Nine Poets Recommend New & Recent Titles

Welcome back to “Poets Recommend,” the Seawall’s semi-annual poetry feature. This season, nine 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 Watchful by Molly Bendall (Omnidawn Publishing)

Ari Banias

on The Market Wonders by Susan Briante (Ahsahta Press)

David Roderick

on Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press)

Joshua Weiner

on Berlin • Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély (New York Review of Books)

Randall Mann

on Detainee by Miguel Murphy (Barrow Street Press)

Sally Ball

on A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (Canarium Books)

Kaveh Akbar

on Louder Than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan Publishing)

Kimberly Grey

on Night by Etel Adnan (Nightboat Books)

Miguel Murphy

on The Atheist Wore Goat Silk by Anna Journey (LSU Press)

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Lisa Russ Spaar

Watchful by Molly Bendall (Omnidawn Publishing)

Writers have never shied away from what Jacques Derrida called “the question of the animal.” From the didactic fables of Aesop, naughty pet poems of Catullus, and shape-shifting creatures of ancient saga and Ovidian myth to the compassionate and ethically charged forays of Rainer Maria Rilke (“The Panther”), Randall Jarrell (“The Woman at the Washington Zoo”), and Bhanu Kapil (Humanimal), poetry in particular has been a site for pondering the ways in which non-human animality constructs the human animal (and, one might argue, the sub- or in-human human), and vice versa. As earth enters its sixth wave of mass extinction (“the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,” according to The Center for Biological Diversity), the nature of the human-animal relationship (totemic, projected, objectified, co-opted, anthropomorphized, shepherded, deified, troped, trophied, sentimentalized, dismissed, domesticated) has never been more examined and contentious. Molly Bendall’s Watchful steps intrepidly into the roil of these debates.

Bendall_Cover.jpgIn his important essay, “Why Look at Animals?,” John Berger — extending his exploration of men as spectator/owners and women as “objects of sight” in Western art, in his study, Ways of Seeing — traces how and why animals have moved over time from being with humans (as sources of food and as co-laborers, but also as “messengers and promises”) to being, essentially, re-moved from much of human life, a result of forces like industrialization and urbanization, in which “real animals” are either domesticated, sentimentalized, or curated/marginalized in museum and zoo-like settings, where they become subject ro the human gaze.

Molly Bendall has ever been an exceptionally close “reader” of the world, paying acts of attention that she has also always interrogated—ethically and aesthetically--even in the midst of her own poetic praxis. In an earlier book, Dark Summer, for instance, she writes, “Once, I’d looked closely / in the interior curl of unkempt motion, partaking / too easily” (“Old Haunts or a Village Tale”) or “He appears like a museum exhibit, hunted and ambushed / / and always, graceful” (“Matinée Idylls”). In Watchful, she brings these gifts of perception and imagination to bear on the lives of animals (sentient and mortal, they are like human animals, but also not human), specifically animals in human-controlled zoos and zoo-like environments.

Bendall.jpgThe most striking and original aspect of Watchful is the way Bendall manages, through deft slippages of syntax, pronouns, and agency, to create texts that seem translated from animal as well as from human consciousness, in ways that often blur those realms, suggesting radical otherness and unsettling similarities. Who is watching what or whom in these poems? At times, the speaker is a “trespass[er]”: “I come here to teach my ear to adore, / shape myself as orphan.” At others, the speaker is a hunter/predator in scenarios all too human: “Understand the lure,” she writes in “Trespass”: “I daughter myself, I girl the most / delicate ones, creep up to them nearer the forelocks and the swarming flies.” The humans and the animals are, in these poems, both “almost on guard, ready to hurry.” As Bendall writes in “Animal Radiance,” “Fur can glare, even hurt.” And no one is exempt from accountability for the “bonehouse look” of what looks back, as in these lines from the long poem, “The Sixth Wave”:

The long dark howl
A fool visits
They hear only
Sprightly containment
And then
Spooling feathers
Into baskets, that’s
The garden-dope
Flush out all
With the methody
Get my procedure?
Violet and zero
Knowing twat.

What Bendall accomplishes in Watchful is something akin to what Louise Glück achieved in and for the chthonic realm of flora in The Wild Iris, in which human, non-human, and divine entities make what Susan Howe has called “articulations of sound forms in time.” Eschewing oversimplification and demonization of any of her subject’s players, and by turns captive, hunted, gaped at, longed for, indicted, guilty, and feckless, the “speakers” in these poems represent the full spectrum: from those ensconced in landscaped, moated zoo or sky-stung aviary, to those caught up in the ruthless animal-to-animal food chain pecking order hierarchies, to all arraigned to defend both realms. The poems are uneasy, disturbing, shaming, admiring, and breath-takingly heartbroken. The moment the reader sees herself in the book — and she will — a myriad of transgressive humanimal histories come into personal, undeniable, and unforgettable focus.

