frank: sonnets by Dianne Suess is a collection of poetry which contemplates poverty, relationships, illness, drug abuse, womanhood, and death. The largest focus of the sonnets is Suess’ friend Mikel, who died from HIV/AIDS. It is a heartbreaking and moving collection with poems that aren’t afraid to be themselves. Suess discusses her son’s addiction, Mikel’s pustules, being working class, all in succent and relatable ways. The collection is obsessed with death, seen here, “The problem with sweetness is death. The problem/with everything is death.” To Suess, it is all consuming, through the lens of a friend, a mother, and a daughter. In the final poem of the collection, Suess aches to be loved, and to find meaning in the loss. The poems are lyrical, strong, and deeply personal.
Final Rating: 4/5
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith is a poetry collection which contemplates gun violence, existence, torture, pain, isolation, and truth all loosely framed under the context of outer space. Its universe and planet metaphors work to invigorate and deepen the understanding of the moments Smith curates. And in the poems, ‘The Speed of Belief’ and ‘Life on Mars’, the themes are imbued into lines such as, “Tina says what if dark matter is the space between people”. Space as a metaphor contextualizes the distance of the people within the poem who have been locked in basements, sexually assaulted, and were prisoners in Iraq. For these people, there is no grounding because all they have experienced is torture of another world. Smith pulls together moments, ideas, and feelings vividly and extraordinarily well in this collection.
Final Rating: 4/5
Passion by June Jordan is a collection of poetry which focuses on the violence, police brutality, racism, and sexism targeted toward the black community. Jordan’s anger bleeds through the poems and is found in their repetition and rhythm. More specifically, I was drawn to the poem ‘The Rational, or “She Drove Me Crazy”’, which is in the voice of a rapist who is trying to justify his actions to a judge. Jordan is able to capture the sexism/misogyny and use it in horrifying and powerful ways. Poems such as ‘Poem about My Rights’ and ‘En Passant’ are bold and unafraid to discuss ideas that were controversial at the time. This collection is a rallying cry and a way for Jordan to say that these things need to end. And I think, in a way, she is trying to comfort herself/others when she writes, “We are the ones we have been waiting for”.
Final Rating: 4/5
Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong is a poetry collection which delves into the aftermath of the speaker’s mother, his queerness, and what it means to exist in America as Asian. The sophomore poetry collection is heavy in its use of themes, lyricality, and overall metaphor, that I was astounded with Vuong’s handle of language. The poetry bleeds, and it’s hard to put into words the length the collection works to show the wounds and contemplation that Vuong has imbued in each poem.
More particularly, I was drawn to ‘Dear Rose’, which is one of the last poems in the collection and begins in the same way that ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ does using the line, “Let me begin again now”. In this way, it both contributes/continues the narrative from ‘Gorgeous’, as if this loss has been eating away at the speaker the whole entire time. The poem itself has lines such as “are you reading this dear/reader are you my mom yet” that ache with the want of his mother, something us, the reader, will never be able to give. The speaker knows this, but still he asks because it is the only thing he can do. Vuong delves into masculinity and the way we use language to mimic that of war in ‘Old Glory’ and ‘American Legend’. I recall reading ‘Künstlerroman’ in Freeman’s: Change and still I gravitate to the piece, and its line “The cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips and 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.” This desire and hope and sadness are all of what the speaker has left once their mother has left them. The collection ends with the line “& I was free.” which is the one final grief-filled note that, in many ways feels like there is something after all of the pain that the speaker has endured.
It is a beautiful, powerful, and tactful collection of poems that will stay with me for a long time.
Final Rating: 5/5
Can This Wolf Survive? By Rafael Zepeda is a collection of poems that center around Los Angeles and the experiences of aging. The collection had a strong sense of place, and the relationships described have depth. Though, this collection felt out of place and deeply aged for being published only a few years ago.
Zepeda, having more experience as a fiction writer, seems to have written the poems with the same approach as he would fiction. In effect, the poems read with a dull linearity, where few risks are taken with line breaks/stanza distinction (lines are of only one sentence, stanzas feel isolated), dialogue, or the abstract. In truth, this had made me question if poetry was the right form for the stories and moments Zepeda wanted to tell.
I also began to question the intent and integrity of some of the poems such as When I Heard Burkowski Die, Rashomon Revisited, and A Descent into Baja. The first of which seems to have only been written to create a connection between Zepeda and Burkowski without much consideration into the craft of the piece. Like many of the other poems, its effect seems self-indulgent and only there to try and make Zepeda’s name associated with famous writers.
In Rashomon Revisited, it was unclear what the motivation of the poem was about. To me, it seemed like it was trying to feel superior to the subject, a woman questioning him about his support of the LGBTQ community, where he would be able to get the final word in. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling, and only confirmed my thoughts after reading A Descent into Baja. This poem is initial unassuming, where Zepeda describes the places he visits in Mexico, but what really irked me was his use of the outdated and distasteful term transvestite. The poem would’ve been decent enough had he not used the word, but confirmed my thoughts on his true feelings, initially raised in Rashomon Revisited.
This collection is a disappointing foray into an older man’s antiqued thoughts. And even more disappointing is Jim Harrison’s praise of Zepeda on the back cover.
Final Rating: 2/5
The Kenyon Review May/June 2022 is a collection of prose and poetry that looks at life after the pandemic and in relation to nature. This issue had some intricate stories, namely, ‘The Arm of the Lord’, by David Crouse, and ‘Burning’, by Uche Okonkwo. Some of the poetry that captured me was, ‘Escape & Energy’, by Brenda Hillman, and ‘Mercy Me’, by Corrie Williamson.
