The Minor Territories by Danielle Sellers

The subject matter for The Minor Territories is a marriage and a war, and it’s not easy to tell them apart. Sellers writes about difficult material with an even tone and just enough weight. The book has the feel of an important piece of the human experience—it goes beyond the personal, although it is deeply personal. Buy here.

From “Late October, Sardis Lake”

The sun lost to a dark moon. / We argued over the proper way / to begin a long night’s blaze. / When the vein in his temple throbbed, / I sputtered and turned in. He eyed the ax, / raised the volume on the radio. / Against the night, our neighbors’ flames / looked like couples kissing. I thought / There are ways to lose a thing so small.

From “Demonstrations”

I wish our fists in the air back then / had meant more to anyone, even to us. // You wouldn’t have gone further north. / I wouldn’t have slunk back home // to marry a local boy who liked the feeling / of his fingers on my throat.

From “At Lake Mineral Wells State Park”

But they are gone and only / we are here now, and there is no / going back. There is only / now, and now, and now, / and tomorrow, until there isn’t.

Because by Joshua Mensch

Wow. This book is powerful, and not necessarily enjoyable, but beautifully written and important. Mensch starts many of the poems with “Because . . .,” maybe to try to explain the unexplainable—the abuse of a child by a man, and the need for the child to believe it is something other than abuse. These poems are told from the point of view of an adolescent, caught up in a cult-like grip of manipulation and harm, who can’t yet see himself as a victim. The book is subtitled “a lyric memoir.” Poetry might be the truest way to approach this material. Mensch pulls it off expertly. I highly recommend this book. Buy here.

Excerpt:

Because the room is bright,

sky-lit, painted white

with a mirrored wall

and a queen-sized bed;

because it is July,

hot, and I am half-

undresses already;

because I let him

undress me the rest of the way, look

when he tells me to look . . .

Plasma by Bradley Paul

I have been looking forward to getting a copy of this book since the publication was announced. I’ve really enjoyed Bradley’s previous two books (my recommendation of The Obvious), and we went to undergrad together. He’s one of the major influences on my own writing. Plasma is my favorite book yet of his. Like much of Bradley’s writing in both poetry and for TV, the works use humor to get at truths. The images get weird, and it’s wonderful. You’re never bored reading Paul’s work. I had to pace myself so I could make it last two days. Buy here.

From “Palimpsest”

Bodies skinned / but for a purpose. / The vellum remembers / the calf it was.

From “Everyone’s So Smart and Funny”

Without resorting to Wikipedia I know / that archaeopteryx is a dinosaur bird. / I think it had feathers. / Most dinosaurs did, didn’t / I read? / I assume it laid eggs and preyed / on the eggs of others. / But already I’m guessing. / It’s shameful. / We should be able to write poems / without the internet.

From “What Kind of Decay Are You?”

Here’s a family that drinks Mr. Pibb. / Their what tastes different / and the microbes that eat their sweat / smell different when they die / and fall with the skin flakes / into the rugs and mattresses. / They look so similar but / the death of your skin is different / from the death of my skin. / Your home is a coffin of weird.

From “Shut Up, Poem”

I can’t remember if I wrote it or read it but / there was another poem saying / Everyone dies! Everyone dies! / like a whiny gothy cockatiel. / Hey, Poem: / we know.

Citizens of the Mausoleum by Rodney Gomez

This is a surreal little treasure! I absolutely love it! Gomez uses amazing imagery and surprising language to deal with emotion-laden events such as a mother’s death. The result transcends melodrama and cliche, and allows the loss to be expressed in a true, meaningful way. This is the best use of surrealism, to get to the real. Buy here.

From “Cigarette”

Now that she is gone / the confessional is glad // to release her rumor / back into the world.

From “We, Too, Are Asking Why”

We sold / the mechanical bed. // Traveling monks / gave us ten bucks // for the bibles // and the Virgin / of Guadalupe // postcards. // We dismantled you. // We sanitized / the room, // painted its walls / a shade / of green. // You are no longer / in the room. // You are the room / itself.

From “Door”

Now I carry a door frame / wherever I go. // . . . I hung it from clothesline / but the wood limped / in memory of necks. // I stood it in a graveyard / with the other doors, / but the dead misremembered / the door as arms and quickly fled. // Soon I discovered that a door frame / is useless without belief. // As crucifixions are.

