Shauna Osborn. Arachnid Verve. Mongrel Empire Press, 2016. 91 pages. $16.00.
The poems in Arachnid Verve seem accessible and straightforward. Their language seems plain-spoken, direct, uncomplicated. The poems are straightforward, and they are direct—but an over-confident (or should we say privileged) reader will quickly be startled into recognition of exclusion. The poems extend themselves toward their community, but not all of us who skim the opening poem’s opening line, “this is how all our stories begin,” should assume that “our” includes us. This is a good thing.
Several of the poems incorporate Spanish and Comanche phrases, and though the book includes a “Notes” section with translations, many readers will find the Comanche phrases particularly alien. Again, this is a good thing. Readers accustomed to a certain privilege will suddenly find themselves linguistic outsiders, easily comprehending the vast majority of the lines but made uneasy by those few “foreign” phrases, words that may very well be crucial. The simplicity of much of the English will deceive some readers into a false assurance of familiarity, of knowingness—until a Comanche or Spanish phrase reveals (by refusing its transparent meaning) that perhaps the reader doesn’t know so much after all.
So Arachnid Verve is a book about audience, about community and context. But it is also about much more. It is about tenderness and violence, love and fear, myth and legend and the stories we live by. The opening poem I quoted above, “Antes Taabe (Before the Sun)” consists of extended instructions to write these stories. It concludes this way:
& with each new corrido
a storm of bloodied feathers
whip across your face
cerca de tu cuerpo
& land soundless
at your feet
This poem serves as a complicated invitation, into the book and into the extended story that contains our lives. The story isn’t easy, but it is the one we have written. –LD
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter. The University of Arizona Press, 2017. 90 pages. $14.95.
Pacific tide rise, spurred by climate change and global consumption patterns that the poet Jetnil-Kijiner relates to her speaker’s experiences with the intersections of colonization and her indigenous community. Iep Jāltok is a text that kicks into the surf, crosses the seas to the continental United States and to Europe. These poems look readers in the face and “tell them / we don’t want to leave / we’ve never wanted to leave.” As climate change refugees have started to leave their islands and atolls, Jetnil-Kijiner, one such daughter, documents her community’s woes starting with the invasion of the Marshall Islands by Americans, desecration of the land and gods, atomic bombing of Pacific Islands by the United States, racisms faced daily by Micronesians in Hawai’i, and the colonization of Micronesian diets. She weaves indigenous stories into a basket “facing the speaker” in which she stores the wealth of her poems screaming of resistance to oppression, climate change, and ignorance.
Her poem “Dear Matafele Peinam,” originally performed at the 2014 Opening Ceremony of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Summit reads hope into preventing the crescendo of global temperatures. This hope, this act of resistance in times beleaguered by foolish political bodies and oppression, is a boldness that readers will be wise to welcome into their lives. Jetnil-Kijiner’s bravery of voice is necessary in today’s world of poetry and beyond. —RM
Tommy Pico. Nature Poem. Tin House Books, 2017. 74 pages. $14.95.
Booklength poems = love at first sight. A chance to venture, sustained. Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem trails Ginsberg and Herrera’s exemplary epic meanderings and, too, tempers the current with oppositional dips, pivoting the vessel with unexpected turns. Yes, lists. Yes, anaphora. Yes, witnessing. Yes, identity. Yes, rural/urban discord. Yes, dates. Yes, abuse. Yes, grieving. Yes, anguish. Yes, epic. Short line, long line, a sudden gesture of staccato silence / space wordplay illusion, a couple of pages dedicated to one line tangos with the reader, another with a confession, and a full page dedicated to a couplet bearing interpolative dream and another challenging fate—it’s all here. Yet, there is something decidedly different in this book, it is a really fast read. A speed drive in vernacular set for strumming pace, churning. This doesn’t imply it would be read fast, in a live scene sense, with poet at hand, on mic, on stage. No, it is just that the voyage here is one that pulls the reader along quickly, clicking like time, snapping pages following along the monologue playing out. In fact, the sense of I is heightened, prefigured at onset with a terrific bit of nature writing immediately denied and followed with an intentional narrated escape from an assumed expectation of a Native poet, and an eventual confessional acknowledgement.
