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.
Little Big Bully, Heid E. Erdrich (Penguin) My favorite poem in Little Big Bully is “Fauxskins,” which skewers white people claiming to have Native American ancestry: “I’ve always been so close to nature so close to animals so close to rocks.” And: “My great-grandmother the full-blooded (Generokee) didn’t need papers to be.” But the entire collection is bursting with big, long-lined poems infused with high-spirited irony and a delight in puncturing pompousness not seen since the San Francisco Renaissance was in full swing.
Inheritance, Taylor Johnson (Alice James) “Nothing is like jail. Nothing resembles it or approximates it,” Taylor Johnson writes in a prose poem against similes entitled “Similes.” “Nothing is like being detained, except for being detained. Nothing is slower than time then.” Inheritance is about weighty ideas, with titles like “The Black Proletarianization of the Bourgeois Form Isn’t Kanye West’s Gospel Samples,” but it’s also a collection of gritty poems about what it’s like to be Black and trans in America. As Johnson says in “Go-Go Ode,” “O capacious room, / give me your tongues. // I’m done with being self- / possessed.”
Red Gloves, Rebecca Watts (Carcanet) Watts has raised sarcasm to the level of high art. In Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, she remarks: “Oh look! She was real! Her dinky shoes! / A letter in the pocket of her pint-sized dress! // For $200 you can sit at her desk. / For an undisclosed sum you can try on her shoes.” Or in a drawing room, where she is trying to read a book: “Another lovely, dark-green papered wall— / camellia-patterned, ferned and leafed— / has been spoiled by having to bear / portraits of gilded men.” The language is clever, crisp, cutting—perfect.
Shrapnel Maps, Philip Metres (Copper Canyon) While Shrapnel Maps is clearly a book of poetry—and a good one—it is also something more important: a call for justice in Palestine that does more than sound a single note. In addition to making use of a variety of poetic forms, Metres employs photographs, postcards, maps, erasures of Twain’s Innocents Abroad, as well as photocopies of a handwritten register of evicted residents of Jaffa, and a typed draft of “INSTRUCTIONS TO THE ARAB POPULATION.” The project is many-voiced, and if it doesn’t necessarily cohere as a single unified work, that’s more a sign of Metres’s intentions than any flaw of execution.
Collected Poems, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (Wake Forest) Like Shakespeare, Ní Chuilleanáin ranges widely through the human carnival, looking over the shoulders of and into the minds of her fellow human beings, shaking her head in dismay and sympathy. Collected Poems gives us a detailed portrait of Ireland, yes, but also of the entire world in all its “beauty and order, / beauty that springs from order, / but more, it is a breathing surface a rippling / a fragrance like spice enticing from the kitchen— / a pulse beating behind the embroidered veil, / a branch spreading leaves against sky, / displayed like hair on a pillow.” A desert island book, for sure.
Double Effect, Martha Serpas (LSU) Possibly it’s because I spent a good chunk of my childhood and a couple of years as a young adult living in southern Louisiana, but whatever the reason, the poems in Double Effect feel as familiar as the mosquito truck, “blowing kisses behind itself / like a festival queen in a hurry,” or the “off-kilter pier—pared heartwood, a bit of dock, / old egg sinkers and leads, barbs / snipped off their hooks.” The Cajun French-English Glossary is a thoughtful touch, but it is unlikely to be needed by anyone who dives into this world where “the backwash and the waves collide.”
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, torrin a. greathouse (Milkweed) “Consider the
disabled body as city,” greathouse writes in “Essay Fragment: Tragedy Model of Disability.” “How its potential energy [a near-living thing] // cannot be measured until it is burned.” The poem concludes: “Consider the price tag stamped upon the wreckage.” The speaker of these poems, “voice still heavy with boy-ghost,” stares down the cruelty aimed at transpeople, especially from their parents—“My mother marries an alcoholic and gives birth to kindling”—emerging damaged, but displaying courage beyond measure.
Salient, Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. (New Directions) “Eliminate those portions of this evidence which are obviously song,” Gray writes in “Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs,” but that’s clearly a mis-instruction, for this book-length work is composed as much of song as it is pure “evidence.” Salient reconstructs—or is it resurrects?—the Third Battle of Ypres, fought in the summer and fall of 1917, using archival material like telephone reports and battlefield dispatches, along with Gray’s own lyric poems. With the Tibetan Book of the Dead as her guide, she looks for answers to questions such as, “What kind of officers would give such [horrific] orders? What kind of men would follow them?”
A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa Nguyen (Wave) “[A]nd no I don’t want to conduct / Mỹ Lai research and produce it / for you here / Dear Reader,” Nguyen writes in “Transplants.” Later: “we won’t be rescued / by self-serving benevolence & / holy books.” A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is remarkable not only for its unrelenting evisceration of clichés about Vietnam and its people, but also for the variety of forms in which this re-visioning is told. Perhaps the most striking manifestations of Nguyen’s argument are the black and white photos that close the collection. One of members of the “all-women stunt motorcycle troupe,” circa 1956, was her mother.