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These six outstanding volumes of verse will remind readers of the magic of language and the marvels to be found in everyday moments.


A gift to celebrate growing older: Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Book jacket image for Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame is an inspiring celebration of the self. The book’s 50-plus pieces are alive with wit and wordplay, as Cisneros takes stock of the past, reflects on her Mexican American identity and ruminates on the experience of growing older. “I am Venetian, decaying splendidly. / Am magnificent beyond measure,” she writes in “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

Despite the passing years, Cisneros, now 67, displays an attitude of proud defiance. In “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” she bemoans the humdrum undergarments designed for older women: “Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night / wearing sensible white or beige.” Ignited by flashes of humor, the poems in this buoyant collection find Cisneros accentuating the positive, living without regret and setting an example for us all.


A gift to provide comfort and encouragement: And Yet by Kate Baer

Book jacket image for And Yet by Kate Baer

Kate Baer shares dispatches from the domestic front in her accessible, inviting collection And Yet. In poems that explore gender dynamics and the day-to-day grind of family life, Baer’s voice is that of an intimate, confiding friend.

Across the collection, she takes her own measure as a parent and a wife, toggling between self-acceptance and self-loathing, triumphs and trials. “The weeks are long, and all my son / wants is a new skateboard and a different / mother,” she writes in “Late Summer in a Global Pandemic.” Baer rounds up snippets from horrifying headlines in “Daily Planet”: “Return to school deemed not safe for / Un-vaccinated protests rise as / Hospital beds at capacity in these seven.” To flustered mothers, the internet-weary and anyone bewildered by contemporary life, Baer’s collection will be a balm.


A gift to illuminate the poetry-writing process: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light by Joy Harjo

Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years is a splendid survey of the career of three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo draws from a rich well of family stories and myths in poems that explore the Native American experience and emphasize the importance of place.

In many of her poems, the landscape emits a kind of language, such as in “Are You Still There?”: “hello / is a gentle motion of a western wind / cradling tiny purple flowers.” In “Somewhere,” she writes, “Our roads aren’t nice lines with numbers; they wind like bloodlines / through gossip and stories of the holy in the winds.” Notes on the genesis of each poem can be found at the end of the book.

For Harjo, “history is / everywhere,” and the past is always present. Her vision and versatility are on full display in this majestic retrospective.


A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts: Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The poems in Rio Cortez’s bold new book, Golden Ax, center on a foundational concept—what the author calls “Afropioneerism” or “Afrofrontierism,” in reference to her ancestral connections to Utah and the ways in which Black people have shaped and were shaped by the region.

Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the otherworldly landscape of the American West. In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” she wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons . . . how do you come / to be where there are no others, except / science fiction?”

Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.


A gift to stoke a fire: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi

Book cover for The World Keeps Ending, the World Goes On

A marked attentiveness to craftsmanship and the niceties of language enlivens the poems in Franny Choi’s urgent, stirring The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. A fearless shifter of form, Choi switches moods and modes to tackle such topics as social unrest, climate change and her Korean heritage. In “Toward Grace,” she laments the digital landscape: “Online, blondes chirp tips, spin fidgets, get follows. / Old story: unequal distribution of grace.” Formidable themes like the nature of tragedy and the human capacity for renewal lend a timelessness to her work.

Choi’s collection will awaken and inspire readers. “I want a storm I can dance in. / I want an excuse to change my life,” she writes, and her attitude is contagious.


A gift to transform darkness into light: Balladz by Sharon Olds

Book jacket image for Balladz by Sharon Olds

“Who says the forms of art require joy?” Sharon Olds asks in Balladz. While joy does feature prominently in these poems, Olds’ mood is one of unease and ire as she explores national upheaval, life during quarantine and the need for intimacy. As the collection’s title implies, the ballad is her favored form, a vessel for contemplating the past and celebrating everyday pleasures.

“Amherst Ballad 6” shows the precision of her poetic vision: “The Sill Imbued with Dust – Gave Up / A Maple Wing – of Brussels Lace.” In “Grandmother, with Parakeet,” elderly women have hair “fixed in / small breaking combers, battleship / curls like works of art.” Again and again, Olds surveys the world and, through the filter of her poems, renews it for the reader. Filled with sustaining moments of recognition, Balladz is revelatory.


