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Afterland by Mai Der Vang

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Afterland by Mai Der Vang, whom I was lucky enough to hear read at a virtual event for Pedestal Magazine, explores the after effects of the Secret War in Laos, during which the Hmong people became a surrogate army of the CIA. The war and its effort to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail caused the significant displacement of numerous villagers over a nine year period. Der Vang opens her collection with “Another Heaven,” which sets the stage for her song of the Hmong people: “When funeral recites/The supper gardens of my forefathers,/Cross-stitch from my mother kin,// Then I will come to you/” Der Vang is stepping into the shoes of the Hmong, trying to make sense of a secret war and its consequences.

This initial poem sets the tone for the entire collection, an ethereal, out-of-body reminiscence of a people displaced from their homeland and they must learn to rebuild and grow again. “It’s when the banyan must leave/Relearn to cathedral its roots//” (“Dear Exile, pg. 22) Der Vang’s vision of the world will have readers imaging a world through new eyes. How do you regrow your roots in a new land? Readers will step inside the imagined journey and emotional roller coaster of being displaced. What is this “afterland” — is it a return to the old ways in a new country, the return to an old country, or the adoption of a new country and new ways?

One of my favorites in the collection is “Cipher Song”:

It's come to this. We hide the stories
on our sleeves, patchwork of cotton veins.

Scribe them on carriers for sleeping
babies, weave our ballads to the sash.

Forge paper from our aprons, and our
bodies will be books. Learn the language

of jackets: the way a pleat commands
a line, the way collars unfold as page,

sign our names in thread. The footprint
of an elephant. Snail's shell. Ram's horn.

When the words burn, all that's left is ash.

The poem reminds me of the family stories that are sometimes hidden because relatives aren’t asked or they are unwilling to share them, especially if they are painful. I recalled a time when my grandfather told us tales of the “old country” when he was willing to speak about WWII, but peppering him with questions would shut his mouth and the stories would stop. Der Vang is an archeologist bringing the Hmong back into the light, breathing life into their stories, like the “Phantom Talker” “with creosote mouth//hiding behind/your silent head/in the vermilion portrait.//”

Afterland by Mai Der Vang is full of haunted lines and ghosts, and her poems are beautiful like “a cello slinks/From every strand.//Vineyards ribbon/Inside the intimate air.” (To the Longhorn Hmong, pg. 59) Der Vang circles back to her own ancestral history in the penultimate, title poem. Readers get the sense they are coming full circle.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Mai Der Vang is an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle. Her poetry has appeared in the New Republic, Poetry, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and her essays have been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post. Her debut collection, Afterland, received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in California.

My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping is a collection of immigrant stories and songs of hardship and perseverance in a country that welcomes immigrants so long as they can be used and serve a purpose. Ping’s tales in some cases are like odes to immigrants who lost their lives pursuing their dreams or who were forced to give them up and return to their home countries. Her poems express a range of emotions that immigrants feel from anger and disappointment to shame and sometimes hope. There also are ghosts haunting these pages.

“All we want is a life like others/…Now the tide is rising to our necks/” (from “Cockle Pickers: Xu Yuhua, Liu Qinying)

In “How to Cross the Line,” Ping’s depiction of a border crossing runs readers through a litany of emotions. The patting of pockets as the immigrant approaches customs, the absence of luggage, and the deliberate choice to forgo identification — signaling that their past and their name are no longer theirs. The cry for asylum — a cry of many facing gangs, violence, poverty — is an echo throughout the collection. It is a cry for not only shelter from outside forces and fear, but also a cry for a chance to help themselves achieve their own dreams.

From Calling Ghosts from the Golden Venture (pg. 38-43)

and here we are
hovering around this New Jersey cemetery
our bodies gone
but our souls still hanging
like curtains soaked in rain
our summer clothes so thin!
so thin our dream!

