The three books I will discuss in this review were written before the COVID-19 pandemic became further proof that our days are devastating. These authors craft poetry that says: Yes, we will examine our histories and our surroundings with rigorous art, and they do this in original ways that display the great range of contemporary American poetry.
Juan Felipe Herrera is a former United States Poet Laureate. A son of migrant workers, he lived in tents and trailers as a child, was a voracious reader, and studied at UCLA. He has always meshed his academic knowledge with encounters beyond campus, and his latest collection, Every Day We Get More Illegal, is filled with poems of unflinching wisdom.
In “Basho and Mandela” Herrera writes “as Mandela has said / the haphazard segregation later became a well-orchestrated segregation / as Basho has said the journey began with an attained awareness / that at any moment you can become a weather-exposed skeleton.” That truth is challenging and appropriately harsh, yet Herrera softens it later in the poem when he exhorts readers to hold what he and earlier masters called “bowls of kindness” which will lead to “dawn-eyed freedom.” Dawn always suggests a new start, and Herrera reminds us to see what dawn has in store, that new “freedom.” Thus, harshly and softly he attends to the complexities we live with.
Every Day We Get More Illegal also gives an almost journalistic glimpse of what people at official border crossing experience in “Interview w/ a Border Machine,” a poem that’s rightfully chilling:
can you please state your name
what kind of name is that
The official, behaving like the machine in the title, clearly doesn’t care. We know this because as soon as he gets an answer he says, “well let’s get down to business here.” The “business” is power, of asking why this person is at the border, and the stories the person cannot tell: “i do not / talk about / that.” But Herrera tells, by implication, in every word.
The title poem is an illustration of hope where hope is hard to come by:
Yet the peach tree
& falls with fruit & without
birds eat it the sparrows fight
burns with trash and drug
it also breathes & sprouts
vines and maguey
This is true even where people are forced behind “broken slashed half shadows,” in a place of the “spirit exile,” which is where the poem ends.
Herrera has perfected being direct and beautiful while knitting history into the current time. In “want to speak of unity” he begins: i want to speak of unity that indescribable thing / we have been speaking of since ‘67 when I first stepped into LA / with a cardboard box luggage piece.” This is the city where he learned what was happening in “37 or 38” / exiled / from Germany banned and blazing black jacket-that / everything / in a time of all things in collapse. This is a time when we all should pay attention to what was going on in pre-World War II Europe.
Herrera’s speaker also remembers his own family, remembers that “no one knew we existed in the fires the flames that consume / all of us / now.” Herrera has always been a masterful breaker of lines, and his placement of the word “now” alone on its own line as the very last word in the poem enlarges the word, making its meaning more urgent. The physical shapes of some of the poems within Every Day We Get More Illegal make them difficult to reproduce digitally, but on the page they function as well as every other composition in this necessary book.
Maw Shein Win is the daughter of two Burmese doctors. She was the first Poet Laureate of El Cerrito, California, has a long history of collaborating with musicians and artists, and was a scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley. She was also immersed in the punk scene in Los Angeles in the 1980s. She is the widely published author of two chapbooks, a full-length collection called Invisible Gifts, and now, Storage Unit for the Spirit House.
The book opens with a statement from Qiao Dai, a doctoral student in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, noting that nats are spirits believed to influence the lives of people in their orbit. Win is never far from those spirits, and in this volume she meets them with spooky, magnetic sensuality.
In “Storage Unit 202,” her speaker will “crawl into the pod formerly known as storage unit 202 / inside is a quilt made of yesterday’s tablecloth, today’s plaid coat & / tomorrow’s prayer shawls.” Both Eastern and Western traditions have connections to shawls and to veils, their cousins, that go back thousands of years, so already Win has evoked universal mystery: spirits that ritual garments hold and transmit for generations. She also brings in the ordinary:
I cook peas in the pod
I drink moonshine at dawn
The word “pod,” here and throughout the book, has so many meanings that it’s tempting to write a long, loopy paragraph on how gratifyingly evocative it is. Win’s “moonshine” is another spacious evocation, with its illicit American history and the implied sight of the moon itself shining light on otherwise hidden activity. The poem concludes with a surprising twist: “one can sleep alone with a space heater,” which perfectly binds together the preceding lines. This deliberate jarring also brings to mind a generation of edgy women artists and poets, from Maya Deren to Frida Kahlo, from H.D. to Genny Lim. There’s a lot here that will encourage gluttonous readers to consume more of Win and others in her league.
