Poetry News

Major Jackson's Poetry Picks at New York Times

By Harriet Staff


This weekend's New York Times Sunday Book Review included a few favorites from Major Jackson's reading list, including Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's Hello, The Roses and Kwame Dawes's Duppy Conqueror. Read his complete picks (we can confirm that they're all sure to be your favorites, too!) at New York Times; check out Jackson's write-ups about Berssenbrugge's and Dawes's books in particular, below.

By Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
New Directions, paper, $16.95.

Berssenbrugge’s 12th collection raises mere expression to the level of vital hymn, as her discursive poems tackle topics like time, the environment, perception and beingness. In an age of intense debate about fracking and climate change, Berssenbrugge’s lines — saturated with the hallucinatory speed of thought — have the urgency of a manifesto; she consistently calls attention to the interrelatedness of all things (especially roses). “I connect with sensation now as to pink petals forming toward me, those who love me in another life responding to me. / There’s no time, so at sunset love from others can look like one rose.” Although strongly associated with a postmodern experimentalism, Berssenbrugge evokes the Romantics’ worship of nature, going them one better — her narrators consult the natural world: “I ask a plant with dusty gray leaves for inspiration.” Yet she never indulges in extreme awe or passionate wonder. Plaintive and mildly amused, her poems are deeply ecological even when they’re about fashion or amphibians: “Frogs communicate para-acoustically with the future, grabbing the potential beat (silence) and materializing it from far off in light years.” Such deep-forest loftiness has its skeptics. Whereas Wordsworth heard the “still, sad music of humanity,” Berssenbrugge would be hard pressed to notice other people walking along the mesa. However, few living poets are as able to enter headlong into the spiritual state of our environment and its endangerment. Ethereal and metaphysical, “Hello, the Roses” presents one of the best minds in modern poetry. Who cares if she doesn’t greet you on the hiking trail?

New and Selected Poems
By Kwame Dawes
Edited by Matthew Shenoda
Copper Canyon, paper, $20.

It’s no surprise that the author of the best book on Bob Marley’s lyrics is also a great poet. Dawes’s verse has an expressive power and lyric resonance that can be attributed to a trans-Atlantic consciousness weaned on the spiritual sources of reggae. Over several decades, the Ghanaian-born, Jamaican-raised poet, educator, editor, novelist and playwright (who now lives in America and has strong ties to Britain) has written some 16 books of poetry. This collection, named for a Marley song, gathers Dawes’s best work and represents his most substantial publication to date in the United States. In “Shook Foil” — a cheeky, witty response to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “God’s Grandeur” — a man walking along Kingston Harbor, “drunk with the slow mugginess / of a reggae bassline, finding its melody / in the mellow of the soft earth’s breath,” finds grace in the “silver innards of discarded / cigarette boxes” he stumbles across. It is emblematic of Dawes’s literary and cultural reach. Whether writing about Jamaican AIDS patients or Jim Crow segregation, he summons a strong sense of righteousness and a stark social awareness. He also revels in the indissoluble properties of song, as in a sonnet narrated in the voice of Frederick Douglass: “I can tell the spirits rising / are old as dirt, old as my skin, and my heart / swells to know that these white folks / will see how we have come so far, / how we can call on ghosts to choke / the beasts that held us back so long.”