5 titles for National Poetry Month.

April 1, 2024

Spring comes for poetry: 5 titles for National Poetry Month

April’s sweet showers bring exceptional new poetry from Diane Seuss, Hala Alyan, Victoria Chang, Michael Ondaatje and Diana Khoi Nguyen.

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For a collection titled Modern Poetry, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Diane Seuss spends a fair amount of time communing with the past.

In the title poem, named after a textbook she studied in college, she reminisces about how she and her roommate referred to William Carlos Williams as “Billy C. Billygoat,” and how she managed to fake her way to an A on a paper about Wallace Stevens despite “having no clue / what he meant by ‘The deer and the dachshund are one.’” That fake-it-till-you-make-it approach has apparently served her well, because she has not only become a highly regarded poet, but also gone on to a two-decade-plus career teaching poetry to other young people with impostor syndrome.

While the spirit of the avowedly modern ‘60s poet Frank O’Hara hovered over her last collection, 2021’s frank: sonnets, which won her the Pulitzer, her guiding star for this outing is a poet who is decidedly not modern: John Keats. In fact, the final poem of the volume, “Romantic Poet,” is at once an homage to Keats and a comment on the contemporary tension between loving an artist’s work and having mixed feelings—or outright disdain—for the artist. After being told the many reasons she would not have liked the unnamed “him” at the poem’s outset, she rejoins with a simple “But the nightingale, I said.”

Ah, the nightingale, the bird that sings. Seuss’ song is not the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme that was pounded into our middle school heads. It’s more subtle, and evinces itself when read out loud. “Rhyme,” Seuss said at 2023’s Great Lakes Poetry Festival, “can just do a thing that nothing else can do; it appeals to our bodies, not our minds.”

In “Romantic Poetry,” Seuss writes, “I was twenty three when I sold off / Modern Poetry and sailed to Italy, seeking / Romantic poetry . . . and found my way to Rome, / and Keats’s death room. / His deathbed, a facsimile.” Feel it, in your body, as you read it? Twenty three, Italy, poetry, facsimile. It’s all there for the taking. To co-opt the famed slogan from the unsung McCann-Erickson ad agency poet who created it for milk, “Modern Poetry: it does a body good.”

In Modern Poetry, Diane Seuss reminisces on faking it through poetry classes in college and on the complicated legacy of John Keats.

Each of the poems in Victoria Chang’s latest collection responds to a painting with the same title by abstract artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). If you aren’t familiar with Martin’s work, or typically feel unmoved by minimalist paintings, this conceit could seem like a barrier. But turn to the first poem in With My Back to the World and the magnetism of Chang’s language will convince you of the power of her project. “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world,” Chang writes, “The best thing about emptiness is if you close your / eyes in a field, you’ll open your eyes in a field.” Should you be suddenly filled with a desire to see that emptiness swarm on a canvas, you can find the titular painting online.

Many of the poems directly reference their painting’s shape, color and structure. Martin was known for painting grids, and Chang’s accompanying illustrations evoke this: scraps of poem arranged in a grid, or obscured by ink drawings. To organize a book of poems so tightly around a concept and a form isn’t new for Chang. In her 2020 National Book Award-longlisted Obit, written after the death of her mother, each poem took the form of an obituary. Chang’s father has since passed as well, and the middle section of With My Back to the World is a guttingly specific grief sequence.

As the collection unfolds, Chang lets us in on the intense relationship an artist can form with another through their work. Some poems deliberate on Martin’s dictates about solitude, while simultaneously longing for attention, connection and an audience. Other poems describe the risk of violence that comes with being visible for women, especially Asian women. “On a Clear Day, 1973” responds to the 2021 murder of eight people, six of them Asian American women, by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta.

Like Martin, Chang etches meaning into her chosen structure down to the smallest detail. Again and again, there’s the moment of recognition that readers come to poetry for: Here is a feeling you know well, but have never been able to witness outside of yourself. Isn’t it liberating to put these words to it? Don’t you feel less alone in your loneliness?

From the first poem in With My Back to the World, the magnetism of Victoria Chang’s language will draw you in: “I learned that . . . emptiness still swarms without the / world.”
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Forgiveness, memory, loss and the vicissitudes of love are among the recurring themes of A Year of Last Things, Michael Ondaatje’s exceptional new collection of poetry. More than a decade has passed since Ondaatje, who shared the 1992 Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, published a book of poems. The return is welcome, as he demonstrates yet again that he is a master of the genre.

