Reginald Dwayne Betts, Bastards of the Reagan Era. Four Ways Books, 2015. 72 pages. $15.95
“No one will admit,” Reginald Dwayne Betts sings, “that this is the way America strangles itself.” How does America strangle itself? With “hard sunsets,” with “crack and aluminum,” with “casket doors” that “clank closed” and with “bodies that roll off the block and into the prisons,” and with a generation of lost sons and fathers in search of answers. Bastards of the Reagan Era makes a deep reckoning with time. It is partly an historical account of the slow, persistent generational violence inflicted upon black men in America, as in vivid investigations like “The Invention of Crack.” Betts also weaves intimate elegies for lost friends and lost families, of dying neighborhoods and blasted cities immersed in violence. “Pretty won’t save / anyone here,” Betts writes, “where currency is blood / where pretty has failed everyone.” When a nation wages war against its own, beauty becomes a weapon. In “Elegy with a Cell Door Closing” a judge hands down a sentence lasting as much time as it would take for an empty parking lot to fill with “oaks & spruces / & pines & willow trees & grass & maybe / horses.” In “What We Know of Horses” to compare “everything fast & beautiful to horses” is to evoke the “dead men” who “circle every block.” “Nothing replaces lost time,” Betts writes, but these urgent lyrics make new time and new hope from a new generation in a stirring opening lyric to Betts’ sons: “Our song,” he sings, “is how right we got it / when the light from that moon spilled out of your mother’s belly.” Nothing replaces lost time but the hope of Bastards of the Reagan Era is that new songs might make new histories. —JC
Orlando White. LETTERRS. Nightboat Books, 2015. 96 pages. $17.95.
Books about reading inspire contradictory emotions: the subject is powerful because reading is a flow-inducing, identity-challenging experience; conversely, the strategy can suggest a too-desperate argument by writers for their own relevance, distancing art from first-hand pains and pleasures. Orlando White’s LETTERRS isn’t exactly about reading. He’s obsessed, instead, with language at the cellular level—how readers interact with typographical symbols—but his book triggers the same ambivalence. Its urgency gratifies; its inwardness sometimes leaves me hungry.
“Nascent,” an ecstatic nine-page poem, opens the book with a search for origins across the visual field of its extra-wide pages. Playful English diction sparks against the diacritical marks of Diné Bizaad, suggesting productive identity frictions latent in print. We are nourished, as White writes elsewhere, by “paper milk.” Yet the way print fixes experience runs counter to life’s fluidity: each letter entraps an “outbreak of silence.” Attracted by these questions, I still couldn’t engage with some of the book’s most abstract passages. The poems I love in LETTERRS use visceral metaphors to emphasize the politics of reading. “Unwritten,” for example, conjures archaeological violation, readers digging out the “tiny white cranium” of the letter O from its original burial place. Here, White uncovers the stakes of his enterprise: how does one reconcile love of the grapheme with knowledge of its damaging, empowering history? —LW
Olivia Clare. The 26-Hour Day. New Issues, 2015. 67 pages. $15.00.
The poems in Olivia Clare’s The 26-Hour Day are both temptingly elusive and engagingly allusive. Initially, I absorbed these poems more than understood them, entranced by an image or metaphor or sonic effect. Eventually, what I experienced was not understanding but recognition, as I found myself accompanied by a congenial sensibility without quite realizing how.
Syntactically, these poems are direct, their vocabulary deceptively ordinary, with first lines beginning subject-verb-object: “Silence commemorates an exit,” “I’ll speak a dove,” “Little Enoch learned his colors from lettered blocks.” As Coleridge instructs us, however, poetry depends not simply on the best words but also on their best order. Clare’s ability to surprise by juxtaposing her particular subjects, verbs, and objects is what most intriguingly characterizes her style. She is dexterous enough with language to obey all the rules and also make it new.
“Numbers,” for example, exploits the strategies of catalogue and ekphrasis in order to question what we know of art, history, music, and perception. The poem describes museum visits, considering both classic and postmodern art forms, until the speaker “stood in the center beneath / a mosaic of squares painted 88 shades / between white and black.” I did not anticipate this last line, and reading it encouraged me to reconsider my response to the entire poem.
I felt similarly about many of the poems here, regardless of their length or form, and also about the entire book. With each poem, The 26-Hour Day became clearer and more complex, which means, ultimately, more and more fun to read. —LD
Jenifer Browne Lawrence. Grayling. Perugia Press, 2015. 76 pages. $18.00.
