Poetry Reviews: Catching Up

Soooo I’ve been slacking on the blogging front. But whatever, it’s fine, right? Anyway, I’m going to be catching up with posts rounding up my unwritten reviews since the end of April in genre-specific posts. Here’s the first!

va colonyThe Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown
Published: 2017
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 80
Source: Library
Date Read: April 29, 2018
Grade: A
Goodreads Synopsis: Harrowing poems from a dark corner of American history by the winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry.

Haunted by the voices of those committed to the notorious Virginia State Colony, epicenter of the American eugenics movement in the first half of the twentieth century, this evocative debut marks the emergence of a poet of exceptional poise and compassion, who grew up in the shadow of the Colony itself.

Review: This was a very, very good collection of poetry. It’s haunting yet stunning. One of the things that drew me to it in the first place is that it deals with a part of Virginia history that is often swept aside from common knowledge. Unfortunately, in the past – and most likely still today – anyone who was considered “abnormal” for whatever reason, even if they were mentally or physically disabled, would also be considered “less than” others and were often treated as such. What makes this collection so poignant is its unabashed portrayal and criticism. The poet would likely have been committed to either this institution or another like it had she been born a hundred years earlier. Thinking about how very possible that is makes me wonder how much beautiful art we have lost because the artists and writers who would have created it were not allowed to be themselves and freely make their art.

Favorite Poems (any emphasis is mine):

  • “Grand Mal Seizure” (8-10)
    • For a while the abandoning / was rare & then it was not / & would never be again // Imagine you are / an animal in your own throat (16-21)
  • “Without a Mind” (13)
    • What accident of nature? / What error in material? / What sin warrants a blown brain, / a lame body? Where does it wait / to be born? (16-20)
  • “What There Is to Give” (18)
    • Sometimes, when we’re bringing / in a girl, I catch her face before we shut / the door and she looks almost lovely: / a useless barge lit up, / bearing away on the water. (15-19)
  • “New Knowledge for the Dark” (19-21)
    • Once you were not waiting / to leave yourself, wanting / your skeleton shaken to pieces // so that, when it’s over, / the rest of you will have nothing / at all to come back to. (19-24)
    • Imagine, you have never been to the ocean / but the ocean is in you, / & sometimes, it roars. (43-45)
  • “Where You Are (III)” (29)
    • The thing about the Shenandoah / is everything is always bending / its knees toward ruin or preparing / to rise from the ash. (1-4)
    • Whenever you can, / make yourself small in your minor orbit, / ringed in maples // and strawberry fields, / made greater by the mountains yawning / in and out of fog. (13-20)
  • “Psalm” (37)
    • Even half-wits might have a soul to save: the concession / science makes to faith. // Whatever sins are visited upon my body, / best to do all you can to cleanse them before they ease into the air / like plague. After all, you would not want my life. Your children’s children / would not want my life: stale sickness, some stranger steeling herself / to touch you if she must, and then recoiling. // The meek will inherit the earth, but you worry the mute and monstrous / will pollute it long before that happens. (3-11)
    • Holy Ghost: You cannot hear what I am saying / in the cathedral of my own head. (18-19)
  • “The Convulsions Choir” (40-42)
    • They did not build / the church / for us. (1-3)
    • After all, / we are a whole host of reasons / to stop believing in anything. // I am the worst thing / the reasoned world / has wrought, // an otherwise lovely girl / daily visited by radical disorder / they say spawns somewhere / quiet & foaming / in the wounded matter of my body & my brain. // Sundays, we are allowed in the chapel / for an hour in the morning / after the men have prayed and gone. (13-27)
    • They did not build / the church / for us. // But the leave us / alone inside it, / bar the door. (49-54)
  • “Transubstantiation” (47)
    • Lord, most of what I love / mistakes itself for nothing. (10-11)
  • “Going to Water” (48-49)
    • Now, I’m the wrong / kind of creature / for this world. // Lord, is that you there? (37-40)
  • “To That Girl, As an Infant” (50-51)
    • What becomes beautiful is the wildest thing. / You are made from all that and a thicket / of thistle, a boat full of cardamom pods, a room in a house in Virginia. / Beloved, you are held in every improbable thing I’ve ever done. (14-19)
  • “Numb” (64)
    • It does not cure the pain or shaking. (5)
    • The only way that I can chart some change / is in the way the doctors look at me after it’s happened. / Less fearful. Less appalled. (10-12)
  • “Where You Are (VII)” (67)
    • They tell you that it takes ten years of being blind / before your body gives up dreaming about the night. (8-9)

