by Michael Londra
Edited by Philip Nikolayev
Art and Letters
Some use poetry as a mirror. They search for themselves in the words they find. Others unearth. They use the lines of a poem like the prongs of a digging tool. Slicing into the eye, a poem used this way ruptures deep into troughs of sunfire buried in the soul. We rely on our best poets to lead us on these necessary excavations, adding an extra set of hands to the spadework, lifting out of the molten heart of our dreams the vibrating objects of a mysterious, sublime self. We can hold these exquisite artifacts close for as long as we remain seized by the poet’s power.
Edited by virtuoso poet Philip Nikolayev, 14 International Younger Poets—gorgeously published by Art and Letters—is a glimpse into the next generation of poetic genius. These poets comprise a crack unit of archeologists of the future.
Inside these lovingly curated poems, we discover innumerable ecstasies, a multiplicity of portals into the ineffable, an infinity of jeweled pathways, alternatively navigating us through what otherwise is the brutal slog of the desert of our days.
We find here a variety of fresh styles allowing us to encounter—in the same dazzling moment—the world below, above, inside. The strength of this collection is not merely its energy and ambition. It is the rendering of diverse experiences into painterly language. The careful capture of thrumming emotion, depth after singing depth, drawn unsentimentally, unsparingly, exultantly, recording every loss, savoring every possible joy.
Seven of the poets hail from India, seven are American, all [14 of them] arranged alphabetically. This versatile mix of talented visionaries, each under 35, have at their disposal an impressive aesthetic armory. They are poetry’s New Parnassians. Arresting images rush at us immediately, as in “My Mother’s Brain,” from Avinab Datta-Areng: “I was like/ A scalpel held against the air’s throat.” His striking lines unspool like a face bandage. “Monkey shadows lead me.” “Forgiven by you, everything has/ Been forgiven by you, even god.” Peaches “Bruised, opened, making me/ Drunk with their scent.” “Mother of thought lost to eternity.” Yet this splendor does not alter the bitter denouement:
The unbearable beauty of the rest
Of the world renewed each time
By what you will never utter.
Poised, radiant, Raquel Balboni’s brilliance, luminously articulated in her outstanding debut XXX Poems (Art and Letters), finds further polished expression here. Sommelier of mood and tone, her liquid voice shimmers with glints of surprising poetic disclosures. “All is well in my dopamine shell,” torques into “People fall for it so easily/ other people screaming in the dark.” Playful humor mingles with despair, ending on complex ambiguity:
You were there somewhere in between the miscellany of being
Dragging on and on and never taking the scenic way
And I can never forgive you for doing that to me.
Justin Burnett is not only a poet. A visual artist as well, Burnett’s poems rise into the air. The motor of his meter is a Tesla, smooth, beautiful, nearly without flaw. Sweeping across desire’s John Ford panoramas, Burnett pilots the wheels of his poems directly into the most intimate of internal geographies. Riding the linguistic roll of “the face-first/Tern dives, the phragmites’/ Drift, the particles whizzing,” we downshift: “Now, together with the priest,/ I am alone in nature,/ But wear no cassock.” When “The hunger starts to hurt,” the pain of a dying loved one descants[descends?] into a kind of closure: “Axis, wheelchair/ You/ And imaginary numbers!”
Blake Campbell specializes in a granular acuity reminiscent of Hart Crane. In Nikolayev’s poetic pack of aces, Campbell’s sonnets are among the strongest. Inventive, sharp, delightful, the illuminations that spread out under his pen are hard to forget:
And if its fingers leave you numb,
Against the threat of new despair,
You still believe a hand has come
To shake the crystals from your hair.
Often there are references to other poets. Simic, Achebe, Yeats, Merwin, Ashbery, Pushkin, each presides inspiringly. Sumit Chaudhary, with spiraling erudition and skillful mastery, exemplifies this with his “The Song of Watt,” gesturing toward Samuel Beckett, a poem Chaudhary dedicates to “Sam.” It feels etched with a razor.
He is a poet who, like James Merrill, has a marvelous talent for mixing strange chemicals into heady, smoking compounds. Chaudhary’s “Canonization” tosses into his brew a dash of John Donne that resolves into a punctuating Shakespearean rhyming couplet: “and in remembrance are selves to be learned:/ in no blipped epiphany but protracted, earned.”
Consisting of a prose poem that contains inside of it a sonnet written in boldface, Chaudhary’s “AQI” can be read profitably three different ways. Isolating the sonnet, the prose poem, or merging the two. “AQI” also nods toward Nikolayev’s own “Hymn” from Letters from Aldenderry (Salt Publishing), which similarly blends these two forms.
