Ilyse Kusnetz: “Every day in my Facebook feed I see news items and petitions about gross injustices—today it just happened to be a story about animal torture that sparked my outrage, which so quickly spirals to reacting to other sound bytes of horror in my feed and in emails that are sent to me because of petitions I’ve signed—and I want to make a difference, but at the same time I feel helpless, even more so knowing that my struggle with cancer has been taking all my energy. I have to hope that others will take up the battles that need to be fought, but at the same time the search for meaning in my own life has become more urgent. Sometimes all we can do is bear witness.” (website)
In 2006, Rattle featured one of my favorite poems, Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering,” which won a Pushcart Prize. It was her first, and remains one of only a handful of poems that she ever published. Lynn’s breast cancer returned a few years later, and she died on November 19, 2011. Her husband found this archive of poems on her computer, and released them through Lulu. At 174 pages, New Love is a book of collected poetry that probably should have been selected—it’s hard to imagine any poet withstanding such a raw and sweeping treatment—but the mine is full of diamonds just waiting to be unearthed: These are beautiful, cutting poems that make a vibrancy out of both life and death, bravely and bitingly exploring her own imminent absence. For example, this four-line jewel:
She walks in the water
with her former lover, her white
hair and caftan blowing at his side,
and he is nothing.
Poet & Vampire gives voice to the supernatural prophet, the wise man or holy man—the semi-divine trying to make a dollar outta’ fifteen sense—the absurd man with savant-like prescience that delivers the reader from the deceptions of life. His collection channels dueling alter-egos—Poet as everyman, Vampire as eternal observer of human nature—who project both optimistic expansiveness and visceral misapprehensions. The result is not just a bastardization of poetry to prose, or vice versa, but a rethinking of the parameters of voice—becoming a “vehicular” language casually slipping in and out of identities, and pushing against the cloying shibboleths of 2014 America. This collection evokes a literary slap-stick philosophy that keeps me laughing, my mouth opened wide enough to accept the truth. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
With their plain black titles on neutral white, beige and robin’s egg blue backgrounds, Wave Books collections might appear to the uninitiated generic and/or interchangeable, but the fact is that the press is putting some of the most interesting poets at work today between their simple, misleading covers. Talkativeness, the latest from Michael Earl Craig, ranges from beagle puppies to film directors Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman over the course of its lyrical conversations. As suggested by the book’s title, Craig has a casual voice that welcomes readers into a vast, varied world. Like the film directors he admires, he also has an eye for distinctive details. Craig lives near Livingston, Montana. Perhaps that explains why even his most succinct poems seem to expand the horizon.
There’s a lot to admire about Curiel’s collection. I loved the title poem—a 30-page historical re-imagining of an early 20th century Mexican woman named Jenny Wenner. She’s a prostitute who becomes imprisoned in America after killing her husband/pimp in self-defense. Jenny is nearly invisible—an immigrant expelled from an American prison in sickness, sent to Mexico to die. Curiel gives audience to this otherwise invisible figure: “Girls like me/ come from alleys/ from dirt floors/ from cold kitchens/ from one thin blanket.” She is working in the acclaimed, controversial tradition of writers like Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey, who sometimes meditate on untold, individual histories, and draw them into the present.
Every now and then I read poems that shock me into thinking, “I’ve been doing it all wrong. Here I’ve been playing mere word games while real poets are communicating thoughts, passions, experiences.” That’s how I felt while I was reading Small Hours, the winner of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Kusnetz tells stories about famous personages like Marie Antoinette and Galileo with the same familiarity as the account of her uncle who, she says, filched Der Fuerer’s alarm clock at the end of World War II.
Many of the fifty-six poems in this volume disturb as much as affirm, cause outrage while they are provoking reflection, bring pleasure in the midst of atrocity. That’s what good poems can do. In the presence of stuff like this, I often resolve to change my ways, stop poetizing and write about things that matter. Those resolutions never last long, however. Alas.
—Conrad Geller, contributor (November 10, 2014)
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