The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22) may be the crowning achievement for Hall, whose verse and essays have made him one of the most important American literary figures of the past 50 years. Now in his late 80s, Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, no longer writes poetry. Yet this concise collection, containing the work he deems the best, looks and feels like a new collection — or a new telling of his story. Fans will recognize many old favorites, such as “My Son My Executioner,” “Names of Horses” and “Ox-Cart Man.” They will also visit familiar places and themes: Hall’s uneasy childhood in Hamden, Conn.; boyhood summers spent on his family’s farm in New Hampshire; and living and writing on that farm years later with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. As “Selected Poems” progresses, readers will notice two parallel journeys — one artistic and one personal. The former moves from rhymed stanzas to free verse and from exquisite language to surreal or raw images. The latter gives the work its bittersweet power as the speaker shifts from a general awareness of mortality — “Like an old man, / whatever I touch I turn / to the story of death” — to a fierce battle with grief after Kenyon’s death. For pages, Hall seems to have died along with her, then slowly, painfully, reaches an acceptance that he can find some happiness — or contentment — again.
Empty Chairs: Selected Poems , by Liu Xia, (Graywolf; paperback, $16) is a testament to the human spirit when that spirit is confined. The collection, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, draws from 30 years of Liu’s poetry and vividly shows the effects of living and writing under a repressive regime. In 2009, her husband, Liu Xiaobo — perhaps China’s best-known human rights activist — was sentenced to 11 years in prison. (He won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.) Liu Xia was later placed under house arrest. Many poems in this collection contain bird or tree imagery, and at times the speaker seems to personify both — a flying bird and a strong, rooted object that cannot move. In “Just Waking Up,” she writes: “Sometimes in front of other people / I wear an I-don’t-care / expression, / the kind of arrogant face / that makes me feel like / I’ve had an epiphany. / No one knows / that I sit alone with a single light at night / feeling guilty / and grateful / at the same time.” In several of her chiseled poems, Liu uses dolls to convey what she cannot — and yet her voice still asserts itself, coming through bold and vital.
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai , edited by Robert Alter (Farrar Straus Giroux, $35), gives readers the largest collection of Amichai poems available in English. Alter, who translated many of the poems from Hebrew, chose the work with an eye toward capturing the richness and clarity of the German-born poet’s pieces. The book also shows how well Amichai, who died in 2000, rendered private moments, despite — or perhaps because of — the constant threat of violence in his adopted homeland of Israel. Biblical language and references infuse the work as the speaker considers love and war — his major themes — in a world where God doesn’t always offer answers yet “takes pity on kindergarten children.” Comfort and meaning come from relationships, which, as in the larger world, include tension and a desire for unity. The poems resonate with the speaker’s wisdom and tenderness. In “Lullaby,” he writes: “Sleep, my child, sleep, / free from all your clothes. / In a mosque we remove our shoes, in a synagogue we wear hats, in a church, we take them off. / You are without all these, / you should sleep, my child, sleep.”
Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post every month.