“Don’t Call Us Dead,” by Danez Smith. (Graywolf Press, 88 Pages, $16.)
Danez Smith’s astonishing second collection, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, is a testament to the collective power of the queer black imagination and to Smith’s individual talent. He is one of the most original and powerful poets working today.
Smith, who lives in Minneapolis, acknowledges and counters violence in moments of miraculous transformation. They imagine “a world where everything/is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” A series of poems takes place in a paradisal afterlife populated by African-Americans killed by police. There the dead rename themselves RainKing and i do, i do.
These transformations envelop tragedy in tenderness and offer radical new possibilities. Smith describes being HIV-positive as: “in our blood/men hold each other/like they’ll never let go.” A homophobic slur translates as “i been waited ages to dance with you.”
This is not wishful thinking. Instead it is an urgent call to imagine and make possible a world without violence against black and queer bodies.
“The Interrogation,” by Michael Bazzett. (Milkweed Editions, 105 pages, $16.)
In his third collection, Minneapolis poet Michael Bazzett dedicates a poem to Charles Simic, a master surrealist. Bazzett’s reverence for the older poet is evident. They share a penchant for unsettling images soaked in unspecified dread.
Unnamed collectives casually propose violence: “Let’s kill everyone, they said. Okay, said the boy.” A cute image of a baby born in a “worsted-wool suit” turns sinister when the doctor speculates “those wingtips must have hurt.” Even intimacy involves vivisection. “I reached my open hand/into your chest and was startled/to find another hand waiting there.”
Like any good surrealist, Bazzett uses laserlike precision to craft his images. Men sawing apart a beached orca find a moose it its stomach, its “foreleg/folded neat/as a camp chair.”
Bazzett will read at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.
“Bird-Brain,” by Matt Mauch. (Trio House Press, 119 pages, $16.)
In “Bird-Brain,” Minneapolis poet Matt Mauch takes experiments of his previous two collections further. The long titles that characterized his previous work have doubled in size, becoming exhilarating explorations of the aesthetic possibilities of excess.
The poem titled “The true story of how I learned that the graveyard shift/meets at Prince’s for drinks at 6:30 a.m.” relates a dream about a bird and discourses on how the “idea of bird/is what I’m shadow to.”
These disjunctions celebrate how “the beautiful brain dithers.” Readers willing to participate in the idiosyncratic logic of these poems will be rewarded with moments ecstatic and strange.
“A Doll for Throwing,” by Mary Jo Bang. (Graywolf, 76 pages, $16.)
Mary Jo Bang’s brilliant eighth collection is based on the life of Lucia Moholy, a photographer who documented the Bauhaus, a German design movement. During the chaos of World War II, her negatives were stolen by a male colleague who passed them off as his own. This story initiates Bang’s “ongoing address to emptiness,” a poetic exploration of Moholy’s complex role within the Bauhaus as a model as well as a photographer.
Bang writes, “Every image of a woman speaks of a theatrical body performing a script.” Moholy used the very tool that fixed women as objects — “the terrible act of the photograph” — to create her artistic identity.
While “A Doll for Throwing” is an urgent work of art history and archival research, it also speaks directly to the present, a time when yet again “the right comes out of hiding and becomes the wrong thing.”
“Autopsy,” by Donte Collins. (Button Poetry, 51 pages, $16.)
Donte Collins’ debut collection begins in loss: “My mother moved out/of her body.” His grief is pure; he counts the “15,840 minutes” since she has died, each containing a “godless storm.”
However, Collins deftly complicates this purity. In the following pages the reader learns of the mother’s intense brutality, often in response to her son’s queerness. Mourning her means mourning “the belt & the hands that held the belt.” For this speaker, “forgiveness is a fertile thing — is what makes tomorrow grow.”
In poems driven by a relentless rhythm of repeated words and phrases or sculpted carefully on the page to evoke a voice broken by loss, Collins — recently named the first youth poet laureate of St. Paul — unflinchingly confronts the precariousness of being black and queer. He wonders “if the gun that will unmake me/is yet made.”
“Autopsy” announces a new poetic voice, one of fine intelligence and emotional resonance that speaks to the tender place where the personal and political collide.
“Sweet Velocity,” by Rachel Moritz. (Lost Roads Publishers, 76 pages, $15.)
Rachel Moritz’s second collection, “Sweet Velocity,” is delicate, elliptical and lyrical. As its title suggests, it also is very sweet. Never cloying, these poems speak to the powerful tenderness at the center of human experience.
Rather than narrating, her poems collect fragments around an experience. For example, while waiting to find out if an artificial insemination was successful, she notices: “My palm so like a cradle left me breathless.”
When her son appears as “the singular, bright ambulance of love,” her restrained and concise poems spill over into footnotes in an effort to accommodate this new abundance.
When the book shifts to her father’s death, it remains full of gentle, close observation. She calls her father “dear oversized god with your oversized heart” and yearns to “erase not his eyes/but the sound their closing makes.”
In this slender volume with an incredible economy of language, Moritz, who lives in Minneapolis, traverses an astonishing breadth of experience.
Elizabeth Hoover is a writer and poet in Milwaukee.