The edgy, surprising poems in Kristen Tracy’s “Half-Hazard” (Graywolf), winner of the Emily Dickinson First Book Award, are as readable as good fiction. Tracy, the author of a dozen novels for young readers such as “Too Cool for This School” and “The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter,” here delivers a more personal and introspective work. Near-misses and missteps abound as she explores the daily dramas of the farm where she grew up and the proscribed world outside her Mormon community. The writing is delightfully crisp and wry, and always walks a tightrope between hope and disaster. Throughout, Tracy also shares nuggets of wisdom. In the poem “Bountiful, Utah, 1972,” the speaker realizes that “I began life,/ heaven or not, ten steps away/ from a brick church as a half-blonde anyone./ What I am, my soft shoreline, my need/ to unlock doors and move/ from one train seat to the next,/ has saved me.”
How does someone move through — or beyond — a devastating loss? For January Gill O’Neil, part of the answer lies in the title of her third book, “Rewilding” (CavanKerry Press). These finely wrought poems, many of which focus on the breakup of her marriage, weave together poignant details and a palpable desire to revert to a wilder, previous state. O’Neil nimbly captures the impact and import of seemingly small moments, as in “Hoodie,” where she fears for the safety of her adolescent son, “the darkest child/ on our street” and wonders “who could mistake him/ for anything but good.” As the speaker navigates her changing life, the pieces gracefully move from domestic scenes to a larger sense of community and the world. In the gorgeous poem “How a Star Dies,” she notes that “Sometimes gravity wins. Sometimes stars burn bright/ and hot but cool off quickly and beyond our reach.”
“How the End First Showed” (University of Wisconsin), by D.M. Aderibigbe, is a powerful testament to the women in his family — especially his grandmother and mother — who were abused for years by the men they loved. Aderibigbe, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, won the Brittengham Prize for this striking collection. The book quietly challenges his native country’s entrenched ideas about male supremacy and shows how the strength and resilience of women help repair what has been broken. As he examines a painful legacy and questions the present, he creates remarkably memorable poems and posits haunting questions. In “Colors of My Childhood,” he wonders, “Could there ever be a boy’s childhood/ built outside his father’s/ shadow? My mother/ could not outlive this question./ If my son requests to see/ my distant past, Father,/ do you ever wonder/ what color it would appear?”
Craig Morgan Teicher explores how poets progress and learn from one another in “We Begin in Gladness”(Graywolf). This fantastic collection of essays begins with insightful descriptions of poetry as “an art of listening” and the poet’s task as hearing clearly, as much as possible, “the voice of the mind, the voice that gathers, packs with meaning, and unpacks the language the poet knows.” Teicher, an acclaimed poet and critic, then delves into a rich analysis of how several major writers — including Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and W.S. Merwin — moved from “apprentice” pieces to genius writing, or continued to produce virtuosic work over time. Every section will deepen your understanding of the creative arc and will make you rethink what’s possible when one continues to forge ahead.
Natasha Trethewey’s “Monument” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is a glorious example of what results when one listens — and writes — brilliantly. Throughout this retrospective, which draws from four books and a chapbook, and includes 11 new poems, Trethewey blends a distinctive voice with striking images and perspectives. Those who are new to her work will marvel at her ability to address difficult subjects — slavery, the challenges of mixed-race families and the murder of her mother — with precision and compassion. These pages clearly demonstrate why Trethewey, whose honors include the Pulitzer Prize and two terms as poet laureate of the United States, is one of our preeminent poets. They also remind us that her work is loved because she refuses to forget those who’ve been lost and the struggles of those who remain.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.