A promising new voice delivers memories from his Russian youth and reflections on global religion in this crisp book of poetry.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia, but he was raised in Europe and driven to the United States in 1940 as German troops advanced; it’s a fine irony of world literature that one of Russia’s greatest novelists spent most of his life in America. Perhaps the young poet Kulakov senses some of the same pressures; Kulakov was born in Russia but was educated in America, and his verse often engages the challenges and joys of his double origin; take, as one fine example, the “Song to Flying”: “In a neat English playground, near a worn brick sidewalk, / I mumble in mixed Russian, digging / pale hands into earth, burying sticks and rocks: / a time capsule to call mine in a far-off adulthood.” Today, the adult author is a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, so it’s unsurprising that his mature poetry often engages religious themes. However, this is not a collection of stale, devotional poetry from a green seminarian. Kulakov is clearly eager to grapple with his own faith—and with the faith of others. “If We Burn Them All Together” is a troubling, evocative discussion of Islam’s role in the world that ends on a utopian note: “above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens / rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets / of gold, hairless companions, and pearly gates.” At other times, readers learn how crucial his poetry is to his spiritual calling: “In my room, / I punch in letters mixing words / to bring-out sparks. And it is you, Yahweh.” Such frank confessions are much preferable to his occasional dips into the self-conscious jargon of a graduate student, as in “Morton Peak”: “Bodies heavy, I say, ‘The real Real is too traumatic? / for any being to behold.’ ” However, most of the time he avoids such patter, instead writing honest, evocative verse about spirituality and the life of the émigré.
A debut multigenre collection of short pieces presents vignettes focusing on the lives of African Americans from a variety of perspectives, both real and fanciful.
This eclectic anthology begins with an autobiographical sketch, “P Is for Pride and Perseverance,” in which King traces his early years from his 1979 birth to a 16-year-old mother to his incarceration for attempted robbery and his subsequent determination to do something positive with his life. “Baby Girl” reprises the story of King’s birth from his mother’s point of view, a girl whose teen pregnancy seems predestined by both her grandmother’s clairvoyant dreams and her own limited expectations. Other narratives are linked by shared characters, such as “Posse Up, Ladies First!” and “Thug Angel,” which provide somewhat idealized portraits of street gangs as building blocks of the black community. “Battle Kats” is an SF work about a group of humanoid felines from another planet who work undercover to defend Earth and its alien allies. The central section of the book is occupied by a collection of 21 poems. Some, like “Hold on to Love” and “Away From Home,” focus on romance while others, such as “The Rent Is Too Damn High!” and “Blockstars,” illuminate the experiences of working-class African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods. “Remember Me?” calls up the spirit of LaTasha Harlins, a young black woman shot by a Los Angeles shop owner in the early ’90s, speculating “I wonder what you could have been LaTasha?” King’s efforts to describe his personal struggles and the vibrant characters who populate impoverished black communities are ambitious and dynamic. His prose narratives are too short to feel really complete, but they deliver glimpses into a world mainly familiar to the urban poor, where drug dealing is one of the few available career choices, incarceration is a rite of passage, and street gangs view themselves as community leaders. While the author does have a tendency to romanticize life on the street, as in “Posse Up,” in which a girl gang maintains a strict “code of principles,” his writing presents a vision of what could happen if people worked to “play a part in the improvement of the community.”
A volume of poetry and prose that offers heroic visions of urban African Americans.
Davis recounts the confounding pressures of his 1990s childhood in this debut memoir-in-verse.
When telling the story of your life, one might as well start at the very beginning. That’s exactly what the author does in this memoir, which he describes as “a thing like a very long lie to yourself.” Specifically, he tells of how “The White-Gloved Sheriff / kicked in the door / and / Pulled me” from his mother (whom he calls his “Supervisor”; he later calls her “the Computer Science Major,” “the Waitress,” and other occupational names). Unusually, he had horns and a lot of hair at birth, he says. He was immediately at odds with the people and other living things around him—his parents, his brothers, his family dog. As a toddler, he created an imaginary world for himself known as “FU,” which was “Filled with things that looked like me / And where things made sense / I was King.” His earliest years were characterized by horrible discoveries (school work, isolation, crushes, problems in his parents’ marriage), but his teen years proved to be an even greater series of highs and lows, involving confusion over geopolitical events, friends, computers, pornography, and marijuana. Like a novice who can’t quite figure out the rules of a game, Davis bumbles forward—all horns and fur and misunderstanding—inadvertently angering authority figures as he seeks an adequate method of self-expression. The poem is composed in short, direct lines, enjambed to emphasize particular words or phrases rather than establish a consistent overall rhythm. Davis’ idiolect is inventive in its names for things (siblings are “life partners,” pets are “prisoners,” teachers are “Part-Time Supervisors,” and so on), and his outsider’s observations of society are shrewd and often funny. However, the combination of snark and self-seriousness causes some poems to come off as petulant and cloying; as a result, it’s difficult to imagine anyone over the age of 22 finding the work emotionally affecting. Even so, the tone and style, coupled with debut artist Klimov’s truly engaging black-and-white illustrations should captivate readers of a certain anarchic mindset.
A nihilistic poetic remembrance that will appeal most to older teens and 20-somethings.