Against Heaven: Poems

Graywolf. Apr. 2022. 80p. ISBN 9781644450826. pap. $16. POETRY
Alabi’s debut collection (winner of the Academy of American Poets First Book Award) arrives brimming with confidence and force. Polemical and personal, erotic and erudite, this work is downright feisty with regards to contemporary norms of poetic language and rhythm and not always easy to pin down on a first read. Which is to say, it challenges in the way that successful poetry should. The flip side is that Alabi’s work here also frequently tips into over indulgence and can feel disjointed as it shuffles through its many ideas and images, to the point of skewing haphazard. There are undeniably standout poems here: “black as:” resonates according to its focused power, linking contemporary, COVID-era living to centuries-old injustice (“When even the stores in the white neighborhoods had nothing on the shelves”), while “Love Letter from Pompeii” is a carnal masterwork abutting death, heat, and love (“Still thick grips and whole/ mouthfuls—I want to melt/ while it still feels good/ to scream”). But too often Alabi’s nimble wordplay—which flits off the tongue with ease and swagger in spurts but doesn’t always read elegantly across a poem’s full length—obscures their thematic threads, which can feel lost or knotted within the tumult of their dictive playfulness. The result is a work of sustained force but unstable cogency, one that too often blunts Alabi’s singular voice amid the linguistic turmoil.
VERDICT Alabi’s confident debut recommends them as a name to follow, but this collection is a mixed bag of forceful but too often scattershot and hyperactive poems.
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