The poems in Jenifer Browne Lawrence’s Grayling trust metaphor, with figurative language in one poem evoking that in others and then expanding the entire collection’s sphere of meaning. Organized into two sections, Grayling portrays a child’s tangled fears for herself and an adult’s understanding of danger and desire.
“We Were Small” concludes with solace for a child who understands “what consolation / to revive one bird,” but only after a series of glimpses at terror. At fourteen lines, the poem gestures toward the sonnet—absent the rhyme and iambic pentameter, though each line approximates ten syllables, and the turn following line eight is one of the most interesting moments of the poem. The poem is structured as one long sentence, with the title serving as its main clause. The first lines are particularly startling—“as grayling hearts removed in one deft flick, / last beat feeble in my brother’s palm, . . . ” The poem alternates between disturbing images like this one and more soothing ones, though nature’s red tooth and claw seem destined to triumph, for in saving the chickadee, the children “brush its down from the pane, / clear the torn web tethered to the glass.” “We Were Small” takes advantage of nearly every device available to a poet, from grammar to figurative language to lineation, to amplify meaning through compressed language.
Lawrence’s skill exhibited in “We Were Small” is typical of Grayling. The poems require and reward attention, and their images echo in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed. —LD
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse. Kaya Press, 2015. 80 pages. $15.95.
I imagine pronouncing Nicholas Wong’s new book “cruh-VASS,” with the emphasis on the second syllable. That seems more poetic to me. However, Wong doesn’t really need my help; Crevasse is leaking poetry.
An exploration of bodies, cities, and the rifts within them, Crevasse looks at the tiny cracks that break along the borders of public and private selves. Take a look at the opening lines of the opening poem, “Private Parts: Anti-Bodies,” and you’ll see what I mean:
Born as suckling machine, hooked
to nipples on malevolent male
chests, where hair grows like black grass
in barren deserts. Inside me a groove
deepens, which I have mistaken
I love the odd sci-fi feel, the tension between grass and desert (barren and fecund), but for me, the poem turns on the word groove, which can be taken many different ways. Music. Pattern. Rift. Have any of us not mistaken at least one of these grooves for love?
There are a series of “Private Parts” poems, which could also be titled “Public Parts,” as in this minimalist lyric: “we hang / emotions / like paintings / on our face.” That notion of the interior world opening outward, as though on display, is a recurring motif. Another similar theme is the crevasse created in the body by illnesses—societal, medical, emotional. One of my favorites, “Museum of Anagapesis,” collapses all three into one malady.
Wong’s many modes find resonance in the book’s final poem, “Light Deposit,” which seeks to locate (and dislocate) our many desires in the “Body as a verb.”
If the body is a verb, this book is its noun. They make a great pair. —DR
Natalie Scenters-Zapico. The Verging Cities. The Center for Literary Publishing, 2015. 80 pages. $16.95.
Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are the literal verging cities of Scenters-Zapico’s potent first collection, an extended meditation on the cities themselves and the bodies that transgress their boundaries. Divided into four sections, each of which focuses on some version of “verging,” the volume moves from the convergences of Part I—focused on the book’s two key players, lovers who meet across the border that separates them—to “Di/Verge,” which documents graves, bodies, deaths along the border (the title’s “di” strikes me as a ghastly pun). Part III, “Re/Merge,” is a single sequential poem, “Epithalmia.” “Verge,” the final section, suggests the book’s ultimate direction; it culminates in the poem “How Borders Collapse.”
While the opening poem, “Crossing,” documents how fraught a space it is for bodies to cross, bodies yet carry the transgressions of the border with them, into the bedroom. In “How Borders Are Built,” where the lovers stand in for their respective cities, Scenters-Zapico blurs the lexicons of cityscape and bodyscape: “In your hair a crown of border patrol point their guns at me; they watch / with night vision goggles to see if I’ll wade across our river. I lick // the black corners of your ears; one agent shoots my shoulder. I wonder if you / could take them down while you’re on top of me. . . .”
In the title poem, the cities themselves are embodied, acting out their own complex love story: “Do you remember nights we rolled together / in the currents of white streets? Those were nights // a stench would wake me, and I could never tell / if it was your sewage or mine.” In these poems, the border is a powerful metaphor, but it is never merely trope; it is actual, political, damaging. “We wonder,” she writes, “how two cities are split, how they swell. Watch how they collide.” —JMc