Dawn Lundy Martin. Good Stock Strange Blood. Coffee House Press, 2017. 113 pages. $16.95.
The triumph of Dawn Lundy Martin’s Good Stock Strange Blood includes her innovative and radical evasion of enforced containment stemming from the “raced condition.” Pages slip between form and formlessness, escaping to future spaces, “bigger and stronger . . . without reference, without anchor.” Film, poem, opera, image—poems are manifested in boxy prose that “mutates” into fractured lyricism—other times delineated, hyphenated, erased. The book requires effort and attention. It demands, but does not provide, answers. Martin writes from the brutally fertile conditions that allow Sandra Bland or Freddie Gray “to go missing.” In and around the untenable present, the book layers and slips into an infinity of poetic planes, conjures a “Silver-white technological landscape,” “an AfroFuture outside of recognizable bodies, temporalities, and accessible dimensions.”
Interrogatory by definition requires a response. Martin’s interrogation places readers in the role of respondent—an unavoidable examination of their own culpability for the containment of black bodies. The interrogative text requires readers to construct answers rather than receive them, thus the burden borne for conditions of “blackness” can shift away from the “containered,” away from those who have been forced to explain and correct the perpetrator’s assault, and onto systems and individuals perpetuating widely accepted methods of racial captivity. (“It’s a good idea to have ‘black’ in the title of a ‘black’ book.”) Martin’s poems cannot be shaped into a “grotesque monument to the regime”—they seem deliberately constructed so as to be ineffective panaceas for unhealed wounds and continued “historical torment.” “I am not a black in a black body. / I will not kowtow to your opposites.”
By creating conditions in which to imagine futurity, Good Stock Strange Blood makes room for collective effort to “Leave wreckage by the roadside,” to bear responsibility for an answer to this question: “How do we travel them into the future?” —LC
Tiana Clark. Equilibrium. Bull City Press, 2016. 53 pages. $12.00.
A secret: I choose which books I review; if a book is suggested to me and I don’t want to review it, I refuse. (Long story, short: I lost a friend years ago, when I gave his mediocre collection a negative review.) I’d read some of Tiana Clark’s individually published poems and I loved them, but you just never know what the entire gathering will offer.
So let me say this—shout this—Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium is a chapbook that fulfills.
Within this shorter collection are extraordinarily crafted poems about the body, blackness, emotional struggle, and yes, black women’s hair. I’d grown weary of the hair poem, but after reading “Hair Relaxer: An Origin Story,” I decided to surrender to the black woman’s hair poem, as I have the sonnet, the villanelle, and the sestina. Let’s call this poetic form the BWHP, shall we?
A BWHP marks the era of African American female poetics, and Clark knows this: “Hair Relaxer” begins with an epigraph by the great Gwendolyn Brooks. And a BWHP acknowledges that kinky tresses cannot be separated from political considerations such as slavery, round behinds, dark skin, wide noses, or the theft of African reproductive labor: “Singe, on the teeth / of a hot comb forged from the European Gods of smooth metal / Swipe from root to unruly tip . . . ”
In Clark’s poems, generations of African American women are changed but remain connected through umbilical struggles. Surely, Clark identifies as biracial woman, but she does not ignore the black women who made her, constantly referencing their pain and flawed glory, their sustaining spirituality. The final, longer poem, “Promethia Remixed,” is a triumph of self-actualization combined with an impressive knowledge of history:
Crack the interracial craving before it cracks you.
Beige make-up on the pillow every night—
Creamy Rorschach test, muffled mascara
and red lipstick inkblots. From the dream,
we wake, take the black bird by its quill,
dip in swaying slave ship darkness—
Let freedom bleed.
It is this poem that moves Clark through the realm of subjective, narrative feeling into intellectual history and back again—a major accomplishment for such a young poet, and a necessary gesture in these times looking to past hopelessness while moving forward, like the mythic Sankofa bird. Last words: Tiana Clark has a full-length collection coming in September from the Pitt Poetry Series, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. Go on and get that book. You will need it in your life. —HFJ
Alessandra Lynch. Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment. Alice James Books, 2017. 100 pages. $15.95.
