I thought I’d share my reviews of the books of poetry I’ve been working closely with for my project! I highly recommend getting your hands of both of these. They’re very different, but I got a lot from reading them, particularly from reading them sort of in conversation with each other.
Disclaimer: I still haven’t finished Cannibal. It is a beautiful book, but heavy stuff. I issue caution in trying to read it quickly; it will overwhelm you (emotionally as well as literarily).
Undefining: A Review of Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal
Oxford English Dictionary defines “cannibal”: noun, A person who eats the flesh of other human beings. Origin Mid 16th century: from Spanish Canibales (plural), variant (recorded by Columbus) of Caribes, the name of a West Indian people reputed to eat humans.
Safiya Sinclair’s premier full-length book of poetry seeks to redefine this word: to interrogate its origins and find within it the beauty and violence that permeate its eight weighty letters. Winner of the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, Cannibal explores in five sections of polyvocal poems questions of identity, family, womanhood, blackness, and space. Among its voices are the academic, “Osteology” a complex ode to the study of skeleton; the insightful daughter in “Family Portrait” defining her family through the dinner table; even creating space for the voice of Shakespeare’s Caliban, The Tempest’s misunderstood island native made slave.
The book organizes itself in five sections, each one defining itself a space. We come to know the poet’s straddling of identities, a Jamaican woman moved to the United States, through explorations of “home,” America, the female body, and the complexities of language, of dialect. And in these explorations, the book becomes manipulative, subverting canonical themes, critiquing founding documents, allowing marginalized selves to reclaim their personhood, to avenge their family. Drawing upon the images of the Caribbean landscape, Sinclair’s poems use the softness of greenery, the harshness of the sea and all that lies in between to give voice to the “Half monstrous” on the cover, allowing it to redefine itself.
These lush images are accompanied by an absolutely mastery of language; rich lines, stanzas bursting with sound and deftly-handled line breaks. “The Art of Unselfing” could be retitled “The Art of Writing Poems,” though shouldn’t be, as any disruption to the poem on the page as is would corrupt the art. The “Penscratch of the gone morning, woman/ a pitched hysteria watching” so carefully placed two stanzas above “Her moth-mouth rabble unfacing these/ touch-and-go months under winter.” Cannibal is kenning and reinventing, “un”ing words in an attempt to remake history, to reverse the damage and own oneself wholly.
Confined to Large Spaces: A Review of John McCarthy’s Ghost County
I have never been to the midwest, but I imagine it’s something like the word expanse, in its many forms. Expansive, its wide roads and endless fields. Expansion, its discovery a result of American “Manifest Destiny.” And yet, John McCarthy’s book seems to express a limit to this word, an inability to expand outside this space.
Ghost County is McCarthy’s debut book of poetry, published in 2016. Its minimalistic design, bound in white, featuring two monochrome images in a large grey rectangle blocked on the cover, the book, on a physical level, feels like it is trying not to take up space, but rather to shrink into the corner of the bookshelf where no one might notice its thin, blank spine.
We open to the first of the book’s three sections, “Back Roads Out of Loneliness,” and we head down one of those wide roads in Kansas or Indiana or maybe Illinois. The limitation of this book, also perhaps its strength, is the confinement such an expanse presents: we cannot escape the fences like “rotting teeth, corn husk,” the “Pall Malls,” or the “cracked powder-brick church[es].” This midwestern Ghost County is everywhere and nowhere, and no matter how far we drive, we never leave its blue-collar images or melancholic tone. The back roads out of loneliness a lie, an impossibility, road signs switched around like some cruel prank that leaves us driving in a loop.
And these limits extend themselves beyond tone and image, but also to content. The American Midwest explored here through teen angst, through alcohol and drug abuse, small-town Americana, and automobiles, it seems to ignore explorations of race-relations, gender inequality, even the complexities of midwestern poverty. A loss in that we lose out on large explorations of this space as more than cornfields and county fairs, there is something to be said about the collection’s seeming blindness: a blindness that the nation faces when thinking about the midwest as a space. The blurring of spaces much like the way most New Yorkers couldn’t name any of the midwestern states on a map.
McCarthy’s poems here appear unflinching, gritty in the way they lack reflection and introspection and present instead visceral images and recognizable spaces. Yet this same lack reveals a distinct flinching away from what allows the reader to understand these poems as something distinct. We lose our speaker to familiarity, the important and succinct voice that makes poetry more than image drowned out by the sound of the pick up truck.
Acknowledging this flinching, these limitations as intentional and crucial to the work here on the page, Ghost County certainly conveys a sense of claustrophobia, of inescapability. Even the penultimate poem, “On the Day I Left Town,” seems unsure that it truly has left; an imagined chorus of trumpets and ukeleles presenting a sort of dreamspace, leaving us questioning the event’s reality. Useful and subversive in thinking of the midwest as spacious, the reader finds herself uncomfortable in realizing the ways in which this expansiveness may trap us, the way these country roads may lead us nowhere but back to where we started.