Every Riven Thing
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
At 44, Christian Wiman has an inside track on the subject of mortality—he has a terminal disease with an uncertain timeline. “After the Diagnosis” sets the stage for poems that query fate while elevating living. He can be bleak—but in a good way. Silvery, with precious little dross.
Precise and articulate, quiet but fierce, Wiman’s rhymes defy the notion of contemporaneity and evoke the eternal. At his best, he drapes opaline verse over portraits of nature. “Dust Devil,” is a twirling column of couplets: “Vanishing / flourishing // wherein to live / is to move // cohesion / illusion.”
Compressing life and re-admitting childhood, this poem ends in exaltation. The “Dust Devil” (a synonym for death) becomes “God’s top / in a time when time stopped.”
Classically, writing works itself into a corner—then through the power of language, blazes a way out. Given the circumstances, this portrait of a little twister transfers profoundly onto the human condition.
An intimacy with dirt daubers and bees, beargrass and broomweed, argues with “silence at the heart / of a stone.” Ultimately aspiring, Wiman extracts impossible “joy… blind, scrabbling,” tunneling up like a mole to stare right at the sun.
Wiman says what he sees with metaphoric prowess: “A clutch of mayflies banqueting on oblivion / writhes above the water like visible light.” Ephemera plus passion equals infinity.
Sharks in the Rivers
(Milkweed Editions, 2010)
Rivers and sharks are grand metaphors in these ruminative soliloquies—as much about going with the flow as facing down your demons. Bravery and fear, like opposing eyes peering through the murk, inform Ada Limón’s vision. Not one to be obsessively reductive, minnows, angelfish, and barracudas round out “the City of Sharks” she navigates.
Limón allegorizes other creatures as well: owls, sparrows, cormorants, and butterflies. “Every one of us with a bear inside.” This penchant for mixed metaphors could be disastrous in a more rigid, less expansive treatment, but here it is compelling. Candor and artifice intertwine with (human) nature and Surrealism—think Sharon Olds (her teacher) dancing with Pablo Neruda.
Unlike much contemporary poetry, Limón’s work isn’t text-derivative or deconstructivist. She personalizes her homilies, stamping them with the authenticity of invention and self-discovery. From the Rio Grande of her native Mexico to Withers Avenue, this restless author wrestles with identity, finding ways to “affirm our existence.”
“Drowning in Paradise,” is a mellifluous overture, a breathless, fluttering sonnet. It captures a rapturous desire to be carried away in a “world class / rattle of a wave.” The threatening tug of an undertow is simultaneously welcomed and defied.
Limón, always aware of gravity, goes deep to make “a spell of bones” that leaves us “breathing underwater.” Shamanistic, she embraces the physical as a way of capturing the spiritual.
(Fence Books, 2010)
Writing with a shotgun, Nick Demske hits the target. In fact, he obliterates it. His lines are bloody pellets plucked out of his prey. He makes direct contact. “I write death letters to everyone. Indiscriminate.” Scattered as that may seem, Demske’s eponymous debut of nouveau sonnets holds together in surprising ways, both traditional and innovative.
An inveterate wiseacre and skilled punster, the caustic, satiric, and scatological wit is juvenile in an enduring way. One sawed-off gibe follows another almost seamlessly: “I stuck a needle / in my eye and all I got was this lousy needle / in my eye.”
A disembodied ubervoice intones official speak, “In compliance with federal law, you are hereby…” This instantly recognizable mode of address is countered with the “seismic vox” of a regular Joe (Cool), “I dance. I sing. I love to say I told you so.”
Clichés, taglines, techno slang, and catchphrase lingo mix in with general effrontery and occasional prayers, “Please continue to hold and your prayer will be answered …” Demske aims to be obscene and he scrapes the bottom. But the intensity is redeeming.
Underneath the slick surface, a deep affair with a demanding muse rages. Demske follows the language and form like an obsessed explorer seeking the source. He sears his soul into the poems with offhand finesse.
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright