(Review published in The Massachusetts Review, July 2019)
“Kinesis,” the first poem in Ashley Toliver’s powerful first book Spectra, frames the collection’s primary strength: that of movement through trauma and the emotionally dark places in the female self, where one can be “plumbing / a violent kinesis. “This movement takes place via Toliver’s poetic form and her charged poetic language. While near the collection’s beginning, the female speaker’s husband in “Long Division” is waiting for “a woman / to crawl out of / herself,” by the collection’s last poem, the speaker sees herself “in the last pew / of the lit horizon / in the wide-open field of the now.” The forces that constrain and inspire the speaker’s growth shift from her male partner’s physical and emotional abuse in the compressed first section to her struggle with optic nerve cancer throughout the spatial middle section to the last section’s “ripening” of the “blue tilt” at dusk where there’s “no northern limit / in the capacity for awe.”
Most of the poems in the first section, “Housekeeping,” compress shards of lines into flash-prose poems, which take the same titles as the section’s. While the title implies a uniform kind of keeping order and keeping track, which traditionally has been a domestic role for the American female, something difficult in these poems and barely navigable is going on, which surfaces then plumbs underneath, as here:…
(Review published in Colorado Review, May 2019)
The speaker in “A Parable” concludes, “It was our time to savage.” Thus begins Anna Maria Hong’s vision in her first poetry collection, Age of Glass, where a fierce and uncompromising feminine voice asserts and empowers itself, notably in a literary landscape that has been dominated by a white male canon. This voice appropriates myths and fables that inform this canon’s assumptions, adding to the diverse and intersectional voices characterizing current poetry.
Hong’s literary landscape is the sonnet. All but three poems riff on this form. Hong’s sonnet disrupts this male-dominated box, this literary container, yet retains its echoes—especially via her stanzas corresponding to a given sonnet’s structure, quatrains followed by couplet or by two tercets (a sestet). Hong’s sonnets do not hold to the end-rhyme scheme, expected volta, nor iambic pentameter. The rhymes can be packed and internal as within the frenetic pace into which the middle of…
Prayer Book of the Anxious
(Review published in New Orleans Review, October 2018)
In the middle of Josephine Yu’s Prayer Book of the Anxious, the speaker in “Prayer to Saint Joseph: For the Restless” pleads for this patron saint not to lead us away “when unease thickens like lime calcifying // in the porcelain basins of our chests.” By the end of the poem, the speaker notes a friend who “stepped off a bridge, holding hands with his loneliness.” The unease has compounded into intolerable pain. Within this range, Yu situates one of her main tropes in this book: the struggles with what pains us, what keeps us alive.
The speaker concludes: “Still our hands as we pack. Remind us the roughest fabric / of the self will end up folded like a sweater / in the suitcase, pilled and raveled and transcendent.” Without “of the self” and “transcendent,” this passage dwells in plain observation. The plain-spoken speaker folds and orders the roughest and pilled fabric one has worn. All is safe and packed away. It seems the self is put away for later use, protected from the turmoil of one’s life. One escapes the pain. Is this escape temporary or permanent? What are the consequences?
The last word “transcendent,”…
A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us
(Review published in Rain Taxi, spring 2016)
“Even now, I know I could use this moment, / / this dying thing to remember her with, / but I don’t want to.” Thus, triggered by a dead bird, Caleb Curtiss in A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us resists (yet retains) the memory of his sister’s death from a rural car accident. Throughout the chapbook, tension surfaces between presence/memory and absence/forgetting. “Self-Portrait without My Dead Sister,” for instance, ironically remembers his sister’s absence; in several poems, a left parenthesis without a matching right interrupts a strain of thought, which seems soon forgotten with each successive strain becoming a strand of memory both uncontained and unending:
(a presence that will burn
(long after it’s passed
The poems weave details and…
Book Review: Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine
(Review published in The Los Angeles Review, March 2018)
Camille Rankine’s compelling debut collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, enacts the struggles of one trying to connect broadly with society and more intimately with both another person and one’s self. The threat of disconnection is everywhere. In the opening poem, “Tender,” the speaker begins:
None of this means what we thought it did
Dear bone fragments
Dear broken skin
I am in over my head
The voice takes on a tone of tender weariness. The spacious lines, lack of punctuation, and the endearing, repetitive address “dear” opens up space for the uncertain and overwhelmed speaker struggling with present and past threats.
These struggles inhabit…