Kelly Forsythe’s startling debut, “Perennial” (Coffee House), asks two timely, important questions: What leads to mass school shootings? And how do survivors deal with the violence afterward? The book, which tells the story of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, opens with this understated answer: “It started with two births/ as quiet as pinpricks/ two translucent ripples/ in the Colorado River.” Those lines set the tone for the poems that follow, told from the perspective of students, the shooters and a young speaker, who attended a school thousands of miles away. Forsythe, who drew on historical documents, brilliantly uses details that are subtle but telling to convey the chaos and horror of the event. As the poem “Witness” explains: “The gun is pointed/ beneath the table/ & you said race/ & I heard vein/ & no one made any /sound at all. They were coming/ the whole time.” Forsythe brings the same careful attention to the reactions of the students after the shooting, which killed 13 and injured more than 20 others before the gunmen killed themselves. “Perennial” adeptly captures the complexity of the subject and reminds readers how difficult it is to understand and overcome such events, even decades later.
“The Carrying” (Milkweed) is Ada Limón’s fifth and best book. In these exquisite poems, Limón recalls some of the experiences and influences that have shaped her perceptions and recent writing. Among them are the natural world and lifelong physical challenges, as well as the struggle to have a child and to understand her father, who has Alzheimer’s. As the poem “Dead Stars” explains, “Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing./ Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us./ Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feel/ so mute it’s almost in another year./ I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.” A desire for connection runs throughout the work, as does the constant tension created by the gap between how life could be and how it really is. Limón, who was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and the National Book Award in 2015, is always a careful witness, accurately recording the moment rather than trying to transcend it. That leads to achingly graceful lines at times and to blunt insights at others, as when the speaker tackles social ills and inequities. Evocative dreams and pivotal memories help make this collection a powerful example of how to carry the things that define us without being broken by them.
To convey her overwhelming sense of loss about the dissolution of her marriage, Katie Ford presents a strange, almost fairy-tale realm in the collection “If You Have to Go” (Graywolf). At first, the grief feels profoundly physical — “I ask my body for another house” but “the body worsens under the extremity of the request.” Yet as the narrative unfolds, in 39 sonnets, readers are led through a kingdom that includes a cold, distant lord, beasts of burden and multiple rooms for those who are stuck there. This landscape allows the speaker to slowly work through her feelings — from despondency (“I’d rather starve than eat alone the bread of heaven”) to equanimity (“Yet, lighting candles — / it’s how I went on”). The journey also serves as a quest of sorts as her shattered sense of self slowly begins to mend. A final section broadens these mediations and opens the door to “that which halts us/ to begin, once again, again.”
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.