Every 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 the ones I like. The D.C. AWP looms ahead on the calendar and I have not gotten through my pile yet, so without further ado: AWP Pile: Round 4.
Dead Horse – Niina Pollari
Birds LLC, 2015
(Full Disclosure: I do not know Niina Pollari nor do I have any affiliation with Birds LLC.)
I admit that I have a bad habit when reading books of poetry. I start by looking at the press the book is on and then I go directly to the bio and read where the person was published. I look to see where the poet lives. I look through the “Thank You’s” to see what other poets the poet knows. In short, I judge too many books by their covers and come into them with a preconceived notion of their aesthetics.
So, in this case, I saw a young poet living in Brooklyn on Birds LLC a press I associate with NYC and uber-hip East Coast aesthetics, so before even opening the book, I was thinking to myself, “I bet ten bucks I’ll find at least one poem about some zeitgeist indie-rock band in this book.”
And admittedly, there was one poem about Lana Del Rey 😉
But other than that, my bad habit of prejudging books proved to be just that because I found this book of poems overall, of course, didn’t really fall into the preconceived aesthetics I thought it might, and I felt like the big fat jerk I probably am at times.
For me it was when the poem let itself into some longer poems that I started to see the world of this poet, the unique lens the book shapes for the world. In longer sequences like, “No Emergency” a meditative poem on a plane where the poet dares to bring in a stronger sense of time and (gasp) maybe even theme, that I start to get a sense of a unique style of thought at work and a sense of conflict embodied in a real person, like in this amazing simile:
As I locked the door behind me
My throat feeling like the little waist
Between the segments of a wasp’s body.
In the second half of the collection, the poems speak to each other on interesting ideas of emptiness and fullness, dig into really wild and interesting metaphor and symbol on bones and skin, and puzzle interesting analogies like in the standout poem “I Owe Money” which half-comically, half-seriously plays on the idea of the debt economy to create a surprising angle on ideas of joy and self-fulfillment. It’s when the poet lets herself explore and build a little more that I feel this book building as a collection, though the poet certainly has a talent for the sharp-edged short poem like “Tiger Hands” or “Swan’s Blood” among many others. But to me, the truth comes out in the drift.
I’m glad Niina Pollari didn’t shy away from inserting personality and real world conflict in this collection, because though I like being wowed by the short and strange object poems, it’s in the larger project of the book where the vulnerability that I can genuinely emotionally connect with resides. And it’s because of this that when I get to lovely poems like, “It’s Okay to Have no Heart” that they really resonate.
Really, after reading the collection, I hereby vow to try to not come into collections with preconceived notions based on coast, or press, or poetic cliques. This is some really strong work and I look forward to reading more of this poet’s work in the future.
Shock by Shock. Dean Young.
Copper Canyon Press, 2015.
(Full disclosure. I had a workshop with Dean Young ages ago back at Indiana University. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me. I have no connection with Copper Canyon Press.)
I’ve read every Dean Young collection, or maybe nearly all of them. He is one of my favorite poets and certainly the contemporary poet who I emulated the most and learned the most from in terms of craft. This collection, Shock by Shock is a relief and joy to all Dean Young fans because it is his first collection after his recent heart transplant.
I wonder if his new heart knows what kind of lovely brain it is supplying oxygenated blood too, a brain that still wows with lines like these:
“Trees seem okay/ unless something is happening to them and something/ is always happening to trees.”
Or “Maybe God tried to turn you into a dumpster/ so you could be lifted by the truck’s hydraulic/ arm and banged empty.”
Lovely! I teach one of his books every semester and the question I ask my students is “how does Young get away with his moves toward direct pathos?” And the answer, of course, is all the leaping and acrobatics, the play with tone and diction, the one hand waving frantically while the other touches you softly on the shoulder and says something, human, moving, and kind.
And in that fashion Young talks around his recent surgery, whose symbolic weight can’t be ignored. But rarely is he as direct as the ending of the poem “How I Got Through My Last Day on the Waiting List” where he ends the poem with the casual, almost eerie lines,
“… When/ you’re waiting for a new heart, / you are waiting for someone to die.”
There is a lot Young’s characteristic playfulness, wild diction, and leaping in the poems aren’t directly about his surgery at all, but man, just try not to get ripped completely apart by the last two poems in this book. Just try.
Well, I could go on about Dean Young’s work forever. But, any collection of Dean Young poetry is a joy to read, and I think all of his fans are particularly happy to read this one.
Cabin Fever/ Fossil Record — Dan Brady
Flying Guillotine Press. Year ???
Full disclosure. (I don’t know Dan Brady, but I am good friends with the editors of Flying Guillotine Press.)
This is an interesting little chapbook. The poet notes that it was inspired by the work of the paintings of Eugene Leroy (1910-2000) who would “begin with a representational figure and then add layer upon layer of paint until the original figure was just dimly recognizable.” There are two long poems here and each gives a similar effect, though it was clear that the poet’s method must have differed from the paintings. What the poet must have done is start with a page of prose and then make a series of erasures of that initial page of prose. The poet then arranges them in reverse order so it seems like the original prose section is being built by the lyric fragments. So, for example the first page of cabin fever simply reads “how magical it had been” near the bottom of the page. The second page reads
how magical it had been.
(I can’t approximate the spacing correctly here on HTML, so imagine this stretched seemingly randomly across the page more.) So each section builds like that until we find ourselves with the original prose section. So, though the poet must have composed in the opposite direction, laying out these series of erasures like this does provide an interesting feel of lyric fragments building into a larger picture and the movement between them allows the poet to create to build his themes, not to mention a lovely use of silence and space. “Cabin Fever” builds up to the prose section then reduces back down from it, but “Fossil Record” starts out with traces and simply builds to the prose section, clearly making an interesting parallel in form to its subject matter.
A full collection of such poems might end up being a little tiresome, or exhaust its possibilities, but this is a great project for a short, artistic chap.
And, of course, like all Flying Guillotine chaps, it is beautifully hand bound, typeset, and the press bound these two poems with a double cover connected by their final pages so the book, like its theme is reversible and has only two beginnings.