Book Reviews

Forthcoming Reviews: Alexandria Hall's debut poetry collection Field Music and a new collection from Native American poet Heid E. Erdrich called Little Big Bully.


Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nicholas A. Basbanes. June 2020. 480p. illus. Knopf, $35 (9781101875148). 811 pg. REVIEW. First published June 1, 2020 (Booklist).


How could a best-selling, culture-influencing, nineteenth-century American poet, novelist, and translator fall out of favor, his work becoming a subject for ridicule? Critically acclaimed Basbanes (On Paper, 2013) spent 12 years working on this thoughtful, investigative biography, drawing upon previously untapped personal diaries, journals, and letters, including those of Fanny Appleton, Longfellow’s smart and talented second wife. Life experiences clearly guided Longfellow’s creative work. For instance, years living and studying in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany inclined Longfellow toward a romantic vision, while European folk stories and classical literature were sources of inspiration. The tragic, early deaths of his wives fueled Longfellow’s prolific writing since it was a way to deal with his profound grief. Although his work has been criticized for not demonstrating an American sensibility like that of Walt Whitman’s, Longfellow himself saw his writing as more imitative than imaginative. While chronicling the fact that Longfellow’s popularity in his lifetime didn’t guarantee his work lasting literary importance, Basbanes’ biography reminds us of Longfellow’s substantial literary contributions: he was the first American translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he helped popularize poetry in America, and he proved that people can sustain profitable, lifelong writing careers. Basbanes’ fresh portrait should restore deserved respect for and interest in once-ubiquitous Longfellow. — Janet St. John


And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories & Other Revenges. Sparks, Amber (author). Feb. 2020. 192p. Norton/Liveright, $23.95 (9781631496202). 

REVIEW. First published December 1, 2019 (Booklist).


Few readers will encounter with any frequency such bold, bizarre, and brutally honest content as is in Sparks’ (The Unfinished World and Other Stories, 2016) new collection. From a daughter whose fairy godmother helps her escape a lascivious father in a bloody donkey skin to a mother obsessed with making dioramas of martyred saints, Sparks’ imagination seems limitless, her approaches to style and form without boundaries. Yet there is a cohesive voice and intention here, whether Sparks is using the vehicles of myth, history, and fantasy in her attempts to unravel rather than weave together tales of women’s true experiences. To escape possession, find one’s self, exert force without shame or justification, and tell what really happened—these themes rise like foam on the roiling bone-rich broth of righteous feminine rage. At once timely, wickedly funny, and uncomfortably real, Sparks’ singular stories have the power to shake us wide awake and shatter every last happily-ever-after illusion.— Janet St. John

Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop. Travisano, Thomas (author). Nov. 2019. 400p. Viking, $32 (9780525428817). 800. 

REVIEW. First published October 15, 2019 (Booklist).


As founding president of the Elizabeth Bishop Society, it is not surprising that Travisano has an intimate grasp of Bishop’s life and poetry. What is surprising is how utterly captivating his biography is, let alone his illuminating, interwoven analysis of her work. Travisano considers Bishop’s writing in the context of each life event, from the childhood trauma of her father’s death and mother’s subsequent mental breakdown to the loneliness of being shuttled from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts, one family member to another, and school to school. Other key elements include attending Vassar and acquiring Marianne Moore as a mentor, Bishop’s friendship with Robert Lowell, extensive travels, love affairs, and life in Brazil. Despite Bishop’s knowledge of abandonment and loss, she found a sense of home in different places, a sense of family with lovers, friends, and devoted correspondents, and understanding and acceptance in artistic and gay communities. Just as a young Bishop’s reading of a book about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley inspired her to seek simultaneous immersion in his writing, so too, will Travisano’s biography spark desire to engage with Bishop’s extraordinary poems. Though not prolific, Bishop perfected her craft and left the powerful body of work so well explored here, assuring her place among the best of twentieth-century poets.

— Janet St. John

Paris, 7 A.M. Wieland, Liza (author). June 2019. 352p. Simon & Schuster, $26.99 (9781501197215); e-book (9781501197239).  REVIEW. First published May 1, 2019 (Booklist).


Wieland’s (Land of Enchantment, 2015) biographical novel, its title from one of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, focuses on the poet’s 1930 admission to Vassar College and experiences in pre-WWII Europe. The real Bishop was a careful chronicler of her life, yet wrote little about 1937, inspiring Wieland to imagine it with a wider lens, particularly Bishop’s involvement with a resistance movement and part in conveying two Jewish “orphans” to a Paris convent. Wieland’s prose is simultaneously poetic and sparse, much like Bishop’s poems. The chapters are short and often skip through time like a stone across water to Bishop’s death in 1979. Wieland focuses on Bishop’s life-long friendship with poet and mentor Marianne Moore, her sudden losses and lasting grief, addictions and demons, and her love for women. In college, Bishop contemplated what it meant to keep her “eyes open” and attain a deeper vision that could reorder pieces of the past and present into coherence, like a cubist painting or modernist collage, a feat she achieved in writing. Wieland’s rendition of Bishop’s life aptly and beautifully mirrors that process.— Janet St. John

The Heart’s Necessities. Clement, Jane Tyson (author) and Becca Stevens (author) and Huleatt, Veery (editor). Apr. 2019. 160p. illus. Plough, paper, $19.95 (9780874860818). 811. REVIEW. First published March 1, 2019 (Booklist).


Despite living to see the start of a new millennium, poet Jane Tyson Clement (1917–2000) probably didn’t imagine her work would gain a twenty-first-century audience. But chance is a funny thing. Jazz singer and composer Becca Stevens, a Downbeat Rising Star Female Vocalist, was drawn to a collection of Clement’s poems in 2008, a gift from her father that she had shelved, just as she was trying to finish a song dedicated to a dear friend who died of breast cancer. In the poems “Winter” and “February Thaw,” she found words that emotionally and rhythmically matched her in-progress song, now called “Tillery.” Thus began Stevens’ hope of inspiring others with Clement’s words. This pretty collection contains the poems in chronological order with Stevens’ reflections on them. Clement’s life is honored in biographical passages. This beautiful homage to Clement and her poetry, which will continue to resonate with readers and, through Stevens’ compositions, music lovers, also celebrates the kind of artistic collaboration that spans time and opens us to our own “heart’s necessities.” — Janet St. John

Brute. Skaja, Emily (author). Apr. 2019. 96p. Graywolf, paper, $16 (9781555978358). 811. REVIEW. First published March 1, 2019 (Booklist).


