We're talking about contemporary poetry collections written by writers who walk among us, conjuring gaps in our memories and dreams so that our spirits are stirred, shaken and perhaps forever shattered. This reviewer experienced each of these sensations at least once while reading three of the most recent books of verse to arrive at the Tucson Weekly offices.
Our only complaint? We want more.
First, there was Margo Tamez's Raven Eye, a searing sophomore effort that is even darker and more aggressive than her debut, 2003's Naked Wanting, also published by University of Arizona Press, and a book this paper described as transcendent on every level--style, subject matter and technique. Raven Eye takes a hard look at the evils plaguing the world and attempts to forge some kind of rhetorical defense against them. There are no obvious targets here. Instead, Tamez uses imagery and heightened language to detail the forces conspiring to kill and oppress indigenous peoples: colonialism, racism, sexism and environmental ruin. Take, for instance, the beginning of her poem "Playing Hangman":
Were those sounds you heard tumbling in womb water
The sweaty fright when nightmare people
Battering you the way dream people do
As if we should expect it
As if we should've known better
The internal rhymes ("tumbling" and "womb," "fright" and "nightmare") in such an opening stanza is enough to send a chill down one's spine. But the real horror sets in once it's discovered that "Playing Hangman" chronicles not death, but the impregnation of sinister knowledge: Soon, the Earth will grind its way toward total war and ecological suicide, and the fate of native populations will be our own. There is a flickering of lights amidst this gloom, but they are rare and well earned. Raven Eye gazes at the abyss, but not for too long. It's a powerful statement on the psychological and spiritual despair that imperialism engenders, and it should be required reading for people eager to experience the best of today's poetry.
Up next, there was Richard Shelton's The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, another distinct and lyrical voice in a wilderness of what often feels like morbid confession. Shelton, a professor at the University of Arizona, is a tad more literal than peers like Tamez, but his literary pyrotechnics are no less dazzling. Pointedly political yet richly imagistic, The Last Person to Hear Your Voice functions like a camera in your mind that remembered to take snapshots the last time you traveled the Southwest. For example, "The Little Towns of West Texas" offers some vivid descriptions of a certain part of the United States:
Near the graveyards of the little towns of West Texas beer cans are crucified on fence posts and shot full of holes. The wind plays them like flutes. Coyotes answer with voices that could wake the dead. But the dead sleep on, having everything they ever wanted, a cool, dark place to rest where the wind cannot rattle the lids of their coffins and the sun no longer torments them.
Landscapes aside, Shelton captures the essence of what it means to be an animal trapped in "civilized" form, as in "If I Were a Dog":
I would trot down this road sniffing on one side and then the other peeing a little here and there wherever I felt the urge having a good time what the hell saving some because it's a long road
These bits of verse should be enough to convince anyone that Shelton's is a book worth savoring.
Last but definitely not least is Blas Falconer's A Question of Light and Gravity, which explores the nexus of love, family, gay identity and Puerto Rican heritage. Falconer is a young, gifted talent whose ebullient work speaks directly to the human heart. "The Fear of Being Known," for instance, drives home an uncomfortable metaphor--that love is akin to the brutal spectacle of a seafood market.
A knife swings. The blade strikes the cutting board, scraping heads and tails to the floor.
Or consider the poem in which the speaker finds himself irrevocably transformed after he and his mother observe some miscreant kids stoning and drowning a defenseless mutt:
That day I thought, It's there, though I couldn't see the dog-- and think of it down there still.
Indeed, Falconer pulls no punches in this very promising debut.
If you're looking for something different this summer, and Pottermania has left a bad aftertaste on your literary palate, try sampling one or all of these recent poetry books. You can't use the page count of these books as an excuse, you know.