Though the story that I felt was the strongest was ‘Happy Is a Doing Word’, by Arinze Ifeakandu which follows two boys who are learning about themselves and their queerness in relation to the rest of their community. I loved the way the voice of the story bleeds through the pages, and how the anger, frustration, sadness, and joy play out as the boys are outed to their parents and friends. It is a captivating story that worked to give dimension to queer experience.
Final Rating: 4/5
Telling the Bees by Faith Shearin is a collection of poems that processes and recounts the relationships she has with her dog, her daughter, her parents, and with herself. While there were moments of intrigue, especially in the poems ‘Scurvy’, ‘Telling the Bees’, ‘Floods and Fires’, and ‘Dust’, the rest of the collection felt like it lacked depth. This can be seen in poems such as ‘Rewind’ which was about watching movies in rewind and wanting to be younger. Though, the poem didn’t go any further than that, and I would’ve liked to see a specific moment which was rewound or dug deeper as to why she wanted to be younger. I was also a little apprehensive about the poems ‘Lizzie Borden’ and ‘Typhoid Mary’ which both seemed to lay out what each person did wrong, but ultimately created an empathetic image in the end. This unsettled me, which may have been what Shearin was going for, but both seemed to be outliers in their sentiments in the collection. Overall, the collection didn’t feel specific/granular enough.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
The October 2005 issue of Poetry contains mostly mediocre poems with a few shining lights. This issue felt like it relied too heavily on poems that fit within rigid rhyming schemes (which isn’t in itself bad, but it more or less felt stale). Though, I thoroughly enjoyed the poems by J.D. Whitney and Amit Majmudar. I was particularly fond of the poem ‘The Miscarriage’ by Amit Majmudar which ended on the lines, “our bodies folded shut our bodies closed/around hope like a book preserving petals/a book we did not open till the morning when/we found hope dry and brittle but intact”.
Final Rating: 3/5
The Iowa Review Spring 2021 is a collection of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction published by the University of Iowa. This issue heavily focused on the voices of veterans within its fiction portion. There were some bright spots in the issue, namely ‘Coelacanth’ by Ellis Scott, ‘The Lantern’ by Greg Wrenn, and ‘Routes’ by David Lombardi. These stories, at least, felt authentic with unique voices and twinges of queerness that I felt like I could relate to.
However, I was deeply disappointed with the rest of the pieces featured. Many of the stories written by and about veterans carried with them a staleness like in ‘Where’s Charlie?’ by Erik Cederblom. The story relied too deeply on the narrative of the prideful and just America, that all nuance was lost. No new ground felt like it was trod since many of the stories featured white male protagonists and didn’t critically view America’s actions as it related to war. The enemy was generally vilified and the only story to critically think about the military, ‘He Said, She Said’ by Jerri Bell, eventually fell in line with that narrative at the end. I was also not impressed at the poem ‘Dire Offense’ by Mark Levine as it seemed to become incoherent with a nonsensical stanza listing random nouns. It dragged on far too long and also relied too heavily on an unconventional rhyming scheme. Overall, I expected a more critical issue.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
The Paris Review Issue 238 is a collection of poetry, prose, and art that widely looks at the world through a fractured lens—at least it tries to. To start off, I found the shining star of this issue to be in ‘This Then Is a Song, We Are Singing’ by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. It is a piece that is written as if it were posted on a social media website and documents the tumultuous relationship between Wayne and Lulu. The language feels raw, which gives its final ending in which Wayne, the writer, kills Lulu and another guy genuine and powerful. However, the piece continues with the voices of others commenting and wondering if everything is okay. I found Wayne’s justifications and desires to be deep and, at times, dark. The other piece I was fascinated with was ‘Infinite Life’ by Annie Baker. However, I thought these pieces were outliers when it came to the freshness of pieces.
The biggest contention I had with this issue was that it was deeply apparent what types of voices weren’t heard. The piece ‘Walks’ by Caleb Crain falls into this hole as it documents the walks of a guy and his dog as the Covid pandemic begins. Often, when people write about the pandemic, usually it feels all the same, and this exists within that pocket. First, it focuses on an upper middle-class man who finds Covid to be a nuisance rather than something serious (often there are comments about other people wearing masks when he doesn’t find it necessary). Covid seems to have affected the speaker very little, and this is the case in the piece. It comes off as insensitive to the workers and people who actually were working so closely with Covid. I don’t want to hear about a well-off white man complain about Covid, I want to hear about the struggles of the workers/nurses/dying. Second, its use of birds as a metaphor feels, not only drawn out, but a little reductive. It seems, to me, too easy of a comparison of birds to cages to people stuck in their rooms. And because of that, its intended impact misses.
The other story I had problems with was ‘Exhaling’ by Emmanuel Carrère which documents the meditation trip he took and what it means to him when he has to get pulled out because of a terrorist attack in Paris. Frankly, the piece is boring. It drags on about breathing and describing the minutia of meditating to an irksome degree. It is annoying (and this is more of a personal preference) that all the foreign words were italicized and then were described. It became apparent to me that the speaker’s audience was not me, but in fact older white men. The sex scene goes on for way too long and feels like it was written by someone who just discovered erotica. And its final scene where the speaker is taken from the retreat early because of the terrorist attack on Carlie Hebdo makes no sense to me. Why would he need to go back to France when, at that point, he was probably safer at the retreat? If it was due to travel restrictions, it was not written clearly enough. The only redeeming quality of the piece is the scene where the wolf watches as the speaker and another person perform tai chi.
Overall, I was disappointed with the issue. It focuses on older white privileged male voices, which implicitly removes and marginalizes the voices of others.
Final Rating: 2/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.