Spring Poetry Microreviews
April 26, 2018
Apr 26, 2018
7 Min read time
New poetry from Traci Brimhall, Camille T. Dungy, Jennifer Moxley, Laura Sims, and Michael Snediker.
Copper Canyon, $16 (paper)
Brimhall’s previous book, Our Lady of the Ruins, ended by declaring “I have not trembled. Love nails me to the world,” but in Saudade her speakers enact their trembling rather than deny it, learning “There is no ending / to be had.” The Portuguese title foretells this: called untranslatable, the word saudade is nevertheless glossed as “an impossible longing,” and often associated with grief, the longing for something or someone lost, in love or in life. The proximate case is Brimhall’s mother, to whom the book is dedicated, and from whose Brazilian origin she takes the Portuguese expression, the narrative setting, and some legendary and historical materials she puts to evocative use, notably the Amazon folk belief in the metamorphosis of pink river dolphins—botos—into amorous young men. Brimhall multiplies elegy through patterns of generationally repeated loss, first a daughter rather than a mother, later lovers and spouses—lost via betrayal and abandonment as well as death—and ultimately the loss of the illusion of understanding itself. Tracing a genealogy backward through four speakers, plus a chorus of daughters of a boto, the poems dramatize histories of love and parenthood. They also present a more violent, documentary history: a flood, a fire on a rubber plantation, a political revolution, the exploitative rubber economy and the European imperialism it implies. Her women speak their clear-eyed pragmatism and desire with heady energy and invention; the men are more tormented, helpless but articulate in their struggles. At times indulging near surrealist extravagance, the style nonetheless provides the exhilaration of apt surprise. Saudade’s fresh adumbrations of its convictions reveal themselves in all its voices: the restoration we long for—“for the what-was / to return”—is impossible, but our yearning is “submission to the sweet reason of the spirit, which is love, / which is the reaching back and shedding memory for heartbeats.”
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Camille T. Dungy
Wesleyan, $24.95 (cloth)
Early in Camille T. Dungy’s fourth collection, the title poem illustrates how one change in a food chain—here the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in order to cull deer—affects the entire ecosystem. Increased tree growth nurtures songbirds, the seeds they scatter create underbrush for hares, and so on. For Dungy, this illuminates greater interrelationships; as she commands: “Don’t / you tell me this is not the same as my story.” The book’s first section underlines this sentiment by alternating poems about motherhood with poems about the environment at-large, while in the second half the speaker’s new daughter proves the touchstone among poems about death, racism, and romantic love. In a poem about the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, the title “Brevity” at once suggests both the shortness of their lives and the relative shortness of all human lives—and so the next poem returns with urgency to the daughter. This interleaving and Dungy’s nimble improvisations in style of address and register create an engaging momentum: from the conversational, prosy “Conspiracy” to the heightened, lyric language of “Frequently Asked Questions #3” to the compilation of common phrases to describe death in “oh my dear ones.” Amid war, ecological disaster, personal struggle, and loss, Dungy finds much cause for celebration—the abundant produce of gardens, the pleasures of friendship and family—and in that act of celebration, sustenance and hope. Perhaps this is part of the work of motherhood: imagining a livable future.
• • •
Flood Editions, $15.95 (paper)
In one of the series of eponymous poems scattered throughout Jennifer Moxley’s ninth volume Druthers, Moxley asserts a poetics: “I would rather the poem’s score / My ear imprison, than enumerate / The wrongs of late capitalism.” The Latinate words and striking internal rhyme provide this type of imprisoning and enchanting sonic pleasure to her readers. While Moxley has long been known for her seemingly retrograde adherence to poetic form despite her radical politics, the poems in Druthers bravely hazard further in this direction. The seventeenth-century royalist poet Robert Herrick emerges as her key influence in this volume in part perhaps because of their shared interest in pleasure. “It’s best to start with desire,” counsels Moxley at the start of “The Honest Cook’s Insomnia”—a long poem that develops an extended metaphor comparing cooking to poetry—and continues, “You should be as attentive / to the palate of who you are / cooking for as lovers are to the whims of their beloved, so that / their desires become your pleasures.” If poetry is a social art form for Moxley, it is because of the interplay between reader and writer and the pleasures created in imagining that relationship. The skillful rhymes, structured stanzas and elaborate conceits offer us what one of Moxley’s tender and unabashed love poems praises in a long marriage: “sweet skill and satisfaction.” The politics of this poetics rest not in what the poet can make the reader do in the world, but instead emerges in the world the poet can create for (and with) the reader.
• • •
Ugly Duckling Presse, $12 (paper)
Laura Sims’s Staying Alive, partially inspired by her child’s sudden asking of “probing existential questions,” inquires into the universal experience of becoming conscious of the fragility of the world and of people: “Do old persons have bones? Were we alive in the old days? What happens to people who die? What’s at the end of space?” Oscillating between waking and dreaming, weaving wonderings about humanity’s end through observations about nature and space—“our molecules come from stars”—the book explores the interconnectedness of all things, the chaos present in both the universe and the self, and the paradox of modernity taken to the extreme, where the destruction created by man and machine damages both interior and exterior. Sims creates a postmodern memento mori—an exploration of the fragility of life at the level of individual, species, and universe. Reminding us of the inevitable ends of all things living, Sims’s fragmented and beautifully desolate language is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot, a Waste Land for our age: “The mind burns / Time. The mind / Burns time and its bygones / Look / I am semblance / Of life I am / Shaped like a rock like dirt vegetation and urban debris.” Borrowing lines, images, and ideas from other books that create and examine post-apocalyptic futures, such as Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Sims conversely also references idyllic visions like Little House on the Prairie. Through this collage mode, she creates a frozen-in-time post-lapsarian landscape—free from humans but not from remnants of human life. Her images investigate the contrast between destruction of life and efforts to cover up these grating scars and past debris with still more machines and creations, resulting in a manicured but cracking façade: “The great machine / Makes greater machines / And so on.” Over and over we rebuild, never acknowledging that this too will crumble.
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The New York Editions
Fordham University Press, $24 (paper)
As Henry James himself might have said, Michael Snediker “remounts” the master’s novels in his second book, The New York Editions. Snediker borrows his title from Scribner’s reissue of James’s works from 1905–7, a publishing event that James used as an occasion for authorial self-reckoning and spin. In the preface to each of the twenty-four deluxe volumes, James described how that work had come to be written, and how it should be read—directives embedded in almost infinitesimally subtle sets of expansive aesthetic propositions. One preface holds that whereas the real represents “the things we cannot possibly not know,” romance stands for “the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire.” Circuit and subterfuge are Snediker’s terms of art: “when the world we want is eclipsed by the / world we have, this is how. It stares back.” That such literary kinship—what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—may move between genres as disparate as the tome and the lyric testifies to the poet's powers of absorption and escape-velocity propulsion. Slash pair titles (“The Ambassadors / Rothko Chapel,” “The Golden Bowl / Felix Gonzalez-Torres”) remind us of the virgule’s cleaving power “on the meddling edge of thinking.” “[H]ow / could I not become / a translation of / the portrait of / an action painter” one speaker asks, “conceding frangible / combustive to the / fungible dark.” Snediker’s poems may be thought of as translations of the novels, if by “translation” we mean that process by which the nanocrystals latticed through the chameleon skin of James's prose are sifted out, preserved, and re-queered in a suspension wholly Snediker’s own: “My boy blue holds / out these hands / to show the world / we’d broken is / different from the / one we made.”
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April 26, 2018
7 Min read time