With this issue, we launch a new feature in Kenyon Review Online, a series of micro-reviews of new collections of poetry. These short reviews serve as complements to the longer reviews already being published on KROnline, and they appear to address even more fully the remarkable richness and diversity of poetry being published today, in the US and abroad.
But the micro-review isn’t merely a shorter or truncated version of a conventional review. While longer reviews have a story to tell about a given text or texts (and the essay reviews that appear in the print KR especially so) micro-reviews share kinship with snapshots. Like a snapshot, they seem to offer a quick glimpse into and of a book but attend to and reveal their subjects’ intricacies.
For this new series, we have assembled a group of notable poet-critics with a rich array of overlapping and diverging interests. They are themselves fine and accomplished poets, and through their critical articles and monographs, their blogs and reviews, are helping to frame some of the most important issues in contemporary poetics.
Tanaya Winder. Words Like Love. West End Press, 2015. 100 pages. $15.95.
When a small child says he won’t use “words like love” then what’s a brave woman to do? If that woman is poet Tanaya Winder, she puts her voice of encouragement on the page and stage. In her first collection, Winder engages tough subjects all-too-familiar to Native American communities: suicide, human trafficking, violence against women, and despair at the loss of indigenous languages. She eases the way into these hard places in poems that surrender to the fact or terror without giving up to it.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Winder’s work is that she is un-self-consciously speaking to her communities about harsh realities. Her language is often straightforward or told as story, as in the harrowing poem “raw.” Yet Winder takes care not to use atrocities as metaphor or simply for sensation’s sake and she teaches her younger readers how to receive her work: each section of this book is prefaced with #iwritethiswithoutbreakingmyheart.
We used to say that poems had to “earn” words like love, heart, or heartbreak by making those terms mean something new. But what if those words were forced from your vocabulary in your people’s language? Winder addresses the many communities whose language loss is a result of being banned in schools. Winder’s poem ” Language Less Learning” gives voice to yearning for tribal expression: “learning to say i love you/my tongue is at war/with history.” The theme of language renewal comes into several poems in remarkable and subtle poetics that begin to reclaim English for a Native American audience. —HE
Abdul Ali. Trouble Sleeping. New Issues Press, 2015. 73 pages. $15.00.
I loved the poems in Abdul Ali’s debut poetry collection, Trouble Sleeping. What I didn’t love is that not much on the back cover or in the foreword told me what this book was supposed to be about specifically. In short: this lack of information is a problem for “lay” readers who are interested in poetry. However, maybe this lack was a good thing because I read the whole book through before I decided on what I was reading. Instead of my giving many, varied wonderful superlatives that conjure ephemeral realities, but again, tell you not much about the book, let me break this collection down. I don’t wish to suggest—à la Louis Simpson on Gwendolyn Brooks, circa 1963—all African American poets write only about black culture and/or subjects. That said, Ali is an African American poet and most of the poems in Trouble Sleeping relate to black culture and/or subjects: a young man’s fear of white supremacy, the visual rhetoric of black film, and textured, funk-filled scenes from black urban life. My favorite appears a third into the book: “Elegy,” a gorgeous, vulnerable, five-part poem written for Troy Davis, the black man executed by the state of Georgia in 2011, despite key prosecutorial witnesses recanting their testimony. Last words: Trouble Sleeping contains meditative, lyric-forward narrative poems. Though young, Ali is in full command of his craft but doesn’t sacrifice feeling for technical proficiency. —HFJ
Kristen Case, Little Arias. New Issues Press, 2015. 81 pages. $15.00.
Hypomnema is a Greek word for which there is no equivalent in English, commonly translated as “note” or even “notebook. For Michel Foucault, and for Kristen Case, hyponemata is a “material record of things read, heard, or thought” to help “establish a relationship of oneself with oneself.” While only the final section of Case’s beguiling Little Arias bears the title “Hypomnema,” the concept serves as an ordering principle for the entire collection; itself a recording of quotes, ideas, observations, and exercises the poet has assembled to help bring the self into right relation with language, knowledge, the world, and perhaps most elusively, the self itself.
Divided into six dissimilar but related sections, Little Arias, simultaneously draws on and problematizes the linguistic roots of aria. On one hand Case’s tight poems (almost always delivered in the first person) do feel like small songs sung inwardly and quietly between the symbol crashes of the wide world and its chorus of voices. However, where operatic arias are all about the solo, Case prefers the duo. Her arias enter into conversation with philosophers, writers, children, and most often, memory. Memory is both self and not-self, both voice and not-voice; and yet, as poets, we re-make it all the time. Case explores this concept masterfully in the elegantly haunting “Miscarriage” and “Being with One Absent.” But she is at her best when mixing memory and influence in the quote-inspired segment of twelve poems, entitled “Twelve Sentences.”
Austere and loving, monistic and dialogic, the poems of Little Arias are more than mere songs, they are recordings designed to endure.—DR
Danielle Cadena Deulen. Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us. Barrow Street Press, 2015. 90 pages. $16.95.