The first line of “Rules for a Body Coming Out of Water” marks the emotional and psychological terrain of this award-winning debut: “In a story, a girl is a tree / is a bird / is a wilderness.” Exploring themes of flying and falling, freedom and entrapment, and death and resurrection, Skaja’s poems are both primal scream-songs and elegies to the end of a relationship, let alone the loss of naïve selfhood. This feels like a poetics of a near-altered state, in which the reader floats in the river of the poet’s thoughts, sometimes buoyed under dark skies, at other times carried in rocky rapids beneath scorching sunlight or even left bereft in murky floodwater. The poet upends logic, deposits us in foreign territory as fish out of water, flipping and flailing, gasping for air, like the speakers of the poems. With relentless, driving energy, Skaja’s poems seek brutal truths while searching for meaningful transformation. The mythological allusions and imagery, the violence, the honest and painful reflections—all travel toward an awakening achieved by being fully rooted in dark, human soil.— Janet St. John

Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016. Koethe, John (author). Nov. 2018. 432p. Farrar, $40 (9780374285791). 811. REVIEW. First published November 15, 2018 (Booklist).


Walking Backwards gathers poet-philosopher Koethe’s ample, award-winning body of work. Organized chronologically, it contains a well-balanced sampling, with slightly more weight given to more recent books, such as The Swimmer (2016), and added punch from a section of new poems. Like first-generation New York School poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler, who influenced his work, Koethe writes poems that have a casual tone and refined wit. They ask human, albeit philosophically inclined, questions about time, self, and the human condition. While Koethe shares sentiments tending toward the romantic, the poems utterly resist sentimentality. Instead, they lean into acceptance, whether of disappointment or delight, and that “cheerfulness of disillusionment, the exhilaration of No.” Now in his seventies, Koethe has more than earned the right to reflect on the past, consider the sum of a life, title the last poem in his collection, “Thinking about Death,” and even encapsulate an outlook toward the future, “The parts of it I’ll live to see might matter to me, / The rest of it is unimaginable, which makes it poetry.”— Janet St. John


Instruments of the True Measure. Da’, Laura (author). Nov. 2018. 88p. Univ. of Arizona, paper, $16.95 (9780816538270). 811. REVIEW. First published October 12, 2018 (Booklist Online).


Following her powerful debut collection, Tributaries (2015), Da’ uses the concept of surveying both narratively and symbolically to chart, measure, and locate past and present landscapes of her heritage, homeland, and personal history as an Eastern Shawnee. While examining the enactments and outcomes of atrocious treaties and inhumane removals of indigenous people to other lands in the expanding U.S. during one of the most monstrous times in American history, the poems outline facts and tell the stories of Shawnee ancestors trying to navigate foreign territories and survive by whatever means necessary, including ambition and resistance. Da’ vividly re-creates the brutal wilderness that was nineteenth-century America and tracks the perpetuation of violence: human against human, nation against nation, human against nature. Her poem “Tremors” states, “When deep hurt sears, my fists and abdomen sickle inward,” while other precisely plotted and potently expressed poems remind us how deeply traumas can be held within the body, passed on generation by generation, and even turned against oneself. — Janet St. John

Barnburner. Hoover, Erin (author). Oct. 2018. 96p. Elixir, paper, $17 (9781932418675). 811.6. REVIEW. First published October 15, 2018 (Booklist).


Hoover’s first collection is a fitting attempt to kick down staid, prim, even academic poetic doors. These poems are preternaturally apt in their presentation of voices of rage, dejection, injustice, and fear. Collectively, they feel like a primal scream. But the speaker in “Reading Sappho’s Fragments,” which is almost an artistic manifesto, states it better, “My poems are / a murder story, clear immediately that / someone will kill / someone else.” Through blunt narratives tinged with irony, Hoover captures the violent nature of our world, its past and present vicious acts committed against others and also against ourselves and the environment. “Nobody Wanted Such a River” brilliantly weaves personal history with the tragic nature of events surrounding the Susquehanna River, from the Paxton Boys’ massacre of Susquehannock (Conestoga) Indians to Three Mile Island to how we poisoned the river, and the river poisoned back (“Tapwater isn’t a form of dignity / until it is”). Hoover comes out swinging as she expresses her support for those who courageously fight both obvious and insidious forms of political and personal criminality.— Janet St. John

After Emily: Two Remarkable Women, and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet. Dobrow, Julie (author). Oct. 2018. 384p. illus. Norton, $27.95 (9780393249262). 810. REVIEW. First published October 1, 2018 (Booklist).


Scholarly arguments about how Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, handled Emily Dickinson’s work during their years of editing and compiling the nearly 1800 poems discovered after Dickinson’s death will continue. But thanks to Tufts University professor Dobrow’s astonishing new research, readers gain a better understanding of their efforts. Mabel began organizing, transcribing, editing, and publishing Emily’s poems at the request of Emily’s sister, Lavinia, and became devoted to the cause. After Mabel’s death, Millicent continued, publishing Emily’s previously unseen poems and tackling copyright issues. Dobrow’s intimate portrait of these artistically talented and intelligent women, based largely on their extensive, detailed diaries and correspondence, reveals fallible women who painstakingly attempted to share an extraordinary poet’s vision. What is more remarkable is how they balanced that work and the demands of marriage and family, handled the corset-tight gender restrictions of their time, dealt with male input regarding their editorial approach, navigated delicate and shifting alliances within the Dickinson family, and opened public minds to Emily’s singular poetic vision, often through intuitive and savvy marketing. Hopefully, Dobrow’s chronicle will draw readers back to Dickinson, whom Dobrow rightly names as America’s greatest poet.— Janet St. John

Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart: New Poems. Walker, Alice (author). Oct. 2018. 288p. Atria/37INK, $25 (9781501179525); e-book, $12.99 (9781501179549). 811. REVIEW. First published September 15, 2018 (Booklist).


