August Smith

If language is a space, who is allowed in? If history is a story told by the powerful, what gets left out? With her second full-length collection feeld, poet Jos Charles twists these two concepts together and bends them to her will. The result is a wholly avant-garde book of poetry that reveals a queer history embedded in the castaway detritus of our language.

A winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, Charles’ feeld is a hybrid work of medievalism and digital nativism. The numbered, unnamed poems operate in a mode that’s part-Middle English, part-texting lingo, brazenly synthesizing these two poles: in one poem the speaker tells us “it is horribel / of corse to be / tangibel,” wisdom that feels timeless; later, “thomas sayes trauma lit is so hote rite nowe,” a statement decidedly post-2010s. 

Readers looking for a historically accurate pastiche of Chaucer will be flummoxed. So, too, will those looking for the clear-eyed contemporaneity of Charles’ previous work. The obscure misspellings, surprising homophones, and wildly oscillating register of the poems work together to construct a small, hermetic world of their own. Reading this book feels like piecing together the forgotten scribbles of an alternate dimension’s literary history. 

Having remixed the past, Charles places queerness at the center and explores it from newly revealed angles. Her poems are fragmentary, beautiful, and inventive. Poem “VII” informs us “a tran lik all metall is a series or sirfase in folde / wee / call manie of these foldes identitie” and suddenly, identity is made material and pliable, likewise language. Just as the reader is able to grasp this idea, the poem ends with a surprisingly humorous turn, “u maye / be manie foldes but not / lik the waye an asse / bothe is and isnt conected to this chare / fase / layk.” 

By the end of the collection, one is struck by how perfect the title “feeld” is: the book is both a fertile, untrodden space and a flurry of emotion warped through the past tense, less felt and more feel-ed. 

Long listed for National Book Award in poetry, Jos Charles' feeld is a hybrid work of medievalism and digital nativism.

In Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil plumbs the imagery of nature to break down barriers between humans and the world around us. We asked Nezhukumatathil a few questions about her interest and research into the natural world.

Oceanic conceptually is a book about nature, marine life and its place in our own lives. Was this your plan from the outset, or did you discover this conceptual framework along the way to its completion?
My parents made sure that I knew the names of most plants/animals/trees/constellations wherever we lived (we moved around a lot when I was young), so I grew up with that vocabulary and always have been fascinated by the small and large dramas in, say, a garden or an edge of shoreline. So many of these poems are love poems in various forms, I think—and using the diction and specifics of the outdoors just made sense to me. I don’t know how to make sense of a world without using its inhabitants to draw metaphors and find a sonic joy when I draft a poem. 

These poems feel like they’re powered by a backdrop of research, like they’re drawing their weight from the actual facts of the natural world. Can you talk a bit about your research process behind this book?
So much of my earlier poetry is explaining my entrance into subject matter that is “worthy” of being in a poem. It’s not that long ago when I was so very starved to find any experience or any writers that looked remotely like me in the “best of” anthologies or journals. It was as if we didn’t exist, which is of course not true, but now (thankfully) I feel like there is an exciting embrace of poems from all backgrounds and cultures, so my focus on “explaining” doesn’t feel as urgent to me as it once did, when I was struggling to just say, “Hello! I exist!” But yes, to get back to that sense of urgency, I feel like what is urgent for me now is to write and record a slowing down or a tenderness towards the outdoors—in all its complications. Kind of like my own way of following environmentalist Rachel Carson’s belief that the more attention we pay to the natural world around us, the less appetite we have for destruction. And honestly, I’m so exhausted from the voracious appetites of destroying the gorgeous natural resources around us all.

What role do objective facts play in your poetry in general? Is it an essential grounding element, or do you feel safe in blurring the lines?
Oh, it would definitely be a mistake to read any of my poetry books as autobiography. But all the science and nature elements I include in my poems have been triple checked and/or extensively researched to be as accurate as possible. I’m not at all interested in fudging something just for the sake of music or sound, for example. I want very much for people to learn about plants and animals they might normally not have expected to learn about from a book of poems. 

I was surprised by the specific subjects you chose to contemplate. The opening poem, for example, finds you identifying with the scallop. Another pair of poems draw language from one-star reviews of famous landmarks. How do you know when you’ve stumbled across a subject worth writing about?
I hardly ever (as in less than 3 percent of the time) draft with a specific subject in mind—rather, I start with an image and write around/through/about it and see what happens from there. No surprise for the writer/No surprise for the reader is a mantra from Frost, but I absolutely find that so applicable to my drafting. I need the image to be surprising and a little heartbreaking and delightful all at once, and when I can’t stop thinking about it, that’s how I know I need to get to my drafting journals—I still draft almost everything by hand first. 

