Rave4ColumnsThe Nobel Prize–winning poet has been publishing for more than five decades, and much of that time has been spent analyzing despair, melancholy, and anguish ... The fact that she’s so defiantly unskilled at (and uninterested in) \'moving on\' is part of what keeps us readers coming back, in hopes of learning how we might live with our own insoluble griefs ... You’ll find no triumphs in her poems, no half-baked consolations. And yet, severe as a lot of her writing is, there’s tenderness in the way her voice beckons us. Her poems invite us into the grand enterprise of human struggle—a not insignificant gesture ... Winter Recipes from the Collective, her first volume in seven years, shows how gifted she is at coaxing new resonances and colors out of a minimalistic vocabulary. The same stark images recur ... In her late career, she’s still crying out the same sad songs, but in a richer, mellower timbre ... Glück may despise the platitudes of self-help literature, but it’s clear in this book that she sees poetry as some form of service; in their own way, her words light a path for us.
PositiveThe New YorkerAkbar is exquisitely sensitive to how language can function as both presence and absence. In his most recent collection ... words assume physical, palpable form—as reverberations in the mouth and ear—but can just as easily take on a spectral aura, reminding us of worlds and selves no longer within reach ... these poems ask what meaning can be found—or made—through partial revelation, in a world so often defined by misunderstandings: with others, with God, with ourselves. Sometimes the lack of clarity is literal. Flip through this book and you’ll notice formal and stylistic strategies that play at the edges of decipherability ... Akbar’s writing, like his halting translation, depends on resourcefulness, a surrender to a given set of materials, even those which elude understanding. The words he assembles are like so many puzzle pieces, and meaning is created even when they don’t fit ... What he hammers and builds—this book—is beautiful, but it isn’t always durable, or endurable ... Beneath the hyperbole of politics, Akbar uncovers a simpler, awkward humanity
Yi Lei, tr. Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi
Positive4ColumnsAn anthology of translations by the American poet Tracy K. Smith and the Chinese-born academic Changtai Bi, presented alongside Yi Lei’s original texts, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree reads like one long, insistent song of the self ... Yi Lei’s independent spirit collides with her interrogation of the very idea of personhood ... The poet’s gaze is so steadfastly inward that it’s surprising when, at the end of each section, she addresses a largely undescribed lover who has for whatever reason declined to come and live with her, a refrain made all the more resonant by the knowledge that cohabitation out of wedlock was illegal in China at the time ... Poets who operate primarily in a confessional mode tend to mine and ravage their psyches; few make a virtue of treating their minds as treasure, and it’s thrilling to encounter the ferocity with which Yi Lei protects hers ... When Yi Lei allows herself to surrender to pleasure, the results are frequently ecstatic, and her erotic verse is among the most vivid—and genuinely sexy—in modern Chinese literature ... Still, it’s unfortunate that the always-fraught issue of translation will be distracting for any reader, like myself, who is proficient enough in both languages to recognize the glaring chasms in style, tone, and content ... In many instances throughout the book, phrases, images, and metaphors that Smith and Bi could have brought into English with relative ease are needlessly contorted or jettisoned altogether, while elements that do not exist in the less flowery originals are allowed to proliferate like weeds ... I emerged from My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree in a state of confusion, grateful for having been introduced to Yi Lei’s intoxicating voice and for Smith’s undeniably supple musicality, but concerned about the false conclusions that English-only readers will draw from these willfully unfaithful renditions.
Rave4 ColumnsWhat power do individuals have to turn the wheels of change? In the view of Chinese author Ge Fei, whose work has just begun to trickle into English translation, the answer is resoundingly bleak ... while allusions to obscure real-life figures and to classical literature make the book a denser, less immediately accessible experience than The Invisibility Cloak , it doesn’t take much expertise to lose yourself in Ge Fei’s sinuous storytelling. There’s certainly no shortage of intrigue and atmosphere ... While the plotlines are too elaborate to summarize here, they elegantly track the movements of a large and vibrant cast of characters ... It’s because of the care the author lavishes on such physical details that, even in our perplexity, we do emerge from the book with the sensation of having returned from somewhere real, with memories as clear as still water.
