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Poetry roundup: From philosophy to biopsy

Poetry roundup: From philosophy to biopsy

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If you didn’t already know it, St. Louis is a pretty poetic city. So in honor of National Poetry Month, now in its 19th year, here are four new collections from writers that hit close to home, either for their physical proximity (some are neighbors) or emotional intimacy.

Mary Jo Bang’s seventh poetry collection, “The Last Two Seconds” (Graywolf Press, 84 pages, $16), is a philosophical rumination on time. Urgency propels the collection from poem to poem, but Bang complicates this with a voice “sick of explanations,” yet hungry to explain.

Bang, a professor of English at Washington University, calls for back up from philosophers Bertrand Russell and Walter Benjamin, writers Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf, and ’80s pop-star Cyndi Lauper, who turn her questions into almost answers.

In the poem “All Through the Night,” Bang points out the human urge to own time: “the stopped time / is no longer time, only an illusion that says, / I can have this, and this, and this.” Her all-too-true cynicism demands a counterpoint, and she offers Lauper: “Cyndi says / the world expands but always keeps us in it.” If people can’t hold on to time, then they can at least rest assured that “whatever is happening, you are always in it.”

At times, Bang reassures, but more often than not, the poems pull the reader toward more reflection. “The Last Two Seconds” asks readers to fill in the blank, to insert themselves, to turn inward.

A founder of the literary organization and magazine River Styx, Michael Castro is a central figure in St. Louis poetry. This year, he became the city’s first poet laureate. (Full disclosure: Although I edit River Styx, I have met Castro only once in passing.)

The poems in his 15th collection, “How Things Stack Up” (Singing Bone Press, 103 pages, $14.95), carry the weight of an art changed by the loss of so many of its heroes: John Coltrane, St. Louis saxophonist Maurice Malik King, and poet Robert Creeley, to name a few.

Castro works in the Beat Poetry tradition, a poetry influenced by jazz and the activism of the ’60s and ’70s. His poems prioritize sound and movement with lines like, “left behind the babble of its brazen, craven towers.”

Much of “How Things Stack Up” remembers Castro’s heroes. In “Chili-Mac,” Castro serves up an anecdote about a night at a greasy spoon with the most eminent of Beat Poets, Allen Ginsberg. In the poem, Ginsberg interrogates the cook about the preparation of his chili-mac, a piece of “social research,” Castro notes.

The poem’s strength is in its reflection: “It all boiled down / to three words. // Cheap and Filling.” Ginsberg responds, “Like good poetry.”

At his best, Castro is an even mixture of cool and wise.

Claudia Rankine’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf, 169 pages, $20) transcends the typical poetry collection. The book, her fifth collection, combines personal essay, poetry, cultural criticism and visual art into a lyrical examination of the subtle and not so subtle manifestations of racism in America today.

“Citizen” is stark, serious, and blunt. The book’s chilling cover, artwork by David Hammons, shows the hood of a black sweatshirt. This hood calls up the executioner’s garb and the sweatshirt worn by Trayvon Martin, a black teen killed in Florida in 2012. It becomes a symbol of the recent killings of black individuals.

Rankine’s account of tennis champion Serena Williams’ depiction in the media is equally chilling. She tangles the essay with Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube tutorials on race in the art world and Zora Neale Hurston. Rankine writes, “For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, on to you.” She marks the section’s end with a photo of tennis player Caroline Wozniacki with towels stuffed in her bra and shorts, an imitation of Williams. Rankine’s treatment, measured and furious, comes off as necessary, even groundbreaking.

“Citizen” is integral to a larger movement in society, deepening the complex nature of racism and squashing arguments of a “color-blind” America. For intents and purposes, “Citizen” is a textbook. It educates.

Albert Goldbarth’s “Selfish” (Graywolf Press, 168 pages, $18; on sale May 5) pushes the reader outward. His sprawling poems reach to astronomy, physics, archaeology, religion and on. The book, his 27th poetry collection, is a history and a personal account, synthesizing past and present for a new understanding of the self and its selfishness.

“On the Way” starts with the poet’s benign test results from the urologist, but unfolds to reveal family history: “Even now, on the simple drive up 35 / from Wichita to Kansas, I’m thinking in terms / of losing one’s self, I’m thinking / of an arc that starts at Ellis Island, 1898, // and of my grandparents… .” Goldbarth quickly ushers the reader from his personal tragedy to the wide landscape of lineage.

These poems move quickly, far and wide, because they have a destination. Goldbarth arrives regularly at dazzling revelations.

He reflects on the wait for his lab results, “That’s all past, as I’ve said. But a visit like that // is altering; you become your own souvenir.” Experiences leave a mark.

Moments like these are Goldbarth’s hand-crafted gifts to the reader. Despite the self-proclaimed selfishness, his poems are hugely generous and warmly empathetic.

Lizzy Petersen is managing editor of River Styx and a lecturer at Fontbonne University.


When • 7 p.m. Monday

Where • Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid Avenue

How much • Free

More info • 314-367-6731

When • 2 p.m. April 11

Where • St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive Street

How much • Free

More info • 314-241-2288;

Castro will co-host with Linda Smith the DiVERCity Poetry Fest

Jane Henderson • 314-340-8107

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