Fork & Page: A Year in Review
Last week Fork & Page turned one years old! It was illuminating to look back at all the reviews I had written over the past year for Fork & Page, a total of 24 reviews of poetry collections. I’ll note, over the past year my reviews have gotten longer, a little less personal, and more in-depth as I learned more about the possibilities of reviewing, and as I deepened my own understanding of critical theory. (I worry this means my posts are less fun to read, but I hope not, as I try to always keep in mind readability.) Since the start, it has been my intention to add to the critical discussion of these books as well as to introduce more readers to contemporary poetry. Towards that end, I thought it would be a good idea to bring together excerpts from all of the F&P book reviews from this year into one post. Here is a glimmer and a glimpse of all these unique collections:
*In order by date posted. All titles are linked to full reviews.
Jorie Graham is a master orchestrator of thought; her poems have always treated thought as a kind of entity. Graham has studied this entity and given it a language that floods, eddies, pivots, and unfolds, and yet that language is elevated beyond thought’s actuality, which is transformed through this mimesis. But what if Jorie Graham’s entity—made up of a single person’s thoughts—met another entity, a bot, full of the encyclopedic knowledge of the internet as well as the user’s voice. The first of four sections in Graham’s most recent collection Fast explores this collision of minds, of art and information, of human and machine. The resulting poems are frenetic as they are thoughtful, their pace perhaps lacks the elegance of Graham’s earlier poems, and yet this is the point. Something here of the self is lost to modernity, to the cacophony of disembodied voices and to the many horrors of information floating around the internet like sand in the ocean.
And yet, something else is found.
The opening poem of this section is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence:
sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the forms of our—
Smith shines a light on how injustices too often beget more injustices, and oppression has too often been the central method through which this country operates in the name of freedom.
Tracy K. Smith is primarily concerned with leveling these power dynamics, the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most valuable document in the country is stripped down and laid bare, to exhibit its faults and inherent blindness. Even the intentions of gods and angels are brought into question, and the Garden of Eden is reduced to a grocery store that the speaker of the opening poem occasionally visits after therapy. If earth is Eden, why do we keep in destroying its lands and resources and oppressing its people? I say we, because this book implicates us all in the collective poisoning of this water. Smith closes Wade in the Water with a mythic poem titled “An Old Story,” “Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful / Dream. The worst of us having taken over / And broken the rest utterly down,” the question is how do we stop this old story from continuing to repeat itself? In the end, Smith is ultimately hopeful that the human spirit can prevail and that the earth and its peoples are capable of healing, and yet there is also the sense that this too could be a myth.
A mother’s journey, another kind of heroic journey, is the propelling force behind this narrative. Even after death, the mother’s journey continues within the daughter. Victoria Chang’s luminous collection concludes, “the wind will fill you up with my words….until you recognize / yourself until you see that every woman / begins and ends with another woman.” Women are connected with women in the most intimate ways, what we make of those connections defines us.
Through Victoria Chang’s faultless ear, Barbie Chang is given a dynamic voice that ponders the confines of identity, gender, race, motherhood, daughterhood, and in some of the most heartbreaking and humorous sections of the book romantic love. Barbie Chang navigates her wavering feelings for Mr. Darcy, a man more difficult than any Ken could be, as she questions the shapelessness of this continually failing love. Barbie Chang wonders, “Is it rude for Barbie Chang to tell men / she doesn’t love them / just the idea of them,” the love she fells itself is suspect, she worries about the possible inauthenticity of that love. This love will always be faultier and more fragile than the love she feels for her child.
Leonard works to write poems that exist in the everyday, poems that through their lyric pulse turn the ordinary, extraordinary. Leonard’s gift is his almost meditative attention to detail, detail that isn’t necessarily within the poems, but there in the outcome of the thought which is the poem. The features of a single strawberry can lead into a deeper meditation on personality types:
Good for the strawberry
for wearing all its seeds on its skin—
too few things say here’s all of me
like that—not the apple
and its wooden center stones
not the peach’s chipped tooth pit,
not me in my muddy work shirts…
What becomes particularly remarkable is the way Leonard’s poems can move from a metaphor about strawberries, to coming home exhausted from work, and end up at a meditation on how Icarus is remembered for the wrong reasons, only for the fall, not for his resilience up until the fall: “There must have been a moment / he could go no further, / and yet, he did.”