You can’t be an NDN person in today’s world
and write a nature poem. I swore to myself I would never write a nature
poem. Let’s be clear, I hate nature—hate its guts.
I say to my audience. There is something smaller I say to myself:
I don’t hate nature at all.
Some stellar inclusions: Felix Gonzalez-Torres note, a hashtag death sequence, sad and scintillating rendezvous, a Twitter convo, the riff on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and most gorgeous:
The first stars were born of a gravity, my ancestors—
Penina Ava Taesali. Sourcing Siapo. Ala Press, 2016. 98 pages. $14.00.
“Sing beat pound ink dye my siapo with all that is written here,” Taesali pleads in her moving debut collection. Siapo, also known as tapa, is cloth made by Samoan women via rituals passed down over generations. Bark is stripped from the paper mulberry tree, scraped, dried, soaked, hammered out, glued together, inked, and painted in traditional designs. Taesali’s family, in Sourcing Siapo, undergoes a similarly radical series of transformations, as chronicled in her ambitious book-length poem. The first character, Taesali’s mother, is beaten down by her childhood but survives to bring ten children into the world. Those children, however, lose access to their father after divorce, and therefore to the Samoan side of their heritage. When the mother remarries an abusive alcoholic and relabels her children “Caucasian,” they struggle to surmount the damage.
The full implications of the siapo metaphor can’t be folded into a micro-review, but one important element is formal. The author pieces together untitled sections, often including border texts in smaller fonts. A suspenseful story unifies the book, yet it also incorporates disparate styles and modes, including lists, letters, news clippings, and visual art by Taesali’s sister. Sourcing Siapo is patterned by grief and hunger, yet turns, again and again, toward empathy and community. In the passage quoted above, Taesali imagines herself buried in a bark cloak of words, a “stiff strange resiliency. . . . So that I may rise into that enormous cosmology . . . where the third-eye council of women is bright the table long and there are plenty of windows for the sun.” Sourcing Siapo shows how pain can be changed, by hard work, into something beautiful. —LW
Julian Talamantez Brolaski. Of Mongrelitude. Wave Books, 2017. 112 pages. $18.00.
These poems reach linguistic transcendence in constant, oftentimes cross-cultural, wordplay making use of archaic English and contemporary vernacular, abbreviations from texting and social media and a vast vocabulary well deployed. Think Robert Burns mated to a Native e.e. cummings. Readers have to open their ears to dialect: “I want namore of it / the jangle-mongrel and the rose and the ndn cowboy that layall closeted.” We are, of course, meant to think outside the page, to work a bit harder to consider the breadth of English pronunciation.
Indigenous poets working in English, often their only language, find they must write in an imposed mother tongue. In Talamantez Brolaski’s deft hands, englyssh, as it is referred to in this collection of poems, reveals its mongrel nature and expands to become the perfect medium to express a hybrid existence. Making use of abbreviations, yr, and alternative, gender neutral, pronouns such as xe, allows the poet to move swiftly to create poems unbounded by gender expectations. In poems of address, the beloved is every being, we are the companion.
Much of the surprise of each poem is in the syntax, which often withholds the subject of the poem. Perhaps the poet means to show displacement, for instance, these lines early in the poem “in the cut”:
the mosquitoes I am
delicious to them
because of my fairy
or my indian blood
Some poems make the book’s language and tenor the subject as well. In make us all homosexuals, o muse, o privy muse the poem begins by addressing rhetorical choices for difficult subjects: “you are a forestt in a tree, unpro / saical and crass-in-philosophie. / moreover there is— / that those trees are tending to— / I would be unprosaic too, if it were not for all / those creatures struggling in a heap of trash—!”
Often the complex wordplay in Talamantez Brolaski’s poems takes us beyond sense, asking the reader to surrender to the sound of the words, to the pleasure of syntax and beat. At other times this book of poems asks us to seriously consider how English regularly appropriates other languages and what it means when Indigenous identity is lashed by the colonizer’s tongue.
