Rapid Reviews

Adroit's Best Books of 2017 by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we witness the release of hundreds of luminous and necessary poetry collections, short story collections, novels, and more. 2017 was certainly no exception. Read on for some of our 2017 favorites.

 Alice James Books

Alice James Books

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
Alice James Books

There is a feeling of suspense amidst the pages of Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, an exhilaration present even in its most quiet moments. Akbar takes us into the narrative of addiction with an energy equal parts unpredictable and irresistable, arresting us in the very first piece with contrasts between God “coming to earth disguised as rust” and a woman who “dabs a man’s gutwound with her hijab/ then draws the cloth to her lips, confused.” From then on, nothing in this book is simply itself; the body is a dangerous instrument, Farsi a sting of childhood purity, orchids a path to longing. This book has an eye for infinity, holding its narrator to the world like a lens, each fault and beauty and grief of personal history reflecting universally. The result is a book of poems you find you must sit with, reading and re-reading the effortless movement of Akbar’s observation.

Though every page finds Akbar writing with new, unexpected angles, what gave me the greatest impression from this collection was one of the strongest and most consistent lyric voices I’ve ever encountered, a tone imbued with unabashed truth. I was overwhelmed with the power of an author who can present themselves naked and bloody and shameful, who can allow the reader to see them “graceless./ No. Worse than that.” It is not fearlessness that strips Akbar bare but persistence, a willingness to dig through himself in poem after poem, to “dive/ dimplefirst into the strange” again and again. Interesting that, in a collection largely concerned with faith, I come away sensing Akbar’s devotion to poetry; that as these pages find him struggling to come to terms with his deepest wounds, it seems clear that writing them has become a form of healing.

Daniel Blokh
2016 Summer Mentorship Student


 Coffee House Press

Coffee House Press

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Coffee House Press

If you haven’t read Stephen Florida, and can’t claim it (yet) as one of 2017’s finest releases, then perhaps I can at least convince you it has the best first sentence of the year: “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them,” our protagonist Stephen declares on the first page, throwing us into Habash’s wild, voice-driven character study of a college wrestler in his senior year. Much has been said about this being a story about obsession and a story about toxic masculinity, but still this doesn’t quite do credit to Habash’s dark and mysterious debut. Stephen Florida that best kind of novel, which cannot be properly summarized into a back-cover blurb, and cannot be distilled into a 200 word “Adroit’s Best Books of 2017.” What I will say is this: Habash’s ambition in this novel is rivaled only by his big heartedness. His character building, rivaled only by his attention to language. It is a strange and special book, and by the end, you’ll be thanking Coffee House Press for helping usher it into the world.

- Garrett Biggs
Managing Editor


 BOA Editions Ltd.

BOA Editions Ltd.

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
BOA Editions Ltd.

“Aren’t all great / love stories, at their core, / great mistakes?” Chen Chen asks in the same earnestly ironic (ironically earnest?) voice that makes When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities such a heart-collapsing joy to read. In these poems populated with misidentified guanacos and “flying mango-tomato hybrids,” gay Japanese pornstar Koh Masaki and loves both lost and found, Chen straddles the line between the deeply personal and the deeply universal. He explodes off the page, wrings wonder from a universe that often can seem thoughtlessly cruel at best, flips apathy off with equal parts wit and confession. And through it all, he pieces together a patchwork self-portrait: the son ruined by a morally corrupt America, the immigrant named too foreign to make this place his own, the poet accused of only writing about “being gay or Chinese,” the poet who “write[s] about everything” -- and, most importantly, the list of further possibilities.

            Above all else, these poems burn with a searing desire for future; for the finding of “impossible honey,” for everywhere and everyone we have yet to be. And why not? Through Chen Chen’s eyes, it might just be as good a future as any.

- Matilda Berke
2017 Summer Mentorship Student


 Graywolf Press

Graywolf Press

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is an explosive, genre-transcending debut. In the opening story, The Husband Stitch, Machado finds new depth in the old urban legend of The Green Ribbon, while in Especially Heinous she rewrites 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, with an eerie pathos that brought me, a chronic SVU binge-watcher, to tears. Machado plays with horror, science fiction, and the police procedural, revelling in traditional tropes but refusing to be limited by them. By turns both lyrical and wickedly funny, Machado’s collection is chock full of queer women who refuse to be anything but adimately alive and real. Her protagonists refuse to apologize for their demands or self-doubts, their swearing or their sexuality. In the world of Her Body and Other Parties, it feels as if some unspeakable dark is always menacing just off page, lurking in basement, or creeping beyond the beam of the headlights, but even so, Machado’s stories are full of human life, vibrantly lived, without regard for the consequences. So in a year when the news itself has felt like disaster movie, Her Bodies and Other Parties is a wonderful gift. It’s a how-to-guide to thriving when under attack, whether it is from the things that go bump in the night, or the dark inside yourself.

- Rebecca Alifimoff
2014 Summer Mentorship Student


 Copper Canyon Press

Copper Canyon Press

Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Copper Canyon Press

Victoria Chang’s alter ego/inner angst “Barbie Chang”, enters our imagination in tight, biting couplets and never leaves. With this poetry collection, Chang signals that she has left the stifling working world of The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013) behind with book’s first poem “Once Barbie Chang Worked” and given voice to the suburban mom. Chang’s suburban mom, Barbie Chang, is at turns overwhelmed, depressed, mournful, aspirational and hopeful. But she is decidedly cast as an outsider (“Barbie Change Wants to Be Someone,” “Barbie Chang Can’t Stop Watching) throughout the sequence that dominates the book.