How beautiful and harrowing language can be. These ghosts from a cargo ship bringing labor to America from China, who hang around waiting for their dream to be realized — a dream that died with them. The thinness of the dream — slipped from their grasp. It’s devastating. Ping provides some background stories for these poems, but even without them, these immigrant stories live and breathe. In “The Names You Call Me,” Ping calls out the hypocrisy of the names that immigrants are called, especially by those who actually embody those names. Throughout this poem, she refutes these names and descriptions and she rages against them in the only way she knows — through poetry. “I’m your parents on the road … your children in cages … named or nameless …I’m Truth that defies your lies … I’m Conscience that jolts you awake in a cold sweat … I’m Poetry that sails hope across the sea and desert.” (pg. 68) And from “Immigrant can’t write poetry,” “poetry, born as beast/move best when free, undressed//” (pg. 73)

My Name Is Immigrant by Wang Ping haunts, sings, rages, and breathes. It is more than a collection of immigrant stories and struggles, it is a homage to their lives and it is a commentary on the nation that claims to be the land of the free and the place where dreams can come true for all who enter and live here.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Wang Ping was born in Shanghai and grew up in the East China Sea. Loves the body of water, its sound and smell, loves the touch of the muddy beach and golden sand.

The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam

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Paperback, 96 pgs.
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The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam is part homage to Walt Whitman and homage to the globetrotter seeking a home in any state or country they land in. Whitman was often fond of wandering by foot, and like many other globetrotters or travelers of today who use planes and other means of travel, the happenstance of meeting others on the road was a call to which they heed. Born in Ceylon, a country Amirthanayagam says no longer exists (it is now Sri Lanka), it is clear that Whitman’s journeys spoke to him and helped him hear the muse for these Migrant states. The reader travels with the poet to Texas, Florida, Lima, and many more states, like Whitman in “Starting from Paumanok.”

In the opening poem, “Mind Breathing,” Amirthanayagam says, “I bear witness to these losses//here as my own attempts to speak, in breaths,/shall infuse a poem able still to coagulate, distill,/strain a few thousand disparate disappearances into verse.//” The reader knows that the poet plans to take us on a journey not only to different geographies but to different states of mind/emotion to ensure that these disappearing migrant states live on and breath. Whitman is always with us on the journey, as he’s recalled by the poet and spoken to about the way things have deteriorated environmentally (plastics in the rivers) in “Ode to and from Whitman.”

Through Amirthanayagam’s journey from punk rocker where he built nothing with a band that only wanted to cover other people’s songs to a “holy” man creating a world of poetry in “When I Left Punk and Took Holy Orders,” readers see that like us, he bucked the system, fought against an establishment. Poetry has a rebellious quality to it even as it is quiet and observing. Many of these poems are quietly rebellious in nature, with just one look at “Written in Advance” (my favorite poem in the collection) recalling the vans that take innocents away for expressing themselves and leaving a poem with editors across the land to tell the true tale.

The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam is a journey into a community that is not housed in one place — it spans the whole of the human race. The poet understands that to commune with others, one must be part of the world, observe, and express the truths that are hardest to hear. To change the world, we must be in it. Engage with it. Mingle with others. Learn together and grow before time is up.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Poet, essayist, and translator Indran Amirthanayagam was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was raised in Sri Lanka, London, and Honolulu. Amirthanayagam has authored numerous poetry collections, including The Elephants of Reckoning (1993), Ceylon, R.I.P. (2001), The Splintered Face (2008), Uncivil War (2013), and Coconuts On Mars (2019). He writes, translates, and publishes poetry and essays in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.

Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen

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Paperback, 72 pgs.
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Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, which was on tour with Poetic Book Tours, is a map in the darkness like the map the mother reads in “Death Valley” because it outlines the roads women often travel and the bumps along the way that often scar us when the men and others in our lives think they are mere blips on the road of life. Repeated “Devices” often weigh heavily on our psyche — she’s a fox, he’s a dog, she’s a bitch. Hazen says in the opening poem, “We’ve been called so many things we are no,/we startle at the sound of our own names.//” (pg. 3) While our personal experiences may not be the same as those in every poem, the universal nature of being treated as “other” and “not good enough” and “a thing” will resonate with many women and men, minorities, and the disabled. Society has a strange fetish for calling out “other” when they fail to empathize or understand someone who is not neatly defined as “normal” or “one of us.”

