What to Read During National Poetry Month

David Starkey Reviews a Collection for Each Day of April

Former S.B. poet laureate and current S.B. Independent book reviewer David Starkey reads and reviews 30 books of poems | Credit: Courtesy

Each spring, 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.

Alison C. Rollins, Library of Small Catastrophes. Rollins is a librarian, and her big, ambitious book is all about those complex storehouses of our collective memory. “I’ve learned / the science to the system of classifying,” she writes. “Repeat: I know you are but what am I.” Then she adds, in desperation, or defiance: “Dear Dewey Decimal System, / How will I organize all the bodies?” 

Fanny Howe, Love and I. The questions Howe asks are uncomfortable — “Can we breed lambs / without seeing meat?” — and the answers often cryptic. While I don’t always understand the poems in Love and I, I always want to keep reading them. 

John Reibetanz, By Hand. Though well-known in Canadian poetry circles, Reibetanz’s work will be a welcome surprise to many American readers, especially the poems in this book, which is dedicated to things made by hand, like the Zeeland tapestries, “woven whole by the fingers / of healers who knew that history / [is] a fabric whose waves dance in the sun / beneath ships where pain tapers to a spill of red silk.” 

Deborah Paredez, Year of the Dog. Reminiscent of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Paredez’s Year of the Dog is full of lists and photographs, erasures and (re)definitions, and even a one-act play, and all of it thoroughly and angrily political, a raised fist shaken at the injustices running through American history. 

Gerry Murphy, The Humours of Nothingness. Like many Irish poets, Murphy takes the whole of European history as his province, which results in a sly and witty collection that is perhaps most notable for its many very short poems, among them “Epitaph for François Villon,” which reads in its entirety: “The finest poet / ever to have killed a priest / in a knife-fight.” 

Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Imperial Liquor. Of all these rich and myriad glimpses into African-American life, my favorite is one in which Johnson imagines the 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley “rocking that same / Faux fox & feather halter as Candi Staton” as she dresses down a potential suitor: “Look Negro, please. / Ain’t nobody even trying to study you.” 

Toi Derricotte, “I”: New and Selected Poems. Derricotte is a master of creating memorable moments, as in “Natural Birth,” where she describes the indignities and occasional moments of fierce pride of being an unwed teenage mother in the ’50s, or “The Grandmother Poems,” in which a grandmother forces the speaker to breastfeed, then asks if she still has milk: “Yes. I said, yes. / Feeding on the sapless / lie, even now / the taste of emptiness / weights my mouth.” 

Photo: CourtesyFrank Ormsby’s The Rain Barrel

Danez Smith, Homie. Despite their heavy reliance on the language of contemporary popular culture, there is an Old School belief in ethics and consequence in Homie. “My poems,” Smith writes, “are fed up & getting violent. // i whisper to them tender tender bridge bridge but they say bitch ain’t no time, make me a weapon!” 

Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony. Choi’s family fled authoritarian South Korea in 1980, but in this book, she returns as both a translator and a chronicler of some of the darkest episodes in her country’s recent history. While DMZ Colony is full of prose and photographs, it is also, unquestionably, a work of poetry. 

Mary Ruefle, Dunce. What a magician Mary Ruefle is! Read as discrete sentences, the lines of her poetry might often sound silly, but somehow almost every poem in this strange and wonderful book comes together like a miracle dropped “from some lonely height / onto this playground of refuse.” 

Garous Abdolmalekian, Lean Against This Late Hour. These plainspoken poems, tinted with a touch of surrealism, are deceptively simple yet affectingly resonant. Part of the pleasure of reading them is seeing the elegant Persian script mirrored on the facing pages — even if you don’t speak a word of the poet’s native language. 

David Huddle, My Surly Heart. Do we really need a book by a curmudgeonly old white man full of sonnets answering questions like “How Bad Is It?” and “How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You?” and “What’s the Best Death You Can Imagine?” If the book is David Huddle’s My Surly Heart, maybe we do. 

D. A. Lockhart, Devil in the Woods. A First Nation revisioning of Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, Lockhart’s version replaces dreams with prayers and Hugo’s references to the Pacific Northwest with Canadian locales. The poems are both intensely personal and persistently political: “dignity isn’t tied / to how many folks you can trick out of time and money.” 

Tina Chang, Hybrida. “My nation speaks stories into my mouth as if they were mine,” laments the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. “Are they document, aftermath? The news a clouded fever.” In this multifaceted collection, the story that ultimately matters most to the poet is that of her mixed-race son. “Everywhere I look I see him,” Chang writes, “I have a right to fear for him.” 

Frank Ormsby, The Rain Barrel. Like Seamus Heaney, Frank Ormsby writes lovingly of rural Irish life. If Ormsby’s poems don’t quite sizzle with the same linguistic energy as Heaney’s — no one’s poems do — they are nevertheless finely tuned to the sound of the rain barrel on the farm, the last leaf in the garden: “If you slow down first, I shall slow down with you.” 

