by Charles Simic
(Ecco, April 2015)
An autumnal gust blows through Charles Simic’s latest collection, a lone imagination contouring intimations of mortality: “One of my thoughts / Eloped with a leaf / The wind blew off a tree, / With two crows / Setting forth from another / In hot pursuit / Across the bleak landscape, / Like a frantic father / With a minister in tow.” Savoring their hues and textures like “a recovering puff pastry and almond cookie addict,” Simic’s portrait gallery relishes the human (“It pains me to see an old woman fret over / A few small coins outside a grocery store”) and the inhuman, engaging both with turns of irresistibly plaintive rhetoric: “Small store, is it only cobwebs / And shadows you sell?” Aside from the old-world, candle-guttering charm, there’s a dead-on psychological accuracy in Simic’s brand of lyrical allegory, wherein Death can lure an old woman out of bed with a request to please sew his button. One might find a glimmer of Rilke in these poems’ luminous observations, or of Transtromer in their stark and enigmatic set-pieces, but these warm, whimsical circlings, suddenly electrified “Like moths / Around a streetlamp / In hell,” are Simic’s alone.
by John Ashbery
(Ecco, May 2015)
“Do I wake or sleep?” asks John Ashbery in his newest collection, as if to pre-empt a reader’s inquiry on this excursion into the interstices between observation and projection, literary and pop culture, high seriousness and vulgar innuendo. Like Borges’ Shakespeare, Ashbery’s speakers are both dreaming and dreamed, as they “remark the comparative zip and panache / of those beautiful hammerhead sharks,” or apprehend political or cultural phenomena in a voice “whose torque proclaims it other.” Ashbery’s trademark comic-book hyper-realities pop with an undiminished verve as “you get Peanuts and War and Peace, / some in rags, some in jags, some in / velvet gown”; while in the title poem,“Batman came out and clubbed me. / He never did get along with my view of the universe.” Sinuous with strange turns, punctuated by unsettling questions that keep pace with the cultural moment, Ashbery’s latest work continues to offer a collage of marginalia brought to center stage eerily lit by a submerged psychic disturbance, so that, as in “A Breakfast Radish,” “whatever we're dealing with catches us / in mid-reconsideration.” We might call this whimsy if it didn’t seem, like a “cloud of knowing,” to comprehend our own unknowings.
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life
by Dawn Lundy Martin
(Nightboat Books, December 2014)
“Make an outline around my form. / Use your chisel,” demands Martin in her third collection, a blistering critique, fractured by her curiosity and outrage, of common signifiers of gender, racial, and sexual identity. Quoting Kara Walker, transmuting elements of nineteenth-century eugenics texts on “The Negro Question,” Martin’s spatially disoriented passages create effects as unnerving as Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes of historically charged violence. To these “glimpses of the sides of selves,” with a cunning akin to Claudia Rankine’s, Martin brings a mordant wit all her own: “Floating screens: black bodies, / unfathomable, violent acts. Only Will Smith has been spared.” Her critique of stifling categorization directs a stream of eerily de-contextualized narrative: “The slaves are dressed as men. / They go to work in gray suits. Their / bodies are grammar incarnate so they bracket force when inside gated halls.” In this indeterminate space, pronouns often perform double functions, implicating both the reader and the self (“It is you who shudders to be opened”) or further complicating nuanced racial politics: “All the colors. It is you who are they.” Although the thickets of contemporary discourse might resemble “plants tall as wheat to hide in,” Martin machete-clears a space for the unsayable, locating the boundaries of traumatic coherence.
War of the Foxes
by Richard Siken
(Copper Canyon Press, April 2015)
“Fervor reduces thought to shorthand,” observes Richard Siken in his much-anticipated follow-up to the influential Crush, “and all we get is an icon.” From abstract props of fable -- talking foxes, valiant swords, a moon stolen like silver by thieving brothers -- Siken renders his speakers’ familial and romantic desolation as a gallery of fifty not-so-still lives, reminiscent of gauntly shadowed landscapes of De Chirico. Siken’s fervor concerns the urge to flee the self, as in the haunting “Landscape with Black Coats in Snow”: “We left footprints in the slush of ourselves, getting out of there.” Equally harrowing are the speakers’ doppelganger confrontations: “I followed myself for a long while, deep into the field […] yellow, yellow, gold, and ocher.” Skirting nihilism, the quasi-autobiographical narratives render their visual studies in a lexicon of oil and canvas. Beautifully troubled, Siken’s depictions of emotional afterlives yield less static iconography than a spectral animation of domestic purgatory akin to Mark Strand’s: “Maybe we will wake up to the silence / of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.”
