Ursula K. Le Guin, loved by millions for her fantasy and science-fiction novels, ponders life, death and the vast beyond in “So Far So Good” (Copper Canyon), an astute, charming collection finished weeks before her death in January. Fans will recognize some of the motifs here — cats, wind, strong women — as well as her exploration of the intersection between soul and body, the knowable and the unknown. The writing is clear, artful and reverent as Le Guin looks back at key memories and concerns and looks forward to what is next: “Spirit, rehearse the journey of the body/ that are to come, the motions/ of the matter that held you.”
A finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, Rae Armantrout’s “Wobble” (Wesleyan) is a collection of tight, chiseled poems that forces readers to consider how greed, excess and lack of critical thought have led to environmental destruction and a nation wobbling toward the edge of collapse. In the poem “Normal,” the self-absorbed speaker explains: “I don’t feel bad/ about crushing others/ to achieve my goals.” If society allows such destructive attitudes to prevail, we will all be to blame, as these poems show.
“A Cruelty Special to Our Species” (Ecco), by Emily Jungmin Yoon, is a heart-wrenching debut that tells the story of Korean comfort women who were taken from their families to be sex slaves in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II. Yoon meticulously researched this topic to capture the humanity of these women who endured rape, disease and the horrors of war. She also shows their tenacity and desire to experience some sweetness in life. Yoon’s work is compelling in part because it shows the importance of understanding history and its enduring impact. “70 years and no one knows,” notes one speaker. “Girls at the comfort stations, we were all children then.”
The poems in “Human Hours” (Graywolf), by Catherine Barnett, raise philosophical questions about life and how people spend the time they are allotted. In the opening piece, “Exclusive Member Privileges at Hotel Life on Earth,” Barnett writes: “Time is an upgrade, says the front desk./ Reserved for our most valued guests./ Time is an anemone, says the new hire./ Enemy. Amenity. Profanity. Dire.” Later, she examines both small moments and current events, recalling lessons learned from her father, experiences with her son and her own consternation about living in a democracy with a violent legacy. The pieces, which range in tone from darkly comic to deeply distressing, present some dour scenarios, nudging readers to consider how they spend their lives.
In the essay collection “He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Christian Wiman, acclaimed for both his poetry and prose, describes how his interactions with famous poets — including Mary Oliver, Donald Hall and Seamus Heaney — have shaped his perceptions about poetry and faith. These taut, absorbing pieces weave together memories and close readings of work that has haunted or challenged him. Wiman, a former editor of Poetry magazine, asks crucial questions, such as: Is artistic hunger a longing for God? Can writing be personally redemptive? What does it mean to be a believer? Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer several years ago, wrestles with his own mortality and ambitions as he searches for truth through literature. “One either lives toward God or not,” he asserts. “The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.