Alessandra Lynch’s third collection bears witness to rape, and, equally, to how rape rewrites identity and continues to alter a person’s sense of self for years. Lynch’s substantial volume, however, begins with “gorgeous telegrams” from the natural world—“pollen-druff, beetle-husk”—and only gradually excavates darker memories. Emerging despite shifty pronouns and ominous silences, the core of a story: a woman goes dancing. There is a man with a knife, followed by “A case of walking paralysis. / A case of can’t-report.” “I said the word assault,” Lynch eventually tells us, “prettier than r____.” She circles around this unspeakable event, trying out different ways of naming it, comparing a personal experience to other representations of sexual violence, focusing on brilliant shards instead of the awful totality. Lynch is, in short, wrestling not only with trauma but the problems of portraying, and inevitably aestheticizing, trauma.
My first time through the book, I was riveted, but also hungry for Lynch to just say rape, to convey straightforwardly the ugliness her lyricism tends to gild. Rereading didn’t dull that hunger, exactly. Yet the more time I spend with Daylily, the more I appreciate its intelligent refusals. “The girl it happens to / crawls out // of my body / straight into the grass,” she tells us in the second half of the collection, focusing on the schisms and dislocations initiated by violence. Breakage can be recast as transformation, but it’s hard work, always shadowed by loss. Lynch has done that work poetically while continuing to prioritize linguistic beauty. Other writers might have struck a different balance—and I wonder if this book would have received more notice in the best-of-2017 lists if Lynch had been more direct, even just in the book’s title—but her accomplishment is undeniably prodigious. This moving and utterly topical book is one of the most poetically powerful collections of recent years. —LW
Lauren Russell. What’s Hanging on the Hush. Ahsahta, 2017. 74 pages. $18.00.
Lauren Russell is a poet of the crossroads. Sure, there’s the actual appearance of Robert Johnson in her deftly woven What’s Hanging on the Hush, a collection that sings and speculates, inventories and enumerates. Forms cross forms, sounds split other sounds. A questionnaire might sit next to an elegy. A cat might be named Neruda. One minute we’re in a dream world, as in the Robert Johnson-featuring “The Wind Is Rising”: “Last night I dreamt of fire. My building was burning, / but I couldn’t get out. I kept riffling through papers, corralling / my cat. I woke to Robert Johnson on the radio.” And this is the collection in miniature: a wonderfully restless mind, waking from the hope of epiphany into a landscape that is mundane and strange at the same time. The cat comes back in “Narrative Arc,” a poem beautifully built of equal parts anaphora and Derrida, particularly his deeply influential The Animal That Therefore I Am, which features a startling moment when the great French philosopher wonders what it is to be stared at by his cat. Strange and mundane, indeed. What’s Hanging on the Hush describes the way violence is as likely to take place in the world as in the mind. There are elegies for what can’t be imagined and articulations of phobias for what can’t be avoided. Like Robert Johnson, Russell has “a voice of soot and rush.” She witnesses the burning of heretics, the depravities of popular culture, and the endless lure of the mind that can’t stop thinking long enough to sleep. “I dream I am driving,” she writes, “and I don’t know how to stop, don’t know how to turn.” And so it is for What’s Hanging on the Hush: just enjoy the ride. —JC
Sam Sax. Madness. Penguin Books, 2017. 82 pages. $18.00.
