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Rome

Dorothea Lasky. Norton/Liveright, $23.95 (96p) ISBN 978-0-87140-939-3

Lasky (Thunderbird) opens her fourth collection with the phrase "Consume my heart" and proceeds to consume herself over the course of the book's 59 poems. From the beginning, the poems are concerned with death and self, But otherwise it's hard to see past the vague obsessions clouding the work. There is maybe a broken relationship, maybe a death, maybe depression. Each poem is concerned with pointing out that it is a poem, that the reader is holding a book of poems. The trope is occasionally interesting; "Horace, to the Romans," reaches passed the word to call out the reader for disliking poems about poetry. Unfortunately, that moment of meta-humor fades quickly and the book gets bogged down in repetition and reveling in its own melancholy. Lasky claims that people don't read poems because "speaking to the dead is not something you want to do," before turning around and saying that poems exist "Because of sound." Neither claim is really backed up in the work. Still, there are some great sensory images, as when Lasky reflects upon "the yellow light of the sun eating my face." You believe her and want to feel the same. Sadly, the book is unfocused and meanders for too long, the feelings she intends to evoke cannot get past the words on the page. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Red Juice: Poems 1998%E2%80%932008

Hoa Nguyen. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $22 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-933517-92-6

Offer your ear to Nguyen (As Long as Trees Last) and she'll first whisper, then shout, then read to you from a list of facts about chemical infiltration of the water supply or tell you the wind is magic. Spanning the arc of a decade's work, these poems make repeated attempts at unearthing "the secret seed of the thing," where "bulbing words/ throb the way hearts do." Playful and urgent phrases, such as "life's absurd toad flaunts its nose," saturate these sparse poems with strangeness and humor—even as the speaker acknowledges the serious work of making: "I create you still push hard." As Nguyen's voice evolves across the three collections presented here, we "watch as nouns pile up/ piled in the thingified air"—nouns that range from bubble gum and poppies to babies and the Mona Lisa. In later poems, Nguyen grows increasingly concerned with exploring the simultaneity of domestic detail and global unrest: "Grey transformer box/ hulks in the backyard/ and we have the 60th anniversary/ of the bombing of Hiroshima// White refrigerator on/ all day." Though the subjects inevitably vary over a decade of work, this important poet is ever "laughing at the glass/ table that language isn't." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Prelude to Bruise

Saeed Jones. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16 (124p) ISBN 978-1-56689-374-9

In his debut collection, Jones has crafted a fever dream, something akin to magic. A dark night of the soul presented as the finest of evening gowns, these poems pulse with an elemental sensuality that recalls Rimbaud's "Venus Anadyomene" and the best of Southern Gothic writing. Using a personal symbology of femininity, violence, and the history of black America, Jones weaves a coming-of-age tale that is both terrible and revelatory. The open mouths of flowers become sex organs, screaming faces, and dying lovers. In one poem he juxtaposes a revelatory sexual experience with the coincidental collapse of a nearby building, as "First, a few loose bricks,/ then decades crashed to the street." Here, "there're always more/ corseted ghosts" haunting a land with the constant reminder: "YOU BETTER RUN/ IF YOU CAN READ/ THIS SIGN." The beauty this collection contains is overwhelming, with the potential to drown the reader even as it holds the promise of redemption. "There is a tornado inside," and at every moment it threatens to loose from the page into the world at large and take everything away with it. Solid from start to finish, possessing amazing energy and focus, a bold new voice in poetry has announced itself: "I am not a boy. I am not/ your boy. I am not." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Precarious

Allan Peterson. 42 Miles (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (92p) ISBN 978-0-9830747-4-8

