Poetry Review: “Nothing By Design” by Mary Jo Salter

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When I consider buying poetry for other people, there are two main groups I typically shop for: those who have not studied poetry but have an interest, and those who have. Neither group is particularly easy to shop for: the newbies need something that can be read on the surface, yet possibly has greater depths, while buying for the vets requires knowledge of their particular taste: did they study critically or creatively? Do they like narrative with their poems or are they all about sound? Do they like experimental poems or do they find them pretentious? The joy of discovering Mary Jo Salter’s new collection, “Nothing By Design,”  is that she has given me a book I can give to both groups without fear.

For the newbies, Salter should be a revelation. Her poems feature easily defined narratives, some of which arc between poems, such as the ones in the section, “Bed of Letters,” which mediates on the divorce of the speaker. Poems throughout the collection deal with universal topics and themes ranging from infidelity, war and death. Read the rest of this entry »

Beauty and Thought: Dan Beachy-Quick on “Wonderful Investigations”

Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry No Comments »

dan-beachy-quickBy Micah McCrary

His author’s bio reads: “Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poems, most recently ‘Circle’s Apprentice.’ ‘A Whaler’s Dictionary,’ his celebrated collection of meditations on Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ appeared from Milkweed Editions in 2008. Beachy-Quick teaches at Colorado State University, and lives in Fort Collins.” The Chicago-born Beachy-Quick, most recently the author of “Wonderful Investigations,” is an author willing to scrutinize his interests—both academic and aesthetic—in a way that many writers of nonfiction seem afraid to try.

Beachy-Quick spoke about his “Wonderful Investigations”—about his willingness to look deeper and closer and further into the things that make him want to read and write. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry,” edited by Charles Henry Rowell

Anthologies, Book Reviews, Poetry No Comments »

anglesofTo anthologize is a political act. As political acts go, though, it’s a relatively subtle one. Still, to make decisions about inclusion and exclusion in something that will stand as an authority on a field—a handbook for the uninitiated—carries the heavy burden of cultural gatekeeping.

“Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry” joins the ever-increasing Norton family of anthologies this year under the capable direction of editor Charles Henry Rowell. Rowell is a professor of English at Texas A&M University and the founder and longtime editor of Callaloo, a well known literary quarterly of the African Diaspora.

“Angles of Ascent” seems clearly designed to update a mainstream history of black literature, poetry in particular, to include its most recent movements and movers. Rowell’s introduction gives us a clear and accessible mini-history of black poetry in the U.S. and its socio-political contexts. He traces for us the difficulties of the “divided mind” throughout that history—a schism created by pressure from the white publishing establishment to be mainstream and apolitical, and pressure from the black communities to be political. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Silverchest” by Carl Phillips

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With his signature contorted syntax, Carl Phillips ushers us through the woods of pathos and logos—a steady procession through ourselves and those we love. “Silverchest” vividly reminds us that we are reading a book of individual pieces, pieces that have stood and continue to stand on their own curious and wobbly legs. Phillips imbues these examinations of the mind, memory, the heart and human intimacy with a delicate and deliberate pace that defines the world of each poem. The voice is patient, insistent, tells all—every last hesitation, every stutter of thought, seducing a reader to the point of certainty, of conviction, and then pulls back. And this seductive voice, this belief riddled with doubt, ties each poem to our lives, to the knee-jerk nature of life. These poems, their condensed heft, revolve around moments of clarity, of simplicity with subtle, vibrating metaphors and architectures that force us to slow our read, to intentionally move from word to word, increment by increment. Early in the collection we come to the poem “And Other Animals,” suggesting an ellipses before the title and contributing to the tone of “Silverchest”:

So the dead become earth

and then nothing, things that will never matter

now in the way they used to, for— Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Robinson Alone” by Kathleen Rooney

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Poetry is intimate by nature. Consider how it is consumed: slowly, first with the eyes or ears, then steeped within the body until the language is unraveled and revealed. If prose is drip coffee, poetry is a French press. A poem must make direct, lasting contact with the self who invites it in. However, many levels of intimacy which poetry is capable of producing are frequently overlooked. Poems have a tendency to exist independently of a larger narrative—they shy away from deep character development.

