Joshua Bennett. The Sobbing School. Penguin Random House, 2016. 96 pages. $18.00.
As you wander The Sobbing School by Joshua Bennett beware of ghosts; the layers of history sidle up to and take incarnation into the speaker’s present moment. Bennett binds the nightmarish history of Henry Box Brown, employs a legend-making poem of Richard Wright, the resonance of the speaker’s being from the same town as DMX, erasure of Florida Statute 776.013, the travesty that is Jeff Roorda, and the speaker’s own personal familial history. What results is an enduring picture of the speaker’s Imaginary—informed by poetic experimentation (with poems in the shape of academic abstracts, erasures, and lyric poems) and a racist backdrop. The world of the historical reaches its wings to touch the speaker’s lips. The poet asks “Give me the names / of the slain. Say each name / like benediction. Ask, / Who will claim this flesh?”
This astounding collection is the poet’s first—winner of the National Poetry Series selected by Eugene Gloria. The speaker contemplates the “blueness” of his inheritance as “The space / between a plea & please.” The poet ends with an account of living, an endless wonder as he asks, “Who can be alive today / & not study grief? / There are bodies everywhere, / but also that flock of cardinals / making the sky look patriotic.” Such realizations fill the pages of this poet’s debut. Come to this text with the expectation of complexity, richness. Come to this book and try to read it with a closed mouth. I bet you can’t. —RM
francine j. harris. Play Dead. Alice James Books, 2016. 85 pages. $15.95.
Play Dead is an apt title for francine j. harris’s latest collection, for the poems do play with language and the reader’s expectations, yet their content suggests a sinister world behind the words. The phrase itself, “play dead,” describes a prey animal’s defense maneuver, imitating death to persuade a predator to lose interest in the kill. In these poems, violence lurks in the margins, and harris often amplifies its threat by permitting it to reside just off the page.
The poems are difficult to summarize without quoting them in their entirety (perhaps the most telling testimony to their success) because the associative leaps from line to line or image to image engage multiple levels of meaning, but also because the thematic coherence of the longer poems becomes apparent through the accumulation of detail throughout. “a brief history of scent,” for example, explores sexuality, first by recalling the speaker’s initiation into life as a sexual being among other sexual beings. Then, year by year, the poem traces shifts in sexual expression and attitude, in part because the speaker matures but more significantly because by the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s sex became associated with literal death.
“doubt,” structured through the anaphoric repetition of “because you,” achieves a similar disquieting effect through the unstated connections among all that is stated. So much is said in “doubt” and “a brief history of scent” by being left unsaid. That strategy is harris’s most effective. Her poems haunt the reader precisely through what they do not say. —LD
Jamaal May. The Big Book of Exit Strategies. Alice James Books, 2016. 118 pages. $16.95.
His themes: those things people do to grow into their humanity and all of those things people do to repudiate it. His method: metaphor, juxtaposition, telling it slant.
Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies surprises—no, it stuns. His lines shift direction and then shift again, keeping readers always just sufficiently off-balance. Midway through a sentence or stanza, we realize he’s talking about something entirely other than we thought. May manipulates cultural forms—the cliché, the joke, the caption—to explore how language conveys meaning and how it affects material lives.
In “There Are Birds Here,” for example, a poem dedicated to Detroit, May expresses frustration with implied listeners who misunderstand—interpreting literal descriptions as figurative and figurative language as literal—because they believe they already know what Detroit is. The speaker insists that birds in Detroit are real, neither imagined nor symbolic. As one image leads associatively to the next, readers sense how a word’s connotations can determine meaning, not only with “bird” or “confetti” but more fundamentally with “Detroit”:
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make out of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about,
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
their neighborhood is not like
a war zone.
In The Big Book of Exit Strategies, May has accomplished an enviable feat: writing a book whose challenging content is enriched by its pleasurable craft. —LD
Sjohnna McCray. Rapture. Graywolf Press, 2016. 65 pages. $16.00.
When the first poem in a book is titled “Father & Son by Window,” you know to be prepared for looking, to be on the lookout for the act, the process, of seeing fathers and sons, both from a distance and up close. Sjohnna McCray’s Rapture poses provocative questions about fathers, sons, and mothers, and puzzles through, in gorgeous language, how we perceive the self.
The answers to those questions of course, are complicated; in part because there are only more questions. In “Bedtime Story #1,” a fabulously compressed imagined pre-autobiography, the speaker reveals he is the result of “the unassuming black and the Korean whore / in the middle of the Vietnam War.” That final rhyming couplet, the only in the poem, evokes the bedtime story rhymes of Dr. Seuss or Margaret Wise Brown but with an edge not even Adam Mansbach can match. I love that sonic revelation. And later in “VI. Civil Union”—a section in the longer title sequence Rapture—another revealing admission about identity:
No line will ever begin,
“As I lovingly look at my sleeping wife . . .”
