The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser; introduction by Catherine Venable Moore

Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead was originally published as a poem cycle in her 1938 collection U.S. 1. It was unearthed, if you will, by Catherine Venable Moore, and republished in a new edition in 2018 with Moore’s introduction. (Disclosure: Moore was a visiting faculty member in my MFA program when I was a student there; I have met her, very briefly.) That introduction is lengthy, occupying fully half the pages of this book, which I hadn’t realized in advance; that is to say, while Rukeyser’s poetry is its raison d’etre, Moore’s essay is indispensable to the reading experience I’m reviewing here. That essay was published in Oxford American (a magazine I adore) in 2016, in its entirety – I did a pretty close page-by-page spot check, and if the two versions differ, it’s by words or punctuation marks, not paragraphs. (OA actually offers more images, too.) You can read Moore’s work here, and you absolutely should (I write, at the risk of unselling a copy of this book; but you will still want Rukeyser’s poems!).

The subject is the years-long industrial disaster at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Miners were tasked with both tunnel construction and the mining of silica, a convenient byproduct of the tunneling; they worked without protective equipment and inhaled quantities of silica, which caused silicosis (as it was known at the time it would), of which they died by the hundreds. Most of the miners were migratory Black Southerners housed in temporary work camps. The death toll is still unknown.

Rukeyser, a young lefty poet/journalist, traveled to West Virginia to document these events in 1936, as the last of the miners testified before a congressional committee even as they coughed and died. She was accompanied by a photographer friend (whose photographs, but two, were lost). The Book of the Dead was Rukeyser’s result: documentary, poetry, journalism, testament. Moore’s essay places this and much more information in context so that the reader is ready to appreciate Rukeyser’s poems when they come. Recall that I am infinitely more at home with essays than with poetry, but I found Moore’s work to be very moving, beautifully done, and informative. I found the poems more challenging, and I would not have gotten as much out of them without Moore’s help. Perhaps my favorite was the title poem, which is also available online at The Poetry Foundation, for whom I am grateful.

I’m very glad I spent a day immersed in this story, certainly an important one in our national and regional history. This was a bit of homework before, hopefully, visiting the recently dedicated memorial myself. I am very glad that Moore did the work of getting these poems and this story out into the world again.


Rating: 8 hills of glass.

The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water by Cameron Barnett

I bought this book when Barnett visited my MFA program as a guest writer and lecturer a few years ago, and as I read these poems I heard them in his voice, which I remember as unassuming and powerful. They share a humility, an honest, open, vulnerable, questioning attitude. Their concern is not always about race, and in fact the poet (or the persona?) often resists or resents that that should be his expected work – which is fair – but there is a frequent question of whether there’s a right way to be Black, and some very strong writing in indignation and in rage at what it is to be Black in this country. “Post-Racial America: A Pop Quiz” is fiery. Several poems for Emmett Till are extraordinary and still just what we need. In “Notes on Cameron Barnett” (a bio, as it were, in poem form!), he writes: “Another black poet told me he liked my poem / for Emmett Till despite His story being overdone / For weeks I fantasized about switching out / the murderers’ names and putting in his.” Whew. I also appreciated the water theme throughout (as in the title, which is also the title of an astonishing, perfect poem), which can do so much good, diverse work. “Muriatic” does that strong, water-and-fire work, and then is immediately followed by “Bishop on a Slant,” which is about family. Likewise, “Firefly” honors the imperfect father-son relationship, finishing with this wisdom: “I want to take everything you think you taught me and teach you / what I have learned.”

I was also gratified to find again Barnett’s memorable contribution to Psalms for Mother Emanuel.

The book is structured in three parts, I and III each containing a number of individual poems, while II is marked ‘from The Bones We Lose.’ The design of these sections eludes me, and in general I find these poems harder to respond to than I did Duffy’s, that I reviewed recently. Inarticulate though I may be, there were many moments here that made me stop and think and whose beauty or truth stay with me. I had to move more slowly.

Beautiful.


Rating: 7 word problems.

