The Burning Where Breath Used to Be
by Jen Karetnick
David Robert Books

"He does not hold
the syringe like a love letter
or wield it like an apology"

In this collection, readers discover ancestry and origins, critical social commentary, and a discussion about the violence—overt and implicit—permeating American society. Poems like “Sonnets for Code Red” detail the inherent, generational violence Americans share. The prose poem “Kid” lures in readers with its form experimentation and repetition of “He,” which swirls readers into an amalgamation of the self against conformity. Other poems, like “What We Did” with its repetition of “We,” wax reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” “My Husband Shoots Me” draws readers into not only the masculine obsession with power but also the American obsession with physical perfection: “Now I reap expertise / expertise, fanned by / his trajectory as he wasps / around me.” Lastly, just when readers think they have reached the end of a hopeless journey, “These Are the Reasons to Breathe” provides a small, individual light amid the darkness: “I can only write a prescription for hope, drop in / the drug.”

Quietly political, this book holds its own in the vein of other poetry collections like Leslie Wheeler’s The State She’s In. Critical and keen in its observation of the self and society, it utilizes unique techniques to capture a reader’s attention. Phrase and subject-verb repetition, a key component of many poems, creates the sense of a ringing bell that begs readers to notice a poem’s most significant parts and the speaker’s innermost thoughts. More mature readers will appreciate the collection’s immeasurable levels of reflection. Meanwhile, readers who enjoy experimentation with form and style will be attracted to individual poems like “Invocation for Akimbo” and “Atrophy.” Confessional yet universal, the poems possess a Plath-like power that transports readers to the deepest and most conflicted parts of not only themselves but American society as a whole.

A 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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