Admit One: An American Scrapbook by Martha Collins, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016, 104 pp/, $15.95
Last spring’s release of Martha Collins’s Admit One: An American Scrapbook, is the third in a series that includes the volumes Blue Front and White Papers. The trilogy as a whole wrestles with race and racism in America from the perspective of a white woman and the history of family and country that precedes and includes her. In her work overall, Collins goes past the paralyzing silence of white guilt and into the active language of implication. (more…)
I Carry My Mother by Lesléa Newman, Headmistress Press, 2015, 108 pp/, $10.00
Lesléa Newman’s latest book, I Carry My Mother takes as its subject the death of the author’s mother and the process of grieving this loss. In this unflinching, layered account, Newman opens a window on a human experience deeply her own and also universally relatable. These poems swing between the two poles of “my mother is alive and not alive” (“In the ICU”) and linger in a liminal zone where both are true. They address role reversals, from daughter to orphan, child to caregiver, and daughter to partner, as when the mother’s ring is now worn on a chain beside the daughter’s heart, “till death do us part,” in “Parting Gift.” Such reversals leave the speaker reeling in confusion, captured poignantly in the plaintive line, “Are you my mother?” from “Hospice Haiku.” The simplicity here is startling and true. Then there’s the refrain of “A daughter’s a daughter for all of her life” that runs through one poem, showing that despite shifting roles, some things are cemented in constancy.
City of Eternal Spring by Afaa Michael Weaver, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, 96pp/, $15.95
City of Eternal Spring confirms what I felt when I first started reading Afaa Michael Weaver’s poems about ten years ago. He is a master poet who is comfortable in his craft at the same time that he takes unusual risks to keep the reader at the edge of his/her emotions and the poem on the edge of the possible. There is, for example, the one-sentence poem, which replicates the way thought moves through the labyrinth of reason and emotion. I am thinking of poems like “What the Lotus Said,” “On Hearing that Michael Jackson Died,” and the truly exceptional “Archeology of Time: Convertibles.”
Otherwise Unseeable by Betsy Sholl, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014, 78pp/, $16.95
Betsy Sholl’s seventh book offers a world of contradictions, the friction of disparate and contradictory objects and experiences struggling to coexist. The first poem, “Genealogy,” begins, “One of her parents was a flame, the other a rope.” Odd juxtapositions continue with a light bulb’s envy of an apple, (“Still Life with Light Bulb”) and the contrast between the wind’s “little ruckus” and the solidity of a wooden clock (“The Wind and the Clock”). “Rush Hour” finds two friends, their “words/making light of whatever they touched,” confronted with a deaf woman struggling to communicate. In “Traps and Groove,” the speaker wants “her chair/at the table, and a waiter to take orders—” while simultaneously drawn to “something the drums were saying” inside a seedy club.
A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea by Denise Bergman, winner of the West End Press
2013 Patricia Clark Smith Poetry Prize, West End Press, 2014, 72pp/, $14.95
The subtle, fierce poems in Denise Bergman’s new collection, A Woman in Pieces Crossed a Sea, offer a biography of the Statue of Liberty, beginning with the titanic Statue’s birth in France in the mind of sculptor Batholdi, her dismemberment into 350 “pieces” packed in 214 crates, her journey “in pieces” across the sea to Bedloe’s Island, her unpacking and re-assembling by “workers [who] break their lives into distinctions,” and her resurrection and presence as symbol and sign of all that America has long promised to its citizens and the world.
Dear Gravity by Gregory Djanikian, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014, 99 pp/, $16.95.
Dear Gravity, the title of Gregory Djanikian’s latest collection of poetry, captures the volume’s intimate and affectionate tone, its ability to treat serious matters without taking itself too seriously, its concern with what anchors us to this world and to one another. Each of the book’s five sections comprises a thematic unit that picks up threads previously introduced, thus weaving an elegant and coherent whole. In Dear Gravity, Djanikian reflects on social issues, relationships, family history, domestic life, and our connection to nature, always conscious of our place in the larger world: “No one immune here, no one/merely a small flash in the pan:/everything hugely combustible” (“Violence”). (more…)
LEAVING THE PINK HOUSE: A MEMOIR by Ladette Randolph (University of Iowa Press, 2014, paperback, 228pp)
Admiring Ladette Randolph for her Ploughshares editing and her earlier novels, I was fascinated and moved by her new memoir LEAVING THE PINK HOUSE, which is about her investment in her mid-life marriage and centered on renovating a Nebraska farm house with her husband. From that present she explores her personal history in earlier houses: her hard working mother, her sketchy father who owned a failing gas station and was ordained as a Church of Christ minister; her love of landscape; her fundamentalist faith; work in a nursing home; her young first marriage and husband’s death in an accident; treatment for melanoma at age 22; her twelve-year second marriage to a minister, her parenting three children, and subsequent divorce; death of her father; her “ever-expanding acceptance of broader truths”; her editing career at the University of Nebraska Press, while she wrote fiction; her third marriage to Noel, a sensitive, stalwart, self-realized man, who works as an operations manager in a grain elevator, plays in a band, and does construction as an avocation. Ladette’s character evolves as doughty, soul searching, and resilient, all of which is symbolized by the evolution of the farm house into her and Noel’s hard won and gratefully achieved dream. Their early relationship, she writes, “felt geometric as though we were opening up to each other and into new spaces” and now, she concludes, “as we built an actual house, I saw it as an extension of our love for one another, an expression of our solidarity with the world.”
