Nicole Cooley. Girl after Girl after Girl. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. 80 pages. $18.95.
It mystified me when my children had little interest in dolls, because I was besotted with them—soft baby dolls, peeing plastic dolls, souvenir dolls in spangled costumes, Barbies in miniskirts. Nicole Cooley’s fifth full-length volume reveals a similar obsession. In Girl after Girl after Girl, a “Pregnant Doll,” Bye-Lo Baby, and series of Frozen Charlottes become talismans of girlhood and motherhood, mirroring with uncanny smiles an array of conflicting feelings. Cooley’s dolls suggest delicious but toxic recipes for femininity, and focus desires shadowed by violence and grief. Amid them, human beings behave desperately. Mothers save “Mad Money” against the need to flee; lock their daughters in airport hotels to save them from drunken fathers; and bite hard on towels to keep themselves from screaming right along with colicky infants. Children suffer harm anyway—cut by falling library chairs, chilled to death by refusing to wrap up. Museums fill with dangerous cradles and locks of hair saved from perished children. Perhaps worst of all, girls menace themselves, sipping witch hazel and turpentine: “anything stinging the tongue, anything dangerous.” And when everyone miraculously survives, time nevertheless transforms avidly nursing babies into girls who push their mothers away. Girl after Girl after Girl is, in short, a collection in more ways than one, a hoard or heap of fragments shored against ruin. Cooley’s haunted curiosity-shop aesthetic manifests formally in mutating definition-based poems, dispersed series, disturbing recipes, and titles cued to museum exhibits ([Breast Pump, c. 1905]). You probably know someone who needs a wrapped copy of this weirdly fascinating book for the holidays, perhaps with a tiny doll half-strangled amid the ribbons. –LW
Rachel McKibbens. blud. Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 88 pages. $16.00.
Rachel McKibbens’s blud is as blunt as and thudding as the title sounds, delivering itself with pugilistic abandon, refusing to take punches thrown by toxic circumstances. An early lineage of abuse and mental illness sets the context for the book, and suggests some initial sense of resignation. The speaker is born to a mother whose brain is “an early maggot / writhing,” lives where “Girl is the worst season. / Mother no guarantee,” and where “When Dad busted my face open / I got to stay home from / school, watched cartoons / all day like a goddamn king.”
Quickly, the work becomes resistant, a dare, a “poem written with a sawed-off typewriter,” retrieving what has been stolen: the mother tongue of a great-great grandmother, a brain that fights with the heart, the “unbeloved mother,” “the safety of a cock,” the memory of the stillborn child of oppression.
McKibbens’s resistance is forceful, stones chucked back into the “unmothered chaos” of the lives traced across the poetic constellation of blud: “It’s okay to brick / to fuck to flame / to church to crush / to knife to rock / & rock & rock / & rock / & rock & rock / & rock.” The pounding these poems deliver won’t let you turn aside. Poems are sometimes skinny, running down the left margin in one or two syllable chunks, sometimes fat prose, and sometimes sprawled across the page, but McKibbens employs the single syllable relentlessly: blood, blud, rock, fuck, cock, skull, brain, heart. “I held my chin out & challenged to fight them all.” The poems resist—and “why not? / Might as well / we all knew / I would never / win / anything.” In the case of blud, a win counts as standing, challenging, defying “the laws / of science / & inevitability” A win is birthing your own self: “we will go on / even as all / the poisons / of the house / reside in me.” —LC
Erika T. Wurth. A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Mongrel Empire Press, 2016. 80 pages. $15.00.
Ghosts populate Wurth’s second collection, “ghosts floating on the white flat bed . . . where the most intimate truths occur”; ghosts of kin and songs, of lovers and the longed-for, of doppelgangers and past selves. “[W]hat,” Wurth’s speaker asks them, “could you possibly want? / There is nothing left.” But she is wrong. There is plenty left, left to tell, to remember, in this landscape of town and city, of figured forest and flower, of the beasts who beg to “take her back to the wild white heat from which she’d come.” As much as I admire the handful of prose poems in the volume, I would yet argue that Wurth’s forte is the line. Again and again in this collection, the often baldly voiced intimacy with which Wurth engages her readers uncurls across the page, pushing, via the lineation towards something precarious. But it is also through the line that these precarious moments are recuperated. In the title poem, for instance, the couplets are mostly end-stopped, so that the enjambment in the penultimate couplet signifies danger as surely as the words themselves: “In the back of her trailer she’d charge forth, fearless and demanding, her fists / clenched and wanting more, the horses transforming into shaking hands.” The second line of the couplet completes and contains the looming violence of the preceding line, shifting the register away from the literal, the too real. Metaphor is often not only a transformative trope but a nested one, as in “I Fear that My Heart is a Cup,” where hearts and cups correspond and interchange, where the proximity of the “you” is both desired and dreaded, and where the poem’s most interesting figural move, the identification of the speaker not with the birds themselves, but with the sounds they make, occurs in the last few lines: “you will drink again, the moment I have filled it, / and leave me with my empty cup, / the birds and my own two eyes black / as the night, as the birds, as my heart overheard.” The canorous last line here is characteristic. In a volume that does not shy from difficult personal and political histories, the poems do not so much turn away but toward and into. —JMc
Emilia Phillips. Groundspeed. The University of Akron Press, 2016. 82 pages. $14.95.
