Wet Cement: A Mix of Concrete Poems by Bob Raczka

Reviewed by Jess H (Library Staff)

A “t” becomes an airplane, a “p” the Big Dipper, and an “o” the sun. Concrete poetry twists and turns the words of poetry into shapes or patterns to visually represent their subjects. In Raczka’s Wet Cement, twenty-one poems are bent, scattered, and zig-zagged across the pages of this poetry collection to create visually engaging poetry that asks readers to reassess their perceptions of the genre. Are poems word paintings, like Raczka suggests? Can a single word become a picture? Reading Wet Cement right-side up, upside-down, and backwards might help you find some answers.

Located in Children’s Nonfiction (J 811.6 RAC)

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly is a powerful book that deals with trauma, heartbreak, and healing. It was a difficult read at times, but the poems in this collection are beautifully written. The poems depict nature and relationships, while also carrying and undercurrent of mythology. The “oracle,” in addition to the speaker and the speaker’s father, is a prominent figure throughout. The poems are divided into different sections: three sections are titled “Now,” one is titled “Then,” one is titled “Then—Now,” and one is titled “After.” This helps a reader move through the collection with a distinct awareness of the timeline.

My favorite poems in the collection include “Dear—” on page 45, “Self-Portrait in Labyrinth” on pages 56-57, “Dear—” on page 76, and “The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.” on page 89. I have never read a collection quite like this before. It is a necessary exploration of trauma, and it seems like it may have even been a vessel for the poet herself to start healing. There is pain, struggle, and grief. But the poems are also a story of survival.

A word of caution: Many poems do explicitly discuss the abuse at the hands of the speaker’s father, which could be upsetting for some readers.

Available through the Bridges Library System

How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

For me, Barbara Kingsolver’s How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) was a mix of poems that I loved and poems that did not resonate with me at all. The collection as a whole felt like it was made up of too many disparate pieces. Each of the seven sections has a different theme, and I had a difficult time connecting them into a whole. One section is composed of “how to” poems, one section is about a trip to Italy, one section is a long-form poem about knitting, etc. In my opinion, this book would be better off as several chapbooks, rather than a single collection.

Many of what I consider the collection’s best poems appear in the second half of the book: “Six Women Swimming Naked in the Ocean” (p. 59), “Will” (p. 62-63), “Ghost Pipes” (p. 89), and “Love Poem, with Birds” (p. 94). These and others are filled with beautiful language and imagery. For example, the speaker in “After” (p. 67) describes her daughter as “ocean-eyed,” and in “Where It Begins” (p. 81-86), the speaker states, “There will be whole days of watching winter drag her skirts/across the mud-yard from east to west” (p. 81). “Ephemera” (p. 93) plays off the structure of the book of Genesis, beginning with this: “And the equinox said let there be light.” While I did like a few poems in the first sections of the book, the later poems seemed to speak to me more.

I truly wish the entire collection left me stunned like these poems did, but that was unfortunately not the case. In the first section (the “tow to” poems), many of the endings felt forced. The title poem (p. 7) ended with this: “Imagine your joy on rising. Repeat as necessary.” However, I feel the poem would have been much more powerful if it ended on the previous stanza:

…Anything left undone
you can slip like a cloth bag of marbles
into the hands of a child
who will be none the wiser.

The poem’s actual last two lines dull the wonder and discovery throughout the rest of the poem. Many other poems in this section ended flatly as well. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the collection’s fifth section. So many of those poems listed famous poets, to such a high degree that it felt like name-dropping. And it just didn’t seem connected to any of the other sections.

With all that being said, I’m left with this: How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) is a collection of mixed success for me. While I disliked more than I liked, the poems I did truly love redeemed it for me a bit. While I probably won’t be reading the whole collection again, I will certainly go back to those poems.

Available through the Bridges Library System

Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

Traci Brimhall is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets. When reading her work, I am always excited to see what each poem will show me. Our Lady of the Ruins is a unique collection that “tracks a group of women through their pilgrimage in a mid-apocalyptic world” (from the back cover). Brimhall creates her own mythology that deals with trauma, spirituality, and the death and destruction that wars and plagues leave in their wake.

One of my favorite poems in the collection was the long poem titled “Hysteria: A Requiem” (pp. 47-53). I am not someone who typically enjoys longer poems, but this one was stunning in both form and content. It is divided into multiple sections, each section telling a vivid and thought-provoking story. Each section also contains a second story told in the footnotes. I’ve never seen a poem quite like this before. And this wasn’t the only piece that stood out to me. Brimhall’s collection is filled with startling lines and images: “angels crawl the walls of the cathedral” (from “To Poison the Lion,” p. 44), “I…rowed/over the ocean’s deep meridian/and dreamt a deluge for thirty nights” (from “Dirge for the Idol, p. 63), and “creation is sacred violence” (from “The Orchard of Infinite Pears,” p. 82). These are only a few.

