“The Last Incantations,” by David Mura. (TriQuarterly Books, 140 pages, $16.95.)
In his novels, memoirs and poetry, David Mura is known for writing from the point of view of a Japanese American. “The Last Incantations” includes poems about internment camps, struggles of immigrant families and what it’s like to be the exotic Other.
However, the volume begins on Sea Island in South Carolina, where runaway slaves “hid … scions of / a tongue they kept alive for their own.” There the speaker tells his sons “a history we can’t take back.”
The history that haunts Mura’s poetry is one of intersections, shared legacies of violence, confinement and brutality. He writes of “The barbed / wire of Ramallah, the barbed / wire of Heart Mountain, the guard / towers here, the borders for Bantus / and Gaza.” (Heart Mountain is where Mura’s parents were confined during World War II.)
His form mirrors the complexity of his subjects; he mixes poetry and prose, blending biography, cultural criticism and memoir. He crafts lyric images with attention to sound (“how skin / simmers as / summer enters / strawberries ripen”), then comments that an author “denaturalizes Japanese society, even though he’s Japanese.”
This makes for emotionally and intellectually engaging work that asks the reader to reconsider conceptions of race. Unfortunately, some explanatory notes are printed out of order, so readers may struggle with references.
Mura’s work is driven by the potent urgency of “knowing / my dark face and slanted eyes, / like no one / in my hometown, must sing this silence / of cages, amnesia, orchids, angels and mud.”
“Rancho Nostalgia,” by James Cihlar. (Dream Horse Press, 100 pages, $17.95.)
In his second full-length collection, James Cihlar pays tribute to the movies with form and content. Just as film condenses narrative, presenting only the most saturated moments, these poems jump between scenes: the speaker stalled on a crowded exit ramp, a friend’s discovery of a deadly clot in her brain, a news story about an elderly rampage survivor who attacks a gunman. The reader is tasked with making the thematic connections or associations.
His poems riff off such classic American films as “Little Miss Marker” and “Rancho Notorious.” His performative language matches their drama: “The hoi polloi smile indulgently / … and the ragamuffin / worships her up close, crabbing her act” and “we motor our zeppelin / through waves of phenomena.”
True to the title, the poems are saturated with nostalgia for the beautiful — but impossible — images of films: “This is the inheritance / from our parents, the movies they watched, / the mid-century formula / for adulthood.”
That formula breaks down when the fantasy of movies meets reality: “During the divorce, / my father called my mother unfit, and it was like casting a spell.”
The movie guide to love may be flawed, but Cihlar remains obsessed in this book. Throughout the collection, he returns to the word “zeitgeist,” as if films reveal something about a particular moment in history or are part of a collective cultural buy-in. After all, “we believe in the power of stories.”
“Ten Thousand Waves,” by Wang Ping. (Wings Press, 101 pages, $16.)
In much of American political discourse, China is the economic boogieman, a faceless behemoth gobbling up jobs and churning out cheap goods.
In “Ten Thousand Waves,” Wang Ping presents a different portrait, or rather portraits, by telling heartbreaking stories of Chinese individuals.
Much of this collection consists of prose poems that read like oral histories. Stripped of poetic device, these pieces evince a sense of desperation from people crushed by poverty and exposed to deadly working conditions.
A boy laments, “The more you work, Mama, the poorer we seem to become.” A truck driver, lungs swollen from working in high altitudes, observes, “The big money is made by those you can’t see.”
Wang Ping is an activist poet; these pieces are meant to reveal the violence economic expansion does to people’s bodies and spirits. In order to produce goods “sold cheap at Wal-Mart,” workers toil in mines with “lungs harden[ed] from quartz crystals / our lives weigh less than dust.”
She also explores these issues in formally innovative long poems such as “The Price of a Finger,” which quilts together statistics, history and quotes related to dismemberment in Chinese factories.
The collection is bleak, but it reminds the reader what good political poetry can do: make visible the human costs of our choices and show how we are implicated — if even just through our purchases — in suffering of others half a world away.
“Tourist in the Pure Land,” by Kate Green. (Holy Cow! Press, 89 pages, $16.)
Representing poetry written over a 30-year span, “Tourist in the Pure Land” is a diverse collection nonetheless unified by Kate Green’s forthright and direct voice.
She writes: “Without loss there is no singing,” “Grace was there but not as I pictured it. / It never is,” “How long does it take to eat the end of love? / It doesn’t end. You eat it / the way it rotted into a foul thing.”
While individual poems sparkle, the book could benefit from a better organization. A nuanced poem about her brother struggling with the draft during Vietnam slides logically into an intimate poem about her sons wrestling in their own war. Then a poem surveying Georgia O’Keeffe paintings creates a sudden shift in tone, subject and orientation.
What brings the collection together is Green’s emphasis on looking at her subject head-on with unadorned language. The simplicity in her language creates stark and startling moments: “A writer needs / a wife, especially a woman writer” and “a wound / so open we call it human.”
These compact poems focus on moments that — through memory and language — become sacred. She describes her mother reading “words to fill in space, / to gather lives into that intense disc of light / on the page that is the real world.” Green’s second full-length collection is full of the real world made luminous through her attention.
“Night Train Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range,” by Sheila Packa. (Wildwood River Press, 85 pages, $15.)
The epigraph to Sheila Packa’s fourth collection is from Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” a masterful long poem about West Virginia miners. Like Rukeyser, Packa acts as a powerful witness to the lives of people connected to the mines in a project that is poetry and documentary.
Packa writes about the Iron Range of Minnesota and its labor history: work, strikes and injuries: “Thick ores and clay and blood / mix in crush wounds and miner’s lung.” She includes poems about women miners “with the air of Amelia Earharts” who “face the lay off” when men return from war.
Her syntax mimics the relentlessness of labor; readers work through long sentences squeezed into short-line poems.
From strawberries to saunas, Packa sensitively portrays the culture of this area’s immigrant communities. She writes of music that “echo[es] time and resistance,” and how “one language blooms from another.”
The landscape acts as a major character. It has its own history, but it also absorbs the stories of the people who live there: “Old rocks speak in grandfathers’ tongues / of workers strife, gun and knife.”
While below, the mines claim the lives of workers, above the landscape bursts with life: “The surface of the lake glints like silver-plate” and spring makes frogs in frozen mud “jump-start their hearts.”
Elizabeth Hoover is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.