This poetry collection searchingly considers the ambiguous role of the poet as a mediator between soul and nature.
In the title poem, which also stands as an epigraph, Collins (Psalmandala, 2014, etc.) establishes his stance: because “Soul never presents in its own shape” and “can only stalk sunfaces from their shadows,” the soul’s presence must be discerned from clues, as a hawk’s flight reveals the wind that it rides on. But the observer also creates, so that clouds, for example, make him or her “imagine horses / become horses: horses become gods.” The way that the soul mediates the divine doesn’t, however, get us any closer to the soul, as our “similes bleed out.” And because “entropy claims / every dawn,” we’re left to figure out a way to live, “to imagine / wandering on” in a world of appearances. For the poet, this means long walks around the harbor, which serves as a central image and metaphor throughout the collection. Although the word “harbor” has connotations of haven and safety and is said to be a place that calls out our authentic selves (“We are each ourselves at the harbor: / Runners run, readers read, children play”), it’s also depicted as a constantly changing threshold, a route to the mythic “Underworld.” The speaker’s longing for spiritual connection is constantly tested by the harbor, with its oil spills and stench of death.
Collins’ use of language in this collection, and especially of verbs, is fresh, and he employs forms that help to convey the feel of his speakers’ daily walking meditations. In several poems he writes of the impulse to render the world in poetry and the natural world’s resistance to being reduced to metaphor. In “Ars Poetica,” for example, a nest-building bird momentarily “seems my soul,” teaching a poet to move between worlds as fledglings are taught to move between nest and sky. But, looking up after writing his poem, he sees that “She is gone.” Collins also addresses how imagination can interfere with one’s ability to discern realities, such as the cycle of life and death. For example, a speaker remembers how, as a child, he saw a caught fish gasping out its life—now he “hear[s] myself think look, the fish is playing”; on the harbor ice, gulls are shown dropping clams to shatter their shells, “again, again, again, again, forever.” Still, though his poems are often serious, melancholy, or rueful, Collins can also sometimes laugh at himself. One especially strong poem, for instance, is “The Sacrosanct Mallard of Mamaroneck Harbor,” in which the speaker satirizes his own tendency to epiphanize, claiming that it’s not his fault: “Listen, Jesus, it wasn’t my idea / for this mallard to stand on the dock / stretching his wings out all crucifixiony.” In the final section, the speaker becomes willing to live in mystery, guided by the soul’s “impossible eyesight” that discloses other worlds "by what imagines to contain it.”
Strong, moving poems of reflection in a fine collection.
A debut poetry collection explores faith and sexuality.
Many of these poems have previously appeared in literary journals or anthologies, and Dordal (English/Vanderbilt Univ.) has received a Robert Watson Literary Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her degrees in divinity and fine arts account for her graceful interweaving of Christian references. For instance, “On the Way to Emmaus,” alluding to Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance, presents the narrator’s own dramatic metamorphosis: still closeted while teaching a New Testament course, she came out on the last day of class. Many poems dwell on this seemingly autobiographical theme of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and laying claim to a new voice and identity. The multipart “Holy Week” juxtaposes a mother’s death from heart problems with the disconcerting revelation that she may also have been lesbian—“the queerness you passed on…falling out of hiding” in the next generation. “Clues” is a prime example of religion and sexuality’s intermingling: “Her lips parting for me every time— / a deep-throated ‘hey’ or ‘hello’ / was enough, the way a weekly token / of bread or wine can be enough.” That first line—initially erotic, then an introduction to casual conversation—leads into Dordal’s reminder that sex and religion meet deep human needs as loci of connection and nourishment. Similarly playful and sensual is “Plumbing the Depths,” in which a plumber’s sticking-up zipper is “a tiny, totem dick.” Two poems in this outstanding collection reflect on encounters with prisoners at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute; the natural world provides the imagery of the title section. These pieces aren’t about showy structures or sonic techniques but about well-chosen words carefully arranged. Rhythm is key, and internal rhymes and alliteration have subtle potency. The title phrase comes from “Even Houseflies,” in which the insects’ manifold eyes are likened to those of gods hiding in corners of rooms—a down-to-earth lesson in seeing the holy everywhere. Likewise, the various approximations of prayer are helpfully loose: recognizing a prisoner’s fellow humanity, stilling one’s breathing, and communing with nature.
Humming with inspired metaphors and everyday relevance, these poems are gems.
This debut poetry collection offers a resonant meditation on personal and collective identity.
