5 books of poetry

April 19, 2011

1 Billy Collins’s latest, Horoscopes for the Dead (Random House, $24), continues and deepens the exploration of love and mortality that began in his previous collection “Ballistics.” Yet as readers will quickly notice, Collins’s acute awareness of life’s limits seems to have softened his tone. His trademark humor, while still present, is subtle, and most of the work is invitingly thoughtful. A poem about baldness and time travel, for example, is followed by one in which he remembers that “no one / who ever breasted the waters of time / has figured out a way to avoid dying.” Meditations about friendship, marriage and a loyal old dog interweave with those on loss. Even his most chilling observations about death, in a poem called “Thank-You Notes,” are balanced by a gentle, innocuous opening: “Under the vigilant eye of my mother / I had to demonstrate my best penmanship.” What “Horoscopes” lacks in originality of subject matter — how many poets have addressed mortality? — Collins makes up for with an appealing perspective that should attract new followers.

2 For different reasons the same can be said about Marge Piercy’s new and selected poems. The Hunger Moon (Knopf, $30) spans 30 years and follows her transformation from a radical feminist to a woman whose ideas and values mirror those of mainstream Americans. In these consistently strong and accessible poems, Piercy writes as confidently about handbags — “We have marsupial instincts” — as she does about women who were murdered on “an ordinary morning of helping / other women choose / to be or not to be / pregnant.” As the collection progresses, Piercy addresses marriage, family relations and religion, and she finds a contentment that her own mother never knew. She also shows, page by page, that activism and the “ordinary” joys of living can and do coexist.

3 The Chameleon Couch (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), by Yusef Komunyakaa, may provide an entry point for readers who are intimidated by the grandeur and intellectual rigor of his work. His 14th book of poems spans several continents and uses historical, mythical and musical references to address both large-scale atrocities and personal losses. Komunyakaa’s language is vivid, as always, and he changes subject matter effortlessly, whether he’s writing about gargoyles, cultural notions of beauty, former lovers or Jews murdered during World War II. Many of his poems are lovely, as is “Ode to the Chameleon”: “you are a glimpse / of a rainbow, your eyes an iota / of amber. If nature is mind, / it knows you are always / true, daring the human eye / to see deeper.” The most welcome surprise is the poet’s openness in this collection, his most personal and inviting yet.

4 Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, $27.95), illustrates the challenges of re-creating history, even for a poet as accomplished as Kevin Young. In his seventh collection, Young tells the story of the enslaved Africans who took over the Amistad and tried to sail home, but instead were captured and jailed. The poems chronicle the group’s uprising, long fight for freedom and conversion to Christianity. In some places the work is flat, as if Young were trying too hard to speak for his subjects. The strongest sections are “Correspondance,” speeches and letters written from jail, and “Witness,” a libretto in the voice of Cinque, the leader of the Mendi. His hauntingly eloquent chants give voice to pain that religion cannot ease: “Or is the soul / that hole / that will not heal— / leaves, in its unleaving / the branch bare— / the hawk that knows / alone, but does / not name it.” Despite its flaws, “Ardency” is compelling and hints at the scope and depth of Young’s future efforts.

5 Jennifer Grotz is the relative newcomer in this group, but The Needle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23), her second book, should establish her as one of America’s best young poets. Where many writers look inward and mine their private landscapes, Grotz sees the objects and scenes around her. She notices a nun’s distinctive jacket, for example, or an elderly man who walks with his wife each morning. Attentiveness brings her poems — and the world — alive. In “Late Summer” she writes: “At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding. / Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.” Grotz’s perspective makes her work feel objective and insightful, even when she writes about family tragedies. Her ability to balance artistry and emotion results in buoyant poetry.

Lund was the poetry editor of the Christian Science Monitor.

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