The Collected Poems of James Laughlin
by James Laughlin
(New Directions, November 2014)
With over 1,250 poems, the bounty of James Laughlin’s six decade career at the helm of Modernist publishing arrives like the richest of treasure chests, offering the H.D.-like “hot sea calm” of early imagist work, his riffs on classical ode, and a warm bravado evocative of ee.cummings: “does love / love itself the most?” Laughlin’s literary breadth shimmers in dialogues with Conrad and Dostoevsky, along with his Modernist peers; “In the Train” might be an answer to Pound’s laconic “In a Station of the Metro”: “Jammed standing in the / corridor of a limping / German train I share / at least their hunger’s / dirty smell and rub my / aching guilt on theirs.” This is a boisterous American voice, outward-facing as O’Hara’s or Sandburg’s, whose inventiveness is as evident in later five-line “pentastichs” as in irresistible titles (“The Glacier and Love’s Ignorant Tongue”). As noted by Guy Davenport, “the tall man who wrote these poems was once skiing down an alp with such headlong agility that he split the seat of his trousers.” Line after line, the reader shares in the panoramic hilltop view of Laughlin’s literary sources, from Virgil to Catullus, before surrendering to a joyful acceleration.
Count the Waves
by Sandra Beasley
(W.W. Norton, June 2015)
Her third collection finds Sandra Beasley negotiating a tense interplay between intimacy and distance, the gloss of fable and the coarser edges of lived experience: “What the parable does not tell you / is that this woman collects porcelain cats … This man knows they are tacky. Still, when the one / that had belonged to her great-aunt fell / and broke, he held her as she wept… // The parable does not care about such things.” Ostensibly conversational in tone, Beasley’s lines are crisp, propulsive with verbs, “pregnant with unspun energy,” as they inspect the scaffolding beauty’s façade requires: “No one // ever praises / the ass of the peacock, / grin of quills that does the heavy lifting.” A whimsical ars poetica, the titular sestina’s fanciful imperatives belie a soulful devotion, as troubled as Mary Szybist’s, and the overall effect suggests illuminated manuscript: “The seams of our gold world weaken … Steady the hand that dares mend a sky.” Beasley’s own steady hand dissects our daily sacrifices, equally sympathetic to men (“what a man bears makes him a king”) and to women (“because she wants to be caught, she will run”), in illuminating existence after the happily ever afters.
by Mary Jo Bang
(Graywolf Press, March 2015)
In her seventh collection, Mary Jo Bang returns from translating Dante’s Inferno with a newly tempered voice to elucidate contemporary sins. A retrofuturist vision “where blown-glass kitsch figures / were excavated from a pit,” Two Seconds is especially keen to indict of the falsehood of surfaces: “The natural birthright / position. Every scene lasts for no more / than a second; some ceramic panther / stands in for the extinct.” Charting terrains of economic disparity, pollution, and nuclear threat via their vestigial artifacts, the startling question “Is it today yet?” resonates with unnerving dream logic; recurrent imagery of clocks punctuates this dissociative narrative of an unnamed “she” to signify her uncertain latitude in eternity, “equidistant from the center of never”; while glassiness mimics the fragile “firefly taxi-light flicker” of the ephemeral. Yet if Bang’s tongue is often in cheek, it’s also caressing a broken tooth:
Death, said the cat as it lifted a souvenir
trinket mermaid castle from the fishtank
is day plummeting
behind a cruise missile set for a mid-size city.
Echoes of Eliot (“You know, don’t you, what we’re doing here? / The evening laid out like a beach ball gone airless”) haunt this testimony of our climate-changed times, but though Eliot asserted that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper, this particular way of shoring an era’s fragments against emotional ruin, of adding lyrics to “a song of no mercy,” begins and ends with Bang.
by G.C. Waldrep
(BOA Editions, 2015)
“The real has many faces,” suggests G.C. Waldrep in Testament, his stream-of-consciousness response to three poetic texts, “and we stand / for a long time, trying to pick out the perp / from the lineup, the accuser from the accused.” In Testament capitalism and gender constructs come under Waldrep’s most critical view, the long poem in five sections indicting language itself as insufficient to a larger critique: “Capitalism swaggers / outside language in the chrome shadow of / something like an enormous, gleaming motorcycle / we aren’t sufficiently afraid of. Not yet.” Erudite, glittering, Waldrep’s river of Ashberian non-sequitur finds a sonic lushness in organic phenomena (“The cherry tree, being alive -- full of spring sap -- / took some time to catch. When it did, / it burned like a torch, with an audible whoosh”) and sparks with sudden immediacies of memory (“A big man with dilated eyes and a broken beer bottle / in one hand tried to edge past me / in the risers, fell heavily, cut my forearm”). In this palimpsest where “hunger ticks, like a watch,” Waldrep’s narrative gestures contour enigmatic yearnings, seeking blank pages in a common lexicon to invite the reader’s own expressive possibilities.
