The Blue Absolute by Aaron Shurin
Nightboat Books, February 2020
Aaron Shurin is the former director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. He belonged the Good Gay Poets Collective in Boston, and is the author of fourteen books of poetry and many essays. Shurin has work in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology and in international anthologies. He was immersed in the culture of literary and political action necessitated by the AIDS epidemic, and he is steeped in Shakespeare.
The Blue Absolute is alchemy in prose poems, with delicious descriptions and “belching authority.” That’s a pairing anyone should be proud to come up with. It’s in “The Room” a jittery, elegiac piece with images that are reminiscent of a Caravaggio:
How did I steal his cup, how did I breathe when he staggered and gasped how were my feet quicker, tongue sharper, my armor suppler for being annealed to my skin…?
It’s part of a poem that’s early in the book, so it’s preparation for the ride ahead.
In “A Measure of Light” Shurin’s speaker sees
where the wind blows as if on the tongues of the walking men while the spangled water which is my eyes in their glee refresh the light and the water and the men who are my glee… And the families are eating where the shade of the high-leafed maple falls as though sound were muffled of the singing light or the gulls in their hot shrieks who are my tongue as it measures my love and the sun swells in its lowering heat…
This, about a third of the piece, is muscular and exquisite, and though its setting could be Provincetown or Key West, it is probably set in San Francisco. Its gossamer qualities suggest August Kleinzahler’s Bay Area rambles.
The Blue Absolute has choreographic electricity that dances skin-to-skin and mingles senses in ways that would surely please Allen Ginsberg and other Beats who knew their Shakespeare, their Rabelais, and their Zen.
All the Gay Saints by Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Saturnalia Books, May 2020
Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s What Runs Over was a finalist for the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry, and All the Gay Saints, which won the 2018 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, is a compassionate and sturdy follow-up. In their acknowledgement and celebration of who they are, Candrilli joins the best rule re-makers.
In their notes at the end of the book, they write: “Many poems are in direct conversation with the paintings of Herman Bas.” They join a distinguished cadre of writers who respond to visual art. And in “There Is a Point at Which I Tire of My Own Fear,” Candrilli quotes a familiar Bible passage and tips out its contradictions: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth’s empathy. / It just may kill us all.” The meek, and the speaker here, are inseparable from the fact that “Queers are killed / and always have been / killed in any number / of ways. But my partner tells me again and again how they love me.”
In “I Wish All Children Could Touch the Sky at Least Once,” Candrilli starts with fire:
The American West is burning
and young boys take
this opportunity to experiment
with bottle rockets, make metaphors
of their newly lit violence.
They want to know
how dangerous they can become
if they work hard at destruction,
and acres is the answer.
We all want to hate these boys
but instead settle
to hate their flammable
fathers—those raised fists, those holes
in the drywall.
By the end, the speaker is across the country, sharing a lesson their two-year-old niece is learning: “The most beautiful / things are temporary.” These wise, spare words remind us of how life lessons are observed, absorbed, and, if we are blessed, transformed into nuanced kindness, forging a charitable interior that helps keep political despair at bay.
The final poem in this riveting collection is love poetry at its finest:
Husband, we have yet to learn
so many things. Can you feel
the beauty of our unknowing?
Here, and on every page, Candrilli displays prismatic strength, grace, and hope.
A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Spears Jones
White Pine Press, November 2015
Patricia Spears Jones is the author of four previous poetry collections, has been a senior fellow for the Black Earth Institute, and served as program coordinator at New York City’s Saint Mark’s Church. Her latest, a new and selected edition called A Lucent Fire, is as enlightening as its title suggests, and is filled with interesting associations. An early poem, “Wearing My Red Silk Chinese Jacket,” acknowledges “dialectics when the spirit / calls forth the tongues on Sunday mornings.” Spears Jones populates the poem with many characters, including an “[a]ncestress in woodblock screaming / across the Middle Passage / quaking on this makeshift stage,” who is asked by the speaker, “What has Jesus done for you ?” The speaker also wants to know “[w]hat bright women turned the spindles; / dyed the thread? Jungle colors.”
Spears Jones’s poems tweak time and culture in unexpected ways. “Glad All Over” takes its title from a hit by The Dave Clark Five, a British Beatles competitor. It’s 1965, and her speaker is at a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee rally “just outside this shack on the side of town where I was not supposed / to be” because “I was curious. Everyone was curious.” This speaker wanted to know, in the Mississippi Delta, if it was “so bad / that there could be no turning back?” In this poem, a mother “wanted change as bad as she wanted the schools integrated, / hot running water in our house, a car loan paid off,” and other necessities, without jeopardizing their children. Then a song, “Glad All Over,” “bubbles up on a radio, with “secret joy beneath grim / turbulence.” Let all who have ears hear.
Spears Jones is just as good on sex. In “Aubade,” her speaker remembers a lover with a mouth “dry from all that tasting, all that wine.” She’s observing a face that “has quieted the boy more present than the man,” who will, like the woman, obey a law of morning:
By dawn’s light we begin again to practice wisdom.