Joy Harjo, An American Sunrise. Our current U.S. Poet Laureate follows “the DNA spiral of stories from dawn to dusk, from night dance to sunrise,” memorializing lives past that might otherwise have been forgotten and celebrating lives to come: “All night we’re lit with the sunrise of forever / Just ahead of us, through the trees / One generation after another.” 

Ana Luísa Amaral, What’s in a Name. While Portuguese poet Amaral’s poems, in Margaret Jull Costa’s translations, don’t shy away from darkness and pain, they nevertheless gravitate toward the small joys of domesticity: “inside: a kitchen / and people, and laughter, / and a feeling of restful night: / a nostalgic wine-warm sense of / well-being.” 

Keetje Kuipers, All Its Charms. This is a spectacularly fresh look at both motherhood and daily life. “She is making something new / of me,” Kuipers says of her daughter, “something to someday burn / only in the quiet ditch of her memory, / a body subsumed by earth, carrying / the new world on a shell made of bone.” 

Norma Elia Cantú, Meditación Fronteriza: Poems of Love, Life, and Labor. Cantú’s book of poems in English and Spanish honors those whose lives are often ignored: immigrants, workers, middle-school students, and the very old. Cantú also writes a mean simile: “En la frontera, in Laredo, / the sun is setting, gigantic / as an Olmec head.” 

Matthew Thorburn, The Grace of Distance. There is much to recommend this well-crafted collection, but it would be worth owning if only for “This is What the City Smells Like?” surely one of the great olfactory poems ever written: “Let us sniff / mozzarepas, disco fries, decades of spilled beer / behind the piano at the Vanguard and the ghost / of cigarette smoke in all the bars you can / no longer smoke in.” 

Photo: Courtesy Norma Elia Cantú, Meditación Fronteriza: Poems of Love, Life, and Labor

Francisco X. Alarcón, Snake Poems. The 25th-anniversary edition of this classic appears with a trilingual translation across each broad page: the original Aztec chants and spells in Nahuatl; their translation into Spanish by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, a 17th-century parish priest hostile to the Aztecs; and Francisco X. Alarcón’s modern translations. As editor Odilia Galván Rodríguez says, this edition has “the feel of a codex,” or, more accurately, a “spirit book.” 

Sebastián de Covarrubias Orozco, Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language. Translator Janet Hendrickson provides another radical reshaping of an early 17th-century Spanish work, Covarrubias’s early dictionary; however, she ignores most of the Treasure, rendering only what she “found of interest, with an eye toward shaping the strange, fabulous histories into a poetic whole.” The results are marvelous and pure poetry. 

Franny Choi, Soft Science. “A cyborg woman touches herself for three reasons,” Choi writes in a book that explores, with humor and pathos, the connections and oppositions between humans and machines: “1. to inspect the machinery for errors; / 2. to convince herself she is a mammal; / 3. to pull herself apart.” 

Jillian Weise, Cyborg Detective. Disability rights activist Weise has a very different take on the cyborg, contesting the many ways “disabled” people are exploited by the “abled,” especially in literature. There are take-downs of Ray Bradbury and William Carlos Williams, and an evisceration of Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral.” “If we write, it’s identity,” Weise says, “If they write, it’s Reflections on American Legacy / The ADA / Those aren’t just letters.” 

Manuel Vilas, Heaven. Spanish poet Vilas (as translated by James Womack) writes wild, exuberant lines that strain against convention, as when he envisions the fates of three American soldiers who were in Baghdad in 2003: “Maybe they start… / to swim a little among the gasoline, the corruption, the seaweed, / the skulls, the theatres, the nothingness, the light and their famous lack of guilt.” 

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Mother House. Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry gives us vivid glimpses of great beauty, and also of pain, as in the portrait of “Woman in a Traffic Jam” who sits quietly as her husband rages: “sometimes we inched forward, sometimes / they slid ahead by a few yards. / It was like history, held there / in view of another lifetime.” 

Mina Gorji, Art of Escape. British poet Gorji draws extensively on her Iranian heritage in brief, delicate poems like “A Vision in Peckham Rye,” where she sees “the rivers of the world flow by.” Indeed, one of the book’s highlights is the concluding (mostly prose) family history, in which she celebrates Persian New Year by setting plates of wheatgrass in the Thames. 

Arthur Sze, Sight Lines. Disruptive image shifts and startling line and stanza breaks make for a jolting read, but somehow, in this National Book Award–winning collection, it all works: “each word, a talisman, / leaves a track: a magpie / struts across a portal / and vanishes from sight; / when you bite into a sea urchin, / ocean currents burst / into your mouth.” 

Patrick Deeley, The End of the World. Deeley’s description of the “T. Rex Skull, Ulster Museum” suggests something of the pent-up intensity that he finds running throughout Irish life: “A sense of fellow feeling / softens the awe engendered in us… / ready to erupt — the cuff of fierce / proclivities, capable still of striking home: / dire deeds, dread devices to carry them through.” 

Danusha Laméris, Bonfire Opera. There are a number of strong poems in Bonfire Opera, but none of them as relevant today as “Small Kindnesses,” in which the poet observes “how strangers still say ‘bless you’ / when someone sneezes, a leftover / from the Bubonic plague. ‘Don’t die,’ we are saying.” 

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