Book List

Best Indie Poetry of 2019

Refined, learned, and liberating poetry.

ONE LESS RIVER

Blackhawk (The Whisk and Whir of Wings, 2016, etc.) offers a series of contemplative poems about solitude in nature and crowded city streets.

The poet delicately embroiders themes of separation and retreat into this elegantly conceived collection. The first line of the opening poem, “The Door,” asks, “Why is it lately closed to me?” Although this immediately establishes a sense of being shut out, there’s no heavy sense of angst here: “I will not complain. These grasses share the light. / They bend and catch the wind gracefully.” There’s an easiness with this state of separation, in part because it allows the speaker to receive gifts from nature that society can’t provide. The poem ends: “A sauna’s slats, so fragrant, wrap me now. / I’ve crawled into a barrel on the hill.” The speaker enters the sensually evocative interior of the sauna as a hermit crab enters its shell—an image to which Blackhawk returns later in the collection. The poet is a great observer of nature; in “The Woodcock,” for example, she writes, “I loved the feathers’ / deckled edges and the light weight it made / as I scooped it up and put it, limpsy and weak, / into an old canvas book bag.” This dazzlingly clever image magnifies the bird’s wing by comparing it to the rough-cut page of a book before the bird itself is slid into a “book bag.” Blackhawk is equally at home playing the flâneuse, observing a city, as in “Noon in a Corner Café: The Sign,” in which the miscellany of urban life parades before her: “cups, traffic, taxis, / mopeds, their signature sounds.” But soon, the hard-edged, concrete metropolis melts into smooth natural imagery that looks beyond city living: “These stones / outlast us, pages / picked up by / the breeze can say almost / anything.” The poet makes her literary influences explicit, referencing Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and others—but although she draws from the American romantic movement, she shows no need to imitate it.

Refined, learned, and liberating poetry.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-936419-89-0

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Mayapple Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

Thoughtful, bold, humorous, earthy, and humane—a superb collection.

THE J HOROSCOPE

These collected poems imaginatively take the viewpoint of J, one of four writers of the Bible’s book of Genesis.

Chmielarz (Little Eternities: Poems, 2017, etc.), an accomplished poet, initially published several of these poems in literary magazines, including Commonweal and The Hudson Review. This collection focuses on connections between contemporary experiences and those recorded in ancient biblical texts. According to the epigraph from the 1990 work The Book of J by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom, a hypothetical biblical writer called J was so named “for her intense interest in Yahweh’s character,” who was also called “Jahweh.” These poems are intensely interested in the stories that J allegedly collected and wrote down. They’re connected by 13 “intersections”—poems in italics that comment on or relate to the others. In “Intersection #1,” for example, the speaker considers mangoes, specifically their color and sweetness: “We danced to mango / close like lovers. Mango’s / sweetness melted us into life.” But experience can be bitter as well as sweet, as shown in the poem that follows, “Yahweh the Stork re the Family.” The narrating stork says, “I’ve seen it all—the father who killed his son, / the sons who threw their brother down a well”; nevertheless, “The next day I deliver another baby, a bundle / of trust”—trust being the first, and first forgotten, “contract with the world.” Other poems are based on specific biblical episodes, such as Lot’s transformation into a pillar of salt, Noah’s Ark, Joseph’s betrayal, and prophetic dreams, while others touch on primal experiences, such as giving birth or experiencing a death in the family. Several poems breathe freshness into old tales by centering on a woman’s point of view. In “The Boatman’s Wife,” for example, Noah’s long-suffering spouse wishes that she could fly away from “this whole mess”; her husband finds prophecy in raindrops and lets his beard get scraggly while she’s “corralling / the stupid hens.” Yet her practical nature finds release, with the poem ending in possibility: “At least she could save the birds. // At least, this one dove—.” The dove becomes a potent symbol not just of hope, but of freedom—saved by the wife’s longing to escape the ark and fly up into the wild sky. Several poems speak of loss, which was the focus of Chmielarz’s 2015 collection, The Widow’s House. The six lines of “Where One Becomes Two” are haikulike in their concise linkage of image to consciousness: “The old fox has died. / Now his mate is alone. / Now she must cross the river alone. // Look. / In the water. / Two foxes.” “Look” in the fourth line echoes the book’s epigraph, which begins “Look. A woman is writing on parchment,” which, in turn, calls to mind the more familiar translation, “Behold.” These connections, and the poem’s spare, stripped-down quality, demand that readers pay attention to the numinous link between spirit and body, so beautifully captured in the piece’s final line.

