Bright Dead Things
By Ada Limón. (Milkweed Editions, 105 pages, $16.)
Ada Limón opens her fourth collection with the salvo "How to Triumph Like a Girl." She dares, "Don't you want to lift my shirt and see/the huge beating genius machine."
The machine that forged these poems loves "like a fist. Like a knife" and contains "the hot/gore of my want and want." Despite being filled with longing, Limón's poems are satisfying reads. They build toward revelation by moving between declarative statements and well-wrought images.
In one section, Limón narrates her grief after the loss of her stepmother: "You're the muscle/I cut from the bone and still the bone/remembers."
She also writes about her "absurd out-of place-ness" after moving from New York City to Kentucky. The speaker admits: "I didn't want to live here … but love, I'll concede this:/whatever state you are, I'll be that state's bird."
Rather than lamenting, the speaker makes use of her isolation in this new place: "I'm learning so many different ways to be quiet."
The clarity and directness of Limón's voice make for exhilarating reading. The answer to the book's opening dare: Yes, we want to see the "huge beating genius machine" that made these poems.
By Francine Sterle. (Red Dragonfly Press, 104 pages, $16.)
A Zen koan is a problem with no logical solution. Meditating on a koan helps students of Zen subvert the intellect and ego to create intuitive flashes of enlightenment.
In her fourth collection, Francine Sterle presents a group of poems in the form of koans. They use images to resist resolution: "Clouds/thick as cream/have not yet come together."
The fragmented and often spare lyrics in the rest of the book also partake of the koan's resistance to closure. In the section "Afterlife," a distant speaker records the phenomena around her grief, although she narrates the loss: "Count the days./All the same and all different"; "the brooding yews/above which flies/a satin-black bird"; "a kitchen knife/slides from my lap like a sleigh."
The idea of loss threads throughout the book, and Sterle's use of fragments allows her to create poems that are compelling in their shape as well as their content. Some poems fall down the page like a waterfall, while others are cleaved by white space. These formal interventions force the reader to slow down and contemplate, much like a student puzzling over a koan.
By Freya Manfred. (Red Dragonfly Press, 94 pages, $16.)
In her sincere and uncontrived poems, Manfred expresses trust in the natural world: "I say, let the colossal, playful, purple-black horses/roam where they will." However, she is less certain of her intellect: "Maybe I'm not intelligent or maybe I'm not trying."
The speaker looks to nature for wisdom and comfort. In a poem from the section "Lovers," she writes, "I'm too sensitive, and would do better as a tree." These love poems are permeated by a feeling of separation from the rest of human kind.
The book's final section narrates the deaths of Manfred's parents and features visits from the ghosts of dead relatives. That sense of alienation is replaced by the intimacy of the deathbed. Manfred describes the dying processes with the direct language that characterizes her work: "Mother labors as if giving birth,/her whole body breathing, brain, heart, belly and bones."
Manfred writes: "All I ever wanted to be/was a rubbery watcher and toucher,/feeling every living thing." In these poems, she is such a creature: fully present and with a compelling artlessness that carries the reader through the difficult passage from life to death.
Freya Manfred will read from "Speak, Mother" and from her memoir, "Raising Twins," at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Loft at Open Book.
By Madelon Sprengnether. (Holy Cow! Press, 81 pages, $16.)
"Death is real. What more can I say?" Madelon Sprengnether writes in this collection of prose poems, a form well-suited for her direct and forceful writing.
Sprengnether's poems about the death of her mother make sudden swerves, enacting how grief intrudes on our life. A speaker watches stingrays "seeking shallow water to mate" and suddenly remembers: "Toward the end, my mother's lungs kept filling with fluid."
Sex and death often jostle each other in poems that frankly discuss sexuality: "My tongue knows you. The rim of your lips and inside of your mouth — the hard and soft places within."
Sprengnether's work emphasizes the present: "Here, now. What you feel." These poems are full of images of the body as porous — leaking sweat and fluids — but also welcoming the sensual pleasures. She writes, "Skin you are much too unsolid. What do you know how to do but let the outside in, the inside out?"
At times, her explicitness can be jarring. But it is refreshing to encounter a poet willing to celebrate the body as precious and temporary without romanticizing it or cloaking it in metaphor.
Modern Love & Other Myths
By Joyce Sutphen. (Red Dragonfly Press, 80 pages, $16.)
Joyce Sutphen opens her sixth poetry collection with a reference to the Greek myth of Leda, but this and her title are misdirections. The book immediately moves from the mythic to the personal with quiet and accessible poems about the end of a relationship.
Although the book focuses on a breakup, it isn't bogged down by regret. Instead, it is punctuated by vibrant images and realizations: "I won't forget I once was loved like that."
She describes recognizable moments to those familiar with heartbreak: A quotidian task brings on a collapse of grief, or some days "spilling coffee on the counter makes/you weep."
Poetry is a lifeline for this speaker: "This is how I hold my place in the world:/one line at a time." However, some of her poems about poetry can seem overly clever. She ends a sonnet: "And now, although I'd like to say much more,/I must conclude — or what's a sonnet for?"
Overall the book is a satisfying read as the author takes us through grief into acceptance: "Go to the window/where the light has disappeared/behind the trees. Say good-bye."
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.