Rae Armentrout,
Money Shot

Evie Shockley,
The New Black

Elizabeth Willis,

(Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

Wesleyan University Press has, since its origin in the mid-1950s, chalked up five Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize. three National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards and an American Book Award. Safe to say it's a top of the line series, well respected and highly influential. It has also, over the years, remained one of the most adventurous university presses. Not content to deal only with academic poetry, as so many university presses do, Wesleyan has taken seriously its commitment to the form, publishing only on the basis of quality, not school or type of poetry.

These three books continue the tradition. Rather than being safe, conventional poetry, all three flirt with the avante-garde and all feature poets who speak with their own voices in their own particular styles. And all three books are excellent.

Rae Armentrout's Money Shot features a dream-like poetry, where the ordinary glides into the surrealistic in a line, where nothing is exactly what it seems and where we wind up questioning the very nature of reality.

Consider her poem "Homer," which begins:

If the good is momentum,
smooth passage,
putting all this
behind you,

evil is the whirlpool,
the amplified local.

If good is all-enduring
that carries you
to the future

Evil is the present's
animal magnetism.

Then the poem addresses the "wily one" who operates in disguise but sometimes appears in his own person, causing people to say "If only he would come again/as he once was."

Reading Armentrout, you too will find yourself wondering at the nature of opposite abstractions and the very question of who we, as well as the wily ones, truly are.

In her book Address, Elizabeth Willis addresses a wide range of topics such as American politics, poisonous plants and flow charts, all with insight and humor. She is in love with lists: "Poisonous Plants in America" makes its point by simply listing, in alphabetical order, America's poisonous plants. Where she excels in the list form, though, is in her longer poem, "The Witch," where she makes a series of statemnts about witches:

        A witch can charm milk from an axe handle.
        A witch bewitches a man's shoe.
        A witch sleeps naked.
        "Witch ointment" on the back will allow you to fly through the air.
        A witch carries the four of clubs in her sleeve.
        A witch may be sickened at the scent of roasting meat.

Willis can make a simple list make a huge statement and can make a serious statement humorously, as she does in a poem about contemporary politics, "This is Not a Poem About Katherine Harris." Hers is a wide-ranging book and a fine one that you'll return you often.

Evie Shockley's The New Black offers, from a feminist perspective, an examination of what it means to be African-American in the United States today. Some of it is explicitly political:

only 3 of 3000 black boys
entering kindergarten will graduate college --
in the night sky, shooting stars

everyday a black person
under 20 years old commits suicide --
plucked magnolia blossom's funereal perfume

a black man is 700% more likely
than a white man to be sentenced to prison --
scattered thunderstorms in may

every 3 minutes
a black child is born into poverty --
pine needles line the forest floor.

Others wrap their politics under the personal, such as "Owed to Shirley Chisholm" and "Notes to My Nieces."

Shockley is, among these three poets, the most adventurous in form. She is concerned with how her poems look on the page and goes for visual as well as aural and cognitive impact. Her poems form circles, experiment with line lengths, play with type faces and form odd patterns on the page. Simply turning the pages is a pleasant adventure.

So is reading the book.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

4 June 2011

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