[Published October 4, 2016. 72 pages, $17.95 paperback]

Lisa Russ Spaar is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Her new collection of poems is Orexia (Persea Books, 2017).

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Ari Banias

The Market Wonders by Susan Briante (Ahsahta Press)

Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, a poetic insistence on the relationship of capitalism to lyric perception, is the first book of poetry that’s made me want to look up the Dow average (20,689 on the day I read it). There is much I admire about it – its formal innovation and range, its ethics, its reach forward and backward in time, the intimacy of Briante’s descriptive precision, and her attention to the ways capitalism mediates not just material, but spiritual and emotional existence. The poems are built from anecdote, news story, individual and collective loss, cultural reference, and document; they index, they assemble, they elegize. Personal detail and public fact here seem to weigh the same, a gesture I won’t call “democratic” or “egalitarian,” such terms being too reformist for this book.

Susan-Briante_10-02-2014_0173_smaller_0.jpgWhat I will say is that its poetics is wide without forgoing intimacy, and seems to want to hold as much as possible out of an impulse that is the opposite of greed. There’s humility here, as well as urgency to fully understand the ways that “every system patterns.” These poems labor to make (or break) sense of the patterns that structure and harm, including those patterns of harm that much of our living creates. This is a mind that imagines “you hold the grease pencil / and you move the shipping containers / across the horizon like a sentence,” a figure in which both poet and reader are written. With sensitivity, these poems map and expose how the structural violences that are part of capital’s circulatory system are necessarily simultaneous with our poetry, our literature, our domestic and collective lives, and the grass outside that “grows grocery-bag beige.”

Because this is a book about the inextricability of life under capitalism from capitalism (this includes the imaginative life), it is a book that sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, and with stunning variety enacts the inextricability of poetic expression from capitalism. Early on, “the poet wants to remind the Dow that the bird has something to teach it about falling and song.” And the book embodies a struggle to hear and to notice and to keep singing, while losses accrue, while the state commits murder, while profits rise, while working distractedly, mourning, compromising, mothering, trying to attend to the world:

and in the wilderness beyond which is particle attraction
and distraction I slip from the grip of garment
factory fire, to ask
over and over:
can you take it all
in, galaxy after galaxy, open your eyes sky wide
through love or force or training?

These are poems that behave much as we do, living inside a system that makes us sick and keeps us living only to use us, that works with us against ourselves in infinite permutations, alienating, familiar. When Briante uses lyric means, she refuses lyric insularity. Here, for instance, she draws economic vocabulary into poetic speech:

a dog licks his empty bowl
over and over a decade
goes in real wages
while you increase productivity
the poem says cultivate
your infinite anxiety
is a hole
in your neighbor’s wall
shaped like a crow
the poem tells you to open
like a bank account
stand like seedling
against a granite sky
the black walnut tree says patience
where the prayer flags used to fly
the poem casts a shadow
in the shape of a tree
the tree circulates
its own currency
and does not claim
the unseen hand
belongs to god

And, when lineated as poetic language, even numbers threaten to become poignant. The cadence and insistence of these supposed neutrals suggest emotional meaning:

Eight three three nine eight three three nine.
Eight three three nine eight three
three nine eight.

In other sections, “The Market” is imagined as a character – familiar, volatile, lonely, toxic, and internalized. Across the book, Briante engages a powerful documentary prose poetics without forgoing intimacy, emotion, or figurative speech; this is “fact” that invokes the personal and that calls the poet and the reader into its public truth. Again and again, the lyric finds itself entwined with the economics of staying or being alive.

Briante_Cover.jpgAnd yet, Briante is keen to acknowledge that though “we” may “already feel occupied,” for some of us, “our feeling doesn’t have a tank at the end of it.” She navigates the particularities of classed, raced, gendered, and geopolitical realities with care and precision, neither claiming a precarity that isn’t hers, nor disconnecting from it. Reading her, I find myself prodded out of my numbness at numbers. I am prodded to consider value and figures – numerical, poetic, and corporeal – in new ways.

Part of this book’s dazzling accomplishment is in Briante’s rendering of the market as both figure and ground, and as simultaneous subject, object, and formal structure. The market is in the ticker tape running along the bottom of the page, anchoring and destabilizing, linking poem to poem, intimate domestic scene to public life, the image of a black walnut tree to the Dow industrial average. “The Market” is a white kid just out of college traveling in Mexico that the speaker sleeps with, it “picks up your daughter from school in its teeth,” and “he is an it is a we.” The market intrudes upon and is inseparable from feeling, thought, practice – it wonders about worth, and, this book argues, is worth wondering about. In writing about economics, because there is no part of our lives that capital does not touch, Briante is also able to write about everything. “Can I feel these numbers in my hands / like Whitman at the rail of a ferry?” Briante wonders. I think I can.

[Published February 22, 2016. 116 pages, $18.00 paperback]

Ari Banias is the author of Anybody (W.W. Norton, 2016). He has been awarded fellowships by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program. He lives and works in Berkeley, CA.

