Hemlock by Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips’ new chapbook Hemlock was my selection for the third week of my guest editing of The Wardrobe Best Dressed blog, which promotes a recent book by a woman or non-binary author every week. Phillips’ chapbook consists of only nine longish poems (about 30 pages total), but every one of them is dynamite. The writing is internal, but universal, like good poetry should be. There’s humor, energy, and deep restless energy. Buy here.

From “Ladyfingers”

does god have the hands 

of a man of books 

 

or the hands of a mason     smooth

 

 

or calloused would his 

fingers bleed if he 

 

played fiddle      these questions

 

 

don’t take into 

account other questions 

 

like is there even a god

From “Moonpie”

Some days I want to sit in my sadness 

like a parked car, engine still

 

hot but breathing, waiting for 

a song to end. But some never 

 

do. I suppose I’ll

die with someone else’s lyrics

on my lips . . .

From “Treading Water”

. . .

 

whole families walk

 

their slow legs

 

back in

 

against the rip

 

tide to the beach because it begins

 

to rain a light

 

rain they don’t want

 

to get wet salt stings

 

an eye but we don’t

 

call an eye

 

a wound . . .

Revenge of the Asian Woman by Dorothy Chan

Dorothy Chan’s Revenge of the Asian Woman is quirky, quick, and energetic. These poems are obsessed with food, family expectations, and sex. They delve into the expectations put upon us by our family and history, vs the reality of who we turn out to be. This book is a fun read. Buy here.

From "Triple Sonnet for My Aggressive Forehead"

Dad thinks my forehead is too Godzilla, too Tarzan,
too Wonder Woman, tells me not to tie my hair back,
exposing it, like it’s the Frankenstein Monster
from beneath my childhood bed,
or the mollusk that challenged the world,
and Dad, I love you, but you should know
that I’m a nightmare as a woman
who can make the earth stand still, . . 

From “Ode to Baby Pandas, Hong Kong Mornings, and My Grandmother”

what a beautiful morning, and oh, my grandmother’s
so beautiful, and it’s beautiful how beautiful is the only word
she knows in the English language

From “America the Delicious”

. . . and America, you’re delicious,
but stop tainting my Hong Kong street food—
stop tainting that legendary mile-long line waiting
for their gai daan jai and fish ...

American Samizdat by Jehanne Dubrow

For the month of August, I’m guest editing Sundress Publication’s The Wardrobe Best Dressed blog, which promotes a recent book by a woman or non-binary author every week. This week, I’ve selected Jehanne Dubrow’s American Samizdat. Dubrow’s book takes moments from everyday life and spotlights them in a startling way. The emotion of this book will feel familiar, but the language and view will surprise. It’s immersed in the anxious watch of the US today, with the constant stream of news. The images are condensed and haunted, small and strong impressions. Buy Dubrow’s book here. And check out The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed here for more selections.

Selection 1 (Untitled):

I keep receiving boxes filled with air,

delivered overnight by carriers

 

who do not knock or ring the bell.

What it means to be modern—

 

packages of breath in plastic pouches.

I puncture them with a knife

 

to hear them gasp

like someone learning of a death.

Selection 2 (Untitled):

Think of Clytemnestra

standing on the purple cloth,

 

her hands a history of red.

Such joy, she says, I struck him twice,

 

sometimes a knife

the only power that we hold.

 

Outside the day is gutted—it bleeds

its closing scene across the grass.

The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All On Fire by Robert Krut

The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All On Fire, winner of this year’s Codhill Poetry Prize, opens with a quote by Vasko Popa, a Serbian poet with roots in Surrealism. It’s a perfect setting for Krut’s work, which itself carries a bit of Surrealism, using a playful style of words and imagery. The book also reminds me of Charles Simic’s writing, and the writing of contemporaries like Bradley Paul (more on him here and here) and Julia Beach Anderson (a name you’ll probably hear more from in the future). If you’re comfortable being unmoored and bobbing on a odd sea, this is a good book for you. Titles are great: “You Can’t Escape When You’ve Been Underwater All Along,” “Now, Breathe Fire,” and “You Are a Jellyfish, Ghost,” for example. The poems are just as fun. Buy here.

From “River Side, Rain Side, Fire Side”

You whispered a secret into my ear, and I spoke a piece of paper. / I have built a tower designed to reverse lightning back to the sky. / Your eyelashes pull toward the moon. / Night’s white pearl drowns the flames from your fingertips. / Danger isn’t a bomb, danger is a drip.

From “I’ll Be Your Keepsake”

You wrote a poem on the back of a cabinet door / but I can’t move to read it anymore. // Please, recite it by memory, / please. I want to remember its words, // even if I cannot move / to do so.