For a fresh way to spread glad tidings this holiday season, we suggest a collection of poetry.
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Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes

★ Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes

To read Nicky Beer’s third collection, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, is to experience poetry as pageantry. In Beer’s hands, the poetic form is a staging place for spectacle, replete with provocative imagery and a brash cast of characters, including celebrities, magicians and eccentrics. “Drag Day at Dollywood” features “two dozen Dollys in matching bowling jackets, / Gutter Queens sprawled across their backs in lilac script.” Beneath their similar facades, the Dollys have distinct identities, which Beer hints at with expert economy. 

Across the collection, Beer teases out concepts of truth and self-perception. In “Dear Bruce Wayne,” the Joker—“a one-man parade / in a loud costume”—displays his genuine nature, while Batman keeps his virtuous essence under wraps: “don’t you crave, / sometimes, to be a little / tacky?” the narrator asks him. “Doesn’t the all-black / bore after a while?” Beer displays an impressive range, from full-bodied narrative poems to an innovative sequence called “The Stereoscopic Man.” Her formal shape-shifting and penchant for performance make this a magnetic collection.

Content Warning Everything

Content Warning: Everything

Content Warning: Everything, the first poetry collection from award-winning, bestselling novelist and memoirist Akwaeke Emezi, doesn’t feel like a debut. Emezi (The Death of Vivek Oji) shifts effortlessly into the mode of poet, exploring spirituality and loss in ways that feel fertile and new. 

Emezi favors flowing lines unfettered by punctuation, an approach that underscores the urgent, impassioned spirit of a poem like “Disclosure”: “when i first came out i called myself bi a queer tangle of free-form dreads my mother said i was sick and in a dark place.” A desire for release from the constraints of tradition and familial expectations animates many of the poems. As Emezi writes in “Sanctuary,” “the safest place in the world is a book / is a shifting land on top of a tree / so high up that a belt can’t reach.”

From searing inquisitions of the nature of guilt and sin to radical reimaginings of biblical figures, Emezi operates with the ease of a seasoned poet throughout this visionary book.

Time Is a Mother

Time Is a Mother

“I’m on the cliff of myself & these aren’t wings, they’re futures,” Ocean Vuong writes in his second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother. The line is one of the book’s several references to reaching an edge and then jumping or launching, with all the courage required by such an act and the possibilities that await. Born in Vietnam and brought up in the U.S., Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) writes with keen precision about laying claim to his own authentic life. Identity is a prominent theme in poems like “Not Even”: “I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox. / The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.”

In extended prose pieces and short works of free verse, Vuong remembers his late mother, chronicles the search for connection and reveals a gradual emergence into true selfhood—a sort of rebirth: “Then it came to me, my life. & I remembered my life / the way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree. / & I was free.”

Earthborn

★ Earthborn

Earthborn, the 14th book of poetry from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Dennis, is a rich exploration of our relationship to nature in a time of environmental instability. Dennis addresses global warming in “Winter Gift”: “Now it seems right to ask / If winter, though barely begun, is spent, / So hesitant it appears, so frail.” In “One Thing Is Needful,” he enjoins us to act: “it’s time to invest / In the myth of a long-lost Eden.”

Religion and mortality are recurring themes, as in “Questions for Lazarus”: “I know you may not be at liberty / To offer specifics,” Dennis writes, “but can you say something / In general about how dying has altered / Your view of life?” Dennis’ poems unfold at a relaxed pace, through long lines, considered and meditative, that accommodate a fullness of thought. As he examines both our lesser drives and finer desires as custodians of the planet, he holds out hope that we can be better humans, and the sentiment makes Earthborn a uniquely comforting volume. 

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head

In Somali British author Warsan Shire’s first full-length collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, she brings personal history to bear in poems that focus on the plight of refugees and the realities of being a woman in an oppressive, patriarchal society. “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,” she writes in “Bless This House.” “Sometimes, the men—they come with keys, / and sometimes, the men—they come with hammers.” 

Shire writes about female genital mutilation—a common practice in Somalia—in “The Abubakr Girls Are Different,” a poem that balances beauty and brutality: “After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids / with new legs.” The poem “Bless Grace Jones” casts the singer—“Monarch of the last word, / darling of the dark, arched brow”—as a symbol of strength, a figure to be emulated: “from you, we are learning / to put ourselves first.” Indelible imagery and notes of defiance make Shire’s book a triumphant reclamation of female identity.

National Poetry Month is a time for highlighting poetry as a platform for honoring everyday experiences and giving voice to our deepest, most vulnerable selves. For all readers who celebrate, we recommend the wide-ranging collections below, which offer poetic explorations of nature, identity and our need for connection.
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Some poets have the power to illuminate and articulate the most secluded parts of a reader’s heart and mind. In these new books, three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.