Finally, what’s your favorite animal? 
That seriously changes on the hour for me, for real. Right now, I’d have to say the ribbon eel for its moxie and audaciousness, but at any given time it could be a royal fly catcher, a narwhal or a mantis shrimp.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Oceanic.

In Oceanic, Aimee Nezhukumatathil plumbs the imagery of nature to break down barriers between humans and the world around us. We asked Nezhukumatathil a few questions about her interest and research into the natural world.

People often look to poetry as a space for beauty, where it can be enshrined, explored and celebrated. Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a collection rooted in the imagery of a fading natural world, wielding lyrical language to break down the barrier between ourselves and what we consider nature. 

Nezhukumatathil’s fourth book of poetry and first from Copper Canyon Press, Oceanic dowses our most human concerns (love, longing, grief, family) in a torrent of nature-oriented metaphors. “Nature” is a broad category, encompassing scallops, elephants, pumpkins and the northern lights, but as the title suggests, Nezhukumatathil tends to focus her contemplation on marine life and aquatic vistas. Overall, the subject matter is broad, from one-star internet reviews of the Taj Mahal to odes for those who “plunged over Niagara Falls with the hope of surviving.” 

With a book so invested in nature, one might expect a flood of gorgeous imagery. Here, Oceanic delivers; these poems are lush and dreamy, with “a blue jack mackerel / arranging itself into an orb of dazzle” and “dolphins leaping / into commas / for this waterprayer / rising like a host / of paper lanterns/ in the inky evening.” The emotion evoked is one of contentedness and appreciation.

But these poems don’t scan as pastorals with only calm waters and soft sentiments. Oceanic brings forth the harder ideas buried in these subjects. “Two Moths” renders the experience of a victim of sex trafficking who “will rim / the waterline of her eyes with kohl pencil” until they resemble “two popinjay moths.” In “The Body,” we learn of the plight of the sea stars in the Pacific, how something causes them to “rip themselves apart, / twist their arms in gummy knots.” The urgency in these poems adds necessary depth to an otherwise pastel-tinged collection.

But what really stitches Oceanic together is Nezhukumatathil’s musical voice. These poems feel crystal clear in their logic and construction, walking carefully from the metaphoric and imagistic to something more transcendent and strange, reminding us that we are linked to the natural world in deep and surprising ways. 

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Aimee Nezhukumatathil for Oceanic.

Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a poetry collection rooted in the imagery of a fading natural world.

Jenny Xie’s debut book of poetry, Eye Level, aims its gaze at two concepts: time and interiority. To arrive there, her poems travel through cities, landscapes and memories, exploring them with a voice both isolated from the world and communing with it. The result is a stunning collection—part travel narrative, part kaleidoscopic autobiography.

The winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Eye Level works in contradictions: It speaks from solitude yet dwells in an array of communities; it ties itself to concrete places but has deeper psychological concerns. “Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?” the speaker asks in the opening poem. “No matter. The mind exists both inside and out.” Eye Level mediates that dynamic. Things are felt in both senses of the word.

Xie’s imagery is like an Etch A Sketch being shaken and redrawn, moving rapidly through gritty scenes in miniature. We encounter “Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets” and a “motorbike with a hog strapped to its seat, / the size of a date pit from the distance.” The speaker speaks of their “coarse immigrant blood,” their “fishbone days” and “fatty grief.” The month of a May is a “slow peach.”

These tactile moments pull us through Xie’s relentless probing of location, both in time and space. Time has a physicality throughout (“I pull apart the evening with a fork”) and is intertwined with familial history, a realm where “suffering has its own logic.” 

Xie’s lively formal approach incorporates many styles; most notable is her series of haibun, a combination of prose poetry and haiku (a form pioneered by Matsuo Bashō, another poet who traveled the outer world while exploring the inner one). That’s what makes Eye Level such an enchanting read: its ability to be everywhere and do everything at once. It draws its energy from all over and then finds its way directly to the heart.