“Water Space (two)” is short and heartbreaking and speaks to the experience of escape from events beyond the control of the very young. A flower serves as the catalyst for memory:
a past event
a burning kingdom
It’s ending could be told by a child crossing the Rio Grande, a Vietnamese youngster in the late 1970s, or the countless desperate refugees in our current moment:
clung to rowboat
Notice how powerfully compact these last lines are: a single lantern casts small, flickering light; bruises on hands clinging to the rowboat demand our compassionate attention.
“Sky Space (three)” continues to examine forced journeys and the history made from them:
referred to footnotes about the survivors
how they lived how they moved how they breathed
opened door & let sky inside.
This last line in the piece provides a welcome possibility of redemption.
Win also makes room for serene, painterly pleasure in this collection. “Vase (three)” is sweet taste, and after she has watched corolla blossoms land on blue linen she will:
dip bread in olive
oil inhale scent
of wild lavender
The title poem mentions the spirit nat, which “haunts the master closet among / he clothes moths, felt wolverines.” One daughter in the family hides “behind a juniper bush, “not far from a “wooden handgun in a metal case.” Another daughter sleeps with “a long broom next to her bed.” These are memories in the speaker’s storage unit, which also includes recordings of American pop stars and “VHS tapes of Burmese pop singers,” which remind her of her father’s den in America. That den is the “altered music room” of anyone who has come to America from a country with a very different melodic tradition.
Storage Unit for the Spirit House is a long book that never feels overstuffed. “Bone,” a pantoum, is about physical wounds in which the speaker describes an incident that broke parts of her body and that had to be permanently changed, before they could heal: “detachment of hips, dislocation of sorrow / aches and breaks, a fissure, a furrow / the brakes of the car an unsettling sound.” Win’s placement of detail is masterful, with vowels and consonants supporting the speaker’s pain. Her early life living with two doctors makes her technical, medical terms (“osteoblasts & osteocytes”) fit into the context of realization that “something’s not right.”
Storage Unit for the Spirit House is brave and multifaceted. It smolders and sings.
John Freeman is the former editor of Granta, where he supported new writers, and is known for curating anthologies on a variety of themes that feature both established and emerging writers. The Park, set in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, is his second collection of poetry.
Freeman has a strong sense of the way boundaries reflect and enforce privilege and history, and the international devastation wrought by the pandemic make his insightful voice all the more timely.
It took the overrunning of London
by its immigrant population in the 1680s
to turn the word into the spot we’d
park humans, so they could stumble
around in bewilderment at how time
is translation, change is nature’s rime
This is from “Translation in Paris,” a riff on the etymology of the word park, which comes from a West Germanic term meaning “a place where animals were padlocked.” It’s one of many erudite ways Freeman shows what particular spaces mean over time.
In “The City Without,” he notes that “A park’s / purpose is to temper the machine / in us.” When outdoor spaces are reconfigured as millions of migrants and refugees all over the world are confined, this is an especially astute and timely observation. The poem continues:
A city without parks snarls all day, heaving and bragging,
believes the carols
of its admirers, while most people living
in it spend their day canyoning through waterfalls of traffic, scaling monuments,
heads down, pilgrims who find themselves
too far upriver.
“Waterfalls of Traffic” is a heart-stopping image, naming objects in motion—water and motor vehicles—that, in the first case, are refreshing, and, in the second case, are aggravating if not unbearable. Freeman does this kind of combining throughout the collection, and it never fails.
“The Missing” gives us a Parisian version of how to think about monuments: “Every city’s a ghost story, / we marble kings and kin,” it begins, wonderfully turning the noun marble into verb. Freeman reminds us of kings who have been immortalized in statues, and the fact that:
Even today, even now there are
almost no women, but for
the Luxembourg eight or ten,
queens notable for more than
marriage to men
for having inspired Petrarch’s pen.
This rhymed recognition is easy on the ear, and it’s heartening to see Freeman’s understanding of the importance of representation.
“Endless” is a short poem, an understated description of a moment we have all experienced, and many have tried to describe, with awkward, trite results. Freeman’s speaker is in the garden when “Sunlight flexes,” and he is unable to read his screen. “Flexes” is such a strong beginning because of its straightforward allusion to muscle and because it is not usually associated with sunlight. Later in the poem, “[f]inally a cloud / passes and I am soaked in cool.” The speaker is comfortable and can see again. We need strength when we are being soothed, as much as we need it when we’re being made uncomfortable. In The Park, Freeman, like Juan Felipe Herrera and Maw Shein Win, gives us what we need.