles with high hopes and ends up meeting James Schuyler, who becomes an important influence and mentor:

— …“A quiet smoke in
a taxi is my idea of bliss,” says Jimmy
in “A Few Days.” Now I understand why.
There’s nothing like it: speeding down
Second Avenue late at night, hardly any traffic,
hitting — if the driver times it just right —
only the green and yellow lights
all the way from the Upper East Side
to Alphabet City.

People here take me
seriously when I say
I’m a poet. They
don’t crack jokes
like they do in L.A.

That alone makes
me think I might stay.

TrinidadCover.jpgHe did stay, and Notes on a Past Life tells the story of what happens to him there; more precisely, who he meets. Trinidad has always been one of the best poets of friendship, another similarity with O’Hara. There’s no denying that the fact that we know the names, and perhaps even know in person some of the friends, lovers, elders, frenemies, and nemeses Trinidad namechecks in the book adds a charge. Still, the passion this speaker and his author invest in his friends and the precision with which he characterizes them feel romantic (and Romantic). Here are some lines about Trinidad’s friend Elaine Equi, where the relationship is solidified by a love-token:

Then in the year 1988, as ordained
by the stars, we both, unbeknownst
to each other, made plans,
to move to New York in July.
One of the first things I did after I arrived
was make a beeline for your building
on Mulberry Street. I couldn’t breathe
I was so excited, waiting for the doorman
to announce me, couldn’t believe we were together—
knew our friendship would flourish
in this hot, dirty, fast-paced place
where I hoped to broaden my experiences and my art.
You gave me, as a welcome gift,
your copy of
The Crystal Lithium,
the only Schuyler I didn’t own.
Such a generous gesture—
the book was long out of print
and impossible, pre-Internet, to find—
I’ve never forgotten it.

Objects always have the sheen of significance in Trinidad’s work, and an object associated with a poetic idol is infinitely precious.

When friendships and intimate relationships go sour, as several do in this book, disappointment is proportionately stormy. It may be uncomfortable for some readers to encounter the anger and hurt expressed in the book towards beloved poets. For me, a poetry that expresses emotions heretofore deemed unacceptable or inarticulable about his chosen, his given subject is an urgent and compelling poetry:

Ira was incensed when N,
poet turned novelist, tried
to pitch his manuscript to
him at Cookie Mueller’s
funeral. As was I when
I heard that O, without a
doubt the most successful
poet in America, said about
P, one of his closest friends
(and his better), “Yes, but
he didn’t go to Harvard.”

My favorite poets are those who create their own idioms, going beyond style to hone and perfect the instantly recognizable blend of diction and vocabulary that we call a voice. I place Trinidad in this category, although it’s easy to overlook the fact because of his lack of flash, his purposefully direct use of language to narrate, clear to the point of transparency. The lack of flash is the point: the default effect is honesty without reaching for grandiose “truth.” The sound this voice produces is utterly contemporary yet I want to predict that it’s also incapable of ever becoming dated. It’s the sound of lucid, shapely sentences wrapped around lines that aspire neither to grandeur nor slang and, through their clarity, foreground content. I find something moving in this poet’s resistance to the usual poetic tricks of elision and rhetoric; it seems to go hand-in-hand with a commitment to honor the individual lived life and interior experience on planet Earth, of which we each get only one (wild and precious), as far as we know. I’d venture to say that no contemporary poet has narrated more of his social, interior, and artistic life within the pages of his work.

