David Giannini’s stylistically variegated new collection, The Future Only Rattles When You Pick It Up, swerves delightfully through an engaging series of lyrically intense meditations on contemporary American life. Giannini’s subject matter ranges from the human genome to the continental divide, from his father’s wristwatch ticking in his casket to an erasure of a Petrarchan sonnet, from Ars Poetica to love poem to philosophical assay and back again. These poems, visually and aurally acrobatic, provide evidence of a subtle and wildly imaginative intelligence. Giannini is a poet at the height of his powers, whose work skitters on the verge of unknowing, but always refracts a certain slant of revelatory light. “Sharing 70% of the Human Genome,” a characteristic poem, begins:
The thug inside everyone’s dreams
leans in from infinity, moving at the pace of an orchard,
then muscle cars speeding track.
Thug means what teems as real.
Take your pick. Raw fist
of roses, tire spin, apple, pretty little bashing clouds,
chaos a form of charisma.
The poems in The Future Only Rattles When You Pick It Up are always holding out a raw fist of roses and a tire spin, the chaos and charisma that comes from a sustained type of acute listening. As Giannini notes elsewhere in the collection, “listening is also a door.” I recommend opening alternately both halves of the Dutch door of these poems, and breathing in their fragrant, unruly, air.
Reading Amy Barone’s newest collection, We Became Summer, is like listening to the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong version of “Summertime”; it is full of the same vague ache, what David Lehman has called, in another context, “the near proximity of ecstatic joy and deep, dark, irrevocable sorrow.” Barone’s accessible lyric narrative poems are suffused with a profound love of music, from The Rolling Stones to Pharoah Sanders, from Sinatra to Jaco Pastorius, from Marvin Gaye to St. Vincent. Music provides a spiritual lodestar for Barone as her poems explore love, grief, family, and travel. However, the simple music of Barone’s saying always leads back to a place of peaceful wonderment:
Time answered most important questions.
And in the Europe of my mind—
breezeways are still in vogue,
families seek shade beneath Kelly green awnings,
girls dare to draw the sun with aluminum foil.
We still marvel at the sight of fireflies come dusk.
No becoming is rushed in this book where many staves of sunlight shiver the dusk.
Irene Willis has curated a lively and compelling anthology of poetic engagements with Freud and his complicated psychoanalytic and cultural legacies. The anthology begins with the elegy by W.H. Auden, “For Sigmund Freud,” which ends:
Our rational voice is dumb; over a grave
The household of impulse mourns one dearly loved:
Sad in Eros, builder of cities,
And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.
David Lehman’s “Freud Quiz” concludes the volume on a buoyant and anodyne note. Between Auden and Lehman, Willis anthologizes poems by H.D., Anna Freud, Anne Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alicia Ostriker, Toi Derricotte, Stephen Dobyns, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Anne Sexton, David Giannini, and many more. Some of the highlights of the anthology come from lesser known poets, such as Vasiliki Katsarou, whose poem, “Terrarium,” reads in full:
a soul in miniature
a glass terrarium
the flowering tree
and the One
wielding the ax
as the tree grows
it hones the ax
Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry affords a fine entrance into exploring the way Freud has been imagined by 20th and 21st century American poets. Irene Willis has compiled a fine anthology that will appeal even to readers who only have a passing interest in Freud.
Robert Eastwood’s Romer is the most ambitious, coherent, and emotionally moving book-length poem about American life published since Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares. Eastwood riffs on translated lines from Dante Alighieri’s Pugatorio and echoes the Florentine’s structural approaches and thematic concerns throughout the thirty-three cantos that make up Romer. The poem’s title character, Romer, is “an earnest striver, / a stumbler through his days, / whose life is a riddle.” Eastwood chronicles Romer’s “offences, rare loves & losses, / failed hopes” as he weaves back and forth throughout the character’s life from childhood to old age. From high school onward, Romer looks “for his way in the sun,” and recites from “the scrabbly psalter of labor” that frames his existence. Eastwood vividly dramatizes Romer’s search for meaning and his ultimate embrace of mystery. Romer is charged with a bittersweet vivacity that crescendos with almost unbearable intensity at times:
Oh God, the nations may come, your
inheritance occupied, but each person
one day wakens, & looks about.
Like coming alert on a train
mesmerized out the window
at scenes you’re leaving,
that back there—
that expanse of distance & time
with all its swift banalities—
you forgot & somehow left
a cache of something
& there ought to be another chance
to hit the ball,
to catch forty-winks,
to not turn away,
to forget your all-consuming self,
to properly pack a tube of toothpaste
for the tomorrows—
not peer instead, haplessly,
at branches racing past
in the darkening.