Seuss’ poems throughout the collection, but particularly the poems relating to still lifes, are rich in detail, the kind of astounding and disturbing detail found in the Dutch still life tradition known as vanitas, through which the certainty of death is explored in relation to the grandeur of life. Mark Doty in his book of non-fiction Still Life with Oysters and Lemon writes, “That there can never be too much of reality; that the attempt to draw nearer to it—which will fail—will not fail entirely, as it will not give us the fact of lemons and oysters but this, which is its own fact, its own brave assay towards what is” and he goes on to say, “when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we are.” Diane Seuss comes very close to revealing her own humanity, our humanity, and the humanity of the people from towns like the one she grew up in within her own brave assay towards what is.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is a book of deep thinking but also experience. Seuss adopts the long line often associated with the elegy, as well as the seventeen syllable line “Ginsberg called an American Sentence” to meticulously paint her own still life, one where Medusa can “move into a rusted out potato-chip-delivery-van / between the gasoline storage tanks and the river” where she keeps “a clump / of snakes in a green steamer trunk.” Seuss’ tone in turns can be sarcastic and irreverent or sorrowful and grief-stricken, her reference points span from Albrecht Durer to Amy Winehouse. And in the end, her still life is a feat of the imagination; it is ordinary, chimerical, and sublime.
These dangers must be confronted the moment one “exit[s] through the screen door, / the endless field of injuries,” and yet the door is a screen door, it is permeable and suggests the fluid membrane between the interior and external worlds. For loneliness only exists amid the possibility of a collective, and Wright’s poems are steeped in American loneliness. A loneliness that exists along highways in “billboard country,” and in museum stores, at weddings, on farms, at the “Winn-Dixie,” on “dust bridges” and “dust rivers,” in cars, in abandoned doll factories, within a mirror:
I recall the monsters of my youth, the mirror faces,
waiting for mistakes, one name said three times,
but I taped my mouth shut, too clever by half
for the girl’s bathroom. There’s a name for shouting
at funerals or imagining you will until your only hope,
is digging the hymnal in your thigh.
Erica Wright’s highly imaginative poems are obsessed with the ways the body denies itself, the ways it disintegrates into non-being, and yet remains often in dismembered pieces like dolls with “heads forever piked,” reminding us of the ways death cannot be hidden, ignored, tucked away neatly in those Midwestern attic boxes. But while the poems in All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned are saturated in death, they rise above it through their thought-provoking homage to the Southern Gothic tradition and their own stunning musicality.
“Suffering operates by its own logic. Its gropings and reversals. Ample, in ways that are exquisite.” I am inclined to agree with Jenny Xie’s assessment of suffering, and to add that her poems too operate in this way, by their own logic, and are ample in ways that are exquisite. Ample in language, sensory perceptions, in complex thought and originality; her long prosaic lines slide languorously across the page throwing piercing glances that are at once profound and mundane. These are poems that live in the world, a bustling world of endless change that can leave a person feeling stranded. And it is this joint feeling of connection and estrangement that give the poems in Eye Level their unusual depth. Xie makes an art of aloneness, her poems are steeped in solitude and yet somehow coursing with life, they reflect that state of solitariness that exists in cities, where life is always moving and yet the days stay the same. In “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” Xie writes, “banality / accrues with no visible evidence,” yet the evidence exists—unseen.
The nocturne was originally composed to be played for one single night and then set aside, though there is a kind of precious beauty in that sentiment, what a travesty it would be to read Faizullah’s poems, reminiscent of nocturnes, and never read them again. Great poetry always calls us back to its pages, to linger, to relive, to rebreathe; Faizullah’s nocturnal poems are worth savoring night after night, and even in our fickle, of-the-moment, forgetful society, they should never be set aside. Here is a poet whose book deserves those words oft thrown about by publishers—highly anticipated.
