The Executive Director of the Fallen World
Liam Rector
University of Chicago Press, $22.50 (cloth)

Poet, educator, and founding director of Bennington College’s Graduate Writing Seminars, Liam Rector died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound last August. In recent years, Rector had been successfully treated for colon cancer and heart disease, and many noted his preoccupation with the theme of surviving illness and facing down death in The Executive Director of the Fallen World, his last and finest poetry collection. Whatever the mysteries surrounding Rector’s suicide, the book is full of fallen, disillusioned personae, many of them confronting terminal illness and death, and all of them easy to identify with the poet himself. But Rector’s hard-won insight and incandescent gallows humor lighten the way, intermixing pathos with practical wisdom, tragedy with relentless sass. Often his mordant irony and slang diction prove to be his best defenses against despair, as in “So We’ll Go No More,” which presents a dying speaker’s valediction to his lover: “Cancer, heart attack, bypass—all // In the same year? My chances / Are 20%! And I’m fucking well / Ready, ready to go.” For Rector’s speakers, the past is a looming presence. “Now” presents a tender, comic, and ultimately beautiful overview of life as a lesson in disheartenment from early childhood to death, while “First Marriage,” “Beautiful, Sane Women,” and “Our Last Period Together” all document failed relationships with a humor so delicate that it can barely conceal the vulnerability it seeks to disguise. Rector attended six different colleges and lived in 48 different homes; part of the American promise, as he sees it in these poems, is that, if we keep moving from place to place and from relationship to relationship, we will somehow find happiness. In “Song Years” he writes: “For years I lived in a kind / Of wistful song world where / One foot was always out // The Door, almost like a sailor / Ready, anxious even, to decamp / Once more for the sea...” It would have been exhilarating to see where he moved next.

—Robert Schnall

The Invention of the Kaleidoscope
Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press $14 (paper)

Paisley Rekdal sets herself up for failure in her third book, declaring, “I am going to fail...in every particular sense of myself, / in every new and beautiful light.” These poems are in fact about failures—of love, memory, faith, and history—and are also attempts to record and analyze such failures. Thankfully, the poems themselves do not fail, but are rather brilliantly made—complicated, constantly in flux, and fragmented. They meander in thought and subject, figures for the fragments of light within a kaleidoscope searching for some greater whole: “But the toy, the toy might put what’s lost / back together: fragments clinging right to fragments until a new shape forms, a household / filled with blood and bone.” These lines are from the collection’s strong title poem, which combines the story of David Brewster’s rediscovery of the kaleidoscope with the failure of a relationship during a bombing in Dublin. Taken together, the two simple narratives refract and entangle one another, much as the poem’s repeated lines change with each iteration. While some of Rekdal’s longer poems can sound like prose, her shorter pieces sparkle with tighter lines and more sonic pleasure, showcasing the poet’s immense range, as in “Cherry”: “the fingers must be pushed into the mouth, suckled / or chewed on, / past the trace taste of salt down to exocarp and follicle, / corpuscle and nerve; / down to corneum, hair, gland, disk, duct; down / to the bowl’s dead center.” But while the speakers of these poems are unabashed, honest, and bold, at times the poet’s ubiquitous and self-obsessed “I” borders on unlikable and threatens to dull the collection’s sparkle. Luckily, Rekdal leaps out of the book at just the right moment, closing without closure, dwelling on her need to search, dig, and measure “what sizzles, what physics, what swims and possesses / this dumb will to take root, survive, to plumb.”

—Victoria Chang

The Pajamaist
Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press, $15 (paper)

Matthew Zapruder’s urban, urbane approach to poetry has been described by some as “hip lyricism.” If that’s what it means to know how to write about love, beauty, justice, and hope (things that are “both breakable and strong”) while at the same time knowing when to toss in the occasional, judicious expletive (“Surrounded by motherfuckers / a boy slaps a red handball), then Zapruder is indeed a hip lyricist, one from whom we should look forward to hearing more in the future. As in his 2002 debut, American Linden, Zapruder’s second collection, The Pajamaist, presents its poems as objects of contemplation, opportunities to engage with ideas pertaining to aesthetics and values both personal and political. His subjects are, arguably, the eternal elements of poetry, but the way he addresses them is refreshingly modern. “What does not change is my t-shirt / for three days and the will / to check email,” he writes in the book’s central sequence, “Twenty Poems for Noelle,” a concentrated meditation on loss, mortality, and the comforts of friendship. Each poem in the collection is punctuated by wry self-deprecation and a sense of comic timing that leavens sorrow and which might be mawkish in lesser hands. The opening poem, “Dream Job,” a riff on the relationship between science and humanity as embodied by “tracking / the movement of birds / through spring” concludes, “Go, Jerry, soon you will be / in Canada where / Neil Young was born.” Yet even though his poems sometimes end in punch lines, Zapruder’s poetry is no joke. An underlying seriousness and compassion coupled with keen self-awareness (“no one ever leaves me / saying, the most touching thing / about him is he’s so human” he writes in “Canada”) let Zapruder move beyond his witty surfaces to deeper levels of complexity. “It’s enough,” he writes in the post-9/11 “Brooklyn with a New Beginning,” “to try to be beautiful.” But Zapruder’s poems don’t merely attempt beauty; they attain it.