There are so many ups and downs to life, most of us are blind to them when we’re young. In “After the Argument,” the narrator asks, “When did this space/around me deepen//into trenches?”(pg. 6) When we finally recognize the extent to which our circumstances have changed, it often leaves us baffled — what choices led us there? when did it become the point of no return? where do we go from that dark moment? how do we pick up again? Hazen’s existential questions are found in each image created and are universal. For this reason, Hazen’s poems will speak volumes to those who listen.

She tackles the big questions of where do we go from the bottom? How do we reconcile all the selves within us when society expects certain things of a gender? How do we move forward and why? Her poems do not hold all of the answers readers may need, but they will offer one look at how to struggle to the surface and move past the self-hate and the society expectations of us without destroying all that we are. “By the time I reach the h, the E/has disappeared//” says the narrator in “Death Valley.” We cannot linger too long in the past. It is carried with us, but it should not define who we become. Let that first letter written in the fog on the window vanish as you move forward, Girls Like Us have nothing to lose by doing so and everything to gain.

RATING: Cinquain

The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir

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Paperback, 84 pgs.
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The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir, winner of the he Kundiman Poetry Prize, crafts a “Body of Myths” that readers will unravel one poem at a time. From the opening poem, which is the title, to the final prayer in “Unwitting Pilgrim,” readers are taken through a literal and spiritual journey that will expend their energy and emotion, laying it bare on the book’s pages. Through sensual and sometimes unexpected violence in word choice, readers must enter a surreal world of juxtaposition and irony. The narrator of these poems explores the familial and religious expectations of his upbringing with the realities of who he is. In “A Body of Myths,” the narrator says, “In Union Square a kiss betrays…/not to a crest of thorns, but to a hail of fists.” There is a war raging.

A Prayer at Nauraat

Mother
       I hold the clay lamp until
my fingers are tongues of flame
that scribe in soot. I am smoke

that's never stopped curling. See
what smolders in the field,
cane, toil, or the corpse of colony.

Reincarnation or renewal begins in the collection as the narrator on this geographical and spiritual journey begins to understand himself and make peace with the expectations he cannot fulfill. “This mask of clay will smash/against the river stones and I will sail/Snow Moon into the pollution of years//” begins the transformation in “Mantra,” as the narrator reminds us that “I was once as you are. Fixed/to a base or brushed in camel hair” to demonstrate that growth can only be accomplished with conscious change. It is a process that requires attention, a discernment for detail and specific change. To fly from our cages like the “macaw” in “Manhattan” we all must take risks. In “Haunting,” readers are reminded that the past cannot be left behind and discarded because we carry the ghosts of it with us, even as we change. These memories and ghosts are here to remind us that more change is coming and that we need to be prepared to move forward again and again.

The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir is a well crafted collection that will require a great deal of meditation (and in my case, research — as I was unfamiliar with some of the stories referred to in the collection), but even without looking up the unfamiliar, Mohabir’s poems evoke strong emotional reactions from the reader. At once they are beautiful and devastating.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:
Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut was Winner of the AWP Intro Journal Award and the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books. Recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, he has also received fellowships from the Voices of Our Nation’s Artist foundation, Kundiman, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, City University of New York, and his PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i, where he teaches poetry and composition

Tapping Out by Nandi Comer

Source: NetGalley
Ebook, 96 pgs.
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Tapping Out by Nandi Comer relies heavily on imagery and language tied to lucha libre, or Mexican freestyle wrestling, as she explores the roles of identity, changes in our identities, and the masks that we often wear when faced with violence, trauma, and other situations. The poems are like the high-flying maneuvers of the wrestlers in lucha libre and many times Comer references the colorful masks of the wrestler-narrators in the poems to explore unsettling realities of migrant and immigrant experience. There are bumps and bruises along the way, and it’s hard to turn away from Comer’s poems. Reality is harsh and she displays it all.

