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Bradley Harrison

James Galvin – Everything We Always Knew Was True
Copper Canyon 2016
Page Length: 75
Retail: $16


How is it possible for the work of James Galvin, the face of the most famous poetry program in the world, to be so wildly underappreciated? One could spend a lot of time trying to understand this: is it because of his association with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that critics have largely ignored his work, especially over the last twenty or so years? Or is it because his style walks so boldly in the footsteps of the many celebrated American poets who have taken as their central subject the natural world, and have done so with a language we can loosely call “plainspoken”?

A combination of these theories would view Galvin as the inheritor of a tradition of Iowa faculty poets (Donald Justice, Marvin Bell, not to mention recurring faculty members like Galway Kinnell and Robert Hass) who represent some “old guard” of American Poetry. But if this is Galvin’s inheritance, where are his deserved awards? Of the four just mentioned, three won the Pulitzer Prize, and between them all four have won many of the most distinguished awards in American letters. This is not to downplay his CV, which includes a Guggenheim and an NEA Fellowship, but Galvin is one of America’s most important living poets, and his oeuvre is as impressive as anyone in his generation, yet critics continue to leave him on the periphery as though he hasn’t published anything of note since 1997’s Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. He has.

In fact, Galvin’s work has since blossomed in a manner that none of the aforementioned poets’ has. But the evolution didn’t come without struggle. 2001’s X was a clear departure from Galvin’s previous work, retaining his singular mastery of the Western landscape, but filtering it through a decidedly broken subjectivity demonstrably ravaged by a crushing divorce. X is wildly uneven. It is the work of a poet struggling to find a new frequency. It includes some of Galvin’s greatest poems—“Fire Season,” “Promises Are for Liars,” “Heat Waves in Winter Distance,” “Depending on the Wind,” and the collection’s finale: a Dantesque sequence that culminates with a Paradiso of parental love.

None of these poems could have appeared in Galvin’s earlier work, for they demonstrate a speaker who is as unsettled by life’s ruthlessness as he is certain of its beauty. This ambivalence is certainly present in Galvin’s earlier work, but in X we find a poet whose faith has been radically shaken: a self-effacing quiver begins to trouble the line; existential anguish seems the book’s undertow. On the whole, X is one of Galvin’s best collections, but its unevenness is evident in a poem like “Ought,” which foregrounds wordplay and wit, anticipating Galvin’s evolution over his next two collections to relatively underwhelming effect.

In 2009, Galvin published As Is, his weakest book. To be fair: Galvin at his worst is better than most at their best, but As Is will stand in Galvin’s oeuvre as a document of transition between what he perfected in his early work—a brutally beautiful naturalism with remarkable metaphysicality—and a new, decidedly postmodern idiom that balances his faith in the image with a disarming tonal looseness marked by charming self-deprecation. In early Galvin: either everything matters or nothing matters. In the new Galvin: everything matters and nothing matters, and the causal relationship between these facts is perfectly circular.

The growing pains of As Is can be found in poems like “The Music” and “The Red Telephone,” where Galvin’s courageous departure from the natural world is awkwardly met with a kind of un-tethered wit. What is clever in a poem must be rooted in something outside its own self-satisfaction. And Galvin’s cleverness, though clear, seemed forced: like he was trying to squeeze into hand-me-down shoes. This was troubling to see in a world-class dancer.

But whatever aesthetic hiccups were introduced in As Is have paid off handsomely in Galvin’s new collection, which is, remarkably and decidedly, his best. Everything We Always Knew Was True is a miraculous, self-performed open-heart surgery in which everything we always loved about James Galvin is exposed and made new by self-deprecating charm and dead black humor. Never has an American poet so seamlessly fused the superficially opposite impulses of the deep image and the talky self-awareness of a particular strain of the Western avant-garde. We certainly see the fingerprints of Robert Frost and W.S. Merwin, but not without the whimsy of Apollinaire and John Ashbery.

The few critics who have written on Galvin can only think of one thing to say: that he has a firm grasp on the American West. He certainly does: he is the single greatest writer about horses in American literature. But what makes Galvin great is the subterranean intensity beneath the scenes he paints. Consider the following poem from the new book, included here in its entirety:

A Ceremony

My father coughed up a few bats
And that was that.
With a smithy’s hammer,
I broke and flattened his gold heraldic ring.
“Hit it again,” my sister said,
And I did.
There were three of us.
We stashed the ashes with the ring
In a cairn of black rocks.
My niece piped up,
“Isn’t anybody going to say something?”
I looked at my sister,
Who shook her head.
“Nope,” I said,
And the three of us walked away. (65)

Galvin’s signature here is not the hammer or the “cairn of black rocks,” but rather the blunt force of the final five lines, when the human milieu is laid bare in an exposure equal parts revealing and concealed. The genius of the poem lies in what its silence says and the cleanliness of its annunciation.