Walker’s (The Cushion in the Road, 2013) new poetry collection is another strong addition to her multigenre literary canon. Her free-verse poems address poignant life experiences, self-assessment, and vulnerability while also reflecting our troubling times. Voicing outrage and leaning into hope, some poems search the past for inspiration and find deep appreciation in the heroic contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Thich Nhat Hanh. As Walker calls attention to what she witnesses—“We will never regret / having been born in this / cruel time”—she also recognizes the opportunity for us to allow “fullness of heart,” the opening to feel others’ pain and come together because, as one poem’s title claims, “We Are Never without Help.” Walker offers the prodding wisdom of an elder suggesting that we can cope by taking comfort in beauty, friendship, and human kindness; by always expressing gratitude; and by turning inward to hold ourselves accountable for what we contribute. After all, she claims that “Hope Is a Woman Who Has Lost Her Fear.” Adding to the timeliness and reach of Walker’s more than 60-poem-strong collection is the fact that it is bilingual, presented in English and Spanish. — Janet St. John

Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship. Ruhl, Sarah (author) and Max Ritvo (author). Sept. 2018. 240p. Milkweed, $26 (9781571313690); e-book (9781571319760). 811. REVIEW. First published September 1, 2018 (Booklist).


This companion volume to The Final Voicemails (2018),  a moving compilation of the late Ritvo’s incandescent poems, takes readers behind the curtain of his writing to expose his hard-won, well-lived, if sadly brief life, including his painful struggle with cancer, evolving love and marriage, and the tree-bud-to-redwood maturation of an intimate friendship with award-winning playwright Ruhl. Although the two had planned to publish a book of their emails before his death, Ritvo feared it would represent the mere narrative of talented poet dead too soon. But no reader encountering the agile, luminous minds and tender, perceptive hearts of these two writers, who danced, challenged, entangled, pulled down and lifted up one another, could ever reduce this book to a simple tragic story. Their correspondence charts the rare and complex process of two artists coming to truly see and know one another. Whether exchanging poems or discussing soup, the afterlife, or life as a play, their letters are thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and transcendent. Both Ritvo and Ruhl hoped their correspondence would bring solace to those facing death or losing loved ones; this intimate gift also rekindles hope in the bright possibility of profound human connections. — Janet St. John

The Final Voicemails. Ritvo, Max (author) and Glück, Louise (editor). 

Sept. 2018. 88p. Milkweed, $22 (9781571315113). 811. REVIEW. First published September 1, 2018 (Booklist).


Following poet Ritvo’s death from Ewing’s sarcoma at age 25, former poet-laureate Glück, one of his Yale professors, meticulously selected work from what she described as Ritvo’s “extraordinary undergraduate thesis,” Mammals; his award-winning chapbook, Aeons (2014); his critically acclaimed first poetry collection, Four Reincarnations (2016); and previously unpublished poems. The result reflects Ritvo’s astonishing linguistic agility, singular vision, and thought processes as well as his frankness, quirkiness, and sly humor. It also reveals the potent way he embraced life, despite recurrent cancer and numerous surgeries, clinical trials, and debilitating treatments. Feeling an urgency to make art, Ritvo was prolific; he was also wise and gifted, and he seemed emotionally mature beyond his years, which is probably why he formed such affectionate friendships and mutual mentorships with fellow writers and teachers, including playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose simultaneously published ​Letters from Max (2018)  showcases their poignant friendship. The Final Voicemails may conclude Ritvo’s literary legacy, but it will stand as a testament to the salvation that is poetry, how it lives beyond the page and the poet. — Janet St. John


Holy Moly Carry Me. Meitner, Erika (author). Sept. 2018. 104p. BOA, $17 (9781942683629); e-book, $9.99 (9781942683636). 811. REVIEW. First published August 27, 2018 (Booklist Online).


Meitner’s fifth collection grapples with gun violence, racial tension, and the fractured state of American communities while also addressing the raw personal experiences of infertility, marriage, and child-rearing. A native New Yorker of Jewish descent who has relocated to West Virginia, Meitner considers the contrasts while riding a Brooklyn train with her Appalachia-born son, or entering a West Virginia Dollar General store during Christmastime. The poet’s daily encounters are genuine and relatable. So, too, is her inner questioning and hope for compassion. But Meitner pulls no punches, as in “Continuation,” which begins: “And the neighbor’s daughter shows my son / the way her father let her hold his gun / with bullets in it. She was on Adderall.“ Or in “Hat Trick,” when buying Girl Scout cookies triggers memories of her mother’s refrain about their uniforms reminding her of Hitler Youth, and of her Holocaust-survivor grandparents’ stories. Meitner has created a keen social record of, and commentary on, our persistent human atrocities, but she also admirably transcends the dire in a search for salvation.— Janet St. John

Gather the Night. DiBella Seluja, Katherine (author). Aug. 2018. 80p. Univ. of New Mexico, paper, $18.95 (9780826359889); e-book, $9.99 (9780826359896). 811. REVIEW. First published July 13, 2018 (Booklist Online).


Reading Seluja’s exquisite first collection feels like a sacred act of gathering. Like an archaeologist piecing together shards of an ancient, shattered pot, Seluja unearths and reassembles memories of her schizophrenic, alcoholic brother, Lou, and all the broken aspects of him with his twinkling, falling-star energies. Seluja deftly offers phenomena and objects—flight, storms, wax, ice, flowers—to serve as clues to stories embedded in memory. Her unpunctuated introductions to the book’s sections powerfully mimic the imagined chorus of voices in the mind of a schizophrenic and make Lou’s presence more palpable. These poems illuminate Lou and offer some small understanding of what he and his loved ones suffered while also highlighting the failings of 1960s parents and psychiatrists to help those with serious mental illness. This is an honest, heartbreaking homage to a brother lost to the world but held tenderly in the heart of his sister.— Janet St. John


Other People’s Love Affairs. Owen, D. Wystan (author). Aug. 2018. 224p. Algonquin, paper, $16.95 (9781616207052). REVIEW. First published July 13, 2018 (Booklist Online).