Jenny Xie’s debut book of poetry, Eye Level, aims its gaze at two concepts: time and interiority. To arrive there, her poems travel through cities, landscapes and memories, exploring them with a voice both isolated from the world and communing with it. The result is a stunning collection—part travel narrative, part kaleidoscopic autobiography.

A new volume of Lorca translations brings with it several questions. Does it offer a new angle on what is already a loved and oft-translated poet? Are the translator’s various decisions and concessions justified? And most importantly, do the poems stand on their own as poems in English, divorced from the historical intrigue of Lorca’s life? In the case of Sarah Arvio's Poet in Spain, the answer to these questions is yes.

In Arvio’s generous introduction to her translations, she explains this book’s unique focus and approach. In Lorca’s oeuvre, Arvio claims to “hear two voices and see two landscapes”: one is Lorca’s popular New York poems, full of alienation, surreality and political vigor; the other voice, and the one this volume focuses on, constitutes his “moonlit earthbound Spanish poems.” By shifting the focus to Lorca’s more overlooked works, Poet in Spain starts charting new territory right out of the gate.

Arvio's method of translation is also worthy of remark. She “wrote quickly, by ear,” and she entirely forgoes punctuation because it “hindered the flow of the language.” Sometimes this absence is keenly missed, but Arvio’s felicity with Lorca’s pliable rhythmic patterns masks the omission of commas and periods, and apart from a few blips of syntactic confusion, the decision is sound.

The effect throughout all of Arvio’s translations is swooning, romantic beauty punctuated by darker passions. Arvio captures the essence and energy of Lorca’s voice, steeped in dreamy imagery and moony sentiment. “A flock / of caught birds / swinging their long long / tails in the dark” ends the poem “Landscape,” and it’s the repetition of the word “long” that reveals the translator’s hand working the syllabically shorter English language against Lorca’s Spanish rhythms. The effect is often sublime.

Poet in Spain is a triumphant addition to the corpus of Lorca translations, due in part to its specific focus, but also to the consistency of the translations. Arvio’s mix of careful, thoughtful research and respect for the spontaneous energy of poetry makes this volume invaluable to any English-speaker smitten by Lorca’s work.

A new volume of Lorca translations brings with it several questions. Does it offer a new angle on what is already a loved and oft-translated poet? Are the translator’s various decisions and concessions justified? And most importantly, do the poems stand on their own as poems in English, divorced from the historical intrigue of Lorca’s life? In the case of Sarah Arvio's Poet in Spain, the answer to these questions is yes.

Drawing from her study of the Bauhaus movement of 1930s Germany, award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang’s latest collection of poetry, A Doll for Throwing, is a carefully crafted meditation on the relationship between time and form.

Bang is a poet known for her innovate technical approaches and her ability to tease dense philosophical ideas out of unexpected places. A Doll for Throwing fulfills both expectations: The poems work within a deliberate form, and they utilize a rich historical reference point to build a moving narrative.

That historical reference point is Lucia Moholy, a Czech-born photographer and artist who became a figure in the German Bauhaus architectural movement. Bang fictionalizes details atop the bare facts of Moholy’s life, hybridizing poetry, fiction and nonfiction; when she writes, “Every day was a / twenty-four hour stand-still on a bridge from which / we discretely looked into the distance, hoping to / catch sight of the future,” we are not only hearing Moholy’s voice, but the broader lyrical “I.” The future in question is not only our future, but the past’s future—the present.

Most of the poems are tightly-wound blocks of justified text with titles lifted from Moholy’s photographs. Their shapes simultaneously suggest the blocky lines emblematic of Bauhaus and the rectangular shape of photographs, and their content borrows heavily from both disciplines while breaching into more human concerns. For example, the poem “Me, A Chronicle” starts in cold architectural language: “Shapes that begin as just one solution to a common problem / can go on to become an inflexible method.” But it develops into something more ruminative: “I see my father crossing / the room to open or close a window. My mother’s zigzag / pattern of static . . . Who hasn’t felt that in/ order to breathe, she has to splinter the first self and leave it / behind?”

Bang’s forward-thinking approach finds footing in the past to comment on our future; herein are critiques of political extremism, xenophobia and domestic trauma. A Doll for Throwing cements Bang’s poetry at the forefront of many poetic realms, all while maintaining a shape of its own.

Drawing from her study of the Bauhaus movement of 1930s Germany, award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang’s latest collection of poetry, A Doll for Throwing, is a carefully crafted meditation on the relationship between time and form.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!