From a Dane, a Swede, and an American poet immersed in Nordic literature, the bracing clarities of imaginations whose compasses point north:
Inger Christensen’s book-length poem, it (det in Danish), is about everything: the creation of the world, seasons, and time; the convulsions of revolution; the whiplashes of language and mind; the pleasures of sex. In a superb introduction, poet and classicist Anne Carson links it to other ancient cosmogonies, notably the Greek poet Hesiod’s. First published in Danish in 1969 and now triumphantly brought over into English by Susanna Nied, it was composed according to complex formal principles derived from mathematics and communications theory. it may sound abstruse; it’s not. The poem reads as directly as Genesis, as urgently as the news. Stunning images and startling phrases abound: “To assault loneliness / whip up seas and tear seeds away / from becalmed plants.” One moves through this book with increasing awe at its architecture and beauty.
Tomas Tranströmer is one of Sweden’s most lauded poets, with a massive international reputation as well. In The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, an often surreal dream logic moves us from archipelagos to the sea, and from family to world history, as in his long poem “Baltics.” Tranströmer’s poems are often located on thresholds or borders, bespeaking incomplete yet promised arrivals, as his book titles suggest—Secrets on the Way, The Half-Finished Heaven. Sleep and winter are native zones to him; windows, seas, mountains, painters, music, and geography recur. This work offers intense, visionary transformation: “[t]he lake is a window into the earth” in which “[d]ozens of dialects of green” appear.
One highlight here is the 1993 prose memoir “Memories Look at Me” (a typical Tranströmery reversal), which offers a portrait of the artist as a young entomologist and geographer, pursuing his obsessions in fields and museums. Tranströmer’s poems cover vast distances but also attend to daily routine and humble materials: “A lamp sparking on the asphalt. / Beautiful slag of experiences.”
In Curves and Angles, Brad Leithauser has written a book meant “to get colder as it goes along,” as he puts it in his author’s note. A noted essayist on Nordic literature as well as a poet, Leithauser writes taut lyrics, moving from the body’s vulnerable curves to the chilly angles of inanimate things. Here is a poet unembarrassed by the pleasures of rhyme, the witty conceit, the metaphysical tradition of poetic argument, as in the compelling, odd centerpiece poem, “A Science Fiction Writer of the Fifties”:
Realist isn’t the one who details
Lowdown heartland factories and farms
As if they would last, but the one who affirms,
From the other end of the galaxy,
Ours is the age of perilous miracles.
In the Key of “E”
Three books by poets whose names begin with “E”: a whimsical connection that Erin Belieu could certainly do something lively with. Her Black Box is a sexy, ballsy book, alternately melancholic and full-frontal: the birth of a child and the end of a marriage loom large here in poems of gorgeous attack, humor, and beauty. Among the highlights: “I Heart Your Dog’s Head,” a dissection of football coach Bill Parcells and American mythology, culminating in a fabulous transmigration: “Bill Parcells trapped in the body of a teacup poodle.” Belieu goes right for the perverse erotic jugular: “Aren’t you just like the Daddy every girl dreams of, with your handgun cocked and your pants pockets full of dirty peppermints?” The last third of the book is an electrified elegy to a failed marriage—“In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral.” Belieu’s black box: a coffin, an amp, a poem, full of surprises and music.
Elizabeth Arnold’s second book, grandly titled Civilization, addresses other kinds of endings: a father’s decline and death most notably, but the bound life of planets and historical epochs as well. An epigrammatic intelligence informs poems such as “Solstice”:
We laugh to think the Romans lit great fires in December
to persuade the sun to come back. To persuade the sun!
Arnold is preoccupied by inheritance and transmission in both intimate and global registers. We move through nursing homes to ancient civilizations to cosmology to journalism after 9/11: “light leaking from a world cracked open.” Civilization exemplifies, among other things, the difference between poetry and mere information.
