Top 40 Poetry Books of 2013 [10 - 1]

shane mccrae

top 40 poetry books of 2013

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[40 - 31] — 1/1/14

[30 - 21] — 1/8/14

[20 - 11] — 1/15/14

[10 - 1] — 1/22/14

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[10 - 1]

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10. Young Tambling, Kate Greenstreet

Ahsahta Press

“I think I could sleep now, if I closed my eyes.”

Quite near the end of Kate Greenstreet’s brilliant third book, Young Tambling, a reproduction of a hand-scrawled note reads, “Not autobiography but ABOUT biography.” And it’s under this guise that Greenstreet binds her “big rectangular piece of temporary art” into by far one of the best “poetry collections” of 2013. I use the quotes not because I am unsure whether or not this work is considered poetry, but because some readers of more recent widely lauded poetry, not to mention some haplessly lost reviewers, might approach this book as though it’s supposed to entertain them on a light snowy evening in some Brooklyn bar. But it won’t. You don’t approach Kate Greenstreet’s work like that. Instead you might wander out into a full blizzard and find a deer dying in the street, severed in half. You might take him, “his bloody head and all” into your lap and marvel at the creature and fear the creature until, staring closely enough, you begin to see yourself in its eyes.

How can I recognize the real thing? Sometimes
the tiniest breeze will set it off. People don’t get over it.
Women, never. This is the devil’s work, this mirror.

That’s how you come to this book. “This story takes place everywhere,” she writes, and its short vignettes expertly weave together descriptions of a life that’s been hard-fought, scrappy characters who seem to have made it (“We were looking / at each other and I said ‘I love you.’ He laughed this / sort of short laugh and said, ‘Spoken like a true Christian.’), and others who certainly didn’t, but whose eulogies are embedded throughout the sprawling 150 page campaign:

A lot of people have
talent, it’s not enough. No F. No D. Of suicides, only
15% leave a note. The ones I knew: 0%. Hanged,
hanged, OD’d, knife in the heart. Burned–

can’t call it suicide. He walked out of the burning
house and sat down on the curb. He was talking to
himself when the firetrucks pulled up. Charred from
head to foot. Art as we knew it (he said) was just
designed to get us through our twenties. After that,
you’re on your own.

Art itself is hard-fought and borne of sacrifice. This is a book about art. This is a book about people who struggle. But for all its moments of danger and catastrophe, there is a stunning and audacious story of a young girl finding her way through selfhood, to art and its many forms. Greenstreet threads this more lucid narrative throughout the collection to ground the reader and build a solid base from which we can view the speaker’s lifelong expedition to transcend gender roles, and better understand her identity, her tenacity and perhaps even her affectation. As gritty as the collection can sometimes be, it is these moments that flesh out the characters and build empathy and compassion with a beautifully composed speaker:

But I also needed to be alone. To think. My
mother gave me the tiny room off the kitchen, where I could
read and arrange things and listen to music on the radio. My
father and grandmother felt it was excessive for a child
to have a room of her own (before this I was in the big room
with my brothers), but my mother made it happen.

My room had a counter running the length of one wall–I
loved this counter, the top was red linoleum. I used it
mainly as a place to build small shrines. …
I might take a chunk of 2×4, cover it
with a good white hankerchief, then set or stack things on
it: to look at them. …
I always had an urge to
put things together that didn’t belong with each other until
they were arranged, by me, in just the right way.

Greenstreet’s images are perfectly curated, and so sparingly and expertly placed that they take on a greater weight. In many ways it resembles found poetry–a dichotomy of simplicity and density. Sure this is poetry, but it’s a living, breathing thing that sprawls and snakes and pops each time I take it down from my shelf. I can’t say that about much recent work, but I can’t say that enough about this book.

Above all, Young Tambling is a ballad, and perhaps in its fractured narrative it pays homage to more traditional notions of the form, particularly the 16th century ‘Tam Lin’ story it vaguely traces, and to which it certainly owes a fare. But this is a ballad of art, and the life of an artist. This is how life does not imitate, but feeds the art itself–through family, tragedy, sex, identity, and barefaced resolution.

I remember that–her running up the stairs.
Later, she dives into the leafy pool.
To forget.
The dream of art.
The dream of the body.

Is there another dream?

Buy this book.

DJ Dolack

9. Belmont, Stephen Burt

Graywolf Press

“…but what moved me…”

Belmont is a fictional suburb of Venice in The Merchant of Venice, and in the play, it serves as a serene alternative to the clutter and discord of city life. Belmont is also a small suburb of Boston with a population of 24,194 (sayeth Wikipedia). This includes the poet and critic Stephen Burt, whose moving third book becomes less a tribute to the town than to the life he shares there with his family, both in his daily repetitions and in his imagination. In “Poem of 9 A.M.,” Burt makes his thesis clear:

When I flew over the Grand Canyon, I loved–
who wouldn’t?–to see the majestic gash in earth,

but what moved me
were the flat hints of grids

that began and ended several miles away,
tan, ecru, beige, knife scratches on dry toast,

and then houses–some might have been trailers–so faint

and isolated next to those faint lines.
Single grains of sugar. Sesame seeds.

The beauty of the canyon is obvious; the beauty of the distances leading up to it–emphasized for us with Burt’s incisive imagery–requires a different kind of attention. The poet proceeds not to advocate for suburban life in favor of city life, but instead to remind us that objective stances about any kind of living are rarely as complete as they might seem: “We should never look down / on what gives strangers comfort, // on what we learn too late we think we might need.” There is real wisdom in these lines, and this is common of the poems in Belmont: they don’t seek so much to advocate for a position as to remind us how often there are alternative understandings.

It is sometimes fashionable to condescend to suburban cliches; Burt has a ball with them. In the ode “To Subarus,” these suburban hot rods “seem to claim / that to be adult is simply to care less / about doing your own thing on your own, /and more about what other people require”–which inclues, in part, to care more “for Dr. Harvey Karp, who taught new parents how to calm / their infants with attempts to recreate / the volume and vibrations of the womb.” In “Self-Portrait as Muppet,” we see the speaker in the workplace: “Beleaguered / administrators / everywhere, I am one of you. / I came from a swamp too.” These lines remind me of something I heard Burt say in a panel discussion with Elizabeth Alexander, Tony Hoagland, James Longenbach, Maureen McLane, and Susan Stewart in 2011, which I will attempt to remember and paraphrase: that ultimately, we only have so much time in life to give to any one author, any one thing. It would seem that the sacrifices we make ultimately say more about us than what we think we are giving up by making them, since sacrifice is, when it comes down to it, a requirement of living. As Burt indicates, “It’s about settling down and settling in / and trying not to settle for,” even if “it’s our nature / to say we’re unsatisfied, and pretend to seek more.”

Much of Belmont is about the imagination: how we make people and places compete with our imagined versions of them, and how sometimes, this can be transcendent, other times, disappointing. If Belmont is made up in Shakespeare, is it possible that the peace this poet finds in his Belmont is a product of the imagination as well? By the time you finish reading this book–especially his moving tributes to his children–you will be convinced otherwise: “safe the road through and down, / the sun’s announcement of their separateness / the first safe moment of your whole trip home— / so, Nathan, was your birth today at dawn.”

Buy this book.

–John Deming

8. The Self Unstable, Elisa Gabbert

Black Ocean

“The future isn’t anywhere, so we can never get there. We can only disappear.”

The 66 “lyric essays” in Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable often read like epigrams, but unlike the famous though often-briny epigrams of Ben Jonson, Gabbert’s poems do not revolve around criticisms. Rather, they present observations, reflections on the function or dysfunction of memory and emotion, on the nature of time and intelligence, on identity construction and the limitations of human understanding, on fundamental paradoxes of existence. She is, somehow, both highly rational and highly unstable: “Men say infuriating things, and the fury has nowhere togo. The fury becomes ingrown.” “Human life is structured around overcoming problems,” writes Gabbert. “We want it to be art, so we redefine art,” and all the while, “awareness is the great human problem.”

