On Nine Recent Collections

Poetry in review

Stephanie Burt
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Poets, Randall Jarrell quipped, are in the beginning hypotheses, in the middle facts, and in the end values. He meant (I think) that when you start writing seriously, or start publishing, you cannot, by definition, have a style that other readers recognize. When a poet has done enough to warrant a big “Selected” or a “Collected” edition, on the other hand, that poet almost surely has–or believes that they have–a sense of the work as a whole, and that other people have a sense of it too. In between, though–with a third or a fourth or an eighth book (and all the books here are at least third books)–a talented poet gets an opportunity: having figured out how to do at least one thing well, the poet can opt (consciously or unconsciously, driven by internal clarity or by unknowable daemons) to reinvent, to turn away from previous work, or else to repeat, build, add on to it, before imitators or spectators can clog the road.

You know you’re the right reader for a poet–that the poet speaks, in particular, to you–when that poet can more or less repeat themselves, and you love it, or at least don’t mind. That’s how I feel about the poetry of Angie Estes, whose sixth book, Parole, more or less repeats the intricately and unapologetically beautiful tactics of her last two, Enchanté (2013) and Tryst (2009). They are tactics that I have elsewhere called nearly baroque or proudly rococo. Almost all her poems juxtapose three or four scenes, at least one from European high culture (stained glass, Dante, opera, patisserie) and one, often in less detail, from her own memories of a non-elite American life. Estes revels in complex sound effects, consonance and wordplay so elaborate that they could not fit (she does not try to make them fit) received English forms such as couplets or sonnets. Instead, the sounds drive sentences like this one:

                                      the past is precocious
                  like the apricot, and when it hovers
      near, you can hear the us
                              in delicious, the refrain
                  of a song, a burden we’ll gladly
      follow just as we’re lured
                              to Aux Pêches Normands
                  in Paris by the smell
      of moelleux, gateau au

If you have not been lured in by now, maybe she’s not right for you; but maybe you just haven’t seen how hard she works, or how deep the griefs in the new poems run, as deep as the giddy aesthetic heights are high.

Part of the force in Brown's collection... is his sense that maybe no cadence will do.

Perhaps half of Enchanté explored Estes’s grief over the loss of her mother; Parole addresses not just her mother’s death but her mother’s life, and the way a life looks after it’s over. A “stained glass image of deadly/nightshade” in a medieval window abuts

      glass leftovers bearing words
                  I saw my mother
      write–memo, ate–on the note
                              to the babysitter just before she went out
                  in her tulle-veiled fascinator.

That note, and the nightshade, connects the late mother to the obscure superhero “Nightshade in the 1966 series / of Charlton Comics,” whose “powers came from / her mother”; Nightshade and her mother could “transform themselves into living / two-dimensional shadows,” much as dead parents can overshadow their still-living offspring. Like many modern comic books, the poem can stand alone but belongs in a series: it’s called “Lieu de Nightshade Mémoire,” one of seven “Lieu de … Mémoire” poems scattered through Parole, all of which explore scraps, fragments, and unresolved queries about whether and how the poet can, should, must, or will remember the dead. Estes’s highly refined technique generates both a ritual and a substitute for what would otherwise be unmanaged grief:

  Blest be the swallows, wallowing
                  in air, and the official in the Musée d’Orsay
      who gave me the green sticker to wear: Droit
                              de Parole.

That is, Estes was permitted to speak in what would otherwise be a quiet museum; she is, too, permitted to speak both of Romance-language high culture and of her mother’s unrecoverable biography, an “eerie / resumé of lieux-dits, place names / where lots were lost.” Adult grief is complicated. It requires, for Estes, complicated forms. But the pleasures we take in those euphonious forms may be bold, melodious, even simple.

D. S. MARRIOTT, BY CONTRAST, COMES FROM TRADITIONS where pleasure itself and tradition itself and history are always complex, always subjects for skeptical inquiry. He is also capacious, drawing on and echoing artists from grime (a British subgenre of hip-hop) as well as on poets (such as Denise Riley) from the Cambridge-based late-twentieth-century British quasi–avant-garde. Those who love J. H. Prynne might compare him to Prynne; Americans might notice how his trajectory out of high theory into knowing “I” statements resembles that of Jennifer Moxley.

