Book Review – A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Poetry
Publication Date: May 12th, 2015
Publisher: Speak

“I’m a lone palm tree towering over grassy fronds of rice in a paddy field, yearning to touch the sky although I get lonelier the higher I go.”

A Time to Dance has a simple but absolute beauty. It is a captivating portrait of the rise, fall and spiritual rebirth of a young dancer, Veda, who loses her leg to an accident, yet is more determined than ever to dance. Veda’s dance is so valuable to her, so demanding of her body and spirit, that any pride that held her back before is no longer worth losing it.

I pretty much devoured this book in a night. I love the way this story is captured in loose but flowing prose that blossoms as naturally as flowers. The relationship with Veda and her grandmother was especially beautiful, always an offset to the strained feelings Veda seems to grow with everyone else.

The character development is well-executed, showing whose heart is shallow and whose is true when they treat her differently after her accident. Veda feels as if she is re-enacting in her own life, a smaller and more human version of the epic poetry she portrays on stage. The intertwining parallels between the narrative and Hindu mythology are creative, I have to say, and I also appreciate that the romance was not written at the forefront of Veda’s achievements.

“The strangers’ presence feels warm as a blanket, but not warm enough to thaw the sea of unshed tears frozen inside me.”

I don’t like to compare this novel with one of my most loathed, because I enjoyed A Time to Dance quite a lot, but it reminds me of a more sensitive, good version of Izzy Willy Nilly. They’re both about a promising athlete losing her leg and having to prove herself capable. I realize what I hated so much about Izzy Willy Nilly is that the protagonist never does overcome her struggle. That book was uncomfortably focused on blaming her for her misfortune. So much victim-blaming. There was nothing meaningful but reliving someone’s pain, with no hope nor retribution towards the one actually responsible for the accident.

Venkatraman’s poem avoids all of that to tell a personal saga, and is so much better for it. The characters are well-rounded, realistic, and importantly, it accepts that sometimes misfortune can just happen. That it’s something we all have to triumph at some point in one way or another, and it tells so beautifully. You definitely should read this, if it interests you in any way. It’s very difficult to find much to dislike about, and is one of the better free verse novels I’ve picked up.

“Mukam karothi vachalam; pangum langayathe girim. – God’s grace moves the mute to eloquence and inspires the lame to climb mountains.”

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Book Review – I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: August 17th, 2011
Publisher: Random House

“We have lived a painful history, we know the shameful past, but I keep on moving forward, and you keep on coming last. Equality, and I will be free.”

It is difficult to pin a specific emotion to this collection, if even there is one. Angelou’s poetry contains the chemical potency of all emotions. From rage to rapture, the soul of her work remains bared.
I Shall Not Be Moved is more confrontational by nature, however. The last book I read by her, And Still I Rise, was more about creating something good from out of the ashes – renewal. By comparison, this collection is more focused on never letting yourself fall in the first place. Tugging at the roots of one’s unhappiness to see what the source could be and what treatment will be needed. Never giving detractors and bigots the pleasure of seeing you crumble.

Angelou’s commentary on bigotry is biting. To break the surface tension of such flowing prose is to unveil an absolutely brutal put-down of prejudice and those who perpetuate it through racism and fundamentalism. Bigotry is crueler than a lie, but controlling someone with false promises may outdo both. Ritualism and tradition for tradition’s sake, along with unchecked anger leads to a lot of ingrained prejudices, and eventually it no longer is a spiritual thing anymore but becomes more of an unwarranted punishment on people who often don’t deserve it.

“Preacher, please don’t promise me streets of gold and milk for free. I stopped all milk at four years old and once I’m dead I won’t need gold.”