Pretenders by Jeff Friedman, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014, 127 pp., $16.95, paperback
Each poem in Jeff Friedman’s sixth collection, Pretenders, delights with its linguistic and imaginative invention. The opening poem, “Mud,” sets the tone for the work that follows. From the mysterious first lines—“Out of the river, mud climbed/broken embankments, crooked staircases/gleaming hulls, the corpses of cows/ the skulls of cares” (1-4)—through the more nurturing mid-section—“Mud baked our bread. / It spoke a thousand tongues/translated our deepest needs into simple sentences” (12-14)—“Mud” displays Friedman’s characteristic piling on of images so engaging it’s easy to lose track of the somber subtext culminating in the closing line: “When we looked up, even the sun was mud” (25). (more…)
Judith Harris’s recent book, Night Garden (Tiger Bark Press, 2013), intrigues us with the poignant chronicle of a gifted child’s burgeoning awareness of the natural world as her primary source of spiritual and artistic nourishment. This awareness, which redeems her from the crushing sensual and imaginative deprivation of her home environment, grows, as she grows, into her life’s most enduring relationship. (more…)
As I read Mary Bonina’s debut memoir, My Father’s Eyes, I found myself forgetting, over and over, that Bonina was a child during most of its recounted scenes. I would read a passage of Bonina guiding her father, whose vision was slowly escaping him, down familiar neighborhood streets, and suddenly stop. Wait, I’d think, she’s only eight years old in this passage. What a remarkable child she must have been, to have learned to see the world for her father, to negotiate the intricacies of his imminent blindness for herself and for his failing eyes. (more…)
In after that, Kathleen Aguero’s most recent book of poems (Tiger Bark Press, 2013), the speakers—and they are varied—come up against hard irrevocables and the subsequent aftermath of “after that” in which the door to all future possibilities shuts as unequivocally as the door to Dickinson’s soul choosing its own society, and as hard the final mute in the book’s title.
The book opens with Aubade and introduces us to the landscape of Section I: “Pearl gray, blue gray/the mauve tinged gray east,” seems, at first, a traditional song, praising dawn as a blank page of sky onto which the day’s scenarios have yet to be written, plucked from “The air, rich and heavy with holding,” infinite with possibilities. Yet, unlike pop psychologies, which attempt, by a thin string of logic, to tether themselves to quantum physics and posit that the trajectory of one’s fate is launched by free choice, the poem soon informs us Aguero’s speakers will have no such authorial autonomy. (more…)
Dzvinia Orlowsky’s latest collection of poetry, Silvertone, chronicles a family’s history with both tenderness and irony. These remarkable poems create a paradoxical sense of intimacy and distance, employing the perspective of the spying child who longs to be part of her parents’ intimacy with the knowledge of love that the adult speaker brings to the moment. In addition, in Part I the poet skillfully sets up themes and tropes that will reoccur throughout the collection. For example, the very first poem, “Smoke on the Water” introduces music as one of the leitmotifs that weave together the book’s four sections. The title poem, “Silvertone,” begins with the speaker as a child overhearing her father playing his Silvertone guitar and singing to her mother. Drawn by the sound of their conversation, the speaker creeps downstairs:
In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, Campbell McGrath’s new book,
rare linguistic fauna rear up, line by line, re-constructed
from the DNA of 19th century verbiage, hefty sentences of pith and moment dwarfing much contemporary verse. Complexity of clause,
words thought extinct, sinuous syntax that wraps itself around ideas
about poetry and poetry’s place in the world, these poems
mark a departure from McGrath’s earlier work in that they (more…)
Two ghosts, Larry Levis and James Wright,
hover over these poems, nodding their approval.
I don’t know how Millar descends from them
but in college, I had a crazy chef with blue
distended eyes, half of what he cooked imprinted
on his apron as he swilled the sherry he was (more…)
George Saunders newest short story collection The Tenth of December has been released just in time for the third season continuation of The Walking Dead which airs February 10th on AMC. The show is a morality tale set during a zombie apocalypse. Currently it’s the most literary drama on American television (and that ain’t the third Glenlivet talking). It out-dramatizes and out-thinks both Mad Men and Homeland. Like many British shows (MI-5), The Walking Dead is not afraid to kill off main characters. There’s more at philosophical stake. More hermeneutic and proairetic coding (if you’re into that kind of thing). But what’s this all got to do with Saunders? Zombies. That’s what. Saunders is the best zombie author who’s ever lived or maybe lived. Forget the resurrection tales of John the Apostle and Luke the Evangelist. To hell with Mary Shelley. Nobody brings the dead back to life like George Saunders. (more…)
A Night in Brooklyn, D. Nurkse. New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 2012
D. Nurkse’s tenth collection of poems, A Night in Brooklyn, is the spiritual chronicle of a marriage. The couple, making every effort at a true mutuality, even a revolutionary parity, contend with themselves and one another in a skein of lyrics that accrue to a narrative of maturation and growth. Nurkse’s voice in these poems is resonant and haunting, both admiring of and compassionate toward the younger selves of the speaker and his love, to whom these poems of reflection, remorse, and celebration seem addressed. The pronoun that presides over the entire book is we. (more…)