Ire’ne Lara Silva. Blood Sugar Canto. Saddle Road Press, 2016. 100 pages. $16.00.
Silva’s latest thematic collection, centered on her diagnosis as an insulin dependent diabetic, is nothing short of breathtaking. Lyrical proof that the personal is political, Blood Sugar Canto tackles the heaviest of topics: ailing health, the trauma of a long family history of diabetes, constant physical pain, the fear that comes with medical emergencies, callus medical professionals and multiple misdiagnosis, and the transformative re-negotiation of self we all must confront in the face of life-changing health information. Poems such as “ode to the syringe,” “tequilita,” and “the diabetic lover” exemplify how all aspects of life change unexpectedly when living with disease. From not knowing our last shot of tequila for the night is going to be the final shot we ever get to take to changing the choices we have for expressing our sexual desire—everything shines in a different light once a dramatic life change occurs. As illustrated by the piece “poem to frida, patron saint of art and pain,” health battles bring even our favorite artists new meaning. Poems such as “en trozos/in pieces,” “we don’t give morphine for heartburn,” and “one sided conversation with my mother” delve into the author’s sensory rich memories of family member’s health battles with obvious love, anger, and reverence. With several pieces that hold the qualities of both elegy and canto, the elegant tonal shifts, ferocious beauty, and unwavering clarity shown in the poems cannot be overstated. The fifth section entitled “let my last breath be song” ends the collection cleverly with a gathering of uplifting love songs to elements of the natural world and the human body explaining in its first poem “the world is medicine / let / it in.” A potentially powerful tool for health advocacy in Xicana and Indigenous communities, Blood Sugar Canto reminds us that curandera poets practice healing in every endeavor. —SO
Ladan Osman. The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony. University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 108 pages. $15.00.
Confession: I’d begun turning to my oldies-but-goodies, poetry books I already read (many times) that were written by my favorite authors. (Who wants to waste time reading a book that just doesn’t do it? We’ve all got to go sooner or later, and I don’t want to spend my last moments smacking my lips in disapproval.) Then, I realized that’s not fair: someone read my first book and gave my work a chance. And I’m glad I reconsidered my rigid position, for Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony is a radiant offering. Chosen for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and with a foreword by Kwame Dawes, these poems will satisfy any expert reader who craves technical acuity. But for those who are tentative partakers of verse, Osman’s layers of class and cultural specificities bring a welcome change from “poetry for poetry’s sake.” Much of Osman’s book explores her unique perspective—or not unique, perhaps, if one takes a global stance—as with the astutely placed beginning poem “Silhouette,” which alludes to Claudia Rankine’s stature in American letters as a truth-teller; at the same time, though, this poem views race through Osman’s own, delightfully complicated prism. That initial poem opens the door, but I found myself particularly drawn to those poems that explore the cusp of girlhood through a now-woman’s sagacity, such as “Clearing the Land” and “Woman Brewing.” And there are poems speaking to this middle-aged reader, one who looks for mystery-bordering-on-holiness, such as my favorite, “Water,” as well as the three “Kitchen-Dweller” poems suggested by the title. Last words: Osman’s narratives unlock gratifying lyricism. —HFJ
Rebecca Okrent. Boys of My Youth. Four Way Books, 2015. 76 pages. $15.95.
Rebecca Okrent’s first collection begins with spare, lovely lyrics about loss and danger. We occupy “tidal time,” she warns us, where presence and absence recur cyclically, and where “true love is the opposite of safe.” Her poems mourn the deaths of boys and men—an infant brother, her father, a second brother, a nephew, others—in lines both intense and lucid. They are also musical: iambs sound throughout Boys of My Youth, even in poems without formal schemes (“the bees are pulsing on the thyme”), although the book also includes alexandrines, sonnets, even an acrostic. Marianne Moore fans will enjoy the resonance of that poet’s work here, in unmarked allusion but also through the closely-observed rendering of plants and creatures. As Moore mixes appreciation and asperity, moreover, Okrent leavens grief with wonder and, in my favorite moments, impiety. “Death is a hard act to follow,” she observes. “Who can compete?” Not a boyish girl with the wrong kinds of ambition, facing off against a “darling boy” for her mother’s attention and even naming rights to the family craziness. In “Prodigy,” she reflects wryly, “Taking fewer chances, I live on, accumulating/ debt.” This book may not claim prodigiousness, but its small enchantments shimmer and ring with echoes. —LW
Brian Teare. The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. Ahsahta Press, 2015. 98 pages. $18.00.