Set in an English coastal village called Glass, the stories in Owen’s debut collection carefully and tenderly plumb the emotional lives of the villagers, whose past secrets and sorrows are still palpable wounds. Through silences and conversations between an aging jazz singer and a club owner, a boy and an adult family friend, a nurse and an elderly man perceived as homeless, Owen’s characters search for connection and reconnection, for answers, and comfort. Owen’s style of expression and unique metaphors can be so beautiful they make one stop and reread. They also punctuate the realistic dialogue and clear, bare description. Each story seems to follow a similar structure, beginning with one character’s point of view and moving to the next point of view and the next. This might seem repetitive, but it creates a tidal rhythm, simultaneously dependable and engaging, and helps build cohesion among the linked narratives. Owen is a subtle and keen storyteller whose focus on love and relationships reminds us that headlines and hot topics hold no substance next to tales of the human heart.— Janet St. John


The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time. Schwartz, Leslie (author). July 2018. 272p. Penguin/Blue Rider, hardcover, $27 (9780525534631). 616.86. REVIEW. First published June 1, 2018 (Booklist).

Following a yearlong relapse into alcohol and drug addiction, writer and teacher Schwartz was sentenced to 90 days in the L.A. County Jail for DUI with a questionable battery charge. She had been sober for more than a decade but was now thrust into an eye-opening, humiliating, soul-searching experience. Prison forced Schwartz to face painful truths, including the deep hurt she had caused those who loved and supported her. Fortunately, reading helped her transform her difficult situation into a mental- and spiritual-growth process, fostering Schwartz’s ability to seek “the lost chapters” of her story. Schwartz’s prison reading ranged from poet Mary Oliver to Buddhist Pema Chodron to novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, along with some classics. Being incarcerated, Schwartz recognized the feeling of time suspended, which she encountered in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013). Reading was respite but also revelation as it alerted Schwartz to who she thought she was while simultaneously awakening her to the substantially greater suffering of her fellow inmates. A true tale of transcendence and an invaluable acknowledgement of the power of reading.— Janet St. John

If They Come for Us. Asghar, Fatimah (author). June 2018. 128p. Random/One World, paperback, $16 (9780525509783); e-book (9780525509790). 811. REVIEW. First published June 1, 2018 (Booklist).

Performer, educator, and writer for the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls, Asghar presents a debut poetry collection showcasing both a fierce and tender new voice. The poems, largely based on the experience of living in America as a Pakistani Muslim, reflect Asghar’s keen perceptions about the search for, and inability to firmly fix upon, one true identity. In several powerful poems titled “Partition,” after the division of independent India and Pakistan along religious lines, Asghar explores family and cultural histories; how this split uprooted more than 14 million people and led to bloodshed; and patterns of discrimination, political failing, and violence. As Asghar traces the threads of her experiences, she slowly unfurls the larger fabric of her heritage and, in doing so, honors all who have been pushed aside, divided from country and culture, misrepresented, and misunderstood. Through simultaneously lyrical and frank poems like “Kal,” “Ghareeb,” and “Halal,” Asghar allows poignant contradictions to rise to the surface, like a lotus reaching through mud and murky water to beautifully bloom.— Janet St. John



Below is a partial archive of reviews prior to 2018:



Where Now: New and Selected Poems. Kasischke, Laura (author). July 2017. 256p. Copper Canyon, hardcover, $30 (9781556595127). 811. REVIEW. First published July, 2017 (Booklist).


With the lines “and you were warned that it would be / a happy song followed by a brutal fact,” Kasischke reveals her tug-of-war poetic intention. The poems in this collection, which spans her long poetic career (she is also a very successful novelist), frequently juxtapose mundane daily life with metaphysical ponderings or mythological imaginings. No poem is simply what it appears. For instance, the gorgeous “At Gettysburg” begins with a mother watching a beloved son play soldier at an actual Civil War battlefield before she imagines herself the photographer of dead soldiers. She then turns to a fairy-tale sensibility where time and space are altered before returning to her son playing dead, then back to extraordinary realms, where she is both executioner and creator, then in conversation with God, before being a real mother again, with her son helping locate them on the visitor’s map. Such shape-shifting—freely following contrasting or associative thoughts or symbolism—is the work of a poet who trusts her process, and trusts readers to follow wherever she goes. This large, thought-provoking collection demonstrates Kasischke’s unique poetic vision, where wonder is always delivered with a dose of relatable pain.— Janet St. John



Lessons on Expulsion. Sánchez, Erika L. (author). July 2017. 96p. Graywolf, paperback, $16 (9781555977788). 811. REVIEW. First published June 26, 2017 (Booklist Online).

This compelling debut recounts the experiences of crossing borders, whether by force or choice. Sánchez minces no words in challenging accepted notions of femininity, race, religion, and sexuality. Being the sensual, free-thinking daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, Catholics with an undeniable work ethic and parental commitment to making a better life for their children, is a complicated business. On one hand, Sánchez expresses appreciation for their sacrifices; on the other, rebellious resentment for being born into hard-edged conditions in Chicago and raised in a roach-infested apartment, begging the question of whether seeking a better life in another country always leads to a better life. Sánchez’s experience living in Spain on a Fulbright seem to free her from family restraints yet leave her still facing the same self. These blunt, brave poems also give voice to the many abused, underpaid, overworked, disenfranchised, and ostracized individuals living at the edges of our awareness. And they reveal how our animal instincts and drives, though stigmatized, will never be as base as the true beastliness of some human behavior. — Janet St. John

Poems in the Manner Of. Lehman, David (author). Mar. 2017. 160p. Scribner, paperback, $18 (9781501137396); e-book (9781501137419). 811. REVIEW. First published June 14, 2017 (Booklist Online).