Barbie stands outside the Circle—mean girl moms who dominant the children’s school playground—reporting on their meanness, “its tense at school the Circle/ignores her more than usual.” Chang’s protagonist’s outsider status spreads to the relationship with her sick and dying parents: mother suffocating from pulmonary fibrosis, leaving her one breath at a time and a father consumed with Alzheimer’s severe memory loss. Barbie is deeply involved in the care of parents who like the Circle barely know she is there. “Barbie Chang always thought/ her mother was heartless// not lungless.” Even the imaginative love affair with Mr. Darcy leaves Barbie wanting. The reader feels the pathos of Barbie in Chang’s powerful, yet constrained language.

In the two “Dear P” sections that appear mid-book and at its end, Chang steps out of character. These two quasi-sonnet sequences written to her daughter pulse with a mother’s vulnerability and love in poems written as wishes, wisdoms and warnings. Be forewarned, Victoria Chang writes in “Dear P: Someone will love you”— “one might   haunt  you   hunt you in your/sleep  make you  weep the tearless kind of/weep.” Be forewarned Victoria Chang’s poetry will haunt your sleep. This poet’s talent scrawls off the page.

Heidi Seaborn
Poetry Staff Reader


 Random House

Random House

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Random House

Lincoln in the Bardo delights in its own macabre and finds its footing in a strange curation of voices. It is at once a startling account of grief, a lesson on the human condition, and a dark comedy. Saunders experiments with a form that skirts on non-quite nonsensical, weaving historical documents with fictional accounts. The basis of the story is Willie Lincoln, who died of typhoid fever at age 11, and his arrival in the titular bardo. The bardo is a term borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism and the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” Lincoln in the Bardo enjoys itself, revelling in its journey, as it slips between personas. The writing is exquisite and grotesque, managing to sew many distant tangents into a compelling portrait of the Civil War and its effect on the American imagination. In an odd year, an ungrateful and ugly year, Saunders is a necessary voice of clarity among all the noise: “Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the bring of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.” 

- Serena Lin
2017 Summer Mentorship Student


 Copper Canyon Press

Copper Canyon Press

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Copper Canyon Press

Unaccompanied, Zamora’s debut collection, paints an intense, personal, and empowering narrative of Latinx identity. The collection details his childhood in El Salvador, solo journey to the United States at the age of nine, and experiences of prejudice and disjointedness while living in the US.

Unaccompanied, however, is more than just “Latinx poetry” or part of the “Latinx canon.” It is about living in one country, and then another, without guaranteed safety. It is about family and war and how, without asking or apologizing, war takes away family. It is about remaining cognizant of such wars, as well as the governments and people who cause them (a poem titled “Disappeared” tells the reader to “Hold these names responsible…” which include Reagan, Bush, and El Salvadorean institutions). It is about womanhood, told through both the stories of women (“Postpartum” and “Mom Responds to Her Shaming”) and via the misogyny striking all genders (“Alterations”). It is about intergenerational violence, and love, and trauma (“Dad, age 11” and “This Was the Field”). Most poignantly, it is about the sweet and sour enchantment of youth. Take a line from “Prayer:” ““Diosito, I’ve been eating broccoli, / drinking all my milk so parents / think I’m big.” This combined nostalgia and bitterness—a sad, beautiful magic—pervades Zamora’s work. 

- Talia Flores
2015 Summer Mentorship Student


 Glass Poetry Press

Glass Poetry Press

mxd kd mixtape by Malcolm Friend
Glass Poetry Press

Malcolm Friend’s mxd kd mixtape is a book of broken bones, of living skeletons, of the wound of definitions & borders, and, most importantly, of music – his own, Héctor Lavoe’s, Prince’s, Stevie Wonder’s, Tego Calderón’s, and others included in this cohesive but expansive mixtape, in this creation of a personal mythology. I imagine mxd kd mixtape picking up where Ntozake Shange’s “now i love somebody more than” leaves off – they share the blood of music & myth & the afro-boricua encountering of the brutal simplicity of America’s racial imagination. While Shange’s Lady in Blue doesn’t find the legend Willie Colón to dance with, Malcolm magically happens upon Tite Curet Alonso at a bar & gets dizzydrunk. The way Malcolm becomes sloshed with the weight of his ancestors reminds me of the way Gloria Anzaldúa describes the vertiginous space of another of Friend’s core muses, borders: “A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is a in a constant state of transition.” This collection sometimes asks, sometimes challenges, the reader to join him in that dizzy place in which “i am not translator/ i am not mexican/ i am coquí croaks/ synchronized to/ caribbean waves”, the place of clarity that does not simplify, though may well overwhelm. It is a vulnerable place Friend invites us into, where we are privy to his failings (how many of us don’t call our mothers enough!), his reflections, his wounds, his mother’s wounds, his father’s wounds, his healing, his mythmaking. Willie Perdomo has already said it best – “[the collection] resists the violence of definitions until we have no choice but to sing.” mxd kd mixtape has left me with what I imagine is just the right feeling – that in the face of the border of a word count I have so much more to say, but should hold onto my barstool and let Friend’s music wash over me like waves.

- Andy Powell
Poetry Staff Reader


 Grand Central Publishing

Grand Central Publishing

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Grand Central Publishing

As the multi-generational story of one family unfolds across four hundred sixty-two pages, and the landscapes of Japan and a unified Korea, Pachinko accomplishes what few novels of this length succeed in doing: leaving the reader wanting even more when they’ve reached the final, hard-earned page. I read Pachinko over the course of roughly four bus commutes to school, during which I could be seen crying at various intervals of the trip. When I arrived at the last page on my bus ride home, I was as silent as the blank page that came next. The book was finished, and I couldn’t get over it.

