Spring Poetry Roundup 2017
April 6, 2017
by Dalton Day
Publication Date: January 20, 2017
Publisher: Fog Machine
Dalton Day’s new book Interglacials is a collection of abstract dream-letters that chronicle the various stages of distance and longing between two people. Without clear plot or continuity, the reader is invited along for short glimpses into the dreamscape that comprises the relationship between the narrator and the addressee. The poems take form as short paragraphs, often filling up only half of a page.
The symbols, as well as one of the dreams, repeat: dogs, hair, lakes, trees, birds, eggs, horses, etc. The first scene takes place in a zoo as the narrator and their partner try to reconnect. They arrive at separate ends of the zoo and meet in front of an empty exhibit. They introduce themselves.
At times, the narrator and the addressee are close. In “Cowboy Something,” Day writes, “One day, we try & lasso cattle. But you catch me with your rope instead & you swear that this is an accident & I don’t believe you but I don’t care we are holding hands now & we are looking at all those beautiful animals & all their terrifying parts.”
At other points in the book, there is animosity and distance. On the first page of part three, Day writes, “I hate you & you hate me & we spend all our time trying to sabotage each other. You set all of my parrots free even though their wings are clipped & they are defenseless.” There is an unspoken war taking place between the narrator and the addressee, prompted by the frustration of distance and the struggle to reach a place of closeness once again.
The potential for reconnection is reached only once the partners escape their human forms. In the end, the addressee becomes a ray of light in which the narrator floats forever as a blissful speck of dust. The narrator unfolds as a map and shows the addressee their life, lying visibly before them.
The repetition of symbols and the uncertainty of what exactly is going on both brought to mind Azareen Van der Oloomis’s novel Fra Keeler, in which the narrator returns over and over to the phone, the mailman, the canyon, and the yurt. But with Day’s book it is the dogs, the bodies of water, the trees. If Interglacials were any longer, it would run the risk of exhausting its intriguing yet limited imagery. However, at a modest 60 pages, each containing only a paragraph, Day’s text manages to provide us with just enough exposure to its dreamscape to leave us fully immersed, its images haunting us weeks after we close the book.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
by Morgan Parker
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Publisher: Tin House Books
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker is not, in any way, a collection of poetry focused on dismantling everything that Beyoncé has come to stand for or represent. Beyoncé is ethereal, her hair is flawless, and even her pregnant work ethic is 100 times better than the average person’s. Instead, Parker’s collection of poetry works as a reminder that it’s completely okay to achieve nowhere near the singer’s level of success. The collection also serves to keep readers aware of the struggles that come with existing as a black person in America, and that, despite those struggles, she is also just a person who wants to do and question things that have nothing to do with the color of her skin. Parker addresses all of these ideas and more throughout this book as she plays with form, allusion, and tone in a way that lingers with the reader far past the last words.
Parker utilizes various forms throughout her poetry, from unrhymed couplets to list poems, as well as poems that play with space so as to make her points more directly. In “The President Has Never Said the Word Black,” Parker uses unrhymed couplets to break up the different thoughts and feelings she has toward the subject posed in the title. In two sets of lines she writes, “The president be like / we lost a young boy today. // The pursuit of happiness / is guaranteed for all fellow Americans.” The breaks between two words within a single line work to indicate the hesitance taken when trying to properly phrase a statement while being under the watchful eye of a nation under immense racial tension. The emptiness reminds the reader that even in 2016 President Barack Obama, a black man, wasn’t free to acknowledge his own race without fear of repercussion.
Themes of racial tension and discrimination carry through many of Parker’s poems. In “99 Problems,” she uses the form of a list poem and plenty of allusion to discuss racial issues as well as personal musings (as with any work focused on Beyoncé, one should expect some reference to Jay-Z). In the poem, Parker lists 99 problems of her own: these problems range from “16. Oppression / 17. Oppression / 18. Oppression / 19. Oppression” to “58. OKCupid,” “72. Tyler Perry,” and “76. James Franco”. Parker’s list of problems is long and varied, but she alludes to figures and ideas in an off the cuff way that mimics the internal thought process we all experience when going through the seemingly endless slew of problems we conceal within our minds.
