Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang's debut collection Afterland stares frankly at her family's past.  She is Hmong, and her family left Laos as refugees after the US withdrawal.  Her poems are imagistic and episodic.  They are a haunting, from both the living and the dead.  Buy here.

 

From "Calling the Lost"

Hmong people say one's spirit can run off, / Go into hiding underground. // Only the physical stays behind. // To heal, a shaman checks on the spirit / By scraping the earth, / Examining the dirt. // If an ant emerges, / He takes it inside, // Careful not to crush the ant with his hold, / Nor flutter its being into shock / With one exhale. // Sometimes we hide in ants, he says. 

 

From "Final Dispatch from Laos"

Concerning our unused stomachs, / Molars waiting to chew, taste buds // Obsolete. By then, we won't remember / We're alive. We'll be the soil covered // In mines.

 

From "Last Body"

I'm moving on / To what the world needs me to know. // I am an angel trapped inside the bullet. / I am the exit wound trapped inside the angel. // Am I the scarecrow / Perched at the end of the human trail.

Uncertain Grace by Rebecca Wee

This book won the Hayden Carruth Award many years ago. The poems are lyric, airy, and deep.  The poems in this book don't shy away from difficult topics like war, poverty, infidelity.  But they don't dwell there with heavy hand either.  Buy here.

 

From "Graffiti Under Memorial Bridge"

Turning off the television is easily done but our mental turmoil / must be watched . . . // The world is covered with people who're watching events. / Frankly, they get in the way.

 

From "Pont des Arts"

The mothers miss how their daughters' eyes catch then-- / the wary, openmouthed stares. // A terrible knowledge passes between them, / the bridge rippling under their feet // as the polished child rushes past but looks back / at the one on the bridge in the heat-- / the sunblown silent one / whose hand has pulled back and flown up to smooth, / for a moment, her heavy hair.

The Light in Our Houses by Al Maginnes

The Light in Our Houses won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series award this year.  I just got it in the mail yesterday.  It's great!  For those of us with connections to small towns and the South, we'll recognize the people landscaping these poems.  Marines writes about common poetry/life topics such as lost youth, passage of time, music and poetry, but his treatment of them feel real, and a little gritty.  He's able to connect the stories he's telling to a larger experience.  In short, they connect to the reader.  Buy here.

 

From "The Lost Child"

I have no idea what has become of Gary Fox or any of that line / of boys under the dam. My family moved, then moved again; / those boys have gone wherever they have gone. / They surface attached to incident, faces struggling for names, / then slip back into the swift-moving water / whose one bank is forgetfulness, whose other is time.

 

From "Chasing Johnny Armstrong"

Even the windows are painted over, / as if to hold in the hundreds of hours // worn to dust there . . .

 

From "The Room Below the River"

In one of my childhood books, a boy dived / to the bottom of the river to find a chamber / where some treasure needed for his journey home / was hidden. His return to the realm / of light and air was meant to be a rebirth, / but let's believe those boys who never surface // learn to outlast the need for air, . . . 

 

From "Calling It Home"

Beginning a new life must be like that. / Something small and wild moves / on the edge of your vision. You call it / and sometimes it comes close enough / you believe you can give it a name.

Lost Alphabet by Lisa Olstein

Lost Alphabet is a collection of prose poems that are written in the form of field notes written by a lepidopterist (moth scientist) living on the outskirts of a village in an unknown place.  It is so rich in an exotic, mysterious setting with a narrator who changes over the course of the book, changing the analysis and changing himself.  His observations include moths, of course, but also intriguing glimpses of the village, migraines that hit for days and lead to breakthroughs, and the harsh landscape that surrounds him.  Olstein's poems contain strong lines that are so earned they hit deep.  I've included some segments below, but it's hard to take these poems out of context of each other, or the lines out of context of the larger collection.  Buy here.

 

[the second of five predictables]

It is injurious to move them, no matter how gently, from whatever perch or bed they are quiet upon. Anything hates to be pulled from its feet. They resist and soon it's a struggle and I'm some monster of weather or prey, so I have learned to move them carefully on whatever it is they cling to.  There is a ripple, an almost undetectable flash of alarm, but it passes, and the branch or leaf beneath them is a balm, a promise between us.