From "Rudo"

I am always undoing the language of my body.
my arms, my hair say
Black. Dark. English only.

From “Tecnico :La Mascara,” “In a year you can go to a mall or grocery store, walk through the dust of a market and everyone will know the bottom lip and callused forehead I have kept so long inside. M’hijo, before I let go of your face, someone will have to rip me apart.” Here the wrestler is concerned about how they will be remembered and how long it will take them to return to regular society because to be unmasked in the ring is career ending. There is a deep exhaustion throughout these poems — whether exhaustion from the identities assumed and being outside of the true self or from the fighting for just a piece of happiness and fleeting joy. But the wrestlers, just like the immigrants and minorities, do not have the option of “tapping out” from their lives. They have no choice but to keep fighting — or face death head on.

Tapping Out by Nandi Comer is a collection of narrative poems that melds the Mexican wrestling world with the realities of immigrants and minorities. It’s match after match, fear around the corner at every turn, and constant exhaustion in fighting to live. To ignore these narratives, is to ignore the humanity of all of us. To ignore the injustices of the world, is to be an ostrich with its head in the sand.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

NANDI COMER received a joint MFA/MA in Poetry and African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University. She has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Cave Canem, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Arts. Her poems have appeared in Detroit Anthology (Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014), Blue Shift Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Pluck!, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Indiana Review.

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun

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Paperback, 68 pgs.
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Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun, which was Winner of The Berkshire Prize for First or Second Book chosen by D. A. Powell, opens with an earthquake. The world is shaken beneath the reader before the journey has even begun. In the Map section of the book, Chun pains a picture of each town/city in a way that leaves the reader wondering when the next explosion will happen and upend everything we know. The pent up unpredictability of life is felt in each of these poems, and not all of these poems are about China — the narrator explores Kansas City, Washington state, and Texas. In “Guangzhou,” the narrator says, “if only I knew the safe land–/the world terrifies me too, the world that is no/stranger than before.” We are all vaguely aware that the world is not entirely safe, but we must have courage to face it head on. How can we do that without a loved on to lean on or an amulet to protect us?

Photo of My Father at Eleven

Your father had decided to find you
in the year after the war. He, an officer,

remarried. You and your sisters and mother
feed on banana and church congee.

Your mother's sorrow hangs like a wisteria bud;
she leans her head in the north-facing room.

Father, I have your eyes and mouth.
I wore the same Youth Pioneer band on my neck,

its knot also bigger than my throat.
In a few years you will find the words

to speak to your father. But for now,
lost in bricks and gray asphalt,

let us hold hands and hum together.

Chun leads us into the second section, “Amulet,” where the journey traverses through a prison, a broken home, the Andes, and more. There is an urgency to run toward forgiveness even as the narrator is unable to do so. The idea that forgiveness must be given to move on is strong, but the mind can sometimes move faster than the heart and body are able to when they are harmed. “Peachwood Pendant” is one of the most beautifully haunted poems in the collection where the narrator is still unable to hold and carry the unloved or those not loved enough even if they should be loved. Ending the section with “Photo of My Mother at Twenty-Five,” brings us full circle to the broken home and the plight of a single mother, but there is beauty in her struggle, at least as seen through the narrator’s eyes — “It’s spring again./Look at those yellow flowers.//I feel so light,/slipping from your body.”

In the final two sections, “Almanac” and “Window,” we begin to explore important dates from a great flood to the first moon. These are windows into the past. Through these events we are given a window through which the narrator can journey into the future without the weight of the past bogging them down in the river. In “Chrysanthemum is Prettiest in the Ninth Moon,” the narrator says, “The window has moved./My gray-haired elders are still there,/counting chrysanthemum petals in the sun,/each petal a sad shoe.” When we get to “Off Year,” the narrator has “swept spiders off the walls” moving forward into the future.

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun is meditative in its journey of unraveling the self and the past, winding and unwinding it to view it from different angles to achieve a peace with the past and the future. Chun’s use of language is deeply rooted in nature, but it also adept at capturing the abstract emotions of life in a way the breathes new life into family history.

