This year marks an important literary milestone: the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. Established by the Academy of American Poets, the annual event has blossomed into a worldwide celebration. We’re joining in the festivities by highlighting three terrific new collections.
THE POLITICAL AND THE WHIMSICAL
Last year, Ohio appointed its first Poet Laureate, Amit Majmudar, who, despite his literary success, hasn’t quit his day job as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist. The son of Indian immigrants, Majmudar grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and in the innovative yet accessible poems collected in his superb new book, Dothead: Poems, he explores the experience of growing up as a cultural outsider among mostly white classmates and how his heritage shapes his everyday adult life. “It happens every trip, / at LaGuardia, Logan, and Washington Dulles, / the customary strip / is never enough for a young brown male,” he writes in “T.S.A.” This painful prejudice rears its head again in “The Star-Spangled Turban”: “Any towel, / any shawl will . . . mark me off as / not quite level- / headed. . . .” Along with his pointed cultural critique are stark, electrifying pieces like “Ode to a Drone” and inventive, playful poems like his celebratory ode to grammar in the sly “His Love of Semicolons” (“The comma is comely, the period, peerless, / but stack them one atop / the other, and I am in love”). Majmudar finds poetry in the modern world where we least expect it.
A CAREER-CLOSING VOLUME
Larry Levis was only 49 when he died of a heart attack two decades ago, but his reputation as a rare and compassionate poet was already well established. The award-winning author of five collections of verse, Levis casts a long shadow over the poetry world, which makes the appearance of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems a cause for celebration. Edited by poet David St. John, this never-before-published volume features expansive works constructed from long, Whitmanesque lines and a cast of marginal characters that were a recurring thread in Levis’ verse. In “Elegy for the Infinite Wrapped in Tinfoil,” a drug-addled boy sets his girlfriend’s house on fire and goes walking “past eaves & lawns that flowed / Beside him then as if he’d loosened them / From every mooring but brimming moonlight.” A sense of the poet as a vulnerable figure searching for meaning in a tumultuous world permeates these works, including “The Space,” in which “The Self sounds like a guy raking leaves / Off his walk. It sounds like the scrape of the rake. / The soul is just a story the scraping tells.” This collection moves between poetic modes to reveal Levis’ breadth of vision. The Darkening Trapeze serves as a poignant final statement from a poet whose voice remains vital.
NEWLY DISCOVERED NERUDA
Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda is a true treasure: a new group of poems by Nobel Prize-winning Chilean author and statesman Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), thoughtfully translated by American poet Forrest Gander. Discovered by the Pablo Neruda Foundation, these previously unseen works were written between the 1950s and the early 1970s. The 21 pieces—image-saturated, sensuous, earthy yet elegant—highlight Neruda’s unselfconscious ease as he explores themes that loomed large in his life: home, nature, exile, art. Ardency for nature enlivens “Poem 2,” which conjures “the corollas / of giant sunflowers, defeated / by their very fullness.” “Poem 10,” with its celebratory opening lines—“Marvelous ear, / double / butterfly, / hear / your praise”—brings to mind Neruda’s famous odes to other body parts (eye, liver, skull). Of poetry itself, Neruda writes, “All my life it’s coursed through my body / like my own blood.” Indeed, these beautifully unaffected poems serve as yet another testament to the fluency of Neruda’s genius. Photographs of his handwritten drafts are included throughout, lending an archival air to this essential collection.