The quirkily hyperarticulate Peterson (Fragile Acts) now looks like a quintessential late bloomer: after decades teaching painting, he and his poems have finally won national attention. Peterson's fifth collection, with its shorter, often sonnet-sized work, makes a fine introduction to his style, in which minute observations unfold into good advice about an intricate, interdependent, imperiled natural world: "Normal so called could be a day when sparrows/ build a nest in the gutter or someone swallows/ a button battery." Astronomy, ecology, and consumer technology enter poems as matters of daily life, sources of the sublime ("my moon app showing me/ thin phases daily loading the vast black first"), but Peterson also thinks about people in groups, from families to destructive nation-states. If we have "no other world adrift/ in the hall mirror," he argues that we do well to admire this one, where "the common is not/ alike each time and is therefore misnamed," and a newborn (perhaps a grandchild) is "special-delivered with an onion skin letter from the shivering molecules." From quick lyric (a departure, for him) to extended meditations, Peterson manages to think hard about human failings, and yet to find ways to appreciate daily life, in words as refreshingly strange as what he says he sees. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness

CAConrad. Wave (Consortium, dist.), $22 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1940696-01-0

"Anyone who makes us remember we are naked animals under these clothes is dangerous," declares Conrad (A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon), and by that very definition the author himself is indeed dangerous. The poet, performer, and essayist has earned affection, applause, and imitation for books that combine his verse with short essays and exercises, an arrangement the poet labels "(soma)tics" and uses to instruct readers on the composition of poetry. Much of Conrad's work directly illuminates his politics, attacking the separation that he believes American culture creates between humans and the natural world. He presents at once a project of radical existential protest ("neckties/ lynch my spirit"), a back-to-nature agenda, and a goal of queer liberation. The verse itself can end up even more viscerally affecting, energetic, and raw than the programs that produced it, as evidenced by the line: "I have lost the will to grieve and need to find it/ back of your dream taller smarter more in love." As with Allen Ginsberg in his youth, Conrad's intensity may scare off some readers; nevertheless, he is a poet whose actions, not just his words, garner the spotlight. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Crossing the Line: A Paris Homicide Novel

Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9rique Molay, trans. from the French by Anne Trager. Le French Book (www.lefrenchbook.com), $16.95 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1939474148

For readers who enjoy a low-key approach with detailed—even gory—descriptions, Molay is just the ticket. She does a fine job in this fourth entry in the Nico Sirsky series (after 2012's Lunch on the Grass). The story begins shortly before Christmas in Paris, when dental students examining the severed head of Bruno Guedj find a message implanted in a molar: that this man's death will be due to murder. Is it a gruesome prank? After further speculation and the discovery that Bruno went undergone mysterious behavior changes in the months before his death, their evidence points them to homicide. But the motive remains elusive. The story's rather grim framework is humanized by the attention paid to Nico's personal life: his love of technology, his relationship with his son Dimitri and girlfriend Caroline as well as the personal demons he must keep at bay. Still, by the time the case is solved, readers will know a lot—perhaps more than they want to—about what happens when a body is donated to science . (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Bottom

Betsy Andrews. 42 Miles (SPD, dist.), $15 (60p) ISBN 978-0-9830747-5-5

Andrews (New Jersey) offers an extended meditation on humanity's ecological impact and destruction of life beneath the sea in her second collection, winner of the 2013 42 Miles Press Poetry Award. In long lines reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and with the diction of Galway Kinnell's Book of Nightmares, Andrews's sailor-song rhymes spill over line breaks, conjuring a broken, exploited nautical world that she links to myths, atrocities, and blindness: "a jellyfish hitches a ride on a gallon jug called Tide/ finds itself in an unfamiliar ocean... a 17,000-gallon fouled sip to fatten the goose of the/ Chem-Fish, Fish Nox, Noxfire." While her word play and rhyme can veer into the cloying, the moral force and empathy upon which each section riffs and breathes is astounding. Andrews takes our familiar conceptions of the planet and its nautical history and reintroduces them with renewed urgency: "morning is a half-baked bird, a water-poet's nonsense, a newscast hulled like coconuts... and the sea?/ it's in the margins here—its teeny-tiny winglike fins folded in." Andrews's greatest success is connecting the plight of the sea with those at its root: "the starving bass ain't biting/ now that there's nothing to bite; their breakfast was plucked/ and trucked through the night... to feed bass who live behind bars." (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Writers

