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.


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.