National Poetry Series Winners Explore Personal Anguish and Social Issues

Brewer, William. I Know Your Kind. Milkweed. Sept. 2017. 88p. ISBN 9781571314956. pap. $16. POETRY
Brewer opens this pointedly forthright debut collection with an epigraph explaining that the town of Oceana, WV, was nicknamed Oxyana for its high incidence of OxyContin abuse, and the name surfaces throughout this chronicle of addiction and social consequence. “Bars, pool halls,/ neighbors turn me away, but not churches” says one speaker unpityingly (he’s actually looking for air conditioning) and, after an overdose, “Oblivion is liberating.” Elsewhere, a brother shuts the door on a user (“You can’t come here anymore, not like this”) and a man comes to after being mugged by an addict with rain in his face “clear as gin.” The tragedy keeps coming—the epigraph further explains that heroin has replaced OxyContin as the drug of choice, with West Virginia now claiming the highest fatal overdose rate in America. But the tone is less cri de coeur than calm, determined observation. VERDICT Though occasionally one wants more edge, this is a thoughtful collection that can be approached by all readers.

Dingman, Chelsea. Thaw. Univ. of Georgia. Sept. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9780820351315. pap. $19.95. POETRY

In her debut collection, Dingman deftly parallels intimate sorrow with the brutal realities of rural poverty and violence. Throughout, she’s quietly harrowing as she speaks of losing a mother (“I had/ a mother then. I held the wind/ in my throat like a song”) and a father (“He’s// a terrible dream”), of children succumbing to a fatal disease (“Their mothers/ wait years for a chest to flutter// closed”) and the crushing, troubled passions of couples (“tongues/ on fire, two people dancing/ to our own screams”). The backdrop is equally unsettling: there’s a “starved town” and “only mountains, snow circling our house/ like crows’ wings.” The opening poem, about a hunting accident, shows “how a bullet/ can enter so quietly as to leave/ a skull almost intact.” VERDICT Dingman sets her scenes well, with the tough rhythms of life coming through, and her excellent work will be appreciated by a range of readers.

Pimentel, Sasha. For Want of Water: And Other Poems. Beacon. Oct. 2017. 120p. ISBN 9780807027851. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780807027868. POETRY

In this urgent and lyrically astute new compilation, Philippines-born Pimentel, winner of the American Book Award for Insides She ­Swallowed, writes about the huge divide between El Paso, TX, and murder-slicked, drug war–ravaged Juárez directly across the Rio Grande. Accomplished poet that she is, Pimentel does not offer reportage but leaps from a beginning poem, “If I Die in Juárez” (“The violins in our home are emptied/ of sound”) to meditations on male violence, female vulnerability, and desert-driven thirst that touch fiercely if impressionistically on the topic. “House of her body, animal in grief” says Pimentel in a fine, multi­paneled portrait of her mother, who appears elsewhere as a bride awaiting a goat’s sacrifice at her wedding. In other poems, a couple trembles on the brink, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss appears less than tender, and, in the title piece, a boy trudging across the sands cannot waste bodily fluid in tears. ­VERDICT Affecting and well wrought; Pimentel is a poet to watch.

Sax, Sam. Madness. Penguin. Oct. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9780143131700. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781524705572. POETRY

In this beautifully concentrated howl of a book, a startling debut, queer Jewish writer and educator Sax explores mental illness, addiction, and the unshakable grip of sexual desire. He’s clearly one to feel things intensely (“life ripping open before me/ led to me being ripped open by life”), and the poems can be relentless, painful reading. But however raw, they’re also coolly crafted; readers can admire Sax for the sharply observed sentiment “anything can be a drug if you love it,” followed swiftly by “anyone can be a drug if you love him,” while also appreciating how effectively those lines echo each other. Sax can be both funny (“thank you// science for teaching me what to fear most”) and angry (his poems are “wild birds/ pecking eyeholes in the windows of hotels”), and he’s refreshingly frank as he speaks out to us (“spare me the lecture/ on the survival/ of my body/ & i will spare you my body.” ­VERDICT A terrific first ­collection; highly recommended for poetry lovers.

Schultz, Jeffrey. Civil Twilight. Ecco: HarperCollins. Oct. 2017. 104p. ISBN 9780062678980. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062678997. POETRY

Already the winner of National Poetry Series honors for 2013’s What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other, polished poet Schultz shows his craft in long, cleanly reticulated lines. As he opens with admonitions that we live blindly and mechanically, “perched at perception’s precipitous edge,” and situated in a history we ignore (the latest version is “like just another block of vacants recolonized after being boarded up”), a sense of ponderousness, of didacticism, creeps in. But Schultz can be bitterly funny and discerning about contemporary life (“ever since the courts upheld/ Corporations’ rights to marry they seem hardly interested in us”), and throughout he urges the kind of vigilant awareness that poetry exemplifies. The title poem is masterly, moving from the “bland abstract expressionism” of America’s landscapes to the “beauty of transgression,” as demonstrated by 19th-century Parisian rioters and Sixties students, whom Ronald Reagan said he wanted to meet with a bloodbath, to the speaker’s absorption in life’s superficialities as a friend suffers. VERDICT Weighty but worth it for serious poetry readers.

Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, 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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