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All Coverage

All Poetry Coverage

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.

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.

Has there ever been a more germane time to read Audre Lorde? This trailblazing Black writer, a lesbian and the daughter of immigrants, stood unflinchingly at the vanguard of the many interlocking fights for social justice during her lifetime. More than 25 years after her too-early death, many of the issues Lorde advocated for and articulated in her work are once again capturing national attention and demanding action. The ever-thoughtful, often brilliant Lorde hasn’t always received the notice she deserves. Ideally, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited by one of her artistic progenies, the author Roxane Gay, will right that wrong.

For Gay, and no doubt for many others, Lorde was “a beacon, a guiding light. And she was far more than that because her prose and poetry astonished me,” Gay writes in her introduction. The works collected here are equally divided between prose and poetry, providing an excellent entry point into Lorde’s wide-ranging yet particular concerns and capturing her singular literary voice, aptly described by Gay as “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible.” The poems explore womanhood, motherhood and race, as well as love in its many manifestations. Her poetic style alternates between frank directness and elliptical inquiry. 

Lorde never shied away from unpopular truths, and her essays, often written as public addresses, take on not only the patriarchy but also the feminist movement, which shunted aside (or blatantly ignored) the different realities of women of color. Feminism’s failure to recognize nonwhite, non-heterosexual experiences not only harmed marginalized women but also undermined the movement as a whole, as Lorde made clear in her writings.

Racism was an inescapable companion for Lorde, and her fierce reactions to it—weariness, rage, sometimes astonishment but never acceptance—remain timely. This passage, from a 1981 piece on women’s response to racism, could easily have been written in 2020: “I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

Perhaps the world is catching up with Audre Lorde at last.

Has there ever been a more germane time to read Audre Lorde? This trailblazing Black writer, a lesbian and the daughter of immigrants, stood unflinchingly at the vanguard of the many interlocking fights for social justice during her lifetime. More than 25 years after her too-early death, many of the issues Lorde advocated for and […]

One of America’s most perceptive contemporary poets digs deep into the work of Walt Whitman in search of personal—and communal—signposts.


The poet and memoirist Mark Doty (My Alexandria, Dog Years) has lived intimately and intensely with Walt Whitman’s poetry for decades. As a reader, a teacher, a poet and a gay man, Doty has sought answers in the great American poet’s life and work, and through a lifetime’s deep dive into the muscular and elusive lines of Leaves of Grass, he has continually rediscovered and refined his own connection to Whitman. 

In What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, an elegant blend of literary criticism and personal memoir, Doty positions this essential American poet in the larger framework of our national literature while chronicling his own deeply personal relationship to the writer who gave birth to new ways of looking at poetry and the world.

Doty draws our attention to Whitman’s great innovations: the invention of American free verse, the transformation of the colloquial into poetic discourse and his unabashed “open inscriptions of same-sex love.” Yet Doty, from his 21st-century vantage point, isn’t content with merely enshrining those daring advances. For him, Whitman is a living voice that reaches across time, “stepping into a readerly present with a directness and immediacy that have never lost their power to startle.” So, as Whitman’s words accompany Doty into intimate moments in his own life—often physical and spiritual encounters with lovers—they come to embody the great human embrace that the 19th-century poet propounded. Doty, of course, can be far more candid with details than his beloved forebear could have ever dared be. He notes that it was Whitman’s depictions of women’s sexuality that often got the poet in trouble in his own time, the meaning of his vibrant homoerotic imagery mostly lost on a society where same-sex relationships were not able to be openly acknowledged.

Doty calls Whitman “the quintessential poet of affirmation, celebrant of human vitality.” What Is the Grass repeatedly confirms that appraisal as Doty seeks the intersection of the spiritual and the corporeal. The details of Whitman’s sexual life remain veiled, and scholars have been reading between the lines for years to parse the truth. Doty is no exception, as he convincingly draws out the elusive meanings suggested by the monumental text. He reminds us that we can never know the whole truth about the dead (or really, about the living) but that “Walt Whitman is language now. . . . His body of work is his only body now, gorgeous, revelatory, daring, contradictory, both radically honest and carefully veiled. Its meaning resides in us,” Doty insists, “in the ways we readers use these poems as signposts, maps, temporary inhabitations—even, sometimes, dwelling places.”

One of America’s most perceptive contemporary poets digs deep into the work of Walt Whitman in search of personal—and communal—signposts. The poet and memoirist Mark Doty (My Alexandria, Dog Years) has lived intimately and intensely with Walt Whitman’s poetry for decades. As a reader, a teacher, a poet and a gay man, Doty has sought […]

“Take this moan as a historical rendering, / my downward-facing sigh,” Malcolm Tariq commands in the middle of Heed the Hollow, his debut poetry collection. But by this point in Tariq’s book, the reader has already been convinced to do so by his euphonious diction and seamless entwinement of the “black bottom,” a term he continually defines and interprets.

As Tariq makes clear, African American history is also an American, gay and human history. This collection explores an individual’s present as well as a broader history, repeating various gerund phrases, like “listening and listening and listening,” to eliminate the false dichotomy of past and present. The black bottom is not only a noun but also a verb; like gerunds, one can be a black bottom and do the action of black bottom, a continuous concept and action of submission and identity.

Heed the Hollow interrogates the linguistics of being, the verb and noun of what it means to be human, as well as to be history, to be present and sexualized and loved, to be full and hollow. Tariq is asking, gorgeously, a question, and allows anyone to answer.

 

Prince Bush is a poet based in Nashville, Tennessee. Read a selection of his poetry here.

“Take this moan as a historical rendering, / my downward-facing sigh,” Malcolm Tariq commands in the middle of Heed the Hollow, his debut poetry collection. But by this point in Tariq’s book, the reader has already been convinced to do so by his euphonious diction and seamless entwinement of the “black bottom,” a term he […]

Jana Prikryl’s No Matter introduces us to a body of poems posing as an evolving or dissolving cityscape. Many of the titles in this collection repeat themselves. The multiple “Anonymous,” “Waves,” “Sibyl,” “Friend” and “Stoic” poems operate as a city block with identical building facades. Of course the inner workings are completely different, but each stokes the question: Have we been here before? Themes of cyclical development and destruction lie parallel to agape and eros love. The personal and public intertwine in a beautiful blur. Prikryl creates a subway experience where “it’s / the one place no one has to talk / and nobody feels guilty for / their place.” These sharp poems invite consideration about how our modern society makes us “a person dragged away from personhood.” And it’s all an utter delight.

Jana Prikryl’s No Matter introduces us to a body of poems posing as an evolving or dissolving cityscape.

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