Or consider the following pair of ekphrastic poems, a genre Galvin has certainly mastered. The first reads in Galvin’s oldest style: tonally demotic; image-driven; remarkably restrained.

I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them

To come home. You have to tell the truth. (“Five Paintings by Clara Van Waning,” 22)

Much of the poem would fit nicely into Galvin’s first four books, but the explosive presence of “I’m not telling,” is something Galvin had to earn post-Resurrection Update. It takes an otherwise lovely poem and sets it ablaze with the complicated strike of a withholding, self-aware speaker, which then flickers against the surface of the haunted, “You have to tell the truth,” which, when it lands, feels inevitable.

One of the collection’s most dynamic poems, “The Newlywed Acrobats,” written after Marc Chagall, manages to capture an astounding amount of Chagall’s romantic abandon and dreamy hover.

He sports gold-sequined tights and
The bride is decked out in a gold bikini.
Her breasts are
two miracles.
Her smile is, well, blinding.

On the steps,
an avalanche of confetti.
Clowns are shot from cannons to the
right and to the left.

They spring each other higher and
higher and scarily higher until he vaults into a fourth-floor window
and she follows like a comet’s tail.

They look deeply into each other’s eyes, his bleary, hers
fierce with determination.
She says, “You’re not gonna believe this
part.” (13-4)

The weightlessness here is astounding for its palpable joy. In it we find an exuberance missing almost entirely from Galvin’s early work, and here, combined with his singular grip on the image, we are taken into a slipstream of what feels like true love.

When considering twentieth-century comparisons, one must mention Frost, Merwin, James Wright, Robert Bly, and Charles Wright (as well as the “Iowa Poets” mentioned above). What none of these masters was able to do, however, was to successfully and truly transform, over time, their aesthetic. Galvin has done that. The exception may be James Wright, whose early formalism is nothing to sneeze at, but whose later deep imagism transformed a generation.

The closest comparison, I would argue, is James Merrill: perhaps the twentieth-century’s single greatest poet. Like Galvin, Merrill is inexplicably underappreciated, and he is very highly appreciated. Like Merrill, Galvin combines a deceptively smooth formalism with a postmodern playfulness that refuses to take itself too seriously, which is, of course, perfectly serious. Like Merrill, Galvin exudes a hopelessly charming, dead-serious romantic streak, a brutal self-awareness, and a potent metaphysics in which the visible and invisible exert upon each other enormous counter-pressure.

The critics who are content to call Galvin a “nature poet” fail to grasp how utterly metaphysical his nature is. Galvin’s natural world is not unlike Melville’s white whale: elusive; beautiful; deadly; metonymic. It is the closest thing to the divine that its author can hope to approach, and even trying to see it involves significant risk.

One of the collection’s highlights, and one of its most contemporary features, is a nonconsecutive series of short poems titled, “What It’s Like,” which refuse to identify the “it” of the simile, leaving it appropriately open for nothing less than just about anything. The following are presented in their entirety:

What It’s Like

Horseback in an old burn.
Deadfall everywhere.
No way forward.
No way to turn around. (25)

What It’s Like

A freight elevator in free fall.
A grand piano in it. (37)

The series is reminiscent of the opening sequence of Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press 2011). The openness is haunting; the vision unflinching.


It is a rare enough thing for a poet to write a breathtaking body of work. James Galvin had accomplished this by the mid-nineties, and were he a lesser artist, he’d have continued to write in that style forever. Of the poets who manage to cultivate a discernible voice, the ones who try to modify it often do so awkwardly and, too often, into courageous disaster. When considering Galvin’s oeuvre, there is a distinct new frequency that enters with X and then wobbles uncomfortably through As Is. The new voice, though, has blossomed fully in Everything We Always Knew Was True, which marks Galvin’s greatest collection to date and may one day stand as the defining book of his career. More importantly, it demonstrates that sometimes—although rarely, and never without struggle—a great poet can somehow become even greater.

Anand Prahlad – As Good As Mango

Stephen F. Austin University Press 2012

Page Length: 90

Retail: $15.95

Much of contemporary American poetry centers on expressions of “identity politics.” This mode of poetics, which has taken many diverse and brilliant forms, is most commonly articulated in assertions of identity: celebrations of self in its various guises against the dominant hegemony of the culture of the oppressor.

In Anand Prahlad’s brilliant collection, As Good As Mango, we encounter a poet who, while participating in the liberation from oppressive cultural forces so central to the poetics of identity, accomplishes this individuation by subverting the common relationship between poet and text. Prahlad is a poet less interested in expressing “self” than allowing self to be expressed by the very world in which the poet finds himself. His is a poetics of quasi-passive divination wherein the poet becomes the vehicle for larger aesthetic forces: voices, textures, and spirits that transcend the individual self of fixed human identity. The result is an incredible achievement: an articulation of radical liberation that doesn’t seek to merely assert self via poetry, but a world-driven poetics that gives itself fully to its vision and thereby transcends the limits of ego that so often encage the poetry of identity.

