As National Poetry Month, April is the the ideal time to celebrate poetry. But these four collections offer poems to which you’ll return time and time again.
★ Lean Against This Late Hour
Some works of art can simultaneously break and build up your heart, a marbling of devastation and hope. Lean Against This Late Hour by Garous Abdolmalekian offers such an experience. These nuanced, nimble poems remind readers to “Take care of your sorrows.” Whether those sorrows are the public grief of war or more private, familial grief, the speaker laments that “We ought to accept / that no soldier / has ever returned / from war / alive.” These are poems written out of and for difficult days, but they succeed at a fundamental lift that feels natural, no sugar-spooning or sentimentality to be found. This lift is the hard-won hope found in self-awareness. “Staring at me from the table / an injured poem / has accepted its last lines.” Abdolmalekian is a major Iranian poet who should be a mainstay on bedside tables, syllabuses and award shortlists around the world. This is the first of his seven collections to be translated into English, and the transformation from the original Persian has been handled beautifully by translator Ahmad Nadalizadeh and novelist Idra Novey.
Jane Hirshfield’s ability to distill a single image with vodka clarity is on full display in her ninth collection, Ledger. While reading these poems, “You go to sleep in one world and wake in another,” and before you know it, hours have passed, emails have gone unanswered, and the dog is scratching at the door to be let out. But you also feel human, humane and a little less worn by the world’s swirling. During what will likely be a divisive election year, I’ll surely return over and over to poems such as “Let Them Not Say,” “Cataclysm,” “Spell to Be Said Against Hatred” and “Things Seem Strong” to remind me of the power of witnessing and the power of resisting, not surrendering to, simplifications. Whatever exquisite form these poems take, they carry a haiku spirit. Ledger moves through a public and private accounting of sorts, but instead of striving for balance, as most ledgers do, these poems herald a natural world full of shifts, tilts and breaks, where “A house seems solid, and yet, in the living, any footstep shakes it.”
Consumption is more than a measure of economic power in Kimiko Hahn’s Foreign Bodies. It is a measure of adoration and memory and a cataloging of lives. Inspired by a museum exhibition of ingested objects, these poems explore dynamics of ownership, objectification and personal history. Whether a coin, shell, harmonica, piece of broken jewelry or whale tooth, “Each feels like a story’s climax.” Initially the mind might wander to the TV series “My Strange Addiction,” in which people eat all sorts of objects. But there is nothing sensational about the big questions these poems conjure, like “How to store the object of your ardor,” especially as the speaker grapples with understanding childhood in the rearview mirror and the ways we nestle parents in our minds as we grow older. Our relationships with things tend to shift when “Memory is falling away / as if an image shattered to shards then / re-collected for a kaleidoscope.” These poems pull at the delicate thread linking past with present, with versions of the truth desperately in need of closer investigation. Things—objects—provide the looking glass. Under Hahn’s masterful hand, these Foreign Bodies feel quite familiar.
The Age of Phillis
In 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a black woman enslaved in America, published a book of poetry. The text challenged a nation that would have preferred to view the writer through the lens of chattel slavery. Future generations of poets would hold Wheatley in the blinding light of legend. Now, 247 years later, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers rights the light and lens with The Age of Phillis. Here Jeffers is a researcher and historian, offering context through dates, quoted briefs, articles, letters, lists and, most satisfyingly, her account of the 15 years spent crafting this collection. But most assuredly, Jeffers is a poet. History is at the forefront of this collection—but gracious, these poems are deliciously good. Traditional and inventive forms deftly admit, “This is a complicated space. / There is slavery here. / There is maternity here. / There is a high and low / that will last centuries.” These poems teeter in the space between inhale and exhale, bidding the reader to continue. One poem asks, “And who must speak for me / in order for you to believe?” After reading The Age of Phillis, the answer will clearly be Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.
Poet and ARTrepreneur Stephanie Pruitt-Gaines lives in Nashville, where she’s powered by pancakes, art and a furkid named Sugar.