RATING: Quatrain

Finna by Nate Marshall

Source: NetGalley
eARC, 128 pgs.
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Finna by Nate Marshall explores identity within the Black community, while looking not only at the dark past of America but also its hip hop present. “when America writes/about Black life/they prefer the past/ tense,” the narrator says in “When America Writes.” Many of the early poems explore identity, a young man who wants to learn and go to college, choosing something more than the gangs and drugs he sees in the community. But even then, there is that push and pull of becoming a learned person and the person the community nurtured.

In “another Nate Marshall origin story,” the narrator says, “perhaps our rage at the other is just the way we fill what we don’t know about ourselves.” A deep look at who we are is integral to our development no matter what stage of life we are in, but many times we skip this step and force ourselves into certain roles in our environments or in our families. For a young boy of five to already know lyrics about the deaths seen regularly in the Black community is a strong judgment on our society’s treatment of those who are not white. He delves further into the saddest commentary on our society in “I thought this poem was funny but then everybody got sad” — “what has a black body/& is read all over?/I mean is read all over/I mean/that’s the punch/line.”

publicist

a mentor told me
to consider writing
essays that commemorate
days that relate to my book.
it's a good way to insert
your work into the public
conversation. well motherfuckers
spend every day killing
a Black somebody in Chicago
& every next day the whole world
practices saying silences like
Black on Black
gang related
violent neighborhood
so I guess I owe a
million essays.
i guess my book
will be huge.

Finna by Nate Marshall expresses the struggles of Black America using familiar cultural vernacular and Hip Hop to bring readers into a world masked by white institutions and standards that are imposed upon these Americans. Nate Marshall’s narrator speaks about the other Nate Marshalls of the world and how he is not like them. But they are connected in how their life’s struggles can emotionally wear them down. What Marshall brings to life in this collection is that we are all human and empathy is something we need to relearn in order for us to connect.

RATING: Quatrain

The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso

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Paperback, 95 pgs.
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The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso is a collection of poems exploring loss, grief, and the lasting sting of devastation. It’s almost like the bottom has fallen out of each narrator’s life. The cover is the outline of a bee with the interior of the outline the iconic Temptation of St. Anthony, which in this context highlights the temptations found in each poem and the struggle to reconcile the inevitable, lasting pain of life.

In “The Book of Drowned Things,” our narrator believes they are a ferryman whose job is to now shuttle people to the land of the dead. Images of death and sorrow hover like ghosts throughout the collection, even as the narrator makes a simple trip to the liquor store — what is this wine they buy, is it just another step on the path toward death and end to sorrow or is it simply just a bottle of wine? One of my favorites is “stone ghost” (below) because the narrator looks the monster in the eye without flinching, seeing beauty instead. It is this childlike response that makes it so easy to believe in Odasso’s dark fairytales.

stone ghost

Ancient monster, I remember the day
I first saw your face, spread my fingers

on the glass and breathed in awe. Eyeless,

your ghost peered through text and reflection
to welcome me home: This was the sea,

my daughter. Your time has come.

Odasso also modifies her poetry into different shapes on the page, which bring to life many of these narrative scenes. I love the poems in “Katadesmos” that mirror the curses that would have been written on them in Roman times. In “You’ll Never Know,” the narrator casts the first stone — like an instigator — shedding light on the short comings of a false deity. I can only think about our modern times here and the many false leaders we’ve had, particularly the current leader of the nation who “won’t listen or warn them.” But the narrator here warns that “We are stronger than you think, we whispers, and we/ push with our backs, our hands splayed against the glass. Your edifice shudders.”

