'I Will Destroy You'

In his memoir “Another Bulls--t Day in Suck City,” Nick Flynn wrote of his troubled family life, focusing on his father, who had robbed a bank, gone to prison and lived much of the rest of his life on the streets of Boston. (The Robert De Niro film “Being Flynn” was based on the book.) This time Flynn turns his focus on the trauma caused by his mother, who set the family’s home ablaze when Flynn was just 6 years old. In “I Will Destroy You” (Graywolf), his fifth book of poems, Flynn writes how her brazen act — a scheme to collect insurance money — ignited a slow burn in him: “The child looks back at the window of the room he’s just fled,/ each pane now filled with sparks, each spark one of his toys — / monkey spark, matchbox spark, yo-yo spark.” Years later, a cloud forms in his lungs, “as if too much dark lived there.” In other pieces, the speaker worries that his young daughter has inherited his destructive behavior — temptation, addiction and self-deception — and wonders if that writing can redeem him. Yet as these edgy, intimate poems show, each “scar’s a door, we know/ that.”

'A Fortune for Your Disaster'

Poet, essayist and music critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores how people reinvent themselves in “A Fortune for Your Disaster” (Tin House), his eagerly awaited follow-up to “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.” “Some wounds cannot be hushed,” he notes. “The poem begins with pain as a mirror.” That mirror allows the speaker to consider both personal losses — the death of his mother, a lover leaving, a strained relationship with his father — and how the larger culture has impacted him and other African Americans. Repeated references to cultural icons, along with Abdurraqib’s masterful use of various approaches and tonalities, contribute to a dazzling patchwork that raises the question, Who defines you, and how do you view yourself? Toward the end of one piece the answer is, “not everything is Sisyphean. no one ever wants to imagine themselves as the boulder.”

'An Infusion of Violets'

Solitude and quiet strength run throughout the elegant, understated writing in “An Infusion of Violets” (Seagull Books) by poet and translator Nancy Naomi Carlson. Early on, the speaker recalls her broken marriages and unfulfilled desire for love. Other challenges follow as she battles cancer and watches her father slide into dementia. Despite her own difficulties, she honors those struggles and others, including the anguish of teenagers whose stories are overlooked by most of the people around them. Like Persephone, Carlson moves through various seasons, creating some stunning moments. She also welcomes the heat of transformation, as in the poem “Glass, Glorious Glass!”: “Fill me with your fire and make me conform/ to your breath, writhing in the heat but not/ consumed. Make me blossom birds of paradise/ or weave me wings of indigo or white.”

'The River Twice'

Kathleen Graber takes readers on a fascinating, slow-motion journey in her splendid third book, “The River Twice” (Princeton University) Simple scenes or observations — watching pigeons build a nest or visiting a thrift shop — expand into rich meditations on change and impermanence. “Sometimes all options are poor options,” she notes in one of several poems to America. Yet even as she contends with time, grief and fear for the planet, she brilliantly balances intelligence and heart, and never forgets the conscious act of looking for beauty. “Who can doubt that suffering arises from our attachment/ to what cannot last? The sparrow’s high song is such/ clean music. The tops of the trees sway in the wind — / like shadow puppets — against the sky’s hushed ticking.”


Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry each month for The Washington Post.

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