THE WAR WORKS HARD, DUNYA MIKHAIL

the_war_works_hardI stumbled upon the work of Dunya Mikhail earlier this week and fell in love with her collection The War Works Hard. Her fierce examination of war and the situation in Iraq makes an emotionally compelling read. Mikhail does an outstanding job of weaving together the personal and the political, showing readers a face behind the destruction and war. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, Mikhail’s honesty is gripping.

Upon opening the collection, readers will notice that Mikhail’s poems are oftentimes written in long, page length stanzas. The lines are short, and Mikhail’s writing tackles complex subjects through simple words. One aspect of The War Works Hard that surprised me during my first read is Mikhail’s use of sarcasm. In the title poem, the speaker applauds the war,  claiming that it “works with unparalleled diligence! / Yet no one gives it / a word of praise” (lines 50-52). Through grueling images that put readers at the forefront of the war scene, Mikhail is able to show the consequences of the American invasion of Iraq: “It contributes to the industry / of artificial limbs, / provides food for flies” (lines 34-36). So much of The War Works Hard speaks to the powerful ways in which poetry can be used to advocate for political and social justice.

In other poems, the speaker aggressively protests the war, forcing readers to acknowledge the horror. In the poem “America,” the speaker directly addresses the American government, demanding that it take accountability. The speaker asks, “What good is it to gain the whole world / if you lose your soul, America?” (lines 50-51). I really love the blunt nature of the speaker, and how she holds nothing back.

Mikhail, who was born and raised in Iraq, was placed on Saddam Hussein’s enemy list. After facing increasing threats for her writing, she fled to Jordan, then later immigrated to the United States. Her fearless defense of her work is empowering, and it is this type of courage that readers will fall in love with upon reading The War Works Hard. 

Buy The War Works Hard here.

Cover of The War Works Hard courtesy of New Directions Publishing. This collection was translated by Elizabeth Winslow.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about New Directions Publishing: “New Directions was founded in 1936, when James Laughlin (1914–1997), then a twenty-two-year-old Harvard sophomore, issued the first of the New Directions anthologies. “I asked Ezra Pound for ‘career advice,'” James Laughlin recalled. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.”

Event Coverage: Nin Andrews & Karen Schubert

20161019_195955On Wednesday, October 19, The East Cleveland Public Library and Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern brought poets Nin Andrews and Karen Schubert. It was a great evening, and the Q&A session that followed was informative and inspiring. Andrews talked about her love of prose poems, as well as her inspiration for her book Why God is A Woman.

Huge thanks to the organizers of this event!

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CANNIBAL, SAFIYA SINCLAIR

downloadI’m in such awe of Safiya Sinclair’s debut collection Cannibal that I’ve been carrying it around everywhere I go, admiring her powerful exploration of identity as a Jamaican woman. Not only does Cannibal reflect on family and race, but the images woven in each poem are stunning. I’m so glad I found it amidst the buzz on Twitter, because it has quickly become one of my favorite collections, aside from Seam by Tarfia Faizullah. 

Throughout the book, Sinclair is brave in her depiction of womanhood. In one of my favorite poems, titled “Good Hair” the speaker engages readers in a discussion about race and beauty by comparing herself to blonde haired women. It reads: “Our lives already tangled in the violence of our hair, / we learned to feel unwanted in the sea’s blue gaze,” (lines 4-5). The desire in this poem is captivating, reminding me of the character of Pecola in the novel Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Sinclair’s words are compelling, and the last lines left me breathless: “This nigger-hair my biggest malady. / So thick it holds a pencil up” (lines 28-29). 

Another aspect of Cannibal that I love is the two-series poems “After the Last Astronaut Had Left Us” for their fascinating depictions of family. In the first poem, the speaker is able to paint an image of the family’s inner turmoil as the parents fight: “Saw my mother / learn to unlove my father, her bags packed // like a hermit crab, her white shell impenetrable” (lines 14-16). Along with other metaphors, both poems are rooted with space-themed images, giving Sinclair a unique way to write about family. What’s also especially emotionally gripping is the speaker’s comments about her siblings: “Back then we passed one sweaty dream back and forth / between us like a hot bowl. It could have been hope” (lines 32-33).

