IF THEY COME FOR US
By Fatimah Asghar
106 pp. One World. Paper, $16.
Asghar lost her parents young; with family roots in Pakistan and in divided Kashmir, she grew up in the United States, a queer Muslim teenager and an orphan in the confusing, unfair months and years after 9/11. From that experience she has made a book that deserves broad attention. “If They Come for Us” encompasses clear, compact free verse, ghazals (a kind of couplet with South Asian roots), a crown of sonnets and poems that imitate Mad Libs, glossaries, floor plans and crosswords, all set against the kinds of frustration and injustice, existential and political, that Asghar has seen or known. “All the world’s earth is my momma’s grave,” she declares. “There’s a border on my back.” Bits of Urdu (“ghareeb,” “khaala,” “khalu”), along with facts of South Asian history, signal Asghar’s multiple belongings and her bicultural strivings, both to stand out and to belong: “hand-sewn kupre each Eid, velvet scrunchies to match,” “boy-girl / feet pounding the ground.” Some pages seem designed to inspire teenagers (by no means a weakness); others, like Asghar’s wonderfully mordant “Microaggression Bingo,” suggest the inventions of Terrance Hayes. A standout sequence links the oil and blood of the wars in Iraq to family ties (“blood”), to menstruation and bad skin, as international conflict and American prejudice inform what would otherwise just come off as teenage angst: “All the people I could be are dangerous. / The blood clotting, oil in my veins.”
EACH TREE COULD HOLD A NOOSE OR A HOUSE
By Nina Puro
127 pp. New Issues. Paper, $16.
The personal is political for Puro, too: The anguish and drama in this capacious first volume arise both without and within. It’s a tumultuous, unguarded collection of free verse in many contours, modes and sizes, some nearly baroque in their deep-delving obscurity, some plainly confessional, devoted to troubles shared by many women and girls: “If I had gone to prom or college instead of hospitals, if I’d had family or mentors, would I have become a queer poet?” Eating disorders and exurban isolation add to the pain in the voices that Puro shapes, in which “love is a transactional convolution. Breath is cheap.” Her poems tend to end up dramatic, breathtaking, alive with an almost self-immolating energy inseparable from youth, “hordes of kids riding bareback / off cliffs with satin ribbons in their hair & the horses’ manes.” Puro also shows her invention in her long titles: “How to Arrest Time by Crushing Rust to Powder”; “elegy with five-finger discount on smallpox blanket.” Some poems organize themselves around extended sentences and new metaphors for heartbreak or outrage, exploring the rough country located halfway between Dylan Thomas and Tori Amos. Others exhaust themselves in page-long lists or pinch themselves into tiny lines. For all her attention to the hot, colorful self, Puro (now a social worker in Brooklyn) understands the social and structural elements — rigid gender roles, geographic isolation, economic wrongs — that brought her troubled figures to this pass: “The dead girls miss us, but not much. … They miss neon afghans. They do not miss the police.”
By Austin Smith
113 pp. Princeton University. Paper, $17.95.
The quiet rural boys and men of Smith’s poems want neither colorful escape nor radical transformation, though their hard lives speak to our social system too: They have “lived far from everywhere / And any toy, no matter how small, could still / Fill the empty hours.” They want to make do, get by, as disillusioned adults, and they find it harder than it should be, in part because farm life has always been hard, in part because much of America does not see, or does not want to see, them. A “flock of decoys” provides false reassurance to ducks; “Hired hands of my grandfather’s time,” now ghosts, “come floating / Through the doorframes of meth / Houses on the verge of exploding.” Smith does not often (or not for an entire poem’s length) adopt pre-modern meters or forms, but his careful sonic patterns suggest an immersion in them, as when the men (perhaps veterans) in “Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die” become “fireflies in a Mason jar, / Holes punched in the tin lid so they can breathe.” Weldon Kees, Donald Justice and, behind them, Robert Frost constitute the tradition in which Smith works, and in his hands it is political, even topical, not so much in the few poems that address headlines (“Drone”) as everywhere else, in allegories, character sketches, vignettes: a “Cat Moving Kittens” “made a decision / Any mother might make / Upon guessing the intentions / Of the state: to go and to / Go now, taking everything / You love between your teeth.”