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"Rough, and Savage," by Sun Yung Shin. (Coffee House Press, 124 pages, $16.)
In "Rough, and Savage," Minneapolis poet Sun Yung Shin layers fragments from history texts and Dante's "Inferno" with her own elliptical verse. In their fractured collage-like syntax, Shin's poems enact what happens when the violence and erasure of history collide with the poetic impulse to make meaning.
In "Uri Nara" or "[Our Land]," Shin writes:
"I. Contemplate the meaning of aperture, of distance. / A pinhole camera and the silk-thin screen -- / II. / For us, there is a typical exposure time. / 'You put your F-stop in my solar eclipse.'"
Uri Nara is Korea, a country marked by violence, separation and exile -- all of which is reflected in the syntax: subject exiled from verb, pronoun from antecedent.
That the poem opens not with a description of the country, but of a camera, suggests Korea exists not as an actual entity, but only as an image. Whether that image is created by a camera or in language, it distorts what it represents.
The book's epigram, from Robert Pinsky's translation of "The Inferno," introduces the problem of communication: "To tell / About those woods is hard -- so tangled and rough, / And savage." Fragments of this translation appear throughout the book.
As the poem's title suggests, Shin is interested in how those in power force parts of history from view. She explores this idea further in her "Redaction" poems, which erase portions of the CIA's World Factbook entry on Korea. Her redaction enacts violence on the text, rending apart sentences.
Much of Shin's work reads like redactions, offering fragments to be explored, investigated and interrogated, making her reader equal partner in the creation of meaning.
"Y," by Leslie Adrienne Miller. (Graywolf Press, 114 pages, $15.)
"Y," the title of Leslie Adrienne Miller's sixth collection of poetry, refers to the chromosome indicating maleness. In poems that explore the relationship between mother and son, the boy remains a cipher.
"There was never a time when she knew / what the boy was thinking, and today / she's sure she never will."
In one poem, the child is described as a "huddle of spine" who "conjures claws and heft, a taste / for the big and the mean." Watching him make a box for Valentine cards is "the workshop / wherein we learn at last what's in that wallop / of genes."
Miller's syntax is complex; she drapes long brambly sentences down a half-dozen lines of poetry.
In "Diary of a Sentence," she writes that a sentence is a "wonderland, / torture chamber, boudoir, closet, / whatever can be locked behind a door."
These searching sentences are a delight to read. Miller's investment in strangeness -- odd jumbles of quotes, disturbing images and wrenched sentences -- remind us that a partner to strangeness is awe. What enthralls is never the familiar.
"Salt Pier," by Dore Kiesselbach. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 78 pages, $15.95.)
The speaker of Dore Kiesselbach's "Winter Reeds" examines snow-covered earth: "Casual study grown / intense, then forensic."
Kiesselbach's debut collection, "Salt Pier" (winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize), relies on such penetrating observation. Poems often use a single image -- meticulously described and most often from nature -- as entry point to more profound territory.
"Turkey Fallen Dead From Tree" begins with a turkey "startled from snow-day slumber" unable to "solve the problem of the white / pines limbs." As the speaker buries the carcass, he relishes the idea: "What was hoarded / by a man may by / the thaw be doled."
His language is compressed; sentences compacted by a geologic pressure to remove unnecessary words, leaving only the most apt. Turkey feathers stuck in a pot are "wiltless," fields are "God-broad," and an ant caught under the ray of a magnifying glass pauses "as if considering / a huge question / coming from within."
Kiesselbach prizes compression over clarity and buries narrative in the recesses of his images. Perhaps story is beside the point as the poet invites us to listen to "windrustle unloading / histories of wordlessness."
"Odessa," by Patricia Kirkpatrick. (Milkweed Editions, 82 pages, $16.)
Kirkpatrick charts her experience with surgery to remove a tumor pressing on her amygdala, which processes emotion and memory -- the "emotional core of the self."
"Am I more for what they've taken or less / for what I've lost?" To confront questions about what constitutes the self, Kirkpatrick looks to a variety of sources. In her crown of sonnets, "Time of Flowers," she knits fragments from other writers -- Laurie Sheck, Carolyn Forché, Peter Sachs -- into her own, as if what we've read becomes part of our being.
She also looks to myth, using the story of Persephone as analogy for all manner of losses -- loss of self, a child missing, a divorce.
Kirkpatrick's language is unflinching and beautiful: "I want to lick him, naked, forehead to toe / the way a doe would tongue a fawn ... / But you must not touch one who doesn't belong to you."
The book offers no explicit answer to the questions it raises about the self. Perhaps what makes us is not answers, but the search and swirl around our "invisible / core" provoked by such questions.
"The Boy Who Slept Under the Stars: A Memoir in Poetry," by Roseann Lloyd. (Holy Cow! Press, 106 pages, $15.95.)
In her fourth collection, Roseann Lloyd grieves her brother, who disappeared while hiking. These poems are saturated with references to his body, as if she could conjure it in words. She recollects "his bony wings," imagines his feet making prints in snow, and dreams of feeding him.
While the first section focuses on her grief, the second opens to include missing students, MIA soldiers and children lost to war. She writes: "if families have no / body no voice no picture they need at least / story to contain the body."
These poems attempt to offer such stories. Fittingly, their language is straightforward and narrative. With aching precision, Lloyd crafts pellucid images. Sandhill cranes are "awkward, big, and creaky -- like those driftwood sculptures"; and the "solstice sun on the ice / mirrors time skipping back to us."
However, the speaker acknowledges poems are not enough: "Even though I've said, for two years now, I don't need his body / to do my mourning, I'm suddenly desperate / to touch your arms, muscled and tan."
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and critic in Pittsburgh.