Lucia Perillo ’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon, $22) could easily win the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry Thursday. Its quirky, engrossing poems read as smoothly as a popular novel. Perillo, who was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize , writes with an endearing strangeness as she addresses loss, change and mortality. In “Again, the Body,” the second poem , she shocks and engages by considering cannibals and “the problem of the body, not that it is mortal / but that it is mortifying.” Perillo offers milder surprises when she turns her attention to her father, her maturing son, historical figures, strangers and even animals . In “Maypole,” one of the loveliest poems, she describes tanagers in a plum tree as “fancy hats of women breaking into song,” and later imagines the tree as a “carnival / lighting the tarmac of the abandoned mall by the freeway / then the birds are the men with pocketknives / who erect its Ferris wheel.” The work is consistently strong and astute, yet humane and tender, as well.
The writing in A.E. Stallings’s Olives (TriQuarterly, $16.95) is beautifully crafted, resonant and inviting. The book opens with a series called “The Argument,” then shifts to poems about silence, loss and music — a surprising yet apt progression. Stallings’s skillful use of imagery, rhyme and metaphor adds to the richness of the collection, which features three poems about the mythological figure Psyche expecting her first child. In the final section, Stallings writes about her own children, motherhood and the stories we tell our little ones and ourselves. Even a simple toy takes on great meaning, as in “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons,” in which the speaker says: “You break for her / Who wants you worst. / Your forebear was / The sack of the winds, / The boon that gives / And then rescinds, / Containing nothing / But the force / That blows everyone / Off course.”