Poetry Beyond the Basics: Twelve New Collections Offer Fresh Perspective on the Human Experience

Derr-Smith uses an intently packed, beautifully crafted pile-up of images to explore a rural Southern upbringing—highly recommended; gemlike poems from Mohabir will reward many readers and surprise not a few; fervent reading about the urban Hispanic experience—for all readers; Sealey explores issues of race, gender, and sexuality in poems whose fluid, wide-open style belies their grit

Calvocoressi, Gabrielle. Rocket Fantastic. Persea. Sept. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9780892554850. $25.95. POETRY

In this follow-up to Apocalyptic Swing, a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Award, queer lesbian poet Calvocoressi uses the Dal Segno, a musical symbol directing the player to return to an earlier spot in the score, as a pronoun embodying “a confluence of genders” when referencing the Bandleader. There’s a sense that the speaker wants to return to an earlier time, too, a throwback feel to the pastoral scenes she sets and a need to shuck convention. The speaker and the Bandleader meet in a series of poems strung throughout this thought-provoking collection, and the use of the Dal Segno immediately strips away expectation, making the focus on the acts of looking and touching rather than body parts interacting conventionally. The resulting escalating eroticism and uneasy tension are something like the “tightness/ in my back” that the speaker allows to “open where my wings would/ be” before turning from sun-slicked girls at a pool and declaring memorably, “Somewhere my mother was dying/ and someone was skinning a giraffe./ And I let it go. I just let it go.” VERDICT Occasionally meandering but capable of some real surprises: “You haven’t lived until a fox/ has whispered something the ferns told him/ in your one good ear.”

redstarDerr-Smith, Heather. Thrust. Persea. Oct. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9780892554867. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In her latest work, a Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award winner, Derr-Smith (Tongue Screw) uses an intently packed, beautifully crafted pile-up of images to explore a rural Southern upbringing defined by the ugliness of abuse (“So she’s hit again. Hit once. Hit again when she ducks”). In a world shaped by violence, by the casual male assumption of authority, and part of “a family of seekers, pick ax and lust,” she’s a girl pursuing the intensity of experience on her own terms, “sneaking out the windows at seventeen and throwing myself/ from airplanes over the devouring seas.” Passion, in fact, thrums through these poems as counterbalance and power, and there’s uneasy satisfaction in watching the speaker turn her mean world around to her advantage (“Make love out of the kick and the punch”) so that finally “She outlasted them all.” Derr-Smith offers occasional glimpses of beauty (“rhododendrons, thrush in liturgy & lyric”), but this is mostly the shabby-poor life of fistfights, hard sex, and vomiting all night in a bathroom “plastered with pornography,” the haunting instability emphasized by references to the durable Civil War dead. Still, she returns “to dig up what was lost.” ­VERDICT Highly recommended.

Leung, Henry Wei. Goddess of Democracy: an Occupy lyric. Omnidawn. Oct. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9781632430403. $17.95. POETRY

Addressed to the Goddess of Democracy, the huge papier-mâché statue erected in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests, and to replicas around the world, this Omnidawn 1st/2nd Poetry Book Prize winner bears witness to the ongoing struggle for human rights up to the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. Leung describes events through a spray of sharp images—“Late night diaspora sweats// Exile dread”—and though headnotes to many poems helpfully give historical context, the writing never turns didactic. We experience the protests at street level through a “torn off” I both inside and outside the movement: “I myself have been here:/ been a hollowing throng of sweat/ …I stood among and gave you/ neither stay nor shore nor help.” Though Leung points to Theseus as building democracy from “Aphrodite Pandemos, and Peitho:/ desire, and persuasion,” the poet seeks to define it in his own way: “But maybe love is best indifferent./ Democracy, too.” And elsewhere, “Let me be your country. Let me be nothing for you,” suggesting both plan and possibility. Throughout, there’s a grappling, an urgency, and a passion that makes the experience very real. VERDICT Sometimes challenging, but a strong testimony in verse for those interested in both poetry and politics.

Martin, Dawn Lundy. Good Stock Strange Blood. Coffee House. Aug. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9781566894715. pap. $16.95. POETRY

“Itch of layer, knot of/ hair—they call us Negro.// To stand broad-footed in sensation of being lit up.” Thus opens this new collection from Martin, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award for her second collection, Discipline. Here, Martin uses a whiplash of short, punched-at-us phrases that offer a powerful sense of African American history and the struggle to define oneself for oneself, not as others would. History is a terrible burden (“What you drag:// your banjo, your braided/ neck-lace”), and its depredations lead to a desire for deeper connection: “Wanted the swell of black earth, a legacy, something larger than ourselves to hold us,” says one poem. Another celebrates “my belly where Mother// left her good stock,…her matter that matters.” Elsewhere, Martin challenges the notion of being put in boxes: “I am not a boy in anyone’s body.// I am not a black in a black body./ I will not kowtow inside your opposites.” The results are visceral, though the fractured phrasing occasionally leaves one struggling for sense. ­VERDICT An important work for sophisticated readers.

