Louise Bernice Halfe. Burning in this Midnight Dream. Coteau Books, 2016. 81 pages. $16.95.
The Ojibwe word weweni implies the need to take care, to do things properly, to be appropriate. When I read Cree poet Louise Halfe’s book of careful poems, I whispered this word to myself. These are poems that reveal the destructive legacy of an excruciatingly painful past, and I reminded myself to take care in receiving Halfe’s words, because these poems bear witness to attempted genocide. They are also intimate, distinct, and a voice for survivance.
In Burning in This Midnight Dream, Halfe recounts enduring, as a First Nations woman, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Process, during which First Nations people who had lived at residential schools testified to government panels about what had happened to them as children:
I am often filled with ghosts
that glide through my body.
They have no business intruding
into thought or work at hand.
They hang by their feet in my lair
folding and unfolding their wings
as I hover
like a bee on a cherry blossom.
Rather than focusing on the perpetrator’s actions, Halfe’s graceful poems instead illustrate the erosion and corruption of families damaged by the forced removal of children to residential schools. Deploying the Cree wihtikow—a cannibal being—as a key metaphor, Halfe conjures images of children preyed upon by monsters who eat entire families:
The children were meat
for the scavengers. Indian Affairs, the brick walls,
the Saints of many churches.
Filled with their disease, we ate the maggots
off their dead.
This cannibalism devoured our mother’s hearth.
Sometimes when we say poems are visceral we mean it as metaphor—the poems go deep and we might react to them strongly. But Halfe’s poems both come from the gut and they punch us there, too:
I never saw the searing pain
on my mother’s face, nor experienced
my father’s eyes squeezed to dam his flood . . .
My parents never spoke
of the gash that tore through the families
and gutted the whole reserve.
Intricately, as Halfe depicts the bravery it took for victims to bear witness to what had been held in shame for generations the poems reflect the process Halfe herself went through:
This afternoon I have my hearing
for Truth and Reconciliation.
I must confess my years of sleeping
In those sterile, cold rooms, where the hiss
Of water heaters were devils
In the dark.
Thousands, like Halfe, went through these terrible hearings and, having read these poems, we stand beside them awhile. It is all we can do, except to say to ourselves weweni and never again. —HEE
Valerie Mejer Caso. This Blue Novel. Trans. Michelle Gil-Montero. Action Books, 2015. 140 pages. $16.00.
Mexican poet, Valerie Mejer Caso, begins her latest collection of poems by declaring it a novel. One of just eight works by a Spanish American woman to be translated into English last year, This Blue Novel was longlisted for the 2016 National Translation Award in poetry. Writing at the border between both genres, Mejer Caso’s poetic subject routinely reminds us that this is a novel:
This Blue Novel invents nothing.
Neither is everything true.
It’s wildest improbability is life.
The book revolves around a revisiting, and, at times, a reinventing, of Mejer Caso’s familial past. Twenty-six individual poems, or perhaps sections of just one poem, are punctuated with black-and-white photographs of the writer’s family—Spanish, English, and German immigrants—in their homes in Mexico. Strange and familiar collide: producing both a brokenness and a harmony of images that find their precision only within the poetic universe. Here, borders—of genre, of space, of world, of poetry—are bent.
All of this is brought beautifully and skillfully into English by Michelle Gil-Montero. At times, she strays from the literal meaning of a verse as if to bend from the Spanish. The result is a translation that both stands alone as poetry and stays faithful to Mejer Caso’s original work where the poetic subject, too, contemplates the angling of language. Here, in an untitled, unnumbered poem she writes:
You wanted to say I, she,
ghost, la nieve, la neige, the snow
as if another language could save you
from the thaw.
The tongue is lawless.
In her brief translator’s note, Gil-Montero speaks of a thisness that is central to the book’s insistence on particularity. We find poems carefully constructed into layers of this: a multi-generational, multi-spatial this. A fragmented this that pierces the skin: “The vase shatters and sings the song of the broken. / I squeeze a shard in my hand and bleed.” A this where the arc of Veracruz includes Texas, Paris, Goya, Snow White, Elliot, and Poe. And it’s this this that bends the borders of what we perceive Mexican poetry to be. Here, Mejer Caso and Gil-Montero claim: Sometimes it’s a novel. And, sometimes it’s blue.
The ashes, blue. The soul, blue.
Daniel Tobin. From Nothing. Four Way Books, 2016. 45 pages. $16.95.
Many readers might initially feel intimidated by Daniel Tobin’s short collection, From Nothing. It consists of thirty-three poems followed by over five pages of single-spaced notes. With titles like “(Melisma),” “(Parallax),” and “(Agnus),” the poems also rely on technical vocabulary associated with physics and theology. They do, therefore, require a depth of knowledge that is likely unusual among readers of contemporary American poetry. Read patiently, however, the poems more than earn the attention they demand.
From Nothing explores the life and thought of George Lemaître, a Jesuit priest and physicist who completed most of his theoretical work, much of which addressed the origins and nature of the universe, during the 1930s and 1940s. Ideas most easily expressed through equations aren’t often the stuff of poetry. Except—Tobin makes it so. Here is a stanza from “(Observance)” spoken in the voice of Edwin Hubble: “Not bad for an Ozark farm boy hodded off to Oxford / on a Rhodes, who tailored himself to tweeds and speaks / the King’s English, as though he’d suckled on shires.” The assonance and alliteration catch the reader’s ear, and the reader’s mind is pleased with intriguing phrases—“hodded off” and “suckled on shires.” Not all of the lines in From Nothing are this musical, but enough of them are, and the intellectual and aesthetic ambition of this collection exceeds that of nearly every collection I’ve read this year.
