“THE FIRST FLAG,” by Sarah Fox Coffee House Press, 151 Pages, $15.95
In her second book,“The First Flag,” Sarah Fox subverts the notion of a poem as a single, unified text. She uses collage, footnotes and fragmentation to create poly-vocal works with both visual and textual elements.
Each section has at least three epigraphs and dozens of footnotes. The epigraphs suggest Fox writes as part of a motley, self-made community of thinkers. Footnotes at the end of sections invite the reader to flip between notes and poem, thus participating in meaning-making.
Fox draws from feminist thinkers, Eastern philosophy and mysticist. “Difficulty at the Beginning” takes its name from the “I Ching” and is an astrological chart dotted with phrases including a quote from the author’s baby journal: “Sarah’s right jaw was swollen … and red from the forceps.”
A practicing doula, Fox writes about the violence of western medicine and how it treats women’s bodies as poisoned and monstrous. Her father, a surgeon, “cuts holes into people’s bodies” and dismisses his daughter as “just a doula.”
The binary between herself and her father doesn’t last. She writes, “It was my own father / he’d crept a part of himself / unto my safekeeping.”
The body — disarticulated and mangled — is present throughout. Her long poem “Comma” is printed over anatomical drawings; figures with skin peeled back to reveal organs. The speaker imagines sticking her “fist through the hole sawed / into his ribcage and [forming] a pretend / organ,” and a patient “screams / himself a new body, rough flesh disgorging from its animal stone.”
These well-wrought images showcase Fox’s skill with rendering image — a fundamental of poetry that she doesn’t subvert.
Event: 7 p.m. May 14, with Dennis McKenna, SubText, 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul.
“IT BECOMES YOU” by Dobby Gibson Graywolf Press,104 pages, $15
Poet Dobby Gibson seems to have a fascination with fortune cookie fortunes and their compact elliptical language. Nearly a third of the poems in his second collection “Skirmish” were called “Fortune” and his third, “It Becomes You,” contains “40 Fortunes,” a poem of 40 seemingly unrelated statements: “Rare is the picnic that doesn’t spread itself atop a snowman cemetery.”
Even his poems that don’t directly reference fortunes are full of aphorisms: “It’s not so much what you say / but how you say it”; or, “Real people don’t wait / for the quotation marks for the dialogue to begin.”
Pithy and clever, these statements also create a sense of drift in Gibson’s poems. “Silly String Theory” starts with a leak in a school roof, meanders through tales of seducing bridesmaids, teenage Internet-made millionaires, a doctor removing cancer from the speaker’s scalp, and ends with senior citizens mall-walking — “the storefronts shackled behind steel curtains, / the scent of yesterday’s cinnamon buns in the air.”
Gibson’s elliptical wandering reflects a sense of alienation and randomness brought on by technology. He writes, “We’re in this together, friends. / But also rather alone with our smartphones.”
However, Gibson is more than a turner of clever phrases. There is a real tenderness at the heart of his work, particularly when he writes about Minneapolis. In “Beauty Supply,” he weaves personal history into the landscape of a changing city. He writes, “I wonder if it was 24 degrees / on the day I was born, as it is today, / and if the light sank like it is now.”
In this collection, Gibson deftly quilts witty observation with moments of lyric intensity.
“BLACK APERTURE” by Matt Rasmussen Louisiana State University Press, 64 pages, $17.95
Matt Rasmussen concludes his debut book, “Black Aperture,” with a poem “after James Wright.” Wright (who taught at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s) was a proponent of the idea of the “deep image” — that concrete images rendered in direct language contain emotional meaning.
Like Wright, Rasmussen emphasizes precise images. He describes a deer being shot:
“Before the heart beats / the bullet unfolds / a plowing lead point / then again is in flight / wobbling from its passage.”
The book focuses on the suicide of the author’s brother. Its title may refer to the aperture of a hunting rifle sight or the form of the poems: short lines making them appear as narrow strips. This form slows the reader, mimicking the way “grief comes / like patient lava.”
In one disturbing poem, his brother’s gunshot wound serves as an aperture. He shines a flashlight in his mouth projecting “the movie / of [his] death” on the wall behind.
Rasmussen writes that his brother’s hands are “delivered with the mail like postcards … fingernails … painted like stamps.” In another poem, the speaker plants a phone on a grave and listens to the receiver, hearing “only the dark / breathing of the dirt.”
By infusing pastoral images reminiscent of Wright with his own strange iconography of grief, Rasmussen creates a style distinctly his own.
Event: Matt Rasmussen will read with fiction writer Ethan Rutherford at 7 p.m. May 30 at the Loft at Open Book.
Elizabeth Hoover is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.