Book Reviews & Blurbs

Book Blurbs

On Jessica Barksdale’s Grim Honey

Jessica Barksdale invokes the expectations for the world of Grim Honey within the first two poems. The broken routine, the unexpected animal motion, a sudden obsolescence, bad luck—oversweet and playful, and an impossibly sharp, inevitable deluge. “You’re the last breath before a blue / whale submerges, its Volkswagen-sized heart pulsing in the deep. // You’re a wooden rowboat floating over the whale, / the fisherman with one oar. No, two.” The poems that follow pursue these original definitions of change while expanding the scope.

In the staggering “Hand-Painted”, Barksdale tells us “[h]e would start one project /and move to the next, / never imagining / he’d die before / completing any.” Everything exists as it is, until alchemy happens—a potent and blunt mythic or natural world is invoked. In “Three Sisters”, we watch a personal mythology unfold, “the Easter queens, daughters / to our father, rain in the distance. // Time dripped itself loose, and we were still three / but now at war.” In this quietly direct way, new truths are imparted. The generosity of these lessons on decisiveness and focus through the shifting of grief—the many dimensions of the depths of knowing and loving—are meted with great care. This model of growth offers the reader wisdom for how to open and move with a consistently transforming world.

On Elisabeth Horan’s Just to the Right of the Stove

Elisabeth Horan is a pioneer in remaking the concept of a persona poem with this collection. In “Godammit! Just Hurl That Sink Already”, she plays with meter, rhythm—the building-blocks of language to evoke a feeling both playful and dangerous, “belly all swoll’d up like a capybara in a python.” These tricks evoke a stream-of-conscious dissociation or dismantling of language in “An Interlude” which is starkly contrasted by the instruction to “Just let go” in the poem that follows, “Thankful”. This results in a handful of poems which visually splice along the page, mimicking the process they describe. In “Dabbing the Corners of Our Mouths Like Ladies” Horan makes a questioning assertion that left me breathless, “Did I die, like Sylvia – / or did I survive, / Like Elisabeth.” The sentence forms a question, but the poem ends there. Period. The intention is poignantly aware. This is not a question. Horan has survived, and she gives us so much evidence of her depth of living, “For two hours I laid there with a button under my thumb / Magnets clanging in and around my skull.” This shows us how it feels to be reduced to scientific measurement. Yet, in the first line, “I secretly think I am better than you.” Horan finds a way to burn her reader, (which could be us, or could be Sylvia,) while confiding her most intimate inner-workings, which makes us feel like a trusted friend—as if we are in on the secret and loved, even though it might be about us all. Her brave, biting words ring on every page of this creation. Telling a story that even Sylvia could not quite get to the heart of, in a voice that hints at Sylvia’s life, but tells it in a way that is uniquely Horan’s voice. These conversations border obsessive, vital, life-giving. The projection of Sylvia gives place to depression and motherhood—the battle is palpable “My nails are down to the quick, / Lost talons in her paper skin / I lose a shoe, I knock out my tooth / Upon the door of the stove.” And as we read, we shift with Sylvia, holding the generosity of Horan’s offering, a window into the depth of her experiences, which are both uniquely her own and universally felt. 

On Ryan Norman’s Cicada Song

Like its controlling figure, the cicada, Ryan Norman’s Cicada Song is a yearning and pulsing creature that fills until its emergence is an impossibility that cannot be ignored. From moment to moment, you may find yourself in an orchard, in the sea, in a river, staring out at your lover—the river, digging a tunnel through the soil, feeding on tree roots, or receiving sustenance from the moon. And the inundation of it is simultaneously surprising and expected—in that it too is cyclical. In the title poem, Norman’s speaker begs, choose me, repeats it, and receives an answer on the wind, the object is singing for someone new. Moments of illumination are offered with such sincerity, and that is this collection’s gift. However, Norman weaves that frankness into intricate sensory language. W’s whoosh through the center of “Crashing” and ecstasy becomes a dance in “Lake Nights”. These flourishes of movement propel the pieces from their earthbound home, up to the swarm.

Book Reviews

On Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time

Here are details of my perception so we can better understand the time we are spending together in this goodreads review. I am a poet, not a physicist, by any means, (though I had lunch with a grizzled physicist and his bicycle in a crowded cafe at UC Berkeley one day, and a beer in a bar with a young physicist and a couple poets several blocks from the college.) But time, the passage of time, the music of time, how we subsist beyond ourselves with our works, these are some of my greatest passions.

Rovelli writes like a poet.

I was transfixed by this text which presents material that could be very difficult to understand in a way that makes it something we can better grasp. But beyond that, our reading this text makes us better grasp our sense of self in this world. It’s a phenomenal achievement. Near the end of the book, there is a quick-successive reminder of each lesson we had learned, and then a philosophical expansion based in the personal. Or, the flashback as one might face the tunnel. The book ushers us into death so gently, one hardly realizes they’ve passed through not just a set of markers of new knowledge, but the experience of letting that knowledge float outside of you as something you can grasp if you wish, or let meander beside you, gently. It’s a fullness, but also a lightness. I haven’t been this affected by the incantation in a book since reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz. It’s a personal, profusive experience to read this book, and I would recommend it heartily to anyone.

On Bola Opaleke’s Skeleton of a Ruined Song

Book Review ran on Headline Poetry and Press in 2019