“Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry From Harat, Afghanistan,” edited by Farzana Marie. (Holy Cow! Press, 162 pages, $16.95.)
Poet Nadia Anjuman was the first Afghan woman to publish a book after the Taliban fell. Shortly after her triumphant debut, her husband beat her to death and spent only a month in prison for the crime.
Anjuman’s story tragically demonstrates that, even post-Taliban, the position of Afghan women remains precarious. She writes, “Stifling songs is my abuser’s strongest skill.”
Her story opens “Load Poems Like Guns,” a collection of work by eight women poets from Afghanistan’s third-largest city. Editor Farzana Marie’s extensive introduction and meticulous translation notes offer an overview of Afghan poetry.
Even while participating in traditional forms and tropes from Persian literature, each poet included emerges as an individual voice.
Fariba Haidari writes long surreal poems: “Miracles newly decomposing, / as the smell of gunpowder permeates / the flower beds.” Elaha Sahel offers unsettling micro-poems: “Face caged, the quaking bird / discerns the owl, its omen-laden stare.” Nilufar Niksear confronts violence with stark images: “At night in this empty neighborhood / the village was drowned in bullets / blood still flowed up.”
This volume offers an important scholarly contribution to the study of Afghan poetry while making the startling beauty of these poems accessible to the general reader.
Reading, 3 p.m. April 12, SubText Bookstore, 165 Western Av., St. Paul.
“The Last Two Seconds,” by Mary Jo Bang. (Graywolf Press, 85 pages, $16.)
“The body was busy thinking, conjuring / the museum of a moment,” Mary Jo Bang writes in her masterful sixth collection of poetry. With poems possessing an unnerving stillness, “The Last Two Seconds” reads like a museum of “stone stock-still moments.” She writes: “We’re supposed to … live the waiting life.”
Bang translated Dante’s famously allusive text, “The Inferno,” and her own poetry is dense with canny and wide-ranging references from Franz Kafka to Cyndi Lauper. Conversational annotations invite the reader to explore the connections — and disconnections — between Bang’s sources.
References to stages, maps and blueprints blur representation and reality. The imagination commits real acts of violence; “Murders / happen everywhere, even inside the brain, a moment of anger / and just like that the other is over.”
Like dioramas, these poems reward patient exploration and prompt wonder at the artist’s precision. They are filled with a sense of dread as their strange scenes unfold:
“Death, said the cat, as it lifted a souvenir / trinket mermaid castle from the fish tank, / is day plummeting / behind a cruise missile set for a mid-sized city.”
“The Last Two Seconds” is an American masterpiece, revealing an extraordinary vision of this strange and disastrous time in which we live.
“Out of the Depths: Poetry of Poverty, Courage, and Resilience,” edited by Susan Deborah King. (Holy Cow! Press, 214 pages, $18.)
This collection features a diverse group of contributors: former poets laureate and former drug addicts; unemployed mill workers and struggling graduate students, urban and rural poor. The diversity shows how far-reaching poverty is. According to editor Susan Deborah King, these poems share “a cry at their center — a cry for voices of the suffering to be heard and for the dignity of those suffering to be honored.”
Prominent names include Heid Erdrich, Jane Yolen, Marilyn Nelson and Kevin Young.
An arresting poem by Minneapolis writer James P. Lenfestey describes a man in a writing workshop: “His hands offer the first poem, / its broken heart writhing like dragon smoke.”
Melissa Barber, a doctor in Cuba, spent time in New York City homeless shelters with her autistic daughter. She confronts the reader: “Did you hear about the babies who were bitten / by rats in their cribs last night?”
This is not an easy book; the poems are as unrelenting as poverty itself. In the words of poet Michael Glaser, the book “asks us if we have the courage / to look at this / and bear witness.”
Reading, 7 p.m. April 9, Westminster Church, 1200 Marquette Av. S., Mpls.
“The Voices,” by Michael Dennis Browne. (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 109 pages, $16.95.)
In 2005, the rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis commissioned poet Michael Dennis Browne and musician Stephen Paulus (who died in October) to write an oratorio for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
Browne’s lyrics to “To Be Certain of the Dawn” are included in this collection. They feature the voices of children lost in the camps. “Hands are for holding onto / hands are never for hurting us,” one girl says. A young boy laments, “I just wish / it didn’t hurt / where my tooth came out.” These moments are nestled within elevated diction befitting an oratorio: “We want no other earth than this, / This everywhere of holiness.”
The book’s final section examines tragedy on an intimate scale with elegies for friends and poems on recent events. “Shall We Gather” is about the 2007 Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis: “These were people, / unknown, loved / who flew awhile / … in this world of falling.”
The collection also includes a group of humorous short poems with lines such as “dog would go to a movie with rain / if rain were allowed in.” It’s a jarring tonal shift in an otherwise accomplished book.
The sixth annual Pankake Poetry Series will feature Michael Dennis Browne at 4 p.m. April 16, Elmer L. Andersen Library, Room 120, University of Minnesota.
“The Stuntman,” by Brian Laidlaw. (Milkweed Editions, 77 pages, $16.)
With telegram poems, italicized titles in brackets, references to Narcissus and Echo and an accompanying album by the author, “The Stuntman” has the overdesigned feel that plagues many debuts.
However, it also reveals Laidlaw’s unique talent in deadpan, witty poems that flash with plangent images and macabre moments.
An accomplished musician, Laidlaw beautifully limns the landscape of Bob Dylan’s childhood, Minnesota’s mining country, where: “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN CAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN.”
Laidlaw’s poems are often causal, punctuated with phrases like “but I don’t care” and “but so what.” He disavows his genre: “I should keep a record of poetry’s death in my dumb-dumb heart,” and “hey look the poems don’t accomplish anything.”
This style offers an interesting setting for sudden tonal shifts, when he breaks into a startling image or moves into the macabre: “You can’t upstage / the man cutting his face off.”
His punning and droll wit (“do whatever ‘cocks your revolver’ such as ‘cock your revolver’ ” ) may prompt a chuckle, but also offers sharp commentary: “is a commuter culture a culture?”
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.