With the emergence in the United States—indeed, the dramatic rise—of many more small and independent presses, the poetry chapbook may be experiencing a second heyday in US letters. And in saying this, I don’t intend to wallow in the solipsism of US American writing but, rather, to recognize the ways the chapbook has made—and continues to make—an intervention against the grip of corporate publishing that dominates US writing. Handmade or photocopied, stapled, saddle-stitched or perfect bound, the chapbook has an immediacy to it; it argues for democracy over oligarchy, attended always by its long history of giving venues to writing that is politically and aesthetically edgy.
While definitions of the chapbook vary, there seems some agreement that a chapbook is usually forty pages or fewer and has a print run shorter than a comparable full-length collection. It would be a mistake, though, to consider the chapbook as a sort of starter or partial book. Better to think: distillation, focus, kernel—a book that fully embraces poetry’s lean and precise nature. Below, we review nine new chapbooks. —JMc
Michelle Peñaloza. landscape / heartbreak. Two Sylvias Press, 2015. 29 pages. $14.00.
The chapbook is the perfect form for Michelle Peñaloza’s landscape / heartbreak, a brief collection of sixteen poems with a unique premise: Peñaloza invited people whose hearts had been broken in Seattle to walk with her to the site where the heartbreak had occurred. While the poems emerge from these walks and the stories friends and strangers told her along the way, they are far more than simple descriptions of a city’s landmarks or its residents’ direct experiences.
“Pentimento” begins with an image that opens up the theme: “Within an old Dutch seascape, art conservators / find a whale that’s been hidden for 150 years.” The poem works archeologically, uncovering the city’s multiple pasts that, though often concealed, influence present lives. Those lives confirm that the past is never over, regardless of how deeply buried it might be. Through her attention to craft, Peñaloza insures that the poem, too, is memorable: “On the ferry to Bremerton, a daughter carries only antlers and / mirrors and her mother’s labored breathing across the water.” The antlers are startling—as they would be to other passengers—especially as the first item in the list that follows. “Mirrors” function symbolically as well as literally, and “her mother’s labored breathing” reproduces the rhythm of a tide ebbing and flowing. The imagery throughout “Pentimento” works this way, functioning on multiple levels.
I remain intrigued by landscape / heartbreak, as each poem lingers during my own long walks through my own emerging city. —LD
Blunt Research Group. Lost Privilege Company or the book of listening. Noemi Press, 2016. 41 pages. $10.00.
This remarkable, collectively composed chapbook shuttles historical lines from kids doing time, kids collected to ensure the California dream would not appear a murky postcard. It is a docupoetic, a hybrid account, with lines lain by the children and splayed out for investigation, coupled with actual names scrim-shadowing cold pages in ghost identities, and it carries myth a step further by way of deposing reality. The closing section, “the book of listening,” with eleven pages floating one stanza per page, effectively harbors ways of processing; here they are both set free and imprisoned in the walled page of functional white. Here, is where we begin to understand that “close listening” is “as a circuit, a procedure, for hearing voices.” But free of guards, torture, we leave still whole, not demoralized and forcibly sterilized as were these truly incarcerated children of the developing “utopian” California. This lyric-docupoetic conveys an almost unbearable pondering, a frightening and fitting prosody. Fittingly, too, Blunt Research Group shoves us hard, pushes us full-on into Whitter State School where “Not a dirtier boy in the house vile / and effeminate” is housed, at a time when “it was suggested that wards were likely to have drill on Saturday / unless they improved” and were constantly “removed to the Lost Privilege Company” (isolation ward) again and again, as this collective effectively indicts, back “to Lost Privilege Company for refusing to work.” Who goes here? “Mary is a pretty girl / with a nice alto voice but almost too lazy / to use it” and children, begging, hanging out past curfew, Black, Latino, whose “ babyish / and girlish actions have kept him” called “High Grade Moron,” and “We all know no good / comes of that mixture” and is enough to “put him in / Lost Privilege Company for 40 days / disobedience’” and that his “Father slanders the boy’s dead mother in his presence” and so “plays the coronet” with “lost strayed or stolen” and so sayeth the Eugenics Records Office and California between 1910 and 1925, here touching “the very core of the California myth” and influencing California pride, and Hitler. —AHC
Rio Cortez. I have learned to define a field as a space between mountains. Jai Alai Books, 2016. 35 pages. $10.00.