In Madness, award winning author Sam Sax collects poems that explore troubled family histories, queerness, sex, desire, addiction, recovery, and institutionalized concepts of treatment. Dense with work that call to one another across pages, Madness questions the concept of madness and the actions taken in the name of its treatment. Poems ask us “who were we before germ theory / back in the liquid days of humors // when tumors grew from an imbalance in black bile.” Sax continually asks how much of our concept of mental health stems from culture, how much from science, and who owns the naming rights to our personal experiences. While most poems are titled after scientific terms for mental illnesses, Sax gives us work filled with human frailty, poignant memories, and contemplation instead of ones including multiple clinical descriptions. The more knowledge readers hold on medical and clinical terminology, the better the reading experience will prove to be. For example, the poem “Satyriasis” gains much more depth when you know the term designates the uncontrollable or excessive sexual desire in a man. There’s obvious sexual content within the poem, but without the added context given by the title to focus the repeated imagery designating an almost manic desire for excess, the poem would not prove as successful, nor many of its lines make as much sense. Questioning the dominant cultural narrative of appropriate levels of sexuality, desire, and attraction comes to the forefront with this knowledge, leaving this reader focused on the heart of this text “o government how absurd / to believe desire requires / governance. keep giving lust / an ugly name, i’ll keep making it / sing . . . ” —SO
Jennifer Elise Foerster. Bright Raft in the Afterweather. University of Arizona Press, 2018. 88 pages. $16.95.
“I would have kept us as we were,” Foerster writes, pointing to the interwoven temporalities that drive her second collection, local and personal, eschatological and human. Bookended by poems featuring “Hoktvlwv” (Muscogee for old woman, for elder), Bright Raft arcs from an opening poem that references, rather than delivers, an origin story to the concluding poem with its story of when “the timelines crashed.” The book’s apocalyptic arc is reiterated in more material terms in such poems as the one I quoted from above, “Winter in Corfu.” The poem’s characters have stepped out of time, out of their own cosmology: “the two of us, embers in an emptying tavern,” and even though this is “not our island . . . not our haunted basilica hills” they are not eager for the spring and its changes that will inevitably arrive, when “Calypso’s spellbound / mirage of an island, shingled with egrets, / would fade in the trade winds.” There is a toughness to Foerster’s poetics. The layering of her taut lineation across landscapes both mythic and fraught with reality produces a poetry of great scope and power, particularly in some of the longer poems such as “Nightingale” and “Afterweather.”
In the volume’s final poem, “Hoktvlwv’s Crow,” the speaker remembers when “there were still songbirds” before the end of times scenario that followed when “California split into an archipelago. / Orchards withered under blooms of ash. // Now there is no nectar. No rotten fruit.” It is a time in which, ultimately, even memory is silenced, and the desolate image of Hoktvlwv, fully alone, ends the book:
There was no sound to the forgetting.
We knew the heart would implode
before the breath and lungs collapsed.
That the world would end in snow,
an old woman walking alone,
empty birdcage strapped to her back.
Joseph Campana is a poet, arts critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of The Pain of Reformation (Fordham UP, 2012) and two collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005) and Natural Selections (2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Rice University.
Lara Candland is the author of Alburnum of the Green and Living Tree and The Lapidary’s Nosegay (Center for Literary Publishing) forthcoming in February 2018. Candland is a co-founder, librettist, and performer with Seattle Experimental Opera and The Deseret Experimental Opera Company.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Glory Gets (2015). She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. A native southerner, she now lives on the prairie where she teaches at University of Oklahoma.
Janet McAdams’s most recent poetry collection is the chapbook, Seven Boxes for the Country After. She serves as general editor of KROnline’s Micro-Reviews.
Shauna Osborn is an award-winning mestiza artist, researcher, community organizer, and wordsmith living in New Mexico. She was the 2015 Artist in Residence Fellow for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Waves Writing Retreat, a New York Public Library National Poetry Award winner, and received the Native Writer Award from Taos Summer Writers’ Conference in 2013. Her debut poetry collection Arachnid Verve is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. You can find her work online at shaunamosborn.wordpress.com
Lesley Wheeler’s fourth collection, Radioland, was published in 2015 by Barrow Street Press. Her poems and essays appear in Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Poetry, and other journals. She is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and blogs about poetry at http://lesleywheeler.org/.