Pachinko presents a history of joy and sorrow and emotional truth. The characters are more than characters. They’re a family that’s as real as the families we belong to, and Pachinko is as much the saga of one family as it is of the life of each individual family member. You see the inheritance of failed hopes and dreams, love and all its beautiful consequences. From Lee’s richly detailed prose, we learn that “there was more to being something than just blood” for this family and for ourselves.

- Erin O’Malley
2017 Summer Mentorship Student


Who were your favorites?! Whose collections are you eagerly anticipating in 2018?! Let us know in the comments below! 

Review: Green Migraine by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Peter LaBerge

 Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

By Jackson Holbert, Poetry Editor. 

            Michael Dickman’s new collection, Green Migraine, explores chronic pain, fatherhood, and the poet John Clare through intense, fleeting images that evoke a sublime and sublunary landscape. The book is formed around five different migraines, represented by colors—white, red, yellow, green, and black.

            Dickman’s first two collections—The End of the West and Flies, both published by Copper Canyon Press—focus intensely on the lives of others: friends dead in the Oregon heroin epidemic, Dickman’s mother, and Dickman’s brothers. In these early collections, Dickman fuses the fractured, alienated language of Franz Wright with a phantasmagoria unique to Dickman’s particular blend of northwestern American surrealism. The poems in Green Migraine—especially early in the book—pile images on top of each other and create a structure in which the violent shines out of the surreal. The best of these recall the late James Tate’s ability to follow almost meaningless sentences with pronouncements of intense, profound grief. The closing lines of “Red Migraine” best exemplify this:  

My brain is a cutter

Scrubbed down to zero
by the rubies
in the halo

I whispered your name into the red air

and you answered.

In this excerpt, Dickman’s speaker himself seems surprised that the name answers.

            The weakest poems in Green Migraine, like the weakest poems in Dickman’s first two books, pack so many violent images together that the violence becomes expected and unremarkable—but Dickman’s highs wouldn’t be possible without these lows. A style that is brilliant in part because it risks failure must, from time to time, come short.

            The triumph of Green Migraine is the long closing poem, “Lullaby.” Written for Dickman’s son, August (to whom the book is dedicated), “Lullaby” not only exhibits the violent, surreal quality and overall oddness of the early poems in the book, but also introduces new elements into this constellation: gentleness and joy. This change is born first in the speaker—“My pregnant wife one two my brain and how can you be more than one thing // But I am!” Over the course of the poem, the gentleness begins to belong to the world.


Michael Dickman is the winner of the 2010 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for his second collection, Flies. His first book, The End of the West, was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. His poems are regularly published in The New Yorker, and his work has appeared widely, including in American Poetry Review, Field, Tin House, and Narrative Magazine. He was born and raised in Portland, and now teaches poetry at Princeton University.


Jackson Holbert's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2016, VinylThrush Poetry JournalMuzzle MagazineWhiskey Island, and the minnesota review, among others. He was raised in Nine Mile Falls, Washington and is currently an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

Green Migraine
by Michael Dickman
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-5-55659-451-9
75 pp.

Presenting: Adroit's Best Books of 2016! by Peter LaBerge

Every year, we have the privilege of publishing and teaching the works of talented and diverse authors of poetry and prose from around the world. Though in many ways 2016 was a degrading and difficult year, it was also a year of profound and intense art. We asked student members of our staff and mentorship communities what their favorite books of the year have been. Here's what they had to say...

BEST BOOKS OF 2016.png


Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal
University of Nebraska Press

There are poets you love and poets you envy. Safiya Sinclair certainly possesses the intelligence and lyric innovation that I envy. After every page of Cannibal, I felt the urge to kneel and bow to the queen of haunting imagery, arcane and innovative vocabulary. Cannibal is a fervent book that shackles me to read, reread, read out, and perform its poems. A truly magical, hypnotic, and devastating re-imagination of Shakespeare’s The Tempest focused on the perspective of colonized Caliban, who happens to be one of my favorite characters by the bard. But Sinclair’s words reach beyond the transmogrification of an old play—her poems bend the boundaries of the English language itself: “All night the world bled on my fang / like a language and we unsmiling // our narrow gape / our space unslanging…” If language is a house, Sinclair has built a linguistic palace of delicious, lush and opulent architecture. Her style, which Cathy Park Hong aptly identified as “afro-futuristic,” bubbles with feminism and mythology. Every poem, every line even, feels like a mirror house seething with secret plants and selcouth music while exposing the vulnerability of womanhood. In an interview, she mentions her belief in Lorca’s duende. There are only a few contemporary poets who showcase the spirits of duende, and luckily, Cannibal is seeped in it. My life was awaiting her genius. If only Sylvia Plath were here to read this.



Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press

I don’t know if I’ve ever anticipated a release as excitedly as I did Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Simultaneously expansive and gorgeously taut, the book shattered my lofty expectations and established itself as one of the most gripping poetry collections of 2016. Vuong writes bravely and clearly about his experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant and a gay man, both of which are incredibly important in the wake of (and amidst) the bigoted violence which swept & sweeps the country this year. In the first poem of the collection, “Threshold,” he recalls a man he overhears singing in the shower: “I didn’t know the cost//of entering a song—was to lose/your way back.//So I entered. So I lost./ I lost it all with my eyes//wide open.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is my shower-song, the music throbbing constantly in my head. It’s the book I can’t, and don’t want to, leave behind. 



