“Little Big Bully,” by Heid E. Erdrich. (Penguin Random House, 112 pages, $20.)
A ceaseless innovator, Minneapolis poet Heid E. Erdrich opens her “Little Big Bully” with an unpunctuated prose block: “Loves How I love you How you How we hang on words.” In the masterful poems that follow, the block expands, scattering words across the page, and contracts while maintaining the momentums of love and rage.
With incisive intelligence and revelatory wordplay, Erdrich examines the mechanisms of abuse, from colonizers who grabbed land to contemporary men who grab women’s bodies.
One such mechanism is rhetoric, in the form of justifying language and obfuscating treaties: “Whole nations can be unmade/ on paper/ and in cages.” As “a teller of still-alive stories,” Erdrich wrests language back from oppressive politics, declaring, “I can stay sovereign in my love.” Her work disrupts a cycle of “you see us we see you we know you fear us we fear you we know you beat us we will beat you.”
In this collection, she responds to bullying by standing up and speaking out, especially for Indigenous women who are experiencing an epidemic of gender-based violence. Erdrich writes, “When nothing is said/ the story gets starved.” In Erdrich’s urgent work, stories remain capacious and dynamic, calling on readers take a stand against injustice and erasure.
Zoom book launch: 7 p.m., Oct. 6, hosted by Birchbark Books, All My Relations Arts and Make Voting a Tradition. Register at https://bit.ly/2GfIWoN; Virtual Twin Cities Book Festival, Oct. 15, https://bit.ly/33kBYb2
“An Incomplete List of Names,” by Michael Torres. (Beacon Press, 128 pages, $16.)
In his assured debut, “An Incomplete List of Names,” Michael Torres returns home and finds the spray-painted names that he and his friends tagged buildings with as boys have been scrubbed away. This prompts meditations into the significance of graffiti; it is a way to testify to their existence in a nation bent on erasing boys of color, as well as a way to “take on new names because what their fathers offered did not suffice or could not be pronounced.”
Torres uses an innovative form — prose in columns shoved to either side of the page — to capture disorientation of code-switching. Sitting in a fellow professor’s house while remembering his homies, Torres senses “there are two/ of me.” He deftly limns the complexity of being an “All-American Mexican” whose “lost Spanish tongue [is] like a ticket home/ that slips under a bench.”
A teacher in the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Torres works with “men who measure/ the lives they wanted/ — and still want —/ by writing it down” while his own brother does time. Thus he considers connections forged across vast geography by race and shared experience and concludes, “America I don’t think you have the right answers/ but you speak loud.”
Zoom book launch: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 12, hosted by Poetry Asylum. Register at https://bit.ly/32yfXF3
“The Century,” by Éireann Lorsung. (Milkweed Editions, 112 pages, $16.)
In her third collection of poetry, “The Century,” Minneapolis native Éireann Lorsung undertakes an ambitious “excavation of a whole way of thinking,” a way that centers whiteness and violently excludes any perspective that challenges the myth of white supremacy and innocence.
To do so, she examines language on the level of the word, returning to the same words over and over. This repetition creates linguistic “threads” that enable readers to make connections across history and geography, connections that both implicate and calls us into solidarity with others.
Lorsung cites the writers and thinkers who influenced her, as well as activists like Bree Newsome, who scaled the South Carolina State House flagpole and removed the Confederate flag in 2015 after the racially motivated Charleston church shooting. Lorsung argues monuments redact rather than convey history: “[The flag] became scenery/ It stood for an assumption about the world.”
As monuments fall around the country in the wake of the killing by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, this sensitive book — 11 years in the making — is coming out at the exact right time to implore white Americans to undertake their own excavations and remind us we are “not innocent of our educations.”
“Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job,” by Diane Glancy. (Turtle Point Press, 224 pages, $17.95.)
While Diane Glancy’s career as a published novelist, playwright and poet spans more than 40 years, she still describes writing as a difficult journey in her most recent collection, “Island of the Innocent”: “But I choose to go on — to wrestle with uncertainty.”
In this collection, she wrestles with the ambiguous meaning of suffering through a sustained examination of the biblical story of Job: “Suffering is true./ It is wise./ It opens a house you never knew was there.” In this “avant-garde study,” Glancy — professor emeritus at Macalester College in St. Paul — employs diverse formal tactics, including essays, villanelles and free verse.
She connects the story of Job to the history of Indigenous people along the lines of dispossession. She writes, “America’s longest war was [is] against its Indigenous. It’s most deadly and brutal.” It’s a discomforting comparison, since Job’s suffering ends with restoration and greater self-knowledge, while, as Glancy writes, “The bones of children still are being recovered at Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania.” Glancy argues, “It is the interstice that allows interpretation,” encouraging readers to undertake their own journey toward understanding through the book’s tensions and contradictions.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and critic in Milwaukee.