Line after line, the poems in Emilia Phillips’s Groundspeed are interesting—to the intellect, yes, but also to the ear and the eye. Phillips takes advantage of the flexibility of the page, considering how lines can be placed spatially to affect rhythm as well as meaning. Her choices are thoughtful, whether lines are justified left, or increasingly indented, or skittering across the page. The poems appear to pick up speed or to stutter, hesitate, reconsider their direction—an appropriate strategy for Phillips’s thematic concerns—boundaries between nations, between eras, between life and death.
“Life Vest Under Your Seat” explores each of these liminal spaces, appearing to be organized associatively but revealing the porousness of all borders. The lines in this poem are long and comparatively even, but fewer than half are end-stopped and most contain caesuras; the rhythm is therefore varied, and the structure of the lines augments the narrower meanings of the sentences. Here are a few lines from the middle of the poem:
At night, only a regular tremor of wing lights. Nothing
else, but the dark variegated by clouds and lens dirt.
In Virginia where I live, our blond, zealot governor signed the bill
requiring an ultrasound before an abortion. My mother says
she’s living only for grandbabies. But I’m living before then.
This passage illustrates how well a skilled poet can exploit the line to create meaning. The lines say more than the sentences alone. Phillips’s attention to craft permits her to respond thoughtfully to her world, and to evoke further thinking from her readers. She is a poet our time needs. —LD
Glenis Redmond. What My Hand Say. Press 53, 2016. 89 pages. $14.95.
The poems in Glenis Redmond’s What My Hand Say speak assertively, daringly, and musically. They confront the reader with history, revealing the ugliness that undergirds the beauty of many American landscapes. The best among them embody that paradox of good prophetic poetry—their content is emotionally difficult, yet their music makes them pleasurable to read.
In “Bale,” the speaker tells the story of a man escaping slavery hidden among bales of cotton. “When you gotta go. You leave. Take fear and every gift God gave you. / Shove it in half the space of a man,” the poem begins. Through imagery related to cotton, the poem explores what it means to be “a man,” free in fact as well as in spirit. The poem concludes with a play on its title:
Dream about a place where you don’t have to worry
whether bale is a noun that buries you soft in a white cushy grave
or a verb that you ride to become the master of your own world.
Does this cotton he has picked reinforce his status as a thing, a noun, destined only for death, or does it facilitate his agency, his ability to choose his actions? Because she is a poet rather than a preacher or philosopher, Redmond permits her words to invite the reader into these questions without reaching too quickly for simple answers.
Through these poems, Redmond shows us that stories matter, for their speakers and subjects, but perhaps most of all for their readers. —LD
Mary Hickman. Rayfish. Omnidawn Publishing, 2017. 80 pages. $17.95.
Mary Hickman’s Rayfish is a series of prose poems that slice their way into art, the viewer, the reader. The prose poem might seem an unlikely instrument for such an endeavor—prose is not quite as piercing as the lyric. Prose’s linearity seems, somehow, too direct for the art object, especially painting. Most great art does not narrate as much as it evokes, but despite the limits of prose, Hickman’s fine book does both.
I used the word slice in the paragraph above intentionally, as many of the poems in Rayfish feel under the poet’s scalpel—both literally and figuratively. Indeed, almost all of the poems involve cutting or opening or wounding. There are bodies. There are Hearts. There is surgery. There is blood. Take this passage, for example, from “If the Heart Does Not Restart”:
A regular rhythm is achieved, and we close each layer—heart, sternum, any little blood vessels, fat, each layer of dermis. If the heart does not restart, there is no careful sewing. A staple gun closes the skin but not the layers underneath. The sternum is still pulled closed with wires but fewer and less neatly tied. I grab the incision’s 30 edges, tug them together with one hand, and with the other start the grating plastic click click click of the gun.
There might be all of those corporeal details that draw us in to the body of the poem, but there is also distance. Note the flat affect of Hickman’s prose here. Her detached tone reminds me a bit of Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” Both poems rely on journalism’s—and prose’s—built in removal, which is part of prose’s DNA. In this way, Rayfish reminds me of Mark Strand’s Hopper and Charles Simic’s excellent book on Joseph Cornell, Dime Store Alchemy.
And so, what about the art?, the reader might ask. Readers are often on top of things. The art figures similarly. In fact, in an ingenious inversion, art prepares us for the body. The epigraph, from Jean Luc-Nancy equates the liminal experience of getting “struck by art” with “a blood clot.” Then, bam, poem number two, “Still Life with Rayfish” is all about Chaim Soutine’s Le boeuf écorché. Bodies. Blood. Hearts.
The artist is a surgeon. Or is the artist the body on the table? Or, is the artist a butcher?
