Sight and the Sacred: 7 New Poetry Books to Read This April


Each of these April poetry collections finds distinctive ways to express the tension between a poet’s desire to encompass life—the Emersonian “transparent eye-ball” that sees all—and the limits of vision. “My eyes used to take up my entire head,” Victoria Chang, an ardent museum-goer, writes. “Now they are two dots.”

In one of C.K. Williams’s last poems, “Eyes,” vision is inseparable from the inevitability of death: “When I close my eyes or I should say when / my eyes close because I don’t will them to close / they decide despite me and they close.” For Joyelle McSweeney, mourning the death of an infant daughter, vision is an act of divine defiance: “I refuse / to shut my eyes / because I was robbed / of something / by a god / and I’m going / to keep looking / till I find it.”

Contemplating marriage, Corey Van Landingham shows how a man’s eyes delimit the life of the woman who becomes his spouse: “A mirror flashes back your blind spots. A man reveals worse: your possible selves. The you you might have been. See it fill his eyes.” When Daniel Khalastchi gazes at a loved one, he finds something enigmatic yet sacred: “To look you in the eye / and hand you a raven and ask / of the bird please Rabbi explain.”

Sylvia Legris examines the visual field of a bird with the anatomizing wonder of a naturalist (“the bird’s eye / espies rising-sun curvatures of leaf-curled larvae, espies / the dazzle of light on cuticle, a once-married underwing’s / reniform spot, nano-structured, an invisible wing-spectrum”), while Emilia Phillips’s nonbinary speaker turns to myth to anatomize what is important to them, the nimbleness with which identity can shift through a change of perspective, imagining a self-reliant Echo gazing at herself in the same fateful way as Narcissus did: “I would never drown / here. To see oneself one has to look / at the water. To look into / it, you’ve gone too far.”

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Victoria Chang, With My Back to the World

“I stood behind the rope,” Victoria Chang writes, “and felt the melancholy of the room come out to greet my melancholy.” What Peter Schjeldahl called the “secular pilgrimage” of Agnes Martin’s paintings, the “minute differences of tone and texture steadily refined,” is the primary inspiration for Chang’s new collection.

Just as Martin’s mesmerizing grids and rectangles can be read as a series of ecstatic containments of the agonized emotions in a mind beset by affliction (she was schizophrenic), so Chang’s ekphrastic meditations, titled after Martin’s and On Kawara’s paintings and sometimes about the speaker’s pilgrimages to works at museums, structure the minute agonies of depression into objects of artistic contemplation: “Once I write the word depression, it is no longer my feeling. It is now on view for others to walk toward, lean in, and peer at.”

Her depictions of depression’s self-denigrating inner speech (“I saw myself for who I was—evil, / full of syllables. Poets are useless”) and suicidal ideation (“I can see the lines best if I am one foot away. The desire to die is 13 inches away”) refuse to evade the dire tonalities of the condition, including the lachrymose and self-involved.

When Chang alights on something dryly sardonic and of our moment, she infiltrates the dolor with a countervailing percipience: “Everything violent in the world can be made beautiful with language. Someone passes, departs, or succumbs. This is called advertising.” “Depression is experienced. It is the CEO of feeling. All other feelings are direct reports. My depression is IPOing next month.”

The Story of Your Obstinate Survival - Khalastchi, Daniel

Daniel Khalastchi, The Story of Your Obstinate Survival

Negotiating a promiscuously overlapping Venn diagram of dream, satire, and present-day reality, Daniel Khalastchi takes a primary driver of poetry, our boredom with conventional modes of expression, and applies it to the late-capitalist political and social upheavals whose bills we continually pay. “A sense is sent accordingly,” he writes, “according to the invoice.”

The speaker, more or less stably maintained as an authorial identity, addresses a “you,” mostly a female spouse or lover but also a refracted self (“you diagram the industrial / disruption of our recently speared / democracy”). A remote yet vaguely sinister Senator intrudes on their lives (“Going anywhere aware is how / the Senator never leaves us”), while current events, like the pandemic and the Black Lives Matters movement, enter the scene in transmuted ways: “after a time we are told / to brace our weakening limbs with black / police batons.”

