Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon (Norton, 96 pages, $36) draws inspiration from his time in prison (at age 16, he was sentenced for a carjacking) and post-prison life (after nine years of being incarcerated, and rebuilding his life, Betts eventually graduated from Yale Law School).
The book also uses found text from court documents to protest the U.S. bail system and its predatory practices that work to exploit and punish the poor, by blacking out most of the text to reveal its vicious undercurrents.
"From inside a cell, the night sky isn’t the measure — / that’s why it’s prison’s vastness your eyes reflect after prison." Betts’s brutal, stripped-down poems maintain a rough-hewn shape and impressive formal range that strengthen their core focus.
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Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves (Anansi, 120 pages, $20) explores, by contrast, a self-imposed containment, that of an Irish missionary called Ethernan who withdrew from society to live in a cave, where he pondered whether or not to found a monastery or live alone like a hermit.
Solie divides the book between poems that directly explore Ethernan’s imagined experience and those that meditate more broadly on the surrounding area (both geographically and intellectually). "What is a self but that which fights the cold?"
"A cell / can teach you everything. All it asks is / you give it your mind." A dense, complex, and strangely gripping collection that is a fine addition to Solie’s already-impressive body of work.
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"Ignore the other applicants sitting in cages. How badly / do you want this job?" asks Chris Banks in Midlife Action Figure (ECW, 70 pages, $19).
In a dense, electric collection filled with whip-smart lines and crackling imagery, Banks explores middle life, which the poet Dante famously compared to a darkened forest filled with monsters and the gates to Hell.
"I miss poets / who have died. Their poems stick around, / witnesses telling the truth of what they know, but eventually most of us stop listening." Banks’s poems have a sad strain even in their most jokey moments, and crash different images together in such a jam-packed way that the poems always threaten to spill over but still feel calm and contained.
"It’s not easy, Dear Reader, to be / locked in a cage match with you." Banks has a strong grip on our throats even as he tickles our sides.
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The poems in Meredith Quartermain’s Lullabies in the Real World (NeWest, 104 pages, $19) travel across the nation, west to east, also travelling back through time to eventually imagine some strange, now-unimaginable and alien moment outside of colonization: "I wish this poem could gather every forgotten forsaken being / and return them to where they are loved."
Quartermain delights in wordplay, rhythm and rhyme, although she never holds any of these for long, making the poems musical and wild even as they refuse to stay still for too long: "where have you been, Lost Humans, / dragging longer and longer trains / of dreamwreck."
"The Un time tentacle lines / in lake-sop spongeland / twilight riverlet lakelet weep / trails interscenting / tendril rhymes." Despite her dark material, Quartermain’s poems gleam.
Jonathan Ball’s first book, Ex Machina, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and to celebrate it is free at www.jonathanball.com/freebook.
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