Lexicon by Allison Joseph (Red Hen Press, 104 pp., $16.95).
Little Armageddon by Gregory Fraser (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 96 pp., $17.00).
Spectacle by Lauren Goodwin Slaughter (Panhandler Books, 110 pp., $15.95)
The Judas Ear by Anna Journey (Louisiana State University Press, 120 pp., $19.95)
Allison Joseph’s newest book, Lexicon, is a welcome follow-up to the widely admired Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press, 2018), a dynamic collection of formal and free verse that bestows unforgettable confidences about the realities of life in a culture hostile to female ambition and otherness. Throughout her prolific career—she is the author of, at last count, eighteen collections, including full-length books on Carnegie Mellon University Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, and more—Joseph has explored the connections between public and private spheres in poems whose revelatory power springs from narrative verve, formal play, and the lively cadences of an impassioned voice—qualities that shape and illuminate the expansive terrain of Lexicon.
Joseph’s is a poetry of embodiment—one rich in memory and sensuous detail—that celebrates “bodies pushing words beyond the real,” as this new collection’s title poem reminds us. Whether she is meditating on the sensory pleasure found in food or gently skewering pretentious B&Bs that leave her longing for “home / where hands that only I know will cook / my breakfast” (“Why I’m a Terrible Bed and Breakfast Patron”), Joseph affirms the value of genuine fulfillment over the empty promises of consumer culture. In “Manufacture,” the poet responds to a CNN report on a toxic chemical used in the production of Barbie dolls by playfully taking the warning literally: she imagines those “blonde dolls with pink-tipped smiles / emitting lethal rays that brainwash girls // into believing bikinis are good, math too hard, / sliced bread Western civilization’s pinnacle.” Ironically speculating on the way sexist notions proliferate to pernicious effect, she considers supermodels—living dolls—“in their/miniskirts and legwarmers,” who embody a distorted “idea of girl power / freedom from stretch marks and Freudian slips.” The poem’s free verse couplets unfurl associatively to reveal the lethal web of contemporary life, half in jest, half in deadly earnest—the “TV sets made from nuclear waste, / credit cards, V-chips,” the “microwaves damaging brain cells”—which leads to a darker question. “It’s all / eventually genocide, isn’t it—” she wonders, “all the Prozac / and waterbeds, all the luncheon meat?” In response, a youthful memory surfaces, as the speaker imagines toxic Barbie becoming literally so—or at least very painful: her Barbie doll was
……….…made of such hard plastic that I could kill
any disagreeable playmate just by smacking her
upside the head with America’s favorite fashion doll.
Here, as elsewhere, the poems in Lexicon reflect Joseph’s insights into culture and history’s currents. “Mistaken Identity,” built on repetitions of key words or phrases, including woman, black/white, and Harrison, Arkansas, revisits an exchange in a public library. Joseph is wrongly taken to be Rita Dove, then Poet Laureate and a guest in the library’s “Poets in Person” reading series. Joseph recalls the unsettling moment “one small white woman, trembling / with age and astonishment, stood in awe // of one black woman, even if I wasn’t / quite the poet she wanted.” At the poem’s conclusion, the chilling truth remains:
showed up on the wrong day in Harrison,
Arkansas, I’d be tree bait—and no poem
or prayer could have helped me then,
saved me from the immaculate white men
and their history…
Lexicon includes a series of portraits and dramatic monologues that bring to life iconic figures, some real, some fictional—movie sidekicks, the rapper Keisha, Pippy Longstocking, Ms. Jackson of OutKast’s hit song, and beauty queens—subjects approached with nuance and the author’s gift for witty subversion. Joseph’s fluency in poetic forms is evident, too. In “Grief: A Petition,” the speaker’s frustration with the mourning process finds fitting expression in the sonnet, “a rhyming box / that I can put together, then unlock / when brave enough to claim the grief that’s mine.” “Literature,” a timely pantoum, vividly captures the ambivalence that surrounds our culture’s response to imaginative writing:
Movies never do it justice,
decent citizens boycott it.
