An impressive new crop of books by New Mexico poets includes three debut collections, a seasoned sophomore effort, and the latest from a former Santa Fe Poet Laureate. Each of the five books reviewed here contain aesthetic and emotional surprises, and all of the poets take a crisp, almost terse approach to language and line.
REFUGIA by Kyce Bello
University of Nevada Press, 93 pages, $14.95
Kyce Bello’s debut collection won the 2018 Test Site Poetry Prize, which is awarded to manuscripts that “engage the perilous conditions of life in the 21st century, as they pertain to issues of social justice and the earth.” Such specific, politically oriented criteria could easily lead to a winning book full of stridency or didacticism, but Bello offers us clear-eyed poems of the natural world in distress — a state of being she renders as inseparable from the suffering of its human inhabitants. In Refugia, people are both destroying and saving the world, unable to move forward or back. And yet there is beauty in what is left — and sometimes in the destruction.
With a rigorous and almost frisky approach to word choices, Bello looks outward to the universal and inward to her hopes as well as her failings, neatly sewing both perspectives into almost every line. The literal meaning of the book’s title is an area in which organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions. Distributed throughout the book, the title series of poems hints at a family and a planet in the midst of traumatic change, where stillness and movement are equally painful and equally desired. In “Refugia (4),” Bello writes:
Overwintering theories abound
with lessons I will apply
to taming my petulance.
Still, I burn when crossed.
QUIET AT THE EDGE by Deborah Casillas
Finishing Line Press, 59 pages, $19.99
Nature and the Southwestern landscape are favored topics among Santa Fe poets. In this, the poems in Deborah Casillas’ debut collection would seem of a piece with those of countless others who move here and become enamored by the poetic possibilities inherent in arroyos, mesas, and golden aspen trees. But Casillas has the eye of a scientific illustrator and the mind of a Jungian psychologist.
Some of the poems in Quiet at the Edge are subtitled with a location or a time, such as “Scaffold, Light,” which takes place in Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keeffe’s stomping grounds. Casillas puts the reader in the artist’s shoes (and into her paintings).
What sustains me?
I must see raw earth to know—
Red dirt rises from my footsteps,
white crust crumbles on a fallen slab,
a sky-blue vein snakes across this rock.
Casillas shines when writing about contemporary issues, finding clever ways of obscuring her politics in her poetics. For instance, if she hadn’t added the date — 11/9/16 — to “A Vase of Flowers,” you probably wouldn’t perceive her somewhat negative opinions about the showiness of lilies as a sly takedown of Donald Trump, or her warmer feelings about mums as a reference to resistance against tyranny.
AN AMIABLE RECEPTION FOR THE ACROBAT
by Jon Davis
Grid Books, 85 pages, $16
In previous books, former Santa Fe Poet Laureate (2012-2014) Jon Davis displayed a mischievous and often acerbic wit, with which he interpreted the ways society sabotages itself. In his new collection, Davis’ sense of humor has gone melancholic. Although it is sometimes funny, this is a book about aging, free-floating grief, and being stuck with the choices we’ve made, individually and collectively.
The distance between friendship and its memory is explored in “Letter to Rob from Bear Creek,” in which Davis meditates on divorce, remarriage, and taking loved ones for granted. He questions the relevance of his poetry and whether it’s a kind of selling-out to type it, with freezing fingers, into an iPhone. Anger bubbles in “Abstract for an Apology,” a poem that seems to excoriate someone for narcissistic emotional bridge-burning but could just as well be an admission of the speaker’s own lack of accountability for his transgressions.
A hopelessness pervades the poems, whether they are about love or politics or technology. One wonders just where Davis goes from here. “Poetry, it seems, has just one/question,” he writes in “American Poetry,” after Poetry has shown up like a person, “late, sporting a hoodie & Keds.” Poetry strips a burger of its lettuce, tomato, and bun, and eats the meat with its fingers, the nails of which are painted hip colors like black and green. The seemingly meaningless question American Poetry (the character, the poem, and the genre at large) asks, Davis writes, “is why/this meal is so brief & why/you get stuck with the check.”
TO CLEAVE by Barbara Rockman
University of New Mexico Press, 91 pages, $18.95
Motherhood, marriage, identity, aging, and memory are the prevalent themes in Barbara Rockwell’s second collection of poetry. Taken as a whole, the book is reminiscent of a diary kept by a housewife 100 years ago — a woman with a well of talent that she shared only with the page. That is not to say the writing is in any way naïve. These are fully developed poems by a mature writer who prods obscure details from the mundane. In “My Husband Comes Home From Work,” a wife observes with detached compassion the daily disappointments that lead a man to want to change his life. In “My Hipster,” a woman, her inner child, and her daughter are interchangeable, all longing for the freedom that comes with flying down a hill on a bicycle. But the older woman can’t operate with the same abandon as the lively young thing who once stayed out until dawn.
No matter how straightforward a poem seems, Rockman delivers an incongruous image or turn of phrase to create mysteries for the reader. In “My Daughter, Drowning,” she writes:
The mothers’ visors were white Their knees dry
Seventy-three percent humidity though the clouds had cleared
Later the eaves would overflow Later
I filled bowls with luminous macaroni their bickering
and then their dad home picking at his tie on the edge of the bed
EYES BOTTLE DARK WITH A MOUTHFUL OF FLOWERS by Jake Skeets
Milkweed Editions, 83 pages, $16
Jake Skeets comes on strong with his gritty, narrative debut that takes on masculinity, indigeneity, and queer identity. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers was a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series competition and is another book (along with Kyce Bello’s Refugia) firmly establishing alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts as major players in contemporary literature. Skeets’ environment is the Navajo Nation in Vanderwagen, New Mexico, as he writes provocatively and often graphically about drinking, violence, and sex — often weaving all three subjects together in one poem. Interaction between men is in the spotlight, whether that means fathers and brothers or men who connect in the back seats of cars. In this world, men’s intimacy is tethered to alcohol, and empathy is all but nonexistent.
As dark and biting as many of the poems are, they are continuously surprising in the way they glory in self-acceptance, as if the act of putting truth on paper is a battle one can win by sheer perseverance. In “Dear Brother,” Skeets writes:
You kissed a man the way I do
but with a handgun. You called it; I’m the fag
we were afraid to know, the one we’d throw rocks at, huff at like horses.
I learned to touch a man by touching myself. I learned to be a man by