Winner of the 2019 Richard Wilbur Poetry Award.
It’s the rare book of contemporary poetry that contains a crown of sonnets. Simple Machines has four! Hats off to Jehanne Dubrow for pulling off this amazing formal tour-de-force so seemingly effortlessly and engagingly with crowns that move from the personal to the political and back again, for taking on—fourteen lines by fourteen lines—what it feels like to be alive in this terrifying political moment. May it pass quickly.
In Simple Machines, Jehanne Dubrow explores our current political and social situation by means of several heroic crowns of sonnets—skillfully interweaving her poems with one another in ways that reflect the complexity of the problems we face. Though touched by the same pessimism about human nature that haunted earlier American writers like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, Dubrow suggests that through intelligence and honest feeling we can defeat those who encourage us to be greedy for ourselves rather than sympathetic to others. Toward the end of the book, Dubrow refers to buildings that are “solid, useful, beautiful,” and readers may well feel that this description also fits her admirable verse.
Simple Machines is one extended poem. With steely precision, each syllable in these four crowns of sonnets clicks into place to construct an overarching lyric narrative. A catalogue of household appliances gone awry segues into a lamentation at the “alphabet of grief” that’s our daily portion of news. Next we dip into the lonely terrain of a failed friendship; then back to an arid and alienated home base. Jehanne Dubrow’s coruscating lines offer little consolation; what they provide is penetrating vision and bleak beauty. An extraordinary achievement.