The World’s Wife: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy

I got this title out of Pandora’s Jar (review still forthcoming!), and it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped. These are the women’s stories, from myths and classics and fairy tales, reconfigured. Many of these women are new to their tales, like Mrs. Aesop, Mrs. Sisyphus, Queen Kong, Frau Freud, and Pope Joan. Others already had their own myths before Duffy arrived to rewrite them: Penelope, Demeter, Circe, Salome. The book begins, for example, with “Little Red-Cap,” whose relationship to the Big Bad Wolf takes a different angle. A few of my very favorites are “Mrs. Midas” and “Mrs. Darwin,” although I’m also captivated by Duffy’s Eurydice, who was so relieved at the quiet of the Underworld and so sorry to see that damned Orpheus again. Clever, clever, cynical Eurydice.

I am pretty confident in calling these persona poems: each takes the first-person perspective of a female hero we’ve not heard enough of until now. Each has its charms and its surprises; I have been slow in writing this review over more than a week–unusual, and a bad hole to fall into usually, but they haven’t left the top of my mind in that time. I think Duffy was the perfect author to do this job, the new highlighting of both familiar traits and of delightful surprises. (Guess what body part Frau Freud assigns no fewer than 31 nicknames to in fifteen lines.) These poems are often funny, often fraught and moving, and always lovely. See these images: “a thousand windows, each with its modest peep-show / of boredom or pain, of drama, consolation, remorse.” And these judgments: “The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife / which made me worse.” What else has Duffy written? I would read more poetry if it all worked like this: easy to access but inviting lots of processing time, deep and rich and wide.


Rating: 8 teeth of the rich.

Psalms for Mother Emanuel: Elegy From Pittsburgh to Charleston

Psalms for Mother Emanuel is a brief chapbook commissioned by the Pittsburgh Foundation on the first anniversary of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It includes nine poems and one visual piece, and they are beautiful and impactful. Beyond that I hardly know what to say about this collection; it feels almost holy, and many poems do maintain the reverence of the title, so that to comment sort of feels inappropriate.

The whole thing is… wrenching and also lovely.

Here is the title and first line of Cameron Barnett’s contribution:

If a bag of silver coins and a bag of bullets sound the same
then take my ears, I do not need them

You can actually view the book here, and I recommend you just do so.

My Alexandria by Mark Doty

I read this quotation the other day, and I’ll let it open this review.

Nothing which does not transport is poetry. The lyre is a winged instrument.

–Joseph Joubert, essayist

I first know Doty from a prose work that informs my love of objects in writing. (Plenty on Still Life With Oysters and Lemon here.) So it’s not surprising that there are lots of lovely, striking details and things here, in the first Doty poetry I’ve attempted. “What was our city / but wonderful detail?” What, indeed.

These poems feel perfect, crystalline, like they couldn’t be any better or any different. Each word is so carefully chosen. I love the internal rhymes and the music, and I love the enjambment, and the images, and the surprises. I still don’t feel like a very expert reader of poetry, but these have everything I feel like I want a poem to have. There are clear themes throughout the book: death, mortality, grief, with references to the author’s partner dying of AIDS and of others in the same situation. (I found that subtext easy to see, but I know a little of Doty’s life story, so I’m not sure how visible it would be to a reader who doesn’t.) It’s not a book of grief, though. It’s a book of seeking meaning and a way to carry on, of trying to see beyond death, and it’s a book of really seeing the world. Something else I recognize from Still Life is a constant, serious attention and observation.

What I think the title, My Alexandria, brings to this collection: a reference to a storied place no longer quite accessible, where things were famously better or at least very good, but in ways we can’t see from here.

Not for the first time with Doty, I noted many lines I want to keep forever. From a poem called “The Wings” (which takes place in part at the auctions that I know, from another book, Doty and his partner Wally used to attend together),

Some days things yield

such grace and complexity that what we see
seems offered.

I love that enjambment (made greater by the stanza break).

Later in that same poem,

An empty pair of pants
is mortality’s severest evidence.

This is something Doty does so well, the distillation of concept into an object.

And from the poem “No” (I so love turtles),

the single word of the shell,
which is no.

