"I Reject Walls": A 2019 Poetry PreviewThis year, says critic Craig Morgan Teicher, America's poets are stepping up and expressing their faith in the capacity of words to overcome barriers, find compromise, and speak truth.
It's been a rough year for words, and it's looking like the coming year won't be very different. Words are being used far too much as blunt objects in America's public discourse, their edges dulled, their nuances rounded off. They're being mishandled.
But America's poets are stepping up, their faith in the capacity of language — to overcome barriers, find compromise, and speak the truth — is undaunted. Poets alone won't save us, but they are helping to keep words honest, multifaceted, and ultimately powerful. Words, used well, might save us.
So here are a few of the upcoming books of poetry I'm most excited about, books that are keeping me from losing hope, books that remind me that, even as America is at its most divided, its language is about synthesis, about coming together, about dissimilar things that form a gorgeous and powerful whole. These books are angry, they're afraid, they're grieving and hoping; so am I. I'm grateful for their company.
In her stunning second collection, Mao stages a searing ventriloquy act, inhabiting a very specific group of otherwise voiceless speakers: Asian and Asian American woman who have been stereotyped and reduced to cliché in films, photographs, and TV shows. These depictions speak and fight back against the white gaze that has framed them, reclaiming their humanity from the weathering and reductive eye of posterity, from a time when "There was no word/ for tokenism." Mao speaks to and for Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to visit the U.S., a contemporary factory worker; the plastinated corpses of the infamous "Bodies" exhibition (which were rumored to have belonged to Chinese dissidents); and many others. At the core of the book is a series of poems in the voice of the Chinese American film actress Anna May Wong, who Mao places in a series of imagined encounters. "Cast me in a new role already ... a pothead/ an heiress, a gymnast, a queen," she asks, with no small amount of impatience and annoyance. Throughout, Mao seeks to correct the mistakes the camera encourages the viewer to make, so that, she concludes, "I am not a stranger here."
"For proof the world is frightening,/ look no further than the aggression/ of goats and chickens, and children, too,/ and even my own loathing, half-/understood," writes Rathburn in her arresting third book, A gentle whirlwind of memory, trauma, and uneasy hope, savored almost as much as it is run from. What do we do about, or with, the past if it hurts us? What if our most poignant memories, our most urgent questions, are about our worst moments? In mostly short, crystalline lyrics, Rathburn probes these and other unanswerable questions. A six-year-old daughter accidentally cuts her mother's hand while they carve a pumpkin together: "Each Halloween, she brought it up again,/ reminding me what I had done, how I had hurt her,/though she was the one who handed me the knife." A risky pregnancy is revisited, as if it could be revised: "The doctor brought a tackle box of clamps/ and scissors to the makeshift surgery// and apologized for what he'd do." Indebted to Plath, with a bit of Robert Frost and even a dash of Robert Lowell stirred in, Rathburn's poems are unrelentingly intense and inward, almost too sweet with insight, and helpful to us in this moment when so much of our poetry is loud and public facing.
This extraordinary book-length narrative work, Kaminsky's long-awaited second collection, is set in the imaginary town of Vasenka, in an unnamed occupied country. Soldiers shoot the deaf nephew of two puppeteers, so the whole town adopts deafness as a form of resistance, tribute, and retaliation, simply refusing to hear the soldiers' commands. "Our hearing doesn't weaken, but something silent in us strengthens," a chorus of townspeople proclaims. "I am not deaf/ I simply told the world// to shut off its crazy music for a while," says one of the story's heroines. Love poems — "You are two fingers more beautiful than any other woman" — are mingled with poems of grief-stricken horror ("may god have a photograph of this"), and protest ("A man should smell better than his country") as the book winds toward its dark conclusion. Re-envisioning disability as power and silence as singing, Kaminsky has created a searing allegory precisely tuned to our times, a stark appeal to our collective conscience.
The topics covered in Brown's incredible third collection range from love and lust to the vulnerability of black bodies mowed down like flowers (as in the masterpiece of a sonnet from which the book takes its title). By some literary magic — no, it's precision, and honesty — Brown manages to bestow upon even the most public of subjects the most intimate and personal stakes: "I am a they in most of America." There are almost too many marvelous lines; you could wish for a couple of duds, just for a break. "We do not know the history/ Of this nation in ourselves," he writes, but I'm not sure that's true — these poems, at least, know our shadowy history and its ongoing reverberations, and can sing a "Mass shooting blues" in a poem that would be funny if it weren't so accurate. "The opposite of rape is understanding," Brown writes: What a brilliant and simple and horrible insight, which has all the force of grief, and of a wish, an ideal, something to live one's life for and toward.
Cynical, impassioned, and careening into furious flights of fact and fancy, Bolina's third collection is animated by a vision of a trainwrecked America. Though the racism, violence, and consumer culture that Bolina rails against is nothing new, it's impossible not to read this book as a work of activism in protest against the political upheavals of the last two years. And yet, with a finally tuned ear for the music of our Internet Age language, Bolina manages to make it all sort of fun, and even funny, in a schadenfreude kind of way. He describes a drone pilot as "you who follows me/ down every arcade, into every courtyard, who listens/ to my soft swallows on the phone, rifles/ through my every communiqué" in a dream sequence that becomes a dark sex scene. Bolina's speakers are outlaws, in as much as the law doesn't care about them because it was written to serve and protect other masters, such as "the executive sunning poolside" and "The owners of Brâncuși's, of box seats." In some of the darkest and bitterest political poems of our dark and bitter age, Bolina gives voice to the offline rage of those who are screaming to make America good again, if it ever was.