Mohabir, Rajiv. The Cowherd’s Son. Tupelo. May 2017. 84p. ISBN 9781936797967. pap. $16.95. POETRY

In The Taxidermist’s Cut, winner of the AWP Intro Journal Award and the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry, Mohabir paralleled the hunted animal and the hunted human, whose love for his own gender makes him an outsider within a community that itself has outsider status. In his Kundiman Prize–winning second work, the rift with community remains (“Son, you are fit/ only for the greasy smoke/ of the body burning on its pyre”), and the poet’s anguish is expressed in an abundance of forceful images (“my palace will torment you/ with rubies you bleed/ when thorns prick your quick”). Here, though, Mohabir expands his reach, referencing Indian mythology (“the Cowlord rumbles, the sapphire/ hurricane of Yaduvansh rumbles”) as he works his way through Indian communities from Guyana to Trinidad to New York. He scathingly surveys the consequences of colonialism (“Brits distilled rum in coolie blood”) while capturing the sorrow of those far from home, often involuntarily (“Every night Sita dreamed an India that/ did not want her back.” There are moments, too, of superb tenderness (“I say your words at night to taste you”). VERDICT Gemlike poems that will reward many readers and surprise not a few.

O’Rourke, Meghan. Sun in Days. Norton. Sept. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9780393608755. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393608762. POETRY

Along with the collections Halflife and Once, O’Rourke has authored the highly regarded memoir The Long Goodbye, about coping with her mother’s death, so it’s hardly surprising that this new collection is delivered in forthright confessional style. Interestingly, the opening poem, “Self-Portrait as Myself,” mourns something she never had—“the daughter I lost/ by not making her,” which sets the tone for the poems of bittersweet remembrance and reflection to come. The long title poem captures the sense of time passing as it moves from a child’s lazy days of summer to skaters on a Maine lake, with a mother in the background advising, “Stop worrying/ about the future, it doesn’t/ belong to us and we don’t belong to it.” Instead, we get a sense of the steady drip-drip of events, of life “made of days and/ days, ordinary and subvocal.” Throughout, O’Rourke is excellent at limning the hazy sense of loss that inevitably defines our moving forward and how we can therefore feel detached from ourselves, somehow fraudulent. “Used to know how to live,” says a plaintive but tough poem, and O’Rourke gives us some guidance as she acknowledges “soon enough/ it’ll be winter.” VERDICT Popular poetry for all readers.

Phi, Bao. Thousand Star Hotel. Coffee House. Jul. 2017. 112p. ISBN 9781566894708. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566894708. POETRY

Phi (Sông I Sing) is a multiple Minnesota Grand Slam poetry champion and National Poetry Slam finalist seen on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and it shows in his forthright, declamatory style, as if he were in direct conversation with his readers. It’s a style that fits his heritage, for as the opening poem says, “Vietnamese people have always been spoken word poets.” Yet throughout he worries about his ability to voice what really matters (“And I wonder/ if I ever will find a language/ to speak of the things/ that haunt me the most?”). How will he tell his daughter about the war or challenge the racism he has encountered in this country? Still, he does so, with simple eloquence: “How much blood and history can one last name hold./ …The opposite of history is erasure.” Phi speaks broadly of social abuses while focusing on the Asian and particularly the refugee experience in America, disclosing fraught, tender scenes of family life (as when he regrets buying his daughter a Barbie ­Dreamhouse). And as the title poem shows, his fluid, open writing is frequently shot through with moments of lyricism. ­VERDICT Accessible, accomplished, and troubling, this should intrigue many ­readers.

Rafferty, Charles. The Smoke of Horses. BOA. (American Poets Continuum). Oct. 2017. 104p. ISBN 9781942683476. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781942683483. POETRY

Prose poems can seem opaque or even nonsensical, but multi-award-winning poet Rafferty (The Unleashable Dog) delivers a fine collection that shows how the subgenre should work. Take “A Demonstration of How One Thing Leads to Another,” in which a man who misses his train stop finds himself in a plane above the Andes, then in a Buenos Aires brothel, then back home in bed with his wife. The poem obviously feels surreal, like a Magritte painting in prose, but it’s contained by a beautiful and satisfying logic. Rafferty can be meditative (“I have always believed that if I jumped out of a window I would turn into grackles before hitting the sidewalk”), philosophical (“The great minds come down through the years like monkeys descending from high branches”), lyrical (“The moon has torn a hole in the weather above my bedroom and is sweeping the dark from my pillow”), and disturbing (“The deer are browsing the topiary as they try to decide which car should kill them”). But he always imagines interesting scenarios we can read ourselves into, un-self-indulgently saying something keen about our world in language “sharp as broken vodka bottles.” VERDICT A solid addition to most collections.