At best, the winter keeps us mummified,
swathed in blankets and sheets. I look over
at my partner—because he snores—
and I imagine us as soldiers
locked down in a trench under the tarp
of a foreign night.
One way of knowing who you are is knowing who you are not. We define ourselves by absence, by desire, which, if we are honest, is what we wish we did not lack.
Desire becomes a main metaphor of Rapture, which unspools as a kind of Bildungsroman before the final epiphany of “Rapture.” The short amazingly powerful “Portrait of My Father as a Young Black Man” is a not-so-subtle reference to Joyce. This element of portraiture takes us back to that notion of looking but also forward to what we might see. “Rage is the language of men,” McCray begins. And the poem ends with “Rage is a promise kept.”
We are what we are, we are what we are not. The language of this excellent collection is not, thankfully, one of rage, but it is, thankfully, a promise. —DR
Mukoma Wa Ngugi. Logotherapy. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 96 pages. $15.95.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s potent second poetry volume is a wide-ranging collection that returns again and again to its themes of memory, displacement, kinship, and in keeping with the book’s title, to an insistence upon meaning, to language’s ability to forge and uncover lived and felt relationships to place, nation, and family.
The prefatory poem, “Hunting Words with My Father,” deploys hunting as conceit for writing, for a life lived attending to words, as the father’s office becomes “Nyandura forest” for the son who wants “to hunt / words, and giraffes, pictures, buffalos, and books.” But, as the son discovers, the hunt for words is a more complex task than it might seem and the metaphor cannot be sustained. “You have done well,” the father tells him, over the slain carcass of a lion, “but look closely—how can you // carry all that in a word? How can we carry that home? / It is too heavy.“ And the son is taught to “always be careful—to hunt a word is to hunt a life.”
In the arc that follows, the poet takes on, first, language’s most arguably intimate act, naming. In “My Two Names,” he writes:
When I close my eyes to this sun or moon born still, the world around
me keeps changing form and I make a home. But flight
too has a shadow, and I fall back into things I cannot name
or touch. What I cannot name I cannot touch.
Mukoma’s poetics are subtle ones, and it is through small gestures, such as the unsettling line break of the world around / me that he iterates displacement, in a poem whose later claim is both salient and heartbreaking—“Home is longing not to be in two places at once.” He is a deft worker of metaphor, as in such poems as “Kenya,” where the imagined—even longed-for—child is figured as nation (and nation as child). But Logotherapy is also a volume concerned with language’s fraught relationship to history, with the ways the figurative may fail or be incomplete. In “Gifts of Violence,” the speaker throws back a Tilapia fish he has caught, then notes:
Moon comes with night
to illuminate my palms
now glistening with soft
scales hard like words.
Morgan Parker. There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce. Tin House Books, 2017. 80 pages. $14.95.
Morgan Parker’s poems of Black womanhood, rich with references to pop culture and Black culture, are told in a voice as much a grip as an embrace. ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD, launches the book at full volume in a poem that sets itself up: “Okay so I’m Black in America right and I walk into a bar.” Why not start off hot? “I do whatever I want because I could die any minute / I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me” the poem tells us in a line whose chill lingers. That same voice commands us many times in this collection. It is inescapably direct, assertive in its own shifting terms. Being hunted means you do not stand still.
As real as these poems get, there’s a sisterliness here too, an edge of what is often dismissed as girl talk, which is in fact woman talk—truth telling between grown women friends. And as such, there’s no need to mince words as in “Lush Life,” a poem that manages to be both sober intoxicating: “Something like the holy spirit / pours you over bruised ice.”
Much within the tradition of American poetry, several poems require knowledge of events and personalities, music and cultural awareness—they just happen to be what might be called current Black culture. Several poems reference Beyonce in their titles, but this is not a book about Beyonce. It is about the Black woman as emblem, among other things. It is about our human need to throw ourselves up against our gods/goddesses for measure. Yet while elevating celebrities to mythic stature, Parker also critiques Black culture heroes, noting in The President Never Said the Word Black “The president be like we lost a young boy today.”
Other poems rely on broader contexts. Afro starts “I’m hiding secrets and weapons in there . . .” As the clever list poem evolves, it makes the word “Afro” into a destination through a collection of associations: from “buttermilk pancakes” to “Auntie Angie” to “Miss Holiday” even “sex & brown liquor” it is all in there, creating what becomes a personal treasury by the end of the poem.
These poems are both intimate and intimidating, playfully or fully so—and meant to be, as in My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, “Sit down shut up slip me out of my sleeve. / I have come from the grasses of California.” Those lines would have made a great opening to the book, because if we do exactly as demanded, the sweet weight of comes clear. —HEE
Camille Rankine. Incorrect Merciful Impulses. Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 90 pages. $16.00.
