Top Fall Poetry: Great Reading Beyond the Basics from Veterans and Newcomers Alike

nightpoetry-jpg101716Adnan, Etel. Night. Nightboat. Aug. 2016. 64p. ISBN 9781937658533. pap. $12.95. POETRY
Trained in philosophy, Beirut-born author/activist Adnan blends a meditation on the meaning of memory with memories themselves, dredged up from a long life. And surely night, her setting here, is the time for such dredging. Adnan rigorously asserts that “reason and memory move together.” But she argues that “a remembered event is a return to a mystery,” and her writing is eye-openingly lush, gorgeous, even surreal (“waves of roses are blanketing memory”), showing us the mind at work on its unstructured, uncertain edges. The epigrammatic ending, “Conversations with my soul” (“Why are we lonelier when/ together”), will feed even those who don’t typically read poetry. VERDICT A good way for sophisticated readers to recall why they first loved verse.

redstarBennett, Joshua. The Sobbing School. Penguin. (Poets). Sept. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780143111863. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781101993101. POETRY

Though he does well by debuting with a National Poetry Series winner, ­Bennett is already well known from the video of his performance for the Obamas at the White House Poetry Jam, which has claimed almost 400,000 views on YouTube. His opening poem, addressed to an escaped slave Henry Box Brown, has Brown performing in “sold out/ shows an ocean away from the place/ that made you possible.” Throughout, Bennett clarifies what made him possible, moving from strict Baptist parents who “praise a vengeful god,” to school bullies and best friends, to considerations of blackness couched in language both pop culture and high culture. Delivered without showiness, his imagery is indeed arresting; Richard Wright starts a fire “just to see cinder blacken/ his father’s hands like the insides of a loganberry pie.” VERDICT Highly ­recommended.

Byrne, Elena Karina. Squander. Omnidawn. Oct. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781632430229. pap. $17.95. POETRY

If flesh (or any worldly thing) could be made word, it would be by Pushcart Prize winner Byrne. “Beget-began with the rain in velvet swags,” she says of downpour, while fire is “flame-hooded in city snow—/ who sulfurs, suffers for it.” And she makes ideas real and touchable, too: “Now/ consider the cement chair and know/ instead periphery” says the poem titled “Idea.” Byrne opens with a meditation on language (“because hunger once ate/ in a Feast of Lanterns, light caught in the mouth./ Babel: traders and navigators”), showing it at its protean finest, as her own poems are: sparkling, luminous, richly packed, and a real tumble into another state of mind. VERDICT From Shakespeare and stars to Rilke and lust, Byrne incarnates a wealth of subjects for smart, committed readers.

redstarDumesnil, Cheryl. Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. Univ. of Pittsburgh. (Pitt Poetry). Nov. 2016. 104p. ISBN 9780822964315. pap. $15.95. POETRY

An Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize winner for In Praise of Falling, Dumesnil opens with the flight of a rock dove. “It’s not the Holy Spirit,” as the poem’s title says, but relentlessly in-this-world Dumesnil concludes, “what better prayer// than this?” With deep, gorgeous simplicity, the poet reflects on the vagaries of life, from failed relationships to failed bank accounts (“Under Job Skills,/ list: balloon animals, roller disco”); “Tampons: A Memoir” is a witty, tender account of growing into womanhood. In the end, Dumesnil is honest but affirmative; “Who needs a cathedral,” she says, apostrophizing October and its light, and the collection ends on the line, “This is, this is, this is….” VERDICT Highly ­recommended.

Gibbons, Reginald. Last Lake. Univ. of Chicago. Oct. 2016. (Phoenix Poets). 96p. ISBN 9780226417455. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780226417592. POETRY

lastlake-jpg101716In his latest, National Book Award finalist Gibbons (Creatures of a Day) declares, “ ‘self’ and ‘soul’ ponder what has been.” From a ploughman leaning “his everything/ …onto the centuries” to a boy recalling an incident with his grandmother, Gibbons does ponder the past, his and ours. But the boy’s memories are uncertain, the grandmother won’t mention hers, and if “not a millionth part of nature” is plausible, it’s not why we’re alive but the experienced moment that matters. Hence the “catastrophe and awe” that sum up paddling around a cold Canadian lake. Fittingly, Gibbons ends with by honoring Osip Mandelshtam, replicating his pinpointedly lyrical look at a world where it’s the “July light… [that] is holy.” VERDICT Occasionally longish poems but always with a payoff; for all readers.