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Solmaz Sharif's Look is a reminder of why poetry matters and my favorite book of 2016. It's about the way that war settles into the people who experience it, both immediately and at a distance. It's about seeing violence, and about the violence people refuse to see. In one poem, a military dictionary defines "Destruction Radius" without considering "the brother abroad / who answers his phone / then falls against the counter." Everything ripples outwards. In addition to military vocabulary, the poems bring in Wikipedia articles and redacted letters and family conversations. Records stand in for people who have been killed. There are Prince songs, and there are cluster bombs. "Daily I sit / with the language / they've made // of our language", says one poem. "Each photo is an absence," says another. For me, reading Look made me witness some of the worst things that people are capable of and also understand the ways that seeing or refusing to see makes me complicit in them. The poems never settle into a single style or a predictable tone. Instead they are always shifting, requiring their reader to constantly renegotiate their own assumptions, perspective, and responsibility. Look is amazing and heartbreaking and necessary and imperfect and, I think, the best book for a very bad year. It doesn't turn from the evil in the world, and it doesn't give in. It ends "We have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter. // I am singing to her still."



Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You

I wish I had read What Belongs to You in the first month of 2016. After a year of overexposure, of feeling flayed and sunburnt from unrelenting reminders of the election, climate change, sexism, car crashes, kill-shelters, celebrity deaths, Islamophobia, all at once, all the time—this slim novel felt like life as we want to be living it. Deliberate, considerate contemplation. On the first page, the unnamed narrator, an American teacher in Bulgaria, meets a man named Mitko in a public bathroom and pays him for sex. The rest of the novel unfolds in real time along with their relationship, which Mitko calls priyateli—a word that the narrator loosely takes to mean “friend,” but just as easily could mean “lover” or “acquaintance.” The language barrier between the two men serves as an active metaphor for the paradox of desire: the endless, valiant, futile attempts to exactly translate someone else’s life into your own. What I loved most about What Belongs to You was the intense focus of the prose; one significant moment could take up pages, and years of insignificant action takes place off screen. As Greenwell himself wrote, What Belongs to You reads like “a peculiarly lyrical account of the past, free of the usual narratives of triumph and loss.” It supersedes a thick plot for the intricacies of one man’s thoughts and words about another man. It is simple, fluid, alive. It is what we should be doing right now. 



Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's The Crown Ain't Worth Much
Button Poetry

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s debut collection is heartrending and raw. In a Juniot Díaz-esque style of blunt, sharp prose poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much explores the pain of black souls and black bodies: how blackness shapes memories and how memory shapes blackness. Willis-Abdurraqib crafts a map of Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, in stunning, tiny stories. His poems talk of mouths and concerts, beer and high school, lust and pervasive death. The titles - “DUDES, WE DID NOT GO THROUGH THE HASSLE OF GETTING THESE FAKE IDS FOR THIS JUKEBOX TO NOT HAVE ANY SPRINGSTEEN” or “THE GHOST OF THE AUTHOR’S MOTHER HAS A CONVERSATION WITH HIS FIANCEE ABOUT HIGHWAYS” - will hit you with an unyielding urgency. These poems are as fragile as they are piercing, unraveling the author’s grief for and devotion to his mother who passed away when he was only 13 (“I saw my heart in the eyes of my mother. it was too small to save her”). With imagery of graves, blood, and micro-aggressions as commonplace as the barbershop or Fall Out Boy, Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry sparks a craving for change. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much will knock you on the floor, raise you back up, and knock you over again.



Garrard Conley's Boy Erased
Penguin Random House

Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased is an absolutely gorgeous work of lyric prose. Rather than thresh the lyric from the narrative, Boy Erased works towards their intersection, blurring the two into a thriving result. The memoir focuses on Conley’s struggle with his sexuality in a Missionary Baptist family and small Arkansan community, and the way conversion therapy affected his relationship with his family and himself. The book interrogates the queer condition—particularly its connection to religion, shame, and self-acceptance—and is a testament to queerness as a forced subterranean state, as well as the strength and power it takes to elevate oneself out of said landscape. If you must read only one book of prose in 2017, Boy Erased should be it.



Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn

The epigraph and dedication to Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years convey Another Brooklyn’s quiet brilliance very well. The dedication has its own page, and rightly so: “For Bushwick (1970-1990) / In Memory.” Woodson’s narrator, August, recalls growing up as a girl in the neighborhood, remembering all the companionship, love, and trials she experienced. She says in the first paragraph: “I now know that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It’s the memory.” Yet the memory seems healing for Woodson, who creates a poetic and moving vision of August’s adolescence. The limitations of gender, race, class, family, and August’s own grief remain as she grows up, but through the act of telling her story, she faces her memories: her dad turning to women and religion, her friends supporting her and then drifting apart, and her own dangerous navigation through Bushwick as a young woman. The epigraph, a quote from Richard Wright, rings true: “Keep straight down this block, / Then turn right where you will find / A peach tree blooming.”



Daniel Borzutzky's The Performance of Becoming Human
Brooklyn Arts Press

I am always on the prowl for Latinx writers, and when I saw The Performance of Becoming Human among the winners of the National Book Award winners I knew I would have to read it. From the sudden codeswitching and cultural references to every gruesome detail, each line contains a bullet. The book draws from the author’s relationship with Chicago and Chile, but its themes are purposefully universal. Borzutzky’s world is full of broken borders: the border between bureaucracies, the border between countries, the border between one neighborhood to the next, the border, the border between life and death, or between two different kinds of living. An ape can become human by learning “how to spit and belch” while a Jewish man can be dehumanized by having his insides forcibly stuffed with horsehair. But while the ape’s transformation is merely a performance, the speaker and those around him are stripped of their humanity by the violence they face, transformed into mere bodies:

Was I a disappeared body, tossed out of an airplane by a bureaucrat-soldier-
compatriot or was I a migrant body who died from dehydration while
crossing the invisible line between one civilization and another

Borzutzky believes that poetry can act as a means of resisting “the kind of thinking that seeks to destroy the humanity of individuals by turning them into nameless, faceless numbers that can be quantified and disaggregated into minute bits of data”, and I think he has certainly accomplished that in these poems.