TrinidadBW.jpgNo one talks much anymore about the vitality of narrative in poetry. Rare is the volume of poetry that has the profluence and momentum of good fiction; it’s a quality that is hard to convey in a few isolated quotations. “Show, don’t tell,” the teachers of poetry say, but storytelling is a special kind of telling, and it stays news. Notes on a Past Life is, in its own way, an epic: the hero, pure in heart but not above flaws like envy, timidity, resentment, arrives in the enchanted kingdom, faces the dragon but does not slay it; instead, he retreats, wiser and with a newfound, hard-won self-knowledge. (Trinidad moved to Chicago after 9/11, an event documented in a long poem of that name.) The final section of the book is called “Leaving New York” and the penultimate poem, “After Allen,” catalogues (a classic Trinidad strategy) everything he has “left out.” The section expands the cast of characters exponentially and is characteristically full of wonderful moments; it ends with Trinidad turning his moralist’s eye on himself, regretting a dinner where he snubbed Lita Hornick: “It’s no excuse but I was in such a wounded place.” After she died, he later included her poem “White Mink” in an anthology he edited. Finally he concludes:

“Does this,” I asked Lita in spirit, “make up for my slight?”

Came her answer: I am wearing my new white mink tonight.

[Published February 11, 2016. 238 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Kathleen Ossip’s most recent book is The Do-Over, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She teaches at The New School and is editor of SCOUT (scoutpoetry.com), a poetry review website.

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Erin Belieu

Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips (Farrar Straus Giroux) and Smote by James Kimbrell (Sarabande Books)

Reconnaissance is Carl Phillips’s twelfth poetry collection since his first, In The Blood, appeared to a chorus of critical praise in 1992. There is real pleasure in Phillips’s prolific ethic, as this consistency has allowed him to construct for his readers a fully furnished, three-dimensional world with his poems.

Phillips_0.jpgPhillips refines -- and refines again -- his larger project and preoccupations. These most often concern the abiding tension he finds between the ideal of the sacred and the realpolitik of the corporeal. This happy level of production is uncommon to most major poets. Would that we all were all this good, this often.

In his latest collection, the materials of Phillips’s specific universe appear as now companionable figures that have populated the landscapes in some of his previous books. These familiars — like the stag (here “bloated,” fly-riddled, “found strangled, say, among the reeds…”; various birds (especially lovely, the snowy owl “becoming steadily indistinguishable/from the winter sand in twilight…”); bodies of water as personified actors (in this case, rivers who tell “...the usual lies that water, lately/can hardly wait to begin singing about…) — all share the metaphysical weight of Phillips’s deep historical connection to the pastoral, the allegoric and mythic, those modes from which Phillips has long drawn creative sustenance.

Which is not to say Reconnaissance is indistinct from Phillips’s previous collections. It very much stands on its own, adding another specifically considered, idiosyncratic layer to the terra firma of Phillips’s world making.

Because while some of Phillips’s materials remain steady over time, the mind operating upon them is, as always in this poet’s case, essentially restive, nuanced to a purposeful extremity, unwilling to let anything slide, when less disciplined and committed observers would likely exhaust themselves with so much exact and unflinching consideration. I can’t think of another poet writing today who captures the (wonderfully) excruciating gradations between states of being that Phillips does with his work.

And there’s the brilliant syntax, of course; that gearshift method of progressing through a poem that readers now recognize as his distinct signature. Phillips’s syntax movement has always been notably complex, frequently extended past the reader’s comfort zone, the sentence occasionally appended and drawn out to such lengths the pleasure comes from the waiting, in wondering how and when this poet will allow you to finish.

PhillipsCover_0.jpgThe erotic charge of the poems’ sentences isn’t accidental, as so much of Reconnaissance has to do specifically with the roles of master and submissive, and how that energy exists on a fulcrum between bodily and spiritual intimates. And really, what’s more intimate than reading a poem? In Reconnaissance, Phillips’s style is slightly looser tonally, a little more straightforward than in past, even neighborly in its conversation on occasion. And yet the syntax correspondingly risks even greater layers of well-timed withholding than in some earlier collections. Take “The Length Of The Field” by way of example:

In the stories it’s different: grief
like the dark lifts, eventually —
an abandonment inside which, with all
the clarity of bells when for once they
ring like nothing but the ringing bells
they are, it can seem that at last you’ve

gotten away with something, like
a horse you’ve stolen that, now lighter
than ash on a sudden wind, or any wind,
at all, takes the length of the field, but
as if bewildered, almost, any man
for whom to have trusted too easily

has merely meant disappointment,
not disaster, and the long
longing-in-vain for that moment when
either one could have been the other
starts to stir a little, slowly it unfurls itself,
its languorous disease, inside him.

