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Notes on the Assemblage
Juan Felipe Herrera
City Lights, $14.95 (paper)
In Notes on the Assemblage, U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera appeals to Americans and artists. Herrera’s forceful poetry speaks directly and powerfully, like the address of a leader rousing his battalions to action: “freedom for you for me why do we / not speak.” Looking directly at the most devastating events of our moment—“the man with the choke-hold,” the “9 killed in Charleston, South Carolina,” “Trayvon Martin face down”—he forces us to confront society and its paradoxes. His summons links unadorned, unforgiving description with figurative language: “each bone / cannot be chained to the abyss”; “why / does it / blossom torches.” Indeed, the eradication of binaries (law versus freedom; art versus life; Spanish versus English) is central to Herrera’s work. Poems throughout the collection appear first in Spanish and then in English. At their most powerful these pieces infuse each language with the other: “de las cumbres brujas ripping spirit flesh blue madness locuras dentro.” Herrera also obliterates the passive relationship between a work of art and its observer. He is intimately concerned with what art does, “it follows you passes you dissolves ahead of you where / it is waiting for you when you get there you will not / know it until you see that it is seeing you seeing you.” The stakes of this engagement for our communal body are viscerally felt: “we are not what we thought—it is / not who we were or / what we want to be.”
To Drink Boiled Snow
Wave Books, $20 (cloth)
Caroline Knox’s ninth book combines playfulness with head-on accuracy, maintaining a tight grip on its subjects while simultaneously offering an eclectic range of topics, from natural history and religious salvation to children’s literature. Using a strategy characteristic of her previous work, Knox connects disparate details, making networks of meaning, as in “Islands and Bridges,” which ends: “This bridge connects / Pest with Buda. / This poem connects / islands with bridges.” Each poem operates with an elastic sense of what can be mentioned, as when Ortelius, Copernicus, Mark Strand, and the kids’ game Marco Polo appear together in “The World.” Poetry itself is never beyond the scope of consideration: it is in the spotlight, and poems are made visible to the reader. Knox highlights the activity of poem-making with references to grammar and meter—“To write / most of a poem out of / infinitive clauses”—and through intertextuality. The word “poem” appears frequently in details and in titles—“Love Poem,” “Plain Poem,” and “Poem for Other Poems.” Knox continues to use a range of forms (prose poems, non-stanzaic poems, poems in sections, poems with short lines, erasures), and each poem has a distinct appearance on the page, another way her awareness of construction is kept on the reader’s radar. Perhaps the epitome of this constructive style, “Boustrophedon” offers a bidirectional text in which lines alternate between regular and reversed script, as though the oxen discussed are furrowing the verse.
Coconut Books, $18 (paper)
Veronica Bench, Leopoldine Core’s first full-length book of poetry, is densely populated with girls in trouble and animals erupting from cartoonish sweetness into violence. Core’s visceral poems narrate a landscape filled equally with wonder and dread. The collection alternates between page-long digressive poems, which weave memory into finely drawn surreal episodes, and tiny acerbic pieces that showcase Core’s slapstick genius. In these, animals are forced to reckon with the human kingdom, as in “Let’s,” which reads in its entirety, “give mice / little machine guns.” The longer poems capture the liminal space between precocious girl-child and woman, a space in which femininity slips into and out of animality: the “I” morphs into a goat, a pig, an ant. One of Core’s central themes, sexual violence, is also shuttled through this flimsy boundary between animal and girl. In “Videotape,” a stunning, traumatic meditation on statutory rape, she writes, “Here is my bobcat head on your knee / Here I am staring past you at a memory.” It concludes: “It’s hard to believe I could / love a man who loved / a little girl.” Those final lines hit you in the gut while exposing the complexity of young-female sexuality: the desire for sexual agency and the danger this freedom poses. Core’s voice—lurid, dream-like, and acidly funny—reminds us not only of the urgencies of youth, but of the urgency of death.
Wave Books, $20 (paper)
Superior Packets collects thirty-five years of Susie Timmons’s poetry from three out-of-print limited-run editions: Hog Wild (1979), the Ted Berrigan Award–winner Locked from the Outside (1990), and The New Old Paint (2010). With its infectious liveliness and ease, Timmons’s poetry “releases the cast of utility” from its language, letting its sonic properties glitter and playfulness dominate: “Mr. Holly sprang up / and gazed at the stars. // You are my friend / for a million years”; “We are the Spanish Harps / Vwing, Vwing, Vwing.” Early poems are snappy and clever, concerned with a faithful portrait of the world, meaning one a bit fractured and messy (“Cigarettes, cold beers / classic fixtures / what we need here is a / lesson we learned / a color scheme”). Locked from the Outside, in particular, showcases Timmons’s pointed, sometimes absurdist humor, which elevates the book’s quotidian concerns: “The one thing I ever wanted out of life / was to be King of the People.” Packets reveals a subtle richness on successive readings that might at first elude readers, especially in those transcendent moments where Timmons airdrops a metaphor onto the reader’s path: a bush is “a huge heap / of information over on the side” from which a grackle flies up in “I Will Tell.” Perhaps most distinctive about Timmons’s work is its refusal to find its gravity in sadness but rather by way of an intimacy between poem and reader, a feeling of being in on the joke or accomplice to the author’s sleight of hand. Superior Packets is fresh, unexpected, classic—underappreciated poems once at risk of being forgotten, but thankfully not any longer.
Noemi Press, $15 (paper)
Testing Roland Barthes’s claim that “language is a skin,” Danielle Vogel’s Between Grammars presents language at the shoreline of the body, submerging writer and reader into a flooded world where “flesh had an alphabet.” After the prologue introduces the volume’s trajectory, Vogel’s text becomes the “Watershed” it aims for as voices converge, overlap, and turn in eddies. Parentheses and line breaks compound the disrupted syntax and poetic subject: “( sitting within the ) ( sentence ) ( i / search ) ( syllables ) ( for a trace ) ( / sense you ) ( of cells ) ( through ) ( the / pages i’ve sent ).” We are afloat between grammars, unanchored to body or language. Although Vogel proclaims, “The page refracts the writer. The / written,” her poems also insist that the resulting textual corpus is awash with collaboration (“The reader rearranges the capacity of / the book. Takes some sentences . . . builds a floating / architecture”). Together, the writer and reader “push their / opening bodies in the way of one / another’s sound,” an exchange from which a climactic “loose letter emits.” The volume envisions writer and reader gathering the book so that “sound / regenerates skin. Words upon a line / redressing.” Language is flooded and the page is drowned, yet each decanting of the book disperses this cycle anew: “Released. / Reshaped. . . . Condensed and evaporated, / again.”
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