Must-Read Poetry: May 2020

May 6, 2020 | 5 books mentioned 6 min read

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, edited by Leah Silvieus and Lee Herrick

coverAn anthology that should become a mainstay of poetry classrooms. “It is always the right time for faith and the spirit. It is always the right time for poetry,” the editors write in their introduction. The anthology begins with a long poem, “The City in Which I Love You,” by Li-Young Lee, which sets the appropriate tone of wonder and seeking: “Is prayer, then, the proper attitude / for the mind that longs to be freely blown, / but which gets snagged on the barb / called world, that / tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer // would I build? And to whom?” Several excellent poems here from Matthew Olzmann, a poet both clever and soulful (one trait of a great anthology is that it sends us searching to find more work). From his “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”: “But this is how faith works its craft. / One foot set in front of the other, while the wind / rattles the cage of the living, and the rocks down there // cheer every wobble, and your threads keep / this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. / I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across.” In a later poem of his, an ecumenical prayer: “Our Father, who art in / heaven and also / the centipede grass and the creek / and the engine that warbles / roadside.” The anthology includes “Grace,” a lovely elegy by Joseph O. Legaspi for his father. A carabao “pulling a wooden cart hill-high with watermelons” arrives on the narrator’s street. His father “watermelon lover, scanned the stacked pyramid, held up a dull fruit.” He gave it “a gentle knock,” his “knuckles // bounced off the bell-domed curve, he listened, eyes / closed.” The narrator “watched him then, as I always did, / man of eternal theater, of elegant fingers, this Lazarus / figment memory I call poetry, my father full of grace.” There are poems here that also sound the faithfulness of doubt, like “Vestige” by Michelle Peñaloza: “The creak of pews makes my knees ache, / my palms and fingertips kiss.” The visceral, tangible roll of rosaries connects the narrator with her mother: “I envied the faith she found.” She, though, has other devotions. “I count the day’s / miracles: the sweet butter on wheat toast, / the abundance of coffee, the predictability of doors, / opening and closing.” 

The Park by John Freeman

coverFreeman’s pensive volume is a fascinating consideration of the park as a place of preserved wilderness. “We / stop, in mourning, / sensing everything / we’ve lost. We call / that ceremony / a park” he writes in the prefatory poem; wildlife passes through those spaces, yet it is only humans who need to ponder the relative absence of wildness elsewhere. The park is an injunction against the neutering of civilization. As Freeman etymologically notes, “It took the overrunning of London / by its immigrant population in 1680 / to turn the word into the spot we’d / park humans, so they could stumble / around in bewilderment at how time / is translation, change is nature’s time.” As he demonstrates in “Walks in the Dark,” layers abound in these considerations of wild spaces. While a child, the narrator entered woods “stark / and bluish-green, lit / by our candles, ninety / young singing boys, / walking to the lake” while “holding our / fathers’ hands.” The woods “darker still because of those / teardrops of light.” The lake’s “black / water absolutely waveless,” the candles floating. Yet the morning after, the narrator “learned / the lake was a reservoir, / water we stole / from the trees that gave us / shade.” He followed the water to the dam “holding back the hoarded / water,” the flow “clogged / with the candles, which were / soggy and gray and not at / all like prayers.” In the end, as Freeman writes in another poem, perhaps the purpose of parks “is to temper the machine / in us.”

White Blood by Kiki Petrosino

coverAnother ambitious volume from Petrosino. Revelation through ancestry test: a narrator wonders how genetic history routes our lives, and how we are to fully reckon with our past, known and unknown. An early section of the book is a skilled double crown sonnet that begins with acceptance—to college, but also the intellectual structure of America—that feels more conditional and tenuous with each successive line. She wonders: “Of those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took. / I took it hard.” She feels like a specimen, a test: “Since I was a living lab / I scythed, skull-clean / my crop of hair.” She “hummed in botanical Latin / the notes of my glasshouse / erudition.” Intensely aware of the economics of the campus, she thinks of her ancestors, and her admirable vulnerability contains despair: “How was I their dream, their hope? / Born too late to know them or walk / the perimeter of their graves / deep in the next country, next / planet, where I couldn’t read the land / or speak the right words in the woods.” Throughout the book, her narrator can’t escape this self-analysis, this worry, this reconsideration, as in “The Shop at Monticello”: “I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies / into money. Now, I have money to spend on little trinkets to remind me / of this fact.” An intriguing collection that weaves themes of lineage and the paradox that race and identity are wielded as souvenirs: commodified souls. 

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

While living in Louisville, Ky., Lucy Bakewell Audubon wrote to her cousin that her husband, John James, “is constantly at the store,” and that she wishes there was a library or bookstore nearby, because she “should often enjoy a book very much whilst I am alone.” Her correspondence is replete with similar longings. Lucy is often a biographical complement to her husband, or worse, a clarifying footnote. Yet in this poetic biography, Dowd accomplishes the complex task of affirming Lucy’s own life, while also illuminating her husband’s talents. In a September 1804 poetic epistle to her cousin, Lucy writes: “As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised / to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.” They marry several years later, but their relationship is defined by distance; if not at his general store, he is “off hunting rabbits, or sketching them, / or racing his fine horse.” Dowd also writes several monologues through John James’s voice. “Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,” he thinks, but “I cannot see it,” for he is “amid the bales and boxes, / flour bins and raisins, and the wooden socks.” He ends the poem: “I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families, / while something in me sighs that I am not.” Longing and sacrifice pervade this book. One of the few placid moments appears in Lucy’s December 1824 letter to her sister Eliza: “Be happy for us, Sister. Once more we sing.” Soon the couple would be separate for three years while he worked on and promoted The Birds of America, but that sentiment of hope and return carries through Dowd’s work.

So Forth by Rosanna Warren

coverWarren anoints the ordinary with reverent elegy. “Northeast Corridor” is a wildly accurate sketch of that route. The rider: “Catechist of gnarled oak trees, marshes, suburban marinas, / cinders, and gutted mattresses.” The view: “A dilapidated barge, half-sunk, hunches from slime. / Chain-link fences, dim factories, tumble of trash down a bank– / my country, my countryside, hurls itself away // as twilight catches in each broken window.” The bridge and play of “my country, my countryside” is one example of Warren’s sense of the tragicomic. “The horizon’s illegible. We have left / shingled houses, sidewalks, picket fences behind in a blur / back where we made the childhood promises. / We signed our names but wrote in invisible ink”: few poems capture the region with such perspicuity. She also brings such lucid vision to prosaic spaces, as with the first lines of a later poem: “The poster in the doctor’s office proposes / Eden: varicose peonies tilting / over a lapis lazuli pool. / Blossoms lush, carnal, and tipsy / as aging courtesans.” Warren is able to channel, or conjure, a sense of earnest malaise: “If it’s a god // who touches us when we lose ourselves / he’s the briefest of flashbulbs, the image cannot endure.” This melancholic, skilled sense extends to the unique final section of the collection, mostly set in the forest: “We tread on silver flakes and shadows. / Downward, ever downward, to the meadow / where the ghost lily, late summer wraith, / gapes, ash-pink, with news / of the underworld dusted on its tongue.” 

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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