A debut collection of poems exploring love, art, and loss.
Some poets focus on the mechanics of poetry, such as intonation and rhythm, and neglect passion. This isn’t the case with Zollars, whose debut collection is a masterful study of how words can be sparingly hewn to create stunning, long-lasting emotional scenes—from a child’s fraught relationship with an alcoholic mother to the cold reality of professional beauty. In “the moderns,” the author writes in a spare style of a dressmaker and his model’s unrequited love for him: “she becomes / a shimmering / goddess / swathed / in silk satin,” and they later adjourn to an “old hotel bar / drinking / sazeracs / elegant / blushing patrons / surreal / conversations // she loves / the effect / of bourbon / of him / of life / resembling / art.” In “center point,” a child remembers her mom’s heavy drinking: “she became a mystery / the children were incapable of solving / distressing...terrible in her destruction.” Zollars’ elegantly limned language and visual use of space create a vivid volume that’s a genuine pleasure to read. She arranges the collection into four discrete parts, prefacing each section with quotes from a variety of sources, including contemporary television shows (with a somewhat self-serving quote from Masters of Sex: “If you want to know more about the nature of femininity, you will have to consult the poets”). These quotes are the weakest part of what’s otherwise a strong, powerful collection, simply because they’re not in the author’s voice and ultimately serve as distractions. However, there’s no question that Zollars is an inspiring, notable talent; she accomplishes more with a poem of 50 words than some other poets accomplish in 50 pages. She achieves this by being attuned to nuance but not repetitive detail; emotion but not sentimentality; and, finally, rhythm but not noise. Each poem offers a perfectly observed moment as seen through a slightly distorted lens, featuring personality, heartbreak, and the desire to bridge distances that can’t be named.
A set by a brilliant new poet, featuring exquisite emotional nuance and an impressive mastery of craft.
With her first collection, LeRoy delivers luminous, art-inspired poems that expertly balance the concepts of nature and the human struggle.
LeRoy, a retired science writer, could easily be an art historian, given her facility with the impressionists and Dutch masters. Many of these free-verse poems have the concentrated color and frozen action of a still life. “The Yellow Fields of Gennevilliers” compares two Gustave Caillebotte paintings, while “Wheat Field with Crows” juxtaposes past and present as Vincent van Gogh’s grief foreshadows an ill friend’s demise. “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a close reading of a Parisian tapestry, recalls author Tracy Chevalier’s literary approach to history. Permeated with color and light, many poems are like mood studies: “September” features “sapphire sky” and “afternoon’s blue”; “The Old House” exhibits shades of gray, a recurrent hue. LeRoy chooses alliteration and assonance over rhyme—the one end rhyme, perhaps incidental, comes as a shock (“fast / passed” in “Flat Run”). Repeated consonant sounds create soothing rhythms, as in “unsuspecting sea” and “fiddleheads unfurl: / fanfare.” The poems are carefully organized to bleed into each other thematically. For instance, in “Evidence for Strings,” physics—specifically string theory—cedes to talk of music and stringed instruments; the next poem, “Violin,” then follows seamlessly. Likewise, the striking intersection of beauty and violence in “Planting Tulips”—“a battlefield so strewn / with brightly turbaned heads / it was compared to a bed of tulips”—leads to the war-themed “Verdun.” The author’s knowledge of plants comes through in her delicate description of chicory (“this asterisk of color”) and in “Saguaro,” a poem inventively written from a cactus’s perspective. One stanza of “Ginkgo” resembles a haiku, making it germane to its Asian setting. LeRoy masters the confluence of art and science, joining writers such as Ruth Padel, Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt. Almost equally valuable, however, are her subtle relationship poems, such as “Firewater,” in which a collision of life-giving but destructive forces symbolizes the challenges of marriage. Five final poems about medical crises and death ease into a superb finale: “sorrowed by so much lost / hungry for what remains.”
Relentless pessimism about the state of the nation infuses Sexton’s (Paper Moon, 2013) accomplished poetry and short fiction about down-and-out drifters and starving artists.
