Tiny scriptures of truth: America’s 2019 poetry roundup
To properly review the new collection Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), by Aria Aber, you simply want to copy the entire text of the book into your article and just say: Read this. I can add nothing.
But space is limited. So: In this sterling collection, winner of the 2019 Prairie Schooner Book prize, Aber writes about her status as one who left Afghanistan as a girl and wrestles with her identity, her desire to go back, the weirdness of being homesick for a country riven by war she knows only a little. “To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue/ pears laced with needles,” she writes. “I had no life in Kabul. How, then, can I trust my mind’s long corridor, its longing for before?” In another poem she gets a taxi ride from an ex-Marine who fought in Afghanistan and finds herself envious that he resided in her country longer than she ever did.
“To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue/ pears laced with needles”
Not only is the book crammed with startling and compelling writing—its jagged style, its fervor, its broken and conflicted confession—it reminds us that, oh yes, there has been a war far away from here that “we” (namely, an intensely small percentage of Americans) have been involved in. For 17 years. Her words are challenging little psalms, tiny scriptures of truth sometimes difficult to confront.
In “Asylum”: “Even poverty can be glamorous, if you insist./ Piss rusted on elevator floors so gilded I mistake it for a trinket.” In “Stone” Aber gives voice to a startling admission about having children—wholly unsentimental and close to the bone: “But now, arid as a stone, I can admit/ that I wanted children/ only so I could name them, and thus/ sentence them to an ancestry that I lacked.”
She tells of Mujahideen "cracking a joke in line for narenj palau;...planting bombs in purple silk dresses"
One portion of the book begins by listing virtually every “regime change” the United States has engineered since 1949. 1953: Iranian coup d’etat. 1970-73: Chile; 1976: Jamaican coup; 1979-89: Afghanistan, and so on.“Operation Cyclone” then becomes an extended poem, the most damning and inciting poem in the whole book. It begins with this insane observation: “DEDICATED TO THE GALLANT MUJAHADEEN FIGHTERS rolls down/ the original cut of the saturated/ last scene of Rambo III.”
The poem goes on to explore with exquisite images the inner contradictions and realities of Mujahadeen—Muslim guerillas engaging in jihad “...with beautiful cheekbones, dancing Atan at a wedding, cracking a joke in line for narenj palau;...planting bombs in purple silk dresses,/ deep in sacks of lentils...who love watching Turkish novellas with their mothers…”
“How much/ of my yearly tax is spent to bomb/ the dirt that birthed me"
In “Azalea, Azalea,” Aber dives into the living in the United States, making love, contemplating flowers, making a living, while hell is made of her home country. It contains what may be the beating heart and most telling line of the entire book: “How much/ of my yearly tax is spent to bomb/ the dirt that birthed me/ is a question/ I never wanted to consider.”
Included among the six names in the dedication to her new collection, Tropic of Squalor (Harper, 2018),Mary Karr writes “& (wincingly enough) for Jesus.” The phrasing is ambiguous. Is the author wincing because she is casting herself as any other straight-ahead, all-American Profligate User of the Name (a writerly version of Kurt Warner shouting into a mic after the Rams won the 2000 Super Bowl, “Thank you, Jesus!”)? Or is she dedicating the book to Jesus because it is always a bold move to commend something to Christ—poetry, life, whatever. An ominous and awesome undertaking.
Karr writes about the strangeness of visiting Ground Zero and unable to give it the reverence it deserves because she has to shower and get to a fundraiser.
Regardless of the reason, it reveals a soul clearly involved and wrestling and taking note not only of Christ but of the very quality of her own belief. The second half of the book, 30-plus pages, is dedicated to “The Less Holy Bible.” In the last poem of that section, “Revelation: The Messenger,” a young man arrives at her door with “an unsigned contract for selling my soul/ to Holy-wood….” We learn at the end that his name is Jesus (“and I’d been weeks entreating the iron gray sky to see specifically Him”).
Many of the poems are set in Texas, where Karr grew up, or in New York, where she lives now: listening to the jackhammers; stepping over a homeless man sleeping in her doorway; confronting her neighbor who engages with boy prostitutes; the strangeness of visiting Ground Zero and unable to give it the reverence it deserves because she has to shower and get to a fundraiser.