Not all of these pieces are going to resonate with everyone. That may be the hardest part of doing justice to good poetry, no matter how long you’ve been a part of the genre. There are a few I didn’t really like or relate to, but that’s going to happen. It’s a given. Poetry is so individual that if there wasn’t at least one that didn’t have an effect, it would be strange, even with a writer as powerful with prose as Maya Angelou. My path is not hers and it can’t ever be, so some little nuances were lost on me.
That being said, as a collective experience it stands perfectly, like a finished jigsaw puzzle. Carrying on the message from And Still I Rise, this book is a new goodness formed from the leftover bones of old hardships.

“We grow despite the horror that we feed upon our own tomorrow.”

Quotes

  • “The man who is a bigot is the worst thing God has got, except his match, his woman, who really is Ms. Begot.”
  • “They kneel alone in terror with dread at every glance. Their nights are threatened daily by a grim inheritance. You dwell in whitened castles with deep and poisoned moats and cannot hear the curses which fill your children’s throats.”

 

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Book Review – Growth by Karin Cox

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: July 17th, 2011
Publisher: Independent

Growth is a terrarium, budding and withering within the containment of a moment.
It’s casual yet sincere, but feels snipped. The collection jolts to an end just as it’s starting to really fit into its skin. Growth‘s blooming violets, after all the time they have taken to live suddenly get beheaded.

I liked it, though, and I’d probably read more. I usually judge whether poetry is good or not, not by its style but rather the visible effort and if it triggers the urge to create, and Growth does a solid job of inspiring. Cox’s prose is still of a lot higher quality than your average mass-market poetry book, and Growth is a short freebie. That’s important to note.

“For years I wrote for love of living, then years in tribute to disdain. I walked the streets, eyes primed for sorrow, littering words like falling rain.”

Book Review – Glimmerglass Girl by Holly Walwrath

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Poetry / Dark Fantasy
Publication Date: August 3rd, 2018
Publisher: Finishing Line Press

A paradox of piercing and delicate, like a tendril of blood dripping down a shard of crystalline ice, an homage to Alice and her looking glass illusions.

Glimmerglass Girl is a realm in a globe of femininity and both the knives and hearts it bears, or the knives puncturing hearts when worse comes to worse, as it does.
Never faint, but it’s like a symphony cut short at the intermission – it ends all too abruptly, but doesn’t it glisten while it lives?

Quotes

  • “I am night and a thousand stars hurtle through my skin, punching through the ether. I crouch, prehistoric, in the space behind clouds, my volcanic heart attracting lightning, sympathetic interstellar.”
  • “I tell my sisters: cultivate loneliness like you might care for an orchid, turning it gently towards the light, serving it water like wine; aerated, purified, filtered.”
  • “When others see me, they will see a woman unhinged. I will crawl out of my skin, leaving it all heaped behind me and the naked me will walk home alone in the darkness; a disciple of shadows, an acolyte of the moon”

Book Review – A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: October 11th, 2012
Publisher: Penguin

A Thousand Mornings – as sweet, as gentle as the rustle of lavender in a spring’s breeze, arm in arm with nature and its delicacy fine as webs.

Reminiscent and nature-inspired poetry can be a hit-or-miss game for me. They can be the opening of an emotional drain, or they can be the brew of sappy cliché in place of any real feeling.
Oliver’s work leans toward the former, though it’s not an emotional punch, but rather a waft of sensitivity that rises and falls like the winds. It’s never poorly written. It does get repetitive in its fervor for forests.

To tell you the truth, I was drawn in by the fogged ambience of the cover. Extremely fitting, the cover is. While not my all-time favourite, Mornings evokes a similar, beautiful feeling. I suppose you could call it “purity”. It feels like clean waters pooled beneath a mountain, somehow bottled into words.

Quotes

  • “Oh the house of denial has thick walls and very small windows, and whoever lives there, little by little, will turn to stone.”
  • “As long as you’re dancing, you can break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules is just extending the rules. Sometimes there are no rules.”
  • “For some things there are no wrong seasons. Which is what I dream of for me.”
  • “And therefore who would cry out to the petals on the ground to stay, knowing as we must, how the vivacity of what was is married to the vitality of what will be? I don’t say it’s easy, but what else will do if the love one claims to have for the world be true?”

