By Mary Oliver (Penguin Press)
One of America’s most beloved writers offers both the best of her work and a spiritual road map. Spanning more than 50 years and featuring more than 200 poems, this collection shows Oliver, in the early years, turning away from grief and finding in nature a “vast, incredible gift.” Over time, as she carefully observes and records, Oliver extols the beauty and complexity around her and reminds us of the interconnectedness of living things. No matter where one starts reading, “Devotions” offers much to love, from Oliver’s exuberant dog poems to selections from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Primitive” and “Dream Work,” one of her exceptional collections.
By Danez Smith (Graywolf)
“Don’t Call Us Dead” opens with a moving sequence in which the speaker envisions an afterlife for all of the black men and boys who have been shot and killed by police. Smith also writes about sex, desire and the HIV diagnosis that resulted after one lover came over “& then he left/but he stayed.” As this stunning collection unfolds, the speaker weaves personal sickness with societal ills, wondering “just how/ will I survive the little/ cops running inside/ my veins.” These pieces pulse with the rhythms and assertiveness one expects from poetry slams.
By Maggie Smith (Tupelo)
The title poem of “Good Bones” went viral this year because its central theme — wanting to believe in the goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children — connected with so many people. The other pieces in this collection, Smith’s third, provide a fuller understanding of the complexities faced by the speaker, who tries to teach everything a child needs for survival, while admitting, “What can I say but stay/ alive? You’re new, and there’s too much to learn.” No matter the style or subject, the writing remains honest, compassionate and graceful, and the speaker maintains her determination to “love the world like a mother.”
By Frank Bidart (Farrar Straus Giroux)
This collection highlights Bidart’s enduring themes and concerns, among them: desire and shame and the quest to find truth and freedom. His ability as a storyteller fuels many of these pieces, including his dramatic monologues about child murderer Herbert White, an anorexic woman named Ellen West and other unsettling figures. The speaker also looks unflinchingly at his own life and at the people who have shaped his perceptions, from his stifling mother and alcoholic father to the men he has loved and lost. The book closes with an ambitious section of new writing.
By Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf)
This bold debut explores how the English language has been used to circumscribe and denigrate Native Americans, stripping them of their humanity and, via treaties with the federal government, of their land, as well. Long Soldier, who won a 2016 Whiting Award, uses experimental poems, short lyrics and prose poems to expose those injustices and to reject the 2009 federal resolution apologizing to Native Americans. Instead, she offers her own declarations and demands to be recognized as both a citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry every month for The Washington Post.