“I remembered scarlet

breaths like wind

through Japanese maples.

The giant windows

that never closed flush.

Hardwood squeaking and

an old, steam heater

clicking like a clock.


I remembered my father.

I would see him whenever

I went home, although,

he would hardly speak.

I hadn’t started seeing

his ghost yet blossoming

around my face.” (“Ghosts”)

“Ghosts” is one of the few poems in As Good As Mango that positions itself in the first person. As a matter of fact: it is one of the few poems in the collection to even use the first person “I,” which is virtually unheard of in contemporary poetry. And yet: the “I” we find is one whose very articulation is composed of memories of objects; a poetic self that is itself a kind of ghost: a spirit hovering over a series of memories—through which those memories pass and thereby assert something loosely resembling a self. The father, here, is a “blossom” that inhabits the speaker—a means by which the speaker can learn to see.

What is implicit throughout the poem is made explicit in its final three lines: “I could remember me / remembering things / without writing a poem.” In this gorgeous summation, the speaker asserts the poem as a means of self-identity—a vehicle through which the self can come to be. Memory, here, is less an assertion than an accumulation, and the self engendered by it is a coalescence of sensory experience.

Prahlad’s work is firmly rooted in an Afro-Caribbean animism that finds in the world of objects the primacy of the sacred. This is made explicit in the collection’s second half, titled, “Hoodoo,” after the West African syncretic religion of the same name. In the poem titled, “Hoodoo,” we get something of a credo. The poem begins:

“Knowing how silly it is,

still I chase the wind blown hair.

I run it down for blocks,

weaving through briefs and suits.

My heart fills like a rain bucket

with stories from the old people.” (“Hoodoo”)

Here the speaker begins with a self-deprecating concession, “Knowing how silly it is,” which is then followed by a series of declarations that manage to overcome the professed silliness. This ambivalence is markedly postmodern: even as the speaker remains suspicious of the religious system and its non-rational methods, he cannot help but “run it down for blocks.” There is something undeniable about the way his heart is filled with the tradition’s power, passed to him through “stories from the old people.” The poem ends with a powerful set of couplets, which finally overcome the initially “silly” talismans that make both the poem and its speaker:

“I chase it like I’d chase a black cat,

desperate for the bones.

This is who we are. This is everything.

Never being held by strange fingers.”

Prahlad’s poetics can be understood in the tradition of the African Diaspora, but there is also something present that is undeniably Keatsian. In the letter in which Keats coins what becomes one of the defining terms in English Romanticism, he distinguishes his own aesthetic from that of Wordsworth’s “Egotistical Sublime.” Whereas Wordsworth’s poetics engender a speaker who is capable of sensing and being, “a thing per se [that] stands alone,” Keats self-identifies as a “camelion Poet” (sic). The latter, “is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing… he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” Insofar as the poetry of identity politics is an assertion of ego, it participates in the Wordsworthian lineage, but Prahlad’s approach is distinct in that the self found in his work is ever-shifting and perpetually in tune with the pulse of the things and beings which inhabit the poems.

The opening half of the collection is a long sequence composed, “In Movements and Incantations:” a series of poems or demi-poems that float in and out of particulars in a roving voice that seeks to animate its subject matter: persons and objects; spirits and histories that trace the contours of black experience in West Africa and then the American South. The sequence is at times solemn and mournful, as in “the lynching:”

“at first

he just shook.

and then

he stayed still.

at first

there was

so much pain that

no one there

and no one


would ever be

without it.

but then

he felt

the garden.” (“As Good As Mango”)

At other moments, though, the sequence is ecstatic and overwhelmed with beauty:

“when the black


spreads out

among lotuses

and lilies,

when the woman

in the moon


wearing sapphire

and animal tusks

with rivers and stars

gushing from

her navel,

and ginger and pepper

is burning you

and greens is rocking

you on the atlantic

you can swallow

rose and petunia


the flesh

of tulip bulb

like peaches

with salt, or a jar

of lilacs, opened

while a pine

wind blows

through windows.” (“As Good As Mango”)

Prahlad’s poetry is willfully haunted by the spirits that animate the very world in which the poet walks and sings. As Good As Mango is a shamanic celebration of the vital life force of the poem, and its articulations are devastatingly beautiful and wildly original. This collection transcends the lesser aims of identity politics insofar as it is not interested in a self, but in a transcendence of self—a coalescence of spirit that mends the very fractures that separate the poet from that in which he lives and moves and has being.

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16



The winner writes history; the loser writes poetry. Not that Solmaz Sharif’s debut from Graywolf Press, Look (2016) is anything short of extraordinary. It’s just that the cliché about the “winner” is too true for Sharif to resist subverting in her urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic invective against the Nation State in general, and the contemporary American Nation State in particular.


