Joanne Diaz’s book of poetry My Favorite Tyrants won the 2014 Brittingham Prize in poetry, administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this collection the poet explores the idea of tyrants creatively and unflinching. She doggedly pursues the idea, opening doors of perception for the reader so that she must re-think her concept of a tyrant by the end of the collection. Also, Diaz exhibits her command of poetic craft utilizing sound, rhythm, and subtle imagery successfully over a range of forms. The poet uses syntax remarkably to create plainly stated lines that describe the situation but still create poetry. While the collection is not without its flaws, Diaz has successfully authored a collection well worth reading.
Diaz’s pursuit of the theme of tyrants unifies this collection, and her list of tyrants is long. Joseph Stalin is the unnamed subject of Little Terror, the second poem of the collection. In A La Turka, Diaz’s narrator takes on Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who would seem a hero to many, but the reader finds out, if she did not know already, that nation building is a dirty, bloody business. However, the collection goes beyond obvious tyrants. In Dog Whisper, the reader sees Nunu the demon Chihuahua fiercely snarling at family friends, neighbors, and family. Nevertheless, the reader discovers the real tyrant is the owner who refuses to control her dog regardless of the effects on those around her. This kind of introspection fills the book and has the reader thinking outside the box about what a tyrant could be. The narrator shows how family members are tyrants. She identifies her mother’s actions as tyrannical in more than one poem. In addition, the poems show how less corporeal entities can be tyrants; for example, how the rich, even when well meaning, take advantage of the poor in a tyrannical manner is the subject in the very first poem of the collection, Larry David on Corregidor. By the end of the book, the narrator shows the reader how sickness and disease are kinds of tyrants, as cancer claims the narrator’s loved ones. The use of this theme of tyrants is not surprising for a book of poetry, but the poet’s application of that theme is. The conviction with which the book pursues the theme is remarkable, as it casts a wide net that has readers seeing tyrants in their own lives.
Though the collection is mostly made of narrative works, the poet’s craft has not been neglected. The choice of carefully related details is evident; throughout the collection the poet has a knack of using ordinary descriptions to relate fantastic information, as in the poem Visit to Fox Hill Cemetery. The narrator describes a surreal supernatural journey in plain-spoken language that will not lose any reader. Additionally, more specific craft skills are at play. Excellent use of sound and rhythm, along with crisp imagery, are among the poet’s strong skills. However, it is the poet’s command of form and line that is exceptional. There are works in couplets, tercets, quatrains, six line stanza, and free verse. Each line is specifically broken as the poet varies from end-stopping lines to using enjambment. One excellent use of this effect comes in My Funny Valentine as it accentuates the surreal situation. Between the fourth and fifth tercets, the reader sees the following lines on either side of the stanza break, “Congregationalist Church. Between the green salad // and the fruit cocktail, a woman named Serena” The list of these three very different items are unified by the enjambment. This helps to destabilize the reader and expose the tyranny of social expectations as it examines newlywed septuagenarians and an illustrator / Leonardo da Vinci re-enactor who is gender transitioning. The destabilization is a clever poetic craft choice.
There are no major flaws to be found in the collection. Any reader of a significant amount of poetry will notice instances where the poet could have made different choices to render different effects. This is not much more than a matter of taste. One minor critique may be honestly leveled at the collection. The voice of the narrator is a bit monotone. The reader will hear the introspective philosopher/poet narrator throughout the collection. There are few if any, highs of excitement or joy, and only a few moments of anger or rage. There are a handful of times that the narrator’s attitude approaches frustration and a few moments of humor. However, for the most part the emotional range of the narrator is a bit limited, though only so much as to be noticed by those who read the entire collection over a short period.
Diaz has a great accomplishment in “My Favorite Tyrants.” It is an exceptional collection mastering craft, including syntax and form, as well as management of line. It is remarkable for its use of theme and the poet’s power of description. It is a book worth adding to your poetry collection.
Reviewed by Matt Larrimore