Yes. Oh yes. —DR
Erika L. Sánchez. Lessons on Expulsion. Graywolf Press, 2017. 96 pages. $16.00.
Lessons on Expulsion is the strong debut collection of award winning poet Erika Sánchez. This collection of primarily confessional style poems allows its readers to focus on the complicated, raw, visceral experience of inhabiting a marginalized Mexican female body. The male gaze is ever present in the collection, often with women’s bodies compared and treated like animals (even within consensual sexual activity), bringing desire into a more complicated emotional space where objectification, humiliation, violence, and distrust surround orgasmic release. This is a space where you have to ask your partner to “pretend as if you’re human,” and where agency is fleeting even in conversations between parents and their daughters. This complicated desire and lack of agency occurs in both the first-person persona poems and the third-person socially engaged poems found within the pages of the collection. From the starting poem “Quincerañera” which portrays the rite of passage used to mark a child’s arrival to young woman, the book builds a complex picture of community norms, ancestral and familial expectations, horrendous forms of violence, and questions of ownership a sexed and gendered female body experiences while navigating a world marred by machismo and poverty. In “Forty-three,” we are reminded that metaphors don’t matter. That bodies are literally used as kindling in this world. Women’s bodies are raped, left for dead, lusted over by a drug trafficker while he remembers dissolving a victim’s flesh in acid, and sold into sexual slavery for small amounts of cash on these pages. The persona of “Crossing” explains in the final stanza, “I tell her how I want to understand / the violence tangled in this tissue, / the desert threaded in this flesh.” If these poems have a thesis statement, this would be the thesis of Lessons on Expulsion. How do we understand the violence, the land, the experiences tied to our flesh? How does one understand their existence in this violent, patriarchal world? —SO
Kamilah Aisha Moon. Starshine & Clay. Four Way Books, 2017. 128 pages. $15.95.
Moon’s second book of poetry is an ancestral gesture as well as an extraordinary, successful assertion of Moon’s voice. She takes her book’s title from Clifton’s (arguably) most famous poem, known as “won’t you celebrate with me.” (Clifton’s poem doesn’t actually have a title.): “i made it up / here on this bridge between / starshine and clay.” Clearly Moon is literary descendant of Clifton, for it is impossible for a twenty-first century African American woman poet to discount the influence of Clifton (or Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, or Rita Dove, for that matter). But Moon’s poems are wholly her own, her language clearly influenced by lyric, though there is a narrative foundation undergirding those lyrics.
Each of the five sections of Moon’s book is self-contained, but each works wonderfully together. To some readers, the second section will be the most memorable, when Moon enters our current painful moment, when black folks are being killed at alarming rates by the police. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed a time like this before. Yet, like Lucille Clifton, Moon has mastered the skill of sensitively treating the details of history, instead of ranting at the reader. This resolute grace begins with “Emperor’s Deer,” depicting a group of animals kept for imperial hunts in Japan. By the middle of the poem, though, the reader begins to have a nagging suspicion: are we really talking about deer? And then, Moon confirms the reader’s suspicions:
Nara, Japan is known for its temples,
shrines to peace.
America is known for its churches,
This is not Nara, Japan.
Hunted, it is always
open season. The sight
of dark skin brings out the wild
In certain human breeds . . .
And now, we know that we have entered a painful, terrifying—and terroristic—zone, for the next poems in this second section address the current onslaught of police killings of black folks, and then, alludes to the historical implications of these killings. Pieces such as “Staten Island Ferry Ride” mention the Middle Passage, while “Hunt” and “Five” guide us through Jim Crow-era, extra-legal lynching.
It is difficult to discuss poems written about African American culture—especially the painful parts of that culture, what has been done in the name of America—without focusing overmuch on subject and themes, such as race/racism, oppression, outrage. And so, I want to stress how much of a joy it was to read Moon’s poetry. As I’ve said, the second section might hit other readers the hardest, but as a feminist reader, I especially loved Moon’s woman-wisdom poems. Like Clifton, Moon writes about the body, how it withstands even though it can betray us. The “After-Surgery” poems not only were emotionally courageous, but in terms of poetic craft, the language builds into an incantation. Those these poems are personal, they imply a chorus of other women.
Finally, it was such a pleasure to walk through the political difficulties that Moon presents at the beginning of her book, and arrive at her last section. Thematically, this final section alludes to Clifton’s celebration poem:
. . . come celebrate with me
that every day
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
This final section of Moon’s book is an affirmation of survival, and again, a chorus that other women are invited to sing, particularly black women. Here at the book’s conclusion, we see Moon’s calm, her peace, her reconciliation. Last words: I believe Miss Lucille (as I called her) would be so pleased with Starshine & Clay, and incredibly proud of the poet that Kamilah Aisha Moon has become” —HFJ
Lara Candland is the author of Alburnum of the Green and Living Tree and The Lapidary’s Nosegay (Center for Literary Publishing) forthcoming in February 2018. Candland is a co-founder, librettist, and performer with Seattle Experimental Opera and The Deseret Experimental Opera Company.
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.
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.
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 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/.