Matthew Gavin Frank retells the thrilling tale of the first photograph taken of a giant squid in Preparing the Ghost (Liveright; 282 pages). In his unique and captivating work, Frank incorporates memories from his own life with the unlikely story of Moses Harvey, the Newfoundland reverend who captured a giant squid on film in 1874.
Among the personal threads Frank weaves throughout the book is that of his Poppa Dave, his maternal grandfather who was born prematurely and small, so was force-fed by his mother, eventually becoming a chronically obese and diabetic adult. As a grandfather, “perhaps the sequence of words Poppa Dave uttered most frequently,” Frank writes, was the most beloved of phrases grandchildren everywhere want to hear: There’s always room for ice cream. Of his great grandmother, Frank writes, “Though he was obese at age four, Dorothy continued this practice believing she was doing the right thing,” and although she established a lifestyle that would lead to Poppa Dave’s eventual death, her actions are presented as motivated by pure motherly kindness.
Saint Friend (64 pages; McSweeney’s Poetry Series), the newest collection by Carl Adamshick, is massive, not in length, as the collection clocks in at well under 70 pages, but in quality. The poems Adamshick presents us with are expansive thought projects. Even the shorter poems occupy a space that is difficult to comprehend—yet they are so readable, like all the poems here. The fact that Adamshick can write with such variance, that he can be in tune with society and with the incredible poets of the past and present, makes his work impressive and enjoyable.
In the opening poem of the collection, “Layover,” the speaker is in an airport musing as “They keep paging Kenneth Koch.” He follows up with a beautiful existential thought that sprouts throughout the lengthy poem: “Someone should let the announcer know / he is dead, that there is no city he can go to, / that no one is expecting him.” It seems so simple; of course Kenneth Koch has nowhere to go. But Adamshick continues his line of thought: “I want to be paged once a day in an airport / somewhere on this earth, so people / will think I am just running late or lost.” The fear of mortality is perhaps the most relatable theme a poet can tap (that and love, which Adamshick touches on, too), but here the poet examines the anxiety surrounding our legacy, our curiosity about what people will say when we are gone.
“I want to say what happened / but am suspicious of stories,” begins a poem in Stop Wanting (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 72 pages), Lizzie Harris’s debut collection, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2013 First Book Prize. The simple statement of these opening lines illuminates the entire collection, because at the root of these poems, Harris questions how to retell memory without overwhelmingly fictionalizing. This is especially difficult when what happened frightens both writer and reader. Yet Harris investigates her memory with grace and courage in such beautiful poetry that she leaves the reader shivering, line after line. Her poems curl in and out of the experience of living with an abusive father and how that leaves a daughter to fight for her own in the adult world.
As the title of Lisa Williams’s new book suggests, this collection of wild and graceful poems are untamed yet bound to the confines of the page. Gazelle in the House (New Issues, 87 pages), Williams’s third poetry collection, showcases the elegant range of a poet who listens deeply to the world around her. In the poem “Thelonious,” she reaches out to the jazz legend, displaying a particular knack for evoking the rhythms found in jazz:, “the crooked / passage that a flood can settle: / nuanced tread, asymmetrical / ramble only he could muster / from the backward drift of fingers: chords.” Again and again, Williams relates so poignantly to other art forms, especially music, that we hear the euphonic sounds within the poems.
In “Spilled Milk on Banjo,” she retells a childhood memory of her mother playing the stringed instrument. We can hear the rhythmic strums in the lines as her mother plays “with her clicking silver finger picks / like claws like a machine gears flashing / faster and faster her curved hands / raking across the strings such ringing.” The lack of punctuation and expert line breaks make this poem seem childlike in the disjointed and sporadic nature of the language, especially in “I am sad girls are indelicate banjo / strings taut in their silver girdle / sharp in memory as my mother.” The broken syntax throughout the poem evokes the tragedy of the memory and enacts the way we often remember childhood experiences.
In the title poem of The Keys to The Jail (BOA Editions, 92 pages), the latest stunning collection from poet Keetje Kuipers, the poet writes, “We tell our sad stories / until the dog hangs his head.” Those two lines shadow the collection’s heavy sadness, but it’s a sadness from which Kuipers crawls out of, escaping the morbid nature of life and displaying a gift for relating her experiences of the world. We feel we are discovering the world as she is: “the breath / is our own, the voices belong/ to you and me.”
The poem that follows, “Birthday Poem,” elaborates on selfhood and discovery as she opens with the gorgeous line: “My earliest memory is someone else’s.” With this poignant opening, the title suddenly becomes so fitting for the poem. With each birthday we rediscover ourselves, older and stranger, leading to the poem’s final arresting lines: “ One minute I’m becoming myself, the next I’m forgetting how.”