Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights; paperback, $14.95) provides a splendid introduction to the expansive work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the nation’s new poet laureate, who will read at the National Book Festival on Sept. 5. In this book, which will be released in September, readers will find a singular voice and an agile mind that shifts easily from one topic and style to another. The collection opens with a lovely, rich piece on clouds : “you/ touch them they take you you find yourself in their absence.” Herrera, an activist for at-risk youth , then recalls the loss of Mexican students and unarmed black men at the hands of police: “if all the laws are Freedom for you for me why do we/ not speak.” The son of migrant farm workers, Herrera powerfully conveys the experience of migrants who have languished in detention camps and feel apprehensive as they approach the U.S. border. He also knows, firsthand, the frustration of being labeled “half Mexican,” as if he were neither a true Mexican nor a real American. (Several of the poems are in Spanish and English.) Herrera’s background as a performance artist shows in many poems, which come alive when read aloud. Herrera, who has published multiple poetry collections and young-adult novels, easily handles an array of topics and knows how to capture both the pulse of the news and timeless subjects such as people’s deep longings for justice. The collection ends with a moving poem about the nine people killed this year in a South Carolina church: “they are not 9 they/ are each one/ alive/ we do not know/ you have a poem to offer/ it is made of action — you must/ search for it run.”
Application for Release from the Dream (Graywolf; paperback, $16) is Tony Hoagland’s best work yet. Fans will recognize the sharp writing that earned praise for his previous book, “What Narcissism Means to Me,” a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award . Here, the voice is witheringly clearsighted about contemporary American life. The speaker captures the tension between irony and hope, resignation and a desire for release. He skillfully walks those lines, as in the poem “Special Problems in Vocabulary,” where he notes there is “No adjective for gradually speaking less and less,/ because you have stopped being able/ to say the one thing that would/ break your life loose from its grip.” The poems address large-scale topics — financial inequities, consumerism — and smaller, more private dramas, such as the pain of divorce or the sweet lessons learned from canine companions. Sometimes, nature asserts itself, or helps the speaker find clarity that almost approaches enlightenment. No matter the subject, Hoagland’s narratives are smooth, inviting and so insightful that he seems to anticipate how readers will think and feel.
Major Jackson’s fourth book, Roll Deep (Norton, $26.95) pays homage to people and places that “roll” with him — providing substance and rhythm in his writing. Jackson, who grew up in Philadelphia and is now a professor at the University of Vermont, has won acclaim for his writing about ordinary life. He opens this book with the poem “Reverse Voyage,” where, amid row homes and “avenues in sheaths of grit,” the speaker discovers reading as a doorway to the world. That memory leads to newer, deeper discoveries as the speaker travels to Greece, Spain, Italy and other locales where he feels the tug of history, hears ancient voices and gazes at famous artwork in search of his own face. He also encounters the ugly realities of war and suffering in Africa, where a boy must kill a friend to prove his loyalty. Jackson’s writing is devastatingly effective at times, or lushly memorable, as when he describes the “slow prayer of palm leaves” and “the mewling psalms of homeless cats.” Distant travels lead back to the past and to questions about how people deal with their surroundings. Midway through his journey, as the speaker recalls his younger selves, he marvels at how far he has traveled. A deep hunger for music and language push him onward, as he explains in the closing poem, “Because I have been on a steady diet of words/ since the age of three.”
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.