In Registers of Illuminated Villages, Faizullah’s unflinching poems sing and soar, and ultimately pierce the spirit. When she writes, “I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness, / but once you were a little girl, and so was I” in that moment we are all little girls wondering at what is holy, if we could be holy. To live is always to be forgetting, uncovering, remembering, denying and reviving, and with tremendous grace and bravery Tarfia Faizullah captures humanity, both her own and others, but she also dares to reveal what we, perhaps falsely, deem our inhumanity. In Louise Glück’s essay “Education of the Poet” she writes, “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known but to illuminate what has been hidden,” in this collection Faizullah achieves this dream, what is hidden rises up through the lyric—delicate and threatening as smoke.
With seductive syntax Klahr’s fragmented poems courageously reveal the complexities of sexual intimacy; these are deeply physical poems that cast shadows on the body long after you’ve read them. In the closing poem, “Kairos” Klahr wonders, “Why are we said to fall in love, and not to be cast?” she goes on to list the many definitions of cast, all of which relate back to the speaker’s struggle with this love affair she is attempting to bring to a close, “to remove or banish something from your mind decisively” and later, “to shed or to leave something, for example, a skin,” the metaphor for entering and exiting a relationship as an unhusking is particularly apt. In a space where perhaps there are no right words, Sophie Klahr has found them, they glitter on the page like a lover’s eye, like the needle of a “moral compass,” like the key to a house that is not yours, like “a right-warm blinding,” and we too are blinded.
In discussing Richard Siken’s collection Crush as well as the great polarities within art and life, Louise Glück writes, “The great task has been to infuse clarity with passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.” Here, Akbar too, has accomplished this arduous task, and like Siken’s collection which not only influenced a great many young poets, but had the power to draw new readers to poetry and even to inspire people to become poets, Akbar’s collection has already started to cross that literary divide, bringing non-poets to drink from the well of poetry. It is a rare hand that can inspire such a devoted following, and a rare hand that can find clarity amidst such destructive forces; Akbar’s clarity comes from not denying the chaos, but from finding a way to thrive within it.
Ultimately, the poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf exist in a state of emergency, only the poet admits in the opening poem of section one, “I have forgotten even the easy prayer I was supposed to use in emergencies.” Through this failure of language and memory, the prayer breaks open into the poem. This state of emergency allows for emergence of a new voice, a restlessly searching voice that reveals the doubt, anxiety, and perseverance of an entire generation.
The collection opens with a quote from Susan Howe, “I wish I could lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” This is ultimately the intent of Ong’s entire collection, that gives voice to many members of her family: a delusional aunt who has fallen into silence; a dying grandmother; yet unborn female progeny; a mother who as a girl had to pretend to be a boy in a family portrait. Though Silent Anatomies hovers close to the women in the family, it also works to understand the silence of fathers and grandfathers, to understand what is beneath surface of a tongue. Many of the poems are arranged in series, in “Profunda Linguae” the poems are captions for diagrams that reveal the muscular structures of the tongue, these diagrams are arranged over the Chinese-Filipino recipes her mother typed on her father’s prescription pad when her mother first came to the United States. The series describes memories of meals with Ong and her father:
At the table, we do not speak of ourselves,
never learned the words for daring or disappointed
don’t know how to say
have no idea if you’ve missed me these last few years.
These multidimensional poems look at the layers of complexity in, specifically, an immigrant’s tongue: What words have been lost? What flavors have been retained? What feelings go untranslated in silence? Ong brings her reader into her search for heritage, for origins of dialect, her search for her own tongue which not only turns backwards but forwards into future generations.
Like the Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes the poems in Our Lands Are Not So Different operate within the confines of their own logic; made up of pieces of the real world, the pieces are arranged in such a way that they create their own beautiful logic. And like Cornell's boxes, Bazzett’s poems often blur the lines between childhood and adulthood, between play and art. In “The Operation” adults, almost at random, surgically remove the imagination of some children, the implication is that afterwards they then consume it as a kind of drug. The world of this poem seems bizarre and yet, isn’t this what so many adults do to children—repress their imagination through punishment as well as by pressuring them to conform. The adults think they are helping the children prepare for adulthood in the “real” world, and yet a part of them longs for child’s world of unleashed imagination, and they are perhaps even jealous of it. How do we retain our sense of wonder? A good place to start is by reading Bazzett’s Our Lands Are Not So Different.