Kim, the assistant dean for public service at the University of Virginia School of Law, won the University of Southern Indiana’s 2015 Michael Waters Poetry Prize for this book. Her poems are elegant and intricate, with forms ranging from prose paragraphs to the three spare lines of the sijo, a traditional Korean lyric with a set number of syllables and pauses. Sometimes the configuration varies within the same poem: “The Bronze Helmet (A Retrospective)” and “Post-Colonial Album: 1980” are made up of particularly impressive, multipart verses that frequently transform from one structure, or point of view, to another. In the former poem, the points of reference include archaeology, the Olympics, and Korean-Japanese relations—all linked via the titular helmet, which was gifted to the first Korean gold medalist (from 1936’s Berlin Games), Sohn Kee-chung, on the eve of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. The relic becomes a potent symbol of cultural-compromise-as-survival-strategy: later generations have “endured not happily perhaps / but strong which is the gift of bronze / the life of alloy.” Complicated feelings toward family members infuse multiple poems, such as “Prelude and Fugue,” about a grandfather’s disappearance, and “A Rag for My Father,” with its somber variations on the refrain, “A father is a kind of trap / you could easily fall for.” The opening poem, “Thin Gold String,” sets up a picture of life as a series of accidents and losses, and much of what follows lives up to that melancholy vision. “Cyclorama” effectively maps out the repetitive nature of violence on the page, with personal concerns and headlines about mass shootings left-aligned, and the Civil War battles of the Gettysburg Cyclorama aligned on the right. Instead of rhyme, Kim relies on wordplay, such as “fugere” versus “fugue,” and alliteration, such as “flicking water on the flames” and “drop into a deep, delicious sleep” from “New World (III).” Dreams and journeys are additional recurring themes, while familiar buildings serve as metaphors for the self.
Gorgeous poems, rich with allusions to music, art, and history from Ancient Greece to the Korean War.
If poetry is a car, this debut collection hums and purrs like an expertly tuned machine.
Good poetry is about pressure—how much force one can pack into, and wring from, the fewest words—and it’s clear from the get-go that Handy is fully aware of the nature of that struggle. One can hear it in “Something Like a Sonnet for Lucie Brock-Broido,” when she writes, “she lifts her pen to torque / A primer for divining spells.” Much can be divined from the poet’s choice of the verb “torque.” Another author might have opted for the more conventional word “write.” Torque, by contrast, is rotational force: the power that carries an object around a fixed point, and with this simple word, Handy gives readers a whole picture—of pen pressed down to page on the fulcrum of a poet’s knuckle. Poetry, she seems to say, is pressure and, thus, work. Her verse is chock full of such little joys, of words and phrases that, when pressed, give way to images, stories, and worlds. A high point is the title poem, in which the speaker marvels at her grandson’s rehabilitation of an old sports car: “he replaced / the brakes, ignition, clutch hydraulics, / pumps, belts, hoses, and the choke. / Its bracken chassis overhauled, / the vintage MGB positively preened.” Later, the young mechanic takes her on a ride, and they sweep “along Illinois highways, / eyes riveted through a shared windshield.” To her credit, Handy doesn’t romanticize the relationship between grandmother and grandchild, but she does show what they hold in common: the clear windshield, the road, or perhaps the work. This is a book about rehabilitating language, and readers are sure to enjoy the ride.
A book that takes old words, spruces them up, and puts them out on the highway again.
This cycle of poems explores homelessness through one woman’s experience of falling from her privileged, educated status.
Heidish (Too Late to Be a Fortune Cookie Writer, 2013, etc.), an award-winning and well-published writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, found inspiration for this collection from working with homeless women. The stories are fictional but based on a notebook she kept over her 17 years of volunteering. Heidish chose a well-educated, upper-middle-class narrator “to show that homeless women, narrowly stereotyped, come from all strata of society”—always true but especially so in the current economy. This choice can make for unexpected, striking images, as when her narrator is glad for the poetry she memorized in college: “I sleep on lines of iambic pentameter, / waking to that music I thought I forgot.” Though the subject of homelessness may sound overearnest, Heidish’s powerful voice, often bolstered by rhyme and meter, makes this collection as tough and resilient as its subjects. But the poet locates far more than toughness in her homeless women; she makes the reader see their undeniable (but too often denied and thus tragic) humanity. The narrator resists feeling like a charity case, claiming what dignity she can, as in “A Donated Apple”: “Don’t pity me. Don’t you dare. / I own part of an orchard now.” The images are surprising and fresh, which makes an effective counterpart to the often somber tone. Wondering what corporeal laughter would look like, the speaker guesses: “A fountain speaking French in your backyard? // The sound of three knees knocking? / A dachshund as a tango partner?” The narrator’s openness to grace gives the wrenching collection its soul. In “Cracks,” the speaker considers sidewalk cracks, familiar from life on the street, and the unspoken stories of cares, hopes, and rage that have stamped across them. She wonders what the point was but concludes “children still dance here, / … / reveling in their patterns, / freeform, irreverent, illogical, / yet in their eccentric paths, / holy as a cathedral’s maze.”