Since 2002, poet and Best American Poetry series editor Lehman has been writing poems in honor of and in stylistic homage to other poets and literary figures. With a great sense of play, he has created poems that take the reader chronologically through his artistic influences. Many of these poems are humorous, some tongue-in-cheek in approach, but all are grounded in Lehman’s extensive knowledge of poetry and his deep understanding of form and tradition. Although a few poems, including those meant to echo Dickinson and Woolf, fall flat, others, including tributes to Catullus and Plath, ring true. Lehman’s “astrological profiles” of Hamlet and Keats are at once original, witty, and downright brilliant. His centos (literary works made up of quotations from other works) are also clever and should inspire writers to undertake similar experimentation. Lehman’s “in the manner of” collection would be a fun component in both the study and teaching of poetry. It can also serve as an excellent springboard for poets who want to explore and improvise on their own influences.— Janet St. John

Perception. Pugh, Christina (author). Mar. 2017. 112p. Four Way, paperback, $15.95 (9781935536888). 811. REVIEW. First published June 14, 2017 (Booklist Online).


Pugh’s fourth book contains exquisite short poems devoted to focused observation. Although there is a still-life aspect about what is perceived, including flowers, art, and objects, the poems are alive with movement. White spaces and short lines add to the abbreviated, punctuated, sometimes staccato-like rhythms. But Pugh’s use of associations and metaphors also creates lines of uninterrupted flow. The poems contain highly specific as well as specialized vocabulary that can make what is observed feel almost too magnified or abstract, perhaps like Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. Seven numbered prose sections within the book create timely pauses and provide illumination about the poems and the notion of perception. The ending line of number three seems to summarize Pugh’s aesthetic: “Poetry’s work is not to ravish, but diminish.” Through her beautiful approach to minimalism, Pugh offers precise musings on objects while simultaneously offering readers the chance to contemplate the poems themselves, which feel like thoughtful prayers or meditations.— Janet St. John

Debths. Howe, Susan (author). June 2017. 166p. New Directions, paperback, $15.95 (9780811226851); e-book (9780811226868). 811. REVIEW. First published May 26, 2017 (Booklist Online).

“So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden in psychic acousmatic toiling moil.” Howe (The Quarry, 2015) makes this statement in her foreword, thus establishing the ground from which her new poems sprung. Reading such an introduction is like witnessing the memory, symbols, words, sounds, and images floating around in Howe’s brain, and what a complex brain it is! Always inventive, pushing the boundaries of language, form, and classification, and at 78, she’s clearly as driven to experiment, create charged collisions, and make us question everything as ever. Part collage, part snippets of literature and history, part investigation of memory, place, the spirit of objects, and things just as things, this mixed bag of words and unconventional typography may stump readers not familiar with Howe’s poetic legacy. But those who embrace her particular originality will be challenged and delighted to encounter new expressions of Howe’s exquisite imagination, that unique lens she holds to the world. — Janet St. John


Cockfosters.Simpson, Helen (author). June 2017. 192p. Knopf, hardcover, $23.95 (9780451493071). REVIEW. First published May 1, 2017 (Booklist).

Two women riding to the end of the Piccadilly line to retrieve lost glasses establishes life’s “stations” and time’s passage as key threads in Simpson’s (In-Flight Entertainment, 2012) sixth story collection. With wit and keen perception, she tackles the cultural assumptions, versus true experience, of middle age in everyday situations. Simpson has a knack for rendering characters’ inner lives while contrasting them with seemingly trivial conversations. She honors the natural course of characters’ thoughts and words, allowing their fears, regrets, and hidden feelings to break through. These nine stories of British middle-class life feel familiar and accessible, even as they are rich in subtext. In “Arizona,” for example, an acupuncture appointment transforms into two women’s conversational exploration of the transition from childbearing age to menopause. So much about this little book is unassuming that one might be tempted to dismiss it at face value, but doing so would be to miss the profound ways universal insights arise out of the ordinary. With Simpson’s gift for expertly capturing our human experience, this is one author never to overlook or undervalue.— Janet St. John



Ground, Wind, This Body. Carlson, Tina (author). Mar. 2017. 80p. Univ. of New Mexico, paperback, $18.95 (9780826357793). 811. REVIEW. First published February 24, 2017 (Booklist Online).

Carlson’s exquisite debut feels like a powerful woman has tossed a life preserver to a broken child flailing in the vast, tempestuous ocean of a brutal past. A disembodied sensibility (“to unstitch myself from the harrow of bone and skin”), contrasted with vivid physical detail (“We dig, dig below the marrow / where worms burrow in wet grit”), drives these poems to say the unsayable, as if poetry’s rhythms and imagery are the safest language. Here nature becomes surrogate mother, the only one offering a child a cradling refuge. The way Carlson faces abusive family history, war’s mental ravaging, and the search for transformation is courageous, authentic, and inspired. This collection unravels a life and reveals a woman whose story is a cliff, a house, a war, and violence in her parents, in her, in their home, and in the heart of the world. She writes with clarity and grace, even tackling suicide: “Only I can write that gun out of my own mad mouth.” Carlson’s potent voice will long ring loud and true. — Janet St. John


Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. Marshall, Megan (author). Feb. 2017. 368p. illus. Houghton, hardcover, $30 (9780544617308). 811.54. 

REVIEW. First published February 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Pulitzer Prize winner Marshall (Margaret Fuller, 2014) presents an enlightening look into the life of the private, meticulous poet who wrote such perfectly polished poems as “The Fish” and “A Map of the World” in this hybrid biography-memoir. Though Marshall interweaves brief chapters about her time with Bishop and such key players as Robert Lowell, Bishop’s story can’t help but prove far more engaging. From Marianne Moore’s mentoring to her soulful friendship with Lowell, we glimpse Bishop’s literary influences and gain better understanding of the ways writers of the time nurtured and challenged one another to innovate. Thanks to recently discovered correspondence with Bishop’s psychiatrist and lovers, we glimpse sources of her loneliness and constant search for “home.” Her childhood losses and emotional abandonment no doubt played a role in the somewhat parental relationships she had with some strong, artistic, self-sufficient women. Yet her clinging to the feeling of being “in love” seemed often to dampen her artistic drive. A biography of Bishop is long overdue, and Marshall illuminates the poet’s life with fascinating and inspiring details and insights. — Janet St. John


No One Is Coming to Save Us. Watts, Stephanie Powell (author). Apr. 2017. 384p. Ecco, hardcover, $26.99 ( 9780062472984). REVIEW. First published February 15, 2017 (Booklist).

