National Poetry Month 2024

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Poetry International invites you to pick up a book of poetry, and if daring, write a poem. Check out these recently published works: Watering the Soul by Courtney Peppernell, Citizen Illegal by Jose Oliverez, Soul House by Mireille Gansel, Winter Stranger by Jackson Holbert, and Coriolis by A.D. Lauren-Abunassar.

Wrapping References Like Rap

By A.D. Lauren-Abunassar
The University of Arkansas Press  2023, $19.95

Reviewed by Marcus Croy PIOnline Staff

Coriolis, winner of the 2023 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (selected by Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah) by A.D. Lauren-Abunassar opens with several epigraphs, two by distinguished poets, Adrienne Rich and Etel Adnan, and one by musician Nick Drake; this sets the tone for the rest of the book, as it’s full of pop culture references in its titles. “ADL” (as she has branded herself on her website) carries and weaves reference points and influences throughout the poems without much explanation. She mixes an ancient medium with the modern world, referring to things like Courage the Cowardly Dog, Andy Warhol, cryptids, paint swatches, and pharmaceuticals. All of this while constantly mastering and toying with poetic structures, such as her broken sestinas. In the second “Abandoned Sestina,” her use of surprise enjambment keeps her readers in an ever-changing emotional state by portraying joy experienced from a canine companion and then turning it into a tragedy of watching said friend die: 

sometimes that soon became always and arrows that turned
into sharp lights of light in the sky: diamonds of dead flowers

She also deftly uses the visual form of her poems to enhance the reader’s experience such as in “Eavesdropping,” where the two-sided call and response architecture on the page  plays with the voices being heard and who is listening: 

  1. What water said about loss:/ 2. What loss said back:/ 3. What I told water:/ 4.What I told loss:/ 5. What water said back:/ 6. What I looked for in loss, and found only in water:/ 7. What loss said back to me: Imagine a lake that swallows snow

Poet, Leila Chatti, suggests in the foreword that much of this book is about grieving and loss. In this reviewer’s perspective, these pieces are more contemplative and philosophical. They invite the reader to ponder the messy reality of life. ADL oftentimes is unspecific, but also grants readers a notes page at the end to try to meet her halfway and discover things for themselves, as she herself was attempting to do. 

Wrestling With Mortality

Winter Stranger
Poems by Jackson Holbert
Milkweed Editions 2023, $22.00

Reviewed by Janice Alper PIOnline Staff

Winter Stranger, winner of the 2023 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize (selected by Henri Cole), is a volume of poems divided into four sections with overlapping tropes. The prelude, “For Jakob,” introduces the reader to the poet’s tension about leaving the home of his birth, losing a friend, and finding his way: “When we travel/the dead travel too…I left that town/forever. I dreamed,”

Relying on the natural world, snowy landscapes, birdsong, rivers and changing seasons, “…Outside my window, a crane breaks the last jigsaw of ice…” the metaphor illustrates his struggle to make sense of his life. There is a preoccupation with death, when he describes a young man who shoots himself on the school playground and his poems, “World War I” (there are two of them).

One section of the volume is called “The Book of Jakob, the only one with a title. The verses provide insight into the relationship between the poet and his friend, and the pain of his loss: “…The two false kings/will wake well after dawn…and walk into the scenery which is now their lives.” There is mention throughout in this section and the one that follows, about pills, drug abuse, and its aftermath, often resulting in unexpected or untimely death.

The reader has a glimpse into the family of the poet and its dysfunction, “…my uncle grinds an oxycodone…” and we learn later in another poem that the uncle died of a stroke, not the drugs, unlike many of the poet’s own peers who succumbed to overdoses. He talks about his ‘avuncular uncle’ and a roomful of uncles, “Eight men were arguing around the dinner table…” and through his description the readers see and smell the scents, “The men smell like watches.”

Winter Stranger is a veritable wrestling match of coming to grips with loss and moving on from it. A few of the poems describe the author’s struggle to find the correct words. He pays homage to Rainer Marie Rilke, Adrienne Rich, C.D. Wright, and Chery Normile. The final poem, “Moth” provides a ray of hope that all is not lost: “it would be nice to hear you say/that maybe the microphones have been on the whole time, that the rooms we walked through/years ago picked up our conversations,/that not everything was lost just after it was said.”

         After all, isn’t that why we write?

We Are Just People in Our Own Homes

Soul House
by Mireille Gansel
Translated by Joan Seliger Sidney
World Poetry Books 2023, $20.00

Reviewed by Jimmy Palis PIOnline Staff

little child you sleep deeply in the country of your sleep i would
like to leave traces of light so many small houses
in the night–

The poem “small houses in the night” from the collection Soul House by Mireille Gansel, originally published in French in 2018 and translated by Joan Seliger Sidney in 2023, shows the human condition in its universal longing for protection, comfort, and guidance in times of uncertainty. The ‘little child’ represents the vulnerability within each of us, showing our desire to find meaning in the face of challenges that push us not to branch away from the darkness.

