Bamboo Wives, Biddle City, Coachella, and Cyberspace: Six Poetry Collections to Read in July

July. Everything slows down, yet smaller presses hum on: this month’s list is dedicated to them, from newer small New York presses like The Song Cave and Changes, to Chicago’s Haymarket Books, to Louisville’s Sarabande Books, now under new leadership with Executive Director and Editor in Chief Kristen Renee Miller stepping up after founder Sarah Gorham’s retirement. July: what better month for poetic travel?

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The landscapes of these poems are complicated hometowns—New Orleans and small towns in Virginia and Michigan; the varied landscapes of California; Jeju City in Korea; and where we all meet up far too often: cyberspace. So toss your planned beach reads: don’t you know that poetry books are lighter?

Here’s a baker’s six-pack for your summer travel bag. See you in September, which already looks to be a bountiful and exciting month for poetry.


Leaving Biddle City - Chan, Marianne

Marianne Chan, Leaving Biddle City

“Our home, Biddle City, was created by suckers. / And this is the origin story of our town.” So concludes the poem “Autobiography via Revision,” as Marianne Chan revisits “Biddle City,” i.e., Lansing, Michigan, in her follow-up to her debut, All Heathens. Chan examines myths, realities, and inhabitants, from family members and theatre kids, to the women of a “Biddle City Filipina” series, including Michigan women interviewed for the book.

The collection pulses with and against memory—”the difference between memory and imagination is simply the clay you use”—and leans heavily on the rhythms of the sentence, from prose poems to lists. Leaving, in these poems, echoes how place follows us, even in negation: “Sometime I am lonely for my idea of Lake Michigan, a place to bathe and come out cleaner than I was.”

Mother Water Ash: Poems - Cooley, Nicole

Nicole Cooley, Mother Water Ash

“My mother’s death is another body: she flaunts herself, takes up too much / space in my bed.” The daughter in Mother Water Ash grieves a mother lost to lung cancer as memory surges, locked in both place and time. Dreams of drowning mothers rush with flood waters of New Orleans, the place the speaker’s mother vowed never to leave, and the poignant “After My Mother Dies I Crave the Seventies” invokes an age of TAB, IBM Selectrics, 8-track tapes, and “All of the decade’s / weird nourishments, foods I never ate as a child.”

Cooley takes head on the complications of mother and daughter, recalling a mother who tells her daughter to smoke and the gateway to “my first diet. Sixty-six pounds.” The speaker, too, is a mother: “A different time, I tell my daughters.” This moving book-long meditation on loss marks the physical particularities of grief: “wearing her nightgown which I have washed and washed and yet still smells like smoke” and “her handwriting.”

Yet the experience of the loss of a mother remains unearthly: “did I go dark when she left me when will my daughters/ while my mother’s mouth is all slick black feathers.”

Hereafter - Felsenthal, Alan

Alan Felsenthal, Hereafter

Alan Felsenthal co-publishes the small New York press The Song Cave, which has brought such recent highlights at John Keene’s Punks: New and Selected Poems, Sara Nicholson’s April, Ronald Johnson’s Valley of the Many-colored Grasses, and Arda Collins’ Star Lake. Now The Song Cave releases Felsenthal’s second book. (The first was with Ugly Duckling Press.)

“The soul seeks remission / and requires more,” concludes “Elegy,” the opening poem of Hereafter. These are spacious and sometimes arch lyrics that draw on beyonds of sky and sea, from “As a boy I visited the stars’ zoo / Countless eyes gazed back/ without judgment” to “The sea doesn’t care about my degree. / Nor do creatures for whom I’m food.”

These poems revel in solitary spaces: “Is My Higher Soul Speaking?” drifts out from childhood to “stones reminded me of loneliness / Hold this poem to a comb/ hum it into a kazoo….” Or as the speaker says in “Cover Letter,” “just say my subject is grief.”