Marriott is never without feeling. But following the feelings can be a challenge. Some poems refuse verse lineation for double-columned prose, telling Kafkaesque stories or issuing cryptic, self-conscious instructions: “Take pleasure in each and every object that chastises you for confusing number with meaning, desire with bread: know that the exception is the rule, because the one thing one wants is never enough for the wanting,” he writes in his new volume, Duppies. A poem titled, unsubtly, “Remains of the Day” asks how to escape the dialectic of master and servant, the drive to “succeed” by dominating others, to treat life and literature as a gambling contest:

Reverse these distances,
this speech newly mastered,
this wish to soar higher than manor houses.
Restore what was laid down
as so many zeroes held in oblivion’s grasp.

It’s a high level of diction, a prophet’s rhetoric, couched in anti-capitalist imperatives; you might be forgiven if you took it for Geoffrey Hill. But Marriott and his personae can also go low, into the depths of survival sex work, with unloved queer youth: “I’ve grown old. If he slaps me now, I just leave the blood all over myself.”

More than most poets, Marriott always seems to be responding to something: refuting it, or adapting it, or inverting it, or making a grim parody. He even has a line-by-line reworking of Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” called “The Negatives”: “If the negatives are what we the elegiac ones / are searching for, this is / because they out-endure everything.” He tries to use poems to learn (not to show, but to learn) how systems of knowledge, systems that tell us what and how we can speak, emerge from and depend on systems of domination, and of sexual pleasure, and when tastes and standards function as weapons, or masks: “There’s a philosopher on the estate called Rav. He makes menaces with logic, and commands respect for his superior knowledge, but he’d fuck a pig in knickers.” Marriott wants to know how and whether the art of poetry, his art, can construct something better than what we get from history, from familiar traditions, from prose.

That want, or wish, to liberate himself along with his readers lets him see in himself, and even pray to, a much belated, more skeptical, almost parodic Walt Whitman:

(O my captain, who leads and therefore gives,
Who knows nature is not art, nor a history of ruins,
Make of me a who man who always questions,
Make of my imagining something vast and angry.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Whatever my soul suffers let it be this, that it seize all self-loathing
And find there a prayer or a musket.
And recreate there my own negritude black and perfectly white
And as tall as the tallest building.)

When Marriott says “negritude” he means it. It would be a mistake to overlook the Jamaican-born poet’s blackness, his Afro-diasporic identity; some of the poems insist on it. But it would be almost as mistaken to reduce his variety to that single subject, or to any single subject. Marriott is never apolitical, and he is never other than black; his volume (whose title is Jamaican English for “ghosts”) comes with a crowd of ghosts and a crowd of subjects–it’s a big book with a lot to do. “Black Jack’s Lament” stars Marriott’s version of Auden’s Caliban, who “knows that he who seeks the stars has to first dwell in the snows and furrows like a doe running in the blind, enclosed by the harness that await her.” “Der Mandem”–a German article paired with a Jamaican and English word for male friends–belongs to the centuries-old tradition in which love poets explain why they cannot write love poems: “I just wanna think of u / but all I can ever think of / is the world and its aura… . and u / the perfect match for each / rescue semblance.” Another poem compares someone dying in hospital to “an actor who knows, / deeply flushed, that he’s about to be kicked out of a crowded theatre, / and that will be the biggest punchline of his career.” And an impressively Juvenalian piece of political economy in verse called “Poundland” (the U.S. equivalent would be “Dollar Store”) finds

              the shores submerged in dross
      where everything is changed to wager, and food and rent
      are discovered to be counterfeit, floating free on a gigantic ocean–
      like boats listing, taking in too much, voyaging out because empty.