Solmaz Sharif's Look
Graywolf Press

Before the poems of Solmaz Sharif’s debut book Look begin, the reader is given an important epigraph, a definition:

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine
circuit is receptive of an influence.

Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
United States Department of Defense

This frame and its obvious and subtle multiplicities begins a promise with the book’s readers—and I don’t mean, plainly, the premise: a book of poems which seeks to present, define, decode, and vary words of warfare with colloquial language, for such a premise offers a play on politics and poetics. Sharif’s book contains no theater whatsoever. Instead, the promise made upon entering these pages is that language is not to be trusted. When in poetry the directive is listen (to the voice of the speaker, to the oral tradition of reciting and hearing poetry, etc.), from the onset, Sharif and the speakers of her book instead demand that we look. That each word is a mine—an object receptive to influence, or an object that can cause destruction, leaving a pit—a vacancy that cannot be filled. And that each word can be mine—can be claimed or reclaimed by a given speaker. So when the book itself begins with the title poem, “Look”, and the speaker begins with “It matters what you call a thing”, the reader must meet the speaker and the book with such rigor. Every location from Iran, to America, to Guantanamo, must be seen anew. At every turn, something could be lost. Every word used to describe war is a weapon used to shroud and normalize how gravely it threatens to end the period of time in which we exist.

            Look and the poems in it will be long taught for their political veracity, ability to advance the discourses of docupoetry and poetry of witness, and for their deft criticisms of contemporary issues such as war in the Middle East and America’s role in it. These claims about Look have already been made, perhaps. They are true, already, because the poems know better than we do that politics are noise, but death and art have a space between them, which becomes history. If we are so lucky to read this book at its prophetic word—to look at each page and the words on it, to reflect upon our languages and our selfhoods, then perhaps we may receptive of its influence. And if we do—if we finish this circuit—perhaps we will land in the same place we began, changed by such currents therein.  



Jennifer Givhan's Landscape with Headless Mama

Jennifer Givhan’s first book, Landscape with Headless Mama, transports its reader into a world where the lines between real and imaginary, literal and mythical, and individual and generational are blurred. Set in the desert southwest, this collection builds a landscape of many forms: physical, temporal, cultural, mythological – even the body becomes landscape, “a dwelling from which he never / came.” With deep wit, kick, tenderness, and humor, Givhan deftly navigates both familiar and alien terrain: girlhood, memory, marriage, miscarriage, adoption. At its core, Landscape with Headless Mama explores the journey of motherhood – and so intimately, for Givhan interweaves the voices of girl, young mother, and miscarrying artist before settling on a final form whose presence has already been felt throughout: Ariel Mama, a woman who gives “us song as gesture / for the pain.” It’s a world both welcoming and dangerous, starved and lush with love. Lines and stanzas twist in the most daring ways – “call it home, bellyache, unsafe” – and bite before nursing each tender wound. And through it all, you’re left with the unshakeable feeling that these are more than poems – these are ways to stay alive. 



Brynne Rebele-Henry's Fleshgraphs
Nightboat Books

Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Fleshgraphs is nothing short of a masterpiece, the best kind of fever dream. Without a doubt the most striking feature of this book is Rebele-Henry’s ability to quite literally embody an incredibly wide range of characters, in a way that doesn’t feel appropriative or forced. Reading Fleshgraphs had me in a sort of trance, every fragment flowing into the next, pages turning constantly. I read the whole book in one sitting, and it would be difficult not to—with themes ranging from addiction to religion to sex and sexuality, Fleshgraphs is visceral. I found that I could relate to some of the emotions and ideas explored within these fragments, while some were completely foreign to me. I suspect that there is something about Fleshgraphs that really hits home for a lot of people; I’ve already lent my copy to friends and they’ve sent me iPhone photos of their favorite passages. The book strikes a perfect balance between emoting and storytelling, two perfectly complementing aspects of poetry.  Its range is broad enough to make it appealing to most readers, yet its specificity demonstrates a particularly strong poetic voice. Rebele-Henry doesn’t hesitate to take risks, often inching towards the taboo (“Catholic school is like one long gangbang, Lisa says”). Her tone is composed and sophisticated, yet also raunchy and cutting, which I find has an often humorous but humbling impact on the reader. Fleshgraphs is definitely one of this year’s books to remember.



Joshua Jennifer Espinoza's There Should Still Be Flowers
Civil Coping Mechanisms

I first encountered Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poetry in The Offing, while procrastinating on a paper on a book written by a dead white man. As I generally do when reading poetry to procrastinate, I scrolled swiftly to the bottom of the page in an attempt to convince myself that I was merely taking a very brief break from my work, and instead wound up reading Espinoza’s work at least fifteen times over.

I wear my clothes. ends the poem. I wear my body. / I walk out in the grass and turn red / at the sight of everything. 

This vulnerability– baldly presented, without a sign of there ever having been hair– characterizes much of Espinoza’s second collection, There Should Be Flowers. Every poem startles; here, more than ever, the experience of trans humanity is presented so viscerally, so delectably, that it is impossible to regard it as though an outsider. All that womanhood / caught in the roof / of my mouth was like honey, Espinoza writes in ‘FIRST LOVE’. I knew it would never / go bad / so I never / said anything about it. And again, in ‘I HATE THE POEM’ she writes, end-stopped and enjambed, The moon eats itself. 

