For nearly 30 years, Dorianne Laux has written about love and violence, survival and grief, in poems that are clear, compelling and insightful. In “Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems” (Norton) she begins with memories of her abusive father and her complex, challenging mother, then moves through her early adulthood and relationships to more recent days, when she cared for her elderly mother and grieved her passing. Laux, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1994 book “What We Carry,” shows us how to endure hardships without losing humanity and compassion. This timely, beautifully crafted collection wonderfully balances light and dark.
Sarah Gambito’s “Loves You” (Persea) combines poems and recipes to convey the complex and sometimes difficult of experience of Filipinos living in America. The recipes show how food fosters a sense of community and continuity, as in the recipe Bibingkang Malagkit, which notes that “You’re going to have a very certain regard for the people that you make this for as the rice gets very heavy as it cooks and you cannot stop stirring.” The book is divided into five sections, each on named after the five basic tastes — umami, sour, salt, bitter, sweet — and the writing reflects a range of emotions, from hope and humor to shame and anger about the way Filipinos and other Asians are often misunderstood and demeaned. In this distinctive, highly anticipated third book, Gambito challenges readers to consider what sustains and nurtures them.
“The Twenty-Ninth Year” (Mariner), the fourth collection by Palestinian American poet and psychologist Hala Alyan, considers the people, places and experiences that have shaped her past and present. Among those memories are her family emigrating from the tumult of the Middle East to Oklahoma; various lovers and excesses; and her journey out of alcoholism and into a stable marriage. The writing is bold and unrepentant, as in “A Love Letter to My Panic//A Love Letter to My Husband”: “I don’t get off / on pain anymore. I understand now why the one coast / ripped in two; sometimes what’s left of a good house / is its locked door.” Along the way, Alyan questions religion, examines various versions of herself, and balances the sacred and the profane in writing that is forceful and vigorous.
In the fascinating collection “Oculus” (Graywolf), Sally Wen Mao considers exile as a result of time, distance — and modern technology. The title piece reflects on a girl in Shanghai who committed suicide online while “awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” A series of poems about the first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong, shows her traveling through the past and then to the future of film in a time machine. By telling Wong’s story, and those of other women of color who have been defined by images in popular culture, the work explores the ramifications of being seen and objectified but never truly known.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry each month for The Washington Post.