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David Roderick

Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press)

“Refuse the old means of measurement. / Rely instead on the thrumming / wilderness of self,” writes Donika Kelly in the opening lines of the first poem (“Out West”) in Bestiary. This imperative is not directed at the reader but at the poet herself, or at least some vulnerable version of herself. The poem continues, “Listen. / You have been lost for some time, / taking comfort in being home / to any wandering thing.”

Donika-Kelly.jpgOften in poetry, this strategy, of the poet addressing herself, falls flat. It demands that the reader do extra work to penetrate the intimate thought-voice of the poet/speaker. In “Out West” however, the speaker inhabits a crisis that necessitates the tactic of speaking to herself. Further, because the speaker and listener are the same, there is little need for the dramatic excesses of the confessional mode, despite great depths of anger, sadness, and regret slightly blurred by Kelly’s impressionistic style.

Because Bestiary feels like the unburying of a childhood trauma followed by a long recovery, this book’s careful arrangement brings the most pleasure when the poems are read in order. Clues to the trauma (violence and sexual abuse) arrive as stray asides in Kelly’s short, lyric poems. Plants, birds, and mythological creatures serve as her most natural embodiments of feeling. For most of the book a deep sense of longing and loneliness also prevail — the poems chart the speaker’s journey through the childhood trauma and into young adulthood.

Kelly is a poet fixated on Eros, and her book-length journey arcs toward love. Her main challenge is this: to find Eros (or to be found by it), she must first learn how to imagine it. Many of the poems early in the book feature a speaker casting around blindly for love, until a love poem sequence, with titles like “Love Poem: Centaur,” “Love Poem: Mermaid,” and “Love Poem: Griffon,” begins to accumulate. In these chimeric self-representations, the speaker (often addressing herself), attempts to stitch together, from the parts of different creatures, a “self” that is, in her own heart, worthy of love. “Love, I am made / for calling: bare breast, smooth tail, / the perfect balance of scales,” Kelly writes in “Love Poem: Mermaid.” Usually the tone of these love poems sounds more speculative than directive. If the speaker can become whole again, and love herself — perhaps a love more “real” than the love of “any wandering thing” (excerpted from “Out West”) will find her.

Kelly_Cover.jpgLate in the book, in the last five or six poems, a surprising development resolves the speaker’s frustration. Once again, Kelly’s pronouns offer a key clue: the word “we” replaces “you” in the love poems. “We are in the full / throat of summer, my red bird and I,” she is finally able to say, in “Red Bird.” At last, Eros is captured, or has captured her. This change provides relief to any reader who empathizes with the speaker’s plight—during the balance of the book, she seems so vulnerable, so lost, her journey seems destined to fall short of love. In the book’s final sweep of poems (“Red Bird,” “Sonnet in which only one bird appears,” and “Love Poem”) the speaker gains the love she has pined for, one that will receive her as “Donika,” and as a black woman, lesbian, and trauma survivor.

The second-to-last poem in Bestiary, “Santa Rosa,” marks the end of the speaker’s emotional journey. “Santa Rosa” is also the antipode of “Out West.” The speaker is still “lost” in “Santa Rosa,” but this time her lostness doesn’t derive from “taking comfort in being home / to any wandering thing.” Kelly’s struggle with self-construction, with self-love, seems to be ending, or at least evolving toward the dream she has carried so long for herself. She writes, “I’ve forgotten which way is west, / how we ended up in this cooling desert. / I’ve forgotten, nearly, what I’m meant // to grieve. I am lost. / Walk with me, love, that I may know what is real.”

[Published November 1, 2016. 80 pages, $16 paperback]

David Roderick is the author of Blue Colonial and The Americans.

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Joshua Weiner

Berlin • Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (New York Review of Books)

The big city as subject and location of modern consciousness has been a staple of poets for well over a century -- you could say it's one of the defining features of modernism: the social space where individuals improvise a kind of dance of mind in response to the jagged, clashing, dissonant, fragmented, boisterous, streaming, layered vitality and simultaneity of capitalism's most intensely fabricated, constructed urban scene, where the multitudes for sale, including human bodies, entice and disgust with possibilities and refuse. Aspiration, dejection, success, failure: varieties of human motive, energy and enervation, on endless display, as if subjectivity were itself a form of retail, were itself the reason to be there, to consume, to be consumed.

Borbely_Cover.jpgSzilárd Borbély's long poem, Berlin • Hamlet (originally published in 2003), will find a permanent place next to Apollinaire's Zone (1913), Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York (1940), Langston Hughes' Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Ginsberg's Howl (1956), and other works that stretch out as marks of the big city, but there is none like it.