Thoughtful, bold, humorous, earthy, and humane—a superb collection.

Pub Date: July 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-944467-17-3

Page Count: 100

Publisher: Brighthorse Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

Understated, courageous, and deeply insightful poems.

WHY I NEVER FINISHED MY DISSERTATION

A collection of poetry offers a detailed journey through the author’s past.

“Because I heard the wind / blowing through the sun, / I left the lecture / on mathematics.” These opening lines from the poem “Fractalization” epitomize Foley’s (WTF, 2017, etc.) approach to writing. She has no time for tedium; she refuses to feel trapped; and she is at home and inspired by natural, wide open spaces where individuals “see beyond / the limits” of a mind “numbed by numbers.” Thematically diverse, her poetry is, in every sense, transporting. In “Little Rooms,” she describes herself as a fourth grader, carefully assembling a box to store her collection of gemstones. In “After,” she is a grandmother at a protest march wielding the placard “Queer Grannies Against Trump.” Other poems depict her family—“Rumpelstiltskin” captures her father’s rage when she tells him she is to marry “the hunchback Moroccan,” and the title piece recounts the poet’s first steps into parenthood with a toddler who “sits, / squealing in the mess.” Foley also leads readers through the corridors of a mental health facility, where she recalls visiting her sister: “Quiet as death, / our footsteps echoing against the scarred wood.” The masterful poetry in these pages is replete with elegant lines that beg to be underlined in pencil and returned to repeatedly. For instance, the love poem “Beyond” opens with the beautiful and timely statement: “I don’t think of her as woman, or man, / just as I don’t gender sunlight / on my face the first coatless spring day.” Foley’s writing may appear sparse and reserved but it harbors a subtle power. The poet’s greatest strength is her acute sense of observation. She possesses the ability to thread sensuousness into the fabric of everyday life, as in “What the Dead Miss,” which portrays a visit to a filling station: “I hear music in the liquid trickling, / filling my tank to the brim, / music in my steady footsteps.” After transforming seemingly commonplace sounds into auditory pleasures, she floors readers with the line “They say that’s what the dead miss most, / an ordinary day, spent like this.” This is a dazzling volume of poetry that delights in crisp imagery and tender recollections.

Understated, courageous, and deeply insightful poems.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Headmistress Press

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Funny, touching, and addictively readable poems.

THE WORLD PUSHES BACK

A new collection of poetry from an award-winning author of prose.

Keizer (Getting Schooled, 2014, etc.), a Guggenheim Fellow for general nonfiction, contributing editor for Harper’s, and the author of eight previous books, is best known as an accomplished prose stylist. However, during his decadeslong career, he’s also released a modest number of poems, some of which have appeared in such venues as the New Yorker, AGNI, and the Harvard Review. He collects many of them here in his first stand-alone volume of verse. Because the works cover a 40-year span, there’s no clear throughline, but the fact that they read as miscellany is no defect. Rather, it allows readers to observe a skilled writer and deep thinker as he roves far and wide with his insights. The passage of time is a recurring concern; in “Now and Then,” for example, he thinks back to the days before the oppressive white noise of electricity: “How quiet they must have been, / the days before power / became so literally a household word. / I think that sounds were sharper / against that stillness, / bird songs and piano chords, / the voice that called your name.” In this piece, Keizer renders the author’s purest dream; after all, what writer doesn’t hope that his words might ring out more piercingly? Later, in “My Daughter’s Singing,” he looks forward to a moment when his child will have moved out of the family home: “already I am talking— / a year to go before she goes / to college, and listen to me talking— / in the past tense as she sings.” It’s a poignant testament to a father’s love, couched in a deft exploration of the future anterior. In “My Daughter’s Singing,” time’s flow is lamentable, but it’s also given readers this fine accretion of years of work. As Keizer writes, “Eventually you find the rhyme / for every word.” Here, he has, and readers will be grateful.