Watts, author of a short-story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need (2011), and winner of a Whiting Award and an Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, explores The Great Gatsby’s themes of yearning, loss, hope, and disillusion in her powerful debut novel. Set in today’s South and delving into African American family life, the story primarily focuses on Sylvia, a middle-aged mother, and Ava, her thirtysomething daughter. They live in the same house and occupy complicated marriages that reveal both the tenuous and tenacious bonds of love. Other life-weary, imperfect characters reflect the economically depressed, near-ghost town, which somehow beckons Gatsbyesque JJ (now Jay), to return with his accumulated wealth and dreams of recapturing the best of his past. Watts’ lyrical writing and seamless floating between characters’ viewpoints make for a harmonious narrative chorus. This feels like an important, largely missing part of our ongoing American story. Ultimately, Watts offers a human tale of resilience and the universally understood drive to hang on and do whatever it takes to save oneself.— Janet St. John

Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma.

Brooks, Melanie (author). Feb. 2017. 224p. Beacon, paperback,  $18  (9780807078815). 808.06. REVIEW. First published February 3, 2017 (Booklist Online).


Writer Brooks had a secret: Her respected surgeon father had been infected with AIDS but did not disclose it to anyone beside family for fear of the stigma attached with the disease during the mid-1980s. Having participated in this painful situation, she knew she had to write about it to better understand it. But how does a writer work through fear, shame, and the reliving of traumatic memories to best tell such a story? This was the impetus for 18 thoughtful interviews Brooks conducted with renowned memoirists who shared their traumatic stories in authentic, unique, and transformative ways. From Andre Dubus III to Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, and Mark Doty, Brooks’ interviewees share insights about the writer’s role, the simultaneously distinct and universally connected backgrounds and experiences of writers, and the power of owning one’s story. Writers of all genres will glean golden nuggets of advice about writing and living from this book, while all readers, because they, too, have unique personal stories, will be comforted and inspired by the everyday and creative struggles of some of their favorite authors. — Janet St. John


Coming in to Land: Selected Poems 1975-2015. Motion, Andrew (author). Jan. 2017. 192p. Ecco, hardcover, $27.99 (9780062644077); e-book (9780062644091). 811. REVIEW. First published January 11, 2017 (Booklist Online).


Former UK Poet Laureate Motion showcases his lyrical and narrative abilities in this cohesive, thoughtful retrospective collection. Early poems are grounded in landscape and the everyday, as the poet ponders life, death, loss, and the inherent grief in the passing of moments and memories, revealing his insights into human existence.Though Motion uses direct language which embodies his signature clear-water aesthetic, readers can see the murkier depths of the poems, where rich themes fester and bloom. Like the light and shadow in drawings, Motion both states and withholds words and feelings for more meaningful impact. In the second section, his poems often tackle war, from WWI to WWII to Iraq and Afghanistan. While partly commemorative, they drive home war’s tragic toll throughout history. But persona poems also imaginatively draw readers into personal realms—the minds and emotions of soldiers and nurses, heroes and ordinary people, all brutally altered by war—thus creating a powerful, ghostly chorus. Motion is a major poet with the distinct ability to strike a true chord of human connection.— Janet St. John

Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like. Holland, Noy (author). Jan. 2017. 384p. Counterpoint, hardcover, $28  (9781619028463). REVIEW.  First published January 1, 2017 (Booklist).

In “trying to describe what it feels like” to read Holland’s new collection of published and unpublished stories, words like “fast-forward,” “succinct,” and “biting” come to mind, and Holland’s direct, authoritative style is as unique and instantly recognizable as it was in her debut novel Bird (2015). For new readers, it’s a style that might take time to get used to. But the diversity of forms and intriguing story lines will keep both fans and first-time explorers on their toes, wondering where Holland will lead them next. Whether novella length, like “Orbit,” which anchored her first collection (After They Dragged the Lake, 1994), or short, like “Monocot,” which resembles a prose poem, these stories largely revolve around family relationships. Holland presents emotional lives behind closed doors, but after those doors are kicked in. Basic needs go unmet, cravings are only temporarily satisfied, dreams dissolve into disillusion. There is always a visceral sense of something wild and untamable beneath the surface of Holland’s stories, moving her characters through scenes and moving plots toward sharp conclusions. — Janet St. John

Cinder: New and Selected Poems. Stewart, Susan (author). Feb. 2017. 256p. Graywolf, hardcover, $25 (9781555977634). 811. REVIEW. First published January 1, 2017 (Booklist).

With lines like “for I have been reading the same story over / and over of the breakdown in the fullness of the world,” MacArthur fellow Stewart’s first, career-spanning collection represents 35 years of thought-provoking poems and proves that she continues to rekindle the fires of her creativity and perception, along with those of her readers. Although Stewart playfully experiments with form and language, what most resonates in her poems, which are organized from the newest to the oldest, is an underlying mindset, a balance between intention and allowance. The way a wave machine’s rocking rhythm can produce a meditative state, so too, Stewart’s poems evoke wonder by building layers of knowledgeable observations, only to let them all dissolve and begin again. She explores natural, human, and artistic encounters as well as stages in time, age, and viewpoint, often leaving traces of her scholarly sensibility in historical, mythical, and philosophical allusions, though she also offers many levels of meaning. Stewart’s poetry inspires by virtue of the poet’s seeking discovery yet resisting final answers.— Janet St. John



The Gun Room. Harding, Georgina (author). Nov. 2016. 224p. Bloomsbury, hardcover, $26 (9781632864369). REVIEW. First published October 15, 2016 (Booklist).

A young English photographer’s life is forever altered by bearing witness, particularly to the aftermath of a U.S. raid on a village during the Vietnam War. There, he captures an image of an American soldier that becomes a powerful war photograph, intentionally symbolizing the agony of war and unintentionally exposing how photojournalism is also wounding. Jonathan escapes his rural English upbringing and ends up in Tokyo, but he is still trapped in the past. Memories of his WWII veteran father as he observes that war’s lasting effects on his Japanese girlfriend’s grandfather provoke questions about truth, repercussions, and accountability. Harding’s (Painter of Silence, 2012) direct but lyrical prose (think Hemingway meets Camus) draws readers into the photographer’s mind and eyes, second by second, photograph after photograph, and vividly recreates the experience of seeing, everywhere, composition, frame, and subject. Harding is a compelling, precise, and concise writer, who knows how to deftly establish time and setting. Here she has structured a captivating story, in which history, memory, and normal lives poignantly intersect.— Janet St. John



Virgin and Other Stories.Lawson, April Ayers (author). Nov. 2016. 192p. Farrar, hardcover, $23 (9780865478695). REVIEW. First published October 1, 2016 (Booklist).


