Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Graywolf; paperback, $16) is a moving follow-up to his memoir “Another Bull---- Night in Suck City,” the basis for the 2012 film “Being Flynn.” Yet where that autobiography was rich in detail, this collection tells it “slant,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson — using indirection and layered imagery to address difficult moments. In the poem “Kafka,” for example, the speaker describes the circumstances of the famous writer’s death as an entry point to writing about his own father’s imminent demise: “I have said no/ to the feeding tube because I imagine that is/ what I would want someone to say for me.” Flynn doesn’t shy away from his father’s death, his mother’s suicide or the dark feelings that arose in him years earlier, when “I believed the body contained the soul, yet/ even so I began to feel like/ a monster — disgusting, somehow —/ until the shadow inside me/ became me.” Loss and brokenness pervade these poems, yet at times the darkness fades in the face of warmer realities, such as the speaker’s young daughter, who demands to know what Flynn was before he was a father: “a bug?” She is among those who ground him as he grapples with grief, panic and questions about faith. “My Feelings” offers no easy answers, yet the writing and the desire for transcendence make the journey compelling.
In Count the Waves (Norton, $26.95), Sandra Beasley plays off Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous line “let me count the ways” to entitle and shape this bold collection. Where Browning looked at love fondly, Beasley presents romance and desire as challenging, sometimes dangerous and fraught with emotional distance. The opening poem, “Inner Flamingo,” hints at some of these realities as the speaker describes her “secret geometries —/ inner-flamingo knee hitch,/ inner-flamenco arm arch,/ Hermes’ diagonal of flight/ across the mattress.” In the morning, as the couple wake, “we were as/ we’d been. And the pink of me/ cocked her head, listening.” Beasley, who lives in Washington and has published two previous poetry collections and the memoir “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life,” uses humor and surprise like a scythe, cutting to the root of a matter in ways that may make some chuckling readers think, “Did she really say that?” These engrossing poems are interspersed with pieces that explore the book’s other major theme: how language shapes experience, enhancing or impeding understanding. By crafting rich poems that respond to 19th-century phrases — “In the latest fashion,” “The calamity was not serious” — Beasley seems to free expression from time and other restraints. The penultimate poem demonstrates how imposing order affects perception: “Without structure/ there can be no mystery. Dear sirs, thank you for this service./ You have shaken down the Garden of Eden for its seeds.”
John Ashbery’s Breezeway (Ecco, $22.99) is one of the most anticipated collections of the year. Readers who appreciate his mind-bending work will find the same kind of challenging richness he has offered in more than 20 collections of poetry. Those unfamiliar with his writing — which has received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — would be wise to start with an earlier, more fluid collection. “Breezeway” deals as much with the poet’s complex sense of reality as it does with American culture. References to TV, politics, art and the media provide shared ground, which Ashbery, always facile with language, often truncates or twists. The collection is peppered with phrases such as “Our networks will be joining you in progress” and “Onward to Christian bathrooms.” The most accessible poem, “Listening Tour,” opens with “We were arguing about whether NBC/ was better than CBS. I said CBS/ because it’s smaller and had to work/ harder to please viewers. You didn’t/ like either that much but preferred/ smaller independent companies.” Ashbery’s poems are like those independent voices, each demanding attention. Readers who delve below the seeming dissonance may find themselves echoing the speaker in “Cheap Legs,” who asks, “And who’s to say we didn’t gradually understand/ our situation, along with everyone else’s?”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.
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