Autumn Poetry Roundup 2016
Careful Mountain by Sara June Woods Publication Date: June 28, 2016 Publisher: Civil Coping Mechanisms
In Careful Mountain, the third collection of poetry by Sara June Woods, we are given poetry written in three sections of offbeat letters. Addressed to recipients such as intimate lover, bright morning, and mouth opening into a yawn, Woods moves us above a grounded reality and into a dreamy mixture of imagination, emotion, and hope. Careful Mountain is a collection about dealing with lost memories of past lovers when both have moved on. Her poetry transcends the truth of what we remember, and instead reveals what is seemingly more important: how we remember it.
At times, the stylistic choice of utilizing the letter form becomes long-winded and tiresome. At others, the movement from the real, raw truth into whimsical digressions is somewhat problematic in keeping a feeling of consistent flow. However, Woods’s poetry is designed for those with grand imaginations. Her poetry is for those who grew up turning cardboard boxes into spacey universes and lush landscapes rather than mimicked playhouses.
Woods’s imaginative fabrication of reality is what makes this collection stand out. In Warm Morning, the second and most intriguing section of poems, Woods recollects a flashback of returning home with her lover only to find that their apartment had been replaced with a movie set version of the real thing: “…The props / staff had done a remarkable job / finding the small brass cat figurine / with just the right level of tarnish / but the dimensions were all off / in some way we couldn’t name.” Coming home to a tampered life that she realizes is not theirs anymore, the figurine stands in for the shell of their relationship: familiar on the outside, keeping the tarnishes of rust they’ve built over time together, yet skewed and obscenely wrong in the grand scheme of what should overtly feel right. The poem mixes an eerie awareness of unease with a serene composure. Later in the poem, she calmly draws a bath where the hot and cold faucets have been switched, and we realize that this is not the actual breaking point, but rather, a beginning to the end. As she becomes an actress in her pseudo-home, Woods concedes that it is in our human nature to cope by simply playing along.
Overall, Careful Mountain is a brilliantly enchanted collection. Her poems reveal the inner workings of the mind’s gears as they turn seemingly unimportant thoughts and ideas into deep introspections, telling of what the imagination is capable of revealing about one’s self. Woods has broken open her mind like a piñata, and her poems float across the page like confetti. She has delicately captured the bits of memory that seem to unceasingly drift within a magical and intimate space in a collection about where our minds draw the line between the make-believe and the perceived reality, revealing that each is equally true. Managing to blend the wonderment of memory alongside a fragile state of hope, Careful Mountain is a beautiful introspection of what our memories can tell us if we allow ourselves to swing on the vines in the deepest, forgotten jungles of our cognizance before we let them completely slip away.
—Tay Marie Lorenzo
Anyone Can Paint Their Nails Because Gender is Imaginary Everything is Meaningless Love is a Myth Sex is Gross We All Die Alone and Our Stupid Bodies Will Soon Return to the Dust from Whence They Came by Jamie Mortara Publication Date: July 1, 2016 Publisher: Impossible Wings
Anyone Can Paint Their Nails Because Gender is Imaginary Everything is Meaningless Love is a Myth Sex is Gross We All Die Alone and Our Stupid Bodies Will Soon Return to the Dust from Whence They Came by Jamie Mortara is astoundingly productive. It manages to dismantle gender expectations, shine light onto issues surrounding sexual consent, examine the defective dating habits of the millennial generation and so much more, all within 75 short, Tweet-like quips.
Mortara is prolific, having already published three chapbooks and one full-length while still in their 20s. They have a long history in slam poetics, which is evidenced in the direct, punching lines of their work. Take for example “52,” in which Mortara confesses, “i think about all the times a man objectified a woman while talking to me and i wanted to smack him but instead fake smiled and left.” It is directly followed by “53,” in which they write, “i think about all the times a man objectified another man while talking to me and i wanted to smack him but instead fake smiled and left.”
While Mortara has a tendency to real-talk about serious subjects, they also have a tendency to be playful and to laugh at themself. In “66,” they write “the host of last night’s open mic was all like i’ll save my sexy poem for the end and i was like oh nice now i know when to leave.” In “50” they write, “you ever scream into the darkness: WHY MUST I LOVE MEN.” It is in these instances of humor and gentleness with the self that one can breathe and let loose the tightness of Mortara’s heavier subject matter.
There is a strong sense of loneliness in Mortara’s work. At times, the speaker is content with their loneliness; at other times they long for companionship. In one of the chapbook’s two “sexts,” Mortara confides, “i honestly don’t remember what kissing feels like but i’m pretty sure i used to be really really good at it.”
Perhaps the most striking element of Mortara’s work is its utter vulnerability. This chap, as well as their other work, is stuffed full of confessions, desires, and private thoughts that most people would be too embarrassed to share, but Mortara is shameless in exposing their truth. It is the writers like them who truly cause readers to feel less alone.
