Terrance Hayes reinvigorates a classic form in his latest book, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin” (Norton). In these 14-line, free-verse poems, all with the same title, Hayes examines what it means to be an American, to belong, and how it feels to be haunted and hunted by violent racism. Hayes, who won the National Book Award in 2010 for “Lighthead,” addresses that ubiquitous “assassin” directly in some places. In others, he is the aggressor, noting how “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,/ Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Hayes uses a variety of approaches to take aim at the sins of the nation. He also employs surprising rhythms throughout, and in several poems, opens with the line “there never was a black male hysteria,” which becomes a kind of refrain throughout the book’s five sections. Expect to be challenged on almost every page by a speaker who knows “It is not enough/ to love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed,” and warns that “You will never assassinate my ghosts.”
Tony Hoagland also focuses on American life and culture in his sixth collection, “Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God” (Graywolf). The writing is classic Hoagland: accessible and conversational, sometimes humorous, as he scrutinizes everything from a book he’s reading to mortality and the emotions that arise when he thinks of the music of Leonard Cohen while sitting in a hospital waiting room. The work raises important questions “about the hazards of playing at innocence,” why our culture can’t seem to make progress and why no one seems to recognize the impending environmental crisis. The speaker’s irritation and skepticism are apt, as are his unvarnished recollections of loved ones. In some of the most poignant pieces, he also allows himself to feel vulnerable or hopeful. At the end of “Better Than Expected,” he admits, “I have outlasted the voluntary numbness/ I required in order to remain alive,” and then wonders: “why shouldn’t I be able now,/ to walk down the street,/ under the overhanging trees/ and raise my arms and say/ that the rain shaking down from the leaves/ is not an inconvenience but a joy?”
“House Crossing” (Station Hill), by Laurie L. Patton, is a lovely collection that explores how the physical structures in homes — hallways, corners, windows — affect how people experience a space and their lives as well. As many of the poems suggest, there’s a dual nature to any dwelling. In the poem “Mantel,” the speaker recalls how the two ends of a mantelpiece became “big shoulders,” and her grandfather “often felt someone tapping/ on his back/ when he rested/ against it.” Patton, who is president of Middlebury College and a religion professor, was inspired to write about architecture by the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who believed that “the virtues of shelter are so simple, so deeply rooted in our unconscious that they may be recaptured through mere mention.” Patton embodies that idea throughout and provides readers with a sense of belonging and respite, even when she recalls a lost dwelling or someone stuck between two places.
Also of Note:
“North American Stadiums” (Milkweed), by Grady Chambers, is the inaugural winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, which honors the memory of Ritvo, an accomplished poet who died at 25. Chambers, a native of Chicago, takes readers on a journey to various U.S. cities and into childhood memories that have shaped his perceptions and questions about life. As these tracks intertwine, he records vivid details — “telegrams of smoke twisting off the city’s stacks,” “the steel of the swing as the axe blades placed their notches” — and creates an engrossing urban pastoral. His writing is sure and often elegant as he explores both the physical and emotional landscapes he visits, describes “the naked hook” of a girl’s prosthetic limb and notes, “Still, I call it beautiful.” These distinctive poems deserve a wide audience.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.