Gizzi, Peter. Archeophonics. Wesleyan Univ. Sept. 2016. 108p. ISBN 9780819576804. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780819576811. POETRY

Award-winning poet Gizzi here uses spare, focused language to reflect on language itself: its origins, structure, uses, and music. “The old language/ says the apple/ is the old apple,” he proclaims, reflecting how words are rooted deep down in our past. But as language complexified, it gave that apple “all/ the dance floor/ she needed,” and “hot syntax” has remade our view of the world (“I hate that, when syntax/ connects me to the rich”). Hence our need—and our difficulty—in separating appearance from reality, effluence from essence; the “static lovely” of what we want to communicate must traverse “a grubby transom.” But what better tool for expressing “this hammering/ thing, life”? VERDICT Maybe tough sledding for the less intellectually inclined, yet seasoned readers shouldn’t miss.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. Duke Univ. Oct. 2016. 184p. ISBN 9780822362722. pap. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780822373575. POETRY

Gumbs calls herself a queer black troublemaker and black feminist love evangelist, and she lives up to her own billing in this debut collection. “The ground shakes with us/ the gathering women/ grows rich grows brown grows deep,” she says in the opening poem, and throughout she braids the personal and political. “Who spent your childhood up with barefoot errands,” she asks, then afterward explains, “you will know me by the curling iron burn inside my thigh.” Inspired by literary critic Hortense Spillers, the poems here are informed by a rigorous understanding of gendered violence and racism but take off in their own right. VERDICT Gumbs’s writing has luscious urgency and rhythmic drive, which will make it of interest beyond its titular audience.

Harrington, Janice N. Primitive. BOA. Oct. 2016. 104p. ISBN 9781942683209. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781942683216. POETRY

Early in her finely wrought new collection, a biographical and aesthetic study of African American painter Horace H. Pippin (1888–1946), Poulin and Kate Tufts honoree Harrington muses, “A Negro ‘primitive’ paints a self-portrait. But how?/ What new freedom allows him to see, allows the art?” She proceeds to answer that question in forthright, muscular verse that ranges through Pippin’s life, from his World War I service to his triumphs and setbacks as a significant artist at a time when lynchings were common. Like a good painter, Harrington offers precise, grounded details, but she lets her poetry range widely. VERDICT “What cripples—the wound or the scar? The can’t or the/ can’t no more?” Harrington makes all readers wonder.

Hollo, Anselm. The Tortoise of History. Coffee House. Aug. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9781566894449. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781566894456. POETRY

This posthumous collection from Helsinki-born, American-based Hollo, for many years an instructor at Colorado’s culture-bending Naropa University, opens by expressing impatience with “this lame old plutocracy” and those “occupied by their precious little lives.” The politics you’d expect, but the tone throughout is better expressed by the poem’s title: “Wildly Tangled.” Hollo moves wildly, even giddily, from earthquake, crocuses, old friends, and Dasein (“the incredible ONSLAUGHT of being!”) to the persevering “tortoise of history” and an energized, slightly bent remaking of Greek mythology. In “Art History,” he confirms, “The old questions/ don’t change,” but as he shows, they do get addressed differently. VERDICT Sparkly, witty, insouciant, with little drops of wisdom and a few throwaways; fun for all.

major, devorah. and then we became. City Lights. Nov. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780872867260. pap. $14.95. POETRY

andthen-jpg101716A granddaughter of immigrants, San Francisco’s third poet laureate, and winner of honors from PEN Oakland and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, major wields language vibrantly yet shows how it can be used against the marginalized: “we honor speech// that can make us hate/ that can cause us to deny/ our mothers/ our brothers/ our self.” Yet she stands defiant. “I did/ ask to be born,” she proclaims, elsewhere asserting “we come to this city/ and we name it ours.” Not surprisingly, an especially strong section asserting a feminist perspective through stories (in particular, see “amina’s trial”) is titled “and then we became other selves.” VERDICT A fine spiritual and political reckoning for most readers.

Pérez, Emmy. With the River on Our Face. Univ. of Arizona. (Camino del Sol). Oct. 2016. 104p. ISBN 9780816533442. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780816534517 POETRY

Radiant with place—specifically, the Southwest and the Texas borderlands—this new work from Pérez (Solstice) fiercely embraces the natural world, and though she doesn’t aim for prettiness, the sheer physicality of her poems can be intoxicating. Yet she urgently affirms her sense of self (“Consciousness:// I am, I am, I am”) even as she seeks the other; the opening poem vividly negotiates bobcat scat, indigo snake, and red firetail in search of “You.” And she layers in political concern forthrightly and refreshingly, to make an accomplished whole. VERDICT Sometimes these poems can feel like a sprawl of lists, but keep reading. Of regional appeal, certainly, but Pérez is a gifted writer for everyone to watch.

