“Scattered at Sea” by Amy Gerstler (80 pages; Penguin Poets; $20)
What to do with gazillions of factoids accumulating in the Age of the Internet? A Shakespearean sonnet cannot present Facebook news feed in a mere 14 lines. Or can it?
Poet Amy Gerstler, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, has found a way to celebrate the infinite branching of knowledge. She collages it in exuberant, endless scrapbooks interspersed with her own life story. She makes rich poetry.
Divisions in the book are “Kissing,” “Womanish,” “Dust of Heirs, Dust of Ancestors,” “What I Did With Your Ashes” and “Only at Certain Sacred Locations.” The last considers reincarnation and the journeys of “A Terribly Sentimental Fork,” among other surprises.
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Each of Gerstler’s poems has a personal voice, overlaid with a Babel of images.
“Ancestor Psalm” begins: “So who are your people anyway? Freud? / The Marx Brothers? Kafka? Anne Frank?”
The poem shifts to photographs of the narrator’s random relatives, including an uncle “with a cap like a fallen soufflé” and a “babushka lady” with a “face so like a potato.” All these people are parts of her family tree, and none is like any other.
Gerstler has fun with this book. “Prehistoric Porn Film” imagines early human lovers, “she has fleas / his hair stinks of burnt dirt.” The narrator moves to other species who struggle with their clumsy equipage at a time when “(kissing’s not invented yet).” No graphic illustrator is necessary.
In an interview with “The Believer,” Gerstler describes her love of research, both print and electronic media: “the computer’s there … if I’m writing about an anteater and need a few anteater facts.”
This is a poet who knows how to take blips of knowledge and transmute them into joy.
“War of the Foxes” by Richard Siken (66 pages; Copper Canyon Press; $17)
Poets paint with words, and sometimes poets also are painters. The author of “War of the Foxes,” Richard Siken, has won recognition for his writing, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle poetry award.
That was 10 years ago. The second book by this painter and journal editor adds to his reputation as a writer. His visual art, available at his website (richardsiken.com), creates an interesting commentary on his word art.
Originality is Siken’s gift, especially his freedom to explore different laws of physics. In his new book, the poem “Landscape With Fruit Rot and Millipede” begins: “I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned / into birds …”
He creates another startling reality. The poem does not, however, devolve into a nonsensical mashup. Instead, the narrator reflects on the mind-body split.
A pastoral “landscape” in this poem is not romantic ornament, but instead a conflict: “The mind fights the / body and the body fights the land. It wants our bodies.” The poem stresses endings as paint dries and “bodies decompose.” Mortality looms, implicit in images of nature’s rotting flora, along with the final judgment of gravity.
Siken challenges the idea of a reliable poetry narrator who interprets the world in platitudes. “Logic,” a brilliant poem about linear sequence, begins with, “A clock is a machine. A gear is a tool.” The poet goes on to assert, “Logic is boring because it works.” The trickster narrator jumps off the rails to disrupt expectations, “I woke up tired of being the hammer.” The ending takes readers far away from tedious, expected outcomes.
The poet uses parables, questions, more views of painting, a self-portrait and a dramatic monologue by an artist’s canvas. Every poem in this collection is a surprise and fine, fine poetry.
Reviewed by Denise Low, a former Kansas poet laureate and author of “Melange Block” from Red Mountain Press (Santa Fe).