The boats are the consumers, the disgust with consumerism pellucid. Yet Marriott never sounds like the poets who are praised for their lucidity; his world is too weird, too shot through with systemic injustice, so that it requires “a new idiom,” “the syllables like wounds repeatedly / washed by loss.” Often he gets it. Not everyone does.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR AN AMBITIOUSLY INVOLUTED, theoretically informed, Afro-diasporic poet who covers many, many topics, blackness and pain and sex and inequality among them, Marriott will reward any attention you choose to pay. If you are looking for an Afro-diasporic poet of unrelieved power from whose formulations you can’t look away–one more dramatic than ruminative–read Jericho Brown. Near the end of his third, latest, best book, The Tradition, the poet addresses himself:

                                I’m sick
      Of your hurting. I see that
      You’re blue. You may be ugly
      But that ain’t new.
      Everyone you know is
      Just as cracked. Everyone you love is
      As dark, or at least as black.

Blackness isn’t darkness, but both qualities drive The Tradition: African American heritage and mystery, past and future, pride and fear. “Crossing” concludes with a callback to the famous bridge in Selma: “I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.” Does he mean radical change or just self-harm? The void, the casus belli, the reason to leap speaks to the history of men who love men, and the history of HIV. The virus itself, in fact, speaks a poem: “I’m still here … the way anger dwells in a man / Who studies the history of his nation.”

Brown spends a great deal of this collection asking what’s gone wrong in one or another rough history: black history; the history of men who love men; his own personal history. And he asks whether mere language can make it right: “Here is one symptom of my sickness,” he complains: “Men who love me are men who miss me.” Those lines come from one of five poems in a new form Brown calls the duplex, part sonnet and part pantoun, in which each line (or a minor variation on it) shows up twice running: that poem continues, “Men who love me are men who miss me / In the dream where I am an island.” John Donne’s famous meditation announces, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Donne’s continent (he names it) is Europe. But what continent–what kind of wholeness–can fit a man like Brown? What kind of demotic, what kind of spoken cadence can connect him to the people among whom he would like to be able to breathe and feel safe, and feel free, and live?

Part of the force in Brown’s collection–you might call it (after a theory espoused by Marriott) Afro-pessimism–is his sense that maybe no cadence will do; maybe he can’t acquire the power, or the help, he deserves. He can, however, find peers, and solidarity. “The more you look like me, the more we / Agree,” he muses. “Sometimes you is everybody. / The blk mind is a continuous / Mind. There is a we. I am among them.” He can also find sounds. And for every short-lined poem that stands, like a pillar, for the way he and his have survived, there is another with long lines that span: Brown’s (or his character’s) mother “cried at funerals, cried when she whipped me. She whipped me / Daily. I am most interested in people who declare gratitude / For their childhood beatings. None of them took what my mother gave.” Behold what a couple of line breaks can do.

YOU WON’T FIND ANY LINE BREAKS in the memorable poem, or lyric essay, at the center of Paisley Rekdal’s sixth book, Nightingale: “Nightingale: A Gloss” is at once a critical study of the mythic Philomela (like most of the book, it takes off from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), a skeptical ars poetica, and a memoir about a remembered sexual assault. “Traumatic time works like lyric time: the now of terror repeatedly breaking back through the crust of one’s consciousness.” Lyric poetry, Rekdal avers, is like a report of a sexual assault, in that both are attempts to say what cannot be said, to tell what cannot be told: “Why should Philomela ever sing when our presence only increase her suffering?” Poetry–Brown’s, Rekdal’s, Marriott’s, anyone’s–preserves, by representing, trauma; it is the nightingale Philomela singing because her violated sister cannot, trying (but why? what good does it do?) to communicate a fundamentally unshareable experience. “I have spent my life devoted to an art whose foundational symbol,” Rekdal decides, “is one of unspeakable violence.” And yet she speaks.

Many things other than sexual assault are difficult to represent: some of those things show up elsewhere in Rekdal’s volume, whose technique overlaps slightly with Estes’s. Both poets juxtapose high culture scenes with domestic ones; both poets pursue sinuously complex sentences over and through the gates of the line break. Both poets want to show how things turn into other things, people into other people, in the poet’s mind and in our shared world: in Estes’s “Tiresias” we follow the mind of a mother who watches, and raises, and supports, her trans son, attempting to give him “the love / his real body craved.” (It takes her a while to learn his pronouns, but she gets there.) A bereaved woman whose dead partner loved rough sex finds solace imitating her pet:

                    You’re little
      better than that dog, her mother scolded her,
      at which point she rose from the table,
      tossed her food to the floor,
      and got down on all fours to eat it.

