Summer Poetry: 13 Smart New Collections from Debut and Veteran Authors Alike

Bell's new collection could draw even those who don’t typically read poetry; Plenty is important for sophisticated readers; raw, unsparing poems from Sharif come highly recommended; debuter Vuong's poems are painfully, exquisitely exact
Bell, Josh. Alamo Theory. Copper Canyon. Apr. 2016. 82p. ISBN 9781556593994. pap. $16. POETRY In poems that look dense but read in a fluid, easy tumble, Bell (No Planets Strike) offers characters and scenarios that border on the surreal (“no one’s getting/ off this tractor alive, no one without/ a pod of vanilla, Stuck like a witch’s/ finger in the throat”) yet are grounded in everyday discontents (“Apologies/ to the inhabitants of the condo/ next to my condo”). The observations are arresting and almost witty, almost wry, and a character named Josh occasionally wanders along to engage with others. Fittingly, voice (and the voice box) feature thematically, as reading this work is like listening raptly to a verbose, intensely smart friend expatiate on life. VERDICT Both serious and entertaining, this collection could draw even those who don’t typically read poetry.

redstarBoruch, Marianne. Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing. Copper Canyon. Jul. 2016. 108p. ISBN 9781556594915. pap. $15. POETRY

eventuallyonedreams.jpg6916Only a poet as accomplished as Boruch (Cadaver, Speak) could make such beautiful verse while leading us through the everyday, of life’s subtle, steady shiftings (“the bird’s hunger, seeking shape”). If the opening image of a pool filled with cruelly dredged up roses bespeaks quiet assent (“I stood before them the way an animal/ accepts sun”), the next poem turns immediately to progress (and hence progression) as a modern invention beyond the heaven-and-hell alternatives; finally, the poet concedes, “I lose track of my transitions.” In fact, transition defines us. Here, a static painting gives way to “between and among,” a simple typeface never yields a perfect copy, and even in a medieval score, two exquisite quavers are connected by a slur. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Cruz, Cynthia. How the End Begins. Four Way. Mar. 2016. 92p. ISBN 9781935536673. pap. $15.95. POETRY

A troubled persona haunts Cruz’s moody, atmospheric collection (after Wunderkammer), battling fatigue and foreboding (“Cords of voices are unspooling inside my head”). But crystalline, assuredly cool writing removes the risk of maudlin self-pity. The danger here is multifaceted and often metaphysical; childhood haunts, winter descends in a white shriek, hospitals figure frequently, and trauma in one early poem (“What I want is to become// What I was/ before the accident”) shifts in the next to higher ground (“making myself// Safe from the wound-/ licked accident// Of having ever/ met you”). VERDICT Fine portraiture of a mind wrestling with itself in a dark world, this meditative work will be especially appreciated by poetry fans but is accessible to all.

Homolka, Michael. Antiquity. Sarabande. Jul. 2106. 64p. ISBN 9781941411278. pap. $14.95. POETRY

“Everywhere in heaven’s meadows/ Aryans jack each other off.” So opens this debut collection’s first poem, “Goshen,” whose title references the region of ancient Egypt inhabited by the Israelites. Then it’s a quick spin through Homolka’s spare, sculpted lines from the collection of Jews’ permits to the six-day war to “emaciated lovers” receiving stars from the backs of chariots. Clearly, history, and particularly Jewish history, will be the topic of this Kathryn A. Morton Prize winner, and clearly the language will be punchy and irreverent. How do we live with the burdens of history? “It isn’t like that Horace Life stresses us out,” says one poem in response to the classic poet’s placidity; elsewhere, “I can’t write off the gamey/ smell of events.” VERDICT Refreshing, energetic work; many readers will enjoy.

Lee, Corinne. Plenty. Penguin. (Poets). Jun. 2016. 144p. ISBN 9780143108177. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781101991886. POETRY

plenty.jpg6916In her second collection, National Poetry series winner Lee (PYX) takes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as inspiration for a fierce and propulsive cri de coeur about contemporary violence visited on both humans and the environment. Hindu dancers, Mojave saguaro, death in childbirth, the Navajo Long Walk, Kristallnacht, the Ho Chi Minh trail, DDT, deformed frogs, and the proclamation, “I want love/ but fear/ it won’t erase/ enough ozone/ from the fresh lightning strike” surface in the first 20 pages alone. Like crackling pine cones, Lee’s sharp images splinter and spill down the page in urgent, disjointed phrases; those who prefer the comfort of neat stanzas won’t be at ease with this headlong dash. But this is brave, solid work. VERDICT Important for sophisticated readers.

Martens, Amelia. The Spoons in the Grass Are There To Dig a Moat. Sarabande. Apr. 2016. 64p. ISBN 9781941411230. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941411247. POETRY

In this affecting volume of prose poems, a debut collection after a string of chapbooks, Martens moves from the beautiful, imperfect moments of domesticity (“And the apology I made for you came from a willow tree. From a lemon. From some mud I found in the living room”) to issues of global urgency (“A man says a bomb doesn’t have to be big;… an explosion of any size is enough”). Often, as she waxes intimately philosophical, Martens embraces both family and the political; in the lovely poem “Dear Brian Turner,” to her daughter’s comment that the soldier poet looks sad, she says, “I mentioned nothing about shrapnel, white space, or how it is to be inside yourself inside the dark.” VERDICT An accomplished start-up from a poet to watch.

