By David Starkey
Back in 2014, when I was reviewing books for the Santa Barbara Independent, I proposed an offbeat idea to my editor. I would offer one very short review of a single-author poetry collection for each of the 30 days of April, National Poetry Month. The reviews turned out to be a hit, and it’s been an April tradition for me ever since.
Now that the Independent only reviews work by local authors, it seems fitting to move this annual project to my new home, the California Review of Books.
Four times this month—on April 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd—I will publish a week’s worth of short reviews. Keep checking in throughout the month to see what’s new.
While the reviews, which appear in no particular order, have become slightly longer over the years, I aim to keep them under 100 words. My goal is to be as concise as possible in recommending these 30 books of poetry, every one of which is worth reading.
The Magpie and the Child, Catriona Clutterbuck (Wake Forest) One is tempted to linger over the many memorable images in first part of this book. Clutterbuck, for instance, describes menopause as “the body’s winter,” and pictures her “unborn children kneading / their heels in my side / and my bloodline ribboning the road // in every leaf at last / broken for earth / under tomorrow’s clear grey sky.” But the real gem is the long concluding poem, “Threnodies for Emily,” which is so hauntingly effective at describing the death of a child that many readers never reach its beautiful, bitter, holy end.
Horsefly Dress, Heather Cahoon (Arizona) Cahoon is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the book is peppered with Salish words, which are helpfully defined in a glossary and used artfully throughout—“Swirling inside ch into cha- tin- alks / a wild crocus, shoots reaching down into their proper place / unchanged for twelve thousand years.” Cahoon weaves myth with carefully observed imagery (who could resist the “paper-crisp wings” of the wasp?). Concise yet evocative, Horsefly Dress is a marvel and a delight.
Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, Jay Rogoff (LSU) This is a big book full of the poet’s wonder at the many and varied things of this world. Kindergarten valentines, a medieval diptych, driving in fog, horoscopes, the proper way to fold the flag—it’s all here, and much more. Thankfully, Rogoff turns what could have been a miscellany into an extended song of praise. And anyone who can legitimately claim to have “cobbled some Van / Dyke Parks and Steely Dan / into a fake merengue tape” as an aid to succeeding in a Latin dance class, well, that’s a person whose poems you ought to read.
How to Carry Water: Selected Poems, Lucille Clifton (BOA) One of the hardest tasks any poet faces is writing complex poems using apparently simple elements. The late Lucille Clifton was extraordinarily gifted at this endeavor. Indeed, the directness of language in her mostly short poems is unforgettable. “my father burned us all. ash / fell from his hand onto our beds, / onto our tables and chairs,” she writes in “cigarettes,” with its devastating conclusion: “nothing is burning here, / my father would laugh, ignoring / my charred pillow, ignoring his own / smoldering halls.”
Red Stilts, Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon) There is seemingly nothing out of which Ted Kooser cannot make a good poem. Take, for instance, the farmyard light that “looks like a stick with a puff of / yellow cotton-candy light spun round it”; the old bottle floating down a river, “one glint / among the many”; a wooly caterpillar “black as a hyphen slowly crossing a page.” Kooser’s is a Midwest detached from contemporary politics, where people at a sixtieth reunion banquet don’t swap Q-Anon theories but instead “pass the dream, / a crystal platter / upon which each of them places / a piece of the past.”
Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021, Yusef Komunyakaa (FSG) Komunyakaa is probably most famous for his 1988 poem about the Vietnam Wall, “Facing It,” which has now been read by two generations of students in introductory literature classes. Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth, however, only includes poems published in the last two decades, and so offers us a chance to see Komunyakaa’s work afresh. While he still writes about blues and jazz and wars, Komunyakaa is actually interested in just about everything. His description of the construction of a slingshot could serve as an ars poetica: “The taut pull is / everything. There’s nothing / without resistance.”
Moving House, Theophilus Kwek (Carcanet) That this accomplished and sophisticated book was written by someone in his twenties is sure to make any poet not named John Keats extremely jealous. Kwek, a young Singaporean who studied in Britain, writes with equal authority about Southeast Asia and the Thames Valley, Icelandic folklore and Noh masks. Here is his rendering of the afterlife: “A bend, a / shout, a breath of diesel, morning’s murmur // staining the kerb a shade of persimmons.” If this book augurs even greater things, Kwek may well turn out to be one of the major poetic voices of the twenty-first century.