 

[a moment or as long as necessary]

Like captains on a ship or cousins in a poorhouse we sleep in shifts, one of us always watching.  Ilya won't handle the specimens, but reports their activity in a log. Usually days are quiet. I have imagined a new way of holding my instruments, more of a laying down in the fingers. I introduce the changes slowly so as not to startle the moths. It will benefit them, but they are accustomed to what they are accustomed to and I don't want them to think I am strange.

Surgical Wing by Kristin Robertson

Surgical Wing is the debut collection from Kristin Robertson, and won the Alice James Poetry Award.  It's absolutely stunning!  As in, I felt stunned while reading some of these pieces.  The voice is strong and the images fresh and clean.  Each section begins with a poem about a clinical trial of a human with wings, a mad medical experiment.  But these and the other poems are beautiful in their madness.  You should seriously buy it here.

 

From "Clinical Trail: Human with Wings"

What's it like? Not what you think. / It isn't a saturnalia of air and sky-scraped / thrills. Often it's blistering roof shingles. / . . . Today I saw the missing girl. / Her body in the junkyard.  That hushed acreage. / Half underneath an abandoned van, / in a nest of barbed wire. From here / I could have watched her lie in hammocks . . .

 

From "Rules of Surgery"

Birds imprison themselves inside butterfly conservatories, / and we think it's for watermelon and water. But what if // it's for the mirrors . . . // How else can a bird measure its neon wingspan, see itself / swoop from branch to wrist to a porcelain fruit plate / . . . They live their lives trapped just to prove, // again and again, they're flying.

Retrievals by Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson's work has always been meditative, rich in images, and humanly important.  He deals with war and death and love.  This book contains shorter poems than many of his older books.  They are no less rich, however.  They are so deep you have to leave this world to accompany them.  They leave you entranced.  Perspective is shifted--how you perceive a situation or an object changes what is there (see "Taking Aim" except below).  The poems often share images and ideas--calling to each other like tropical birds in a dense forest.  You want to read this book, so buy it here.

 

From "Taking Aim"

That's when a bird flies out of the heart, out of memory. / What we see depends on who we are.  Only things / that seem to have no meaning gather meaning later on. / Debris lifts the land an average of 4.7 feet each century. / A ton of micro meteoric dust falls to earth every hour. / Who we are depends on what we see. . .

 

From "Ruins: Convent, Lisbon"

If we trace everything back to the Big Bang then we return / to the emptiness we'll become. In Siberia they have uncovered / the bones of Denisovans who no one can explain but who were / related to humans. In the end we have to believe in ourselves. / The clouds roll up like ancient scrolls. Too often the ruins / we leave behind are not enough. Even the sky becomes a dungeon. . .

 

From "Lidice: The Children's Statues"

They are looking at a town made from splinters of memory. / On the opposite hill, only a marker where the church stood, / where the few birds seems crawl across the sky. If you / think about death long enough it begins to think about you . . .

Sycamore: Poems by Kathy Fagan

Last week, I read in Knoxville with Jennifer Jackson Berry and Kathy Fagan.  I wasn't familiar with either of their work, but have now read both and am so honored to have met them, heard them, and read them.  I'll review both their books here, since I would recommend both of them highly.

Kathy's book Sycamore: Poems is well-crafted and rich.  Kathy is a master at bringing the reader into a careful deep, a quiet, a thoughtful place, and then hitting them with a bolt-of-lightning image or phrase.  It takes the breath away.  There's humor but no silliness.  It's just gorgeous. Buy here.

From "Santa Caterina's Tomb"

On her feast day, recumbent under / glass, Saint Catherine was open / for business.  We queued up to touch her / hand, that never learned to write, // . . . Catherine's head lies at home / in Siena. Her heart could be / in my breast pocket right now-- / something's dead in there.

 

From "Sycamore, Wick & Flame"

When I'm found by a hand / in a series of hands, / I poole like milk in a blue bowl. / There's a key out there / lying in the grass, / and then there's me, / not looking for it.

 

From "Word Problem With Waves in its Hair"

. . . The knob on the oven looked like the combination lock to a safe / I desired to turn it in my hand like a curl in my mother's hair / She took me to the beach when she wanted waves in mine / She wanted to put some body in it she said / She already had my brother in her / He was a guppy in her belly then . . .

