Top Spring Poetry: 17 Don't-Miss Titles from Veteran and Upcoming Authors

Chai signals a strong and specific talent; Girmay's Black Maria is beautiful, brilliant, and palpably angry; Grey is fresh and enticing; as always Kirby is exhilarating; Leonard delivers charmed and sturdy poems for a wide range of readers; Saito's heart-stuttering work
Chai, Eleanor. Standing Water: Poems. Farrar. Apr. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9780374269487. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780374714918. POETRY standingwater.jpg33116A young woman comes face to face with Head of Sorrow, Rodin’s study of the dancer Little Hanako, and suddenly recalls the mother who for reasons unknown was expunged from her life at an early age: “Her disaffection stains the intimate/ objects found years later/ among her things of everyday.” Soon we are made painfully privy to the cause of this terrible separation of parent and infant child, a separation Chai likens to rape by citing the story of Persephone and the nymph Cyane, who dared to help her: “she rose from her buoying/ comfort to aid a child.” Disclosing the shrouded secret in forthright language, Chai also sorts out the consequences. VERDICT Blessed with stately beauty and sorrow even as it explores a key issue, this first book by Pierrepont School founder Chai might feel somewhat telescoped for some readers but signals a strong and specific talent. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

redstarGirmay, Aracelis. The Black Maria. BOA. Apr. 2016. 104p. ISBN 9781942683025. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781942683032. POETRY

Whiting Award winner Girmay (­Kingdom Animalia) recalls the larger African diaspora as she commemorates the more than 20,000 people who have died sailing from North Africa to Europe in a bid for a better life: “our passages/ above which, again,/ we are the shipped.” Using bold, sharply lyric language, she addresses the drowned as “you,” encircling them in community and giving them a humanity and individuality death statistics belie. The sea—and, by extension, all water—of course figures largely here (“the fishermen drop their veils// into your grave”), with the title referencing the black patches on the moon initially mistaken as seas (mare in Latin). As Girmay clarifies in the title poem, being thus “mis-seen” defines life for people of color, with the very act of naming an estrangement she explores further in daring, divergent poems. ­VERDICT Beautiful, brilliant, and palpably angry; an ­important book all readers can ­appreciate. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

Grey, Kimberly. The Opposite of Light. Persea. Apr. 2016. 64p. ISBN 9780892554713. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In this dazzling book, winner of the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, Grey does something brave. She investigates contemporary marriage without sounding ironic, treacly, or angry. It’s a process (“If I am building you, I have/ forgiven you” says the opener, and the penultimate poem is titled “Rules of Becoming”). There’s ambivalence and divergence (“I wanted a lovemonger./ You were a warmonger”), and disillusionment is inevitably folded in (“Always the sound of/ a sad wonder trumpet”). But if Grey sees “No way to love/ each other but with these ancient bodies,” she is also intent on looking at love differently in a different age; “nothing as old-fashioned as making/ a lover with a rib,” she proclaims, comparing herself and the beloved to “toy cars, electric and modern.” ­VERDICT Writing about love could be worn, but this is fresh and enticing; for all readers, even if the language sometimes challenges.

harris, francine j. play dead. Alice James. Apr. 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584251. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781938584374. POETRY

playdead.jpg33116After debuting with allegiance, a finalist for the 2013 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Cave Canem fellow harris risks all with a collection that’s raw and punchy as a street fight: “I carried a clit, in case/ in case it wasn’t rape. in case the kiss was your lovely.” Portrayed in searing, relentless language, the world here is an edgy and dangerous place, where families are splintered, sex and violence grind against each other, and “nothing is safe./ any corner could be a cement truck. or a gun.” Poems referencing Horace and Velázquez open this dark realm to history, and even the tenderness shown a pet cat (“Please open the storm windows so he can look down”) comes in a poem titled “suicide note #3.” VERDICT Not easy reading, and the language sometimes overwhelms sense, but sophisticated readers will revel in harris’s lyric ­immediacy. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

Hejinian, Lyn. The Unfollowing. Omnidawn. Apr. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9781632430151. pap. $17.95. POETRY