Espinoza performs her sadnesses with such artfully shameless clarity that it is easy to worry that the collection will devolve into wallowing at any moment. However, the sorrows of Flowers belong as much to Espinoza as they do to her people and her land, and this galvanizes the book to its triumph. How long can I keep tricking you into thinking what I’m doing is poetry, Espinoza writes, and not me begging you to let us live? 



Max Ritvo's Four Reincarnations
Milkweed Editions

There is no doubt in my mind that Max Ritvo’s first and only poetry collection is among my favorite books that I have ever read, to say nothing of only 2016. Harnessing the full magic of language, the poems in this collection contain a multiverse of small weirdnesses, which range from the outwardly absurd (such as the fake memory of a man feeding birthday cake to his goldfish) to intimate and heartbreaking addresses to the speakers’ beloveds. I can honestly say that while reading (& re-reading) Four Reincarnations, I felt intense joy and sadness side by side with one another, a feeling I’ve only ever gotten from a handful of things in my life ever – though Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, comes to mind. In terms of poetic comparisons, the only one that I feel does Ritvo’s poetic mind justice is Emily Dickinson. Four Reincarnations is a book of brilliant meditative thought, engaging with subject matter that ranges from mortality in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis to the small ecstasies of love and laughter within our relationships to one another. Ritvo’s voice in these pages is beautiful, charming, darkly hilarious, and deeply wise. If you’re anything like me, you will gasp, giggle, weep, and have your mouth fall open in awe of what he has created here. 



Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry
FSG Originals

Ben Lerner’s enthralling new book, The Hatred of Poetry, is one of the best pieces of criticism I read this year. Written in an approachable style, the book discusses many questions I have as a poet: Where does non-poets’ contempt for poetry come from? What makes poetry so special? Why should a poet be a poet and not something else? Lerner fills these questions out, mapping (and critiquing) the hatred of poetry from Plato to contemporary times. Using examples from Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, and Rankine, Lerner explores arguments common to the anti-poetry camp before dismantling them. Lerner handles his subject with both nuance and humor, and in spite of our culture’s prevailing hostility towards poetry, his book persistently searches for (and finds) poetry’s gifts. It’s a great (and quick) read for anyone interested in poetry criticism—or for a poet who wants to defend themselves from accusations that they don’t have a “real job.”

Rapid Review: On Anders Carlson-Wee's "Dynamite" by Aidan Forster

By Francine Conley, Guest Reviewer.  


            Anders Carlson-Wee’s newly published and thoroughly engaging chapbook, DYNAMITE, gives heart to the art of concealment.   A winner of the 2015 winner of the Frost Place Chapbook competition, the nineteen poems included in this vibrant collection reveal much by restraint.  The poems are riveting and action-driven, showcasing a bold new voice of a spiritual insomniac who trespasses danger, willingly, and—at times—playfully.

            The title poem “Dynamite” opens the book on hazardous fun between brothers who view nature as artillery.  Pinecones are grenades, and pine sticks are rifles.  But when his brother disappears and reappears with a bloody nose and a real hammer in his hand, the stakes are raised, and we don’t know what to expect next. 

            Indeed, each poem that follows “Dynamite” carries a degree of menace and suspense, delving into familial bonds (especially brother-brother and father-son) and beyond.  We learn about the formative years of a poet who spent much of his youth wandering from home, exploring yards, hopping trains, dumpster diving, and hitchhiking.  This wandering unleashes language and insight, as well as a degree of concealment, from hiding in train cars to dumpsters.  Even the wounds of others the poet encounters are hiding places that help him access the language of compassion and comparison.  He lets others speak, almost as a way of understanding his reason for being.  But as much as Carlson-Wee advances the chapbook’s themes in each poem, he crafts distance as measure in style and subject matter, as if to withhold or prevent explosion.  There is no end in this book; there is only journey.

            On a stylistic level, Carlson-Wee is a deeply curious poet.  He exploits muscled and sonically dexterous language, and shift points of view effortlessly.  He wields sentence fragments like choke chains, such as in a wonderfully short-tempered poem, “Northern Corn,” which carries the rhythm of passing train cars.  End-stopped, unruly and abrupt, each line reads like a measured burst, felt best in the portrait of a ninety-year old father sketched this way: “The size of his hands. / The size of one finger. / The flathead prairie of his calloused / thumbpad.” Such fragments fall down like sacks of flour from a train car and beyond; we find compound words that enhance the tonal compactness of the poems in which they appear.  This is bulk realism.  This is the mind of a bona fide survivor with a less-is-more approach: coal-dust, wind-eddies, blue-faded are expressions, that recall Gilbert or Larkin’s influence, while showing Carlson-Wee’s comfort with both depth and obscurity.  He is terribly insightful of the protective mechanisms by which we (and he) abides. 

            Two standout poems showcase the art of concealment.  In “Moorcroft” the speaker chances an overnight stay in the home of one who admits a past murder, and adds of his heinous act: “I wouldn’t change it.”  A parallel is drawn between the yoke of one man’s violence and the continued but unspoken menace the book’s opening poem ignites.  Why share this story?  The man concludes, “Family is family,” before he brings the poet “clean sheets for my bed.”  So the hardness of one tale juxtaposed with another lets the reader into what inspires this writer into danger, as much as the soft shell of a bed in which he’ll sleep so close to danger. 

            This is a poet willing to risk his life in order to get closer to what hurts inside himself and others.  “Gathering Firewood on Tinpan” might be about gathering wood, but the imagined father and the tender tension felt in the image of his “folded hands,” is interrupted by an abrupt, declarative fragment that speaks deeper: “My brother and the ways I burden him.” Again, Carlson-Wee exposes the double bind that familial bonds necessitate, and how these attachments between men magnify once out in the world.

