Simulacra, Airea D. Matthews, Yale Younger Poetry Series, Yale University Press, 2017
It seems logical that I should keep this to 100 words (which was my original prompt for these mini-reviews). The poems in Simulacra are about constraint and its progeny. What comes out of how we’re forced to make do. Matthews turns the heat up in Simulacra, employing a searing intellect and a cutting wit. Pathos is tempered with brutal logic. Despair is sliced through with humor. Doors are wide open. You never know who might walk into these poems. Several of my favorites in this collection are rendered as text message conversations with the poet Anne Sexton. The allusions and references would be dizzying if Matthews didn’t have such a knack for keeping her poems grounded in the everyday reality of a (brilliant) 21st century mind. That I didn’t manage to stick to 100 words, because I am so effusive about my admiration of this book, also seems logical. Frequently in Simulacra we see Matthews twisting a constraint just beyond our expectations, so that everything is both what we might expect and, luckily, much more.
Imaginary Royalty, Miranda Field, Four Way Books, 2017
In a long poem titled “A Soul So Watched,” we encounter “the haunted spaces and the apparitions, double exposed” that remain after the violent and unexpected loss of a loved one. I’ve not had words this year for some losses, but in Field’s book I found them. I understand that the poet is also a textile artist, and I can’t help but see this book in a similar light. You know the way a knitted garment comes together, so pieces which seem at first like they will be rough and disparate are, thanks to the skilled hands of the maker, formed into one smooth, beautiful, functional object? That’s what Fields has done with these poems. I’ve read “A Soul So Watched” and others in this collection over and again, marveling at the shifting and expanding vision, and grateful for Field’s ability to capture beauty even out of the roughest places of brokenness.
from unincorporated territory [lukao], Craig Santos Perez, Omnidawn, 2017
I was interested in the way the seemingly rigid order in [lukao] allows Perez to range broadly through his chosen material. Phrases like “The American day begins in Guam,” are repeated and corrupted so often that we come to expect variety rather than repetition. The same is true for language itself. Perez introduces us to a significant amount of non-English words, many Chamorro, a language from his native Guam. Perez manages a presentation that is reclamation, revision, disorientation, translation, reassertion, and resistance, so that I begin to accept repeated words and phrases as words that could only be fully understood just as they are. His poemmaps, his insistence on the hashtag, his fluid movement between lineated and non-lineated verse, his application of humor in the least expected places, his slow dissemination of the gut-punching phrase that marks the start of each of the book’s sections, all these are also part of his expansion of my experience of what and how and in which terms this narrative ought to unfold.
Her presence will live beyond progress, Brenda Hillman, Albion Books, 2017
Brenda Hillman’s elegy for C. D. Wright often uses images, by which I mean photographs. In the introduction to One Big Self, her collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster, C. D. Wright says: “We presume an inventive but nonetheless faithful document.” Fittingly, this tribute poem is as inventive as it is faithful. Among the things that I’m interested in is how long the poem is. (It’s a chapbook now, but it’s also an individual poem that will appear in Hillman’s next collection, forthcoming from Wesleyan UP.) “Her presence will live beyond progress” progresses, seemingly unendingly. Even when it stops, it does so in an open way. There will always be something new/good, though there will always be endings. Wright died unexpectedly in January 2016. That may seem like an ending, but as elegy for this individual, that is not a place to stop. Hillman dates her poem January 2016-January 2017. Which suggests this poem came out of a continued immersion and re-immersion. The poem’s recursive renderings of vividly imagined memories are a part of how the poet resists the end of this precious relationship. I cried when I put the book down. Then I picked it up again.
Oxygen, Julia Fiedorczuk, trans. Bill Johnston, Zephyr Press, 2017
These translations are luminous. There’s a world offered to us here that is precariously fragile but also rich and robust in its super-charged insistence on survival. As I read, my breath caught so often that I began to think more conscientiously about oxygen and the other elemental parts of the world that are necessary but too easily ignored. This is one of the demands Oxygen made on me. The poems are perfectly contained, beautifully efficient and wise, replete with vibrant turns of phrase, images, and similes. I found myself sometimes looking at the original Polish after reading one of the English translations. Though I don’t know Polish, I wanted to see what I’d learn from the translator’s choices. I loved this aspect of the reading—the fact that as I read this carefully crafted work (both the original Polish and the translation) I was inspired to look even more closely to see what else I might discover. I am grateful to Fiedorczuk for these poems and to Johnston for translating them from the Polish.