Khalastchi belies the instant clichés of modern American life through a sly style that turns out to be less non-referential than it first appears (“a Republican-themed pizzeria,” the chicken inside the oven that “orders Kaddish we can’t give”). Like many poets in a surrealist vein, he can be accused of mimicking pointlessly the pointless intrusion of meaninglessness (“As if this is how / we continue living. As if it always wasn’t”).

But the object of his often joyous squibs of absurdist insight and language-inspired language (“Everyone wants / out, or in, or out of what /they are in”) lies in what the aversion of meaning reveals about how true connection arrives, off-kilter and inescapably sequestered: “From separate ships / we fight against an end to what the day will / never bring us—regulated social roles, a future / in banking, your face in a cage with my voice /as a bird.”

Death Styles - McSweeney, Joyelle

Joyelle McSweeney, Death Styles

If to style—from stilus, a stake or pale, pointed instrument for writing (OED)—is to impale a thought with one’s pen, Joyelle McSweeney’s new book styles the aftermath of an infant daughter’s death as anguished, living consciousness pinned and vivisected, still squirming, onto the pages of an outré thought diary: “a periphery perforated by / absurdity and calamity / like funeral games performed for a slain infant,” she says, alluding to Euripides.

Accepting whatever inspiration presents itself to her “as an artifact of the present tense”—River Phoenix, Medea, the new Perry Mason, a skunk—she evokes what it means to “live in that / microregime which / pulls the watchface / all around itself.” “[T]he watchface is blank,” she warns, “the style / points exactly to itself.”

This mode of mirrored consciousness, from Bernadette Mayer to Emily Dickinson to the fragments of the pre-Socratics, depends on the self being pointed to, its artful intensities, the pointedness of any longueurs. In Death Styles, style may be, like the progression of a life, something narrow and transitory, what Schopenhauer termed “the physiognomy of the mind,” the flickers of an expressive face suggesting a vaster interiority: the permanent tear in a surviving mother’s eye (“from minima to minima / the ain’t of you”), the morbid yet healing grin (a pun on croque monsieur, croaking, and the smashed egg of a new life), the frail gaze ahead: “lucid, illicit / dust rides a motebeam / down to nothing where nothing / lifts its white sheet / to catch the image like a baby soon.”

The Principle of Rapid Peering - Legris, Sylvia

Sylvia Legris, The Principle of Rapid Peering

In a poem about the first summer of Covid, Sylvia Legris writes, “Every sodden second another watershed moment / exits the lung-stream, antediluvian elms desperate for breath.” The “pathetic fallacy” operative here—the rain-saturated trees undergoing the same respiratory distress as victims of the ongoing human plague—isn’t sentimental imprecision but a twenty-first-century, Saskatchewan poet’s approach to Ruskin’s injunction to “feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly.”

For Legris, nature is the all-inclusive subject, its circumference encompassing the flawed temporalities and fabricated vision of consciousness itself: “The brain reconstructs a lawlessness of seasons, / an outbreak of unreliable chronologies.”

The precision is clotted, scientific, Latinate, lovely: “a field of 30,000 ommatidia, / a composite eye / eyeing woodruff & pale persicaria.” Best when compressed and apparently impersonal, Legris seeks not the detailing of her own particulars—no exigent family members, bad sex, or failed love here—but a comprehensive understanding of how the world assembles itself through the evolved perspectives of biological entities, like the bird who remains planted in place, allowing prey to come to it (“A studied shift from one steadfast pose to another”), or the creature of the title, who peers rapidly on the wing: “The path of the bird’s flight mirrors the bird’s mind moving. / Zigzagging supraciliary treetops, plotting a river of hyperpixelation.”

Nonbinary Bird of Paradise - Phillips, Emilia

Emilia Phillips, Nonbinary Bird of Paradise

For the nonbinary speaker in Emilia Phillips’s fifth collection, gender can be a limit unheeded or eradicated: “a stop sign I roll through,” “a recipe I don’t follow,” “walking through a spiderweb.” Their provisional inquiries into gender and sexuality capture both the uncertainties of personal experience (“my purgatorial / decade of / straight-facing / evasion”) and the ways in which men and women are “corralled / according to cultural / signposts” and learn to “imagine like / but unlike, indefinite / from definite.”