From “In the Trees, On the Road, Off the Highway”

The vanishing point of the road / ends in your open mouth, the pavement / the tonal concrete of your voice, / an endless song echoing past the forest. // A deer leaps in the woods, but in the trees, / far overhead, a great airborne animal / birthed when no one was watching, no one / but me, looking for you.

Boom Box by Amorak Huey

Boom Box is filled with poems calling to a past, a childhood in Alabama listening to hair bands and watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It describes this world, familiar to many of us, with sincerity and affection, but not through nostalgia. These poems are tender and true, but they’re not stupid in their love. Buy here.

From “Portrait of My Brother as Indiana Jones”

All a young man has is his faith in hard work, / the belief that if only he can count / the grains of sand in a fist-sized sack, / things will turn out as he hopes— / that when he returns home / there will be quiet afternoons / and a girl in a sweater with love on her eyelids— / yet every adventure ends / in the same weary surprise, / the same aching temples / when the poison darts fly, / when the floor drops from beneath, / when fatherhood looms and the bills come due, / when vision closes in from the corners, / when the dark mass requires surgery, / when they cut open his skull / because the only threats that matter / were inside all along.

From “Cigarette vs. Cookie”

My mother is leaving. My father is leaving. / We are all leaving, that’s the only truth. Someone / rhymes their fists against the hood of a rusted white pickup: // knuckle-bruise and raised-voice—am I in the truck?

From “Crimes I Did Not Commit”

I have never been erased from the plot. / Never held a gun. Never climbed to the top / of the rusting girders to stare down / at the quiet water, the marking rocks. / Never imagined I could change the world / by disappearing. I did not pretend / to find God because I did not believe / this would persuade a girl to touch me. / If I did, it did not work. This is not / that kind of story. This is not a confession. / This is a heart growing wings and taking flight, / up above the scrub pine and water oak, / hurrying out ahead of the storm.

Lost on Purpose by Karen Head

Karen Head’s new book, Lost on Purpose, is a collection revolving around travel and discovery, steeped in life and literature. The speaker explores new places, and settles into life with a stunning new love. Really, the book has all the things we want to read about in poetry. The writing is rich, beautifully-paced, and well-crafted. It’s a delight. Buy here.

From “Give Way”

. . . Like when I was eleven, / and fell down a flight of stairs, / all breath knocked out of me, / my granny refusing my panic— / locking here eyes with mine / blowing her breath hard on my face / until I gasped, cried out / with joyous fright. // That’s how it is, this love, . . .

From “But for the Grace”

. . . Being alone in Paris frightened me. // Being alone frightened me. // Perhaps it is this fear / that beckoned me tonight, / compelled me to watch over, / to pray for, the staggering drunk below / who bawls curses to the air / because he isn’t sure / he will find his way home.

From “Settling Down”

. . . You are giddy. So am I. There is no one to take a photo of us together. I bury my face in the hollow near your left shoulder. In less than an hour we will be forced to pack it in. How can I say this without it being a love poem? Months from now, sand will spill from the totebag’s pocket onto our bedroom floor in Atlanta—the grains settling quickly between the planks.

Arabilis by Leah Silvieus

This book is a girl holding a gun in the back country of the American northwest. It’s tough and beautiful, full of religion and reverence, and a kid-level of violence. Silvieus’ voice is strong. The language and images are clean. The poems love life and nature, even in its violence and death. I really enjoyed getting lost in this book. Buy here.

From “Naturalization”

When I came to this country, I was reborn / with a pistol in my palm. / They called me a natural: / That bullseye, gorgeous!

From “On the Feast of Epiphany”

. . . As children here, // our mothers coaxed our tongues into prayers / for mild winters and taught us to cull from them deliverance: // deer strung cruciform from shed rafters, cold blood cherries / filling the cellar. We learned to play dead, knotting our hands // behind our necks to protect from grizzlies, to chisel / breath-space in avalanche and trail the North Star home. // Tonight, my brother studies clouds, tells me / the storm will break next morning. Once, I too could divine // first snow, but tonight, the heavens refuse me. The firmament / rolls over, dreaming of other prophets.

From “Field Elegy”

. . . Even though I know the suffering is over, / I want to shut its round black eye, now dulling // as it stares up through the soil—I want to make it / look as if it were sleeping and not dead // —as if such a thing were a mercy / to this fawn and not to me, now alone // in this field and bleating.

Marvels by MR Sheffield

What a glorious book! The work is divided into sections, each beginning with the description of an animal taken from H.D. Northrop’s 1897 Marvels of Natural History, and accompanied by illustrations from the same text. The book tells a story through the musings and letters between a mother and daughter. The mother is a boat captain on an expedition. Her husband has just been eaten by a boa constrictor on one of the stops the boat makes. The young daughter has been left behind. As the story unfolds, the daughter grows up and marries H.D. Northrop, who is much older and, well, dead before she is born. Intrigued? Buy here.