What stands out the most in this collection is Parker’s tone, which is urgent throughout, but still vulnerable. In her opening poem, “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” Parker writes
I’m Black in America and I walk
into a bar and drink a lot of wine, kiss a white man on his beard.
There is no indictment.
I could die any minute of depression.
I just want to have sex most of the time.
I just want my student loans to disappear.
I just want to understand my savings account.
The juxtaposition of death and race in the first lines followed by the seemingly trivial desires that she lists after them is jarring. Parker shows her readers what it is to be in her mind, to constantly have to go between her angered, fearful self and her weary, everyday self. The repeated words “I just want” exhibit an exhaustion with having to constantly deal with the implications of one’s racial identity and a desire to only have to worry about the issues that everyone deals with, regardless of their skin color.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé takes the reader through Morgan Parker’s stream of consciousness and creates a point of relation for every reader. She sheds light not only on racial issues but the feelings that she experiences as a young black woman and, quite simply, as a young woman. She demonstrates the universality of her emotions, even though not all readers can be expected to experience the same difficulties that she has, and the way that she is able to instill these feelings in her readers just might be more beautiful than Beyoncé.
Sun & Urn
by Christopher Salerno
Publication Date: February 15, 2017
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
When we interviewed Christopher Salerno in our first issue, back in 2013, he ended his interview with the following: “My dad died six months ago, suddenly, at 62. My grandfather died last month, at 85. My cat died last week, at 17. My house is filling with ashes.” It was a sad, abrupt end to our discussion, a response that didn’t really fit with the conversation. It was as if he had been bottling his grief up the entire time and had finally let it out, unprompted, a confession looking for a consoling ear. More than three years later, that grief has been transformed into Sun & Urn, a small book of sparse poems that plumb deep wells of emotion. In their careful reticence and small portraits of life, they give voice to the unspeakable.
The book begins slowly, with poems that feel, for a book about mortality, distant and impersonal. It is best to skip over the dojo and the wolf calls of opening poem “Dedication,” clichés of cultures that are not the author’s own. It is as if, in loss, Salerno is groping for the words, and this simulacrum of poetry is the result. The next poem, “Is It Better Where You Are?”, is in fact better, although its references to Fanny Brawne and Keats feel insular and trying. It is not until the third poem, “Bray,” that the power of Salerno’s prose shines through. “I had built a boundary / out of skin where I sat quietly / until blood was the only moving / thing on a map of where we are” he writes. His depiction of horseracing echoes James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” and not only because Wright’s football players galloped like horses. “On the dirt track, horses fill / their lungs in the sun and urge on” recalls Wright’s longing in a mimicry that works, and the final four lines strike with a power all their own: “I say / don’t beg the Lord if the sky is / a gray roof beneath which / you have waited all day to see / gallop something graceful, swift.” The surprising syntax of the final line casts the adjectives of the racing horses into new light; graceful and swift feel like new words that have never before graced the page. Salerno has spoken of his admiration for Shklovsky’s theories on defamiliarization, and here he demonstrates his mastery of it, proving that time-tested poetic techniques retain a power that is timeless.
Salerno likes writing about animals, and it is put to good effect in poems like “Bray” and “Cohabiting,” where he writes, “That circular shape of the nest is made / by the body of the bird turning around, / pressing against the walls of the nest. / Formation always comes before form”—an intimate portrait turned insight that demonstrates the fragility and futility of life without bluntly remarking on it. Unfortunately, he follows that up with “like our fingernails, an endless revision / or eventual sex, a mark on the bed,” which succumbs to the pitfall of heterosexual male authors writing about sex. When he writes “I cum into a cup / white American gull / time to kiss” in one of the poems titled “In Vitro,” it is almost enough to put the book down and never pick it back up.
