Aja Couchois Duncan. Restless Continent. Litmus Press, 2016. 104 pages. $15.00.
Near the beginning of her debut full-length collection, Aja Couchois Duncan ponders “what woman means, mother or pleasure or garbage strewn contiguously so that no one place is landfill or pristine.” Restless Continent pursues this aesthetic of uncertainty and mixture in prose poetry and free verse, worrying the relationships among humans, animals, planet, and language. In the process, she uncovers danger and damage. While she intersperses the volume with “Worst Case” scenarios for all the elements, there’s optimism here: Duncan intends to pass on what she has learned about surviving. “If you cannot lift yourself out of the freezing water,” she advises, “you should call on the spirit world,” because boundaries are more porous than they seem. The most impressive sequence in the book is an alphabetical primer, “Nomenclature, Miigadiwin, A Forked Tongue,” followed by a ten-page illustrated glossary. Duncan lays out dismembered parts of language, reenacting in English her solitary study of Ojibwe and wondering what kind of self might be assembled from the pieces. There’s humor in this restless seeking—considering the German elements of English, she’s “named the residual Hans and given him a theatrical side”—yet the predominant tone is a hungry refusal to be denied or abandoned. Stunning pages do alternate with more tentative ones, but then, breaking boundaries is a messy, urgent business. —LW
Martha Collins. Admit One: An American Scrapbook. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 89 pgs. $15.95.
Martha Collins’ Admit One: An American Scrapbook is the most disturbing collection of poetry I’ve read in years. It’s disturbing because it’s so culturally honest but also because Collins exploits the necessary compression of poetic language, juxtaposing events and vocabulary to demonstrate that there are no coincidences. Admit One focuses in most detail on the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the creation of the Bronx Zoo during the same period, and the experiences of Ota Benga, an African man who was “exhibited” at both sites, and of Carrie Buck who was infamously sterilized following her classification as “feeble-minded.”
1904 might seem a long time ago, but as Faulkner asserted, our own political news demonstrates, and these poems confirm, the past isn’t over. Stylistically, the book takes on the form of its subtitle, a scrapbook, incorporating quotations from newspapers, scientific documents, political speeches, and other materials. The implicit narrative of the collection traces the expression of American racism from the early twentieth century to the near present.
Never entirely linear, this narrative is regularly interrupted by poems that list synonyms and definitions of words that, obviously or not, evoke race. “Fair / Fair / Fare” includes, for instance, “to trade or display,” which in another context could seem neutral and objective, but in this context also connotes the display of human beings. The poem concludes with the lines, “fair dark fare / well to be bought and sold.” The poems composed in this form initially read as disjointed and insensible. Eventually, they not only make sense but also make sense of the collection. The history of race in America is insensible, and Admit One craftily reveals that insensibility. It’s a book that needed to be written and that needs to be read. —LD
Tiffany Midge. The Woman Who Married a Bear. The University of New Mexico Press, 2016. 80 pages. $17.95.
In this ranging, courageous collection, Tiffany Midge draws us deep into the world of her people, the Plains Indians, with a contemporary acuity that transcends both history and time. Love, desire, longing, grief and redemption come at us like that region’s waves of tall grasses—soft but insistent, like “night visits— / each with its own small creature, / each with its own grand light.” These are wrenching poems, some focused on the “lunacies of want,” others on the idiocies of America’s interpretations of its indigenous past: for example, in “After Viewing the Holocaust Museum’s Room of Shoes and a Gallery of Plains Indian Moccasins: Washington, DC,” the poet notes, “one is art / the other evidence. / One is artifact / the other atrocity.” In another poem, she remarks, “Irony is instilled by birthright when you’re Indian.”
A series of ten short poems, each entitled, “Considering Wakantanka,” anchor the book and its themes. While the uninitiated reader might be tempted to dismiss these seemingly unrelated poems as irrelevant, they are critical to the collection, because they demonstrate that, contrary to many outsiders’ misperceptions, spirituality is not esoteric or ethereal to many Native people but is experienced in mundane (and even profane) situations. Coyote shows up in one poem hoping to have sex with the beautiful daughters of an evil old woman, but they see him as no different from any other man. Ironies, both heartbreaking and delicious, permeate this book.
Perhaps most powerful are the poems about love and desire, interspersed among the rest. In “The Cut,” a lover accidentally slices off the tip of a finger, and Midge states, “It occurred to me that love is a kind of cut, / a kind of violence . . . / something exquisitely, incandescently, / cut loose and blooming.” In another poem, “our hearts dished out their darkest jams.” Desire is both gorgeous and terrifying, seen from the inside out. These poems draw no distinctions between human and animal, animal as we are. The title poem makes that merging explicit, as the woman who married a bear lives on what little fruit she can find during winter while her husband sleeps, and yet “evenings, his voice edged the cords coiled / along her spine like a harp. His dreaming hands / arranged the dark veil of her hair, quickened into song, / each plait a river of sound combed between his claws . . . / She had a lover who spooned her body at night, / who drank from the full cups of her breasts, / who hungered for her shoulders, her mouth, her belly— / who fed on the pounding in her chest.” These are poems upon which to feed. —KW
James Richardson. During. Ed. Michael Wiegers. Copper Canyon Press, 2015. 105 pages. $16.00.