Here There Was Once a Country by Venus Khoury-Ghata

My friend Ilya recently recommended this book to me, and I think he’s nailed my taste! My taste in poetry leans toward the wondrous, magical-realist end of the spectrum, and Venus writes wondrous, magical poems. Her book is a village of people, alive and dead, tending to their tasks real and magical, with the routine of settled small lives. Buy here.

Some lines from various poems (the poems are unnamed):

He has that way of dragging his soul like a dog he wants to drive away.

In my village the sheep are so tall they graze on the bellies of clouds, . . .

Haha the shepherdess traveled thousands of miles to reach Ali’s dream / but he closed the door of is sleep in her face / Everything in its own time, he said / only darkness is permitted to wander around at night

The snow, she says, falls just to cover the trail of wolves on their way to the monastery where the moon never enters / it’s so afraid of being mistaken for a host.

Negligent mother / clouds of a dubious whiteness dried out on your clothesline / provoking the nightingales’ sarcasm and saddening the sun / you reported them missing to the police when the wind carried them out of the valley / called the wind a thief of sheets and cattle / then withdrew your complaint when the clouds came home to you, fog kneeling on your doorstep.

And here’s a poem in its entirety:

From our balconies, we watched the illness progress, attacking the old comets / our compassion going towards those which had left the populated areas and withdrawn to an outlying part of the sky / We watched them reel in the darkness / exhaust themselves climbing / stagger with their lanterns extinguished / we blew them out to put an end to their suffering / finished them off with a rifle-shot / then buried them in a hole in the air.

Selected Poems: 1954-1986 by Tomas Tranströmer

I’ve liked Transtömer since grad school, and was lucky to get to meet him before he died. I pulled his Selected Poems off the shelf last week to reread it, and I still find his quiet use of wild, alive images amazing. His poems are like sleeping squirrels—still but you know there is a ton of action below the surface just waiting to wake up. Transtömer’s work has been one of the biggest influences on my writing. Buy here.

From “Solitary Swedish Houses”

Summer with flaxen-haired rain / or one solitary thundercloud / above a barking dog. / The seed is kicking inside the earth.

From “The Palace”

Softer than the whisper in a shell / noises and voices from the town / we heard circling in the empty room, / muttering in their search for power. // Also something else. Something dark / stationed itself at the threshold / of our five senses but couldn’t pass. / Silent sand ran in the hourglass.

From “Morning Birds”

I wake my car. / Its windshield is covered with pollen. / I put on my sunglasses / and the song of the birds darkens. // While another man buys a newspaper / in the railroad station / near a large freight car / which is entirely red with rust / and stands flickering in the sun. // No emptiness anywhere here.

boysgirls by Katie Farris

Oh, wow! This book is amazing! It consists of a series of short prose pieces that read like poetry. The narrator draws you in seductively, but you always feel uneasy. The narrator does not have your best interests in mind. Each piece creates a mythological being, for this is a bestiary of sorts, a marvelous one. I can't wait to read more from Farris. While we wait, buy boysgirls here.

 

From the introduction:

There are ways of telling a story, they say, so that it comes alive. In the quaint way of stories. Meaning we may be mesmerized. Meaning we may begin to sketch out, in the eyes of our mind, a more or less spectacular vision. What this does not mean is that my hand, my madwoman's hand, neatly manicured with a certain fragile glowing in my too-white skin, will reach out to take you, dear reader, by the throat. I can feel you swallowing.

The Poem She Didn't Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis

This is a book of marvelous contrasts. The poems are crass and bodily but steeped in poetic tradition and formal craft. Petrarch's Francesca, Lesbia, Lowell, and a chaotic party of philosophers, poets, and artists come in and out of the poems, which deal with topics of sex, both elicit and good, and brutal rape. There's frank and unsentimental single motherhood. These poems are raw, and modern, and classical. They're sonnets and forms. The language is old (sometimes) and modern (sometimes), but consistently powerful. Buy here.

 

From "Francesca Says More"

that maiden thump was book on floor, but / does it really matter who kissed who / first and then who decided to go further?

 

From "Look at Lesbia Now!"

let the kindergarten parents talk: / yeah, you know, the divorced one, the "poet", / the one who wears "the jeans", / bags under her pink eyes, her young boyfriend / just moved back to new york.

 

From "Hello Poem"

Poem, you are supposed to be for me / Not against me. / Do not tell me that part of the problem is I know I am hot! / It's spring, Poem, take us outside.