We witness in her poetry a person fighting for her spirituality.
Known widely as a memoirist, Karr’s first forays into published writing were poetry. Her work is not filled with the kind of writing that transplants you to some new country, so to speak. It does not overwhelm you with twists and turns. She wrote once in the journal Parnassus a critique of what she would consider to be overwritten poetry that loses its way. She takes issue with a James Merrill poem, for instance, that is filled with “glittery pushpins of language and metaphor,” its clarity lost amid its ornamented style. For her, the point of a poem is “to stir emotion.” This stirring “derives from a pure rendering of primal human experiences.”
We witness in Karr’s poetry a person fighting for her spirituality, struggling to maintain her dignity—not in some specific moment of shame, but in the way we all struggle to hoist our dignity up again and remind ourselves of our inherent worth. “After decades of suffering the torments/ Of mine own mind, I awoke one dawn/ Breathing into the odd center of this/ Once orphaned flesh. Alive, blinking.”
Karr imagines a world in which the outcast become those with the highest approval on social media.
“The Like Button” acts out this struggle to overcome suffering on a wider stage. She imagines a world in which the unwashed, the homeless, the outcast, become those with the highest approval on social media. “Imagine/ the forever dispossessed/ transforming as they feel the thumb/ of yes impress itself/ into the very flesh.”
Read Willie Perdomo’s The Crazy Bunch (Penguin Books, 2019) on an 86-degree day, as I did, and you will feel both ecstatic and pensive. Sifting through the past, Perdomo configures an East Harlem all his own. Centering on a tragic early-1990s summer in which several of his friends die, the collection is sunbaked but gloomy.
In the poem “Brother Lo on the Prison Industrial Complex” there is “a hint of ammonia in your cough.”
Some of the most arresting images from the collection involve bodily discomfort in summer heat. “When you feel a follicle of sweat grovel down your back, you/ have arrived.” In a poem called “Brother Lo on the Prison Industrial Complex” there is “a hint of ammonia in your cough.”
Perdomo, who teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy, grew up in East Harlem. He was inspired to write the collection after watching an HBO documentary about the rapper Nas and the East Coast hip-hop scene in the early ’90s. Youth shines bright in these poems but is also hot to the touch—perplexing and dangerous. “Turn slow at the third corner,” Perdomo writes, “as if you were an uptown eclipse/ an indecisive twilight, a fix ready to burn.” As for religion, “Sundays were for...being late to your Confirmation.”
Friends die tragically and violently. The justice system is unjust.
But The Crazy Bunch is about more than a crew of kids and summertime sadness. It’s ultimately about what he calls “Post-Traumatic Hood Disorder” (which is also the title of a poetry collection by David Tomas Martinez reviewed in America last year). Friends die tragically and violently. The justice system is unjust. Even the lighter memories are darkened by the shadows of other poems, like “No ID”: “I’m nobody/ I don’t have an ID/ I don’t exist/ I was just walking to the store.” Toward the end of the book, his friend Papo says all there is to say: “Ortiz Funeral Home was a second home, a forever rest stop...a spot/ where you could kiss the dead. A place where you learned your/ friend’s government name.”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest poetry collection, The Tiny Journalist (BOA Editions Ltd., 2019), is a sweeping, emotional dive into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impact on the margininalized. It blends raw storytelling with lived realities to shine a condemning light on the injustices experienced by the Palestinian people.
Her poems blend raw storytelling with lived realities to illuminate the injustices experienced by the Palestinian people.
The poet’s Palestinian-American identity beats at the heart of the book as Nye wrestles with her childhood trauma, her residence in a country that does not recognize Palestine and her ethical responsibilities as a writer documenting her people’s ongoing suffering.
Nye also draws upon the social media postings of the youth activist and 13-year-old reporter Janna Tamimi, who started recording videos of the anti-occupation protests on her mother’s smartphone when she was 7 years old. These videos ground Nye’s poems in modern-day Palestine and infuse them with an autobiographical, journalistic quality—that quality that resonates with Nye’s call to “Stay strong, keep speaking truth” even when the world forgets about you.
