Mary Oliver’s Felicity (Penguin Press, $24.95), forthcoming next month, is a breezy, inviting collection of love poems that celebrates the divine as much as it does the natural world or human relationships. Fans will rejoice that the Pulitzer Prize winner shares bits of wisdom on every page, beginning with the opening lines: “Things take the time they take. Don’t/ worry.” A few poems later, she considers “moments that cry out to be fulfilled” and asserts, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution/ when headlong might save a life,/ even, possibly, your own.” Oliver dives headlong into every subject, whether she’s listening to the trees speak or looking for signs of spring. The first section, called “The Journey,” reads like an ongoing meditation on the presence of God, which continues to feel more real to the poet, who just turned 80, than the losses that come with age. The “Love” section is full of delight and surprise as the speaker enjoys sweet kisses and refuses to overthink a relationship. “Our touching, our stories. Earthy/ and holy both. How can this be,/ but it is.” “Felicity” isn’t nearly as strong as “American Primitive,” Oliver’s best and defining work, but it is an eloquent celebration of simple joy from one of America’s most beloved poets.
In Reconnaissance (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23), Carl Phillips creates smooth currents of language that begin in one place, subtly shift direction and then shift again. As the speaker moves through the landscape of the heart — desire, love, grief, cruelty — he searches for truth, which disappears as soon as it is grasped. Everything seems on the verge of revision, from memory and history to darkness and light. The latter can be clear and pure, tinged by estrangement, or feel like “violence and non-violence” to those “the light falls through.” The sounds and rhythms of these poems are gorgeous, and Phillips, whose awards include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, isn’t afraid to ask unsettling questions: “What if all suffering is in fact for nothing?” Yet in a world where everything changes, hope and light manage to rise, even if only briefly. In “Lowish Hum, Cool Fuss,” the speaker offers a taste of mitigated optimism: “They say innocence/ is a kind of insanity, for example — let it fall, as it/ should, as it has to. . . . But why can’t innocence/ be instead a boat, slowly coming about, set free/ by accident.”
Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2014 (Mariner; paperback, $16.95), by Linda Gregerson, tenderly considers a wide range of topics: personal, political, literary. The speaker’s clear vision and vast understanding are balanced by deep empathy. The 10 new poems draw from Roman mythology, pairing ancient wisdom with modern situations and concerns. That duality grounds the writing and provides wry insights into the desires of mortals, as in the second poem, “The Wrath of Juno,” in which the goddess reflects on women’s longing for children and offhandedly mentions in vitro fertilization. The selected poems, from five earlier collections, create their own mythologies as Gregerson develops a style as distinctive for its jagged line lengths as for its compelling logic. Many poems feature deeply moving narratives about family traumas, loss and illness, the frailties of the body, and the longing for a divine presence. Some of the most affecting work focuses on children who’ve been abused by loved ones or who abuse themselves. In the title poem, the speaker describes a teenager whose skin “was almost otherworldly, touch/ so silken it seemed another kind/ of sight.” Yet “she takes/ her scissors to that perfect page.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.