Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems (Knopf, $30) demonstrates why Kevin Young is one of the most important poets of his generation. Encompassing 20 years of his work, the collection draws from and deepens the African American poetic tradition. Young brilliantly conveys the struggles and triumphs of those oppressed by slavery, economic hardship after emancipation, Jim Crow laws and prejudice that still tinge life today. The poems demonstrate Young’s rare ability to give voice to a broad variety of people — artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, boxer Jack Johnson and poet Phillis Wheatley. The 600-plus-page tome has tremendous breadth and depth: selections from Young’s most esteemed books, including “Jelly Roll: A Blues” (a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize), “Black Maria ,” “For the Confederate Dead,” “Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels,” along with previously unpublished poems. Everything builds toward the gorgeous works from “Book of Hours,” where the speaker deals with the loss of his father and his own impending parenthood. In “Expecting,” he writes about the doctor trying to find the heartbeat of his unborn baby: “And there it is: faint, an echo, faster and further/ away than mother’s all beat box/ and fuzzy feedback. You are like hearing/ hip-hop for the first time — power/ hijacked from a lamppost — all promise.”
Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf, $24) is one of the most anticipated collections of 2016, and it does not disappoint. The book is both a career retrospective and a companion of sorts to Gioia’s 1991 essay and 1992 book, “Can Poetry Matter?” There, he challenged readers and writers to think critically about the role and value of the genre. Here, he shows how poems resonate, and he demonstrates the elements that define good writing: an unforgettable first line, form that appears gradually, the music of common speech, clear imagery, and “words that could direct a friend/ precisely to an unknown place,/ those few unshakable details/ that no confusion can erase.” No matter what the topic — mystery, place, remembrance, imagination, stories, songs, love — or the form, these polished pieces are vibrant and inviting, even when the events they describe are devastatingly sad. The collection, which publishes next month, opens and closes with the speaker grappling with questions and forces he cannot explain. Yet even as his perspective matures and is tested, he never loses his capacity to see clearly, as in the final poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” which ends with “Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep/our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy/ what must be lost was never lost on us.”
In her third collection, Window Left Open (Graywolf, paperback; $16), Jennifer Grotz pays exquisite attention to everything she encounters — snowflakes, apples, city streets, a monastery in France. She explores the limits and rigors of wanting to tame the world and savor moments in it. The title poem beautifully captures this impulse, as the speaker opens a window to the night air and to moths: “Half-asleep but never asleep, I see/ what they are: perched tightly together like carnations,/ a fidgeting corsage of little engines. Or words/ the lamp knows how to translate/ from the teeming night. That’s what I ask for next, God.” Throughout these pages, she listens and watches intently, opening her heart and mind to the ways that time, thoughts, the natural world, memory and perception transform. Landscape, language and art all have a place in this slim volume, where joy and exaltation exist alongside the inevitable sadness that comes from our ephemeral world.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry for The Washington Post every month.