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.

The Sobbing School (Bennett)

This seems to be a tale of two books, one more interesting than the other, if perhaps inconsisten with the title of the collection. In her essay, “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston writes –

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

It is when Bennet sharpens his oyster knife that his poems, apparently often performed, gain their edge. “Theodicy” (you do not know how to write / what you can’t imagine the end of) is one of my favorites (and is dedicated to Renisha McBride), but it may contain some of the sobbing that Hurston disdained (which obviously doesn’t bother me). “X” is also excellent as is “On Flesh.” “Still Life with Little Brother” is good and its ending is gorgeous.

Please, excuse my shadow. I can’t

stop leaving. I don’t know how

to name what I don’t know


well enough to render

in a single sitting. Every poem

about us seem an impossible labor,


like forgetting the face

of the sea, or trying to find

a more perfect name for water.


Our Lands are Not So Different (Bazzett)

I always enjoy finding a writer I like at or near the beginning of her or his career. It was my good fortune to work with Mike Bazzett as his poetry began to take the leap from having poems featured in a wide variety of impressive publications to having his own chapbooks and books. I can’t find the original source for it, but it is often said that one should try to say the most in the fewest words, and Bazzett does this in this new collection, nicely put together by Horsethief Books. There is not a single bit of fat to be found anywhere.

The poems seem to center around the idea of boundaries, or, more to the point, the dissolving of boundaries, as in “Report from Beyond” and the gently potent “The Date.” There are also more than a few stunning pieces here, such as “Thought Grenade,” “Coming Home,” and the absolutely paralyzing, “Afterward.” (Do NOT read “Afterward” before bed; I kid you not.)

Bazzett has received a 2017 NEA fellowship in Poetry. I can’t wait to read the results.

Bazzett’s website

Thrall (Trethewey)

Initially, many of these poems, most of them ekphrastic (see, for example, Enlightenment), felt fragile. Perfectly constructed, but not ones I could find my way into. There were no lines that stood out; everything depended on everything else.

Slowly, as I begin to get some sense of the rhythm of the pieces and recurring motifs started to appear (her father, being mixed race, etc.), I found them more accessible and those poems opened up the whole collection for me. For example, from “The Book of Castas,” on being of mixed race:

what do  you call // that space between / the dark geographies of sex? // Call it the taint – as in / T’aint one and t’aint the other – // illicit and yet naming still / what is between.

I’m not doing Trethewey’s spacing justice, but you can see how those lines would have to be unpacked carefully. The same is true for the whole collection.