Don’t be fooled by the title’s trendy embrace of the empty—these poems are rock solid. The chapbook opens with the speaker unabashedly ensconcing herself in a Sun Capsule Super Cyclone 350 tanning bed, “the only black / girl at Future Tan Tanning / Salon.” Examining her own reflection, in the violet light with goggles over her eyes, she asserts, “I like the way I look / darker & like a time-traveler. . . . ” This first poem ends in a kind of holding pattern—“I think I’m sad / or something worry how much time / has passed since I’ve been here”—and the poems that follow deliver on this promise of suspended time and bodily unease. We come across animals dead or displaced from forces real but unnamed, as well as a prolonged exploration of the allure of disappearing into movies, coupled with suspicion of what those movies obscure. The terrific “Black Annie Hall,” the cornerstone of the chapbook, is an alternately funny and devastating poem that simply describes scenes from the classic film, but asks the reader to imagine that Annie is black. As the isolated, despairing Annie tries to navigate the world of Manhattan taxicabs or finds herself chastised by her white boyfriend for getting high, exchanges that were played for endearment in the original film become suddenly charged and dangerous for our heroine. It’s a smart conceit that’s smartly pulled off, hat and suspenders and all. Ultimately, we are brought to the final astonishment of a poem, “Visiting Whitney Plantation.” Here—like in the tanning bed, like in the dark of the movies—time and space seem to collapse and stretch in unconventional ways, as the speaker eloquently insists on her right to recognize herself. “We are in Wallace, Louisiana / looking for our people’s names / now upon a marble wall of 70,000 / first names in no particular order.” After a gorgeous stanza about gathering moss to take home, the speaker reflects on the day: “How cruel the sun must’ve been / to the slave, I think, when I get back / to our French Quarter hotel and lay / poolside in a two-piece / desperate, almost.” Once again these poems seek out the light, harsh as it has been, harsh as it still is. —NS
Monica Wendel. English Kills. Coal Hill Review, Imprint of Autumn House Press, 2016. 19 pages. $10.00.
Within these open yet neatly-formed poems, Monica Wendel travels without really leaving home. Poems move underground, via subway, into the land via gardens, to sea via blankets that become islands—a drug trip stands in for seeing another country—but mostly these poems move through dreams. Often the speaker awakes partway through surreal scenarios and finds herself in this world that is no less bizarre than the one she imagined. Full of anxiety provoked by world news and loved ones at personal risk, Wendel’s poems help us understand how a young woman holds it together and even envisions a future in a world of violence and threat.
Wendel is best when, as in the title poem English Kills, she makes curious claims about language: “I’ve been singing in a dead language / about the sun,” and “language is a river, not a fish tank.” It is language that allows all the travel, escape, immersion, and, especially, the entrance and exit to the dreamworld we are asked to visit in English Kills. —HEE
Jasmine An. Naming the No-Name Woman. Two Sylvias Press, 2016. 30 pages. $12.00.
Primarily consisting of short narrative prose poetry, Naming the No-Name Woman is a thoughtful work gleaning the elements of progress and stagnation involving the images and expectations of Chinese-American women over the span of a century. The thirteen-poem plain language collection is one that focuses on gender roles, racial identity, stereotypes, and familial expectations. The title poem, the strongest of the collection, introduces one of the no-name women as Anna May Wong (birth name: Wong Liu Tsong), the first Chinese-American film star who worked in the cinema for over four decades. She began acting as a child in 1919 and continued to act in both the States and Europe until her death in 1961, primarily in secondary, obviously racist and stereotypical, roles. The historical and mythical versions of Anna May and the persona who speaks within the collection are connected throughout the narratives—intertwining the mentioned themes over the years that separate the two individuals along with their shared personality traits. Through the additional poems, An addresses stereotypical concepts like the Dragon Lady, Madame Butterfly, the Lotus Blossom, and the Chinese Laundress. The culmination of this discussion occurs with an unemotional rendition of some of the obvious limitations to Wong’s film career brought by California’s anti-miscegenation laws in the poem “Staged Kiss, or She Practices for a Scene She Will Never Star In.” The final poem of the collection, Inheritance, grapples with knowledge that our obsessions and connections with historical figures never quite leave our presence, literally wrapping Wong and the persona into one body. —SO
Saeed Jones. When the Only Light is Fire. Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016. 44 pages. $12.00.
Saeed Jones’s first chapbook appeared five years ago and established him as a profound voice of contemporary American poetry. On the chapbook’s back cover are the words “Gay Studies,” but as with many identity markers, this description is woefully inadequate. In true intersectional form(s), Jones is a southerner, a gay man, a black man, a public intellectual, a poet, and one might say, a political activist. Some of these points of view appear in this chapbook, in various, nuanced turns. In “Kudzu,” the book’s first poem, he injects the southern landscape into an event of relentless eroticism: “Soil recoils / from my hooked kisses. / Pins turn their backs / on me.”
Jones returns to the south for three poems about James Byrd, an African American Texan. Byrd was killed in a horrifying manner by three white men: they dragged his body behind a pick-up truck until he was decapitated. (As an aside, I use “killed” in a specific context here, because a mob has to be involved in order to classify a killing as a “lynching.”) Like Lucille Clifton, who first wrote of Byrd’s brutal murder in her National Book Award-winning collection, Blessing the Boats (in “Jasper 1998”), Jones examines the stories placed upon the traumatized bodies of black people. Yet he creates an original point of view of the subject—the black body, Byrd’s testifying spirit—and rejects the black man as object. In this triptych and elsewhere, Jones reflects the south as traumatic corpus.
