New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (FSG), edited by Heather Cass White, gives readers a fresh perspective on the legacy of Marianne Moore, considered one of America’s most influential modernist poets. Moore, whose awards included a Pulitzer Prize, was hailed for her precise language, penetrating descriptions and keen observations. She was also known for incessantly revising her poems, much to the dismay of editors who tried to create definitive editions of her selected and collected poems. In this new volume, White, a professor at the University of Alabama, presents what she believes to be the best version of Moore’s work, along with copious notes, and various versions of poems that Moore tinkered with over years or even decades. Readers and writers will benefit from seeing how Moore, who died in 1972 at age 84, drastically cut some of her most famous poems, including “The Steeple-Jack” and “The Frigate Pelican” and “An Octopus.” With this book, White has not only given readers an authoritative compendium of Moore’s work but an insightful critique of her writing process. “I think Moore, in later decades of her life, did her readers a lasting, and compounding, disservice by altering and suppressing the writing she published as a younger poet,” White comments.
Charles Simic, a Pulitzer winner and former U.S. poet laureate, has always challenged and delighted his audience with writing that is beautiful and surreal and forces people to consider the validity of their own perceptions. In Scribbled in the Dark (Ecco), Simic presents short, tightly crafted vignettes filled with a variety of people in oddly mundane settings. Among them are a judge asleep in the courtroom, a person lost in the snow and a young boy watching a stray white cat peer into people’s windows. As with Simic’s previous collection, “The Lunatic,” the poems here convey both a sense of whimsy and a sinister undercurrent, as if to suggest that no moment is completely joy-filled. A cherry pie cooling by a window, for example, is soon marred by the devil, who sticks his finger in it. That duality runs throughout the poems, as the speaker recalls childhood memories, considers world news, the occupation of his native Yugoslavia and becomes increasingly aware of his own and others’ mortality: In the poem “Many a Holy Man,” the speaker describes a man struggling to “make peace with everything/ that can’t be changed,/ understood or ever properly resolved —” and, later on, to “devote his remaining days/ to minding that inner light/ So that it may let him walk without stumbling/ as little by little night overtakes him.”
Tough Luck (Norton) is the much-anticipated third book by Todd Boss, who is widely regarded as one of the best poets of his generation. His first two collections — “Yellowrocket” and “Pitch” — established his reputation for using brilliant wordplay and portraying the people and landscape of his childhood in Wisconsin with clarity and hard-edged grace. Here, readers will find some familiar themes, as in the first section, which highlights some of the life lessons Boss learned from his parents, hard-working cattle farmers. In “When My Father Says Toughen Up,” Boss explains that “He doesn’t/ say it to berate you, he says it to/ hike you up an inch or two, like/ when he took you by the collar/ when you were little to zip you/ into that boiled wool jacket he/ sent you out to chores with.” Those memories couldn’t prepare the poet for a painful divorce or for his reaction after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, minutes after he crossed it. Those experiences contribute to the sense of loss and foreboding that permeates the writing. What readers will most appreciate, however, is the speaker’s unflagging determination to endure and to keep moving forward. In “A Hoard of Driftwood,” for instance, he describes the wood as “All dry-weight, drier than stone but thin as air, finer than/ hair and softer than skin — as if despite the unintended sin/ of being broken down, they’d been born again, beauty-strong.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.