Poetry Microreviews

Like Wind Loves a Window
Andrea Baker
Slope Editions, $14.95 (paper)

Andrea Baker’s astonishing Like Wind Loves a Window takes the intimately familiar—home, bird, wind—and returns it to us transfigured. But to make too much of the poet’s play with familiarity would be to underestimate the deep and stunning strangeness of this debut collection. Baker is at once uncannily certain (“An echo is a mountain”) and constantly questioning, and she ranges seamlessly from the impossible to the commonplace. The goal of the collection is, ostensibly, to achieve some insight into human interaction, or, as Baker puts it, to “try to / understand behavior like our own.” As readers, we never lose sight of the heart-rending urgency of one of the book’s central questions: “what is it to slip and what is it to yield?” For Baker, ultimately a poet of control, such compromises have no small stakes. She shows us time and again the exigency of the situation she has set out to investigate: “let me tell you there were hands clinging to themselves / everywhere,” and, later, “The surrender was immeasurable.” Because Baker’s examination is both fierce and generous, she successfully places pressure on our assumptions, which she questions directly in the few moments that approach narrative address: “There are too many references / for a mother’s love and none of them say: // product of my sexual love, this is my child.” And shortly thereafter: “each rote sunset has a moment / day // catches itself collapsing // and no one has ever called / the procedure / by name.” At the center of this collection the ordinary commingles with the extraordinary, the “small fact of [our] life on the block” with the simultaneous mystery of our existence “in the long black glow.” These poems lead us along the wild and “errant edge” of understanding, and we are left where the poet places us, to “walk into the morning from off / the bed.”

— Stefania Heim

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The Descent
Sophie Cabot Black
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

In her ambitious second collection, The Descent, Sophie Cabot Black acknowledges the difficulty of the imaginative enterprise while still embracing what Keats called “negative capability”—the ability to remain content with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Black’s lyric personae repeatedly find themselves in the dilemma of whether “to remain / Or go on”—to settle for the rational intellect’s reductive attempts to make sense of reality or to forge onward into the unknown to approach a more authentic truth: “To be lost // Is to keep arriving. And so a trail becomes / All trails, perhaps a way out.” The urgency of this need to press forward into new terrain is mirrored by Black’s formal resourcefulness. While the vast majority of the 60 poems collected here are 14 lines long, and while many echo the rhetorical movements of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, none of the poems is rhymed and none presents the sonnet’s expected volta, or turn, in the ninth line. But despite her liberties with form, Black is a true master of controlled rhythm and cadence and of suggestive enjambment: “Two roads / Meet; after that is the work of continuing // On.” While she displays great verbal facility, Black echoes T.S. Eliot’s recurrent trouble with language as a medium in which to distill experience: “When you pray, when you / Try to pray, words do not correspond in this crowded light, // They become slippery, wrong, not what I meant at all.” Black’s taut, resonant lyrics are chastened of all excess verbiage and reveal a poet of keen assurance and consummate craft, but perhaps what most amazes the reader is that such honed writing can speak with such emotional immediacy: “It takes most of a love to find / Nothing, not even disappointment, // For in the coming is the going.”

—Robert Schnall

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The Scarlet Tanager
Bernadette Mayer
New Directions, $14.95 (paper)

Bernadette Mayer has always delighted in experiences that require a degree of abandon: dreamscapes, drugged states, syntactical splurges. The best poems in her newest book are those in which the associative qualities of language seem to carry the poet, even while the reader is aware of a meditated shapeliness. “Words That Rhyme With Disease,” one of several collaborations in the collection, begins in absurdity, hat tipped toward the surrealists: “i’m glad i didn’t get it from the landlord / i know i couldn’t get it on a fjord / i have lyme disease / just like rice & beans / it’s as simple as a slice of cheese.” But the poem finds its way to a moment startlingly befitting linguistic insanity: a war trauma of “d.d.t. which wreaked equivalent / havoc on steve’s cerebral ease so please / if you encounter him under a piece of cheese, pretend it’s a / series of locust trees & wish him sweet dreams.” Politics and propriety are particularly dominant preoccupations in The Scarlet Tanager. In addition to a few full-length attacks on Bush, several poems take a turn in closing lines such as “you won’t have to use the fire extinguisher / under the kitchen sink nor will you / have to explain this to erudite muslims / or anybody america is currently at war with” and “war what is it good for? / absolutely nothing.” Mayer is not a particularly subtle poet (one reads her because she’s brassy), and to orchestrate the sudden inclusion of political remarks in poems largely of a different tenor requires a delicacy that she just doesn’t have. Many poems, particularly the epigrams that constitute much of the collection, are slack: “Do you live with a man? I do. / Has he ever taken over / The cleaning of the bathroom? / Why do men find these chores / So demeaning?” On the whole, Mayer’s imagination, like O’Hara’s, does best with an accretion of particulars. Hers is a world of combinations such as “The Tree House Aquarium Cathedral Room”—inventions that, when given life in a poem, are “much more amazing / than they could ever be.”

