The National Catholic Review
A spring poetry anti-review

This spring poetry review is a spring poetry anti-review. It is all so subjective isn’t it? After a collection of poems has already made it through the jangly rites of agents and editors and elegant publishing houses and beautiful jacket covers and delectable author photos and a brief passage at the end about the book’s typeface, who are we to judge which are better than others? At this level it is all about style. It is all about taste. It is about what connects with your personal history and geography, your way of seeing the world. This poetry review is an anti-review.

That being said, Mary Szbist’s collection of poems, Incarnadine, is the best! It’s better than other books! I love this book! It’s number one!

(In fact, it was declared by the astute committee of the National Book Award to be number one. In giving it this prize, the committee described the book in this lovely way: “This is a religious book for non-believers, or a book of necessary doubts for the faithful.”)

In these poems, many of which center on the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, Szybist is not dipping the Virgin—or anything holy for that matter—into a deep fryer of sanctity that would conceal one’s core reality. She gets right at both the tactile and symbolic aspects of the Annunciation and everything else that mirrors annunciation in our own lives. She talks about Mary, and a lot of Marys. She talks about everything. It’s just a nice book is what I’m trying to say.

The poems do not always speak of religious things directly, but nearly all of them bear the whiff of something spiritual. “The Troubadors Etc.” closes in this way:

At what point is something gone
The last of the sunlight is disappearing
even as it swells—
Just for this evening, won’t you put me
before you
until I’m far enough away you can
believe in me?
Then try, try to come closer—
my wonderful and less than.

As the official overseer of your tour through this collection of poetry, I don’t even want to try and explain this poem. Explaining a poem can defeat its purpose. Syzbist quotes from Simone Weil at the outset of her book. “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” One might say the same, at times, for art.

And so Szybist contemplates the Annunciation from the point of view of the grass beneath Mary and Gabriel. She contemplates the Annunciation using direct quotes from the Starr Report and Nabokov’s Lolita, or past statements given by Senator Robert G. Byrd and President George W. Bush.

She contemplates, in “Entrances and Exits,” a friend’s daughter coming into her office and eating rice cakes and rice milk, a 76-year-old woman missing at the bottom of a canyon, the same woman found alive by men who noticed ravens circling, “The Annunciation” by Duccio, Jesus talking about the ravens of the air and how their father takes care of them, Russia holding a “national day of conception,” the death of Pavarotti, honeybees disappearing and God’s entrance into time.

It is all elegantly held together. It all works. It ends like this:

The blue container of rice milk fits loosely into Olivia’s hand the same way the book fits into the hand of Duccio’s Mary. She punches a hole in the top and, until it is empty, Olivia drinks.

Something else is great about these poems. They have a lot of white space. Poems with lots of white space are, frankly, helpful. Let’s just say it out loud. It’s nice to read poems with lots of white space.

In the midst of this white space, Szybist writes, in “To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary”:

I think I see annunciations everywhere: blackbirds fall out of the sky, trees lift their feathery branches, a girl in an out-sized yellow halo speeds toward—

She goes on to describe, elliptically, the death of a girl who apparently was crushed while being pulled by a truck in the snow in a yellow inner tube. Later she tapes to the refrigerator a postcard depicting the Annunciation,

because I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens.

In “How (Not) to Speak of God,” the sentences are written on the page as if in a pinwheel, or flowing out of a sun. The construction feels experimental and cute and it works. She writes in this circling poem about a God

who is enough, who is more than
who should be extolled with our
sugared tongues
who knows us in our burnished
windshields as we pass
who will care when the iridescent flies
swarm toward us
who can feel without eroticizing
who could be a piece of flame, a piece
of mind shimmering.

It keeps going round and round with no beginning and no end.

“To You Again” tells the story of a long relationship, someone wanting a closeness she can’t quite get:

It’s not the best in you
I long for. It’s when you’re noteless
numb at the ends of my fingers, all is
all. I say it is.

I could go on reprinting these poems all day and feel as if I’m doing an act of service to the world. I think this is what is called a “gushing” review. I leave by reprinting “Holy”:

Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you
fall so far in me,
do not feel you turn in my dark center.
My mother is sick, and you
cannot help her.

The poem closes in devastating fashion,

Ghost, what am I
if I lose the one who’s always known
Spirit, know me.
Fragile mother, impossible spirit, will
you fall so far
from me, will you leave meto me?
To think it is the last hard kiss, that
silence, your bits of breath
diffusing in my mouth—

Like Catholics after a Holy Thursday stripping of the altar, I think all you can do is walk away in silence.

I do not know Mr. Sherman Alexie, I have never met the man. I gain no currency from his fame nor do I garner any cut of his personal wealth. I just think probably we would all do well to go out and buy everything he has ever written and then get on with our lives. I think that may be true.

Alexie, whose latest collection is What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, writes poems that refer to pop songs, sports stars and chain restaurants. You feel smarter reading his works, because a) they are filled with words and associations you have heard of, and b) they are in a Poem! He has brought Poem to you, or you to Poem! And not in a cheap sense, it feels. Not in a pandering way. Just in a way where he’s like: hey, this is what I wanna talk my Poem.