Gabbert’s speaker proves unperturbed when asking the difficult questions and equally so when there are no answers, and even still when the answers should be terrifying, because as Gabbert notes, “Most of the time, if you ‘don’t want to know’ you already do.” In fact, Gabbert’s unruffled approach allows her to address some of humanity’s greatest anxieties–the possibility, for instance, that “if life has any meaning, it comes at the end.” On page after page, we receive stirring insights that frequently possess the power of aphorism; time and again, the book proves illuminating. These poems awaken our curiosities regarding the human life and its possibility for holding any real purpose. They are philosophical yet pragmatic. They don’t expect too much of the truth; they teach us satisfaction with life’s “continual climbing, with no resolution—just an ever-building terror” because, like the self, the truth is unstable.

Buy this book.

–Melinda Wilson

7. Just Saying, Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press

“it creates the ground / it covers”

Anyone following Rae Armantrout’s work over the last five years has had the pleasure of watching one of our best living poets perform at her absolute peak. She has published three books in that span: 2009’s Versed, which was suggestive of poet’s battle with what was considered a terminal case of adrenal cortical cancer, and which earned her a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, and nomination for the National Book Award; 2011’s Money Shot, which seemed more squarely aimed at the broader culture media, money, and politics; and 2013’s Just Saying, which reminds us of Armantrout as a seminal language poet whose subject is always the words she is using as much as whatever they are being used to signify. Here is the entirety of “Spent”:

Suffer as in allow.

List as in want.

Listless as in transcending
desire, or not rising
to greet it.

To list
is to lean,
dangerously,
to one side.

Have you forgotten?

Spent as in exhausted.

The language is the subject itself; it is suspicious of itself, always indicating its own slipperiness. Yet the poem ends lyrically (“Have you forgotten? // Spent as in exhausted”), more Dickinson than Williams. In “Scale,” she describes an electron in an electron field, and she notes that “Like thought / it creates the ground / it covers.” The same can be said of language: it generates and regenerates, an all the while, the electron, which obviously predates the human ability to organize the world into sounds and labels, has nothing fundamentally to do with the eight letters comprising the word or the sounds they make.  Armantrout is on the frontier of determining again and again how little we know for sure, how powerfully illusion tends to grip us in ways that are not obvious, how language is used to encourage such illusion, and how ultimately “everything’s // a metaphor / for sensation.”

Read the full review here.

Buy this book.

John Deming 

6. Who Said, Jennifer Michael Hecht

Copper Canyon Press

“Be an absurd living ghost, / if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht was busy in 2013. She published a critically acclaimed non-fiction book, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, and she also raised the question of atheism as the last taboo in politics, even appearing on MSNBC to discuss the issue. But as Matthew Yeager said when introducing her at the KGB Bar last fall, if Hecht wears many hats, poetry is perhaps her actual head. And Who Said could be called a perfectly blended amalgam of this poet-philosopher-historian’s intellectual pursuits.

First, in the sense that the brain is not only a place for study and lamentation, but for pleasure and discovery. The title of this book is literally a challenge to the reader: lines from famous poems are embedded throughout the text, and if a reader cannot crack the code figuratively, s/he must do so literally, by unlocking a series of cryptograms that serve as notes in the back of the book. Doing so has the appeal of completing a crossword puzzle–the more letters you figure out, the closer you slide towards to successful completion of a given cryptogram. It is a suitable airplane activity probably most interesting to people who read a lot of poetry or enjoy cracking codes. But even if her reference to “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is obvious to you, it still enriches the experience of reading Hecht’s poem to decode in her note that her poem is in “dark conversation” with Frost’s. Not that this isn’t obvious in the poem–Hecht replies to Frost’s famous “I have promises to keep” thusly: “Over the river and into the pain. It is an addict’s / talk of quitting as she’s smacking at a vein.” But the more context, the better, and the more you begin to recognize in her lines, the more you’ll be compelled to crack her cryptograms and figure out what you may have missed.

