National Poetry Month: Book Reviews

Established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, this April marks the 25th annual celebration of poetry and poets.

As an expat who moves from country to country, I have a special love for translated poetry. Not one to pick up languages easily, I rely on translators to share what I otherwise wouldn’t have access to. But even with these translators, I often have difficulty accessing English poetry abroad. While libraries in the US often stock poetry on their shelves, they rarely buy the eBooks. And poetry is so hit and miss for me, that I’m wary to buy them all on my Kobo eReader.

So when I spent a month in the US getting my Covid vaccine, I made use of my time and requested every poetry book in my Goodreads queue from my local library (#librarylove). I received nine out of ten. I’ve reviewed them below, giving a little information about the collection, and then sharing my favorite poem or excerpt from each.

One fun thing to note, of the nine poetry collections listed below, eight were published in Minnesota. The only outsider was The Octopus Museum published by Knopf. Both of Bao Phi’s poetry collections were published by Minneapolis publisher Coffee House Press. The other six collections all came from my favorite poetry publisher, also from Minneapolis, Graywolf Press.

5 Stars

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky: This is my favorite of the nine collections. I’ve never read poetry like it. Kaminsky is described by The New Yorker as a poet who “writes deafness as a form of dissent against tyranny and violence.” It is a contemporary epic that has been compared to Homer’s Iliad. The story opens with “We Lived Happily during the War” and sets the scene with a group of people who do not do enough to offer support to others during the war. Then, the characters are introduced: Alfonso and Sonya, their child, Anushka; Momma Galya Armolinskaya and her puppeteers; the soldiers and the townspeople. The poems are snapshots in this city torn apart by war. Each townsperson has their role in the resistance and it begins with the day they choose deafness. They communicate through a version of sign language that they alone understand. It was impossible to pick a favorite poem since none would be complete without the other, so below I simply start from the beginning. If you’d like to read more, quite a few were included in The New Yorker’s third multimedia poetry feature from 2019.

We Lived Happily during the War

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house –

I took a chair outside and watch the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Honorable Mentions: Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins; The Townspeople Circle the Boy’s Body; A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck; The Townspeople Watch Them Take Alfonso; & In a Time of Peace

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her 2011 collection, Life on Mars, I’m not new to this woman’s brilliance. In 2017, she was named a US poet laureate. Wade in the Water is filled with the past, present, and future of the United States. The collection includes letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War and correspondence between slave owners, as well as reports of recent immigrants and refugees.

The World is Your Beautiful Younger Sister

Seeing her as seldom as you do, it doesn’t change,
The ire, the shame, the fists you must remember

To smooth flat just thinking what they did,
What they promised, then took – those men

Who offered to pay, to keep, the clan of them
Lording it over the others like high school boys

And their kid brothers. Men with interests to protect,
And mute marble wives. Men who let her

Beam into their faces, watching her shoulders rise,
Her astonishing new breasts, making her believe

It was she who gave permission.
They plundered her youth, then moved on.

Those awful, awful men. The ones
Whose wealth is a kind of filth.

Honorable Mentions: A Man’s World; The Greatest Personal Privation; I Will Tell You the Truth About This I Will Tell You All About It; Watershed; In Your Condition; & Theatrical Improvisation

June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo translated from Chinese by Jeffrey Yang (forward by Dalai Lama XIV – NBD!): This collection has been sitting in my Goodreads queue for the last six years. It’s one of the first things I added when I started my account. And yet, somehow, I was never able to get my hands on it until now. Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated as a political prisoner in China four times before his death in 2017. This collection was written across 20 years in memory of fellow protestors at Tiananmen Square. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his prolonged non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” This bilingual volume represents the first time Liu’s poetry was published with both the English translation, as well as the original Chinese.

Excerpt from For Su Bingxian: Eleventh anniversary offering for 6/4

Forbidden to grieve
Forbidden to recollect
Forbidden for the mother who lost her son
to visit the wife who lost her husband
Forbidden for the young paraplegic
sitting in a wheelchair, to receive
an arm of support for him to walk
Forbidden for the widow
to receive a bouquet of flowers
Forbidden for the orphan
to be given a new book-bag
Forbidden for warm hands to help
the wronged ghost with no home to return to
with just a handful of dirt to plant a green patch
Strictly forbidden for the few forlorn eyes left
to seek the executioners in their lawful hiding-places
Forbidden forbidden forbidden forbidden…
11 years ago
it was forbidden for a drop of rain
to fall on this cracked tortoise-shell earth
11 years later
it is forbidden for the snowman the child piled
up to live out its brief life

Honorable Mentions: Experiencing Death: First anniversary offering for 6/4; For 17: Second anniversary offering for 6/4; Memory: Sixth anniversary offering for 6/4; Closing in and Breaking Through: Ninth anniversary offering for 6/4; & Standing in the Curse of time: Tenth anniversary offering for 6/4