After We All Died by Allison Cobb

This is an amazing book of complex connections between the natural world, people, pollution, and things. Cancer cells and ants act on in the same way, and according to their environment, with the same potential for destruction. The book is full of contrasts and interdependencies. The speaker's father is a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos; she is an environmental non-profit activist. The language is direct and effective; the connections fast and clever and unlimited. Buy here.

 

From "Shout at the Devil" a long prose poem:

. . . the weight of ants on the planet equals the weight of people, but that weight is distributed across many tiny bodies, making ants far more ubiquitous. Hölldobler and Wilson describe ants as "elegant and pitiless." After a combined eighty years of study, the two scientists concluded that ants are among the most rapacious and warlike of all animals: "The foreign policy of ants can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week."

 

From "You Were Born"

. . . There is / no other poem but this one, a heap / of broken images where the sun beats / on the dead trees and the dry stone gives / no sound of water, only / failure, from Latin "to trip, / dupe, deceive." Like fake. Is there no / other ending bu this one, the fucked up fail / of this war / way of being in the world? How should I know? I'm not / your sibyl / hanging out in a jar.

 

From "The things you loved"

. . . Think / the thing you loved so much / you conjured it in labs to live / inside the flesh of every animal to saturate / your own well-fatted flanks, king / of all creatures. So these / must be the names for things you loved / so much you peed on all the earth / and all its living things which you then ate / to concentrate its thickest doses inside / your pearl-white fat and rearrange your / DNA and gene expression: aldrin, dieldrin, DDT, / mire, toxaphene, and TCDD. Heptachlor, hexa / -chlorobenzene, and the PCBs nestled in your / genes with your and chrodecone and the hexa / -chlorocyclohexanes. The mark / of all you loved.

Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha's Water & Salt makes me nostalgic for a place I've never been, and which doesn't exist anymore.  The speaker remembers life in a country that has been changed and worsened by conflict.  She speaks of it so beautifully you feel its loss, and hers.  There are many poems in the collection that are political, in a way that poetry can make you feel the wrongness and need for action in our world.  These aren't two different kinds of poems, however. They are the same.  Buy here.

 

From "It's Beirut Out There"

Before they were metaphors / they were someone's city. / They were a lover's beach, // a weekly market visit, a daily drive home. / Before they were victims, / before we were victims, // we were beloveds. / Before you were a survivor, / you were someone's light.

 

From "Upon Arrival"

You will need to state the reason for your visit. / Don't say because I want to walk down old roads / and caress stone walls the color of my skin.

 

From "Eating the Earth"

And to the flames surrender / the bread, gift of your hands. / Grasp its tender edges and turn it / as the heat strafes and chars / this landscape you have caressed. / Some grandmothers sing as they bake, / others speak prayers.

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

This book has been getting a lot of attention, and it's well deserved.  It's been on my list to read for a while and then my friend Julia recommended it.  And you'd be a fool not to take a recommendation from Julia, so I moved it to the top of the list.  Wow!  What an amazing use of language and imagery.  Akbar mixes straight-forward, direct speech with evocative, surprising pictures, and the result is powerful.  Buy here.

 

From "Best Shadows"

I never told you / about the tiny beetle I saw crawl out of your ear, afraid // you wouldn't sleep in my bed again if you knew. / I wish you were here so I could bend a mirror // around your face, pour you back into you. Ah, / there goes another wish. Minute to minute I'm fine-- // right lung, left lung, blink--but the late hours / get so long.

 

From "Portrait of the Alcoholic With Cravings"

Do you like / your new home, tucked / away between brainfolds? To hold you / always seemed as unlikely // as catching the wind in an envelope.

 

From "Ways to Harm a Thing"

Throw scissors at it. / Fill it with straw / and set it on fire, or set it / off for the colonies with only / some books and dinner- / plates and a stuffed bear / named Friend Bear for me / to lose in New Jersey. / Did I say me? Things / have been getting / less and less hypothetical / since I unhitched myself / from your bedpost.

 

From "So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction"

See how / I am all rosejuice and wonderdrunk? See how / my throat is filling with salt? Boil me. Divide / me. Wrap me in paper and return me to earth. One day / I will crack open underneath the field mushrooms. / One day I will wake up in someone else's bones.

Eye Level by Jenny Xie

Jenny Xie's Eye Level won the Walt Whitman Award this year.  Her poems talk of wandering and discovery in the world, literally and in the spaces they create.  Her language is just sparse enough for your mind to see her images in the white space between them.  The poems feel groundless, but not rootless--they are the plants that live on air.  Buy here.

