Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (Norton, $25.95) showcases some of Martín Espada’s most powerful writing in years. The book opens with the title piece, a skillful portrait of the Paterson, N.J., silk strike of 1913 and the plight of several workers who struggled in the face of economic and political oppression. Espada then turns to injustices in more recent history: police shootings, the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the murder of journalist James Foley, who studied with Espada at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Those poems, deeply moving and sad, demonstrate the importance of the poet’s role as storyteller and push him closer to a series of works about his father. Frank Espada, who moved from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn, was a gifted athlete, a mechanic in the Air Force, a victim of discrimination and a protester who spent time in jail for his beliefs. The poems are fresh and engaging because they reveal a great deal about father and son and their commitment to helping people rise. The closing poems pay homage to the elder Espada’s indomitable spirit and how, even on his deathbed, “The furious pulse that fired his heart in every fight flooded / the chambers off his heart. The doctors scrutinized the film, / the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father / was a moriviví. I died. I lived. He died. He lived. He dies. He lives.”
Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon; paperback, $16) is a striking debut that delights with its sculpted lines, surprising insights, and clear-sighted observations about communication and isolation. The speaker quickly establishes a sense of ambiguity and dislocation, as in these lines from “Symptoms of Prophecy”: “I called to say we have two lives / and only one of them is real. / . . . I’m certain that I’m not / as I appear, that I’m a figment and / you’re not really here. / The struggle / is authenticity.” The elegant writing is wonderfully rich as the poems explore the complexities and contradictions of interacting with loved ones and strangers. There’s always an emotional push and a pull as the speaker desires intimacy and connection, yet remains somewhat distant. The writing shows how history and rhetoric can deepen loneliness and exclusion. The book’s final section includes larger, metaphysical questions about impermanence and how people relate to the earth and sea. Yet no matter the subject, the speaker remains evenhanded and compassionate as she considers how people decide who and what is worthy of attention. Rankine has been called a poet to watch by both the American Poet and O Magazine. The wide-ranging praise is well earned.
Fans of Larry Levis will delight in the publication of The Darkening Trapeze (Graywolf; paperback, $16), 20 years after the poet’s death. The work, which includes lyrics, long elegies and a coda written about Levis’s son, demonstrates the intensity and singular voice that distinguished five collections during his lifetime and two other posthumous books. Those who are new to his poetry will notice that it swings like the trapeze of the title, from tight, exquisite language to looser, grittier expression. That’s especially true in the longer pieces, where moments of wisdom punctuate sprawling narratives with multiple anecdotes. The speaker, who seems to be saying goodbye throughout these pages, is often drawn to outcasts or those who are typically overlooked, as in “Poem With a Hotel Ending on Fire.” There, readers meet a private dancer who owns and shows Abyssinian cats, a young man who accidentally sets the building ablaze, and a family that spent all of its money to stay in the hotel. Their longing and hardships are a different kind of flame, one the speaker feels and gives voice to many times as he addresses losses, mortality and experiences that both thrill and scare him. In “Ghazal,” one of the strongest poems, he asks, “Does exile begin at birth? I lived beside a wide river / For so long I stopped hearing it. / As when a glass shatters during an argument, / And we are secretly thrilled. . . . We wanted it to break.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.