Book Review – And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Classics / Poetry
Publication Date: August 7th, 2001 (first published 1978)
Publisher: Random House

And Still I Rise has the freedom of body and spirit all poetry should aspire to break out into. Its raw truth and elegance beckons heartache without force, and not once does it fall back on old cliche as foundation. It’s a brief book that can be read in a moment, but what a moment it creates.

I love to think of poems as what they could be if translated into the physical realm – whether they would be something precious, something alive, something dark. Angelou’s poems feel like artworks – they can be fresh and vibrant as much as they can be visibly distressed, but in both forms they are beautiful.

Quotes

  • “Hate often is confused. Its limits are in zones beyond itself. And sadists will not learn that love by nature, exacts a pain unequalled on the rack.”
  • “What surety is there that we will meet again, on other worlds some future time undated. I defy my body’s haste. Without the Promise of one more sweet encounter I will not deign to die.”
  • “Wait for me, watch for me. My spirit is the surge of open seas. Look for me, ask for me, I’m the rustle in the autumn leaves. When the sun rises I am the time. When the children sing, I am the Rhyme.”

Book Review – Planting Gardens in Graves II by R. H. Sin

Planting Gardens in Graves II

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publisher: Andrews McMeel
Publication Date: July 10th, 2018

“My heart is damaged in a way I can’t describe with words and any feeling I’ve had is gone like silence.”

Planting Gardens’ simplicity and forgiveness is resonant – it is a polite but meaningful warmth that carries neither arrogance nor assumptions in its demeanor. When they want, the words can be a kind hand or a pin of empathy in the heart.

I enjoyed and appreciated this book quite a bit more than Sin’s She Felt Like Feeling Nothing. Though it wasn’t a bad collection by any means, I felt Gardens had a disarming pour of heartache into it that gave it more depth. Inspirational poetry isn’t always my thing, but I love the concept of coercing beauty out of ruins, or if you will, gardens from graves.

I’m not keen on the stylizing of the shortest poems. They’re disorienting because some appear to be haiku, but aren’t haiku, and I’ve never favoured the aesthetic of a single sentence poem. It always feels empty rather than artistic to me. Regardless, I did strongly like several of the poems. It’s a good piece.

Quotes

  • “We were like roses / kept alive for the moment / left to die in the end”
  • “Sitting on the realization that you were never good and this was never love / like a beautiful peach rotten on the inside”
  • “Sometimes I’m eager to feel the warmth of love even though I’ve grown more familiar with the cold hands of heartache”
  • “The fact that no one is perfect doesn’t serve as an excuse to hold on to someone who continues to break your heart”
  • “And here I stand / surrounded by my own tears / knee deep in my own demons / reaching for the same hand who pushed me over the edge”

 

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Book Review – The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

The Sun and Her Flowers

★★★★ 3.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publisher: Andrews McMeel
Publication Date: October 3rd, 2017

There is a patch of sunflowers where others have said they’ve found paradise in words. Perhaps they did, but I dove in and saw only sunflowers. That’s the best way I can summate my feelings for this compilation – while parts are so lovely, I’m afraid I didn’t see the same empowerment nor flavours of the heart that other readers have.

As you can see from my rating, this doesn’t mean I thought negatively of it. I personally loved Kaur’s poems about her mother and the ones of darker, more agonized composition. The feminist ones were my favourites, often skirting the edge of the abyss I love to see poetry drawn out of – unashamed, emotional and raw. The illustrations are a pleasant touch to see, as well.

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The romantic poems to me didn’t feel as genuine, having more of a commercial symmetry and tone. It’s not a weak compilation nor are those necessarily weak poems, but I suppose I felt like those in particular wanted to scream but only allowed short bursts before covering their own mouth. Self-consciousness in the name of audience appeal never does creation any favors.

