Five Poets To Watch: Fresh, Keen Work from Upcoming Writers

Elhillo, Safia. The January Children. Univ. of Nebraska. (African Poetry). Mar. 2017. 90p. ISBN 9780803295988. pap. $15.95. ebk. ISBN 9781496200075. POETRY
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Early in this piercing collection, Elhillo curtly explains, “they called our grandfathers the january children lined up by the colonizer & assigned birth/ years by height.” She’s describing Sudan under British occupation, and her poems unfold the ongoing consequences of colonization and Sudan’s repressive culture today. “I hear prayer called by a voice thick with something hurting” says a brief but weighty poem that finally, fiercely declares “that/ my name is my/ name is my name is my name is,” while the startling “a brief history of silence” guts readers with unadorned images of a singer killed for playing secular music and women forbidden to dance with men present. In one smart series, the speaker negotiates culture by entertaining the idea of becoming legendary musician Abdel Halim Hafez’s girlfriend. In the end, Elhillo makes it clear that living on the knife’s edge between cultures also means living between languages, at one point exclaiming “my mouth is my biggest wound.” VERDICT Crisp, beautiful writing of great import; a Sillerman First Book Prize ­winner.

Giannelli, Adam. Tremulous Hinge. Univ. of Iowa. Apr. 2017. 90p. ISBN 9781609384869. pap. $21; ebk. ISBN 9781609384876. POETRY

“Stutter,” the first poem of this deftly observed debut collection, opens with the lines “since I couldn’t say tomorrow/ I said Wednesday” and continues affectingly through words substituted for those harder to utter until the final, lovely line, “a puddle shorn from the storm.” Here’s a man who’s really had to grapple with language, thinks the reader, and it shows. These poems are embedded in the world, addressing the real, the concrete: “This freight. Call it a body,” says one poem, while elsewhere the speaker takes control by “remov[ing] all the angels/ from my poems.” As the angels wander the Rockaway beach, the speaker tellingly points out that planes landing at Kennedy “fly/ low enough for us to see the colors of the rudders.” Other poems address hydrangeas, porcupines, and a leaf’s curl (“Prodded/ by moonbeams, gaze, or gale,/ it ruffles”); one strong piece has the stars looking at us as we look back. ­VERDICT An Iowa Poetry Prize winner that will please a wide range of readers.

Jesiolowski, Gabriel. As Burning Leaves. Red Hen. Apr. 2017. 88p. ISBN 9781597090254. pap. $16.95. POETRY

“Wind moves the leaves across the water/ they do not gather,” says an early poem in this 2015 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award winner, suggesting the collection’s spare, precise, elided style. Yet ­Jesiolowski’s concern is passion expressed (a decent amount of “fucking” is referenced) and suppressed: from letters dumped in a creek, “words that used to seduce me, that now wound me/ lift in ribbons of ink.” Throughout, there’s a sense of passionate love as meant to bridge the spaces between us and coming up short: “I move into another body/ that does not erase my own.” A queer sensibility, with deft sexual blending, permeates the poems, which often fracture in form and syntax. VERDICT Sometimes there’s too much fracturing, and sometimes meaning gets slippery, but Jesiolowski has a fine grasp of craft and emotion.

Kampa, Courtney. Our Lady of Not Asking Why. New Issues: Western Michigan Univ. Apr. 2017. 78p. ISBN 9781936970483. pap. $16. POETRY

Kampa opens her New Issues Poetry Prize winner with a pummeling, propulsive description of the heart, “not its four chambers, high-beamed atriums” but as “spooked-horse,” “runaway,” and nakedly hopeful. That sensibility, that sense of life defined by want, carries throughout this accomplished volume, which veers between intimate, sometimes awkward scenes of family and childhood and hot, difficult, desperately desired and disappointing love. As she explains, “The tent/ his bones made—pitched/ above me—was mostly/ just that. Quick-stitched distance,” and while later she declares, “How little/ love is. How worth everything,” one feels immediately how ripped up she can feel. Emotion matters on every level here. The knifing of several horses leaves her wondering “what pain is for…./ I mean its afterache: My sister’s face/ as she’s legged up to the saddle. Her woundedness/ imagining theirs.” VERDICT Kampa’s urge to feel, to will herself into others’ being, is a gift that will carry her far.

McGlynn, Karyna. Hothouse. Sarabande. Jun. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9781941411452. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941411469. POETRY

hothouse.jpg42617McGlynn divides this follow-up to her debut, I Have To Go Back To 1994 and Kill a Girl, into sections that don’t so much represent rooms in a house as aspects of her life—and ours. It’s ingenious, and it pretty much works. The poems in the tone-setting “Bedroom” grapple with the anxieties of intimacy: “because they say love they think they can’t hurt you.” “Library” limns the demands of creativity: “How many times can we fold the same bone.” “Parlor” moves into the public sphere—what precedes “Bedroom”—in a series of hungry poems topped by “Last Girl on the Floor”: “If she dances alone in her kitchen at night, maybe she’s afraid/ there are men with guns/ out there in the dark/ looking into her bright fishbowl.” Despite the drinking, the true subject of “Wet Bar” is reckless behavior: “Maybe I threw a lamp at your head,/ but you’re the one who broke it./ You could have ducked.” “Bath” gets down to elementals and “Basement” our subterranean desires and physicality. VERDICT Smart, original, spirited work.

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.

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