We live in a country that loves poetry. Today, 44 states have acting poet laureates, and April is acknowledged as a time for recognizing the beauty and power of verse. We’ve rounded up a quartet of terrific new poetry collections—the perfect picks for National Poetry Month.
An electrifying group of impassioned poems, Not Here is the sophomore offering from up-and-coming poet Hieu Minh Nguyen. Writing from the first-person perspective, Nguyen reflects upon his cross-cultural, Vietnamese-American roots and explores the nature of sexual identity.
Intergenerational friction is the subject of “Nguyễn,” a provocative look at the burden of family expectations, in which the narrator’s homosexuality is an affront to his traditionally minded mother—an offense “soiling the lace- / white landscape of her desires.” In an arresting tableau of forbidden affection, the speaker and a male companion are “two flies / drowning in a dish of honey.” The narrator of “Punish,” a poem about forgetting and forgiving, grapples with a painful scene from his boyhood: “I’m trying to understand that memory / is not a technology, a full charge / will get you nowhere, if you’re stuck / tracing the perimeters of your dull nostalgia.”
In this accomplished collection, Nguyen practices an abundance of poetic approaches and modes. For the reader, the richness of expression is intoxicating.
A DIALOGUE WITH HISTORY
“History is in a hurry,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes in her majestic new book, Wade in the Water. In this intimate yet epic collection, Smith aims to counteract that rush. Incorporating 19th-century correspondence and other documents (including the Declaration of Independence), Smith sets up a dialogue between history and the present that allows readers to muse on the passage of time. In composing the long piece “I WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS, I WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT,” Smith condenses and assembles statements from African-Americans who served in the Civil War. Says one veteran, “I always signed my name while in the army / by making my mark / I know my name by sound—”
It’s a pleasure when Smith narrows her scope for more personal works, like the lovely poem “4½,” a snapshot of life with a demanding young daughter: “Just the tussle of her will against mine, / That scrape and crack. Horn on rock. Rope / Relenting one fiber at a time.” Overall, this is a formally varied, masterful collection from the nation’s poet laureate.
A VISIONARY COLLECTION
In her ninth book of poetry, Blue Rose, former California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes probes both the personal and political realms to produce visionary works that plumb the limits of language. Her pieces often feature tightly packed stanzas alive with assonance and unexpected enjambments. In the taut title poem, she portrays childbirth as a metamorphic process, from which the newborn emerges looking “danger blue, yet to me her color was like / something never imagined: if-flower of myth, / blossoming on the isle of the color-blind.”
Tracing humanity’s preponderance for vengeance back to the fall, “Creation Myth” features a God who’s confused by what he has wrought: “Should he have / allowed Satan to arm Adam & Eve at the outset? / Should he have accepted the wager: that in no time / they’d zero in on each other—shooting like snipers / from the Tree of Knowledge?” This wide-ranging book includes a powerful triptych about gun control and tributes to Simone Weil, Adrienne Rich and Mark Twain. Muske-Dukes’ facility and breadth of vision make Blue Rose a standout volume.
Spare, plain-spoken poems marked by unobtrusive beauty comprise Night School, the 13th collection from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Dennis. A writer who’s attuned to nature—images of lakes, woods and snow-covered trails recur in the collection—Dennis looks deeply at the world and encourages readers to practice “the task of witnessing.”
In works that express empathy for the human condition, the poet seems to be wrestling with himself—who he is now and who he should be—while speculating about the experiences of others. In “Blind Guest,” the narrator thinks about loaning his eyes to a sightless man: “For an hour or two, I can try to dwell / On the good it might do him to escape / The pervading dark.” A poem called “A Letter” comes as no surprise, as Dennis seems the sort of meditative correspondent who’d treasure the traditions of snail mail: “To fold the pages twice and insert them / Into an envelope seems to make them / More of a gift.” In an era of sensory overload, Dennis’ closely observed, perceptive collection is itself a gift.
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.