 

The Feeder by Jennifer Jackson Berry

Last week, I read in Knoxville with Jennifer Jackson Berry and Kathy Fagan.  I wasn't familiar with either of their work, but have now read both and am so honored to have met them, heard them, and read them.  I'll review both their books here, since I would recommend both of them highly.

Jennifer's book The Feeder deals directly and straightforwardly with the speaker's miscarriage, weight issues, and sex life.  It sounds dark, doesn't it?  But it's actually funny at times.  The speaker's unflinching look at her personal life is so beautifully written that the reader doesn't flinch either.  Check it out below, and buy it here.

From "I Did Things for the Stories"

My advice: eat things mayo-based, hot / from the sun.  When you puke, // puke in the port-a-potty, / bare-knees & hair loose. // At the pavilion after, / take another spoonful. // But don't swat the wasp. / Let it happen.  Let the sting happen.

 

From "I Lost Our Baby"

I lost our baby in between the couch cushions, / under the car seat, in the trunk. / I lost our baby at Cedar Point--she was rolled up / in a plastic money holder I wore around my neck . . .

 

From "Paper Birthday"

Our baby is onion skin, not crisp / for folding into toy kites or airplanes, / but translucent, hard to see / in her white or canary colors, floating / just out of reach.

Small Crimes by Andrea Jurjevic

Andrea Jurjevic is an Atlanta poet.  She won the 2015 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for her new book, Small Crimes.  Andrea is a native of Croatia, and some of her poems are set in the Balkan War of the 1990's.  The grit in these lines is hard-earned and well-written.  Andrea manages to retain a humanness and even sexiness in the horror.  This is a good book.  You can buy it here.

 

From "More Ferarum"

People are disappointingly human under the clothes they wear, but in / here, my sweet fickle angel, tricked by the side-casting moonlight // your shoulders turn to feathers through the indoor air.  This / milky light, like latex leaking from opium fruit, pours across your face, // marks your pale chest.

 

From "Small Crimes"

A fence angled like a broken jaw, / mildew on rocks otherwise porcelain-white. // Blackthorns squat and daisies sway, / and the peasant's neck is bowed at the nape, // lined like a riverbed, his soul restored / in heat and salt.  The mountain fakes ascension.

 

From "Peeling an Orange"

As the engine runs, you realize / you were meant to be with her, / at least one warm afternoon. // Like today . . .

Mercurial by Allison Joseph

I got to hear Allison Joseph read last week, and she was incredibly entertaining.  I bought a couple of her books and have read Mercurial.  Allison is very funny but not glib or trivial.  The book is short (35 pages), making it a wonderful break from whatever you're having to do today.  Buy here.

 

From "Different Dozens"

Your mama's so mystical / she can sit by the right hand of God / and not get dizzy.  Your mama's // so spiritual Pope be calling her / for advice, queries left via / official papal voice mail.

 

From "Ode to a Red Dress"

Forget little black anything. / A woman in a black dress / is mourning, no matter where / she goes in sky-high heels / or sweet sashay. // A woman in a red dress / is lighting her skin from / within, sending radiance, / diligence--fingertips / sleek over a slide of curves.

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Patricia (Trish) and I went to Arizona State together for our MFAs.  I'm thrilled that we both had our books published this year.  While I've always liked her work, this is the first time I've read 60+ poems of hers in a row.  And, wow!  Trish is writing about some messed up personal stuff, but doing it with such frankness and craft that there is no sentimentality.  It's just powerful, and startling, and all the things that great poetry can be.  Buy here.

 

From "Song of a Misanthrope"

Here comes the prance cat wearing / his white fur, bright orange swirls / like a frosty creamsicle.  I will take / him into my arms, lick his creamy / forehead, his zesty stripes.  I will / take one bite, fell the deep / freeze inside him.

 

From "Where Are You, Gravity?"

In this house we found everything that was lost.  Two necklaces--one jade, one lapis; the land, the water.  Shirt in a drawer for 35 years. This house is a 35-years drawer.

 

From "Crushings"

From the porch / I watch the truck spasm, // its great flap closing. / I watch the things // I did not want / pressing hard against // all the things / no one else wanted.

