RaveChicago Review of Books[Walker-Figueroa\'s] language feels especially fresh, precise, and full of possibility beyond the meanings of the words themselves ... Yet to focus only on these complex connections doesn’t do this collection justice. There’s a tremendous delight in experiencing Walker-Figueroa’s own philomathic nature, and her graceful use of language ... The collection houses a number of multipage poems that are still, at their core, exquisitely concise; evidence of Walker-Figueroa’s skill, and yes, her innate philomathism. There’s a rooting here to the essential nature of how we connect—or disconnect—from our past, our classifications, what cages us. These poems both move deeper into these realms, and offer a way to slip away from such encirclements.
Ai Weiwei, Trans. by Allan H. Barr
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... beautifully translated ... Ai Qing’s literary career and life—which takes up the first third of the book—occurred at a time of remarkable change in China, and the sharp, unexpected shift from celebrated poet to public enemy underscores the tectonic plates inherent to an autocratic state. And in truth, as this memoir imparts—as our own present circumstances dictate—there is nothing that is settled and secure, and we have limited time before potentially calamitous events happen in our own lives. What will we do with the time given us? How will we make our mark? Who will we stand up for, and what risks are we willing to take to be true, and to be truly human? ... in the same way that he tackles large-scale artistic projects, Ai has sculpted an expansive and uncategorizable memoir that is entirely about exceptionally dangerous memories and people and creations that were meant to be forgotten ... When there are no definitions, boxes, rules, or evergreen processes, society and authorities are threatened to be sure, but what results is often reflective of how history and nature shift, fall dormant and re-animate. In many ways, Ai sees the world as the ultimate canvas, and everything on it a form of expression, though the artist doesn’t have an elevated role, any more than anyone else does ... feels like a multi-floor retrospective focused on artistic and political lives through tumultuous eras in 20th and 21st century China ... The curation is thorough but not all encompassing; both large in scale and minute in detail depending upon the projects, much like Ai’s works themselves. This open-endedness is entirely appropriate, because these stories—especially those of the millions of people suffering persecution anonymously throughout the world—will never be over ... After several hundred pages, one also feels that at its core, this is a love letter, to his father, ancestors and compatriots to be sure, but especially to and for his young son, Ai Lo.
RaveChicago Review of Books... an exquisitely small collection—the way an atom that contains the world is small—that further solidifies Glück’s place as one of the eminent poets of our time ... This work exists in multi-temporality where beginnings and endings cross each other like a game of cat’s cradle ... This collection is a contemplation of loss and grief and as well as what may yet come. It provides a roadmap from which to unpack and reconfigure our lives as poets and philosophers have done for humankind since language was afforded us ... In this poetry—as in many Eastern notions of time and the universe—there’s less of a quest for answers than this notion of constant change that is also entwined with the concept of stillness. Being and observing—and at the same time observing the inner self—is the point. Indeed, one can imagine that the speaker could also be the concierge; both the guide and the one who is guided ... , Glück explores many such small and powerful moments, those that are building blocks of the most complex issues of life and philosophy. It’s in this quietude that we see what we must hoard for the winter of our lives: the sights, sounds, loves, memories that we need to get us through to the next season whatever and whenever that may be.
Tracy K. Smith
RaveChicago Review of Books....this book is an unflagging, accretive wave after wave of simultaneously grounded and transcendent content ... After nearly twenty years of award-winning work, there are different thematic emphases and shifting political contexts across the books sampled for this compilation. Yet, underscoring both the consistency of her talent and the fine hand in curating this collection, it feels as if it is all one ever-deepening conversation she is having with herself, with the ancestors, with this world, and with us ... Throughout Such Color, there are poems of witness about horrific acts of desecration and the limitless unending cruelties of which humans are capable ... Reading through this collection of collections, one is keenly aware that though external details shift, the underlying aspects of humanity, such as it is, and the global political machinery, such as it is, are our enduring and sometimes hideous features ... Smith’s tone is often ecstatic, generation-spanning, and despite all past—and present—violence, calls to the future with an emphatic statement of resistance and eternal existence.
