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Staff Picks 2016

 

some worlds for dr. vogt | matvei yankelevich | black square editions

Brent Cunningham recommends

Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt by Matvei Yankelevich

I suppose one approach to a "staff pick" is to shine a light on an overlooked book? If so I thought this title deserved a lot more attention than it got when it came out in 2015. Maybe I'm only going to get in trouble using this kind of language but this is really beautiful writing. There's a light motif (as opposed to a leitmotif, get it?) where the word "world" shows up in most of the poems, but even the poet's willingness to abandon that "rule" is part of what I like: this is poetry that articulates, sees, experiences, considers, plays, but never insists. Really refreshing, no joke. There's a lot of abstract speculation but at the same time these poems seem to think thinking is just another form of actuality, as if philosophy meant talking-about-stuff-and-people-and-life. For sure Yankelevich borrows a lot of that approach from the NY School, second generation especially, including how the physical world keeps showing up almost like it's an installation of objects and colors, but it's still a terrific mode and when I read this book I'm not sure why we see so little of it nowadays. Anyway allow me to opine that philosophical speculation in poetry easily and often sounds like pretentious bell-candy, but in this case I trusted all the decisions, the tone, the careful compression, and also fully accepted the seriousness of the thought. It's not over-excited, it's not hip, and it's not resigned either. It's just alive.

 

images for radical politics | vanessa jimenez gabb | rescue press

Katherine Duckworth recommends

Images for Radical Politics by Vanessa Jimenez Gabb

Let Vanessa Jimenez Gabb guide you, like the ghost of Christmas Futurepastpresent, through the intimacy and crisis of Capitalism in her beautiful debut collection with Rescue Press, IMAGES FOR RADICAL POLITICS. The Rosa Luxemburg preface, "The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening," is precisely what Jimenez Gabb accomplishes here. It is both globally concerned and secretively small in its investigation of love, locale, (Brooklyn, Belize..) economics and labor—where "everything is political" and Jiminez Gabb is "here to be with others." And VJG is distinctively here too, illuminating the histories, data, wounds, bank balances, animals, lovers and futures in the darkness. Read these poems aloud with others.

 

antigona gonzalez | sara uribe | les figues press

Janice Worthen recommends

Antígona González by Sara Uribe

ANTÍGONA GONZÁLEZ made my feet heavy, my hands itch, my thoughts turn to circles...around and around with Antígona, her big heart, her determination, searching for the disappeared. "How could I not demand his body even if just to bury it?" In such cases, how does the heart not become a tomb? "Facing what disappears: what does not disappear." Cursed to find the missing in every newly-found body and to never find them. The tethers holding a multitude of feet in place severed by each person lost. How many are set adrift? "I'm also disappearing, Tadeo." In this moving, tragic, loving, aching book, Antígona searches among a sea of bodies, living and dead, but how does one search when the sea keeps growing, keeps crashing in? "That's why when I watch the news, the truth is I don't know what to believe or who to believe...Day after day our certainties have slipped away from us. We've been unable to hold on." I closed this book feeling abandoned, bereft, and ghostly. I closed this book like a person might close a grave.

 

singing in magnetic hoofbeat | will alexander | essay press

Kyle Walsh recommends

Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat by Will Alexander

To read any of Will Alexander's works is to suddenly find oneself in the middle of a verbal stampede, a glorious poetics that both affirms and exhibits the power of language to transform our world. SINGING IN MAGNETIC HOOFBEAT ventures across personal and historical boundaries, a dextrous work in which Alexander's poetic furnace can seemingly touch a subject and make it come to life. Here's just a sampling of what this book covers: the blues, the science of the deep oceans, the history of concrete and its impact on the environment and consciousness, the injustice of present institutions, paeans to precursors and influences, and the diverse intersections of surrealism. He sums up this ethos of expansiveness in his essay "A New Liberty of Expression": "Be it radiolarians, or ocelots, or dictators who have merged with dissolution, all of life burns for me, existing without border or confinement. The sun, the air, the fires forming, the waters swirling without let-up...When working with these primordial forces language becomes an organic weapon. A weapon which clears out old toxins, which annihilates the autocracy of imaginal restiction." Here is a voice that never ceases to astonish and galvanize, allowing us to leave the fortress of the rational for a new realm of creative freedom. If you're looking for an internal spark, just jump on Spaceship Alexander and head toward "the magical site where the future must convene."

 

hotel abc | susan gevirtz | nightboat books

John Sakkis recommends

Hotel abc by Susan Gevirtz

Every new Susan Gevirtz book is an event for me, HOTEL ABC is a static-y, accretive, minimalist and then maximilist, Martian-trance by way of CB-Radio piece of poem making. "Offer no bail// line///// CLATTER." Gevirtz is a master of the ghostly, the echoic, the voices on the BART train barely audible behind the ear buds, there is a story here but I'm not sure how to follow, and that's the pleasure of it, I take HOTEL ABC as a dirge, but also as a dinner party with friends, the melancholic morphing to "eyewitness decadence," Susan Gevirtz is treasure.