—Bryn Canner

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Pennyweight Windows: New and Selected Poems
Donald Revell
Alice James Books, $18.95 (paper)

To read this selection from Donald Revell’s 20-plus years of making poems is to witness the evolution of both an individual poet and the poetics of an entire era. These are poems that mine solitary landscapes and mindscapes in search of something solid and real only to find fragments of self, loved ones, politics, God. Little holds still long enough to be known. In “Belfast,” a meditation in terza rima from Revell’s first book, From the Abandoned Cities (1983), the poet writes, “Go north any way and sadness clings to the ground / like fog. The sound of voices goes wrong and can’t / be followed.” In a more recent poem, “A Green Hill Far Away,” in lines of shifting syntax and sense, he asks, “Was cleverness ever spared a broken heart / Because of cleverness?” Throughout his writing life Revell’s concerns have remained fairly constant, but his means of getting to them has varied widely. The traditional forms and regular lyrics of his early books slowly give way to radical experimentation and poems that approach “an outside of language that is not silence.” By his seventh book, Arcady (2002), Revell’s poems go so far as to crack their own sentences, lines, and words into pieces, as in “Hymnal”: “Do not THI / NK / Me / Mean / Spirited as the cars / ARISE.” In My Mojave (2003) and his newest poems, he seems to have stepped back from that precipice in favor of holding onto what he can: “The work of poetry is trust,” he tells us, and elsewhere, “I make no argument / I ache only for silence just one / With nothing to forgive.” Like any good agnostic, Revell both believes and does not believe in language and in what lies before him: “By faithlessness alone faith / Is earned. Walking through the pine woods here in Alabama / I am not walking at all. I am simply / Handed from oracle to oracle.” Revell has come out on the other side of his life and his life’s work thus far with much to celebrate.

—Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

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The War Works Hard
Dunya Mikhail, translated by Elizabeth Winslow
New Directions, $13.95 (paper)

As the first translation of poems by a female Iraqi poet to be published in the United States, The War Works Hard is a timely book, equipped to meet the demands of those readers who expect from poetry the kind of relevance that William Carlos Williams had in mind when he wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Elizabeth Winslow’s renderings of Dunya Mikhail’s Arabic provide anglophone readers with an eyewitness account of life in Baghdad from 1985 to 1996, when Mikhail was forced into American exile. Her poems, both new and old, strictly avoid the hyperbole of Williams’s famous lines, for in Mikhail’s world men do not die for lack of what is found in poems: they die from the “math problem” in the dictator’s skull, the one which “multiplied the one death by millions / to equal homeland.” Much of Mikhail’s work has the grammatical and ideological simplicity of the collection’s title, as if the book were an elementary school primer with war as its unlikely theme. Yet beneath this innocence is a deeply ironic and knowing subject, one whose praise-poetry is in fact subversive condemnation, as in the title poem, which begins: “How magnificent the war is/ How eager / and efficient!” Alternating between journalistic reportage, parable, fable, and lyrical lament, Mikhail records the process of losing a country. “If anyone stumbles across it,” she pleads, “return it to me, please. / Please return it, sir. / Please return it, madam./ It is my country . . . / I was in a hurry / when I lost it yesterday.” One would wish on the whole that Mikhail was in less of a hurry in many of the newer poems gathered here, which do not resonate in the way that the longer, more dialogical and inventive poems do. And to recommend this book on the basis of relevancy alone is to condemn it to contemporaneity. But while poems like “An Urgent Call,” about the American soldier Lynndie England and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, may not survive the particular political moment, others, like the Ovidian triptych “Transformations of the Child and Moon,” reveal Mikhail’s skill as a poet who can take a subject as difficult as the death of a child and write, counter to the human-interest story or sound bite, a poem that will outlast the exigencies of the present.

—Susan Barba

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And Then Something Happened
Susan M. Schultz
Salt Publishing, $16.95 (paper)

In her third book of poetry, Susan M. Schultz asks one of the provocative poetic questions of our age: “If lyric is material, how to reconcile its obsession with what is forgotten?” She answers through example, using fragmentary, discontinuous, ironic extended sentences—rich with theoretical speculation, cultural critique, protean metaphors, overheard conversation, autobiographical detail, storybook passages, and puns—both to draw the reader in and to point outwards toward realities beyond the poem. Works explicitly engaged in theoretical inquiry compose the first half of the collection, examples of “How to write a long poem that evades successfully its own dullness, but by including details about an old man with McDonald’s Happy Meal stuck in his backpack, leading his grandson . . . to a seat in the bus: the old man was Asian, his grandson more Caucasian than not—so that relation can be measured sometimes only by context, not by resemblance in the way we know it.” The second half of the book also presents a poetry “of shards, of found objects, a mountain of toys glued to a central fixture, displayed at the top of a narrow stairs” and compacted into lyrics that include more autobiographical detail, much of it concerning the poet’s experience as an adoptive parent. Adoption features not merely as interesting personal tidbit but as metaphor for collage and appropriation, what Hazel Watson describes as a “poetics of adoption.” While these later poems movingly circle personal experience they also resolutely relate to a context beyond the individual lyric speaker, challenging the reader to perceive relation through situation: “The weather . . . outside her windows, multiply locked against anthrax. Terrorists have mothers. ‘Do you have any children of your own at home?’ the doctor asked, as I held my son in my arms.” The perception these poems cultivate has compelling sociopolitical implications, insisting on meaning not in isolation but in connectivity, and knowing that “form is / body, and whatever we say about it / becomes it, as the barnacle / becomes the ship to which it / adheres.”

—Heidi Lynn Staples

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