Which is to say, given the horse’s appearance here, whoa. That’s a hell of a sentence to ride while hoping to keep your seat.

And yet Phillips unfurls this extended operation with no fuss, no stylistic preciousness. The thought and language here are completely available. Phillips has grown comfortable with the demands he makes of his reader, and the poems in Reconnaissance radiate with the confidence of a voice — teacher, lover, and supplicant -- that’s used to being obeyed.

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Many of the poems in James Kimbrell’s fine and lively new collection, Smote, seem to engage directly with the landmark essay poet Major Jackson wrote for the American Poetry Review in 2007. In “A Mystifying Silence: Big And Black,” Jackson addresses the need for America’s white poets to engage with issues of race in their work, pointing out that a one-sided conversation is no conversation at all. Jackson states:

… in a country whose professed strength is best observed in its plurality of cultures, what seems odd to me…is the dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues, that chronicle our struggle as a democracy to find tranquility and harmony as a nation containing many nations…And without that complete, wide-ranging and far-reaching racial dialogue as a literary and cultural legacy reflected in our poetry, discussions of race and ethnicity will forever be a spectator sport.

KimbrellCover.jpgKimbrell, a poet born in 1967, and raised in the tiny town of Leakesville, Mississippi, hails more specifically from the financially busted arm of an educated and successful family who, the poems recount without a stitch of self-pity or obfuscation, ran hard and head first into some bad choices and worse luck. The poet is also, as the poem “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi” identifies, a man of Scots-Irish, and Lebanese descent.

Throughout Smote, the nebulous boundaries of the speaker’s assumed whiteness, and the degree to which his own experience of his less-than-whiteness does or doesn’t count, add an interesting layer of complication to the collection’s recurring consideration of race as a construct. In “Pluto’s Gate,” Kimbrell-as-speaker recounts drinking at a supper club in tony, literary Oxford where he begins by passing himself as the successful (and therefore defacto white) hometown boy made good — “I appear to be a full-on rich guy…“my fancy wristwatch / my roadster / both used both fast as hell…” But his initial intention to appear both more and less to the town’s elite is willfully self-derailed when the speaker can’t help but tweak a local maven with the information that one of Ole Miss’s most beloved leaders —former chancellor Robert Khayat -- is of Middle Eastern descent, too:

“No hell! No he ain’t she says
nearly hysterical in her insistence that
no prez of ol mizz
could be a sandnigger

The book is full of scathing and equally affectionate portraits that reveal the junk-yard ugly intersections between race and class. Kimbrell directly acknowledges the privileges inherent in the appearance of whiteness, but illustrates just how thin the margins of that privilege get when there’s no money to keep up the illusion.

Kimbrell.jpgFor all of Smote’s honest consideration of such charged issues, for all its elegiac gracefulness, Kimbrell remains an especially fun poet to read. He has a wonderfully clear eye for our daily absurdities and hypocrisies, a brilliant and disciplined ear, and is one of our tightest storytellers in the lyric narrative vein. Poems like “Ode: Feeling Up My Friend’s Sister At The Moment Their Drunken Father Begins The Dog Slaughter,” “Heuristic for the Nearsighted,” and “Free Checking!” promise the reader a good quantity of dramatic energy and wry, dark humor, promises Kimbrell more than keeps throughout this smart, penetrating, and frequently funny collection.

[Reconnaissance published September 1, 2015, 50 pages, $23.00 hardcover. Smote published October 13, 2015, 88 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Erin Belieu’s most recent book of poems is Slant Six (2014, Copper Canyon). She co-founded VIDA: Women in Literary Arts with Cate Marvin and teaches at Florida State University.

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Dean Rader

LETTERRS by Orlando White (Nightboat Books)

Orlando White’s beguiling second collection of poems is entitled LETTERRS. For those of you keeping track at home, there’s an extra R in the title.

Or not.

