Soul Over Lightning
By Ray Gonzalez. (The University of Arizona Press, 79 pages, $16.95.)
Ray Gonzalez is one of the most important Latino writers working today, not only because of his formidable output as a poet, memoirist and fiction writer, but also because of his work as an editor. He published more than a dozen anthologies introducing new Latino and indigenous writers to the reading public.
Gonzalez has been a professor at the University of Minnesota since 1998 and acknowledges the influence of another Minnesota writer, Robert Bly. Like Bly, Gonzalez uses the image as a through-line to the spiritual and mythical realm. However, he contributes a unique perspective: He brings together images from the American landscape, current events and Chicano and indigenous cultures — their past and present. This creates a sense of simultaneity in his work and reminds his reader that the United States may be a young country, but America is not a new land; millennia of history are etched in the rocks, and for millions of years people have buried their dead in the mountains.
In his 11th collection of poetry, Gonzalez returns home to explore the landscape of his native Southwest, a place marred by borders. He writes, "Home is lost in a language whose origin / was changed by people crossing the illegal border." Here Gonzalez challenges dominant narratives about immigration; the border is illegal, not the person crossing it.
However, the border is rarely this explicit in Gonzalez's work. Instead, borders are made permeable in poems that join land, time, myth and the human. He writes, "I recognized the approaching canyon / as the opening in the earth where / God forgot to breathe."
One reads history and myth in the landscape's scars. "The serpent unable to be killed in the myth / … its eyes turning into brilliant stones that can / be seen to this day if you look west." In a series of numbered poems beginning with "The Miracle" and ending with "The Fourth Miracle," a figure moves through rock and earth. He is "drowning, weaving and straining, / moving down the canyon," "recalling how he merged under the barbed / wire," and entering the ground so "someone will dig [him] up one / day." The man becomes land as he travels through the ancient past his "infinite heart" formed geologically.
Throughout this collection, Gonzalez writes about poets and artists, including Joseph Cornell, Man Ray and Max Jacob. Their work can offer comfort: When confronted with the fact that "the instruments of slaughter / are still in the news," the speaker memorizes "a poem or two."
However, art is more than a place to find meaning; it is capable of cosmic rescue. Of sculptor Auguste Rodin, Gonzalez writes, "His cast hands were the same white forms that pulled / the earth from its sinking orbit."
Approaching the Gate
By Lynette Reini-Grandell. (Holy Cow! Press, 65 pages, $15.)
Lynette Reini-Grandell's joyful debut is full of poems that celebrate — and wink at — the wildness of this world.
"The more he walked the land the more he loved it," she writes of a newly arrived Finnish immigrant. The love in Reini-Grandell's poems is not rarefied; it embraces the muck of the land and the claw and teeth of animals — which include humans.
She describes a reptile in a stream: "He turned and lightly snagged the coffee surface, / stretched out his unsheathed, sodden paw, / and touched the current of the other sleeping beast." "Bear Marriage" is a script for the ceremony: "Do you take this honey-fond giant / as your celestial, starry-eyed spouse / … I now pronounce you all animals."
Her love poems to her husband, the transgender musician and multidisciplinary artist Venus de Mars, are capacious and tender. She writes: "I'd know you, my love, from your teeth. / You still haven't lost / your baby wolf incisor." She acknowledges they "patched the punched wall, but this is no / memory of grief, this is something we shared."
On a craft level, the poems are as alive as their subject matter. They are in motion, swerving from image to contemplation. "If you are ravishing, then who will wish / to ravish me? / I drop these stones, one / by one into dark, mysterious water."
Reini-Grandell's first book announces a formidable and unique talent. She pulls readers into her ecstatic writing, asking them to join as she cries her "greedy hallelujah."
You Must Remember This
By Michael Bazzett. (Milkweed Editions, 104 pages, $16.)
Michael Bazzett opens his debut collection with a poem about a speaker who remembers a "delicate and confused / dream." This prepares the reader for what follows: poems packed with the unsettling images of dreams.
His poems can read like allegories with inexplicable transformations and strange occurrences. A couple hire a woman for an unspecified task: "Her face had become / a sort of beak, hinged open and hissing." They find her surrounded by children "sitting in a circle at her feet, quietly singing."
Through the use of the second person, Bazzett brings the reader into these disturbing scenes. A blind man drags "his hands across the landscape of your face" and leads you to an atlas about your life: "the fine white crescent / scar on your forehead is indicated with an asterisk to footnote."
Bazzett is particularly talented at creating crackling similes: "His face was frank / as an open sail"; "eyes of jackals on the shoulder, / floating like fireflies above roadkill," and "bitter words unsaid / hovering in the room like a loosed eel."
Humor marks many of his pieces. In one poem, a couple decide to "settle their divorce in mime court" because of the "unspeakable nature of their differences." Sometimes he is overly clever, and too many poems rely on a character having a big penis.
However, the book — winner of the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry — will reward the reader with strange and heartbreaking moments that resonate with a profundity just beyond the reach of explanation.
A Slow Dissolve of Egrets
By Alixa Doom. (Red Dragonfly Press, 111 pages, $15.)
In the poem "Following Deer," Alixa Doom writes: "They vanish when I move too quickly — / a tail goes up, a white flare / that signals the thunder of my own presence."
In her debut poetry collection, Doom diminishes that presence, slipping into the background to observe in order to craft achingly precise images. "The dusk unfolds waves and waves of white / as egrets undulate home like the vanished," their "plumage / shimmying like a shawl."
Flowers conjure the landscape of Minnesota, where she grew up and now makes her home. Geraniums are "rosy with the pleasure / of a shaft of light," and the "minute petals" of the lilac "tremble among the dark green of heart leaves."
When Doom offers crumbs of biography, she looks outward to generate images. She describes the women in her Flemish and Belgian family with veins that "winged like wild geese" under their skin. She writes their "beads of perspiration collected … the way dew collects in the throat of an iris."
In expanding her award-winning chapbook into this full-length collection, she performs some missteps. The repetition of particular images can be distracting and some similes seem cliché. For example, fireflies are "like starlight." However, there are clunks in any debut, and overall Doom is a writer of beautiful restraint, who lets nature be nature. She moves by gentle analogy rather then applying metaphor to yoke nature to human terms.
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.