Enter Kathleen Rooney. An already accomplished Chicago poet and professor, her newest collection, “Robinson Alone,” is a brave and extended meditation on a specific character (the titular Robinson) whose life and losses are fully witnessed throughout the book. This is art that stitches itself between the world of poetry and of the novel. Furthermore, the book is an homage to the late Weldon Kees, whose poem “Robinson” (originally published in the New Yorker in 1945) and whose life inspired Rooney’s project.  Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “The Game of Boxes” by Catherine Barnett

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It has been eight years since Catherine Barnett published her first collection of poems, “Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced.” Since then, she’s won a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has split time between teaching gigs at NYU, the New School and a shelter for young mothers in New York City.

Eight years of waiting ratchets up a reader’s expectations, and the pressure on the writer to meet them. Barnett’s latest, “The Game of Boxes,” thankfully does not disappoint. Here’s a precise, august and deeply moving collection of poems easily devourable between Red Line stops. Split into three sections—“endless forms most beautiful,” which deals with parental abandonment; “sweet double, talk-talk,” about sex and unquestionably the strongest section, which is saying something; and “the modern period,” on motherhood and creativity—Barnett dispenses bullets of wisdom with a frightening accuracy. Read the rest of this entry »

Outsider Institution: the Avant-Garde Pedagogy of the Chicago School of Poetics

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Francesco Levato

By Alli Carlisle

We’ve all said it: a poetry degree just isn’t what it used to be. That’s why Chicago poet Francesco Levato started his own poetry school.

Levato is himself an avant-garde poet whose work draws on cinematic and documentary techniques—in his own words, “engages subject matter through disruption of content and form, fragmentation of narrative and radical juxtaposition of visual and textual elements.” His poems, truly products of postmodern culture, sample: they collect, cut and redistribute pieces of other poems into new configurations. One long work, “Aura,” makes a fragmented, haunting dialogue of pieces of Robert Browning’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. A significant part of Levato’s work is something called cinépoetry, a kind of collaged videographic poetry that does with footage what his other work does with language. Levato also translates, a kind of work vitally connected to his poetic work, which involves so much transformation of extant materials into new forms. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Selected Poems” by Vladimir Nabokov, with an introduction by Thomas Karshan

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Nabokov is a name so revered in literary circles that to write of him, edit an anthology, translate his works or review any of the above, you had better be a relative. Such is the meteoric stature of the “poet-king,” whose given name in Russian means, aptly, “ruler of the world.” Considering that, editor Thomas Karshan is safe from at least one angle. “Selected Poems” contains twenty-eight never-before-seen translations by the late Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son and closest literary executor, whom the elder hailed a “marvelously congenial” translator in the preface of “Invitation to a Beheading.” Never one to shy from a tussle, Vladimir found “no devil of creative emendation to fight” in his son’s translations. Both held that, in transposing letters, fidelity to the author came first—no matter how twisted the result. Alas, even Dmitri is not immune to misstep. Read the rest of this entry »

The Aesthetics of Place: The Poetic Ascent of Michael Robbins’ “Alien vs. Predator”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Poetry, Readings No Comments »

Photo: Dan Dry

By Ella Christoph

Michael Robbins’ poetry demands to be read aloud, so long as you’re not among the virtuous. In the poem “Bubbling Under,” he proclaims, “I live by the alien logic we impose on children./Whoever smelt it dealt it. I’m glazed with K-Y/beside the Goth girls gone haywire. Talk about cathexis!” His debut collection of poems, “Alien vs. Predator,” was published at the end of March, but it was only a couple weeks ago that a drooling review on the cover of the New York Times’ Arts section helped skyrocket “AvP,” briefly, to the number one and two (paperback and Kindle) spots on Amazon’s American Poetry bestseller list. Robbins has immortalized the screenshot on his tumblr. Robbins, who completed his PhD at the University of Chicago last year, recently returned to his Andersonville apartment after a yearlong stint as a writer-in-residence at The University of Southern Mississippi. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Our Lady of the Ruins” by Traci Brimhall

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“Our Lady of the Ruins” is Traci Brimhall’s re-visioned holy text—the gospels of doubt, a lifting up of second-guessing, a desperate grasping for faith in God, men, humanity and most essentially love. Here love is reframed.

In her introduction to the Barnard Women Poets selection, Carolyn Forché compares Brimhall and her poetry to “the stone lady [standing] in the ruins of bombed Dresden,” resilient in the face of apocalypse, “[holding] open the possibility of denying oblivion its dominion.” The poet accomplishes this by acknowledging that we are already in oblivion, and it is not what we expected. By reading Brimhall’s poems we are swallowed by profound anticlimax. Read the rest of this entry »