            To that end, “Shoalwater” is an aria and one of the most complex, nimbly constructed, and important pieces in the chapbook.  A hybrid form that interweaves his past with an external landscape, this poem articulates beautifully how the external shapes the internal:

Waves grind the shoreline and darken into pools.
Crabs shuffle sideways, lost in the washed-up eelgrass.
Seagulls spit littleneck clams to the rocks
and don’t even eat the shattered bodies. 

            Carlson-Wee’s use of nouns—waves, pools, crabs, eelgrass, seagulls, and littleneck clams—intensifies the interdependence between all moving parts.  Yet, the assertive verbs (grind, darken, shuffle, spit) view menace in love’s rare movements that surround the speaker, and furthermore, the tension of the unspoken is palpably felt in such modifications as darken, crabs shuffle sideways.  Love shuffles in the dark, is lost and guarded, and then flares as it does in a dream in which his brother appears and disappears from his gaze, as if a reverse Orpheus.  Feeling is camouflaged in all things until some force comes along and breaks us open:  “We leak every time / we are opened.  Out beyond the waves, / love says the same of itself.” 

            What follows is a striking reverberation as the speaker walks down the beach and throws stones at water.  As if out there love necessitates an act of aggression, like in the opening poem, “Dynamite,” to shape itself into words.  When he spots a seagull drop a clam against a rock, he notices how it shatters as much as he names the bird’s unabashed disregard for its insides.  The horrified innards sit exposed on a rock, but what holds our attention is less the breaking than the moment before the clam’s shield shatters, before the deed is done.  Violence comes before the act, in other words, and for this reader, such unique insight intensifies the book’s thematic pursuits. 

Love is a clamshell’s first touch against rock,
whatever tenderness can be found
in that contact before the crack.  It’s been years
since I was last out on the water.  The night sky tightens
like that familiar mouth.

“The thud of a body surrounded by hollow” reveals the sound love makes in the absence of feeling, and then a moment in which the speaker offers a rare admonition: “It’s been years / since I was last out on the water.”  The night sky “tightens,” like his brother’s familiar mouth.  So much is suggested in silence, in so little space.

            Dynamite is thus a dynamic exploration of restraint, and evidence of how physical every feeling can be contained and distilled.  The body appears everywhere in the book, but in “Shoalwater” it’s as indecisive as shoreline water, as breakable as the shell seems firm before it’s dropped.  “This is the best we can do,” Carlson-Wee writes.  So we commit heinous acts, but we survive by being resolutely vulnerable.

            Standing at the edge affords Carlson-Wee his own education, or how he was trained to see by standing apart and listening: “Listening to a Rail in Mandan” ends the chapbook not at a shoreline but “at the edge of the brake” where the speaker listens for the sound of oncoming trains. Where others failed to see, this speaker ironically learned how to observe, as he continues to do: “No stars tonight.  No fire.  No brother by the junkers awaiting my call. / No father walking toward me.”

            Closure comes as the speaker admits he learned to note what’s been lost and overlooked. Surely the brother and father are measurements of the speaker’s identity, but their absence in the last poem signals a vital shift, as if alone this speaker can no longer hide.  The formative relationships of his youth are gone: he can only be a witness to himself. 




Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow, 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and the author of Dynamite, winner of the 2015 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, AGNI, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Winner of Ninth Letter's Poetry Award and New Delta Review's Editors' Choice Prize, he holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University.  His poem, “Leaving Fargo,” will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of The Adroit Journal.


Francine Conley has a chapbook, How Dumb the Stars (Parallel Press, 2001).  Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Juked, Paris-Atlantic, Shadowgraph Magazine, Asteri(x) Journal, Naugatuck Review, Hartskill Review, and New England Review, among others.  She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson.  For more on her art: http://francineconley.com 


Rapid Reviews: Tantalus in Love (Mariner Books, 2005) by Alan Shapiro by Amanda Silberling

By Henry Heidger, Blog Correspondent

Welcome back to Rapid Reviews! The premise is simple: Our lovely blog correspondent Henry Heidger pulls up to a bookstore, walks in, and has an hour to read and study a book of poetry selected randomly from the shelf. Then, he writes about it here.

Tantalus in Love explores the emotional abyss that is trenched when a loved one leaves. As the title indicates, the collection utilizes the Ancient Greek myth of Tantalus, a man who sacrificed his son, Pelops, as a banquet for the gods. Citing the gruesome nature of Tantalus’ sacrifice, the gods refuse his offering. For his punishment, he is forced to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. However, the fruit eternally eludes his grasp, and the water recedes before he can drink from it.

The collection’s first poem, “Tantalus in Love,” is epic in scope, encompassing the breadth of a marriage. Shapiro’s writing style is reminiscent of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. His verse is marked by loose structure, ambiguous, even blurry structure. But marriage is similarly messy, especially in the period that leads up to a divorce. Shapiro raises powerful images and messages out of the loose structure: bits of dialogue between a wife and husband, domestic images, unfinished interjections.

“The nearness of it, the right / there too bright mocking / plentitude that leaps away / so teasingly each time…” His skewed syntax recalls John Berryman, yet his voice is very much his own. Here, Shapiro become Tantalus. His wife is likened to the fruit that Tantalus can never reach.

As the marriage disintegrates through the poem, the narrator becomes more skeptical, even retracting and correcting previous statements. “She just ignores it— / no, / “ignores” suggests too much / awareness— / how / she doesn’t / so much as realize / he’s there—…” This type of self-correction is used throughout with powerful effect.

Tantalus in Love is a journey that ends with rebirth. Shapiro’s demons (his divorce and the loss of his parents and siblings) are finally cast out, and a lovely lightness illuminates the final section of the collection.

In “Iris,” Shapiro writes, “The flower bends under the blossom’s / weight; it trembles, bending / it almost / seems / to hold it up, as if / to hold it there forever…” It is in several poems near the end that Shapiro let’s go, releases his past and moves into the light of the future.

At the collection’s end, Shapiro’s voice is heroic, daring, and triumphant. In “Sunflower,” the collection’s penultimate poem, Shapiro writes, “Say / there-is-nothing- / I-won’t-do-to-live.” Tantalus grasps the fruit; however, this time the fruit is not the past, not his marriage, not his parents. The fruit is the future and all it holds—a new phase of life.

Alan Shapiro is an American poet and professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has authored nine books of poetry, winning a Kingsley Tufts Award for his collection The Dead Alive and Busy (2001).

Henry Heidger is a senior in high school from St. Louis, Missouri. He is a poet, writer, and critic. His work is forthcoming in The Scapegoat Review, and he is a cofounder of Young Poets of St. Louis. His favorite poets are Anne Carson, Owen Sheers, and John Berryman, and he plays the violin in his spare time. He writes the column "Rapid Reviews," which appears once monthly.

Rapid Review: "They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full" by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon Press, 2014) by Peter LaBerge

By Henry Heidger, Blog Correspondent

Welcome to our second Rapid Review! The premise is simple: Our lovely blog correspondent Henry Heidger pulls up to a bookstore, walks in, and has an hour to read and study a book of poetry selected randomly from the shelf. Then, he writes about it here.

Heralded by many ‘best book lists’ as one of the top poetry collections of the year, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full has proven to be a energized work in new poetry. For his 2003 collection Sky Lounge, Bibbins was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Poetry, and this collection surely doesn't disappoint.

Powerful in its critique of modern society, They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full aims its laser directly at the issues of economic corruption, sexism, religious radicalism, societal racism, and homophobia. “Factory” is one of the collection’s darkest poems; it pairs a detached tone with a metallic cynicism not unlike factory machinery itself. The final passage of the poem, “a city / That was broken / That we had been / That we were broken / That was our city / This was our city / That was a song replaying itself in the dark,” shifts into cog-like syntax. There is brokenness in the poem, just as their is brokenness everywhere.

In this way, the collection unmistakably draws from politics, current events, and the media. There is a vast array of personas instituted throughout the collection -- everyone from Medusa to Pat Robertson. The collection culminates with a series of poems which range in unconventionality.

Perhaps the most visually and structurally interesting poem of the collection is “Witness.” Part I of “Witness” is an insightful critique of the spread of religion through force, representative of modern religious radicalism. Part II, however, is a five-page list of words in alphabetical order. Each word ends with the suffix “-ness.” One word within the list is partially redacted and one is completely redacted. After reading Part II of “Witness,” some readers may be left mentally and visually tired, perhaps even somewhat unfulfilled—there are simply too many concepts within the list of words for some readers to realistically stop and interpret meaning for each. Upon finishing the poem, however, the reader understands; the poem, like a religion, embodies ideas that are each hidden at least partially from conventional view. It is up to the reader, rather than religious figures, to decide whether the ordeal of traversing the list brought meaning, as well as what exactly that meaning is.


Henry Heidger is a senior in high school from St. Louis, Missouri. He is a poet, writer, and critic. His work is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic and The Scapegoat Review, and he is a cofounder of Young Poets of St. Louis. His favorite poets are Anne Carson, Owen Sheers, and John Berryman, and he plays the violin in his spare time. He writes the column "Rapid Reviews," which appears on the blog of The Adroit Journal monthly.

Rapid Review: "Elephants & Butterflies" by Alan Michael Parker (BOA Editions, 2008) by Peter LaBerge

By Henry Heidger, Blog Correspondent.

Welcome to our first-ever Rapid Review! The premise is simple: Our lovely blog correspondent Henry Heidger pulls up to a bookstore, walks in, and has an hour to read and study a book of poetry selected randomly from the shelf. Then, he writes about it here.

This collection is a meditation on the everyday—breakfasts, newspapers, auto mechanics. Parker provides himself with a framework of rigid yet balanced stanzas; this forms the meticulous terrain over which his striking imagery and colloquial dialogue must traverse.

The collection’s title poem “Elephants & Butterflies” meditates over a solitary breakfast. Using imagery from the Second Punic War, Parker coherently fuses two images: the migration of Monarch butterflies and a domestic relationship with an elephant. The poem is wild, dreamlike, and decidedly experimental.

In “Larkinesque,” Parker taps into perhaps the richest vein of imagery in the collection. He writes, “The shoes like partygoers in the hall / in pairs and singly alone.” The poem possesses the uncertainty and pessimism of Larkin, but infuses into the verse a tone of cool modernity and impending danger.

Danger and suffering are also present throughout much of the collection. “The Fog” and “An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding” both draw from the context of car accidents and their aftermath. Parker exhibits death and injury throughout, grounding the collection in starkly realistic contexts and situations.

As a whole, Elephants & Butterflies is highlighted by vernacular and conversational character, yet makes good use of classical references and philosophical motifs. Parker closes “Larkinesque” with the Latin maxim sic transit gloria mundi—translated as thus passes the light of the world and often interpreted as worldly things are fleeting. What better summary of the melancholy that underlines the collection?


Henry Heidger is a senior in high school from St. Louis, Missouri. He is a poet, writer, and critic. His work is forthcoming in The Scapegoat Review, and he is a cofounder of Young Poets of St. Louis. His favorite poets are Anne Carson, Owen Sheers, and John Berryman, and he plays the violin in his spare time. He writes the column "Rapid Reviews," which appears once monthly.