Cameron Barnett & Maggie Smith: Two Reviews in Brief
Serving as reviews editor for Plume for the past two years has been a singular honor in my writing life. Long suspicious of reviews that stray into personal essay or academic treatise, I sought to embody a journalistic clarity, pace, and timeliness during my tenure as resident critic, while still acknowledging the serious questions of poetic craft and the limits of my own subjectivity. Though our wider culture is awash with incivility, ignorance, and intolerance, the poetry of America remains as inviting, vibrant, and diverse as her people. I hope the 38 titles I’ve reviewed over the course of 24 consecutive issues reflect that bountiful vitality.
Tim Seibles: One Turn Around the Sun
Halfway through his epic eleven-page sequence “Mosaic,” Tim Seibles echoes the closing of Robert Hayden’s oft-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays,” writing, “what did I know?” after recounting a terse childhood exchange where his father slapped him for “handing him/the scissors/wrong.” Given that so much of One Turn Around the Sun reads as an elegiac memoir-in-verse honoring Seibles’ aging parents, who endured the midcentury Civil Rights struggle with stoic resolve while cocooning their son in love, it is a jarring moment that nonetheless humanizes a father whose life demanded so much silence and sacrifice.
Nancy Chen Long: Light Into Bodies
In “Lapidary,” arguably her most commanding poem, Nancy Chen Long constructs a lush and brooding narrative about a rock collector who spots a flaw in her home’s masonry, leading the character to ponder the impermanence of her craft and her own transience “pocked with holes.” As with Frost’s “Directive” or “Birches,” though, the savvy reader marvels at the poem’s lyrical authority as well as its allegorical intricacy.
William Brewer: I Know Your Mind
According to a recent New York Times article, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Perhaps no region has been as decimated as Appalachia, where a handful of states account for one-fifth of all overdose deaths in the U.S. William Brewer’s first book, selected by Ada Limón for the National Poetry Series, casts its aching, hallucinatory poems against this backdrop of addiction and hopelessness in the poet’s native West Virginia—particularly the town of Oceana, which has earned the sinister nickname Oxyana.
Mark Cox: Sorrow Bread: Poems 1984-2915 & Bill Knott: I am Flying Into Myself
n the final stanza of “Joyland,” a poem teeming with amusement park ephemera, Mark Cox’s playful account of a mini-golf outing unexpectedly morphs into an ars poetica: “Let the warning lights of the water tower/blink off and on all night, let the planes traverse the sky,/there are these holes you have dug for yourselves,/this emptiness that need be aimed at, filled.” Wistful yet resolved, these lines are fittingly emblematic of Sorrow Bread, which culls the best work from Cox’s four earlier collections and also includes two dozen new poems since the publication of his previous book, Natural Causes, in 2004.
Patricia Smith: Incendiary Art
It seems fitting, if lamentable, that the poetry community must celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks’s centenary during the ever-mounting tensions of Trumpism, police brutality, and social injustice. Written in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, “Riot” is one of Brooks’s most dense and electrifying poems, and as such, David Baker notes in a recent essay, it isn’t likely to find a cozy place beside “those anthologizable, more easily teachable poems.”
Robert Gibb: After
In “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones,” one of his last great poems, the oft-neglected master Robinson Jeffers shows an uncharacteristic vulnerability. Reeling from the death of his beloved wife and muse Una, Jeffers yearns for the “dense green laurel” and “sweet wind” that make a sanctuary for deer where their hunting wounds slowly claim them. Lyrical and intimate, Jeffers’s engagement with nature’s ancient pulse—its amorality, its indifference to human suffering, its sublime beauty and ability to comfort—render the poem haunting yet tender.
In Brief: Tommye Blount, Jennifer Ghivan, Saarah Pape, Shelly Wong
With the sensuality of Carl Philips and the edginess of Wanda Coleman, Tommye Blount’s debut chapbook What Are We Not For searches for the self by interrogating the male body as a liminal site for desire and violence. Questions of race and queer love dominate Blount’s best poems, ranging from the anxious tenderness of “But the Weather, the Weather,” which depicts two new lovers chitchatting in a hotel room, to the hallucinatory “Of a Wicked Boy,” which reimagines a sexually awakened Pinocchio being stripped and violated by a mob of adolescents.
Janice N. Harrington: Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippen
Two epigraphs from the esteemed Cornel West introduce the seventh section of Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin, and the latter seems particularly resonant for its melancholy poignancy. “Can the reception of the work of a black artist,” West asks, “transcend mere documentary, social pleading or exotic appeal?” Poet Janice N. Harrington’s third poetry collection traces the arc of this very question in its examination of Horace H. Pippin, a World War I hero and intuitive artist who began painting in middle-age to express his lifelong creative yearning, cope with the trauma of battle, and celebrate the richness of African-American culture.
Review: Frannie Lindsay
In his exquisite, jazzy homage to Frederick Douglass, Robert Hayden resists the elegy’s gravitational pull toward mere grief or mere celebration. Instead, his closing lines affirm that Douglass’s crusade lives on when future generations strive to flesh “his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Though poet Frannie Lindsay has a far different voice from Hayden’s, she nonetheless shares his exploration of the elegy as a capacious form where readers discover a spiritual call to endure even as we mourn.
Anna Świrszczyńska: Building The Barricade
The narratives of horror and depravity that emerged from World War II remain impossible to tally, defying hyperbole even seven decades later. While most American readers are familiar with the Normandy invasion and siege of Stalingrad, few may know the tale of the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for sixty-three days when the Polish resistance Home Army, outmanned and outgunned, repelled German forces and waited desperately for Russian reinforcements that never came. The outcome was appalling: a quarter-million Polish casualties, the shame of surrender, and the near-destruction of a robust and cultured city.
Katharine Rauk: Buried Choirs
The work of Marianne Moore, arguably our quirkiest American modernist, has recently enjoyed an overdue revival. Perhaps in our precipitous moment of technological obsession and ecological ruin, Moore’s poems affirm curiosity, morality, and respect for the natural world as bedrock values in our literature and our democracy. In “Avec Ardeur,” Moore cheekily lectures Ezra Pound, ending with a curt final couplet: “Nothing mundane is divine;/Nothing divine is mundane.”