Poetry Beyond the Basics: 22 Exciting Titles for Poetry Lovers Everywhere

Chase-Riboud, Barbara. Everytime a Knot Is Undone, a God Is Released: Collected and New Poems 1974–2011. Seven Stories. Oct. 2014. 400p. ISBN 9781609805944. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781609805951. POETRY

everytimeaknotisundone111214A sculptor whose one-woman shows have graced venues like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chase-Riboud is also a distinguished author; her fiction has won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and her poetry the Carl Sandburg Award. This first collection since 1987 offers 160 poems, 57 of them new. Not surprisingly, what impresses is the poetry’s push and power, combined with fierce historical/political awareness: in the title poem, the central character kisses a woman’s proffered throat, “Then drinks deeply from the Knot of/ Memory as he wrings the tilted neck.”

Cramer, Stephen. From the Hip: A Concise History of Hip Hop (in Sonnets). Sun Ridge Poetry of Vermont. Sept. 2014. 92p. ISBN 9781935922599. pap. $15.95. POETRY

From “The Apache Loop (DJ Kool Herc, 1975)”—“He drains so much juice that the lamp’s gleam/ stutters”—to “Make Some Noise (Beastie Boys, 2011)”—“Rap, you might think,/ is no country// for old men”—this fun, energized collection captures the history of hip-hop in clear portraiture. Finished, you suddenly notice that the poems are all sonnets; since Cramer’s first book, ­Shiva’s Drum, was chosen for the National Poetry Series, he’s got the chops.

Gibson, Margaret. Broken Cup: Poems. Louisiana Univ. Sept. 2014. 88p. ISBN 9780807156421. pap. $17.95. POETRY

Broken mind, broken heart: National Book Award finalist brokencup111214Gibson’s poems are filled with the quietly contained anguish of caring for her husband after he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, “a disease that sieves the mind of its contents.” There are moments of triumph, too: “Together we smile and touch hands lightly./ We’ve done it again. The world returns to its fullness.” Gibson’s tone is ruminative and conversational, as if she is confiding in the reader; good even for those who don’t routinely read verse.

Harris, Jana. You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore: Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier. Univ. of Alaska. Oct. 2014. 160p. photogs. ISBN 9781602232358. pap. $17.95. POETRY

Poet/author Harris (Horses Never Lie About Love), who’s been researching North American pioneer women for three decades, here expands on the main moment in a pioneer woman’s life: her marriage. Thematic collections can feel canned, but this one really works; Harris doesn’t dwell at the altar but deftly portrays whole lives. In one of the best poems, a young woman repeatedly thrashed by her guardian, “Brother Churchianity,” escapes in marriage, finally observing “Today, I’ve outlived three husbands. No man/ ever worked me as hard as that clergyman.”

Hoffman, Cynthia Marie. Paper Doll Fetus: Poems. Persea. Dec. 2014. 64p. ISBN 9780892554485. pap. $15.95. POETRY

In 2010, Hoffman’s Sightseer won the publisher’s Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, with this book runner-up. Finally published, it explores pregnancy and childbirth in entirely unexpected ways. Sometimes dark, sometimes tender, always surprisingly imaginative, the poems move from a “paper doll fetus” squashed by its twin in utero to a deformed lamb enjoying its first and last lick to a rock enchanted by a goat placenta; an especially chilling poem sees a presumed sorceress condemned to death for easing “the rightful suffering of women.”

Hogue, Cynthia. Revenance. Red Hen. Sept. 2014. 112p. ISBN 9781597095419. pap. $18.59. POETRY

revenance111214It’s no coincidence that the first piece in this luscious eighth collection from poet, critic, and award-winning translator Hogue (Or Consequence) offers up the phrase “an extravagance of reason.” For as she explores boundaries in a slippery, hard-to-grasp world, where “bloom looks/ like lupine from afar” and an owl’s hoot means “time marked/ in sound that seemed misheard,” Hogue really does get to the heart of things with infinitely rich but disciplined language: “insensible, audible// minutes slipped intransigently past us/ in a rising flitter of syllable.”

Hopper, Ailish. Dark~Sky Society. New Issues. Sept. 2014. 97p. ISBN 9781936970278. pap. $15. POETRY

With only a few words per line, Hopper’s trim poems look elegant and precise on the page; her language has a quiet, shimmering beauty. All of which belies her visceral content: violence, often racial (“smoke/ canopies two young men// who kick another’s caved-in body// [helicopter circles]// then raise and drop a block, concrete/ on his head”) and her father’s terminal illness (“And my father’s: a page/ that flutters// blank. Once, there was/ they say// beautiful ink laid there”). Beautiful ink here, too.

