Incorrect Merciful Impulses

by Stephen Burt

A selfish heart, a postapocalyptic landscape, and a primary vocabulary of bright colors, erotic pursuit, retreat, and grief: Those are the vivid rewards of Rankine’s debut, both a rough guide to ambivalent romance and an atlas for the great, dangerous, belated real world. Her future is political like a cartoon and romantic like Petrarch (“Your rose apple face. / My coal black eyes.”) and antiromantic like binoculars, showing the way to fulfillment and to disaster: “Every year is the year / the world ends / as I understand it // X is to blame.” That’s what the short, rapid lines, the tercets and lists and raw free verse, produce, right up until the longer, slower work at the very end, which includes a stately elegy for a male relative, perhaps the poet’s father or grandfather: “What’s buried here won’t stay / in the ground.” Sensuously immediate but never populist, au courant but never tied to headlines, and trailing—with fearful eagerness—the spirit of Plath, Rankine’s first full-length gathering sounds as if she knew that people were listening, and it has no trouble holding listeners fast. Rankine, who also sings in the band Miru Mir, has picked up early career honors including a fellowship from Cave Canem, the retreat for African American poets, and praise from O, The Oprah Magazine. It’s attention that this collection can justify.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.