4 Stars

Homie by Danez Smith: This collection made it on my list because Smith’s previous work, Don’t Call Us Dead, was the best poetry collection I read in 2017. Both collections discuss topics such as violence, xenophobia, and disparity in the United States, while also looking inward at race, queerness, and diagnosis. Homie was written after the death of one of Smith’s closest friends and is an eloquent reminder of the power of friendship.

white niggas

your narrative & my narrative go behind the house
& just have it out for once. one lunges with a shiv

the lunged-at pulls it into place. they know the choreo
of this marriage, their good-time war. i understand

the shape of it: we don’t read the same articles, don’t
consider the same things knowledge, don’t believe in

the same god in the same way. i get it. we know little
similar, sure, the joy of a good piss, the smell

of fresh-cut lemon, the feeling of making it home
alive. now, if i am trying to avoid you to stay alive

& you are trying to avoid me to stay alive, what is that
the definition of? all this blood & still no truce.

my adopted twin, we’ve been at it for years
you run around scared of the idea of me, i run away

from your actual you with your actual instruments
of my end: badge, bullet, post, gas, rope, opinion.

you have murdered me for centuries & still i fix
my mouth to say love is possible. it is. it is? if you

come to my door thirsty, i’ll turn the faucet & fill
the glass. if i come to your stoop, don’t shoot.

Honorable Mentions: i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense & on faggotness

Sông I Sing by Bao Phi: I came across Bao Phi when I read his children’s books A Different Pond and My Footprints. It was only later that I learned that his first calling was spoken word poetry. His first collection, Sông I Sing, was published in 2011 and is an exploration of immigration, race, and class. Phi is a Vietnamese American and a sizeable portion of this collection includes poetry based on interviews with other Vietnamese Americans who share his last name – Nguyên.

Excerpt from Mercy: NGUYÊN, JOHN – ROTC IRAQ

Let my affection for the people here, for the children here,
be real, not sweetened by Nestle or Coca-Cola
or plastic toys Made in China.

Let them know I am trying to understand
no matter what I say or do,
it is never enough
because they never asked for this.

Let me not tear apart a people, a country, causing Iraqi food to
become the nouvelle cuisine in twenty-five years back home,
like they did to my people –
let me not become my father, and my son or daughter, myself,
wandering the wavering borders made by someone else.

Let me ask this and mean it,
Though I’m the one holding the gun.

Let the globe on the desk be mightier than the grenade.

Honorable Mentions: For Us; Dotty Nguyên’s Plea upon the Day Her Mother Accused Her of Being a Commie and Kicked Her Out of the Family: NGUYÊN, DOTTY – DALLAS; Giving My Neighbor a Ride to Her Job; 8 (9); & Everyday People

Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi: His second collection, published in 2017, continues earlier themes while incorporating his view as a father, a refugee, and an activist resisting the invisibility of the Asian American urban poor. After reading these two collections, I dug into the poet himself and learned that Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist.

Frank’s Nursery and Crafts

The lines are long and my mom insists
that the final amount is wrong.
The cashier looks at the receipt and insists that it’s right.
My mom purses her lips, looks worried,
says, it’s not right.
The line of white people behind us groans.
My mom won’t look back at them.
We both know what they’re thinking.
Small woman with no knowledge of the way
things are in America.
Though year after year
she makes flowers bloom in the hood,
petals in the face of this land
that doesn’t want her here.
Finally a manager comes, checks, and tells the cashier
she rang up twenty-two plants instead of just two,
overcharging us by forty dollars.
My mother holds my hand,
leads me away
without looking back
at the line of white people
who overhear
and gasp,
their sympathy won.
If only I was old enough
to tell them to keep it;
it’s not my mom’s English
that is broken.

Honorable Mention: The Measure

Nostalgia, My Enemy by Saadi Youssef translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon & Peter Money: My second translation on the list, Saadi Youssef is an Iraqi author, poet, journalist, publisher, and political activist who has lived in Algeria, Lebanon, France, Greece, Cyprus, and the UK, since his exile from Iraq. The book collects some of Youssef’s poetry from the last decade, centering around the casualties of the American-led war in Iraq, the loss of his country, the role of the writer in exile, the atrocities of Saddam Hussein, and the inhumane acts perpetrated by American military.

O Nostalgia: My Enemy

We’ve been at it for thirty years.

We meet like two thieves on a journey

whose details are not fully known.

With every passing station

the train cars decrease in number,

the light grows dimmer.

But your wooden seat, occupying all trains,

still has its constants.

The etchings of years –

chalk drawings,

cameras no one remembers,

faces

and trees that lie under dirt;

I took a look at you

for a moment,

then rushed panting to the last car

far away from you.

