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To Forget Venice

Peg Boyers. Univ. of Chicago, $18 trade paper (86p) ISBN 978-0-226-18126-4

Boyers invokes the atmospheric city of Venice, addressing both its dream-like ephemerality and its Shakespearean underbelly of duplicity, sexuality, and debris. "Cymbals and drums/ confirm it all," she writes in the opening poem, drawing from a memory in which loyalties are variable and display a sinister performativity. Boyers adapts the voices of famous Venetians to tell the story of her enchantment with this place: "Dearest Mama: Eel! I am to eat eel," Effie Gray Ruskin exclaims, "the heads of eel after eel, flinging// the wretched beasts, still/ twitching, into shopping bags/ of eager, festive customers." In "Wall Moss" Boyers appropriates an altogether different kind of speaker, offering this advice: "Grow resourceful./ Become like me completely Venetian:/ cling to debris, favor ruin." The emphasis on fragments and remains appears elsewhere in the collection, "the lives—the lies—we lived/ on both sides of the canal,// invisible the water's stench at low tide... a local specialty: filth/ disguised as ornament." Boyers debunks the idea of a scenic, postcard-worthy Venice in favor of a more complex attachment—one no less enchanting for its human influences, its "Silence, then the boatman's cry." (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Boyfriend Mountain

Tyler Brewington and Kelly Schirmann. Poor Claudia (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (122p) ISBN 978-0-9908324-1-6

This collection, a collaborative tête-bêche from two highly regarded emerging poets in Portland, Ore., stands out by way of the emotional landscape these two poets create when they combine their palettes. Brewington's poems locate themselves in a region of awe, diffidence, melancholy, and trust in beauty; many of his lines find ways to introduce all of these elements at once. "There's a sort of bright tobacco brown," he writes, "I put against a chocolate brown/ When I'm finally angry enough to believe what I know." The onion-layering of Brewington's poems makes for both a counterpoint and a seamless blend with Schirmann's work, which operates in a complex zone of angst, hilarity, ennui, and outrage. "Eventually our choices/ become the need to endure our choices," she writes. "We are on this earth for such a short time/ but I still hope to be dead by then." What grows out of the valley in which these two bodies of work touch is a love song to a world that can't love either poet back enough. "Monogamy broke across the house like rain," writes Brewington, and both poets find their melancholy, their gratitude, and their voices by standing in that rain, regardless of the boyfriends that come crashing off the mountain in the process. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The 8th House

Feng Sun Chen. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-939568-08-3

"I am the Midas/ of slop," writes Chen in the long poem that opens her follow-up to 2012's Butcher's Tree. Chen loads this poem with mythology and oneiric symbolism, but the surreality of both is rooted in real-world muck and mire: "the wine of my water tastes like menstrual copper." More fascinating than the half-hidden mythos is Chen's sense of line itself, which often breaks free of syntactic control and defies sense-making: "In the stew, cinnamon scrolls curl the anise stars haul the dark brown taste through the meat." Chen finds a stunning and more unwieldy pitch when she moves away from the long poem, allowing her shorter poems to echo, ricochet, and burst out of the silence surrounding them. "What can I stand?" she asks in one of the book's breakaway poems. Yet as quickly as she inhabits one meaning of a verb, Chen answers herself using another. "I stand for the ones who are lying down," she writes, "I stand/ for my asexual thunder." What marks Chen as an endlessly interesting poet is the roil of self-chaos, outrage, and perversity that lands on the page with every pass. As she put it, "I want to have a life so I look and become/ a betrayer of the animal in us." (Jan.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Net Needle

Robert Adamson. Flood Editions (SPD, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9903407-1-3

Broadly admired and imitated in his native Australia since the 1970s, Adamson (The Goldfinches of Baghdad) aims to expand his U.S. audience with this crisp, clear, unified collection of almost photographic short poems. Much of his work involves lucid observations: "A wave hits the shoreline of broken boulders,/ Explodes, fans into fine spray." Many passages trace Adamson's unusual life, from a childhood outside Sydney with his fisherman grandfather to years of incarceration during which he decided to become a poet. While his life and his views of Southern Hemisphere nature should have populist appeal, Adamson also sustains other ambitions: not only what he sees but how humans see, how we imperil nature and how we imagine it, enter into his tautly carved free verse. Looking back to the towns of his youth, Adamson sees how the makers of fishing nets "wove everything they knew/ into the mesh, along with the love they had// or had lost, or maybe not needed." He also commemorates doomed Australian poets, remembers shark attacks in New South Wales's Sugarloaf Bay, takes in the animal kingdom with rueful comedy, and pursues the philosophical basis of vision. It's hard to imagine a better introduction to this poet whose copious work should be better known here—and perhaps will be soon. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Trafficke

Susan Tichy. Ahsahta (SPD, dist.), $22 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-934103-60-9

Descended from "the Maryland Magruders, who, like all their landed neighbors, craved aristocratic distinction," Tichy (Gallowglass) traces those roots and considers their consequences in this amply researched work of verse and prose. Family legend connects her to the MacGregors, a daring clan outlawed by Scotland's King James VI (England's James I); pellucid pages record Tichy's moments in Scotland at historical sites, imagining and sometimes debunking genealogical myths. Most of the volume, though, tracks other kinds of discoveries: medieval Scottish history and balladry; the founding of Maryland as a Catholic colony; early interactions between Maryland colonists and native peoples; and the colony's transformation into a plantation economy and a slave state. Each gives rise to fragments of verse and page-long lists mingled with informational prose. "Kinship is vertical," Tichy writes "a trellis of writing, pruned and trained, with white spaces, mended"—an apt description of her own work. Tichy concludes with lyrical paragraphs about her conflicted relation to her past: "I wanted to bury myself, but the poor old castle had fallen down." Readers without an interest in genealogy may feel overwhelmed by all the data in a book that is as much a genealogical quest as a poetic project: conversely, anyone interested in inheritance may find much to learn and remember. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Republics