The italicized portion of White’s title suggests errancy — perhaps even the glorious permission to err. “To err is human,” wrote Pope, but, then again, he never won a spelling bee.

Indeed, to err is, in fact, human, and to be human is to engage in language, and to engage in language is to engage in silence. LETTERRS lives in the spaces created and abandoned by letters themselves. Literally. Part interrogation, part meditation, White’s anthology of utterance explores the relationship between sound and silence, text and context, presence and absence. All writing is a marriage of the marked and unmarked, an interplay of the space of semiotics and those spaces left blank. What is more present, White might ask, text or absence of text?

White sets the stage for this mode of discourse with the provocative “Nascent,” the book’s opening poem. Not surprisingly, the beginning begins with the beginning:

It begins at a diacritical sparkof breathand soma.

Vowel stressnasal enunciationthe tenors of existence.

White.jpgI believe we are (and are not) supposed to wonder about what the “it” is. On one hand it is the poem of course, on the other, speech. But, in both Genesis 1 and John 1, the word is the alpha that births the omega and everything in between. White’s interest in the interpenetration of speaking and writing is particularly intriguing. The diacritical connotes text but breath suggests speech. Both are markers of the human, but only one is visible. The other is invisible. Audible, of course, so present but unseen. White seems to be arguing that poetry works its magic in both ear and eye as well as silence and pause.

White established his interest in the verbal and the visual in the magnificent Bone Light, his debut collection. Both books traffic in the semiotics of letters. For example, a sequence of poems in LETTERRS walks (writes?) the reader through the first segment of the alphabet with titles like “a,” “b,” “c,” “d,” and so on up through “h” where the letter poems stop, at least for the time being at a poem called “WHIT” which acknowledges its letterness:

There’s a silence on paper that does not require ears only the reverberation

of a page turning —

She asks, so how does it feel to be a letter?

She waits for him to notice her.She is exclamation-like

but upended,her feet tiptoeing,

balleticin her black tutu;

scurrying dashes of inkcalligraphic, as if quill pen

on parchmentannotating solicitude.

One of the many things I like about this poem is that it practices formally what it evokes thematically. There is a silence on this paper (or this screen) in the many lacunae, which is as balanced and energetic as the words they encircle. I also admire the high mix of play and inquiry. I would love so much to know what it feels like to be a letter. My guess is, X is the happiest; Q the crankiest. A the most arrogant; W the most confused. But, this poem, likely an homage to “i”, the opposite of an exclamation point, makes me think that “i” may be one of the most underrated letters, along with “j,” “i’s” fraternal twin.

WhiteCover.jpgNo poet makes me think about letters like White, who is Diné (Navajo) of the Naaaneesht’ézhi Tabaahí. In fact, just typing the previous sentence required me to think about letters in a way I never done before, and, most likely that you haven’t either. For White, English is the language of the colonizer, the settler, the oppressor, the eradicator. “How does a letter disjoin itself / when it imprisons its self?” asks White in “Dissociate.” “how does a letter become another when its origin / is lost?” asks the same poet in “g.” The answer, at least to the latter question, is “It develops by always being written.” For White, Writing poems in English may or may not be a similar gesture to writing Naaaneesht’ézhi Tabaahí. The letters are the same but the power they carry, the currents of the culture they are charged with, feel different.

LETTERRS is one of the most provocative books of poems I’ve read in a long time. It is experimental but lyrical, disjunctured but strangely harmonious, heady but endearing. I would say that the entire book is a love letter to letters, but I’m afraid that would come off as a bad joke. Instead, I’ll say that the book is a psalm to letter, language, and love. Maybe also life.

Halfway through the poem “n” — one of my favorites — the poem goes meta:

Write, means to

place life


Definitely life.