The real world fails the human spirit; it thwarts the spirit’s progress, compresses it down, combats it directly, manipulates it, and fails to recognize its power. Bazzett understands this intuitively, and his poetry works against that failure by exposing it as well as offering alternative narratives.
An ornament is meant not only to adorn but to set off the beauty of the person it is placed on or the room it is placed within, but what if the ornament itself is an expression of nature, a lily perhaps like the lilies that burst through Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poems: daylilies, waterlilies, trout lilies. Phillips Bell in her debut poetry collection Ornament, which won the Vassar Miller Prize, places a crystal in nature, setting off the beauty of the natural world: honeysuckle and trillium, worm castings and red saprolite, milkweed and goldenrod. These poems of botany of biology catch the scents of just departed deer, they taste even the individual cells of pears as they yield to the mouth, they cross-section cornstalks. Here the Appalachia itself is preserved, fermenting on that dank forest floor are poems that feel the breeze lifting them upwards.
Moon has a true capacity for empathy, one someone might refer to as a gift, but I think empathy can and should be a practice. By crawling inside the patent leather shoes of a little girl laying beneath her grandmother who plays dead atop her, who shields her during the brutal shooting within their Charleston church, Moon for a moment becomes that five year old girl and in doing so Moon places her reader in that space. And though the feeling will always be mimetic, simulated to some extent, while reading these words we become this young girl, “Grandma was on top of me, warm. / Perfume, powder, sweat & smoke, / stung my nose. I felt her heart / beating fast, so fast like after I run / but there was no where to run.” Often when each headline is like a bullet people will say, we need more than poetry, and while this is true, we also need poetry that is as searingly honest, deeply empathetic, and wise as Moon’s poems in Starshine & Clay.
Miller opens her chapbook with a waitress who has to suck “on twenty / lemons to pucker / my mouth shut” and with a neon Open sign which "sparks and chars / the hair on my wrists." We too feel these sparks and chars while reading this chapbook bitter as a cup of black coffee and transcendent as lemony sunlight bouncing off the aluminum edge of a counter. The poems in Like a Beast whistle and kick, sprung from a serious mind that nevertheless knows how to loosen up in all the best ways. Only Miller could begin a poem titled “Nightshift as Slaughter” with the line: “Hallelujah I’m purposed.” The poem goes on to reference directly Miller’s dark comedy, “Gone the season / of kneeling to my femur / —or is it my humerus, some meat / graying the bone? Dark laughter / behind me.” And yet at times Miller’s poems are chillingly, verging on horror.
Throughout Like a Beast, Miller inhabits the bodies of others, of animals being butchered, or led to the slaughter, or the body of a dead girl waiting beneath mud to be found, to versions of herself: as woman, as waitress, as lover. These poems have confronted death as something commonplace, yet cruel. In one of the most disturbing poems, "Nightshift Waiting for the Search Party," a murdered girl bound in a burlap sack stares upward and describes the sky as "feral cloud / cruel angle above / me." Death is the feral thing that has caught her, this woman in a sequin dress that discovers her legs have been removed from her body. Miller does not flinch from difficult material, she's accepted death as the ground we walk upon.
“Given / the practice to call things gone, / how shall I speak of the line, / which neatly remains?” This question is at the heart of Nicole Tong’s haunting debut collection How to Prove a Theory. Through variations in line, Tong incants the dead, her elegiac poems long to give form to a grief which is never static, but always searching for theories. The line, though varying in length and type, remains as a kind of proof of existence. The line ultimately gives order to the chaos, it appears neat, and yet there is so much pain, memory, and psychic energy still rattling in each line. Tong has a way with questions, which are often hard to integrate into contemporary poetry well, she does it brilliantly. Theories begin by questioning and then creating hypotheses. While reading this book I wrote down my first question which was— what happens when grief strives for order? And the answer was of course: this collection.