A sequence of 49 numbered parts, some of which are themselves miniature sequences, the poem moves as a set of interwoven currents, alternating between "Letters," "Allegories," "Fragments," and Berlin place names (Krumme Lanke, Mühlendamm, Alexanderplatz, Invaliedenstrasse ...) Each has a different function -- the letters, for instance, are adapted from Kafka's letters to Felice Bauer, Max Brod, and others, and express eager anticipation of meeting, loneliness, uncertainty; the allegories are meta-fictive, and think about the implications of writing as an act and a search; the fragments evoke performance, and stage the poet's interpolations inspired by Shakespeare's play that gives the book half its title; the specific city locations are personal, immediate, impressionistic and particular to the poet's time in Berlin after the Mauerfall in 1989 and the painful process of reunification and rebuilding. What joins the different currents into one persuasive confluence is the seamless unification of the voice. The montage performs this tension, between the sustained poignancy and urgency of a consciousness that sounds single-voiced even given its disparate intertextuality, searching the world and his own mind for some kind of stable meaning, and a decentered city, until only recently divided against itself, a topography defined by agonized dissociation. Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood and his market hall essay serve as material and inspiration here for the dream-like questioning of the city's affects and artifacts; Kafka is the extinguishing muse with echoes of Beckett's end-game stasis.

Because of the poem's movement, which records, in part, the poet's wandering through the city, it's difficult to meaningfully quote from or excerpt--it's like trying to catch someone a block away as they're crossing the street, lost in their thoughts. But here's a complete section that suggests the movement of a body through space, and the mind that connects correspondences in time; it also captures the mood of anxiety, exhaustion, agitation, aimlessness.

15. [Hermann Strasse]

When I came to Berlin, I no longer
wanted to live. Why isn't there a way, I thought, if
someone doesn't want to live any more, simply to disappear.

Just like this: the decision is taken, the desire is strong.
And that would be enough. No need for poison,
blood, vomiting, depletion of the vegetative system.

Everything that comes with it: the sphincter muscles
slacken, and everything held together until now by the tangled
knot of consciousness flows apart. In a word,

expiration. How much do you have
to want it? Or do you have to believe in it? In Neuköln,
I met several homeless men who spoke English.

The snow lashed down upon us. It was more like sleet.
The worst of it is when your clothes are clenched and freeze
onto the body. They wanted money for mulled wine. In a frost

like this you couldn't deny them enough
for at least one cup. From time to time the lights
of the planes arriving or departing from Tempelhof

Airport glowed in the evening sky above
the length of Hermann Strasse. I too would have liked a bottle
of wine and a gyros from the Turkish stand.

Borbely.jpgSuch is Hamlet's Berlin -- the great hero of modern consciousness stranded in the city that best reflects back to him the desperate state of his own mind, where the problems of existence begin in the belly. "No home is mine," he says in a later fragment, "thus / words have become the way-stations of my wanderings." Language, for Borbély, is a kind of curse that cannot be exorcised, because consciousness to effect such change is founded in language. "As long as the concealments of my speech beget / miscomprehension, I am not free." And because the duplicities of language are inescapable, beyond divine correction, the purgatory of miscomprehension is a constant imprisonment.

Here's a complete "fragment":

39. [Fragment VIII]

I can no longer bear the aggressiveness of poetry,
and I do not wish my deeds to be investigated.

I would like to be an opened knife: the inscrutable.
A razor-wielding murderer. With tongue oozing flattery, who drips

poison into your ear. Who makes you mute, so you cannot
scream. As the guards turn into the corridor,

I count five steps. Now is the time to cry out. Before
they throw themselves on me. Then in the stillness, there are no more sounds.

Between no longer feeling able to "bear the aggressiveness of poetry" and wishing to be figuratively transformed into "an open knife" -- that's a kind of ultimate transfiguring of Hamlet's most famous lines: ambivalence becomes violence. And thus Hamlet comes to Berlin, the once divided city that must face the murderous legacy of its Wannsee conference, where "on the twentieth of January, in the year nineteen hundred and forty-two, / fifteen men conversed in one of the villas of Am Großen Wannsee" and implented the so-called Final Solution to destroy the Jews.

"In the course of his travels, probing the enigma // between the words, he stumbles upon the incomprehensible" -- so reads the "fragment" following "Wannsee." For this Jewish-Hungarian poet, who died tragically by his own hand in 2014, Berlin, too, is "unreachable" -- even when he's there -- its violent and seductive enigma, like language itself, like the very idea of God, forever beckoning and repelling.

[Published November 15, 2016. 101 pages, $14.00 paperback, with notes and afterword by the translator]

Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry and, most recently, Berlin Notebook, prose about the refugee crisis (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016). He lives in Washington D.C.

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Randall Mann

Detainee by Miguel Murphy (Barrow Street Press)

“Friend, // you had to inhabit pain,” Miguel Murphy declares in the first poem in Detainee, “Thorn”; from the start, this book is both comfort and threat. This is not the poetry of commiseration, but equation: disgust and lust; love and hurt. I think equation might be an apt metaphor for Murphy’s work, the poems like proofs on a whiteboard, inquiring and messy, hermetic and mad, reckless. This is the poetry of removal; intimacy; and how the removal of intimacy becomes itself an intimacy. “If we want to embrace // absence, a cocktail / party will do,” he writes in “Enjoy Flesh!.” I admire the lovelorn stanza break after “embrace,” how the word reaches out before the knowing reveal of “absence”; the sleight of hand of “cocktail / party.”