A few have classified Jones’s poetry as Southern Gothic; however, in the case of black southerners, one must keep in mind that the gothic requirement of “grotesque” is not necessarily an artistic creation, but rather, a reality of daily existence of African Americans since the seventeenth century. If I had to choose, the strongest poem of this collection is “Prelude to a Bruise,” and here, I’d like to emphasize that with black poets, most reviewers focus on subject and theme instead of craft. But in this poem it is impossible to ignore the craft, how Jones uses sonic innovation to lead his theme along:
In Birmingham, said the burly man—
Your back, blue-black.
Your body, burning.
I like my black boys broke, or broken.
I like to break my black boys in.
This poem is a blues, it’s improvised jazz, it includes unexpected rhyme, and as we continue reading, the incantatory, rage-filled—and frighteningly humorous—beauty of Jones words explodes: “Good boy. / Black boy, blue-black boy. / Bad boy—rap rap.” Last words: for more of Jones’s work, seek out his full-length collection, Prelude to a Bruise (Coffee House Press, 2014), which includes poems from this chapbook. This book appeared in 2015 and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. —HFJ
Emily Carlson, Symphony No. 2. Argos Books, 2015. 35 pages. $10.00.
When Emily Carlson is trapped in Lebanon during the July war of 2006, her vivid language bursts into fragments. “[S]entences all over the place, I’d love one for holding on to, reason,” reads one of her prose poems, answered on the next page by the open-ended remark, “I’ve eaten all my food and am afraid to walk to the grocer I’d like clean nails for my burial never before crossed my mind these stupid little beauty things embarrass me.” Carlson’s chapbook, referencing Darwish’s Memory For Forgetfulness and titled after Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, reports from the intersection of art and war. Music and literature, she implies, can help us survive, or at least live with ourselves after escaping violence. Carlson is also sustained by friendship with a stranger and the long tether of a mother’s love and care. Yet these poems resist consolation. Confessing this reveals my own shortcomings as reader and citizen, but I wished Carlson’s austere documentation focused just a little more on hope or human kindness. This is a powerful chapbook, but it becomes more so, for me, when I read past Carlson’s painful last line to the “Notes.” There, she quotes from Thich Nhat Hahn on how modern physics invalidates the term “observer” in favor of “participant.” Can poetry, then, help us understand our utter implication in geographically distant conflicts—can it help us be kinder? I hope so. —LW
Amorak Huey. The Insomniac Circus. Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014. 25 pages. $6.00.
Amorak Huey’s The Insomniac Circus joins Elizabeth Savage’s Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers, Catherine Esposito Prescott’s The Living Ruin, Catherine Staples’s Never A Note Forfeit, and Danez Smith’s Black Movie as one of the more memorable chapbooks of the past few years. Huey’s fun, dark riff on circus metaphor and mythology is Barnumesque on titles alone. To wit: “The Ringmaster Answers the Phone,” “The Sword Swallower Wonders What’s the Point,” “The Unicyclist Wonders if He’s Found the One” and “The Contortionist Twists the Bearded Lady’s Words & Things Get a Little Hairy Between Them.” You can imagine, though, the ease with which the poet might drop the ball with this project or all too easily tumble from the trapeze. But, Huey manages to keep the poetry tigers at bay and come away with nary a scar.
We love circuses because they toe the line between the comic and the tragic, and Huey is happy to make that tightrope his home. In “The Fire Eater Gets All Hot & Bothered,” Huey utilizes the persona poem to explore the three rings of the intimate and the erotic:
The flames that burn
are the ones I never see,
once I swallow their secrets
it’s too late. Fairy tales hide
what hides after the ever after—
when I think about you
I crush myself.
Some great lines followed by a painful pun is the mark of a confident poet who knows he’s on to something under the big top of this life. —DR
Joseph Han. Orphan. Tinfish Press, 2015. 20 pages. $10.00.
“I saw the old photos I would soon uncover / of my parents when they were younger,” the speaker of Joseph Han’s Orphan tell us, and the operative word here is “uncover,” pointing to the chapbook’s key tension, between histories that are uncovered and those covered over or rewritten or erased. To investigate these histories—cultural, familial, individual—Han plumbs language’s seemingly endless depths and the fraught surfaces of Korea’s plastic surgery industry. The popularity of plastic surgery is detailed in the poem “Plastic Bridge,” as are the journeys of various generations of the speaker’s family, the grandmother who “came back with a ghost pulling at skin” or the father who “came back with bruises / under his eyes to remove the bags he carried in his cab.” Throughout, the body is written upon, edited, translated; it is made to look younger or “more Western.” This sort of surface writing, though, indexes the deeper question of language, of languages and the ways, in this book’s world, they exclude and silence:
I tried watching soaps, trying to understand
the drama in mouths moving,
but knowledge is subtitled
. . .
a frustrated father asked of me, are you silence?
Han deftly works these ostensible oppositions, depth and surface, lyric and docupoetic, moving easily between the language of tourism and commerce (“Book your tour today & receive a special offer”) and beautifully cadenced writing:
. . . Whiten my face so I may glow
without it. Even the moon can govern
dreams from its place, light up a room, still be
distant & searched for as the end of a
in the night sky.