Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers (Amichai)

The title has to be ironic. Aside from some throwaway and, at times, icky poems, about women, these poems represent a mind that is anything but tranquil.  Here, Amichai (here translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt) grapples with how, both personally and politically, we can balance history and memory with the need to move forward in life. In “In the Old City,” the battle seems lost. He writes, “We are weepers at feasts, carvers of names on every stone, / Smitten by hope, hostages of rulers and history.” The ‘we’ here is almost certainly Israel. In “Since Then,” he says, “I march against my memories / Like a man against the wind.” On the other hand, or, as he puts it in “People in the dark always see, “between darkness and light real life goes on.” This tension is represented most effectively in his poem, “Jerusalem is full of used Jews.” There are a handful to just skip here (and make me wonder what Amichai pays his editor for), but three quarters of the collection is incredibly compelling. Amichai seems to genuinely ask (in “An Attempt to Hold Back History”), “Do you think you can hold back history?”


Maps (Freeman)

My only objection to this wonderful collection is that it’s a collection and not, in my view, a book. Freeman has traveled a great deal. Thus, the more literal definition of maps. But for reasons I could not pick up on, unless it’s to present us with an anti-map approach, he alternated these poems with some deeply more personal ones, maps dare I say, of the human heart. So poems like “Barbers” and “Maps” and “Bomb Shelters of the Oligarchs” are all amazing, but the collection never develops the momentum it deserves.

Counting Descent (Smith)

Smith’s well-titled (play with that second word a while) is, like his poems, compact, powerful, and purposeful. I will also add versatile as Smith ranges over a variety of forms and topics, from current events (with attention to a topic that he covers in one of his TED Talks – “How to Raise a Black Son in America,to New Orleans (his hometown), to language, to love.

There are too many favorites to list here. Here’s one –

“what the cicada said to the brown boy”

Here’s his site – Clint Smith’s site. Go ahead and get his book for yourself.

Silencer (Wicker)

I always regret it when I don’t write reviews right away. Life’s been a bit busy, but I remember enough to say that I loved this collection – everything from its Kehinde Wiley cover and absolutely loaded (pun intended) title to the poems inside. “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television” is an early favorite. “Watch Us Elocute” packs a punch. “Film Noir at Gallup Park, On the Edge,” “Animal Farm” and “Prayer on the Subdivision” are other favorites. Wicker’s voice just leaps off the page – sometimes to punch you, sometimes to prod you, always to make you think.

Marcus Wicker’s site

Don’t Call Us Dead (Smith)

I’ve been a fan of Smith’s ever since I read his Dinosaurs in the Hood in Poetry Magazine. And his work spoke to our students as well, so we found what we could online and waited for this book, this National Book Award-nominated book to arrive. And it did. And wow. His poems, ranging from the personal to the political, will absolutely rock you back in your seat. The only thing better than reading them is hearing Smith himself read them. Second is the delight in my students’ faces when they hear someone who makes sense to them.

This one is mandatory – Dear White America

The running motif of the “bloodcell” absolutely haunts me.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies (May)

The first thing that struck me when I picked this book up at the excellent Guide to Kulchur bookstore was the apparent contradiction in the title. “The Big Book of” sounds like the beginning of a children’s title. “Exit Strategies,” as far as I know it, is a military term. And May teases this contradiction out throughout the collection, turning often to a motif of journeys and his hometown of Detroit as he provides the kind of poems that make you both laugh and think. I had too many favorites to list them all here, so let me see what’s available online.

Ah, here’s one.

There Are Birds Here (for Detroit)

And another. . .

A Brief History of Hostility

At least read its ending –

Aren’t graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken

into account, and shouldn’t we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We’ll come back to you. Peace will come to you

as a rosewood-colored road paver
in your grandmother’s town, as a trench
scraped into canvas, as a violin bow, a shovel,

an easel, a brushstroke that covers
burial mounds in grass. And love, you say,
is a constant blade, a trowel that plants

and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,

straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.

Heck, here’s his site –

Jamaal May’s site



Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Baldwin)

It came as something of a relief to find that Baldwin’s poetry is not at the same level as his fiction, plays and essays. Many of these pieces seem like exercises, often featuring far too much concern with rhyme. There are moments of the kind of surgical observation I’ve come to expect from Baldwin in other genres. This, from “Staggerlee wonders” –

This flag has been planted on the moon:

it will be interesting to see

what steps the moon will take to be revenged

for this quite breathtaking presumption.

I could hear Baldwin’s voice in these lines.

I enjoyed the seemingly Langston Hughes influenced, “Song (for Skip)” and “Inventory / On Being 52” and bits and pieces of other poems, but generally, this collection didn’t grab me.