Such stark moments dot Rekdal’s best new poems, and set them above the slightly too-pretty achievements of Imaginary Vessels (2016). Sometimes the moments yield happy, or near-happy, endings. Mostly, though, they emerge from and point back to irrecoverable loss: the decline of an elderly parent, or the destruction wrought by nineteenth-century Tasmanian bachelor farmers, learning to knit and to work the land without women, disturbed by the human-like calls of the now-extinct animal called the Tasmanian tiger, or the knitted thylacine:

Of course they heard the cry. It broke them in pieces.
And when they woke,
they slipped out of bed, gathered their lights

and rushed into the dark to seize it.

she was already using to tell better, scarier stories. Lightsey Darst, by contrast, seems to have discarded in her third book almost all the techniques of her first (a slightly lurid but vivid sequence about murdered girls) and her second (an abstract project grounded in modern dance). Thousands amounts to a book-length lyric notebook, in verse and prose, about the author’s realization that she wanted to move across the country, move in with her new lover, and have a child. Her wish to break her style open resembles, or emerges from, her yearning to crack open her life, which she envisions as an egg case, a frozen lake, a terminus a quo:

Snake eggs, robin eggs, shark case or mermaid’s purse,
every kind of closure I kept …

I don’t know what I have to do.

I don’t have to do what I do.

Don’t mend it. Cold wind comes in & I
don’t want to go home–freezes the lake below it in a flat sheet.

Don’t ever want to go home.

“Home,” here, means Minneapolis, but “home” also means everything familiar, everything an adult does out of habit, because it’s what she has come to believe other people want her to do: “On Nicollet Avenue the lamps come on … in the manner of a beautiful woman / so bored with her good marriage.” She’d rather blow up her life, and she says so, in lines that veer from the disarmingly (and purposefully) artless and the self-consciously, stereotypically teenage to the mature elegance of a martial artist’s punch.

(You can go on grading freshman comp in every free hour but as for me,
I don’t want to die.

Imagine being Lauren Bacall, not seventeen
but you are: you are.)

Marriott in one way, and Estes in another, and Brown–with his stripped-down language, his refusal to pile up details–in a third kept their stand-alone poems from feeling unfinished, from feeling like diaries, from feeling as though they belonged less to art than to life. Darst, on the other hand, courts that feeling, almost in the way that the so-called confessional poets of the late 1950s and 1960s did. And like those earlier poets, she sometimes worries that she has gone too far, made a book that’s so literal, so specific, it’s only about her, and only for her: over “a plate of flan half-eaten” she contemplates “the dim possibility that overall these poems might be too / personal.”

Of course they are; of course they’re not; of course they (like all poems of any power) can speak to the readers who need them, one of whom wrote them: “How my writing changed,” Darst muses, “when I / began to need it.” Its songlike qualities, its quality of reaching out from the self, emerge line by line, sentence by sentence, with effects of unexpected intimacy, direct outreach, sans image (“Tell me you still need me Reader. / As much as I ever did”), or image sans everything else: “I // saw the sky a bit, bees burying themselves in heather bells.”

Thousands expects to be quoted, and rightly so: it is, itself, full of quotations (“Hegel,” “Kara Walker,” “2/7/13 Lucia’s”). It’s also a book about moving to the South, and when Darst gets there (North Carolina), if not before, readers may notice how closely she resembles that generous southern poet of lyrical book-length projects, C. D. Wright. “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” Darst asks, which is only half a question, in the ethical terms Wright’s late work sets. The other half is something like What can I give to others? How can I support people who are not like me? Darst doesn’t quite reach such inquiries–she’s writing a book of personal self-discovery (analogous perhaps to Wright’s Just Whistle), and outreach may come afterward. But she’s also writing a story of erotic love in middle age, and of the generosity that this kind of love inspires at its best:

Find out what you want as reader or traveler
this maze of second thoughts. Translate my needs

my blue jean leg next to yours. I’ll be sweet today. Take care of me. The last thing
I’d want to do is wear out your love.

to book-length, indivisible projects when smaller ones, freestanding works of art, seem too restrictive or too closed off. They, or we, can also split the difference, working in small units that add up: the sonnet sequence is only the best known set of such units, just as Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (a book that really is as good as everyone says) is only the most attended of several recent midcareer books that relied on devices of sequence, of multiple similar almost freestanding units.

