How much of us is our body? How much of us is our history?
The Hatchet and the Hammer by Caitlin Scarano is here to reckon, defying genre, clear-eyed and standing two inches from those questions without flinching or ornament. Generations of trauma and violence, physical and imagined, threaten the speaker–but Scarano’s poetry dissects that threat in a way that peers into its origins, interrogates the idea of blame, is still standing at the end, and finishes with a roar.
Poetry subverts the failure of language to embody another human’s experience. Reginald Dwayne Betts harnesses this power with Felon: Poems, his poetry collection about the impact of mass incarceration in America and the hands it holds with racism. These poems are breathing things–they speak to our time and are spun from whispers and screams from all angles of the things we call prisons… and the social systems that contribute to filling them.
My favorites from this collection: -“When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving” -“City of the Moon” -“Diesel Therapy” -“Essay on Reentry (I)” -“Night” -“Exile”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s collection Oceanic is specifically personal and intentionally global at the same time, and in that contrast it builds a welcoming entry point for many different readers. The marine motifs disappear and return throughout, but Nezhukumatathil’s clear voice is the sea in which these poems scuttle and breathe. Many surprises to find.
My favorite poems in this volume: *Self-Portrait as Scallop *End-of-Summer Haibun *The Two Times I Loved You Most on a Farm *Letter to the Northern Lights *The Psyche poems *First Time on the Funicular
Choi’s poetry is innovative, unafraid, and visceral in so many surprising ways in her collection Soft Science. The unifying concept is a fusion of science and soul, technology and body, as she uses poems crafted around the Turing Test as a frame for the different sections of the book. As detached as the poems can intentionally be, often self-referencing as a “cyborg,” they are also deeply personal. Choi’s work lives in a place that is foreign but familiar, human but more (or less). The structure in many of these poems carries a particular kind of cool.
My favorites in this collection: *All six “Turing Test” poems *Making Of *On the Night of the Election *A Brief History of Cyborgs *Afterlife *I Swiped Right on the Borg *Solitude
and especially *Perihelion: A History of Touch *Introduction to Quantum Theory
Andrea Gibson is an extraordinarily powerful poet. I was so lucky to see Andrea perform in Green Bay about a year ago, and revisiting the poems on the page brings back the memory of that fire. This collection approaches gender, violence, and humanity with a voice that is tender in both its passion and its rage. It is a voice that is honest and disruptive, but always in the service of love. While I am so happy to have this volume on paper, it does not compare to experiencing the collection in performance–Andrea’s delivery is an essential ingredient in experiencing these poems in their full power.
My favorites from this collection: Ivy Tincture Radio Living Proof First Love
The best YA books capture what it really feels like to be young, and The Poet X does that with a hand so light you didn’t even know it touched you until you close the back cover. The book verges on metafiction, as it’s written in verse, essentially representing the notebook full of poems that the main character Xiomara carries with her everywhere as she comes into her artistic identity. Acevedo is so good at capturing the overwhelming crescendo of adolescence–suddenly we have to figure out about God and love and who our parents really are as people and what to do with an adult body and terror and pride and what we’re willing to risk ourselves for. Xiomara has all of that chaos right in front of her, and we get to ride along as she figures it all out, full of doubt but also full of power. A resounding celebration of the solace and strength that comes from writing.
I don’t know what I could add to the observation of the committee who awarded this set of Merwin’s poems the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: “A collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.” Not only are many of the individual poems so special*, but the overall permeating sense of the book creates a unique color of emotion when read all together. Another of his reviewers identifies it, again, so much better than I can: “his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing.” It is all that and more.
W.S. Merwin truly was a master poet, and there are so many places here to stop and say “oh”! in this collection, one of the finest and latest in his long, prolific career. If you love poetry, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while, I highly recommend The Shadow of Sirius.
*There were so many standout poems in the collection, but if I had to pick one: “Just This.”
Caitlin Scarano’s debut poetry collection Do Not Bring Him Water is a master class in exploring the rot of trauma and the dissonance of need. Each poem shows us a speaker who will not be held down, clawing her way to the surface to breathe, scratching everything that gets close along the way. At turns hollow, luminescent, bloody, and frozen, the collection’s fragmented voice is wrought together with indelible image threads—the white dog, spoiled milk, bowl and spoon, the ghost of a son. These graceful, violent poems are not written for the faint of heart, and you might end up crying hot tears in a coffee shop if you read them all in a row like I did. But most of all, this book shows us how to write without flinching–to tell the truth. I’m convinced that this poet’s real name is She Is Not Afraid. Caitlin Scarano is one to watch.