Such Color

Such Color: New and Selected Poems provides a welcome overview of the career of former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. The cumulative effects of history and identity are central to much of the work in this magisterial book. In poems such as “A Hunger So Honed,” Smith probes human motivation and the nature of desire: “perhaps we live best / In the spaces between loves, / That unconscious roving, / The heart its own rough animal.” 

Smith also explores Blackness as a communal experience, one that connects her with past generations and those to come. In “Photo of Sugarcane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891,” she sees herself in the figures captured on camera: “I would be standing there, too. / Standing, then made to leap up / into the air. Made to curl / and heave and cringe. . . .” These are poems of possibility, as Smith considers the past while looking for a way forward.

Goldenrod

Communication in all its varying modes is a recurring theme, from social media posts and handwritten notes to the unexpected autocorrections of text messages. “In the Grand Scheme of Things” explores the limits of language: “We say the naked eye / as if the eye could be clothed. . . . We say that’s not how / the world works as if the world works.” Throughout this wise, lucid collection, Smith captures the wonder and bewilderment that come with being human. She’s excellent company for readers in need of connection.

In Maggie Smith’s wonderfully companionable collection of poems, Goldenrod, she takes on timeless topics such as nature, history, family and memory. In “Ohio Cento,” she writes, “What we know of ourselves / gets compressed, layered. Remembering / is an anniversary; every minute a commemoration / of being.” 

Poet Warrior

In her beautifully executed memoir Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo recalls her upbringing as a member of the Muscogee tribe in Oklahoma and reflects upon her development as a writer. Harjo, who is serving her third term as U.S. Poet Laureate, grew up with an abusive stepfather and a creative, hardworking mother. She learned early on that literature could provide solace and escape, and she takes stock of her poetic influences in the book, counting Audre Lorde and N. Scott Momaday as key figures in her development.

Harjo mixes poetry and prose, history and memory, Native lore and family stories to create a collagelike account of her experiences. “As I near the last doorway of my present life, I am trying to understand the restless path on which I have traveled,” she writes. Fans of nonfiction and poetry alike will savor this sublime memoir.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.
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ID VIDEOS Quiet time music Does listening to Mozart really increase one’s IQ? After viewing Mozart Nature Symphonies, you will probably decide that it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is where this video takes you. With birds in flight and swirling schools of fish matching Mozart’s soaring notes and spinning melodies, rich and colorful footage of animals in their natural habitats eases viewers young and old into a wonderful calmness. If it increases the IQ, so much the better but if not, this tape is still a keeper.

Recommended for ages 0Ð2 Let’s make music Pre-schoolers adore Steve, his imaginary dog Blue and the rest of the Blue’s Clues fanciful cast. In Blue’s Big Musical Movie, real-person Steve awakens in an animated, boldly colored world where he and Blue are planning to produce a backyard musical. Steve, using the Blue’s Clues format of tracking down clues, shows his viewers as well as his imaginary friends how to organize such an event. What sets this piece apart from the rest is its fabulous lesson on writing music. The affable G Clef (Ray Charles) explains notes, harmony, rhythm and tempo to Steve, who jumps from one piano key to the next to demonstrate how the written music sounds. It’s a terrific introduction to music that bridges the abstract and the concrete.

Recommended for ages 5Ð8 Flying colors Mac, a 150-year-old talking parrot (voice by John Goodman), is The Real Macaw in this high-flying adventure that includes pirate treasure, the South Pacific, a villainous curator and a somewhat eccentric Grandpa played by Jason Robards. Mac is a brilliant bundle of color and one-liners that leads teenager Sam away from his home in Australia to recover a treasure chest of riches for Grandpa, whose debts threaten to force him from his home. The music, like the script, is hip, upbeat and funny. Fantasy melding with real-life family issues will also appeal to older teens, and a noble, culturally sensitive ending redeems Sam’s run-away behavior. Recommended for ages 8Ð12 VIDEO PICK OF THE MONTH Dreams of many colors This year, April is the month of Easter and the Jewish Passover, a perfect time to share an Old Testament story of forgiveness. The privileged youngest son of Jacob loses his famed coat of many colors but not his dreams in Joseph: King of Dreams and, in the end, forgives his brothers for their betrayal. Animation can sometimes exceed real-life acting because portrayals are not colored by our knowledge of the mortal actors, and such is the case in this animated musical masterpiece. Joseph (Ben Affleck) is convincing as a human who grows into a hero. Saturated colors, artistic rendering and an inspiring score do this timeless story justice. And Joseph’s Vincent van Gogh-like dreams may color the dreams of your teens at a time in their lives when they are just beginning to build them. Recommended for ages 12 and up Deborah Cool is the jury coordinator for the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media. The Coalition’s KIDS FIRST!¨ project evaluates and rates children’s videotapes, CD-ROMs, DVD, audio recordings and television programs, using a volunteer jury of child development professionals, teachers, parents and children of diverse geographic, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. KIDS FIRST!¨ (www.cpcm.org) publishes The New York Times/KIDS FIRST!¨ Guide to the Best Children’s Videos.

