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.

Selections From The Canzoniere and Other Works by Petrarch

Surprising recommendation, huh?  I know.  I had this on my reading list because I found it at a resale store and thought I should read it.  But it was so charming in parts.  It brought to mind images of Italy, the Alps, the Middle Ages, St Augustine.  Dreamy, kinda, in an undergrad humanities kind of way.  The book begins with a couple essays from Petrarch.  One is a letter to St Augustine himself.  They're personable and straight-forward.  Lovely.  And then the sonnets start. I thought the most powerful were written after the loss of Laura, his distant muse.  This is a great read for a sunny afternoon outdoors in a park.  

 

From the letter "The Ascent of Mount Ventoux"

But, as often happens, fatigue soon followed upon our strenuous effort, and before long we had to rest on some rock.  Then we started on again, but more slowly, I especially taking the rocky path at a more modest pace.  My brother chose the steepest course straight up the ridge, while I weakly took an easier one which turned along the slopes.  And when he called me back showing me the shorter way, I replied that I hoped to find an easier way up on the other side, and that I did not mind taking a longer course if it were not so steep.  But this was merely an excuse for my laziness; and when the others had already reached a considerable height I was still wandering in the hollows, and having failed to find an easier means of ascent, I had only lengthened the journey and increased the difficulty of the ascent.  Finally I became disgusted with the tedious way I had chosen, and decided to climb straight up.  By the time I reached my brother, who had managed to have a good rest while waiting for me, I was tired and irritated.  We walked along together for a while, but hardly had we left that rise when I forgot all about the circuitous route I had just taken and again tended to take a lower one.  Thus, once again I found myself taking the easy way, the roundabout path of winding hollows, only to find myself soon back in my old difficulty.  I was simply putting off the trouble of climbing; but no man's wit can alter the nature of things, and there is no way to reach the heights by going downward.  In short, I tell you that I made this same mistake three or more times within a few hours, much to my brother's amusement and my anger.

 

From sonnet 311:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting / perhaps his children or his cherished mate, / in sweetness fills the sky and countryside / with many notes of grief skillfully played, // and all night long he stays with me it seems, / reminding me of my harsh destiny; / I have no one to blame except myself / for thinking that Death count not take a goddess. 

Swift Hour by Megan Sexton

I heard Megan read from Swift Hour this week and read her book the next day.  She has a strong voice.  These are poems of people and life, but Megan knows what is important and interesting.  She cuts to the center of the subject.  Her language is direct and beautiful.  Her subject matter is real, but her descriptions are magic.  Buy here.

 

From "The Folklore of Waitresses"

When the people ate, / they felt fuller than they had ever felt. / Their lives felt full then, / as if they would rise out  of their bodies / and see themselves sitting there / with nothing to do.  When she left them, / the birds broke into little flowers on the trees.

 

From "Visitation"

Across the neighborhood the howls and cries / of dogs slip into the houses with children / coming home late for dinner.

 

From "Feeding the Shadow"

Shadow, eat, / says the child / running to the dark figure / stretched before her, / tossing it a piece / of chicken meat, / dancing with it.

Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Kyrie is a series a poems about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, linked by a group of characters who are neighbors and friends and who are both at war in Europe and home in the US.  The poems are unrhymed sonnets, and have a brevity that lends them power.  They are prayers, as they claim (some very literally), but also a literary dans macabre.  These are beautiful, haunting psalms.  Buy here.

 

Excepts from various poems:

My mother was an angel out of heaven. / My father was a viper. I wished him dead, / then he was dead. But she was too.

We'd had a late frost, a ruined spring, / a single jay was fretting in the bush, / quick blue smudge in the laden spikes of lilac: / it was an angel singing--don't you see: / it might as well have been a bush on fire.

 

And the entire poem "Prologue"

After the first year, weeds and scrub; / after five, juniper and birch, / alders filling in among the briars; / ten more years, maples rise and thicken; / forty years, the birches crowded out, / a new world swarms on the floor of the hardwood forest. / And who can tell us where there was an orchard, / where a swing, where the smokehouse stood?

From the Fire Hills by Chad Davidson

Sometimes poetry takes daily life and makes it so much bigger, and connected, and meaningful.  But not in a sappy way.  And sometimes the daily life is a little magical on its own.  In From the Fire Hills, Chad weaves stories from growing up in California, with stories from traveling in Italy, with history.  He expertly makes them all drip with importance and existence.  These are rich poems.  Beautiful poems.  Poems that make you want to pick up a pen.  Buy here.

 

From "In Ravenna"

Three boys, old enough to hurt someone, / young enough to think it doesn't matter, / sat outside the small green plot I came to. / Dante's grave.  All of us pulled there, / experiencing gravity, out of control / for different reasons.

 

From "Bellagio"

The future, robed in morning chill, waits / at Bellagio, where tourists pick at the bones / of excess, and these men, I know, find lovers / on vacation, in rooms meticulous, feverishly clean.

 

From "Limoncello"

Brought to table shocked from frozen / slumber, ice-gauzed, and ready to spill its skin / in the shape of private fog, it taught me / how wasting tastes--pungent, yellow fist / of a witch.

Out of Place by Richard Jackson

Of course I love Rick's work.  I cut my teeth on it.  He's the person who taught me to write poetry.  But this book is one of the best of Rick's I've read.  I picked it up earlier this year and just recently got around to reading it.  Rick's work is political and haunting and beautiful and borderline surreal in its imagery.  Rick has spent a lot of time in the Balkans and the war there in the 90's, and similar genocides and human rights atrocities are made personal in his work.  It's almost like he's writing love songs to the dead.  Buy here.

 

From "Bosnian Elegy"

The tops of the trees still clutch, fiercely, the last light. / There's a bird caught in the chimney.  Its compliant / trembles down the empty corridors of the heart. / . . . There's / always another mass grave to discover. The crickets begin / to panic. For a while our memories fall into the crevices / of the mind.

 

From "Abraham's Journey"

Sorrow walked in my clothes before I did.  Flocks / of shadows followed me. One night I looked at the stars / I thought were gods until they disappeared. Some say / I smashed my father's idols and walked away. / Or walked towards a desert of barren promises. / Or promises that are hummingbirds hovering for / a moment then drifting away. Even now, walking / towards that mountain, sometimes I will watch / my shadow sitting beneath a plane tree, casting dice, / ignoring my steps.

 

From "While You Were Away"

I don't really know how to tell you all this. It's as if / I were left at the doorway of one of your dreams. / If only these words wouldn't conspire against me. / But even Love is an unsolvable equation.

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 . . .