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dcudDon’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Published: 2017
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 96
Source: Library
Date Read: April 30, 2018
Grade: A
Goodreads Synopsis: Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, some of us all at once. Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America–“Dear White America”–where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
Review: Smith delves into issues of race, sexuality, the combination of both, the state of America, police brutality, HIV and AIDS, shame, and pride. I hope this book has found its way into at least one curriculum somewhere in America. It made me cry and feel ashamed of and angry about what’s happening in the US.

Favorite Poems:

  • “summer, somewhere” (3-23)
    • paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun (8)
    • i was his secret until i wasn’t / alive until not. outside our closet // i found a garden. he would love it / here. he could love me here. (9)
    • dear brother from another / time, today some stars gave in // to the black around them / & i knew it was you […] i leave my revenge hopelessly to God. (10)
    • i spent my life arguing how i mattered / until it didn’t matter…dead is the safest i’ve ever been / i’ve never been so alive. (16)
  • “dinosaurs in the hood” (26-27)
    • little black boy / on the bus with his toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless // his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there. (27)
  • “& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys” (33)
    • imagine a tulip, upon seeing a garden full of tulips, sheds its petals in disgust, prays / some bee will bring its pollen to a rose bush.
  • “fear of needles” (40)
    • instead of getting tested / you take a blade to your palm / hold your ear to the wound.
  • “elegy with pixels & cum” (48)
    • they want us to know god or be god, kid.
  • “litany with blood all over” (49-52)
    • the prettiest fish are poisonous / & same is true for men (49)
  • “every day is a funeral & a miracle” (64-66)
    • do i think someone created AIDS? / maybe. i don’t doubt that / anything is possible in a place / where you can burn a body / with less outrage than a flag (65)

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brownBrown by Kevin Young
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 161
Source: Library
Dates Read: April 30 – May 1, 2018
Grade: A-
Goodreads Synopsis: James Brown. John Brown’s raid. Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. The prize-winning author of Blue Laws meditates on all things “brown” in this powerful new collection.

Divided into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings,” Brownspeaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times. From “History”–a song of Kansas high-school fixture Mr. W., who gave his students “the Sixties / minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a march on Washington”–to “Money Road,” a sobering pilgrimage to the site of Emmett Till’s lynching, the poems engage place and the past and their intertwined power. These thirty-two taut poems and poetic sequences, including an oratorio based on Mississippi “barkeep, activist, waiter” Booker Wright that was performed at Carnegie Hall and the vibrant sonnet cycle “De La Soul Is Dead,” about the days when hip-hop was growing up (“we were black then, not yet / African American”), remind us that blackness and brownness tell an ongoing story. A testament to Young’s own–and our collective–experience, Brown offers beautiful, sustained harmonies from a poet whose wisdom deepens with time.

Review: Young displays a mastery of imagery in these poems, which meld the past and the present together in terms of racial injustice alongside racial pride. Many of these poems were composed with the rhythms of songs that distinctly play out in my mind when reading them. Although a lot of the poems have an underlying sense of fear and/or sadness, hope shines through in the last poem, “Hive,” which is my favorite of the entire collection.