Funny, touching, and addictively readable poems.

Pub Date: March 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68003-184-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Texas Review Press

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

A superb haiku collection for readers who thought they didn’t like poetry, richly expressive and very accessible.

THE WONDER CODE

DISCOVER THE WAY OF HAIKU AND SEE THE WORLD WITH NEW EYES

The winsome Japanese verse form can restore a sense of delight and creative adventure to jaded hearts, according to this poetry primer and anthology.

Mason, a poet and editor of the online journal The Heron’s Nest, offers haiku as a cure for “the subtle ways in which our culture and times estrange us from wonder.” It’s a popular form because of its friendliness to poets and readers alike: three brief lines (or occasionally two or even one), with no confining rhyme schemes or meters. (The iconic 5, 7, 5 syllable pattern can be broken at will.) The resulting bite-size poems go down easily, but, the author argues, they pack great power within their diminutive expanse. He discusses haiku in the framework of Zen aesthetics, illustrating with poems gleaned from The Heron's Nest. Haiku portrays the Buddhist principles of focusing on the ordinary and small-scale (“last night’s rain / cupped in a banana leaf / a small green frog” by Ferris Gilli) and finding a world in a grain of sand (“city sidewalk / colors swirl in a bubble / of spit” by Brenda J. Gannam). They capture life through rapt sense impressions (“autumn evening / the clink of carnival rings / on empty bottles” by Chad Lee Robinson). Evanescent and usually in present tense, they abide in the moment and evoke large meanings from concentrated images (“in the rest home lounge / the silent piano / its line of cracked keys” by John Hawkhead). And they traffic in everyday mysteries (“soap bubbles / how softly mother / bursts into laughter” by Kala Ramesh). Mason situates haiku in opposition to a Western mindset that perceives objects as discrete and atomized. Haiku, by contrast, flows from a holistic Eastern worldview that sees everything as connected, in which “our perception of boundaries…starts to give way.” Debut editor Mason includes nearly 500 poems in this sparkling anthology, showcasing the extraordinary versatility of moods and subject matter haiku can address and the vividness of its stripped-down but potent imagery. There are many landscapes and nature scenes (“winter hills / with each boot crunch / the scent of sage” by Jo Balistreri) as well as lyrically grungy urban tableaux (“dumpster / the iridescence / of starlings” by Bill Kenney) and suburban nightmares (“suburban darkness / only the rumble / of garbage can wheels” by Robert Forsythe). There is sensual intimacy (“click-clack / of the bead curtain— / the sway of her hips” by Sandra Simpson) and social satire (“singing gondolier / the passengers’ / fixed smiles” by Kay Grimnes). There is birth (“circle of lamplight— / I complete the baby quilt / begun for me” by Carolyn Hall), aging (“sudden winter / the press of cold metal / against the paper gown” by Beverly Acuff Momoi), unbearable sorrow (“hot afternoon / the squeak of my hands / on my daughter’s coffin” by Lenard D. Moore), remembrance (“her last words / snow falling / on beech leaves” by Jeff Hoagland), and enigmatic hope (“she said she’d return / as a seagull / which one” by Mason).

A superb haiku collection for readers who thought they didn’t like poetry, richly expressive and very accessible.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-0-692-93035-9

Page Count: 371

Publisher: Girasole Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

A startlingly intuitive new poet—one to watch.

THE SANDPIPER'S SPELL

POEMS

Pearson’s masterfully observant debut poetry collection scours littoral and urban landscapes.