MiguelMurphy.jpgMurphy has a way with enjambment and syntax, and understands the discretions of form; in his haunting sestina “My Macbeth,” the Macbeth in question is no king but a young gay man who can’t escape his heterosexual lie, who obsessively turns and returns to a gay sex club yet cannot fully turn away from “the nightmare / of his real life.” The psychologies and obsessions of the poem are perfect material for the sestina; the poem is nearly perfect.

This is a book of torment. In the “Self-Portrait in the Nightmare of a Dog,” Murphy recounts the murder of a vagrant on the beach—“they sodomized then left him / naked in the sand — like Lorca in his unmarked grave” — but the heart of the poem, in a book that’s a bestiary of sorts, is the vagrant’s dog, also killed in horrific fashion. Murphy does not just speak about violence; the act of violence morphs into speech:

I was licking the wound
with my dream. I was running toward that animal
part of me, thinking only the dead can know

how the knife spoke across the dog’s throat

how the red word murdered in the sand

Murphy_Cover.jpgMurphy is one of the most widely and deeply read poets I know, so his poems are richly allusive, but his references — Lorca, Foucault, Shostakovich, Genet — are seen but unseen, shadows on the sand: in “Self-Portrait’s Caravaggio Walking Night’s Pier,” there is the ghost of Caravaggio in the ritual of the cruise at the Santa Monica; the impossibly beautiful study, “filial dirt & glitter / chattering upon the pier”; the vulnerability and light and ancient longing. The poet unearths the grit and beauty of the past to come to know, a little, the unknowable present. In Detainee, love is bleak, is true, is commerce, is abusive yet disabused. “Don’t give me another / container for love,” he writes in “Nihilist of the Heart’s Divine,” a reminder that we are in many ways mere receptacles of another’s feelings and fluids. “The mouth doesn’t want another mouth,” he says in the following line. The book is relentless performance; one feels a bit woozy and mysteriously bruised by the end, as if after a long night out.

Once, before giving a poetry reading, Murphy told me, “I get up there and I think, no one wants to hear these poems.” I laughed — I think I get what he means — but I couldn’t disagree more. True, these are the poems of fear and shame and disease and carnage — which is to say, everyday life. Here’s the end of the poem “Whose Hands He Worked”:

My grandfather
touched my cock.
I’m not about to tell
it was o.k., but it
was one way I learned

an urge can make the reasonable
person inside
disappear — it was the way
I learned.

Miguel Murphy writes unsafe, brave, exquisite poems, works of deep wounds and restlessness that resist judgment, even of the guilty; put another way, he reminds readers of the relative mercy and guilt in us all.

[Published April 1, 2016. 72 pages; $16.95 paperback]
Randall Mann’s new collection of poems is Proprietary (Persea Books, May 2017). He lives in San Francisco.

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Sally Ball

A Pillow Book by Suzanne Buffam (Canarium Books)

Buffam_Cover.jpgSuzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book riffs on and lies awake with Sei Shōnagon’s eponymous eleventh-century book of musings about Japanese courtly life. Buffam’s collection comprises lists, abecedarians, anecdotes, histories, dreams, proverbs and altered proverbs, sometimes comic, sometimes mournful: the record of an insomniac who searches the web for sleep-related ephemera (or sleep-aids that might actually work—), cajoling herself into restless engagement with her husband and daughter or with her insecure teaching job, even as she rounds out lists of “Iffy Similes” (Classy as a cruise ship…) or “Jobs from Hell” (Ingenue Emeritus… Eternal Finder of the Ragged Edge of Scotch Tape …). Each segment is set off from the rest by a dingbat representing the evolving phases of the moon, so the reader feels the pressure of time passing as the hyperconscious mind sifts and churns and self-deprecates. “Sleep faster,” she quotes a Yiddish proverb, “we need the pillows.”

Some of the lists take their titles from Shōnagon (“Things that Give a Dirty Feeling,” “Things that Have Lost their Power”) and then have very contemporary iterations (Back-jacket blurbs, for the former, and Breast implants / Body counts / Heroic couplets for the latter). Others are Buffam’s own (“Beautiful Names for Hideous Things” — Concertina wire — and “Better by Moonlight” — Equestrian statues). Some of them speak to each other, some of them seem to come from nowhere into this meditation on elusiveness and the dubious value of effort.


Flattering harem pants.
Solitary bedbugs.
Perfect rhymes for
A perfectly ripe peach.
Wise fools.
A couple who remember the same fights.