[Published May 5, 2015. 96 pages, $17.95 paperback]

Dean Rader’s Works & Days was awarded the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn) was named a Barnes & Noble Review Best Poetry Book of the Year. Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry is forthcoming in 2017 from Copper Canyon. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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Sally Ball

Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: INFERNO by Ed Pavlić (Fence Books)

Ed Pavlić’s Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: INFERNO occupies both regions of our contemporary ambivalence about the lyric, offering what Chris Nealon might call “the consolation of the lyric,” and also recognizing the drawbacks of what we have come to think of as lyric presumptuousness.

Ruminating on privacy and exposure, Pavlić writes:

And, by lyric, I mean somehow invisibly and inaudibly… fluent, and by lyric I mean to know that, if this is true for me, for us, it’s true for many.

This passage is immediately followed by a fragment of Beckett, “the mirage of union" hovering like a conscience as the page breaks.

Invisibly and inaudibly fluent: lyric experience feels to the reader like it arrives prior to consciousness, flush with intuition; we love to call it “identification” and we love the sense of connection and understanding that it provides. Or: we want to, we used to, but we are also too keenly aware of the likely profile of that presumed unified self (a white guy) to trust lyric experience anymore. We are, as readers and writers, disinclined to err into an imaginary universality. We (Wait: we who?!) want a more inclusive poetry and we want to dismantle the old presumptions about who “one” is, about who is reading, thinking, living, alongside the poem as it unfolds. I think this is partly why Claudia Rankine’s two most recent books have been subtitled “An American Lyric”: the subtitle hopes for connection, evinces Rankine’s faith in the poem as handshake (Rankine quoting Celan —) where two distinct presences meet.

PavlicCover.jpgPavlić’s habitation of these regions (consolation, union, skepticism) is marked by his “meaning to know” and the if that follows. “I mean to know that, if this is true for me, for us, it’s true for many.” The poems in this collection believe in our capacity to see the same things, and they marvel at the ways in which we miss each other. (Teaching a class of thirty non-black students in Georgia (a state that is 40% black) the speaker of this same poem registers that these students almost all grew up in Georgia and none of them knows the “black national anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing, “the anthem of a kind of nation.” “Apartheid,” he says. And then, “I hear sky and waste.”) Pavlić’s desire to know that if something is true for one, it’s true for many, is the opposite of an imposition. It comes out of an intense humility, empathy, and an intellectually rigorous will toward mutual understanding.

For him, poems come from the capacities for communication that we haven’t lost (see the lovely “Phoneme Death,” on how (from birth onward) our auditory sensitivity diminishes in range and nuance). “In a poem, a kind of music happens, and we see ourselves, somehow, through the blindness of others.” I think he means ‘via’ the blindness of others, because we are all blind, all falling far away from our deepest perceptiveness all the time, but also I am struck that poems help us to see ourselves through, as in successfully endure, the blindness of others, and our own.

Pavlic_0.jpgPavlić’s lyric space is sometimes crisp, anchored by narrative, direct, accessible. He recounts (in poems whose titles all include the word ‘verbatim’) a local incident of police violence and its racial implications, a professional trip to Palestine, and a family-heritage journey into the icy mountains of Croatia. Also, though, the poems can be looser, more elliptical. He works in prose, in lines, sometimes jazz-inflected and sometimes borne along by engagements with Beckett, Coltrane, Calvino, Baldwin, Barthes. Or Eric Holder, or a distant relative of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He riffs, he leaps, he swirls in associative vortices: the poems ricochet. “[The self] a chart of echoes, irregular. And barriers. We’re scattered in ricochets.” We are all made of (and wounded by) where we’ve been, what we’ve heard and seen and read. The ricochet is not only metaphorical, a way of referring to the ‘motifs’ or chimes or recurrences here, but also it’s a bullet. “I think how much in our bodies, our action, our syntax is somewhere, simulated-somehow somewhere gunfire.”

Early on, the poems suggest that “if we watch with vision densed down and so slower than the speed of light, the velocity of media, we’ll gain traces of the actual — as opposed to elliptical — shape of that office.” Pavlić is referring to the Oval Office but also this is the way-of-looking the poems generally employ: densed down. The “Let’s let” of the title recurs across the manuscript, calling toward the future: and “let’s” is what we say when we believe in union (as more than a mirage). Let’s let some densed down looking lead us out of our infernos —

[Published November 10, 2015, 96 pages, $15.95 paperback. National Poetry Series].