From an untitled piece, written by the mother to the daughter, in the section of a double cat-fish (an animal that is described as two catfish joined together):

If we say we are fish then are we are we then are we inextricably combined? And where fits our corpse, dear dad, my Esteban? Can we lump him on with you, honey, so you have to hump him up mountains while I fly these skies myriad for treasures to bring back to you, for pearls to strew around your neck, diamonds with which to kiss your rosy cheeks and etc?

From a letter written to H.D. Northrop by the daughter:

I read your obituary thingy in the newspaper. I’ve attached it here for your perusal. Don’t you think you’re being kind of a dick about the whole thing? I do! I’m not even born yet and I think you stink with actual stink lines of repugnance. It’s my own special problem that I’m already in love with you and you are an asshole. How will I live the rest of my life like this? I’m going to be one of those swooning girls, aren’t I, Northrop, lying back onto couches and fanning myself, bright red of face and fuming of temper.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown’s new book The Tradition examines personal history, cultural issues, the speaker’s interior—many of the best poetic topics. The voice is strong and sure, but not resting—the poems question the world around them. Many of the poems are written in forms, which Brown does deftly, always an impressive feat. This book feels important, not in small part because the speaker feels important. And that might be the best part about this book, that the speaker, as just one of us, recognizes the importance of each of us. Buy here.

From “As a Human Being”

There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve. / They sit apart from each other / The way you and your mother / Sat on opposite ends of the sofa / After an ambulance came to take / Your father away.

From “The Rabbits”

I caught them / In couples on the lawn / As I pulled into my driveway / After a night of bare music, / Of drinking on my feet / Because I think I look better / Standing. I should lie. Say / They expressed my desire / To mount and be / Mounted as they scurried / Into the darkest parts of what / I pay for . . .

Brute by Emily Skaja

Emily Skaja’s Brute has won this year’s Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. It’s a powerful book, dealing with pain and abuse using language of startling originality. Skaja has had to create new uses for language to tell such a story., similar to the Spanish Surrealists dealing with the trauma of the Spanish Civil War. And like much of their work, the result pushes past any sentimentality and victimhood. Buy here.

From “Girl Saints”

O LORD, when the Angel said Listen / when the Angel said Do not fall to the earth for anyone // we were already stained in glass. // A circle of black flies biting / our arrival. Scales scraped off a fish. // Starved girls folded at a line in Leviticus. // This is how it happened: one day we looked outside / & the bloated bodies of frogs were fucking up the yard.

From “Dear Ruth”

. . . Help me understand, help me reverse / the pilgrims’ stories. Make them rise up out of their bone crypts // doubled with purpose—bloodied, believing—& send them to war / for their girl queens. War for their daughters hallelujah // as it wasn’t in the beginning isn’t now & never shall be / world without end. Oh but God my God Amen.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Damn, y’all. I’ve been looking forward to this book’s launch and it delivered! If you’re going to read one book of poetry in the near future, this is my recommendation. The book is a narrative, a story of war coming to a town, the resistance of the people, and the inevitable outcome of their choices. It’s a story, a commentary on our current political climate, and beautiful/devastating poems. Seriously, buy here.

From “I, This Body”

Wife taken, child // not three days out of the womb, in my arms, our apartment / empty, on the floor // the dirty snow from her boots.

From “A City Like a Guillotine Shivers On Its Way to the Neck”

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?

From “Firing Squad”

Tonight they shot fifty women on Lerna Street. / I sit down to write and tell you what I know: / a child learns the world by putting it in her mouth, / a girl becomes a woman and a woman, earth.

Earthly Measures by Edward Hirsch

Ed Hirsch has written several books since Earthly Measures, but this one was on my shelf and I pulled it out for another read. The book is filled with poems that slow time, meditating on a place or image, and making it rich and alive. There are many poems that take place elsewhere and they make you long to be there. Ed deftly uses the line rhythm and choice of word and sound to transport the reader. It’s gorgeous. It’s what poetry should feel like. Buy here.

From “Four A.M.”

 

The hour when nothing begets nothing, / the hour of drains and furnaces, // shadows fastened to a blank screen / and the moon floating in the pool of ashes. // The hour of nausea at middle age, / the hour with its face in its hands, // the hour when no one wants to be awake, / the scorned hour, the very pit // of all the other hours, the very dirge. // Let five o’clock come / with its bandages of light. // A life buoy in bruised waters. / The first broken plank of morning.

 

From “Roman Fall”

 

. . . And I remember the rich unquarried blues / of the Janiculum at twilight, / The sky veined and chipped like marble, / The wind dipping / and soaring on transparent wings. // We were always stepping off / into the glassy Roman light / And moving back into polluted shadows, / Climbing the penitential stairs / and crossing under arches, . . .