But what truly makes this book special is Hecht’s philosopher’s perspective on death and the anxieties that can interrupt a life: “Why were the dead so timid while / they lived?” she asks in “On Reading the Letters of the Dead,” suggesting the ways that humans can over-complicate their own lives without seeing the forest for the trees, without finding comfort in realizing how truly small they are. The final poem is the nine-page “The Thesis is That There Was a Beginning,” in which she imparts the distinct thrill of having had the chance to be alive at all: “sailing into the universe / where no one has ever gone before, / exile upon exile, / until nothing feels like home as much / as further exile, farther out, further on, / ancient secrets unfurling like fractals.” Even if one feels things have changed irreparably, Hecht seems to suggest that devastation is also a platform for new discovery–a frontier mentality that can only take hold if you are alive. The passage of time is also a wonder: “Two thousand and ten used to feel… / impossibly far in the future / but here it is, and gone….There are people born / in the year two thousand and one who could already / beat most of us in a game of chess.” “The earth is an open living seed / and so is the mind,” she writes. “This, such as it is, is a time on-camera. / Our time on-screen.” Slow down, she seems to say. Take yourself seriously, but not too.

Hecht’s book allows her to interact with work she admires, much in the way her cryptograms are designed to help us interact with her book. The joy of “figuring out,” whatever the limitations of any single answer, refreshing a sense of awe in response to reality, and knowing that this sensation can come again, becomes one of many justifications for living. “Walls rise and fall,” Hecht reminds us. But her book ought to be read by anyone who has experienced feelings of depression or meaninglessness, as it helps beg the question:  if I’m this upset now, how am I going to feel later when it comes down to it even more, and am I prepared to deal with that? Hecht’s answer is an exhilarating yes, a charge uphill that contextualizes our small existences while painting them part of something that, as it is figured out in increments, can yield more elaborate and illuminating mysteries.

Buy this book.

–John Deming


5. TWeRK, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

Belladonna Books

“or perhaps the treasure trove we // deem invoked by twerk.”

In the year 2013, the word “twerk” went from “niche slang to the main-est of the mainstream,” according to Time’s Lily Rothman, who argued the word was robbed when Oxford Dictionaries passed it over and named “selfie” the international Word of the Year. Some time after Miley Cyrus’s controversial VMA performance, Oxford did add “twerk” to its dictionary; Rothman observes that the two events were unrelated, and that “their confluence is proof that the twerk zeitgeist was much more just one award show’s doing.” Still, while much of the world debated whether what Cyrus was doing actually constituted twerking or whether or not her performance was degrading and possibly racist, here behind the scenes was LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s ferocious debut, a performance as nuanced, intelligent, unconventional, and stupefying as any we saw last year on page, stage or screen.

That’s not hyperbole. To get some sense for the ambition of TWeRK, consider that the epigraph comes from Genesis 11:1 — “And the earth was of one language, and of one speech” — and that the poet appropriates more than 15 languages and dialects including English, Japanese, Swahili, Tagalog, Yoruba, and Cherokee, often deploying several within a single poem. The result is a brainy global get-down, one that makes overt allusions to Michael Jackson, P-Funk and the Ohio Players as effortlessly as Pablo Neruda, Dr. Seuss, the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and Black Herman, an “African-American magician…who died on stage during one of his performances in 1934.” She frequently translates for us as we go, and I think that even in a first reading it is  helpful to tag the book’s end notes with a post-it. She moves between languages very quickly and with great facility, so you might enjoy having as much context as possible.

Diggs is not so much trying to teach you these languages as she is allowing you experience their sounds and rhythms. It’s not set up so that you read one or the other; the languages are integrated, often with one on top of another, as in “border universe,” which is written in English, Spanish, and Runa Simi (Quechua):

kunan                     por que ñoqa,      la luna,
right now             because of me                    the moon

urmanki patanpa.
                                                    falls over the edge

