Mary Jo Bang’s The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf; paperback, $16) is one of three new books of poetry that explore a defining aspect of contemporary American experience. In this, her seventh collection, Bang spotlights the anxiety and obliviousness of people living in a post-postmodern world. The speaker sees danger everywhere — mortality, climate change, cruise missiles — while most people fixate on their own inner struggles as doom approaches. Bang, who won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for “Elegy,” shows over and over how Americans try to think their way through life, relying on comforting ideals and theories that lead ultimately to self-deception or guilt and sorrow. In “Here’s What the Mapmaker Knows,” the speaker says, “What idiocy the world is made of:/ fierce justifications, landmines and such,/ a rifle upright. An empire/ of uncommon horror: the human speaking,/ ‘Every moment all that matters is me.’ Tick-tick in the drifting dark.” As life continues to speed along, the world seems to be an elaborate myth. These are challenging poems because Bang doesn’t provide much comfort, and she never takes her foot off the accelerator. Gorgeous phrasing and imaginative leaps make the ride worthwhile.
The Tijuana Book of the Dead (Soft Skull; paperback, $15.95), by novelist Luis Alberto Urrea is a gorgeous, engaging collection about life along the Mexico-United States border. Urrea — whose father is Mexican and mother is American — sensitively portrays the suffering of street children and of sons who spend hours traveling to low-paying American jobs for their “chance to drag home/ $80 a week” to help their struggling mothers. Urrea sees humanity where some see “illegals,” and he captures the song and spirit of people who might otherwise be invisible. Readers who know Urrea’s fiction will enjoy the narrative arc of his poems, which follow immigrants into American cities and towns where they struggle with poverty and difficult lives. The writing also highlights the speaker’s journey, as he learns to love poetry and to write his own on his mother’s old typewriter: “I hammered my way/ through second hand books./ it was beautiful./ all of America, which I had yet to see,/ lived in my typewriter. then China./ then Argentina. then Chile. then/ Japan.” As the collection unfolds, the speaker crafts beautiful images, skillful lines and memorable vignettes. In the long poem “16 Lane,” he also provides glimpses into his “old man’s” story, showing how his father learned English and found a sense of belonging at the local bowling alley. As difficult as the subject matter may be, the writing is radiant, showing how the worth of human beings can’t be dimmed by a border fence or hot-button politics.
Amiri Baraka’s SOS: Poems 1961-2013 (Grove, $30) provides readers with rich, vital views of the African American experience and of Baraka’s own evolution as a poet-activist. In his thoughtful preface, editor Paul Vangelisti writes that this controversial author “may be, along with Ezra Pound, one of the most important and least understood American poets of the past century.” Baraka’s transformation from Beat poet to nationalist to Third World socialist, Vangelisti writes, allowed him to enrich American letters by creating a greater range of African American poetic language and a politicized avant-garde. Baraka is as adept with spare, imagistic lines as with lyrical realism. Racist, provincial ideas earn his angry unmasking as he sings, shouts and shakes a fist at corruption and ignorance. The book ends with poems written from 1996 to 2013, when his work was fully realized and his convictions about life and poetry took shape in a variety of surprising forms. The section includes his most polarizing poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” yet also “Chamber Music,” where he says “I wanted to know/ myself, and found that was a lifetime’s work.” If you haven’t appreciated Baraka’s work in the past, give “SOS” a chance.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post every month.