 

From "Rootless"

My frugal mouth spends the only foreign words it owns. // At present, on this sleeper train, there's nowhere to arrive. / Me? I'm just here in my traveler's clothes, trying on each passing town for size.

 

From "No Animal"

There go the pair! White tails studding the thicket. / Emptied of the embarrassment of need. // I stay behind. / The present tense gets close, but doesn't enter me.

 

From "Tending"

Rain stains everything. // Water pulls off the blindfold. / Draws forth what's been planted.

Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

This book is raw and powerful.  It is not for the squeamish.  Many of the poems address sex very openly, but never in a sleazy or tawdry way.  HIV and one-night stands are not shied away from.  But this book is amazing!  The opening poem, "summer, somewhere" is magical.  It gives a space in a post-living world to black boys killed in this one--the space is beautiful.  Danez does in poetry what we haven't done in America.  I've seen the poem reprinted a few places.  It should be required reading.  Buy here.

 

From "summer, somewhere"

. . . boys become new / moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise // -blue water to fly, at least tide, at least / spit back a father or two. i won't get started. // history is what it is. it knows what it did.

 

do you know what it's like to live / on land who loves you back? // no need for geography / now, we safe everywhere. // point to whatever you please / & call it church, home, or sweet love, // paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

 

From "not an elegy"

ask the rain / what it was / like to be the river / then ask the river / who it drowned.

Unfathoming by Andrea Cohen

My editor for my second book suggested Andrea Cohen's poetry to me and I loved it!  Andrea's use of language creates exciting and fresh images.  The work is so evocative.  Andrea uses an unusual word, and a concrete new reality is formed, which is the launching point for what comes next.  I'm looking forward to reading more from her.  Buy Unfathoming here.

 

From "Puzzle"

It's a puzzle. / Make piles of blue, // of black, of rain. / Let the pieces // sift together: it / only looks like ruin.

 

"Still Life"

We say / that: still // life, the way / we say stay // to the dog / already gone.

 

"Silence:

Not an absence / of blackbirds // singing, but / an abundance // of blackbirds / listening.

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Edited by Carolyn Forche

This is one of the most important anthologies of poetry compiled.  The book is hefty (over 750 pages), covering poetry from the early 1900s (starting with the Armenian Genocide) and going through both World Wars, the Cold War, . . . up to the 1990's, when the book was published.  The poems were all written by poets effected by wars and/or repression.  It's a beautiful and heartbreaking collection that shows the importance and power of poetry.  Buy here.

From "Excerpt from From a German War Primer" by Bertolt Brecht

General, man is very useful. / He can fly and he can kill. / But he has one defect: / He can think.

 

Picture Postcard 2 by Miklos Radnoti

Nine kilometers from here the haystacks and / houses are burning; / sitting on the field’s edges, some scared and speechless / poor folk are smoking. / Here a little shepherdess, stepping onto the lake still / ruffles the water; / the ruffled sheep flock at the water drinks from / clouds, bending over.

 

From "Dedication" by Czeslaw Milosz 

You whom I could not save / Listen to me. / Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another. . . // They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds / To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. / I put this book here for you, who once lived / So that you should visit us no more.

Broken Horizons by Richard Jackson

I've mentioned other books by Jackson here before.  He was my undergrad writing professor so I read his stuff often, and love it.  Broken Horizons launched a couple weeks ago and I couldn't wait to read it.  I was not disappointed.  I think this might be Jackson's best book to date.  His poetry has always been rich and associative, and rooted in gorgeous metaphors about horrific war scenes and loss and love.  These poems are shorter, and finer-focused than some of his previous work.  The book is in four sections.  Two of them stand out to me as particularly marvelous: his poems to friends lost (and the poetry world has lost a lot of friends in the last few years) and poems from Old Testament prophets to modern day people.  You'll love it!  Buy here.

 

From "Isaiah's Judgement"

What I spoke glowed like coals from my lips but you / saw only darkness. What I heard could send you back / to caves in the rocks. What I saw you would not believe. / Where is justice when you abandon the poor to shells / of buildings, the homeless to tents hidden in woods / by polluted streams and the tunnels beneath your cities?