Though also a surrealist painter, Sexton proves adept at delineating character portraits through short fiction and verse. In this mixed-genre collection, most poems and short stories are only a page or two. The title piece, about hard life and untimely death in the ghetto, introduces the book’s dark atmosphere: “Being and begetting, struggling and / enduring…as gunfire crackles and sirens wail / and her fate is sealed with coffin nails.” Sexton’s characters—Nowhere Men as much as Everymen—are war veterans, hobos, sex workers, and blue-collar employees facing job losses and financial ruin. His settings are urban wastelands, often Chicago or Detroit. For instance, in “The Penworn Papers,” one of a handful of longer stories, an impoverished artist recalls his degenerate life as he moves between a freight-yard shack and a laundromat. Reversals of fortune go both ways: in “The Gift,” a Jewish satire redolent of Shalom Auslander, a young man reverts to emptiness in his old age, while “The Pawnshop” awards the child of Holocaust survivors millions of dollars to give away in scholarships. The palette is Edward Hopper’s, the ironic tone O. Henry’s. Black humor appears in nursery-rhyme refrains (in “Jack in a Box”) and sarcastic snarls, in “Valentine Rhyme”: “Another dandy day in the good / ole USA.” Indeed, Sexton questions American supremacy and the certainty that “in the USA, the bad guys lose, truth wills out, the righteous win.” In “Mount Money,” he undermines America’s self-identification with Switzerland’s rich neutrality by exposing an essential lack of social conscience: “I guess we’re a lot like the Swiss. / Except, of course, for the social programs / they have to take care of their citizens / from cradle to grave, which goes against / our grain.” “Our Town” playfully affirms Thornton Wilder’s morbid vision through gloomy imagery. The poems—rich with alliteration, internal rhymes, assonance, and puns—slightly outclass the stories here. They have broader application, universalizing human depravity and the daily fight for survival in an age of austerity.
The bleakness may be hard to take, but Sexton’s talent for social commentary and character sketching marks him as—in a title he gives a character in “Chop Suey”—“the Modigliani of the Mean Streets.”
An exploration of love’s loss and life’s recovery from Stevenson (The Color Symphonies, 2014, etc.).
This book, a combination of engaging memoir and unusual poetry, proves that quirkiness doesn’t preclude depth. The twin pole-stars of the work are simple objects—flutes and tomatoes—but its still life also includes a knife, a bottle of wine, and the interior of a small atelier in Paris. Composed in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, this collection reveals the compulsive attention of extreme grief. In it, the author reminisces about a trip he took with his love, wandering the Loire Valley farms one glorious summer. But the only evidence of passion that remains now is a dozen tomatoes stolen from those farms, and the flute that the author’s love played so well. Faced with a sense of inertia, the author believed that grappling on to something solid might help: “The only thing that would make a difference would be if I could find some objective proof of love….if I chose an object of my affection and tried to understand it as no one had understood it before.” The subject was right there on the table, red and ripening: “William Blake said he could see eternity in a grain of sand. Why not in the seed of a tomato?” In Stevenson’s provocative verse, the fruits themselves connote a fleshy voluptuousness: “Tenderly, with blind / Fingers you touch the precious skin / As it swells and dilates / Like some enormous empty heart.” But beyond the author’s rich metaphors, the objective fact of the tomatoes drives the book’s credibility: “I have written so much about the tomatoes / They at last have become the REAL REAL.” In the end, the author penetrates his subject with a knifelike concentration, which grants him acceptance of his own plight; ready for a new start, he writes of going up the steps of his basement apartment into the busy streets of a new life. Readers should take a chance on this work, and not let the unusual focus dissuade them.
A paean to the tomato and a song of natural devotion.
Ungar’s (English/Coll. of Saint Rose; The Origin of the Milky Way, 2007, etc.) new collection may not make her immortal, but it surely establishes her as a contemporary poet of the first rank.
This poetry collection is like a bowl of fruit and cream: it’s so delicious, and it all goes down so easily, that you forget how much nutrition is there. She’s also the rare talent who can take nearly anything and make it into poetry. Everything is ore for her refinery, and she pulls inspiration from numerous and sundry sources, from the natural world to mystical Judaism to an exercise class for the elderly to a student’s essay. (The author is a writing professor.) This last source fuels “On a Student Paper Comparing Emily Dickinson to Lady Gaga,” a poem that no one should ever have tried to write—and that Ungar turns to gold. This clever piece demonstrates the author’s slow turn from skeptical distance to full acceptance of her young author’s thesis; it concludes, “Should I google Lady Gaga? / Or just give the girl an A.” This collection is full of such unlikely experiments—all of which the author pulls off with easy grace. Two poems with “Medusa” in their titles show her admirable dexterity with symbols. The first, “Call Me Medusa,” takes the snake-haired sorceress as a metaphor for the author herself: “I was a brain, eyes and hair. / If not a beauty, are you then a monster? / Some say I was beautiful, raped, punished / for it, then beheaded in a rear-view mirror. / Even cut off, my head could still turn men / to stone.” The second, a poem that gives the collection its title, compares tiny jellyfish to the same mythic figure: “Tentacles resorb, / umbrella reverts, / medusa reattaches / to the ocean floor / and grows a new / colony of polyps / that bud into / identical medusae, / bypassing death.” Thus, Medusa is human and other, dead and deathless, beautiful and terrible and strange.