Antoine Volodine, trans. from the French by Katina Rogers. . Dalkey Archive, $14.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-62897-040-1

Volodine's (Minor Angels) collection captures, in seven linked stories, the essence of tormented fictional European writers who challenge the preconceived notions of the profession. Standouts include "Mathias Olbane," which details the suicide contemplation of a skin-diseased ex-con who hasn't published so much as composed obsessive lists during his time in prison. Set in the near future, "The Strategy of Silence in the Work of Bogdan Tarassiev" traces the career of a reclusive crime writer whose notable stylistic tic is a "lack of variety in the names given to characters." The humorous "Acknowledgments" functions as a mockery of modern authors' smarmy tendency to express gratuity by challenging what is and isn't appropriate to the form. Those unfamiliar with the author's previous projects, written under several pseudonyms, will get little help from the interview opening the volume, in which, without providing sufficient context, Volodine refers to an ongoing literary movement he calls "post-exoticism." And though he places some of the fictional writers into the camp, nowhere in the collection does he provide a precise idea of its objectives or aims. Despite the murkiness of Volodine's literary mission, his textured portraits are convincing and well-rendered, and he has written the type of open-ended work that will capture the attention of lovers of lit crit as fiction. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ride Away Home

William Wells. Permanent, $28 (168p) ISBN 978-1-57962-359-3

This briskly paced debut crime novel from Wells begins with an odd premise: Jack Tanner, a 52-year-old, out-of-work tax attorney from the Minneapolis suburb of Edina decides to get a large Harley-Davidson and a learner's motorcycle permit. He embarks on a 2,300-mile road trip to Florida where he plans to confront Slater Babcock, the student boyfriend of his missing daughter, Hope. Jack is certain that Slater, once considered (but released) by the investigating police as a "person of interest," knows more than he has let on about Hope's disappearance from school more than a year ago. Slater has left the University of Wisconsin, and his father has set him up as a bar owner in Key West. En route, Jack stops by to visit his grieving, depressed wife Jenna, who has been an in-patient at an upscale psychiatric facility called The Sanctuary in MacLean, Va. On the road again, he meets a series of colorful and sometimes unsavory characters, beginning with Hannah, the nubile redheaded hitchhiker he picks up with disastrous results. Later, a motorcycle gang of white-collar members calling themselves the Devil's Disciples invites Jack to ride along with them to Florida. Upon reaching his destination, Jack again has to depend on a resourceful stranger's help, this time an Ernest Hemingway lookalike named Edward Hollingsworth, to close out Wells's offbeat but entertaining debut novel. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics

Edited by Andrew Ridker. Black Ocean (SPD, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-939568-07-6

Framing the gathered poems in what Ridker calls "The Age of Surveillance"—of Chelsea Manning, Trayvon Martin, Google Glass, drones, and camera phones—this anthology becomes as much a surveillance of a certain type of contemporary poetry as it is contemporary poetry about surveillance. The selected poets, most of whom contribute only a single piece, belong to various schools and styles. They include the heights of critical success, poets with recent debut collections, and the full range between. Some poems read like essays; some like short stories. Several writers head unflinchingly into the political, while others approach surveillance as a private concern (albeit one that almost always reaches the political), even using their work to survey the self, or the poem. Yet despite how much it accomplishes, this survey of poetry doesn't see as widely as it might like—most obviously, to fill an anthology with such a dominant amount of white writers while invoking Trayvon Martin and surveillance politics in the introduction evidences both an oversight and a significant narrowing of scope, experience, and aesthetics. On the strength of the individual poems, however, and the necessity of using language to investigate our often distressing political and technological moment, the anthology earns its spot on the shelf. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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