Sometimes the effect is even more integrated into the fabric of the poem; in “(Boo Yaa),” the translation of each word “is literally beside it (either before or after the word) indicating a body part”:

                   your mush waha just pixie dust in my shells,

pu’uwai like my nose,
take it right back to the cell…

The effect of reading her work, in particular her way of weaving in different languages is very difficult to describe; take as another example this photo of a page from a series of short poems, “March of the Stylized Natives,” which is “a series of songs…constructed from kantan chamorritas, an ancient style of improvised debate or ‘freestyle’ indigenous to the Chamorro natives of Mariana Islands and Guam”:

One of my favorite aspects of P-Funk mythology is the notion that ascension can be reached once everyone in the room experiences freedom from fear and paralysis and begins to move (dance); the one holdout, the last person who does not dance, is a kind of P-Funk super-villain, Sir Nose D’voidoffunk (who is name-checked in TWeRK). If music is a universal language, then Diggs reminds of the music that exists in language itself and the bridges and familiarities this can build. She uses new and familiar forms, explores parable and fantasy. But the closing poem, “churp”– which contains the epigraph, “Birds, he says, have about five things to say”–makes much of her meaning clear: “…as if you’ll love me. tú. / another alarm clock. another dream. another word. a new word. same / meaning. good morning. quiéreme. nakita akong kókóró. bon nochi. fuera. / like you said, all the rest is noise.”

Buy this book.

John Deming


4. Black Aperture, Matt Rasmussen

Louisiana State University Press

“God let me / no longer take up space // and the let the space I free up / remain vacant.”

Matt Rasmussen’s first collection, Black Aperture, winner of the 2012 Walt Whitman Award, has provided us with a book to fear and love as the poet confronts head-on and unwavering the experience of a brother’s suicide. The book is frank, but not thin. It exists in an emotional space latent but still damning, where the rage and sadness surrounding death lingers for years. In “After Suicide,” the dead brother enters a party as a ghost and jokes with the attendees (“you put a flashlight/into your mouth//and turn it on.”). Rasmussen’s powerful lines seem influenced by the emotional weight and turmoil of James Wright (the last poem of the book is explicitly dedicated to Wright), particularly as Wright’s work moved toward a dark surreal, as well as the kind of emotional relationship to the microcosm in Charles Simic (Rasmussen writes, “If you/tear all of the skin away//leaving only the veins,/they are miniature trees,//the poem says.”).

The narrator of Black Aperture seems to laugh at traditional poetic tropes, but he cannot help but to return to them and to poetry as storehouses for his conceit—even when shamed by the need (from “I am Not a Poem”: “The poem heard//the poet calling it and jumped.”). Direct references to suicide appear in nearly every poem in the collection with little gloss, while the brother becomes an innocent creature, compared to a deer, that the narrator fears to wipe away; he finds his brother’s hands in his own pockets and spread upon his own books, and he despairs at recording over his brother’s family answering machine message. But what makes the work more than a mountain of repetitive melancholia is simply good poetry: unafraid to chop tropes, to let God kill himself (and turn into what “the animals” name “snow,” which becomes a collection-long trope), to make sounds and break lines ever so shrill, and to be conscious of “When you click and drag / yourself across the world.” Rasmussen unabashedly wonders whether the brother is in hell, isolates the imp that breathes death thoughts into the wayward mind, and shows a world seen through a striking and important funnel (“All night, snow fell / like ash through a glass of water.”). This may be the most difficult and the most important collection to read of 2013, and calling it an impressive first book is understatement.

Buy this book.

Seth Graves


3. Metaphysical Dog, Frank Bidart

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

“Without / justice or logic, without // sense, you survived. They didn’t.”

Frank Bidart opens Metaphysical Dog, his eighth volume of poems, with a strikingly existential canine, Bellafont, who suffers from a throwness characteristic of all humans left to satisfy themselves with incomplete answers to the most basic, ubiquitous mysteries of existence: “How dare being / give him this body.” This short poem (very short by Bidart’s standards) concludes with a terse portrayal of Bellafont’s reaction: “Held up to a mirror, he writhed.” This is not a passive or active “writh(ing),” but rather the “writing” secreted within that word—not writing as defiance or suffering, rather writing that both rises against and is repressed by the confining physicality of the body itself. Indeed, the next word in the collection, “Writing,” begins a tour de force of candid, often brutal, incisiveness in which the dog in the mirror returns by association as the self-reflexive poet:

“Writing Ellen West”

 

was exorcism.

