Must-Read Poetry: March 2020

March 3, 2020 | 8 books mentioned 7 min read

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall

coverWith each successive book, there’s even more grandness to Brimhall’s narrative voice. She writes with a commanding sense, with some poems feeling like the voice beaming to Job, and other poems arriving like a hypnotizing whisper at night. “I left the religion, but kept the sin / and its images,” one narrator writes—an apt description of the permeating sense of God and absence in this ambitious book. With belief in the distance, “None of my prayers are questions anymore. / Just aching stanzas full of chrysanthemums dying / on the kitchen table.” “I want out of exile,” the narrator says in the book’s final poem, “and back to a garden where we can confuse / innocence with goodness.” This longing results in a synthesis of the divine and desire. First, in a conceptual sense: “Every fire thinks it’s a part of God, but lightning / is not a promise, a flag is not a shield. Love wants you / to believe that there’s a God somewhere who can // do your dying for you. There are raptures that won’t / come for you and raptures that will.” Then, elsewhere in the book, Brimhall’s narrators blur love and lust—to use apophatic methods. “I want God’s anger / more, want to rouse the Old Testament in me,” one narrator writes—“want to be both hand and cheek. Even when God / flooded the world, he loved it. Even when he promised / to destroy it again with cleansing fire. That’s the way / I want to love.” She writes to Eros: “I worshipped the myth I made of you, but I’m off my knees / now. I want your hands to become language and make me / offer you one thigh at a time.” The blurring of God and Eros, belief and unbelief, are the result of Brimhall’s provocative and powerful language. “We all want / to be broken for one another,” she writes, to explain how compelled we are to touch. “We all want to kiss our names from someone else’s / mouth.” Another masterful book from one of our finest poets.

Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips

coverFew poets can deliver such weight with such precision as Phillips, who again marvels in this new collection. In an early piece, “On Being Asked to Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing,” Phillips demonstrates the power of metaphor. A forest opens to a clearing, “a vast / meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an /angled argument against despair.” Yet that material might only be weeds, with language and form intermingling, blending, and then separating. “Like taking / a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might / more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point // in twilight where twilight seems most / a bowl designed to turn routinely but / as if by accident half roughly over”: the recursive nature, the mimesis evolving into mysticism—Phillips’s method creates a new, acute world. This is longing! This is what poetry, I think, must do: bring us to the brink, “from the smudged edge of all that / seemed to be left of what we’d called / belief.” The poem ends: “what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give, and you shall receive.” In this book, the language and luster of belief is not mere vestige—it is a liturgy of desire. It is an interrogation of the self: “If as shame is to memory, so too desire, / then is this desire, this cloak of shadows, / that I wrap close around me, that I / refuse to take off?” Phillips is the type of writer to make us believe that, perhaps, poetry truly is the form in which story and song best breathe together.

A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems by Lawrence Joseph

coverJoseph is a Catholic poet for a real world of sin. In one early poem, the narrator was “pulled from the womb / into this city.” He spent hours in prayer, and even more hours in shame. He proclaims himself “the poet of my city,” the pronouncement more a sense of duty than grandiosity. We get that sense elsewhere: in another poem, the narrator, coy, says “I’m only an accessory to particular images.” In a way, it is the perfect summation of Joseph’s project: the self permeating the work as story and symbol, an act of poetic transubstantiation. In one poem, the poet reflects on Catholic school: the Baltimore Catechism, and how he “prayed / to a litany of saints to intercede / on behalf of my father who slept / through the sermon at seven o’clock Mass.” He recited the Book of Jeremiah in fifth grade, confounding his teacher. Yet despair resides in some of these poems: “Heaven answers your prayers with dust and you swallow it.” “There is a God who hates us so much: / we are given ears to hear ribs kicked in, / we are given eyes to see eyes close / before a city that burns itself to death”—these are words of suffering, yes, but despair does not overtake this book. St. Augustine haunts Joseph’s verse, and when we complete this confession, we feel charged and changed. An important book that begins to collect Joseph’s notable writing.

