June Micro-Reviews

Niall Campbell. First Nights. Princeton University Press, 2016. 88 pages. $17.95.

First NightsI loved Niall Campbell’s prize-winning first collection, Moontide (Bloodaxe), so I when I heard about the expanded US edition, I was curious. Moontide is an archipelago of brief lyrics, as chilly and austere as I imagine the Outer Hebrides to be (Campbell grew up on South Uist). Would introducing other species threaten the ecosystem? First Nights, it turns out, is even better than the debut, with sixteen fresh poems interspersed among rearranged older pieces. The new meditations on raising a son both ground and darken this edition, since they’re often set at night, when a wakeful father finds himself to be “a ruined bridge,” “a swinging gate,” “a freed skiff” fixed and completed by infant need. Other additions develop former preoccupations: fantastic tales involving empty sealskins, for instance, fit aptly among pieces like “The Fraud,” in which a lonely whistler somehow calls back a dog from his childhood. It shows up with soil in its coat, “loosely collared with the roots of bog-myrtle.” Campbell continues to be obsessed with the shaping influences of manual labor, meditating in a letter-poem about his first job grading shellfish, throwing back those smaller than “a fist or a heart”: “I did it for two years, / then I did it for the rest of my life.” The title poem, “First Nights,” is one of the most striking new poems. A young father talks to himself about playing “the night drum . . . a little drunken with the dark.” His wish: to “let things slide, / let the new change be unlike the old change.” I can lift my glass to that, looking forward to whatever transformations this gifted lyricist is plotting next. —LW

Camille Dungy. Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press, 2017. 77 pages, $24.95.

Trophic CascadeCamille Dungy’s fourth book is a feast of language and insights, a natural history project told in lyric mode. The editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, Dungy asks how we can survive despair and finds her answers close to the earth. The word trophic means “concerned with nutritive processes,” and her poems explore hunger and nourishment in many forms, creating an interconnected web of bodies—plant, animal and human. Trophic Cascade reveals our world through its species and their habitats: a hummingbird nest cupped in a palm, an Antarctic penguin plagued by a tick, blue gum eucalyptus trees blooming on Angel Island, red salmon fighting the current in a High Sierra creek.

These ecosystems come into focus through the lens of motherhood. A pregnant speaker watches the “beaked males and females clutching / their hundred thousand roe—working muscle, fin, and scale / against the great laws of the universe . . .” The roiling fish prove “rich feed” for bears, and such richness permeates the collection, as Dungy celebrates the generative powers of both the poet and the mother, her lines moving urgently from birth to death and back. In “Ars Poetica After William Carlos Williams,” she writes poems at dawn with milk-full breasts, christening herself “the fortunate creator of my household.”

But she also exposes motherhood’s lived contradictions, shows a postpartum woman grieving her former self, the experience of maternity constant as rain. A beloved unborn fetus is deemed “insatiable,” as is the teething baby: “She has taken my breasts / and put her own pleasure before them.” That someone can survive such appetites is a miracle, but Dungy revels in the changes, especially in the title poem that tracks the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone, the lush cascade of biology that follows: “All this / life born from one hungry animal, this whole, / new landscape . . .”

While a vital force animates the book, loss is always looming beneath the surface, like the fallen whale corpse that “can support life for over seven decades.” Grief becomes a form of sustenance in Trophic Cascade, and Dungy’s powerful music balances ruin with love. —DW

Gary Hawkins. Worker. Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2016. 98 pages. $14.00.

WorkerThis first, full-length collection of poems addresses more than themes of occupational labor implied in its title. In this book, no mere punching of clocks or typing out letters on computers. Gary Hawkins uncovers landscape which tell of daily burdens, and the dirges of daily existence. He considers the humanity’s noises, which we hear each day but ignore, and because “work” is also emotional, there are keen, revelatory encounters between waiters and patrons, border guards and travelers, husbands and wives, in which commonplace moments take on beauty’s moss. The pace of these narrative poems is febrile at times, measured at others, with lines that allow us to pause, as in “Psalm of the Derelict (Seattle).” In this persona poem, the speaker roams through the locales he has traveled, taking us quickly through (mostly) urban landscapes, then, he stops and contemplates:

From under the viaduct I watch the ferry depart
At its portals grey wools and grey eyes lining up
And dim, wooly figures cling together, looking back to the docks,
My sins retreating toward their dark lives in Bremerton.

How long shall I follow? How long shall I wait?

In the last line of this section, the speaker’s anguish erupts, a reminder that this travel isn’t glamorous, but necessary because of homelessness—we should have known this by the “derelict” in the title, but he makes sure we don’t forget. There are other places such as these in the collection, bits that startle, and make us ask, what else is within this poet’s mind? Sometimes, these bits occur as lines within poems, and sometimes, they are short, self-contained sublimities between longer poems, like, “The Late Radical Reckons Mr. Baldwin”: “This isn’t going to work out /America.” Last words: Here is a book that attends to knowing, targeted places. This is a poet who senses need. —HFJ

Viola Allo. “Bird from Africa,” from Eight New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. Akashic Books, 2015. 29 pages. Set price $29.95.