That list is a rueful pleasure to read on its own, and also it chimes with other lists, other stories, other jokes, or heartbreaks that we encounter elsewhere. The whole collection is both tightly focused and full of surprises. What’s “Disheartening”? Honorable mention. / Spider veins… / A half-hearted massage… /Passport pictures … There’s more! But these elements underscore the heart of the book: what do we do with the knowledge that — either after great effort or just as a matter of course — disheartenment will come? We’ll be disappointed, we’ll work hard or live well and then — it won’t matter, or it won’t matter enough. And how can one who is perpetually blurred by a feeling of insufficiency (of sleep, of accomplishment, of love) wake herself up? “A pillow is a pillow is a pillow. A siren, a cry. Wake up.”

SuzanneBuffamRESIZED.jpgThere are three crucial female figures in this book: the speaker herself; Sei Shōnagon (muse and compatriot); and “Her Majesty,” the speaker’s daughter, roughly two-and-a-half years old. Her Majesty, one imagines, is so identified because of the tyrannical ways of toddlers in general, also perhaps because Shōnagon served a young empress as well (!), and, finally, I began to realize, because Her Majesty is both the speaker’s charge and someone she might gravely disappoint. Late in the book, there are three prose sections where unhappiness and anxiety that seem personal (and thus ‘small’) are also fused with a kind of latent human insufficiency-and-woe that lives across the centuries. In one, Her Majesty is singing “Rockabye Baby” to a swaddled plastic squeeze bottle, and she stops singing to ask, “Why does the bough break?... Does the baby die?” and there follows an incredibly delicately rendered scene in which the speaker tries to answer lightly and ends up equating death with transformation in a way that Her Majesty interprets as “like recycling.” In another, having read Roy Scranton and been deeply shaken by his observation that, facing our doomy Anthropocene future, we need mostly to reckon with the fact that we are already dead, the speaker makes the bed and fluffs the pillows with that repeated mantra:

We are dead, I sigh, as I study the back of my husband’s head. I stare at the ceiling. I count to six and sit up. We are already dead, I say, as I pour another cold bowl of Kashi with milk. I bow over the sink in a pool of orange light ... We are dead, sings the wind. We are dead, sings the wheel. We are dead, I repeat the next day in my head, as we hurtle downhill on a blue plastic sled.

Buffam_Boy.jpgThird, the speaker visits a statue “in a glowing glass case in the Asian wing,” one that she remembers from a long-ago visit to the same exhibit. In it, a boy lies on his side, clutching a swan, an “infinitesimal grin on his lips.” His shoulders have a curved platform across them, because he was meant to be a pillow / headrest himself. The speaker stands eye-to-eye with him. “Does he remember me?” she asks. As she stares at him, “even the thousand-year-old swan” looks new to her. This apparition, still doing its work centuries after its maker turned into clay himself, does not bring her sleep; he answers, though, in another way, her quest: he “makes do.” “If you want to go to sleep,” reads the final unattributed proverb (a Buffamism, then?) “kiss your pillow good night.” Acceptance or generosity: enablers of dreams.

[Published May 1 2016. 104 pages, $14.00 paperback]

Sally Ball is the author of Wreck Me and Annus Mirabilis, both from Barrow Street. She teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ.

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Kaveh Akbar

Louder Than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan Publishing)

In a 2016 interview with Al-Jazeera English, Zeina Hashem Beck said, “Part of my job as a writer is to witness, to tell stories, to disrupt. But this doesn't mean my poetry is only about displacement and war.” Yes, Zeina Hashem Beck’s magisterial second full-length collection Louder than Hearts witnesses and disrupts at every turn. But it also sings, it also praises a mother’s Arabic pizza (one with “olives, mushrooms, ash’awan cheese, / ketchup instead of pizza sauce”). Beck knows that for every crater created by an American bomb, there are children who will fill it with hose-water, who will laugh as they backstroke in the sun with their friends.

Beck.jpegThat’s the real stagger of Louder than Hearts. In “Ghazal: Back Home,” a poem for Syria, Beck elegantly braids the devastating reality of a destabilized place where worry is constant, grief is daily (“we’ve stopped trying to measure sorrow, back home”) with the language of love (“Let’s try to remember how we met years ago, back home. // On our honeymoon we kissed by the sea, watched it rock the lights, the fishing boats to and fro, back home”). Elsewhere in the poem, a searing image of a lost refuge child: “‘All that blue is the sea, and it gives life, gives life,’ says God to the boy / standing wet at heaven’s gate — does he want to return, to go back home?” The effect is dazzling — Beck isn’t making a “the Middle-East is a tragedy and you should feel bad” grief-barrage, she’s building multivalent songs that orbit a nucleus of an actual lived experience, in all its complexity.

