Obit by Victoria Chang is a collection of poems which try to work through and deconstruct the grief she had felt after the death of her parents. She discusses the deep well of pain and suffering as well as confronts what that mortality means to her. The collection is mainly in the form of prose poetry in paragraphs, which aid in creating a sense of endlessness to the grief and suffering. Additionally, there is a sort of repetition in the poems where each one begins by saying something (an object, a concept, a person) died. I think the poems that use this concept well are ‘Voice Mail’, ‘Civility’, ‘Gait’, ‘Secrets’, ‘The Clock’, and ‘Victoria Chang’.
To me however, while the poems worked to deepen the understanding of the speaker’s grief, they didn’t seem to push past those boundaries. Though, I did appreciate the lines in the poem ‘My Mother’ that said, “The way memory is the ringing after a gunshot. The way we try to remember the gunshot but can’t. The way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.” Chang admits in her poems that even after sitting and residing in the hurt that she still isn’t sure that it will go away. And for that reason, after finishing the collection, it feels like a bittersweet moment for Chang as she must continue to live with, understand, and grow from her parent’s death.
Final Rating: 4/5
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry that focuses on the pain wrought from the treatment of the Native American people. Diaz works to expose, rectify, and challenge the American narratives about the Native population and their land. It is brilliantly done through the use of rivers and waters acting as the constant theme throughout the collection. In ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz writes, “Americans prefer a magical red Indian, or a shaman, or a fake Indian in a red dress, over a real Native. Even a real Native carrying the dangerous and heavy blues of a river in her body.” She touches on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the exploitation of water by the government and corporations, and explains that water is not separate from the body. The collection is heartbreaking as it shows the rawness and pain that her and the Native Americans have gone through and will continue to go through. In the collection, I enjoyed the poems ‘Catching Copper’, ‘American Arithmetic’, and ‘exhibits from The American Water Museum’. It is a brilliant and aching collection of poetry.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar is a collection of poems that questions, asserts, and plays with the speaker’s place in religion, family, and America. Akbar works to create a narrative that, in a sense, is fearful of God, but soon traces his fear, not to God, but to the Americans he is surrounded by. Akbar writes about how he immigrated to America from Iran, being Muslim, and is continuously questioned and berated by people who despise him for no reason. The starkest of this is in the repeated lines, “At his elementary school in an American suburb,/a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!””. I loved the way Akbar is able to draw upon what we believe children, and the innocence that is associated with childhood, to be and defile that thinking with complete hatred given to the boy by his parents. It speaks to a much greater and sadder reality of the positive feedback loop of xenophobia in America.
Though, I found the poem that struck a deep chord in me was in ‘How Prayers Work’ where Akbar and his brother attempt to pray but his brother trips over a doorstop and they laugh uncontrollably. The final stanza was what blew me away. “It’s not that we forgot God or the martyrs or the Prophet’s holy word—quite the opposite, in fact, we were boys built to love what was right in front of our faces: my brother and I draped across each other, laughing tears into our prayer rugs.” This, I felt was the turning point in his understanding of Islam, and thus worked to show him that religion was much more than what he was taught. I found the repeated used of the different ‘Pilgrim Bell’ poems worked to keep a rhythm, both inside the stanzas with shorter, choppier phrases, and also in the collection as a whole being interspersed periodically. I also loved the poems ‘Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997’, ‘In the Language of Mammon’, ‘There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit’, and ‘Seven Years Sober’. This collection was powerful, heartfelt, and worked to create a sense of longing for family, religion, and peace within the self.
Final Rating: 5/5
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong is a collection of poetry detailing the life of a gay Vietnamese immigrant. In it, he grapples with encounters he’s had with other men and what they mean, the origin of him and his family, and works all those moments into understanding religion and the self. Not only is Vuong highly skilled at creating a satisfying and beautiful narrative arc, but he is also tidy and imaginative with his mastery of prose. In ‘Because It’s Summer’ Vuong writes, “you want/to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave/we climb out of but he’s already fixing his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming/with manure you smear your neck with”. His words are so exact in this collection, and the imagery refracts back on itself in new and imaginative ways. I was also astounded when reading ‘Aubade with Burning City’ where Vuong so powerfully juxtaposes the song of ‘White Christmas’ that played to signify the evacuation of Vietnam with the stark chaos and pain and sadness the Americans caused. It ends so heavily with the words, “In the square below: a nun, on fire,/runs silently toward her god—/Open, he says./She opens.” Other amazing highlights include ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952’, ‘Notebook Fragments’, and ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’. This collection is deftly honest, powerful, raw, and above all, beautiful.
Final Rating: 5/5
When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen is a collection of poems centering around what it means to be Chinese American, gay, and grappling with parents that do not accept him. At times it is humorous, and other times his deeply serious about his desires.
In its penultimate poem, and, I think, the heart of the collection, ‘Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls’ works to dismantle and push back against the narrative that, “All you write about is/being gay or Chinese.” by refuting, “Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is/being white/or an asshole. Wish I had said, No, I already write about/everything—“. This discussion of writing exclusively about being Asian has cropped up before, and I feel that Chen Chen defies that in a powerful way.