 

From "On Being Born"

My mother took // her birthday and ran. / In the womb she was // some kind of stone. / The only daughter // of an only daughter, / as I am an only daughter. // I have their hips now, / their delicate ankles, // their feet the size of hands. / I am wearing the name // they gave me, / last nesting doll.

Dynamite by Anders Carlson-Wee

I picked this chapbook up at the AWP Conference a couple weeks ago and couldn't wait to get into it.  I heard Anders read at one of the panels.  His poems distill very ordinary, rural moments into powerful poetry.  His voice is extremely strong. I'm excerpting a few pieces below to give you a taste, but it's the poems in their entirety that take the breath away.  You can find several full poems online.  Or do yourself a favor and buy here.

 

From "Northern Corn"

Traveling alone through Minnesota / as the corn comes in.  Steel silos filling / to the brim.  Black trees leaning / off the south sides of hills as the cold light / falls slantwise against the gristmills. / You have allowed another year to pass. / You have learned very little. / But that little is what you are throwing / in the furnace.

 

From "The Low Passions"

The Lord came down because God wasn't enough. / He lies on sodden cardboard behind bushes / in the churchyard.  Wrapped in faded red.  A sleeping bag / he found or traded for.  Dark stains like clouds / before a downpour.  The stone wall beside him rising, / always rising, the edges of stone going blunt / where the choirboy climbs.  He opens his mouth, / but nothing goes in and nothing comes out.

The World Doesn't End by Charles Simic

Winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize

 

The imagery and language in these poems are delightful and fun.  It's an easy read that'll wake up the brain.  Anything can happen in these poems, and it's really wonderful.  Buy here.

 

From "I was stolen by the gypsies"

I was stolen by the gypsies.  My parents stole me right back.  Then the gypsies stole me again.  This went on for some time.  

 

From "My guardian angel"

My guardian angel is afraid of the dark.  He pretends he's not, sends me ahead, tells me he'll be along in a moment.  Pretty soon I can't see a thing.

 

From "My thumb is embarking on a great adventure"

My thumb is embarking on a great adventure.  "Don't go, please," say the fingers.  They try to hold him down.

The Obvious by Bradley Paul

Bradley and I also went to undergraduate school at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga together.  I'm enjoying rereading the work of old friends, it seems.  The Obvious was Bradley's debut collection, and won the New Issues Poetry Prize in 2004.  There are so many startling, surprising images here, and I laughed out loud on several of them. Buy here.

 

from "Why I Left Nepal"

There are some lakes in Nepal that hate me. / I think, "Nepal, how you do terrify me to the quick." / I lie down, as one might, in a lake pink with evening. 

 

from "Instructions on Macbeth"

Smidge the forest a smidgen to the left. / Nail it. Good. Again. It's leaning. / Or is that you? Whatever. / At least now we can see.

 

from "Seventh of Twelve"

Truthfully, the Minotaur usually slept. / The centaurs had a still / and were getting to be quite savvy. / They had to live here too / so they kept things toned down. / It was only while the Poet was here, / they said, "Keep up appearances, / Poets talk!" And unless he saw / some real wages-of-sin spectacle, / some truly woolly-bully penitence, / we were liable to get real supervision. 

The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World by Paul Guest

Paul and I went to undergraduate school at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga together.  His writing was good then and now is spell-binding.  I recently reread his first book, which won the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize.  Paul's voice is contemplative and rich and his imagery is absurd and sharp.  There is a solid, confident voice in the poems and humor.  This is a great book.  Buy here.

 

From "Pinocchio"

Once I was wood and my heart was a knot. / From a block my brain was slowly cut-- / legs, arms, knees, and nose, my all of me / peeked out at the prompt of father's blade. / Peach-soft, I took shape like a lesson.

 

From "Cosmology in Winter for a Broken Heater"

By our bed the heater is home to a yeti. / Nestled serenely and gurgling like soda, / he is no larger than a fist or a tangerine / carved of ice.  Ball of snow, orphaned cloud, / come out, let us find you a home / better than our bedroom

 

From "In Case of Rapture"

This poem like a car will be left unmanned / and this breath neatly bisected / so that one half of it lingers not at all-- / a shaving of sky, a gull's flutter / in an egg.