Through and through, this collection amazed me. As a whole, the poems come together in a complete way, and each one is stronger than the last. Sinclair does an excellent job with the series “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof,” as well as the series “Notes on the State of Virginia” where the speaker examines her own otherness. The speaker’s comments about race relations in America are gut-wrenching, as is the poem “America the Beautiful:” “But every night in America my brother is a criminal. // Gunned down for his clothes when he is not being shunned / for the shadow if his face” (lines 27-29). Poetry friends, Cannibal is fierce, and you will feel its force at each line. 

Buy Cannibal here.

Cover of Cannibal courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press. The cover was designed by artist Wangechi Mutu.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about The University of Nebraska Press: “Founded in 1941, the University of Nebraska Press is a nonprofit scholarly and general interest press that publishes 170 new and reprint titles annually under the Nebraska, Bison Books, and Potomac Books imprints, and in partnership with the Jewish Publication Society, along with 30 journals. As the largest and most diversified university press between Chicago and California, with 3,000 books in print, the University of Nebraska Press is best known for publishing works in Native studies, history, sports, anthropology and geography, American studies and cultural criticism, and creative works.”

Event Coverage: Reading by Lo Kwa Mei-en and Martin Rocks

20161007_193638Two days ago, I got the chance to meet poets Lo Kwa Mei-en and Martin Rocks at the Galleries at Cleveland State University. Both poets did a wonderful reading, bringing voice to so many of readers’ favorite poems. I was also able to check out the Cleveland State University Poetry Center‘s fabulous lineup of collections and chapbooks.

The Galleries at Cleveland State University is currently featuring work from artist Archie Rand. Both Rocks and Mei-en read under Rand’s stunning new project which is titled Sixty Paintings from the Bible.

Check out photos from the event below, and see the author’s work by visiting their websites!
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BRINGING THE SHOVEL DOWN, ROSS GAY

516lNEeE5uL.jpgThis week, I’ve been spending time with the collection Bringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay. These poems have reminded me about our responsibility as humans to act with compassion and love, especially in times of fear. Gay’s poems are tender in the face of brutality, and they feel both personal and universal. So many of them made me smile, even as they offered a powerful reflection on violence and the different ways we hurt each other.

In all of the collections I’ve read, nothing comes close to the thoughtfulness and cleverness of the title poem in Bringing the Shovel Down. This poem is repeated twice, but Gay tweaks the ending of the second one (titled “again”) to communicate a message of tolerance. In the first poem, readers follow an innocent young man as he becomes convinced that a dog named Max with a “limp and regular smell of piss” is rabid and will “likely find [him] in the night” (lines 14-16). After a group of “big kids” convince him of this, the young boy doesn’t sleep for three days, ultimately becoming a victim of their teasing and manipulation. In the end, the boy kills the dog: “the boy brings the shovel down // until Max’s hind legs stop twitching and his left ear folds into itself” (lines 43-44). In the alternate version of the poem, the boy uses the shovel to feed Max a piece of meat because he is too afraid to approach the dog: “he bends to lift the meat to Max’s toothless mouth,” (line 51). I love the message in both these poems. The shovel ultimately becomes a metaphor for the power we hold in the face of fear, and the consequences of our actions.

What I found most surprising about Bringing the Shovel Down was the way it addresses social justice issues. Gay’s poetry has a lighthearted and gentle feel to it, even as it addresses topics such as racism. The poems aren’t afraid to show their teeth, even as they end with a message of peace. This is a tough balance to strike, but Gay is a poet that exercises restraint, showing us that there is beauty amidst the most gruesome of places. For example, in the poem “Overheard” Gay juxtaposes two distinct images: “the way he pointed to the sun unfolding / between two oaks overhanging a basketball court / on 10th street” (lines 12-14). Just a few lines later, he introduces the following: “he did not say forget / the multiple shades of your mother’s heartbreak” (lines 18-19). I love this poem because it centers on the phrase “It’s a beautiful day” that the speaker overhears from a man. It’s these tiny, tiny details and narrative style of the poem that caught my attention, and made me fall in love with it.

Bringing the Shovel Down is one of those collections that I want to carry with me on bad days. It reminds me that there is good in the world, even when things seem really, really bad. Everyone deserves a piece of the hope that this collection offers.

Buy Gay’s collection here.

Cover of Bringing the Shovel Down courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press.

*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about The University of Pittsburgh Press: “The University of Pittsburgh Press is a scholarly publisher with distinguished books in several academic areas and in poetry and short fiction, as well as books about Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for general readers, scholars, and students.”