On Poetry: November 2023

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: November 2023

Saretta Morgan wrote her new collection, Alt-Nature (Coffee House Press), while “repairing internally from [her] own history with the U.S. military and carceral systems.” In a series of diary entries which come toward the end of the book, she describes the time she spent in a wildlife refuge on the U.S. and Mexican border with artist Nazafarin Lofti:

“Nazafarin (the painter) and I (the poet) think about how we encounter and express our socio-geographic experiences of Southern Arizona. As immigrant. As Black. As women. As queer. As cis. As citizen, naturalized and not. We stumble through language and subject positions, the web of desires and antagonisms our bodies emerge upon contact with systematically exploited lands. Lands that still function as long, shallow graves. And that collect a sky so stunning that unless it’s you who are dying, you forget at times how fresh they are, the graves.”

This passage provides a helpful frame of reference. Without it, the collection’s opening poems can be disorienting. But this could be by design. It brought to mind something Toni Morrison wrote in a foreword to her novel Beloved. “I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population.”

In the case of Alt-Nature, that shared experience is with a population of marginalized immigrants crossing a desert wasteland controlled by border patrol. You will certainly stumble as you go, and if you’re like me, you’ll begin the poems and then need to put them aside, only to approach them again later.

But this collection is not only an alt-nature, it’s also an alt-history. The United States is not the land of the free and home of the brave but — and here, Morgan quotes Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Abolition Geography — a nation “conceived in slavery and christened by genocide.” It champions not the huddled masses but “armed men in uniform as the nation’s true sacrificial subjects.”

I would also call this alt-poetry. Morgan eschews traditional poetic devices such as musicality, prosody, and rhythm, through which language can reach into the heart. Here, it’s all about lack. She writes in one of the early poems, entitled “Dearth-light”:

Dearth, irrational, makes empty the valley. From elongated shadows, pulp of her desire.

            When this happens we must love ourselves fiercely, the ancestors and lost humans declared.

Many have been lost in this wasteland. There are immigrants smuggled over borders and exploited by coyotes of all stripes described by such modifiers as Persephone, Geriatric, and Agent. There are also Indigenous peoples who have been wiped out, and countless unidentified others who have died here:

            The earliest Negro recorded dead in Arizona was unidentified.

Having not survived probably hypothermia
Exposure. Blunt force.

Several poems deal with the “Consequences Upon Arrival” — marginalization, racial and language barriers, land stripped of vegetation, a destroyed ecosystem. Morgan calls Alt-Nature “a love letter to the desert. One that moves with an awareness of how desires for love and belonging underwrite the violence of empire, and how the sensual experiences of occupation extends and disrupts geographies and experiences of time and scale.”

Although it’s difficult to see through this glass darkly, perhaps that’s as it should be. This is a love letter because its ultimate objective is to recognize the unrecognized and to mourn what we’ve destroyed. And if we do not — or cannot — mourn it, our country has little hope of healing.

I read this collection mostly with the head rather than the heart, and that’s down to its occasionally polemical tone. But Alt-Nature is a brave and necessary book that grapples with crucial questions about American stewardship and its consequences for humanity.

Another fresh new collection comes from Willie Lin, a Chicago-based poet born in Beijing. Her debut, Conversation Among Stones (BOA Editions), juxtaposes dream fragments and elusive observations with musings on a past she might be misremembering. Looking for signs or scraps of meaning, she wakes up with questions but sometimes feels she cannot act and has nothing to say. Yet she has come to accept these human failings. There’s more to us than what we are consciously aware of. She writes:

If asked
To describe my ideal occupation, I’d say
Being marginal, speaking softly only between long intervals of silence

Separation, winter cold, poverty, and shadow are a few of the elements in play here. But while the poems are often unsettling, they exert a gravitational pull. Reading them is like trying to keep your balance as you scrutinize a rippled reflection in water. There are layers to the world, but who is equipped to perceive them all?

In “Floating World” she writes, “By the black water, their shore is a palimpsest of beginnings.” Later, in the same poem:

the boys sail out on a glass-bottom boat, but they barely manage to look down
what’s carrying them holds no wonder for them

While varying in length and form, her poems are ruthlessly pared down, so that language becomes a delicate receptacle for what would otherwise be elusive. “Elegy for Misremembered Things” is a pantoum, employing four-line stanzas, every stanza’s second and fourth line recycled as the first and third lines of the next. Only, instead of repeating the lines precisely, she has almost imperceptibly altered them. “Dear” comprises just two strong lines, while “Brief History of Exile” runs several pages and includes this poignant disclosure:

in the terrible raiment of childhood
I tried to sit lower than myself

“Conversations among stones” is a metaphor for disconnection. After all, how can stones converse? In “Little Fugues,” she writes about other people’s sadness and how everyone exists in their own separate bubble. Yet later in the poem, there’s a beautiful epiphany. Stumbling with a companion through the countryside in darkness and fog, she finds herself in “a sudden field of swans”:

And that was one conviction:
That we must be to one another
What the world is not
To us. That every poem
Should open to a field of swans

Written in a very different register, British-born spoken-word poet Sophia Thakur’s second collection, Wearing My Mother’s Heart (Candlewick Press), celebrates her mother and grandmother, sometimes carrying their legacy and Gambian heritage forward by writing in their voices:

Your mouth is an altar
that we have prepared for you,
so come
from behind the shadow of your tongue
to stand inside your mouth
And Speak

For Thakur, words can be flowers or grenades, either a creative force for good or a dangerous explosion. In one poem, she finds a powerful metaphor in guncotton, a compound found in explosives that was used in India to manufacture the first film stock.

She’s attuned to the paradoxical cycles of oppression and opportunity. How would the elders feel, she wonders, to see their children marching and rioting, when they left Africa to seek the same rights? She also recognizes that the older generation thinks their British-born children have it too easy, even though that’s what they wanted for them.

Her writing on faith, romance, and lost love is tender and pure, sometimes bordering on the sentimental, but she’s at her best in her mandate to carry forward an African storytelling tradition. While the menfolk have been taught to “wedge miles between their mind and mouth,” it’s the silenced women who inspire her, who are evidence of God. This heartfelt collection will particularly resonate with young women of color.

Now, let me change the mood a bit with a final recommendation, J.R. Solonche’s The Eglantine (Shanti Arts). These witty and whimsical poems often take the form of brief exchanges or short commentaries on the absurdities of life, with a heavy use of parallel construction. Here, for example, is “Barking”:

My neighbor’s dog is barking
It is a loud, deep confident bark
It is the bark of an animal that knows who it is.
I wish I could bark like that.
I would bark at everyone and everything.
I would be the best damn barker in the neighborhood
I would bark up every tree, right or wrong.
My bark would be my bite.

The poems are confidently crafted (Solonche has written more than 30 books) but they’re utterly unpretentious and feel extemporaneous. I particularly enjoyed his series of 25 poems beginning with lines by Emily Dickinson. Here is number eight:

I’d rather recollect a setting
Than set a recollection
I’d rather direct the getting
Than get the wrong direction

The Eglantine (and what a great word is eglantine) is a collection to lift the spirits. It will be especially enjoyed by those who dislike all the fiddle of poetry.

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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