There is no safe space in Danielle Cardena Deulen’s second collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us. It is a book that could not have been written earlier than the 21st century, because of the occasional contemporary references she makes, but more so because of its close association between threats of public violence and of intimate violence.
From the first page of this thematically coherent collection, the language is tight yet concrete and accessible, even when Deulen takes as her subject Nietzsche or Cixous. Composing primarily in lines and stanzas of regular length, Deulen ably exploits the line breaks to reinforce and sometimes supplement the meaning of the sentence, e.g. “Because the place was long abandoned, rumored / haunted, and because they all stood at the threshold / between winter and spring…” Every poem in the collection illustrates her thoughtful control of language and idea. The coherence of the collection itself reinforces themes of the individual poems so that when the reader turns the last page, she is both satisfied and disturbed.
The poem that most fully encapsulates the strategies and themes of the collection is “American Libretto” which features a girl rolling her eyes, while her brothers obsessively repeat guitar chords and read Nietzsche. Somewhere outside, a crowd gathers and beats a “dark man” apparently to death. Such is the text that plays and plays throughout American culture. In a book to read and reread, Deulen has captured the bleak fear of our time. —LD
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Boys of Bluehill. Wake Forest University Press, 2015. 78 pages. 13.95.
“Everything lost on the earth can again be found,” Ní Chuilleanáin writes in her beautiful collection about the haunting persistence of the past. The Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Irish poet is known for her work’s mythic cast; her border-worlds are at once timelessly dreamlike and geopolitical, as she bears witness to violence and rattles “the mad cage/ of the imperial tongue.”
Throughout The Boys of Bluehill, in poems hovering on the verge of traditional form, Ní Chuilleanáin handles talismanic fragments of memory: voices “filtered/ through rotten tiles,” matches used as bookmarks, the knack of managing old-fashioned skirts on a staircase. The littleness of these moments from her present perspective increases their power, as she reflects in “Small,” a poem about “the dense closeness, the narrow gap” between words in “the small languages, in Welsh, Galician, Platt-Deutsch.” Ní Chuilleanáin recently published a book of translations of the Romanian poet Ileana Mălăncioiu, and this collection, not surprisingly, includes some knockout meditations on carrying meaning across linguistic and temporal gaps. Some shapes, she observes, “can best be seen in the distance,” past the “pleated wake” our constant motion leaves behind. —LW
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval. TriQuarterly Books, 2016. 104 pages. $16.95.
As long as poets have wandered into dark woods, some have returned bearing terror and wisdom. The shuddering, old-growth poems of Vievee Francis’ second collection, Forest Primeval, make a powerful pact with a past equal parts history and dream, nightmare and fairy tale. Vievee Francis is so in touch with the flesh of the land these poems inhabit she speaks with “a mouthful of grass.” She claims “words fail” her but don’t listen. Forest Primeval speaks volubly. Its speaker is what she sees and feels: “a paper hive, a wolf spider, / the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doe.” It’s true “Nature / will have its way.” It does with us all. But the precise wild lyricism of Forest Primeval is utterly uncompromising even as time and memory, compromise flesh and mind alike: “what is felled takes on // a form it could not have imagined, / whose seeds had always rested below / like a sorrow of banjoes.” Forest Primeval imagines a world full of menace. It knows the wolf is “licking your doorknob / You know it’s there.” And yet, especially in east Texas poems like “Tintype,” the hard world resounds with the music of a storm pounding out riot and melody: “Tin roof, ten teeth, three gold, as if from a tin pan / in a slow creek drawing mud, calling up catfish from the muck.” When the wolf is at your door, have this book in hand. —JC
Jeanann Verlee. Said the Manic to the Muse. Write Bloody Press, 2015. 106 pages. $15.00.
Jeanann Verlee’s implacable second collection is driven by seemingly concomitant forces of delusion and relentless self-scrutiny. Organized into three interrelated parts, its first section, introduced by an epigraph from Medea, is haunted by lost children—children “only made of cotton” or “unhatched,” the children who are “a basket of untallied eggs.” The language of section II, with its epigraph from the Book of Revelation of an unrepentant Jezebel, is equally visceral. Its opening poem, “Lessons in Alone,” begins, “On your first date, do not hand him your vagina / polished and thirsty.” The third section, which functions as a sort of discursive apparatus to the rest of the book, brings these various threads together, invoking Kali, “Creatrix, Protectress, and Destructress,” and opening with an elaborately textual poem titled “Wherein the Author Provides Footnotes and Bibliographic Citation for the First Stanza Drafted after a Significant and Dangerous Depression Incurred upon Being Referenced as a “Hack” Both by Individuals Unknown to the Author and by Individuals Whom the Author had Previously Considered Friends.” This textual motif continues in such poems as “Tracing Wrist Scars,” where the body itself is written upon, and the closing “Poem to Translate the Poems.” There is formal range throughout this harrowing volume—prose poems, poems in tersets, ragged-lined free verse; Verlee’s genius is that whatever formal pattern the poem demands, the wild excess never lets up, such that even the poems that seem formally tidy on the page seem likely to run amuck. An unsettling, riveting read. —JMc