This polished debut collection transforms ordinary settings and situations into desperate, strange, or perverse situations. With a touch of Southern gothic ambiance, Lawson’s protagonists are damaged, deviant, and defiant inhabitants of a desire- and repression-filled world, where the forbidden lies behind closed doors, often literally, like the disease-ravaged brother in “The Way You Must Play Always” or the seductress-hostess in “Virgin.” Whether a jaded artist wife finds a peculiar connection with a lecherous art dealer or a hormone-raging, homeschooled teen takes issue with his mother’s friendship with a transsexual, these stories delve into realms of vulnerability and variability. One moment, one choice can lead a person over the threshold from a known religious or moral structure into the off-balance or broken unknown. Lawson’s stories feel oddly outside of time, as if they could be set in the present or decades ago. But then, time and setting are not primary; Lawson’s unique curiosity and deft characterization propel the plots of her unusual stories and lure readers into voyeuristically witnessing unusual psychological, sexual, and emotional experiences and awakenings.— Janet St. John



Rittenhouse Writers: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop. Rahn, James (author). May 2016. 254p. Paul Dry, paperback, $20 (9781589881129). REVIEW. First published June 6, 2016 (Booklist Online).


To be an ambitious writer while supporting other writers to excel even beyond your own abilities takes devotion to teaching and craft, a deep well of human compassion, and a willing and generous spirit, which Rahn (Bloodnight, 2012) clearly has; otherwise, his Rittenhouse Writers’ Group (RWG), in Philadelphia, wouldn’t have achieved its success or longevity (28 years). Yet after running it for so long, Rahn still concludes, “It’s unclear to me what makes the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group thrive.” The answer emerges in the frank, insightful stories of how Rahn created his classes, wisely choosing participants, creating a safe space for honest feedback, questioning and adapting teaching methods, and honing his leadership style. Rahn is the wizard behind the “magic in that seminar room above the Square,” but the dedicated writers in the group grew that magic exponentially. The first half of this book is Rahn’s memoir; the second half is a short story anthology, edited by Rahn, that vividly showcases the talented writing of his RWG students. Both sections will enlighten all readers who write or long to do so. — Janet St. John



Songs from a Mountain. Nadelberg, Amanda (author). May 2016. 112p. Coffee House, paperback, $16 (9781566894340); e-book, $12.99 (9781566894257).

REVIEW. First published April 15, 2016 (Booklist).


By offering a quote from Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman, Ron Burgundy, poet Nadelberg foreshadows her collection’s playful, satirical, and defiant linguistic exploration as well as the influence of movies and music on her writing. The poems self-referentially (“This is about that”) hint at her process, which involves collisions and bouncing of words, ideas, and feelings off one another. When Nadelberg writes “I don’t know / the rule I’m supposed to follow but frankly / nor do I care,” she means it, even as she toys with grammar. Repetitions in poems like “Siren” force us to consider multilayered meanings and associations, and the use of intriguing stanza shifts in “The Victory Portfolios” reshuffles images, ideas, feelings, and phrases like a deck of cards to create new opportunities for understanding. A reader may not always know what Nadelberg is trying to convey, nor can one assume she always knows. But the act of reading these verbal experiments both pleasantly trips us up and trips a thinking switch that illuminates exciting new poetic territory.— Janet St. John



Trouble the Water. Austin, Derrick (author). Apr. 2016. 104p. BOA, paperback, $16 (9781942683049); e-book, $9.99 (9781942683056). REVIEW. First published April 1, 2016 (Booklist).


Austin’s remarkable debut collection opens with a quote from John 5:4–6—“For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had”—foreshadowing how water, religion/spirituality, and body focus become vehicles to explore being black, homosexual, male, and a human being in a troubling century. Austin’s search for meaning and wholeness leads torealms artistic, sexual, and sensual, where body parts become flowers or bodies become twin planets, where hurricanes can leave behind corpses or a “storm-smoothed shore.” “San Souci” epitomizes the sophistication of form and thought in Austin’s poetry by using an effect resembling Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors as the poem’s speaker reflects on paintings, how they reflect life, his body, his lover’s body, how he can see his lover as a painting or see the act of pleasuring another artfully reflected back to him. Whether encountering European catacombs or the Gulf Coast’s post-oil-spill devastation, all of Austin’s lyrical poems are poignant and empowered.— Janet St. John



Violation. Tisdale, Sallie (author). Apr. 2016. 352p. Hawthorne, paperback, $18.95 (9780990437086); e-book (9780990437093). REVIEW First published March 17, 2016 (Booklist Online).


The essays in Tisdale’s (Wisdom of the Way, 2006) eighth book span 30 years and exemplify the intention of the form as they “examine, try, test” and offer both “a weighing, a weight” through the topics they investigate.

Her statement, “The intimate and hidden interest me; the ordinary interests me, because it is so strange,” conveys the driving curiosity behind her treks into the territories of family, the body, relationships, science, and gender issues in sports. Her passionate interest prevents Tisdale from allowing herself or her readers to draw simplistic conclusions. In a time when some memoirists believe “feeling truth” is truth enough, Tisdale’s title piece is a meta, thought-provoking rumination on what nonfiction is and what it means to claim memory and truth. Whether considering the lack of merit in literary criticism, working in an abortion clinic, or the isolating world of cancer and chemo, Tisdale consistently weighs all sides of her subjects with both fairness and fierceness.— Janet St. John



Admit One: An American Scrapbook. Collins, Martha (author). Mar. 2016. 104p. Univ. of Pittsburgh, paperback, $15.95 (9780822964056). REVIEW. First published March 15, 2016 (Booklist).


