Odes , by Sharon Olds (Knopf), demonstrates the candor and clarity that have defined her work over the past four decades and allowed her to help other poets find their voices, as the Academy of American Poets noted last week when she received the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award. In these pages, her 13th collection, readers find the hallmarks of her distinctive and sometimes controversial work: sensual, explicit descriptions that convey the pleasures of the body, harrowing memories of a childhood marked by violence, a willingness to probe emotions that many others would avoid, and the ability to both shock and charm in a matter of lines. Fans and close readers will appreciate the depth and sensitivity in many of these poems, as when the speaker describes her own aging body or the decline and death of her mother. Other pieces display tenderness toward poet friends or the earth. Perhaps most surprising — or illuminating — are the moments when the speaker reveals what sex or freedom means to her. At the end of “Ode to Whiskers,” she says, “my heart/ is my body, the price of a kiss is your life.” In “Ode of Broken Loyalty,” she recalls how freeing herself from her family and becoming “shunned and shunning” allowed her to write about anything.
The quietly powerful poems in Garden Time (Copper Canyon), by W.S. Merwin, were written as this two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate was losing his eyesight. That alone makes the book noteworthy. What makes it memorable is that Merwin — one of our best poets for decades — addresses the loss with honesty, humanity and a singular poetic vision that allows him — and us — to find beauty even as his sight dims. The meditative collection opens with several poems that consider light and dark, shadows and distance, both literal and metaphorical, prompting the speaker to ask, “Is it I who have come to this age/ or is it the age that has come to me/ which one has brought along all these/ silent images on their shadowy river.” Merwin raises some of life’s deepest questions and uses sound, as well as his other senses, to create a new landscape that is vibrant and engrossing. Remember how things looked and that joy can still find you, the speaker urges himself. He also recalls childhood memories and savors time with his wife, Paula, to whom he clings so that neither is swept away “in the rushing current.” Despite fears and losses, the writing never becomes maudlin, but highlights the necessity of savoring each moment — which, the poems suggest, is all we really have.
Blackacre (Graywolf), by Monica Youn, was longlisted this week for a National Book Award. In this collection, titled after the legal term for a hypothetical piece of land, Youn, a former lawyer, uses language in a variety of ways to construct subtle arguments about desire and loss, including her own inability to have a child. What readers notice first is the sparseness of her opening section, in which every word is essential and resonant, as several speakers address the limits and architecture of the body, positing in one poem that “Just as a bowl/ must be waterproof,/ a body must be/ lifeproof, we assume,/ as if a life were bound/ by laws of gravity,/ always seeking/ a downward escape.” Later sections include a variety of styles and other kinds of acres — greenacre, brownacre — as the work builds to two poems titled “Blackacre.” In the first, a brief boxy poem, the speaker suffers another loss; in the second, a long rumination on Milton’s Sonnet 19, she deals with her grief in an indirect, intellectual way. Youn reminds readers that poetry is essential because of how it says what can’t be expressed through prose.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.