Poetry Review Column

Here, I will review three recently published books of poetry.  These three strike me as among the most exciting of the many volumes of fine verse published during this pandemic year. Comments and suggestions for future books to review are most welcome: [email protected]

  1. Permanent Volta

Rosie Stockton

NY: Nightboat Books,2021

In poetry a turn of thought or argument is called the “volta”. It is a rhetorical shift, perhaps a dramatic change in emotions or thoughts. Thus, the title of this stunning first collection by Rosie Stockton suggests a constant state of flux, of turning, as in Yeats’s “widening gyre”.  In this book-length exploration of how continual change, constant turning, we find a brilliant mind exploring the varied meanings of the elusive concept of “love” in our contemporary world. The underlying subject of these poems is how desire and capitalism are intertwined:

“here/there is a woman/in me waiting/a fantasy/of the factory/fucking on obsolete machines”—“Permanent Volta”

Stockton is a master of poetic forms and a fiercely committed queer visionary. They also display a wicked sense of humor, as in the sly impious, perhaps-religious allusion of this closing couplet from “Ditch Sestina”:

“Smuggled in your crypts, strolling in your Assisi. /I am each knot, each bursting missionary.”

A reader can jump into this stunning collection most anywhere, and swim in a whirling torrent of images, of sharp thought, of beauty. At times, it may all seem too much. Then again, not enough, as in Stockton’s poem “Excess” which seems to comment on the pub- writing of another poet’s intriguing sestina and then ends:

“No pause for the machine, only windy prediction, be careful of that word, of /that order. Excessive sestina, bent over the bar. It is writing, writing thunder and/ care. I sip excess, I sip carefully, my excess. Windy with order, my excess.”

Highly recommended.

  • Atomic Paradise

Jules Nyquist

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform/Jules Poetry Playhouse, 2020

“Atomic Paradise” is Jules Nyquist’s book-length poetic investigation into the “hidden-in-plain-sight” reality of America’s nuclear monster that crouches in the picturesque high desert landscape of her adopted home-state, New Mexico. While many worthy poets– such as Arthur Sze recently in The New Yorker– have justly celebrated this border state’s charms–its Christmastime “Farolitos”, Santa Fe art galleries, spicy cuisine, blazing sunsets, unique fauna and flora, ghost-towns, casinos, indigenous cultures and quaint gunfighter- outlaw chic– this poet turns a cold eye on all that and delves into the stone cold reality–New Mexico is a nuclear weapons testing ground and military encampment camouflaged as a “blue” state with ristras, legal cannabis, a booming film industry and an under-educated, sentimental base population which blithely ignores the horror squatting in the midst of its rounds of fiestas, nature hikes and spiritual questing–THE BOMB (“little boy bombs around the dinner table”). In fact, one poem here is “Decaying Nuclear Bomb Double Sestina” in which each line ends with a variation on the word “bomb”!

Jules Nyquist deserves applause for ripping off the blanket of colorful camouflage and exposing the beast behind the enchantment. A brilliant, searing book–essential reading.

Highly recommended.

  • When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through

A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

Joy Harjo, Editor, with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Elise

WW Norton, 2020.

This is an amazingly rich, wide-ranging, generous and intelligently- conceived anthology, assembled by a stellar editorial team headed up by US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Three centuries of poetry (1678–2019) from 161 authors representing more than 90 indigenous nations, organized by geographical region with each region getting its own literary and historical introduction.

This 400- page volume most appropriately offers a sense of community and shared voices singing their “songs”, rather than the individualistic “greatest-hits” focus of so many earlier poetry anthologies. Few poets have more than one poem included, at most three, yet each poem is itself striking. Each poem grabs the reader and pulls us into the dance of poets here on display. The overall effect is of a chorus, a tribal expression– from many diverse tribes and nations– of truthful thought and real emotion, a collective celebration. Multiple languages are included, with English translations where needed.

The scope is vast, from Pacific Northwest and Alaska voices like that of Lincoln Blassi in “Prayer Song Asking for a Whale” and poet/novelist Sherman Alexie and Cathy Tagnak Rexford in “The Ecology of Subsistence” to voices of the American east and south and famed Southwestern USA voices including Luci Tapahonso, Simon Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, Zitkála-Šá, Leslie Marmon Silko , Louise Erdrich to iconic poets like John Trudell and Joy Harjo herself to vital younger poets like Natalie Diaz, Jake Skeets, Tommy Pico, Sherwin Bitsui, and Layli Long Soldier, dg nanouk okpik, Bojan Louis, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Orlando White, Laura Da’, Tanaya Winder, and Santee Frazier, among others.

An underlying thread is profound and most justified rage against the colonial oppression visited upon indigenous peoples, and the resultant commitment to resistance and rebirth.  This anthology manifests that rebirthing in all its fierce beauty, indeed.

Trying to choose one or a few poems to excerpt as illustrative of this anthology is like choosing one beautiful tree from a magnificent forest—a hopeless endeavor. Yet, I will pick a few lines from one poem that grabbed me: Tanaya Winder’s “Learning to Say I Love You”, in which the young poet addresses a revered elder, and, perhaps, the universe.

“ . . . before I can stomach the sweetness of language. Ours,/I am losing. I am lost lodged somewhere in my throat/between decades of bro ken syl la bles. Teach me/how to reach the ones who are born already running./Teach me how to talk to the ones who need it most./Dear Universe, gift me words/that l i n g e r/softly like dusk.”—Tanaya Winder, from “Learning to Say I Love You”

Most highly recommended.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Anthony DiMaggio: The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

By Joy James: The Algorithm of AntiRacism

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

By James Block: The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

By Russell Jacoby: High Court of Literary Correctness

By Benjamin Shepard: From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

By Charles Thorpe: Toward Species Being

By Kurt Jacobsen: Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

By Robin Melville: Review Essay: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso: 2020)

By Benjamin Shepard: Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

By Aidan J. Beatty: Review: Tanya Lavin, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. New York: Hatchette Books, 2020)

By Jeremy F. Walton: Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

By Warren Leming: Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

By Sarah Kamal: Review: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.