The narcissistic surrealism of a gender reveal party (“We’re having a mirror!”) or the aggression of a stranger rebuked for demanding that the speaker “look like a lady” elucidate both the internal language of nonbinary identification and the sometimes violent reaction from society.

What lifts these poems above most accounts of personal identity are a crackling tropological energy and a revisionary generosity toward the western myths and canonical texts that form a basis for gender roles. Phillips speaks of God shaking out “the pterodactyl / like a wet umbrella,” of “a wasp’s nest / spit-pottered around the heart,” of Artemis wearing a strap-on: “What is godlike in you, / I’ll godden.”

In the rich, longer poem “The Queerness of Eve,” a questioning Eve observes that God “made / an institution of my dewclaw / loneliness” and defines the Fall as “the serpentine chromatics / of blame.” From this postlapsarian, poetic journey comes a hard-won vision of wisdom and liberation: “Yes, in knowledge— / I made a kudzu rope / to bind my wrists / to my desire / and to unbind my future from a pluperfect past.”

Reader, I - Van Landingham, Corey

Corey Van Landingham, Reader, I

Corey Van Landingham’s shimmering third collection anatomizes the apparatus and accoutrements of marriage: the romance (a woman’s “possible selves” filling a man’s eyes), the vow (“a belief that two syllables could save us”), the grafting of lives together (the “fresh lesion of two”), the melding of true minds in a “more fulfilling tête-à-tête.”

The conundrum that the speaker cannot help but agonize over is a modern woman’s yearning for equality from an institution imbued with patriarchy, the accommodations she makes to join “a long ancestral line, one of thousands of women to fuse herself to sorrow.”

In prose epistles and restive lyrics, Van Landingham’s work teems with the literary and moral pleasures of an undaunted psyche permitting itself to be infused with other minds.

If the profusion of allusions, from the ancient Egyptian goddess Amunet to Dante’s Francesca to Charlotte Brontë, an originator of the modern, first-person account of marital longing and vicissitude, suggests a mind emerging “into myth,” skipping “ahead to the eternal,” Reader, I remains grounded in the “uncertain world before us,” its duckpin nights and hapless incontinence, its “revered rhetoric of two held together” that artfully becomes a vow ensconced in the art of poetry itself: “The common pleasure of one clear verse.”

Invisible Mending: The Best of C. K. Williams - Williams, C. K.

K. Williams, Invisible Mending: The Best of C. K. Williams

When I’m in need of something that only poetry can give, a late-twentieth-century storytelling, propulsive yet structurally lyrical, that articulates how a skeptical moral faculty struggles for meaning in an amoral world, I go to the work of C. K. Williams (1936-2015).

His densely phrased but fluent assemblages of long lines (“your life as you’ve known it, / in the only way you can know it, in these disparate, unpredictable upsurges of mind”) became his characteristic style starting with With Ignorance (1977) and continuing through a stream of major collections, including Tar (1983), Flesh and Blood (1987), and The Vigil (1997).

Williams is at his most memorable in unabatingly honest meditations about “parcels of experience” that have “a significance beyond their accumulation.” A poem about his mother unconsciously mimicking him as he speaks (“My Mother’s Lips”) and one about observing his sleeping son (“Waking Jed”) express the ways in which attention can be a form of love: “Now I sense, although I can’t say how, his awareness of me: I can feel him begin to think.”

A poem at the height of his accomplishment, about a youthful affair with a World War II-era German immigrant (“Combat”), is a searching, morally agonized rendering of coming of age, eros, identity, and the question of historical absolution (“She was taking just enough of me to lave her conscience”), complemented by an anguished poem late in his life, “Jew on Bridge,” about a gratuitous reference in Crime and Punishment.

Variously personal and philosophical, demotic and literary, restless and succoring, Williams’s best poetry offers an onrush of living pleasures for those “whose anguished wish is that our last word not be ‘Wait.’”



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