ID VIDEOS Quiet time music Does listening to Mozart really increase one’s IQ? After viewing Mozart Nature Symphonies, you will probably decide that it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is where this video takes you. With birds in flight and swirling schools of fish matching Mozart’s soaring notes and spinning melodies, rich and colorful […]
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How do I love thee? Of all the writing that I have pursued in my lifetime, there has been nothing more challenging and rewarding than my attempts to capture in words my love for my wife. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many poetic skills I employ, the results always seem to fall short of what I really want to say. I began years ago letting my heart speak to her in poems. They became my gifts to her on Valentine’s Days, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. At first she kept my little poems tucked away, taking them out from time to time to read aloud and enjoy all over again. Then one day she told me she felt selfish keeping them all to herself. She picked out a few of her favorites and sent them off to see if others cared. They did. Some of the poems began appearing in magazines and, now, in this book of Love Poems for you.

Charles Ghigna has written a number of highly successful poetry books for children, including Animal Trunk: Silly Poems to Read Aloud (Abrams). He lives in Alabama with his wife and their son.

How do I love thee? Of all the writing that I have pursued in my lifetime, there has been nothing more challenging and rewarding than my attempts to capture in words my love for my wife. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many poetic skills I employ, the results always seem to […]
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Getting to the heart of the matter: Sweet reads for Valentine’s Day Chocolate melts, flowers wither, but a book lasts forever in your Valentine’s heart. How can a book express your love? Let me count the ways! February brings a love-themed bounty. Wrap up The Random House Treasury of Favorite Love Poems, and you won’t need a card. Shakespeare, Yeats, Spenser, and Browning pretty much say it all. Categorized by themes like New Love, Lifetime Love, Enduring Love, and Passionate Love, this classic collection is the perfect size to pack into a picnic for two. Writers have compared love to everything from an eiderdown fluff to a universal migraine. Whether you consider relationships a headache or heaven, or you are single, sappy, or cynical, Oxford Love Quotations (Oxford University Press, $7.95, 0198602405) proves somebody has felt the same as you. Here you’ll find more than 2,000 quotes on everything from affairs to virtues, from chastity to seduction. From anonymous sources to famous lovers come lines that have been spoken, sung, or written in the name of love, lust, or loss. Some are fascinating for what they say and who said it, like Brigitte Bardot’s declaration, I leave before being left. I decide. Others leave you humming, like Cole Porter’s I’ve got you under my skin, I’ve got you deep in the heart of me. Perhaps best of all are the many insights from comedians and satirists, like Dorothy Parker, who quips, That woman speaks 18 languages, and can’t say no in any of them. Words of wisdom also abound in William Martin’s The Couple’s Tao Te Ching (Marlowe ∧ Company, $13.95, 1569246505). Basing his work on the ancient writings of Zen master Lao Tzu, Martin presents a spiritual collection of simple yet profound thoughts on loving. They are presented with lovely little brush paintings that stay true to the book’s authentic Asian origins. Martin says he hopes that readers will have an experience that will touch the heart each time they open the book. Your beloved’s life is precious, he writes. A natural wonder, a shining jewel. Don’t tamper with it. It does not need polishing, improving or correcting. Neither do you. Of course, some relationships could use a little polishing, improving, and correcting. An exotic method of relationship repair is found in T. Raphael Simons’s The Feng Shui of Love (Three Rivers Press, $21, 0609804626). Based on the ancient Chinese art of placement, this ethereal manual explains how rearranging your home can help you attract and hold love. The idea is that a comfortable, balanced living space presents the kind of harmony and peace that people want to be around. The design elements that work best for you personally, says Simons, depend on your Chinese astrological sign, your yin-yang style of relating, and your animal sign compatibility. Sound a little out there? The enjoyment and usefulness of The Feng Shui of Love definitely depends upon open-mindedness. But the book also has plenty of common sense suggestions for fixing difficult home designs and making the most of where you live. If consulting the stars in the search for eternal love isn’t lofty enough for you, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach suggests you look to a higher power. His Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments (Doubleday, $21.95, 0385496206) is full of the kind of pithiness and wit that made his book Kosher Sex such a bestseller. This time around, he references everything from Monty Python to Monica Lewinsky to drive home his point that romance is next to godliness. Take two tablets and find your soul mate, he says in his typical double-entendre humor. Boteach finds modern applicability not just in the words of the Ten Commandments, but in the way they are presented. For example, the first commandment starts, I am the Lord, your God. The rabbi’s take on it: Hell of an introduction, isn’t it? If only we could all be so cool and confident on a first date, he suggests, half the awkwardness of dating would be squelched.