I love the universality of The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso. I loved the collection’s classical undertones, its vivid language, and its personal nature. From illnesses to what identity means, especially the harsh atmosphere that can surround someone who lives outside the societal definitions. It’s time for broadening our definitions of identity, gender, and the self, and Odasso has called us to arms — no longer should we be complacent. Life asks us to feel the sting.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

A.J. Odasso‘s poetry has appeared in a variety of publications, including Sybil’s GarageMythic DeliriumMidnight EchoNot One of UsDreams & NightmaresGoblin FruitStrange HorizonsStone TellingFarrago’s WainscotLiminalityBattersea ReviewBarking Sycamores, and New England Review of Books.  A.J.’s début collection, Lost Books (Flipped Eye Publishing), was nominated for the 2010 London New Poetry Award and was also a finalist for the 2010/2011 People’s Book Prize. Their second collection with Flipped Eye, The Dishonesty of Dreams, was released in 2014; their third-collection manuscript, Things Being What They Are, was shortlisted for the 2017 Sexton Prize.  They hold an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where they were a 2015-16 Teaching Fellow, and work at the University of New Mexico.  A.J. has served in the Poetry Department at Strange Horizons since July 2012.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc

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Paperback, 78 pgs.
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Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is a harsh look at failed relationships and the narrator’s part in those failures, but it also takes a close look at verbal abuse (“the terror of vocabulary”) and the desire to stay with someone you “love.” In the opening poem, “Forest Fire,” there are redwoods growing inside her (beautiful, but wanting), but rather than nurture that forest, “You stand watching/me burn.” A number of these poems speak to the push and pull of desire and escape, the narrator is unsure which way to turn, unable to break away and do what is best for their mental and physical health, but also desirous of love, one that lasts through everything and props her up when she needs it. She also longs to be a dependable lover, someone her partner can rely on.

As much as these poems are about love and relationships, they also are a self-examination of how one can fail even with the best intentions to be a faithful partner or hold onto the love/desire they felt for the other person at the beginning of their relationship. Each poem has a certain rawness about it, making them highly emotional and visceral poems. But one of my favorite poems int he collection is less overt and more surprising in its use of language.

Self-Portrait With Without

With soy milk. With a latte drunk
each morning in the dark kitchen. Without
the lights on because you slept on the couch
again and I don't want to wake you. With dinner
with friends, everything fine. Without conversation
during the car ride back. With negotiations
as to who walks the dog when we get home. With you
in front of the computer when I go to bed. Without
the weight of you beside me. Without my rings
on when I sleep because my fingers swell. With them on
the next day, newly cleaned and brilliant. With
the sun prisming off the diamonds as I drive
to work. With me spinning them around as I fly, my fingers
puffy by the time I land. Without them on when I shower
away the day's grime. With my hands bare as I open the door
and let him in. With my hands on him. Without a word said.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is collection that speaks to the tug of love and desire and our rational mind, but also to the conscious and subconscious need to suppress our own inner monsters. These are the parts of ourselves that are less than pleasant company and often steer us away from what is best for us. In many ways, these monsters are our baser selves seeking out pure pleasure, even if it is fleeting. Aren’t we all just beautiful monsters at times.

Rating: Cinquain

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 114 pgs.
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Good Bones by Maggie Smith, called “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International, is a gorgeous collection of poems about the transformations that happens in motherhood and how despite the innate need to protect our children, there is no way that mothers can protect children from everything bad in the world. The collection opens with “Weep Up,” in which a young child is crying for the world to awaken — even the birds. This is the reader’s awakening to the life of a mother — connection, a weariness, a protectiveness. In “Sky,” the narrator tries to answer a child’s curiosity about the blueness and expanse of the sky, and in so doing, the narrator envelops us and the child in a comforting embrace: “Think of sky not as blue, not as over,/but as the invisible surround, a soft suit/you wear close to the skin.”

A hawk often glides through the poems, watching the child, guiding the child, and looking out for the child and others as it walks and moves through life. One of my favorite lines is from “The Hawk,” “her notes,//rising easily to him the way an echo/homes to the voice that calls it.//” Smith is a master at describing the indescribable. “Rough Air,” for example, is like “a cat’s tongue/as if the air itself were textured,/as if we could feel its sandpaper/licking our skin.”