It is hardly new for poets to use poetry as a means of political resistance, but rarely have we seen the politics of language play such a prominent role in the resistance. Sharif uses a variety of avant-garde forms to put enormous pressure on language itself so as to exploit its materiality, and therefore its malleability—a process of weaponization that can be used to liberate as well as oppress. Given the enormous oppression brought forth by the militarization of language, which is itself a kind of violent occupation, Sharif seeks to re-contextualize weaponized words in a process that might exorcize the English language of its most demonic possessions.


Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.


These opening lines of the poem “Desired Appreciation” present the reader with a credo that posits the “learned helplessness” of nonviolent poetry as a means of complicity. The speaker gestures to the death of her own complicity in a brilliant image that serves opposite agendas: “Eventually, we things give up.” The “learned helplessness” of human complicity—of poetic complicity—is the resting state of one exposed to prolonged torture (here represented by the shocking of dogs). The American public—and by extension American poetry—has been psychologically tortured by prolonged exposure to “shocking” horrors, such that we must learn to normalize brutality and unspeakable violence not only in our lives but in the very language that is the substance of our thoughts. This acquiescence to horror is a “learned helplessness,” such that we must write about flowers and falling in love lest we lose ourselves in the grip of despair. Poets too are things, and, “Eventually, we things give up.” But even as Sharif offers a potent metaphor for the “learned helplessness” of American poetry, she, with the exact same metaphor, offers us a means of resistance: to “give up” docility is to be shocked too many times—to, in an act of poetic desperation, use the very means of torture to subvert the captivity.


This is precisely what Sharif accomplishes in Look, which offers contemporary American poets a look into what a revolutionary resistance to Imperial co-option might look like. The most pronounced example of this is the many poems in the collection that re-appropriate terms taken from the United States Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This practice participates in the tradition of the American avant-garde, beginning perhaps with Gertrude Stein and extending through the Objectivists and then later the LANGUAGE poets, which seeks to subvert the Imperial occupation of the English language by calling attention to language’s materiality. This is accomplished largely by the process of re-contextualization in which words’ meanings are determined not by some kind of intrinsic semantic cargo but rather by the larger context into which words, like objects, are placed and misplaced.


Sharif uses familiar, stabilizing poetic forms such as anaphora, the litany, and parallel syntax to place tremendous pressure on the diction culled from the DOD’s lexicon, words marked in the poems as foreign by their appearance in small caps: terms like INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC, HUNG WEAPON, PENETRATION AIDS, and SAFE HOUSE. In this typographical designation, Sharif mimics the problematic us/them tribalism inherent to all ethnic and political identities. This presentation of language inherently “other” calls attention to it—our awareness is heightened by its dual-citizenship, and we instinctively wonder whether its presence disrupts an otherwise “safe” poetic experience. In this way, we come to distrust the words, for we know that whatever sense in which they belong to the poem, they also serve another, more sinister master. In doing this, Sharif indicts the “learned helplessness” of benign, supposedly-non-political poetry by calling attention to its inattention: by interrupting poems that might otherwise be pleasant to our palate with targeted phrases like DESIRED PERCEPTION and THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY, Sharif brilliantly and subtly incriminates the reader for a habit of CIVIL CENSORSHIP. In so doing she implies that much of American poetry is little more than a LOW VISIBILITY OPERATION.


Sharif’s is the ground of BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION, whereby the poem seeks to redeem language itself for its complicity in human atrocity. Hers can be described as a guerilla poetics, whereby the overwhelming force and hubris of the occupying force is used against it, and this is made possible only by the native’s intimacy with the nuances of the terrain. Here the “native” is the poet and the terrain is our language—violently taken and brutalized by a Nation State to which it does not belong. Many twentieth-century guerillas believed that a true revolution could only take place when the occupied population became sickened at the abuses of its occupier. By forcing readers (and poets) to LOOK at what is being done in our “homeland,” Sharif accomplishes extraordinary work toward our necessary revulsion.


The bad news is that language, as an object, can be weaponized as a means of oppression and terror. Worse yet, unlike steel and plutonium, language is the substance of thought and identity: it is only through language that we can understand ourselves and the world in which we live. It is what we use to make sense of our lives: to justify the things we have done and want to do. When a Nation State occupies the language of its people, it creates an “us” by engendering a “them”—it necessarily splits the world into a quasi-tribal dichotomy. By doing so, the State unifies its populace by the perpetual generation of an enemy—a something against which we can be together. It is language alone that makes this possible.


However, the good news is that a word, unlike steel and plutonium, can never only be one thing. A word is unique among objects in that it always exists multiply: it may mean one thing, but it always necessarily also means something else. The alchemy of this transubstantiation resides in the power of context, and Sharif is an extraordinary wizard. The context of the DoD manual is war; the context of the poem is supposed to be peacetime. Of all the binaries Sharif seeks to dismantle in this collection: East/West; Islam/Christianity; Brown/White; Terrorist/Soldier; Enemy Combatant/Civilian; none more pervasively haunts the pages than the dissolved line between Wartime and Peacetime. This dissolution, only possible in an Empire, is the collateral damage of the weaponization of language. Sharif masterfully undermines and contradicts this violence by exposing the inherent multiplicity of words; which is to say, she rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its “learned helplessness.”





Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15


Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”


Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.


Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.


“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside


my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:


this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep


alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry


of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t


quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)


While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”


Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.


Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.


“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end


to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and


the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)


Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.


This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.


“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,


and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed


like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean


to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches


of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle


of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,


I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)


Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.



Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow – Whale in the Woods

Rescue Press 2012

Page Length: 73

Retail: $14


Blueberry Elizabeth’s Morningsnow’s debut collection, Whale in the Woods, is mythic and mammoth. Winner of the 2011 Black Box Poetry Prize from Rescue Press, Morningsnow gives us a vision that is obsessive, oddly spiritual, and urgently beautiful. The result is one of the freshest, most original spiritual voices in Contemporary American Poetry.


At the core of Morningsnow’s poetics is the fusion of the elemental and the spiritual. Many of these poems center on large, recurrent, elemental themes and symbols: the weather, the moon, stars, fields, bodies (human, aquatic, celestial), dust, mountains, and copious amounts of light. Atop these Morningsnow layers a spiritual valence that ambiguously and provocatively begs the question of how imbued these elements might be with spiritual forces: ghosts, god, breath, and death.


“Ghost trapped in a cloud:

it’s not my fault when a fish drowns
look at me lakestorming
I’m dissolving all the time

A cloud is a crowd, a crowd

My brains drip onto flowers, roofs, absences, whatever

Yet I’m not part of the external and its edges

I even help this lake

But the lake’s without humility

And forgets that there’s a middlest, finest hole

An internal to everything”

(“Ghosts Are Nature”)


The title of the poem makes a bold metaphysical claim: “Ghosts Are Nature.” If this collection’s sprawling metaphysics could be summarized by a single statement this would surely be it. It would follow naturally, then, that our experience of the natural world would be haunting—that beauty would be wound tightly with terror—that the known would merely float in the greater expanse of the ominous unknown.


Morningsnow’s poetic forms follow this animism: often presented in bursts of lyrical vapor, evanescent and inevitable, voices emerge from the previously inanimate. We find the landscape surrounding the human milieu to be fully alive and capable of speech, and the words being spoken are equal parts human and oddly-something-else.

The following is spoken by “The Lake,” a recurring character:


“Can I kill as well as die many times? Yes. Can I live as well as get born forever? Yes.


I am the bone that never stops softening. Yes. There are swellings and

balloonings inside me. Yes and I am chunked up with ice.


I’m the Lake and a poem.


My consciousness goes grey and I turn to sleep in my center for I am not sorry, as you are, that everything constantly changes.

Look how I am. I have drowned you with my swillings. Look how I carry you into silence. Do you feel that words are true. I am ragged, I am ragged. I am ragged.

Breath is the only thing that’s fair.”


(“Of Clearness and Birth”)


However clever many of Morningsnow’s poetic constructions can be, she is also, at times, stunningly forthright. In very basic terms she makes a very large claim: the poem is not human. While it is composed of language, the most human phenomenon in the universe, the poem is more a coalescence than a willed construction: it is a lake that collects its contents passively and then reflects to its reader what may be momentarily looked into before it changes irrevocably.


The resulting effect is a brilliant juxtaposition of clarity and obscurity: a voice that phases between registers, scenes, and characters, yet never hides behind those devices for fear of what they might reveal. Accordingly: this is a poetry of revelation and discovery, a kind of poetic animism that seeks to divine the sacred from within the world’s (and the mind’s) many strange forms. Its vision is offered with a ferocity that testifies to the unadulterated violence of beauty.


“Remember when I killed my own brother       turning him suddenly and stabbing

him …

then, chopping up his various parts and scattering them in the path of our father’s warriors?

how is it, we wonder, that people are bound to each other

remember when I was darkening and widening                like a river

tearing its throat out in the sea”




While some poets may opt for highly-sanitized creation-symbols such as the epiphanic sunrise or beatific copulation, the creative center of Morningsnow’s universe is thoroughly visceral: the image is of perpetual birth, and where there is birth there is afterbirth, not to mention the looming inevitability of death.


“And you are dead if you’re reading this because I have bursted on you and

killed you out of this and beyond dissolvings.

And because I have seen

trembling transparent eyes

rippling eyes

eyes of dying

there are pure psychic places

inside my self

inside my drain

inside my up and down

Because I have no such thing as desire or guilt

poems do not exist

they are merely:

discardings of skin (something you float in)


(“How the Lake Learned English”)


Morningsnow’s spiritual-poetic animism is preceded in the 20th-century Western canon primarily by poets influenced by the East: Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom refuse to distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly: the profane and the sacred.


