Time to Shout Out Appreciation: Five Short Poetry Book Reviews
I find myself with more time on my hands these days. Maybe I love poetry in part because I can fit reading, sometimes even writing a whole poem or two, into my “normal” days. I’d be less likely to finish a short story or chapter. Rarely do I sit and read a full poetry collection. But in these abnormal days, I have done just that. I pulled a few books to read through and write reviews.
I’m told reviews are helpful to post for sales. I rarely write reviews, but love many things. I love my travel guitar I got from Atomic Music last spring, it keeps a beautiful tune and is the perfect size for me. I love my Olukai shoes that resolved my plantar fasciitis when the inserts from the doctor made it worse and I think they look pretty cool. I love Dogfish Head Compelling Gin and don’t know how they infuse it with such delicious flavors and leave out the hangovers. I could go on, but the point is I’m happy to use some of this Time on my hands to sing the praises of things I love, like poetry.
Here are mini-reviews of five poetry books that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months. Grateful for them and hope you enjoy the read.
Beautiful & Full of Monsters
Beautiful & Full of Monsters, by Courtney LeBlanc is in turns brutal and beautiful. Courtney describes violence in raw, blunt tones, while incorporating romantic imagery and relief in way of hope. In “Afloat” she writes, “I draw maps on his skin / write love letters the tide / will wash away. We are not / safe in our cathedral of sand / but still we worship…” This collection feels honest and I suspect anyone who has ever loved or wanted love will see themselves in some of her poems. Another of my favorite excerpts is from “I Should Have Said.” “When you shoved the coffee table, sent my collection / of sea glass swimming, bits of blue and green, / a tsunami swirling around us.” Courtney’s collection is full of striking imagery, of lightning and ocean waves, of hummingbirds and mood rings. It’s a collection I’m sure to turn to again.
Courtney LeBlanc also keeps a strong online presence. She’s been featured recently in interviews and I’ve taken the opportunity to watch her reading her work online, through Facebook or Twitter. I’ve also had the treat of hearing her read in person twice. It’s worth finding an opportunity to catch her reading her own poems if you can.
Marlena Chertock embodies the spirit of making lemonade from lemons in her collection Crumb-Sized. I love lemonade. A primary theme of Marlena’s work is her physical challenges and pain. In “Rikkud” she writes “my hips and knees are kindling / and I can’t give them more air / or my bones become crisps // the only bonfire dancing.” The voice is whimsical, but honest and vulnerable, and the poems feel in constant motion, perhaps like the orbits of planets. Marlena provides lovely descriptions of fragility that elevate disability to something precious and worth gentle and deep consideration.
This book is striking in a few ways. One is for it being a wonderful collection of words. Another is that it has a great size and feel. Unnamed Press did well making Crumb-Sized a bit smaller in dimension than the average poetry collection and the texture of the paper feels nice against fingertips. Also it’s visually interesting with great graphics that speak to me of shells, or maybe growth rings of a tree, as well as of course planets and solar systems. I say of course because space is a primary theme of Chertock’s collection. Reading “Application to NASA,” the second of this twenty-nine poem collection, makes me want to start a letter-writing campaign to help make this woman an astronaut! I’d put my faith in her to extend a hand to other life forms and teach me about all I can’t see. This collection inspires me in this way.
Dark & Light
Dark & Light is a delightful collection of poems by Jay Hall Carpenter. Written mostly in rhyme, the pieces call to be read aloud, which is precisely what I did, much to the pleasure of my faithful friend, Odie. Jay takes on themes as big as God and myths, and as personal as affections and being broke, all with an impressive flair for language and humor. Something of his voice reminds me of Kafka, the waiting and longing and breaking down of human struggles.
I was unable to identify a favorite poem from this collection, but narrowed it down to four, a good lot! I am drawn to the sensitive and romantic imagery he applies in poems focussed on love and lust, always among my favorites. But here I pull an excerpt from a wonderful poem that brings me to the wide open wild west, “A Truer Grace.” “Running from the law / All the laws. / But running toward something too / That something beyond laws / The naming of things is part of what we seek // You leading the horse slowly / Groping your way through the thick mountain fog…” This poem makes me feel especially free in these days of confinement. Jay’s poetry can do that.
Coconuts on Mars
Indran Amirthanayagam’s Coconuts on Mars speaks of cultures and the experience of having multiple “homes” as well as of current events. I feel both a sense of comfort and as though I’ve traveled after time with Indran’s work. He employs a wonderful conversational style in his poetry. Through questions and asides, I always feel like I’m in communication with the poet when reading. I quote from “The Word” to illustrate. “...Turn that pyramid over. Spin it on the apex, the fine tip of the antenna. Dance on a pin, baby. You can do it. This is the New Year, mother-laden cold, everybody hopping around the bus stop and strolling along once public-filled gardens. Gardens, my dear! Snow. Ice. Freezing wind shards. Meanwhile you cite Maslow?...” Indran shares a voice both lyrical and accessible, providing settings and themes we can all relate to, enabling me to think many times throughout reading, “I’ve been here.” But in a way, he polishes the memories, making them more beautiful and meaningful, but no less real.
I have carried around Coconuts on Mars for ten months. It’s one I keep in my bag, in part because I’ve been wanting to review it, but mostly because it’s a good one to keep on hand. I never know when I’ll need the shelter of a good poem for protection or connection and these poems do well at providing both.
I’m reading Scattered Clouds, Reuben Jackson’s poetry collection again and trying to think what words to put as I spin from enchantment to wonder to sadness, then find myself laughing out loud. It seems magic how he evokes all of this in so few words. I’ll quote from his poetry to demonstrate what I mean. From “Saturday Night,” “...isn’t it comforting to know / that despite today’s high divorce rates, / ernest and julio gallo / still get along?” From “Variations on a Theme by Danez Smith,” “Sweet, tiresome life. / Don’t snitch on my pillowcase / Crying over ghosts.” Beautiful excerpts, but they don’t do justice to the poems, because Reuben’s poems are so tight that they’re best read whole, every word in interplay with the ones before and after.
Scattered Clouds is full of uplifting imagery, especially in his passionate love poems to music. But it’s also at times devastating, his voice as a black man in America and contemplations of the experience of young black boys in America. In this 78 poem collection there’s so much — stories of a soulful child in a rough neighborhood, the mean but lonely kids, touching portraits of family, the romantic and charming poems of Amir & Khadijah, and if you don’t know them, I highly recommend you buy the book. Scattered Clouds is one I return to again and again, always learn something new.