 

From “Summer Surprised Us”

 

These first days of summer are like the pail / of blueberries that we poured out together / into the iron sink in the basement-- // a brightness unleashed and spilling over / with tiny bell-shaped flowers, the windows / opened and the shrubs overwhelming the house // like the memory of a forgotten country, Nature, / with its wandering migrations and changing borders, / its thickets, woodlands, bee-humming meadows . . .

Posada by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

I’ve been wanting to read this book since I heard Bermejo read at AWP a couple years ago during the Sundress Press offsite reading. Unfortunately (for me)/fortunately (for her), her book sold out at the Sundress table before I bought a copy. But I’ve finally made my way to the book. Bermejo writes about border spaces—places in southern California where the residents are largely immigrant families (perhaps several generations down) who still keep their Hispanic culture and Spanish language, but she also speaks of the literal border spaces, and her time volunteering to hike miles into the dessert to leave provisions for immigrants crossing over. This book feels important, because seeing the humanity up-close of those who are portrayed in places of power as inhuman, IS very important. Buy here.

From “The Hills of East L.A. Are Home”

I am sitting on my bed in Solano Canyon / watching the neighborhood below my window / move slow in the crack of green hills. // “Anything else?” I ask. “No. I remembered, / and I guess I wanted you to know.” She’s proud / I write poems and like to listen to old stories.

From “Things to Know for Comañer@s: A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide”

Did you know? // When patrolling trails, you may encounter a / mountain lion. If so, gather together, stand tall and / wave your arms. When encountering lightning, / spread out and crouch close to the ground. Do not / confuse the two.

Phrase Book by Jo Shapcott

I read this book the first time in my early 20’s and it was nice to reread it. Shapcott has some moments of wonderful humor in her poems, like a series in the voice of a cow with mad cow disease. There are plays on perspective and an extended poem in the style of Rilke, which captures Rilke’s gorgeous meditative pacing. There are love poems and poems in the voice on Tom and Jerry, Marlon Brando, and Superman. Definitely a fun and short read. (I’m rereading an older book, so the options for buying aren’t great. You can search for a used copy and find a few floating around, or check the liberary.)

From “The Windows: after Rilke”

I think I want you to save me from love / but then it arrives here too / in the wrong mood, beating / against my forehead with wings.

From “The Mad Cow Talks Back”

There are wonderful holes in my brain / through which ideas from outside can travel / at top speed and through which voices, / sometimes whole people, speak to me / about the universe. You need this spongy / generosity to let the others in.

From “Goat”

. . . I could have eaten the world / and closed my eyes to nibble at the high / sweet leaves against the sunset. I tasted / that old sun and the few dark clouds / and some tall buildings far away in the next town.

Passing Through Humansville by Karen Craigo

The poems in Passing Through Humansville are clean and strong, well-written and compelling. Many of the poems deal with domestic subjects (children, home) but Craigo makes the domestic universal. This book is able to render tender, sweet moments without being overly sentimental. It’s a lovely read. Buy here.

From “Ten Sources of Light”

There was a curve just / past, the one-lane / bridge, but we opted / not to take it, so the / boy’s car slid sideways / across a lawn. A better / poet would know the / type of tree that caved / in her door, but this / one remembers two / things: there was a / tree where I’d been / sitting, and the car was / not on fire—it was only / the light from the / dashboard glowing red / after I’d scrambled / into the lap of the boy. / The last thing I’d said / was that I wasn’t / scared, and I’m still / not. I’ve always had a / fondness for trees.

From “Meditation With Cat and Toddler”

And here I sit with a body reluctant / to bend, a brain that won’t still, a cat / that bumps me for attention, and a toddler / who will come, who has punched / me in the eye for pure love.

From “God’s Wife”

You were wrong / about the curse. No one / loves the Earth like / the serpent, each moment / the glory of embrace. / To slip inside and out again, / every muscle touching / those walls: this / is a blessing.

Bombing the Thinker by Darren C. Damage

This book is really about the bombing of the Rodin statue The Thinker in Ohio. Over and over again from various speakers and angles and times. This book is obsessive, and like well-done obsessive writing, builds weight as it circles its subject. A better review of this book can be found at FlyPaperMag, written by my friend Julia Beach Anderson, who recommended the book to me. Read that review, then read the book, then obsess about a broken statue. Buy here.

From “Almost Free”

& that second before / the fire shoved // him backwards / with both hands, / must have felt //like he was almost / alive, like he was / more than Rodin.

“Transfixed in Midparoxysm”

I just thought / that his body / looked more active // after the bombing / & apparently / I was right, // I was right / & apparently / that was cruelty.

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.