Despite its innocuous-sounding title, Collins’ (White Papers, 2012) eighth poetry collection is an unflinching look at the underpinnings of racism in the U.S., via key figures who used science to defend sterilization, exploitation, discrimination, segregation, and dehumanization of nonwhites, whites not deemed white enough, and anyone “less” than those with “superior” genes. Madison Grant, for example, fueled the Ku Klux Klan, initiated unfair immigration and “racial integrity” legislation, and offered tinder to Adolf Hitler’s evil fire. (Hitler called Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race [1916] his bible.) With the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as a framework, Collins attempts to understand her family’s experience of and participation in those times. Her poems are lists, definitions, newspaper pages, historical timelines, and biographical facts. These diverse poetic forms highlight the beauty of diversity itself. But Collins never lets up on the driving themes of unethical treatment and collective culpability. In fact, “Postscript Three” punctuates this powerful collection with the vitriol still spewed and sensationalized, keeping racism depressingly alive in a supposedly advanced century. — Janet St. John



The Opposite of Light. Grey, Kimberly (author). Apr. 2016. 64p. Persea/Braziller, paperback, $15.95 (9780892554713). REVIEW. First published March 15, 2016 (Booklist).


In her debut collection, Grey, a recent Wallace Stegner fellow, uses mental and linguistic acrobatics to explore what modern love and marriage really look like and mean. Her poems involve a search for symmetry, as the first and second halves of the book mirror and complete each other like lovers by revisiting paired topics and themes of invention and reinvention, memory’s deconstruction and reconstruction, and relationships’ beginnings and endings. The poems further this mirroring dance within their lines, as in “What we’ll always have becomes something we lost,” and through such titles as “The Functions of X and Y” and “The Function of You and I.” It’s apt that light and its opposite represent the collection overall, since the poems often bounce in tone and feeling between brightness and shadow. There’s no doubt Grey took exceptional care in writing, revising, and compiling these poems. They chime and resonate like deftly struck, fine crystal.— Janet St. John



The Swimmer. Koethe, John (author). Mar. 2016. 96p. Farrar, hardcover, $23 (9780374272326). First published February 15, 2016 (Booklist).


Titled after a famous John Cheever short story that was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Koethe’s (ROTC Kills, 2012) tenth volume of poetry pays homage to the writer and his indelible tale through imagery of home, motion, and change. But Koethe’s interpretation of “The Swimmer” is “as a reimagining / Of a life from the perspective of disillusionment and age.” So, within his poems, he asks tough questions about the temporal nature of life and follows his mind’s journeys toward answers as well as their inevitable disintegration. Dissolution is another theme threaded throughout the collection, and it helps establish the bittersweet sense of contemplating both a banal and beautiful life. Here the world and narrator are at once engaged and indifferent. “I’m witness to my life, but as for / Participating in it, I’ll take the Fifth.” Such wry twists in Koethe’s poems plunge the reader into a cold pool, where the warming stupor of philosophical pondering is refreshingly washed away by frankness and a rejection of sentimentality.— Janet St. John




Bird. Holland, Noy (author). Nov. 2015. 176p. Counterpoint, hardcover, $24 (9781619025646). First published October 15, 2015 (Booklist).


Short-story writer Holland presents her first novel, a potent account of Bird, a physically and emotionally broken mother who, in the course of mundane daily life, revisits the raw and reckless love she once experienced with a man named Mickey. Their sexually charged and ultimately doomed relationship led them on a wild ride through the best and worst of each other. But Bird still misses Mickey and keeps tabs on him through a friend, seemingly unwilling to release him or the past. Though Holland’s tale may not appeal to the average reader, it is remarkably innovative and astonishingly original, defying easy categorization as it daringly pushes boundaries with language and story structure. Along the way, Holland highlights the extreme feelings and actions possible between lovers, parents and children, and friends. Holland’s clever depiction of the blurry lines between love and hate, devotion and abandonment, and detachment and obsession will give fascinated readers a lot to ponder. — Janet St. John



A House in St. John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents. Spender, Matthew (author). Oct. 2015. 448p. illus. Farrar, hardcover, $27 (9780374269869); Farrar, e-book (9780374713508). First published October 1, 2015 (Booklist).


As the first child of poet Stephen Spender and pianist Natasha Litvin, Matthew lived in a privileged world with access to some of the twentieth century’s most influential people. In this guileless memoir-meets-biography, he portrays his parents as two well-known, politically and culturally active artists in post-WWII England who tried to establish a normal family. But their domesticity was built on an unsteady foundation, given Stephen’s indifference to marriage, his homosexuality, and Natasha’s resentful acceptance thereof. Still, the Spenders remained married, raised children, pursued careers, traveled, and lived abroad. Despite Stephen’s ongoing affairs with men, they presented a united front to the world. Now, through Matthew’s memories and use of unpublished documents, we have a realistic, in-depth view of charismatic, freedom-loving, and shrewd Stephen and perfectionist, stiff-upper-lipped, simmering-beneath-the-surface Natasha. Stephen believed in truthful writing; so did Natasha, if it was confined to a diary. Matthew continues the legacy of written truth by offering a sugar-free
of his own engaging life story while he unpacks the complicated tale of his parents’ difficult and fascinating lives. — Janet St. John




Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. Harjo, Joy (author). Sept. 2015. 144p. Norton, hardcover, $26.95 (9780393248500). First published September 1, 2015 (Booklist).


The title of Harjo’s long-awaited new collection provokes such questions as Why would holy beings be in conflict?, which Harjo answers by suggesting we are the holy ones at odds because we have forgotten all that is holy about us. These poem-songs have a magical quality akin to incantation as they conjure up a collective remembering. Through them, Harjo seems to sing the holy back into the world, sing the world’s beauty and love back into being, sing praise for nature’s songs, sing self, history, and humanity into a form we can recognize and (hopefully) revere again. Song becomes the vehicle for conflict resolution, built of jazz riffs, blues rhythms, and Native American chants. Harjo’s ancestors here are both hereditary and chosen for their musical, poetic, and mythical influences. These honest, innovative poems return us to the essential recognition of a time when “There was no ‘I’ or ‘you.’ / There was us; there was ‘we.’” Harjo’s inspired collection hits home when it tells us, “This is about getting to know each other.” — Janet St. John




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© 2017 by Janet St. John.