Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth collection, The Octopus Museum, is an immersive tour of social and ecological calamities, as well as an elegy for the present. Told from a distant but impending point of crisis by speakers who seem both strange and familiar, the book is composed of several galleries through which Shaughnessy grants glimpses of an unrecognizable world. The reader sees a tally of America’s destructive conditions, including our blindness to the environmental and social repercussions of consumerism. In “Our Beloved Infinite Crapulence,” the speaker depicts this shortsightedness:
“I should pull out my earbuds, and hear the world (my first love, my favorite store).”
Throughout this wondrous, flowing book, Shaughnessy’s world pleads with the reader to “stop already. Stop if you can,” while steering the reader toward another, equally important certainty:
“Knowing how to change—not color or mind or body or action but
perspective—and refusing to do it is how species vanish.”
Continuing his exploration of the sound and sense of language, Willie Perdomo’s The Crazy Bunch is the retelling of a single summer for a tight-knit group of young men. An energetic musicality of language is on full display, electrifying every exchange. Drawing heavily from the luminous, sonic explorations of the Beats, Perdomo paints his crew with a vernacular that, like those countercultural poets, defines itself against regimented communication:
“Stories started their
premises on the stoop, broke arcs by the time
they reached the uptown express, and the real
was played & buried by the time it got
If “We Real Cool,” the iconic eight-line poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, had bloomed into a full-length collection, it might be The Crazy Bunch.
The title of Lee Ann Roripaugh’s latest collection, tsunami vs. the fukushima 50, refers to the 50 employees who remained on site at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant after the devastating 2011 tsunami. Tsunami, it becomes clear, is the vast entity formed by the prism of narratives merging through each poem in this collection. From the start, the personified Tsunami is sketched as polymorphic. Whether we see it through a contemporary, media-saturated lens (“call her the meme ”) or as an environmental lamentation (“a rising tide of salt tears / for the world’s fractured core”) or as Frankenstein’s creature (it “turns and faces / threatening villagers with / their flaming sticks”), Tsunami is personified and portrayed as both protagonist and antihero.
As in a Cubist painting, Tsunami seems to be no one particular thing. This book utilizes an innovative, fragmented diction that defies traditional prose as it attempts to invent a profound language to make sense of the senseless. Refracted in these scenarios are the manifold ways in which we attempt to define Tsunami and understand such a tempestuous entity. By giving the cataclysmic a voice, Roripaugh offers a path toward liberty through the chaos and confusion:
“sometimes I find myself hiding inside
a hibernating tsunami siren, paralyzed
and mute . . . trying
to wake and unquiet myself free”
Ilya Kaminsky’s widely anticipated second collection, Deaf Republic, is an intoxicating and wondrous formulation of strength in chorus through a community’s “silence / which is a soul’s noise.” After a deaf boy is gunned down by a soldier from a nameless army occupying the town of Vasenka, the townspeople begin an insurgency against their occupiers:
“Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but
something silent in us strengthens.”
Kaminsky, himself a near-deaf poet, offers an eccentric yet elegant response to trauma with Deaf Republic. In “To Live,” the reader learns that resilience and hope require an active imagining because “The heart needs a little foolishness! / For our child I fold the newspaper, make a hat.” To keep sorrow at bay, characters combat the evils of the world by inventing angels. Visions crop up amid the commonplace, as in “A Bundle of Laundry,” in which “Snow pours out of the sun.”
In these sincere, striking poems, Kaminsky posits the beauty of this world as essential—to inspire those who, unlike the people of Vasenka, don’t require beauty to merely exist. “Our country is the stage,” Kaminsky announces in “Gunshot,” and he warns against an idle or uncritical engagement with the world. “Search Patrols” addresses this complicity and its unknown repercussions:
“The crowd watches.
The children watch us watch.”
This collection places its most deliberate examples of optimism in its lowliest moments, affirming our ability to be stirred and incited by profoundly disheartening events. Kaminsky’s collection asks, “How do we live on earth?” He answers: We are resoundingly as complicit in the good as we are in the bad.