Favorite Poems:

  • “John Fluevogs” (85)
    • come morning, / our ears will still / like church bells toll. (28-30)
  • “Ode to Pun” (88)
    • I’m not a prayer / I just wish a  lot (1-2)
  • “Triptych for Trayvon Martin” (121-125)
    • “Night Stick [A Mural for Michael Brown]” (124-125)
      • A finger / is a gun — / a wallet // is a gun, skin / a shiny pistol, / a demon, a barrel // already ready — / hands up / don’t shoot — // arms not to bear / but bare. Don’t // dare take / a left / into the wrong // skin. Death / is not dark / but a red siren // who will not blow / breath into your open / mouth, arrested // like a heart. (25-46)
  • “Money Road” (148-154)
    • There are things / that cannot be seen // but must be. (104-106)
  • “Hive” (156)
    • Let him be right. / Let the gods look away / as always. Let this boy // who carries the entire / actual, whirring / world in his calm // unwashed hands, / barely walking, bear / us all there // buzzing, unstung. (10-19)

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eaElectric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
Published: 2017
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 94
Source: Library
Date Read: May 1, 2018
Grade: A-
Goodreads Synopsis: Electric Arches is an imaginative exploration of black girlhood and womanhood through poetry, visual art, and narrative prose. Blending stark realism with the fantastical, Ewing takes us from the streets of Chicago to an alien arrival in an unspecified future, deftly navigating boundaries of space, time, and reality with delight and flexibility.

Review: Fantastical and feminine and painful and beautiful–those are the words that came to my mind when I was reading this book. I couldn’t relate to most of the poems, but I could feel them. I thought it was interesting how Ewing combined the poetry, art, and narrative prose, and overall I think it worked well. I appreciated the allusion to The Iliad in “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on in Them.”

Favorite Poems: 

  • “Sestina with Matthew Henson’s Fur Suit” (16-17)
    • The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plentitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities. / Other days, you wonder if exile would be too lonely / and figure it can’t be worse than thinking you won’t make it home, / the fear of your own teeth skidding across the ice. (19-24)
  • “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife” (34-35)
    • I mean / when I see something dull and uneven, / barnacled and ruined, / I know how to get to its iridescent everything / I mean I eat them alive. (17-21)
  • “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on in Them” (84-86)
    • Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them. (70-71)
  • “Affirmations” (89)
    • Sometimes my insides rain from the inside out / and then I know / I am alive / I am alive / I am alive (26-30)

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witwWade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 75
Source: Library
Date Read: June 4, 2018
Grade: B
Goodreads Synopsis: In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

Review: I liked some of the rhythms in the poems and the occasional repetition of words was effective for the intensity of the poems.

Favorite Poems:

  • “A Man’s World” (11)
  • “The World Is Your Beautiful Younger Sister” (12)
  • “The Everlasting Self” (75)
  • “An Old Story” (75)
    • We wept to be reminded of such color. (15)

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nhNot Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 76
Source: Library
Date Read: July 2, 2018
Grade: A-
Goodreads Synopsis: Not Here is a flight plan for escape and a map for navigating home; a queer Vietnamese American body in confrontation with whiteness, trauma, family, and nostalgia; and a big beating heart of a book. Nguyen’s poems ache with loneliness and desire and the giddy terrors of allowing yourself to hope for love, and revel in moments of connection achieved.

Review: This collection is full of love and pain, and something in between. I felt these poems, which is one of the best things you can ask for from poetry.

Favorite Poems: 

  • “The Study” (23)
    • If you cut me open, if you dissect me, you will pull from me: / a pair of handprints, a nine-year-old boy, fossilized. (18-19)
  • “Again, What Do I Know About Desire?” (25)
    • It ends / how it begins: a man holds out his hand & you empty / the contents of your ordinary mouth. (14-16)

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ggGmorning, Gnight! by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 207
Source: Own
Date Read: October 18, 2018
Grade: A
Goodreads Synopsis: Before he inspired the world with Hamilton and was catapulted to international fame, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspiring his Twitter followers with words of encouragement at the beginning and end of each day. He wrote these original sayings, aphorisms, and poetry for himself as much as for others. But as Miranda’s audience grew, these messages took on a life on their own. Now, at the request of countless fans, Miranda has gathered the best of his daily greetings into a beautiful collection illustrated by acclaimed artist (and fellow Twitter favorite) Jonny Sun. Full of comfort and motivation, Gmorning, Gnight! is a touchstone for anyone looking for a lift.