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Exorcism of that thing within Frank that wanted, after his
mother’s death, to die.

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Inside him was that thing that he must expel from him to live.

Not many poets can get away with a sentence this brief when it’s initiated by a preposition and concluded with two stacatto, monosyllabic prepositional phrases. Especially when his sentences veer toward the eccentric, Bidart brings you along by almost pronouncing his lines for you; the pace diminishes at “he must,” the reader forced to enunciate, even if silently, the remainder of the line with a surging deliberation. Surely, this is a tool in every poet’s handy belt, but Bidart’s mastery stems from his ability to create a tone of insistence and urgency by means of hyper-guided syntax.

Still, syntax alone doesn’t fully address the question of exactly how Bidart continues to write stunning poems while defying (bow wow, says Bellafont) almost every commandment of current poetic decorum. For those who arrived to Bidart when Bidart arrived (Golden State,1973), this is not a new source of puzzlement. Each subsequent book has addressed it with an evolving, idiosyncratic, and maturing aesthetic. The often commented upon “immediacy” of Bidart’s work is partly responsible; what he loses in his refusal of a more image-based poetic, he gains in dramatic reach, as if writing with the very hand that Keats haunts us with in his final “See, here it is, I hold it toward you” (“This Living Hand”), itself assumed to be a fragment of unconsummated dramatic work. The need behind the voice combined with the body of that voice, body that has an uncanny ability to seemingly co-occupy the reader’s physical space—perhaps more than any other American poet writing today, this is what you feel when you read Frank Bidart.

Read the full review here.

Buy this book.

James Kimbrell


2. Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido

Knopf

“I wanted to live for / A moment for a moment.”

A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee, Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido’s fourth collection of poems, presents readers with a lush, verdant world and the consciousness of a speaker that somehow registers every detail of both her physical and psychic environments in a way this is perhaps unmatched in contemporary poetry. Brock-Broido elegantly renders even life’s inelegance, finding a dark richness even in absence, as in “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room,” wherein she writes, “The flowerbed is black, sumptuous in emptiness.”

These poems dissect emptiness an inevitability without fluff or condescension. Much of the book revolves around loss, loss of the speaker’s father and of the poet Liam Rector, among others. Emptiness often connotes a hunger to fill a void or to relive. “I wanted to live for / A moment for a moment. However inelegant it was, // It was what it might have been to be alive, but tenderly,” Brock-Broido writes in “A Meadow,” and earlier in the poem, she alludes to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” invoking the tremendous weight of loss: “Yes, yes, of course it is an “Art.” Or maybe she’s referencing Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” and the craft involved in dying. Maybe both and possibly more.

Even the lives and deaths of convicted felons Tookie Williams, co-founder of the central Los Angeles street gang the Crips, and Rickey Ray Rector, who murdered a police officer in Arkansas in 1981, are occasion for reflection on beauty and, perhaps more importantly, on empathy. Brock-Broido conjures compassion in “Of Rickey Ray Rector” when she writes, “Touches hands of his sisters, first time without glass.” Rather than Rickey Ray’s wrongdoing, we focus on the palpable moment of physical contact; we tremble with tender feeling and communion. The natural world also supplies some relief. Veneration for nature and its simplicity permeates these poems. In “Just-So Story,” for instance, the speaker surrounds herself with nature (“the shade of the gumbo-limbo tree,” “brindled horses,” “mountains in the West,”) as she considers the “hour it could have been / When once [her] father was at peace.”

