Poetry Review Column

Bill Nevins

We’re back with a few more poetry book reviews and recommendations. Despite–perhaps in defiance of—the pandemic, so many fine books of poetry have been published since we last reviewed here. It’s tough to choose among them. Here goes:

The Hurting Kind

Ada Limón

Milkweed Editions 2022

This is the sixth volume of poetry by the recently-appointed U.S. Poet Laureate.  Ada Limón is a singer of life’s ironic joys, which she finds even in the guilty pleasure of catching a fish and remembering a funeral: “… I killed a thing because/I was told to, the year I met my twin and buried/him without weeping so I could be called brave.” (“The First Fish”) She is a poet of nature, and of the natural world of the human heart. And in this book, Limón gives us delightfully candid poetry of celebration and of celebrated regret. In her poem, “Calling Things As They Are”, she admits, “it wasn’t even love that I was/ interested in, but my own suffering./ I thought suffering kept things/ interesting. How funny that I called it/ love and the whole time it was pain.” Generous poetry to be savored, and treasured.

Highly recommended.

How A Civilization Begins

Richard Vargas

Mouthfeel Press 2022

When, in his poem, “What Would Buk Do?”, the narrator watches a lover leave abruptly, both a sadly sympathetic glance from the departed one’s dog and the cool morning air provide comfort. It’s such juxtaposition of mundane pleasure with deep distress that recurs in Richard Vargas’s fascinating, courageously self-revelatory collection of narrative free verse and prose.  In the poem “a rejection from Death”, the bittersweet realization that one’s suicide attempt—imagined as death’s denied kiss– has failed is set in counter-point to remembered life-affirming enjoyment of even bad Denny’s coffee: “the dead probably/don’t have to piss/first thing in the/ morning”.

Elsewhere in this intriguing volume, Vargas addresses the fall-out from a beloved parent’s lethal drug addiction and the ironies of America’s violent past and present—from the JFK assassination to the current atrocious treatment of refugees. Vargas is socially aware and intensely engaged, fully aware of the futilities inherent in political struggle, yet also bravely optimistic and even encouraging, as in these lines from his poem, “a note to the young artists living in these dark days”: “ get/ arrested for carving your visions/into the walls of public restrooms/ . . . close your eyes and/jump off the cliff/art will catch you/it always does”.

Highly recommended.

American Wake

Kerrin McCadden

Black Sparrow Press, 2021

Amazing, bold poetry of grief, learning and, at the end, perhaps hard-won love! Vermont-based educator Kerrin McCadden dives deep into Irish epic myth to bring us “Cuchulain”, in which fear is manifested as the ancient macho- warrior’s uncontrolled raging “warp-spasm” presents a contemporary horror to be dodged if in any way it can be dodged: “and you there, trying to be lost sight of as the night/wears on, thinking yes, be a rock wall—yes, be gone”.  This is a volume of poems exploring emigration within and without the body and the mind, at many levels, some truly mysterious. From her poem “How the Heart Works”: “things I can’t know, no matter how times/the aorta of it is repeated, no matter which/carotid phone call ends in semi-lunar/valves, there are always left and right atria,/greenhouses of the heart . . . “.  I admit I don’t understand it all, but I enjoyed this book immensely–poems to be read again and again.

Highly recommended.

Continuous Creation, Last Poems

Les Murray

Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2022

The final volume by the late, beloved Australian poet Les Murray compresses tragic loss, joyful discovery and the enduring value of life into magnificent lyrics. Painful forced emigration—from war-ravaged Europe to, of course, Australia–  become joyful memories for an old woman in “Exile”. Here in “Trimming Plumbago” is an alliterative beauty of an example of his verse: “With musical gasps/the cane knife comes/shaving the swollen/ skirts of the hedgerow . . . the old-shaped/ blade acquires a white edge/fresh and narrow as cotton/retouched with the stone“.  Wildly -singing poetry of the pleasure of it all, despite the sadness of it all. 

Highly recommended.

Howdie-Skelp: Poems

Paul Muldoon

Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2021

The title poem refers to the wake-up slap delivered to a newborn infant to prod it to breathe. Indeed, this fourteenth collection of poems from Irish-born New York poet Paul Muldoon is a cold dash of refreshment! Brilliant verse that weaves the personal, the political and the joyfully lyrical. The highlight of this book is Muldoon’s long poem “American Standard”, a masterpiece which both skewers and celebrates our strangely twisted late-imperial societal maelstrom. The poem begins with a nightmarish, shared mounted gallop: “the boy had shimmied up behind me on the saddle./ His pint-sized heart/fluttering at my back./ My uncle still spoke of Freedom Summer/when so much else/ along his life-road/had been lost to Alzheimer’s./A razor-mouth at my ear./ The blood-plastered/heads of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney./ The smash and smear/of their pulverized/child-faces” From there, this visionary trip gets even stranger. Muldoon’s challenging yet musical poetry is no easy-going picnic of a read, but it is well worth the journey.                         