Jarrett, TJ. Zion. Southern Illinois Univ. Sept. 2014. 75p. ISBN 9780809333561. pap. $15.95. POETRY

How does one negotiate racial hatred, offer forgiveness, zion111214and reconcile with God in a dangerous and uncertain world? It’s not always possible for the speaker of these poems, whose direct, unburdened lines are vivified by sure imagery: “Dark Girl,// the world comes all at once// like the Red Sea/ regaining its contours// after miracle.” Senior editor of Tupelo Quarterly, Jarrett here reconnects with her grandmother and confronts racist Mississippi governor Theodore Bilbo, giving hard-edged life lessons: “Fear nothing, but trust nothing you see.”

Johnson, Sara Eliza. Bone Map: Poems. Milkweed. Aug. 2014. 96p. ISBN 9781571314697. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781571319197. POETRY

In this heartfelt, gracefully written collection, winner of the National Poetry series, Johnson makes telling connections while showing us a world inevitably underlain by hurt: a stag rubbing its antlers against a tree to strip them of their velvet also strips the tree of bark, as “someplace in the world// a bomb strips away someone’s skin.” But in her assured way, Johnson helps us stumble upon truth: “This must be what love is:// a pain so radiant/ it cuts through all others.”

Lee, David. Last Call. Wings. Aug. 2014. 144p. ISBN 9781609403751. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781609403768. POETRY

“Interlude at McDonalds in Ely, Nevada, drinking coffee after filling up my truck with stage-coach robbery priced diesel ten point two m.p.g.”: the very titles of these poems by Lee, winner of a Western States Book Award, among other honors, gives you a feel of his rough-and-tumble American West. Here are immediate portraits—you can smell the coffee when folks gathered at Adolph’s debate going to the school board meeting, and see poor Marvin Penny, “looking like second place/ in a two entrant/ world champion fist whipping.”

Leigh, Eugenia. Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows. Four Way. Oct. 2014. 84p. ISBN 9781935536499. pap. $15.95. POETRY

bloodsparrows111214A raw, roaring anger courses through these poems about a life shaped by an abusive father (“And when you hold those wire hangers,/ …will you hold my mother/ down as my father whips her with them?”), and the anger spills over to men in general, an indifferent mother, an indifferent God (“God stalked me on Marion Avenue. Said, You can’t/ fix it. Then, I can’t either”). But even as the speaker lets rip her emotions, Johnson helps us stumble upon truth and content, delivering an accomplished debut.

Levy, Deborah. An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell. & Other Stories. Oct. 2015. 96p. ISBN 9781908276469. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9781908276476. POETRY

The author of novels (Man Booker finalist Swimming Home), stories (Black Vodka, short-listed for the BBC International Short Story Award), and plays (some staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company), Levy shows her narrative roots in this dialog between “she,” a sort of fallen angel, with “starry tattoos,” “All wonderful and winged,” and “He,” who’s “suburbia’s satisfied son.” She tells him she’s there “to rub my skin/ against/ the regularity of your habits,” and if her fiery free-spiritedness doesn’t entirely shake him, it will delight readers.

Martinez, J. Michael. In the Garden of the Bridehouse. Univ. of Arizona. Sept. 2014. 104p. ISBN 9780816530892. $16.95. POETRY

Martinez’s Heredities won the Academy of American Poets’s Walt Whitman Award, which facilitates first-book publication, and this second book doesn’t disappoint—though it’s definitely challenging. Poems scatter across the page in starburst shape, with fragments often disconnected spatially and syntactically: “Your brutal empty/ pull plum-// bruises/ perfectly men perfect.” Pay attention, though, and you’ll hear the music (some of the poems are even musical scores) and see the glowing, tactile beauty in these intensive pieces.

Massey, Joseph. To Keep Time. Omnidawn. Oct. 2014. 92p. ISBN 9781890650971. pap. $17.95. POETRY

In distilled, acutely observed poems, Massey builds the world out of light and shadow; he helps us see pattern and grid, the thinning sunlight, “slow/ flowering/ of form flowering/ out of form.” Remarkably, and important to his poetry, he also helps us hear sound and even its absence: “As long as blood runs/ the body,/ there is no silence.// Silence hums.” Here, exterior and interior are continuous; the physical world touches us as “Inward/ a world// accumulates.” You can’t call this nature poetry, but it’s a beautiful rendition of what’s breathable.