Nathalie Handal. Univ. of Pittsburgh, $15.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-0-8229-6332-5

Playwright, editor, and poet Handal's fifth collection of poetry balances what she calls "flash reportages" with vivid lyric and image. Built out of a patchwork of powerful blocks of monologue or narrative, and threaded with Spanish and Haitian Creole, the book's texture parallels those of "a multicolored coat," "a mirror of unfinished voices," and "a scarf tangled in sepia." Similar to Poet in Andalucia (2012), which stemmed from Handal's personal explorations in Spain, this collection began as a self-directed examination of her relationships with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The poems spring forth with a spontaneity and urgency that counterbalance the restrained flourishes of her previous work. Handal watches and waits to "catch what aches in beauty," telling stories of Haitians and Dominicans with searing honesty. Where words, music, and despair occupy physical space, "Language falls asleep on my sofa," as one voice announces. "My boots, my scratches, my hurt, my loving crying staring, one domino at a time, one gourde at a time," cries a voice in "Listening to Crickets," which is dedicated to those buried in mass graves after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Handal artfully captures the desire, the rawness of life, and the "misery that burns the soul" of the people she encounters. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Garments Against Women

Anne Boyer. Ahsahta (SPD, dist.), $18 (104p) ISBN 978-1-934103-59-3

In this textual hybrid of rhythmic lyric prose and essayistic verse, visual artist and poet Boyer (The Romance of Happy Workers) faces the material and philosophical problems of writing—and by extension, living—in the contemporary world. Boyer attempts to abandon literature in the same moments that she forms it, turning to sources as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the acts of sewing and garment production, and a book on happiness that she finds in a thrift store. Her book, then, becomes filled with other books, imagined and resisted. "I am not writing a history of these times or of past times or of any future times and not even the history of these visions which are with me all day and all of the night," she declares, and concludes that "writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men." This text is in constant upheaval, driven in equal measure by the poet's insistent questions and by her refusals, as she recalls "the days when we believed information." Of course, Boyer cannot resolve the problems she faces, but in providing new frameworks to think about them, her writing rewards readers with its challenges. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Blood Work

Matthew Siegel. Univ. of Wisconsin, $17.95 trade paper, (76p) ISBN 978-0-299-30404-1

There is an immediacy and intimacy that drives Siegel's debut collection of poems—the winner of the 2015 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry—which suggests, at its core, fragility and yearning but also hope: "I want to make music/ from what isn't broken// make memory disappear/ like medicine absorbed// in the blood." With a keen eye for the way smaller and often fraught moments point to larger shifts—the discarded flowers of failed love affairs, heart-wrenching but also tender interactions with a grieving mother, the minutiae of medical treatment—the poems engage with, as the title poem puts it, "all the things that contain us but cannot." The fulcrum of this work resides in the tension between the mind, which wrestles with loneliness while seeking love and meaning, and a sickly, often ailing body. Even periods of physical respite are framed against the backdrop of suffering: "No, I am not hurting in this moment/ I am memory's lips sewn shut.// The sky is pink now, red in some places/ and the red does not remind me of blood." But even Siegel's most excruciating experiences melt away into the sublime; and though there are instances of sentimentality or preciousness, the poems are well constructed and the recurrence of certain themes ties the work together. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Same-Different

Hannah Sanghee Park. Louisiana State Univ., $16.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-8071-6009-1

Park's debut, winner of the 2014 Walt Whitman Award, astounds through the incredible sharpness with which she spots the knotted roots inside the English language, the way she dissects words to reveal how they contain and engender one another, and the way she breaks these words apart. "Just what they said about the river:/ rift and ever," she writes. "It may have been holy as scripture/ as scribes capture." While these sinuous linguistic turns feature throughout, it's fascinating to see Park train her sharp focus on the ways language also breaks apart interpersonal relations. "Shapes were aped," she writes, "now you're the very man/ to swap identities. To hell with costs/ and costumes." The book's long, hypnotic closing poem, "Fear," pits language dissection and personal dissection against one another in order to find out if the poet can survive a world in which these two elements must coexist. "Will you pull yourself together?" ask the poet's bones in one of Park's sadder, yet funnier, asides. "Will you pull me together?" she asks them back. For Park, a meticulous and alluring eviscerator of language, everything hinges on this question, and her refusal to fall back on hope is oddly triumphant in its bleakness: "I ask of you your silence// You:// and you,// You—" (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Woman Who Stole My Life

Marian Keyes. Viking, $27.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-525-42925-8

Keyes (The Mystery of Mercy Close) infuses her trademark levity into her latest novel, an honest examination of how dynamics change when one is struck with a life-threatening disease. Irish beautician Stella Sweeney is leading an unremarkable life with her husband and children when she is stricken by Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Immediately, the disease renders her locked into her body—able to think, see, and hear, but only able to communicate via blinking. After her marriage breaks up, the only bright spots in her days are visits from her neurologist, Mannix Taylor, with whom she forms a reluctant alliance. After she recovers, Stella discovers that Mannix has compiled all of the messages she blinked into book form, and she is thrust into the spotlight as a self-help author while also trying to adjust to an unexpected yet much appreciated romance. Keyes meanders a bit with the story, which toggles between the present day and Stella's illness in the past, introducing plot points that might resonate better—and be better understood—once readers have gotten to know the flawed yet engaging main character and the solid lineup of supporting characters. Still, Keyes manages to bring a lightness and humor to a weighty topic. (July)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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