One of the most widely shared poem in this collection is “Good Bones”:

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Imagine how many times as parents we try to tell our children to be nice to others, to give way to others, to see the beauty in the pollution around us, to see the happiness in the darkness, and how to avoid the reality they can see with their own eyes. Are we all realtors, trying to sell them a dump to live in and provide them with false hope that they can change it? This collection is all of the emotions of parenting rolled up into one — the angst, the fear, the worry, the sadness at this is the world they are given, and our desperation to protect them from it.

From At Your Age I Wore a Darkness

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother's dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you'll need to unravel,

unraveling another you'll need
to restitch. What can I give you

that you can keep? Once you asked,
Does the sky stop? It doesn't stop,

it just stops being one thing
and starts being another.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith reminds us that while we are that protective hawk watching our children and protecting them from harm, we also can only watch them from afar as they learn to navigate the world on their own. Inevitably, they will fall … they will skin their knees, but we can provide them with the “good bones” they need to protect themselves and journey through the darkness they will eventually find in their lives.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems are widely published and anthologized, appearing in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, POETRY, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Public Radio International called it “the official poem of 2016.” Her new book, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, a collection of essays and quotes, is forthcoming in October 2020 from One Signal/Simon & Schuster.

Said Through Glass by Jona Colson

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 84 pgs.
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Said Through Glass by Jona Colson is a keen observance of ordinary life and how we deal with not only grief, but our feelings of “otherness” even among family. There are several poems in an interview style throughout the collection, which I felt disconnected from.The one “interview” style poem I did enjoy and did feel connected to was “House for Sale,” where readers get a sense of a distracted home buyer who has lost his father and is trying to navigate life after.

However, I really loved Colson’s use of language to demonstrate ailments like arthritis and so much more. In “My Mother’s Hands,” the narrator speaks about his mother’s arthritic hands in a way that makes them beautiful: “Now, her fingers turn and twist against themselves,/like stems of wild roses–reaching out/into delicate air.” And in “Retina,” the narrator talks about the darkness of an eye out of sorts and the joy of being able to finally see again: “And the next day: surgery,/to fasten the retina, like wallpaper, back to the frazzled/optic nerve and satisfy its hunger for impulse/and clear astonishment of light.//” There is so much beauty in this collection.

Honey

It pours from a jar, amber and combed
too thick to understand.

It softens the parched skin
rubbed in small fingerfuls.

It soothes the throat
when we stir it into tea.

At breakfast, it sweetens the morning toast
while we talk of summer --

hopeful as a bee toward a tulip
promising pollen.

In part three, we switch gears in a way with a series of ekphrastic poems after a painting from Diego Velazquez called Las Meninas. When I saw this, I wanted a QR Code, like in Jessica Piazza’s latest collection, This Is Not a Sky, but it’s not necessary as this painting was easy to find online. These poems carry a heaviness that makes it easy to visualize the kids/women in this painting, including the Spanish Infanta Margaret Theresa. In the first poem, Theresa is the central figure and her “hoop skirt” is heavy like her heart later in the poem, signifying the weight of obligation she carries. “Heart-heavy, she rises, oiled and/drowsy, surging on, with no anchor,/only a painting of her, here and there./” Colson breathes new life into the Infanta, and the journey is intriguing as it touches on the royal life lightly.

Said Through Glass by Jona Colson speaks and readers must listen, but more than that they must interact with the lines and stanzas on the page — becoming a second observer. Readers will see through this window unique ways to look at the ordinary — from honey to an orange — and examine loss, grief, and change in a way that is not only sad, but beautiful. This beauty ties the collection to its grief to create an arc of healing.

RATING: QUATRAIN

About the Poet:

Jona Colson is an educator and poet. He graduated from Goucher College with a double Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish and earned his MFA from American University and a Master’s in Literature/Linguistics from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. In addition to writing his own poetry, he also translates the Spanish language poetry of Miguel Avero from Montevideo, Uruguay. His translations can be found in Prairie Schooner, Tupelo Quarterly, and Palabras Errantes. He has also published several interviews for The Writer’s Chronicle. He is currently Associate Professor at Montgomery College in Maryland where he teaches English as a second language. He lives in Dupont circle area of Washington, DC. Visit his website at jonacolson.com