American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Hayes)

This is quite an ambitious project. I like that Hayes, here and elsewhere, is attentive to form. And there are many, many amazing pieces here. There are also some that seemed more clever than anything else. And then there are – and this is okay – some I just didn’t get. As for who his assassin is, I’m not sure, but it might just be people who look like me.

I wish Hayes had at least numbered the sonnets so I could refer to the ones I liked, but no luck.

So, this analogy will date me, but here goes: Do I think it’s worth buying the whole album (book) if only about half of the songs (sonnets) are good? Yep. I think so.

Here is one of my favorites —

“I lock you in an American sonnet. . .”

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Footsteps in the Order of Disappearance (Joudah)

I just didn’t get it. Joudah, a doctor, has vocabulary I lack. Often, the poems seemed like shorthand to me, either references to ideas I didn’t understand or an example of making poetry by what is left out. There were a few poems I could find my way into, like, “I, The Sole Witness to My Despair, Declare” (both versions), “An Algebra Come Home” and “Horses.” Mostly, though, I spent my time banging my head against the wall of this collection.

how to get over (Ford)

From the haunting front cover to the very last page, this book will be in your face. The intensity pops from these poems in a way you just won’t believe. I’ve never known anyone who used caesura to such good effect. I could hear these poems. Poems like, “how to get over (for colored girls)” and “how to get over (for white boys in the hood” and “hands” and “how to get over (for those of us who can’t quite quit her)” are incredibly powerful.

author’s site

“how to get over (when the poem flirts)”

Dothead (Majmudar)

This collection has multiple personalities. There is a portion of it that is great. There is a portion of it that seems trivial – clever exercises, passes off as poems. And there’s a small, but telling portion of it that disturbed me, and not in a good or useful way. WHen Majmudar writes about women, especially sex, the language and imagery of it made me pretty uncomfortable. Poems like “Dothead” (that week was India – myths, / caste system, suttee, all the Greatest Hits) demonstrate Majmudar’s wit put to good effect. “Immigration and Naturalization” (But is it still a family / When the son cannot speak / The mother tongue of the father?), “To the Hyphenated Poets,” “The Star-Spangled Turban,” and “Lineage” are outstanding.

So, yes, wade in the gems, even be impressed by the cleverness. And I don’t know, maybe you’ll read poems like, “The Doll” and “Abecedarian” differently than me.

Electric Arches (Ewing)

It was her three re-telling poems that first made me sit up and take notice. In each, Ewing starts with a typed account of an experience with brutal racism, but then stops short. We then see her handwritten (and presumably much more positive) re-telling of how the encounter ended. These new endings (and all three poems are featured in a section of her book called, “True Stories”) contain a magical element, one that allows the persona to reclaim the narrative.

As a white male, I am not sure I was able to find my way into all aspects of all of these poems, but I found enough to get a firm grasp on their power. I can’t wait to share them with students.

Ewing’s site

Rail (Carlson-Wee)

I found this title in one of those lists of new poets to watch for, and I wish I could find that list again because it’s creator is most definitely 1-1. I think Carlson-Wee is writing based, in part, on his experiences of riding the rails. There’s a Kerouac energy here, but it’s more grounded. He’s not reaching for voice or a statement for a generation.

“Secret Air” is a beautiful love poem. “Cry of the Loon,” “Dundas,” “O Day Full of Grace” – the list of great poems could go on for a while. I look forward to seeing his poetry film, Riding the Highline.

What a remarkable voice. I’m glad I found him. You should too.

A playlist to go with the book, a note from the poet, etc.

In the Language of My Captor (McCrae)

Shane McCrae’s, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf’s award for poetry, is the kind of poetry book that I like because it is not a collection of poems, but a unified poetry book. All three sections speak to a different kind of captivity. The most intriguing one is “Jim Limber, the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis.” (These poems make me wonder whether Charles Frazier’s new book, Varina, which focuses on Jefferson Davis’ wife, would be an interesting complement to this book.) McCrae’s most inviting techniques are his use of line breaks and caesuras. It makes me wish I could hear him read his work out loud.

Since it is such a unified collection, it’s hard to extract favorite poems since to do so would be to pull them out of context, but “Jefferson Davis the Adoptive Father of the Mulatto Jim Limber Drams the Freedom of the Negro Will One Day be His Freedom,” “Sunlight,” and “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face” all jumped out at me.

The cover for the book is perfect; I wish I could figure out who created it.

Even McCrae’s dedication – “For my families” – is intriguing. I very much look forward to hearing from him in September.