In the Al-Jazeera interview, Beck speaks of a cousin shot dead in the streets of Tripoli: “The day after my cousin died, my aunt sat in her living room, crying, and from time to time, singing. This has never left me; this simultaneity of sorrow and song.” There’s nothing voyeuristic about Beck’s writing — one gets the sense she’s writing about real places that actually do exist in the world and in her heart, people who sprawl across her psychic life. Of a childhood friend: “We’ve both called our daughters Aya, and when they ask / about their name, we play holy verses for them.” In the voice of a beloved singer: “Girls threw / themselves off balconies when I died.” Of a non-Arabic lover: “It’s one thing to make love / and say yes say more / in your language, but how will I ever translate / my Arab anger, my alliterations.” There isn’t a word of falseness, a hint of voguish irony — just a deep love for her subjects and her language and an astonishing ability to relay that in verse.

Beck_Cover.jpgI could wax about the Beck’s craft throughout, which is quiet and masterful —ghazals one doesn’t even realize are ghazals until the second or third read, poems that oscillate imperceptibly between free verse and received and invented forms. But when I talk to my friends about this book (which has been happening constantly since I first read it), when I implore them to invest their time, I inevitably end up talking about it in the most abstract, least critically useful ways. I say the poems are devastating or rending or exquisite, or I talk about Beck’s seemingly miraculous gift for transubstantiating the experience of bone-hard affection into poems that somehow sound like loving. There’s no simpler way to say: it’s actual magic, the kind of magic poetry is uniquely capable of performing. Again and again in the collection, Beck demonstrates herself to be a sincere master of this conjuring.

[Published April 4, 2017. 112 pages, $15.98 paperback]

Kaveh Akbar’s first collection of poems is Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, September 2017). Poems are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and The American Poetry Review.

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Kimberly Grey

Night by Etel Adnan (Nightboat Books)

In a landscape where genre is ever-bending, Etel Adnan brings us Night, a brief yet powerful melding of poetry, prose, and philosophy. The book is as enigmatic as night itself is, full of mystery and the unknowable, perpetually pining for and simultaneously withholding illumination. An undercurrent of uncertainty runs like a river through these pages where the physical movements of the world are paralleled with the movements of Adnan’s own brilliant mind. “Philosophy brings us back to simplicity,” she writes, as she attempts with great complexity to reconcile the irreconcilable: memory’s relationship to time:

Memory, and time, both immaterial, are rivers with no banks, and constantly merging. Both escape our will, though we depend on them. Measured, but measured by whom or by what? The one is inside, the other, outside, or so it seems, but is that true. Time seems also buried deep in us, but where? Memory is right here, in the head, but it can exit, abandon that head, leave it behind, disappear. Memory, a sanctuary of infinite patience.

eteladnan2.jpgThe prose blocks feel fragmentary, each functioning as a thought and each thought a methodical emergence of memory. Adnan is interested in this: the memory of thought itself. And suddenly the material of memory is translated away from situation into the hard substance of abstraction. The question of reality and sensation runs rampant throughout this collection as memory both reveals and eschews the answers to life’s fundamental philosophical questions: What is real? What can we know for certain? But certainty might not be what Adnan is after here. She asks, “With what are we going to replace those incursions into the inner nights where the knowledge of the void is knowledge of fullness?” What I love most about this book is the circle of it, the way everything is seemingly connected and leading (however obscurely) into the next unflinching thought: “A fire is burning softly, being held by oceans of clouds. We are watching a cosmic phenomenon that’s elevating us far above our daily condition.” And elevate us, she does, as each movement forward deepens the darkness of metaphoric “night” further from any perceptible certainty.

Adnan_Cover.jpgNietzsche’s idea of the eternal return, a concept that the universe and all existence and energy has been reoccurring, and will continue to recur, is what both assures and terrifies the speaker. Because of the book’s philosophical nature, it takes time for the emotional revelations to reach the reader, but when they do, we see, simultaneously, a terror and desire for living, for being alive (echoes of Rilke). There is almost a mournful desperation in the following line: “There’s so much life around me, and I will have to leave.”

She quickly follows this moment up with a retraction: “My breathing is a tide. Love doesn’t die.” And then, “A body when dead will never warm ours, and the sea will never cry over it, and time will become its bride.”

These three moments are separated by a signature symbol for shift: three small moons that denote the waxing and waning of the lunar cycle. Although these three brief lines appear together in succession, we see how time separates them and the larger way time transforms our thinking and fears. As the collection enters its stride, what’s revealed to the reader is the speaker’s ultimate concern: her own inevitable death.

There’s a sweetness in the air that calls for death’s coming. I try to deny the latter’s presence because the birds, my brothers, have asked me to.

It’s all because life, too, these days, has started to talk, and made me believe that night is a divinity made of all the others, and that in its heart trees are growing whose nature is a new reality.

No, night is not the window through which Adnan can enter the philosophical world, night is the sea, which is as large, endless, and dangerous as it is beautiful and enticing. “Like a ship, you can shipwreck against the night,” she says, and that’s what she does and that’s what we do as we enter the unnavigable waters with her. We never fully make it to land and the point is not to. Just as we won’t make it out of life alive. Adnan ends the first part of the book by explaining the great question of philosophy itself, that thing which can never be fully illuminated:

This morning there was
tomorrow morning there
will be light,

but where is light?