In her poignant yet pointed introduction, the prolific ­Hejinian (My Life and My Life in the Nineties), a real poet’s poet, explains that while the pieces in this new collection are all 14 lines long, they are not, properly speaking, sonnets, which unfold logically. The poems here, occasioned by the death of a young family member from cancer, don’t so much unfold as spill forth in strings of seemingly unrelated thought. Yet there’s logic in a larger sense, a beautiful and bracing show of how uncertain life can be as it tumbles and turns onto so many different paths. “Every minute proves that reality is conditional,” says Hejinian in a poem that moves from Abyssinia to a woman with a pink bag to an afternoon séance. Thus does she brilliantly ­articulate mourning. VERDICT Not ­everyday reading but a collection ­connoisseurs must appreciate. [See ­Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

Joseph, Janine. Driving Without a License. Alice James. May 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584183. pap. $15.95. POETRY

Of course, growing up means hanging out with a car-crazy boyfriend and learning to drive without a license; it means being “interested in it and doing what with it,/ I didn’t know, but wanted it, and wanted it/ fast.” Yet when you are an ­undocumented immigrant, raised in California but born in the Philippines, growing up is profoundly and scarily more. In her first collection, Joseph clarifies what it’s like always to be in hiding “—which kept me in school and was, of course,/ a lie.” As she guides us through constant fearfulness (“I hear they raid when you’re naked/ in bed”) and unimaginable hurt (“D. said I—and by I she meant those// like me—should die”), Joseph blends everyday anxieties with deeper ones, avoiding outright reportage for smarter inflection. The tensions of visiting the immigration lawyer’s office, for instance, are seen in the mad drive away. VERDICT A gifted writer’s view on an all-American issue. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

Kirby, David. Get Up, Please. Louisiana State Univ. 2016. 88p. ISBN 9780807162903. $39.95; pap. ISBN 9780807162903. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780807162910. POETRY

“Sometimes when I’m writing a poem,// I feel as though I’m operating that crusher that turns/ a full-size car into a metal cube the size of a suitcase.// At other times, I’m just a secretary.” Thus does National Book Award finalist Kirby (The House on ­Boulevard St.) explain his ars poetica, which allows him to spin out story-telling verse in language that’s colloquial and digressive, offering often eye-popping connections. How do we get from the childhood doctor who treated the speaker for polio to JFK’s assassination? Readers might ask that a lot, as some associations here seem more far-flung than usual, but as always Kirby is exhilarating about showing us small if consequential moments and the concreteness of things. VERDICT Write a poem? “I’d suggest you shop for new/ underwear and take a taxi” says Kirby briskly, putting us right in the world. Accessible and fun.

Leonard, Keith. Ramshackle Ode. Houghton Harcourt. Apr. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9780544649675. pap. 17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544649682. POETRY

In his lovely first collection, Pushcart Prize nominee Leonard offers poems both tough and tender about becoming a man—effectively so, as these works are not full of false bravado but touching reflection. “A boy should this and a boy should that,” he says of the pressures shaping the male trek in life, and elsewhere an anxious father’s ultrasound view of a growing fetus quietly expands to a greater understanding of the world. From hayfields and splatting June bugs to cow’s udders and a woodstove’s warmth, Leonard’s backdrop is rural, but his appeal will be larger; one of his finest poems, opening with the obvious outsideness of strawberries, wends its way to Icarus and tellingly concludes, “There must have been a moment/ he could go no further,/ and yet, he did.” VERDICT Charmed and sturdy poems for a wide range of readers.

redstarLima, Frank. Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems. City Lights. 2016. ed. by Garrett Caples. 300p. ISBN 9780872866676. pap. $19.95. POETRY

incidentsintravel.jpg33116Lima (1939–2013) has been identified as a major Latino American poet and a second-generation member of the New York School, but he rejected both labels—appropriately, as his poetry has its own distinctive energy and calm, concrete dreaminess. The occasional early poem in this excellent overview evokes Spanish Harlem street scenes (“fat garbage cans/ screaming with the stench/ of rice & beans”), and the opening “Mom I’m All Screwed Up” is a wrenching shriek at his sexually abusive mother. Mostly, though, Lima takes in the world and himself without excess; there’s a revitalizing realness in his work as he moves from passion (“Anyhow I feel like an overcrowded greenhouse when you’re around”) to older-age meditation (“We stopped searching for the/ Answers because we could not live in their blue tents.” ­VERDICT Highly recommended for ­reasons that go beyond historical ­completeness.

