Books Noted

In the Spring-Summer 2016 edition of American Poets, Stephen Burt reviews twelve of the year's most anticipated poetry collections.

Window Left Open
Window Left Open
by Jennifer Grotz
(Graywolf Press, February 2016)

“What I thought I wanted what I have tried to be / was the slender instrument that opened // a key,” Grotz says early on, and she gets what she wants. Unfashionable—but sharp and durable—aspirations to wisdom, to a poetry that values introspection and patience over flash and disconnection, drive Grotz’s third and best collection, whose attitudes and rhetoric can echo that of Larry Levis and Robert Hass.
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play dead
Play Dead
by francine j. harris
(Alice James Books, April 2016)

Scary and purposeful, almost but not quite chaotic, harris’s second volume sets out to shred taboos, defend the vulnerable, remember the dead, and craft a full account of a traumatic, complicated sexual life. In lines that feel autobiographical, in prose blocks that avoid even hints of narrative, and in reactions to earlier works of visual art (by Francis Bacon, Kara Walker) and older poems (by George Herbert, Horace), harris portrays rape survivors, dangerous families, porn actors, porn viewers, teens, and young adults who cannot disarticulate violence from pleasure....
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Sorrows of the Warrior Class
Sorrows of the Warrior Class
by Raza Ali Hasan
(Sheep Meadow Press, December 2015)

Hasan’s clear, compact sentences marshal a vast array of referents: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Dune (the book and the film), the protagonists of the Persian epic called the Shahnameh, W. H. Auden’s poetry, and Rohinton Mistry’s prose. “Jose Luis Arenas, / member of the Guatemalan Congress,” and the CIA-backed 1954 coup against Guatemala’s President Arbenz—all inform the Pakistani-American poet’s reflections on the ironies and the cruelties of modern history, supported by brief explanatory footnotes.
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Olio
Olio
by Tyehimba Jess
(Wave Books, April 2016)
Ragtime and the ragtime era, African American minstrelsy as an embarrassment and a productive art form, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their proud alumni, and the African American expatriate sculptor Edmonia Lewis are only some of the topics Jess’s encyclopedic second volume pursues. Unified by its interest in what black artists said, did, and made before the Harlem Renaissance, the outsized oversize book is also beautifully subdivided and given variety by many speakers and forms.
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Big Book of Exit Strategies
The Big Book of Exit Strategies
by Jamaal May
(Alice James Books, April 2016)
May’s 2013 debut, Hum, turned heads with its formal inventions (sestinas, a series of conceits about rare phobias) and its unrelenting attention to damaged places and damaged bodies—Gulf War veterans, victims of street violence, sites and scenes in May’s native Detroit. His follow-up holds often wilder, looser verse on the same and similar topics: “In the open mouths of our many graves,” one page begins, “are the teeth of our many friends.” “War took our prayers like nothing else can, / left us dumber than remote drones.”
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They and We Will Get Into Trouble
They and We Will Get into Trouble for This
by Anna Moschovakis
(Coffee House Press, March 2016)
Moschovakis has never been content with separable single poems: her books are projects, in dialogue with the form of the personal essay; with the linguistic ambitions of philosophers, memoirists, and art historians; and with her translations from the French. Here the project takes in the form of the book itself, whose running footers—almost like cable-news chyrons—convey aphorisms like Jenny Holzer’s: “[IN THE CORNER] [A BLANK] [FOR … [THEY] [THE ABSOLUTE SINGULAR].” The rest of the pages hold four provocative projects, each in its own brand of poetic prose....
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Songs from a Mountain
Songs from a Mountain
by Amanda Nadelberg
(Coffee House Press, May 2016)
Nadelberg’s smart, delightful, deliberately disorganized third book at once carries forward the rangy, nonlinear oddity of her second, Bright Brave Phenomena, and recovers the stellar charm of her debut, Isa the Truck Named Isadore. All-over-the-place in their length as in their forms—from blocky paragraphs to long stuttering lines to run-on, five-beat-or-so free verse—the poems stay together through Nadelberg’s personality: distractible, worried, delighted, always looking (sometimes amid thick layers of grief) for new ways to like the world.
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Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda
Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda
by Pablo Neruda
(Copper Canyon Press, April 2016)
One of the world’s most popular—and passionate, and prolific—modern poets, Neruda has also been well attended by scholars. That attention made it a welcome surprise when archivists discovered 21 poems, or parts of poems, that the Chilean Nobel laureate penned but never published between the 1950s and his death in 1973. The poet and novelist Forrest Gander, already known for translations of Mexican poets, seems like the obvious pick to bring the new Neruda into English, and he does not disappoint.
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Ritual and Bit
Ritual and Bit
by Robert Ostrom
(Saturnalia Books, March 2016)
About half of Ostrom’s compact, elegiac second book excels in a familiar mode, at once strongly felt and jumpy, dissociative, as in “For the Ghost of Carlos”: “At night / I am a hallway wrapped in an ocean. When the waiting / becomes what I don’t talk about, I sing to him and every / note is E-flat.” In “Tenet Meadows,” a lyric of childhood memory, “We are a small house // in a big-house neighborhood. The kids / chirr like longhorns in dead corn.” Readers of Matthew Zapruder—or of Federico García Lorca—will recognize the attractions of the mode.
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So Much Synth
So Much Synth
by Brenda Shaughnessy
(Copper Canyon Press, May 2016)
Shaughnessy’s third book, Our Andromeda, was an earthquake of sorts: Its combination of sculpted, pun-rich language (in short poems) and heartbreaking directness (in short and in long ones) presented the poet as the reflective, generous mother of a disabled son. Now the chief topics differ—Shaughnessy writes about her teen years, about the most troubled decisions of her twenties, about her young daughter—but the ferocity, the variety (some poems wax demotic, others nearly baroque), and the trustworthy, charismatic speaker are the same.
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Selected Poems
Selected Poems
by Keith Waldrop
(Omnidawn Publishing, April 2016)
Readers who follow any strand of American experiment know about Waldrop as a teacher, a mentor—with his wife, the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop—for generations of young innovators at Brown University. Some of those readers have never seen Waldrop’s own poems, and almost none have seen them all. This big selection reaches back to 1968 and stretches forward into the last few years, making a case for a poet who has penned long sequences, stand-alone lyrics, miniatures reminiscent of Robert Creeley, ambling prose, and verse-chorus-verse song lyrics in the manner of Stephen Sondheim.
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Rival Gardens
Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems
by Connie Wanek
(University of Nebraska Press, February 2016)
“[I]n Minnesota, such are the limits,” Wanek quips in one of many thoughtful new poems. The limits on conversation, the limits of life and death, the limits on what we are willing to admit even to ourselves, have been her great subjects, raising her above the equally charming and plainspoken poets of garden, farm, and household whom she resembles at first glance. “[P]eople, especially Minnesotans ... want to find a way to like you,” the Duluth-based poet opines, and her wry, observant free verse (much of it drawn from her three earlier collections) remains easy to share and easy to like.
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