Rabinowitz, Anna. Words on the Street. Tupelo. Sept. 2016. 68p. ISBN 9781936797806. pap. $16.95. POETRY

A Juniper Prize–winning poet (At the Site of Inside Out) and a librettist—The Wanton Sublime is a chamber opera and monodrama for mezzo-soprano—Rabinowitz offers poetry as story as near drama. The setting is a time of “worn-thin profits” when “children, like troublesome details, were marooned/ within gaps of being with nowhere to turn,” the heroine is a baby endangered by several mysterious figures, and the tone is energized Occupy Wall Street surreal. Rabinowitz scatters lines across the ever-turning pages and dares you to follow. VERDICT For all rebels at heart.

redstarRitvo, Max. Four Reincarnations. Milkweed. Sept. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781571314901. $22. POETRY

Seen as a leading poet of his generation, Ritvo was diagnosed with cancer in his teens and died in August at age 25; release of this debut collection was moved up from December. In breathtaking language, he chronicles not what it’s like to be dying but what it’s like to be living. Certainly, he’s got questions; tough and unsentimental, he opens by saying, “I wish you would let me know/ how difficult it is to love me” and near the end wonders, “Perhaps He is using my body/ to remake His/ into a kind of thinking dust.” There’s less emphasis on the details of illness than on the mind wrestling with a soon-to-be-lost world. And how he describes that mind: “like a black glove/ you mistake for a man/ in the middle of a blizzard” and, elsewhere, “three black bulls on/ three hills of sand, far apart.” VERDICT Highly recommended.

redstarRonk, Martha. Ocular Proof. Omnidawn. Oct. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781632430250. pap. $17.95. POETRY

National Poetry Series winner Ronk (Vertigo) here offers an elegant, supremely intelligent investigation of photography both as document and as proof that we cannot fully capture the moment through art, memory, or any other means. What is represented in an Atget photograph, for instance, is not the tree itself but “more of what light and wind/ and Paris are in the exact year it was,” and an image may show scuffed stairs, even suggest the smell of dust, but can’t get at “the unlocatable bereavement left on the stairs to be carried up when you go.” What’s left? Our minds grappling with the world, as Ronk shows photographer and viewer grappling. VERDICT Highly recommended; this is both intellectually astute and lit-up, sharply observed verse.

Shapiro, Alan. Life Pig. Univ. of Chicago. (Phoenix Poets). Sept. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780226404172. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780226404202. POETRY

In deft, quiet language, National Book Award finalist Shapiro (Night of the Republic) recalls the past and how it sometimes hurts, with memories ranging from a Hebrew teacher compelling him to look at Holocaust photos to having to recite Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in school (how can he measure up to the poem’s implicit “triumph and/ …honor”?). Shapiro travels to the distant past, too—a slumped figure on Trajan’s column sums up the world’s “machine-like slaughtering”—and present worries include aging parents. Even a lovely walk at low tide is tinged with momentary shadow (he’s “thoughtless like a leper without a bell”), but Shapiro is more forthright than grim. VERDICT Capturing what many of his readers face, Shapiro finally has his moment of triumph and honor.

Shin, Sun Yung. Unbearable Splendor. Coffee House. Oct. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9781566894517. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781566894524. POETRY

“To many immigrants, exiles, and pseudo-exiles, back becomes…a hole surrounded by light.” So says Korean American poet Shin (Rough, and Savage) in a bravura performance that combines scientific exegesis; prose poetry reflecting history, myth, and memoir; and viscerally vivid verse (“Your body all in flames—witch, bleach, blanch, stitch, torch, clutch”)—all to capture the experience of the outsider arrived on our shores. Shin’s writing, a dense, intensive spill of images that’s nevertheless syntactically clear, moves from the immediate journey (“Vessel, your queer coffin” says a section using etymology to examine “The Hospitality of Strangers”) to larger questions of self, consciousness, womanhood, and being in the world (“this prison is indeed the universe itself”). VERDICT A challenging book that will reward serious readers.

Willard, Bruce. Violent Blues. Four Way. (Stahlecker Selections). Sept. 2016. 54p. ISBN 9781935536758. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In an affecting collection following his debut, Holding Ground, Willard recalls his responsibility for a terrible accident by saying that it “draws me like a blues harp/ soaked in whisky from which the bent yawl of reeds/ becomes the song I have to play.” Like any good bluesman, he plays that song without self-pity, portraying a lost moment in town at night, the “implicated guilt” inspired by his son’s teacher, the seasons running together as he “fail[s] progressively,” and the effort “to try to understand/ what makes things work”—his confusion eventually surmounted by love. VERDICT Perfectly tuned language and rhythm; many readers will identify with Willard’s quietly troubled thoughts and small-town settings.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

Comments

  1. Arielle says:

    Max Ritvo is my son. I was in tears to read this beautiful review. Max spent the last few years of his life creating this art. It’s so accurate to state that the book is about life and love… Dying Is the context ( fertile subject as Louise Gluck refers to it) yet the book is a manifestation of a beautiful life despite looming death. It’s even more powerful knowing the background and origin of each poem. Max’s ambition was to have readers who loved, appreciated his art and took it in as if they reincarnated within the art. He would be so affirmed and pleased to see his book highly recommended by Library Journal . Thank you!

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