Barbara Berman’s 2019 Holiday Poetry Shout-Out
In keeping with Rumpus tradition, Barbara Berman reviews collections of poetry and books on poetics that would be perfect for any reader on your holiday shopping list—or for yourself. And remember, you can always buy the poetry-lover in your life a subscription to The Rumpus’s very own Poetry Book Club! We offer 6-month and 12-month subscriptions, and each gift subscription comes with a certificate you can print out and put under the tree—and makes a perfect last-minute gift! – Ed.
“The really, really good stuff makes us want to grab people by the collar and rave about what makes it so great, until the police are called and we have to find someone else to bother.” The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote that in an October column, and it’s the motto I’ve been waiting for, and a perfect introduction to my annual holiday shout-out. Below are four collections published in 2019 that I recommend for everyone—to give as gifts, and to read for ourselves.
The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Laura Vrana (Wesleyan University Press, November 2019)
The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Laura Vrana, is long overdue. Thomas was born in 1944, died in 2005, and was the youngest member of Umbra, the predecessor of the Black Arts Movement. Much of his poetry was originally published in ephemeral ways, making The Collected Poems all the more welcome.
These poems display Thomas’s social consciousness and his place in the aesthetic tradition of his ancestors and black America. One poem takes us to the mass lynchings in Tulsa in 1921, and all the violence Thomas recounts is especially resonant as Christians of the world now prepare to celebrate the birth of a radical prince of peace.
In “A Kind of Accounting,” he writes of the separate journeys from Cuba taken by his father and uncle, noting the immigrants’ losses as they leave the country and culture they were born into: “Each stop a little less Spanish.”
And there are other losses, some necessary. In “Suburban Saturdays,” Thomas writes,
The world has changed
Manners your elders strapped you into
Somehow have come unraveled in your hands.
“Strapped” is an especially interesting word here, gesturing toward the strap—literal and figurative—of slavery. Declarations throughout this fine volume are straightforward on the surface, but ask us to examine them from more than one angle. And while his musical, complex poems recount the pain of his people, they also find the places where our divided society coheres. In “Sightseeing in East Texas,” he displays a compassionate eye:
These towns are orphans of the Interstate
A slow-motion beauty
Often fires these town squares
With sparks of homely pride.
This could be any town in our fractured American union, and further evidence that Thomas had talent both broad and deep. The Collected Poems has heart, craft, and imperative song.
Deer Trails by Kim Shuck (City Lights Books, July 2019)
Kim Shuck is a Tsalagi (Cherokee)/Euro-American author and artist, and is the current San Francisco poet laureate. While her graceful poetry can be nuanced, her opening prose is a direct reminder of what the city stands on, and why it matters. Deer Trails begins with her inaugural speech, delivered at San Francisco’s Main Library.
“It is always an honor to read in Ohlone territory,” she states. Two pages later, she tells us that she is half-Polish, that her grandfather was a union organizer, and reminds us that there used to be a Native elder center in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, now home to chic boutiques, restaurants, and a Warby Parker store.
Shuck clearly wants us to ingest what’s not widely known, and her poems accomplish this with sure-footed language. “Tensioned Thread” asks questions and approaches answers:
What risk will you
Feed in the quiet hours in the
Winter hours? I am
Assured that there were no
Bees in the Americas before the
Invasion but there is a Mayan
God of bees and I
She wonders if beadwork and the knots that go into Kazakh rugs serve as a secret conduit to a time before language as we know the word to mean, so she suggests we “[i]nvest in these / Quiet messages we send each other.” The subtle strength here is challenge and balm.
Always, she’s with the land, as in “Coming Down Into Eureka Valley:”
This hillside remembers being wild and the
Trees still talk about the orchard that replaced
Purple bunch and
The poem is an organic elegy for place, spiked with the reminder that though some plant grafts failed: “Every ten years or so saffron crocus / Bloom / Under mirabelle plums.”
The good is still here if you just listen and look, and look again, as in this section of “Watershed”:
Peering through the
Hillsides around Rocky Point and
Glen Park Canyon remember their
True names and
Call them out like
Unseen but heard if listened for there is still
Joy in these hillsides the
Water still runs here.