Lux, Thomas. To the Left of Time. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. Apr. 2016. 96p. ISBN 9780544649651. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544649668. POETRY

After a long career, the multi-award-winning Lux luxuriates in a chance to weigh the past (“What we were thinking/ was bombing the cows with dirtballs”) against the present (“Always nervous around the cheerful,/ though drawn to them, always leery/ of the happy, I now find myself cheerful,/ and that makes me nervous”). After a first section loaded with unsentimentalized rural images—there’s snow-covered manure and a string of small tragedies from a putative horse poisoner to a cousin’s scarlet fever—we arrive at a selection of tongue-in-cheek or modestly touching odes (“I never meant to confuse/ those who thought—without malice/ and with some concern—otherwise: I was average”). A third section acutely observes the world (“Everything I hear is overviolined”) as a sense of quiet acceptance threads its way throughout. VERDICT An accessible collection that will have broad appeal. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

redstarMcLane, Maureen N. Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes. Farrar. May 2016. 128p. ISBN 9780374218874. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780374714796. POETRY

National Book Award finalist McLane (This Blue) writes formally interesting poetry that’s also in-the-world entertaining enough to kick back with on a Friday night. Using notably reined-in lines that up the energy, her propulsive new work offers a portrait of the questing Mz N. Here’s a woman making her way, recalling mocked childhood (she determines to write “what she hopes will be/ a masterpiece: Mispronunciation:/ the definitive/ autobiography”) and working on her cool (“Mz N tries/ each day very hard/ to be contemporary”). As she makes life’s identifiable stumbling blocks wholly her own, Mz N bravely reveals both tentativeness and strong opinions, and her narrative ends as a sort of love song to the beloved and to sexuality itself (“Desire/ is not a thing/ it is an irresistible humming vibrating/ through the body”). It’s one big, rich rush and an amazing sled ride down the page. ­VERDICT Highly recommended; as absorbing as any fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

May, Jamaal. The Big Book of Exit Strategies. Alice James. Apr. 2016. 100p. ISBN 9781938584244. pap. $15.95. POETRY

After debuting with Hum, an American Library Association Notable Book, May deepens his mission by paralleling his exploration of the hard-edged environment with more attention to the personal: “what matters most/ is not where I bend/ but where I am growing.” He’s not getting wishy-washily inward, however, instead using more intimate, revelatory language to talk about danger points and the outsider’s struggle. In one sardonic poem, he apologies “For being a grown man/ with a bogeyman at his back”; another, titled “FBI Questioning During the 2009 Presidential Inauguration,” offers unexpected, meditative riffs to blatant questions (“Are there explosives in the house?”) and defiantly explains the meaning of the name Jamaal (“What it means in the language/ you fear is beauty has always lived/ with the sound of awe at its center”). VERDICT Occasionally the thread gets lost, but this is vibrant writing from a poet to watch. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

redstarMeek, Sandra. An Ecology of Elsewhere. Persea. May 2016. 120p. ISBN 9780892554737. pap. $16.95. POETRY

ecologyofelsewhere.jpg33116Recipient of the 2015 Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, Meek (Road Scatter) weaves travels through Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to honor her recently deceased mother with trips she took in this country with her sister and ailing father, recalling a sometimes fractured family. What’s remarkable is that Meek does not stoop to the journey-as-healing narrative one might expect. Instead, she puts us in panoramic settings that in their bristly, sun-seared particulars represent her brittle emotions; she doesn’t take herself (or us) comfortingly out of the world but shows us baby seal hunts and the noble Welwitschia mirabilis, surviving in the brutally arid Namib desert, surrounded by landmines left after Angola’s bid for independence and memories of Germans slaughtering the Herero and Nama people in the early 1900s. “What’s lost// most remains” she says of dry grass-thorn—and of so much else. VERDICT Meek’s lines are dense and challenging but worth every effort. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/15.]