Master of the aphorism, James Richardson has proven a genius of compressed space. “Bless the things so small there is no need to doubt them,” he advises in “Vectors 4.1: A Few Thoughts in the Dark,” one of several poems purpose-built of aphorisms in his latest collection During. During certainly sustains interest in brief and evocative assertion. Here’s “What’s New”: “My heart leaps, running for the stick / you never threw.” But in During compression meets extension. “During” is a word Richardson prefers for being a preposition without an object, “one [that] shares roots with durable, endure, duration, duress.” Questions of endurance arise in the very first poem, “The Next Centuries”:
Is there autumn there, is there leaf smoke, is the air
blued and mapled, oaked and appled and wined,
is that tang, that ache for who knows?
gone from your sweaters and hair?
During witnesses that evensong quality individual life accrues in time and wonders if that planet (or at least human civilization) too is winding down. Poems of compression, poems of extension, poems of patience juxtapose with poems of unexpected intersection. “Essay Traversed by Deer” fuses keen observation, explanatory myth, and literary legacy to find a lesson in the deer. “I forget and remember and forget / that they are bodily,” Richardson admits of these “shadows / of something else” that “cast no shadows.” How patient the poet is who reminds us we are bodies passing in time and that “What the dust calls will is wind.” —JC
Cynthia Cruz. How the End Begins. Four Way Books, 2016. 74 pages. $15.95
How the End Begins, the fourth book of poetry published by Cynthia Cruz, starts with an Ingeborge Bachmann quote: “Keine neue Welt ohne neue Sprache” (No new world without a new language). This quote is paramount to understanding the book project, which is a lofty one. According to Cruz, the book examines how specific female authors “refuse the language of their culture (authoritative, hierarchical) and attempt, instead, to create an alternative language—because it isn’t just a refusal of power, it is a refusal of the language of power . . . ” Though the attention to language is obvious within each poem, I am not sure the goal of alternative language is achieved within the collection—unless this alternative language is one of entirely composed of repeated images and color. This is hardly enough reason to dissuade potential readers. Fans of Cruz’s former work will find much within these pages familiar and easy to enjoy. The title series features many examples of the collection’s repeated imagery (stars, horses, trees, glass, and snow), the obsessive internal/mental fixation apparent throughout the book, and lines from Manohla Dargis’s review of the film Melancholia. The tonal quality of the entire collection is muted and dark, leaving the repeated imagery and overarching topics of the book—loneliness, longing, death, and faith—to create a somewhat austere and hauntingly melancholic reading experience. Pairing this with the academic practice of including multiple series of poems titled with the same name within the collection mimics the practice of film editing—similar imagery and themes seen from different camera angles. A poem worth noting is titled “The Treasure,” which is a prime example of all the elements mentioned prior in one work. The persona within the poem travels to the underworld to become mesmerized by worldly pursuits (“the rich lace of this world”), adoration (“the warm lights of fame”), and its noise (“the melodious / Music”) only to find that it makes one an empty, naked ghost left within a silent cathedral. —SO
Anna George Meek. The Genome Rhapsodies. Ashland Poetry Press, 2015. 88 pages. $15.95.
“I love being / an illusory effect of electrical impulses,” Anna George Meek writes in one of many bricolage poems interspersed throughout The Genome Rhapsodies. Improvisatory collage from available sources is the perfect formal analogue for Meek’s argument about identity, that the self is a composite, unreliable thing. Sliding the lyric “I” under a microscope, she finds it artificial. But what delight an artifice can bring! Meek’s second collection is full of witty short poems about treasonous bodies—“Nipples” stands out, so to speak—as well as longer, scientifically-informed meditations on Alzheimer’s, pregnancy, depression, and other conditions that challenge a person’s sense of self. We are made of memories, poems often tell us, but Meek reminds us we are also made of proteins that “turn / and rhyme, and build, and combine.” All this riffing on limited elements adds up to suffering bodies and the brutality of history, but this smart collection stresses, rather, our capacity to connect across pain and loss. The title sequence is particularly luminous in its study of the “scrolls / unrolling from within us” and the “library / of letters that the Dead have left behind.” I found myself wishing Wikipedia wasn’t a frequent bricolage source, but it makes sense—Wikipedia itself is a multi-authored patchwork. I’m just being finicky because my ancestors programmed me that way. —LW
Ocean Vuong. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 89 pages. $16.00.
Keats wrote a lot of good poems before he died at twenty-five. That is astonishing to think about, especially considering most of his best ones he finished when he was twenty-four. I don’t know how many poems Ocean Vuong wrote when he was twenty-four—maybe none, but at twenty-seven, his astonishingly good Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has me thinking.
Vuong’s voice is both mature and fragile, confident and uncertain. His book is full of knowledge and yet seems to be on a quest for knowing, everything informed by layered feelings of dislocation. No one was better than Rilke at naming and embodying the profound un-at-homeness that we all feel. For Vuong, that dislocation is geographical, sexual, familial, temporal. “Thanksgiving 2006” begins
Brooklyn’s too cold tonight
& all my friends are three years away.
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted—but I chose to live.
The “but” in that final line is a fulcrum that balances the poet’s razor-like emotions but also sharpens the poem’s edge. In moments like this, Vuong demonstrates he is a master at pivoting from impending cliché to dark surprise.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is bandaged with dark epiphanies like these, many of which recall James Wright and Sylvia Plath. Often, these moments of revelation are connected to family—a father, a mother, a grandmother—all of whom play key roles in the unfolding plot of the poet’s narrative. To wit: late in the poem “Notebook Fragments,” Vuong writes:
God must be a season, grandma said, looking out at the blizzard drowning her garden.
My footsteps on the sidewalk were the smallest flights.
Dear god, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through to get here.
Vuong’s small g God is, I think, a lot like Rilke’s angel—both presence and absence, both real and imagined. Both hoped for and feared.
This book, with all of its fears, is probably what you’ve been hoping for. —DR