Sally Ball is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University and an associate director of Four Way Books. She is the author of Annus Mirabilis and Wreck Me, both from Barrow Street.

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Amanda Nadelberg

Primitive State by Anselm Berrigan (Edge Books)

What is the difference between a tweet and a bumper sticker? (Answer: the Internet) And what is the difference between those two things and lines in a poem? (Answer: not much, I say, for the better.) Anselm Berrigan’s Primitive State is a gorgeous arrangement of accumulation that produces wildly generative experiences of reading. I said it. Goodbye, cat; goodbye bag!

Halfway through the collection, which is composed of one to two to eight-line stanzas (are they stanzas?) I heard the phantom of Joe Brainard’s I Remember. This, like that, is a list poem, or a series of lines that look like a list poem (the unit of the line is extreme here, as in sports or pizza). Suddenly I found myself reading backwards, too (and again), searching for the Brainard cue at the start of a line—and there it was every few pages—an in one glorious instance the inability to remember—I guess I’d missed them initially in the warm cadence of aphorism and jokes and imperatives and unpredictable shapes of a narrative. Here are some examples of what the stream does:

The female:male guardian ratio in Washington Square Park’s playground makes for long betting odds

… deemed unbearable …

Blue ink meets shrinking brain at no-way intersection

When the reading ended everyone in the room huddled up and jumped in sync for several seconds

I travel great distances riding the blown leaf

It’s about reciprocity of indistinction disguised as abject loneliness


In between fantasies he blamed his problems on nostalgia’s skyway

Every food item in the area cost a dollar more when we came back home

I remember making myself puke

Surveillance stopped being an issue once we all agreed to be seen

The kind of tune that demands an expressionless face shimmy

In my bath of many colors


I don’t control the music, or the atmosphere, or the noise level, or the selection of beverage, or the lighting, but I do control the entry, the aura, the atomized purveyance of dignity, the disheveled slope of coat on floor and table, the breaking of the sketch book’s spine in mutual wonder

I remember the photo, but not when it was taken

…revenue’s rolling stone ain’t being folly’s friend, a blue’s source, oh great baste, see it coming, that perfect alternate opening next opening…

Barren lounge with optional equipment

A blue screaming head, an example of income loyalty, fills the screen

Initially, the Brainard phantom rang quietly — testing whether a line could have an “I remember” at the beginning of it — and then that ping! had the happy effect of propelling me to re-read the line many times over, trying on the language with the spirit of Brainard and without, assessing the ghost of difference. This felt natural, not some (rude) form of editing a book after it has been printed but instead a form of familiarity, a form of flexible reading, which are some of the many generosities in Berrigan’s book.

Berrigan.jpgAll of this flexibility also leads to questions of order. Does order matter? And is there ever a decent way to ask this? Maybe not, but I appreciate books that let us ask it (for instance, I’m reminded of the way C.D. Wright spoke about arranging lines of Deepstep Come Shining on large sheets of paper on the walls of an art studio to make that poem’s order). Of course there’s an order because the book demonstrates one, but the very question of the procession and flexibility of the non sequitur lines implies and creates formidable participation on the reader’s part. This book could begin at any spot, and where — beyond delight, you might ask — is the order in that? How good it reads to be immersed in something that points toward the limits and imperfections of a bound object — could this book be lines in a zip-lock bag instead, I wondered.

BerriganCover.jpgCompounding lines of found language and notes to self, as well as to neighbors of humanity, these lists have a pleasantly distractable quality (who, while reading this or anything else, isn’t doing a hundred other things at once these days?) and this honest trait lets us give ourselves a break. It’s as if the form of Primitive State is modern life and the lines suit life’s changing shape deftly. I hesitate to share too many of them, both because I don’t want to spoil their beautiful surprise and because they become more effective and heroic as they accrue with the turning of pages. It was difficult to put down throughout reading and also at the end. Primitive State pursues your attention in ways unlike any book I can remember.