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 is another. What looks like a series of reported takes on a frequently studied disaster (the Fukushima nuclear event of 2011), then like a series of perhaps opportunistic, from-afar studies of life in the disaster zone, feels on further inspection like a failed plot sketch, in verse, for a scary sequel to some classic monster movie (Mothra and the Hulk have speaking roles). Really, though, the volume succeeds–and opens itself up; I’d give it to teenage readers–as a series of monster, superhero, and supervillain portraits, each a kind of allegory about how human beings respond to disaster, some based on how human beings really did respond in Japan, as well as on movies and mainstream American comics.

Roripaugh (who has written about her Japanese American heritage elsewhere) writes neither as a survivor or a witness nor as a mere tourist; her characters, never realistic, sometimes self-dramatizing, connect her at one remove. “Tsunami” itself has a speaking role, comparing itself, or herself, at once to the giant, planet-devouring, nearly unstoppable melancholy Marvel supervillain Galactus: Roripaugh’s monstrous city-eater feels “the hunger of trying to hold back / the hunger a little big longer.” “Miki endo as flint marko (a.k.a. sandman),” on the other hand, can’t get used to her own ironic transformation: “at first, I concentrated very hard / on trying to see my feet, to know / if I was a ghost.” Marko is a supervillain literally made of sand, and therefore able to escape anything. The real Miki Endo, a town employee who operated emergency alarms, saved lives by continuing to broadcast her warnings during the tsunami, which eventually washed her away; if her body is ever found it may well be covered in sand.

Is Roripaugh melodramatic? Of course she is; the distance between herself and the disaster is part of the point, and so is the accessibility. If we are going to think about faraway catastrophes to which we have indirect (perhaps ethnic) links, we may need to do so by telling nonrealist stories, by creating allegorical characters, the way that the fourteen-year-old internally displaced girl in “hisako’s testimony (as x-men’s armor)” sees herself in the stories she has seen: for her, as for her favorite displaced heroes, “there’s still no home / to go to in the no go zone.” The girl imagines herself with “a red // impenetrable psionic exoskeleton,” because she’s so physically vulnerable in her real life; “anonymous, as invisible man,” on the other hand, fears publicity, and begins his own monologue, “I agree to speak, but only / on condition of anonymity.” He was a clean-up worker at the nuclear plant, and wants only to live down his contact with history: “I decline to reveal my internal radiation levels.” These unsubtle characters want to be seen not by their peers in Roripaugh’s not-quite-fictional Japan but by Roripaugh’s English-language readers; they are her way of asking not just what happened there but what might happen next on a fast-warming planet where Tsunami (the figurative monster, not the literal weather event) could eliminate us all.

JUST AS INTERESTED IN YOUTH AND YOUNG READERS–but much weirder at the level of language, with a sensibility, a sense of the sacred, in place of a set of characters–is Elizabeth Treadwell’s astonishing, sometimes deliberately naive eighth collection, Penny Marvel & the Book of the City of Selfys (yes, with a y). Treadwell tries to operate as far outside a mainstream Anglo literary tradition as Estes (for example) operates from inside it, nodding to Native American orature, to Wiccan maternal mysticism, and to medieval women’s craft knowledge, as well as to modern technology and pop culture (selfies, superheroes).

Penny Marvel & the Book of the City of Selfys is up there with Treadwell’s lovely Birds & Fancies (2006) for its charm, its oddity, its return on risk, even its sometime elegance: it helps that in both books Treadwell works in small units, so small that a child could memorize them, so small that (if we like) we can construct our own stories around them, like this:

even as the moon
carried our earthly griefs

That’s a whole poem, called “Leda.” Here is the next poem in the same sequence, called “Aphrodite, or selfy as the sound of Venus”:

informed by salt & light
the crystalline
remembrances & membranes
all the pretty selfys of the seas

The first is a night flight; the second is the birth of a goddess from foam. Both work as talismans, charms, and ways to meditate on a feminine power that has survived the patriarchy of its original lands.

