Five Poets Offer Eloquent Views of the Immigrant American Experience

Poetry to grow your soul.
Kathleen Rooney
August 4, 2017
John Gall

LESSONS ON EXPULSION

By Erika Sánchez

73 pp. Graywolf, paper, $16.

The second-person form can be both an invitation and an accusation — a simultaneous opportunity to adopt someone else’s perspective and reckon with why, perhaps, you hadn’t considered that perspective before. Some of the most powerful poems in Sánchez’s lush and formidable debut use this tactic to draw readers close to difficult subjects, including her sense of dislocation as the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

In “The Poet at Fifteen,” she writes: “At times when you speak Spanish, your tongue / is flaccid inside your rotten mouth: / desgraciada, sin vergüenza.” And in “Six Months After Contemplating Suicide,” she describes how, “Some days you knelt on coins / in those yellow hours.”

Elsewhere, Sánchez’s wrenching explorations of guilt and shame, grief and misogyny portray with vivid rawness the experiences of others: narcotraffickers, factory laborers and sex workers. Her depictions of misery hurt and haunt, as when she writes: “Every day after school, the factory men yell / mamacita, / making noises like sucking ⁄ mangoes.” Placed vibrantly alongside depictions of beauty and promise, these struggles achieve a “flamboyant despair” that is “soft and full / of hysterical light.”

 

THOUSAND STAR HOTEL

By Bao Phi

110 pp. Coffee House, paper, $16.95.

This rangy and lacerating second collection from Phi, a Vietnamese-American spoken-word artist, aims to confront what his publisher describes as “the silence around racism, police brutality and the invisibility of the Asian-American urban poor.” A tall task, to be sure, but Phi is more than up to it.

His use of long and declarative titles (“Future Letter to Daughter Apologizing for When I Caved to Her Request and Brought Her to Barbie’s Dreamhouse at Mall of America,” “Ego-Tripping as Self-Defense Mechanism for Refugee Kids Who Got Their Names Clowned On”) bluntly illustrates the stakes risked in these poems, as well as their blend of humor and anger. Phi’s references are wide-ranging — in “Villain/elle: Shimomura Cross Over in the Flat of the Night,” he alludes with equal dexterity to Dylan Thomas and the rapper Lupe Fiasco — and his irreverent profundity shines in prose poems and fixed forms alike. “Macbook Marxist. / Powerbook Colonialist. / iPhone Antiracist,” he writes in “When My Daughter Asks Me to Check and Make Sure Racists Can’t Come In and Kill Us.” The poem, like the collection as a whole, is incisive in its call for a productive “conversation” about oppression and its remedies, one that might go beyond arguing “on the internet.”

 

WHAT WAS IT FOR

By Adrienne Raphel

103 pp. Rescue Press, paper, $16.

In a letter to his student John Bartlett in 1914, Robert Frost wrote, “Remember that the sentence sound often says more than the words.” In her debut collection, Raphel makes the playful most of sounds, with the acrobatics of her diction and syntax absorbing as much attention and providing as much pleasure as her actual content. In the words of the poet Cathy Park Hong, who selected Raphel as the winner of the Black Box Poetry Prize, she “takes Victorian nonsense verse into the 21st century.”

Indeed, poems like “An Owl” call to mind the absurdity and melancholy of Edward Lear: “O I wish I could go so far down in the ocean— / But woe for these wings and these so many feathers! / Sallow and slow in their damp altogethers.” Others, like “Henrietta House,” resemble edgy spells and evoke Gertrude Stein in their erudite nonsense: “Henrietta, so pathetic, / Palpitating neurasthenic, / Barcelona antiseptic.”

Made cohesive by their delightful if perplexing Mother Goose-meets-John Ashbery vibe, these poems are fun and pretty, yet also postmodern and mysterious. Raphel reanimates and vivifies the idea of magic words — incantatory and enchanting.

 

HOTHOUSE

By Karyna McGlynn

83 pp. Sarabande, paper, $14.95.

McGlynn’s first book, the fabulous (and fabulously titled) “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl,” proved that she belonged squarely in the Gurlesque, a loose group of female poets who — combining the burlesque and the grotesque — approach their femininity in a campy way, skewering gender stereotypes. Now, in her glittery, screwball second collection, McGlynn continues to play with the dark comedy afforded by this girly kitsch. “So you want to know where I live?” the title poem asks. “Come here, love. We’ll circle the walls / with my big rococo key & look for a way in.”

The book is divided architecturally — bedroom, library, parlor, wet bar, bath and basement — for a wry and disquieting tour of American banality and excess. McGlynn populates these rooms with troubled and troubling characters, as in “Square Rooms”: “He had an armoire of leftover wedding champagnes. / One was called ‘You.’ One was called ‘Us.’ / The most expensive was called ‘Sex.’” Often conjuring the voice of a femme fatale, these cinematic poems are as entertaining and upsetting as “a ruinous sort of hide-and-seek in which / the hider goes to live in another house, / or disappears altogether.”

 

ARRIVAL

By Cheryl Boyce-Taylor

70 pp. TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University, paper, $16.95.

Born in Trinidad and raised in Queens, Boyce-Taylor has said of her mother: “From her I inherited my love of poetry.” Fittingly, her fourth collection offers an international story of family love and disasters bound by a mother-daughter bond.

Dedicated to both her parents and to the memory of her “beloved son Malik Boyce-Taylor (a.k.a. Phife Dawg)” of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, the book is unmistakably elegiac but its sorrows are made sharper by grace notes of humor. A poem called “Sugar,” in which the speaker develops diabetes, concludes: “Dear missing pancreas I love you / you strange and unforgettable bastard.”

The dialogue in poems like “Independence Day” — when mother and daughter reunite in New York and the mother says “Girl, I din tell plenty people I was going away yuh kno / din want nobody to put goat mouth on me / and then I never reach America” — suffuses the work with musicality. Covering thousands of miles, many decades and an array of contrasting landscapes, the arrival that “Arrival” arrives at is no less than a “family geography” remarkable for its concision and depth.

 

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.” Her new book, “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette & Loulou Magritte,” will be published next year.

 

 

August 10, 2017