Amy Gerstler’s “Scattered at Sea” (Penguin; paperback, $20) throws convention and familiarity overboard and asks us to consider what remains. The work mixes salty humor, invigorating rhythms and sharp-edged wisdom. Some people may blush when the language occasionally veers from bold to bawdy, as in the first poem, which begins: “Pardon this frontal offensive.” Another announces, “The world hikes up her skirts and her/ underthings are so lovely!” As the work progresses, the speaker navigates — or stirs — deep currents as she considers sex and desire, aspects of the female experience, philosophy and religion, death and grief. No subject is taboo for Gerstler, whose 1990 collection, “Bitter Angel,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Here, the speaker curses a despised man, answers a dead woman’s telephone and offers a menu of options to a caller on hold: “Press one if you’d like to speak to Attila the Hun./ Press two if your Jacuzzi is filled with eels.” Some of the most moving poems show how age and illness cut someone down, while others make poignant statements about reincarnation: “In one life I was a monk who won a newborn in a bet/ In this life Lord knows what is to happen yet.”This wry book is like a wave that knocks you over and changes how you view the world.
In “Heaven ” (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), Rowan Ricardo Phillips explores what heaven is — or might be. As with Phillips’s first collection, “The Ground,” which won the 2013 Whiting Award, this slim volume is full of grace and beauty. Phillips is equally fluid in summoning boyhood memories as he is in alluding to passages from Homer and Shakespeare or describing scenes of the California coast or a snow-covered landscape. Phillips understands the natural world and its creatures — birds, elk, roosters — as well as the issues and influences that drive people’s behavior: geography, a sense of fate, feeling and poetry. No matter where he goes, his language is hauntingly astute, and the reality he conjures is multi-layered. As “Mirror for the Mirror” explains: “This night sky won’t always be so Rothko,/ Won’t always mean something you’ve seen before,/ Otherwise, it would always be what it/ Was in the sheerest separation of is/ And as: self separated from self, self/ Unparadised as though it were a place.”
Acclaimed Scottish poet John Burnside has remained largely unknown in the United States. His enchanting collection “Black Cat Bone” (Graywolf; paperback, $16), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize, should change that. In it, readers will discover Burnside’s gift for invoking vistas where nothing is as real as it seems and where what we pursue will change us. The book opens with “The Fair Chase,” a long, fable-like poem about villagers who hunt year after year for a menacing animal they fear but cannot find. When one man finally takes aim at the creature, he becomes haunted by “phantoms/ and that living animal/ . . . calling for the life it must have had.” Many of the poems have a fairy-tale quality, as the writing, rooted deeply in the human psyche, considers nature, love, faith and the past. Desire and disappointment are frequent companions — along with hopeful reprieves. The closing piece, about the days after Christmas, demonstrates Burnside’s eloquent insight: “this is the time of year/ when nothing to see/ gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous/ beauty of it stark against the mud/ and thawglass on the track, before it darts away, across the open field/ and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.”