Does pain make or break? Brian Teare’s The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven explores the complex, hostile territory of what Alphonse Daudet once called “the land of pain.” What are words when the body fails? “I am speaking of illness,” Teare tells us, “and the critical situation it reveals.” In the face of chronic illness, Teare seeks a bulwark against suffering, a source of form in the face of shattering. Enter abstract painter Agnes Martin, whose characteristic grids inspire, whose paintings and prose provide titles. Teare’s articulates his task early: “I insert a knot / between the warp and weft of the observed surface words / to stop the work of the lyric to stop the mortal thought.” Far from stopping the work of lyric, Teare juxtaposes exquisite lyricism with pain-driven queries and body-deadening symptoms. The left side of one poem witnesses “trellis and shadow / classic image // two late T’ang dishes // one flowering / one empty.” On the other, “illness posits its question / will mind or body // be the first.” In theory this is a book I’d love: a rich concept, fascinating procedures, Agnes Martin, pain and consequences, deft lyricism, a poet I admire greatly. I wanted to love it but too much dwelling on the “critical situation” deadens as does an overreliance on the words of others, Agnes Martin included. What might have been virtues seem symptoms of exhaustion. Perhaps pain broke this book, but I’ll look forward to Teare’s next. —JC
Jennifer K. Sweeney. Little Spells. New Issues. 2015. 95 pages. $15.00.
In the middle of field,
may your horse float
against the furze, fog of morning
like unfinished sleep, may the wet
cockle of his eye be the only clarity
What a great way to gallop into a poem. You aren’t sure if this is the blessing or curse part, but you are along for the ride, even a few lines later when the poem turns on you:
May you fall in a nettle patch
May you wade in the brine
May updrafts wail clean off black
waves, a red stone in your throat
a no-stone for memory.
Sure enough, curses. But, the poem is so good it is a kind of blessing of language and inventiveness.
Jennifer K. Sweeney’s Little Spells is itself a blessing of inventiveness, the most miraculous of which is a gorgeous and haunting fourteen-poem sonnet sequence entitled “Still Life with Egg” which maps the significance of eggs—both literal and metaphorical—at various stages of the poet’s life. The final poem encapsulates these gestures beautifully:
Make of my body a home, I was
an hourglass of salt,
a tarot of bone. Lay me down
under Perseids, let the stars
hold up the night.
Here, in language both metallic and magnetic, Sweeney draws everything inward and keeps us there.
Less interior and more overtly accessible is a section of poems titled “Anthology of Fairy Tales, with Instructions and a Coda,” a wonderful reworking of classic stories like Thumbelina, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty. There is no question these short pieces will be reader favorites.
Ironically there is not much that is little in Little Spells. In range, ambition, breadth and depth, Sweeney’s book is large. It contains multitudes. —DR
Connie Voisine. Calle Florista. University of Chicago Press, 2015. 64 pages. $18.00.
Connie Voisine’s Calle Florista illustrates the transformative power of imagination. She creates worlds, questions those worlds, and just when the reader begins to feel comfortable with her strategies, she takes another unanticipated imaginative leap. Fortunately, for Voisine, image is the offspring of imagination. The precision of her images and metaphors elicits that paradoxical sense of surprise and inevitability that makes good literature so pleasurable.
As an example, the title poem begins with lines that suggest a conventional lyric of recollection, bordering perhaps on the sentimental and nostalgic: “Don’t you remember / our little house on Calle Florista. . . .” The flowers for which the street is named, though, “weren’t flowers so much as / cats. . . .” Readers would likely have expected the word following the line break (which provides that split second sufficient for our minds to become conscious of their expectations) to be “buds” or “leaves” or something else aligned with flowers. Throughout the poem, objects become wildly other than the nouns that name them, until the conclusion when the “you” is again directly addressed, a you who is, it turns out, entirely absent, “except as someone / who did not live on Calle Florista.”
“Testament” is a catalog of desire that also relies on surprising turns of thought. Everything desires to be something it never can be. The “shoe wants to be the buckle that the girl shines with a cloth. / The buckle wants to be the magpie lifting what shines.” The associative logic is coherent but unexpected. Therein lies the reader’s delight. —LD