PositiveThe Colorado ReviewThese letters—addressed to unnamed family members, educators, friends, even to silence—may appear to be one-way communications, but the reader is carbon copied as confidant and silent recipient, enjoined to consider her own experiences of memory and loss ... these essays aren’t simply about grief. They are also an attempt to reframe one’s narrative—creating a bespoke suit of what one knows, doesn’t know, and can never know ... These letters to the past that are paving stones to the future is the verdant ground that Victoria Chang explores in these, dare I say, memorable essays.
PositivePloughsharesEach chapter profiles an artist whose fascinating accomplishments, excesses, and tragedies are used as an anchoring device to parallel or contrast with related themes in Specktor’s own life. The result is an unflinching, honest account of Specktor’s life, as well as a tender ode to failure ... Specktor examines and embraces the grittiness of his own experiences, calling out the consequences of fame that may far exceed the ephemeral rewards. In doing so, Specktor takes control of his own narrative ... What echoes long after the credits roll is the intimate investigation of one man’s imperfect life, the successes and failures, and most importantly, the realization that who we are now is everything.
Yan Ge tr. Jeremy Tiang
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksYou’ll have a decision to make when you start reading Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China. Will you willpower yourself to one story a night and savor each paragraph, immersing deeply in an alternate world? Or will you forego sleep and race through, riding the momentum of breathtaking inventions and repetitions that strike deeply into the core of what it is to be human? ... The multiple temporalities of the different species offer a heady reading experience, which is anchored by the details Yan Ge metes out, another sign of her assured storytelling ... readers are immediately engaged on a personal level, regardless of whether or not they like or fear or hate the same things ... Even as our protagonist is tumbled about like a new leaf in a sudden squall, the real storyteller, Yan Ge, is in precise control of the narrative, especially necessary if we are to reside and believe in this world. In her delicate and powerful hands, readers will not want to leave ... One could term these stories Scheherazadean, but that doesn’t do them nor their author, justice. Yan Ge—who writes in Sichuanese, Mandarin and English—and her talented translator Jeremy Tiang have created a mesmerizing experience that speaks to both our wonder at \'once upon a times\' as well as our deepest examinations of what is beastly and humane in our world and ourselves ... With Yan Ge’s poetic prose and limitless imagination, this would have been a satisfying novel even if it were solely a series of exquisite tales and allegories, but her scope and talent arrow far beyond such boundaries ... It’s a more beautiful world because of these remarkable, unforgettable stories. That I’m sure of. That I know.
RaveChicago Review of BooksHer poetry is in turn thrilling, dizzying, devastating, lyrical, distinctive, and this is a bombshell of a collection ... The first section uses classical mythology as a structural allegory, challenging common perspectives of the ur-god Zeus, including how he and his characteristics are represented in modern times ... Yet through adult eyes, our modern lens, the acts that Zeus engaged in—rape, murder, treachery, lying and theft—question who we mistakenly admire, surrender our agency to, and allow to have unadulterated, unquestionable power ... As affecting as the allegories were in the first half of the collection, the second peels into Benson’s experiences and anxieties as a woman, and as a mother of daughters. The two parts are connected, deeply, because in our mythology, in our history, in our present, our daughters aren’t safe: they are always subject to capricious gods, or selfish men, or despots, or nature itself ... Vertigo & Ghost is in every way—sound, syntax, and linguistic impact—indelible poetry that is used in service of expression, revelation and instigation. Benson effortlessly wields striking language and oft-times shocking imagery in a way that leaves readers thrilled by the experience of the poem while devastated by its content. We tremble on that sharp high wire, miles up from the ground, buffeted by her themes and language, stabilized by her assured hand.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... phenomenal ... through semi-fictional characterizations and lyrical prose, Lee creates an unforgettable study of a person and time, marrying fact and imagination, adding a vibrancy of color to the faded sepia of microfiche articles and photographs. He has an innate understanding of how \'one’s past is as much of a work of imagination as one’s future\' and equally, how what we try to escape often comes to haunt us, even New York itself ... Lee’s surgically precise descriptive powers aren’t limited to the richness of Green’s life ... Lee delicately folds extrapolations from public records and other sources into evocative, poetic language that reaches out like the branches of one of the trees in Green’s beloved Central Park. ... Lee excels at underscoring such comparisons, engaging the reader on multiple levels, which is the arena of the best fiction, historical or otherwise ... The term historical fiction seems as dry as forgotten toast, but in the right hands it creates a parallel timeline that marries what we know with what could have been. Many could write a meaningful biography about Andrew Haswell Green and his achievements. But what Lee has done is far greater, by creating a novel that lives in that ineffable space where what was—at least what was on record—lives alongside what might have been, through a captivating Circe-like writing style ... There’s a special resonance in reading this book as an immigrant, because in a sense, Green was also an immigrant to New York, striving to create a space of his own, to become what he couldn’t become elsewhere. As much as Green’s achievements reveal a tremendous love for New York, so too this novel feels like a love letter to the city. It would be easy to recommend The Great Mistake for its confident, well-researched and impeccably crafted take on a singular individual who had so much to do with the creation of New York City as we know it. The parks, the museums, the library, so many aspects of shared public resources which give this city life and attempt to balance the wide rift between the excessively wealthy and the rest of us. But you should really read this book for Lee’s exquisite prose, his poetic shadings of a life and a time in which so much was possible.