Most of the poems that appear here are in free verse, with a few others written wholly or in part as prose poems. Each piece displays not only Ondaatje’s gift for the lyrical phrase but also his peripatetic nature, as the collection travels across various countries, most notably Italy, England and his native Sri Lanka. The book is divided into several sections, with the first centering on forgiveness and memory. It’s difficult to single out highlights when every poem is so accomplished, but particularly moving is “5 A.M.,” a tender piece on the restorative beauty of memories and the way they return unexpectedly, “like a gift / from forgetfulness, / as a desire can wake you.”

Later sections include ruminations on unfulfilled lives, such as “The Then,” in which Ondaatje writes of being struck by the urge “to erase this life, and desire what I might have known / in photographs of you before we met.” There is also a group of erudite love poems, including the witty “Leg Glance,” in which he employs a cricket metaphor referring to “not bothering to move / from the path of the dangerous ball,” to parallel one’s behavior in the midst of a love affair.

Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, with references to painters, novelists, playwrights, jazz musicians and even W.G. Sebald’s technique of incorporating photographs into the text, A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes.


Set in museums and piazzas across several continents, Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection A Year of Last Things brilliantly explores its themes, reminding us that he is a master of the genre.
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In Root Fractures, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s second collection of poems, the speaker is haunted by echoes of the past that reverberate into the present, and by generational, individual and collective traumas. In deft and surprising ways, the forms of the poems interact with their content, both shaping and breaking it.

The poems center on the speaker’s interrogation of her memory, which is inherently tied to a pattern of displacement and disappearance in her family history, through her parents’ emigration from Vietnam, Vietnam’s reform movement (Dổi Mới) and her childhood in California. Root Fractures begins in Vietnamese, and, as a non-speaker or reader of the language, I found myself drawn in, curious to see what I would discover even in moments where I was not the intended audience. The poems are deeply affecting. There’s a balance between fragmentation—both at the level of individual lines and of whole poems—and accumulative moments where the fragments coalesce. Some poems are layered over photographs, some are cut and rearranged, recalling how the speaker’s brother cut himself out of family photographs before eventually taking his own life. The spaces left on the page provide pauses that make the words sing in new ways, while the repeated formal motifs create patterns for reading and meaning-making that mirror the speaker’s experience of a desire for wholeness and understanding that can’t be fully realized.

These are poems worth returning to; each reading brings discoveries of new pathways of tension and connection.

The poems of Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Root Fractures center on the speaker's interrogation of her memory, which is inherently tied to a pattern of displacement and disappearance in her family history.

In her latest spellbinding collection of poems, The Moon That Turns You Back, Hala Alyan renders rich, intricate landscapes of heritage and place that arise from her own experiences. A Palestinian American novelist, poet and clinical psychologist, Alyan is familiar with diaspora and displacement. Born in America, she moved to Kuwait with her Palestinian father and Syrian mother, then returned to the American Midwest after the Iraqi invasion in 1990. She completed some of her education in the U.S. and some in the Middle East.

These poems reflect not only the countries that make up Alyan’s identity and history, but also the range of cultural ideals and differences that exist within that history, exploring the perspectives of family members such as her maternal grandmother and her mother. Alyan’s poetry draws the reader in through form, including interactive poems styled in a choose-your-own-adventure format.

Alyan tackles complex, even disturbing, topics. She writes of everyday objects using striking, vivid descriptions: “underwear the color of the summer, of the ocean, of the dead.” “In Jerusalem” employs the recurring image of a woman’s hair. It’s sensual, feminine and powerful, but it can also render the speaker vulnerable: “In Jerusalem a man blocked the door of a hostel // to tell me to unpin my hair. I did, / but then kept the story from anyone for years.”

While her succinct and candid language, arresting imagery and bold approach to form are effectively disquieting, there is also a very organic sense of hope and renewal in these poems, even in the darkest hour. There’s a hint of this in the titular line from, “Interactive Fiction :: Werewolf,” where Alyan writes: “In the / darkest dark, I wait for / the / moon // that turns you back.”

The Moon That Turns You Back is a bountiful collection of poetry, especially for those interested in diaspora and the complexity of multinationalism.

Hala Alyan’s The Moon That Turns You Back is a bountiful collection of poetry, especially for those interested in diaspora and the complexity of multinationalism.

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