Lucia Perillo ’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon, $22) could easily win the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry Thursday. Its quirky, engrossing poems read as smoothly as a popular novel. Perillo, who was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize , writes with an endearing strangeness as she addresses loss, change and mortality. In “Again, the Body,” the second poem , she shocks and engages by considering cannibals and “the problem of the body, not that it is mortal / but that it is mortifying.” Perillo offers milder surprises when she turns her attention to her father, her maturing son, historical figures, strangers and even animals . In “Maypole,” one of the loveliest poems, she describes tanagers in a plum tree as “fancy hats of women breaking into song,” and later imagines the tree as a “carnival / lighting the tarmac of the abandoned mall by the freeway / then the birds are the men with pocketknives / who erect its Ferris wheel.” The work is consistently strong and astute, yet humane and tender, as well.
The writing in A.E. Stallings’s Olives (TriQuarterly, $16.95) is beautifully crafted, resonant and inviting. The book opens with a series called “The Argument,” then shifts to poems about silence, loss and music — a surprising yet apt progression. Stallings’s skillful use of imagery, rhyme and metaphor adds to the richness of the collection, which features three poems about the mythological figure Psyche expecting her first child. In the final section, Stallings writes about her own children, motherhood and the stories we tell our little ones and ourselves. Even a simple toy takes on great meaning, as in “The Mother’s Loathing of Balloons,” in which the speaker says: “You break for her / Who wants you worst. / Your forebear was / The sack of the winds, / The boon that gives / And then rescinds, / Containing nothing / But the force / That blows everyone / Off course.”
David Ferry’s Bewilderment (University of Chicago, $18) is a major collection that won the 2012 National Book Award. In these moving, thoughtful poems, Ferry writes about loneliness, aging and the losses that come with advancing years. The book combines original poems and translations of classical poetry to create a sweeping narrative in which mythology and literature often come to life. A skunk with odd coloring, for example, prompts the speaker to ask: “Was it transmogrified? Come up from down there / In the Underworld where it could have been changed like that?” The writing reveals layer after layer of meaning, even as it demonstrates the speaker’s powerlessness in the face of loved ones’ illnesses or deaths. In “Scrim,” one of his most-moving poems, Ferry states: “I can dimly see there’s something or someone there. / But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels, / Or the past, or future, or who it is I love, / My mother or father lost, or my lost sister, / Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there.”
D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape (Graywolf, $22) is his strongest book yet. The poems, as always, are taut, edgy and erotic. Even a simple kiwi prompts bold comparisons to male anatomy: “Consider this odd yield: overgrown berry with its easy sway / and pubescent peel, how it will proffer its redolent fruit. / This mysterious being now enters you: to arms, to arms.” The first half of the collection explores how landscapes shape and define the people who live in them. A mean neighborhood can foment mean residents, while disappointments, traumas and infirmity create a variety of divisions and barriers. Those ideas continue in the second half, where the speaker, suffering from HIV, considers his past and offers lessons that young men should learn about the heart, desire and dreams. Powell has been a finalist for the NBCC award twice before. His wit and brazen perspective make him a poet’s poet.
Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson (McSweeney’s, $18) is the most challenging of these five finalists because the poet makes larger leaps of thought on one page than many writers do in several . Peterson can describe being waked on the couch, for example, and then can immediately observe : “I think soluble means the soul can dissolve / in two places at once as Michael makes a fish / or turkey appear in the third grade / from the same decorated pinecone.” These poems juxtapose the vast, animate cosmos with the pulse and activity of everyday experience. The speaker is as comfortable with philosophy as mystery, and views the mind as a powerful canvas where “Imagination is creating the possible, its best work.” The strongest poems in “Fragile Acts” are cohesive yet surprising, a welcome reminder that language and ideas create a breathtaking realm.
Lund regularly reviews poetry for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.