The Emperor of Water Clocks , by Yusef Komunyakaa (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23), is a rich, multilayered book that combines threads of fable, literature, music and cultural references to create a new kind of mythology. The collection opens in a dreamlike kingdom where every player has a role and there is always a power struggle. A court jester sees and knows things he shouldn’t; an emperor forces his brother to serve as his double; a king is advised by the fool. Even the raven master has something to convey, and to learn, explaining that “Poe had to leave my tongue/ before I became the keeper/ of good omens.” Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize winner, brings ancient characters to life, places tyrants in unexpected narratives and shows a range of battles, from the football field to those inside the minds of troubled people. Other poems — about tensions in the street after Ferguson and President Obama reading the work of Derek Walcott — ground readers firmly in the present. In “Rock Me, Mercy,” one of the strongest pieces, the speaker explains that “The river stones are listening/ because we have something to say” and that “Guardian angels, wherever you’re hiding./ We know you can’t be everywhere at once.” These are challenging poems that function much as water clocks did, using inflow and outflow to tell time.
The specter of war hovers over much of Emblems of the Passing World, by literary critic and poet Adam Kirsch (Other Press, $24.95). In this, his third collection, Kirsch reflects on the work of August Sander, the German photographer whose haunting portraits captured the people and tensions in his homeland during the first half of the 20th century. In each photo, a person — a bricklayer, a society lady, an officer worker — stares straight at the camera, and in each poem, Kirsch returns the unblinking gaze, imagining the individual’s life and providing deft strokes of context. The writing is penetrating and clear, with subtle rhymes and simple lines that build toward sad epiphanies. That approach — a bit old-fashioned — is beautifully apt as the work considers laborers across class lines, women trapped by losses or limited roles, and thinkers who shaped their time or stood silent. In “Farm Woman and Her Children,” for example, a fussy infant touching his mother’s smock takes comfort in her presence until he pulls away his hand “and flings it out/ In the aggressively erect salute/ He will begin to learn at nine or ten;/ Nothing can hope to undermine, till then,/ His confidence that she’ll protect him from/ The monster he is going to become.”
Kay Ryan’s Erratic Facts (Grove, $24) shows how poetry can shift a reader’s thinking. Ryan’s pithy writing moves swiftly in the opening pages, demonstrating how the human mind dislikes change, sometimes behaves like a wild animal, yet can be sharpened despite blunt blows. Those are the first of many observations and contradictions. In “Ship in a Bottle,” a deceptively simple poem, the speaker notes the conundrum of the tiny crew whose vessel is caught in a storm: “We can/ get it out but/ not without/ spilling its world./ A hammer tap/ and they’re free./ Which death, will it be,/ little sailors?” Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate, draws from science and art as she journeys through the landscape of memory, consciousness, loss and love. As with all her work, these poems are clear and lucid. Yet unlike her previous collection, “The Best of It,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, the poems here seem more interested in conveying wisdom than mystery. By the end of the book, the speaker and the reader are increasingly aware of time passing, the importance of relationships and the fact that as we age, “we turn out/as tippy as/ eggs. Legs/are an illusion.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.