Why do we bother anyway? For all the trouble relationships bring, why do we search for that special someone to call a Valentine? In her book Dating (Adams Media, $9.95, 1580621767), Josey Vogels says, Let’s face it, it’d be nice to have someone to feed the pigeons with when the eyesight starts to go. Vogels, a syndicated sex and relationship columnist in Canada, gathered the best anecdotes from her many straight, single, twenty- and thirty-something readers to write what she calls, a survival guide from the frontlines. The result is a funny and honest look at the world of boy-meets-girl, from Dates from Hell to The Science of Attraction. There are tidbits to help both men and women get through the whole soulmate interview process with minimal embarrassment. For instance, Vogels’s first-date conversation no-no’s include exes, bodily functions, and how much you hate your family. She also includes advice from relationship experts and matchmakers along with her own insightful viewpoint. Most importantly, Vogel admits that you can indeed be happily single. Then you can spend Valentine’s Day with the most low-pressure date of all: a good book.

Emily Abedon is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.

More to Love.

21 Ways to Attract Your Soulmate by Arian Sarris (Llewellyn, $9.95, 1567186114). Learn how to find a life partner that clicks with you instead of clanks.

The Mars Venus Affair: Astrology’s Sexiest Planets by Wendell and Linda Perry (Llewellyn, $17.95, 1567185177). A guide to finding that starry-eyed mate.

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joel Glenn Brenner (Broadway, paperback $14, 0767904575). Goes well with a heart-shaped box of the real thing.

Get Smart with Your Heart: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Love, Lust, and Lasting Relationships by Suzanne Lopez (Perigee, $13.95, 0399525793). For the gal who knows what she wants (well, sort of), but doesn’t know quite how to get it.

Agape Love: A Tradition Found in Eight World Religions by Sir John Templeton (Templeton Foundation Press, $12.95, 1890151297). Explore the principle of unconditional love.

Love and Romance: A Journal of Reflections by Tara Buckshorn, Glenn S. Klausner, and David H. Raisner (Andrews McMeel, $12.95, 0740700480). A journal, a keepsake, a place for all of your passionate scribblings about your love life.

Passionate Hearts: The Poetry of Sexual Love compiled and edited by Wendy Maltz (New World Library, $14, 1577311221). Essential bedside reading to be sure.

Getting to the heart of the matter: Sweet reads for Valentine’s Day Chocolate melts, flowers wither, but a book lasts forever in your Valentine’s heart. How can a book express your love? Let me count the ways! February brings a love-themed bounty. Wrap up The Random House Treasury of Favorite Love Poems, and you won’t […]
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James Kugel regards the Bible as sacred scripture; he does not particularly like to write about prayers, psalms, or prophetic speeches as poems. But when asked to prepare a selection of biblical poems for publication, Kugel a noted scholar and poet, author of the highly praised book The Bible as It Was, and former poetry editor of Harper’s magazine agreed to do so. The result is The Great Poems of the Bible. This exceptional volume gives us not only what the title promises, but much more.

In addition to his own translations and commentary on the poems, Kugel provides historical background and religious insights that introduce us to Judaism. He says that his goal throughout has been to try to concentrate on what might be called the spiritual reality addressed by different biblical texts. He also attempts to create in English the same impression that the biblical text would have made on the ears of its first audience. Those are difficult objectives to achieve, but the author succeeds admirably.

