On Poetry: March 2024

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: March 2024

Linnea Axelsson describes herself as mixed race: Sámi on one side and Swedish on the other. It’s a concept of race that differs a bit from ours, used by the author to indicate how different Sámi culture is from Swedish. When she spoke recently at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, there were thoughtful silences between her words. As a poet, she works a lot with silence, and this is evident in her writing.

Her polyphonic epic, Ædnan (Knopf), meaning land, the earth, and mother, won Sweden’s 2018 August Prize and has just been translated into English by Saskia Vogel. It opens in 1913 on a winter landscape, gleaming snow, and fir trees. The singing — or yoiking — of the Sámi intwines with the bells, wind, and flapping of tents as they follow their migrating herds of reindeer. Twin boys are born. Nila is feeble-minded, but Aslat is strong and full of promise:

We spread out the
Landscape of our kin
In his body

The herd’s body
Became our bodies

Our family

But shadows fall, and Aslat dies. He is buried in a grave the Sámi must abandon when the Swedes install power plants and dam the river, not only changing the water’s course but the course of the narrative. The Sámi are driven from their land — robbed of their language and even their names. They are housed in Swedish apartments and made to feel ashamed of their culture. Thus, it is Nila, rather than his stronger twin, Aslat, who typifies the next generation:

How long would they
Keep getting away

With writing
Our actions and
Our grazing grounds

Our entire cultural
out of history

By calling everything wilderness
And backwoods

The story concludes in the voice of Sámi activist Sandra when land is restored. In one moving passage, she yoiks in a Swedish church. Indigenous Sami music, once considered profane, is at last celebrated by the dominant culture.

Ædnan is so immersive that although it runs more than 400 pages, I read it in two sittings. Vogel’s sublime translation not only gives the work breathing room but demonstrates how plain language can rise to the level of poetry.

The Animal Is Chemical (Four Way Books) by Hadara Bar-Nadav concerns the search for a different kind of wholeness: that of mind and body. What role do pharmaceuticals play in restoring health? Might they distort us? This collection, which won the 2022 Levis Prize in Poetry, provides fresh context for such questions.

It opens with “Dybbuk,” which is inspired by Jewish folklore. A disembodied spirit inhabits the speaker’s body. It’s a metaphor for an overarching theme here. Bar-Nadav’s body holds generational trauma, and the book is dedicated to 50 family members killed in the Holocaust.

“Black Screen (Kidney Ultrasound)” describes how Nazi guards divided prisoners, to the right for forced labor, to the left for the gas chamber. Her aunt:

Who stepped off
             A train and vanished
             To the left,

To the left,
whose body I carry
Inside my own.

But there’s a disconnect between the solace we yearn for and the pharmaceutical jargon that confronts us when we seek treatment for illness. In several poems, Bar-Nadav scrambles the clinical language used by drug companies in patient brochures to play with the effect of this discrepancy. Here is the opening of “[I am altered, terminal, skeletal],” taken from a Fentanyl package insert and MedlinePlus:

I am



The hours




sign a form
acknowledging you understand the risks
erase you.

She suggests that when we erase pain, we erase something authentic about ourselves. Conversely, when parasites are eradicated from a dog in the title poem, “the dog remains,” but he’s a chemically altered animal.

Clinical language sometimes morphs into pleas and prayers here. In “Pleas(e),” the words of Nazi doctors in criminal depositions are recontextualized with chilling effect.

The Animal Is Chemical is an imaginative exploration of what we get wrong in the quest for wholeness, as well as of what may never heal. But it’s also about the power of language, whether it’s used to alienate or transform.

In Murmur (Autumn House Press), Pittsburgh poet Cameron Barnett thinks about his heritage by looking into gaps — the faulty heartbeat, the erupting earth, the black hole he sees at the center of his Black identity.

“I’m searching my messy truths for an arrhythmia/of remembrance,” he writes in the opening poem. In the crevasse, or at the corner of vision, he sees himself most clearly.

The poems are fresh, imaginative, and sharply energized by the ways in which he listens for and mines such anomalies. In “a soft, indistinct sound,” he explores various definitions of the word murmur. Then, interspersed at odd intervals are short “murmur” poems, which could be combined to form a single narrative. They describe a childhood heart murmur, “my first ghost,” a later reversal of this diagnosis, and, finally, what he does with the lingering suggestion of a murmur. The last poem reads:

We are all ghost stories, silent chests, a heavy wager
of collapse, and isn’t this want all our mother’s fear? —
the fourth ghost: Every echo of love misplaced
somewhere deep in our hearts, recovering over us
in our stillness, murmuring
Be careful.

He sees interesting parallels between what formed him and the Earth’s formation. “I was made then too,/like the world itself — one tectonic tug at a time.” Identity, for him, is full of hinged and trap doors, a split he carries inside, which may give way any time. The poem “On the Ground” concludes:

...You know, you can see
an earthquake coming if you know how to spot
a lie: the officer’s bark, the hands, the lights swinging
madly over eyes, hands running rough over hair
a murmur exploding in an instant — get on the ground now!
If you’re not careful, you can become a quiet
history too. A subduction they’ll call your fault.

(As an interesting sidenote, he includes at the end of the collection the hip-hop playlist he’d listened to on repeat while writing it. The music, he explains, set the tone for the poems.)

Finally, the mad-housewife exuberance of the title sonnet in Bruce E. Whitacre’s Good Housekeeping (Poets Wear Prada) really made my ears prick up. Who could resist the opening couplet:

I sing the body domestic in sonnets Hooveric
The housefrau on the corner is heartless to my dog

He continues in this vein with delicious lines like: “A feather duster is our sword of Damocles.” I was reminded, especially with his reference to Mrs. Dalloway, of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours — or, more specifically, of a scene in the film adaptation where Julianne Moore makes a birthday cake. The Technicolor suburban fantasy life is unattainable.

But domestic niceties alleviate the tedium in poems like “More Berry than Brine” and “Loading the Dishwasher,” even as petty grievances simmer beneath the surface. In “Once More for Elizabeth,” a social engagement keeps a couple’s discussion of their friend's encroaching dementia at arm’s length. Only it isn’t the 1960s, it’s the 2020s, and the couple is gay. The phrase “good housekeeping” also refers to care of the soul and the rituals both carnal and spiritual that get them through difficult times.

One of Whitacre’s restorative practices during the pandemic was evidently writing haiku. Here’s one:

Raining drumming the roof
Snare stuck in farewell tempo
A year in retreat.

There’s also international travel and a reverence for simplicity, function, and beauty found in the elegant “Toshiko’s Cup.” Like it, this collection is a little gem about nurturing joy in gay domestic life, with all its attendant challenges.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and poetry editor for the Independent and the voice of “Read Me a Poem,” a podcast of the American Scholar.

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