Ellen Bryant Voigt has long transformed the actual into the true, to invoke a distinction of her friend and fellow poet Louise Glück. Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976–2006 shows her wide scope. From her early, spare, perfected poems through her more elaborate meditations on family, farming, memory, and the seasons, Voigt has created a body of work notable for its fusion of lyric compression and narrative amplitude. In her poems one walks into a world but also into a sensibility: stoic, open-eyed, and sensually alert, with the human poised against, and often measured by, an indifferent natural world: snow “falls and falls on trees / and houses, with or / without comment.” Ranging from dark lyrics to dramatic monologues to poetic portraits, Voigt’s poems read as if they were continuing aspects of Robert Frost’s project into the 21st century.
However different in tone and texture, these books reveal the great range of American elegy—that key of “e” in a minor mode.
It’s been a long time since English poetry meant English poetry, and these books show why. Harryette Mullen has been blasting, torquing, signifying, and singing her way through a host of American Englishes for years: Recyclopedia gathers her first three books into one volume, and a festival it is. Scrambling black vernacular, media-speak, lullabies, blues, classical lyric, and Gertrude Stein, her poems are brilliant contraptions—as much toys as bombs. After reading the prose poems of Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T—full of riddles, charms, puns, slippages, syncopations and quotations—one can never look at supermarkets or domestic objects (insecticide, detergent, a pearl necklace, a nightgown) in the same way: “Just add water. That homespun incantation activates potent powders, alchemical concentrates, jars and boxes of abracadabra.” “Kills bugs dead. Redundancy is syntactical overkill.” Though it may not seem so at first, this is a poetry of everyday life—open to the full riotous mess of American history and culture, its racial and sexual politics, its musics. Muse and Drudge takes up another hybrid project, Sappho’s lyre crossed with the blues. Sly, sexy quatrains beam reports on life in the 1990s:
members don’t get weary
add some practice to your theory
she wants to know is it a men thing
or a him thing
T.S. Eliot aspired “to purify the language of the tribe”: Mullen enacts instead an exhilarating poetic mash-up, deforming and reforming our sense of language and the world that language makes. In this she is kin to another inveterate punster, riddler, and prankster, the Northern Ireland–born Princeton professor Paul Muldoon. His latest book, Horse Latitudes, continues his wild forays into the far reaches of linguistic and geographic territory: the latitudes of his title are those zones 30 degrees north and south of the equator, where ships were often becalmed. Though motifs of stasis and loss abound here—with moving elegies for his sister and for rock musician Warren Zevon—Muldoon’s language is anything but becalmed: he writes in a dizzying array of forms, from haikus—
Each zebra mussel
sending the same cablegram:
HUSTLE STOP HUSTLE
—to villanelles to sonnets. As with Mullen, formal play is Muldoon’s route to a serious historical imagination: evoking the call of a Mongolian violin, he swerves sharply toward Tiananmen Square: “A call that may no more be gainsaid / than that of blood kin to kin / through a body-strewn central square.”
Tiananmen Square also appears in James Fenton’s Selected Poems. Long admired as a poet, journalist, man of letters, and man of the world, Fenton shows here his distinctive strengths—astringent intelligence combined with formal verve. His poems about Cambodia, where he worked as a war correspondent, are as resonant today as they were more than 20 years ago. Fenton’s poetry attests to an older style of English internationalism and savoir-faire: this is a worldly verse, at home with Persian legend, Iranian mullahs, Normandy cheeses, German requiems, geopolitics, and a melancholy erotics. Perhaps the most intriguing piece in the book is “The Love Bomb,” a “musical drama” about a cult leader and a love triangle: fanaticism, sacrifice, and sexual obsession, all rendered in gripping, urbane verse.