One of the fascinating subjects Kugel explores is the nature of the prophet. He points out that prophecy did not mean simply predicting the future, and writes, Nor is it a poetry of social protest, crafted to persuade listeners of the worthiness of this or that cause, although it addresses issues of social injustice and out-and-out politics. In the end, the prophet is someone who has been called, summoned, to carry a message from God. He also notes, It is striking that, after a certain point in Israeli history, prophecy seems to have become a steady, reliable presence; the Ôprophet in your midst’ was someone whom you could count on to be there, like any other public figure. There are wonderfully readable discussions of the character of God and of biblical wisdom. Kugel writes, though different parts of the Bible were written down in different periods and social settings and political circumstances, the idea that God is fundamentally good, that He cares for humanity and upholds what is right, seems everywhere to be maintained. But doesn’t that go without saying? Perhaps not . . . Would it not have been more reasonable for Israel’s prophets and sages to conclude that God is quite inscrutable? Kugel’s discussion of the 23rd Psalm, which includes both the King James version and his own translation, is beautifully done. The author points out that the psalm is almost unique in that it neither offers thanksgiving nor celebrates God’s grandeur. It is just about ordinary daily life, a psalm about you and me. This book deserves a wide readership, especially among those interested in religion, monotheism, Judaism, and literature.

James Kugel regards the Bible as sacred scripture; he does not particularly like to write about prayers, psalms, or prophetic speeches as poems. But when asked to prepare a selection of biblical poems for publication, Kugel a noted scholar and poet, author of the highly praised book The Bible as It Was, and former poetry […]
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This year marks the sixth anniversary of National Poetry Month, a four-week literary celebration sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. With readings, book fairs and festivals nationwide, the month provides a variety of ways to celebrate this classic genre of literature. If you prefer to markthe occasion by reading selections from some of the best contemporary poets, several exciting new volumes offer a wide range of choices.

Those who have read Julianna Baggott's wisecracking, quirky debut novel Girl Talk may be surprised to learn that Baggott is also a poet. Though more melancholy than Baggott's darkly comic fiction, the poems in her first collection This Country of Mothers wrestle with the same themes and ideas as Girl Talk. Like the novel, the collection is narrated by a young American Everywoman, navigating her way through a generic and often cruel landscape. As one might expect from an author who spent years writing fiction before turning to poetry, these are narrative poems, all of which deal with the same set of lively characters: the narrator; her tidy mother (who, in one poem, becomes the matriarch of a brood of bears); her one-legged maternal grandfather (whose hairless and pink prosthetic leg terrorizes the narrator); and her small daughter (on the verge of sight, just discovering a sense of herself in the world).

The narrator strives to reconcile her growing spirituality with her intense skepticism, "to figure out how to live in this sooty Eden, in which [l]ove makes us capable of the ugliest sins," through her interactions with these characters. Written in a kind of lyrical vernacular with line breaks that imitate natural speech patterns, these compelling, breathless poems read almost like a novel or a set of linked stories, as the narrator engages with the literal and metaphysical worlds. In "Correcting Memory," an early poem, she petulantly insists, "I don't want to know." By the end she coolly asks, "What could lie beyond these gates?"

Like Baggott, Thomas Lux inspects the grotesqueries of everyday American life and situates his poems in a kind of blank American panorama. "[T]he aesthetics/of landscape/less important than the fear for our lives," says the narrator of "So We Can See the Snakes Coming," describing his approach to lawn care and, in a way, encapsulating Lux's own approach to the physical world. Although many of the poems in The Street of Clocks, Lux's eighth collection, engage with natural or domestic environments, they do so only in order to get at the gristly stuff underneath. Death or the fear for our lives is ever-present and regarded with a sly mixture of adult apprehension and childish glee. "In the Bedroom Above the Embalming Room," for example, chronicles a child's discovery that his neighbor, the local undertaker, lives a humdrum life despite his profession thus, death is revealed as banal, part of daily existence.

Lux revels in language, and the compressed poems in The Street of Clocks are rich with puns, internal rhyme, repetition and onomatopoeia all of which lend a fluidity to his clipped lines and often formal diction. This is verse that transforms the world around us into a vista both menacing and comic.

Two vividly imagined dramas comprise Brutal Imagination, Cornelius Eady's aptly titled sixth collection. The first section is a series of poems based on the Susan Smith murder case, in which Smith murdered her two small sons, then claimed that a black man had kidnapped them. Eady, for the most part, writes in the voice of the imaginary kidnapper, using the details of the case to investigate the way the black man lives in the white imagination. "Susan Smith willed me alive/At the moment/Her babies sank into the lake/When called, I come," he explains in "How I Got Born," the collection's opening poem. In "Press Conference" and "Sympathy"–poems that detail Smith's confession–he constructs the imaginary kidnapper and Smith as one being, intrinsically tied: "How do we feel?" he asks, answering, "we're hard to untangle." Thus, Eady lays bare our most pernicious cultural myths and biases; the idea of the black man as criminal is nothing without the white woman's projection of this idea onto him. The cycle's final poem, "Birthing," describes the difficulty of breaking free from such stereotypes. "I am not me, yet," says Eady's protagonist, "I am just an understanding."