As I dove  into this collection, I found myself continually drawn to the weight of my burdens, struggling to find the strength needed to face my own challenges. Gansel’s depiction of seeking comfort resonated deeply with my own yearning for support and guidance during challenging times. Like the speaker’s desire to leave “traces of light” for the sleeping child, I too look for sources of joy that give me hope to move forward. However, confronting one’s burdens can be daunting. It’s a struggle to find the courage to face them head-on, to embrace the light amidst the darkness of uncertainty.

When asked why she translated these poems, Sidney saw that Gansel had many concerns about the world today and wanted to confront them. One such example is the poem “speech of the soul”:

little houses that you carry like a violin where lies
the song of springs–

where to live near the crossroads in early morning to calligraph
 the light of words–

At its core, the poem speaks to the interconnectedness between individual experience and the broader human condition. The ‘little houses’ symbolize the inner sanctuaries of the soul, each containing the essence of life’s vitality or the song of springs, suggesting that within each person lies a universe of experiences, memories, and emotions, akin to a symphony, waiting to be played. This could be a call to embrace the ephemeral, recognizing the richness that comes from engaging with the world around us. Ultimately, these poems underscore how the collection invites readers to contemplate the mysteries of who we are in a world power hungry. 

Gansel’s poetry urges us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, yet also find strength in what makes us human. It’s a reminder that even in the face of uncertainty and struggle, we can still find moments of beauty and hope, and through our actions, shape a better world for ourselves and future generations– whether that be through the challenge of growing up or perhaps standing still while others make the decisions for us. Gansel shows even as “people in our own homes,” amidst every obstacle there is a choice; we can change our lives when we open the door to others.

Heaven is Full of Immigrants

Citizen Illegal
By Jose Oliverez
Haymarket Books 2018, $11.19

Reviewed by Charisse Lindsey PIOnline Staff

In honor of national poetry month, I want to examine the take on racism, the roles of women in Mexican culture, love, and gentrification as a whole that José Olivarez presents in his collection of poetry Citizen Illegal. This book, featuring poems such as “You Get Fat When You’re in Love,” “Mexican Heaven,” “Hecky Naw,” and “Gentefication” offer a perspective unique to his experience as the child of Mexican immigrants growing up in Chicago. 

The poem “Mexican Heaven,” rather than being included as a single piece, is rendered in small excerpts sprinkled throughout the five sections of the book. I  think it is rather clever considering this poem captures Olivarez’s view on racism and the roles of women in Mexican culture. Olivarez, as a Mexican-American, experienced firsthand the importance of women in Mexican culture: “all the Mexican women refuse to cook or clean /… so heaven is gross.” The lack of their work in this version of Heaven and the description of its aftermath conveys their importance in the home, something Oliverez stresses throughout his poetry. 

For many Latinos the racism they face is perpetuated through job stereotypes. Mexicans are expected to be janitors, field workers, or as Olivarez puts it, “Saint Peter lets Mexicans into heaven/ but only to work in the kitchens.” Even in paradise they are not free from the earthly prejudice they face.

José Olivarez makes the personal universal in describing his culture and experience through his poetry, something that can reach everyone, not just Mexican American kids from Chicago. I am a fan of brevity, and though some of Oliverez’s poems were longer, they drew me in and I found energy in every single one of them. 

A Recipe for (Post)Disaster

Watering The Soul
by Courtney Peppernell
Andrews McMeel Publishing 2021, $16.99

by April Yap PIOnline Staff

The path toward forgiveness and healing comes in a recipe, according to Australian poet Courtney Peppernell. Alongside the various measurements that require solidarity or kindness, these ingredients and intricacies create the opening poem, “How To Water Your Soul,” which in my case would aptly define my way of processing grief and anxiety after reading this form of therapy:


1 soul seeding
2 cups of slow breaths
1 tbsp of silence

As a young adult that is starting to recognize the reality of carried burdens, the mantra-essence that Peppernell captures in this collection feels both personal and universal. 

Published in 2021, this mixture of prose and poetry is not new for the author (e.g. Time Will Tell or The Way Back Home), nor was it my first introduction to it. However, with her experienced form of writing, came the confidence that readers seek in their own healing journey— elegantly conveyed through its light imagery and intricate storytelling. This new wave of self-awareness that stems from the peak of the pandemic, empowers Peppernell to speak directly to each reader about the realities of unexpected and unwanted burdens. As she contributes her own particular set of remedies that dive deeper into each “Table of Steps,” those who are in the midst of growth—myself included—appreciate the attention to detail regarding mental health and the possibility of healing:  

And I continued
to think of these things
as I went about my day.

Because when the struggle feels like too much
and the day feels like I have swallowed the sun,
I remind myself of all the miles I have come
and the journey I have begun.

Reminiscing through her sentiments gave me the opportunity to acknowledge the significance in one’s internal hardship, one which leaves a scar in the shape of those days we’ve fought through. Allowing herself to form these intimate conversations through tales of prose and poetry, Peppernell continues to reveal how much one can accomplish over time— even with a couple of years down the road, creating more recipes and remedies that are destined to taste bittersweet with an extra tablespoon of growth:  

If you treat your soul
the same as a seed,
then over time, slowly,
your soul will become
home to many beautiful
things too.


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