The voice of the water and the voice of the bird deserve reclaiming by being heard. Shuck’s own sound is often gentle on the ear, and blessedly strong.
Colonize Me by Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley (Saturnalia Books, March 2019)
Benjamin Naka-Hasebe Kingsley belongs to the Onondaga Nation of Indigenous Americans in New York. Like Kim Shuck, he notes his lineage in an introduction: in this case, a poem before the first section of Colonize Me:
From Nippon refugee
___who America caged.
______From Onondaga son
___who America imprisoned
who they couldn’t board into whiteness.
These lines, and the rest of the words in the piece, are essential defiance for our time. They also imply agreement with the basic premise of trauma theory.
The physical shapes of the poems that follow the introductory lines are looser, and serve the words well. “Our Broke-Ass Ladder of Opportunity or The Black Boy Anthem” is searing in its specifics:
_______on Wabash Ave
____________________single stairwell _________________NO LOITERING signs
of six & seven
_______for forgotten __________________________________copper
_____________________buzzed down _____________________fro’d -up
___________________________________in new skin us boys raising each other
______onto cardboard sleds
refrigerator boxes zipped ____________down them steps.
was the best
The poem continues, mentioning the lack of a real playground and the ways in which preteen boys have bonded since tobacco was discovered. They cough after lighting and dragging on their first cigarettes and catch a friend furtively kissing a girl.
Kingsley has contagious energy that’s never exhausting, on display in the rest of this poem and in others that come later, even when the subject matter is very painful. “The Lion, The Witch & My Brother Timiko” is about the third time his brother jumped from their mother’s minivan. One way to live with heartache is to force oneself to make art out of it (as opposed to sloppy catharsis that’s helpful to the author but not to the cause of good), and this he does with piercing finesse. The brother loved watching the movie version of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Kingsley uses that as a framework for his sorrow, his wish for a “real ice witch / anything to bring you with us / back home.”
In “Run: 2nd Street Harrisburg, PA, Summertime ‘17,” he calls himself out for watching his sister get arrested for being brown:
for daring ___to dance ___her jay-stunting
across the street ___be next ___to her but say
nothing ___because this ain‘t ___Footloose
and you will ___always be ___a coward.
Kingsley is no coward and Colonize Me is an artistic, emotional, and political triumph.
Planted by the Signs by Misty Skaggs (Ohio University Press, September 2019)
This October, in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, I met Misty Skaggs, a terrific young poet. She has a fine ear for rural storytelling tradition, and her language, tales, and recollections thrum with authenticity. “Jump Rope Jitters” is richly immediate:
I can still feel my little kid skin connect
with playground concrete
and see the bright red ribbons of blood
cutting a path to the cuff
of my ruffled pastel socks.
I can still feel loose gravel trapped
right below the surface.
We’re right there with her as she tells us she’s awake, knowing there’s no recess to dread tomorrow, as her “legs jerk,” the way all living bodies remember in unexpected, disobedient ways.
These poems have a starchy impatience with people who can’t assess the natural environment, so, in “You Might Drown,” Skaggs’s speaker instructs an unnamed person in the basics of weather prediction that crows and tree leaves have taught her: “Listen. The rain crows / are cooing soft warnings.” She insists on looking as “[e]very little leaf / turns its pale belly skyward. / There’s a storm coming / and they’re ready to drink it all in.” This kind of smooth music is harder to pull off than it seems.
In “Babies Having Babies” her speaker is rightly outraged when she visits a child who has just given birth, calling the baby’s father a “nasty old man.”
He posed, baby on his chest,
Like he had some part in her ordeal.
I know good and well his part
and it made me cringe.
I strangled a growl and swallowed hard.
“Strangled” and “growl” are especially appropriate because of the visceral acknowledgment of rape they suggest. Skaggs’s rural eye also serves her well in “Big City Surprise,” near Louisville when her speaker spots a red tailed hawk:
He shouldn’t have been there,
so majestically out of place.
Wherever Misty Skaggs’s poetry takes her, I want to be there to read it.