Exciting Poetry for Fall: 14 Titles Range Widely To Bring a Fresh Reading Experience

redstarAdonis. Concerto al-Quds. Yale Univ. (Margellos World Republic of Letters). Nov. 2017. 96p. tr. from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa. ISBN 9780300197648. $25. POETRY

“Up there, up above,/ Look at her dangling from the sky’s throat” opens this astonishing collection from Adonis, who has significantly shaped modern Arabic poetry. He offers a portrait both mythic and historical of Al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem; frequent references to the Qur’an and the Bible, among other sources, are clarified by excellent footnoting. The first shimmering vision of the city (“The wind reads the roses./ Perfume writes them”) is interrupted by parenthetical citations to violence (“Terrorism. Kidnapping. Unknown Identity…”); in a city defined by time, “history arrived, invited by ash.” And the book ends, “And Hell, in which sky do you reside/ and from which heaven will you descend?” Thus does Adonis capture in gorgeously singular language an eternal city now riven. ­VERDICT Highly recommended.

Brandt, Per Aage. If I Were a Suicide Bomber: & Other Verses. Open Letter. (International Poetry). Sept. 2017. 260p. tr. from Danish by Thom Satterlee. ISBN 9781940953649. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781940953755. POETRY

Wry and reasoned, quietly provocative but never caustic, reflecting on our being in the world through aphoristic, koan-like poems mostly ten lines long, this seamlessly translated selection from Danish poet Brandt shows a refreshingly different aesthetic at work. Brandt is a semiotician by training, as evidenced by his carefully considered lines (“when we’re no longer in the neighborhood, let alone/ in anotherhood, the pianos get out of tune, very quickly”). And if he were his title’s suicide bomber? “I would activate the detonator in my belt/ (goodbye, ideas).” VERDICT Good work for readers who like their verse philosophical.

Chang, Victoria. Barbie Chang. Copper Canyon. Nov. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781556595165. pap. $16. POETRY

Having investigated the strains of office life in The Boss, a PEN Center award winner, Chang turns to another arena in which power plays out uncomfortably. Barbie Chang may strive for the artificial perfection of her namesake, but the Circle of mothers at school shut her out (“a potomac// hurt why unearth her high school her/ children unearth// everything”). At stake isn’t just odd otherness, of course, but race; one woman “would never/ again say hello to that// Chang even one named Barbie.” Meanwhile, Barbie contends with ailing parents as Chang’s unpunctuated rush of language amplifies the tension. VERDICT Perhaps not as sprightly as The Boss but still satisfying work from rising-star Chang, exploring the little explored.

Cruz, Victor Hernández. Beneath the Spanish. Coffee House. Oct. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781566894890. pap. $16.99; ebk. 9781566895057. POETRY

A Lenore Marshall and Griffin Poetry Prize finalist, Cruz was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York and now splits his time between his homeland and Morocco. That’s no coincidence; throughout this energized volume, the connections between Africa and the Caribbean are made vividly real, with Spain standing in the background. “My foot wants to danza South/ Sahara down” he says buoyantly; later, we see “Andalusian black hair/ Arabic culos night thighs/ of moon circles” in a poem citing Lorca, Jiménez, and Dalí. Short, punchy lines with telescoped syntax set the ongoing beat. VERDICT A solid selection for neophytes and Cruz’s fans alike.

Daley-Ward, Yrsa. bone. Penguin. Sept. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9780143132615. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780525504528. POETRY

Transmogrified to poet, what she ­really wanted, actress/model Daley-Ward had a big hit when she self-published this collection in 2014. In language that’s frank, colloquial, and full of yearning, she deals with desire, friendship, sexual predation, and what it’s like to be a queer first-­generation black British woman. (Her mother is Jamaican and her father Nigerian.) “You are a beautiful/ danger” says the opening poem. “I should not enter./ But I might.” And elsewhere: “According to you,/ people like me/ shouldn’t go into places like this.” Some of the pieces are more adage than fully developed verse, but Daley-Ward has rawness and heart as she expresses wholly relatable feelings. VERDICT A bright, accessible work for readers beyond the ­poetry crowd.

