The Last Shift (Knopf) brings together the final poems by Philip Levine, one of America’s most-beloved poets whose awards include a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards. Levine had chosen these poems before his death in 2015 and had asked his friend the poet and critic Edward Hirsch to determine their order. The resulting pages feel like a long, subtle goodbye; the speaker recalls scenes from his working-class background in Michigan and the places and people that shaped his writing. Fans will recognize familiar hallmarks, from pieces that highlight the dignity of work to those that show how history and travel shaped Levine’s story. The first section, which focuses on Levine’s background, is the richest and most colorful, as he describes the inheritance he received from his grandfather — the watch/ the Parker pen, the tiny pocketknife/ he used to separate truth from lies,” the gentle uncle who taught him how to be brave, and the sounds heard in the Chevy stamping plant that are “steadier than the beating/ of your heart.” As the book progresses, his perspective widens, raising questions about culture, power, poverty and art, before turning back to more personal struggles. Hirsch wisely chose to end the collection with this bittersweet line: “These places where I had lived/ all the days of my life were giving up/ their hold on me and not a moment too soon.”
Christian Wiman’s Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux) is a stunning reminder of how this gifted poet has transformed suffering into verse that is not just the best of his life, but among the best of his generation. Selections from Wiman’s first two books, “The Long Home” and “Hard Night,” demonstrate his ability to create moving lyrics and long narratives, whether told with tenderness, bemusement or irony. These early pages also hint at some of the questions that will drive Wiman once he receives a devastating cancer diagnosis (at 39) in the third book, “Every Riven Thing,” and grapples with faith and God. Wiman, who reinvigorated Poetry magazine during his 10 years as editor and now teaches religion and literature at Yale, heightens the power and tension of his own writing by inserting several of his translations and renderings of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam , who was arrested by Stalin and died in his 40s. These pieces echo the longing and struggle in Wiman’s work, which continue in “Once in the West,” his brilliant fourth collection that reveals an urgency of feeling: “Love is the living heart of dread/ Love I love you unto the very edge of being/ Dead.”
Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) demonstrates why he has long been regarded as one of the most significant poets of the past 50 years. Here, as he draws from numerous previous collections, including “Moy Sand and Gravel,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, Muldoon displays the full range of his voice, which can be whimsical, melancholy, pensive, angry or delight in wordplay. The collection opens beautifully with the poem “Wind and Tree,” a striking lyric from his book “New Weather ,” that delights the ear and the mind with its evocative descriptions of trees joining and breaking their limbs and his observation that “Yet by my broken bones/ I tell new weather.” Thus begins a wonderful series of poems that focus on the natural world, before the speaker turns, in the following selections, to his family and to some of the momentous decisions people make. Later on, longer, complex pieces weave together various threads and parts of history while maintaining a balance between the timely and the timeless. Some of the best work shows the speaker at his most perceptive or most vulnerable, as when he mourns the death of Seamus Heaney, describes the impending birth of one of his children or when muses wisely and wittily that “The best poems, meanwhile, give the answers/ to questions only they have raised.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.