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David Starkey Reviews 30 Books of Poems

One for Each Day of April, National Poetry Month


Each year, former Santa Barbara poet laureate and current Santa Barbara Independent book reviewer David Starkey takes on the daunting task of reading and reviewing 30 books of poems — one for each day of April, National Poetry Month. Below are the results of his endeavor in no particular order.

Natalie J. Graham, Begin with a Failed Body: Graham employs spare stanzas that nevertheless overflow with memorable images. She makes you see the world clearly and closely, from the “Shrieking crickets” that “scuttle / behind a battered mailbox” to the “slick leaf” caught in the yard light at night, flickering “like an erratic butterfly.”

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas: The lengthy title poem is Long Soldier’s response to the bungled introduction of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. Like so many of the other poems in the book, “Whereas” is angry, eloquent, and formally daring, evidence of the poet’s resolution that she “must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”

Rachel McKibbens, blud: Books that are merely angry are often called “fierce,” but McKibbens is downright ferocious in this collection that makes very good poetry of some very bad situations. “I own my own blud,” she writes, “What you borrow / I will come back for.”

Nathan McClain, Scale: What you sense above all else in these poems is someone watching, intently, everything. Whether it’s the uninspiring view from his kitchen window, or a busboy clearing a table at a restaurant, or a woman on her cell phone waiting to board a plane, McClain is always wondering about and imagining the lives of others.

Mai Der Vang, Afterland: Afterland is dedicated to “the ancestors,” and Vang explores the experience of her Hmong forebears from a variety of perspectives, most trenchantly from the point of view of the soldiers who served with and were abandoned by American troops during the Vietnam War.

Michael McFee, We Were Once Here: The collection contains McFee’s usual well-crafted paeans to Appalachian life, but the book’s centerpiece is a series of clear-eyed yet heartbreaking poems about taking care of his niece — “the only daughter / of my late sister and a father she never knew” — during her illness and death from cancer.

Victoria Chang, Barbie Chang: Inhabiting the persona of “Barbie Chang” for nearly an entire book is a feat in itself, and Victoria Chang’s accomplishment is made all the more impressive by her character’s wide range of moods, from hopeless romance to deep cynicism. The poems’ titles are instructive: “Barbie Chang Loves Evites,” “Mr. Darcy Takes Barbie Chang.”

Frank Ormsby, The Darkness of Snow: The highlight of this Irish poet’s book of marvelous, musical verse is the sequence titled “The Parkinson’s Poems,” where we learn what it’s like to see the disease from the perspective of a poet who constantly struggles to make sure his “words may have right of way … / each lost syllable recovered, given its say.”

Stephen Burt, Advice from the Lights: Burt, who also writes as Steph and Stephanie and is perhaps America’s most influential living poetry critic, composes enthusiastic, larger-than-life, often very funny poems with titles such as “School Smoking Lounge Stephanie” and “Fuzzy Golem Doll with 6″ Keychain.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Oceanic: In addition to possessing a sensitive ear and a clear vision for each poem, Nezhukumatathil has that rarest of qualities in contemporary poetry — a sense of humor. My favorite line in Oceanic is from a found poem, “One-Star Reviews of the Great Wall of China”: “This is not the experience of a lifetime.”

James Longenbach, Earthling: Longenbach makes smart, sophisticated, unfussy poems, often with an allegorical twist, as in “Song of the Basket,” which reads in its entirety: “Had you permitted it, earth, / I would have loved / You like a little bird / That picks up crumbs.”

Susan Fealy, Flute of Milk: “A Poem,” Australian poet Susan Fealy tells us, “is close / to a musical instrument. / It’s a place / to leave your fingers / and your lips.” Flute of Milk is full of other observations that are equally delicate and deft, corporeal and purely magical.

Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied: “I wasn’t born here,” Zamora writes in “June 10, 1999,” “I’ve always known this country wanted me dead.” This poem, like so many in Unaccompanied, is about the poet’s long, multiple journeys from El Salvador to the United States to rejoin his family. The book should be required reading for anyone who questions the spirit and grit of immigrants.

Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby: British poet Emily Berry is in love with irony and paradox, as suggested by the title of her poem “Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.” Yet her second collection is formally various, allowing all that caustic wit plenty of opportunity to find its perfect, idiosyncratic manifestation.

Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead: Smith is proudly black and gay, and he is in no mood for the foolishness of a white America that wants to “redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin.”

Leontia Flynn, The Radio: Motherhood, childhood memories of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the way uploads on a mobile phone resemble archeological hoards, fish in the Berlin aquarium, government workers, Bobby Fischer — Flynn turns it all into poetry with an ear that’s almost as keen as her great precursor, Seamus Heaney.