Natalia Ginzburg trans. by D. M. Low
RaveChicago Review of BooksReading Ginzburg in translation is ironic as one of her talents is in exploring what can’t be directly expressed. She investigates the layers of meaning behind even simple communications between family, friends, and lovers. These are people whose lives intersect and push boundaries constantly, yet even with such intimacy—often stifling geographically—there is distance between them. There is no distance at all, however, with the reader. In Ginzburg’s careful hands, one quickly forgets there’s an authorial voice as her characters are engaging storytellers themselves. This intimate web of tales makes readers guests at these family events, overhearing secrets and watching their inconsistencies and peccadilloes that makes them as alive as the author states they are.
June Jordan ed. by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller
RaveChicago Review of BooksCreating a fresh playlist of such a critical voice in modern American poetry is both a significant challenge for the editors and a satisfying reward for us. The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller, is a generous collection which samples poems—some unpublished—across decades, making one distinctly aware of how important Jordan is to our current discourse. The most indispensable poets—and she is easily on that list—are both of their time and oddly prescient, and that is proven repeatedly throughout this collection. What sets this book apart from others that try to capture the career-long portrait of a singular author between two covers is the editorial decision to present the work in an achronological manner ... This may not be the definitive compilation of Jordan’s oeuvre, whatever that might be, but it is decidedly a necessary one—and one that will rightly urge readers to seek out more of her work.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... features Hanif Abdurraqib’s considerable talents as a poet, essayist and thoughtful social commentator. Reading this book reminded me of listening to the late night DJs of my youth who used songs as the starting point to improvise a jazz solo of murmured conversation and mellifluous contemplation. Abdurraqib also belongs in the special order of those who magically entwine musicality, voice and narrative in the liminal place between sleep and wakefulness where all is possible, and temporality is fluid ... Stylistically, the repeated title points to the many stories that can be told on the same subject, but it also reflects Abdurraqib’s compelling ability to innovate and riff off the same introductory notes ... Throughout this collection, Abdurraqib underscores the freedom and the power of choosing to be jubilant in the face of pain, oppression, and others’ opinions: the way those young people used their few minutes on the dance line to express themselves in the moment, and through the videos, eternally ... Abdurraqib is especially brilliant at contemplating our humanity through the lens of the arts, and each of these essays has a sonic flair, as if prose can’t contain his innate musicality. Another hallmark is how seamlessly Abdurraqib inserts moving personal experiences into his contemplations of Black life and performance ... Abdurraqib’s book is a dance in literary form; he moves with us and entices us to move toward him, to engage in one of the most intimate of social interaction...sAnd a magnificent partner he is, both leading and leaving enough space for the reader to inhabit the experiences he creates in his exceptionally engaging prose ... Abdurraqib’s fascinating research into historical customs and rituals is deftly married to sometimes achingly personal revelations, yielding a singular poetic rumination about the self and society. He effectively uses popular culture to illustrate the repeated attempts to diminish and outright erase Black people, and, more important, elevate their undeniable contributions to the best of America. He also appropriately calls many of us to account ... After completing this collection what remains in my mind and heart—a beautiful echo—is that subtle yet mighty secondary title, the praise and celebration for Black performers and Blackness overall. There’s much joy in this book, as there is in the lives that Abdurraqib explores, including his own. We need that joy, that celebration, this book.