Besides these, my favorite poems are “Esta Noche,” “Chanteuse,” “Fog” and “Brilliance.”

I had success with reading these poems aloud, which I’m sure is always a good strategy, but one I don’t always use. Also, reading very slowly. Many of Doty’s perfect, perfectly fleshed images take several lines to come together, and I need to grasp them completely. It takes concentration. As much as I love a poetry reading, these are not images I could take in by just hearing them. I need to take my time.

Poetry is still hard, but so rewarding, when done this well.


Rating: 8 fused layers.

Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler

Quick housekeeping announcement: it seems to be time to return to a three-day-a-week schedule here, at least for a while. I’ve got so many reviews to share with you! See you back here this Wednesday.


Thanks, Vince, for the perfect recommendation.

Amy Gerstler reminds me of Amy Leach, in the best ways. Her poems are pleasingly filled with objects, with stuff, as forecast by her epigraph, from Lao Tzu: “He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much.” While well-grounded in real things, these poems are simultaneously concerned with spiritual and conceptual themes, too. I appreciated the organization into five sections: Kissing; Womanishness; Dust of Heirs, Dust of Ancestors; What I Did With Your Ashes; Only at Certain Sacred Locations. I felt each section hung together recognizably. (This already represents more success than I sometimes find with a poetry collection.) I loved as well Gerstler’s versatile tone – she can make me laugh and cry, and snort at her irreverence, and sit quietly with her reverence, all within a few lines. This was an easy, rewarding read.

That title, What I Did With Your Ashes: awesome. So suggestive in so many directions. I love it.

And the collection’s title, too: Scattered at Sea makes several suggestions to me. I think of scattering ashes, of marine life, of detritus, of wide dispersal across seven seas, and of scattered minds. The cover art (which extends to the title page[s]) suggests again that mess of stuff that always pleases me so. When I travel into poetry, I’m always a little less comfortable, but the stuff-n-things comfort me.

I like that these poems occasionally rhyme. It feels like each rhyme is more effective for its rarity – kind of like in prose, actually.

I propose that the poem “Disclaimer” is a reverse hermit crab, in the sense that Suzanna Paola and Brenda Miller define a hermit crab essay: one that takes the form of a different kind of text, like an essay in the form of an instruction manual or doctor’s notes or recipe. This is a poem in form, but its content feels taken from a different form. I liked how that lit up my brain.

Here are a few of my favorites lines.

On waking, if seized by an urge to munch shrubs,
give in.

Chew dew-bejeweled weeds till they complain

…as I sip this morning’s cocktail, an eye-opener
after last night’s revels: bitters mixed with curds of cloud.

Now the whole inscrutable crew has lost my vote.

One should give light to the whole world,
And when that gets tiring, lie down on various gregarious grasses.

And besides those quoted above, some of my favorite poems include “Fall On Your Knees,” “Ancestor Psalm,” “Extracts From the Consoler’s Handbook,” “He Sleeps Every Afternoon,” “Miraculous,” and “Sassafras.” I am waiting to discuss with Vince my questions about “Childlessness,” which has two stanzas that feel very different, almost opposite each other. Is there a name for that? It leaves in question the narrator’s final stance on childlessness. I often appreciate such ambiguities.

I can see myself continuing to reread and study this one. Scattered at Sea is a good fit for me; full credit, Vince.


Rating: 8 sexual identities glittery as tinsel.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy LynĂ©e Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Fanny Says by Nickole Brown

It took me years to feel ready to open this volume of poetry. I saw Nickole Brown read at my first residency (as a student) at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I now teach, in the winter of 2016-17. I cried the whole time; her poetry nearly killed me, and I bought two copies of this book (one for Liz), but was too intimidated or starstruck to ask her to sign them or to speak to her at all. (She also give a really great seminar titled “Learning by Design: Using Imitation in Creative Writing.”) Finally, I’ve enjoyed reading Fanny Says.

