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.


Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (Eng)

Though it’s classified as poetry, I think this book is everything. It’s also everything we need to make its own headline as title come true. Eng has questions, political, personal, social, judicial – and they are rarely her own. And the responses she provides and / or are provided for her demonstrate that we’re asking the wrong friggin’ questions.

It’s funny, though. Canada has been getting a lot of great press lately, due mostly to the charisma and somewhat to the policies of Justin Trudeau. I know he’s made some dubious and destructive choices about the environment. I’d love for him to respond Eng’s book. And I’d love for someone to create an American version.


Read about it for yourself.

Voyage of the Sable Venus (Lewis)

I wish the Epilogue, entitled “Boarding the Voyage,” had been a Prologue. I think I would have understood Lewis’ project better. Her comments about art at the margins put the center of her project and her book in focus in a way they weren’t for me when I read them the first time. The Mothers and “Beauty’s Nest” are remarkable, but what’s most remarkable is the kind of art project that is the focus of the book. And to appreciate that, I think you need to read the Epilogue first.

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Howe)

I’ve never liked the word ‘quotidian.’ It seems like such a fancy word to describe the ordinary. And besides, are we really to keep celebrating poets for writing about ordinary things? I know at one point, that was quite a big step, but now?

In any event, this collection did not knock me out. Most of the poems seem slight, with maybe one or two lines each that seem to merit a pause for attention to both craft and content. There are a few interesting examples of poems that prompted me to wonder – in a good way – about what was left out. Aside from “The Star Market” and “Sometimes the Moon Sat in the Well at Night,” there are no real keepers here.

Tunsiya / Amrikiya (Chatti)

Leila Chatti, recently named the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow and Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center, promises to be an exciting addition to Cleveland’s literary scene for the two years of her fellowship. Her most recent book concerns itself, as the title indicates, with her dual identity. ‘Amrikiya’ is Arabic for an American female. ‘Tunsiya’ is Arabic for female Tunisian. Chatti grew up in Michigan and holds dual citizenship. In an era when few of us could have found Tunisia on a map before Arab Spring, her Tunisian voice is most welcome.

But she cannot just be reduced to a token representative of a particular culture. Her words may come across as gentle, but her insights and technique are quite pointed. In “When I Tell My Father I Might Begin To Pray Again,” she writes

If there exists / in my blood a map, it is one I keep / folded for fear // of where it does not lead. God, / I want so badly to speak // with you

Note the line breaks. She also demonstrates her skill with lines in the absolutely heartbreaking “Motherland.” The opening lines –

What kind of world will we leave / for our mothers?

and the closing –

“no one’s leaving the world / to anyone yet.”

Perfect. Now remember the title.

Both “What do Arabs Think of Ghosts?” and “Upon Realizing There are Ghosts in the Water” are haunting. From the former –

Death grows here. . . I don’t know the names / of the dead accumulating like snowflakes, so many / the news talks about them as if they are one thing, / a mound of indistinguishable parts.

The magic she makes in this 33-page collection is just remarkable. I look forward to what she produces while she’s here.

Anisfield-Wolf’s press release about Chatti’s appointment

Cleveland State University’s Poetry Center

Chatti’s site

Broken Hallelujahs (Dougherty)

The first one that sent me reeling was “Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti.” With the frenetic energy and ambition of part of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Dougherty writes a love letter, an honest love letter, to the city. “Somewhere on Planet Earth” also summons that optimistic, specific, and straightforward energy. Dougherty is no romantic, it would seem; nor is he romanticizing the city, but the love of someone who can write lines like – “Monk choreographing the sound that smoke shapes” – for a city he loves. Algren’s here – the beautiful woman with the broken nose. “Never a lovely so real.”

“Embraceable You” is one of the best love poems I’ve read; “Narrative I Don’t Know How to Spell” is its spiritual partner. I’m not sure how Dougherty does it, but his poems seem to have their own momentum; they move forward and demand to be heard. I’d often find my lips moving as I read; I wanted to say his words out loud.

Even with all of that energy, I think it is “What We Keep” that I’ll return to the most.

Tremulous Hinge (Giannelli)

I had the good luck to hear Mr. Gianelli read at a Brews and Prose event and was struck by his forceful attention to nuance, if that makes any sense. For him, words and presenting those words, seemed to be a kind of exploration. He was not trying to break boundaries, but negotiate them, massage them in order to both show their limitations and discover his own meaning. His is a gentle approach, which should not be confused with nice. From the outstanding “What We Know” —

What we’ve learned of love

we keep in a narrow closet

beneath the stairs, wrapped

in tissue so it will not wrinkle.

More on love in the very next poem, “A Thousand Small Nights” —

The body in love

is like a jar of fireflies

It seems to me that that’s absolutely true.

This might be the best example of what I’m trying to describe – a challenging sentiment in language that seems to be trying to find its way through the labyrinth of language. From “Perch” —

It would be nice to think, what if things

were different,

but the imagination

grows careless

and draft when stretched

Other favorites include “On a Line by Proust” and “Garland.”

If you don’t believe me, trust the Iowa Poetry Prize; he won that.