Hardly ever sells at truck stops,
smuggled across borders in translation.
What no one wants to read once out of school.
Beyond the poet’s wry commentary on literature’s economic or entertainment value is the affirmation of its real power: shared stories as a means of survival. In Lexicon’s keenly truthful and passionate verse, we find the words we need for this moment.
Gregory Fraser’s fourth book, Little Armageddon, investigates the illusory calm of the quotidian, bringing a sharp eye and delicate touch to the cataclysms and reckonings of the domestic sphere. “Business,” the collection’s opening poem, is built on the author’s examination of what the word “business” really means (and riffs, too, off Scrooge’s exchange with Jacob Marley’s ghost). Asked by a man who “keeps himself / on the short leash of a necktie” to exchange business cards, the speaker stops short, reflecting that “[t]he world / is my business, and the world is none of my business.” The poem unfurls the speaker’s questioning as he probes the nature of his artistic vocation with words that are “shadows of thoughts / shaped nothing like those thoughts.” Yet, as the poem demonstrates, the creative act is a beguiling source of unexpected insight:
In winter, wind scrapes up and down the walk—a blade
across the sharpening stone. This, I think, is my business.
Or blond light sauntering in spring, the whole city on its arm.
Fraser’s verse offers a potent mix of lyricism and self-awareness to guide readers through everyday contemporary life. In the collection’s title poem, the fulfillment of End Times prophecy begins “with the snap / of a mousetrap, the plucking of nose hairs / with tweezers, sweep of leaves across a yard in the suburbs of Corpus Christi or St. Louis.” The familiar tropes of apocalypse are memorably rendered, yet comically scaled back: “[c]amp and trash-can fires” that “dot the land” send up “curlicues of smoke / that could almost be described as cute” while the final reckoning is heralded by a boy on a pony “who reads / a summons—an invitation, really— / for all sinners to form a straight and orderly line.” Gone are the “screeching lamentations” of biblical renown. Instead, modest musings take hold—a child with a new bike considers if she’ll have time, post-dinner, for “one more turn around the block,” while a middle-aged man, “a tad grizzled for his age,” turns contemplative and asks,
How did my father lose his place
in the book of his own life?
Why did he shut the covers and shelve himself?
How much of his dust have I inhaled?
And why, oh why, did I let myself
become the knife in the poor guy’s back?
Here, and throughout this moving and resonant collection, Fraser’s narrative pacing and well-wrought turns move toward unexpected epiphanies, and his subtly comic stance gives way to deeper epistemological concerns: decadent youthful parties and workplace encounters engender crises of belief or confidence that ultimately create moments of unsettling emotional clarity or spiritual recalibration.
To this collection’s many poems of love and fatherhood, Fraser brings a fierce and tender vision. In “Translation the First,” the poet recalls his twins’ first weeks home with “the gaffes in judgment, / blunders and slips, that were our parental right.” He is genuinely grateful for his Russian mother-in-law’s help, summarizing his feelings with amusing hyperbole as he describes “the golden statue I planned to place on the lawn / in honor of her help with feeding, swaddles, // putrid diapers.” At the same time, he is frank in confiding other thoughts wisely kept to himself, such as “the golden / needle and thread I had in mind for sewing shut / her eyes and mouth.” Despite all, gratitude remains foremost in the speaker’s mind as he recalls how his wife’s
…proud, Soviet indispensable mother
passed on to me many expressions of praise
while keeping safely vaulted (I do not blame)
her scorn for most of what I was, cries
for all I wasn’t, as the greenhorn American
father of her first child’s firstborn kids.
