By Mai Der Vang.
Apr. 2017. 96p. Graywolf, paper, $16 (9781555977702). 811.
Recruited by the CIA to covertly combat Communist forces in the
“Secret War” (1953–75), the Hmong people of Laos have since spent
decades withstanding widespread political persecution. In her award-winning debut, Hmong American Vang deftly probes the tumultuous
history of the Hmong, from the melodic myths of the ancients and the
long-hushed horrors of war to the excruciating expense of exile (“Fire is the child / Whose parents are
the dead”). Vang’s collection interweaves profoundly
personal recollections with unflinching glimpses
into the circumstances of refugees past. While “Your
Mountain Lies Down with You” invokes the sacrifices of the poet’s grieving grandfather, “Water
Grave” illuminates all he left behind: “The crowded
dead / turn into the earth’s / unfolded bed sheet. /
We drift near banks, / creatures of the Mekong, /
heads bobbing like / ghosts without bodies.” Yet, amid bullets and bees,
cyanide and stars, humpbacks and harvests, Vang imbues her imagery
not only with loss but also with the remarkable resilience and crystalline
spirituality of Hmong lore and language. “Ask me to build our temples /
So rooted, so stone, we won’t ever die out,” Vang writes. With this luminous, indelible volume, she’s already built one. —Briana Shemroske
Before Dawn on Bluff Road / Hollyhocks in the Fog.
By August Kleinzahler.
May 2017. 176p. Farrar, $26 (9780374282110). 811.
Kleinzahler’s third selected volume contains two collections, each
a concentration inspired by the two regions he calls home: northern
New Jersey, with the New York skyline beckoning, and San Francisco,
ever at the mercy of the Pacific’s moods. A lyric poet, he makes much
of little, squeezing every drop of interest and excitement out of what
one prescient, perceptive critic identified as his
principal subjects: “the weather, food, [and]
women.” Confronting the world, the speaker
often feels “bewilderment, perhaps.” And in response affects “a studied casualness. Yes. That.”
Rarely elegiac, he cannot always resist nostalgia.
In fact, these poems unfold so casually readers
might not appreciate Kleinzahler’s consummate
mastery of line, in which delicate, exact description is jarred by muscular speech; the exquisite
nuzzles the jocular. The excellence of every
poem in this beautifully designed and rigorously selected double collection reinforces the significance of his project. As Kleinzahler’s twelfth
collection, this should confirm, if any doubts remain, that this winner
of the Griffin Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award is among
the best American poets writing today. —Michael Autrey
By Jorie Graham.
May 2017. 104p. Ecco, $25.99 (9780062663481). 861.
Graham’s tidal, iridescent body of work was celebrated in her second
selected collection, From the New World: Poems,1976–2014. Here she
extends her ardent and intricate exploration of human consciousness
and planetary impact, navigating the tumult of now in poems of ex-
ceptional vitality, inquisitiveness, emotion, wit, and artistry. Graham’s
lush, pulsing lyrics sweep across unusually wide pages in her signature
style of reach and embrace, her language surging with passion yet shaped
with precision. Graham adeptly sets traditional
tropes—birds, trees, rivers, sunrises—within the
technoscape and considers with metaphysical
sensitivity the ambience and implications of our
hurried digital lives. She writes of being tracked
and marketed to, of bots and comment boxes, al-
gorithms and drones, 3D printing and simulated
reality. Our cyber-identities complicate the eter-
nal questions of the self, which Graham considers
both personally and as a member of the species
that is driving so many others to extinction. She writes of the deaths
of her parents and her bout with cancer, turning an MRI session—a
lifesaving bombardment—into a compassionate vision of the horrors of
bombings and the suffering of refugees. Each of Graham’s poems is a
daring voyage from the harbors of facts through the rapids of feelings and
thoughts, leaving readers exhilarated and transformed. —Donna Seaman
By Samiya Bashir.
Mar. 2017. 120p. Nightboat, paper, $15.95 (9781937658632). 811.
In this electrifying collection, Bashir co-opts the vernacular of thermodynamics to generate clever, ambitious poems: “We call it dark matter
because it doesn’t interact with light”; “Blackbody curve”; and, of course,
the titular “Field Theories.” Bashir plays with double meanings, unusual
narrative structure, and experimental visual arrangements, such as “Law
of total probability,” about an office shooting, from which conspicuous
circular portions of the text have been removed. In another, “Blackbody
radiation,” the text has been scrambled on the page, thrown together
with mathematical signs and symbols. The book alternates between these
science-inspired, avant-garde pieces and an extended sequence about the
legendary John Henry. By pairing this monumental black figure with
the terminology of scientific fields that have been defined by whiteness,
Bashir creates a jarring, resonant contrast in this substantial gathering.
The result is a dynamic, shape-shifting machine of perpetual motion that
reveals poignant observance (“Even Jesus let / his baker’s dozen fend / for
themselves once”) and verges toward hallucination (“We blow smoke
rings and shape them into big beaned cloud gates”). —Diego Báez
Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir.
By Jorge Argueta.
Mar. 2017. 208p. Arte Publico, paper, $14.95 (9781558858381). 811.
From his trying upbringing in rural El Salvador to his arrival on the
literary scene in San Francisco in the 1980s, Argueta alternates between
prose and poetry to create this genre-blending, bilingual memoir of his
long journey north in flight from guerrilla violence. In short chapters,
Argueta narrates life at home with his family, interrupted by the onslaught of civil war, and his subsequent escape from Central America.
Argueta’s poems are interspersed between these chapters, the best of
them hovering, koanlike, and momentary. Here’s “Banana Tree” in its
entirety: “An excited smile / hanging from the sky.” “Pepeto Tree” opens: