4 poets delve into the human condition through science fiction, fantasy, history and religion

August 7, 2012

1Michael Robbins ’s writing is as edgy and brash as the sci-fi characters he gives voice to in his first collection, Alien vs.Predator (Penguin; paperback, $18). In poems that range from outrageous to vulgar and throb with energy, he boldly employs cliches, literary allusions and cultural references: “Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk./ We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s/ berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys/ for a living, you’d pray to me, too./ I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.” Robbins challenges convention at every turn and seems as comfortable roughing up the poetic canon as nodding to iconic TV and music. “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z,” he writes in “To the Break of Dawn.” That breadth of influences — from rappers to Wordsworth — and the poet’s sharp, facile rhythms are reasons to peruse this book, whatever you think of his perspective.

2 David Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return (Copper Canyon; paperback, $16) is his 20th collection, and one of his best. The poems are remarkably consistent and polished, whether the subject matter is childhood memories, nature or aging and death. His lines and stanzas are crisp and sure, and the voice is always articulate and thoughtful, as in the opening of “By a Pond”: “Its face, as calm as the air,/ holds an inverted world/ of trees and a trembling sky,/ and I’m looking at a garden/ as far away from my eyes/ as if I lay underwater.” Wagoner knows how to describe a scene with such precision that readers feel both its immediacy and its larger import. Points of no return come throughout this rich, vital collection, which ends with poems that illustrate how to remember and how to die.

3 Place (Ecco; paperback, $15.99) is a provocative new collection by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jorie Graham, who has long led readers through a labyrinth of history, philosophy and religion. That approach continues here, as Graham explores the precarious future of both humans and the natural world. Tension colors these complex poems, which open with simple images but quickly shift to weighty issues such as unemployment, poverty and politics. In “The Bird That Begins It,” for example, Graham writes, “this body lying here is/ only my thought,” and then moves, several lines later, to “Please/ tell me my job. It cannot be this headless incessant crossing/ of threshold, it cannot be/ more purchasing of more/ good.” This isn’t an easy collection to read, but Graham’s distinctive treatment of timeless and timely subjects gives the work depth and power.

4Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible (Knopf, $26) is a witty collection of prose poems that throw the reader slightly off balance. The jolt can be delightful, as in the opening piece, “A Banker in the Brothel of Blind Women,” where the banker points out one woman’s deception as she reveals his own. Strand, whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize, brings the same mix of fantasy, imagination and insight to these prose nuggets as to his poetry. He knows when to change from surreal to clear, simpler writing. “The Old Age of Nostalgia,” for instance, ends with a description of lost moments that “still come back, but briefly, like fireflies in the perfumed heat of a summer night.” “Almost Invisible” is too elusive at times, but the strongest pieces read like riddles you can’t resist.

Lund was the poetry editor of the Christian Science Monitor.


“Alien vs. Predator” by Michael Robbins. (Penguin Poets)
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