Treadwell’s miniatures often work like talismans. The poems become channels through which we can ask for help, as they ask for help from higher powers. The longest poem here begins as a Marian hymn: “our lady of the honey bees, / west-oak and tidal / please help to absolve & rectify / my errors.” Her meditations and devotions have one set of parallels in earlier American miniaturists–Emily Dickinson, Robert Creeley, Samuel Menashe–but others in the paraliterary genres of religious and didactic verse: hymnals, psalters, recitations Christian and pagan. The poetry is trying to demonstrate a better way to live, one to which we citizens of a high-tech republic have only fitful access; it is a way to live that her verse does not recommend so much as embody, and the verse tells us how, and why, and for how long: “it matters that verse is imperfect / because perfection is an illusion / and crystalline an estate.” Treadwell tries less to critique this world (in the way that Brown and Rekdal and Marriott all do) than to outline a better one:

our chalk bodies near the seas
sky-bright accounting, newish world
what fringed beings are we now

Hers are goals that I would wish more poets could share, except that you cannot adopt such goals by choice, any more than you can will yourself to fall in love or believe in a god; you have to mean it, you have to achieve some access to worlds beyond the reach of Blake’s Newtonian devourer. And if you possess that theophanic access you can announce–you can declare, in the manner of the Levellers and the Familists–that anyone can possess it, once we believe: “amid the soil / of love’s transfiguring / we are all clergy now.”

YET WE ARE NOT ALL CLERGY, NOR CAN WE BE: even those of us who love to read mystical poets may not want to write as they do, may not see ourselves in them. We may need more ironic, or acerbic, or this-worldly arrangements to match our own needs and griefs. We might, for example–on losing a parent, on grieving for a parent, on cleaning out a parent’s house and settling that parent’s estate–need a sequence like the title sequence of Mark Scroggins’s Pressure Dressing, which takes up most of his fourth collection of poems. Scroggins remains best known as a scholar of Louis Zukofsky, but his own poetry doesn’t sound much like Zukofsky’s, nor like the poetry of Zukofsky’s allies. Instead it sounds British, like the Cambridge-based avant-gardists who also influenced Marriott, who set out to show that nothing is natural, and for whom the theory-soaked vocabulary of culture critique comes (you might say, smiling) naturally:

        I don’t like
the word totality any more
than you do, but it’s the only
word that describes it right–
what I can’t grasp, that is.

That sentence caps one of a hundred ten-line units, or dizains, many of them addressed to the inadequacy of poetry, of language, of human effort in the face of capitalism, anomie, mourning. “Penstrokes not enough, / scalpel-strokes. Philosophy in the / bed, awakening to the dialectic / in the semi-private room.” Art for Scroggins must not use a “voice like a trumpet, that never mutes / and never modulates”; but what sort of voice should it have? What can it do? Can it do anything worth doing?

Poets of any age can become upset, or frustrated, or anomic, when they see how little literary language does to, or for, or about the social world. That failure has one kind of force for the young, another in old age (when it can lead to a shrug, as in Yeats’s “Politics”), but another still for poets in midcareer, or middle age, an age when some of their peers are new to worldly success and others haven’t given up on it; an age when they might have a two-year-old, or a twenty-year-old, or no kids, whether or not they want them; an age when some of their peers befriend, and others bury, elderly parents, like Scroggins’s father, apparently an expert reader of Russian:

The shape of the words in the mouth,
ground strange against the palate, letters
unfamiliar eldritch insects, St. Cyril’s
coy and cunning invention. Pages upon
pages of them, piling into years
of staring and labor. My father
conned those pages once, now ash
and pulp. Shape of language, shaping
itself around ordnance, logistics, crime
and punishment, war and peace.

Other dizains address how the poet disposes of his father’s library, handles his father’s effects, and sorts out “sifted layers / of things, stuff, gathered middens / gathering to themselves dust, / detritus.” The dense consonance suggests the too-much-ness, the overwhelm, of the unpaid job.

