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.
Guillotine, Eduardo C. Corral (Graywolf) Listen to Eduardo Corral’s description of a drop house in Phoenix where sixty-nine immigrants were discovered, waiting to be moved to their next destination: “Wall clock covered with duct tape. / No tables. No couch. No doors— / even the bathroom door is missing. // Toilet cracked, clogged. / In the bathtub, cat litter.” He has the rigor of seasoned journalist, and yet typographical experiments abound in this book that is surely one of the most vivid portraits in poetry of—as Corral would put it—the
illegal immigrant experience.
Some Lives, LeeAnne Quinn (Dedalus) A reader might be lulled into quiet appreciation of Quinn’s skills as a poet of careful observation and meticulous craftsmanship, as in this description of the sound of a street sweeper: “The machine hums / its frayed tune // as it follows the grid / into morning.” Then suddenly there is the long title poem, a third of the book—an expansive exploration of, among other things, Russian poetry circa Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. Amazingly, the poet’s voice is consistent throughout: wise and sad and unable to forget anything.
A Treatise on Stars, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (New Directions) Initially, I thought Berssenbrugge might be pulling my leg, with her poems about talking to dolphins and visits from space aliens, but the deeper one goes into A Treatise on Stars, the more one is convinced by her claim that “It’s natural for an artist to receive information from a non-objective source.” Indeed, these poems with their long, aphoristic lines, make a strong case that “The more compassion one has for non-normal experiences of others, the sooner consciousness will shift toward the stars.”
In Accelerated Silence, Brooke Matson (Milkweed) Matson is a poet of invention and precision, with a great eye for the telling detail, but, above all, she is a virtuoso musician with words. You can hear the subtlety of her pitch-perfect ear in a psalm in which she speaks in the voice of an Israeli grenade: “Pull the ring of the pin and release me— / a red dove erupting from the cliffside, russet earth / blown heavenward on a burnt // offering of belief.”
Letters to a Young Brown Girl, Barbara Jane Reyes (BOA) “This trauma is not a little thing that makes you interesting and diverse,” Reyes writes in the final installment of “Dear Brown Girl,” a series of letters to a reader that is both herself, someone like her, and—as she writes in “Brown Girl Fields Many Questions—“a ‘we,” regardless of whether the hearer, onlooker, or reader wishes to be included or addressed.” The book offers one gut punch after another to white condescension, carelessness and cruelty. By the end, you—whoever you are—will be ready to join the author in wanting “to smack a smug motherfucker for saying that to your face.”
Glass Float, Jane Munro (Brick) “Art is suggestion,” the poet remembers being told by her grandfather, “art is not representation.” That distinction holds true throughout Glass Float, and yet Munro is fiendishly good at describing things, in particular a yoga retreat in India not long after the death of her husband. The book ranges from prose poem sequences to the cryptic and beautiful lyrics for which she is best known. Always, though, Munro’s poems enact the advice of one of her yoga teachers: “Shine like a full moon without dispelling the dark.”
Owed, Joshua Bennett (Penguin) As we learn in poems like “Owed to the High-Top Fade” and “Owed to the Plastic on Your Grandmother’s Couch,” the book’s title is a pun on “ode.” But the poet also rightly feels something is “owed” to African Americans, as he writes in “Reparation,” not least because of white “sentiment that Blackness // is beautiful, with no referent / to their everyday negation // of our essential human splendor.” Or, as he says in a poem advocating the closure of prisons: “We cannot speak // as if the killers are not / already among us, mowing // the lawn, getting promotions, / trying on their fresh winter coats.”