Even well-loved, familiar poems can be mysterious. What if you could ask a poet to walk you through the why of one of their poems: why it matters, why they chose to share it, what’s at stake? Erin Belieu and Carl Phillips do just that in their delightful anthology, Personal Best: Makers on Their Poems that Matter Most. Including a remarkable and diverse array of contemporary poets, Phillips and Belieu assemble a collection of singular poems, each selected by its poet and accompanied by an explication of how it came to be written, illuminating the choices that make each poem sing. With poems by Danez Smith, Victoria Chang, Ada Limon, Jorie Graham, Ocean Vuong, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ilya Kaminsky and many more, there is something to appeal both to novice explorers of poetry and to writers and students hoping to deepen their appreciation for others’ work.
The anthology is full of gems. It was a welcome gift to reencounter poems I knew in fresh contexts, and it was equally enjoyable to explore poems and poets new to me and discover what I might read next. If someone you know is looking for some guidance in reading poetry, or seeking a deeper understanding of the poetic process, Personal Best would make an engaging, thoughtful gift.
Poems of faith and doubt, wounds and wonder: The moments collected in Kazim Ali’s Sukun: New and Selected Poems are surprising and approachable. Ali moves between subjects—from prayers, fairy tales and myths to baggage claims, yoga classes, boats and rain—with an honest, searching voice. Equally engaging is the formal range of the poems. From sonnets to prose poems, from open-ended lines that propel you forward to tightly compacted end-stopped lines, the form and content come together. Mundane details are made surprising in new combinations: “a black and white film” in which “the water glows white.” Part of the wonder comes from Ali grounding these details with a sense of place, setting them against large scale images of the natural world.
“There’s an old line of Robert Frost’s—that a poem ‘begins in delight and ends in wisdom.'”
In “Exit Strategy”—part of the triptych that opens the book—Ali writes “Here’s the hardest geography quiz I’ve ever taken: / How does one carry oneself from mountain to lake to desert / without leaving anything behind?” This collection reveals the answer, taking us through real and metaphorical landscapes as the speakers gather images, moments and ideas, letting each build on the last, collaging something wholly new.
In the first poem of Jane Hirshfield’s The Asking: New and Selected Poems, she begins: “ My life, / you were a door I was given / to walk through.” This beautiful opening is the door we readers walk through to discover and rediscover this retrospective collection of Hirshfield’s poetry. Throughout, her attention to and celebration of minute details brings readers into a space of awareness that continues even after our eyes leave the page.
The new poems that open the book examine our fractured planet and imagine better possibilities. Next, beginning with 1982’s Alaya, we move through 50 years of Hirschfield’s work, observing the ways that our planet and the interrogation of our relationship with it have evolved. Hirshfield writes in awe of the world, of science and of imagination, and she threads these ideas together with a specificity and power of observation that demands our attention. She notices the nuance of the world; so must we. There’s an old line of Robert Frost’s—that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Hirshfield’s The Asking moves through both together, compelling the reader to wisdom and delight at interlocking, interconnected turns.
All Souls, the posthumously published final volume of poems by Saskia Hamilton, conveys a richness of stories in beautifully captured vignettes. As Hamilton writes, “Why retell the stories of those before us? They already spoke them, or held their tongues—fell silent. . . . To say something sincerely yet inauthentically is the danger.” In this work, she avoids that danger, telling each poem in a way that is searingly authentic and resolved.
Hamilton takes bits of history and image, of story and sensory experience, and weaves them together to express something new. The poems organize around the painful, impossible moment when a mother must leave her young son. This devastation circles through the collection, asking the reader what is remembered, retold, forgotten. Remarkable shifts occur between seemingly fragmented moments—between the lyric and narrative, past and present. As you continue to read, the disparate images connect and begin to speak.
Traveling through Major Jackson’s Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2023 opens a new window to his work. The poems are vibrant and engaging, examining life in America, racial injustice, and the ways that humans and nature intertwine and connect. The poetic influences and legacies that echo through the poems are clear, and there’s a rich sense of community and conversation.
From the fresh images of Jackson’s latest work, like “My mouth puckered whenever lemon-colored / arches appeared five stories above the city / like golden gates to an unforeseen heaven,” we travel into the past to excerpts from Leaving Saturn (2002) before moving forward through the 21 years in between. In addition to the subjects and questions that complicate as they recur, Jackson’s voice and sense of form are impressive. Each line is carefully chosen; each stanza break opens up something new. Selections from Jackson’s The Absurd Man (2020) prove to be particularly compelling as a bookend to the opening section of new poems, titled “Lovesick.” To see Jackson’s recent poems surround and grow out of the earlier ones is a joy.