Without diving too deep into poetic analysis, I also want to make note of the striking similarities between Brimhall’s “The Colossus” (p. 31) and “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (first published in 1818). Both poems appear to comment on the notion of a fallen empire, describing the remains of large statues found in a desert. One very intriguing difference between the two poems, however, is that the face of Shelley’s statue is described like this: “Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,/And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” (lines 4-5). Brimhall’s statue, on the other hand, is distinctly described as being “facedown” (line 3) and there seems to be a fear of it: “What if we recognize the face? What if/the world doesn’t end here?” (lines 19-20). I really enjoyed how these poems could be analyzed in conversation with each other.

Overall, this collection is both haunting and inspiring. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves poetry or who loves apocalyptic narratives. I picked up a copy from the library, but I think I’m going to have to purchase my own!

Available through the Bridges Library System

The Tiny Journalist by Naomi Shihab Nye

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

The Tiny Journalist by Naomi Shihab Nye is a collection of poems imagining Janna Jihad Ayyad, a young Palestinian who became a journalist at just seven years old. As stated in the author’s note, the poems also connect to the poet’s own experiences and research. I am on the fence with this book. There were some lines and poems that were quite beautiful, and there were some poems that just didn’t feel like poems. Many of the pieces are simple, which makes sense when they are from the perspective of a child. However, in my opinion, some are too simplistic in nature.

What I liked: There were some beautiful lines throughout. In “Moon Over Gaza,” the speaker says, “A landscape of grieving/feels different afterwards” (p. 19). I also loved these lines from “Losing as Its Own Flower” on pages 35-37:

Truth unfolds in the gardens,
massive cabbages, succulent tomatoes,
orange petals billowing
even when the drought is long.

Some of my favorite poems were “And That Mysterious Word Holy” (p. 32), “Dead Sea” (p. 43), and “Unforgettable” (p. 109). When I looked back at the notes I took while reading, I was surprised at how many poems I marked as poems that I liked, considering my overall reaction. Poetry collections can be strange like this; a few poems can negatively change your whole view of the collection.

What I did not like: As I said above, the overly simplistic nature of some poems didn’t appeal to me. Their “messages” were too direct, sacrificing the quality of image, language, and musicality. One poem I particularly did not enjoy was “Peace Talks” (p. 85). I was left scratching my head and wondering how it is a poem. It is basically a list of the word “talk” over and over with two other words sprinkled in. To me, this seems like something only a well-known poet could get away with publishing. I also felt that “Tiny Journalist Blues” (p. 114) was not a strong or satisfying way to end the collection. I understand the collection’s aim to give voice to oppressed people, and while I think it does accomplish this goal, I was just disappointed in how some of these poems were crafted.

For those who want to learn more about Palestinian oppression and Janna Jihad Ayyad, this collection is one to pick up. I also think this book would lend itself well to a younger audience. Again, there were many individual poems I liked, but the collection as a whole just isn’t my favorite.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (811.54 NYE)

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod is a collection I stumbled across while browsing Amazon, and I am so glad I did. The cover and title are what initially drew me to the collection, and after reading a small sample, I knew I needed to read this book in its entirety. Brimhall’s poetry is intricate, lyrical, and startling. It is also violent and dreamlike and intimate. It is a comingling of the Hebrew Land of Nod, Cain’s place of exile after murdering his brother, and the more whimsical Land of Nod, the realm of sleep. The poems take the forms of lullabies, murder ballads, and letters.

The collection opens with a letter to Thanatos, Greek mythology’s god of death, setting a dark and almost surreal stage for the rest of the poems: “Dear heart, you birdcage left at low tide,/what’s living in you is dark and songless” (p. 3). Letters to Thanatos and letters to Eros, Greek mythology’s god of love, appear throughout the collection, death and love becoming recurring themes as the poems’ speaker attempts to reconcile a friend’s murder, pregnancy and birth, a mother’s death, and a passionate but failing marriage. Brimhall also relies on mixing biblical and mythological stories, where both death and love often play out on grand scales: “This is the dirty Eden, stalked by envious angels./This is the land of Isaac, of knives.//We are the wish imperfectly granted, and this is the well” (“Family Portrait as Lullaby,” p. 4).

While reading, there were many poems that I now consider to be among my favorites. These include “Bedtime Story with Goodnight Moon & CNN” (p. 7), “How to Sugar for the Atlas” (p. 34), “Somnambulant” (p. 52), and “From the Buried Kingdom of Together Still” (p. 69-70). Brimhall’s skillful attention to sound also resonates throughout the collection, drawing me to individual lines and stanzas: “Hush, hush sweet godling stirring underground./Rush, rush little sprite, furling and unbound” (“Chthonic Lullaby,” p. 9). And in “Oh Wonder”: “It’s/a mammatus rolling her weight through dusk/waiting to unhook and shake free the hail” (p. 44). These are just a couple of the many moments that I lingered over.

