Recent & Notable

Nick Flynn, My Feelings (Graywolf, 2015). From the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. As in the memoir, the drive here is to register the difficult roles of son and lover (and now father) with a piercing honesty. Flynn’s lyric mode is a plain style fashioned out of carefully-cadenced speech wrought into mobile-like free verse forms. Openness to the dislocation of experience is wedded to the conviction, as Dickinson put it, that “this world is not Conclusion.” In practice, this means that Flynn often plays Biblical language, or the simply a search for the sacred, off of physical abjection with the result that while his poetry is animated by an oddly eloquent “no bullshit” sensibility, it’s equally animated by the unexpected drive to find “the soul,” or the “ineffable” in a fallen world. That he manages to make you feel this intangible dimension to things with such exceptional grace is testament to his powers as a poet.—Jon Thompson

Joseph Massey, Illocality (Wave Books, 2015). Massey probes again presence and absence, the world and language, and the slippage between them. One of Massey’s achievements is his ability to use the language of language, the language of poetry itself to refer, or at least gesture to, the world—for example, “watching the lines /that cross, that stain and form a field” or “In the indent of/a day/wagging/ferns[…]”—so that his poetry foregrounds a capacity to perform a self-reflexive examination. That is, it refers to the real world, but it  is also self-conscious about the way in which the poem is making that real world in poetry. The line of filiation here is very much in the American grain—a lot of Massey’s style and preoccupation can be traced to William Carlos Williams—think about his famous, not-so-simple poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” “so much/depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow” where the poem itself refers to the consciousness that’s simultaneously seeing and creating the wheelbarrow in the expertly enjambed, slo-mo style Williams made famous. “Illocality” is a word Massey takes from a Dickinson poem, and Massey here, as in earlier collections, is all about an up-close and personal examination of the local and the particular, which for him, as for Dickinson, includes the emotional complexion of the speaker in the poem doing the examining. Massey is not Williams or Dickinson, but it will be interesting to see whether this still young poet moves towards the more expansive forms Williams favored later in his career or whether he stays with the highly-compressed form Dickinson stayed with till the end.—Jon Thompson

Michael Palmer, The Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions, 2016). Depending on the poem, the laughter here is by turns bitter, wistful even playful, but typically inflected by a sense of enigma. Returning again and again to songs and singing, to voices and voicelessness, Palmer continues to push the boundaries of poetry with dream songs that explore the place of poetry in a surreal world “where headless horseman sing/fevered songs/of self and war.” Palmer writes with uncanny precision about this world, a world that this book finds to be as beautiful as it is violated, and his poetry often achieves an ecstatic pitch, but one in which pain is rarely absent.—Jon Thompson

Shim Bo-Seon, Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow. Translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé. (Free Verse Editions, 2016). A vanishingly small percentage of titles published in the U.S. are translations and fewer are poetry translations. Shim Bo-Seon is a Korean poet with an urban outlook, given to reflecting on domestic questions and big philosophical questions alike with an off-handed, self-deprecating wit. There’s a little bit of a Frank O’Hara quality to these poems, but Shim Bo-Seon’s poetry is a little more crest-fallen, a little less exuberant. But this is a poetry that refuses easy emotional binaries and to me this is one of the qualities that make his poetry unpredictable and interesting. Partly this is due to the inventiveness with which Bo-Seon uses language, turning it back on itself, inflecting sentences one way then another. Everything is examined with a fresh eye. Reflecting on men on a park bench, Bo-Seon writes: “Inside their dark coats/dark bread and dark hearts are enclosed./How are bread and hearts alike? They both grow black and hard with age./But who knows?/Each of them might have an interesting story to tell.” If “the shade of unknowing” is the conclusion Bo-Seon most often arrives at, his is a poetry that makes the journey to get there full of surprises. The translators are to be commended for producing an elegant, engaging, idiomatic English translation that moves with a step all its own.—Jon Thompson