Cynthia Manick. Blue Hallelujahs. Black Lawrence Press, 2016. 76 pgs. $15.95.
In Blue Hallelujahs Cynthia Manick explores the weight of generational history through personal narrative. The speaker recalls events within her immediate relationships and then traces those relationships as they expand, incorporating others across space and especially time. By the end of the collection, readers understand how the speaker’s individuality reflects her place within a community and why she now testifies to the significance of those other lives.
Manick’s real strength, however, is her skill with image. Her opening lines are often startling: “Today I am elbow deep / in some animal’s belly” (“What Lies Beneath”), “The sink is full of baby trout, speckled / heads that shimmer at their seams” (“Scrape the Brown Bottom”). These images define her style and characterize her themes. In “Scrape the Brown Bottom,” the speaker describes her mother’s gumbo, its ingredients limited by the family’s poverty yet simmered into rich flavor. She imagines her mother’s memory, recalling generations of manual labor, but memory is always sensual: “Her body remembers in fragments // like pieces of torn paper—Dove soap / and pine, spiced rum cake, medium / baskets of sweet rolls over hymns.” The poems may seem memorable because of the links they explore among familial, national, and racial histories, but closer reading suggests that it is not the content that makes the language memorable but the language that creates such an intense feeling for the past.
The poems in Blue Hallelujahs are accessible, but they are not ordinary. They suggest a mind thinking, and a mind that realizes how much thinking occurs through the body. –LD
Emmy Pérez. With the River on Our Face. University of Arizona Press, 2016. 98 pages. $16.95.
Emmy Pérez’s poetry collection celebrates the land, people, and ecology of the border region through lyric, narrative, sensory texture, and litany that merge like the iconic Rio Grande. Multiple forms of reference enrich the poems in the form of ecologist’s field notes, geopolitical and ecofeminist observations, wildlife catalogs, trivia, and vigil chants. For example, in “Poesia” Pérez includes many New Mexican/Texan landmarks like Chaco Canyon, Hueco Tanks, Santa Clara Pueblo, and Ysleta as well as macaws, mosquitoes, chicharras, and woodpeckers. It also includes some poignant lines such as “I thought poetry was chiseled / in skin, a ring too tight to remove.” The imagery of the collection is especially strong in poems like “The Valley Myth,” “The Same Kind of Huecos,” and “Downriver Rio Grande Ghazalion.” The book is divided into five parts: Downriver, Midriver, Rio Grande-Bravo, Cara, and Boca. The most memorable and strongest section for this reader was Midriver—one of the more political ones that focuses on the immigration and US/Mexico border-region violence. On the whole, With the River on Our Face is authentic in the way it discusses the absurd politics that border dwellers are subjected to and immersed in daily. It portrays the confluence of personal, political, and global forces affecting lives by portraying El Paso/El Valle and the US/Mexico border region as a place where toxins now cross borders more easily than people, where increased militarization is often anticipated, and immigrant seizures are a given. The collection is a strong addition to Southwestern regional literature. –SO
Martha Ronk. Ocular Proof. Omnidawn 2016. 80 pages. $17.95.
How tantalizing the idea that seeing is believing. But to see the world as “a drama in which rhetorical proof was viewed as absolute” is to ignore the history of visual perception and its arts. Othello wanted unimpeachable “ocular proof.” He would have been infinitely happier had he put down that damned handkerchief and read Martha Ronk’s Ocular Proof, the tenth book of a patient practitioner of ekphrasis. Many pen poems about paintings, and Ronk obliges in her conversations with photographers Robert Adams (“Headlights light up a weed, then a cone of blossoms lifting off into shadows / driven by the demarcation of time”), Gilberte Brassai (“reification attracts as the whole city spreads out before you”) and others. More potently, Ronk deploys ekphrasis to explore the history of photography, to think about photography as information system, and to conjure shadows as paradigms of images at once potent and bodiless, present but ephemeral and even elegiac. As Ronk considers images real, ideal, and imagined, she conveys the peculiar ambition to represent anything: “After the moment of the take, / the street walker’s legs stretch out in black stockings, / towards some unknown.” That unknown is where consciousness, itself a system of perception, recollection, and anticipation, resides: “the momentary / photo of the not-yet, the wait-a-moment, / the what-else-might-there-have-been—.” Ronk digests iconic thinkers (Barthes, Blanchot, Benjamin) as she scans the visual record for indelibly human traces and urges: “fingerprints, coffeestains, marks you’ve tried to make on the world / proofs of existence.” –JC
Ethel Rackin. Go On. Parlor Press, 2017. 70 pages. $14.00.