In this manner his writing is free. In fact, he feels like a guy free enough to write bad poetry. There isn’t a lot of bad poetry in this collection. But even if there were, you wouldn’t really know it, because you would be like: it’s just so convincing! It sounds so good!

So, with a writer like this it is best, for the remainder of this review, to just let him do the talking.

Quickly, one more thing: Sherman Alexie is Indian (Spokane/Coeur D’Alene) and knows you know he’s Indian and knows you know he knows he’s Indian and knows you know he knows...and however far that goes, the point is that in his highly self-aware irreverent ironic yet mostly uncynical writing he is always one step ahead of you.

For instance, rage at genocide is there (shocking, eh?), the shameful American history never forgotten. And yet it sometimes comes out in a kind of humor. And his humor, his poetry, like all good writing, unites. And it divides. It divides while it unites and unites while it divides. You are not he and he is not you but he can share his truth with you and you can receive that truth and—

But stop! Enough of this talk! To the work!

In “Crazy Horse Boulevard,” Alexie writes:

In Indian theology, there are four directions: East, West, North, and South. Sounds expansive, I guess, but it’s really limited.... And, really, there are maybe three Indians in the whole country who can say “The Four Directions” without secretly giggling.

Later in the same poem:

I’m guessing there are four kids in each of my sons’ classes who haven’t been immunized against mumps, measles, and rubella. If my sons, Indian as they are, contract some preventable disease from those organic, free-range white children and die, will it be legal for me to scalp and slaughter their white parents?

From “The Native American Dictionary, Page 1”:

Powwow: n. An event where middle-class white people come to watch and take photos of dancing Indians.

In “Happy Holidays!” he writes,

I want to combine Catholic Lent and the Jewish Day of Atonement, and begin each year with six weeks of apologies.
Dear Ants that I slaughtered with M-80 fireworks, I am sorry for my rage.
Dear Chickens-to-Be that I dropped into frying pans, I am sorry for my hunger.
Dear Family Outhouse, I am sorry that I failed to recognize your primitive beauty.

“Sonnet, with Slot Machines” discusses, well, slot machines:

1. Gambling is traditional. 2. So is the sacrificial murder of mammals, but who is going to start that up again?

Alexie goes on to lay out a dialogue that winds up describing the soul-murdering quality of playing slots day after day. It ends, 14. If you punch a kid once, then he’ll cry. If you punch a kid once an hour, for a year, then he’ll learn how to make the fist feel like flowers.

If a responsible big-city paper wanted to write a somber editorial declaiming against the sad state of affairs of gambling and its effects on reservations, it could do a lot worse than ditch the editorial and print this poem.

And then there is “Monosonnet for Colonialism, Interrupted,” one of my favorites:

Yes, Colonialism
(who were genocidal maniacs, but without American colonialism we would not have action-adventure movies like Die Hard or the consolations and desolations of Emily Dickinson. I am a man who loves cinematic gunfire and American poetry, if not equally, then with parallel passion. In fact, at one point, I considered writing an action-adventure movie about Emily Dickinson....)

I told you I wasn’t going to interrupt Mr. Alexie. I’m not. I’m going on. In “Loud Ghazal”:

Who among you thinks that I am
afraid of silence
Because I can’t find your version of
God with silence?
I hear God in a pinball machine’s
sound and fury.
You say you can’t? Are your ears
clogged with silence?...
God is the raucous laughter during and after sex.
Makes noise! Joyful noise! Don’t fallow sod with silence.

Sherman Alexie’s poetry is so poignant and affecting because…and now the reviewer sums up what you have just read and explains it to you.

Or the reviewer just leaves more white space, the anti-review complete.


I have an issue with David Kirby’s A Wilderness of Monkeys. I have a problem with this poetry!

But first, consider this: Kirby’s poems are fun, crazy, free-fall, a tumbling of words, a stream of whatever. Is he going somewhere? Is this random? Is it okay to be random? What does it all mean? Who really was the fattest president? Is Kirby simply being funny? Can a book of poetry be a series of jokes?

In “Legion, For We are Many,” he writes:

I’m doing a couple of yoga stretches in
a quiet corner
of the Atlanta airport because my
flight’s delayed,
though having said “Atlanta airport,”
I realize
that I don’t have to say “my flight’s

I love that! Poetry can be so self serious! As with Alexie, it’s nice to see some humor!

“Massages by Blind Masseurs” starts off:

My tree guy and I are watching as the
man with the chipper
arrives, and I say, “Mr. Pumphrey,
every once in a while
I read that somebody gets tired of his
wife and knocks her
on the head and passes her through
one of these chippers,”
and he says, “I know, Mr. Kirby—
terrible isn’t it?” and then
he says, “And it doesn’t do the chipper
any good either.”

Hilarious. A number of the poems in this collection are just as strange and funny.

But still, I have an issue. It lies in the poem “Good Old Boys,” where David Kirby mentions people who got take-out from the Olive Garden and left their puppy nearly to die in an overheated truck cab. He derides them, saying,

Besides who gets
take-out from the Olive Garden?
You miss out on the endless
breadsticks and salad that way.

