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New books to savor in the summer sun.
by Arielle Greenberg
Coconut Books, $14 (paper)
“Why take an ad out in a nation where there are white power marches? / Why bother with any country at all?” asks Arielle Greenberg in her vibrant third book of poems. The work in Slice is typified by inquiries such as these—at once incredulous and complacent, alert to possibility but locked into reality. When the speaker in “On Typing” laments that her husband won’t utter the sentence, from HBO’s Entourage, “Now how about a blowjob before the meeting?” other than jokingly, she admits that it isn’t even the sex she wants but “the desperation.” As one of the formulators of “the gurlesque,” an aesthetic she says depicts an “honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror—even horror . . . closely associated with women’s suppression,” Greenberg is less concerned with upending social constructions of desire than with examining them through unbridled performances. “My men are the men who prize themselves on not having types,” she writes, “When all I want is for my body to do it, / to do it for them, just their type, this generous body, / . . . please, objectify.” At times this approach seems engineered to shock (“I really want you the dad I’m babysitting for / to fuck me”), but elsewhere, as in “Feminist Modes of Production,” Greenberg emphasizes refusal instead of compliance, presenting obdurateness as ownership of one’s sense of self: “I wasn’t up for writing an epic so I got accidentally pregnant. Again. / I wasn’t up for writing an epic so I just started a small incursion.” In its unwillingness to play it safe, Slice proves Greenberg is among the boldest and most vital poets of her generation.
The Sugar Book
by Johannes Göransson
Tarpaulin Sky Press, $16 (paper)
The Swedish word lagom, meaning something like “just right” or “perfect moderation,” might well describe or even encapsulate Swedish culture. But it is not a word that applies to the poems in Johannes Göransson’s The Sugar Book, which seem to have been cooked up to create the antibodies that in turn inoculate us against a creeping case of lagom. Göransson—a Swede by birth, a Minnesotan by background, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—writes as if he were on a mission to destroy our preconceptions about all three places. The Sugar Book circles several motifs, mostly those of the classic L.A. film noir: starlets, murder, seedy motels, hints of nameless malevolence. The book doesn’t coalesce into narrative but brims with dark atmospherics, disconcertingly crosscut with images of the poet’s wife and daughters. This juxtaposition of innocence and menace brings the book close to the classic Gothic genre, but if Ann Radcliffe lurks in the background, she is only glimpsed through a thick film of postmodernism, sampled text, and metapoetic tropes. One of the book’s main gestures is to remind us how mediated violence has become our wallpaper—ever-present but hardly noticed. Sometimes, though, the book seems less like a warning about this condition than a symptom of it. Perhaps it is both.
The Animal Too Big to Kill
by Shane McCrae
Persea Books, $15.95 (paper)
Shane McCrae’s fourth book, The Animal Too Big to Kill, relates his experience as mixed-race person raised by racist grandparents: “Growing up black white trash you grow up bodiless.” Describing his self-hatred—“wishing your skin could somehow / suffocate you in your sleep”—McCrae reflects on the disorienting path that led him to despair. And as James Baldwin writes, “if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.” For McCrae, as for Baldwin, this love is hardly simple. Thus through epistles to God, McCrae interrogates what the faithful take whole cloth, parsing themes from scripture to understand the self and humanity’s tendencies as made explicit in faith and dogma. In the title poem, McCrae describes “pray[ing] to be convinced,” then seeing two firs struck by lightning: “The moment I believed I / Had seen God kill for me / Lord was the moment I became a human being.” But sacrifices demand scrutiny, and McCrae examines the hard Christian truth that the formation of identity, of faith, requires violence and death. In “Mary Massages His Feet with Perfume Worth What a Worker Makes in a Year,” McCrae wonders, with Judas, why something so valuable is not “sold and the money given to the poor.” This doubt, alongside McCrae’s account of troubling interactions with coworkers at a factory, leads to a powerful conclusion: “I tell You now I know it Lord it love is truly is / Stronger than hate / Only for those who can afford it.”
Each Thing Unblurred Is Broken
Omnidawn, $17.95 (paper)
Andrea Baker’s second collection explores contours, borders, and thresholds, asking how edges become blurred, how disconnected things may be perceived as continuous. To unblur is to demarcate, to break off “each thing” from its others in contingency, and perhaps to commit the “[a]trocity of yes and atrocity of no.” In disturbing, fairy tale–like landscapes, Baker obscures the boundaries between life and death, pain and pleasure, faith and doubt, comfort and disquiet. Gilda, a central figure, is at once “picking her flesh apart” and “creat[ing] herself malignant” before “she dissolves / and nothing can hold her.” Perhaps the speaker’s alter ego, Gilda seems to embody this process of blurring, of constructing the self in its destruction as it is “absorbed by what [it] borders.” In some of the collection’s most remarkable lines, Baker’s details are not materially based but sensorially mixed, existing only in language, and creating a blurred effect through metaphor or simile: “the sunlight is kneeling all over” or “her neck laced / like the neck of a swan // her heavy feet / long / like shackles.” The precision of these poems—their meticulous, off-kilter imagery—may seem at odds with their desire to blur, but this is exactly what the poems ask us to see: the more we attend to the world, the blurrier it becomes. These sharply abstract details leave the poems open, refusing to foreclose meaning or mystery, and also make them fiercely unsettling, even as they are painstakingly crafted, definitive, exact—themselves wrought, as one poem describes snow on evergreens, “with alphabetic precision and poise.”
A Swarm of Bees in High Court
by Tonya M. Foster
Belladonna*, $16 (paper)
Tonya Foster calls A Swarm of Bees in High Court “a biography of life in the day of a particular neighborhood.” That neighborhood is Harlem, where the poet lives and where these poems of place—and of voices—are set. But as with every phrase in this rich and haunting first book, the reader is advised not to skim: the twist on “day in the life” resembles other torques and stalls Foster imposes on the language that describes and forms her material. Amidst markers of “what it is to live on / perennial blocks,” she flies from inflected pun (“Be utterly fly. / Be itch, be road, be ache”) to affective punch (“To know . . . is to be / thought known. . . . ‘They see / my clothes, think I got cash’”), speeding like a resident through familiar curves the uninitiated must take slowly and commit to learn. The first poem prefigures subsequent paired haiku-like stanzas in which the second transfigures the first, retooling, for example, “A mind is master / but the flesh is boss—boned up, / toned, taut or taught” to “A mind is. Master / angels of incidence to / shake a booty down.” Elsewhere, “Black is black taint” becomes “‘Black is black’—t’aint.” With its care for the habitually unnoticed—pronouns, punctuation, words lurking within other words—this ambitious collection exposes and resists, in “small” gestures centered on a landscape-oriented page, the ways empire compulsively overwrites individual and collective experiences of time and place.
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