Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in November.
Rosarium by Hannah Dow
“Mother, Father, I am trying to make my way / to you, but I have found no laws proving / the logic of a body that journeys without wings.” Dow’s graceful, pensive debut brings to mind the work of Allison Seay—both poets search the ambiguity of faith for a route forward. A series of poems with “postcard” in the titles allows Dow to create crisp epistles, as in “Postcard from Gethsemane”: “We want grief to be quiet, / something we can hold / all the way up and down / the mountain without letting / on.” Or “Postcard from York, Maine”: “Home is no protection from even / the smallest storms— / the boarding up of windows, / slight tearing of the sail.” Gardens (biblical, literal) abound in Rosarium—think garden of roses; think the litany of a rosary, the beads a string of bubbles leading us (like poetic lines) to contemplation. Yet perhaps even more powerful a feeling in Dow’s collection is the sting of grief—what a fantastically sharp emotion to see authentically shaped in this age—and the worry that faith is an imperfect machine. “In early depictions, Jesus carries his cross / like it’s made of feathers, without breaking / a sweat” begins “Postcard from the Kunsthistoriches, Vienna.” Only in the Middle Ages, the narrator explains, “did artists think to emphasize / his burden.” That attempt to imbue devotion in her heart is imperfect. She does not feel “in the hostile crowd.” Instead—and this is Dow’s spiritual skill in the book—“I only feel that I’ve swallowed something / small and alive—a bird whose wings / keep gravity from drawing me to my knees.”
Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)
This book is steeped in longing, as in “Wake Up”: “Wake up, my soul. / I don’t know where you are, / where you’re hiding, / but wake up, please, / we’re still together, / the road is still before us, / a bright strip of dawn / will be our star.” Ever since Zagajewski’s incomparable “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” I’ve gone to him for something near solace. He has said “poetry as literature, as language, discovers within the world a layer that has existed unobserved in reality, and by doing so changes something in our life, expands somewhat the space of what we are.” His is less a vision of poet as prophet than poet as patient observer. Poets, he writes early in Asymmetry, “understand nothing. / They listen to the whispers of broad, lowland rivers.” They “stroll along dirt roads.” Poets “bid the dead farewell, their lips move.” By placing poets as observers rather than oracles, he somehow enables them to be the latter. “Each poem, even the briefest, / may grow into a full-blown epic,” one narrator explains. The problem? Although “each poem has to speak / of the world’s wholeness; alas, our / minds are elsewhere, our lips are / thin and sift images / like Molière’s miser.” The poems of Asymmetry do both; they somehow speak so well to us, even if written to capture a single, narrow moment.
New Selected Poems by Thom Gunn
In his introduction to this volume, editor Clive Wilmer writes that as he began publishing in the 1950s, Gunn “appeared not to have a distinctive voice. Indeed, he appears to have no wish to find one. What he aspired to achieve in poetry was something he found in Elizabethan song”—a “certain anonymity of tone.” There’s a certain grace in this impersonality; a credibility, even. From “Vox Humana”: “Being without quality / I appear to you at first / as an unkempt smudge, a blur, / an indefinite haze, mere- / ly pricking the eyes, almost / nothing. Yet you perceive me.” Gunn’s lines seduce through metered sound, yet he could also stir us, as in “The Old Woman”: “Something approaches, about / which she has heard a good deal.” She senses it; her feet feel chilled, and she has “watched it / like moonlight on the frayed wood / stealing toward her / floorboard by floorboard.” There’s a sense of poetic patience to Gunn’s lines; they are conversational, but never quite casual. The poems from his last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), are a fitting end; consider “The Artist as an Old Man”: “Vulnerable because / naked because / his own model.”
Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon (translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)
Forty-nine poems; 49 days of a wandering spirit before it evolves into reincarnation. Hyesoon’s book is unnerving, profluent, immediate. She begins the first day: “On the subway your eyes roll up once. That’s eternity.” The spirit is wavering, but the body remains. An old man steals her handbag. Middle-schoolers nudge her, take photos. “Death is something that storms in from the outside”—but soon her spirit leaves behind her body, and the poems move, a dizzying arrangement of meditations on that space between here and there, flesh and forever. There’s a purgatorial sense to Autobiography of Death—the uncomfortable feel is matched by what Hyesoon has called the bane of women’s poetry in Korea, a gendered verse unknowable “until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies … Female poets can finally step into the world of language after crossing this river of the grotesque; the words cannot gush out of their mouths until they cross the river of screams where you witness death like everyday affairs.” Autobiography of Death is a song to this grotesque sense. A spirit wandering, wailing: “Your body is now fog floating above sleep / Your face is a cloud floating above your body.”
Monument: New and Selected Poems by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey is a poet to return to—we know she’s special, and then comes along the aptly titled Monument, and the evidence feels almost overwhelming. Her work is God-haunted, clothed with the small flashes of memory against despair. In “Graveyard Blues”: “It rained the whole time we were laying her down; / Rained from church to grave when we put her down.” The narrator raised her hand in witness as they lowered her mother to the ground. “I wander now among names of the dead: / My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.” Her poetry carries the weight of a region, a world whose scars remain fresh on flesh. You can feel it in her lines, which craft a history—of Mississippi, of the South, of her family. As in “Incident,” her stories return like liturgies (selected volumes of poems allow this to happen!). “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, / a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.” Grace-filled, with the sting of honesty, Trethewey is a true poet of ceremony. Monument contains one of my favorite elegies: the poet on her father’s passing. She thinks of fishing one dark morning with him, “awkward // and heavy in our hip waders.” She catches two trout and then releases them. “I can tell you now // that I tried to take it all in, record it / for an elegy I’d write—one day— // when the time came. Your daughter, / I was that ruthless.” Many of these poems feel in his shadow, the complex song of father and daughter. She ends “Elegy” with a dream of her and him in “the small boat // that carried us out and watch the bank receding— / my back to where I know we are headed.” One of the best collected volumes published this year.