However, Morningsnow’s approach to this dissolution (the central action of her poetics is captured by the verb “to dissolve”) is entirely different from these quasi-mystics. While the destination of her poetic orientation is similar, Morningsnow’s path couldn’t be more distinct. Indeed: her path is distinct because the starting point is her own. Whereas Snyder, Merwin, and Ginsberg bring to the poetic line the simulated weightlessness of meditation, Morningsnow is thoroughly Western in her rough pilgrimage through a world of terrible, dangerous beauty. Accordingly, an aesthetic kin can be found in the ragged Deep Imagism of Robert Bly and James Wright, not to mention the epistemically-obsessed naturalism of Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Forest Gander, and Susan Howe. Graham is, I think, a particularly interesting comparison, as Morningsnow, too, is concerned with the ever-shifting lines distinguishing the known from the unknown from the unknowable.


Whale in the Woods is equal parts shocking and lovely: its poetic machinations are diverse and unpredictable, and its dream is utterly unique. Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow presents us with a fiercely singular spiritual vision and a world entirely her own: dissolving; unstable; filled with bright and strange debris; uncompromising; necessary; fleetingly salvific.

Christopher Gilbert – Turning into Dwelling

Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series 2015

Page Length: 187

Retail: $16


“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”

This is the question Terrance Hayes asks at the beginning of and throughout his Introduction to Turning into Dwelling, the collection most recently published by Graywolf’s Poetry Re/View Series. It’s a simple question with a few answers. Most of the answers, though, only produce more and larger questions.

The question, of course, is really two questions. The first is relatively easy to answer: Christopher Gilbert was a poet born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, who then died in 2007 after a twenty-year battle with polycystic kidney disease. The only book he published during his lifetime was Across the Mutual Landscape, winner of the 1983 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. A student and then friend of Etheridge Knight, Gilbert was an active member of the American Poetry community through the late-70s and 80s, and received a number of distinctions for his work including an NEA Fellowship in 1986.

The second question, though, is probably impossible to answer. I only heard about him a couple months ago, and there’s a pretty good chance you’re hearing his name now for the first time. Why? Well, one answer to the question is that he only published one book during his lifetime. In the world of American Poetry, it is no small accomplishment to publish a book of poems, and this is especially true when that book wins a prestigious first book prize and attracts, over the years, a considerable following. Across the Mutual Landscape is as promising a debut as one could hope to find from an up-and-coming poet: a bit uneven, as first books are expected and allowed to be, but brilliant, fierce, extraordinarily intelligent, and, most importantly: wrought from an original voice packed with surprising turns of syntax, unexpected grammatical tinkering, and sharp diction stretched across the page in unique and strange constellations. Readers in the mid-80s would have been delighted with the collection and, I would imagine, anxiously anticipated Gilbert’s follow-up.

But this is where the story gets muddy, and the question of why we’d never heard of him until now becomes a bit sobering: for the remainder of his life (over twenty years) Gilbert never published another collection. Why not? Was Gilbert, like James Tate and Anthony Hecht, a bit overcome by the success of his first collection, which became something like a creative burden even as it initiated a rather promising professional trajectory? It seems plausible to me that if Christopher Gilbert had continued publishing books he would have been rendered ineligible for the extraordinary Graywolf Re/View Series that brings Turning into Dwelling back into the American Poetry mainstream.

The series, edited by Mark Doty, is four books into a noble and necessary mission to:

“Bring essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print. Each volume—chosen by series editor Mark Doty—is introduced by a poet who comes to the work with a passionate admiration. The Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series offers all-but-lost masterworks of recent American poetry to a new generation of readers.” (quoted from the Graywolf website)

Gilbert is hardly the only poet to have published a single, successful book of poems before receding into the backdrop of the poetry world. The Re/View Series is brilliantly conceived and urgently needed in an American Poetry landscape increasingly crowded by unknown up-and-comers. The multitude of voices we find in our current climate is not something to bemoan: far from it! Like other artistic forms adapting to the Internet age of inexpensive publication and decentralized avenues of promotion, American Poetry has never been more diverse in terms of whose voices get heard and how. Certainly this is something to celebrate. But it comes at a price: because the traditional “gate-keeper” roles have been radically undercut, we have more poets writing and publishing poems than ever before, which leaves the critic/reader with simply too many books to read with any reasonable degree of “authority” regarding what’s “out there.” Whether this was ever actually true or not, the perception is that, at one point in American literary history, a critic could cleanly distinguish the truly great from the rest, made possible only by that critic’s access to “the rest.” But today, “the rest” is astoundingly diverse and overwhelming in volume, and anyone who claims to have an adequate handle on the breadth of contemporary American poetry is frankly full of shit.

What makes the Graywolf Re/View Series so necessary is its response to this problem with an honest (if implied) admission: sometimes the great ones fall through the cracks. Though we tell ourselves that, with time, the cream rises to the top, the contemporary catalogue might suggest otherwise. Sometimes it takes tremendous effort to raise the cream to where it rightfully belongs: at the center of our attention.