Highly recommended.

Ride Easy! Selected Poems

Kell Robertson

Edited by G.L. Brower

Lumox Press, 2021

Kell Robertson (1930-2011)—the quintessential “outlaw poet”– is a legend in song, verse and the lore of the American West. Born in Kansas, he wandered the West for decades doing cowboy and bartender jobs, as well as literary and musical gigs, eventually becoming a fixture in San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach and, later, for many years a New Mexico resident. His often-rowdy performances in college classrooms, theaters and, especially, in dive bars are treasured memories among those who knew him. He recorded three albums of songs, including “Cool and Dark Inside” and published in many small presses. A rich selection of his poetry is compiled in this magnificent volume, well-chosen and ably introduced by Prof. Gary L. Brower. For some eighty wild years, Kell held the reins of a fierce black-maned “Horse Called Desperation”, and yet learned to “Ride Easy”. His influences ranged from Hank Williams to W.B. Yeats. You won’t find a colder eye looking upon this troubled world in all its tragic, ironic beauty. 

“I ride a horse called desperation/a bony nag, half-blind/fast only because he has to be/he runs in startled leaps/and cannot see where he is going . . . this horse/is the only horse/that will take me where I have to go . . . ” from “A Horse Called Desperation”

Highly recommended.

Psalms at the Present Time

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Flowstone Press

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is the current Poet Laureate of Santa Fe and an active journalist and educator. Originally from the US Deep South, he has made Santa Fe, New Mexico his home for at least a decade. He has brought a valuable sophistication and social awareness to the high desert literary scene. A sample:

 “we proceed like marionettes

carried along on one string

crowds of selfsame mouths

our tongues chant now in unison

the pitch like a cracked accordion

then canticle is cant and cry.”

—from “Days of Protest”


Beyond Belief

John Koethe

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022

Professional philosopher John Koethe brings his sharp analytical mind to bear in this collection of intellectually-stimulating if emotionally sparse poems. In “Sheltering At Home”, this poet hones in on our shared recent collective isolation during the quarantine time of the current multi-pronged pandemic: “ . . . home/Was always a place to depart from/Or come back to, not a state of being in itself.”  The title poem offers up an apparently contradictory prayer: “Teach me to care and not to care, teach me when to turn around,/When to speak and when to shut up. Teach me to sit still.” If Koethe’s poems lack specific personalized experiential references, they do provide stimulating and perhaps universal fodder for contemplation.



Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Catharine MacKinnon: Interview: Catharine MacKinnon on Abortion and Misogyny

By Richard Wolin: Introduction to Martin Heidegger’s “The German Student as Worker” and “The German University”*

By Martin Heidegger: The German Student as Worker: Matriculation Ceremony Speech November 25th, 1933

By Martin Heidegger: The German University

By Philip Green: The Alt-Left and Ukraine

By Elizabeth S. Corredor: The Right-Wing Myth of “Gender Ideology”

By Barry McCrea: The Novel in Ireland and the Language Question: Joyce’s Complex Legacy

By Paola Cavalieri: “You’ll Come with Me”: Humans and Animals in Times of War

By Axel Fair-Schulz: The Two Faces of East German Socialism

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Benjamin Shepard: REVIEW ESSAY: On Friendship and Social Movements: AIDS activism and struggles against fascism, global AIDS and harm reduction

By Justin Elghanayan: Review Essay: Thomas de Zengotita’s Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics: Toward a New Humanism (New York: Palgrave, 2019)

By Bill Nevins: Review: Fintan O’Toole, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright /W.W. Norton, 2022)

By Warren Leming: Review: Aaron J. Leonard, The Folk Singers and the Bureau (London: Repeater Books, 2020)

By Michael R. Jackson: Review: John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America (New York: Forum, 2021)

By Amy Starecheski: Review: Benjamin Heim Shepard’s Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism (Rowman & Littlefield: 2021)

By Kevin Dan: Review: Benjamin Shepard, Sustainable Urbanism and Direct Action: Case Studies in Dialectical Activism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)