The Soft Life by Bridget Talone (Wonder, 2018)

Talone’s poetry seems to navigate the paradox of brutality that is inflicted through the prescription of gentility. Here the mystic and sensuous entwine themselves with the hum of violence normalized by patriarchy, mirroring how the codification of much of this violence is undertaken; that is, ensconced in the linguistic softening of manufactured desire.

I was first drawn to this collection by pleasure alone. There is an attention paid to invention and play throughout these poems that leaves this poet-reader both awestruck and envious, and my appreciation has grown even deeper with repeated reading. These poems tread grim territory at times, but Talone’s lyricism keeps a reader connected to the experience, and without being subjected to didacticism.

“Bugs, you ate around his late delirium.
His what? Phosphorescent door.
Crawl to me and let’s compare what we have
seen, while patience paints our face with clay.”


Essays and Fictions by Brad Phillips (Tyrant Books, 2018)

Do we gravitate toward people similar to ourselves out of the comfort that comes in knowing we’re not alone in our beliefs? As a consummate contrarian, it often feels really good to read work by someone I’ve a lot in common with.

I’ve long been an admirer of Brad Phillips’ artwork and social media persona, because his art is beautiful and pure in a way I find uncommon to contemporaneity. It wasn’t until very recently hearing an interview with Phillips that I became interested in his writing.

Brad Phillips is an artist, a recovering hard drug addict, a Buddhist, a trauma survivor, a son of a criminal father, and a thoughtful, well-read and compassionate human being. Brad Phillips thinks all writing is fiction. Going into Essays and Fictions with this knowledge should have prepared me for the way it feels to read this book.

Essays and Fictions is both extraordinarily engaging and hard for me to read. I am pulled into it by that comfort in familiarity and surprised delight that drug use, addiction, and their accompanying lifestyle are not glamorized by Phillips. The unadorned honesty here is at times too familiar for me, however, triggering anxiety attacks that have led to my spending hours spinning out in a pool of bad memories. It is a testament to Phillips’ craft, his pinpoint accuracy in describing the inner life of a particular sort of addict, that I continue to dip into this book.

Readers should not mistake the fact that Phillips weaves the autobiographic and imaginary for embellishment. As a recovering addict, I’ve been pulled out of many drug stories by an unrealistic or overwrought passage. Essay and Fictions serves as proof, to me, at least, that fiction can be true and honest.

You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth by Michael Sikkema (Trembling Pillow Press, 2019)

If I were to apply the term stalwart to anyone working in the poetics I’m interested in, I would apply it to Mike Sikkema. Mike’s been consistently writing some of the most striking, imaginative, and boundary-pushing poetry for as long as I can remember. As the person behind Shirt Pocket Press, he’s been consistently publishing small-run chapbooks of poetry by equally imaginative poets.

Published by one of my favorite small presses, Trembling Pillow Press, You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth is comprised of four first-person narrative poems. While these poems could all be categorized as speculative, this says little to nothing of Sikkema’s spectacular aesthetic flex: ants, giant ants, the slasher’s Gordian knot of sex/death/lake and weapons that act on the enemy’s body with sound.

Saint Dirt,
The green eyed-owl is
Great for BBQ
Think your plan into
A little handle
& pull it til it works

— from “The Incidents at Flat Mountain”

Speculative fiction is a genre I usually find rich in ideas and lacking in style. Not here. I’ve been reading You’ve Got a Pretty Hellmouth pretty giddily, as it exemplifies a novelty in concept, language, and aesthetic I’m always looking for but seldom find.

Coolth by Hajara Quinn (Big Lucks, 2018)

Reading Coolth is an exercise in joy. This book is a remedy to the state of mind I find myself in when I read the same old poem written five different ways by five different poets in journals of high regard. Coolth shows us the missing minutiae of felt experience, the ocean of interconnectedness in the everyday. It shows what it shows without knowing more or less than the reader. If Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” passage from “Nature” was to be re-written during the information age, it might be something that approaches the linguistic ecstaticism embodied in Quinn’s poetry.

In the giant mute chatroom of the prairie, the happiness of green is spread evenly; in the

baby vegetable, greenly esconced, it is highly concentrated.

— from “The Cake”

Like an Italian stonemason giving you roadside driving directions, speaking with their hands, Quinn augments language with her own twisting, nudging and folding of words to better point us toward the destination.

“It’s so windy
That it’s windig” I texted you­ —

— from “Windig”

On Ugliness by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli International Publications, 2007)

In an attempt to better understand why I write what I write, I’ve been reading a ton of theory since I finished edits on my last chapbook and collection of poems. Instead of discussing Kristeva, Williams and Adorno, I’ll tell you about On Ugliness, the most recently pleasurable volume of theory I’ve been digging into.

As a child I was always drawn to the ugly; I often rooted for the villain. I spent many years as an active drug addict. I used drugs to be someone who could relate to beauty, to be cool, to be tolerable, to be who I thought people wanted me to be. On drugs I loved most people and saw a lot of beauty in the world. Since getting clean things look and feel a lot uglier, and it’s unavoidable that my writing inhabit that ugliness. As I consider it wise to know the history of what you’re doing, I tracked down On Ugliness as soon as it was recommended to me.

An amazing book, it contains hundreds of full color images of the repulsive and gruesome in art throughout history, from Rubens to John Carpenter. These images accompany a book-length essay by Eco that details its subject from a number of sociocultural vantages: suffering of the Christ, the uncanny, xenophobia, relation to the natural world, deformity, sadism and more. I predict that this book will prove itself invaluable.