Elsewhere, Fraser considers the distance that grows between partners as they negotiate familial and professional obligations, including how memory surfaces in domestic space to spark desire and “resurrect / the life our life keeps threatening to still” (“Still Life with Lemons”). In the book’s final section, Fraser turns to his family’s immigrant legacy and the social challenges that shape the lives of the working poor who “glide season to season // Stuck eternally in place, like wasps / In a window box, snow angels fused to lawns” (“How the Poor Fly”). Fraser’s verse is unsparing, empathetic, and wise. Little Armageddon pays witness to the essential gestures that sustain families and offer grace, whatever fortune brings.
Lauren Goodwin Slaughter’s poetry explores the intersecting worlds of motherhood, family, and professional life with an unflinching eye and a fiercely committed feminist vision. Spectacle, her second full-length collection, opens with a striking and powerfully revelatory public tableau. Among visitors gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden to view the unexpected bloom of the endangered corpse flower known for its impressive size, unpredictable flowering, and putrid stench, the poet sees an unsettling parallel. “[W]hat woman,” Slaughter asks, “hasn’t been thus / gathered round,” with
a mob of cell phones
raised like torches
poised to snag the spectacle
that is her efflorescence—
pompoms peeping out
(glimpse of thigh
with her fertile redolence?
This botanical exhibit sparks connections closer to home, where the poet-mother reflects on the determined empowerment she instills in her daughter, to ensure she will thrive in a culture that relentlessly objectifies women. The “prim” vocabulary and cute anatomical euphemisms recalled from childhood spark a powerful revelation. [D]espite my professorial objectives,” Slaughter observes, her daughter “refers only to her private,” as if already intuiting the reality that
she must enlist
a part of herself always
to serve as her own soldier,
her very own private,
In her daughter’s lexical error is the discomforting truth that prompts the poet’s resolve: “I won’t correct her.” Slaughter’s deft juxtapositions of domestic and public life, candidly described, reflect compassion and justice. Flipping through a rack of graphic t-shirts on a Target shopping run, the poet searches for “a get-up my kid could stomach / something ribbon-free and sans Princess—// bulletproof, perhaps, in a pretty shade,” an errand that makes her think about the ways her students resist constrictive norms of gender to appear
In polyester, violet fades, and fedoras,
fluid as the ocean and complex as the night
out of range of any manufactured light.
(“The Neutral Ones,” 85)
Threaded throughout Spectacle is an impressive series of ekphrastic poems responding to the work of Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, several of whose photographic portraits are reproduced in the collection. As we meet the gaze of various subjects—a new mother one hour post-delivery, a teen-aged couple at the park, a pair of sisters “posed on a rug by gas-lit fire // like frozen, taxidermied deer” (“Lina and Brunn, Amsterdam, Dec. 7, 2016”)— Slaughter brings to light the emotional depths that animate the spirit of those poised at life’s crucial junctures. Slaughter’s versality is evident; she excels in a variety of traditional modes, including the elegy and the ode. Included, too, is a poignant, witty series celebrating the vital bonds of sisterhood in lively narratives that recreate youthful spats, alcohol-fueled dance parties, and poignant late-night phone calls of support.
Spectacle is a book of promise and rich rewards. Whether she is revisiting the bittersweet moments of first love, mourning lost friends, or lamenting the terrors of political violence and climate change, Slaughter’s finely-honed lyrics engage the myriad forces that disrupt daily life and define our shared condition.
The Judas ear that provides the title of Anna Journey’s fourth collection is a dried fungus resembling “a whorled and ridged // human ear sprouted from a tree trunk, / its canal tipped down / as if listening for gossip, / a far off cough” that unfurls in a stir fry. As the poet cooks, she discovers—via cell phone search—the colorful lore surrounding the mushroom’s name. Other considerations leap to mind—“Alice’s / magical cakes in Wonderland” and Emily Dickinson, (who dubs the fungus “an Iscariot” in one of her poems), as she imagines
all mushrooms as the cumulative
…………..Judas-face of nature, since fungi thrive
in death and rot, betray the carbon
…………..bonds that hold our bodies,
and our earth together…
Reading Journey, I’m often reminded of Sylvia Plath—the shifts between the sacred and profane, the voice at once profound and irreverent, the arresting descriptions of nature, the use of gothic and fairy tale motifs that prove everything old is new again. But Journey channels this influence to map out directions all her own. She is a spell-binding storyteller whose multi-layered narratives unfold with cinematic precision, their throughlines advancing through a dazzling array of turns. “What would the communion of Judas // now make in my mouth?” the poet asks, as she serves her husband a meal of farmer’s market bounty with its unsettling associations of betrayal.