In Camille Rankine’s beautiful debut collection, the titles of poems allude to a wide range of extra-literary genres: diagnostic manuals, letters, scientific treatises, how-to guides. Rankine invokes, that is, the authority of nonfiction, and then counters it by expressing affinity for alternate ways of knowing. To call a poem “Symptoms of Prophecy,” for example, is to frame a religious impulse in medical language—spiritual conviction becomes a disease—but the poem itself critiques such certainty. “I’m certain that I’m not // as I appear,” Rankine writes, “that I’m a figment and / you’re not really here.” Racial trauma, violence, grief, war, environmental crisis, human loneliness, and all the other kinds of suffering referenced in Incorrect Merciful Impulses are verifiable. Yet Rankine’s take on the lyric is speculative, committed to musical disquietude.
There have been several strong collections about the end of the world lately, and barring actual apocalypse, Rankine’s entry into the genre won’t be the last. This book is valuable, however, for its emphasis on how the history of slavery in the Americas figures into our end-times, and perhaps, too, for its insistence on what we can’t know. Rankine’s warnings are elliptical because “the dangers / are many and oblique,” as well as the answers. She tells us, “I have a message. / You must believe me,” conjuring belief in human connection instead of delivering messages. Of course, her resistance to spelling things out is a message, too, and she conveys it in vivid, sound-driven fragments. Beauty isn’t the only truth I need, but for now, but I’ll take it. —LW
Arisa White. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Ever Happened. Augury Books, 2016. 100 pages, $16.00.
This reader keeps wanting narrative, the unwavering line of the poem. Narrative poetry has been derided in recent years—as tired, as old-fashioned—but in skillful hands, narrative is effective. And when the narrative is cut through by lyric—sounds ethereal, felt but not always understood—the effect is astonishing. Such are the poems in Arisa White’s You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened. White opens her collection with an “Introduction,” which, honestly, I’m not sure I completely understood, but that was all right, because already I was hooked. It’s been a long time since I read a book that began with an explanation. I found it wonderfully bracing for the poet to tell me, in so many words, “This is what I’m doing. I want you to get me.” Thus, she acknowledges me. There’s no turning her back on the reader, as she leads through knowable, tough markers: “If your dog died, you would love me more” (“Inconvenient Roof”). “Dark as an illegal” (“Strangers”). “She comes to my earring and requests, Slap my ass. / Shakes it like wind went through her leaves” (“Trip the Light Fantastic). And then, as I’m engaging, nodding my head, a moan: the “Effluvium” section, a series of ascending poems that almost betray in their profound beauty, as they depict the passing of a female relative from AIDS. That is when I relearned the need for lyric, because grief doesn’t appear in straightforward utterance. Sometimes, it’s an ache in the spirit that manifests in flesh. And then, this poet-woman moves past grief—or attempts to—coming back to the brass facts: “I was taught, you break it—you pay for it” (“Manly Shoes”). Last words: Arisa White has published two other full-length collections, and chapbooks as well. She is not just a poet to watch, she’s a poet to aspire to. Watch out now. —HFJ
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. Button Poetry, 2016. 124 pgs. $16.00.
The poems in this debut collection, shot through with exuberance and pain, ruminate and riff against a landscape of racialized brutality where the past is always present and background music is always on. An old compact disc won’t stop skipping in the same spot, its red back scratched up “like it was tied to the whipping post.” The speaker of one poem, dressed for Halloween as Buddy Holly, is first mistaken by party-goers for Sammy Davis, Jr., and then mistaken by cops for “someone else,” as “the officers press arms into my back and yell questions which don’t desire answers.” A subsequent searing poem on police violence announces, “it truly must take nothing but grief to turn our people into a choir. / I know the way a song can turn up in the mouth when the wind / blows another city’s burning into our own.” Willis-Abdurraqib deftly relies on inversions to tell many of the book’s harshest truths, as when recalling “some white boy from the side of town / where no one buries a boy that came into the world / after they did.” The poems are exquisite, lyrical, raging, and unafraid of experiment. Alternately unfettered and highly controlled, they draw on a broad slate of allusions and skewer contemporary writers who fret narrowly over the “death” of poetry while actual death blankets the streets. The writing is genuinely funny in parts (one wry poem defends the word “moist” against its near-unanimous detractors), but the overall project is stone sober; the book culminates in a terse, necessary section that opens with the simple act of Walking Through a Doorway in the United States While Black: “I have maybe left my home / for the last time.” —NS
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.
Heid E. Erdrich is the author of four books of poems, most recently Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems. She is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain.
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.
Rajiv Mohabir’s debut poetry collection The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books, 2016) won the Intro Prize for Poetry and his second collection, The Cowherd’s Son (forthcoming in 2017 from Tupelo Press) was awarded the 2015 Kundiman Prize. You can read more about him at www.rajivmohabir.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.
Natalie Shapero is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her poetry collections are Hard Child and No Object.
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/.