By Mai Der Vang. (Graywolf Press, 224 pages, $17.)
In her second collection, Mai Der Vang manipulates collaged declassified documents and redacted files related to the use of chemical weapons on the Hmong people during the 1970s and the United Nations' ensuing investigation, a "pageant of fiasco." In doing so, she not only interrogates the official accounts — that the yellow rain that killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people was bee feces — but also questions how truth is constructed. She also layers her own lines over the collages or writes in conversation with fragments from her extensive historical research: "Let things come clean in a scandalous/ tornado of shimmering truth." In spare lines driven by the imperative, Vang indicts the authorities, while also limning generational trauma as the "second child and firstborn in a new land, daughter who keeps looking back at the sky." She makes good on her promise that "myth will not make us/ into marginalia" by asserting her power over the obscuring language of government reports in these masterful manipulations.
Light Rolling Slowly Backwards: New and Selected Poems
By Ethna McKiernan. (Salmon Poetry, 168 pages, $16.95.)
In her long-awaited fifth collection, Ethna McKiernan gives readers nearly 30 new poems and a compendium of previous work, including the sparkling travel poems from "Caravan" (1989) and the finely wrought elegies of "Swimming With Shadows" (2019). Thus the book traverses a lifetime of experiences, filtered through a compassionate eye. She dedicates the book to her homeless clients, who often appear in her poems lavished with tenderness. Throughout her career, McKiernan has evinced a steady commitment to the image as a source of knowledge and revelation. After describing a barn burning, she concludes "my life changed/ forever with the knowledge/ of fire." That knowledge threads through these lucid poems that layer memory with flashes of a luminous and troubling present. Gathered together they give readers an opportunity to celebrate a poet who "makes dazzle speak."
Born in a Second Language
By Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie. (Button Poetry, 53 pages, $16.)
Like many people worldwide, poet Akosua Zimba Afiriyie-Hwedie speaks three languages. It's only in certain contexts that that fact makes her "other." She acknowledges "The trick is/ which country you look at me from." Her wordplay reveals histories of violence and exclusion when English was forced on colonized subjects. In describing the difference between British and American English, she concludes "English was never meant to save u." Instead, Afiriyie-Hwedie saves herself by sculpting English to her own ends. She uses experimentations including diagrams, manipulated government forms, and long-lined lyrics that require the reader to turn the page, enacting the embodied experience of engaging with unfamiliar idioms. In triangulating among languages, Afiriyie-Hwedie finds not a stable identity, but a self that is always in motion and worthy of celebration: "And my skin would grow even blacker from the joy of light."
Day of the Child: A Poem
By Arra Lynn Ross. (Milkweed Editions, 88 pages, $16.)
Arra Lynn Ross begins her dreamy book-length poem about how parenthood makes you "unbound/ by Time & time's delineations," with a reference to the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon Bombing. This acknowledgment of the world's dangers and the violence often encouraged in boys gives the rest of the book a shimmering delicacy. "'I'm so happy! I want to murder!' " the son declares, too young to know the implications. In considering how to talk with her child about current events, Ross writes "My job to transform, now,/ this narrative, allow compassion's vow." It's a heavy responsibility along with her other roles: "soother, watcher, blame-taker." As Ross generously lets readers peek into scenes of her and her son writing poems, watching a young buck, or drawing "joy's map," she adds another role: wonder-sharer.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and critic in Milwaukee.