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.
Here is the Sweet Hand, Francine J. Harris (FSG) Here is the opening stanza of “Unaccompanied Cello Suite…”: “The tension is in drag. the rug of hot winter rain. the droll swish tires. / One of the old men comes to dance three times a night on Monday. / None of them sorry drizzle, rushing women, honking cab. The one pass / who speak sometimes. The woman who brings her dog. the dog hushed.” Like many of the poems in Hand’s book, the references are elliptical, the grammar is intentionally askew, and ambiguity generates a kind of clarity. It takes some getting used to, but once you tune your ear to her voice, you won’t soon forget it.
Now We’re Getting Somewhere, Kim Addonizio (Norton) “Writing is like firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror,” Addonizio writes in one poem. And, in another: “Q. Ever notice how many writers write about writing?” It’s true that this collection is shot through with “confessional poetry,” which, in the wrong hands can make for some dreadful navel-gazing, but Addonizio’s unfailing bullshit detector is always first pointed at herself, and her work is so just damned much fun to read that it’s easy to see why she is one of America’s most popular poets.
Hoarders, Kate Durbin (Wave) You might think that a book composed mostly of short quotes from hoarders juxtaposed against the things they collect would quickly wear thin. However, like another marvelous Wave book, Chelsey Minnis’s Baby, I Don’t Care, Durbin’s Hoarders is energized by the joyous singlemindedness of the poet and her subjects. Ronnie from Las Vegas sums it up: “I feel sorry for so-called normal people chair with a paper sign taped to it that says seat where buzz aldrin sat in blue Sharpie.”
Cardinal, Tyree Daye (Copper Canyon) Punctuated by color snapshots of Black families, friends and children, Daye’s poems weave connections between past and present, old and young. Cardinal is dedicated to “the diaspora,” and Daye’s poems roam widely, but ultimately North Carolina feels like home, a place where “God is two black children sitting under an old oak / that has not had blood wiped on its bark. / It is a Sunday / spent in the sky. Where tracks / cannot be tracked.”
Arrow, Sumita Chakraborty (Alice James) “No one likes an essay that begins with a remark about the birth of Earth,” the title poem begins. “Still, indulge me.” And, indeed, readers are likely to happily indulge Chakraborty in these poems that often the straddle line the between essays and prose poetry. The collection is marked not just by hybridity, but also ambition. An erasure of Rilke’s “Les Fenêtres” follows a trio of two-line poems entitled “O Spirit” which precede “Dear Beloved,” an elegy for the speaker’s sister in lines so long they might almost be prose if they weren’t so sure of themselves as poetry.
We the Jury, Wayne Miller (Milkweed) American poetry is no longer dominated by straight middle-class, middle-aged white men, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, writing convincingly about their version of the country they inhabit: “Here in America / we are engines // drowning out what lies / beyond our interiors.” Miller—skeptical, exact, yet not entirely without hope—is one the best. “On History,” about the poet’s relationship with a convicted murderer, is surely one of the most nuanced explorations of justice (criminal or otherwise) that you are likely to read this year.
As If By Magic: Selected Poems, Paula Meehan (Wake Forest) It’s difficult enough to try and encapsulate a single book of poems in a few words, but in the case of the selected poems of the great Irish poet Paula Meehan, it’s near impossible. Her work is consistently lyrical, yet it ranges from the nostalgic to the acid, with all tones in between. Just one example: “The Exact Moment I Became a Poet,” which continues, “was in 1963 when Miss Shannon / rapping the duster on the easel’s peg / half obscured by a cloud of chalk // said Attend to your books, girls, / or mark my words, you’ll end up / in the sewing factory.”