In her follow-up to Orchidelirium (2004), Deborah Landau explores a new relationship between the poet and the urban night. The hovering, often-unpunctuated language of these lyric sequences tests “what can be made of dusk, its many openings.” Night in the city provides the bare rooms and vacant spaces in which the speaker can truly encounter absence and the idea of absence. On some occasions, absence takes the form of an eroticized other (“& I have put my lips / on the glass of his face again”); at other times it is the self, alone. Each poem waits poised for an “immaculate middle-of-the-night quiet” or is confounded by the fact that “the trouble with silence / is none ever was.” Here a dormant “new york / city of hidden interiors” ceases to be object or muse and instead becomes part of the speaker’s psychic body. Landau’s intimate, lonely poems are profoundly engaged with the experience of the self in its starkest moments: when it is deprived, nocturnal, barely lingual. Since Orchidelirium, her line has become sparer, which allows her to build dynamic textures in phrases such as “the bulky king of trudge and stein” or a “sweater of dirt.” Landau keeps her passions and her sense of beauty intimately close, even as she denies them (“I know my life is meaning / less”). But in so doing, she creates a deeply erotic and resonant encounter between the lyric I and its solitude.
Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon charts the arc of abjection after the death of a grandfather. Shimoda’s poems effortlessly situate personal loss in a broader context as they interrogate the myths, rituals, and cultural practices associated with the afterlife. In many ways this abiding interest in mourning culture is enacted in the style of the poems themselves. Presented as a book-length sequence of elegies, invocations, and lyric fragments, Shimoda’s book simultaneously appropriates and re-envisions the literary forms found in sacred texts. Consider “O,” in which he writes, “let down / the ship of war // long tress / to the indomitable / scales.” Here Shimoda conflates prayer and invocation with his own family history, ultimately individualizing these inherited literary forms. Indeed, Shimoda’s own experience often serves as a point of entry to larger questions about how individuals grieve, and the ways that this process is circumscribed by culture. He writes in an untitled piece, “Wake me from sleep / not a ghost / but a man of ash without speech // I am ordered.” This piece describes the book itself. Shimoda is compelled by his own loss to engage with the elaborate cultural history associated with mourning. The book offers an account of an individual negotiating this history, finding agency and voice within the parameters circumscribed by one’s ancestors. Shimoda’s use of autobiography proves at once innovative and expansive. In short, O Bon is a plaintive, beautifully written collection. Shimoda offers readers a graceful synthesis of form and content, of autobiography and history, and of the personal and the divine.
—Kristina Marie Darling
Jeffrey Skinner, author of five books of poems, has penned a hilarious yet moving “self-help memoir.” Skinner, more than a “moderately successful” poet, has been published in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other prestigious journals. In this facetious yet spot-on directive, he points out the pitfalls of pursuing accolades in lieu of art. Once upon a time, Skinner worked as a private eye, and he intersperses the self-help chapters with pithy asides about his life hunting down bad guys. The best parts of the book aren’t new—all poets know that discipline, revision, and persistence are keys to creating a successful writing life. The aspects of this book that make it a stand-out are the charm and the honesty with which Skinner, sometimes in the same breath, both eviscerates and elevates poetry as a way of life. “Poets who write poetry, and then keep writing it, are very brave.” The truth, according to Skinner, is that the “gatekeepers of the arts are all Simon Cowells. . . . you have to be really good just to be invited in from the cold.” Skinner hopes to help poets take the long view, cultivate selfishness, and endure, even when the larger world ignores their efforts. This is a book about excising the detritus and getting down to the work, which, we all know, is the only thing that counts.
From the list poem to the sonnet, the ode to the elegy to the invective, from “oily noise” to “leaf traffic,” Willis’s fifth collection masterfully offers a direct treatment of the thing in all of its indirect taxonomies. Here is a poetry unafraid to salute our democratic ideals and civic institutions while simultaneously showing the scars they carry and the foundation of conquest they’re precariously perched atop; a poetry of scope, which can in a line or two zoom in on the atom, on Adam naming all the plants and animals, on the atom bomb, and the work of art in the age of digital interaction; and a poetry that is at once humorous and personable, as bewildered in the backyard as it is anchored in the open field. Within Address, when Willis says “I” she is also saying “we”—all of us, singing the scope of the self, from the digits on the hand to those on the house, the address of home, what it means to address another, to dress for a party, or apply dressing to a wound. Everywhere in this book—as in her other work—beauty abounds: sonic beauty, syntactic beauty, imagistic beauty, but never without revealing its Janus-faced other, never without admitting that an afternoon strolling in the garden here equals ten thousand hours down the mineshaft over there. And to get from one to the other, from any one and to any other, is to address the civic and the self, the country and the continent, the word and the world, or as Willis succinctly puts it, “Your footprint on the planet / pinned down by outer space.”
—Noah Eli Gordon
Fence Books, $15.95 (paper)
Less about baseball than the sport in seeking what’s in-between “girlhood and world and wood,” the selves Harmony Holiday summons in her debut collection work through the paths one takes from “the threshold of a Virginia porch” to “Mr. Bo Jangles sinecured in Mississippi” and a father who’s “keeping a child for his Stetson.” (The poet’s father is the soul singer-songwriter Jimmy Holiday.) This is personal and cultural history fit together first as hearing and then as seeing, its unstoppable assonance consonant with the notion that understanding will require some assembly, some difference in viewpoint, some “parallax of throat habits, the rapture of switching death // with the shrill lack of custody.” Holiday is interested less in “the vista, the word vista, the good word and look as it’s splitting”—after all, there are many “Centers in the circle of a crowd”—and more in an E Pluribus Unum identity intent on counting scars as well as kindnesses, confident that we may do so transitively: “These many languages I favor into one swoop of order . . . there you are looking famous as a coin face . . . my any abolitionist, my gambling habit.” Negro League Baseball expends itself for us like notes in a trumpeter’s solo, is full of minor sevenths that resolve, knows that any song with lift acknowledges the gravity exerted by everything underneath it, and that its flight is itself a way to demonstrate love: “I am proud of the things I favor, so sore from them.”
—W. M. Lobko