Native Guard

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey514ukx2mkzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2006
pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-618-60463-0

In this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Trethewey presented powerfully structured poems, which contained immediate imagery and explored personal and potent themes. For those who like poetry, this is a wonderful and effective collection.

The first thing I noticed about the poems was how suited they were for being read out loud. Trethewey’s use of rhythm and the sounds of the consonants and vowels in her words was impressive. Here was an example, which I would encourage you to read out loud:

                             She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

In these poems, Trethewey examined issues of race, loss, identity, motherhood, home, and memory, all in a cohesive and energetic way. Here she explored loss and mourning, in a poem titled “After Your Death”:

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves.

Here was another example, focusing on race and history, written from the perspective of a former slave who has joined the Union Army in the Civil War:

                                                     I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

Additionally, Trethewey used the strictures of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, and repetition, in a careful, studied way. Her use of repetition was always especially effective. The rules that Trethewey adhered to allowed her to craft compelling and unpredictable poems. Here was an example of this from the poem titled “Incident”:

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

Generally, all the poems were engaging, but there were a few slow or dull ones in the second half of the book. If you enjoy poetry, I would absolutely recommend this.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of Native Guard:

Savvy Verse and Wit blog
Nothing More Wonderful blog

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

War All the Time: Poems 1981-1984

War All the Time: Poems 1981-1984 by Charles Bukowski

publication date: 1984
pages: 280
ISBN: 0-87685-638-5

My interest in Charles Bukowski was piqued last year when he was mentioned several times in the movie Beautiful Creatures. That interest solidified when I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls last month and Bukowsi was discussed by three lovably precocious teenagers. Anything on Gilmore Girls is gospel for me, but the discussion included this especially winning dialogue:

Lovably Precocious Female: Typical guy response. Worship Kerouac and Bukowski, god forbid you pick up anything by Jane Austen.

Lovably Precocious Male: Hey, I’ve read Jane Austen. And I think she would have liked Bukowski.

Well, suffice it to say I went to the library the very next day and picked out the Bukowski book with the best-looking cover. After reading my inaugural Bukowski, I have to say I agree more with Lovably Precocious Female than Lovably Precocious Male. Not to say that guys only read Bukowski, but I don’t know that Austen would have liked him. This collection contained none of her subtlety and wit, and wasn’t so much satire but a diatribe.

The poems centered around an uber-Bukowski narrator, known as Hank Chinaski, as he drank, gambled, and screwed his way through life. During his escapades, he managed to write poems about humanity, most of which were negative. His negative observations were sometimes contradictory and often repetitious. As an example of how repetitious this work was, I will confidently open the book to a random page, and am certain it will contain some dig at the amorphous “them” who just aren’t clever enough, or high enough, or exciting enough, for Chinaski. I am not disappointed:

they are at the track every / Saturday afternoon: two / immensely fat men / a fat woman / and the fat woman’s son / (who is also getting obese / and is the son of one of / the men). / they sit together / eat hotdogs / drink beer / and scream together / during the race / and after the / race. / no matter / who wins / they scream. / between races they / argue while consuming / hotdogs and beer.

Bukowski’s poems were not always blatantly negative; they sometimes contained hope, and even joy. Here are the ending lines of a poem written as the narrator watched young ice skaters:

I stand up, wave, smile, / things seem very happy / as down below us they whirl and / glide. / some moments are nice, some are / nicer, some are even worth / writing / about.

Bukowski also had moments of insight and clarity, which to me is one of the advantages of poetry. Sometimes feelings or sentiments simply can’t be conveyed linearly or directly, but can be conveyed through poem. For example, this stanza, where Bukowski’s pacing and rhythm created a mood and idea:

well, I think the idea of the track or the / roulette wheel or whatever else is around is / so that we don’t have to sit around all day / thinking, I am a writer.

I found Bukowski’s poems generally repetitive and uninspired, although there were moments of wit or courage. If you want to read more about Bukowski’s writing or his life, read this wonderful and perceptive New Yorker piece about the poet.

3/6: more good than bad

I couldn’t find any online reviews of this book, beyond Amazon and goodreads.

I Remember

Hi. I’m sorry I haven’t posted for a while. I was moving, traveling, and generally shifting my life for a month and didn’t have Internet for most of that time. Starting now, I should be back on track!