Sealey, Nicole. Ordinary Beast. Ecco: HarperCollins. Sept. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9780062688804. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062688828. POETRY

In poems whose fluid, wide-open style belies their grit, Sealey explores issues of race, gender, and sexuality within the context of cultural expectation. For instance, “candelabra with heads,” shows how African Americans approach every moment weighed with history: “Had I not brought with me my mind/ as it has been made, this thing,/ this brood of mannequins, cocooned and mounted on a wooden scaffold, might be eight infants swaddled and sleeping.” Instead, she concludes, “Who can see this and not see lynchings?” (Shouldn’t we all?) Elsewhere, she observes, “The West in me wants the mansion/ to last. The African knows it cannot.” Sealey is sharp-tongued and refreshing as she steers through human relationships, happy for a friend whose bad love life ended well and painting indelible portraits of a drag queen, a true believer, and the diva dreaming of being a spoiled white girl. She can wax existential (“We are dying quickly/ but behave as good guests should”) while also turning in a darkly hilarious reenvisioning of the game Clue. VERDICT Surprisingly, given her numerous honors and the assuredness of her writing, this is a debut collection, but Sealey’s stature as Cave Canem’s executive director has rightly created anticipation.

redstarSmith, Danez. Don’t Call Us Dead. Graywolf. Sept. 2017. 104p. ISBN 9781555979775. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979775. POETRY

In this remarkable second collection from Kate Tufts/Lambda Award winner Smith, the content as well as the writing is transcendent. A core poem, “dear white america,” already viewed in a YouTube reading by over 300,000 people, opens with the observation, “i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets,” and every line that follows is a stab-in-the-heart summation of the consequences of racism, delivered in taut, pearlescent prose. Claiming that “my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child,” Smith demands, “take your God back,” adding “I am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” In the end, the poet looks for a place where there’s a “history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard…or redline or shackle or silence.” That longing also surfaces in the opening poem, which evokes a sort of sunlit afterlife where black males killed violently gather freely and “jump// in the air and hang there,” unburdened by fear. These two poems alone are worth the price of admission, but the whole collection measures up. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Vértiz, Vickie. Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut. Univ. of Arizona. Sept. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9780816535118. pap. $16.95. POETRY

“Come closer, chula// There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” These beckoning lines, ending a poem set on a city bus, capture the intimacy and disturbing undercurrent that typify Vértiz’s fine second collection (after Swallows). Vértiz portrays her Los Angeles neighborhood with verve and what might be described as fond anger. We see poverty (“the death stench in our water in our jobs”) and fractured families. In one poem, “Dad’s paychecks couldn’t feed two houses,” which explains why the pet rabbits end up as soup, and elsewhere a postcard from pops says, “I wish you were here, mija/ Come on, don’t get all feelings on me/ I may be drunk/ But at least I’m home.” The uncle delivering an unexpected kiss, teenagers in tight black jeans, the “pleyboy” boyfriend who proved “a hard climb/ A home to mispronounce” (“Fuck that, said my brother, There’s other fools to love”), a mother and brother signifying “ten thousand truck miles (“Why won’t/ their coughs go away?”)—these make up a chamber opera that Vértiz vivifies with jangle and sparkle. VERDICT Fervent reading about the urban Hispanic experience; for all readers.

redstarWicker, Marcus. Silencer. Houghton Harcourt. Sept. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781328715548. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781328715586. POETRY

In bold, brash, open-hearted poems delivered with satisfying sass, Wicker, author of the National Poetry Series–winning Maybe the Saddest Thing, reflects on simply being while black. A news story about a tied-up dog resonates painfully (“You see human/ interest piece, …I see eclipsed casket”), jogging in the park inspires anxiety (“Sometimes, I can barely walk out/ into daylight wearing a cotton sweatshirt// without trembling”), and second guessing your every move becomes second nature (“Because my flat-billed, fitted cap/ cast a shady shadow over his shoulder in the checkout line. No, siree. See, I practice self target practice”). “Watch Us Elocute,” a poem that exemplifies Wicker’s way with titles, opens with a posh woman gushing over the poet’s eloquence and leads to the massacre at the AME church in Charleston by a “throwback// supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963,” concluding “None of us is safe.” Wicker gets personal, too, (“think/ you’re the first fool with a laptop/ to ever arrive at a blank screen/ & ask, is this enough?”), and one poem ends “O Lord, make me me,” which is both caustically funny and emblematic of someone wanting to be himself in a society that makes it so very hard. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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