Poems that Eady adapted into a Pulitzer-nominated libretto for composer Deidre Murray comprise the second section, The Running Man Poems. These form a loose narrative about the death of a character called "Running Man." The poems narrated by Running Man's mother, father, sisters and Running Man himself (as a ghost) mainly consist of the family members' reactions to his death, as well as Running Man's own poignant commentary on his life. Where I come from, he declares in the section's titular poem, A smart black boy/Is like being a cat with a duck's bill. One can't help but think while reading Brutal Imagination that Eady's spare, intelligent verse will make such statements obsolete.

This year marks the sixth anniversary of National Poetry Month, a four-week literary celebration sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. With readings, book fairs and festivals nationwide, the month provides a variety of ways to celebrate this classic genre of literature. If you prefer to markthe occasion by reading selections from some of the […]

Readers in search of the best new writing in America need not search far. Trustworthy editors have scrutinized a year's worth of publications in nearly every field to cull the finest short stories, sports writing, mystery stories, essays, travel writing and poetry for new anthologies. Each collection may be enjoyed as a satisfying end in itself or as a convenient introduction to new or unfamiliar writers.

Grand Master Donald E. Westlake has assembled a fine collection in The Best American Mystery Stories 2000. Offerings range from Shel Silverstein's nimble "The Guilty Party" to Robert Girardi's gritty shocker "The Defenestration of Aba Sid." As in the other categories of Houghton Mifflin's Best American Writing Series, the editors provide a kind of runner-up list of distinguished stories (with sources) for interested readers to track down.

The Best American Essays 2000, edited by Alan Lightman, is another diverse grouping, characterized by struggles with "truth, memory, and experience. Writers range from notable newcomers like Cheryl Strayed, a graduate student at Syracause University, to Wendell Berry and Cynthia Ozick.

For compelling short fiction, turn to The Best American Short Stories 2000. Edited by E.L. Doctorow, it offers the finest short stories chosen from American and Canadian magazines. New works by Annie Proulx, Walter Mosley and Raymond Carver are balanced by relative unknowns like Nathan Englander, whose authority and imagination make "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" a real heartbreaker.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000 is the first in what promises to be a remarkable series. Oliver Sacks, Wendell Berry (again) and Peter Matthiessen are some of the acclaimed writers represented. Paul DePalma's kvetchy "http://www.when_is_enough_ enough?.com" is a delightfully depressing plea to examine the Faustian bargain we strike with our own personal computers.

Another new addition to the Best American Series is The Best American Travel Writing 2000, edited by Bill Bryson. Readers are in safe hands with a guy whose last three travel books have been blockbuster bestsellers. Bryson's hand-picked 25 stories are predictable only by being unpredictable and engrossing. Take "The Toughest Trucker in the World" by Tom Clynes, about a man whose daily grind involves 18-foot alligators, leeches and some of Australia's harshest terrain. Or "Lard is Good for You" by Alden Jones, a coffee-starved gringa trying to go native in a small Costa Rican village.

The Best American Sports Writing 2000 has been delivering dramatic, thought-provoking pieces to fans for 10 years. Particularly interesting are the stories about lesser-known sports like machine gunning, curling, poker and cockfighting. The definition of "sport may be open to discussion, but the quality of writing is not.

In Best New American Voices 2000, an eclectic group of short stories has been sifted from the fertile ground of the most prestigious writing programs in the United States and Canada. It is the inaugural effort of a new series and ideal for lovers of cutting-edge fiction. No celebrated authors here, just those who promise to be groundbreakers.

Finally, in The Best American Poetry 2000, Rita Dove has distilled the finest work of her colleagues. Good poems are already distilliations of the complex chemistry of thought and feeling, so this book more than any other in the bunch gives us "the voice that is great within us. From the unnerving confessions of A.R. Ammons's "Shot Glass," to the radical refashioning of faith in Mark Jarman's "Epistle," to the sustained aria of discovery in Mary Oliver's "Work," this is the innermost country of America, and it is our country at its best.

Joanna Brichetto is on BookPage's list of best reviewers.