—Kathleen Rooney

The Night
Jaime Saenz
Translated and introduced by Forrest Gander and Kent JohnsonPrinceton
University Press, $19.95 (cloth)

Published two years before the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz’s death in 1984, The Night redefines what it means to be illuminated by anatomizing the experience of being enveloped in darkness. In this visionary long poem, night cocoons the body, drugs it with alcohol, and “[sinks] itself into the shaft of the spine.” Drunks form its priesthood and come closest to understanding its secret; for them, “alcohol is light,” the most effective tool for penetrating the night’s “profundities.” Knowledge here is bodily, attained existentially: “It’s time to comprehend the incomprehensible; no one can explain it for you. / You have to apprehend your body. And your body, in turn, has to apprehend.” Saenz is not a straight-up existentialist, though; his writing is not terribly absurd, nor is it bleak. It is rich, sensuously detailed, intimately voiced, and its sense of humor is tempered with wisdom: “How should you learn to die? / —it must be a bitterly hard thing / .../ learning to die is learning to live.” Thoughts of holding on and letting go lead Saenz to catalog his favorite possessions, making no secret that he is also referring to himself and his friends: “Many things disappear or break, while others meet odd fates, as if they were human,” he writes. “They’re all sad pieces of junk, rickety wrecks, long out of style / —and, precisely for that reason, they are indivisible from life, and it’s murder to let them go.” Saenz’s sweetness comes through strongly in these lines, eloquently captured by Gander and Johnson. If the translation’s weakness lies in its occasionally pedantic diction and a penchant for the odd cognate (“cloacae” for sewers, “deracinating” for destroying, etc.), its greatest strength is its ability to represent in English the Spanish original’s complex tone. Exquisitely produced, this edition advances Saenz’s ultimate mission for The Night: to reveal a vision of the body connected with its soul, “inhabiting” it, passing through a life full of danger, fear, and humiliation, constructing a holistic view of existence, a unified conception of life and death.

—Aaron Belz

Exit Interview
Paul Guest
New Michigan Press, $8 (paper)

“This is about failure,” the speaker of Exit Interview announces in this chapbook’s opening line, begging the questions, “Exit from where?” and “Failure of what?” Guest addresses both questions by the poem’s end: “To your throat / I would press / my lips like a voided stamp. / You could never return to me.” What follows, however, is less a retrospective of the failed, abandoned relationship than an observation of new surroundings and a new self. In the third poem, “Such As Myself,” Guest asks, “How does one go on?” The post-relationship landscape in which he attempts to “go on” is unsurprisingly post-apocalyptic, the waters “filthy,” “brackish,” and “slimy,” the sky left with a “wounded throb,” the moon its “scar tissue.” While the first half of the book offers this grotesque emotional terrain, in the second Guest has the speaker turn his despairing gaze on himself. At one point, his “heart sits bleeding out like last week’s roadkill.” With their visceral landscapes and suggestions of hunger and thirst, this work projects a dramatically violent world. Yet Guest’s poems are most successful when he tempers their violence with his own bitter version of Whitmanesque generosity. In the anaphoric “Ode,” the speaker repeats the phrase “In praise,” paying tribute—with equal parts sincerity and sarcasm—to an array of bleak ideas, among them “the hermetic sky,” “the never coming morning,” and “raw need.” From this blending of gratitude and despair emerges an eerie tonal dissonance, as in the poem “Praise,” in which the speaker thanks his lungs simply for doing their job. When he says, “thank you, living world, / that you do not cease, that you go on and on and on,” it is difficult to tell whether the speaker is indeed praising the world or cursing it.

—Chris Tonelli

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