Introducing Mi Revalueshanary Fren, the selected poems of Jamaican-born British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), novelist Russell Banks links him to the efflorescence of black poetries in the late 20th century (think of the American Amiri Baraka, or the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite) and also to the song traditions and vernacular wizardry found in Muldoon, and before him in songster-poets like Robert Burns. Famous for his “dub-lyricism,” in which he dubs rhythmic phrases over popular beats, LKJ writes in Jamaican Creole, and his poems leap off the page into the mind’s ear. His work rewards (indeed, demands) reading aloud—your mouth becomes the vehicle for his percussive explosions of wit, critique, and elegy. For many American readers this book will be an introduction to the Caribbean diaspora in and around London. LKJ tracks police brutality, community activism, and above all the pulse and ethos of reggae:
dis is de age af reality
but some a wi a deal wid mitalagy
dis is de age af science an teknalagy
but some a wi a check fi antiquity
With their highly honed vernacular, these poems confound any rigid distinction between “literary” and “oral” poetry. Just to seal the multimedia deal, Ausable Press includes a CD of Johnson performing the poems.
The latest book from “Caribbean mestizo-mulatto” Victor Hernández Cruz, The Mountain and the Sea, takes us from the Caribbean to Morocco, from the earth’s crust to the rhythmic pulse of the waves of many oceans. Associated with the rise of Nuyorican poetry (poetry by New Yorkers of Puerto Rican background), Cruz has long been drawing new poetic maps in English, capturing in his image-laden poems the sensuality of the Spanish language and Latin music—hailing Puerto Rican composer, singer, and poet Sylvia Rexach, for example, for “a voice / salty and right out of the sea,” whose “songs / pour like rich tamarind pulp.” Hernández Cruz ushers us from Puerto Rico to Rabat to the New York of his childhood; he includes a witty poem about Eisenhower—“his head like the moon inside the black-and-white / television sets of the tenements”—as well as an elegy for his father and a series of portraits of musicians, poets, and artists. Another remarkable sequence, “Al-Maghrib,” takes us through the streets, smells, and sounds of a Moroccan neighborhood—its market, fruits, nougat, its leather district:
The mosques stand up
like bottles of perfume
upon the line of the sky
As these poets attest, individually and en groupe, English has long gone global, to our great benefit.
Women on the Verge
There are many kinds of intensity in contemporary poetry—linguistic, emotional, musical, intellectual. Here are two collections by poets who poise themselves differently yet with equal daring along the edges of thought and feeling.
Curves to the Apple gathers three of Rosemarie Waldrop’s books. Deeply engaged with European avant-garde poetries, and a leading light (with her husband and fellow poet, Keith Waldrop) of American experimental writing, Waldrop works here in prose blocks, brief paragraphs that hover between philosophical investigation and interpersonal intimacies. The Reproduction of Profiles captures the traces of arresting conversations between an “I” and “you”: “You were walking ahead, humming Berlioz to keep me from introducing more conditional clauses.” Lawn of Excluded Middle shows the poet punning and swooping beyond logical formulae (e.g., “the law of the excluded middle”): “Is it because we cannot capture our own selves or because logically nothing is on its own that we turn to each other for reflection?” Reluctant Gravities intensifies Waldrop’s exploration of conversation, impasse, and the fate of the thinkable: “I used to think, if I were light enough my conjectures would take wing, he says.”
The British installation artist Rachel Whiteread is famous for casting the negative space of interiors and objects: the insides of rooms and bathtubs, for example. Waldrop might be considered a poet of negative space—the underside of thought. “Only in connection with a body does a shadow make sense.” Journeys of mind but also sensation, these poems read as peculiar, compelling mini-essays and micro-dramas.
Before her untimely death in 1994, Lynda Hull had published three well-regarded books of poems, all marked by a bruised lyricism and sinuous line. Hull’s difficult youth—including years spent on the streets, wandering through various cities in Canada and the United States—provided the germs for poems marked by a saddened, capacious wisdom and a clear-eyed gaze. A noirish ferocity animates her earlier work, alive to the “glamour / attending each kind of surrender.” Waitressing in dives, dancing in clubs, eating in automats, knocking about very young with her first husband, a Chinese immigrant—all appear in a semi-sordid yet beautifully captured neon glow, the poet “losing myself to the hour’s slow erasure.” Hull was a poet with a jazz ethos: as she writes in a poem about visiting Charlie Parker’s grave, quoting the great saxophonist, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn.” She lived it, she transformed it, and now you can read her work entire in her Collected Poems.