The title of Ethel Rackin’s lovely new book of poems, Go On, reminds me of the final sentences of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel, The Unnamable:
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.
I have often wondered if the ultimate sentence is uttered by the unnamed narrator or by some new entity, who enters the novel for this first time at the last moment. Nailing down “voice” in books of poems can be Beckett-tricky—is the “I” the author? A version of the author? An invented “speaker?” For me, the answers to those questions are less important than whether I trust the voice, and without question, I trust everything about Go On.
Rackin’s poems hit the sweet spot between the situated and the abstract, the confessional and the descriptive, the self-referential and the lyrical:
Good time for a poem—
too many things to remember—
call Jean make plans for Friday
sad Eric’s letter—return-to sender.
Meanwhile, roses drop dew.
Everything about this poem is inviting, especially as a poet. I hear traces of Frank O’Hara, Charles Wright, Cole Swensen, maybe even Dean Young. I love the little leaps each line makes, and I admire how much ground is covered in so few words.
It would be inaccurate to call Rackin’s aesthetic minimal, but her work inclines toward diminution. The final poem, for instance, entitled “Flowers,” is merely this:
And there is a well
Beyond these mills.
This is not a long poem, but that doesn’t mean it’s not big. Formally, it is not expansive, but in terms of what the couplet invokes, the poem does, indeed, go on.
That gorgeous tension makes Go On a book you’ll want to go to. –DR
Cecilia Woloch. Earth. Two Sylvias Press, 2015. 42 pages. $11.00.
Woloch’s 2015 chapbook traces one lived arc of mortality, beginning with what “was promised” in the opening poem (“Nothing. A ring and some salt. Rice in the white shoes. Music. A doll”) to the closing “Afterlife” (“I want to be all in one place, at last, but vast, a sea by the side of the road.”) In between these two prose poems that bookend the collection, Woloch casts and discovers a complex net of connections, among self, body, and history, erasing as she goes the seemingly fixed boundaries between human bodies and their histories and the so-called natural world. Along the way is a self who once “thought I’d scrape against myself until my face became my face.” Yet, joyful as it is at times, there is nothing precious in Woloch’s Hopkinesque cataloging of the intricate, nonhuman world around her. Nor does she shirk from fraught—and often heartbreaking—ancestral histories. In “Teta,” she writes:
And we’ll never belong to this place
where you came with your one suitcase
tied with rope, with your shape like a shadow
risen from earth—some mute root pulled
from a meadow where wildflowers blazed
in the summer and winter lay down.
History, eternity, what it means to live on, to move over this earth—Woloch’s subjects are hardly small ones, in this compelling, fiercely lyrical chapbook. –JMc
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of The Pain of Reformation (Fordham UP, 2012) and two collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005) and Natural Selections (2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Rice University.
Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. She currently serves as Head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI.
Janet McAdams’s most recent poetry collection is the chapbook, Seven Boxes for the Country After. She serves as general editor of KROnline’s Micro-Reviews.
Shauna Osborn is an award-winning mestiza artist, researcher, community organizer, and wordsmith living in New Mexico. She was the 2015 Artist in Residence Fellow for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Waves Writing Retreat, a New York Public Library National Poetry Award winner, and received the Native Writer Award from Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2013. Her debut poetry collection Arachnid Verve is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. You can find her work online at shaunamosborn.wordpress.com
Dean Rader’s debut collection, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn 2013) was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Poetry Books of the year. He is a professor of English at the University of San Francisco and is the editor of 2014 anthology 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. His forthcoming book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, will appear in 2016 from Copper Canyon.