Review: I needed this. We all need this. I wish I could keep some of these on a constant loop in my head. Here are my favorites:

  • Your best impulse, that selfless impulse, let / it take the wheel. / Let it drive you toward the person you / dreamed you’d be. (44)
  • Breathe deep. / That hitch in your breath is a record scratch. / That throbbing in your temple is the bass, and you / control the volume knob. / The scars in your mind and your heart are grooves / that run deep. / YOUR music. YOUR heart. YOUR life. / You got the aux cord. / Bump it. (48)
  • Sometimes staying under the covers / seems like the best option. / I feel you. / But c’mon, let’s go see / what’s out there. (54)
  • And there is your comfy bed, / right where you left it. / You earned this good rest. / Good night. (55)
  • I don’t know how to tell you this, / but / you’re not perfect. / You never will be. / You keep growing and messing up / and learning, / and your quirks become strengths. / You are SO much better than perfect, love. (62)
  • I dunno exactly how to tell you this, / but / you’re not perfect. / You never will be. / You keep growing and messing up / and learning, / and today’s fuckup becomes a / turning point once you survive it / and see it behind you. / You leave perfect in the DUST, / love, you keep going. (63)
  • You’ve had too many apps open for too long. / Close your eyes. / Check all systems. / Soft reboot. (110)
  • Don’t wait until low power mode. / Close your eyes. / Close all unnecessary apps. / Recharge. (111)
  • This feeling will pass. / This workload will pass. / These people will pass. / But look at you, with the gift of memory. / You can time travel to the good stuff just by / closing your eyes & breathing. / Then come right back to now, eyes up for / the good stuff ahead. / You magic thing…This moment will pass. / This fatigue will pass. / Tonight will pass. / But look at you, with the gift of imagination. / You can teleport to where you’re happiest just by / closing your eyes & breathing. / Then come right back to now, check in with / the present. / You magic thing, you. (140)
  • Days may be slow. / You may face setbacks. / Still, you’re on your way. / Your tempo is not dictated by your surroundings. / Your heartbeat is your own. / You’re on your way, dammit. (181)
  • Set the thermostat for your heart today. / The temp where you like it. / You know yourself, you know what you need. / Take your time. (186)
  • Get out of your own head for a sec. / Do something good today for someone else. / They’ll appreciate it / (and so will your head)…climb back into your own head for a sec. / Take stock of what you’ve got, and what / you need. / You’ll appreciate it / (and so will your head). (195)

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htbdHow to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes
Published: 2015
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 112
Source: Library
Date Read: October 22, 2018
Grade: D
Goodreads Synopsis: In How to Be Drawn, his daring fifth collection, Terrance Hayes explores how we see and are seen. While many of these poems bear the clearest imprint yet of Hayes’s background as a visual artist, they do not strive to describe art so much as inhabit it. Thus, one poem contemplates the principle of blind contour drawing while others are inspired by maps, graphs, and assorted artists. The formal and emotional versatilities that distinguish Hayes’s award-winning poetry are unified by existential focus. Simultaneously complex and transparent, urgent and composed, How to Be Drawn is a mesmerizing achievement.

