Adrienne Rich’s spectacular Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (Norton, $50), published four years after her death , shows why she is one of America’s most influential poets of the past 65 years. As Claudia Rankine notes in her introduction, the book provides “a chronicle of over a half century of what it means to risk the self in order to give the self.” That willingness can be seen throughout her work, even in the earliest, most formal pieces, with their sonorous rhymes. In her hauntingly famous poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” (1951), for example, an oppressed wife can only express her power through the animals she embroiders. Over the next two decades, Rich’s work became looser, bolder and more personal as she addressed the injustices experienced by women, African Americans and those who opposed the Vietnam War or the political establishment. Her writing was powerful because it captured both the broad strokes of the culture and the desolation of individuals. That balance was strikingly evident in “Diving Into the Wreck,” winner of the National Book Award in 1974, where over the course of many poems the speaker searches for what has been lost or forgotten. In her 1983 poem “North American Time,” Rich says of writing and responsibility: “It doesn’t matter what you think./ Words are found responsible/ all you can do is choose them/ or choose/ to remain silent.” “Collected Poems” shows that Rich was much more than just a political or a feminist poet. In these pages readers watch her evolve as she moved from witness to activist.
Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts (Penguin, paperback; $20) presents a rich variety of pieces that weave together familiar themes — from the nature of the self and the cultural importance of disobedience — that have distinguished her work since the 1970s. Notley, who won the 2015 Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Foundation, also explores reality, dreams, illusions and the role of poetry. The book is a mixture of long pieces and shorter lyrics that complement and build on one another, creating worlds within worlds. Early on, the speaker considers force and declares, “Democracy isn’t efficient, and the only politics I recognize lies/ between us, undefined, requiring no casting of votes. It asks that we/ admit we’re both present, all present, in the same multiform space.” That same presence is demanded throughout, as the speaker, who often combines seeming fragments, asks at one point, “Am I now spying for/ poets or myself?” and later declares “I AM A MULTIPLE AGENT.” What remains constant in this complex work is the speaker’s ease as she moves from one format and style to another, constructing and deconstructing ideas. That facility is one reason some consider Notley one of our greatest living poets.
Kim Addonizio’s Mortal Trash (Norton, $25.95) is a brash, irreverent look at the physical and emotional refuse produced in our self-absorbed culture. The raucous journey begins with the speaker announcing, “This is me, depressed out of my mind,/ frailing the banjo, spilling red wine” before she voices more universal longings: “this is me/ walking and waxing nostalgic through the girlish shadows / of tall palm trees” and “This is me in love/ with the beauty of blue glass in flames.” From there, the poems show how unsustainable choices — plastic, cheap keepsakes, excessive alcohol, and lust— trash both the environment and those who live in it. Addonizio, whose fourth book “Tell Me” was a National Book Award finalist, may make some readers blush with her unvarnished language and portrayals. Even love is tossed about, as in the sonnet “116,” which twists famous lines from Shakespeare’s beloved poem into “let me not to the pediment of two minds/ admit marriage. . . . Love is not love/ stain remover will take that out.” As the collection progresses, one may feel both pity for Addonizio’s characters and admiration for her uncanny sense of when to turn up the bravado and when to show vulnerability. The most powerful moments come from the latter, as when the speaker lies in bed with her dying mother or looks at a makeshift shrine to a girl who killed herself and says, “You got to keep/ going no matter what/ is what I say/ today.”
Elizabeth Lund is writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.