What medium can record and absorb the destruction of lives and the disappearance of cultures? For Heid E. Erdrich’s captivating and surprisingly playful Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media, anything you find at hand: cell phones, mix tapes, lists, bees, seeds, stars, QR codes, and even the whole apparatus of the museum, from exhibitions to curatorial statements. You might think this makes the Ojibwe poet, author of the award-winning National Monuments, a latter-day Walter Benjamin who imagined an angel of history backing into the future while gazing at the encroaching disaster of the past. Erdrich does consider her “country as it was / Two hundred year old towers / trees as old as our sorrow.” But “archaic media” do a great deal more than elegize catastrophe as Erdrich directs a steely, passionate and often-wry gaze to the task of looking through the brutality of the present to find “curiosities for other futures.” Innovative shapes and tactics mingle seamlessly with intensely rhythmic, sometimes rhyming poems that build with repetition and mantra. “Pre-Occupied” encompasses both the occupation of indigenous lands and the Occupy movement as it tries to remember a future yet to be: “River river river / I never never never.” Scanning QR codes will send you to Erdrich’s fascinating “poem films.” I find myself as inclined to click as to listen to “The Buzz”: “We pulsed and beat the hot staccato, / we swayed to the drones’ doom, a swoon / on swelling air, the now-rare music of bees. And we were ever so young / And so we never were stung.” I was stung: I think you will be too. –JC
Janine Joseph’s first collection, Driving Without a License, explores the speaker’s complex public presentation of her fractured identity. In America but not of it, she can never tell the whole truth—not to herself because of details she can’t remember or hasn’t understood; not to the reader because the reader bears some responsibility for interpretation; and certainly not to her childhood friends who don’t necessarily realize she resides in the United States illegally. So the poems examine secrets, revelations hidden and revealed. The syntax is often fractured, too, as the speaker hesitates, amends, breaks off mid-sentence.
“Between Chou and the Butterfly” is arranged into seven disjointed sections, each quoting language frequently used to refer to illegal immigration. The poem shuns punctuation, a strategy that permits phrases to inhabit more than one sentence and that contributes to a fitful rhythm. The sections appear to be organized associatively, each phrase suggesting the next linguistically or emotionally rather than logically. But the vocabulary of one section often reappears in another, demonstrating that the poet is more strategic than the apparently haphazard order initially indicates. Here is section IIi:
I hear they raid when you’re naked
in bed Packed like a sardine Pillows tucked
around you I hear Like dogs Like Alien Relatives
While you cry and hug They swarm
They ax your back door
An ax reappears in the next section, while threats of violence characterize the entire poem. The reader remains on edge, never quite confident that any of the characters will survive. Joseph’s style reinforces the speaker’s necessary hypervigilance, as it also guarantees the poems’ place in the reader’s memory. –LD
Beginning Rauk’s first collection is like half-hearing musicians tune up then realizing, with a flush, the concert has already started. I mean that in a good way, although the lack of an obvious hook meant the book languished in my to-be-read pile for a while. A splashy line here, a motif there, and by degrees you enter the perspective of a writer who is infatuated with the world, from swaying grass and green olives to sentences constructed “out of erasers and Scotch / tape.”
Rauk keeps wondering what all this wanton beauty means to say. The answer’s unclear, however, and she’s too faithful a worshiper to invent one or impose her own. “I am a little allot- // ment in a survey / of silence,” announces “Sonata in Something Sharp,” in a muzzled moment. Yet despite occasional caginess, the syllables sparkle. An ecstatic relation to the not-very-communicative universe suffuses these poems. Often, Rauk translates nonverbal gestures gorgeously. Roads “are in love with rain and leave / themselves like silk stockings / all over the city” and a “redbud tree in spring is basically a fever / erupting on a branch.” The imagery is vibrant and Rauk knows just how to wring the most suspense and surprise from a free verse line break. Bonus points, too, for a few third-person narratives, unlike the rest of Buried Choirs but deft and memorable: about Marco, who asks his seafood-eating mother “what the crab would do without legs,” and George, whose brain tumor somehow prompts an orgasmic reaction to safety pins. Overall, this is a strong debut by a poet worth listening for. –LW
Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell returns to and extends many of the themes from her taut first collection, in particular both the joys and ravages of motherhood. Here, a student takes a collection up to help bury her baby nephew; a woman at an adoption agency explains that adoption fees for black babies are $10,000 less than for white ones; children die and are taken. Haunting the book are the relentless anxieties felt by the mother of a black child, as well as those by the wife of a black man. These stories distill against the backdrop of an historical moment that has seen the fraught precarity of the lives of black men made especially visible.
The opening poem, “My God, Nieve,” sets up an intricate materiality inextricable from the speaker’s claims about whom she worships: “My god’s not allergic to peanut butter, likes / the creaminess gumming her bread mouth, // her ten-dollars-worth of fresh or frozen veggie coupons.” She is not only the speaker’s god but her own: “Each night when she goes to bed, my god / kisses her kids’ clean faces, then, thanking herself, her own.” Likewise, other poems refuse to separate out secular from sacred and offer surprising discoveries about where god abides. In “Prayer,” the speaking mother, after searching for her young son, lost in a market, says:
I found you with a muumuu’d woman
. . . You’d gifted
her your animal crackers for offering you
a prayer. My son, performing miracles
every time you wash your feet or clean your
plate of fish sticks. . . .
But the animal cracker prayer is only one of the prayers in this poem. The other, in the poem’s late, riveting final turn is fierce, a mother’s uncompromising insistence on what is not negotiable: “I wondered if you knew my // only prayer, whispered nightly: God if you / ask me to let him go, I’ll say fuck no.”
This is arguably the collection’s greatest strength: the deft interweaving of a rhetorical directness with a sudden turn toward emotional urgency or metaphor wrought with skill and surprise. The title poem’s key similes, for instance, are complex and disconcerting. The poem opens:
They’re chasing my boy, his
behind him like bed sheets
from the second-story
window of a house fire.
And then moves onto the even more disconcerting
When I was a child
I believed God held us
like a paper bag
to the mouth of a panic attack.
Protection Spell is often quiet, even meditative, its visceral moments stealthy. Lulled, we are ambushed by them. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking collection. –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.
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/.