[Published December 1, 2015, 88 pages. $18.00 paperback]

Amanda Nadelberg’s Songs From a Mountain has just been published by Coffee House Press which also produced her earlier book Bright Brave Phenomena. She lives in Oakland, CA.

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Emilia Phillips

Boy With Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (University of Pittsburgh Press)

The poems of Rickey Laurentiis’s debut collection reckon with hate crimes predicated on the victims’ skin color or sexual preference just as they witness the rise and fall of civilizations of the self — “You are what’s in the lamb / that keeps it kicking,” (70) “Who could feel the self demanding the self?” (79) — after the ideal “To be personal, without confession.” (59) In Boy with Thorn, confession, often associated with guilt or shame, seems absent. Instead, the speaker’s openness has a note of meditative defiance, an insistence upon not looking away. For that reason, the poems hit readers “like a hammer through glass” (71) — at once devastating and glinting, sharp and gorgeous.

The internal landscapes wrought by an uneasy and tested mind seem as physical as the external landscapes of the deep south, where many of these poems are set; in fact, the external often seems conflated with the internal, not with the imprecise simplicity of the pathetic fallacy, but more as if the speaker, by being rushed away by the river, becomes a part of the river. It’s with this backdrop, the speaker offers us — and history — himself:

History, here is my muscle, my skin, my crucial
Blood, my heart, my stubbornness, my thinking,
My hauntedness, my ghosts, my American tongue

This collection is indeed haunted and haunting, as it simultaneously embraces and takes to task the Southern Gothic, which lends itself to two titles, including that of the collection’s first poem:

1. The shadow snaps, rising to kiss the head;
2. The kiss lands, the head flies up in airy revolt;
3. Cracked from the head come the crows of its thinking;
4. Three crows move in minstrelsy against the night

LaurentiisCover.jpgHere, the ekphrastic subjects range from lynching photographs to 17th century oil paintings to Basquiat’s “Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta,” but the ekphrastic gestures are not mere descriptions of the artwork but subjective renderings complicated and, indeed, made relevant by their re-imaginings, as if to suggest that every ekphrastic poem is a version or translation of the artwork, rather than an attempt to contain the artwork as is. It seems that it’s through this ekphrastic practice that Laurentiis cultivates an ekphrastic-like attention to the world, as if every subject, every detail, is rendered as if by an artist. The ekphrastic poems then offer us a kind of ars poetica for Boy with Thorn, as exemplified by the titular poem, a meditation on a first-century BC bronze statue: “This was his body, his body / finally his.” (80)

Although there are narrative gestures here, the poems largely rely upon a lyric mode that allows for long sectioned poems, like the sixteen-page imitative response to Wallace Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” with its frequent ekphrastic studies of lynching photographs—“The camera positions: / Between the weight and the bearing of the weight” (50) — to short, searing studies, like “Southern Gothic” at the end of the first section, which opens:

About the dead having available to them
all breeds of knowledge,
some pure, others wicked, especially what is
future, and the history that remains
once the waters recede, revealing the land
that couldn’t reject or contain it

Laurentiis.jpgThroughout the book, readers discover that the inciting occasion for many of these poems is an idea, image (visual or literary), or trauma that the speaker can’t shake. “Southern Gothic” is built from a single sentence twisting through tangents, an examination into the dead’s agency in haunting the living. Perhaps this is why the poems’ forms, like phantoms, show themselves only briefly before falling away. Many poems have a distinctly sonnetesque feel, although they reject the form’s resolution, either falling short or exceeding fourteen lines, as with the thirteen-line “Little Song” and “Full,” both of which seem to acknowledge their formal ghost in the title. Other poems work with sectioned fragments that kaleidescopically examine their subjects.

Regardless of the brevity of individual poems or sections, Laurentiis’s poems have the vastness of a single voice shouted into echo in a deep well, and this is why the collection seems to render more than it contains in mere information alone. Rich in subtext and musically deft, the poems please even as they parry, excite even as they incite one to consider their stakes. For this reason, the collection is owed the reading — and rereading—by poets and students of poetry both.