Fanny is the author’s maternal grandmother, and as the note at the book’s beginning says, many lines and whole poems “are not words I wrote but words I wrote down, transcribing best I could as my grandmother spoke to me.” Not surprisingly, then, one of this book’s strengths is the clear, distinctive voice I hear throughout, and one word that comes to mind is conversational: it often feels like we’re all in a room together, with this strong, sometimes abrasive, brave, take-no-shit woman.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered poetry where I felt such an absence of a wall of poetry standing between me and the content of the poems. Does that make sense? I’m often distracted by the form when I read poetry, and worried about what I’m missing, or lost in the not-quite-literal words themselves. Here I feel no barrier up between me and Fanny’s words as (I trust) she spoke them. I think it probably helps too that I first heard these words read aloud by the poet, so I have her voice with me, as well. I’m still not sure I’m capturing what is special about this work to me, but it touches me deeply.

Fanny is often eccentric and, what, uneducated, superstitious, sometimes hard to sympathize with (see the long poem “A Genealogy of a Word,” about Fanny’s use of the n-word and her relationship with her Black housekeeper). She’s from a world I don’t quite recognize. But she feels very real and immediate, and I can feel Brown’s love for her. And I do sympathize with her, very much, although not the part about the n-word. These things are hard to reconcile, and that’s why Brown writes about them, I think.

I love Fanny for her colorful and precise and unapologetic cursing – the book’s second poem is “Fuck,” a close examination of the word and its uses, forms, and sounds, “with the ‘u’ low / as if dipping up homemade ice cream, waiting to be served / last so she’d scoop the fruit from the bottom, where / all the good stuff had settled down.” And then there’s “Flitter,” a poem both about the linguistic choice for “your privates, your girlie parts” and about Fanny’s relationship with her flitter. I guess I appreciate the directness both of Fanny and of Brown’s profile of Fanny. I have too many favorites here to list. I’m just grateful to feel let in to these poems in a way that has been so rare for me, even with poetry I love. I’m not sure what makes the difference. But thank you, Nickole.


Rating: 8 plastic cups of Pepsi.

Dreadful Wind & Rain by Diane Gilliam

Disclosure: Diane teaches as recurring guest faculty in my MFA program, and I think she’s a lovely person.


I feel tentative in writing about poetry, but here goes. Dreadful Wind & Rain is beautiful, and more accessible than some, because (as Vince pointed out to me), this is a lyric narrative, which should help things to hold together. In addition to a narrative development from beginning to end, there are two threads of allusions to follow, although neither was familiar to me before I read this book.

Poems appear in four sections. The second and third are substantially longer than the beginning and ending ones. To paint in very broad strokes: “Girl” indeed features a girl, Leah, who is oppressed by family and by society, in favor of her younger, more beautiful sister, Rachel. “Anyone” features a man, and a marriage which doesn’t serve Leah any better than her first family did. (It finishes with a poem titled “First Divorce.”) In the third section, “Or Else,” Leah finds her way out of her marriage to the unsuitable, adulterous man. I think it is here that we begin to get mentions of poetry; Leah is finding her voice? Rachel is somewhat held to account for her role in the unhappiness and the ending of Leah’s marriage. Finally, the four poems in “After” feel like an actualization for Leah, a settling in.

The book’s title and epigraph refer to a traditional murder ballad in which an elder sister murders a younger sister, in part over a man. Many readers will recognize the sisters Leah and Rachel from the Bible, in which they are (among other things) rivals and both wives to Jacob. The threads of both these stories are woven through Dreadful Wind & Rain, although Gilliam does not strictly retell either story. This Leah and Rachel are recast in modern times, for one thing, in which Leah is able to own her own home and lock Rachel out of it in the end.

I had many favorite poems, and I would love to reproduce one for you here, but an entire poem feels like too much to reprint without permission. Some of these are prose poems, which somehow make me feel more comfortable. They are all lovely and layered, and made me slow down to read them. I’m never confident I’ve gotten everything out of a poem, but I got a lot out of these. It felt good to hear Diane’s voice again; I could hear them read in her voice and that was comforting. I would be glad to reread this slim, thoughtful book again (and get somebody more poetic than me to explain them better).

Highly recommended.


Rating: 8 stones.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.
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