I could go on and on, but I will end here for the sake of brevity. This is a stunning collection that will surprise a reader over and over again. I know I will be coming back to it often.

Available through the Bridges Library System

The Carrying by Ada Limón

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

This was my second time reading The Carrying by Ada Limón. It was not my favorite book the first time around, but I had hoped I would enjoy it more this time. To my surprise, I did. Limón’s collection overwhelmingly focuses on natural imagery, with a dash of surrealism at times. Her poems often deal with grief and are unafraid to ask difficult questions: “They call the beetle’s conspicuous/bioluminescence a ‘cold light,’ but why then/do I still feel so much fire?” (p. 48). Limón also uniquely handles what some may consider simple or even mundane subjects. In “Dead Stars” (p. 22-23), the speaker describes the task of taking out the garbage against a vast backdrop of constellations. And in “From the Ash Inside the Bone” (p. 84-85), the speaker shares experiences with vertigo in the context of disrupted storytelling.

While there were poems in the first section of the book that I liked, I’d say that, overall, I liked the second and third sections better. My favorite poems in the collection were “I’m Sure About Magic” (p. 41) and “Sway” (p. 76-77). I also really enjoyed many of the other poems, including “How Most of the Dreams Go” (p. 5), “The Real Reason” (p. 43-44), and “Cannibal Woman” (p. 81-82). Unlike the first time I read them, many poems in this book have stuck in my mind. I am definitely glad I picked this book up again.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (811.6 LIM)

Thaw by Chelsea Dingman

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

Thaw by Chelsea Dingman has quickly become one of my favorite books of poetry. Dingman’s poems deal with themes of family, tragedy, and mythology, all amidst the cold of winter. There is an earthy yet mystical atmosphere throughout. I enjoyed every single poem in this book, which doesn’t often happen. While it’s impossible to list them all here, my favorites include “Felled Pine” (p. 5), “Epilogue to Drowning” (p. 47), and “Hiraeth” (p. 64). The word “hiraeth” is a Welsh word describing homesickness or nostalgia, feelings the poem embodies beautifully: “Deep inside a twisted wood,/water we could only hear/breathed cool air on our damp skin./I was lost then too.”

I also found many other stunning, nature-focused lines throughout the book. For example, from “Sirens”: “I held the wind/in my throat like a song” (p. 6). And from “After the Accident”: “I can no longer see/the pines, a stitch/of moon through their fingers” (p. 17). The words of all these poems continue to linger with me, several days after reading. I’ll be coming back to this book again soon, and I highly recommend readers pick it up to let the poems speak for themselves.

Available through the Bridges Library System

Dumpty by John Lithgow

Reviewed by Holly (Library Patron)

This book was an absolute read for me. I am a huge John Lithgow fan. I love his acting, singing, and writing projects. And this one did not disappoint. I am also a political junkie, so this book covered two personal interests. The book is so cleverly written. Words are selected with the utmost care and the meter of each poem is easy to discover as you read. Mr. Lithgow has also provided a brief current event narrative after each poem. With this minor addition the author has insured that these poems will provide the readers with the mindset he and the nation had at the time each poem was written. I highly recommend this book!

Available through the Bridges Library System

The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan

Reviewed by Taylor H (Library Staff)

It is clear to me that Alyan is a talented poet. I enjoyed one of her previous collections and found there to be many thought-provoking moments in this one. The Twenty-Ninth Year deals with difficult topics, such as anorexia, alcoholism, and tumultuous identity formation. Alyan’s descriptions are often quite unique: “Hunger enters me like another night, the sky a good dark meat, grilled with stars” (from “Gospel: Rumi,” p. 17). Another of my favorite moments in the collection occurs on the previous page: “I had never seen a true desert before: cactus beds and milk-white sand, sand that ran for days, the lipstick-red of dusk” (from “1999,” p. 16). Some of my other favorite poems throughout were “The Female of the Species” (p. 5), “Halfway to July,” (p. 13), and “Upstate II” (p. 78). Also, as a side note, the cover of The Twenty-Ninth Year is gorgeous.

I was disappointed, though, that I couldn’t connect to the collection as a whole. I felt far-removed from many of the collection’s experiences, rather than a part of them. It was gritty, vulnerable, and well-written—but just often not suited to my particular tastes in poetry. Many of the poems also were less lyrical than what I have come to expect from Alyan’s work, sometimes reading more like disjointed lists. I assume this was a deliberate choice (as it matches the chaos in the speaker’s life), and it certainly doesn’t mean that the poetry is bad. It’s just different from what I was expecting to read. While this collection may not be exactly my cup of tea, I would recommend anyone who likes contemporary poetry try this collection.

Located in Adult Nonfiction (811.6 ALY)