“The Sandpiper’s Spell” is a six-part poem and epilogue that in its simplest interpretation is a walk along a beach to a forest. The poet becomes a beachcomber, picking out aesthetically pleasing images from the coastline: the way the “waning tide has left / a crescent of cooler sand” or the pattern of “red orange pine needles / cross hatching the ground.” The collection is structured so that each part of “The Sandpiper’s Spell” is followed by a series of short poems that briefly transport the reader away from the coastal setting before returning to the shoreline to continue the journey. Childhood stands out as a recurrent theme. “Circus World” remembers “evaporating in a midday haze / on a back corner of childhood / the tree we climbed and stayed / past dark” and also that progressive loss of innocence, “you who kissed me / hard on the mouth / when we were both ten,” which leads inevitably to adulthood, where faded mementos of youth are all that remain, “still hanging in a corner / a netless basketball hoop.” Other poems, like “Death of a...” leave the serenity of the ocean for a bustling city where a pedestrian is about to take a fatal step into the street. Pearson’s work—which rapidly shifts through a gamut of psychological states—is a welcome reminder that reading poetry is a vigorous mental activity. Poems such as “Day Dreams” showcase Pearson’s ability to create striking imagery. Here, he effortlessly morphs shoreline detritus into clever caricature: “white bubbles button / his fish face / to his man body / an inverted voyeur / the bleached bones / of his ship / wrecked.” As the collection progresses, the poetry becomes more clipped, abstract, and urgent but no less powerful: “nimbus / blood candy sky / sand in stone /snow on mountain / crimson salt bleeding rivers from / under the mountain’s petticoat.” Both vastly panoramic and deeply introspective, Pearson’s writing explores both the wonders of nature and the shifting landscape of the human mind.

A startlingly intuitive new poet—one to watch.

Pub Date: March 31, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9995951-2-1

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Buen Parto Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

A distress call that’s worth reading and heeding.

SAVE OUR SHIP

A collection of 57 poems that sound alarms about current ecological, political, and cultural trends.

Ungar (English/Coll. of Saint Rose; Immortal Medusa, 2015, etc.) provides helpful notes to explain her inspirations for this impressive volume of free verse, which includes transgressive female voices of the past and present; Cassandra, Emily Dickinson, and Audre Lorde make appearances. Alphabetical order is a recurring theme, as is Morse code. The title poem makes reference to rising, polluted seas; the placement of seven lines of “SOS” in Morse code seems to form waves. Environmental disasters are another urgent concern, as seen in “Endnotes to Coral Reefs” and “Naming the Animals,” a partial list of extinct species that ends with a gut punch: “Four species an hour.” Language is also under attack, as revealed in “Elegy,” which alphabetically lists words eliminated from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (“bluebell,” “buttercup”) and arrays them as if they’re drifting away. In contrast, newly included words (“blog,” “broadband”) are clustered in a solid block of text. Clever manipulation of language, space, and punctuation abounds. “Quoth the Queane” riffs on the letter Q, while “To You, U” explores the personal and linguistic history of Ungar’s initial. “Après Moi” offers 21 variations on the phrase “Let them eat cake”—with “cake” replaced by evocative signifiers, such as “bump stocks,” “the lying press,” “tax returns,” “opiates,” and “paper towels.” Dystopian poems will resonate with many readers, such as “The Woman With a Live Cockroach in her Skull” and its slippery preposition: “She wakes screaming / each morning at the news.” “Man Bun Ken” is a humorous meditation on the fate of the latest iteration of Barbie’s companion: “Future archaeologists / may stumble upon his simulacra / & mistake him for a shape-shifting god.” The book is full of keen insights regarding the passage of time, whether one is attending a wedding with one’s first boyfriend, taking a nostalgic walk through the West Village, or observing a spider and her web. Overall, Ungar suggests that language and memory are futile attempts to impose order on the chaos that surrounds us. 

A distress call that’s worth reading and heeding.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-912592-74-9

Page Count: 71

Publisher: The Ashland Poetry Press

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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