Masters in Their Prime
Martín Espada’s The Republic of Poetry invokes the spirit of the late, great master, Chilean poet and activist Pablo Neruda, as well as the voices of poets, singers, activists, and youths “disappeared” under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. Espada’s impassioned lyrics bridge his Brooklyn childhood and his recent visit to Chile; political witness and personal memory are fused in this urgent book. Ranging from Vietnam to the war in Iraq, Espada aims to convert strife into utopian possibility, envisioning a republic in which “poets read to the baboons / at the zoo, and all the primates, / poets and baboons alike, scream for joy.”
Strong Is Your Hold, Galway Kinnell’s 11th book—his first in more than 10 years—shows him in an elegiac, retrospective mode:
I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay
Kinnell writes as movingly as ever about family, marriage, sex, and friendship; stone tables, old nails, blueberry thickets, garter snakes anchor us in his world. “When the Towers Fell” is his response to 9/11; “Shelley” a striking meditation on one poet’s disenchantment with another. Kinnell’s work shows how the ideal of civic humanism continues to find its poets.
Mark Strand is esteemed for his elegant, playful, sometimes surreal poetry. Man and Camel takes us on yet another strangely beguiling voyage: “On a warm night in June / I went to the lake, got on all fours, / and drank like an animal.” Bizarre vignettes mutate into wonder but also, occasionally, horror: “Something was wrong / Screams could be heard.” Strand closes with the beautiful “Poem after the Seven Last Words,” referencing those words spoken by Jesus: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”
“Forsaken yet ebullient” describes the complex emotional dynamic of Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali’s poetry. Eschewing the rich, elaborate diction and rhetoric of the Arabic poetic tradition, the self-taught Muhammad Ali writes in an idiom open to colloquial speech, as translator Gabriel Levin tells us in his introduction. Born in Galilee and exiled after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the poet lives in Nazareth, proprietor of a souvenir shop. His poems evoke the lacerating longing of Palestinians for deliverance but also the sensuous immediacy of honey, dates, olive groves, baby goats, cyclamen, and chicory. A famed raconteur, he offers several sly self-portraits in his new book So What: “there lies within me / a mother’s sincerity / and a fishmonger’s guile.” In the hereafter he plans to ask for only two things: “the bliss of sleep, and tea.”
Alice Notley is too preoccupied by this world to write much of hopes for the next. She is the doyenne of the second-generation “New York School” poets—those who came of age in the late 1960s and ’70s, mindful of such predecessors as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. Nervy, politically aware, attuned to gender politics, mothering, and the weird slippages of identity, Notley’s experimental work is full of the verve and bite of the city (Paris as well as New York). Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970–2005 shows a poet continually interrogating herself, her world, and her art. Notations of daily life jostle against overheard speech; private thought swerves in and out of public space. “I may be making erotic art near the red telephone.” Edgy poems conjure imaginary conversations with her hard-living first husband, the innovative poet Ted Berrigan, who died young; more recent work explores feminism, war, politics, and erotics in essay-poems: Dick Cheney appears, as do Cherokee Indians, Moses, and Iphigenia. However various Notley’s forms and styles, a consistently commanding voice guides us: “this is where love becomes the target of this poem its pure eye.” There is something positively Whitmanian about Notley’s project: large themes, sometimes sprawling lines, but also an intimate voice, an ethical compass.
Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. She is the author of World Enough (2010), and Same Life: poems (2008); and This Blue (2014); as well as the poetry chapbook, This Carrying Life (2006). She has also published...