Susmit Panda, too, in his poems “Scarab” and “Babel,” further explores this braiding of sonnet and prose modes, achieving his own unique effects, the split in the poems allowing us to ponder the nature of our own fractured subjectivity.
Emily Grochowski scalds. Her poems spike into the mind à la Thelonious Monk. She works her lines like piano keys. “A passive silence,” she explains, “An active silence/ Sometimes are the same.” Her command of complicated ontologies finds consummate expression in “(A)Void,” “Paper Book,” and “House of Weight.” Love and violence—language as magic and madness—generates image-hoards of “word-vertebrae,” from which she builds indelible utterance: “I murder your blindthrowing words.”
Shruti Krishna Sareen’s powerful verses are rinsed with revelations. Her feminist viewpoint is sorrowful, playful, above all lyrical, poetry of the highest order: “Red is intensity of a passionate kind/ That which I have lost and yearn to find.” Touching on resonant details—the troubling aftermath of a pregnancy, menstruation, desire, spirituality—Sareen has given us a landscape of supreme beauty and burning ideas. Such heightened intensity palpitates through the gimlet conjurings of Zainab Ummer Farook. Wielding her gaze like a swordpoint, she gives us thrilling phonologies: “It is said that making is unmaking.” “I offer bone and tooth-root.” “I drown in night air, taste iron as I fall.” “I have inhaled motes of dust from dreams.”
Kamayani Sharma’s accomplishments[contributions] include pieces on art and cinema. Intertextuality helps Sharma give shape to invisible worlds, as she repurposes attributed quotes from other literary sources, generating a new universe of gender and erotic insights, woven into beautifully rendered dreamscapes. “Is romance a reason to walk after dark?/ Courting danger a passion (a shauq) after dark?” leads into “Love is the Dehli[Delhi?] night, ennobled by its ruins.” Urdu is mosaicked throughout. Shauq means hobby. Sharma expertly deploys Urdu and English to comment on and deepen each other. “Within Urdu” reveals “There is no place for the mundane in Urdu.” Likewise, Sharma’s refined and soulful lyricism.
Of these poets, the melodies of Chandramohan S. are among the tastiest. We read him with a watering mouth. Our eyes get big, as if peering into a millionaire’s open safe. “I am the poet,” he says, “painting images/ out of the abyss of time.” The luxe style never wavers: “I see her beyond curves/ as if I am treading a geodesic/ beyond the curvature of the earth.” But beware. As you sink into his riches, there is a scorpion of truth:
The autobiography of my vernacular
preserves a few suicide notes,
transliterated in indelible ink:
vestiges of the legacy of slave owners
passed into my hardbound poetry volume,
once a pedestal for imperial boots.
Paul Rowe composes, as he puts it, “from the backseats of cars, where/ mothers never know/where we are.” His verses are quick shots that hit the bullseye clean. “Cerebral Palsy” is eight swift lines but cannot be forgotten. The narrator discloses his bond with a suffering brother: “to this shore, this body, this beach, this shell—The reef/ without language pulls us in—binds us together.” Surely there will be more of his poetry to dig into, like the “pile of tarnished basement vinyl” in his “Fallen Comets,” the sacred altar where “crouching epiphanies” await.
Romanian-born Andreea Iulia Scridon uses memory as the inkwell for reimagined portraiture: “I fancy myself a chess piece/ on the marble of your terrace.” Redolent of dreamy European Sundays, Scridon’s lines ooze Art Deco sophistication. As she conspires over a table at the Café de Flore, we happily indulge in her warm voice, like binging espresso-soaked madeleines. Pleasure always wins: “It ruins your life/ but its colors are pretty.”
“All The Lights Are Tricks” is the book’s longest and last poem. Samuel Wronoski’s splintered narrative of the sea is filled with “gulper eels,” “cowry shells/and candies in a crystal jar,” “eyes of some forgotten coelacanth.” Marbled layers of Rowe’s epic history are quarried into nuanced, jagged, transcendent textures. “Remember that all infinitives are forceful” bleeds into the final uplift that doubles for Philip Nikolayev’s major young poets, his archeologists of the future,
who grind the shovel blades,
and wait, and churn the patient ground.
MICHAEL LONDRA writes poetry, fiction, and criticism. He lives in New York [City].
PHILIP NIKOLAYEV (www.fulcrumpoetry.com) is a Russo-American bilingual poet living in Boston. He is a polyglot and translates poetry from several languages. His poetic works are published in literary periodicals internationally, including Poetry, The Paris Review, and Grand Street. Nikolayev’s collections include Monkey Time (Verse/Wave Books, winner of the 2001 Verse Prize) and Letters from Aldenderry (Salt Publishing). He co-edits Fulcrum, a serial anthology of poetry and critical writing.