Gregory Pardlo made national news recently when Digest (Four Way; paperback, $15.95), his second collection of poems, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. A teaching fellow at Columbia University, Pardlo was an unexpected winner; his book had been rejected by all the major publishers when he submitted it in 2010. His poetry, like his acclaim, is something of a sleeper. “Digest” winds up slowly with a list-like poem that gives way to more fluid writing and then to bolder, freer verse. The poems draw heavily on everyday life, exploring various facets of fatherhood, urban experience and its anxieties. The speaker often keeps one foot — or even a toe — in academic thought and phrasing, as in the wonderful series of poems about cars, each titled after a philosopher or theologian. Pardlo knows how to layer his language so that complexity and intensity build in a matter of lines, as with the poem “Occam.” It opens with “knots of cars” stuck in holiday traffic; then, moments later, the speaker asks, “So who is really/ driving the soapbox you find transporting your thoughts while/ you inch the highway like the Pope’s bubble-mobile?” In the best of these poems, Pardlo creates a unique, compelling voice that takes poetry and readers to unexpected places.
Emmy-winning reporter Jeffrey Brown turns a poetic eye toward journalism in his first collection, The News (Copper Canyon; paperback, $16). Here, fans of Brown, chief correspondent for arts, culture and society at PBS’s “NewsHour,” will find the same keen analysis and probing questions they expect from his on-air interviews. Readers will also find compelling pieces that illustrate Brown’s conviction that poetry can help anyone imagine a wider world. He knows how to tell a story, and “The News” does a wonderful job of balancing the language of journalism and the power of poetry. He writes movingly of the tragedies he has witnessed in Haiti, Beirut and elsewherebefore asking, in the lovely “Song of the News”: “What do we see/ and what do we say?/ Between what happened/ and who cares?/ Between give a damn/ and what the hell./ Between good evening/ and good day — / car crash/ caress/ the children at play./ All that we see/ and all that we say.” Some of the most powerful writing comes when Brown shares his off-camera life, dealing with the illness and death of his father, considering his own mortality and learning from a Zen master that “You/ find your voice when you find yourself.”
In Dark Energy (Penguin; paperback, $18), his 15th book of poems, Robert Morgan — also the author of the novel “Gap Creek” — explores some of the deep mysteries that have puzzled star gazers and physicists for centuries. As Morgan guides readers through history, observations about natural processes and insights gleaned from his own life, he examines the world from its largest to its smallest aspects, capturing the voice of the sky, of time and the space between atoms. In “Ancient Script,” he notes how crows in a snowy field “resemble black cuneiform,/ perhaps a poem from the time/ of Sumer or Akkad, a song/ of winter’s promised passing,/ of some forgotten writ of law,/ though all I hear is caw on caw,/ and then the silence answering.” Poem after poem beautifully renders the landscape of Morgan’s boyhood yet transcends it as well, as the speaker looks beyond the horizon and tries to understand eternity and the energy that pulses through every living thing. While “Dark Energy” may feel old-school to some, it demonstrates poetry’s ability to be both timeless and timely.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.