Mohabir, Rajiv. The Taxidermist’s Cut. Four Way. 2016. 112p. ISBN 9781935536727. pap. $15.95. POETRY

Winner of the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry, Mohabir’s cri-de-coeur first collection parallels the hunted animal and the hunted human, capturing the fierce, angry hurt of the “chasm within” as the speaker shields his love of men, remaining an outsider (“Every time you speak they hear a different hell”) within a community that itself has outsider status (“At dusk, cry these spirits// into an old Hindi film”). The result is tough, fierce, hurtful, and erotic, less outwardly enraged than painfully self-referential. In the signature “Erasure,” the clinically described dismembering of a dead animal echoes the speaker’s own cut-up interior. “You spend your life eating darkness” he cries; “Take off your skin right here.” VERDICT Overall, the conception is effective and the language beautifully urgent without excess. For readers looking for the next leading poet.

Rosal, Patrick. Brooklyn Antediluvian. Braziller: Persea. May 2016. 80p. ISBN 9780892554744. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In 2011’s Boneshepherds, award-winning poet Rosal ranged widely from the Japanese occupation of his father’s homeland to street fights, spinets, and sex shops. This work, a farewell to the untamable New York outer borough of Brooklyn, is just as adept at capturing landscapes and their attendant emotions. From skaters “igniting/ tight fires” to violets (“a small flash of welts”) discovered on Lafayette Street to a quick trip up to Manhattan’s East Side, where music groans and the atmosphere is nervy, Rosal captures a young man’s sojourn through a tough but dynamic world. Rosal is excellent at capturing uncertainty and bravado (“I thought/ hard was the mad-dog you could send/ across a crowded bar”) as he edges toward sadder but wiser. In the background, music keeps beating. VERDICT Not just for with-it readers and Brooklynites; most poetry lovers will enjoy.

Saito, Brynn. Power Made Us Swoon. Red Hen. Apr. 2016. 80p. ISBN 9781597099912. pap. $11.95. POETRY

“Woman Warrior walks into a bar, sits down/ says You’re Welcome/ says Hard Rock/ says, So what, I know De La Soul is Dead.” Severe and cool and wittily sardonic, she’s an unexpectedly excellent guide through Saito’s affecting account of familial and historical struggle. “No history of suicide or insomnia/ in my family” says one poem; instead, there’s “Body-as-country Country-as-promise,” even as a father scatters his father’s ashes in the Sierras and a daughter watching migrating birds wonders wistfully, “How does a family learn to fly/ like that.” Elsewhere, in one of several poems harking back to the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, the poet declares, “We were surrounded/ I tell you. Power// made us swoon.” VERDICT Winner of the Poets 11 award from the San Francisco Public Library, Saito (The Palace of Contemplating Departure) delivers a clear-cut and heart-stuttering work.

Whitaker, Jennifer. The Blue Hour. Univ. of Wisconsin. 2016. 64p. ISBN 9780299308643. pap. $14.95. POETRY

Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Whitaker’s debut collection wrenchingly captures an abusive parent-child relationship in a hardscrabble, desolate environment where, for instance, feral kittens fight off flies. In the opening poem, “Last Poem About My Father,” we see a daughter utterly defined by this man—“If I am a puzzle, the picture/ I kept making was his: victim, conspirator,// mirror, slut, secret,/ tunnel-to-get-lost-in”—and it’s clear that he has burdened her not just in life but long after death. And though what follows is hard-bitten and relentless, with the sure knowledge that every twinkling gift has its price, Whitaker writes with a richness and variety that offers sustained reading throughout. There’s a hint of redemption (“I heard myself whispering a new language/ that almost led me home”), but this speaker is clearly mid-journey. VERDICT Fine portraiture and finely delivered emotion; for most readers.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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