 

the sissies | evan kennedy | futurepoem books

Jason Mull recommends

The Sissies by Evan Kennedy

I want to luxuriate in Evan Kennedy's gorgeous, well-wrought lyricism; I want to follow his expansive, run-on formulations to their (sometimes nonexistent) end. In THE SISSIES, Kennedy refuses to shy away from the pleasures and possibilities of age-old forms of direct address, adopting an array of rhetorical registers (prayer, canticle, treatise, maxim) while never quite letting us forget their origin in an embodied subject ("heap of bones, aspiration, and genitals"). Beatific cyclist-cum-flâneur, Kennedy loosens the rules, "barter[s] with the pastoral," queers the canticle, takes up Saint Francis as a patron for the bashed and the marginalized. Despite the antagonisms of a repressive culture, Kennedy never quite slips into despair. His work remains invested in and expectant toward the radical possibilities and emergent forms of community / "confraternity" afforded by a lyric adjustment of sensitivities. "Go clarify yourselves," Kennedy urges, "if you have not already." These poems offer us "transitory glimpses into the prospect of spilling over [our] contours--or having [our] contours penetrated by otherworldly force," sketching a queerness whose identifications (to borrow from the late José Esteban Muñoz) have the potential to produce "a warm illumination of a horizon of potentiality."

 

concomitance | monica mcclure | counterpath press

Johnny Hernandez recommends

Concomitance by Monica McClure

Monica McClure's new Counterpath collection, CONCOMITANCE, is an often naked collection that, at its heart, seeks to pull away at the layers of surface and tedium that confine and distance the self within our routines of appearance. This is a collection that maneuvers through location, through community, through all the obstacles that obscure personal identity. McClure shatters each surface, each societal obstacle and invites the reader to occupy a quiet place of beauty that can't be gleaned through make up, skin regimens or knowing the right places, people, brands or designers. At the heart of the collection, in her poem, "Brooklyn," McClure writes: "We are / dressing our wounds. We are / scrubbing our delusions into viable / pop narratives. We are / diaries of our choices. It is / even possible in America to look good / when you're poor, but only / at the expense of other poor people." McClure is pounding against the surfaces we build around ourselves, to reveal what is sincerity, what is passion in a world of glances and impressions. McClure writes, "I ask / what there is to ask a poet in a time / where there is nothing to say about poetry / that isn't about a relation to the objects and sites / in the story of one's 'identity.' / A number of signs / that explain a social tapestry / incrementally and / never epically, of course." This is an incredible follow up to her previous collection Tender Data. Try to get your hands on this wonderful world.

 

think tank | julie carr | solid objects

Laura Moriarty recommends

Think Tank by Julie Carr

Thinking about Julie Carr's book THINK TANK, which I have lovingly had on my desk since it came out last year, I am suddenly put in mind of one of my favorite movies, Alien Resurrection. The scene where the newly monstrous Ripley confronts the embryos of other Ripleys as well as the part of the film where the alien is revealed to have a human reproductive system suggest themselves. "Shiny reflections of internal vitality are not easily turned into sculptural masses." Here there are heroines, "massive bitches." They are complicated and deadly. The visceral feel of the movie is also true of the book. "Yeasted minutes leap to / swamp the city's borders." "In vain do you pretend to have learned the nature of bodies from your past experience," Carr asserts, quoting David Hume. And yet that is exactly what happens in this text. "breath surrounds my book" The nature of bodies is interrogated, celebrated, written, declaimed--but remains "unwriteable" (unrightable?). The words are physical, personal, political, and relentless. "So I will climb and climb in the dust all day." THINK TANK is beautiful and enabling--a book to bring along when you want to write. "Suspended between two worlds superimposed one upon the other." "Give us this day our daily mouth." You can't help but respond with your own thought.

 

the genocide's love baby | princess moon | bootstrap press

Steve Orth recommends

The Genocide's Love Baby Learns to Sing by Princess Moon

Well, I just totally dig this book. To be honest, I have found myself reading this book instead of working many times. I'm not even really sure how this book works so well. Maybe it just feels like nothing else I ever read before (and it does feel that way)? What it does is takes us through a journey of the parents of the poet where they survive genocide in Cambodia, come to the U.S. and the birth of the author. "the night I was born, the city became a woman." Language and trauma are passed on to Princess Moon, who experiences patriarchy and racism, who struggles with her body and watches dad cruising in a Mercedes. Yes, this book is full of very heavy subjects, but it is actually pretty pop-y and quite fun to read, as it balances pain and joy in a way that very few writers can pull. I mean there's Tolstoy, and there's...gosh, I can't think of anyone else, right now. But I can add Princess Moon to that list. Check out this sample: "I am seventeen eating dinner in my room. / I sip the waterfall of sweet honey my mother feeds me. We call it salvation, / this sense of taste and the / hunger to heal." Dang!

 

puswhisperer | mark crislip, md | bitingduck press

Trisha Low recommends

Puswhisperer by Mark Crislip, MD

When I was asked to write a staff pick for the month of November, a sense of fear swelled deep inside me. I like to think that I'm the kind of person who would prefer to use my power for the greater good, not someone who would go on the whim of their own personal interest. But in this case, I couldn't help but succumb, weakly, to my own desires. Reader, please forgive me, but this month, I've chosen to recommend to you all Mark Crislip, MD's stellar work PUSWHISPERER, out from Bitingduck Press.

As an Infectious Diseases specialist practicing in field, as well as the award winning host of various podcasts including Puscast and Quakast and Gobbet o' Pus, Crislip himself knows best of all, that for us humans, the flesh is weak. And flesh is indeed plentiful in these colorful, and 100% true-to-life accounts of his case studies. The reader follows along every detail of Crislip's fascinating work in identifying contagious rashes, burrowing bugs and exploding sores. And even though one might think that cheesy popcultural references and a dorky sense of humor might detract from the gravitas of such an important profession, they in fact contribute a great deal to make the terrifying events in PUSWHISPERER, dare I say it, fun. With detailed scientific notes placed alongside simple explanations for the laymen, this book is a great example of the unexpected delight that arises when real life becomes more like science fiction than what we could even imagine. How might a cat parasite in your brain make you a terrible driver? What kind of disease can cause sores that, when split open, smell unmistakably like popcorn? Why is it important to "CYPA:... cover your patient's ass (literally)"? I can't wait for you to find out.

