Books Reviewed: Percussion Grenade, by Joyelle McSweeney; The Singing Knives, by Frank Stanford; Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis; Helsinki, by Peter Richards
I read so much poetry these days that I can't possibly blog about each book. So
every once in a while, I do these round-ups to let you know what I've been
reading lately. Here are four books I've read and enjoyed recently:
Percussion Grenade: I can't be completely fair to this book, as Joyelle happens to be one of my favorite MFA profs, but let me say that I did enjoy this one. Joyelle's work is genuinely strange, amorphous, interested in big ideas without directly addressing said "big ideas." She's interested in sound and means for the poems and plays in this book to be read aloud. I found that I liked the book best when I did just that. By the way, if you get a chance to hear Joyelle read her work, you should really do it. She's kind of amazing. Poems I particularly liked here: "Carpal Seeple," "A Peacock in Spring," "Dear Fi Jae (Purple Road, Purple Rain)," Dear Fi Jae 3 (Caninery)," and "Third Poem for the Catastrophe." (Note: This is also a really pretty book, gorgeously designed.)
The Singing Knives: When talking about my work with Joyelle (see above) and my advisor, they always tell me to read Frank Stanford, a Southern poet who was big in the 70s before he killed himself at the age of 30. I decided to start with The Singing Knives because it contains "The Snake Doctors," the only Stanford poem of which I have previous knowledge. Stanford is weird, but this book is really not that far away from the Southern gothic literary tradition. I like the grittiness, the meanness, of these pieces. They have a lyric sensibility with an almost narrative drive, with characters showing up in multiple poems. I will definitely be checking out more of Frank Stanford in the future. Poems I particularly liked here: "The Noctural Ships of the Past," "Poem," "Transcendence of Janus," "If I Should Wake," "Narcissus to Achilles," "Bergman the Burning Ship," and "The Quiver."
Poemland: I'll admit that I kind of wanted to hate this book. Chelsey Minnis is really popular among a lot of my fellow MFAs, and because I have a knee-jerk reaction against well-loved contemporary poetry, I planned to hate this book (which I only read because a friend told me to read it this summer). But instead of hating Poemland, I liked it. A lot. At 126 pages, Poemland is longer than most poetry collections, although that can be attributed to the fact that each poem in this book (and really, they all run together as one long poem) is very short. The effect makes the whole thing read like a little book of aphorisms about poetry and writing and woman/personhood. It somehow manages to feel universal and personal all at once, as cliched as that sounds. Once I started Poemland, I couldn't stop, and I ended up finishing the whole thing in one sitting.
Helsinki: This latest run of poetry books I read was pretty successful, as I enjoyed all of them. But probably the one I enjoyed the most was Peter Richards's Helsinki. It's hard to describe this book, which is a long narrative told in lyrical form. Sentences and lines run together, which adds to the disorienting feeling of the speaker's voice, a voice that seems lost, a voice that seems to be piecing something together. Helsinki reads a bit like science fiction, in that it shares a lot of the tropes of the genre: stranger in a strange land, the invasion/awe of the alien other, the hero telling his tale backwards, the possibility of hero as enemy, etc. I can't say I knew exactly what was going on at every point in the book, but I didn't care. What was on the page was so fascinating and beautiful and troubling, that I kind of just wanted to move into the world of the book and not leave for awhile.