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Friday, March 16, 2012

Poetry Round Up, Winter/Spring 2012, Part I

A quick spotlight on new poetry collections you may have missed this past season!

Rose McLarney, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, Four Way Books

These poems seem to have emerged almost organically from the land from which they’ve been wrought. Giving us a long history of what shape desire and love have taken in rural Appalachia, the poet speaks with a voice as urgent and clear as a mountain spring. In a poem that’s half directive, half fable, “Heart,” the reader learns how to test a goat’s: “pull the lips up, press/ the gums pale, then release.” Turning from the facts of the world inward, the poet manages to turn an array of emotions into more physical experiences; the color rushes back to the gums if nothing’s awry, and I, along with the speaker, am surprised by my own surprise at finding “all a ribcage contains and/ the warmth in can release.”
See an interview with McLarney at Four Way.

Mary Makofske, Traction, Ashland Press

The book’s tidy poems—which are delivered in such fine-tuned forms as sonnets, sestinas, and rhyming couplets—swell and contract in terms of their subject’s size and scope. Some of the more aggrandized persona poems ring a bit puffed-up to my ear, but she generally succeeds in capturing the quick happening of human perception—from the perspective of, for instance, a frozen caveman or her own childhood self. In the title poem, “Traction,” for instance, as we enter the room with a young girl, we also feel the girl’s physical reaction to her mother’s injury: “The strap gripped her chin, as a parent holds/ a child’s face when she needs to be scolded.” Her best poems would have us remember the simplicity of the simplest pleasures, throw the most privately experienced pain into deep relief.

Brandon Som, Babel’s Moon, Tupelo Press

Most of Som’s lines seek to lull and are beautiful enough to do so unabashedly. But I’m drawn to the collection’s sparer moments, moments of stronger emotional acuity that jut from the poet’s dewier speech. In “Elegy,” after meandering through what reads like lovely field notes on the moon that the tower of Babel must have sought (we’re told “a light wind blew seed into the web between tines of a hayrake;” the speaker remembers a story about Thoreau), we finally arrive at: “The morning of the funeral, my father dressed my grandfather: from the eyelet, each button new to full; the tie’s knot loose as if it had swallowed a small bird.” A stunning chapbook: if its waters sometimes make for deep wading, I’m always glad to make it to the outer bank.

Joan Kane, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, University of Alaska Press

I’m cheating a bit: this is a second edition printing. But the book came my way and I loved it, so I’ll ask you to think about checking out the aforementioned second edition. In the world of The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, nothing is knowable except what’s immediately present—so admittedly and insistently so, in fact, that the present landscape becomes more than merely portrait-ed, that what’s unknowable becomes increasingly distanced from the human experience. The result is a beautifully rendered—not anxiety, exactly— but energy that is similarly tense, an energy that can seem incredibly lonely to a reader not versed in the realities of the Alaskan lives Kane portrays (her work is tied intimately to her Inupiaq Eskimo ancestors’ experience with the arctic/sub-arctic land). It’s a feat that such lovely poems examine the act of storytelling itself; in “Placer,” an opening tercet briefs us on some incident—probably mercury poisoning—, only to be followed up with an emphatic refusal to make a legend out of it: “Grown sick of myth there, the word itself/ Always catching and kenning/ In the wrong tense….” (For a great review by Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe from the book’s release date, see Smartish Pace).

Hennessy’s book acts, on the whole, as his speaker imagines acting in “Waiting Room” (an interesting play on the Bishop poem): it makes “A man’s push,/ emptying what it wants to fill.” As exciting as the book’s unbridled desire can be, the poetry here is at its most beautiful when it settles down from the sexy fuss it needs to make. I say need because the poet’s need to carve out a space for homoerotic desire in a mid-western territory is palpable—and, for the most part, it’s a well-dramatized struggle against a culture resistant to hear that desire. But where the poet seems most confident and unapologetic, something more exciting happens than what the reader finds in the book’s harder pressing. In “Aubade with Plum,” as the lover leaves the speaker holds “what felt like a whole plum caught in my throat,/” and watches “the sky turn from shades of plum/ to goddam shades of plum [sic].” And in an elegy for his grandmother, he writes “The men/ of our family say the women of our family are granite-/willed farm girls….To hell with them, with the will-/full blindness of men.” These are the moments I savored.

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