It takes a lot of willpower not to quote each and every piece, but as there are only 75, I suggest you pick up a copy from Mortara’s site and read the rest.
The Hermit by Lucy Ives Publication Date: July 1, 2016 Publisher: Song Cave
How are meanings curtailed to our experience? Why do others perceive us as having desired meaning? Make a note to yourself and come back to this idea. Lucy Ives, author of the recently published cerebral collection, The Hermit, might be prone to this habit.
Underneath the lists, old journal entries, dreams, notes to self, reminders, philosophical ruminations, and sudden doubtful revelations, there is a deft yet troubled sense of conflict within the author. Ives frowns at the strict traditional standards of written expression within an art form, but she also understands its place, all the while still dismissing it as dogma. She breaks these rules by making this a not-so-typical piece of pensive prose. Sectioned off by chronological numbers, but not by plotted ideas, Ives tells us, “I can’t describe myself as a poet. I’m the author of some kind of thinking about writing.”
Behind the blue veiled girl posed on the cover, there are no intentional locks to get inside. It is a place to think, to question. You are allowed to mosey into the varying rooms of Ives’s perceptual comings, goings, and returnings. You are unobtrusive. You may very well become an involvement, in however you see fit. You could just be the lamp in the corner of the room, dimly observing, but you could also be the walls, the mice in the walls, the electrical cords, the cushioning in the sofas, the tree swaying outside. In this way, Ives wants you to be there, however you want to be there; a kind of witness to her considerations not as something to be deciphered about herself but as an invitation to speculate on the world around her, because that world is also around you.
Before making the decision to be so involved with the selected expression of Lucy Ives, I was hesitant. Scanning the text, I saw what initially appeared as vague philosophical jargon. Just another dismayed run-of-the-mill avant-garde poet, I thought. One who breaks all the right rules at the right time. I was unsure of the motivating significance—maybe the credentials of education were too heavy not to pursue continual publication, this is the identity chosen, so follow through, follow through. But as I let my guard down, I began to see Ives not only as a NYC writer with a BA from Harvard and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but as anyone who has never felt good enough—a struggling person who desires to fit in, and someone who candidly tells us, “Out of fear I have perhaps done a poor job of recording my own thoughts.” And so the 80 entries of self-re/cognition unfold and refold, getting bigger and smaller, spiraling into themselves and out of themselves, to any and all who care to lend an ear.
Look by Solmaz Sharif Publication Date: July 5, 2016 Publisher: Graywolf Press
Solmaz Sharif’s debut collection, Look, is an emotionally devastating account of the psychic and physical carnage wreaked by American military actions in the Middle East. Sharif, an American of Iranian heritage, presents a unique perspective in the canon of war poetics, adopting the language of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. She incorporates its callous jargon into her reflections on familial ties that are stretched to their limits by the hardships of a hostile American culture and unending war.
She does this in a number of ways. Sometimes she lists words off like dictionary entries, as in “Safe House” and “Deception Story,” filling the narrative around the words and letting new definitions emerge in context, where they sit uncomfortably next to their military origins. In other places, she simply lists definitions, as in “BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION: on fire / a body running.” As the reader moves deeper into the collection, the technical terms (identifed in small caps, reproduced here in caps) grow fewer and farther between, only to reemerge unexpectedly. “His father was PERSON ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE EFFECTS,” reads one later poem, and it’s as if the U.S. Army broke down the door, pointed assault rifles at the speaker, and hijacked the script. This is a very effective technique, reducing the speaker and her family to LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS or HEALTH THREATS even as we see plainly, in Sharif’s masterful, achingly painful portraits, the individual human lives that exist behind these dehumanizing terms.
Beyond the technical language lie passages of even greater emotional significance. In “Desired Appreciation,” she writes, “I feel I must muzzle myself, / I told my psychiatrist. / “So you feel dangerous?” she said. / Yes. / “So you feel like a threat? / Yes. / Why was I so surprised to hear it?” Such a revelation might seem alarming, but why should we be surprised to discover that people who are categorically considered enemies might begin to internalize such beliefs? Swept up in Sharif’s anguish is an undercurrent of anger that is rarely seen in chronicles of war, which usually offer the guilt and sympathy of the victor or hide safely from a distance, lamenting so many unknown, foreign victims. Rarely do we hear from their families or see how the ramifications play out in their communities. Sharif speaks from perspective of one who has lost family members in war, one who watches as her mother’s childhood neighborhood is destroyed. Many of the poems are addressed to Amoo (Farsi for “uncle”), and as they grow increasingly personal and opaque, they simultaneously become more compelling.
“How can she write that? / She doesn’t know,” Sharif writes in one poem, putting the words into the mouth of a friend. The question hangs over the collection, repeated occasionally throughout. It is impossible to tell how much of Look reflects events that truly happened to the author, but such speculation is irrelevant. The story is true, the emotions are true, and the language is truly breathtaking. As Eileen Myles put it, this is a “brilliant, even perfect, book of poems.” Far be it for me to disagree.