Although the tone shifts constantly, and poems quickly move from curious to resistant to passionate, Of Mongrelitude is, more than anything, playful and serious fun. —HEE
Joan Naviyuk Kane. Milk Black Carbon. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. 64 pages. $15.95.
In her haunting fourth collection, Joan Naviyuk Kane again gifts us with the Inupiac voices of disappearing ancestral languages arising from her endangered Inuit culture, embedded in the harshly beautiful Alaskan landscape of King Island in the Bering Sea, now uninhabited. This is a home place of wild seas, jagged peaks, rock, and ice, which remains at the core of Kane’s identity even as the seas rise to “rephrase us.” “You must remember I am not a soft woman,” she notes, and indeed there is nothing sentimental about Kane’s charging language, which rips across “a bramble of fresh hurt” with a ferocity in full voice, that of a mother who is mapping history onto her own body, repatriating herself. In “Exhibits from the Dark Museum,” she hears “your voice, / a sforzando of light as it strikes the rock- / ridge hung above the dwellings,” and recognizes “the world that survives me but a dangerous place.” Kane’s lines are tight, linguistically dexterous, evocative but mysterious. She returns again to “sea as heavy as pencil lead . . . / glassy as seal oil.” Her genius lies in her ability to render a world unknown and unseen by her readers into a habitation of mind “where my abolished house / once stood, as it stands now, / open to magpies strayed too late / into a thin season . . . ” To enter this world is to trust Kane to carry us there and back, to a place “where humankind would never / be nurtured,” a black-and-white vision chiseled like carbon from the past but urgent, relentless, exquisite, and implacable. —KW
Elise Paschen. The Nightlife. Red Hen Press, 2017. 80 pages. $16.95.
Paschen’s new collection foregrounds a theme long in evidence in her poetry, the work of dreams and the multivalent language through which they signify meaning. In the night lives so subtly mapped here, certain seemingly fixed boundaries between worlds become malleable. Paschen’s work has always seemed to me infused by something uncanny, uncannily beautiful like the “surprise of light” that closes the volume or deeply uneasy as in such poems as “Bat House,” with its unsettling rhyme: “It’s dark in the bat house / Beetles stuck on the screen / It’s cold in the crawl space / Slow quarantine.” Given that otherworldliness, if I ran into her poems at the Poetry Pub, I might expect to find them deep in conversation with those of Christina Rossetti or the Cuban poet Fina García Marruz. A touch of the mystical. A tight surface not fully masking (and strategically unmasking) what teems beneath it.
The daytime world is figured here as one where interior space is precariously safe, and the dangers of the exterior loom, signified in the post-storm “choppy waters” of “Closing House” or the cheating husband’s “work-call weekends” in “Stockholm Syndrome.” Yet it is not only the spatial that Paschen reconsiders here; it is also the temporal. In the clear light of day, time is resolute, but in dreamtime it yields for the “husband [who] pillowed under / sorrow, dreams he can save / his brother lost in water.” Here and elsewhere, a quiet formality works to order—but not mute—enormous loss. Yet throughout is also a celebration of the domestic and ostensibly ordinary, in particular, marriage writ long, the parents who “would lie on the angled couch, / toe-to-toe, his side, hers, / books in hand, his biographies, / her murder mysteries.” They, too—the parents–resist the temporalities of daytime life, the seeming inevitability of loss. She “slipped away, / visiting her husband, my father, / every night, in the underworld” while he “waited for her / these many years in the graveyard / below her childhood home.”
These intricate, so carefully forged poems limn those other spaces, the ones that infuse and trouble our more effable ones. Calling across them equally is both the coyote’s “yowl” whose “song chills the dead, wakes the living” and the “rhapsody / of meadowsweet.” —JMc
Jordan Abel. Injun. Talonbooks, 2017. 82 pages. $16.95.
I wish Guillaume Apollinaire could see Jordan Abel’s Injun. He would be, as the kids are reported to say, totes jelly.