 

tender points | amy berkowitz | timeless infinite light

Danica Ronquillo recommends

Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz 

TENDER POINTS is short and intense. This lyrical narrative challenges trauma, sexual violence, gendered illnesses, and chronic pain. But that is not all that Amy Berkowitz does. She combines references from pop culture, to medical text, to lived experiences of fibromyalgia; taking up a visceral form of not only the text cover, but the text as a whole.

This book reveals the unfortunate truth; what is being heard, what is not being heard, who speaks, and who doesn't speak. As a reader there are times when you need to pause and take a breath. You may even tear up. Amy Berkowitz's words resonate honesty and fierceness out of a page even if it is in one short sentence,

"The problem is / you can't put pain on trial."

 

someone's dead already | tongo eisen-martin | bootstrap press

Brent Cunningham recommends

someone's dead already by Tongo Eisen-Martin

I'd been hearing about Tongo Eisen-Martin here in the Bay Area for at least a year before I picked up his book. Well, I get the enthusiasm now. Eisen-Martin is one of those poets with one foot solidly in the activist community, so part of the excitement might be because not a lot of activist-poets can write like this. On the surface SOMEONE'S DEAD ALREADY draws from poets like Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka—i.e. a mix of "real world" daily experiences and political articulations cut with moments of crystallized if faintly surrealistic visions—but the poems are more fragmented, and also more grounded in the practical work of social change, than Beat poetry generally was. Many of the formal touches, especially the way Eisen-Martin couches complicated syntactical moves inside unpretentious diction, kept reminding me of Vladimir Mayakovsky more than anyone. The line breaks and formal arrangements are sort of radically unsystematic, which is something else the poems share with Mayakovsky, and which I interpreted as part of a general "anti-craft" position, as if the poems are constantly checking the reader to make sure we don't think they're mainly about aesthetics. That, too, was compelling to me, but what makes this book really worth the time, at least to me, is how unpredictable the writing is from line to line. Yes, it's political poetry of a sort, and it's very much of our time, returning repeatedly to concern for Black lives in a system of unimaginable brutality (except it's easy to imagine it because, check it out, there it is), but the poems are also, plainly, never just that. Sometimes off-rhyme and other musical elements take the lead, sometimes a political argument, sometimes bits of intimate experiences, sometimes bits of social experiences, and sometimes it's so associative you're not sure what's going on. But the lived (at times livid) authority of the voice, the directness of the poet's ongoing cogitations, foregrounds all those shifts, and anyway, point is: this stuff is interesting, line to line and all the way across.

 

what we do | michael gottlieb | chax press

John Sakkis recommends

What We Do: Essays for Poets by Michael Gottlieb

Michael Gottlieb's WHAT WE DO: ESSAYS FOR POETS is a fierce and singular book. The text proceeds Socratically, each short essay (rarely longer than 1 page) begins with a series of questions/ statements/ ruminations, e.g., "what are we here for, anyway?" "what does it mean to be so free that one has no audience save other poets?" To which Gottlieb might answer, does it really matter, or, are those the right questions anyway?

The middle section (the bulk of the book), "Letters To A Middle-Aged Poet," has Gottlieb at his most personal, (and dare I say) existential. This is the writing of a poet in middle age (naturally) coming to terms with his legacy, his limitations (and of community), and his aspirations. It's a fascinating read, voyeuristic, like going through a stranger's photo album (and empathizing what you find therein), there's a lot of history here, and with it some resignation (the world keeps turning and all that), "for how many is that the most enraging of all the blows? The realization that this, this finally is it. it is this and nothing more." But it's not all bleak, in fact I found myself creatively energized by these essays more than anything.

And despite the title, "Letters To A Middle-Aged Poet" is not only for middle age poets, in fact I would venture to say it has immeasurable value for poets my own age, there's a lot to glean here for the poets of my generation, the 30-40 somethings, the not-too-young not-too-old poets, the in-betweeners, those of us that are too deep into it to imagine doing anything else, but who feel that anxiety creeping in, the "what am I doing, where am I going, does any of this matter" stuff, some of the answers to those questions are found in this book.

 

equilibrium | tiana clark | bull city press

Janice Worthen recommends

Equilibrium by Tiana Clark

EQUILIBRIUM is the whole at the center of a Russian nesting doll, the treasure one drops through layers to find. It's the curl insistent on its curve, its grace. It's the hymn, sometimes booming, sometimes just a hum. It is city, it is body, it is loss and taking, it is "flame-woven." Because it is whole, it is all, it is broken. Because it is whole it is both joy and sorrow, witness and actress, "lit with charge and wonder." It is a reminder that water does not always—ever?—cure thirst, nor food hunger, nor words despair and desire…that despite all precaution, "We destroy ourselves for splendor."