Turning into Dwelling is an astounding book not just because of the story of its re-collection, but how it, page-by-page, sequences the DNA underlying the question of why we don’t yet know the name Christopher Gilbert. Turning into Dwelling is not one collection of poems, it is two: first, a re-issue of Across the Mutual Landscape; and then a previously unpublished manuscript compiled posthumously by Gilbert’s friends: Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell. While the poems cannot ultimately answer the biographical question regarding Gilbert’s relative obscurity, they do provide a fascinating look into the mind of a poet whose aesthetic very clearly evolved after his initial publishing success.

Masterfully edited by Quinn and Fell, the second manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There) is decidedly better than the first. To lean on a tired but too-perfect-to-pass-up metaphor: in the first book we see Gilbert mastering the scales of late-20th century lyric poetry; in the second, Gilbert deconstructs those scales like Charlie Parker, the result of which is a poetic texture modeled on bebop, in which the melody is often presented and then turned inside out acrobatically with odd connective tissue and explosive unpredictability.


“That that that all day the vulture overhead was

screeching at in long resignation like naming

something not happened but always here

down here where dusk has begun covering

everything is even more a mystery,

even more a place whose passages deepening

lead to a way beyond testament tonight,

tonight after all day talking those small talk

things till talk was just a loud grasping

without any reaching, till what came forth

was the risk when the tongue goes random and

finally resorts to regarding the world as ‘whatever.’” (Getting Over There)


For Gilbert, the “melody” is generally a presentation of self. While some may lump his poetry into the increasingly vague category of “identity politics,” Gilbert’s take on the question of identity is highly intellectually engaged, specifically with the question of linguistic identity. When Gilbert essentially left American Poetry during the nineties and 2000s, he worked as a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. This expertise is clearly present in Gilbert’s poems written during that time.


“Because it is the route that is the work

you could take the world itself to mean

yourself. Into these hills you’ve taken to

like the present, you could take place and be one

with the subject of your feeling arising

before you. The way the Queen’s lace sways

could be an indication of your breath

coming and going. As if an outline for time

itself, here I am stepping forth as an instance

walking the mountain road to the hilltop where

around the bend I’ll hear someone working

on the house the frame of whose part—the material

and the aesthetic and their perishing—linked

together will stand for history.” (Tourist)


Reading this poetry requires a diligent obedience to the unfolding syntax of complicated, systematic thought. It is highly, though not prohibitively, philosophical. The figures that arise from Gilbert’s late poems are neither neat syllogisms nor clean delineations of a unified self: they are self-interrogations, not merely of the author or the “speaker” of the poem, but of the very linguistic substance out of which selves are constructed. This linguistic self-consciousness is not only radiantly postmodern, but it fuses the language-as-object conviction of Objectivists like Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen with the communal, lyrical spirit of the black community first brought into the American mainstream by the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance and the countless schools and movements that have worked in their wake. It should come as no surprise, then, to find so much jazz in Gilbert’s line.

Music in this tradition is both a means of mourning and celebration; it unites individuals who have been outcast by society—people who are themselves a cluster of fragments. For Gilbert, music is the ultimate metaphor not only for the poetic project, but, perhaps more urgently: the human self, which is a cluster of chaoses out of which certain harmonies may arise. The song is self: an ephemeral container that can, through formal repetition and sheer emotive will, produce unity and transcendence. Perhaps the most uninhibited articulation of this music is the following, which concludes the second manuscript’s title poem, the scene of which is a hospital room after receiving a kidney transplant.


“The IV unit with my name and directions for my care

taped to the top will indicate I am. The ID bracelet

I’ve been wearing since I got here will say for me,

‘I am.’ The scar the surgeon left as a signature

on my belly’s right side will say, ‘I am.’ I am

I feel a gathering possibility passing from temporary

articulation to articulation the way the horizon

arises in the sun as a series of evident illuminations

while the earth spins clockwise toward futurity.

When the time comes I’ll rise and say, ‘I am.’

I’ll gather all my questions, step into their midst

and say, ‘I am.’ I am I am.” (Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation)


“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”


Christopher Gilbert is a breathtaking poet who, for reasons not entirely clear, most of us have never heard of. It seems that his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime, which is sad. Thank god for Terrance Hayes, Mark Doty, Graywolf Press, and the Re/View Series for bringing his work back into circulation. Thank god for Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, who recognized in Gilbert’s unpublished poems a singular poetics that lay obscurely dormant for far too long. In an increasingly crowded poetry world, it is tragically too common for a brilliant and original voice to go unheard. Thank god, in the case of Christopher Gilbert, at least, that voice is singing again.

Russell Dillon – Eternal Patrol

Forklift Books 2013

Page Length: 82

Retail: $15


There was something nearly traceable

within us, horse-like and holy.

Without this field, there would be

an unnamed vacancy between trees.