I Remember by Joe Brainard

publication date: 1975
pages: 144
ISBN: 014024521

In this slim book, Joe Brainard blurs the lines between poetry and memoir. I Remember is composed of disparate statements all starting with the phrase “I remember . . .” These rememberings encompass all of Brainard’s life up to that point, from his young childhood in the 1940s and 50s to living on the East Coast in his thirties. Brainard uses this format to connect with the reader by revealing universal, yet individual, truths.

Some of the passages were very effective. Here are a few:

I remember rubbing my hand under a restaurant table top and feeling all the gum.

I remember when a Negro man asked me to paint a big Christmas picture to hang in his picture window at Christmas and I painted a white madonna and child.

I remember a little boy down the street. Sometimes I would hide one of his toys inside my underwear and make him reach for it.

I remember taking an I.Q. Test and coming out below average. (I’ve never told anybody that before)

I remember those times of not knowing if you feel really happy or really sad. (Wet eyes and a high heart)

He also included several passages about his sexual past and present, including late night fumblings with young women and men. These passages imbued the book with an aura of vulnerability.

Overall, however, I found the book to be dull. There’s only so many times I can read about something banal but universal, like cinnamon toothpicks or movie theaters. It’s possible the book would have been more satisfying if I read it randomly and in short bursts, instead of reading it all the way through like I did. Also, for how relatable the book could be, I didn’t think it was very insightful. Maybe it was because some of Brainard’s statements were just so ordinary that they couldn’t be extrapolated to other lives or experiences. I’m not quite sure.

This book wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some special interest in it. Like if you are a poetry buff or are going through some of the experiences Brainard did, such as coming out.

3/6: more good than bad

Some other reviews of this book:

she is too fond of books
The Guardian

You Remind Me of You

You Remind Me of You by Eireann Corrigan

publication date: 2002
pages: 123
ISBN: 0-439-29771-0

This slim book of poems exemplified what makes a good memoir. It was engaging, individual, intensely personal, and somehow completely universal.

In You Remind Me of You, Corrigan described her battle with anorexia in high school, including her boyfriend’s subsequent suicide attempt. Obviously, the material was very personal and intimate. The language Corrigan used further intensified that intimacy. For example, in the first poem, on the very first page, Corrigan described her initial visit to the hospital after her boyfriend’s suicide attempt:

Right now, I weigh eighty-four pounds. My skin is yellowing
again and each morning my hair fills the shower’s drain. Later,
I will look back and wonder who let me in that room, but at this minute
I’m remembering our first date, how you told me you couldn’t imagine
marrying anyone who wasn’t Jewish and I told you, just as earnestly,
as gently, that I couldn’t imagine getting through high school
without killing myself.

Clearly the above passage is emotionally charged; and each of the dozens of poems contained the same sort of emotional impact. However, the poems also managed to relate Corrigan’s narrative to universal experiences. When Corrigan described her first date with Daniel, her boyfriend, she included these lines:

And when I went upstairs to use the bathroom,
I came back to find both lamps turned off and thought this
is going to be the night I lay back and a boy unbuttons my shirt,
the night someone else besides my older sister helps me
unclasp my bra. By tomorrow morning, I’ll know how hard it is
to breathe with the weight of a whole person balanced on my chest.
But none of those things happened.

The above lines might seem relevant only to a teenage girl. And I do sometimes have problems relating to young women in literature (as with Why We Broke Up)because what they are experiencing is so far removed from my current life. But that was not the case here. You Remind Me of You was written years after Corrigan graduated from high school, and this lent the poems perspective and self-awareness. A great example is the passage in which Corrigan tells Daniel she is not well and is leaving for the hospital:

Right now,
I sit in the swivel chair, watching
you summon my parents and
I’m thinking about how grown up
and wise you are, how much older
than me you are. You are six
months older. You’re not even
old enough to drive.

In You Remind Me of You, Corrigan has crafted a beautiful and touching set of poems that does not romanticize young love, anorexia, or suicide. On the other hand, the book does not preach to its readers about those things either. Instead, Corrigan simply lays bare her past and, in the process, lays bare something in the reader, too.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews of this poetry:

Publishers Weekly