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

coverHirshfield has said that “part of poetry’s core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn’t being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward.” In some poems, Hirshfield makes visible our common world, as when she writes: “I admire the amnesia of buckets.” How they are “simple of purpose.” “A bucket upside down / is almost as useful as upright”; how a “bucket receives and returns all it is given, / holds no grudges, fears, / or regret.” She also mines the most confounding elements of our existence. Her poem “I Wanted to be Surprised” begins: “To such a request, the world is obliging.” She is surprised to learn “the stubborn, courteous persistence” that words like please and good morning might still carry weight, “and that when I wake up / the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain, / the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.” Perhaps what grounds Hirshfield’s narrators is a humble sense of realism. Of life, one narrator concludes: “This did not have to happen. no part of this had to happen.” Existence isn’t arbitrary, but it requires a graceful skepticism: “I would like / to grow content in you, doubt, / as a double-hung window / settles obedient into its hidden pulleys and ropes.” She’s also capable of stinging elegies. “I said,” she begins one short poem. “I believed / a world without you unimaginable. // Now cutting its flowers to go with you into the fire.”

The Painted Bunting’s Last Molt by Virgil Suárez

coverA book of leaving and longing. The song of “When Leaving the Country of Your Birth” is anaphoric, entrancing: “Will the wind remember your body,” he begins, writing of a land from which the narrator has left. The questions that follow are heartbreaking: “Will your old house stand in the shadows of all the plantains your father planted?” “Who will remember you, child? Who will sigh your name?” “Who will trace the bread crumbs this far out?” That final question returns to a common theme in the book: what happens when we must finally, truly go home? The narrator’s grandmother wants to return to Cuba: “My grandmother says they will return because they miss // their concave lives, and each night, before she puts me to sleep, / she sings a prayer for the worn, the lost, for the unremembered.” Sadly, she tells that narrator that “we live in countries / we cannot possibly die in.” Despite this pain of distance, Suárez captures the glimmer of hope that exists in escape and travel. Excellent descriptions of water, that route of travel, abound: “At night, other than the star-pocked sky, // there is little difference between the slicked surface / of the water and the heavens.” Later: “What I like about water is it knows // how to keep a secret. A body slices / through without leaving a trace, / when you must leave in the night.”

Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez

coverA book that captures the inevitable, immediate collision between natural and manufactured worlds. Perez pairs his first poem with a quote from Mythologies by Roland Barthes: “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.” Plastic—the manufactured world—is ubiquitous, inevitable. It is the probe that the doctor presses against the belly of the narrator’s wife; it is the bag in which her placenta is stored. Later, it is the material of their daughter’s pacifier, and the pump that “whirrs” as “breastmilk drips into a plastic bottle.” The narrator dreams that his daughter is “composed of plastic, / so that she, too, will survive our wasteful hands.” Even his figurative language in the book is steeped in manufactured language: “Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume.” On Halloween, he says, “let us praise the souls of native youth, whose eyes / are open-pit uranium mines, veins are poisoned / rivers, hearts are tar sands tailings ponds.” Perhaps for this reason, the narrator-fathers of this book have disaster on their minds: “Am I brave enough to bear her // across the razor wires of foreign countries / and racial hatred?” He wonders and worries: “Could I inflate my body into a buoy to hold her above rough waves?” In “Echolocation,” the narrator cooks dinner while his wife plays with their daughter, and he sees a news report about Tahlequah, an orca whale who grieves her dead calf.” Their lives go on—preschool, vaccinations—as the whale carries her dead child “until every wave / is an elegy, / until our planet / is an open / casket.” Elegiac and skillful, Perez’s collection is worth pondering.

To Make Room for the Sea by Adam Clay

coverClay once described the poet John Ashbery as a writer “whose work has always struck me as layered on so many levels, though it might seem simple on the surface.” That duality, I think, often resides in Ashbery’s tendency toward the melancholy sense, as in “Vetiver”: “Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay, / As the flowers recited their lines / And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.” Clay shares that graceful and skillful movement in this new book: “Beneath // every question is an elegy, and beneath / every elegy lives the promise that a life / will persist long after its song.” From: “Meditation for the Silence of Morning” “Imagine finding you look at the world / completely different upon waking one day.” Clay’s usage of the second person is an invitation to grief: “You’ve looked out the door each morning // only to find the view’s changed little over time, but life feels / passive and grows more so the further you go from the bed, // quietly unsure of what the day holds.” One narrator concludes that “Life mostly feels like walking the line / between an elegy and an ode.” Clay, like Ashbery, demonstrates that something remains other than despair. There is “some version of hope or comfort / found within each simple slow ritual, // but what to make of life when there’s no ritual / worth praising? Sometimes even starting / to think of an inevitable void is a comfort / we keep for ourselves, a minor way of curbing / the mind from danger.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Jane Hirshfield
Fifteen Poets on Revision

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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