We Mammals in Hospitable Times, by Jynne Dilling Martin (Carnegie Mellon Univ.; paperback, $15.95), is one of three new collections that take readers on bold, unexpected journeys. The opening poem dangles this fascinating hook: “Maybe, pilgrim, if I permit you to sleep on my floor tonight, tomorrow/ every house on this block will burn to the ground except mine.” Readers can’t help but bite and are quickly pulled deeper and deeper by a guide who displays the wisdom of a shaman and the specificity of a scientist. The poem ends with these intriguing lines:
Any given window could be a one-way mirror behind which God
sits watching. Any given person cuts a path to a more perfect place.
Undoubtedly the polar bears at the zoo both dream that all other
animals will discover, upon waking, their bodies buried in snow.
Every page is rich with detail as the speaker, sometimes funny or slightly frenzied, combines disparate elements and draws on archaeology, biology and other disciplines to plumb stark landscapes and the human psyche. The poet’s own travels inform the book, which devotes several pages to Antarctica, with its rugged beauty and complex mix of creatures. Outer space and other evocative settings also prompt questions about the physical world, the distant past and the uncertain future. At times, aliens observe and analyze, as if they too must catalogue, if not understand, a doomed planet. Martin’s distinctive approach, full of complex leaps, makes this debut sound like no other.
Tom Sleigh lures readers beyond familiar borders so deftly that most won’t recall how they entered various conflicts or major war zones. Instead, fans will notice Sleigh’s ability to craft compelling narratives with his pied-piper voice. Station Zed (Graywolf; paperback, $16), his eighth collection, begins with these engrossing lines in “Homage to Mary Hamilton”:
I’m driving past discarded tires,
the all night carwash dreams
near Green-Wood Cemetery where
the otherworld of Queens
puts out trash — trash of Murder, Inc.,
trash of heartbeat
in recycled newspapers where
Romeo and Juliet meet.
From there, the speaker weaves childhood memories and family lore into poems that touch upon global issues without losing their freshness or appeal. He also dips into history, mythology and literature as the poems point, again and again, to the inescapable intersection of personal and political concerns. Sleigh’s work as a journalist shapes the heart of this collection as he travels to Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia and other war-torn countries to report on violence and suffering that most people don’t want to think about. In “Homage to Basho,” a moving vignette illustrates the humanity of a suicide bomber whose sister becomes one of Sleigh’s writing students. “Station Zed,” named after the execution site in a Nazi prison camp outside Berlin , pushes readers into the unknown time after time. Even benign situations, such as the speaker addressing his stepdaughter, feel gritty and challenging.
Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed (Norton, $25.95) addresses trauma and loss through the literary equivalent of broken glass. Some poems feel jagged and sharp, as if multiple shards have landed together. Other poems are more expansive and full, like a pane that’s almost intact. Readers would be wise to look for one line or image to ground them and then reach for another because, as the speaker says, sometimes “the parts are more articulate than the whole.” In “Forcible Touching,” a complex poem about harrowing memories, we find another hint about navigating this long-awaited book, Fulton’s first new collection since 2001:
When there’s a story you cannot speak
you weave. It is too bright to rest your eyes on
but if you contort yourself your shadows will fall
over it. It is a good idea. It is quite surprising.
Among these pages, where “anguish/ is the universal language,” the poems give voice to many who’ve been victimized. The work also tackles enduring topics — time, death, love — with a mixture of elegance and agony. As the collection progresses, the writing becomes more accessible, and the subject matter — like grief itself — seems more bearable. Several elegies capture the emptiness of night hours, the difficulty of truth-telling and the fleeting nature of time. All of this blossoms into a dark beauty that makes these poems glisten.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post every month.
On Feb. 28 at 3:30 p.m., Jynne Dilling Martin will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.