[Published August 2, 2016, 50 pages, $12.95, Paperback]

Kimberly Grey’s collection The Opposite of Light (Persea Books, 2016), was awarded the 2015 Lexi Rusnitsky Book Prize. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a lecturer at Stanford University.

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Miguel Murphy

The Atheist Wore Goat Silk by Anna Journey (LSU Press)

theist_Wore_Goat_Silk_Credit_Stephanie_Diani.jpgIn her recent essay, “You Could Clone Elvis from That Wart: Poetry of the New Southern Gothic” (APR, Dec/Jan 2016) Anna Journey distinguishes a generation of poets who reimagine “the Southern Gothic as a language of anxiety, a ‘discourse of Otherness,’ that helps position the fantastic, fearful, or macabre regions that haunt contemporary experience.” We might say, then, that Journey’s conceit is the Confessional mode in which each memory is her performance, a rebellious-booted rockabilly New Southern Belle dropping acid under a dogwood or getting the blue tattoo of a sweet-potato barcode on her arm or up late remembering to feed a stray fox, chewing her fried chicken wing corsage.

A scan of her titles quickly reveals a celebration of obscure experiences that prove carnivalesque: “Upon Asking the Cashier at Kroger to Scan That Old Tattoo of a Barcode on My Forearm,” “Last Nostalgia Starting with a Piece of Spider Plant on Our Car’s Backseat,” “To the Peeping Tom Who Disguised Himself as an Oklahoma Night,” “I Find a Photograph Online of a Taxidermied Fox Posed in Front of a Flaming Grey Paisley Couch Abandoned in a Field of Crabgrass.” Who could believe such a hall of distorted reflections belongs to the same girl? It’s testament to the crafting of Journey’s poems that we do:

Welcome, Stranger

said the letters in buttercream cursive on top of the baby-
shower’s cake in braided pink and blue icing

because no one knew
if I’d be born
a girl or a boy. In the same photograph of the party,
my mother hunches

on the couch in a sack-like jeans-jumper,
hands folded on top of her pregnant belly. She looks
sideways at the cake. The night before

she dreamed she gave birth
to a blind and squeaking grey tabby.
I was surprised,
she tells me, years later,

but I decided to love it anyway. She cradled the kitten

against her bare breast and began
to nurse it. I say a kitten
would’ve been easier to handle than me

at fifteen—the pink hair, the junkie lover,
the friend who scrawled three upside-down
crosses on the forehead

of my sister’s battery-powered doll:
Baby Secrets. They shaved

her scalp, too Can I tell you a secret?
it whispered. I love you. My father once

spotted me walking to school
as he cruised past in the backseat of his carpool, as the driver
Good lord, glad that’s
not my daughter, and my dad said,

That’s my daughter. In the old photograph
he raises his pint glass for a toast and grasps
the tip of his ivory

cigarette holder. One guest’s about to slap his back,

but the hand hangs there,
mid-air. The impact
hasn’t yet hit him.

There’s no nostalgia in this memory. Instead, Journey enacts it with the force of fable and it seems that the tone itself is our envoy into these poems: exuberance for the sighting, a wild circus thrill without the pathos or melodrama we expect from the moment of confession. “The hand hangs there” and anticipation in Journey’s work, perhaps more than anything, imprints upon the reader that dream fear of recognition. In the psychology of the impossible, as in Journey’s work, the grotesque is fantastic! Her poems do not flinch either from family history or personal loss, but amazement confounds us — “She cradled the kitten // against her bare breast and began / to nurse it.” —and we can’t help but feel shocked by a disgust that looks increasingly like happiness.

9780807165683_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgInstead, these poems make astonishing hybrids of memory and sensational circumstance. Their excess and hothouse ornamentation service an inner wilderness, so that literal fauna and vegetation encroach upon the mystery of withheld revelation. Anna Journey’s third collection, The Atheist Wore Goat Silk devotes itself to that wilderness of hybridized figures, at times fantastical (the mermaid skeleton), weirdly exciting (the kazoo made out of a dildo and an oil funnel), gently elegiac (the scent of pears and the ghost of a grandfather), and outright macabre (the lobotomized daughter and the brain-damaged cat). “Somewhere there’s a goat that squirts / a rare silk so bizarre”, Journey writes in the title poem, “maybe / no one would actually wear it”. This genetic mutation — a goat spliced with silkworm DNA — becomes the locus of Journey’s speaker whose morbid curiosities source her obsessions with bloodline, landscape, and sensational memory. An emissary from that landscape out of whose dark mountain woods crawls the traveling fairgrounds to thrill us with its trick mirrors and sideshow oddities, Journey unravels for us her remarkable goat-silk dress, “the thread / leading back to an animal I badly / need to believe in.”

[Published February 2, 2017. 112 pages, $19.95 paperback]

Miguel Murphy is the author of Detainee and A Book Called Rats. He lives in southern California where he teaches at Santa Monica College.