Moffett, Kelly. A Thousand Wings. Salmon: Dufour. Oct. 2014. 64p. ISBN 9781908836687. pap. $22. POETRY

Moffett wrote these poems during retreats at Trappist monasteries, and they unfold according to the ecclesiastical hours, starting at 3:15 a.m. Don’t look for pious reflection, though; Moffett has an irreverent spirit, noting in the first poem, “Fuck Metaphor,” “If I stay long enough, I will want to lick/ the years of prayer from this stucco.” But she’s also trying to connect the world as we know it with something deeper, meditatively asking about a courtyard water spout, “What does it mean to be empty?” Lovely work.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai. The Secret of Hoa Sen. BOA. Nov. 2014. 148p. tr. from Vietnamese by Bruce Weigl. ISBN 9781938160523. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781938160530. POETRY

secretofhoasen111214Born in 1973 in Vietnam’s north but raised in the south’s lush delta, award-winning poet Nguyen writes precise, vibrant poems that give voice to her country’s present, grounded in tradition and dark history. Guavas and mangos sometimes blossom here, but Nguyen is just as inclined to speak without overwhelming polemic of the “collapsed royal dynasties” of Vietnam and “the blood of its division bitter in our mouths.” One poem, dedicated to BW—presumably poet/translator Weigl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Vietnam veteran—states bluntly, “He can’t explain the reasons for the war.” Important, especially to those still contemplating that question.

Nguyen, Hoa. Red Juice: Poems 1998–2008. Wave. Sept. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781933517933. $30; pap. ISBN 9781933517926. $22. POETRY

Because Nguyen is the cofounder of a poetry journal called Skanky Possum, her wit comes as no surprise, though what can sound almost energetically goofy (“I’m almost your cat’s pajamas”) often turns acid (“give me history or give me/ a name unknown in zoology/ So I can be anything but empty doll”). Nguyen here collects poems previously available only in chapbooks, journals, and out-of-print collections, and in her spare, wry way she’s such a careful observer that the reader feels immersed in life’s most quotidian details, its hurts, and rocky hopes.

Peterson, Allan. Precarious. 42 Miles. Sept. 2014. 91p. ISBN 9780983074748. pap. $15. POETRY

As in Fragile Acts, a National Book Critics Circle finalist, Peterson shows how we make sense of the world through relentless inference, though here he’s further plumbing our “entire understanding of the urgency of time.” We put ourselves together, body, mind, and soul, even in everyday acts; if “it’s precarious to set out from Carthage/ with just love and a lodestone,” that’s also how we set out on life—or life’s final journey. These beautifully crafted poems ring out ever more sweetly bell-like than the gorgeously honeycombed Fragile Acts.

Potts, Randall. Trickster. Univ. of Iowa. (Kuhl House Poets). Sept. 2014. 82p. ISBN 9781609382841. pap. $18.50. POETRY

Yes, it’s a trickster world—“The more I struggle/ The worse it gets,” clarifies the opening poem of Potts’s limpid new collection, his first in two decades, and as the closing poem reminds us, “It’s easy to see/ how we forget ourselves// in the rain’s momentary/ colonnades & passageways.” But if Potts starts off rueful, his pithy, distilled lines bring us quickly to the physicality of the world, as he roots in the garden, pictures “Fog/ Antlers/ Pollen maze/ Bee-hum,” and recalls the “bloody bits” of a butchered sheep. Fresh, accessible, immediate.

Šalamun, Tomaž. Soy Realidad. Dalkey. Sept. 2014. 123p. tr. from Slovenian by Michael Thomas Taren & Tomaž Šalamun. ISBN 9781628970883. pap. $14.95. POETRY

A frequent presence at American universities, Slovenian poet Šalamun figures largely in postwar European literature, with over 30 books to his name. Many appear in English, with this latest seeing the light after being published in 1985. Šalamun has an enviable bouncy energy throughout, managing to be at once droll and profound: “in the year of our Lord three,/ while cooking chicken as per Metka’s/ instructions,/ …I watch the sunset and tell/ myself: I know,/ the sun is in my chest.” About the title: several poems are in Spanish or reference Mexico.

Shapiro, Harvey. A Momentary Glory: Last Poems. Wesleyan Univ. Sept. 2014. 118p. ed. By Norman Finkelstein. ISBN 9780819574893. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780819574954. POETRY

amomentaryglory111214Before he became an editor of the New York Times Magazine and then of the paper’s book review, Shapiro was a published poet; the first of his dozen books appeared in 1953. The numerous poems left behind at his death in January 2013 are included here, edited by his literary executor. Never mind that Shapiro says, “In my eightieth year, I lost my luck./ I lost my luck and I lost my talent.” These portraits of people, places, and moments recalled have the wit and engagement that marked all his work.

Vallejo, César. Malanga Chasing Vallejo: Selected Poems; César Vallejo. Three Rooms. Nov. 2014. 278p. tr. from Spanish by Gerard Malanga. ISBN 9780989512572. pap. $16.95. POETRY

Born in 1892 in Peru and an expatriate in 1920s France and 1930s Spain, Vallejo remains one of the greats of 20th-century Latin American literature. His poems are aching and hungry but devoid of self-pity; it’s humanity for whom he aches. Poet Malanga has made a life of translating Vallejo, whose work has influenced him deeply, and in this freshly translated bilingual edition you can see his devotion in the faithfulness with which he renders these poems. Complete editions of Vallejo’s work exist, but this less pricey selected is a fine introduction.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.