By Tyehimba Jess
Wave, 256 pp., $25
"Olio" is one of the most inventive, intensive poetic undertakings of the past decade, arriving a full decade since Tyehimba Jess's stunning debut, "leadbelly." Referring to the miscellany of acts that followed intermissions of minstrel shows (a precursor to vaudeville) "Olio" is offered as a variety show of "first-generation-freed voices" — from the poet Paul Dunbar and the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Sissieretta Jones ("the first Black Diva to croon in Carnegie") and piano prodigy "Blind" Tom Wiggins. The result is a work both historical and musical, scholarly and sculptural (really, there's a trio of poems that can be torn out, taped into three-dimensional forms, and read in multiple ways — or, "liberated from these bifurcated pages of history"). Through photos, drawings, interviews, foldouts, tables, facts, fictions, and yes, so many strong poems (including a stunning set of "Freedsongs" that wake John Berryman up from his "Dream Songs") "Olio" assembles and raises the voices of an essential chorus: "Listen to how we sing while we/ promises unto ourselves not to die."
WHAT THE LYRIC IS
By Sara Nicholson
The Song Cave, 112 pp., paperback, $17.95
The empty mirror on the cover of Sara Nicholson's second collection is a fitting emblem of the inquiry pursued within: Who do you expect to see in someone else's reflection? And who (pardon the grammar hack) is "you"? Nicholson loves to play with light, perspective, and the many lenses that shape what we see (from language to our laptops), but her poems are also rooted in rich physicality — as she writes in "A Travelogue of Sorts," "one must, Marianne-Moore-like,/ Search the make-believe forests/ For thistles and thorns." Intimate and expansive, with dazzling wit and music throughout, Nicholson's poems fit the stars, the sun, the trees, and their sap in the same frame. A lyric is always a solo flight, but as she hints in "Morning Poem," "I've a mind/ to take you with me."
By John Beer
Canarium, 224 pp., paperback, $14
John Beer's sophomore effort — an expansion of a chapbook that followed the wonderful wallow of 2010's "The Waste Land and Other Poems" — is, to be sure, an effort. "Lucinda" is a novella in verse that employs Friedrich Schlegel's genre- and bodice-busting 1799 novel "Lucinde" as a foundation for a grand (and often gripping) experiment in translation — here literal, there conceptual, elsewhere . . . elsewise — or, as he puts it, "translation might be considered the medium within which 'Lucinda' is composed." And true to the form(s) of its forerunner, "Lucinda" romps, digresses, shifts shapes, and folds time — smudging the centuries between the drawing room and the living room. Schlegel's protagonists Lucinde and Julius are reimagined with the names of contemporary folk singers, Lucinda (Williams) and Julian (Dawson); and in "My Apprenticeship" (a play that runs parallel to a poem and atop a long "subterranean" footnote) the characters of Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey (plus George, Elaine, and Jerry) — taken from character names in "Friends'' and "Seinfeld'' — appear as "18th century poets living in Jena." Beer sets out to create "a space for unpredictable and uncontrolled encounter," and creates a book you can read all the way through but never quite finish.
OF BEING DISPERSED
By Simone White
Futurepoem, 88 pp., paperback, $18
"You have calculated the nearness/ of whosoever is not repelled by your 'hostility,' " writes Simone White in "Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks," one of a few poems from her powerful second collection that uses proximity and presence to explore and challenge the shaping of blackness: "if you stand near white people/ everybody's mood changes." As program director at the Poetry Project, White has organized public discussions to explore the ways race and space form and inform each other, and her poems extend this inquiry with arresting closeness. The prose piece "Lotion" details the care of her skin, her hair, her nails — but it feels as much about her body as the world around her body: "I maintain dominion over the crevices of myself, deep into the layers of my skin, which must never be questioned. Never doubt that these crevices extend toward an infinitely receding boundary." White's poems, meanwhile, move freely through forms and registers: here they're measured out; there they scatter across the page; sometimes they sound eavesdropped from the unconscious, sometimes the subway. But her voice (sonic, sensual, seismic) leads you through her poems' shifting centers without holding your hand: "At this point," she writes, "all language has my bloody stink on it/ slavery & mackerel & spoilt cream drag in behind me."