An academic poetry opus from prolific Cuban author Yáñez (The Bleeding Wound/Sangra Por La Herida, 2014, etc.).
Divided into four sections, the author’s latest collection opens with “Acto I: The Visits/Las Visitas,” which takes readers through settings shrouded in secrecy: “Don’t be deceived by appearances: / the patios of the convents / —those flower-filled, disquieting jails— / may lend themselves to dirty tricks of the worst kind.” In “Intervalo: A Reminder/Recordatorio,” the speaker tells readers that “poets dream / of a long permanence / and to that end they construct cathedrals / and poems.” “Acto II: Class Notes/Apuntes de clase” reads like a clever advice column for students; “Rhetorically Speaking” offers tips on hiding what one is reading or writing from a professor, and in “A Generational Duty,” the author encourages young poets to “do whatever you must to sew within the secret seam / of letters / the shifting pain of the universe / and the laws of the tenderness that is always flowing / always flowing.” This section also invokes legendary poets such as Jorge Luis Borges and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in eponymous poems. “Final: Limitations/Limitaciones” is rife with death references and ends with a contemplative poem about a phone book with the contact information of the departed. While the author excels at anchoring the reader in physical surroundings, and Miller has faithfully translated the Spanish text, perhaps what Yáñez needed more than a translator was a stronger editor. The poet’s descriptions can be flowery, such as this one of a hotel: “Its demolition, / planned by the competent officialdom, / will preclude new accomplices / to its antiquity / (I wonder to whom it will now relate / its stories /and its delusions of grandeur).” Overall, the book feels like a memoir written in stanzas, at times bordering on self-indulgence and the kind of nostalgia better shared between two friends: “don’t fail to keep in mind / that those places / we never visited / will still be weighing heavily on me.”
A well-written but occasionally verbose collection that will please academics but may test the patience of lay readers.
A collection of poetry focuses on everyday beauty and wonder.
Over the course of 50 poems with straightforward titles, retired high school English teacher Hathwell (Between Dog and Wolf, 2017, etc.) explores the world around him. Nature is a touchstone of his poetry. In “Poplar,” he expertly describes the titular tree “catching a breeze, flutter sage and silver wings” while in “Sunflower,” he lingers on the “wide blank face” of the “saddest flower.” The author also showcases culture in his poems. “Fred’s Girl” is a propulsive ode to the Fred Astaire–Paulette Goddard duet in the film Second Chorus, and “Sunday at the Symphony” captures the ethereal experience of live classical music. But the poems aren’t limited to the author’s immediate surroundings. A visit to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, is the subject of “Readiness Is Everything,” which encourages readers to “imagine the world without you.” Hathwell plays with humor in “Dust Is Winning,” about the futile fight to keep things clean, and shows his cynical side in “Red Dress,” which describes the “ruby radiance” of an ensemble depicted in advertising. The act of writing is another recurring theme in this collection. “Song” depicts a successful writing day, in which “I rise from my desk, / Majestic, and I dance,” while “Sure Thing” warns readers “that language is prepared to lie / When you ask it to.” Quiet moments are also rich material for the poet. Throughout, he matches his message to the pacing of the poem, creating an immersive experience for readers. In “Finding Myself in the Morning,” readers sink into Hathwell’s serene, solitary scene where he can finally “not wonder / who is speaking, or what comes next.” In “Ten O’Clock,” the audience can sense the descent into a “deep, forgiving sleep.” The one flaw of this collection is its breadth. Because everything from Astaire to flora is fair game, the individual poems don’t always flow from one to the next, and transitions can be jarring.
Like the demigod from which it takes its name, Defining Atlas is a durable, uplifting volume.
A strong current of self-affirmation, self-love, and self-confidence runs through this work, and readers will come away feeling their spirits improved. We feel some of this current in the clever “Limited”; Michaels takes the titular subject and turns it on its head: “I’m new, but I’m old / Not limited beyond my means and methods / But limited because I’m special / Special beyond the heavens and everything that surrounds me / That I’m among…limited.” Elsewhere in “From the ashes…I am,” he sings a hard-won song of renewal and rebirth: “I am victory in its rawest form / I am hope that never conform / I am the will, the drive, and the truth / I am like everyone, like you.” But Michaels does not hoard specialness or victory for himself; he wants it for his reader too, and in “Wake Up!” he urges us on toward a bright future: “There’s something good here for you / Your purpose can never be defined by just one blue / Your destiny awaits you.” Underpinning Michaels’ stirring message is a strong faith in God, whose presence infuses many of the poems here: “But I always thank God for the latter / For the strength and will it takes / Shines so bright / Shines so right.” Michaels often adopts a loose scheme of rhyming couplets, and this decision leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses. Too often, the poet picks awkward or odd pairings; e.g., “And if I could become a perfect saint / I would make believers out of the ones who say they ain’t” and the “you/blue” couplet mentioned above. But such missteps are infrequent, and they don’t dim the warm light that emanates from Michaels’ fine volume.