The word “orogeny” comes to us via Ancient Greek words meaning— mountain and genesis, and refers to the geological process through which mountains are created. In order to create mountains, however, the earth’s crust must be deformed, a rupturing occurs, one tectonic plate crumples against another and is forced upwards. The violence inherent in this word is deepened by Irène Mathieu’s introduction to her debut collection Orogeny, in which she describes Pangaea, an earth goddess, as well as the first woman. Here is the platform from which all poems in Orogeny must be considered: the mountain, often a border between countries as well as a masculine symbol, becomes suspect, a kind of deformity, a source of pain. Here also, is a metaphor for the struggle inherent in any creation. This goddess Mathieu proposes has her own language, one no longer pronounceable, which the goddess attempted but ultimately failed to pass down. The poems of Orogeny are children of this mythological mother, the body and the self it contains dissolvable within her.
Mathieu’s Pangaea is a marvelous creation. Within her is a world once undivided, where our modern borders, both physical and those created by nations, do not exist. In “pieces” she writes, “You cannot imagine / the ache that wholeness, / rent, left,” and yet with each page Mathieu describes that ache until we can imagine it. People have always turned to mythmaking in times of crisis, to bring order amid violence and destruction. What makes Orogeny so remarkable is the way in which Mathieu embodies her earth goddess, with great stores of empathy and understanding. In one of the opening poems of the collection, “primum non nocere,” the fundamental principle of bioethics which means— first, do no harm, is applied to the earth herself as well as to all mothers. Mathieu reminds us, “the opposite of love / is power” and therefore, “a mother // must be prepared / to be powerless / and terrified / at all times.” She then turns our attention to the physical characteristics of the hibiscus and the hummingbird and how the mother is both of them: “a whole ecosystem / mirrored behind your eyes.”
“Something has snapped in two. Something has been lost / that won’t return in this life. I want to find the source.” It is not just the source of the pain, of the howl, of the bitterness of a white winter that Vievee Francis is searching for in her luminous collection Forest Primeval, but rather the source of the original life— the wild wholeness, the unbreakable spirit that society attempts to break. Francis opens her award winning collection with an antipastoral poem in which she dismantles the idea of progress dressed up with its “clear-cut glass, the potted and balconied tree, the lemon-waxed wood over marble pillar,” a false idea that is far from clear-cut, and instead presents a wilder self, hesitant to say words, to trust their definitions and distinctions. The white-washed words have given no reason to trust them, and so the poet must shed these constraints to become a truer, however indescribable self, “I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, / a wolf spider / the creeping ivy, the ache of birch, a heifer, a doe.”
In “Portrait of a Hanged Woman,” a woman’s silences are spun into thread and coiled into rope that flourishes and becomes necklaces and shawls, until the woman feels herself lifted into the air, her feet no longer touching the ground. The poem ends with the ominous approach of a man who, unlike her, still has footsteps, “She sensed his approaching footsteps not as sound nor even as vibration but only as a stirring among the coils at her throat.” Here the man is revealed to be the source of the silence, the cause of her silences. In another poem, “Hangman’s Tree” the man is hung from Yggdrasil, a tree from Norse mythology which connects all the worlds. By using myth in this way, the man becomes all men, and the tree becomes the world man has created. Youn describes this ravaged tree:
very little wood
left at all, the exposed
with moss, dandelions
filling the foot-wide
gap at its base. And still
the tree thrives…
In Youn’s poem the tree that hangs men and women is also the world we live in and so how do we live? She suggest, “There is another / mode of life, one / that draws substance / from the peripheries,” one can only hope that there is this other mode of life.
To write poetry is often to practice mythopoesis; to create the myths through which we can overcome adversity and within which we can become our true selves. To read Phillip B. Williams’ luminescent award-winning debut collection Thief of the Interior is to witness the transformation of the body at the edge of death. Whether through the wing of a black witch moth as it touches a dead boy’s naked torso in benediction, or by climbing through the jowls of a dying wolf, Williams’ uncovers the ecstatic beauty bound within the body. With the resolution of a coroner Williams’ fearlessly approaches the bodies of the dead, usually of young black men, only when he touches their skin with his lovingly rendered verse they leave their headlines and obituaries behind become transformed. To read Thief of the Interior is to learn the words for a new kind of prayer that exists deep within the “throat’s quaking acreage.”
