The AWP Pile: Round 1
Each AWP I buy all of my books for the year. In an attempt to make sure I think a little about each book that I bought, I have determined to write up at least something about each one whether it be positive, negative, a single line, or twenty-pages. I am tired of the boring formality of typical book reviews, so I have decided to post all the reviews on my blog so I can say what I want. Please comment. I want to know your thoughts.
Round 1: The First Three Books!
Source to Mouth
by Brandon Krieg
New Michigan Press, 2012.
Full Disclosure: I do not know Brandon Krieg nor do I have any connection with New Michigan Press.
Wow. Yes. This is the kind of standout collection I hope to find each year in my AWP book binge, and to have it be the very first collection I read gives me high hopes for the pile!
There are some books of poetry where I think — this is amazing! — but when pressed about exactly why, it’s really difficult to articulate. In a normal review I would act like I have it all figured out, but since this is my blog I am just going to puzzle this through.
Here are some basics: The subject matter is mainly about nature. The title Source to Mouth suggests the river trope. Nothing unusual there. Like most nature poetry, nature functions as a mirror to the speaker. But what is so good about this collection is that the mirror is so damn brutal. It doesn’t give us back any kind of idealized reflection. It’s not a feel good mirror. The reflections are cutting, sharp, and filled with the dispassionate, disinterested reflection nature can provide. Check this poem out:
Of a coho thrashing in thin floodwater blankets
On a black road.
Enraged with milt, it slithers over asphalt;
It will not reach the red;
It will not pass the code
That maps from source to mouth its fluent god.
Yet I return to it’s
Struggle ditch-ward to spawn alone
On the sharp, damp rocks.
This is where I was born.
Eeek. That’s intense. It’s intense in a scary way, like jumping in a frigid lake — that moment of fear, shock, and hyperventilation. Nature isn’t always your buddy and what it helps us see about ourselves can be equally unkind. The poems are aware of this mirror and sometimes even distrust it, like in this segment from “The End of Metaphor”
Picking through strangulated kelp,
I find the buried bulb
at coil’s end.
Stretch the unreal length straight out –
People can’t help but use metaphors, and Krieg uses some good ones here, but at the same time his focus is on unlikeness, not likeness. It’s rocky.
I guess that’s the theme of my review “rockiness.” Part of this productive rockiness is the interesting mix of diction in the book – natural and scientific language is mixed with historical language. One gets a sense of not only the river, but the layers of history it cuts through.
The book is particularly interested in the Romans, those vicious spreaders of western culture — that invasive species — and several poems comment on mythology and history. But again there is the rockiness and brutality, unflinching violence highlighted by this brutal nature or culture.
The language matches as well. The language in this collection is really taught. It’s not the kind of book where you breeze through each poem. The diction of the poems is thick and the line breaks generally frustrate and slow pacing making the lines deliberate exercises in the relative placement of words, stresses, and ideas butting against each other.
There is also very little rhetoric in the book, no guiding hand. It is mostly presentation of image and direct interpretation. It’s spare on tone and the attitudes of the speakers are not paramount. The collection reminds me of Robert Hass’s first book Field Guide where he had all this raw intellectual power and observation but hadn’t yet made the turn toward tone and rhetoric. I’m not saying Krieg should make any such turn in his work. I just feel that same kind of raw intellectual and emotional power tangled up in these sharply crafted lines that exudes a powerful thrumming and rush that comes through in the language.
Well, I think I’ve puzzled through a little of why I think this collection is so good. It was released as a chapbook, but it is 45 pages in length. I always feel a little bad for poets who put out longer, amazing chapbooks like this because I don’t think they get the attention they always deserve, but this is a stand out book that feels like a whole intellectual project that really moves beyond just a chapbook.
I will be reading more of Mr. Krieg’s work!
Black Lawrence Press, 2015
by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
Full Disclosure: I do not know Carol or Kelly, but my second collection Hope Tree, was published by BLP.
With Animal is a collection of short stories that revolve around the protagonist either being pregnant with or raising an animal of some kind. The stories are all titled With (Animal) — With Horse, With Spider, With Fish, etc. But some of them get more abstract like With Nebula, or With Replica.
