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.