 

From "Elijah's Warning"

. . . Listen, there are storms / that shred mountains. There are rocks that shake themselves / as the earth splits. There are my words that you burned / to ashes now floating aimlessly. No one wanted to listen. / How easy it is to hope the clouds wash away the sky's light. / We have become so inventive in our cruelties--as today / a flash of shrapnel flies through a hospital ward, someone / drives a car into a crowd, a ISIS sniper welcomes the challenge / of a child's small head, another child is hollowed out by / a gang bullet from beyond her bedroom wall. No one wants / to listen. Ages ago I told the king what would happen. / Now, I'm telling you: 

 

From "String Theory"

Every moment strays into another history. / In this way, too, the heart echoes / its own forgotten stories, as this evening, what prompted / all this--the fading, high pitched scream of / the rabbit some coyote had carried away, / the sound knifing its way through these memories, / through the tendons of lost words that showed / a way to love, finally, this flawed world.

White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad, translated by Jennifer Hayashida

White Blight was written in Swedish, by an Iranian immigrant to Sweden.  The book is written as a series of quotes from family members.  All snippets have beginnings such as "My mother said" or "My brother said." The speaker is never quoted, never speaks for herself, but comes alive through the cacophony of family voices.  Each page has one or two of these snippets, written in white text on a black strip on a white page.  The effect adds up and becomes a powerful look at immigrant life as a minority, as the speaker becomes the white space, the blank space, in the texts of the family. Buy here.

 

My father said: Your brother shaved before his beard started to grow / Your brother saw the terrorist's face in the mirror / and wanted a flat iron for Christmas

My brother said: Some day I want to die in a country / where people can pronounce my name.

 

My mother handed the glass to her mother and said: Now we are even / Here is the milk back

 

My uncle said: Is there a puddle where war has not washed its bloody hands

Some Ether by Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn's poems are incredible!  His images are striking and precise.  The emotions are contained but raw.  There is deep sadness and wonder and anger.  Flynn deals with family trauma (mother's suicide, dad's homelessness) with clarity and no self pity.  His measured tone and craft are flawless.  Buy here.

 

From "Bag Of Mice"

I dreamt your suicide note / was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag, / & in the bag were six baby mice. The bag / opened into darkness, / smoldering / from the top down.

 

From "Flood"

. . . In grade school I heard / clouds could weigh three tons & I wondered // why they didn't all just fall to the ground. Lately // I study rain, each drop shaped / like a comet, ten million of them, as if a galaxy / had exploded above us.

 

"Prayer"

Who are you talking to? she asks, the room empty.

Native Guard: Poems by Natasha Trethewey

Native Guard won the Pulitzer.  It's an amazing book too.  Halfway through the book, I realized many of the poems were formal verse.  Trethewey handled the forms and rhyming so skillfully it didn't get distract.  Many of the poems deal with race, the South, the past.  The subjects are placed frankly into the sightline of the reader.  The emotional impact is strong, but not overdone.  This is not only a good book, it's an important book.  Buy here.

 

From "Native Guard"

Truth be told, I do not want to forget / anything of my former life: the landscape's / song of bondage--dirge in the river's throat / where it churns not the Gulf, wind in trees / choked with vines. I thought to carry with me / want of freedom though I had been freed, / remembrance not constant recollection. / Yes: I was born a slave, . . .

 

From "After Your Death"

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes, / threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised / from your touch, left empty the jars // you bought for preserves. The next morning, / birds rustled the fruit trees, and later / when I twisted a ripe fig loose from its stem, // I found it half eaten . . .

 

From "Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971"

Why the rough edge of beauty? Why / the tired face of a woman, suffering, / made luminous by the camera's eye? // Or the storm that drives us inside / for days, power lines down, food rotting / in the refrigerator, while outside // the landscape glistens beneath a glaze / of ice? Why remember anything / but the wonder of those few days, . . .

Where Is North by Alison Jarvis

Jarvis' book deals head-on with grief.  Her poems are meditative and slow-paced and deep and still and beautiful.  She talks of a spouse's deterioration and loss, a father's abuse and deaths, a mother's loss.  Her touch is in no way melodramatic or attention-seeking.  The poetry provides a space in which the worst can happen, and be stared at, with remove and love.  Buy here.

 

Daylight Savings

Because he's ill and can't, I change / the clocks, forgetting the faceted crystal / with silver hands beside his bed.  So when he tells me / I'll be late, I know better.  I always know / better now and say so. As though / he's already gone, as though it's really possible / to change the clocks.

 

My Lost Coat

The black suede trench / I saved up for-- / the store beyond the reach-- // first time out, flying east / to west to meet you that secret / winter, I left it on the plane. / I must have known // I wouldn't need it there, sand / so hot we raced to water, // as though to burn, I would leave-- / everything behind me, the coat, the dark / shape of my life.