Insomnia Diary by Bob Hicok

This book is filled with amusing poems about being an ordinary human.  The humor adds a nice depth to the observations in the poem.  The narrator of the poems lives in a very normal, middle-class working environment.  This is a fun read.  Buy here.

 

From the opening poem, "Bottom of the ocean"

At least once you should live with someone / more medicated than yourself.  A tall man, / he closed his eyes before he spoke, / stocked groceries at night and heard voices. / We were eating cereal the first time, / Cream of Wheat.  He said that she said / we're all out of evers without explaining / who she was or how many evers we had / to begin with or where they were kept.

 

From "Bars poetica"

. . . The Big Bang / sounds like what it was, the fucking / that got everything under way. / That love was there from the start / is all I've been trying to say.

 

From "Meteor shower"

Water's got fresh skin / but crack it pen and there's filth, / the sundry goos we've given away / coming home to lick us. / To get clean you need something / out of this world.  But what sadness / pushes stars to suicide?

Human Wishes by Robert Hass

Another book I've been re-reading after many years.  Hass is one of the greatest contemporary poets I know.  His work feels like the thoughts that go through the mind when on a long walk on a cloudy day.  Meditative and rich.  

 

From "Cuttings":

Often we are sad animals. / Bored dogs, monkeys getting rained on.

 

From "Spring Drawing 2":

Suppose, before they said silver or moonlight or wet grass, each poet had to agree to be responsible for the innocence of all the suffering on earth, // because they learned in arithmetic, during the long school days, that if there was anything left over, // you had to carry it.

Exile and Return by Yannis Ritsos

I've been rereading some of the classics I was introduced to in my undergraduate days.  Yannis Ritsos is one of those.  He's a Greek writer from the era of the Greek dictatorship of the late 60s.  His poems have a haunted feel of someone always watching his back.  The poems from Repetitions included in this collection are just amazing.  Ritsos takes Greek mythology and brings it to human, neglected terms.  Buy here.

 

From "Alcmene":

She who, that first night, slept with a god, not knowing / --only because of his heavy worldly odor and his broad hairy chest, / almost the same as her husband's yet so different, did she / seem to have guessed and sensed something--how was she now to sleep / with a mortal?

 

From "Penelope's Despair":

It wasn't that she didn't recognize him in the light from the hearth; it wasn't / the beggar's rags, the disguise--no.  The signs were clear: / the scar on his knee, the pluck, the cunning in his eye.  Frightened, / her back against the wall, she searched for an excuse, / a little time, so she wouldn't have to answer, / give herself away.  Was it for him, then, that she'd used up twenty years, / twenty years of waiting and dreaming, for this miserable / blood-soaked, white-bearded man?

 

From "The End of Dodona II":

With the gods overthrown like that, nobody knew which way to turn. / The sick stayed in bed with their eyes closed. / Their woolen socks rotten away in their shoes, along with two flowers in a glass.

unfathomed by Kirsten Kaschock

It took me a few poems to get into the voice of this book, but once I did, I couldn't stop reading.  The images are so fresh and startling.  I'll have to check out her other works.  Buy here.

 

From "His Sister, To Icarus"

In the open room of my sleep / my brother sprouted wings, but / not at all gently.

 

From "Anatomy of a Ballet Dancer, a Scoliotic"

Watch her ribs, their oddness.  How they line / on one side / up, like rungs on a ladder.  Tight / but climbable.  How the right side's ribs splay / spoke-like--like a fan.  // Ask why. 

Daughter, Daedalus by Alison D. Moncrief Bromage

This book won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2016, and it's well-deserved!  The Greek inventor of myth Daedalus resurfaces intermixed with images of infertility and pregnancy.  Surprising and wonderful!  Buy here.

 

From "Firsts Born":

Families are trundling out of me like monsters. / The firsts born of Gaia were fifty headed and one hundred handed, / there were uglier one-eyed brutes after. / In my dreams, my babies are crook-armed . . .

 

From "Daughter, Daedalus will make for you":

Daedalus will make for you your inner ear / in the shape of a bony labyrinth.

 

From "Day One":

The night does not fall / but rises. / It is the day who falls . . .