My neighbor’s radio screams bad news.
I go to work.
In “Randy Crawford Sings ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ January 24, 2007,” Spears Jones reminds us that the President’s “‘strategy in Iraq’ / was less newsworthy than Steve Jobs’ iPhone.” By the end, her speaker wants to know “Oh where are our wondrous magicians? And their pretty assistants? / Who will lie in the coffin waiting to be cut in half?”
Spears Jones has always asked the right questions. A Lucent Fire is unbowed proof.
Bodega by Su Hwang
Milkweed Editions, October 2019
First-generation immigrants with skin that’s not white and a first language that’s not English. Stern and hardworking, wanting the best American education for their children, and wanting them to learn in other classrooms about the culture left behind. Confronting degrees of bigotry in America while their kids, too, try to sort it all out. These dynamics govern the lives of the characters who populate Hwang’s poems.
My Chinese American in-laws, who died in the 1990s, would have thought Su Hwang’s brilliant Bodega reveals too much, but I think their children will recognize themselves in it and appreciate Hwang’s talent and honesty.
In “Fresh Off the Boat | Five Sonnets,” Hwang’s speaker notes that her parents’ store had customers who:
Leaned across the counter, called us stupid
chinks. Go back to where you came from:
as if it were that easy. My parents stood like
totems, stone-faced. In defiance, they said
hugi-in, a word for darkness, for distancing.
Every culture and language has terms that help those raised in it express what’s necessary when they are in a place where communication is a minefield. In the same sequence, knotty realities come with killer images:
Bulletproof glass is not skin: not porous
nor forgiving. It keeps everything in
and people out, like a pallet of hard ice.
In “The Price of Rice,” Hwang’s speaker, not her brother, is taught to cook the fraught basic, and the speaker rolls with it, letting her mother speak
in hyperbole—concessions you allow someone who
survived civil war, someone whose father was taken
by silhouetted men in the dagger of night, someone
who’s toiled since the age of ten, someone
who still eats last at the dinner table.
In “Fatherland Triptych” after Robert Hayden and Eduardo Corral, Hwang’s speaker pays homage to her father and paternal grandfather:
In Seoul, my father was something
of a celebrity: he, the son of a legendary
literary figure who came of age during
the Japanese Occupation, whose chronicles
of plucky children and war-torn soldiers
captivated a battered nation.
The poem goes on to say that the speaker learned of her male ancestors on Wikipedia, her grandfather to her “an unknown entity,” and when her friends’ parents found out, she became welcome in their homes, “somehow suddenly worthy,” no longer the “wayward teenager.” The stately cadence in these details rightly channels Hayden, honors her forebears, and tells a relatable story of one generation wishing it knew more about who came before.
Audacity. Tenacity. Originality. Craft. Bodega earns its place in American letters.
Gravity Assist by Martha Silano
Saturnalia Books, March 2019
Martha Silano has written four earlier books of poetry and had poems in Paris Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Gravity Assist proves that she’s still taking an unflinching look at her surroundings. With Earth Day arriving toward the end of National Poetry Month, Silano’s poetry seems especially fitting.
“My Environs” juxtaposes a warbling vireo with a turbo jet, and goes on speak and listen:
I say trill while a mower groans away
the cottonwood breeze. A bird says If I see you,
I’m gonna seize you and squeeze till you squirt
as a line of cars slashes its psalm like lenticels
on bark. How best to solve this natural /
unnatural dichotomy if not by clapping one
or both hands? Scritch says the squirrel…
Silano knows that few dichotomies can be solved, but her observations object to the “verdant complacency” in the next to last line, another tricky, affecting pairing.
Silano is especially good at wording that’s not slant in ways I like to think the recently deceased Jane Mead would approve of. In “When I saw the loblolly pine,” she delineates mourning for a Carolina parakeet. The bird’s “greatest fault: / returning to the place where one / had been shot, otherwise known / as unfortunate flocking behavior.” This sounds, fittingly, like numbing gov-speak, and a few lines later Silano writes:
There’s no fundraiser big enough
to bring them back, no amount
of money to pledge. Because
they loved corn, tore open
apples to reach the seeds…”
…and so, “there’s a little less wonder / along the Perdido River.”
“Dear Mr. Wordsworth” is also a musical argument:
It turns out there is no tranquility. Signed,
The 21st Century.
However, there is powerful feeling. Other things
are powerful too-.
the same old powerful things ( waterfalls, strength
of a daffodil stem)—
Its widely known that Wordsworth has been co-opted by shallow teaching, but that’s not Silano’s speaker’s only concern. Her son’s geography assignments take her out of her “tranquil bath”: “Did you, Mr. Wordsworth, get Ds? Did you even know / what D stands for? Nope, not Daffodil!” Silano is beyond the need to overcome what’s hackneyed, even when motherwork calls.
In “Ode to Autocorrect,” she shows us how writers think when technology and composition clash:
Because it changes O’Hare to o hate,
o hate o hate-over and over, no matter
how many times I retype it. O hate, like
an American tune, an American fable
Martha Silano’s American tune is unflinching, and filled with timely associations.
Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Tradition by Norman Finkelstein
Hebrew Union College Press, September 2019
Firsts: 100 Years of Yale Younger Poets, edited by Carl Phillips
Yale University Press, October 2019
Norman Finkelstein and Carl Phillips are two men of my generation—I’m sixty-seven—who get things right without congratulating themselves. Finkelstein is a poet and scholar who has devoted more than forty years to understanding “what makes a Jewish poem and who is the poet writing it.” His main route for doing so is in examining how American Jewish poets relate to the modern canon, and his oeuvre is spacious. The book begins with an epigraph, from “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” by Wallace Stevens:
…Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study.
This announces that grappling and parsing are in store, and Finkelstein’s treatment of Charles Reznikoff shows how exhausting but necessary this can be. Finkelstein knows that Jewish poetry is inseparable from the Old Testament, even when some Jewish poets would try to wish that away.
At a time when blatant anti-Semitism is on the rise within and beyond the Academy, Finkelstein’s contribution is especially compelling. When thoughtful Jews who criticize Israel are still damned with the epithet “self-hating,” his essay on Rachel Tzvia Back is a helpful treasure. Back, born and raised in upstate New York, can trace her Galilean forebears for six generations, and moved to Israel when she was in her early twenties. She’s taught Jews, Muslims, and Christians, edited the English edition of a collection of Hebrew protest poetry, and written a major study of Susan Howe, an influence on her own work. In other words, she’s a giant with grace, as shown in this excerpt selected by Finkelstein from the title poem in Azimuth:
The maps, folded and refolded,
frayed, entire ranges lost
at the creases.
The compass needle
in its own green light
pulled toward passing metals…
Finkelstein, in his explorations of these two poets, Chana Bloch, Allen Grossman, and others, provides an erudite treatment of a subject he knows so well, where ancient, modern, and contemporary letters work in wondrous, aching ways. The bibliography he provides is an excellent resource for students, professors, and autodidacts.
The Yale Younger Poets prize is as establishment as it gets, so a complicated caution is called for when discussing it. Carl Phillips, in his introduction to Firsts: 100 Years of Yale Younger Poets, makes this clear. Phillips, who has judged the series for a decade, also recognizes that the award has miles to go before it is as representative if American voices as it should be. At the same time, he notes that, despite cultural prejudice, work from traditionally underrepresented communities was not entirely absent in the series—Richard Hugo selected Cathy Song’s Picture Bride in 1982, for example—and credits the 1996 founding of Cave Canem as a “watershed moment” for African American writers. Cave Canem has been replicated by programs for Asian American poets (Kundiman) and Latinx poets (CantoMundo), and Phillips celebrates the diversity of the work created within these programs. Below, I highlight writers whose examples remind us that, in these hundred years, some winners with dominant group “credentials” stood up, stood out, and tried to do right.
Adrienne Rich won in 1950 for A Change of World, and left a legacy of searing poetry and political activism. So did Muriel Rukeyser, who won for Theory of Flight in 1934. William Meredith won in 1943 for Love Letter from an Impossible Land, and took a quieter route, refusing to stand when Richard Nixon entered a room and publishing a poem about the experience, accusing Nixon of “criminal folly.” His three poems in this volume display skill and youth and no hint of the man who came out of the closet in the seventies while tutoring African American teenagers in DC.
Edward Weismiller, the 1935 winner and the youngest writer to win the award, for Deer Come Down, was a Milton scholar and a generous professor at George Washington University. His poems in this collection, and for the rest of his life, were unremarkable snapshots of nature and his inner musings. Rukeyser, two years his senior, wrote poems that were prophetic, like “Metaphor to Action”
Whether it is a speaker, taut or on a platform,
who battles a crowd with hammers of his words,
whether it is the crush of lips on lips
after absence and wanting: we must close
the circuits of ideas, now generate,
that leap in the body’s action or the mind’s repose.
Rukeyser was alive in 1974 when Maura Stanton won for Snow on Snow, and I imagine her cheering if she could read “Dreaming of Shells,”excerpted below:
The mouth is a shell.
Enter at your own risk
because I’ve exorcised my gentleness.
My tongue is glass in this stanza.
This is an exercise in bravery, as is the work of Fady Joudah, born in Texas in 1971 to Palestinian refugee parents. Now a doctor, he won a Guggenheim for his translations of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan, and he is unflinchingly lyrical and photographic. His The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Younger in 2007. In “Proposal,” Joudah’s speaker wonders aloud “[t]o a stone village, in a stone-thrower mountain”:
Were the villagers wrong to love
Their donkeys and wheat for so long,
To sing to the good stranger
Their departure song?
This speaker is restless and prepared, so halfway through the poem he waits “for the wind to send / God down,” while he becomes “ready for song.”
There’s richness and history in Joudah’s compositions, and in every volume I have discussed here. Reading these books, I, too, become ready for song, which is my hope for all Rumpus readers during National Poetry Month and always.