Jennifer Chang, Some Say the Lark: “I want a future / making hammocks / out of figs and accidents,” Chang writes in “Freedom in Ohio,” a poem composed to mark her own birthday. It’s a curious mixture of unlikely images and unexpected turns of thought and phrase, very much like its companions in this oddly satisfying collection.

P. Scott Cunningham, Ya Te Veo: Ya Te Veo was chosen as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize by Billy Collins, and you can hear some of the melancholic humor of our country’s most popular poet in Cunningham’s work. But Cunningham is edgier, and, for what it’s worth, no poet has ever written so much about avant-garde composer Morton Feldman.

Christine Kitano, Sky Country: Many of Kitano’s poems explore the worlds of her Korean immigrant mother and her Japanese-American father. The poems are often quiet and elegiac — and always beautiful. As she says of a story told to her by her grandmother: “Her metaphors // and my poor Korean commingle into myth.”

Kate Cayley, Other Houses: Like Elizabeth Bishop at her most surreal, Canadian poet Kate Cayley amazes with the poignant precision of her strangeness. Among the book’s highlights are the long poem “The Library of the Missing,” about an imagined place that catalogues people “whose vanishing has remained inexplicable,” those who “exist only in photographs,” and those who are “discernible only through artifacts.”

Tarfia Faizullah, Registers of Illuminated Villages: “I told the water / You’re right / the poor / are broken sidewalks / we try to avoid,” Faizullah writes in a poem “for Flint, Michigan” that resonates with the other poems in Registers for Illuminated Villages. Intensely aware of her own sorrows and imperfections, Faizullah’s vision is ultimately outward looking, in sympathy with the persecuted and misunderstood.

Ryszard Krynicki, Magnetic Point: Selected Poems: The aphoristic poems of Krynicki, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, are perhaps better read than described. Here are two, in full. “Gladly”: “The masters of the Last Judgment / painted hell more gladly / than purgatory.” And “Buddha, Christ”: “Buddha, Christ // in vain you hide / inside so many incarnations.”

U.S. Dhuga, The Sight of a Goose Going Barefoot: For readers who bemoan the lack of contemporary rhyming poetry, classical philologist U.S. Dhuga has come to the rescue with a collection of droll, cultured poems about cricket, tennis, soccer, wind in Norway maple trees, “slant-wise wind-swept London rain,” and affairs of the broken heart.

Debora Greger, In Darwin’s Room: Though she speaks in myriad voices — as John Keats, a Monet painting, Eve in Venice, a thrush, a spider — Greger is always recognizable as her eminently readable self. “How her pin curls would quiver,” she writes in “Elegy for an English Teacher,” “punctuation too eloquent for words.”

Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage: In English poet Sam Riviere’s ode to all things American and dumb, eight adjectives and eight nouns are paired to make the titles of every poem in the book: “beautiful hardcore,” “ice-cream sincerity,” “infinity sunglasses” and “american dust,” for instance, become “beautiful sunglasses,” “ice-cream dust,” “infinity hardcore” and “american sincerity,” and on, and on.

Hassan Najmi, The Blueness of the Evening: Selected Poems: In Mbarek Sryfi and Eric Sellin’s translations of the moody, evocative work of Moroccan poet Hassan Najmi, there is a “remote silence nearing the shore of the soul.” “Caskets file by us every day.” “At night / you strip the sky of its stars.”

Susan Howe, Debths: The title of Howe’s new book comes from a passage in Finnegans Wake — “check their debths in that mormon’s thames” — which suggests the adventure and play that wait within. A prose foreward reveals her aesthetic, to find “Secret connections among artifacts,” but the real fun comes in the book’s collages of poetic fragments, often cut and pasted one atop another. One page simply contains a smudged thumbprint.

Erika L. Sánchez, Lessons on Expulsion: “In the dream I sing to slums / and cathedrals // holding all of my worthless / shards of longing,” Sánchez writes in “Capital,” a poem that, like so many in Lessons on Expulsion, explores connections between the private and the public, the psychological and the political.

Pat Boran, A Man Is Only as Good…: The opening lines of the title poem give a sense of the poet’s sympathies and aesthetic: “A man is only as good / as what he says to a dog / when he has to get up out of bed / in the middle of a wintry night.” Deceptively plainspoken, Boran manages to pack more emotion into a handful of stanzas than most of his contemporaries.

Chanda Feldman, Approaching the Fields: The “fields” in the book’s title poem are “cotton // ready for harvesting” and much of this understated yet forceful collection is concerned with the poet’s rural past, and the uneasy, unequal relationship between blacks and whites. While the book hums with melancholy, its dominant note, ultimately, is pride.

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