Can poetry contribute to the national dialogue in ways that both challenge and uplift? Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Graywolf) demonstrates that the answer is yes. Smith, poet laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, shows tremendous range in these rich, humane poems as she shifts from lyricism to direct speech, from meditative passages to wry humor. The images and details are evocative and resonant, whether she describes a street in Brooklyn where she used to shop or recalls waking to her young daughter’s hair: “coarse, dark/ Heaven of knots and purple fluff.” Smith uses the title poem, which refers to the popular slave spiritual “Wade in the Water,” as a way to guide readers into dark parts of our nation’s troubled past and present . An awareness of history, and our relationship to it, runs throughout this important work. In the poem “Ghazal,” for example, “History is a ship forever setting sail. On either shore: mountains of men,/ Oceans of bone, an engine whose teeth shred all that is not our name.” The centerpiece of the book is a cycle of pieces drawn from letters by black Civil War veterans and their widows seeking pensions they were owed. Smith brings great intelligence and sensitivity to her poems, leading readers deeper into other people’s stories — and ultimately into their own humanity.
Kevin Young honors the history, variety and impact of black culture in Brown (Knopf), his ambitious ninth collection. Young, who edits poetry for the New Yorker and directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, effortlessly blends memories of his experiences — his childhood in Kansas, his college years and his travels — with reflections on sports figures, musicians and others who have influenced American life. Among the “browns” presented here are musician James Brown, abolitionist John Brown , and the Rev. Oliver Brown, who set in motion the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education . The Rev. Brown’s courage shaped the church where he ministered, which Young attended as a child. In the title poem, the speaker describes parishioners this way: “We are/ swaying more/ now, entering/ heaven’s rolls — the second row/ behind the widows/ in their feathery hats/ & empty nests, heads heavy/ but not hearts/ Amen.” Young’s writing is crisp and well paced, his rhythms and harmonies complex. His virtuosity is on display as he illustrates the intersections between place and the past, the individual and the collective consciousness.
Ha Jin considers longing, foreignness and identity in A Distant Center (Copper Canyon), a slim book of sincere, plain-spoken poems, translated into English from the Chinese. Jin, the pen name of Jin Xuefei, knows what it means to leave one’s homeland and to question one’s place in the world. (He was studying at Brandeis when the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred.) Since then, he has published several books of poems and essays and numerous novels, including “Waiting,” which won a National Book Award. In “A Distant Center,” his language is simple and direct, part encouragement, part sober reminder that a home left or lost “can’t be recovered/ except in your thought and memory.” In one poem he advises, “Keep in mind the meaning of/ your existence: whenever you land,/ your footprints will become milestones.” In another, he tells readers, that if others “think you are insignificant,/ that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.” The most delightful piece in the book involves a tug-of-war between the writer and a wren that insists on building a nest above his door.
In Blue Rose (Penguin), Carol Muske-Dukes writes with piercing clarity about current events and personal struggles. The stunning title poem explores the complicated birth of the speaker’s daughter, who arrived “danger blue” and then turned “Red to magenta to a breath/ of cyan.” The next few pages are a catalogue of danger and difficult transitions: the death of a loved one, orphaned children with lost dolls . At the heart of the collection are stories of women quietly pushing against societal constraints and of female trailblazers in the science or the arts, like Ina Coolbrith, the first poet laureate of California. (Muske-Dukes, who teaches at the University of Southern California, has served as the state’s poet laureate as well.) The speaker in “Blue Rose” is fearless throughout, expressing outrage over pressing issues such as gun control and climate change. The intensity of these poems — which seek to know more about the lives of others and our world — is difficult to forget.
Night School , by Carl Dennis (Penguin)
Can imagining alternative lives help us better understand this one? Yes, suggests Dennis in his engaging 13th collection. Here the Pulitzer winner considers the importance of everyday choices and questions “how much of whoever I was/ Still lives.”
Eye Level , by Jenny Xie (Graywolf)
This debut, which Juan Felipe Herrera chose as the 2017 winner of the Walt Whitman Award, explores rootlessness and identity, geography and loneliness, the physical world and “all that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.”
Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch , by David Bottoms (Copper Canyon)
Skillful storytelling and lush language help shape these gorgeous poems. As the speaker considers life, death and the things that haunt us, he listens for “the question with no answer” and “the voice/ of a great absence.”
The Book of Ephraim , by James Merrill, annotated and introduced by Stephen Yenser (Knopf)
“The Book of Ephraim” was first published in 1976 as the final part of “Divine Comedies,” which won a Pulitzer. Now, poet and critic Stephen Yenser, Merrill’s co-literary executor, presents Ephraim as a solo piece. The rich commentary and copious notes provide insight and access to this otherworldly work.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.