MixedThe New York Times Book Review... the various forms Chang chooses to use in her latest book struggle to give her ruminations and memories the structure they need ... Along with family photos, Chang shares marriage certificates, translated letters from cousins, even floor plans, though not all of these images have the same resonance. In fact, the cut-and-paste photos and documents are, in most cases, awkwardly juxtaposed with the text. There may be one clear point of connection between the image and the words — in that first collage, the phone that Chang notes is ringing is the phone hanging on the wall in the photograph — but these connections are either too literal or virtually nonexistent. Despite the intimacy of the images, they often still feel ornamental, included to imply history and depth without providing any new information or emotional ground that Chang doesn’t already explicitly cover in her letters ... And in those letters, Chang’s dogged adherence to form is admirable, but the epistolary format often suffocates the work. At times, her writing is as tender and precise as the form warrants ... But in most other cases, she addresses friends and acquaintances...indicative of how Chang uses these characters; they’re largely irrelevant, only necessary inasmuch as they serve as a buffer, or a bit of throat clearing, before she gets to the heart of her self-reflections ... There’s a palpable strain to Chang’s language here, which isn’t typical for the poet, who has established herself as a kind of Steinian modernist, using relentless repetition, rhyme, wordplay and contorted variations of the same basic syntax to both highlight the vital importance of language and render it irrelevant ... It’s hard to find resolution in these pieces, which is mostly fine until the work fumbles to whittle down the general — those vast abstractions like memory, silence and history, all of which she addresses in Dear Memory — into an autobiographical reckoning ... the metaphors topple into one another like dominoes, getting in the way of the history — or vice versa ... Despite Chang’s moments of lyric beauty, this is the trap she falls into. For as much as Chang wants to get personal with her parents’ history, her grief and her relationship to or disconnect from Chinese American culture, the language and structure sets her at a cool intellectual distance. Because one may try to speak intimately with Memory, but Memory may not necessarily speak back.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe book, fittingly, feels utterly of the mind, with its anxious inquiries and connections and diversions, not to mention all of Rankine’s brilliance—but for that same reason it can feel incoherent, insulated and disconnected from the world it depicts ... there isn’t really a Black \'us\' at work in Rankine’s book, only the space carved out and defined by whiteness ... the book feels like a sociological study meant for the classroom ... an interrogation, constantly unwinding a spiral of questions ... Rankine’s interior world is often suffocating. For paragraphs on end we’re stuck in her mind, her internal search for answers and clues ... there’s less sense of balance here between Rankine’s two prominent modes, poetry and criticism; her lyrics get short shrift. There are times when Rankine gets so mired in her sociological study that when she suddenly uses figuration and repetition to break a prose section out into a more poetic space, it’s welcome but jarring ... Not all of her ancillary materials are necessary; in fact, many are gratuitous, simply reinforcing the book’s function as an advanced thought exercise, plucking references to replicate the wanderings of Rankine’s mind ... even in Rankine’s inarguable genius, Just Us feels as if it skips a small step in the progression of the book, the movement from start to finish among the separate chapters ... Just Us is no doubt a work of acuity and insight. But ...Just Us can’t always overcome the bounds of its own imagination.
PositiveThe New YorkerIt can be easy, reading Harjo, to lose footing in such intangibles, but some of her themes achieve a strange resonance ... Harjo is at her most overtly political in her prose passages, which detail how the prejudices of white America erode the lives of Monahwee and other Native Americans. But her poems, too, veer into critique, though their strength varies ... Harjo is stunning in these moments of brutality, when she exposes the human potential for evil ... she shows a deft manipulation of structure, her dramatic enjambment (“What they cannot kill / they take”) giving depth to narrative turns and images. But, elsewhere, her control falters...in cases when the object of Harjo’s invective is vague, she loses the bull’s-eye strike of her specificity ... Harjo interrogates both one’s responsibility toward one’s culture and the fear of being buried under its weight. The result gives a sense of nuance to her work, implicating the very words on the page ... At their best, Harjo’s poems inform each other, linking her different modes, facilitating her tendency to zoom from a personal experience to a more empyrean one ... Harjo, though very much a poet of America, extracts from her own personal and cultural touchstones a more galactal understanding of the world, and her poems become richer for it.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review\"Even as he reckons seriously with our state of affairs, Brown brings a sense of semantic play to blackness, bouncing between different connotations of words to create a racial doublespeak ... in most poems Brown uses straightforward syntax studded with short sentences and questions pointed like arrows. In others, like \'Shovel,\' he flexes to the occasion ... But it’s Brown’s invented form, the \'duplex,\' a 14-line poem of staggered couplets that’s part pantoum, part sonnet and part ghazal, that showcases his particular strengths, in linking phrases and images, repeating words in a kind of transactional exchange of distance between the speaker and the reader... Brown’s poems are flirtatious, teasing us with moments of sexual and emotional vulnerability ... Sometimes conversations about the body, however, risk becoming nondescript ... even in their most searing moments, these poems are resilient out of necessity, faithful to their account of survival, when survival is the hardest task of all...\