Chang's third collection is one of the most important books of poetry to come along in years. In a tapestry of forms and modes, it chronicles a mother's harrowing and courageous passage through a psychic gauntlet: "I know the world will find him/ and tell him the history of his skin," she writes of her young son Roman, who is half-black. "Harm will come searching for him/ and pour into him its scorching mercury,/ its nails, its bitter breath against his boyhood/ skin still smelling of milk and wonder." Born into today's America, Roman will never be safe, Chang admits, no matter what she does. His name, his image — and even his own drawings, which punctuate the poems — are everywhere in this book, which is an essayistic work in mixed forms — first person lyrics, visual poems, ghazals, ekphrastics, fable-poems, monologues written in the prophetic voice of her son ("I reject walls and those who build them, Mama") and more. With equal parts hope and terror, and no self-delusion, this book summons the kind of love only the imagination can sustain; Chang writes to, and for Roman, praying that his pure being will transcend the millions of gazes that will try to define his life by his skin color: "I understand your astonishing/ dash to freedom, done with the estranged wind,/ done with frost and storm, orchids curling outward beyond grief. The road widens/ to glory. The road disappears."
I find myself enraptured by each successive book by Rekdal, whose poems are equal parts gorgeous minor key music and cold-eyed analysis; she is a thinker who can really sing. Many of the poems in her new book take off from the canonical myths of Ovid's "Metamorphosis," layering them atop contemporary situations to describe the consequences of violence against women, and to kindle our sense of responsibility to women and their stories. Ovid's theme is complete transformation; for Rekdal's speakers, trapped in and by the contemporary world, "The horror ... is not/ that she has changed but that she can't change/ entirely." The heart of the book is the title piece, an account, in the form of a lyric essay — stuffed with autobiographical paragraphs, definitions, quotes from poetry, and more — of sexual assault, twinned with a meditation on Ovid's metamorphosis, a poem of which Rekdal says, "Rape is the dark seam."
"Though I was born in America/ I wasn't born American/ I know it's hard to understand," writes the prolific Smith in her most ambitious book to date, in which she presents a new "context for the twenty-first century Latina lyric I," the fierce and undaunted voice that speaks her poems. With a powerful allegiance to the freedom of free verse, Smith tells a sort of fragmentary superhero origin story about a girl who faces the disdain of her country to become a woman, poet, and mother, though once, she writes, "I prayed for a boy's/ wolf life, the dream of skulking along/ streets with hunger and immunity." At the center of the book is the title poem, an extraordinary drifting dirge that swallows everything it can from memory, the imagination, and the culture at large to speak publicly and personally as a person of color in today's America, alternately cynical, triumphant, and wary: "what of the lying shark on the other/ side of the door and his agenda." For Smith, there is no distance between the personal and the political, such that they don't even need separate words. Her victories come with more than a little bit of ambivalence, but they do come: "here/ I am with a name that's at the front of this object, a name/ I've made singular, that I spent my whole life making."
Jillian Weise, September
With a voice that is sassy, funny, and justifiably bitter, Weise sets ableist America — and America's literary subcultures — straight about a number of things in her third collection, in which every line snaps and many of them sting. "It's the same poem/ ya'll been writing in your centuries. Someone// gets sad, buys a house, has children, politics/ and little birdies. Throw some ableism// in and publish it," Weise, an amputee, self-identified "cyborg," and disability activist, writes in one of many poems addressed to her poetic peers, whom she takes to task for their misappropriation of the stories and metaphors of the disabled. Awake to the underbellies of our social media buzzwords — "I consent to your no and now./ To any of your clothes, any/ combo, any pronoun, I consent."; "You don't like the poem. So what?/ Why are you clicking on her, following her?" — Weise somehow manages to make all this talk of poetry, which may at first seem like inside baseball, into an ironic mirror facing anyone unafraid to look: "Everyone knows the default mode/ of a poem is ten fingers, ten toes,// in love with women and this nation." Tough to face, impossible to deny, these poems make us listen.
I'd also briefly recommend a few more books in addition to these:
Loves You by Sarah Gambito (January): Gambito invents a new form, the recipe-poem, as a means of exploring the fetishization of people of color.
Casting Deep Shade by C.D. Wright (February): This is the final book from Wright, who died in 2016, a co-mingling of consciousness (and conscience) between humans and trees.
The Book of Ruin by Rigoberto González (March): In the next in a run of extraordinary collections, González faces the grim realities of climate change and considers America's past and future.
The Tiny Journalistby Naomi Shihab Nye (April): Nye versifies the story of Janna Tamimi, the seven-year-old girl who documented anti-occupation protests in Palestine.
Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico (May): These poems, with electric brilliance, speak fiercely as they straddle various borders, especially the one between El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Sound Machine by Rachel Zucker (September): With crushing self-consciousness and undeniable urgency, Zucker continues her ongoing meditation on family and the boundaries between private and public life.
Author's note: I have published books with two of the presses whose titles are included here: BOA Editions and Graywolf Press.
Craig Morgan Teicher is a poetry critic and a poet. His most recent book is We Begin in Gladness.