Wherever she turns her attention—the “humid reek” of a Texas herb garden or the stagy rituals of a hipster bicycle event called “Slaughterama”—Journey brings a journalist’s eye for telling details that reveal the essence of a place and time to the myriad landscapes she lovingly recreates. These are poems of intimate distances—the Richmond dive bars of her youth, the pine-redolent hills of the Blue Ridge Mountain trails, the dank, subterranean galleries of the Paris Catacombs, or a dingy California beach that offers a day’s respite in a time of contagion and the welcome sighting of the once-endangered El Segundo blue butterfly.
Journey’s adroit use of descriptive-meditative structures create powerful temporal shifts, as her lines of inquiry move between the contemporary moment and the personal past. She is also a poet of historical reach. In “Lullaby Interrupted by the Stump of the Mammoth Tree,” the speaker, suffering pandemic-induced insomnia, is plugged into a meditation app with a “sleep story” featuring John Muir’s essay on sequoias, which triggers the memory of a pre-pandemic visit to Muir Woods. Here, she encountered a historical display describing the 1853 destruction of a twelve-hundred-year-old sequoia that was felled by Gold Rush spectators and planed into a dance floor by loggers. She recalls walking, unmasked, through “old-growth redwoods” along a trail “fringed in maidenhair ferns and fat/Jurassic horsetails.” Ultimately, the meditation app proves of limited use as the speaker mourns the way in which ordinary life has been disrupted by a virus and connects these changes to the larger losses of the Anthropocene. Muir’s words, then,
… are more than a ‘sleep story,’
more like an elegy for the beginning
of the end of our world
which waits like the planed stump
of a sequoia on which vandals, dressed
for a tea party, keep up their dance.
The Judas Ear is framed by expansive reflections on the life and afterlife of fruiting bodies—and by extension—our own. “For the Actor Luke Perry, Who Chose to Be Buried in a Biodegradable Funeral Suit Infused with Mushroom Mycelia” considers the star once cast as “the sexy / rebel Dylan McKay” of Beverly Hills, 90210, an “image cast in plastic for Mattel’s / 1991 celebrity-Barbie,” and whose green burial recasts him as “ecological ambassador / to the underworld.” Journey is a formidable essayist of restless intellect and capacious vision—qualities that also permeate her poems. Here, she weaves together a treasure-trove of material, from “Italian saints / displayed in Snow White coffins of glass / for tourists to gawk at in Rome” to fungi that “degrade carbon-based toxins” and a portrait enshrined above the stove in her kitchen: Baba Yaga, “the Slavic witch” who “hovers // in her airborne spice mortar above / a crop of red-capped toadstools / in a mossed wood.” The poem’s a thoughtful send-up of cultural fixations and an eloquent reflection on mortality, themes echoed in “Cherry Angiomas,” a charm-like lyric that serves as the book’s coda, taking as its subject the brightly colored skin-growths that “stipple the flesh // of people over thirty.” Viewed against the backdrop of the pandemic’s onset, these unwelcome apparitions spark the speaker’s desire to “seek out // cherries everywhere,” to incorporate them into cocktails and cobblers. “I don’t know // much about skin,” Journey observes, “but I know how to go on // living in it.” Throughout The Judas Ear, a book delicately poised between the beautiful and the uncanny, Journey celebrates the wonder and weirdness of our embeddedness on earth—a concept that resonates throughout this luminous collection.