Readers in search of the best new writing in America need not search far. Trustworthy editors have scrutinized a year's worth of publications in nearly every field to cull the finest short stories, sports writing, mystery stories, essays, travel writing and poetry for new anthologies. Each collection may be enjoyed as a satisfying end in […]
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One of the major literary events of the year is the publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, an extraordinary portrait of his marriage to poet Sylvia Plath through 88 chronologically arranged poems to her. Hughes, since 1987 Great Britain's Poet Laureate, was married to Plath from 1956 until she committed suicide in 1963. The Bell Jar, as well as the posthumous publication of Ariel, brought her work worldwide recognition and acclaim. Hughes's reluctance to publically address Plath's death and his realtionship with her has been viewed by some as reprehensible. Their marrige has for years been the subject of intense scrutiny and has contributed in part to the mythology surrounding Plath.

Now, with Birthday Letters, the world is finally hearing Hughes's response. His tender, despairing poems make his grief evident and show a couple deeply committed to their work. "And we/Only did what poetry told us to do." But Plath was often troubled. "You were like a religious fanatic/Without a god unable to pray./You wanted to be a writer./Wanted to write?/What was it within you/Had to have its tale? . . . You bowed at your desk and you wept/Over the story that refused to exist."

Hughes acknowledges that Plath's troubles began before their life together, but does partially accept responsibility. He shows his failure to understand. "At that time/I had not understood/How the death hurtling to and fro/Inside your head, had to alight somewhere/And again somewhere, and had to be kept moving,/And had to be rested/Temporarily somewhere." In images tender and frightening, sometimes searing and powerful, we gain a sense of two creative people caught up in something they could not control. "You were a jailer of your murderer /Which imprisoned you./And since I was your nurse and protector/Your sentence was mine too."

This is only one side of the story. The reader may or may not accept it as the truth. As poetry, however, and as at least a partial truth, it succeeds magnificently.

Diane Ackerman is one of our finest writers about nature and the senses, the author of the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, as well as A Natural History of Love, and The Rarest of the Rare, about endangered animals. She is also a prize-winning poet. Her long-awaited new collection, I Praise My Destroyer, has just been published. She explores nature and science with awe and praise but is always aware of the human dimension. In the title poem she writes: "Our cavernous brains/won't save us in the end,/though, heaven knows, they enhance the drama," and "it was grace to live/among the fruits of summer, to love by design,/and walk the startling Earth/for what seemed/an endless resurrection of days." In "We Die," her poem for Carl Sagan, and "Elegy," for John Condry, she speaks of the pain of loss, the reality of mortality. But she conveys joy and sensuousness in such poems as "The Consolation of Apricots." These poems are rich and intense.

In her acceptance speech upon receiving the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said: "Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating, 'I don't know.' Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying . . ." Szymborska's work always questions searching for a different way to perceive things, another way to understand better what our lives are all about. She does this with an economy of language that is at once intelligent, philosophical, witty, yet always in touch with the real world. A major publishing event this month is her Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. This volume contains virtually all of her poetry to date, including all 100 poems from her popular collection A View with a Grain of Sand. An additional feature is the text of her Nobel lecture.

Szymborska reminds us: "After every war/someone has to tidy up./Things won't pick/themselves up, after all." And that "Reality demands/that we also mention this:/Life goes on./It continues at Cannae and Borodino,/at Kosovo Polje and Guernica." She notes: "We're extremely fortunate/not to know precisely/the kind of world we live in." In "The Century's Decline," she writes: "'How should we live?' someone asked me in a letter./I had meant to ask him/the same question./Again, and as ever,/as may be seen above,/the most pressing questions/are naive ones."

Three years ago poet Jane Kenyon died after a 15-month struggle with leukemia. Her husband, Donald Hall, himself the author of 13 volumes of verse, offers very personal poetry about her life and death, and life for him after her death, in Without. After reading these poems we feel that we know these people and have shared a range of experiences with them. Although this collection conveys sadness and agony and loss, there exists also courage and strength in these poems.

One of the major literary events of the year is the publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, an extraordinary portrait of his marriage to poet Sylvia Plath through 88 chronologically arranged poems to her. Hughes, since 1987 Great Britain's Poet Laureate, was married to Plath from 1956 until she committed suicide in 1963. The Bell […]
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The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” With the theme of lost love in mind, Robert Pinsky, the 39th U.

S. Poet Laureate, has collected 101 poems in The Handbook of Heartbreak . The slim volume includes works by a diverse range of poets from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath to Emily Dickinson. All the poems beautifully depict the exquisite misery heartbreak brings. Pinsky chose each poem specifically because “. . . it sounded lonely to me.” The fascination with love-lorn lamentations are well-represented here.

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” With the theme of lost love in mind, Robert Pinsky, the 39th U. S. Poet Laureate, has collected 101 poems in The Handbook of Heartbreak . The slim volume includes works by a diverse […]

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Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward. 

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