Starting and ending in her native New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, spanning many generations and stories, and folding in several spiky, multi-page forms, Karisma Price turns her first book, I’M ALWAYS SO SERIOUS (Sarabande, 83 pp., paperback, $16.95), into an exciting start for what might be a stellar career. “I’m Always So Serious” reveals no shortage of injustice, and no lack of inspiration from African American literary and artistic forebears. David Ruffin’s voice makes mourning almost bearable, “Cicely Tyson holds the tongue of Paul Robeson,” “My Malcolm cries out to Betty,” and the great jazz piano player James Booker, “the Bayou Maharajah,” makes repeat star turns. Concrete and visual experiments in the manner of Douglas Kearney (or E.E. Cummings) sit well alongside more conventional lyric expostulations, introspective anxiety and commemoration for (among others) “my ghost/father” and “his newly ghosted brother.”
Local awareness is never far away: “Today my cousin turns seven in a twice-drowned city.” Experiments with shaped poems open out on over-the-top alliteration: “pajamas,/ripped-up pantyhose, empty/porcelain perfume bottles,/and parachute pants.” There’s something here for almost everyone. Yet Price’s best moments — and there are many — come in ultra-quotable, soaringly general single sentences and explosive rhetorical questions. “Everything you fear keeps you alive.” “Everything left of the slaves is near the sugar.” “Who would the living be/without the dead in the ground?” Thinking about grief and pain and their social sources, Price thinks too about how they might nurture joy: “What is a man but a pocket/full of rose thorns/They are always so afraid to bleed.”
Will Harris brings to BROTHER POEM (Wesleyan, 90 pp., paperback, $15.95) a mercurial intellect, a seriousness about life and death and family, a deft way with sinuous sentences and an unusual international background. His ethnically Chinese Indonesian family, fleeing dangerous prejudice in Indonesia, traveled in China and settled in England, where the self-questioning habits of other young British poets came to inform Harris’s inviting stanzas and speculative prose poems.
“Brother Poem,” his second book, meditates on Harris’s mother, father and younger brother (with family photographs) and on the way that verse itself can become a companion, “a singular/self without which I disappear/or hear you speaking with my/mouth, my pain in yours.” Heritage and immigration keep coming up as Harris tries to “make/sense of his parents’ relationship/as a kind of postcolonial romance.” So, too, do gestures toward the Romantic imagination that Harris regards with an aching ambivalence: human life, solidarity, even love, are “that which reaches/beyond speech, because the sky surrounds us falling upwards.” “As the road is/to the sea I would commute/my life for you.”
No one in America sounds quite like this London writer. Big feelings alternate with self-conscious reflection in sequences that skip or splay across the page, coming to rest in sudden, wise conclusions, as when Harris considers a modern adulthood, or its impossibility: For him and his brother, “there was only very young and very old and in between the hope to grow up.”
The title animal in Gabrielle Bates’s debut, JUDAS GOAT (Tin House, 91 pp., paperback, $16.95), leads sheep, unwittingly, comfortably, to their slaughter. Animal bodies and dangerous risks, along with Bates’s upbringing in Alabama, offer through-lines to the elegant collection, indebted (by name) to such earlier poets of primal experience as Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
“Anything ripped in the middle looks/for a mother to be honest,” Bates declares, offering dazzling figures for traumatic damage: Firefighters with a hose are “bleeding out the snake, so it can be useful again.” Rural childhood and unwanted sexual experience gave Bates and her characters “a mind … formed/around the sight/of a blood-drain in the floor,” “as if the only tool I owned for finding truth were a knife,” though “when I stopped begging to be believed/and started telling the truth, no man was there.” (Not “no one”: “no man.”)
The adult Bates now resides in Seattle. Her compact scenes switch back and forth among her Deep South, Kelly’s fairy-tale space (“Dear Gretel”) and an “Eastern Washington Diptych,” bringing them all together in “Mothers,” her longest poem, where “black-haired goats on the side of the road” just miss a “sliver of the Pacific/visible in the periphery.”
There and throughout the volume’s free verse Bates moves fast, faces grim truths and draws hard lines, as when an autumnal pastoral becomes a near-fatal struggle against a suddenly charging herd. Having fought off a ram, the poet muses, “I have become the winter I wanted.”
Ellen Bryant Voigt’s giant COLLECTED POEMS (Norton, 472 pp., $30) is both the record of a sensibility and the chronicle of a life. The former remains — as it has since the late 1970s — melancholy, careful, attentive, sometimes consoling, heartbreaking or plangent where no consolation can be found. Voigt’s free verse, laced with casual pentameters, looks at the fauna and flora, agricultural and wild, of the upper South, where she grew up, and at the “first frail green in the northeast,” in Vermont, finding an almost Wordsworthian consciousness in “each blade each stem each stalk,” “the white birch bark and our feral black cat.” As for her life story, Voigt writes often and beautifully of “my own children, scything their separate paths/into the field,” once tiny and vulnerable, now grown.
She remembers the enforced ignorance of segregation (“it seemed a chivalric code/laced the milk”), and she sees, delving into other lives, how old letters in a desk drawer “flop and tumble like unmarried socks.” Voigt takes longer looks at her late parents, and at her decades “at the piano,” with a particular love for Robert Schumann: “animals in the pens … calling for each other” make a counterpoint with the more refined pieces the poet has learned to play. At her most lyrical, she recalls her contemporary Louise Glück, “all of my childhood, pocked reef/floating within me.” Yet her most distinctive creations take up more space: the invented forms that she calls “variations” (by analogy with classical composition), the compact verse narratives of her collection “The Forces of Plenty” (1983) and the book-length “Kyrie” (1995), a sadly, newly relevant memorial to the 1918-19 flu pandemic, when “volunteers/would have to hunt the dying door-to-door.”
Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard and the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “We Are Mermaids.”
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