So many poetry books, such little space–and never enough reviewers. It’s the problem every review editor faces when publishers start lining up for National Poetry Month in April, with the deluge starting well beforehand. To cover all the books I really want to cover as poetry editor, I have often done an extra roundup in one of LJ’s April print editions. Now, with my own special online perch, I can offer an extended take on collections publishing in the first four months of this year that, owing to timing or limited reviewer availability, I wasn’t able to get reviewed in the magazine. Sorting through about 200 volumes over several weeks, I’ve come up with 13 core volumes that every library should strongly consider and an additional 24 volumes by rising stars whose newest works really grabbed me. In addition, I’ve given notes on several key volumes of poetry in translation–you can’t go wrong with Rimbaud and Rilke and Cardenal.
In poems so vivid, so visceral, you can almost taste them, the remarkable poet/critic Reginald Shepherd, who died in 2008, captures his own untimely waning (Red Clay Weather. Univ. of Pittsburgh. 104p. ISBN 9780822961499. pap. $14.95). The poems, comfortably bleak (“It’s winter in my body all year long, I wake up/ with music pouring from my skin”), were selected by the poet before his death and arranged by longtime companion Robert Philen. Merging the personal and the political (“I tell myself in my teenage hubris/ that I will not work on// Maggie’s Farm like her. Ain’t gonna work like her/ to blindly serve”), multiple award winner David Wojahn offers gut-punch poems whose overloaded lines threaten to crash—but don’t—in World Tree (Univ. of Pittsburgh. 144p. ISBN 9780822961420. pap. $14.95).
Former National Book Award finalists David Kirby, Gail Mazur, and Bruce Smith also display their wares. Kirby keeps up his discursive, fun-house, high culture–pop culture work in Talking About Movies with Jesus (Louisiana State Univ. 80p. ISBN 9780807137727. pap. $17.95), and he’s even more personal, often referencing wife Barbara Hamby (also a poet) and asking Gerald Stern, “ ‘are you the pope of poetry?’ ” The “fizzy glee” he attributes to Little Richard in one poem seems a wee bit tempered here.
Mazur (Figures in a Landscape. Univ. of Chicago. 79p. ISBN 9780226514413. pap. $18.) writes wonderfully light, bright, limpid poems (“They said the mind is an ocean,/ but sometimes my mind is a pond/ circular, shady”). Smith’s Devotions (Univ. of Chicago. 88p. ISBN 9780226764351. pap. $18) are less stained-glass window than weighty contemplation (“Hörlust, roughly ‘hearing passion,’ pleasure in sound but also pain/ as the child Tchaikovsky weeping in his bed screams, “This music./ It’s here in my head. Save me from it”) and would particularly satisfy readers tired of fluff.
Lamont award winner Susan Wood turns elegiac in The Book of Ten (Univ. of Pittsburgh. 96p. ISBN 9780822961390. pap. $14.95), an unfussy volume that opens with these lines: “The day my friend died the ivory-billed woodpecker was maybe seen/ in Arkansas. …Some say it’s an image/ of loss returned as an image of hope.” But she’s lighthearted enough to observe that life is sometimes a “gag gift.” Jennifer Grotz also opens her new collection, The Needle (Houghton Harcourt. 80p. ISBN 9780547444123. $23), with tone-setting lines: “…Thought lengths it, pulls/ an invisible world through/ a needle’s eye/ one detail at a time.” Indeed, in her carefully observed work, we hear rain glittering on ferns, see a dropped cigarette shredding to embers, sense a Madonna’s face making “a dark mirror of what you feel.”
Pushcart/Guggenheim honoree Dorianne Laux revisits the Sixties in The Book of Men (Norton. 80p. ISBN 9780393079555. $24.95), using easy, vernacular language to paint scenes that address Vietnam, dating, and Mick Jagger “yowling/ with his rubber mouth.” Currently Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome, Karl Kirchwey shimmers between present and past (sometimes far past) in Mount Lebanon (Marian Wood Bk: Putnam. 112p. ISBN 9780399157271. $30), often spikily lyrical in his approach (“Moly, mandragor, milk of oblivion”). Veteran poet Sydney Lea, founder of New England Review, infuses his new work, Young of the Year (Four Way. 88p. ISBN 9781935536109. pap. $15.95) with a vivid sense of the natural world. But as evidenced by the very title of the poem “Six Lies About Nature, Ending with a Soul-Tune Line,” he’s no mere sentimentalist.
I’ve always championed the work of Martín Espada, whose The Trouble Ball (Norton. 80p. ISBN 9780393080032. $24.95.) is more loose-limbed and expansive than previous works but remains a powerful poetry of protest (“Epiphany is not a blazing light. A blazing light/ blazes when warplanes spread their demon’s wings”). Jimmy Santiago Baca, too, can write poetry of protest, but in Breaking Bread with the Darkness: Bk. 1: The Esai Poems (Sherman Asher. 112p. ISBN 9781890932398. pap. $12.95), the first of four volumes, he balances his anger at the world his newborn son now graces with tender observations of Esai himself.
Finally, I admire the way Mark Jarman’s poetry worries spiritual concerns while remaining rooted in the everyday. His Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (Sarabande. 224p. ISBN 9781932511925. $24; pap. ISBN 9781932511895. $16.95) collects poems from eight volumes, starting with 1978’s North Sea, and includes 19 new pieces that are as always brave and honest (“And to gather now around pyres of memory/ upon memory,…can make the most terrifying event—/ auto-da-fé, crucifixion, choose one—a celebration”). A great overview collection.