Notley, Alice. Certain Magical Acts. Penguin. (Poets). Jun. 2016. 144p. ISBN 9780143108160. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781101991879. POETRY

This far-ranging new work from Notley, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, opens in a dreamscape (“I couldn’t sleep in my dream. …/ Distortion’s all that I know”) and unfolds in a stately, reflective manner to become an indictment of the disaffected contemporary world. The speaker, who initially appears as a sort of go-between, even a prophet and leader, in a mythopoetic kingdom of shades, regrets our lack of connection. “We weren’t always singular,” she says. “Democracy isn’t efficient, and the only politics I recognize lies between us.” It’s as if Notley is trying to find and reframe the concept of community as she sweeps through history and consciousness, with results that are ever polished but sometimes ponderous. VERDICT Important work from a leading poet, though not for beginners.

Oswald, Alice. Falling Awake. Norton. Aug. 2016. 80p. ISBN 9780393285284. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393285291. POETRY

In this new collection from T.S. Eliot Prize winner Oswald, life is seen as a continual tumbling downward. Rain “rises to the light and falls again,” while elsewhere “clouds close their options and the whole// melancholy air/ surrenders to pure fear and/ falls.” A fly falls stunned at the window, a badger falls “like a suitcase” to the shovel, and night falls “as if dropped from a great height.” If precipitation permeates these pages (because the author is British?), there’s less a sense of dank than edgy foreboding. Even the local village appears less quaint than sinister, and several fablelike poems have a Grimm feel: “Three people in the snow/ getting rid of themselves/ breath by breath// and every six seconds a blackbird.” VERDICT With the sparkle of black jewels; for all poetry fans.

redstarRivard, David. Standoff. Graywolf. Aug. 2016. 88p. ISBN 9781555977450. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979416. POETRY

James Laughlin Award winner Rivard (Wise Poison) here finds himself in midstream, mediating on “What’s left?” The feel is not, however, of resignedly looking backward but of thoughtful recalibration. The collection opens, “I miss myself most/ these days with friends” and ends “here we go again, full speed ahead.” In between, in well-crafted, cleanly ringing poems, the poet reflects on his father’s dying, recalls beloved authors, reveals the smarts not to discourage a friend’s enthusiasm, declares “that a little foolishness/ goes a long, long way, I’d say;/ a lot drops dead/ in its tracks,” and, in the title poem, headily embraces what’s “baffling, vast, elemental,/ hopeful, & threatening/ as that—but different.” ­VERDICT So what’s left? Wise, graceful poems for all readers.

redstarSharif, Solmaz. Look. Graywolf. Jul. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781555977443. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979409. POETRY

Destruction radius. Collateral. Distressed person. Language can be so drained of emotional content that we’re safely distanced from the reality behind it. But in these raw, unsparing poems, Rona Jaffe Award winner Sharif closes the gap, making language itself the issue as she investigates the consequences—particularly for herself and her family—of America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (“My life in the American/ Dream is a DOWNGRADE”). Chillingly, Sharif often splices in phrases taken from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military Terms (“Ladies, bring your KILL BOX, Boys, your HUNG WEAPON. You will push WARHEAD MATING to the THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY”), and we learn how thoroughly war and the refugee’s flight permeated the consciousness. VERDICT Highly recommended.

Taylor, Tess. Work and Days. Red Hen. Apr. 2016. 72p. ISBN 9781597097321. pap. $11.95. POETRY

As winner of an Amy Clampitt Fellowship, Taylor (The Forage House) spent a year living rent-free in a Berkshires cottage to pursue her writing. She refreshed herself by volunteering on a nearby farm, and here she chronicles the cycle of work (“we bow into the rows that winter tore”) that drew her so close to the earth. Even as she makes us acutely aware of the obdurate thereness of nature (“mulching garlic: muck is heavy”), we feel her muscles singing. Tellingly, Taylor weaves in references to the nature poetry of the great classic poets while also making parallels to the human body and the larger world (“You try to dislodge faulty friendship, miscarriage:/ in the distance, war drones.”) VERDICT In-the-field poetry many readers will enjoy.

redstarVuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon. Apr. 2016. 70p. ISBN 9781556594953. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781619321564. POETRY

nightskywithexitwounds.jpg6916Vuong was named one of this year’s Whiting Award recipients, and this debut collection (his chapbooks include Burnings, an American Library Association (ALA) Over the Rainbow selection) shows why. The language is painfully, exquisitely exact, the scenes haunting and indelible. Born in Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1980s, Vuong can reignite scenes from his country’s recent traumas; as Saigon falls, “Milkflower petals in the street/ like pieces of a girl’s dress” drift over the dead and injured, and the city lies “so white it is ready for ink” (“White Christmas” really played on the airwaves at the time). Elsewhere, the pain and glory of young love and young life emerge (“Show me how ruin makes a home/ out of hip bones…// teach me to hold a man the way thirst// holds water”). VERDICT Highly recommended.

Waldman, Anne. Voice’s Daughter of a Heart Yet To Be Born. Coffee House. May 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781566894388. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781566894395. POETRY

In her ambitious new work, veteran poet Waldman (The Iovis Trilogy) celebrates an ascendant goddess perhaps reluctant to arrive, perhaps representing a necessary transcendence (“There is, O daughters, an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed. Were there not, …there would be no escape from the world of the born”). She’s the bat kol of Judaism and Christianity, “the daughter of a voice,… a heavenly voice that proclaims God’s judgment” and the hâtif of the Arabs, “that calls/ to lost travelers in the wilderness.” She’s the voice, then, of conscience and salvation that has echoed throughout Waldman’s engaged work. When, in a protean rush of lines linked not by syntax but context, Waldman cites “a poetics of ecstasy/ template for literary intervention” she’s defining her own fiery aesthetics. ­VERDICT Classic Waldman, but opening a new window.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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