New collections to make life more lyrical.
September is a time to search for a bit of stillness in that liminal place between summer’s end and fall’s beginning. It’s a good time to meditate on the current situation we find ourselves mired in, somehow still trying to claw our way out of a pandemic, take a deep breath, and find room for the changes we hope will come with the turning of the leaves.
Right now, I crave the solace to be found in poetry, whether through the intimate reveries of an upcoming talent or the renewed call for revolution from a beloved longtime activist. The poems in these three collections ask us to decolonize our hearts and minds to discover the true beauty of our shared humanity as we walk into a colder season together.
Andrew Yoon’s slim, chapbook-size We Are Invited to Climb (Awst Press) is a delightful revelation in experimentation with computer code and the conviction that art can contain multiple meanings, and one need not be married to the finality of a completed piece. As he writes in his appendix, “When faced with a number of ways to state an idea, or indeed a number of ideas themselves, we no longer have to choose; we can encode all those paths within our vision and let the dice fall where they may.”
For poets in particular, a single work can be rewritten countless times. Here, Yoon turns that concept on its head.
The book’s poems are mostly made up of sparse lines or small blocks of prose-like stanzas, each quietly wondrous and weird, an offer of human connection to each other and the world. They ask us to be present in the moment and remind us that each moment contains multitudes of experiences.
In “our little box,” Yoon writes, “a stretch — our arms extending/outward, shoulders relaxing; quiet/steam rising from a mug while; somewhere, time is still passing.” In “little green and misty thing”:
“we don’t know if we should feel small or
alive, so we just do both. each of these
littlelights casting a bit of warmth”
The text Yoon ran through a computer program created a way for him to play with multiplicities of meanings, which translated into words or concepts being created against and within each other. In poems like “anothersong thismoment,” he stretches the boundaries of these compressed phrases, forcing the reader’s mind to form new paths leading to multiple meanings. It’s no small feat, but a meditative practice nonetheless:
colorshades and chords like it were
important or something or
It is in this vein that Derrick Austin tumbles the reader into his second poetry collection, Tenderness (BOA Editions). The book’s silken walls enclose us like a luxurious boudoir so alluring you might miss his subversion of traditional (re: white, patriarchal, heterosexual) Western thought and art. Each poem is exquisitely crafted, made up of delicious imagery, wry humor, and contemplative observations, but their centers hold a queer Black man’s rebellion and reclamation.
Austin is unwilling to give up the beauty of a post-neoclassical Eurocentric world reserved for the “elite,” and instead bends it to his will. The result is some truly stunning, sometimes shocking verse. In “Thinking of Romanticism, Thinking of Drake,” he calls Byron and Shelley “fuckboys of a revolutionary age.” In “Little Epic,” Austin transforms Aeneas into a Black boy set free with no father on his back but still stumbling into the dangerous unknown:
“Who said liberty was a field of lavender
studded with bees? Who said it wasn’t a sea?
Risk and Refusal, these will be the twins
that guide toward no empire.”
Austin powerfully deconstructs homophobia and gender throughout, often using his speaker’s love of finery and art to frame the oppression of patriarchal masculinity. In “Taking My Father and Brother to the Frick,” he writes, “I ignore my favorite portraits, their ruffles/and bodices, carnations and powder puffs,/afraid to share my joy with you.”
The poem “Letter to Cody on Walpurgisnacht” begins, “Again last night I dreamed the dream called Femme;/in it, my rings and Jungle Red nails flickered against my caftan.” And “Dear & Decorations” is drenched in a brutal decadence and is its own dark fairytale of rejecting what the Eurocentric world thinks a man should be:
“I ought to see myself as a man. Be proud and grateful.
I’d rather be your ermine with a silver bell
on my pink satin collar. Let me farewell and arrival
tease the same gasp from you.”
Last, we come to My Book of the Dead (University of New Mexico Press), Ana Castillo’s first book of poetry in more than a decade. A howling summons to action and elegy to the many innocent lives lost due to U.S. patriarchal/capitalist violence, this collection is raw and honest in its grief, anger, and plea for a reconnection to our ancestors and earth before we cannot come back from what we have wrought.
A Chicana activist who came to poetry as a form of protest in the 1970s before penning a number of well-received novels, Castillo has a style that’s narrative and easily accessible. Her emotional resonance and tone in this collection are intense and powerful, with many poems deliberately crafted to be purposeful statements.
In “Mass Shootings (2016 to 2019 and Counting),” she methodically lists over 60 different U.S. shootings. In “How to Tell You Are Living Under Rising Fascism (A Basic Primer in Progress),” Castillo warns about the insidiousness of the then-Trump government’s turn against progressive protestors and writes, “Watch what you say,/what you post./Where you go—/on foot or/with passport./Rest assured, someone is taking note.”
The most powerful poems, however, invoke pre-colonial ancestral gods, spirits, and people. The book’s title poem, rich in indigenous religion and beliefs, chronicles the speaker’s dangerous journey through the “nine corridors,” and how each must be traveled no matter how dark it becomes.
One of the collection’s most affecting, vivid poems is an ode to the Waiapi Indigenous people who guard the Amazon. It praises them with the spirit of the butterfly amidst destruction:
where butterflies work
for you and me,
keep rivers full and flowing —
Amapari, Canapantuba and Feliz,
The wide and deep goddess far beyond we call the Sea”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, LitHub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.