One Thousand Things Worth Knowing
by Paul Muldoon
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2015)
This twelfth collection finds Paul Muldoon’s recent immersion in rock lyrics imbuing the trademark agility of his lines with a newly buoyant charm. His fecund imagination rummages through sundry inspirations like a storehouse “jam-packed with Inglis loaves, butter, Fray Bentos corned beef.” Whether eulogizing Celtic saints or fellow poets, the speakers in One Thousand Things invoke a rawer ur-world where “the chiastic structure of the Book of Daniel / mimics a double ax-head.” Perhaps inspired by Heaney, this latest miscellany seeks a pastoral optimism to assuage the angsts of modernity: “Though the file / is almost certainly corrupt, / we can still hope to salvage something from the raw / footage of the waterfall.” Muldoon’s trademark facility with form and etymological resonance abound across thirty-five poems with intricate craftsmanship, seamless as the way the speaker’s dolor in the shimmering “Pelt” “gave way / to a contentment / I’d not felt in years, / not since that winter / I’d worn the world / against my skin, / worn it fur side in.” Muldoon’s abundant storehouse is one to not only browse, but to settle in.
Lighting the Shadow
by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
(Four Way Books, 2015)
Griffiths’ fourth book deepens her lush neo-gothic sensibility to bridge past and present with “questions light cannot answer,” both personal and political, demanded by wounded psyches. The third sequence of four, “Verses from the Dead Americans’ Songbook,” finds darkly alliterative music in contemporary traumas: “I don’t want to write the word Hope / on a headstone. I don’t want to count the splinters / in a child’s cheek. I don’t want to tell my son / to leave the hooded sweatshirt / at home.” When her unspecified narrative players speak in off-rhyme, Griffiths’ approach can be as stark and elliptical as Plath’s: “I’ve worn a black suit / my entire life. It suits the war / my eyes ignite” (“Disarming of Shadow, Arming of Light”). Polishing this suave lexicon of wings, blood, and stones, Griffiths is “passing through the aviary of dead poets” to a space all her own, endowing her speakers’ moods with palpable texture: “There is the Queen Anne’s / lace of a child’s laugh, the froth of the ferry’s wake, the man / patting his bicycle like a pet.” Her chiaroscuro technique foregrounds the first person to examine “Gatsby’s green heart / of a wish,” like a photo-negative of America’s promise, and rarely has the gothic confessional mode seemed as effortless, or as irresistible.
24 Pages and Other Poems
by Lisa Fishman
(Wave Books, April 2015)
Lisa Fishman’s sixth volume widens her pastoral scope with disjointed lyric turns floating, like lilypads, in the immensity of nature: “how are you sleeping // like a radish in the cooling nights.” Sensitive, enigmatic perceptions radiate outward from what Fishman calls “the 24 centers / of the Daoist body,” so informed by oneness with the ecosystem that they portray an environment less personified than intriguingly merged: “first phallus popped up: asparagus / in the land of the rabbits / or is the body a plant / with nerves that are fern.” A discernible human narrative of rustic labor, Amtrak journeys, and memories akin to fairy tale (“James said the owl was a baker’s daughter / & Chuck called the yellow moth Blue”) shares a vocabulary depicting cattails, marsh grasses, red-headed cranes. Fishman’s closeups might evoke Roethke’s “Root Cellar” in lines like “the dirt is breathing all the time too,” but where Roethke is sinister, Fishman is laconic, witty, and distantly elegiac. In quoting Iris Murdoch’s “the page was folded into a perfect dart,” Fishman could be describing her work’s effect: its aim is neither overdetermined nor forceful, but where it lands “could be a stone’s throw / from the whole truth.”
by Tom Sleigh
(Graywolf Press, January 2015)
An existential meditation in four sections, informed by journalistic sojourns in fronts including Lebanon, Libya and Iraq, Sleigh’s ninth collection is undergirded by a grasp of spiritual parallels across time: the tyranny of the Emperor Tiberius intrudes on this present-day locale where “the AK wants to tell a different truth — / a truth ungarbled that is so obvious / no one could possibly mistake its meaning.” Sleigh’s historical sense posits a zone of witness where an homage to Basho can frame the devastation on the ground in Iraq; true to his doubting namesake, the “rapid-fire clarity” of his skepticism withholds easy conclusions regarding parenthood, political atrocities, and the self, without sacrificing the devastation of experience. Sonically, Sleigh amplifies the iambics of everyday discourse, and sparks these odes to human endurance with startling turns of consonance and rhyme “percussive as a run / on a nomad’s flute of bone / while a car engine dangling from a hoist and chain / sways in a translucent gown of rain.” This vision has a panoramic sweep and zoom, a helicopter whose “hypervigilant senses” illuminate urban war zones, and in these expertly delivered dispatches of news that stays news, it’s not only Sleigh’s eyes, but his heart that can’t turn away.