RavePloughsharesNatalie Shapero is a linguistic sharpshooter with merciless accuracy. Her third collection, Popular Longing , connects the inconsistencies, contradictions, and sheer absurdity of humanity with repeated bullseyes ... Here as in many of these poems, by pruning excuses and obfuscating language, Shapero subtly encourages readers to consider what a life is, and the futility—and absurdity—of attempting to value it in objects or conventional success ... Shapero is an incisive social critic, cutting through the smog of self-absorption and contradictions between what is said and done. In her work, hope and futility waltz together, amid underlying essential truths about our lives, which are tragic, conflicted, farcical, and a one-time-only, singular experience ... Indeed, Shapero’s interest is in all of our popular longings, and in her thoughtful and inventive manner, she questions the likelihood of attaining our dreams, as well as whether or not these dreams serve us in the first place ... a dark, delightful, and insightful collection is both a clear-eyed reflection of and an antidote for our times.
RavePloughshares...a coming-of-age story, a captivating blend of history and mythology, and a lyrical study of society and politics during the turn of 20th century China ... Interweaving history within the narrative, these annotations offer insight into \'significant places and people with information about their life and fate within the whirlwind of twentieth-century Chinese history,\' as well as blur what we consider fact or fiction. For Fei, the mythological and the historical are fluid, and the expanse of time can be as languid as honey or as fast as a sudden hailstorm. These cities and individuals existed and many of the events occurred, but there’s a constant shifting of ground in determining what is rooted in fact and what is pure imagination. Yet isn’t all history suspect, depending upon who writes it?
Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe ambitious content is a blend of subject matter, through visual images and literary conversations from a full expanse of sources, including social media, photography, art installations, articles, texts, essays, studies and collaborations. The only missing element—understandably—is live performance (though there are discussions of theatrical events such as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview), which underscores how this compilation is a jumping off point for discussion, rather than a static destination ... There are thematic sections that encompass both the political and persona...yet the subject matter wanders organically via such broad headings. There are many connections across these rooms, both through specific links suggested by the editors, as well as the individual delights of paging back and forth, performing a kind of Luddite hyperlinking ... the sum of its parts is nothing short of exhilarating. It’s an unexpected irony that this traditionally printed product inspires one to search the internet for more, and equally that these words and images somehow appear more durable on a fungible page than in the permanent cloud ... political—as life is political—and joyous. One of the great accomplishments of this book is that though it addresses the systemic harm, literal and figurative, done to Black people, which incites sorrow and rage and underscores the immediate demand for justice and parity, the overall experience is that of a dwelling full of pride, elation and opportunity. The editors have artfully fashioned a mansion without limitations, and hint at rooms still to be seen, perhaps to be filled by subsequent voices and editions ... A book that so meaningfully creates diverse discourse necessitates a community conversation ... an admirable, generative and thoroughly essential curation that offers space and spaces from which to crusade, celebrate, reflect, and create more archives and platforms for Black futures.
RaveChicago Review of BooksNikki Giovanni—one of the great poets of any generation—still has much to impart in Make Me Rain, her hybrid autobiography of poems and prose ... there’s a refreshing discordance in reading Giovanni’s newest and especially personal collection ... Reading these poems feels like an intimate conversation with the writer in a sunlit room, with famous and familial names wandering through the narratives ... Giovanni’s power is in her resilience and in her commitment to the word and her world, to her influences, peers and literary progeny. These works are shaped by her vantage point at this stage of her life, offering a resistance that is led by the indestructible power of love, community and language ... History matters. Storytelling matters. Who we choose to be matters. Nikki Giovanni—this collection—reminds us of why.
francine j. harris
RaveChicago Review of BooksHarris employs a variety of structures—language, science, music, among others—and then confidently pushes beyond their containers to expose the power and possibility of poetry, and life ... A poet of ideas and emotions, of the personal and politic, harris also writes sublimely about the environment and what it represents about this nation ... harris reveals one of the roles of the contemporary poet: to expose unpleasant truths of the past and present, to call out the aspects of our worst selves ... The use of form to amplify content is evident throughout the collection ... she employs the monostich—a structure most used in 19th century Russian and French poetry, then later in modern poetry—to great effect ... writing...this bold, this complex, suggests the reader can be subsumed by such dazzling content. Yet harris is an expert practitioner and guide; we are always in her orbit, captivated as she manipulates language, un-doing worn traditions, engaging the reader intimately, and unforgettably.
