Monday, October 30, 2017

From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues: X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski

Rejoice! The new Hudson Review has dropped with a satisfying clunk into the mailboxes of subscribers and onto the magazine racks of the more self-respecting sort of bookstores! As always, there are many fine things—including, this time out, Mark Jarman on postmodern poetry, A.E. Stallings on the literature of the sea, and much else.  I've contributed a "poetry chronicle" feature, a round-up of recent books I've found impressive in various ways.  It's called "From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues" and covers a range from formalism through Surrealism to deeply experimental works. The poets are X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski.  Here's a small taste from what I have to say about each...

X.J. Kennedy isn’t just a poet—he’s a poet emeritus, or so claimed R.S. Gwynn, holding a laurel wreath aloft over Kennedy’s head at the 2017 West Chester Poetry conference. With dozens of poetry collections, textbooks, edited works and volumes of light and children’s verse behind him, Kennedy has certainly earned the title—and nowhere does he seem more emeritus than in the poems of That Swing.  Here, in Kennedy’s signature combination of storytelling, formal nimbleness, and comic moments mixed with reverie and melancholy, we find the poet assessing the past and looking out on a future beyond his own lifetime...

Unlike X.J. Kennedy, whose That Swing peers into the dark with uncharacteristic frequency, Charles Simic is the kind of poet who has long since set up housekeeping in the dark existential abyss.  His latest collection, Scribbled in the Dark, contains poems in his established idiom: short, eerie pieces rich with image and stingy with discursive explanation—poems in which the world appears uncanny and, for the most part, vaguely menacing.  The images are typical of Simic: injured flies, threadbare gypsies, bare light bulbs hanging over rooms equally bare, an actor “unable to recall his lines/At the end of some tragic farce.”

One could be forgiven for thinking that some of the poems in Alan Felsenthal’s confident debut collection, Lowly, belong in a book like Scribbled in the Dark.  Were one to meet Felsenthal’s “El Dorado” running wild in the deserts of Arabia, one might instantly scream out “Simic!”:
A firefly committed to the orphanage
the night I graduated
and prayed for the petite kindness
unknown to an aiming hand
inside a shoe.

The imagery, the tone, the darkly comic sense of a violent world devoid of divine justice: it all seems to come out of the Simic playbook. But this sort of poetry doesn’t represent the heart of Felsenthal’s book, which is in essence an extended rumination, over many poems, on the theme of connecting with one’s ancestors through rituals connected with death and remembrance...
If Felsenthal fears distraction and forgetting, Airea D. Matthews fears self-deception—or so we can gather from her debut collection, the Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning Simulacra. The book—a contender for strongest debut collection of the year—is formally audacious. Matthews packs it with lyric poetry, prose poems, and closet drama, as well as epistolary poems and their contemporary analog, poems composed of fictitious text messages. The poems of Simulacra treat the theme of addiction—not from the addict’s point of view, but from the point of view of the addict’s family. The poems are particularly powerful in revealing a well-meaning family’s complicity. They cast light on the willingness of families to enable destructive behavior and, especially, the urge to cover up violence and disorder, to put up a false front so as to convince the world, and themselves, that everything is somehow okay when it most decidedly is not.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski is, I say with some confidence, the only half-Native American, trans-male, country music singing student of Renaissance poetry writing today; and Of Mongrelitude, his third collection, is as idiosyncratic as his background might suggest.  It is a stylistically bold book, with debts to popular culture, Native American mythology, and the classics of English literature, as well as to the experimental tradition in American poetry. Like Brolaski’s previous collection, Advice for Lovers, it is also an emotionally engaging book, provided one is willing to dial into the formally challenging frequency in which it broadcasts.

I do hope you get a chance to pick up an issue and read the whole chronicle... or better yet, get your hands on the books themselves—they number among the best of the season.