In reading the Kate Tufts Discovery Award finalists and winner in close proximity to each other, I was able to see more clearly one of the most dominant trends in contemporary poetry: all of these books, to different extents and in different ways, are meditations on identity. While obvious markers of identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality, are explored in these collections, each also explores more subtle influences on selfhood: the influences of a caring mother or grandmother; the influences of absences—an absent sibling or parent, for instance; the influence of place and how it roots and un-roots us. These poets look at the way we are each an amalgamation of what we love and what loves us as well as what threatens us, what would make us invisible—that is to say, what we defy and resist shapes us as much as anything else.
Thus, in many ways, these collections are also meditations on rendering visible the invisible parts of human experience. And, while each of these poets has a singular voice and vision, each of them renders grief, rage, and love visible through a mixture of deft lyricism, formal experimentation, and vulnerable narration.
Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen (Omnidawn, 2018), 2019 winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.
Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is a haunted and haunting elegy, as the title suggests. In it, Nguyen grieves for her dead brother whose absence is the most prominent element of the book, which features family photographs with his form cut-out; this cut-out form is filled sometimes with poems (or sometimes the poems form around him, his absence a disruption, a negative shadow they cast), with his name written over and over, or with emptiness, white space offering its paean in this catalog of grief. “There is no ecologically safe way to mourn,” Nguyen writes in the first poem, “A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere,” and from that gutting line Nguyen takes us on a journey that is as intelligent as it is vulnerable, surprising as it is familiar—the way grief is.
As noted in Jess Smith’s review at the Kenyon Review, it is difficult to isolate the poems in Ghost Of for dissection; I read this book in a single setting and am unconvinced there’s any other way to go about it. As Nguyen writes in “Triptych”, framing is “an act of enclosing” but “framing will also remove you:” to remove these poems from her framework is to rob them of their relational intensity. Furthermore, this collection is more than a container for grief—rather, it is framed by multiple grievances, not only the loss of a brother, but also the wounds that surround that loss, particularly those caused by the Vietnam War: “there is, you see, no shortage of gain and loss. // Let’s admit without embellishment what we do with each other” she writes in “Ghost Of.” It is this simultaneous lack of ornament alongside painstaking attention to detail that makes Ghost Of a riveting read: each moment, each turn of the page (and often, turn of the book to take in the typographical moves she makes) is essential, elemental as rain.
Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed (Coffee House Press, 2018).
One of my fiction instructors, the marvelous Beth Lordan, suggested reading the first and last word of a novel together as a way to distill the essence of a book through its book-ends; I have found this practice equally illuminating when applied to poetry collections. Reed’s Indecency’s first and last words are “i destroy” and these words limn the central preoccupations of Indecency: what does it mean to be a gay black man in world set against you, a world that would have you destroyed? Reed’s answer is to destroy the flawed expectations he’s working against: his poems are dazzling displays of formal play and incisive social commentary. In “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me for Being a Faggot,” love and anger share center stage as Reed’s speaker examines the intersection of race and sexuality:
gay-ass nigga, who loves you these days?
I hope it’s Black people. I hope no one
stole the certainty of that away from you.
To believe that white men had my back
was a facile act: who else so long
prepared to help me hate me?
As these lines suggest, there is no uncomplicated solace in this book; every moment of vulnerability in it, of which there are many, tender as they are raw, must admit (and criticize) the circumstances that makes such vulnerability risky—indecent, even. As Reed’s speaker suggests in “Exchange:” “which position privileges parataxis? in what design do i hold power?” In these poems, which vary in structure and form, shifting fluidly from narrative to lyrical modes and often inviting the reader to physically move the book around to experience them, Reed finds power in multiple designs, particularly in those he invents for himself.
Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal (Noemi Press, 2017)
“A daughter bound by / trouble is a wilder grief,” Villarreal writes in “Gulf Pines, or Final Assimilation Room,” offering a distillation of the roving journey Beast Meridian takes in its exploration of womanhood, particularly first generation Mexican-American womanhood, and how it intersects with concepts and experiences of wildness, trouble, and grief. The grief and trauma Villarreal’s speaker feels is both firsthand and inherited: “I inherit a palace of locked doors,” her speaker notes in “Tropical Depression,” which ends with both grief and righteous indignation:
I make warriors of the ocean,
to obliterate borders, explode walls, overwhelm the fences uncross the river
For the great violences hidden inside women
For the women hidden inside great violences
As with Nguyen and Reed’s collections, Villarreal’s Beast Meridian experiments with form, using foot-notes, field notes, white space, typographic experimentation, and like Nguyen, family photographs, to craft a book that is at once elegiac and vibrant. “To get out of the forest,” one of her characters realizes in the long narrative sequence, “The Way Back,” “she must be the first to tell their story.” In many ways Beast Meridian is this telling, as it is at once the story of an individual and a people, of living across, within, and without various borders of culture, geography, and self—it is both an un-writing and a re-writing: “a concurrent unweaving as I weave, / the text an unraveling ghost-skirt / ever-repeating its leaving and leaving and leaving.”
River Hymns by Tyree Daye (American Poetry Review, 2017)
Tyree Daye’s debut is soaked in mother-love and cloaked in ghost-sheen. Its reverence for family, for land, for the fraught ways we are defined by geography, blood, and where they intersect (both literally and figuratively) define this taut and beautiful collection.
In “Southern Silence” Daye demonstrates his ability to move between social commentary and interior reflection. It begins, “I’ve only trusted / four white people in my life” and ends
I wish I only spoke
made a home
from these trees
the way birds do
In this movement from racism to birds roosting in song, Daye shows us that geography is both curse and balm: place haunts and heals us at the same time.
The other haunting balm for Daye’s speaker is family—while many of the poems praise and cherish the speaker’s mother, the collection also celebrates the presence of family ghosts, the sense that our loved ones, even in death, carry us as much we carry them: “We live in the same house your mama died in, / we talk with her ghost as if she still had a tongue,” Daye writes in “Story.” Daye’s poems remind us, in their weaving together of lyricism and narrative, of the way “home,” whatever that might be for us, is defined by our connections—to land and to each other. Daye notes in “Rock-a-bye,” “If I made a map of me / my mother’s body would appear / her map makes mine,” indicating that this palimpsest map of self and other is how we recover our sense of self and purpose from the oppressive forces which would deny and diminish us.
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
Zamora’s Unaccompanied, much like Villarreal’s Beast Meridian, is a collection that explores the complexities of immigration and the way border-crossings divide and reunite families. However, Zamora’s approach is a bit more straightforward, relying more on realism than magical realistic tropes to share his and family’s story. Even so, the poems admit the difficulty of realism, of reconstructing memory. As in “Let Me Try Again,” the speaker begins
I could bore you with the sunset, the way water tasted
after so many days without it,
the breed of dogs, but I can’t say
there were forty people
when we found the ranch with the thin white man,
and his shotgun.
Here, Zamora demonstrates the slipperiness of memory, even of such an intense moment. In other poems, memory is colored by longing, by the borders that can never be crossed again. In “Vows,” Zamora explores the repercussions of illegal immigration and the impossibility of visiting family back in El Salvador. When the speaker’s grandparents “ask when I’ll visit,” the speaker answers, “soon, Abuelos, soon. What I mean is / I can never go back.”
The question Zamora’s book raises then, is how to make a home in a land that doesn’t want you? How to make a home when you can never go home? As with most of life’s difficult questions, the answer is ineffable and indefinite; we are left with action and voice. For instance, the poet interrogates himself in the final multi-part poem, “June 10, 1999,” which marks his arrival into the United States and reunion with his parents after a long separation. The trauma of that journey continues to haunt him: “javier can you think of that date / without almost pissing yourself in La Migra’s backseat,” he questions himself, before turning to the present: “and what do I do / I sit here and type it’s Monday / it’s Tuesday it’s Friday / type first day inside a plane I sat by the window,” returning us to the poem’s first line. It is, thus, through this gesture, toward those moments that haunt and make us that the collection offers some, if not resolution, peace: we might not be able to go home again, but through our work, through living, we can gesture toward it.
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.