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[Book Review] 6 Poetry Collections

Updated: Apr 30

In honor of National Poetry Month, we thought we’d spotlight six different collections of poetry. Read on and pick your favorite, or better yet, read on and read all.

  

‘Āina Hānau / Birth Land by Native Hawaiian poet Brandy Nālani McDougall. This powerhouse poet packs a punch in her most recent collection. Meditating on the land of her birth, ‘Āina Hānau, McDougall lays bare the injustices brought about by colonialism, racism, militarism, and capitalism. “Haleakalā on Google Maps (Satellite View)” is one such devasting poem that details how Haleakalā becoming a national park and the operation for astrophysical studies on the mountain affects spiritual practice. “American Poem” is another such poem that razes the idea of American ideals, practices, and acquired soils. Poems like “Symbolism” and “College Prep Test For Those Who Will Leave Hawai’i” showcase McDougall’s strong and commanding voice, and she tackles racisms head on in  “2) Are you a real, I mean pure, / Hawaiian?”. In  “Pu’uloa”, she recites the environmental atrocities committed on the land of her birth, her ‘Āina Hānau:  “Or that mercury is in the soil. Or that pesticides, dry cleaning fluids, / and metal residues from open burning of ordinances are in the soil.” 

 

It will anger you, invigorate you, and educate you. It is not a collection to be missed.

 

 

Ward Toward by Cindy Juyoung Ok is Volume 118 of the Yale Younger Poets series. Ok is an unsurpassed talent in form and structure while diving into the subject matter like mental health hospitals, domestic violence, hospice wards, and countries and families divided. Poems like “Orders”, in which each line is numbered one through 4 in each stanza and the poem can be read regularly but also read by grouping the ones, twos, threes, and fours, are clever and ingenious.  “Before the DMZ” is a poem about a divided country presented in the shape of a divided country. While Ok’s manipulation of form tests and surpasses the boundaries of poetry, simple poems like “I Was a Highly Awarded” highlight Ok’s poignancy and facility with language. The poem’s title flows with the text. “I Was a Highly Awarded” “child, worked hard to be / beloved by whichever / adults were accessible.” Structure, form, and piercing diction come together in “Home Ward”: “from this nursing home for pulling / out the stomach tube that had / replaced all his food and drink.” Ok uses the structure of chaotically placed stanzas (some are sideways, some diagonal, some with a single line curving away, some with condensed lines barely readable) to relate the chaotic experience of hospice. The world is not linear in hospice, why then should her writing about it be linear?  

 

 

The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealy is another not-to-be-missed work by a poet flexing on form. Sealy’s work is erasure in its finest hour, which is itself a travesty to have written, as 116 pages of erasing to reveal whole phrases like “potential consequence” and “canine” and “to bite” are haunting and one cannot help but begin to engage with the text behind the poem: the report. Sealy’s poem engages in an alternate reality but one where death is still ultimately the consequence. Sealy’s narrative paints a distinct picture of being Black in America with lines like, “with the caption: pass out / motherf***r. An idea” or  “for an answer. What’s an answer / to black, I wonder?” Every one of Sealy’s lines of the lifted poem is a scalpel in the hands of a deft surgeon, cutting the rot away, so that we may, after recovery, live on without the infestation.

 


Diving At The Lip Of The Water by Karen Poppy examines family, inheritance, social and cultural norms--especially those related to the gender binary--in this first full-length collection. In “My Mother”, a vivid description of Poppy’s mother turns and ends abruptly, like life and relationships: “Slit up the side, beneath her housecoat / Uncomfortable — like my father’s hand / On her throat.” In “Matriarchy”, Poppy explores the complex feelings that accompany the complex people in our lives. “I’m lonely for you…” and “I am angry at you…” are intertwined as is the “ … richness and poverty / Of this gift. Your voice and my body, my legacy.” Poppy is a poet who brings raw, unabashed honesty to the chaos of life and the liminal spaces we all inhabit. “Humans cover with other scents, / Afraid of labels or diving into them.”

 

 

Aster of Ceremonies by JJJJJerome Ellis is made to be heard as well as read. As part of Milkweed’s Multiverse series (which is devoted to bringing to light different ways of languaging), Ellis offers poems, essays, and a hymn in five different parts. Time is fluid in this tome as Ellis reaches backwards and forwards simultaneously threading together the Black Disfluency to Runaway Slave Advertisements and slaves who stuttered, stammered, or spoke with speech impediments, not only because of their shared Disfluency but also by the plant life they might have shared. This reexamination of history allows a celebration of Disfluency, like in “Prayer To My Stutter #2”:  “You restore / a living / shoreline / between word / and silence “ and the calling out of slavery and its atrocities “What name did Ancestor Nanny call herself? We do not know. We honor her relationship to her own name.” The repetition of those words (what name? we do not know. We honor) on each examination of each slave advertisement becomes a rising chant within the text, its rhythms and diction empowering, calling to light, and honoring all involved.

 


Anne Carson’s Wrong Norma is a dense read, combing poems, fictional imaginings, and stream-of-conscious essays on Greek Philosophy, violence, terrorism, poverty, grief, and the mundanity of adulthood. Carson’s musings and turns of phrase have a way of seeping into the subconscious and illuminating from within. In “Fate, Federal Court, Moon” begins with fate:

“The fate of the earth. The fate of me. The fate of you. The fate of Faisal. The fate of the court where Faisal will plead his case. The fate of the court’s bias. Every court has a bias. It sifts to the surface gradually. The fate of whomever we drink to after court …”

 

Carson’s listing prowess has the ability to make you not only turn over and examine everything in her narratives but also in your life, your world, your head, and your body. But not all of Carson’s work is so heady. Sometimes, as in “Little Racket”, it is just “Sunday evening, grey on grey. All day storm did not quite storm. Clouds closed in, sulked and spat. We put off swimming. Took in the chairs…”. Carson thus provides a renewed appreciation for all things great and small because, of course, we have reexamined them.



A.M. Larks’s writing has appeared in NiftyLitScoundrel TimeAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction StudiesFive on the FifthCharge Magazine, and the  ZYZZYVA  and  Ploughshares  blogs. She has served as a judge for the Loud Karma Productions’ Emerging Female and Nonbinary Playwriting Award and has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, CA. She is the managing editor and blog editor at Kelp Journal. She is the former fiction editor at Please See Me, the former blog editor at The Coachella Review, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal. A.M. Larks earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside at Palm Desert, a JD, and a BA in English literature.

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