Jorie Graham’s Fast (Ecco), her first new poetry collection in five years, is a fascinating mosaic that explores what it means to live and die at a time when technology is redefining our existence. Graham, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of our most celebrated poets, uses multiple voices to try to provide answers — and ask further questions. As always, her writing features complex connections, intellectual leaps and stream of consciousness. But here, in her 12th collection, she also changes her techniques from poem to poem and sometimes within poems, using long lines, short electric phrases and repeated words to thrust certain narratives forward. These shifts underscore the tension between large, societal dramas and smaller human struggles. The most moving poems are those where the speaker deals with the illnesses and decline of her parents. Just moments after her father’s death, she says, “Standing next to your body you have just gone./ How much of you has gone has it all gone all/at once.” In “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me,” she writes, “Dying only mother’s hands continue/ undying, blading into air/impersonal, forced, curving it/ down — drought incessant rain/ revolution and the organ shutting/ down but not these extremities.” Readers unfamiliar with Graham’s writing may want to start with those pieces before moving to the denser, more labyrinth work that composes much of this important book.
Magdalene (Norton) by Marie Howe, the former poet laureate of New York, is a smart, engrossing collection that is loosely based on the biblical story of Mary Magdalene. But where history doesn’t reveal what that Mary felt about finding salvation and complete transformation, this Mary constantly voices her thoughts as she navigates desire and relationships, tries to define who she is and struggles to correct her mistakes. The speaker is endearingly honest throughout those and other challenges. In “Magdalene: The Addict,” for example, she explains that she liked going to hell alone and felt “relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone./ The worst had happened. What else could hurt me then?/ I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come./ Then nothing did, and no one.” At the heart of this book are two relationships that shape the speaker’s life — the first with a teacher who dies and the other with the daughter she adopts. Readers of any religious background will find much that seems familiar in this modern-day Everywoman who sees herself in the faces of a woman wearing a burka, a woman who longs for children and one who hails a taxi wearing a black suit and high heels.
In Before Dawn on Bluff Road/Hollyhocks in the Fog (FSG) August Kleinzahler brings together the best poems about the two places that helped shape his life: New Jersey, where he was born, and San Francisco, where he has spent much of his adulthood. Kleinzahler, who won the 2008 National Book Critics Award, opens the book with a wistful description of the area where he grew up and some of the people and influences that helped form his perceptions and artistic sensibilities. Fading light and snow recur often in this section, as if the speaker is trying to reimagine the landscape and make peace with what he left behind. The result is a distinctive urban beauty that is sometimes gritty and often surprisingly lovely. The San Francisco section, in contrast, includes multiple references to fog as the speaker describes the characters and scenes he encounters there. “There is nothing further to be known,” he says in “Hollyhocks in the Fog,” where “The fog, like that animate nothingness/ of Lao-tzu’s sacred Tao,/ has taken over the world, and with night settling in,/ all that had been, has ever been, is gone,/ gone but for the sound of the wind.” Together, the two parts of the book convey the idea that sometimes two complimentary opposites are necessary to satisfy a wandering spirit and fuel a writer’s growth.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.