I commend Kaur for bringing a fresh popularity to contemporary poetry, and I think some of The Sun and Her Flowers is stunning, but other parts could be more full-hearted. I recommend, but perhaps try her breakthrough, Milk and Honey, beforehand.

Quotes

  • “I hardened under the last loss. It took something human out of me. I used to be so deeply emotional I’d crumble on demand, but now the water has made its exit.”
  • “You ask if we can still be friends / I explain how a honeybee does not dream of kissing the mouth of a flower / and then settle for its leaves.”
  • “Sun becomes moon and moon becomes sun and I become ghost / a dozen different thoughts tear through me each second / you must be on your way / perhaps it’s best if you’re not.”
  • “Why is it that when the story ends, we begin to feel all of it?”

Book Review – If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: June 26th, 2018
Publisher: One World

Composed of raw emotion, memory and urgency, If They Come For Us examines the injustice of war and division. Bloodshed is something that shakes and dismantles the roots of generations, leaving scars on even those who only recall it faintly, or don’t recall it at all. The aftermath doesn’t fade easily – what is lost and the price of what is gained must never be forgotten.

Asghar speaks rich lyrics also on culture, sexuality, and the delicate, haphazard art of growing up. They are unabashed, honest and hint at deeper intricacies. Her words also take a strong stance against all that leads to partition and war – namely misunderstanding or fearing another because their culture is different, without trying to understand them. Prejudice only leads to further prejudice, never to any sense of harmony.

Some were not to my personal taste, as is with any compilation, but I enjoy the collection’s earnest voice as a whole, especially with the earlier poems and the ones with feminist touches. Particular resonant poems for me were “For Peshawar”, “When the Orders Came”, “Boy”, and the disarming “WWE”.

If They Come For Us is sometimes painful and sometimes passionate, even the poems that weren’t my preference are never watered-down or weak in their meaning or choice of words. (The cover artwork is also beautiful, to boot.) I recommend.

Quotes

  • “Aren’t I a miracle? A seed that survived the slaughter & slaughters to come. I think I believe in freedom I just don’t know where it is. I think I believe in home, I just don’t know where to look.”
  • “From the moment our babies are born are we meant to lower them into the ground? To dress them in white? They send flowers before guns, thorns plucked from stem. Every year I manage to live on this earth I collect more questions than answers.”
  • “All the people I could be are dangerous. The blood clotting, oil in my veins.”
  • “Even nature is fractured, partitioned. I want to believe in rebirth, that what comes from death is life, but I have blood from someone’s father’s father on my hands & no memory of who died for me to be here.”

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Note that this was an uncorrected copy and there may be minor changes present in the final print.]

Book Review – The End of Chiraq by Javon Johnson (Editor)

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry / Social Issues
Publication Date: May 15th, 2018
Publisher: Northwestern University Press

“Mixing culture for the sake of chaos is a sin. Mixing culture for the sake of love… now, that’s God’s work.” -Demetrius Amparan

Poignant and sobering – simultaneously a love song to the city of Chicago and a desperate cry for it to change, for the rapid and unforgiving cycle of violence to end. I feel unequipped to review this book fully, as I’ve never been to Chicago, so I don’t know what it’s like. I can only imagine from the words of those who have seen it at its best and at its worst.

In these poems and essays lies optimism, faith and hope alongside an overwhelming sense of oppression, aggravated further by factors such as poverty, racism and corruption in law enforcement. There is both criticism and dissection of the term “Chiraq” used to describe the city and its violence. Mariame Kaba warns not to embrace the term, as they feel it leads to negation and “shoving to the side” of serious issues, or worsening them:

“The act of renaming the stolen land upon which they live, considered to be agency by some, perversely seals their fate. […] In ‘Chiraq’, community voices are drowned out. […] ‘Chiraq’ conditions how we think of ourselves and neighbors. It traps us into considering solutions that are steeped in a punishment mindset.”

