Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. What I Learned at the War. West End Press, 2016. 80 pages. $15.95.
I believe there is an Oklahoma aesthetic. I’m wrong about most things but not, I hope, about this. Jeanetta Calhoun Mish dives in, devours, delimbs, and details that aesthetic in her fine collection of poems What I Learned at the War.
To call these poems confessional is to over-simplify them. There are poems to old boyfriends, a current lover (or lovers), family members, friends, other poets, even the self, and yet, unlike the typical confessional poem, Mish seems uninterested in mythologizing the self. When I read this book, I don’t feel like I’m watching an exhibition, rather that someone I’m seated next to on a plane is revealing something solemn to me.
This is wholly Oklahoman.
We are modest people; we’re still not sure how we survived the Dust Bowl, much less being conjoined, permanently, to the shoulders of Texas.
While Mish’s delivery may be understated, her poetics are bold. This is a book of gorgeous passages and memorable lines. In “Thirst,” the poet confesses, “my hair twisted up in your finders, lifted / away to make room for your mouth— / how strange that the word delicate / should appear in a poem for you.” In “When Dreams Die,” the poet, invoking Gwendolyn Brooks, beseeches: “Listen! Hear / humming of hymns, wailing of women, the / banal benediction in future’s falsetto, fierce / fists beating breast, the final hammering.”
Dear Mr. Alliteration, your pilgrim has arrived!
My favorite poem is “Elegy for My First Boyfriend.” The poem is smart, formally inventive, and emotionally resonant without manipulation. Its last line is one James Wright wished he had written: “I’m ashamed this / elegy’s so late.”
Even non-Oklahomans know that sentiment. —DR
Jennifer Givhan. Landscape with Headless Mama. Pleiades Press, 2016. 89 pages. $17.95.
Jennifer Givhan’s debut collection, Landscape with Headless Mama (winner of the 2015 Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry) draws its breath from the surrealist Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo. As such, Givhan imbues her shifting subjects with the magic reserved for the mythological, yet this collection of stunning poems grounds itself in the experiences of motherhood.
Readers travel through miscarriage, IVF, dissolution of marriage, and adoption, slowly accruing the emotional weight of the speaker’s history. Haunting this collection is the wreckage of being mothered and mothering—the speaker’s own mentally ill mother bears a mythos that affects the speaker’s ordeal with fertility and infertility.
The echoes of the speaker’s ordeals reverberate from her childhood to her present. In the poem “Chicken-Hearted” Givhan sears the reader with her sestina’s formal play allows for an embodiment of this inheritance as throughout the collection the figure of the asylum-committed-mother appears and reappears. In this poem Givhan confesses her teenaged pregnancy to her disapproving mother,
The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart
to sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleaners of flu
or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.
Givhan includes a staggering crown of sonnets that lay bare the relationship between personal history and legend—the speaker’s mother “lost her head” as the mythic wife leaves the bed one part at a time during the night. As a metaphor extended throughout the book, folktale epigraphs add to the surreal layers of memory.
This debut is both a treed wood yet each poem is its own forest—each poem is crafted with the precision of a hawk’s eye, yet they all fit together to form this haunting and redemptive opus. With images like
. . . How I found mama
in the nursing home, unturned in bed.
How her bedsores grew spores.
How flowering from her split & shaken skin,
mushrooms, gilled & grey-hatted.
. . . If your body were transformed
as if by magic, what then of sadness?
What splits from this collection is the debut of a poet whose images claw their way out from the dream world and nest in the readers’ eyes. Indeed, this is the fierce work of a poet who cannot and will not be ignored. —RM
Jon Tribble. Natural State. Glass Lyre Press, 2016. 112 pages. $16.00.
Like the “thicket of young willows” in his poem “We Are Part of the Body,” John Tribble “leans south.” Readers who lean south, too, will want to check out this strong first collection set in the author’s home state of Arkansas. Tribble’s poems tend to length and lushness, calling up details associated with the region’s beauty, such as the “heavy sweet decay” of magnolia petals. Some of the most memorable and disturbing work here, however, considers masculinity, violence, and gender conflict. A grandfather feeds pea pods to wild rabbits, then drops a smoke bomb on starlings nesting in the chimney. A father can hardly bear to touch or be touched. An impoverished congregation rejects sacraments from a female minister. An unruly musician, kicked out of the high school band, advises the poet to “feel the bass line growing out of [his] back,” to develop an “elemental” relation to the notes. Meanwhile, “potbellied coaches” try to burn off the lawless energy of teenagers on football fields. Sometimes Tribble lets unresolved tension hang in the air like humidity. Fair enough. Yet during my favorite moments, some charge of feeling leaps across gaps of race and class, as when the “drunks, punks, low-life scum” in Driver’s Ed, forced to watch the same film of bloody automotive disaster every week, begin laughing, “giddy and ashamed, joyously alive.” Such unlikely unities are an important national resource, this year especially. —LW
C. Dale Young. The Halo. Four Way Books, 2016. 63 pages. $15.95.
Young’s fascinating meditation is voiced through the awakening of an unexpected angel experiencing the suffering throes of human life while yearning to simply be mortal. Drenched in society’s necessitated bowing to (religious) conviction, Young’s angel bears all conflict thereof, in traumatic personal event(s) and histories, and in the manifest of autonomy and surrendering to beingness beyond the legislated.
When I stood, there in the mirror, my wings outstretched
with their tiny feathers wet, almost glutinous, a quick
ribbon of blood snaking down my back. You wonder
why I am such a master of avoidance, such a master
of what is withheld. Is there any wonder now?
I had no idea then they would wither and fall off
in a few weeks. When Father Callahan patted
my head in the sacristy and told me I was
a good boy, a really good boy, an extraordinary boy,
I wanted to be anything but extraordinary.
Throughout, Young weaves linguistic, literary, liturgical, and medical terminologies, juxtaposing them with hard notions of exact push and pull that any human encounters in a disorderly world.
Like an accident, a wreck, a tumble, a fall, to earth and misery, with punitive measures taken out on one who is pure and yet imperfect, mortal; or is he? There is a substantial equation existing within these pages, maybe as difficult to tread in a micro-review as it is to withhold wings meant to burst open eight-feet wide from between the shoulder blades of a man, who has been broken and is laid up in a hospital bed, learning how to walk again, to emerge, while struggling not to take flight before the witnesses surrounding the majesty, while all the while straining to study the fallacy of memory, of perspective, and of becoming. “You think you have learned something about tenderness–” the poet writes, in this impeccable book of numerological recovery.
The Halo is a miraculous, stunning symphony chorded in the fifth, the quintain, the constant symbolism in the whole. Here, the bearer of heavy burden who speaks to us each entry, postulates questions of eternities, queers the boundaries of realms, of the body, of what reaches through us and exists within us, secret, yet piercing with immediacy and certainty of eventual display. It is the stuff that pushed Donne, Shelley, Shakespeare, and pushes Young, piercing the back of the speaker to open his majestic wingspread for all to behold and be afraid for as well as fear. —AHC
Linda LeGarde Grover. The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives. Red Mountain Press, 2016. 86 pages. $18.95.
Arranged into four sections corresponding to the seasons, Linda LeGarde Grover’s The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives suggests that the chronology of a people’s year recapitulates the chronology of their history and that the past, as Faulkner so famously said, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The collection includes poems that refer to Ojibwe mythology and poems written in the voices of several boarding school students, as well as some that read autobiographically.
While most of the poems are free verse narratives composed in comparatively long lines and stanzas, among the most intriguing and stylistically insistent is a prose poem, “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School.” The sentences here are short and imperative, merging instruction with critique of Ojibwe tradition:
Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings . . . Indians are not clean . . . Stand in line. You will learn cleanliness. This is a toothbrush. Hang it on the hook next to the others. Do not allow the bristles to touch. This spreads the disease that you bring to school from your families.
In the fused voices that create the poem’s voice, one can hear the speaker’s impatient disdain. The poem weaves motifs of language and cleanliness with those of loss and implicit violence throughout, often repeating sentences verbatim to suggest the relentless determination of the boarding school agenda to “whiten” Indians.
The Sky Watched is a book of and for community. It is a book of witness. It testifies to survivance as, according to its last lines, “a continuing song / since long before the memory of mortals.” —LD
Safiya Sinclair. Cannibal. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 126 pages. $17.95.
“To live here,” writes Safiya Sinclair in Cannibal, “we know precisely how to be haunted.” This sharp and subtle, tough and textured, lush and mythical debut, haunts and is haunted by hungers for a broken past and its consequent present. Forms of longing collide with thwarted belonging. The Jamaican-born Sinclair joins Fanon and Césaire, Cliff and Wynter in transforming the colonial wreckage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a supple framework. Her island is “full of noises” the noises of history, the sounds of violence. Potent imagery animates Cannibal. “The sea,” for instance, “is “a dark page I am trying to turn.” “Sunset” is “that blood-orange hymn / combusting the year, nautilus chamber // of youth’s obscurities.” And Sinclar displays a fierce and startling rhetoric, as in “Pocomania,” where off-kilter anaphora creates a spell gathering power:
Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from,
pressed into, cast and remolded, father I was forged
in the fire of your self.
Sinclair’s poems of America are as persuasive as her meditations on her childhood island. In a series of “Notes on the State of Virginia” and “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof,” she drills deep into histories that still haunt the neighborhoods and streets of America. Profound genealogist and historian that she is, you can never forget Sinclair is a singer in the deepest sense. Mermaid and siren, you won’t ever quite catch the agile poet, but you’ll be dazzled as she arcs in these poems into deep and glittering waters. —JC