Injun is not like any book I’ve ever read. Composed/compiled/curated entirely from Western novels available in the public domain, the poems/documents/texts are at once both surprising and familiar. Using the CTRL+F function (aka “find”), Abel located and separated all uses of the word “injun” in ninety-one different novels from writers like Zane Grey and Owen Wister, as well as Bret Harte and Washington Irving. This search resulted in 509 hits (fewer than I might have expected). From there, he isolated every sentence where the word “injun” appeared and used those sentences to create a beguiling marriage of collection and collage, research and reassemblage, collation and critique.
The book’s opening section is comprised of twenty-six short poems, usually in couplets of ten lines and lettered A-Z. As the reader works through the alphabet, the poems begin to dis-integrate. Order becomes disorder.
For example, the first four lines of poem a) begin thusly:
he played injun in gods country
where boys proved themselves clean
dumb beasts who could cut fire
out of the whitest sand
By poem t) though, things have gone awry:
If you are asking yourself if the poem is upside down, you are both correct and asking the wrong question. Maybe the world is inverted. Maybe this poem has turned manifest destiny on its head.
There is way more to unpack here than space allows, but Abel is not merely playing with assumptions of poetry and reading but also of language, capitalism, linearity, and appropriation. Construction gives way to deconstruction. Things fall apart, the colonial center cannot hold.
The English language devolves, deliciously, into its own demise.
 You may have noticed endnote numbers in the above examples. They refer to carefully curated found texts in the book’s second section. Here, Abel constructs “poems” that re-presents the endnoted word in the form of a bolded column both in and not in its original context, like this:
himself clean strain that night, the whitest little injun on the reservati
s along the Missouri River had the whitest lot of officers that it was ev
at is spirit. He smiled, showing the whitest and evenest teeth. Such ext
 This inventive poem tags the word “west.” Replete with irreverent spacings and funky formatting, it gives new meaning, as does the book, to the notion of “western expansion.”
Bojan Louis. Currents. BkMk Press. 2017. 72 pages. $13.95.
The complex and interwoven mythologies of Bojan Louis’s first collection frame its more secular stories—of families breached by suicide and addiction, of environmental ravage, of homeland and restless diaspora. Unlike so many first collections, there are no formal acrobatics here. Louis knows his poetics and his deployment of them is both strategic and relentless, as the collection arcs from the plain-style lyricism of “Breach” to a thornier, truncated syntax in poems like the eponymous “Currents.” Along the way the speaker parses meaning from three languages—English, Diné, Spanish—in meditations on land, loss, recovery, and recuperation. There is wit, too, especially visible in “If Nothing, the Land,” with its three subjects—Joe Arpaio (“the toughest sheriff in the world”), Steven Seagal (“flock of Seagals”), and Jan Brewer (“come mierda para el desayuno”). While these poems may share kinship with Deep Imagism, especially in the connections they forge between interior and exterior landscapes, what Currents offers is an unyielding—and unflinching—original voice. The opening poem, “Breach,” begins:
It’s years I’ve been recovered.
Parents gone the way of worms
—Mom alone, her own decision.
Dad, how he was always
asphyxiated until rolled over.
The frontier I’m abandoned to,
exposed root ribcages above ground,
rained on so much there’s no dust,
no blow-away—traceless surfaces.
Some of that imagery recurs in “Red Dirt,” a poem that tacks between personification and near-confessional. “I work to be more than roots fed / through days of heat and dust,” he writes, and it is the map of this “work” that drives the volume. The poem extends the metaphor:
passed over and dumped onto a pile
of old ground, turned up, open to the air.
Bound in earth pack, I release seeds,
my blood to be windblown and spread. . . .
offering, thus, one possibility for what Gerald Vizenor has termed “survivance.” Another is prayer. And I believe the long poem that concludes the volume, an ekphrastic sequenced based on a triptych by the painter Paul Pletka, “Nuestro Señor el Desollado,” suggests that art, too, is a way to recuperate the past. And so, too, we have this book. —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.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is the author of Streaming, Burn, Blood Run, Off-Season City Pipe, Dog Road Woman, and Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, as well as the editor of Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas and Effigies I/II. The 2016 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellow, she teaches for the University of California, Riverside.
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 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/.
Karenne Wood, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation, directs Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She has published two poetry collections, Markings on Earth and Weaving the Boundary. Her long poem, “The Naming,” appeared previously in the Kenyon Review.