Positive4ColumnsWhile Thomas Travisano’s new biography doesn’t focus exclusively on the writer’s experience as a lesbian, it does make clear just how much pain she was shielding herself from—and how quickly she had to master her lifelong tactics of self-preservation ... The contents of this first section are so dreary that it’s a testament to Travisano’s tonal control that the book never reads like a gratuitous display of scar tissue or a facile chronicle of healing and triumph ... crystallizes the importance of Bishop’s story, particularly for today’s LGBTQ readers. No matter how much Bishop would have abhorred life lessons and cultural arguments being spun out of her biography, it’s hard to read this book without finding in it a refutation of a certain liberal presumption: that to be closeted is to be in a state of self-ignorance and negation, to in fact be only partially alive ... one of Love Unknown’s most obvious virtues is the leisurely way it guides us through a seemingly bottomless archive of letters ... Though it’s sure to be a pleasure for most Bishop fans, Love Unknown reveals the limits of portraying historical queer subjects whose lives were shrouded in a certain amount of secrecy. To encounter her through this form is to look for a self that ensured its concealment, that even arguably made a fetish of it. The lukewarm descriptions of Bishop’s romances, and the general lack of curiosity about the discrimination and rejection one imagines she must have faced for being as minimally out as she was, must partly stem from a scarcity of material to draw on ... The reader is forced to meet her relative closetedness on its own terms—not as a vantage of deprivation, but as a singular worldview unto itself. If Travisano’s book leaves us feeling our own remove from this great artist, it doesn’t leave us wanting more either, and that’s a tribute to how Bishop designed her life—to how assiduously she protected it.
Pan4Columns... here the cumulative effect is not one of expansiveness but of an almost suffocating repetition. Olds not only recycles the strategies of earlier books—the headlong descriptions, the leaps from the minute to the cosmic, the intimation that the speaker is constantly on the cusp of some piercing revelation—she also draws from the same old well of ideas and scenarios, sometimes in ways so unvaried she risks self-plagiarism ... Tedious repetition may not be new or always unintended in Olds’s oeuvre, but it’s never been this overpoweringly pervasive ... There’s nothing more tiresome than half-baked astonishment, though, and in Arias, Olds frequently bogs down would-be rhapsodic passages with clunky metaphors and pseudo-wisdom ... Every once in a while, her lavish gifts as a storyteller come to the rescue, reminding us how cuttingly funny she can be when she lands on a juicy anecdote...But at other times her subject matter seems only cursorily thought through, and the consequences are most cringe-inducing in a handful of politically tinged poems in the book’s opening section ... If Arias counts as one of Olds’s most disappointing collections, it’s partly because it follows two of her finest ... For a poet who has so often been caught between a hankering for profusion and the limitations of her own autobiographical material, it makes sense that when her art falters, it would do so at the intersection of too much and not enough.
Positive4ColumnsAs with the best of McCrae’s work, the spark in these new poems lies not in their openings, which sometimes veer toward the heavy-handed, but in their unnervingly elegant resolutions ... McCrae knows how to write last lines that prick the heart and snap us into sudden perception ... He’s especially eloquent when observing, with an almost theological rigor, how familiar concepts—particularly the dichotomies of \'black\' and \'white,\' \'love\' and \'hate\'—become all the more amorphous in an unjust society ... As in his other books, you’ll find an array of styles and modes here, including first-person confessionals, historically rooted monologues, and...an extravagantly imagined infernal vision in which birds bark expletives and a giant beetle intones Trump-like boasts ... At times you can feel McCrae straining to broaden the scale on which oppression is depicted, to break it out of the typical autobiographical and sociological frameworks and see it for the intricate cosmology it is. Still, what fuels his most riveting moments are the smaller-voiced intensities ... If The Gilded Auction Block is more inconsistent than McCrae’s previous work (a fair amount of which is astonishing), the cumulative impact is still a powerful thing to reckon with.
Thom Gunn, Ed. Clive Wilmer
Positive4 Columns\"Encountering a sampling from Gunn’s 1992 masterpiece The Man with Night Sweats within the broader context of his career is a shock to the system, no matter how aware the reader is of the mercurial literary life that led up to it ... Read from cover to cover, the anthology suggests that to express suffering with such exquisite dispassion, it helps to have been a bit old-fashioned to begin with, and to have undergone a long apprenticeship in those Elizabethan literary ideals that discourage idiosyncratic personae and assertions of individual feeling ... It’s not to diminish his extraordinary gifts that I reiterate how much these late poems eclipse his others. In them, death gives his formalism a new, vengeful life, allowing the music of rhyme and meter to operate less as a signifier of aesthetic refinement and more as a desperate shield against grief.\