I've got 3 reviews today, mostly because I read a lot and slacked when it came to review writing. Three very different poetry chapbooks by three awesome lady writers.
Instructions from the Narwhal by Allison Titus (Bateau Press, 2007) I picked this chapbook up at Bateau Press’ table at the AWP this past year. I love the journal Bateau (it is one of the very few journals to which I always am sure to subscribe) and wanted to check out their chapbooks, all of which are selected through their annual Boom Chapbook Contest, which, I found out upon looking at their website for this review, is open right now. I believe it was Ashley Schaffer, the managing editor of Bateau, who directed me toward Instructions from the Narwhal, and for that I am in her debt. As you may or may not be aware I read these chapbooks aloud to myself while working out on my elliptical machine. I read through the entire chapbook in order (if I find myself unable to get through a poem or two I usually drop the chapbook and start on a new one) and I try not to go back and reread anything until I’ve read the whole chapbook once. Often I will reread poems silently later, but I try to base these reviews on the impression I get from these books from one straight through out loud read. This was extremely difficult with Instructions from the Narwhal, in part because the poems are complex and more interconnected and multi-layered than I think I’ve perhaps even realized yet, but mostly because they were just so goddamn good and I wanted to reread every single one as soon as I’d finished it.
The chapbook is broken up into two sections. The first is made up entirely of a series of poems with the overarching title of Instructions from the Narwhal, with subtitles for each piece. Now, in addition to being poems addressed to the audience from a pretty badass looking animal, this series of poems was absolutely lovely in that it seemed to mix magic and science, myth and history, man and nature, seamlessly and beautifully in its puzzle-like instructions. Narwhals live in cold northern waters, and a sense of the silence of ice and snow permeated this entire chapbook. Even the feelings of the words on my tongue seemed round and soft. Though there may have been a chilly melancholy to the poems, they were far from cold, and while the thread of each poem may have doubled back over on itself, twisted around, and run me through complicated sailor's knots, each poem seemed to be less a tangle, and more a complex and powerful spell. The second half of the chapbook shifted from the voice of the narwhal to the voices of men and women, but still with the chill of cold water and the silence of snow in them. In fact, it was not until the final poem in the chapbook that I felt sharp sound in the poems, like the snap after hypnotism. I don't know if I am doing a particularly good job of describing this, but I did feel as though I was discovering some soft mystery throughout Instructions from the Narwhal, and I can't wait to reread it and hopefully experience that sensation all over again. This chapbook is neck and neck with Soft Foam for my favorite read of 2010.
Angel Face Trailer by Juliet Cook w/translations into Italian by Letizia Merello (Blood Pudding Press, 2010) I've reviewed Juliet's work before, and if you've read those reviews it should come as no surprise that I greatly enjoyed Angel Face Trailer. The poems in Angel Face Trailer start out reading as a call for women to participate in the filming of what is to be a strangely sexual and exploitative film. With the eye for gross-beautiful imagery that I so appreciate in Cook's work, she describes women desired and devoured in this slim chapbook. In addition to some pretty awesome poetry, what's interesting and different about this chapbook is that Juliet's work has been translated into Italian by Letizia Merello. Now, being unable to read Italian I cannot comment on Merello's translations, but in spite of my only speaking and writing in English, I do firmly believe that poets should translate more work and read more poetry in translation. I also understand how difficult and time-consuming it is to translate poetry having worked on the translation of some Buddhist texts a couple of years ago. But whether you read Italian or not, Juliet Cook's Angel Face Trailer is definitely worth picking up - and, per Blood Pudding Press usual, it's a lovely art piece to boot.
Virginia is for Lovers by Karen Lillis (Words Like Kudzu, 2007) Virginia is for Lovers is not a collection of poems about a beloved so much as a chronicling of the beloved's absence. It is clear, in reading this collection, that Lillis is both a skilled poet and fiction writer. The poems are written in a narrative style and set up in such a way as to tell the story of a young woman, the man she falls in love with, his sudden departure, and, perhaps most prominently, her despondence at the void he has left in her life. One thing I noticed while reading this chapbook is that Lillis really has a way with endings. She knows precisely both when and how to end a poem, and I never felt like she rushed an end or tacked anything on unnecessarily. Lillis' main character falls passionately in love with a man who hops a train, and she spends the remainder of the collection trying to come to terms with what he has done - the why, the wherefore, and even the how. Each poem following his departure chronicles a way in which she experiences aloneness, though not necessarily loneliness. While a part of me wanted to see the collection end with the main character definitively "getting over" the man who abandons her, it is perhaps more honest what Lillis does - show how often, there is not a point where we turn a sharply defined corner but rather a slow process of the edges of things getting worn smooth.
Both Lillis' Virginia is for Lovers and Titus' Instructions from the Narwhal are sadly not available online at this time, and it doesn't seem that Titus' collection will be available again any time soon, which is truly a tragedy. Lillis, however, is in the process of putting together an Etsy shop for Words Like Kudzu, which I linked to the in the review, so Virginia is for Lovers might show up there!
In other news, after a bit of a dry spell I've had three poems accepted for publication in the past week! Hooray! Two will appear in New South, and the third in Barge Journal. I'm excited!