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book reviews

‘Stay, Illusion,’ ‘Black Aperture,’ ‘The Big Smoke,’ and ‘Metaphysical Dog’


By Matt Rasmussen

LSU, 72 pp., paperback, $17.95

A gun goes off in the opening line of Matt Rasmussen’s debut collection, “Black Aperture,” and the next 32 poems follow the trajectory of its bullet. The aftermath of the author’s brother’s suicide, its reverberations, and the ensuing grief are poignantly plotted onto trim, sober lines. “The concept of time,” he writes, “starts over.” This is how the northern mourn.

In the book’s second half, Rasmussen begins to bend the laws of sequential time. What if the suicide never happened? What if it were a surreal joke? Circling and imagining the event until it is no longer merely personal, this elegy also becomes a kind of attempted exorcism. “The fall after/ you murdered you,” Rasmussen writes, “I burned your letter . . . stairwell of ash,/a greener door/grows there now/but not in me.” This book may not set him free, but it does something nearly as eternal: It turns a tragedy into a mythology.



By Frank Bidart

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

113 pp., $24

In “Metaphysical Dog,” Frank Bidart shows he can put more pounds per square inch of force on a line than just about any American poet, shy of Lawrence Joseph. From love and desire to the need for narrative, the subject matter of these poems will be familiar to Bidart’s readers. We are once again looking back at Bakersfield, his mother, the identity roulette he played to become — and keep becoming — himself.

And yet, returning to these subjects, Bidart reconsiders his mind, “not a lens, not a prism you have/flawlessly honed that transmits/light, but this suffocating/bubble that encases you.” The world, these poems make clear, is what we make of it, which means surviving, but also imagining. Perhaps he concludes, this means the same thing. Bidart resists the urge to give in to the wintry, but still, he knows the odds. “Everything finally, of course, is/metaphysical,” he writes, adding in another poem: “At seventy-two, the future is what I mourn.”



By Lucie Brock-Broido

Knopf, 100 pp., $26

An arachnid intelligence crawls through Lucie Brock-Broido’s fourth volume of poems. Its spinneret builds webs of startling beauty. Here are the poet’s dying parents, her travels, and the trapped detritus of a mind’s life, all glistening in radials that arc away from the notion of a subject.

Still, Brock-Broido’s lines are eerie, specific, and lapidary: a catalogist’s poetics. Several titles are borrowed from novelists — from Franz Kafka to Shirley Jackson. Brock-Broido uses them as new doorways in which to spin portals to her own world, a place best spied by night, where milkweed and nettles choke the margins, and death is not the underside of life but its final, black embrace.


By Adrian Matejka

Penguin, 109 pp., paperback, $18

Jack Johnson, the world’s first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, comes so boldly to life in these poems one almost wants to duck. The gold-toothed, Shakespeare-loving, womanizing child of ex-slaves talks jive, taunts opponents, and muses philosophical about the American condition. “When I clinch a man/it’s like being swaddled in forgiveness.”

Considering how many of his opponents were white, there’s some truth there. Like Kevin Young, Matejka effortlessly finds the places where vernacular and poetry collide. “Did you tell them/the snappy left/that closed Kid’s eye like a bank on/Saturday was for you?” Jackson asks a lover in one poem. Later, he turns those fists on her, and this book’s tale takes a heartbreaking turn. Matejka conjures their voices equally well, and they fight back.