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Published: Mon Oct 2 2017
Art: Paul TheriaultCascade (detail), 2021, acrylic and found paper on scavenged wood
Laurentiis, Hankla, and Topal: Three Extraordinary Books of Poetry

David Ebenbach has once again sent out a call for the AGNI blog, and I wish I could come up with another idea to write about, but my husband and I are going to a movie in a small while.

Still, even while I am without an idea, maybe writing about that is useful. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never had Writers’ Block. Not that I remember, anyway. But now I do have it. It is possible for the creek to run dry.

The question, then, is how to make the water fall.

The even bigger problem is that I don’t know how.

I’ve considered writing a poetry collection about Ancient Rome, which has long tantalized me. But I spent nine years writing Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer and that’s probably how long it would take to write one about Ancient Rome. I don’t think I have the time for that. At my age, some projects turn into traffic signs that say STOP HERE.

So I have been reading books by other poets and damn if I didn’t turn up three terrific titles. These writers manage to boost metaphor, energy, and gravity. Three brilliant books at once tells me that many more poets are undoubtedly doing similar things, but in the meanwhile I’d like to send a shout-out, or rather three shout-outs. If you haven’t read these books, they will…I want to say “blow your mind” but there must be a better term…but no, I’m saying they will blow your mind.

Rickey Laurentiis published Boy with Thorn in 2015. I don’t know how I missed it but I did. Boy with Thorn is a tough read, as are the others I’ll name. By tough I mean emphatically true, with no sugarcoating or soft lining. These writers are also stretching the English language, sometimes to the point that a grammar nut like me has to put it down, but they are stretching it for good reasons.

The Laurentiis book is from Pittsburgh, and Ed Ochester deserves to be proud of his selection.

Boy with Thorn is a sculpture from the Hellenistic Period. A boy, seated, has one leg on the “floor” or “ground” and the other crossed over his knee so he can look for the thorn, in his sole, that is irritating him. It is impossible not to love this image: a young boy, fixing what is wrong, by himself, with great concentration. What we have is a Roman marble copy of the lost Third Century BCE Hellenistic original.

Presumably, Laurentiis is identifying, to whatever degree, large or small, with this image. In any case, we enter the book with this image in mind. The poems are striking. The first is “Conditions for a Southern Gothic.” A head has been hacked off. There. That’s tough enough, isn’t it? The head reminds us of Orpheus, the poet-singer torn apart, his head continuing to sing. Here’s an even tougher line: “If God made us in his image, it was the first failure of imagination.” The first part of this book takes us back to those terrible days when white people hunted—hunted!—black people. We meet Emmet Till here. The second section gives us a group of fifty stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is titled “On the Leaves That Have Fallen” and it is beautiful. The third section includes the title poem, made up of six short poems.

The second book is Cathryn Hankla’s newest, Galaxies, from Mercer University Press. She has used the concept of galaxy as a center around which various items seem naturally to occur. Galaxies, after all, are gravitationally born. Stuff accumulates. Here we have a Labyrinth Galaxy, the Some Assembly Required Galaxy, the Galaxy of Six Women. This was a brilliant idea and it gives Hankla many different ways of writing about almost anything. In “Ghost Horses and the Morning Sky” she writes, “Above me this sky opens in the moment, an immense / thought caught in creation’s throat.”

Now you have two brilliant books to read, if you haven’t already read them, and if you have, reread!

The third book is still in manuscript and for that reason I don’t think I should say much about it, but it too is indeed brilliant. The title is “In Order of Disappearance.” It is by Carine Topal, who has published a couple of other books, which are also wonderful. The new manuscript may bring you to your knees. Well, if I did that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, but you will at least feel you should be on your knees. And for no other reason than that her book is brilliant. You must read it. You must read all three of these books. It’s true that if you don’t, the sky won’t open up and swallow you, but without doubt you will have missed three of the best books of poetry ever written.

Kelly Cherry is the author of numerous books of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and criticism. Her most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (Stephen F. Austin State University Press); A Kind of Dream: Stories (University of Wisconsin Press); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). She has received, among other honors, three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards, the Hanes Prize, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction. (updated 2017)

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