I said: the road is long.

I took out my bread and a piece of cheese from my sack.

I saw you eyeing me, this way

sharing my bread and cheese!

How did you find me?

Jump at me like a hawk?

Listen:

I didn’t travel tens of thousands of miles,

didn’t wander across many countries,

didn’t know thousands of branches

so that you could come now, steal my treasure,

and corner me.

Now leave your seat and get off the train,

my train will speed past after this station

– so get off,

and let me go

where no train will ever stop.

Honorable Mentions: The Concerns of a Man, 2000 BC & No Play

3 Stars

Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Gimenez Smith: A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in Poetry, Be Recorder is described as a battle cry “against compromise, against inertia, against self-delusion, and against the ways the media dream up our complacency in an America that depends on it.” Some of the poems really stuck with me, but on a whole, it wasn’t as strong of a collection for me.

Excerpt from Be Recorder

I became American each time
my parents became American
each instance symbolizing a different
version of being American
first is when they decided to stay
and next is the photo of my parents beaming
by a judge with citizenship in their hand
also the photo of my mother and father
in the ’60s looking like any American
perhaps foreign only in tongue
the Statue of Liberty behind them
or the first time they’re registered
as American by having an American
job though I was born in America
I wasn’t born American
I know it’s hard to understand
but it’s also not hard I became American
when I memorized the national anthem
or when I had sex with a white boy
or when I thought my first
racist thought or when I decided
I wanted to always live in a place like US
which is how America becomes
an event that happens only for the lucky
so the question where are you from means I was born
foreign in America bu not their America
I mean the chain of land called America connected
by chains of mountains where minute threads of
the first people who lived that America live in me
when there was the earth giving only over
what she wanted that was before she became American

Honorable Mentions: Origins & No Apology: A Poemifesto

The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy: Easily the best title on this list, The Octopus Museum has the bizarre premise of an age where cephalopods rule over humankind. Occasionally, it has Margaret Atwood vibes from the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when Gilead is being discussed at a historical conference. The collection imagines what comes after our current age of environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and divisive politics – all things right up my alley, but I never quite got into the flow of the poems.

Excerpt from Letters from the Elders

Dear Humans,

One word: plastics.

I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastics.

I wish that, when people called it Cling Film instead of Saran Wrap, I’d have just let it go. It was a regional thing, not worth losing my long friendship with Mary over it.

Everything was plastic. We thought it was hygienic. We put it in our eyes so we could see better. We put plastic earbuds in our ears so we could listen ourselves out of any situation. We’d take food that was half-plastic in plastic containers, put it into another plastic container, heat it in an electric box of metal and plastic, and serve it to ourselves, guests, and families.

We’d coat each strand of our hair in plastic spray. We covered our houses, our cars, ourselves, in plastic. Every medicine, every little pill and dose had its own little plastic compartment. We stocked the reservoirs with plastic leeches which leached plastic into the water supply, so we shipped new water out to everyone in tiny plastic bottles.

The ocean was like a toddler’s bathtub, plastic toys and junk everywhere, crowding out the kid, poisoning every sea. It got so even sea salt was part plastic.

But you know all about that.

We thought we were throwing it “away” until “away” threw itself back at us. This was our near-destruction, and it was well-deserved. We served it first. Some people like to point fingers but I’d like to point out that our fingers are basically plastic.

You’d press your plastic keyboard buttons all day so hard and fast the letters wore off, absorbed by your fingertips. Invisible tattoos like CRAZE and PLUM replaced your fingerprints. Babies came out with flexible plastic fingernails that fell off and grew back “natural.”

If you want to know what we all could have done differently to prevent the situation we’re in now, I have one word for you: everything.

Honorable Mention: There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)

The only poetry book I couldn’t get my hands on was Amanda Lovelace’s The Mermaid’s Voice Returns in This One (Women Are Some Kind of Magic, #3). I tried to read it during the summer of 2019 as well, but never made it off the waiting list. I had enjoyed her first collection in the series: The Princess Saves Herself in This One and raved about the second collection: The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One for weeks. Some day, I hope to get my hands on it.

Other poetry collections on my immediate and to-read list include:
-The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by (none other than) Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris
-Guillotine: Poems by Eduardo C. Corral
-Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
-The Girl Aquarium by Jen Campbell
-Lord of the Butterflies by Andrea Gibson
-The Wild Fox of Yemen: Poems by Threa Almontaser
-Break Your Own Glass Slippers (You Are Your Own Fairytale, #1) by Amanda Lovelace
-Dearly by Margaret Atwood
-When You Ask Me Where I’m Going by Jasmin Kaur
-Nettles: Poems by Vénus Khoury-Ghata translated by Marilyn Hacker
-Station Zed: Poems by Tom Sleigh

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