“Silence waits/ for truth to break it.”
Ultimately, The Tiny Journalist is a sincere plea for readers to bear witness and listen when marginalized groups raise their voices. Nye asks: “Do we imagine silence/ more powerful because/ it might contain everything?/ Quiet always lives inside noise./ But does it get much done?”
No, she concludes: “Silence waits/ for truth to break it.”
In an article for America that came out shortly after the release of “Laudato Si’,” Jim McDermott, S.J., argued that if the environmental encyclical didn’t change your heart or mind, maybe poetry can. He urged everyone to go out and buy a few books by Mary Oliver to instigate an ecological conversion.
The pictures are breathtaking, full of bright-eyed birds and sea ice smashing into land.
Though she writes in a completely different style than Oliver, Elizabeth Bradfield’s Toward Antarctica (Boreal Books, 2019) also belongs in the hands of anyone still seeking a renewed appreciation for the grandeur of the natural world. The book is the product of notes and photos Bradfield took during two trips to Antarctica. In form and content Toward Antarctica feels intensely new. It switches between poetry and prose and includes Bradfield’s photos. The pictures are breathtaking, full of bright-eyed birds and sea ice smashing into land.
Bradfield writes in a Japanese form, the haibun, which incorporates short poems into diary-like prose. The writing is tight, fragmented: “stretched on low ice/ ignored in near distance/ a leopard seal yawns.” The poet gives us access, in photos and words, to things most of us will never see.
The writing is tight, fragmented: “stretched on low ice/ ignored in near distance/ a leopard seal yawns.”
But for all the newness of a book about Antarctica, Bradfield’s writing does not feel otherworldly. Entries about the dynamics of the ship’s crew and the differences between those who are working and the tourists ground the book in something familiar and human. Those entries left me even more amazed by her lines about wildlife I had never heard of before: the “fawn-shouldered gentoo/ aglow among countershaded usuals/ nesting anyway.”
Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (Paraclete Press, 2019),by Jeanne Murray Walker, bears the feel of classic, observational, “quiet” American poetry. The theme is the ordinary, the everyday. Bakers and shoemakers. A 12-point buck, a bird watching someone shower. Walking in the woods, a girl learning how to write a word, the tension before a concert begins. But “classic” does not mean worn or cliched; work that is classic in form or content can mean fresh, ever fresh.
“In the attic of your skull, you can feel erasing/ The Pledge, times tables.
Like any good writing, it takes up questions you suddenly realize have been latent within you as well. In “The Haunting,” Why do we love what’s miniature/ and take it to our hearts?” Why indeed? Or in “Farewell”: “Everything we long for,/ we make ours through longing. Apples seem/ crisper, sweeter when they’re conjured/ than if I taste them on the tongue.”
In “So You’re Losing Your Memory?” “In the attic of your skull, you can feel erasing/ The Pledge, times tables. And your bruising/ mistakes gone too.”
After reading the poem “Foreboding”: “Only we stay,/ who can’t migrate, we who hear the scratch/ and fall of leaves, more anxious every day/ as darkness lengthens,” it hits me for the first time: humans are the only creatures who know that, eventually, they are going to die. A small gift of insight born of those odd little nooks poetry can create in us, a small access point to let in something new.
The spiritual (and religious) collection The Human Half (BOA Editions, Ltd. 2019) is deeply tied to the celestial, Greek gods, death and nature. Deborah Brown writes about big things, the kind that would enter the hazy realm of the abstract—that is, if she weren’t also writing about “a screen door torn from its hinge,/ left to flap like a demented tongue.”
The Human Half is the kind of poetry book that makes me want to take out my own notebook and write something new and precise.
The questions she poses across the book arrested me, demanded my attention. In a poem about her sister’s funeral and her mother’s attire for the event, the speaker interrogates her mother and herself. She asks: “What if the red suit was who she was/ and judging her years later is who I am?” The book is also confessional, combining ordinary phrasings, “I don’t have,” and with an image that’s surprising and new: “I don’t have a finished house with floorboards/ to walk on.”
The Human Half is the kind of poetry book that makes me want to take out my own notebook and write something new and precise. In fact, each phrase of Brown’s poem “Write About This” is a fresh prompt. And if years from now, you read a new poem that feels as if it might have been inspired by a line “about an evening full/ of squirrels flying between us,” know Deborah Brown supplied the writing exercise.
It is no secret that war and violence take children from their mothers, but Emily Jungmin Yoon brings to light another way in which the battlefield steals motherhood.
Yoon lived the first nine years of her life in Busan, in the Republic of Korea. In A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018), Yoon tells the heartbreaking story of thousands of Korean women—the so-called “Comfort Women”—forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The collection is divided into four sections. “Testimonies,” the middle portion of the book, captures the raw emotions and first-hand accounts of the trauma. In this section, Yoon restores the voice and dignity of the women by titling each poem with the name of a girl forced into sex slavery.
Many of the testimonies tell of motherhood being stripped away. The “comfort women” suffered from infertility and miscarriages as a result of the drugs and abuse they endured. Lines like “I had a miscarriage,” “I lost my uterus” and “I became infertile” almost overwhelm the poetry in this section.
Yoon tells the heartbreaking story of Korea's so-called “Comfort Women” forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Yoon’s courage shines through her poetry. Her approach to sex slavery is shockingly straightforward, leaving no room for false interpretation of just how devastating these events were. The words are hard to digest, as they make the stomach churn in a way only the most heinous actions of humanity can. Tragically evident is the fact that thousands of women will never be able to return to themselves, as the voice in the poem titled “Kim Sang-hi” narrates: “I want to find solace but I cannot/ When I wake in the morning I cannot.”
In the third section, titled “The Confessions,” the effects of being sex slaves haunt the minds of generations of mothers and daughters throughout Korea. The first poem of this section outlines how the memories nag at the victims. Yoon writes, “70 years and no one knows. No one who knows my past is alive. Girls at the comfort station, we were all children then.” This line stresses the importance of returning and amplifying the voices of the victims. This strong emotional appeal evokes the loneliness the women of Korea must have felt and is a call to action, to help those around us heal.
Her words make the stomach churn in a way only the most heinous actions of humanity can.
Yoon’s jarring poetry holds the soldiers accountable for the thousands of lives ruined during World War II. Her message continues to resonate around the world today as people are still forced into sex trafficking with and without war on their home soil.
Geffrey Davis’s new collection, Night Angler (BOA Editions, 2019), is rooted in the pain, wonder and fear of his life as a parent, braided together with his life as a black man, a contemplator of suicide, a son of an abusive father and what is for a writer the perfect avocation—a fisherman.
Hope and fear are inhaled with the same air in many of these poems.
He comes to his truths honestly and pays them out bit by bit in his work. Raising his son helps him to work out his own issues with his violent and absent father. Hope and fear are inhaled with the same air in many of these poems. Both emotions crystallize for the poet in moments as simple as clipping his son’s nails or brushing his teeth. Drawing blood with the nail clippers finds him crying, as he ends the poem: “may what breaks rise and reach again.”
“Self-Portrait as a Dead Black Boy” runs through a short, sad litany of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, all black males shot by cops, alongside his experience as a new father purchasing a gun. A decision he made because where he lived in the Northwest was “thousands of miles between me and my tribe.”
Davis writes about burying his father in numerous ways throughout his life, later describing “I want daddy, but father-abuser crosses/ the notes or keys I believe have barricaded/ the badness of that man.” He describes a guitar as “the first instrument I tried to turn against my father.”
He describes a guitar as “the first instrument I tried to turn against my father.”
The title of the book is a perfect image of both one who fishes and one who contemplates the “night”—violence, racism, the prospect of taking his own life. Every flicker of water, of rivers, or any kind of nature comes off epic, dark, swirling, serrated, biblical. Davis observes a flood coming: “But what of course isn’t threatened when/ the right season licks its lips.”
Little seems to come or to have come easy to Davis; each moment is guarded, captured, spun around, looked at from all angles—not only because of his race or role as a father, but also because he is a poet, for whom every rock, pebble and drop of water on his journey is picked up and examined closely.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Tiny Scriptures of Truth: America’s 2019 Poetry Roundup,” in the November 11, 2019, issue.