If you push past the awkward moments and occasionally unpleasant imagery, there are poems in this collection that are stunning and heartrending. The end of “Helium,” for example, is a poignant little scene that plays to Salerno’s strengths. “Learned the calculus / of furred things, of re- / incarnation and nerve” he writes. “I dream / of a mother bear / who wants me dead. Always / more ghosthood. I will soon be / a silhouette. Say farewell / to Christopher.” The Calculus of Furred Things is a title to someone’s inevitable debut novel, and the scene recalls, probably unwittingly, the tenderness of Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, and all the joys and sadnesses of childhood lost. If it’s true that you never really become an adult until you lose your parents, then this poem, like so many others in the book, captures all of the emotion of that transformation in a way that only well-crafted lyric poetry knows how.
Editor’s Note: Two of the poems in this collection, “Halloween” and “The Big Day,” appeared in earlier forms in the first issue of fields.
The Yellow House
by Chiwan Choi
Publication Date: February 22, 2017
Publisher: Civil Coping Mechanisms
Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is emotionally overwhelming, in the best possible way. I rifled through the entirety of its pages in one sitting, the glint of the sunset perfectly hitting my peripherals in the dark corner where I sat. While I’m not usually one to stop and appreciate the beauty of a transitioning sky, influenced by the sense of nostalgia that seeped from Choi’s latest poetry collection, I had to pause to relish the impeccable timing. Yet, despite the warm tones that worked as the backdrop of my time with Choi’s work, I couldn’t shake the weird feeling one gets when they are stuck between elation and despair.
The book reads, from my understanding, as one long poem, with few features working to help readers distinguish between one section of lines and the next, save for a few italicized pages interspersed throughout. The emotional turns within the work, however, are distinct, as there are obvious changes in tone between some of the pages, despite a lack of titles or obvious separating factors. At points, the poetry conjures a longing for a lost home, whether that be a physical place or a person. This reminiscence carries throughout the collection by means of the titular yellow house motif. For example, Choi writes, “i dream of this house crumbling to dust / god standing there ready to spit on it / and begin to mold it again into a shape / that holds more than absence.”
While the collection centers on this motif and all the melancholic sentiments it provides, as the book progressed I found myself laughing, remembering how it feels to be in love, and even feeling grateful at times. Choi’s reflections of life’s subtle joys brought me joy, and I often found myself thinking, in his words, “i wanted to feel happy then. / i wanted that so much.” Although I experienced all these tender emotions in response to Choi’s work, just as he “wanted” to be happy, I realized that all these positive reactions were marred by another prevailing concept in his work.
For all the emotional twists and turns Choi weaves his readers through, there is still the underlying notion that time passes, and many of the moments that so strongly affect the reader are the products of memory. In one section, he writes, “we will say ‘i am yours’ and shelter to grieve / the days we have left to count down.” Choi plays with tense and diction here, using the word “grieve” as an action taken in relation to the future as opposed to the past, as is usually done. The way he employs word choice is affective, communicating a feeling that all readers are familiar with. The idea that the pleasant feeling one experiences at a certain point will eventually change over time is often just as heartbreaking than when the change actually occurs.
Although I was taken with this collection from its first pages, the presence of the yellow house briefly created a point of discord between myself and the words on the page. Every line was tinged with the overarching motif, and I was frustrated through most of the book that I wasn’t able to understand its symbolism as well as Choi could. Yet even this frustration is addressed toward the close of the book, when Choi presents a personal revelation: “i am the yellow house that i thought was empty // but it is filled with the voices the songs the longing / of my ghosts the ones i thought i lost in my chase / for the life i wanted.” He realizes, as most people do, that the place or person or thing that he longs for so deeply is only a manifestation of a part of his life that he wishes to revisit.
Chiwan Choi evokes emotion and nostalgia in The Yellow House with an ease and mastery I haven’t witnessed in some time. In Choi’s writings about his life and his emotional journey, he provides readers with insight into their own inner thoughts. As Choi takes us through the ins and outs of positive and negative memory, the reader is left to wonder what is one without the other, and how does one begin to understand how we exist in between varying heightened emotions?
The January Children
by Safia Elhillo
Publication Date: March 1, 2017
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
In her debut collection The January Children, Safia Elhillo achieves the essential task of the writer: to give an account of their experience in such a way that it is universal. To have managed this with such grace and at such a young age speaks to Elhillo’s considerable talent as a poet, as well as her emotional maturity as a human being. The specific experience being recounted is one of displacement: the speaker is caught between two languages (Arabic, English) and two cultures (Sudanese, American), as a U.S.-born child of Sudanese parents.
One of the most powerful images repeated throughout the book is that of the mouth as a wound. The speaker is constantly seeking to locate the source of the pain of displacement. For the first half of the book, the pain manifests as being without language, seemingly always unable to properly translate her perceptions into either Arabic or English, and constantly groping for a way to articulate her thoughts and emotions.
Feeling that the spoken word has failed her, the speaker turns to music for comfort. Interspersed throughout the collection are poems addressed to the late Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez. In the Arabic lyrics to Hafez’s songs, the speaker admits “I look for answers in what is only music.” Still, she insists that “the songs help,” that knowing the words is helpful, comforting.
In “self-portrait with yellow dress,” a poem situated halfway through the book, the reader has the pleasure to witness a turning point wherein the speaker finds joy and a sense of peace despite her longing to heal the wounds of displacement and languagelessness. Music is central to the description in this celebratory poem:
& sometimes we do not die
we are born to a body dressed in black
& do not wear it to a funeral we live forever
our mouths open & a song falls out
After this point, the speaker continues to refer to her mouth as a wound, but begins to speak about the wound in different, more hopeful, terms. Though the wound will not heal, she realizes that her identity is not really missing but that it has grown around it—that out of the wound has emerged a capacity for joy. She makes peace with her own insatiable longing and the questions with which she will perhaps always be reckoning.
The speaker’s (and the book’s) greatest strength is the absolute refusal to oversimplify, demonstrated by an embrace of the contradictions inherent in living across multiple cultures, between worlds. Elhillo does not give us answers to the questions she poses—there are none—but is insistent that we must keep asking them, for the only way to live through trauma or rupture is to keep digging. Searching, grieving, mourning, and longing are not only things of which to be unashamed: they are essential forms of work, and if we let them, they will lead us to our own strength and resilience.
I Love It Though
by Alli Warren
Publication Date: March 7, 2017
I Love It Though, Alli Warren’s follow-up to her collection Here Come the Warm Jets (winner of the 2014 Poetry Center Book Award), attempts to let the reader in on her awareness of the natural beauty in a rushing, busy world. Determined to recognize nature’s worth while the grand machines of this world operate around us, Warren provides us with poetry that proves that the smallest interactions with the ordinary world can bring a whisper of hope to those who simply want to adore Earth’s extraordinary offerings.
Though many of Warren’s poems are short, each piece packs a dense punch that demonstrates Warren’s attention to her surroundings. At times, her poetry can be sporadic in its movement and focus, making the first read-through quite difficult to unpack. However, this book is meant to be read and re-read, upon which the collection reveals its theme: the importance of observation.
Warren’s poetry conveys emotion and longing through daily observations. In “A Yielding Hole For Light,” Warren places the sublime cracking of an Antarctic ice sheet against her first-time experience discovering the beauty of a sumac. She writes, “Where were you when the West / Antarctic Ice Sheet began to collapse? On the way to Iowa City / to see my first sumac and coming / to know its name in asking / it’s the way of coming to know / as if in revelation instead of simple clarity.”
Her experience of witnessing this flower for the first time—at the same time that the Antarctic Ice Sheet cracked—plays with the idea that the sublime is found in both the grand, natural occurrences and our own individual, intimate revelations we experience with the small discoveries of nature, revealing that the latter is equal in its grander scheme of impact. She goes on to say, “…what I want around me / are the ripe and tender ones / wine the color of weather / the lush bearing of our longing… one foot in the office the other lolling / about the field… I want to be able to continue / to love to stay alive.”
I Love It Though is a collection that gives us hope through Warren’s observations. Her placement of the man-made world against the natural one is poignant in teaching us the importance of being aware of our observations, because they lead to the indelible experiences that make each one of us unique. I Love It Though displays that Warren has already honed in on this awareness, going beyond it to explore a world where what truly matters is more than the observation itself. What matters is how we come to realize what it is in life we long for, and, whether we satisfy this longing or not, there is contentment in being alive and aware of the delicate beauty in the world. Don’t let it go unappreciated.
—Tay Marie Lorenzo