Don’t pick up this book if you’re hoping for a quick distraction. If you’re looking instead for poetry that stimulates your intellect, that demonstrates how knowledge can inform and enhance art, that is willing to explore ultimate questions and different methods of answering them, do read From Nothing. —LD
Ned Balbo. Upcycling Paumanok. Measure Press, 2016. 98 pages. $25.00.
Sonnets with eccentric schemes, various repeating forms, one gorgeous “Triolet in Violet”—Ned Balbo’s fourth collection is a planned community of diverse and lovely architectures. As the title implies, Balbo is interested in salvaging and improving on the past, personal and communal. Paumanok was probably an Algonquian name for Long Island, transmitted most influentially by Whitman, and as many poems here describe, Balbo grew up in that ground zero for modern poetry and suburban design, being chased by Manson look-alikes in vans, capsizing his teen romances while watching The Poseidon Adventure, and studying the remnant woods where whelk-shells surfaced, “the bracket fungus formed its shelves,” and “crickets, gold-winged, burrowed under bricks.” Balbo’s complicated sense of place and his poetic resourcefulness make this book worth your time, but what impresses me most are the extended narrative lyrics, the first of which appears several pages in. Balbo’s deftness at balancing story and music is often breathtaking, and his subjects range from autobiography, as in “The Woods,” to odd nineteenth-century news clippings, as in “A Dog and a Wolf.” He chooses daring fictional perspectives, too—an angry tour guide to the crowds wishing to witness the resurrected Lazarus, and a ghost after the World Trade Center bombing. While some readers might find this book’s metrical pulse too steady, I think Balbo earns the sweetness of these measures. His blueprints for renewal are both skeptical and inspiring. —LW
Sarah Rosenthal. Lizard. Chax, 2016. 80 pages. $17.00.
None of the individual “poems” in Sarah Rosenthal’s Lizard bear titles. Rather than each text functioning as a stand-alone entity, they feel more like entries of some kind—notes, posts, correspondences—that contribute to a much larger, more complex animal.
What’s more, the conversation (always about Lizard) continues from one poem to the next. I say “conversation” because each poem presupposes interactivity and collusion, to wit: “We used to say, / cold blooded. Now / we know, Lizard’s / no bitch” and “Questions you / might have: Why is her blood clear, / poison slow, her / God borrowed?” I didn’t have those questions about Lizard but, you know, I do now. Does Rosenthal answer those questions? Only in the best way.
You would think seventy-five pages of poems about Lizard—not lizards plural but Lizard singular—would get dull. Overplayed. Monotonous. But the opposite is the case. The deeper Rosenthal goes into Lizard the less we know and the more we want to know. None of the poems are very long—most are about ten lines, some are as short as four—and this makes each page dart in and out of your consciousness, not unlike a lizard itself.
Lizard is quick, slick, smart, funny, and elusive. I found Rosenthal’s voice engaging and her sense of poetic craft impressive. Whether you see the book as many mini poems or one long poem, the slithery-ness of self and society, abstraction and animal, has hardly been easier to enjoy. —DR
Amy King. The Missing Museum. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016. 96 pages. $16.00.
I’m always a little suspicious of poetry collections that open with a prelude poem but the “Prologue” of Amy King’s The Missing Museum is both a visceral stunner in its own right and an instruction manual to the collection that follows. Throughout the volume, the instructee of her “Wake Before Dawn & Salt the Sea” is always at hand, conflated not merely or simply with the reader, but with that reader’s self that wants to turn away, to eschew a vivid and lived encounter with the significant actual. The subtle rhyme that closes an otherwise unrhymed poem suggests also that these instructions are to the poet herself primarily, even as they too instruct the reader: “Be somebody, be one who wrestles and makes love to the dark / that is your deepest part, the uselessness of love and art.”
That call is heard throughout, infusing every image, from the “gorgeous dying doe” who is “nothing if not the meat of inertia” and “nothing if not the desire of sadness” to the speaker who wishes “to sculpt a healing street / from a blanket of guns.”
But King’s landscape is not Eliot’s. She is a poet of the postmodern, who writes, yes, about the missing, but what’s missing may simply be misplaced among the detritus of millennial clutter. And this short review hardly does justice to the complexities of voice King deploys to reckon with that clutter, the self-referentiality, the staging of personae: “As one would startle the sun,” she writes, “Amy King’s poem understands her first.”
Reading King’s new collection, I was mindful, too, of the title’s promise, the story of a museum that collects the missing, and of a museum that is missing. Ultimately, though, these are not poems of grief or loss. The “uselessness of love and art” is a phrase continually belied by the poems in this collection, and King’s archival work testifies to the power–however obscured by the daily noise of our historical moment—of art, of the possibility for artists to legislate the world. —JMc
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.
Olivia Lott is a doctoral student in Hispanic Language and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, specializing in contemporary Spanish American poetry and literary translation.
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.
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/.