RavePloughshares... an eminently readable, tailored essay collection ... Bolina’s book seeks to perform a different endeavor—not erasure, but rather recognition of all that is similar and different among us. His tools—empathy, the ability to face difficult aspects of himself and others, and, of course, the gift of language—create a space for both old identities and new, for himself, others, and our society at large ... Throughout the collection, Bolina works to dismantle these internal and external entrapments, which may \'offer our best rescue from alienation, apathy, and atrocity, from ourselves and each other\' ... Bolina is sympathetic to his father’s perspective, imagining the racism he’s endured, but his own experiences are generationally and culturally different. He’s adept at speaking the language of his time—literally and figuratively—and that provides him a visa into other realms. Yet, the challenging experiences of his father and other family members that populate this collection return repeatedly, a plumb line that stabilizes, anchors, and deepens Bolina’s investigations. It is clear that he can never not be of color, regardless of his success ... Bolina’s essays are at their best when he weaves anecdotes about his family with broader issues around immigrancy, representation, and identification ... explores the experience of being of color, being an immigrant, being American, and being human with an admirable fluency, entrusting us with an honest conversation that we all should be having with each other. We are now at a critical, horrifying inflection point, societally and politically. But Bolina’s collection shares the crucial truth: we can only survive if you are my person, and I am yours.
PositivePloughsharesFrom the outset, O’Neill’s use of form—complex, sometimes disjointed language and short chapters—replicates the increasingly fragmented world of the protagonists ... Employing both abstract and concrete data—real-world events that subtly inform us of the passage of time interspersed with espionage double-speak and psychological, business lingo—O’Neill charges readers to decide what information to retain and which character to believe. That’s a distinct risk, but one that pays off for those willing to commit to the intricate universe the author has created. Equally compelling is O’Neill’s mastery of language, as much at ease writing codespeak...as she is writing near haikus on love ... Beyond conspiratorial thrills, this is a book about intimacy and loyalties yearned for and lost ... these individuals—we—are often unable to see through our faulty human screens of fears, illusions, and hopes, especially burdened by an increasingly fractional and artificial society. In Quotients, O’Neill tackles this blindness, and the result is a distinct, unconventional narrative with no easy conclusions.
RaveThe RumpusIn these streets, in these homes, with these homies, a hug, a strike, a verse, are all prayers and vows: to live, to love, to leave a mark. In a time when so many people are under attack, when so many of us are feeling emotionally and physically under attack, Smith extols the values of friendship. Indeed, the epistolary form they employ, and the frequent use of the second person, offers an engagement that deepens the intimacy the reader feels. Could I be one of Smith’s homies? I would like to be. The relationships in Homie are relationships that are honest, complicated, supportive, and unforgettable, honoring the ones who’ve been lost. In this fraught world—which has become even more dangerous as this essay has been written—it is our homies who will help us survive. Smith’s poems are fierce love letters to them, and in the heady pleasure of reading them, to us.
RaveJacket 2Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf offers various artist portraits of its own, exploring this ground with candor and lyricism, traversing time, culture, and language to create a poetic topography that is both familiar and unexpected ... There’s a suggestion of a reversal of Dante’s Inferno whereby Akbar starts with the dismantling of the self, through a rebirth of mortal desires and delights and, ultimately, a nascent grace. Yet ruminations on the experience of and emergence from addiction are only one layer of these poems. The book strips the self of its protective covering and in so doing gets to the core of what it is to love, grieve, embrace joy, inflict pain, and seek redemption ... Akbar’s poems question the very nature of a self-portrait: can it ever impartially reflect its creator? ... Poets who are bicultural often touch on displacement and exile, but language—and its limitations—is at the heart of many of these poems. What language do we employ when we are speechless with loss? How do we reconcile our heritage, our desires and shames, the disparate pieces that make up an individual? Akbar’s response is to employ a lasered inward eye to refine and strengthen the foundation of the outward ... The poet pulls back the veil on the illusion that his words are always illuminating or truthful. Ironically, with the turn of that curtain—both poetically and personally—Akbar the poet offers an intimacy the speaker is incapable of ... Akbar uses language as both entreaty and absolution.