Scroggins’s other subjects, in the stand-alone poems of the book’s first half, also end up in fatigue, frustration, and responsibility without power. “Office Routines” depicts ironically “homey cubicles,” each one overfull of “the traps and objects / of somebody else’s world. Voicemail / and instant message, football scores.” Making fun of white-collar work, pointing out its dead ends may seem like punching down. But Scroggins can also unload his ennui, his more-in-sorrow-than-in-disgust attitude on erotic allure (in an intensely unpleasant poem called “The Roué”) and on his own literary art. “What Do You Mean, I Asked the Poem” (yes, that’s the title) ought to land in anthologies:

Where do you come from, I asked
the poem, marveling at the shining
groove behind it, which seemed

to vanish into the forest, but might
be snaking out across the plain
or climbing into the amber hills.
Who are you to ask, it murmured,

nodding its stiff mane, so like
the plume on Hektor’s blinding helmet.
What are you for, I asked the poem,
but the poem had nodded off.

in Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum nod off: they stay awake and alert even when (as often) they sound exhausted by threats to women and girls in our time, and by threats to all humanity in the near future, when octopodes and other sentient cephalopods take over. Shaughnessy’s fifth collection mixes verse and prose, blunt declaration and personal recollection, fear for her nuclear family with fear for the earth. Some of it feels like emotionally charged, compact, not-very-science-y science fiction, as Shaughnessy imagines how she and her actual family (including her son, who uses a wheelchair and requires help with daily tasks) would fare in a post-apocalyptic future. It’s what people who read a lot of science fiction call slipstream, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and like The Road it’s emotionally charged but might look best to people who do not read much SF.

Fortunately Shaughnessy has other goals and writes other kinds of poems, in prose and verse. She’s never charming or childlike, in the secretly artful manner of poets like Treadwell, but she disarms in other ways, with blunt lines that feel boiled down from a mass of drafts, only the most nourishing parts now extant: “Before health insurance there was health, a pre-existing condition.” Or (at a softball game) “We couldn’t give our kids the bountiful, bullet-proof homes we wanted, but we could insist on watching them try to win their childhood back.” If you liked Shaughnessy’s best-known book, Our Andromeda (2012), you might want to start here with “Nest” and “Blueberries for Cal” (her son, who cannot eat blueberries himself): “there’s all this energetic sweetness” in the latter poem, “enough to go around… . More than enough. / For Cal too.”

And when Shaughnessy keeps her apocalypse in mind but in the background, few poets give language more charge or do more with existential and maternal fear. “Honeymoon,” though it takes place in a future without wine, where “we pluck chickens to make fine the groom’s cloak,” ends as an essay about our own day: “How few centuries have let women be girls first, swirling as long as they wanted into their sweetness … Maybe one. Maybe one not quite full century.” A beautifully bitter essay supposedly commissioned by our octopus rulers asks “Are Women People?” Certain documents, the octopus/social critic/Swiftian satirist concludes, “must be continually updated to protect the status of people of color as people.” “I Want the World” imagines (a bit like The Road) a time of perpetual flight, where a delightful, rare present for a six-year-old is “a pencil with a pristine, unsharpened end.” In this future–which could come any day–“we’re all lucky if we get anything at all.”

Parole, by Angie Estes (Oberlin College Press, 80 pp., $16.95 paper)

Duppies, by D. S. Marriott (Commune Editions, 110 pp., $18 paper)

The Tradition, by Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 110 pp., $17 paper)

Nightingale, by Paisley Rekdal (Copper Canyon Press, 96 pp., $16 paper)

Thousands, by Lightsey Darst (Coffee House Press, 104 pp., $16.95 paper)

Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, by Lee Ann Roripaugh (Milkweed Editions, 120 pp. $16 paper)

Penny Marvel & the Book of the City of Selfys, by Elizabeth Treadwell (Dusie, 128 pp., $20 paper)

Pressure Dressing, by Mark Scroggins (Madhat, 104 pp., $19.95 paper)

The Octopus Museum, by Brenda Shaughnessy (Knopf, 96 pp., $25)

Stephanie Burt is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard. Her books include the poetry collection We Are Mermaids, After Callimachus, and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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