Darst, Lightsey. Thousands. Coffee House. Nov. 2017. 104p. ISBN 9781566894920. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566895064. POETRY

The speaker animating this second collection from Darst (after Find the Girl) is decidedly restless, moving in diary-like sections from Minneapolis on 10/31/11 to Durham, NC, in summer 2014 to get beyond the quotidian and satisfy an amorphous but sharply felt desire for something more. “Oh you’re not that bad a man/ I’m not that bad a bitch.// But I have the look of the unloved wife,” she says at one point. And elsewhere, “I have to do it and I have to do it alone.” Related in meditative, crystal-cut language, her realization that she’s fallen into things pushes her onward, and just as her self-reflection gets wearing, she opens up to the world. ­VERDICT A poet to watch; poetry lovers will want to dig in.

Duan, Carlina. I Wore My Blackest Hair. Little A: Amazon. Nov. 2017. 92p. ISBN 9781503941977. pap. $14.95. POETRY

An abusive father (Chinese in his fists…. I Google translated. Idiot girl. Idiot”). The immigrant’s outsider identity struggle (“My English is hot, pursuing me with a gun”). Racist taunting (“the Chink is a mammal who loves dirt/ and kernels of white rice”). The anxieties of adolescence (“other girls’ blood on toilet seats/ color of roses and jam”). Profound loneliness and longing (“I want to catch so much of this earth/ on the gentle tongue, but/ outside: there is only snow./ and inside: there is only muscle”). Fierce assertiveness, too (my mother is not/ from your country,/ and I am not/ ashamed”). Duan reveals it all with lyrical precision. VERDICT An accomplished first collection for a wide range of readers.

redstarEwing, Eve L. Electric Arches. Haymarket. Sept. 2017. 120p. ISBN 9781608468560. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781608468690. POETRY

Blending poetry, prose, and illustration, this ambitious and inventive debut collection from University of Chicago sociologist Ewing offers the coming-of-age story of a young African American woman told with raw indignation (“We, the forgotten Delta people,/ the dry riverbed people”), close observation (“the slick of you and the smell of sugar and hot plastic,” of Luster’s Pink Oil), and triumph (“Sometimes being an artist means walking faster than everybody,/ shedding your clothes/ like the devil dressed you in his own best ideas”). The result effectively portrays both growing up and growing up black, mediated through a tremendous sense of physicality. VERDICT Smart and widely appealing.

Hardy, Myronn. Radioactive Starlings. Princeton Univ. Nov. 2017. 112p. ISBN 9780691177090. $45; pap. ISBN 9780691177106. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781400888764. POETRY

In poems rich, erudite, and almost tactilely rendered, multi-award-winning poet Hardy (Approaching the Center) defines his role as witness to our journey through an often troubled world (“a vibrating throat blue throat bluer than the seas”). He plunges us through the refugee crisis (“Graves as the sea waves foam at night”) and environmental depredation (“Starlings as glass black sharp// an abrupt end to the grace// they have given,” from the title poem) while placing us in a vibrant, mostly North African environment. Music reverberates throughout; in Tunisia, “musicians/ pluck the audience to trance,” and Muddy Waters appears in Bethlehem. VERDICT Attentive reading required, but a feast for the senses sophisticated readers will enjoy.

