On Poetry: December 2023

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: December 2023

Sum Ledger (Measure Press), the sixth book by Adam Tavel, makes a strong case for the ongoing conversation of documentary poetics. Tavel turns toward those aesthetics with equal parts lyrical grace and critical inquiry, while confronting a variety of subjects both personal and historical. In five taut, almost svelte sections, the poet wastes no time getting to the heat and heart of his obsessions and observations.

Tavel has a talent for crafting believable persona poems reminiscent of the poets Ai or Tim Seibles. Tavel’s personas are parochial, irascible, and historical. Omnipresent is a historical Maryland as a scrim by which the light of the poems in Sum Ledger passes.

The poem “The 1909 Maryland Field Phantoms of Lewis Wickes Hine, National Child Labor Committee Photographer,” despite its lengthy title, is a focused and attentive example of how various characters “speak” to the reader. Ostensibly a triptych of sections, each with one stanza consisting of nine lines — one can intuit the two nines of 1909 from the title might have informed the formal choices here — the poem has the effect of a gallery walk in a museum of wax figures. Tavel performs the familiar ventriloquism of all persona poems but with such an ear for how to make rhetorical structures sound like natural speech. The reader learns about his attention to people treated like marginalia, but also about how meticulous this poet can be in shaping a lean, muscular line. The first two lines of the poem are indicative of this, as they embody a young berry picker:

Fuck this mush-crop half rotted on the vine
this field more sand than soil, old bossman sun

Sum Ledger works its way through a variety of forms — couplets for the double-wide trailer poem, a sonnet for a passenger on the Mayflower, a prose poem for “House Hunters” — and there’s a pleasure in seeing how form and content coalesce. Often, the reader encounters various “documents” or “utterances” that seem to form the conceits for many of the poems. In that way, the reader is asked to account (or maybe be held accountable) for how history is crafted by the book-keepers (librarians) and the bookkeepers (auditors).

The role poetry plays in accumulating an emotional truth for the unheard is well known but too easily dismissed. Sum Ledger makes it much harder to look away, particularly from the local history of one’s own state, county, and city. For Tavel, Maryland is a proxy for Richard Hugo’s “triggering town,” but what most excites me is what varied senses of truth and beauty these poems discover and generate.


In Willie Lin’s Conversation Among Stones (BOA Editions), there’s a sense that the poem has become not the dream itself but the penumbra of a dream. To enter Lin’s lyricism and collage-like images is to enter the liminal half-sleep many folks experience during a restless morning. Always, there is the suggestion of a threat — “In the dream I was abducted, I thought sleep / would save me,” the speaker admits in the first lines of the book — but the poems are never predictable and never “mulish,” despite the speaker of said opening poem describing herself that way.

There is a fair amount of surrealism at work in the images, but it feels akin to the textures found in Bei Dao’s images, meaning the political critiques and inquiries are not so sublimated as to not be legible to the reader. Consider these lines from “The Vocation,” early in the book’s movement:

In the year I learned
to cease writing about history
in the present tense
I was the silence of chalk dust
of brothers. I was asleep

The book is organized in one single section, as if to mimic a single night’s sleep and the many dreams both remembered and misremembered. Tonally elegiac and often explicitly elegiac, Lin attempts to give the reader a variety of experiences within the unity of a few thematic concerns. “What is ordinary sorrow?” the poem “Elegy for Misremembered Things” asks plainly and with the quietude of snow (as opposed to the funky groove that Stevie Wonder used to state an adjacent sentiment in his song “Ordinary Pain”).

Lin’s poem makes deft use of the pantoum’s repetitions to give a rhythmic and intense account of erasure, violence, girlhood, alienation, and grief. “You could run the perimeter of your entire world without needing to stop,” it announces. How true and heartbreaking. Such a plaintive statement leaps from the page into wherever readers hold their expanding capacity for empathy.

The poems in Conversation Among Stones also do the work of expanding and examining the imagination. The sharp and contemplative “Gauntlet for the Left Hand” struck me as having such a resonance with Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” but also, and maybe more importantly, with Toi Derricotte and Kimiko Hahn’s poems, which always seem to suggest that the act of writing a poem, its deep work of truth-telling and transformation, is an act of self-rescue.

Thus, Lin’s poems bring the reader along sometimes by the eye, sometimes by the ear, but always by the heart. But maybe it’s the strange heart that lives in our elbows; as the last lines in the final poem, “Box of Stars,” conclude:

I can make something of suffering
the way I can make something of elbows.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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