Li-Young Li’s The Undressing (Norton), opens provocatively, with erotic verbal banter between a man and his lover: “In one light,/ love might look like siege./ In another light, rescue/ might look like danger.” The book, Lee’s sixth, explores the relationship between language and the body, between love and aggression. Lee, who was born in Jakarta, the son of Chinese refugees, also considers the impact of brutality and forced expulsions, a subject he understands intimately. In the poem “The Sweet Accompanist,” he recalls some of the lessons he learned from his father, who was imprisoned and tortured and later became a minister. “The ones who know not what they do are fierce,/ though sometimes they apologized for murdering their prey./ Yet, I taught you to renounce violence./ I taught you love means to vest your interest/ in the outcome of the other.” In the closing piece, “Changing Places in the Fire,” Lee draws upon biblical texts and spars with a female “battle angel” who argues that the words used in poetry cannot compare to the word of God. As he does throughout this multilayered book, Li challenges readers to think and to feel more deeply.
“There is no future without baseball. No past either,” explains E. Ethelbert Miller in the preface of If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press), a delightful collection that celebrates the “magic released when three holy things come together: bat, ball and glove.” Miller, a writer and activist who lives in Washington, beautifully recounts playing baseball as a child in the South Bronx. The game provided excitement and a sense of freedom for him and other boys against the backdrop of “the housing projects so many could not escape.” It was also a useful metaphor as the young Miller grappled with questions about his career prospects and “being traded” by his parents to a school across town “where the white kids are.” No matter what he faced, including heartbreak and betrayal later in life, the game and his heroes in the major leagues — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal — provided an example of how to move forward. Baseball fans will love how Miller, who has published several books of poems and edited the magazine Poet Lore, reflects on the full game of life, writing with humor, compassion, and undimmed enthusiasm. Even those who are not sports fans will appreciate his wisdom, as in these lines from the poem “The Bullpen”: “Our last innings/ are when we give thanks/ for small things” and “Elders are closers. We turn to them for hope/ as they rise and march/ into history wearing/ crowns, suits and shoes/ that shine.”
Voices in the Air (Greenwillow Books) presents nearly 100 new poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002 for “19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East.” Here, she gives voice to the natural world, as in the poem “Aurora Borealis,” where “The light was speaking to me/ stretching out its long gleaming fingers.” Nye, the daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, also speaks for Palestinians and others around the globe who have been attacked and silenced. In the second section she presents pieces about writers and musicians — including Walt Whitman, Galway Kinnell and Lucille Clifton — creating a rich dialogue about the function and potential power of art. “Josephine Miles, who traveled with her wheelchair/ around the country to read poems,/ said, Don’t make your poem a neat package/ with a bow tied at the top. She also said,/ It’s hard to help.” The final part of the book looks out at the world again, addressing people’s struggles and pressing issues such as gun violence. Together, the poems create a vivid illustration of how to write and live fearlessly. As Nye notes in one of the final poems, sunsets, trouble and full moons are for everyone: “We’re all poets rippling with/ layers of memories,/ mostly what we might forget./ Let it belong. Every pocket,/ satchel, hand.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.