1. In Here and Now (Norton, $24.95), Stephen Dunn explores the challenges of living an authentic life given the tension between what we want, or think we want, and the world’s expectations. In “The Good News,” the speaker explains: “How can I tell you without hurting your feelings / that I don’t like being called a gentleman? / Don’t you know a scoundrel always wants his due? / The good news is I know what I am; that’s the bad news, too.” From there, Dunn tackles various situations: a couple’s arguments, a poet courting the muse, and the disappointment of realizing that one’s younger, more radical self has transformed into a privileged middle-aged adult. The poems are consistently smooth and insightful, as in these lines about a mockingbird: “Imagine how surprise turns into delight / as each time it sings it hears another voice. / After many mornings, it is all of its voices. / What fascinates? How do we know / what we love? I trespass, steal, accumulate, / I do what the mockingbird does.” The collection — Dunn’s 16th — drags a bit in section III, but overall it’s a wonderful example of the poet’s ability to satisfy readers and anticipate their thoughts.
2. Troy Jollimore leads his audience through the fascinating realm of the human mind in At Lake Scugog (Princeton Univ.; paperback, $16.95), his second collection. The initial descent into these poems is easy because of the evocative writing: “Don’t be misled: / that sea-song you hear / when the shell’s at your ear? / It’s all in your head. / That primordial tide — / the slurp and salt-slosh / of the brain’s briny wash — / is on the inside.”Entranced, we willingly follow the speaker as he navigates regrets and the gap between who he is and “who I fear I am.” In section II, the character Tom Thomson almost immediately “accelerates toward the inner wall / — the universe’s limit — of his skull.” Tom’s witty misadventures propel the book forward and demonstrate why Jollimore’s firstcollection won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The writing in “At Lake Scugog” is dense and complex, but the journey is well worth taking. Philosophical questions come alive, and the poems demonstrate the great irony that the mental space so many people inhabit is often a self-imposed prison.
3. In Twin Cities (Penguin; paperback, $18), Carol Muske-Dukes traverses geographical borders, political fault lines and personal thresholds, most notably the death of her husband. His passing colors many of these poems, as does the duality described in the poem “Twin Cities II”: “The river between, surging, stands. / I believed once that what I called desire / Flowed in that confluence between twins, / Capitol and rapids. I come from Twin / Cities: dark and light.” The lighter voice in this collection is sometimes heartbreakingly lovely, while the darker voice is bold and edgy, as in “Our Lady of Peace High School,” where a teenage speaker wonders, “Why couldn’t I be Our Lady of Sez Who?”The weakest poems are political or professorial, but the strongest, which make up most of this book, combine an adult’s clear sight and a young girl’s honesty, as in “Mirror”: “I peered at myself: / Ugly, I thought, but for the first time, visible.”
4. Susan Wood begins her fourth collection, The Book of Ten (Univ. of Pittsburgh; paperback, $14.95) with questions about God, death and injustice. As her poems quickly show, the sins that people commit against themselves or against one another are more damaging than the Lord’s silence. Abortion, rape and conflict with loved ones are some of the trials Wood describes in her 10 “Decalogue” poems, which were inspired by 10 short films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Wood’s clear narratives make the whole book cinematic. Take, for example, this haunting winter image: “I’ve been lonely like that, that woman skidding / through icy, deserted streets, crashing / into small, lighted trees that litter the vacant lots.” Wood knows when to intensify the drama and when to inject a bit of hope. In “The Soul Bone,” she does the latter: “Sometimes at night I imagine I can feel it, / shining its light through my body, the bone / luminous, glowing in the dark. Sometimes, / if you listen, you might even hear that light / deep inside me, humming its brave little song.”
Lund was the poetry editor for the Christian Science Monitor.