[Published September 15, 2015, 104 pages, $15.95 paperback]

Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Groundspeed (2016) and Signaletics (2013), and three chapbooks. She is the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary College of New Jersey.

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Paula Bohince

Deep Lane by Mark Doty (W.W. Norton)

Mark Doty’s Deep Lane is a moving, exhilarating collection, with pleasures to be found in every line. The first poem, one of nine titled “Deep Lane,” begins, “When I’m down on my knees,” and the idea of supplication is present throughout, heavier in the book’s first half, with the speaker confronting the tangle of his existence, “talking to the anvil of darkness.” This startling opening movement feels like the grave opening notes of a symphony. Truly, the power of Doty’s gifts for surprise and precision, evident in the entire collection, feel symphonic and intimate at once.

Doty.jpeg“What is the hammer?” the speaker asks several lines later, without resolution, and the question is approached again in various forms throughout the book. Intense, musical, image-driven, surprising, Doty’s poems feel as if they have somehow bitten into the page because each word seems to have its own material energy. If the speaker begins in a private hell, the way out, perhaps, is through seeing, noting, transforming through poetry itself.

The poems in Deep Lane derive their spirituality via the concrete details of the physical world. In the second poem, also titled “Deep Lane,” Doty brilliantly brings together the images of a “cemetery” and the “champagne” plume of a dog’s tail: both instances of nature adjusted by man, and this stance of the world being somehow cultivated through the high and labor of art-making feels lightly present throughout.

Doty’s clear lines, his pitch-perfect syntax, seamlessly meld music and meaning. How ingenious and muscular this description of a white fish in a pond as

a four-inch emperor
in his white silk coat,
insignia of the kingdom

splashed over his back
the color of candied orange rind.

DotyCover_0.jpgThis description is preceded several lines earlier by the short, declarative sentence, “A heron ate his mate.” What follows then becomes heroic. The lines mimic this brave fish, once grief-numbed, now flourishing in his fine body — prismatic, undisguised. The vision of Doty’s poetry in these poems is like that, especially when he asserts later in this poem, “We felt the presence // of the soul of him, if soul could be/understood as specificity.” Everywhere throughout Deep Lane is specificity’s rescuing, propulsive power.

How excellent Doty’s description of ticks in another poem, the successive pinpricks of sound imitating them: “the ticks / princes of this world / heat-seeking / tiny / multitudinous.” How fantastic his description of a radish: “voguish red giving way, near the tip,/to a ghost-swath of muslin …”
The book feels holy in its attention, it calibrations, its egoless-ness for the sake of poetry’s myriad pleasures. In “Pescadero,” on meeting a goat, I feel the speaker’s same gentle happiness

since I have been welcomed by the field’s small envoy, and

fragrant with soil, has rested on the fence-board beside my

What a subtle decision to end with “hand” on its own line, signaling humanness, smallness, otherness, isolation, making the friendship gesture that much more powerful.

“Crystal” begins with images from childhood: a spoon, milk-sheen, sharp little stars, and swerves so naturally into the act of imbibing a drug, taking a reader through that journey. Toward the end, the poem itself mimics the drug’s rushing effects, as several sentences run together without punctuation:

So I began

to offer up through my body and its ministrations
its worship its lights its weather rising and falling tide
I began to offer service and obeisance I began to rock

Deep Lane feels private, generous, exposed, courageous. The several poems on the speaker’s mother and father are painfully moving in the midst of this soul-searching. When the speaker resurfaces, as the poems travel more into the city toward the book’s conclusion, the tenderness of a new barber is breathtaking in its humanity. On failing eyesight, he writes, “you could/ not describe this/ adequately...” Doty does for us beautifully in Deep Lane. I am grateful for the world he has made.

[Published April 6, 2015, 96 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

Paula Bohince’s new collection of poems is Swallows and Waves, her third book published by Sarabande Books.