Krynicki, Ryszard. Magnetic Point: Selected Poems, 1968–2014. New Directions. Nov. 2017. 224p. ed. & tr. from Polish by Clare Cavanagh. ISBN 9780811225007. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811225014. POETRY

Leading Polish poet Krynicki was born in a German labor camp in Austria to Polish slave laborers who remained in transit (with the father forced into the Red Army) for some time after the war. Not surprisingly, his verse is dark, with death a frequent theme; even tenderness, “harsh as parting,” means faded violets and a child’s ribbon from a pogrom. But somehow Krynicki is neither grim nor raging, delivering the specifics of history and politics yet transcending them in poems patient, observant, and radiant with a clear-eyed sense of life’s hard contours. Near Kafka’s grave, a last glowing chestnut drops from a tree, capturing those contours perfectly. ­VERDICT Readers of international poetry will appreciate discovering a splendidly translated new voice; others will appreciate the lucid writing.

redstarMoon, Kamilah Aisha. Starshine & Clay. Four Way. Oct. 2017. Sept. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9781935536956. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In language mesmerizingly blunt-spoken and honest, then sliding into starshine (the title as a whole comes from poet Lucille Clifton), Pushcart Prize winner Moon (She Has a Name) makes vital art of the African American experience. “The sight/ of dark skin brings out the wild/ in certain human breeds,” says “The Emperor’s Deer”; “They slay our young/ …& wonder, after centuries/ why we are not used to this.” Tragically, many poems are elegies of individuals past and present; after Hurricane Katrina, a statue of Jefferson Davies clutches a Confederate flag, “red as blood.” Later poems portray “winged, humming love” and note “ecstasy spilling from sax,/ from lips singed by smooth brown fire/ cooling in a glass nearby, neat.” VERDICT Highly ­recommended.

redstarPowell, Lynn. Season of the Second Thought. Univ. of Wisconsin. Nov. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9780299315344. pap. $14.95. POETRY

“March strides in like a woman scorned,” and so does Brittingham Prize winner ­Powell (Old & New Testaments), an assured poet who uses vivid and sometimes witty language to explore the natural world (“The yard’s still head over heels in purple”), human contingency (“why/ would the God of that cold beauty/ contrive a hall of mirrors in a human mind?”), women’s fate (“I hated how prettily I flushed, how my words/ froze”), and her battles with the muse (“Kiss and tell it like nobody else”). Powell is particularly attuned to nature’s iridescent show but always goes beyond; reflections on the color blue end, “But bluer than the lips of Lazarus, baby,/ before Sweet Jesus himself could figure out/ what else in the world to do but weep.” ­VERDICT A terrific collection.

redstarReyes, Barbara Jane. Invocation to Daughters. City Lights. Nov. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9780872867475. pap. $14.95. POETRY

San Francisco–based, James Laughlin Award–winning poet Reyes (poeta en san francisco) uses incantatory language to speak to Filipina girls and women, and her words will resonate with many, many readers. “Daughters, our world is beyond unkind” opens an early poem; the collection as a whole then details the arduous female condition (“We are fed up being groped, being entered, being punished, being/ trashed. We are nobody’s fucking things”), then strikes back sharply (“Why does my outrage inconvenience you?”), and advises (“let us create a language so that we know ourselves”). Individual poems apostrophize Filipinas like the murdered transgender Jennifer Laude. VERDICT Infused with Spanish and Tagalog, Reyes’s beautiful, angry verse shines throughout. For a wide range of readers.

Rios, Joseph. Shadowboxing: poems & impersonations. Omnidawn. Oct. 2017. 88p. ISBN 9781632430434. pap. $17.95. POETRY

In a dazzling display, Rios blends prose poems, dramatic dialogs, and punch-in-the-gut verse to record the life of Chicano adolescent Josefo, not incidentally showing us working-class California along the way. There are “Two Josefos,” the hardworking, hard-drinking laborer who wants to make it in the ring—sections are styled as rounds, and Rocky is referenced—and the aspiring poet who can cite Czeslaw Milosz and (presumably) write a line like, “That moon over 24th street just as loud/ as gold shoes in the mud”). Both foul-mouthed and astute, raucous Josefo is a fully realized character as he punches his way toward his multiple dreams. VERDICT A one-of-a-kind debut; it’s easy to imagine both experienced poetry readers and teenage newbies burrowing into this book.

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.


  1. Bill Powell says:

    Another grand slam by Lynn Powell but what kind of review would one expect from a very proud dad?

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