A collection that beautifully finds the holy in the eccentric, the homeless, and the disregarded.
This cycle of poems focuses on Palamedes, credited with inventing letters of the Greek alphabet and dice.
In these poems, some previously published, Anderson (Songs of Bethlehem: Nativity Poems, 2014, etc.) takes the few surviving references to Palamedes from ancient texts and tells his story. According to mythology and surviving fragments from sources including Euripides, Plato, and Ovid (but not Homer), Palamedes was a Greek, the son of Nauplius and Clymene. He reputedly invented dice and 11 consonants in the Greek alphabet, and he notably made an enemy of Odysseus after exposing his stratagem to avoid the Trojan War. In one version of the story, Odysseus writes a fake letter that gets Palamedes stoned to death as a traitor. Paradoxically, the creation of writing is Palamedes’ doom. And though the miracle of written language is that it withstands living memory, almost nothing inscribed about him survives. Anderson conjures a vivid life for Palamedes that fully explores these paradoxes and others. The author’s voice ranges flexibly from lyrical to conversational, as when Palamedes’ brother tells him his efforts are futile: “Palamedes, stop.... / Before you finish this book of alphabet / A thousand poets will have sung what you want to write.” These strong lines, seeming both inevitable and surprising, are characteristic of Anderson’s poems. This effect can be emphasized by rhyme, as in “Sea Language of Palamedes,” in which the Greek imagines fleeing Earth’s demands for his grandfather Poseidon’s realm: “On a sea horse, I will ride the surf and breathe salt air. / Warriors, if you want to go to war, walk there.” The collection is deepened and complicated by several sequences in which figures address and respond to each other. Palamedes replies to Odysseus’ reluctance to leave Ithaca, not seeing his own danger to come: “Here you will rot like fruit in ripe manhood / While we write on the walls of Troy.” In his poems, Anderson beautifully considers the ghosts that haunt language.
A rich, thoughtful collection that generously breathes life into its ancient subject: very fine.
That Rewak (The Orphan Bear, 2014, etc.) is a professor, a university chancellor, and a monk only makes the fact that he is also an accomplished poet more impressive.
It is difficult to talk about Jesuit poetry without invoking Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was a monk, a spiritual seeker, and a poet responsible for some of the most moving, challenging English verse of the last two centuries. So it’s entirely fitting that Rewak—himself a Jesuit—calls out to his forebear in his new collection. “A New Task” is written in Hopkins’ memory, and in it, Rewak asks the poet, “Do you see, finally, after the dimness / that shadowed your black-robed walks / down lanes of half-opened eyes, / all the sentences left to be completed? / Is your pen busy with new, full-blown / wonders—stanzas that startle the saints?” Rewak’s own verse may not startle any saints, but it’s sure to please almost anyone else. But if Hopkins’ language is an ancient, gnarled oak, Rewak’s is a young birch, and his lines are smooth, white, and unbroken. Often flowing and conversational, his works are conceptually and emotionally ambitious but eminently readable. Take the humble, pristine “Rose”: “This little rose / is the best thing / I ever grew for you / on this small planet / you can take the dinosaurs / and mushrooms, the great / Himalayas, full of grandeur / (as an indication of My size) / but this thing I hold....” Here, the poet’s direct address and his coyly simple language remind us of the beauty of small things—even things so frequently praised as that red flower. Like Hopkins before him, Rewak addresses God less often than the beautiful, sublime world. But when he does turn his attention to religious matters, it’s with wit and insight. Here is “Verdict,” which is presumably about the trial of God: “They’ve put You on trial / I’m told: / it was whispered to me / proceedings are held tight / in a shuttered room… / but I notice the sun / still shines / because at heart You’re generous / and inclined to overlook petulance.”
Would that all poets could write with such tact and humor.