Stay, Illusion flourishes with allusion. References as diverse as cultural icon Marilyn Monroe and Austrian poet Georg Trakl embroider the speaker’s mental landscapes, but none of the adornment is for decoration’s sake. Brock-Broido is a serious poet. There is great weight in each line, every word, and arguably, she has a greater sense for the possibilities of the poetic line than any other contemporary; the emotional range she displays in a single line can frequently be both exhilarating and devastating: “You’re dead a long time. / My uncle, dying, told me this when asked, Why stay here for such suffering… How many minutes have I left, the lover asked, To still be beautiful? / I took his blond face in my hands and kissed him blondely on his mouth.” Although many of the poems’ titles and individual lines are lengthy, no word is extraneous, nothing without purpose. The poet is always precise, careful to craft each line as an individual unit capable of addressing some of life’s greatest pains: “the idea that every single thing she loves // Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.”

Buy this book.

Melinda Wilson


1. Blood, Shane McCrae

Noemi Press

“Who do I got to kill / to get all the way free / And it was       more people than it was / alive in the world”

The cover of Shane McCrae’s Blood features a photo by Matthea Harvey in which a plastic “happy servant” salt shaker circa 1940’s or ’50’s appears to be thawing out under a block of ice. It suggests, among other things, occurrence as permanence: social patterns and habits can change, but nothing that has happened can actually be revoked, and in the context of Blood, no one killed brought back to life. It is a somewhat harrowing thing to be reminded of in a culture that loves to believe in redemption stories, triumph over adversity, and a general timeline of progress. Progress is possible, but it shouldn’t be imagined to replace history, and in Blood, McCrae looks into some less trafficked and sometimes horrific pockets of national and personal history. One of the book’s epigraphs comes from Paul Celan: “Whichever word you speak– / you owe to / destruction.” If you tend to turn to poetry for warmth and affirmation, perhaps look elsewhere.

Perhaps. But as is often said of photographer Dorothea Lange, McCrae has a way of leveraging obvious suffering with an eye for human dignity. His 14-part sequence “Brother” concludes with a shooting:

And blood sprayed from the artery

A rose

Like if the Lord had stopped

making in the middle of mak-

ing red

roses

 

and never made their boundaries

Elsewhere, McCrae picks up the stories of Cathay Williams, the first African-American female to enlist in the U.S. Army; the German Coast Uprising of 1811, the largest slave uprising in American history; the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who, about to be caught, murdered her daughter and attempted to kill her other children; and other slave narratives. He generally performs these narratives in the first person and in his distinctive style: double-spaced lines that sometimes use slashes to indicate line breaks that aren’t actually there. The overall effect is one of masterful pacing, a way of taking moments slowly despite their urgency, very much in the way a photograph might. Here we see Garner (Robert is her husband) as the slave catchers close in:

And as the slave

catchers were breaking the door were

 

climbing / Through the windows I

Begged her to help me kill the children

Mary was already dead

Mary is the daughter who has already been killed, and while the depiction of the killing is graphic, McCrae’s pacing throughout makes all of this moving, if deeply unsettling; each forward slash, each capitalized line is like the slightest twist of a zoom lens, the careful rendering of a shot that neither softens nor exaggerates. It doesn’t get by trying to warm the heart; nor does it rely on shock value. The complexity of Garner’s story — children who result from her master raping her, her own desire to kill her children rather than watch them return to slavery — is drawn up slowly and left to speak for itself. The book at times can seem almost painfully objective, told from the middle of experience and not from the need to contextualize it historically in any overt way. These things will always be there, the author seems to be saying, speaking for themselves, whether we are able to hear them or not.

I returned to Blood again and again last year, probably more so than with any other poetry book. Its magnetism is hard to describe, but I think it comes partly from the author’s tone and pacing and partly from the severity of his subject matter.  This is a poet who is taking his work very seriously, and who chooses to inhabit the voices of characters in place of editorializing. Yet there is distance, too, the kind of distance that is enacted by trauma. By the time we reach the concluding lines — “Who do I got to kill / to get all the way free / And it was       more people than it was / alive in the world” — we reach a kind of knowing desperation that is frequently uncontrollable, but as human as blood. Every poem in this book is exhilarating and so deeply felt that the poet does not need to tell us what to feel. You’ll feel it, time and again, as you reread these pages, and for what it’s worth, probably begin to dig into their source material as well.

Buy this book.

–John Deming