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All Poetry Coverage

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.

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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.

James Tate’s The Government Lake, published posthumously, has a rigorously soothing effect. These poems deal with the odd, othered and imagined, with fresh precision. Don’t let the prose-looking pages fool you. Just when you’ve found your footing, Tate melts a clock and drips it over all the edges as only a poem or surrealist masterpiece can do. The poet offers a master class in enticing first and last statements, as poem bodies full of wit and manic ubertalk are enveloped in openings and closings like: “Oliver sat in his chair like milk in a bottle. . . . That’s not the sky, that’s just a bunny I once knew.” Let these humorous and reflective prose poems breathe and invoke their full topsy-turvy splendor.

James Tate’s The Government Lake, published posthumously, has a rigorously soothing effect. These poems deal with the odd, othered and imagined, with fresh precision.

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