The Essential W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon) beautifully demonstrates why Merwin has been one of America’s most decorated and important poets for more than 60 years. Edited by Michael Wiegers, this concise collection contains the best of the two-time Pulitzer winner’s work, including selections from Merwin’s first book, “A Mask for Janus” (1952) as well as “The Lice” (1967) , “The Carrier of Ladders” (1970) and “The Shadow of Sirius” (2008). The book, which will be published in September, also includes translations and prose pieces that help give readers a fuller understanding of Merwin’s range and changing aesthetics. His earlier poems reflect the formal style of the time and are influenced by classical myths, biblical stories and medieval poetry and ballads. Over time, Merwin’s writing became looser and more experimental, eventually dropping all punctuation. His focus, too, shifted from a keen sense of impending loss to an abiding connection with the natural and unseen realms. What remained constant was Merwin’s striking, evocative imagery, as in these lines from “The Unwritten”: “Inside this pencil/ crouch words that have never been written/ never been spoken/ never been taught/ they’re hiding/ they’re awake in there/ dark in the dark/ hearing us/ but they won’t come out/ not for love not for time not for fire.” Merwin’s skill is matched by his wisdom and his ability to connect a particular moment with something larger. A singing bird in “The Wren,” for instance, is “one of those voices without question/ and without answer like the beam of some/ star familiar.”
Lessons on Expulsion (Graywolf) is the fierce, assertive debut by Erika L. Sánchez. In these pages, Sánchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, examines the origins of misogyny, the struggles of poor women who are forced to sell their bodies, and the unfair balance of power in romantic relationships. She also confronts desire, shame and the painful choices immigrants must face, using language that varies from gritty to dreamlike. Sometimes a single piece has both these qualities, as with “La Cueva,” where “The glittering women swing/ their hips like eternal bells. With pink,/ histrionic mouths they sing: Who is this/ in the mirror? Why won’t you love me?/ Why won’t you let me be?” The writing feels consistently authentic, as with the moving and memorable poem “Crossing,” in which the American-born speaker contemplates the experience of her forebears, including her grandmother, who did not learn to read, and her mother, who declares that “You will not work like us. You will not work like a donkey.” That poem, like others, raises questions about how people define themselves, or are defined by others, and the borders they traverse, both literally and figuratively.
In Some Say , the fifth book of poetry by Maureen N. McLane (FSG), the sun is the focal point for poems that are deceptively simple. As with her previous collection, “Mz N: the serial, A Poem-in-Episodes,” the writing here is breezy and inviting but also rich and far-reaching. The speaker considers both global and personal concerns, among them politics, sex, the natural world and the divine presence. Many of the poems are so lovely that one notices their phrasing and pacing first, and then their deeper layers. The poem “Enough,” for example, opens with “The storm dissolves/ into sun./ We had no expectation/ The clouds full/ of pomp ignored/ whatever/ the wind did/below” and ends with “The world was full/ as it always was/ of wings of meaning & nothing.” As the speaker considers various moments in time, she also explores some archetypal poetic themes such as beauty and truth, adding a modern twist to old ideas and playing off some famous lines, as when she notes that “No roads diverged/ no ski trail split/ the mind forked itself/ and doubled back.” McLane, who was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for “This Blue,” knows when to dazzle and when to disrupt the reader’s expectations with a risque or cheeky observation.
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry each month for The Washington Post.