Reading Robert Eastwood’s Romer, I felt a heightened fear of death, a deeper gratitude for each moment racing past, and a little more confident that I might reach out, grab the scruff of some small disregarded grace and hold it out like a talisman against the gloaming.
Susan Lewis’s new collection, Zoom, explores angles of vision and misprision in the digital age. The tightly boxed prose poems in this book explore the limits of language in a twenty-first century existence dominated by a flitting from screen to screen. These poems begin at the edge of the pixel: “beyond our wildest dreams, which stopped flowering once the humdrum imploded, divesting us of our history & its discontents.” Lewis continually examines the impact of technology on consciousness, conveying the fundamentals of a smartphone ontology in “Basic Research”: “Run while you may or may not source the right bauble, babbling as our lost world spins off toxins, hurtling from the fraught unsought alternative.” What the telephone call was to Frank O’Hara in “Personal Poem,” the iphone screen (or tablet screen, or MacBook screen, and so on) is to Susan Lewis in Zoom. Zoom both embodies and challenges the most widespread means of communication at our disposal today, reminding its readers (while echoing Werner Heisenberg): “That what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Words grasping boldly at the known grasping boldly at what is.” Susan Lewis grasps what is, and in this essential collection, exposes what lies beneath our hyperreal quotidian.
Alan King’s second collection of poetry, Point Blank, brims with love for family and friends, each poem charged with an undeniable exuberance, willing to hold forth on the unvarnished injustice so visible in the American grain, and to compose a music from this framework as mellifluous as any Luther Vandross track and as rough and ready as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. King deftly explores issues of race and American identity throughout the book, building a counterpoint to double consciousness from comic books and music. As King notes in the poem “Hulk”:
I forget that,
I’m not a man,
just one of a herd
the police are sent
to corral. Wind bends
the branches above me
as if I might swing from them.
White people look at me
and pretend they don’t see
the breeding of slaves,
pretend not to know
why I hulk around
with anger and grief
swelling my biceps and thighs.
Point Blank continually forces its readers to confront the blunt inequities that buttress the daily comforts many Americans unwittingly experience at the expense of others. King also writes lovingly nuanced poems about his wife and his parents, about growing up, and about manhood in the 21st century. In “Dreams of Comic Book Women,” King writes:
Give me everything I can touch:
What’s round: What speeds
the blood: What raises the drawbridge:
What will fit on my tongue:
A hunger rising like thought bubbles.
Alan King’s Point Blank provides poem after poem where desire is fused to velocity and limned in finely calibrated lyric bursts. Reading this collection definitely speeds the blood.
How to Be Married After Iraq, Abby Murray’s third chapbook, dramatizes the difficulties of self-definition from the perspective of a military wife. Or, as one of the central poems of the book, “A Portable Wife,” puts it:
By the time we move to a seventh city
I am portable as a jug of water,
cold handles jutting from my edges.
I am easy to lift, easy to set down,
sweet as a tissue-paper bookmark,
the way I hold my husband’s place
when wartime calls like a drunk father.
Here, as everywhere else in How to Be Married After Iraq, Murray exhibits an impeccable control of language wedded to an uncommon vividness on the level of the individual image. Although Murray’s chapbook centers on her experiences as the spouse of an active duty soldier and combat veteran, the most exceptional poems in this collection (“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea” for example) expand the parameters of what constitutes war literature by troubling the boundaries of domesticity, memory, and trauma. Murray’s poems reckon profoundly with grief, femininity, and love. Perhaps the most arresting poem of the collection, “To the Lost Child,” displays the full range of Murray’s poetic mastery as she delicately contemplates a miscarriage:
You aren’t a stray until the doctor,
a man in desert camouflage
with a badge clipped to his collar,
says there is no sign of you.
He’s not sorry. He looked and looked.
When I was a girl my kitten disappeared
and my father told me cats
prefer to die alone when it is time,
they lie down in the woods and dissolve
with the mushrooms and bugs.
The day I lost you, child, my first,
your father brought me home
and put me to bed,
my face white as a bowl of milk,
hands on my stomach, your empty room.
Abby Murray’s How to Be Married After Iraq is a finely made chapbook from one of the most gifted young poets writing today.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of two poetry collections: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016) and Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, forthcoming 2019). Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America (NYQ Books, 2018). All proceeds from this anthology go directly to the National Immigration Law Center.