There's no denying the subject matter is an important one: the role of young people in World War II and the Holocaust. For the most part, Cyrus Cassells' Crossed-Out Swastika tries to avoid the more obvious pitfalls: easy pathos and obvious dramatic ironies. You can easily see why his lyric gifts have always made him so deservedly respected. Look at his phrases: "jerry-rigged heaven," "wind-insistent Memory," "shut-mouthed God," "clerk-blessed leeks," "bliss-conferring forest," among many others. This is his first collection in which he seems to be controlled by his subject matter; he's so nervous in being responsible that he almost sacrifices his sensual relationship with language for the tales. For instance, in one of the longer series of poems, a mother directly addresses her son about his grandfather who was a station master during the war. The poem ends with what in lesser hands would seem to be an unearned closure. However, Cassells doesn't allow that to happen: "...the shouts and stones, the smashed/storefronts of Kristallnacht./How it would have angered him to see/that his beloved trains/were used to betray us." Another small problem with the collection could be that too many of the narratives end on the same lubriguous note, a sort of romanticized despair. At the same time, that could easily be Cassell's point. There's a democratic sensitivity to the tales; one doesn't eclipse another--it's no coincidence that almost all the monologues are written in unrhymed couplets. Perhaps the mild disappointment in the book is also one of its special graces: there's an ethical fidelity to the historical narratives. It constrains, to a certain degree, Cassell's stunning lyric talents, making some of the poems, for better or worse, curiously earth-bound.
Cyrus Cassell's The Crossed-Out Swastika is available through Copper Canyon Press.
In the reviews of Eduardo C. Corral's Slow Lightning, one of its awesome strengths is unarticulated: its complete refusal to make its marginalized Latino characters approachable. The personaes in his collection are determinedly guarded, icy, and, to a large extent, unforgiving of the racism and injustices they undergo. Perhaps the reason it took a substantial amount of time for this collection to be published is that the characters aren't looking for redemptive moments. Thankfully, it's a strategically unfriendly collection. One of the stand-out poems, "In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked the Dishes," Corral writes with representative equanimity: "He learned English/by listening to the radio. The first four words/he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth: Percolate." Another great moment dealing with that same theme of language occurs in "Caballero," :"When a word stalls/on his tongue he utters,/Sufferin succotash. Stout. Apache-/dark. Curious/and quick./He builds up the bridge/of his nose with clay." So many contemporary poets perfunctorily employ litany and anaphora in their poems. Leave it to Corral to trump most of his peers. You can see that in an excerpt from "Self-Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso." The narrator is a cocktease-- in the best sense of the word. Corral writes, "I'm a ghost undressing./ I'm a cowboy/riding bareback./My soul is/whirling/above my head like a lasso./My right hand/a pistol. My left/automatic. I'm knocking/on every door. I'm coming on strong,/like a missionary." Recognizing the importance of the first Latino to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize is, of course, wholly necessary. At the same time, the book's reviewers need to find a number of additional ways of framing the aesthetic and political merits of a book that has already justifiably become canonical. Only then will it be guarded from the inevitable, sinisterly Republican backlash.
Eduardo C. Corral's Slow Lightning is available through Yale University Press.
You can feel the looming presence of the conservative father-preacher figure in Daniel Nathan Terry's new book of poems Waxwings. Occasionally working in strict forms, Terry is interested in religion, gay childhood, and its sweet, melancholy texture. In a crown of sonnets, entitled "Snow falls in Hartsville," a story of a closeted gay teenager and his girlfriend take center stage; they fumble with their sexuality and disclose that they've both been the victims of abuse. It's a familiar story, even if we later find out that his girlfriend later undergoes a sex change. Without humor, the confessions involve a lot of dry discursiveness: "But nothing done to me or done to her/made us what we truly are or even most of what/we were." Or: "leaning in/to my lover, to my life, to the wonder/of having once been a man who loved a woman/who was almost the perfect man for me." One does get a little nervous about the connections between sexuality and incest, but there is an earnestness that almost protects the poems from such a charge. The best parts of the book are when Terry lets loose --something no doubt his father would disapprove of. For instance, in "Flattened Penny," Terry inflates the image of a lawn to comic hyperbolic results: "I look down at the lawn beneath my feet,/imagine it multiplying, extending to the pavement,/sprouting like hair on walls and rooftops..."
Daniel Nathan Terry's Waxwings is available through Lethe Press.
A mid-December update
3 days ago