In 2002, David Lehman began an intriguing exercise: to write poems that both honored and mimicked the works of his favorite poets. Lehman’s choices were wide — ranging from Wordsworth, Whitman and Keats to Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan. His approximations also paid homage to cultural icons, including Marilyn Monroe and the Brooklyn Bridge. Together in one volume, Poems in the Manner Of (Scribner), these works read like an eclectic course in major poets and poetic movements. Lehman, who founded and is the series editor of Best American Poetry, introduces each “poem in the manner of” with notes about the subject’s style and approach, or about what he tried to achieve with his rendition. The strongest work captures the spirit of the original yet also stands on its own merits, as with “Poem in the manner of Basho: “Pond/ Frog/ Splash” or with the lovely translation of Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied,” which begins with quiet coming across the treetops and ends with “Just wait; soon you/ Will be quiet, too.” As the collection continues, readers see how modeling one’s writing after the masters can lead to fascinating discoveries and extend one’s own poetic range.
Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews (Yale) won the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets award, chosen by Carl Phillips. This challenging work leads readers through a surreal landscape of hunger, rebellion, desire and addiction. Some poems focus on the mouth — a dark cavern that swallows speech, pills or one’s sense of freedom. Several others feature Anne Sexton, who sometimes appears as a nurse. Gertrude Stein and other historical figures also make cameos as the speaker probes what associations and likenesses can reveal about difficult realities — if anything is indeed real. As with many Yale winners before her (including Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin), Matthews’s writing is bold, innovative and complex. In “Rebel Opera,” a mother tells her daughter, “We inherit the curse, not the illness,” then explains a few lines later that “Want moves between or up/ or down or through the bloodline./ Desire is spacious./ Want’s in the DNA.” Matthews’s dark subject matter is balanced by her originality and insight, which leaves readers feeling that she can “reveal this enemy’s backbone/ uncoil this helix.”
Robert Wrigley’s Box (Penguin) thoughtfully considers how human beings, relationships and the physical world are constrained by time, mortality and other invisible forces. The collection, his 10th, opens with reflections on various kinds of environments, from his own extended family — who do not understand the work of a writer — to the wind and sky, and to language, with its many layers and levels of meaning. Images and ideas introduced in that first section reemerge later as Wrigley, whose honors include the Kingsley Tufts Award, meditates on the fragility and strength of nature; the search for transcendence and connection; the objects people keep and pass on; and how various landscapes can trap or inspire the soul. The writing is detailed, wistful and often quietly enlightening, as when the speaker describes the time his emotionally distant father unexpectedly said “you’re a fine boy,” and years later gave him a handmade box to hold “Anything that will fit./ Anything you can imagine.” Other poems show how imagination can provide a lovely respite from the limitations of this life. In “Being a Lake,” for example, the speaker ponders how nothing could be better than “To be ceilinged by ice/ and many feet of snow in winter, to shine pure blue/ into the pure blue of the sky/ to show the stars/ the stars.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.