Poetry for Fall, Plus Some of Our Favorites From This Year

It’s been a while since we talked poetry here on Musing, so it’s time to correct that! If you’ve been into the shop, you know that Ben is the bookseller a lot of customers turn to for recommendations off our poetry shelves. (He’s also a published poet himself.) To kick off 2019 gift guide just a little bit early, we’ve got four four new(ish) poetry titles to recommend, plus a look back at some of our favorite staff-picked collections from the quickly disappearing year 2019.

The Milk Hours
by John James

John James’ collection The Milk Hours covers lots of ground as he swerves from philosophy to ecology to personal experience in an attempt to reconcile the sense of loss and wonder we get from being in the world. One minute he’ll invoke Plato or Ovid, and the next he’ll ground himself in a clear sense of place, describing Arizona highways, a Chilean volcano, apple blossoms in Kentucky. Many of the poems deal with the notion of a father figure, both the one he lost in childhood and the one he is to his own daughter. While this may sound like he’s doing too much, biting off more than he can chew, his understanding of his own lack of sureness prevents pretension from creeping in. His probing mind and awareness of the inadequacies of language crop up in lines like: “approximations are the best / we can do” (“Driving Arizona”), “the instability of a bookcase in the most non-metaphysical terms” (“Forget the Song”), and “that’s not the line I’m searching for” (“Scarecrow”). One of the most enjoyable aspects of this debut is how he follows observations to unexpected places; the feathers in his pillow become birds flying east in the shape of a V. Taken as a whole, these poems explore how the physical, biological world relates to itself and to us, and what it means for us to be a part of nature and existence. Histories converge and entwine, something is buried (a root system, a Parisian catacomb), and something new is born. —Ben


Be Recorder
by Carmen Giménez Smith

“It seems so impossible — I can’t imagine how a person wrote that.” That’s how Hanif Abdurraqib described this book in his interview with Musing earlier this year. And you know what? That’s a pretty good way to describe my reaction to it as well. In one poem Giménez Smith might be talking about how she’s going to stop saying “sorry” so much. A few pages over, she might be wrestling with what it means to be a brown artist and an American when sometimes those identities don’t feel compatible. She writes directly into the contradictions and complications: “I wanted to always live in a place like US / which is how America becomes / an event that happens only for the lucky / so the question where are you from means I was born / foreign in American but not their America / I mean the chain of land called America connected / by chains of mountains where minute threads of / the first people who lived that America live in me.” There’s a powerful sense of wonder and inquisitiveness that makes this collection so compelling. —Steve


An American Sunrise
by Joy Harjo

The other day, someone came into the bookstore looking for a collection of poetry to give as a gift for her daughter, who she felt might benefit from something that, if not spiritual exactly, really wrestled with matters of the soul in a hopeful sort of way. The mother mentioned that her own personal go-to was Mary Oliver, so that was our jumping-off point. I pulled several books, and the mother took a seat and started going through them. The one she left with that day was An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo. Harjo is the United States Poet Laureate, and the first Native American to hold that post, but more than that, a writer of tremendous empathy and attention. I return again and again to these lines from her poem “The Fight”: “I grow tired of the heartache / Of every small and large war / Passed from generation / To generation. / But it is not in me to give up. / I was taught to give honor to the house of the warriors / Which cannot exist without the house of the peacemakers.” —Steve


A Clearing Space in the Middle of Being
by Jeff Hardin

In his enchanting sixth collection, Jeff Hardin’s poems meander down the pages like a path through the woods, full of tiny epiphanies and reveling in mystery. He invites you to “wonder, ponder, wander” with him as he seeks revelation and “a taste of the eternal” in the ambiguous and transient. I admire how attentive he is to the world around him, how he doesn’t jump to conclusions, though he can jump from R.E.M. to the Apostle Paul in the span of two lines, and show how it’s not that much of a leap after all. These poems are full to the brim with a humble appreciation of the magic of language, calling forth words like “susurration” and “eucalyptus,” and inviting readers to slow down and live inside those syllables for a moment or two. In one poem, he asks: “How far away are we, really, / from home, from searching, from forgiveness, / from nothing more to say, from austerity, / from what we have not known or did not / know we needed to know?”. How far indeed? Let’s amble awhile with these poems and find out. —Ben

More of our Favorite Poetry of 2019