Here, here is the rub. Mr. Kirby writes about Olive Garden as if he actually goes to that restaurant. But in the author’s photo on the back of the book, Mr. David Kirby sits on a porch next to a black wrought iron fence, wearing a smart haircut and a splendid poet’s uniform of black sport coats and (I believe) dark jeans, with a Robert O. Lawton Professor of English at Florida State University annual salary of $127,080. All of which leads me to believe he has not set one foot inside an Olive Garden for the past 15 years.

If this is true, clearly it undermines his credibility as a poet who can write authentically about Olive Garden! Even if he has gone there recently, we may guess that he went with irony, with a “slumming” self-awareness that he was going someplace faux-classy like Olive Garden.

So tell us Kirby: what is the deal with Olive Garden? We want to give you a fair shake. We’d like to give you credit. Author photos and biographies can be deceiving. People are different ways. But we just don’t know. This anti-review may just have to leave off with a brocade of doubt stitched into its David Kirby section.

(Then again, that may be the point of an anti-review.)

I like the poems in Kevin Young’s Book of Hours. I like them very much. There is something about these poems centered around birth, marriage, miscarriage and the death of the poet’s father. Just a little turn, the way words are placed, and you are in them. You are saved by them. You recognize yourself in their dim mirror. I feel at home in these poems. As with the others above, these too are poems I do not want to explain, but just lay out.

In “Rue,” Young writes of traveling to his father’s funeral:

my future
wife and I
stayed at the Worst Western
The pale bathroom
whose light burnt on, red
as a darkroom,
ticking down—your eulogy dashed out
among the tiny
broken soap, each day
shrinking, slivered in our hands.

How do you write more poignantly than that? (I’m not really asking.)

In “Bereavement Fare”:

Nothing fair about it.

(Why does this work? It just does. It could be so tacky! It’s not! He just goes for the kill with this line and he gets it!)

It continues:

Heaven on the layaway plan.
Huge interest
Now the world’s only noun—
A weather no map dare measure.

(A weather no map dare measure. How does Young get away with that line too? How does he do it?)

Or what do you even do with a work like “Mercy”? In this poem, Mr. Young sits on a plane with a woman who carries in an ice chest a heart that will be implanted in her body. He relates this to his dead father.

I thought
I could be her holding you, hoping
there was enough life left in you
to help me
again breathe. And then this little
touch at the end: a farmer father
& mother send off
their plaid son the first time he’d flown
everyone wiping their eyes
& waving.

In “Charity,” Young is going through his father’s clothes:

Body bags
of old suits, shirts
still pressed...too manycoats to keep, though I will save
so many. How can I
give away the last
of your scent?

If this is not heartbreak, it doesn’t exist. Each of Young’s poems bear grief, joy and everything in between with a master’s touch that is both self-assured and humble.

In Brief

In “Torment,” the opening poem of Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, by Daisy Fried, a Princeton professor rides a train with undergrads returning from job interviews in New York. The students are by turns sweet, naive, driven, ironic, over-sexed, dreaming, confused:

If I don’t get a job,
it’s Wharton MBA. Or teach English
in Japan.
But this girl on my floor told me
Asian girls
depilate their whole bodies, even their arms. I can’t be the hairiest person in my life.

The rest of the book is marked with this kind of incision and humor.

The first part of Darktown Follies, a collection of poems by Amaud Jamaul Johnson, focuses on the challenges of black performers, particularly in minstrelsy, a genre of entertainment involving the performance of black stereotypes through dancing, music and various other skits. Johnson forces us to think about how “performing” minstrelsy has led to a type of “performing” of various stereotypes by black Americans in everyday life today. (If this review sounds a bit smarter than the others, it is because it was written by Olga Segura, assistant editor of America.)

Testimony: A Tribute to Charlie Parker, With New and Selected Jazz Poems, by Yusef Komunyakaa, describes jazz as a country, a way of life, a sexuality, a spirituality. In “Rhythm Method,”

The Mantra
of spring rain opens the rose
& spider lily into shadow,
& someone plays the bones
’til they rise & live again.
We know the whole weight
depends on small silences
we fit ourselves into. High heels at
is the saddest refrain.

Nearly every poem in the collection stirs up images as delicate and as fierce.

The poems in Stay, Illusion, by Lucie Brock-Broido, are poems that, as they say, deserve a second read. Or is this just an elegant way of saying I don’t get them?

She does provide marvelous turns of phrase. In “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room,” she provides us with an image both lovely and horrifying:

Each child still has one lantern inside lit. May the Mother not Blow her children out.

The poem ends, as do many of the poems in this collection with mystery and even faint hope:

On the roads, blue thistles, barely
Visible by night, and, by these, you may yet find your way home.

Joseph Hoover, S.J., is poetry editor of America.


Winifred Holloway | 5/12/2014 - 2:38pm

Thank you for your anti-review. This is the most enjoyable piece that I have read in a month. Thank God for poets.

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