Other poems I was deeply moved by were ‘Race to the Tree’, ‘Talented Human Being’, ‘Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon’, ‘Didier Et Zizou’, and ‘Chapter VIII’. Chen Chen has a unique, at times abrasive, but always authentic, voice. The collection works initially to show the wound that is created by Chen Chen’s family and the Chinese society around him. Though, throughout the collection he grows to understand himself and his sexuality through the lines, “The parents wait for the child to become a western bird,/but the child/keeps leaking into a northern lake.” The collection works to challenge white heteronormative narritives, parental expectations, Chinese traditions, death, sexuality, and the power structures each contain. I absolutely admired this collection.
Final Rating: 5/5
Freeman’s: Change is a collection of stories, non-fiction pieces, and poems that are loosely tied to the theme of change. It features writers such as Ocean Vuong, Lauren Groff, Rick Bass, and Yoko Ogawa. I found the particular pieces by Christy NaMee Eriksen (a writer who I knew from a local poetry slam club), Ocean Vuong, Lana Bastašić, and Siarhiej Prylucki to be stunning. Though, there were pieces that lacked the sparkle I was hoping for.
I’d like to especially highlight two pieces that struck a massive chord in me, and one of them was Ocean Vuong’s story called Künstlerroman. His story details the life of a man going backwards in time as he watches on. He is so delicate and powerful with his words, that I couldn’t stop rereading the sentence, “Then the cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips as the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” The other piece that blew me away was Bread by Lana Bastašić. It was haunting, and painful, and deeply true in its rendition of what it means to be a girl becoming a woman.
Final Rating: 4/5
In the Paris Review Issue 237 writers grapple with the existential and the absurd, sometimes to great effect, and other times missing the mark. I was particularly drawn to the first story, ‘The Beyoğlu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra’ by Kenan Orhan, where a garbage collector begins to collect instruments after the city cracks down on people’s possessions. The absurdity builds until he not only collects all the instruments for an orchestra, but also all the players. At the end, the police find out what he was doing, and so locked him up with objects that the speaker believed had also been arrested. It was a story reminiscent of dystopian novels but had a twinge of humor.
Another highlight included Ada Limón’s poem ‘Power Lines’ in which a power line crew works to remove a tree in the way. And its final lines worked beyond the piece, “Now the tree is gone. The men are gone, just a ground-down stump / where what felt like wisdom once was.”
And the third piece I felt worked elegantly was Joy Katz’s creative non-fiction essay ‘Tennis is the Opposite of Death: A Proof’, which confronted a father’s death and Katz’s mortality. Its interplay with memory, tennis, and the father-daughter relationship held an emotional urgency.
However, while those pieces were my highlights, there were some moments that felt incongruous and sometimes didn’t work. I was particularly hesitant with the subject matter of ‘Rainbow Rainbow’ by Lydia Conklin in which a pair of teenagers fawn over an adult. It then broaches uncomfortable territory when one of the teenagers is fondled by the adult. And while I’m sure Conklin meant well in the conveyance of the adult realizing what she did was wrong, but it didn’t have a strong enough impact to excuse the actions beforehand (and maybe that was intended). Though, the damage of the adult didn’t seem to register or truly play out for the characters, and so it felt like a piece whose characters thought nothing but positively about the encounter.
I was also left underwhelmed by the story ‘The Lottery in Almeria’ by Camille Bordas, which had an initially interesting premise with the lottery and the inherited house of the father. Though, I felt that it fizzled out when the relationship with the sister was not really vibrant. I thought that the textbook writer writing the beginning of the story worked well, though it didn’t seem to follow through in the end.
There were some stunners, but also some stories that didn’t work too well for me.
Final Rating: 3/5
In this issue of Poetry Magazine, the collection works to create a tapestry of events both relevant and powerful. This issue focuses on featuring poets from Alabama in which the themes of the poems centered mainly around race, the pandemic, and the spots of joy around them. Because of this however, there were some poems of happiness/joy that didn’t feel like they met the moment of what the rest of the issue was working towards.
I’d like to highlight a few poems that had a strong impact. First, was the poem ‘I Just Want to Live Long Enough to See Allen Iverson Live Long Enough to Get His Reebok Check’, which both acknowledges and challenges the idea that progress happens in the small moments. To me, the second stanza particularly felt significant. Other poems to keep an eye out for are ‘Irish Goodbye’ by Kimberly Casey, ‘Burden Hill Apothecary & Babalú-Ayé Prepare Stinging Nettle Tea’ by L. Lamar Wilson, and ‘The Beach is Host to Small Things’ by Kwoya Fagin Maples.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Little Climates by L.A. Johnson is a chapbook detailing the eerie moments of nature and the echoes of a brother-in-law’s death. Many of the moments that Johnson creates are either tangentially or are directly tied to driving, deer, and weather. All these bits coalesce in ‘Vanish Point’ where the events of what led to the death are alluded to.
There are two poems I found myself reading over again, which were ‘Forecast’ and ‘Evaporation’. Each poem seems to bookend the narrative in a unique and compelling way. For me, in ‘Forecast’, I found the lines “I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat/floating through a pine forest, needles pierced/above and below my reflection in the lake surface.” to hold a powerful image that encapsulates the fragility of the speaker. And on the tail end, ‘Evaporation’ describes a collection of items that start off derelict, but soon build to the sadness of the metal tools.
Little Climates looks to process and find meaning in the deeply dissonant moments with a ping of bitterness that makes me want to come back for more.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.