Coachella Elegy - Gullette, Christian

Christian Gullette, Coachella Elegy

Palm Springs, Santa Cruz, L.A., Sonoma, the Central Valley: the lively poems of Christian Gullette’s debut are shot on location in the burning and shiny landscapes of California, with its architectural and cultural contradictions; its deserts and DJs and hotels where “We drink Fernet by ironic sculptures;” and landscapes in which dwindling “Butterflies overwinter / in the Milkweed / along storm drains.”

At center stage, life both lost and precarious: elegiac portraits suspend the life and early loss of a brother who “used to drive the freeway for hours in search of motorists to assist” and who “Medications and special schools / have yet to break his impulse for pleasure.”

Equally tender and exact are the love poems for a husband who battles ocular cancer: “The ocularist hand-painted his pupil. / It looks like the eye I always loved.”

A Map of My Want - Hicks, Faylita

Faylita Hicks, A Map of My Want

“I crave the Carnival of my denouement,” begins the speaker of Faylita Hicks’ poem, “Farewell to Fish.” Which is fitting, considering the explosive endings in these poems. Launching from an epigraph from Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Hicks’ propulsive second collection embarks on a whirlwind that moves between wildness and control, from the earthly to the ecstatic, forging reclamations of desire and pleasure within a world of racialized violence, encompassed in poems such as “After Breonna, I Tried Dating Again.”

In “#lovemachine,” Hicks navigates from a professor “hard around the mouth at my obsession with fluids and bodies” to a deft interjection of technology that leads to “streaks of red / dance under my stitched words, making me stroke / the small body of my machine/ and cradle it like a bird, apologizing.” These poems are unapologetic mappings of “want” and self-definition; in the opening poem, “Steel Horses,” the speaker and her mother watch “Compton’s bois rush their two-wheeled mares” and the speaker wonders “What if I was heavy between the legs?

Not Us Now from Changes | Asterism Books

Zoë Hitzig, Not Us Now

Founded in 2022, New York’s Changes kicked off its annual award for a first or second collection with the Rachel Mannheimer’s debut, Earth Room, selected by Louise Gluck, who, before her recent passing, also chose this sophomore collection of Zoë Hitzig, a Junior Fellow in Economics at Harvard Society of Fellows.

In Now Us Now, algorithms speak, from “Bounded Regret Algorithm”—”I know with certainty / almost nothing. Yet here I am / executing legions / of decisions each moment”—to “Simplex Algorithm”—”am / I / the / save / curve / or / the / dread / curve.”

In the long title poem, variables infiltrate lyricism, while the last section of the collection moves from prose “field notes” to a fragmentation—”Ke – texts – says – what – are – you / do-ing”—that filters even into the book’s acknowledgments. Behind every algorithm, an author: “and what of the sun / how it built each pixel / in each eye builds each / eye and the hands that meet.”

The Bamboo Wife - Sevick, Leona

Leona Sevick, The Bamboo Wife

In a pantoum about getting into a car “with an ex-con and a philandering drunk,” the speaker of Leona Sevick’s “My Father’s Lesson” delivers the sharp punchline, “did I tell you they were famous writers?” The title poem enters Jeju Folklore Museum in Korea, where her mother is from, and encounters a “bamboo wife,” a basket “that in warmer months, men would wrap their/ arms and legs around her cage-body to sleep,” while the speaker imagines a “living wife” wandering “Out to the paddy /field in search of a soft breeze.”

In “Choosy Females, Profligate Males,” “It is true we carry them for months on end” moves toward the quip, “You, think I’m talking about offspring here?” But the fiercest poems of Sevick’s second collection are about mothering, from picking dead wasps from her son’s floor before he wakes, only to later “lay my head against/ a wall, listening for their humming,” to cataloguing atrocities and contradictions of the Catholic church the speaker “put[s] up with” “just so I can sit with my/ teenaged boy and girl who will for one/ hour let me quietly still hold their hands.”

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