 

the market wonders | susan briante | ahsahta press

Katherine Duckworth recommends

The Market Wonders by Susan Briante

In THE MARKET WONDERS, your money anxieties are inescapable. Not that this is a book about economic strife per se, but Briante rather builds a poetic system that acknowledges the way economic structures i.e. the Dow Jones shapes one's existence, inseparable from our intimate lives. Weaving in the Tao, Briante imagines these structures as the deep code by which we live. The idea that poetry or art and aesthetics can exist outside of the market is refreshingly squashed on every page of this book (nearly every page is marked with the closing numbers of the Dow Jones on a particular date) and I hope more poets will concern themselves with the cold data we generate in our monetary lives. Rich with literary name drops and excellent titles like MOTHER IS MARXIST, THE MARKET WONDERS is a beautiful tale of the soul in late capitalism. Briante writes, "I have a friend who asks about 'truth' in poetry. Whenever he does, I want to send him a valentine on musty pink paper. He lives in a Mid-Century modern house with mid-century modern furniture carefully culled from vintage stores and eBay. He owns an old mahogany stereo cabinet, jacked up so you can listen to an iPod through it. That's the kind of truth in which I am interested."

 

the song of the dead | pierre reverdy | black square editions

Kyle Walsh recommends

The Song of the Dead by Pierre Reverdy

In the darkness of post-World War II France, Pierre Reverdy managed to concoct this haunting work that wavers between despair and hope. We are lucky to finally have THE SONG OF THE DEAD in full (tr. Dan Bellm), in which Reverdy so deftly captures small and fleeting moments amidst the destruction. His compressed and imagistic leaps hit directly in the gut: “When you step into the murmurs of your memory / Your tepid breath falls deeper than storms / Against the banks of ditches / Forever tempted to cross borders.” In his bare lines, one is carried along in a serene rhythm, even as he explores the depths of grief and sadness. In the struggle, crevices of light are sometimes found in the fortress of doubt. This book is a must for anyone interested in 20th century poetry since WW II.

 

chelate | jay besemer | brooklyn arts press

Laura Ferris recommends

Chelate by Jay Besemer

Through stunning prosody in lyrical runs of world-creation, Jay Besemer refines language to a translucent screen for his aims. These prose sequences explode and reconstitute cosmological coordinates of embodiment. To chelate, to bond away poison in a body, chelate—bearing pincers. The dazzling concatenation of sentences in CHELATE have this ameliorative and piercing effect. His poems transform syntax itself, through the use of only colons as end-stop like marks, into a continually opening but palpable surface reflection of survival and questioning. "the interior has debatable contours : from within i am in danger of becoming a cautionary tale :"—he writes in "Adjustment Disorder"—"time for a dream language : tales of galactic standard :"—he writes in "Xenophilia." Stunning—one of my favorite books this year.

 

circle m | ca conrad | counterpath press

Laura Ferris recommends

Circle M by CA Conrad

A magic experiment, this small volume of verse-as-rituals evokes a sense of longing, whimsy, and fire. These verse forms coil on the page, spring-like, and voice leaps, insistent, up at you. "as backup / money became / IOUs my lipstick / smear gave cheating / a certain charm / just kiss me / asshole" snaps "Jupiter.1." Each poem is a flash, "a shot of gold in the seam" ("Home.2"). Great read, interesting project.

 

dark brandon | brandon downing | grievous pictures

Aiden Arata recommends

Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing

One privilege of working in the SPD warehouse is proximity to literary deep cuts. I get a thrill out of supplementing anticipated new arrivals with something from the archives, and so when I took a chance and plucked DARK BRANDON from the shelves on a whim, I had no idea what I was in for. DARK BRANDON isn't a book—it's a DVD that accompanies a book of the same name, which I have not yet read. "What happens when the poet swallows the sushi when he is a vegetaris?" asks the back of the DVD case, and I had to find out. Perhaps I should have known that the narrative boasted by the case is a loose metaphor for two discs of 60s Bollywood numbers, public access poetry, and nature documentaries. While I did not find the vegetaris, I was delighted by the discs' flirtations with deadstock lit readings and the uncanny valley early days of CGI. I realize it's difficult—if not insane—to push DVDs in 2016, but DARK BRANDON would be unbeatable projected at your Halloween party, or on date night with your favorite stoner introvert. After all, why would we be poets if we didn't want to get weird?

 

Ari Banias recommends

after projects the resound by Kimberly Alidio

As if from inside a small, powerful radio that transmits kaleidoscopic frequencies—linguistic, geographic, intimate, and public—these poems' time-traveling, empire-dismantling, polyglottal, transcribed, queer, reverberating voices speak in and of "the acids of our ethnic backwash—" knowing that although "you have the watches"—"we have the time." Alidio reclaims time from the official past, unarchiving, naming, and refracting a precise shimmering now, whose specificities include the branding of public vulnerability, a bird without feet, and the history of ketchup. Sassing back against the violent displacements of colonial power and linguistic erasure that would have their speaker "Acting a saint with saucer eyes under Sally Struthers' armpit," cutting a sharp gaze into the pit(y) of any and all such Sallys, AFTER PROJECTS THE RESOUND loudly, quietly, brilliantly LOLs at the center. When Alidio writes, "I want to jump from an endowed hall to a dinner table to a sea cliff"—I think, take me with you.

 

Kyle Walsh recommends

Circles Matter by Brian Lucas

CIRCLES MATTER is poetry of astral pitch arising out of the din of the Bay Area. Here, we enter into a world "without construction without ground" (23), carried by mysterious traveler-poets making spontaneous associations and ruminating on the origin of fire, lightning, and sea. If we don't find the origin, we certainly find the expression, "in the vast orchard of the human voice" (23). Lucas' enigmatic lines open up fissures in the brain between presence and absence, allowing silences to seep through. Structure is always overwhelmed by the pure energy of weather, and the resultant imagery occurs on a scale at once microscopic and cosmic: "The tip of a lightning bolt is emergency red, unthreading the leaves into a canopy of smoke" (43). I found such lines taking hold in my mind like mantras, allowing me to meditate and rest before moving on as if on a long journey myself. Along the way, this poetry is a guide toward tuning the ear to the hidden sounds of the universe.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Blues Triumphant by Jonterri Gadson

BLUES TRIUMPHANT is a hallway full of echoes and no exits. To move forward is to move into the past, drenched in white and loud with shadow. It takes me back to my home state, to those summer Bible camps, to pantomime and facade. To difference as a dirty word, a secret word. But this is not my childhood. This is the childhood of a biracial girl, and as the replay unwinds, I ask how does one survive when difference—in a place where difference is outlaw—can't be hidden? Where does one cast her stars...how to keep them safe? Gadson's book makes me grieve for the stories, the selves that were hidden in the small bodies passing, and sitting beside, and whispering from the bunk across from my small body. It brings me forward to a present still so locked in echo. It makes me cherish her voice, its beauty, as it spills onto each fresh page. It makes me respect all the more courage in vulnerability, protest in speech, triumph in pen.

 

John Sakkis recommends

Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer by Stuart Ross

Spoken Word is currently having another moment. Stuart Ross does not like Spoken Word (or open mics). I like Stuart Ross. What he does like is books, and book culture; he's a bonafide bibliophage, a devourer of books (and chapbooks, pamphlets, broadsides and readings (pass the hat!) ad infinitum)). FURTHER CONFESSIONS OF A SMALL PRESS RACKETEER is Ross on his soapbox both shit talking and praising the Canadian small press scene. It's a heartfelt, relatable, funny polemic about the ups and downs of being a member of a poetry community, in his case Toronto's. Ross is old school, cantankerous, funny and opinionated, and I just happen to agree with most of what he has to say, though that's not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Salvage by Kristy Bowen

Each poem in SALVAGE threatens to burst, is held together like a school of fish in a net, a net straining as it's lifted into the air, ripe and full of the sea's mysteries. Kristy Bowen writes, "It is foolish to love that which has freed you. Or that which you save. We know this, and yet, again we turn off the radio. Excite at the heft, the slightest shimmer in the net" (41). While reading SALVAGE you may catch a flash of silver in the corner of your eye and somehow find its echo in artery rush and vein slosh. Maybe you'll find yourself in the sand, washed ashore with bits and pieces still ripe with sea depth. Maybe you'll find yourself caught in the press, looking at sky through wet rope. 

 

Aiden Arata recommends

i be, but i ain't by Aziza Barnes

For a few days after I read Aziza Barnes' I BE, BUT I AIN'T, I carried it around Oakland in my hands. The volume--slim, white and yellow, wide enough that I can spread my fingers out while I'm reading it--is a satisfying body for something so dynamic and zoetic. I wanted to walk around and feel this book quietly pulsing against my body, in the park and at the lake and at the grocery store. This is a book about America and Blackness and gazes and wanting and dancing and how to survive when the world has deemed you disposable. You'll want to read I BE, BUT I AIN'T out loud, so you can sway to it and so you can catch when, mid-thought, Barnes' language swerves between the conversational and the divine. These poems are a pinwheel of brutality and joy, or maybe the pinwheel of brutality and joy is just life, and these poems are the wind.

 

Steve Orth recommends

Rave On! by John Sakkis

This books rules super hard. Like crazy super hard. It's about raves and ravers skateboards and TV characters questing weekly aliens or other various monsters. RAVE ON! is a giant love poem to crews & friends across the globe. RAVE ON! features my favorite poem of 2016 "Contra Costa County," which states, "The Pacific / tastes like toothpaste / after a coke binge." Features awesome and mind altering Matthew Arnone cover art to boot.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

When the Ghosts Come Ashore by Jacqui Germain

In a world of (en)forced metaphor, Jacqui Germain breaks her own free, and they bear ghosts. Ghosts that jump from the page, up the skin of the hand, and into each cell. Haunting occurs at every level, from letter to line as Germain investigates the treachery of metaphor, its use and misuse by those in power, how that power reflects and is reflected in language. Germain presents metaphor as a self-shattering tool, and in certain hands, a weapon than can break neighborhoods and families and alienate people. Depending on who is wielding it, metaphor can even function as a crime against being. When one thing is called another, it is no longer only itself, is often misconstrued as the other. Metaphor as misunderstanding, misconception, assumption. Metaphor as an act of colonization, as a parasite, as an infection. Germain skillfully undoes, breaks bridges, returns the self to itself and metaphor to truth, shaping a book that is as beautiful as the cover art by Brianna McCarthy. Germain's ghosts have muscle. They will come ashore. They already have a stake in your heart.

 

Marina Claveria recommends

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi

HARDLY WAR must be read multiple times. Choi's mix of theory, photography, and poetry commands the question of languages and their intended (un)intelligibility. The book of poetry falls somewhere between memoir and photo essay. As a text, it is one of those rare projects where the academic and intimate feed each other. Choi creates an incredible anti-imperialist case, while managing still to feel close.

The way HARDLY WAR fits in between is due in part to Choi's relationship with her father, and his own art. He was a war photographer working in war zones between Korea and Vietnam for 30 years. At one point, he stopped photographing war altogether and began to only take pictures of flowers.

Something in the way Choi intertwines the bright pinks of flower petals or bubble gum into conversations about warships and Napalm creates an eeriness in HARDLY WAR, disturbing for the fact that their perceived continuity, wielded together by Choi, should not be so.

"In the end it was the hardliest of wars," writes Choi, "made up of bubble gum, which GIs had to show those kids how to chew."

 

Aiden Arata recommends

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Maybe pushing Ocean Vuong's first full-length collection is, at this point, kicking the proverbial dead horse--if you weren't convinced by Janice's endorsement last month, or by Vuong's recent profile in the New Yorker, you either hate poetry or you're wary of any writer who seems to suddenly spark into everyone's consciousness over the course of two months. I'm usually one of those people, the wary ones, but I have to say--I have to beg you, maybe--read NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS anyway. I, a nonbeliever, recently saw Vuong read in a crowded warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles. The crowd was buzzing with AWP energy, here to schmooze, swollen with pride because a warehouse space reached max capacity for poetry. Ocean Vuong, second to last, takes the stage. Everyone is still whispering and trying to find out which author didn't hold his liquor at the Ace last night, and Ocean Vuong says a thing about the loneliness of writing, and he thanks us, and then he starts to read. And the room goes crypt quiet. It was as fast and total as someone turning off the lights. Vuong's use of language is so tactful and delicate and violent that I suspect the crowd--myself included--felt shamed out of their casual handling of language in the time leading up to that reading. By the time Vuong read his last poem, the crowd was making the short raspy noises people make when they've forgotten that they've been holding their breaths for a long time, and the noises of people trying to politely deal with their own public weeping, myself included. None of this wild tender collective craziness is lost when you know what you're in for, or when you are reading NIGHT SKY out of a book, silently, solo. None of it. If you want the breath knocked out of you, read this book.

 

Jared Levine recommends

Babette by Sara Deniz Akant

BABETTE is a pastiche of sound and imagery that craftily uses punctuation to demonstrate the fleetingness of its beauty without interrupting its rhythm. The deconstruction in this book allows the reader to input their own interpretation, and extract that which is lovely from its text. I felt as if my head was being pushed firmly underwater, my eyes forced open to look at the pastel-tiled mural at the bottom of the pool, and intermittently was pulled out of the water to hear a gentle voice that implicates the world as beautiful.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Attraversiamo by Monique Ferrell

Monique Ferrell builds a sweeping constellation in ATTRAVERSIAMO with long lines that are filled with the tough, the tender, the held breath, hiccup sob, and exhalation. She takes on/takes in everything that plagues and everything that persists and everything that falls and rises. Each line weaves time and space as it rushes forward and crosses over barriers, and assumptions, and certainties. She writes "the mixture of dread inspiration/ and the faintest scent of hope" (18). She writes the black body, the poor body, the female body, the god and giant body, the body that doesn't get to go home because of the violence of another body: "bullets are the wind chimes that singsong our existence" (53). She writes the beauty and strength and tenderness of each body. Nations rise and fall, neighborhoods breathe and are broken and breathe again, and history haunts the water under planes and the streets of every city in her brave and vulnerable lines that grieve and wonder and embrace. The big and small are on the page but they are also in the body, the skin and bone, in the sudden absence and the carrying on. I'll keep this book in arm's reach to remind myself that "I want to be responsible" (19).

 

Faith Hale recommends

The Folly of Loving Life by Monica Drake

THE FOLLY OF LOVING LIFE is at turns damp and dark, occasionally feverish or glittering with mania. Not so much interlocking as interwoven, Monica Drake's first collection of stories spans several generations while remaining firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest and more often specifically Portland. Plenty of short story collections can be read piecemeal but this is one best encountered chronologically. It provokes the sweet sensation of recognition - I kept thinking "I know that guy!" when a character would reappear in a different setting - which initially felt like a novelty and eventually felt like family. There's a satisfying diversity of viewpoints: a range of ages and incomes, levels of self-awareness or sobriety. Each story is a different shade of expectation realized or thwarted, but they're further colored by how each rubs up against every other story. Drake is a master of the idiosyncratic protagonist. They are often unsure of themselves but are so beautifully realized that we as the readers never question them even for a moment.

 

Aiden Arata recommends

Belleza y Felicidad by Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavon

BELLEZA Y FELICIDAD is a book of Lisa Frank nitrous oxide fantasy poems. These are the selected works of Argentine poet besties Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón; Belleza y Felicidad is the name of their creative partnership and its manifestation as storefront/gallery/press/community space/literary movement. Belleza is important as a record of the power of female friendship among artists in a world where dudes ruin everything (see: Alt Lit). And the writing itself is weird and strong and contemporary, full of birds and goddesses and bubble letters. Laguna and Pavón have distinct voices, but their themes-magic, power, poetics, domesticity-overlap, and each makes frequent cameos in the other's work. The result is like one of those squish paintings where you blob paint in the middle of the page and then fold the page in half and when you open it you get a butterfly: two wings that bleed in different ways, a shared center.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong's full-length debut leaves a large and ragged exit wound. To enter into his music is to be made vulnerable and to not be spared: "...the body is a blade that sharpens/ by cutting" (21). As the brightness of spilled orange juice sits beside the rending of the body, seagulls and constellations and an "aqua sheen" beside the smashing baseball bat, a desperate worship or devotion or prayer ripples under each line, and the blade will still fall: "maybe we pray on our knees because god/ only listens when we're this close/ to the devil" (49) and "what becomes of the shepherd/ when the sheep are cannibals?" (56). Vuong slides the reader along the string that links before and after, cause and effect, but the destination is always the same: "There's a joke that ends with-huh?/ It's the bomb saying here is your father.// Now here is your father inside/ your lungs" (60). To read this haunting debut is to continuously depart from and arrive at devastation.

 

Faith Hale recommends

Soft Split by Szilvia Molnar

SOFT SPLIT is physically tiny - about 2.5 x 3.5 inches - which shouldn't matter, but it does, because it's too small for a bag and will end up in your pocket, and you'll forget it's there, and when you remember it you'll be shot through with an illicit thrill, like when you first started buying condoms and just looking at them made you feel embarrassed and excited. You'll end up reading it in public, waiting for clothes to dry at the laundromat or riding on the train, and when the buzzer announces the end of the cycle, when the train slides to a stop you'll look up, blushing, at the non-profane around you. Ostensibly about an ambivalent woman in an early marriage, the text consists of fragments of moments ranging from domestic and banal to startlingly obscene. It's incredibly engrossing even while exploiting conventional taboos and is at once beautiful and nasty.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Silent Anatomies by Monica Ong

SILENT ANATOMIES is such a visually engaging book. Poems are paired with family photos and artifacts, written into anatomical charts and ultrasounds, and pasted on antique pill bottles. Language, anatomy, self, history--all are pieces stitched together just as they are meticulously separated and classified: "Memories tango, are tangled in plague fibers of twisted tau. All of us mangled by the nothing train that spreads from nerve to nerve. A gliding whisper without brakes." To see/hold family, self, and history in the object, to look at each objectively, to see each as unfamiliar/proof/continuance, to oscillate within and among. Each page is stunning. Each asks can the self/family/origin/history be treated, traced, dissected, and labeled like human anatomy? And can this anatomy then step off the page and breathe again? I search for what exists in the shadows of each ultrasound, the silence of each image. I ponder the life that exists in fragment within the artifact. I flip to the beginning and start again.

 

Zoe Tuck recommends

Archipelago by Alana Siegel

In ARCHIPELAGO, Alana Siegel proves her dedication to the role of poet as phenomenologist. Her poetic inquiries into the endlessly complex relationship between world and consciousness are given shape by her deep research into different religions with strong emphases on developing a science of the mind. We met up recently, and she was carrying a copy of Herbert V. Guenther's Philosophy & Psychology in the Abhidharma. The Abhidharma are texts that deal with the nature of consciousness, causality, temporality, and questions of personal identity; a fitting analogue for what Siegel attempts in ARCHIPELAGO, a book whose constant refrains are: What is image? What is time? What is language?

The difference is method. For Siegel, reading is breathing, and soundsense is a serious technique for serendipitous discovery of the truths lurking in language. Take this stanza from "A Tantric Measure":

How I hear this now is language bound. A bounty of words bound by
words. In Hebrew, the root for "anger" is also the root for "Hebrew"
as well as the verb "to pass". The story of Israel, the origin of
Hebrew, I hear now, run the narrative, prod the plot-the story of
the soul of a place, of a language that has not yet learned how to love
itself. (20)

In this passage, she contemplates and enacts the suggestive qualities of shared etymology and the ways that proximity can allow even words with different roots but similar sounds to open new possibilities for connotation. More concisely, "The letter roots freeing her" (31).

The ambiguity of knowledge as a goal drives poems like "Snow Maiden Shimmering Suffering," in which Siegel acknowledges its role as a balm, writing:

Our fields of human knowledge
Are also shields
Can be shields

Knowledge, a shroud
Can be a cool cloth
After the volcano
A memorial washing away the contortions of a face (33)

Knowledge expressed in language partakes of delineation, definition, and demarcation can be real buffers against the chaos of life. When we require its function as bridge or tinder rather than buffer, is it adequate to the task? "Each one must somehow deliver into the animal of another/The overwhelming ecstasy of sun"-a daunting task, especially when Siegel defines Hell as this: "when language thinks it knows".

Again and again in Archipelago questions arise and change form. In "She Tries To Study," Siegel asks, "What am I asking for when I say I seek the origins of language?" "Do I want to know how language was first used?" she continues. Finally, "Or am I asking to enter what is not restricted by evidence?" (44).

And yet if all this talk about consciousness and representation makes Archipelago seem cold or airy-lost in the sky, it also insists on roots, singing of a kind of spiritual reverse-parturition, in which Siegel gives us the image of a god "Forcing herself back into a word" (49) and why:

We seek a depth of speech
Why the roots of words are called
Roots

Before they were gods
They were ground (50)

Why? These are the consequences of great passion:

What Will You Hold Real Against Your Death?

Will it be some ancient esoteric text?

Or will it be a person most close to you
You hold with every last breath in you

Against what takes you from your breath (49)

If you are prepared to take part in Siegel's patient and insistent search for the beyond of the beyond-absolute reality, to look with her for the gods behind the concepts behind the words, I encourage you to do so. Of course, in addition to patience and insistence, there's also ecstasy and astonishment.

For all that's here, a word about what isn't. "'The internet is not beautiful,' I shouted" and through this act of self-quotation Siegel points to the comic hopelessness of railing against that juggernaut of surveillance and solipsism (9). This text can feel old-fashioned, likelier to have been written by a contemporary of Robert Duncan than of Steve Roggenbuck. What does it mean that Archipelapo isn't driven by the imperative to be thematically or stylistically a la mode? Perhaps more significantly, what does it mean that careful contemplation of being and mind feels counter to the poetic zeitgeist? Archipelago reminds us that other, more timeless questions, are in no way superseded by technological changes and are perhaps all the more urgent because of them.

 

Laura Moriarty recommends

Actualities by Norma Cole and Marina Adams

ACTUALITIES by Norma Cole and Marina Adams takes off with "oh/live/it-/veer/in/air." Norma's words face a painting by Marina that is deep purple and something like eggplant which is both vast and entangling. In the book the words form a vertical column, not the horizontal line I have made it here but ACTUALITIES is a book of lines, as well as being one of fields and wild, intense, satisfying colors. I find I can dive into it anywhere and the lighter-than-air gestures in language, form, linearity, depth and color lift me up and draw me down into fantastic depths. It is a place I like to be--both empty and full: "The alarm sound, then stops." There is white space, negative space, lines and color color color. Things funny and profound at the same time: "I'd like to die laughing," "When will a silver birch tree grow in the kitchen?" (Strangely, I now see one from my kitchen window. Do books by your best friend predict your life?). Problems are asserted: "Siberia's boreal forests will not survive climate change." Questions are asked: "What is the nature of the relationship between elves and wild boars?" And solutions are proposed--"Go for the throat my love, already protected"--while lines and colors swirl with an almost audible richness: ""The Fermata"//*the lengthening of a note or slight pause to take a breath."

One's breath is taken and restored and then, usefully, you can dive in again.

 

Marina Claveria recommends

Black Lavender Milk by Angel Dominguez

"I picked up the smudge of the novel," writes Angel Dominguez. "I smeared my face. I asked my dreams, ‘Can we please get the words out of the blood?' trying to wake up with that language, a scar." The dream is vital. The dream is falling victim to semiotics, is being forgotten. BLACK LAVENDER MILK reads as a dream journal, an ancestral history, and instruction manual on manifesting the past, if not the future. It is a flight that never lands, and a familial pilgrimage that never returns. This book is an attempt that planned to fail. This book was written in case of evacuation. Read it.

 

Janice Worthen recommends

White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad

With its aluminum-like cover, Jennifer Hayashida's translation of Athena Farrokhzad's WHITE BLIGHT is striking and even blinding. To look upon its cover is to see a distorted reflection of oneself and to be devoured by that metallic white sheen. The interior is just as alarming/engaging with white words printed inside black bars upon a white page. Before reading a word, one can't help but be absorbed in the language of the book as object.

Farrokhzad investigates place/space-personal, familial, racial, cultural, regional-through a family of voices that sometimes speak together, sometimes speak against, sometimes speak alone as they come to terms (or don't) with a new land, new people, and new language. What does a person of color experience in a white-washed land? What gets lost as words, memory, and people are juxtaposed, mixed together, and broken apart? What is the cost of leaving, the cost of belonging, and who keeps the ledger? At one point, the grandmother says, "Belonging is like a mirror/ if it breaks you can repair it," to which the mother replies, "But in the reflection a shard is missing." To stay is to fracture, but to move is also to fracture, and violence in its many forms does not end; instead, it echoes out and out in memories and voices, traveling beyond generations.

As Farrokhzad explores what and who oppresses, what or who fractures, she captures the trauma of being displaced, replaced, and even misplaced. She shows how language reflects, fails, and is complicit. She asks if one can ever truly leave a place or if vital pieces of the self are buried in the soil of each new land. How does the scattered self survive? Where does it echo?

 

John Sakkis recommends

Levitations by JH Phrydas

"There's something intrinsically hideous about community," says JH Phrydas in the introduction to the introduction of his book LEVITATIONS. I really couldn't agree more. But no matter how hideous community may be Phrydas returns again and again to the fact that community is magnetic, and that to participate in one (but preferably many) can be too pleasurable to resist. This book pays homage to communities, SF, Poetry, QUEER, the South, family, bar culture, theory-world etc. So many lines to choose from, but one of my definite favorites, "A rainbow of blood/ from my mouth to yours," echoes the cover design of the book itself, a faded watery rainbow in the sun. This is a great debut.

 

Aiden Arata recommends

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

In GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN, Anne Boyer writes: "I will soon write a long, sad book called ‘A Woman Shopping.' It will be a book about what we are required to do and also a book about what we are hated for doing." If this makes you think GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN is maybe a book about shopping, some shopping is involved, as is some cooking, some hair dye. If this makes you think GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN is not a book for everyone-specifically, that this is a book exclusively for women- you're wrong. GARMENTS approaches the obligatory with a ferociousness that would make Hemingway faint. This work fights for moments of failure and boringness, asserting that they deserve a place in our creative landscape. Boyer manages to write clinically and devastatingly, her cross-genre prose both expansively Romantic and remote. This is a book for anarchists; parents; economists; poets; peasants and their warlords; anyone who's asked Who makes Art? On whose terms?

 

Janice Worthen recommends

Lilith's Demons by Julie R Enszer

Julie R. Enszer's LILITH'S DEMONS is tiny-the whole collection could disappear in a pocket-yet it is heavy with reforged myth and voices that bite. Demons slide through its pages and "alter women's lives" by unleashing their tortures: anxiety, depression, compulsions, insecurity, and discontent. With each murder of woman or newborn, they deliver a terrible revenge and freedom that is their own fate, fear, and ultimate relief. The reader is swept into this brief but severe tempest, where Enszer's Lilith, creator and destroyer, punisher and perpectually punished, feared and adored, is master of all. Shaping the world to her own design, she names and dispatches each demon. What "G-d" makes, Lilith unmakes. Unapologetic, lonely but completely her own, she rules the night. So why didn't Enszer title the volume LILITH? Because the volume is absorbed in Lilith's creations, the manifestation of her power and tools of her vision, just as the reader's attention is absorbed in Enszer's creation, light as demon ash. Both make their way in the world, altering what is found. Adam, Eve, and G-d may pass from the earth and angels fall, but "unlike Eden/ Lilith's garden endures."

 

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