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Listen up: Four poets have something to say about race, gender and violence

'The Tradition'

In his searing “The Tradition” (Copper Canyon), Jericho Brown illustrates how racism and violence have shaped both the past and the present, our national identity and the individual experiences of those who have been harmed by entrenched, insidious wrongs. As Brown confronts history and family dynamics, the fears and beliefs handed down through generations, he raises important questions about trauma and how people endure when injustice touches nearly every aspect of life. He also challenges stereotypes about blackness, desire and queerness — and finds moments of joy. The collection, his third, is compelling and forceful because it wonderfully balances the dark demands of memory and an indomitable strength. As the poem “Duplex” notes: “None of the beaten end up how we began./ A poem is a gesture toward home.”


Emily Skaja also faces down the past in her debut “Brute” (Graywolf), winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Here, the anguish comes from an emotionally abusive lover and the abrupt end of a relationship. As the speaker excavates her grief and disbelief, she slowly moves from self-condemnation to a fiery insistence that she can overcome her boyfriend’s damaging assessments of her worth and reclaim the power she once had. In the poem “Brute Strength,” for example, she initially describes herself as a “soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman/ written out of my own story.” Several lines later, though, she draws strength from a recollection of her younger self, a “witch girl/ unafraid of anything.” The speaker’s brutal honesty and emotional transformation offer an engrossing guide for anyone dealing with a devastating loss.

'The Year of the Blue Water'

“The Year of Blue Water” (Yale) by Yanyi examines the dichotomy between the self he knows and the one his family and society expected of him. Early in this quietly contemplative debut, winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Yanyi considers the possibilities of a new year and explains: “Definitions are not static. They are where we begin. For what?/ By whom? Beginning is not an origin. It is the arbitrary place/ from which we start one life, when that becomes this.” As the work — almost entirely comprising prose poems — unfolds, the speaker explores various aspects of his identity, including gender and queerness, mental illness and his experience as a Chinese immigrant. Supportive friends, vivid dreams and the work of other writers enrich his thinking and help him choose what’s right for him, despite what others may want or believe.

'The Tiny Journalist'

Naomi Shihab Nye presents some of her best work in years in “The Tiny Journalist” (BOA). The collection opens with a powerful poem about Janna Jihad Ayyad, a Palestinian girl who began using her mother’s cellphone at the age of 7 to record anti-occupation protests on the West Bank after two members of her family were killed. Nye writes in Janna’s voice in many poems, drawing on material from Janna’s Facebook posts. The poet also recalls her own experience of living between Jerusalem and Ramallah as a teenager. The result is a moving testament to the impact one person can have and the devastating effects of occupation. Even the moon is grieved by the situation, as these lines from “Moon Over Gaza” depict: “I who have been staring down so long/ see no reason for the sorrows humans make./ I dislike the scuffle of bombs blasting/ very much. It blocks my view./ A landscape of grieving/ feels different afterwards./ Different sheen from a simple desert,/ rubble of walls, silent children who once said/ my name like a prayer.”

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

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