Here: A photograph where your face

is obscured by blurring snowflakes.

Gloam-lensed, a moment before

inviting me into your papier-mache home.

Maddening how, in this home, in this storm,

I fear most the lightning and not the rain,

the improbable over the certain. A sound

from the map room: mellifluous, stupid river.


“Each Combustible Fluid Ounce in its Divorcing” (12-3)


Russell Dillon’s debut collection from Forklift Books, Eternal Patrol, radiates bioluminescent longing and maniacal ache. Dillon’s poetry fuses the energy of ecstasy with the reflective intensity of a mind that catches itself thinking helplessly into an abyss of terrible beauty. It is poetry that proceeds from the force of its diction: image-driven and unencumbered—it roams the lyric landscape like a hand over goosebumped flesh—gently electric, felt and feeling, vulnerable and terrified to life by the force of contact.


The inaugural release from Forklift Books, an imprint of indie mainstay H_NGM_N Books and the perfect-bound extension of contemporary American poetry’s OG of DIY, Forklift, Ohio, Dillon’s book sets the tone for a press that straddles the fuck you aesthetic of punk culture and the bleeding heart, rose-ravaged hands of the Romantic literary tradition. Certainly present in Dillon’s work is the unmistakable legacy of Dada, Surrealism, the Beats, and, most prominently, the “Last Avant-Garde” of the New York School of poets: Rimbaud, Tzara, Breton, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and John Ashbery. Dillon’s poems often speak plainly and powerfully, imbued with energy derived from bright, sprawling diction.


Let’s get something straight: the quivering bolts

of your empire portray a certain innocence

but are not nearly a match for the fits of your sky.

Yes, the four doors of the heart fly open, slam shut,

though the motion’s symbiosis is never quite explained.


“More Mid- than -Western” (25)


And yet Dillon’s participation in this lineage highlights a distinct strain of avant-gardism: the reflective vulnerability of Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, Frank O’Hara and, perhaps the closest kin to Dillon among these greats: James Schuyler, whose meditations often defy the stereotypical chattiness of the New York School, which Ashbery once cleverly conceded as superficial, “all the way down.” There is very little of the superficial in Dillon’s poetry: it radiates from the core of things out into the plains of observation.


The air, and its oceans, they want to break into you.

I’m bringing this, and my ignorant translation of light.

It is Christmas morning. Your mother is crying,


and so are you, both trapped or dead beneath this ice,

within these pressures, these peekings, these tiny bits of glass.


“Eternal Patrol” (63)


Dillon’s poetry is a fever dream from which he refuses to wake, except to pull the reader into his warmed blanket fort filled with wonderfully grave play. In this regard, he is yet another bright-burning acolyte of Dean Young, his generation’s single most influential poet. But while some Young-ites err into the only-momentarily-interesting crack and sizzle of dizzying association, Dillon, like Young himself, divines within chaos the drone of mortality.


A horse throws its show, and all over is the sky.

I have been given a lot of drugs lately, but have taken very few.

I never feel the weight that I am when reading it from a scale,

but oftentimes the weight that I feel goes unmeasured.

Seeds, water, and good soil, yet still the earth does not roar

when we slam into it with our shovels. Rather, it resists us by

not turning. On one side of the bridge there is a suicide view,

on the other an out-to-sea-ness that is attacked by larger boats.

These tasks, and everything about finance, are quite foreign to me,

but when the fires start, I understand completely.


“Damage Damage” (64)


Dillon moves with his feet to the earth, even as he wanders it restlessly with his head stowed in innumerable clouds. This ambulatory, meditative intensity largely eludes the tradition of the avant-garde and finds its source instead in the great English Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and John Clare. Like these poets, Dillon relies on pastoral imagery and the refuge of Nature as a place of both chaos and order. More contemporary examples of this, and more proximate to Dillon’s own poems, are James Wright, Gary Snyder, James Galvin, Robert Hass, and Louise Gluck. What unites these poets is the conviction that the real is really real and that poetry can make it so. The result is a brutally elegant navigation of high-stakes beauty, a notion perfectly captured by this collection’s title. When a submarine goes missing, it is said to be on “eternal patrol”—the image conjured is a vessel roaming beneath the surface of the sea in perpetual investigation of the unknown depths from which the living can never return. Dillon’s collection is such a vessel: as unexpected and awesome as a creature that has evolved to see in perfect darkness.

And then there was our great envy of the painters,

how it all became an agreement with our sisters,

that light alone would reveal their breasts

to be our mothers’ breasts, like a map into

the backstreets of a small town burning.

There are terrible places in this world, but

people know our names there, so we return.


“Collect Call from the Hague” (29)


Russell Dillon’s Eternal Patrol feels its way through the dark: reaching for anything that might offer orientation. What makes this wandering artful and potentially salvific is that Dillon’s hands can see what they feel, and that the mind to which they’re attached has the words to make real for us their feeling.