The Shape of Home (Chilcote)

It can be a lot of fun to be at least roughly the same age as an author. The allusions and experiences can resonate so deeply that they prompt the painful laughter of recognition. Such was the case with Chilcote’s  “Rock ‘n’ Rollers,” a gently mocking recollection of the first time the author, or at least the persona, heard Johnny Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” on a boom box. I was right there.

There’s a freshness in this collection, much of it celebrating the small moments that come up with being “sudden occupants of the life we’ve planned” as a married couple which leads to this insightful conclusion (in “Another Country”):

Perhaps marriage / is not a home, but a home-leaving – an imperfect residence in / another’s soul.

And then there are the children, forever ravenous (and very familiar), who, in “Veni Vidi Vici,”

Climb in the fridge, pull down yogurt, / scale the cabinets and topple teddy grahams, / Eat right off the floor.

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Map to the Stars (Matejka)

Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smokea book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.

Together, these poems tell a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”

Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:

We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.

Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes

& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.

A People’s History of Chicago (Coval)

It takes a certain amount of audacity to select the title Coval did, but based on his poetry at least, Coval seems anything but shy. His poems, which range from before 1492 to March of 2017, hit some known highlights of Chicago’s history as well as some less commonly known people and events. Many of the poems are accompanied by great illustrations by an assortment of artists. My two favorites are “The Great Migration” and “Two Cities Celebrate Independence Day.” I haven’t lived in Chicago for a while, but it seems to me that Coval hits many of the issues the city is struggling with, including its most prominent one, though one that is likely more of a symptom than a cause – gun violence, including police gun violence.

Coval’s site

My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Monet)

Monet has such a distinct and evocative voice that I even enjoyed reading her author’s note. There is a freshness here, not only to the project, which I can’t claim I understood at all times and in all places, but also to the voice. She puts words and images together in ways I’ve not experienced before. The book jacket says it’s an “ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters – the tiny gods who fight to change the world” and I agree. The book’s a tribute, written by one in the know, one who is not intent just on lavishing praise, but of telling it like it is.

Here’s a piece about Monet

Her own site

How to buy the book

If you don’t believe me, believe Angela Y. Davis, Terrance Hayes, Harry Belafonte and Carrie Mae Weems, all of whom who provided blurbs of praise for the back of the book.

Poems 1999-2014 (Foster)

The only problem with this book is that I’ve heard Foster read her own work out loud, and my attempts to re-create her voice in my head were laughable. It’s a challenge with spoken word work, I think. It can be hard to focus, to catch everything when you are listening (maybe that’s not the goal?), so I like to read it, but then I lose the energy the author brings to the delivery. In my world, all spoken word books should be required to be accompanied by a CD of the author reading her work.

More often than not, the energy in Foster’s writing just pops off the page with such electricity that it takes on a life of its own. She’s particularly on point when she’s working on many levels at once, the politics of gender, relationships (“you walked away / without giving me myself back” from “Nothing”), race, etc.. “Stains” is a favorite. The juxtaposition of “Recollection” and “Two Bodies” packs a powerful punch. At first, I was surprised that these two were written 8 years apart, but then, after re-reading them, I saw both the connections and development. “All Apologies” and “Assignment One” are both great.

“Therapy – Session I” brought me to tears, both because of its beauty and its “heart break ache.”

I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next collection!

Foster performing “216”

Olio (Jess)

Every once in a while, someone comes along – think Garrison Keillor, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray – who defies any of our conventional notions of genre, so something has to be invented for them. Meet the newest member of the group – Tyehimba Jess.

Jess, who has won both the Pulitzer and the Anisfield-Wolf awards for poetry, has definitely written a book that contains pieces that seem like poetry, but even that term, as expansive as it is, seems limiting here. This book also contains artwork, posters, interviews, music (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) and history. This book is so full of life that even at over 200 pages, I never wanted it to end. Even Jess’ author notes are marvelous.

We meet Scott Joplin, Henry “Box” Brown and Booker T. Washington, among others. But I think the most memorable character is Wildfire and the account of her introduction to academic and community life at Oberlin and her brave and bold exit.

Like most great literature, Olio makes me want to read more (a biography of Scott Joplin Jess includes in his bibliography), see more (the sculpture of Edmonia Lewis) and listen more (I’ve been playing ragtime in my car since I started this book).

I can’t wait to hear him present his work in September, as a part of Cleveland’s Book Week.

Friday, September 8
Tyehimba Jess, 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Award Winner, poetry, Olio
5:30 p.m.
Karamu House

Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove declared herself wowed by the “roller-coaster mélange” in Olio, Jess’ second book of poetry, which reclaims African-American voices from the Civil War to World War I. It also won a Pulitzer Prize. Jess will bring his work to life on stage at Karamu House.

In the mean time, there’s this performance of “Syncopated Sonnets.”

And here’s his site.

Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 – 2014

The incomparable Dave Lucas introduced me to Linda Gregerson, and my general rule (and you should adopt it to) is if Dave recommends someone, you should follow through.  I generally don’t like ‘Greatest Hits’ collections, but this was the first one I found. And, as usual, Dave didn’t disappoint.

Gregerson’s language is pointed. It can seem gentle at first, but beware the razor beneath, particularly when it comes to writing about those who would do or have done harm to children.

I had to laugh when, in “Lately, I’ve taken to,” she seems to ask permission – “if // I may compare great things to / small” – because this is what she does so well.

I had a lot of favorites in here. “Indications That One’s Love Has Returned” probably tops the list.

If I could ask her one question, I’d ask her about her spacing. That’s one poet’s choice I rarely understand.

This is a collection of great and serious beauty and insight.