Look (Graywolf) is the remarkable debut by Solmaz Sharif, who challenges readers to consider the suffering caused by war. Sharif, who was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents who fled their homeland after the 1979 revolution, recounts some of her family’s experience with exile and immigration as they made their way to the United States, and were forced, early on, to separate. Sharif’s mother worked briefly as a nanny in Alabama and her father took odd jobs in New York. Later the family endured heightened suspicion in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the speaker relates memories and grieves for those who have been killed, she uses words from the Defense Department, recasting them to show how war distorts language and perception. In a moving sequence about her Uncle Amoo, who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, she says: “You are what is referred to as/ a ‘CASUALTY.’ Unclear whether from CATALYTIC or FRONTAL ATTACK, unclear/ the final time you were addressed/ thou, beloved. It was for us a/ CATASTROPHIC EVENT./ Just DESTROYED.” Later she describes a photograph in which he is peeling apples, and his bare feet “are/ the only things that/ made me cry.” Every piece underscores the importance of how we view and name things. Even the book’s title, a term that refers to mine warfare — admonishes readers to think about their own ideas and impressions.
Corrupted Into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman (Princeton) provides a good introduction to this little-known poet whose sensibilities were influenced by Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens and whose best writing stands, according to critic Harold Bloom, “with the most achieved work of his generation.” Feinman, who died in 2008, published just two books in his lifetime. Both are included here, along with 39 unpublished poems that were edited by his widow, Deborah Dorfman; a foreword by Bloom; and a wonderful introduction by James Geary, who studied with Feinman at Bennington College. As Geary recalls, Feinman rarely covered even half of the works listed on his syllabus because he spent so much time examining words and lines. His own writing demands that same thoughtful approach; the speaker doesn’t just describe a moment, he tries to re-create it, as in the lovely poem “Waters,” in which he notices “Sunlight stitching the water —/ an oar silverly lifted./ And blue, and yellow, and red boats drift —/ like pleasures in a mind that needs no center.” These poems do have a strong center, which springs from the speaker’s intelligence, his measured rhythms and use of rhyme, and his sometimes detached outlook as he examines the world around him and always knows that “Something, something, the heart here/Misses.” Light is a recurring theme, and shapes the gorgeous “Stills: From a 30th Summer,” one of many poems that show why Feinman’s work deserves a broader audience.
Marianne Boruch’s Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing (Copper Canyon) vividly demonstrates how poetry upends expectations. Boruch, who has published several collections and whose awards include a Guggenheim, always begins with an intriguing image or observation. She then turns it over and over, adding dimensions and associations, sometimes stanza by stanza. The poem “Song Again, in Spring,” for example, begins with a hungry bird seeking a worm, then shifts to drones, GPS and missed turns, and finally to spring, “a thing with wings taking aim.” Such leaps result in rich imagery and language that is constantly surprising, as the speaker considers aspects of everyday life — loss, art, different kinds of knowledge — and conveys, over the course of the poems, a mixture of irony, wit, awe, sadness and hints of transcendence. The collection is engrossing and memorable because every piece is grounded in keen observation and the understanding that glimmers of truth, like time, are always present and already slipping away. As the speaker says to her dozing partner in “Reading in Bed”: “this/ dream all along was here/ and here you/ come to: I was listening —/ the best way/ to honor any poem, waking/ up to it, I think.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.