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The Cold War
Sarabande Books, $14.95 (paper)
Kathleen Ossip’s second book combines suburban memory with the formal experimentation of the contemporary metropole. The voices yearn to be personal and domestic, yet often remain clinical. In one section of the long poem “American History (A Fearsome Solitude),” Ossip notes such childhood familiars as “Grilled cheese and tomato soup” and “Pea soup quickly crusting over.” In the next, the seemingly puerile treatment translates to the Freudian: “A father or mother fixation, a feeling of impropriety . . . an over-development of self-love.” This poem, like others in The Cold War, shifts from six- and seven-syllable lines to prose, guiding readers between the speaker as poetic confidant and critical clinician. In “The Nervousness of Yvor Winters,” Ossip’s emphasis on Winter’s logic-in-verse invites a direct contrast between subject and form. Presenting Winter’s struggle with poetic meter as an avoidance of chaos and emotion, Ossip highlights his artistic paralysis—and winks at our nation’s economic stagnation. She remains politically conscious throughout, referencing Marx, class warfare, and egalitarianism, all of which seem prescient in a book that was released in spring of last year, before the public rhetoric’s recent turn toward these concepts. The Cold War is a strong follow-up to 2002’s The Search Engine, rendering this voice more relevant than ever.
The Art of Recklessness
Graywolf Press, $12 (paper)
Dean Young’s first book of criticism is a frenetic and subversive meditation on poetry and poetics seemingly inspired by Whitman’s exhortation to “unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” In sync with the principles of primitivism and surrealism—and of a mind that “quaintness may be the worst that can happen to an art”—Young encourages poems to explore “primary human dilemmas, the assertion of the monstrous if need be, the instinctual, visceral, sexual, rogue, absurd.” He champions the imagination as “the highest accomplishment of human consciousness” and adds healthy doses of crudity and contradiction to his poetics, recoiling at “the anemic and timid that masks itself in the veneer of prosodic perfection or in the dry ice fog of experimentation.” Though Young offers no explicit “how to” suggestions about craft (remaining suspicious of totalitarian notions of how a poem should be written), he does pull the reins in on Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” philosophy, insisting on “detachment from [our] work” in order to achieve “a sophisticated sense of the art beyond our sense of self . . . to see poems as . . . material to be manipulated.” At the same time, he maintains, “Poetry is not a discipline. It is a hunger, a revolt, a drive.” Spirited and bracing, The Art of Recklessness will feed the emerging poet seeking inspiration and wake up the established poet in need of revitalizing.
The Black Forest
Octopus Books, $12 (paper)
This debut collection is packed with personae the way a forest is packed with trees. Some of those trees, however, are scored with faces; others are X’ed with orange spray paint. A multitudinous “I” runs through The Black Forest like a root system that feeds very different but interdependent flora. (Or fauna: wolves and bears abound.) On the one hand, we have the cockeyed, studied, is-it-only-play-acting of “The Gambler”: “‘Enchante, princess,’ I say / every time a hand is dealt. / I break out a miniature guillotine / and ask for no cards.” On the other, there’s a citizen who is at once damaged, outraged, and looking for answers: “I’m going back / to the atheist suburbs of my life, / where there is no you / and the wars seem more honest.” Indeed, poems such as “The Soldier” and “Command Command” highlight the book’s sociopolitical concerns. At times, DeWeese’s various tones and voices fuse unforgettably, as in the collection’s combustive title poem: “A boorish silence consumes the forest / like a forest around the rich. / . . . Tax incentives for dying / make me worry about the government / but it is a human thing / to worry over my penis.” In the end, The Black Forest takes as its subject nothing less than American subjectivity itself, bemoaning a time when “The night lowers ladders / to sell us jewelry we don’t need, / stars that know nothing / of the darkness we inscribe around them.”
—W. M. Lobko
Slope Editions, $14.95 (paper)
What information can the body hold—physically, psychically, historically—and how do we translate these encryptions into language? These are Amaranth Borsuk’s chief concerns in her debut collection, winner of the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize. “Words so readily betray things they’re meant / to represent,” she states, the word “betray” capturing both the loss and the discovery that are catalyst to these intricately constructed poems. The book’s recurrent image of the hand reinforces the importance of care and craft—see the poems’ many brackets and erasures—to Borsuk’s interrogation of personal identity and a family narrative partly obscured by the Holocaust. Adamantly not straightforward memoir, Handiwork strives instead to capture process (“how does mind / hold slippery bodies, how map / what’s outside known boundaries?”), often suggesting a series of maps—either those of earlier centuries, in which the far side of the ocean is tenanted by sea monsters, or modern satellite images that force us to ponder what lurks inside all of those actual houses. Borsuk hints at answers first chemical and numerological (in a series of short poems titled “Salt Gematria,” which make use of the mystical Hebrew practice of assigning every letter a numerical value), then geopolitical (“Prague, Poland, Germany, Paris, / [no sequence, less information]”), then emotional (“salvaged grief”). However, it’s Borsuk’s resolve not to fill the spaces she has delineated, to leave their “little distance distilled” unbridged that, in the end, feels most revelatory.
Before During or After Rainstorms
Off the Park Press, $15 (paper)
In this vibrant and incisive first collection, Joi writes of a 21st-century America so ensnared in its spoon-fed, prefab lifestyle that even when objects are purchased and placed just so, and even when we’ve partaken of the latest fad food in excess, we still feel an emptiness that leads to more acquisition. The book’s first section finds the speaker often home alone, the inside and outside world both backdrops for the wish to feel “content eating my arugula salad / and watch fallen petals gather / on the edge of the curb.” The impressive long poem at the book’s center, an unrhymed sonnet sequence called “Twentytown,” chronicles a group of friends and lovers as they navigate that confusing, complicated, and often defining decade. One wouldn’t be surprised to find the older selves of these once-reckless Gen-Xers wandering the bright, wide aisles of a big-box store, searching for the perfect sterile object to spruce up their home offices. A longer prose poem in the last section, “The Infinite Red-Bull’s Eye,” addresses the opening of a new Target in the poet’s Brooklyn neighborhood, highlighting a consumerism that threatens to substitute for creative and emotional fulfillment. Armed with an eye for the particular and a knack for gentle satire, Joi writes from the front lines of a doomed fight for America’s spirit, but does so with a bright, infectious gusto: “even if it’s fake . . . a smile is catchy so I’ll smile back and it will make me feel extraordinary to buy new white sheets and not use them.”
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