It’s a really great premise for a book and incredibly entertaining. (If that is something anyone cares about anymore in small press books). I love a book with a really clever concept like this. It’s just a joy to see how the authors handle the idea and keep it fresh (which they do) and how the stories together build this wild other universe with its own dream-like rules.
For example, the animals aren’t animals exactly, they are more half-animal, half-human hybrids. In a way they are semi-fables, where, as tradition dictates, the animals comment on human nature. In With Spider, for example, we explore teenage rebelliousness and the first tentative steps toward individuality and autonomy. The spider-daughter hangs out with an dark, older rebellious spider and is caught crawling in the window late at night wiping the blood off her mouth. Or another fable-like tale is With Unicorn, where the vain child can’t see beyond his looks and his parents worry about him staying forever surface. But many times the stories aren’t as clear and operate more in a poetic space where the trope doesn’t as neatly line up. This becomes a space of poetic exploration to look at parent/child relationships anew. In With Fish, the protagonist ends up disappearing into the background of a tank part of a school and environment. In this way the book is both insightful but never obvious. Overall the collection is smart and insightful all the way through; the characters are well-rounded, and all that other craft stuff that fiction people talk about is there too. But being a poet, I really appreciate the feel of the stories. Many of them hit so perfectly one gets the satisfaction of driving a nail through a two-by-four in one clean strike.
In a final note, since this is my blog and not a formal review, I will say that I usually tend to avoid buying co-written books. Too often I feel like they are somewhat lazy vanity projects by established authors that fall back on the inherent lack of control in “collaboration” to justify an inherent sloppiness or a lack of realization of the project. But this book has changed my mind. I don’t know how the two authors worked together or which writing came from which author, but there is something lively about this book where I feel the seed of each author has mingled to create some new being that didn’t exist before.
by Chad Reynolds
Sixth Finch, 2015
Full Disclosure: I have never met Chad Reynolds nor do I have any association with Sixth Finch.
At the AWP, I always make sure to stop by the Sixth Finch table. I really believe that Sixth Finch is the best online journal out there, and I think it has a lot to do with its editor, Rob MacDonald. I just really like this guy’s taste in poetry and when he started putting out chapbooks I couldn’t wait to see them.
Eau-De-Vie I think is a chapbook that I think shows what I really appreciate in how Rob reads. I know it is strange to spend half a review praising the editor of a press, but I feel like many presses probably would have passed on this short, quiet chapbook when Rob gave it a chance.
The chapbook starts with the speaker lying in drunk tank looking out a window. In terms of subject matter, that not unworn ground. And the language isn’t flashy either. The diction is straightforward, neither erudite nor overly colloquial. The poems use many poetic tools but don’t lean on any in particular as an aesthetic angle. If the poems have any one quality it how well Reynolds uses silence. Stephane Mallarme notes that poetry is the management of silences, and darn if Mr. Reynolds doesn’t have a talent for knowing when to be quiet.
And in that silence is a reverence. I love reverence in poetry. I like the world and I like being alive. And I like poets who also feel alive and that life springs from their work. And in this short chapbook, I feel alive. It’s not wildly exuberant or manic. It is just a poem that really engages with the world.
What is so good about the collection really is that it doesn’t feel the need to be flashy. It uses the tools it needs to get the job done. The book is a short meditation on loving the world, a little moment of holding on to the transient nature of things, a true and honest reflection of being. Here is an excerpt from the end:
Walking west on Sheridan Avenue
Toward the Biltmore Hotel
There’s a protest outside
I forgot the building is coming down
The bulldozer the bird
I join the crowd outside the ropes
They chant The Past Isn’t Past!
The Past Isn’t Past!
I want to laugh
I know what it is like
There’s nothing much new in this poetry that is going to shake up the poetry world, but damn if somehow through the normal tools of the trade Mr. Reynolds didn’t manage to capture something quiet and true that so many other flashier books might have looked over, and bravo to Mr. MacDonald for listening so closely to this tender, nuanced collection which I feel could have so easily been overlooked in a hundred slush piles by editors who want flash over substance.