Richard Blanco, who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, wrestles with the contradictions of American history in his latest book of poems, “How to Love a Country” (Beacon Press). The forced exile of Navajos, lynchings in Alabama, income inequities and the long fight for same-sex marriage are some of the realities that trouble Blanco, whose parents fled Cuba and eventually settled in Miami. He balances his distress with an appreciation for “the only country/ I know enough to know how to sing for.” In writing that’s plain-spoken and deeply felt, Blanco explores various notions of country: country as home, country as one’s body, country as “homeland to myself — for just a moment.” Blanco questions without maligning and forges an optimistic outlook despite it all. As he writes in “What I Know of Country”: “to know a country takes all we know of love:/ some days better than others, but never easy/ to keep our promise every morning of every/ year, of every century, and wake up, stumble/ downstairs with all our raging hope.”
“Angel Bones” (Alice James) is a gorgeous, poignant collection by Ilyse Kusnetz, who died in 2016. Here the speaker finds calm amid chaos and blessings among beauty, celebrates and savors life, while also trying to embrace death. During moments of fear and despair, the speaker recalls “How we kissed that first time/ until it was morning,” and rejoices that “you’re my anchor — / in a non-binding universe like this/ you cinch me to the stars.” She also studies elements of the natural world, such as dragonflies, “always dragonflies/ transforming our human breath/ into a winged thing.” As she leads readers to the edge of her life, she also shows us how to live ours — and how to remember.
Paisley Rekdal, the poet laureate of Utah, focuses on transformation in her stunning collection, “Nightingale” (Copper Canyon). Rekdal updates and reimagines some of the myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, exploring characters as they move through transitions, traumas and choices. Among them are a cancer patient and her transgender child, a photographer who poses her son in deathlike images, a dog obsessed with its dead master’s belongings. At the heart of the work are questions about change – must it be a violent process? – and the ability of language to record it. As the speaker asks at the start of the poem “Quiver”: “What do we do /with memory, do we burn / or do we embellish it. . .?”
In “Little Glass Planet” (Graywolf), Dobby Gibson considers a range of objects and systems — from angels and umbrellas to drones and capitalism. Each piece highlights unexpected delights, from the shadow a horse casts to the buzz of houseflies in the key of F and the taste of a sugar cube on your tongue, which makes you “swear you’ve tasted a star.” Gibson is masterful with imagery and analogy, as when he describes a fishing bauble as a little glass planet “blown molten with a puff/ of some craftsman’s breath.” Gibson’s writing is smart and crisp as he crafts a love letter to the world that’s full of wisdom and the gentle reminder that “Time is working against us,/ but it makes us love it more.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.