By pointing out the way women have been demonized for their sexuality for millennia, Sinclair manages to reclaim Eve’s image:
Let me have it. This maiden-head primeaval
schemes what ovule of cruel invention;
the Venus-trap, the meses.
And how many ways to announce this guilt: whore’s nest
of ague, supernova, wild stigmata.
There again is the word “wild,” and yet though Sinclair’s poems achieve that jouissance that Hélène Cixous wrote about, writing that is born from the hot blood and feverish womb of the woman who is unafraid to speak through her body thus threatening the patriarchy, Sinclair’s poems are also constructed with a marvelously deft hand. Going back to the opening line in the poem “Home:” “Have I forgotten it,” the poet uses iambic trimeter to alert us to her formal tendencies. This poem also uses the double “ll” to great effect, with words like shell, wall, full, skull, small, still, call cascading down the poem, a detail that might have been lost if we weren’t already alerted to the prosodic elements of the poem. The sound of the "l" here is in full effect, lulling us back to our own memories of home.
The act of expulsion implies a sense of original belonging. These itinerant poems pack themselves into “soft leather bags” and keep travelling, from the roach infested basements of Chicago, to the crime-riddled highways in Mexico, out of the arms of a lover in Spain, into the subways of New York, they are restlessly searching for that feeling of belonging. Sánchez longs to understand her origins, where she belongs amongst all these expulsions; she writes in her poem “Crossing,” “I want to understand / the violence tangled in this tissue, / the desert threaded in this flesh.” These are unwavering poems that observe with the journalist’s eye the dark alleys and seedy motels of the world, and ask how can a woman ever be her naked self in such a violent world.
Sánchez's poems grapple with their own eroticism, woman’s hips are “eternal bells” and their breasts obscene peaches, the body both bruised and ripened fruit at a marketplace. The male gaze is ever present, branding the flesh as cattle. Sánchez likens the women’s body to animals, as donkeys and dogs, as the men in these poems often treat them as such. In “Narco” a woman is pulled from a bus, raped and left for dead on the side of the road, in “Las Pulgas” a drug trafficker remembers the flesh he’s dissolved in acid while getting a lap dance, in “Orchid” a woman is sold into sex slavery for $1,000. Sex in these poems, even when romantic or consensual, is fraught with confusion, with shame and humiliation, “When you say available, / what you mean is pornographic. / Like a muted orgasm, / you are wet and brimming / with vague disgust.”
Throughout this collection Cruz recognizes the poem’s ability to create a world of its own which she refers to as dioramas. In “Self Portrait in Blue Seance Room” she writes:
My entire world
It’s endless failures and humiliations,
The dioramas of my pretty
For Cruz, the poem has its own language; it recreates the inner world in miniature. Cruz’s dioramas in her own words are “frozen” and “dust-marred,” they are constructed out of memories and a procession of surreal images. I use the word procession with intention, as Cruz uses at key points in the collection to create a funeral tone. There are places in the collection where this tone shifts, where death moves beyond a dark end to the possibilities of an afterlife: a place where perhaps the brokenness of this world is restored to wholeness.
The title of this collection, How the End Begins, is taken from an article about Lars Von Trier’s bizarre yet beautiful film Melancholia. A gorgeously captured film centered around a woman's emotional and mental unravelling that shifts into a movie about the end of the world. The film ultimately explores the ways in which these characters come to terms with such an ending. Cruz evokes this tone of disaster, of melancholy, as well as the visual beauty of Trier’s movie.
Music prevails throughout Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds published by Copper Canyon Press. The opening poem “Threshold” is rooted in the body/voice connection. The poet, presumably as a child, kneels in order to watch his father shower through a keyhole in the bathroom door, the father is singing, the sound flowing through him like the water raining down on him. Vuong brings us inside this intimate moment with absolute song, “His voice— / it filled me to the core/ like a skeleton. Even my name / knelt down inside me, asking / to be spared.” Only the poet is not spared, the father suspects the spying child and the furtive moment is exposed. What better metaphor for the exposure of the poet on the page?
*All book reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester
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