The End of Chiraq is both a call for action and a call for solace – a thought-provoking anthology with a strong chorus of voices. It is both the songs of pain and beauty, or in the echo of its own words, a flower that is brave enough to rise from the concrete and seek freedom. Powerful, and I recommend to all.

Some essay and poems that stood out to me in particular were “To Live and Die in Chiraq” by Mariame Kaba, “My grandmother tells me…” by Demetrius Amparan, “Concrete Flowers” by Aneko Jackson, “When Asked About Chicago” by Alfonzo Kahlil, and “History as Written by the Victors” by Krista Franklin. I also found the essay by Leah Love on interviewing a female graffiti artist to be fascinating.

 

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Book Review – The Day is Ready For You by Alison Malee

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: May 15th, 2018
Publisher: Andrews McMeel

Can you transform mourning into melodies? Can drowning lungs be relieved as they mold into gills? Malee can do this sort of magic with words. It should be said that there exists a tender and flimsy line between inspiring and cloying when it comes to poetry, and that this collection steadies far on the former half of that line, and that it actually is inspiring means something to me. A large chunk of modern poetry, well, let’s say it does some violent jump-rope with the line.

I think for me it has such a saturated power because it is something I feel familiarity with – it’s trying to rise from the dragging apathy life throws upon you, like dead hands pulling you down into an abyss, not because they want you alongside them but because they don’t want you free. There is always the opportunity to break from them but doesn’t it seem so rare?

The Day is Ready For You also explores some feminist themes with dignity, empathy and without blind rage, which I respect. The romantic poems I wasn’t as fond of, but I thoroughly enjoyed the earlier poems and the darker, rainier poems. They are all like the covers suggest, blossoms caught perfectly in their own spheres to shine.

Quotes

  • “This heart is deeply, deeply hidden. Like an old wooden box under the bed stuffed with secrets. / Mostly, love notes. Though also, postcards. Handprints. Glimpses. People who don’t belong anymore but are. Just are, still.”
  • “Gravity never quite drew blood from us. We spin, dizzy. We keep our feet running. Not away, only forward, they say we are only dreamers, but in dreams we become something more, don’t we?”
  • “We forge whole worlds in the pits of our stomachs. Nestle vines between our palms. Urge them to bloom but only if they do so discreetly. / We live stories. Live wars. Live wars that become stories. Become indispensable in our homes. (Yet always feel dispensable.)”
  • “Being close to you is something like blood underneath fingernails / meaning, we have been both prey and predator and somehow we are still alive.”

 

[I received a copy of this through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

Book Review – Blue Bird by Magda Ayuk

★★★★★ 4.5 Stars

Genre: Contemporary Poetry
Publication Date: April 17th, 2018
Publisher: Self-published / Independent

Blue Bird is a potent melding of soul and flesh, of feminine and masculine – it is raw life blossoming from the soil to form the fruit of songs. It outshines quite a bit of feminist poetry I’ve read, wearing its own wings fearlessly and without constriction. Most importantly, it sings of a union and dissolving of animosity between genders or races that a lot of similar poetry doesn’t convey – that each should be able to embrace their own and the other like the earth embraces its seasons.

A voice of nurturing and delicate harmony in a time of growing division and extremism on every side is much welcome to me. This collection asks why there is such deep rage without reason, and why is it aimed at those who have done nothing to deserve its acid touch, forced to reconfigure into something they can’t be and don’t want to be? But those have felt its burn have not been destroyed, and can heal. Maybe in words, we can find a neutralizer so that the acid becomes nothing but water.

Quotes:

“Let us never deem unworthy a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. / For even the tree without leaves can bring a man to tears.”

“So many people are walking around with bones in their heart. / We hear them rattling as they walk, like ominous wind chimes. / They catch our attention for a moment, but then cars honk, / maybe a simple hello would stop the noise, but we’re far too afraid to touch unknown skin.”

“You threw your words into the sea / Cast a net of regret / But it came up empty”

 

[I received a copy of this from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]