Review: I wanted to like this more than I did. While the content itself captured me, the words and the lyricism unfortunately did not. I frequently found myself skimming when I didn’t even realize I was doing so. One poem in particular did contain something I found quite poignant, though: “What can you run from / that does not inevitably find you, / that you do not inevitably return to, / that does not inevitably run / from you?” (30)

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fuFalling Up by Shel Silverstein
Published: 1996
Genre: P
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 200
Source: Library
Date Read: November 17, 2018
Grade: B+
Goodreads Synopsis: From New York Times bestselling author Shel Silverstein, the classic creator of Where the Sidewalk EndsA Light in the Attic, and Every Thing On It, comes a wondrous book of poems and drawings. This special edition contains 12 never-before-published poems. Filled with unforgettable characters like Screamin’ Millie; Allison Beals and her twenty-five eels; Danny O’Dare, the dancin’ bear; the Human Balloon; and Headphone Harold, this collection by the celebrated Shel Silverstein will charm young readers and make them want to trip on their shoelaces and fall up too! So come, wander through the Nose Garden, ride the Little Hoarse, eat in the Strange Restaurant, and let the magic of Shel Silverstein open your eyes and tickle your mind.

Review: This was cute, if sometimes a little repetitive.

Favorite Poems: 

  • “Little Hoarse” (29)
  • “The Voice” (38)
  • “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda” (65)
  • “Tell Me” (154)

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itcfuIf They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Paperback
Pages: 128
Source: Library
Dates Read: December 6-9, 2018
Grade: A-
Goodreads Synopsis: Poet and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls” captures the experience of being a Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America, while exploring identity, violence, and healing.

In this powerful and imaginative debut poetry collection, Fatimah Asghar nakedly captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America by braiding together personal and marginalized people’s histories. After being orphaned as a young girl, Asghar grapples with coming-of-age as a woman without the guidance of a mother, questions of sexuality and race, and navigating a world that put a target on her back. Asghar’s poems at once bear anguish, joy, vulnerability, and compassion, while exploring the many facets of violence: how it persists within us, how it is inherited across generations, and how it manifests in our relationships with friends and family, and in our own understanding of identity. Using experimental forms and a mix of lyrical and brash language, Asghar confronts her own understanding of identity and place and belonging.

Review: This was so hard to get through, but I’m glad I did. There was a lot of focus on the Partition of India, which I only know a little about. I may look into finding a book or something on it to learn more about it.

Favorite Poems: 

  • “Partition” (9)
  • “When the Orders Came” (12-13)
  • “Oil” (49-51)
    • I collect words where I find them.
  • “Partition” (77)

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spSea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini
Published: 2018
Genre: P
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 48
Source: Library
Date Read: December 21, 2018
Grade: A-
Goodreads Synopsis: A short, powerful, illustrated book written by beloved novelist Khaled Hosseini in response to the current refugee crisis, Sea Prayer is composed in the form of a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey. Watching over his sleeping son, the father reflects on the dangerous sea-crossing that lies before them. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before the war, and of that city’s swift transformation from a home into a deadly war zone.

Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe.

Review: Pieces like this remind me how incredibly, undeservedly lucky I am. Although my ethnicity is not inherently better than any other, I was fortunate in being born as a white woman in the US. Sure, I have my problems and inequalities to deal with, but not once have I ever worried whether or not I or my family will be safe tomorrow. While it’s true that there are shootings and mass killings all around us, it’s not as immediate a threat as living in a war-torn country or having to trek across perilous lands or seas to seek shelter or asylum. I have never felt truly unwelcome or discriminated against because of my race, language, or religion. Those are things which are easy to take for granted, but which we should more consciously realize.

When the father tells his son, “Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen,” he is echoing nearly every parent who has ever had to or ever will face this kind of situation. It’s a blatant lie, but one that he and I hope can actually be true for many, many people.

I have heard it said we are the uninvited. / We are the unwelcome. / We should take our misfortune elsewhere. // But I hear your mother’s voice, / over the tide, / and she whispers in my ear, / “Oh, but if they saw my darling. / Even half of what you have. / If only they saw. / They would say kinder things, surely.”

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