Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fort Gorgeous by Angela Vogel

The National Poetry Review Press, 2011. You'll find my favorite poetry books anywhere but in my hand. Why, you ask? Because my favorite poetry books make me want to write a poem, and when that desire strikes, darn it, you have no choice but to act. Every time I've picked up Fort Gorgeous by Angela Vogel--whether settling in to read it cover to cover, or taking a quick peek at a random poem when I'm supposed to be cutting cauliflower--I have been sent to that place. Yes, that place. The one where poems come from, the elusive state we try to evoke at 10:00 pm when the house is finally silent. Thank you, Fort Gorgeous, for putting a spell on me.

What I admire about Angela Vogel's poems is the way that they welcome me as a reader, with a refreshingly frank diction, and images that make me remember why I love images so much. The poems of Fort Gorgeous are replete with flora and fauna, but not in a decorative sense. Instead, the gardens and forests of this book are active champions of their own destinies, perhaps even a bit predatory. Vogel's sense of humor emboldens these poems (I mean, look at the titles! "We'll Go for the Juggler," or "GPS: A Fairytale"), but it's not a slackerish or empty kind of humor. These poems deploy the most subtle and compelling social critiques, poking fun in the process.

Fort Gorgeous should be required reading for anyone grappling with lineation, as Vogel's work exhibits such mastery of the break and turn. "Jubilee Year" begins, "The only thing left is to hang / our hat on regret's haberdasherie," but as readers we want to keep our hats on, not hang them up. This book doesn't belong on a shelf. It belongs in your hand, and then wherever you set it down when it works its bright magic on you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Call the Catastrophists by Krystal Languell

BlazeVOX [books], 2011. Sure, we've all heard the ponderous question, "If you were stranded on an island with only five small press poetry books, which would they be, and why?" I would like to propose that you immediately strike #1 on your list, and replace it with Call the Catastrophists by Krystal Languell.

Simply put, this book is a new book every time you read it. Its three carefully rendered sections--titled CATASTROPHES, SALVAGE, and CONTINUUM--are deceptive in their uniformity, because these sections don't so much contain the poems within, but give them walls to tap upon, ledges to peer over. Languell's lineated poems whistle at their prose poem neighbors, and she seems equally adept with either form, as well as in poems where she makes use of the field, such as "Flesh: A Clarification."

What is remarkable about this book is how Languell is able to take everyday occurrences and objects and make them both frightful and enlightening, from a fortuitously aligned sunset to a bundle of twigs wrapped in a red bow. These are contemplative poems that manage to never get lost in their own thoughts, though we may find ourselves returning to them while gazing at a streetscape or washing dishes. The final poem in the book, "Suggestions for Longevity," tells us, "You'll want to think the end isn't your fault. Get organized. Go for a hike. Start a non-profit. // I don't do that kind of thing, but I'm not the one who wants to live forever."

This book might just make you want to live forever, or at least to savor its pages on a deserted island, not bothering to scan the horizon for any signs of rescue.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Last Decent Jukebox in America by Doug Cox

LS&S Press, 2011. Sometimes poems call on their ancestors, sometimes they call them out. Doug Cox's poems do both, singing the praises of muses--family, musicians, other poets--while refraining from being too starry-eyed. Those muses, after all, are human, too, with flaws and failings that Cox's poems refuse to overlook; the narrators in these poems are like the friend you can trust to tell you (kindly) when you're being a jerk.

But the reason you should read it? Because these poems will become muses, too. Cox's poems dive into raucous punk rock benders, the unwieldy weight of loss, and insufferable injustices, wrapping them in received forms (ghazals, sonnets, villanelles) that try to give shape to, make manageable life's enormities. Still, sound escapes. When read aloud, the poems hum low, almost inaudible notes. They emit the hard crack of static. They howl with feedback. They fill you with song until you've got no choice but to bust out a poem of your own.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Greying Ghost, 2011. Sasha Fletcher's poems give us a world where everything is persistently consuming and being consumed by an extreme code of ethics, or lack thereof, defined by a brutal bandit-and-bible landscape. In other words, everyone and everything is either leaving, dying, crying, killing, or on fire. A cinematic Western-meets-Salamun-like logic puts us in deserts that eat tears, with coyotes who cut open other coyotes to hide inside them, and in trains that spontaneously burst into flames, all driven by an ontological hunger for survival that, as the title suggests, shuns forgiveness. Through it all, Fletcher transforms these formulaic characters and settings into darkly strange lyrics that meld human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, in bizarre situations that reveal the binary of malice and hope that governs our desires. Written in long lines that waver between violent directness and biblical intensity, these poems want to break out of themselves. In it's entirety, I am Feeling Good:

There are eggs from buzzards that I caught falling from the sky.

I opened my eyes until the sun burned them out and I grew new ones.

I bent my arm in the middle of all the bones. I heard them crack. The crack
I heard was the splitting of an old dead tree set on fire and left to burn.

I let the dust wash my tongue I let the bandits wash over me and swallow me
and pass around me and I saw it all and it was good and I pronounced it.

I howl but no sound comes out.

I will try harder next time to think more softly.

I Ain't Asked Any Pardon For Anything I Done is already sold out from Greying Ghost - even more evidence that this is an awesome book. If you don't know anyone who already owns a copy of this chapbook you need to need to get to know them. And as always, the elegant presentation from GG, with vintage battle maps in the interior, makes the experience that much better.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Naming of Strays by Erin Elizabeth Smith

There’s no forgiveness
in empty bottles, the silent
teeth of blackouts on bourbon
and cheap shiraz…

Gold Wake Press, 2011. Sound like your New Year’s Eve? 2012 has started off on a sassy note with Erin Elizabeth Smith’s The Naming of Strays—a collection that drawls and howls in a voice that’s unapologetic yet unmistakably real.

The texture of this book is cool in two ways. One, the front cover literally has kind of a velvety feel, which is always a plus. Two, throughout the four sections, which are divided into the Oxford definitions of the noun and verb “stray,” we are forced to see and feel and taste the worlds of the wanderer, deviator, roamer, animal.

To put it bluntly, these poems aren’t afraid to “go there.” Whereas another poet may bask in the cheery refuge of a home-cooked meal, Smith describes a “Still Life with Cook after One-Night Stand” as: “An uncooked bird needs/ brining, its pale rubber body/ sink-warm. There are cranberries/ to bleed. Lettuce to crack and clean.” The very next poem is titled “Driving Next to Two Men I’ve Slept With.” Yeah, we cringe, it’s awkward, we want to look away, but she refuses to with lines like: “In the bayou, the trees/ don’t speak, but deal in secrets/ and human combustion” and “We are three in this car but were once two-/ and two again. We try to believe nothing/ before this highway existed, these bodies that sheen/ like blades.” And again, the next poem, “Lovebugs” (for anyone who’s lived south of I-10, you know what these are), Smith exposes the creepiness and uncertainty of instinctual lust with: “They bang/ into banisters”… “love turned/ beast and blood in the streets.”

Building in verve and momentum, The Naming of Strays demands to be heard and remembered. You won’t regret taking it in. Happy 2012 y’all, and Read this Awesome Book!