It’s National Poetry Month, and while the whole “cruellest month” trope is perhaps a bit overplayed, it does feel true this time around: Before we could get to April this year, we lost Mary Oliver, then W.S. Merwin, and then Linda Gregg. Giants falling. The cruelty here feels particularly acute since all three were such observant chroniclers — and students and stewards — of the natural world. And we are in danger of losing that, too. But as long as we have poems we have hope, or something like it. Had I not already selected it for our monthly staff picks, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic would be on this list. It’s poetry as parable, and as compelling a book as I’ve read in a long time. Here are three more worth picking up and adding to your poetry shelf. –Steve
The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once asked, “What is poetry which does not save / nations or people?” I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to answer that question for myself, but in Here, we’ve been presented with a chorus of voices joined together to inspire the courage we’re going to need to save our planet. The foreword for this collection was written by none other than the Dalai Lama, and if that doesn’t get your attention, then, well, there are a lot of poems that will. Speaking of the recently departed, W.S. Merwin makes an appearance with “Still Life With Sea Pinks and High Tide,” as does Mary Oliver, with “The Fish.” But it’s not just natural beauty we’re asked to ponder. There are also poems like Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” — the kind that ask what it means to live between beauty and disaster.
If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t come away from watching Alex Garland’s 2014 sci-fi thriller Ex Machina — in which a Silicon Valley hot shot creates sexy robots, one of which is stripped of its language capacity, another of which seduces a nerdy programmer — and think to yourself, “Now there’s a premise for a book of poems.” But then, Franny Choi isn’t most people, and Soft Science is not like most books of poems. It’s a work of incredible imagination, loosely inspired by the character Kyoko (the Asian-presenting cyborg with no voice), but more importantly engaged in a playful, serious, disorienting exploration of language and human-ness. Do androids dream of blank verse? Consider these lines: “remember / where all that silicon comes from / for the ocean so loved / the quartz / feldspar / the tiny homes of tiny creatures / that she ground them / into sand / to keep them close / to kiss them with / well / i suppose you would call it / a mouth.”
That old saw about necessity and invention cuts to the heart of Jericho Brown’s process — as in, he invented a new form of poem. It’s fascinating to read him describe the process, which you can do here. A snippet of that exploration: “I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?” That’s at least partly how he got to the duplex — which is part sonnet, part ghazal, part blues lyric. The Tradition is one of those books where you can just feel a kind of intense compassion, a radical vulnerability, radiating off the page. It’s the kind of book where you not only feel someone carrying their truths, but carrying you along with them.
Don’t miss Jericho Brown on May 4 at 7 p.m. for The Porch’s Books, Bars, & Guitars: Writes of Spring at Analog at the Hutton Hotel. Learn more here.