Eight New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box SetViola Allo’s work is prefaced with an essay by Chris Abani, who with Matthew Shenoda and Kwame Dawes collaboratively publish works with the groundbreaking African Poetry Book Fund from Prairie Schooner of the University of Nebraska through Johnny Temple’s Akashic Books. (Talk about a panel of poetic power!) Abani notes, “for all its scope—African, Diaspora, Cosmopolitan—Allo’s collection centers around a very specific Cameroonian self–the Anglophone Cameroonian.”

Sixteen poems journey the reader on returns and reclamation of African homeland and back to Baltimore and beyond. The poem “Muddy Shoes” teaches us how to accept tethering disparate continents over her voyage, with intentionality, as in: “I know I will not wash my shoes, / filthy from my summer in Cameroon.” Here, the narrator willingly brings back African earth embedded in soles, and later continues:

My home has come to America.
That’s the Cameroonian Diaspora
in America—
to cushion so many footfalls
on these meandering Maryland sidewalks.
Here it is, mud from Bamenda,
dirt from a valley in Cameroon.
Here I am, sticklike legs moving,
waka-waka, back and forth
like brooms made of palm fronds.

She delivers us into sensory agency, a physical belongingness of culture in personhood and the essence of land, the heart of the identity kept here for flourishing.

Rich with searing sensibilities over movement and homing, identity is key, as in the prose poem “Skin Color”—“Whereas, I am supposed to be in-between. I am paper-bag brown” that social-class indictment bridging implied privilege on both continents. And of lament, as in the title poem:

Four and a half years together and
my American boyfriend says:
I don’t love you anymore.
I think he doesn’t remember.
Or maybe he chooses to forget
that once upon a time
he called me his flower
and his bird from Africa.

An essential collection—

AAHC

Tommy Pico. IRL. Bird LLC, 2017. 98 pages. $18.00.

IRLTommy Pico’s new book-
length poem, IRL, looks a
lot like this review but is
more interesting and way
cooler. There are rarely
more than five or six words
on a line, & he likes to surprise
with end-stops &
enjambments.
He also ❤s inserting
dialogue, often in italics
and blends these responses
with ecstatic bursts of
internet slang, samples of
pop lyrics, stream of consciousness
association, emoticons, and text
shorthand. To wit:

Who r you trying
not to text talk To see u
flawless on Lake Sebago?
Who deserves
to be bombed
in selfies? What texture
of the grey audience puts
the “firm” in “affirming”?
Hi, sorry, what’s the wifi
password?

Formally—and to a degree
tonally—the poem recalls A.
R. Ammons’ long poem,
Garbage, but with a couple of
twists. For starters, IRL
features Pico’s alter-ego,
Teebs, a gay 20/30-something,
obsessing over men +
+ language + identity
+ pop culture + social
media + America +
race. Race because Teebs,
like, Pico, is Native
American, or NDN, far from
the Viejas reservation in
Brooklyn. The most penetrating
moments in the poem are those
when Teebs punctures his seemingly
random ramblings with razor
sharp insights on Indigenous realities:

I don’t want
to set you up for a racial
encounter, but NDNs
are reluctant to tell
our stories to strangers.
There is no such thing
as “Indian,” but now
there’s no turning back.

and

Who dictates
identity. Blood
quantum is an American
invention whereby the “Indian
problem” solves itself
thru assimilation. Soooo,
yr like, half ?
My date asks.

These passages remind me
of the work of Esther
Belin (Navajo), who also
negotiates being Indian
and urban and the
difficulties of finding self
& community while also
dealing with stereotypes
about how people imagine-
slash-romanticize-slash-
fetishize Native people.

“IRL” is internet slang
for “in real life,” which
may make readers
wonder, OMG, does
Teebs = Pico?

That is a good question,
Reader. The distance
between the two is not
far. But who cares?
IRL might be a little
loose, a tad scattered,
but OMG, the poem
is off the hook. It made
me :-)
IRL is 🔥.

DR

 

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Glory Gets (2015). She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. A native southerner, she now lives on the prairie where she teaches at University of Oklahoma.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside, is author of six books of poetry, a memoir, and editor of nine anthologies. Recent releases include Burn and Streaming. http://www.allisonhedgecoke.com

Dean Rader’s most recent books of poems are Suture, collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press, 2017). He is a professor at the University of San Francisco. More reviews, essays, and poems can be found at deanrader.com

Lesley Wheeler‘s fourth collection, Radioland, was published in 2015 by Barrow Street Press. Her poems and essays appear in Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Poetry, and other journals. She is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and blogs about poetry at http://lesleywheeler.org/.

Diana Whitney’s poetry debut, Wanting It, won the Rubery Book Award in 2015. She is the poetry columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and her personal essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Glamour, Salon, and many more. She lives in Southern Vermont, where she’s finishing a memoir-in-essays about motherhood and sexuality. www.diana-whitney.com

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter