Staff Picks (December 2017)
Omg, we love small press books! And these are some of our favorites. Now they can be some of your favorites too...if they aren't already. Be sure to check in every month for a new handful to add to your reading list...lists...so many lists.
All December 2017 Staff Picks 20% off
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The title of Helen Dimos' NO REALTOR WAS COMPENSATED FOR THIS SALE comes from "a piece of Greek legal language" that can mean either what it says OR its opposite. And that seems fitting for a book filled with ghostings, refusals, revisions, citations, gorgeous slippages and the psychic and lived detritus of economic collapse, and a book guided by an uncompromising clear-headed politic. Dimos writes, maybe to herself, maybe to nobody, maybe to you: "if you're not in danger, don't write the fucking poem // You are either in danger, or you put yourself in danger. / There's no other way til we're all out / which means there's no other way." And this voice's vulnerabilities, its alert curiosity, its nuance, ring throughoutin an extended anecdotal meditative sequence, which I loved ("why is everything talking?"), in epistolaries addressed, with reciprocal "extremetenderness," to "nobody," in a section titled, simply "POEMS," throwing into question all the surrouding text. "My mother would say only rich people are communists // I disagree." In her quarrel with and refusal of authoritative narratives, Dimos builds something far more potent, admitting those lived ruptures in language and perception onto the page, where they reveal the world to us, and us to ourselves. Maybe what I admire most though is that NO REALTOR's most intensely interior moments refuse to lose sight of a public, material world, where, in one poem, two people pick white mulberries from a tree ("the first one she has a home" and "the other one he doesn't have a home" which means "He picks and picks and eats"). In Dimos' work, "to speak out of the pores of your body is to speak from that place which is specifically your business."
I am so grateful that Barbara Jane Reyes is in the world and that I have her latest book in my hands. I cherish each poem, the anger, the power. Reyes' book calls out rape culture, violence against womenespecially brown women, immigrant women, and working womenand the system that perpetuates and even encourages this violence, but she also calls out the violence we do to ourselves to survive as long as we can in this system. Part of that violence is silence, which Reyes shatters with her multilingual tongue. Her words are a sting and a balm, and if you're on the wrong side of history, beware because "She is through with your shit, every insult / Every threat you level, every dirtbag / Attack can't move her." This book is a ledger of sins, a book of witness. Though the body is fragile, can and will break, "We commit everything to memory." And Reyes puts that memory to the page because "in writing, we restore our lives."
This book of she-beasts, bitches, and monsters is radiant with its claws out. This book is a reminder, an invocation, a blessing, and a war cry. It is the friend who teaches you how to throw a punch when everyone else tells you to keep collecting bruises. Reyes is "not the polite little colored girl you are looking for." She will not put the mirror or her fist down. "What if we could / Stand with her, what if we all could fight back, / Yes, defend our sister against assault, / Each one of us so capable, who knows."
And recommended by Brent Cunningham
I've followed Barbara Jane Reyes's writing ever since POETA EN SAN FRANCISCO from Tinfish Press came out in 2005. In her follow up books (Diwata from BOA Editions and To Love as Aswang from Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc.) there was more evidence of her tremendous talent, which in my mind relies on a tension between her nearly-perfect ear for lyrical precision against and through her passionate, messy, political intensity and Filipino identity. Not to take anything away from those books but I feel like Reyes has found yet another gear in INVOCATION TO DAUGHTERS. While it is still built on that same tension, where the beauty of expression crashes against the brutality of the world as it is (especially for women, especially for people of color) I find it here integrated and crystallized so deeply it awes me. Maybe I'm only noticing her maturity in a way, but it's sure not maturity in the sense of softness or acceptance: these poems are fire. Eternal fire, really, but also a highly specific and located fire: these are Filipino poems, periodically breaking into Tagalog, into Spanish, very much located in San Francisco, and very much everywhere too. It's a mystery to me how they can be so universal yet so immediately topicalso much so it seems impossible they were written before all the #metoo headlines, but that just shows again how sexual harrassment and police shootings and grief and anger sure didn't start this month. Or as Reyes puts it: "You walk hand-in-hand with your damage, into the world." She also writes "Fuck your fences and your applause" but I'm going to applaud anywaythis book is the news for real.
A beautiful bilingual edition from World Poetry Books, Brian Sneeden's translation of Greek poet Phoebe Giannisi's HOMERICA is a book I've been anticipating for a long time, ever since, in fact, I saw Giannisi read her poems at Susan Gevirtz's house a few years back; a little drunk from sipping Laphroaig scotch (thanks Susan!), I was charmed by Giannisi's performance, her poems, skeletal, gnomic, confessional, her reading style "Greek," heavy, threnodic, "in the blue light of dusk/ in the valley the word like a bell resounds / my only word / I'd almost forgotten you", she had the room mesmerized, I'm looking forward to being charmed all over again.
In all of Marcom's BRICK HOUSE, the tendency is ever inward. The only questions worth asking, or answering (if they can be) lie within. An epigraph to the book reads: "It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within." Perhaps there is no other place that is more deeply inside than the dream, a place where that which is most personal meets that which is universal. This is a book that explicitly takes on the inner world. All writing (and reading) is dream work, but this book is one that self-consciously explores the dream, is created by the dream, and creates the dream. It collapses the outside and the inside, the personal and the universal, uses the written word and the physical objectincluding the illuminations of Fowzia Karimiof the book to materialize the ethereal world of thought, emotion, dream, and spirit. And yet, this book is not an object in itself, it is a means to celebrate (and elegize) the natural world and humanity's coexistence with it; it is a means to un-dream the destructive, life-negating world of plastic and steel and petrol. It is a means to dream the life-affirming, erotic natural world, a dream that breaks down what separates one person from another.
I'm worried everyone reading this staff pick is a reader, here because they read. Hopefully, at least some of you are readers but also people who do the opposite, who don't read. HOUSES OF RAVICKA is a book for people who both do read and don't read. Like: when you are at a library, do you go to the section with all the books you like to read, and take a book you know you will enjoy, have heard of and about from a friend, take that book into the room with the awful armchairs that face the window so no one will get close to you, and read? Or, do you go to the section with the books you don't readthe books that can't be read, the books in another language, the books you don't understandand open them for the purpose of not reading them? HOUSES OF RAVICKA is two books, one for those who don't read, and one for those who do.
The first, "Part One: The Comptroller," is for those who don't read. Meaning: it is a book concerned with and circling a science that cannot be understood in a formal sense, even by readers or don't-readers familiar with Ravicka. It's a beautiful scienceyou could build a circuit map of it, or describe it musically, or in a really unnecessary kick (like what I'm doing here), redescribe it in language. But you couldn't conduct your own geoscog, because you don't have The Book of Regulations, you are not a Comptroller, you have none of the gestures you'd need. I love science fiction, so I'll call it science fiction: this book is science fiction. And science fiction typically exists because every other book of science fiction exists. We know what a flying car is because of the connaissance of language, because other flying cars were built already in other books, referencing past books. But HOUSES OF RAVICKA refuses to rely on connaissance, it's not always a book of language, a book for readers. In parts it becomes a book of numbers, for don't-readers, and it relies on the propinquity of numbers in order to say anything. Geoscogs, for me at least, have no imprint, referent, connaissance. It's entirely new, yet it's also entirely specific, propinquitous. All this being said, I want it to be clear I'm describing an aesthetic, one which makes this book, and other books of the Ravicka series, so unique and groundbreaking. But I do not mean to suggest the book isn't readable, or isn't masterfully done fiction. Gladman's skill for fiction is most on display in her relationship to time, in lines like, "I have, perhaps, not mentioned that I am occasionally supervised." As though it deserved to be mentioned before it came up, when a character has the need to say things both as they occur and also have them understood already, a full understanding of a life before even meeting the character in question.
That said, for those who only like to read books, the second section, "Part Two: The Houses," is where you'll find a more comfortable home. It's a book of interiority, a shining example of Gladman's incredible skill with language and feeling. The technicality that graces in blueprint/geoscog transfer/diagram is still present here, but suddenly personal in a different, more accessible way, the experience of trying to struggle through what a body means in relation to the always-inexplicable world around it, but more than that, the less often described feeling of learning, of getting closer to understanding, and allowing that learning to change you. It's my favorite book I've read this year.
I must admit this book feels almost educational; I was not aware the extent of ways which carnal desire could take control until I read this book. LONG RIDE YELLOW is not a book for the quaintly curious. Nonni is not a character that will let go of you so easily, and her journey is not one most of us will be going down anytime soon. However, you will identify with her struggle to find satisfaction in a world so indescribably irrelevant to her desires. A world which Nonni's consciousness is struggling to bury with new ways to satisfy itself in a vain attempt to avoid admitting that nothing will ever be enough.
Poet Javier Zamora was nine years old when he left El Salvador and crossed the border into the States to reunite with his mother and father who'd fled their country's Civil War and its aftermath. He fills UNACCOMPANIED, his first full-length collection out from Copper Canyon Press, with this history, with memorials and family legends. It's filled with pain, but also a great care and provocation. I hope once someone puts this book down they pick up tools to fix the world.
There are scenes of war and survival that are sharp, made real with details from lives "over-lived": bodies dumped from helicopters, the sound when "boots flashflood through houses," taking off torn clothes, worn for 2 months in the Sonoran Desert, in a Ross fitting room. "I am not the only nine year old / who has slipped my backpack under the ranchers' fences," Zamora writes, and for this voice alonea voice testifying, a voice calling for more voicesUNACCOMPANIED is invaluable.
But the book is not all scalding, call-Congress politics or resentmentas justified and brilliant as those tones are. It's also a struggle with memory, more exactly a struggle to remember more completely. "I'm tired of writing the fence the desert / the van picked us up / took me to parents," as Zamora puts it in a poem called June 10, 1999, "I'm tired it's always that." Zamora comes back with so-vivid imagessometimes sweet, sometimes raw: backyard mangoes, bats midair, washing simply with a soapbar by a well, saguaro cacti.
It's a sorry world UNACCOMPANIED's landed in. An estimated 300 lives are lost each year attempting to cross the border, to make the same journey Zamora made. But Zamora is doing the work of keeping this sacrifice and struggle present in his poems, illuminating the having-survived and surviving, the survival never-ending.