In her debut chapbook of 18 timely poems, Williams (Humanities/Forsyth Technical Community Coll.) illuminates the African-American condition.
“To be black and happy in America is a fundamental paradox,” Williams says. The title’s qualified optimism thus reflects her ambivalence—celebrating black community and traditions on the one hand, condemning institutional racism on the other. “For Dubois” pinpoints poverty and a divided self as the common lot of African-Americans, while “Abandoned Aprons” shows how the place of black women is still defined by societal expectations. It’s not all outrage, though; some verses are pastoral recollections of a Southern upbringing (“mason jars / full of sweet tea”) or hymns to female solidarity (“Sister Speak”). Marriage and motherhood offer symbolic opportunities to join with ancestors in making a beautiful “tapestry” from “fraying ends.” Williams makes superb use of alliteration and sibilance to create chanting rhythms and gentle paradoxes: “unscathed but scarred…sweetly street” and “we savored your sullied beauty”—the latter expressing compassion toward Gil Scott-Heron rather than dismissing him as an addict. The book’s core is a handful of timely protest poems. The best one, “Meanwhile in America…,” contrasts inane celebrity culture (“Kimye births…While Miley twerks”) with Trayvon Martin’s wrongful death through the ironic refrain: “The system works / And Zimmerman walks.” Slant rhymes add to the sense of things being not quite right. “Diallo,” about the Guinean immigrant shot by New York City police in 1999, reminds us that police brutality is nothing new. Williams also defies opinions about the advances of the Obama administration: “Things ain’t better. / We ain’t making progress,” she insists. Likewise, “The If/Then Promise” flies in the face of sanctioned responses to violence: “I will not quote MLK….I will not seek calm.” Not quite happy, but with police or gunmen violence against African-Americans in the news seemingly every week, it’s justified. Books like Williams’ wield power to convince readers that black lives matter.
Williams picks up the baton from Maya Angelou, raising her voice to decry racism and sexism in America.
Fresh new writers rub elbows with past masters in this scintillating collection of verse.
Under the label “New Neo-Realist,” Lark, editor of the Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, assembles a collection of narrative poems that usually feature frank engagement with ordinary life; a modern, colloquial idiom; and emotion leavened by irony, astringency, and flashes of humor. That leaves room for a huge range of subjects, styles, and moods. Erika Meitner’s “Wal-Mart Supercenter” contrasts the stores’ sublime friendliness with the police-blotter hell surrounding them (“A couple tried to sell their six-month-old for twenty-five bucks / to buy meth in the Salinas Walmart parking lot”), and L.W. Milam’s surreal “Tootie Fruit ME and Ass-Grasp LA” invokes “crowds of crying turtles, & / Peasant armies of hymn-singing, drug-ridden geckos.” Christopher Kennedy’s mordantly funny “Riddle of Self-Worth” laments that “My pet vulture has the disconcerting habit of staring / at the clock and then at me”; Howard Nemerov’s lyrical “Goldfish” spotlights the creatures’ “Waving disheveled rags of elegant fin / Languidly in the light”; and Tom Crawford’s “Companion to a Loon” levels a matter-of-fact elegy: “Listen bird, I’m past making death sad. / The tide has no time for wakes / or tragedies. We’re either coming in / or going out.” The volume contains an especially strong set of poems by women, including Kate Gale’s agonized “What I Did Not Tell Anyone,” in which a new mother confides “That I felt my whole family / greedily feeding off me. / That my body felt stolen. / That I felt like Russia during all the wars / troops tramping over me on their way to Moscow,” and Christine Hamm’s bitterly whimsical “Signs You Are Ovulating”: “As you apply mascara / in the bathroom, your eyes slit, / a crow hops onto your shoulder, / and whispers, right here, now.” Lark juxtaposes works by well-known legends, such as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Larkin, e.e. Cummings, and Langston Hughes, as revealing counterpoints to the newer poems. Unlike the strings of cryptic non sequiturs in much Master of Fine Arts—bred poetry, these poems are decidedly reader-friendly without compromising their literary artistry. Along with their inventive language and dazzling metaphor, their accessibility and immediacy pack a wallop.
A fine anthology of some of the best contemporary poetry around.