By Tony Hoagland (Graywolf)
Fans will recognize the sharp writing that earned Tony Hoagland praise for his previous book, “What Narcissism Means to Me,” a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award. Here, in his best work yet, the voice is witheringly clear-sighted about contemporary American life. The speaker skillfully walks along the tension between irony and hope, resignation and a desire for release. 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 a clarity that almost approaches enlightenment. No matter the subject, Hoagland’s narratives are smooth and insightful.
THE EMPEROR OF WATER CLOCKS
By Yusef Komunyakaa (Farrar Straus Giroux)
A rich, multilayered book that combines threads of fable, literature, music and cultural references to create a new kind of mythology, “The Emperor of Water Clocks” opens in a dreamlike kingdom where there is always a power struggle. A court jester sees and knows things he shouldn’t; an emperor forces his brother to serve as his double; a king is advised by the fool. Even the raven master has something to convey, and to learn. This Pulitzer Prize winner brings ancient characters to life, places tyrants in unexpected narratives and shows a range of battles, including on the football field and in the minds of troubled people. Other poems — about tensions in the street after Ferguson and President Obama reading the work of Derek Walcott — ground readers firmly in the present.
By Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Farrar Straus Giroux )
As with Phillips’s first collection, “The Ground,” which won the 2013 Whiting Award, this slim volume is full of grace and beauty. Phillips is as fluid in summoning boyhood memories as he is in alluding to passages from Homer and Shakespeare or describing scenes of the California coast. He understands the natural world and its creatures — birds, elk, roosters — as well as the issues and influences that drive people’s behavior: geography, a sense of fate, feeling and poetry. Wherever he goes, his language is hauntingly astute, and the reality he conjures is multilayered.
NOTES ON THE ASSEMBLAGE
By Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights)
“Notes on the Assemblage” provides a splendid introduction to the expansive work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the nation’s new poet laureate. Here, readers will find a singular voice and an agile mind that shifts easily from one topic and style to another. 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.
By Amy Gerstler (Penguin)
In this wry collection, long-listed for the National Book Award, Amy Gerstler throws convention and familiarity overboard. Her work mixes salty humor, invigorating rhythms and sharp-edged wisdom. The speaker navigates — or stirs — deep currents as she considers sex and desire, aspects of the female experience, philosophy and religion, death and grief. No subject is taboo for Gerstler, whose 1990 collection, “Bitter Angel,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Some of the most moving poems show how age and illness cut someone down, while others make poignant statements about reincarnation. This surprising book is like a wave that knocks you over and changes how you view the world.