In celebration of National Poetry Month, I’m cross-posting this column I wrote for the Juneau Empire which highlights new works of poetry to the Juneau Public Library collection. Head over to JPL Podcasts to hear an audio sampling of some master poets at work.
Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee. Lee is the Keynote Speaker at this summer’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in Homer. Behind My Eyes, Lee’s fourth critically acclaimed collection, explores identity through family, memory, exile, loss, and questionable virtue. Lee’s humor is at times subtle, at times sharp as his insight into the unforgettable magic of childhood: “Whenever I talk, my wife falls asleep./ So, now, when she can’t sleep, I talk./ It’s like magic”. The reader falls into the boring husband’s engrossing conversation with his sleeping wife debating the positioning of lovers in the physical and romantic world; “It isn’t that lovers always speak together in a house by the sea/ or a room/ with shadows of leaves and branches/ on the walls and ceiling/…It’s that such spaces emerge/ out of the listening/ their speaking to each other engenders.” His style is entirely his own, alternating between narrative quatrains and unrhymed couplets often in the form of lines of dialog or image speak reminiscent of Paz. It washes over you, leaving you in that blissful moment between sleeping and waking, “What do the past lives of the color blue have to do/ with the fate of words and the future of wishing?”
Seven Notebooks: Poems, by Campbell McGrath. McGrath’s latest collection explores agriculture, civilization, language, luxury and the cosmos. Ranging in form from haiku to panoramic, in-flight prose observations, McGrath’s verse is rich in texture, historical reflection and careful attention to the unnatural order of human existence invading nature’s myriad disorder. Set in the agricultural remnants of south Florida, “vanishing order endangered as the legendary panther,” McGrath’s Florida is an Eden-like backdrop full of bloom and rot. Images linger, in particular from “Time”, an ode to our futile efforts to elude time described as “the match strike / of consciousness enacting its doomed insurgency / against the dark mountain’. Or the “Ode to a can of Schaefer beer”, which artfully extracts marketing text from the label of a discarded can, “it wears its heart on its sleeve / like a poem / laid out like a poem / with weak line endings and questionable / closure” and leaving on your tongue the distinct flavor of cheep beer, “Thin, rice-sweet, tasting of metal / and crisp water”.
One Secret Thing: Poems, by Sharon Olds. From intense portraits of war taken from unusual perspectives, to judgment and eventual forgiveness of family and their indoctrination, Olds’ latest collection rings out with lyrical precision and energy (light and dark). Much of the work feels inspired by old photographs, almost an exercise in giving voice to the voiceless, those whose lives were skirted or entirely re-routed by war. In “Free Shoes” evacuated children prepare to receive new shiny shoes while the old ones are disposed of, the shoes analogous to their new lives away from the war, “This life that has been given them like a task! This life, this / black bright narrow unbroken-in shoe”. If you value family, but also value speaking critically about family, you’ll enjoy this collection. There are some very controversial poems worth checking out, in particular, “Last Words, Death Row, Circa 2030”.
Bikeman: An epic Poem, by Thomas F. Flynn. This collection inspired by 9/11 will leave you squirming, which, depending on your tastes, is either the mark of great poetry or difficult subject matter. Flynn accurately captures the awkwardness of the subject, “I am witness to this and embarrassed./ I am an intruder on the most private moment/ of her life: her death”. An award winning television writer/producer, Flynn makes his first foray into poetry in order to document the very personal, yet universal aftermath of the World Trade Towers’ collapse. Through observations both passive and judgmental, the verse shines when turned upon the arc which the lives of those affected by great loss will travel, “He, a banker from India on a temporary work visa/ is praying for the wife and son/…His widow,/ without a visa, will be deported,/ leaving her New Jersey home for India,/ where she becomes an outcast/ with her fatherless American-born/ baseball-loving blue-jean wearing son”. The introduction describes the narrator as one who “did not live through it” but “just did not die” alluding to the survivor’s guilt fueling the narrative. Plow through this one in one sitting to avoid 9/11 overload and you’ll walk away with a new perspective on loss and survival.
Turns out I didn’t have enough space in the paper to include any more of the books I reviewed so I need to clean those up a bit and they will be up here soon.