I’m spending National Poetry Month at the Millay Colony, former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay. My colleague and friend, poet and writer Jen Fitzgerald, will be writing the Mixtape column this month—and we are all lucky for it. Enjoy Jen’s robust selections and I’ll see you in May.
Poems are invitations to thought. The elite of these thinking poems ask you to pull up a chair and get comfortable because you are about to work through something. It may not be pretty or easy, but at the end of it you will see an event, an image, or an accepted idea differently.
- Something Bright Then Holes by Maggie Nelson
When I first heard Maggie Nelson read from this collection at KGB in 2007, it stuck with me as a book of great contemplation, especially the section titled, “The Canal Diaries” which Nelson penned along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. The exterior landscape is the interior landscape—just as NYC is trying to clean and reclaim the canal as a living and inhabitable space, so too is Nelson reclaiming the parts of herself that had been left untended.
Never again will I be so blind, so ungenerous
O bright snatches of flesh, blue
and pink, then four dark furrows, four
funnels, leading into an infinite ditch
The heart, too, is porous;
I lost the water you poured into it
- Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser
If I am riled up and need to settle back into my skin, I pick up this book. It is a constant, emotional tamping down. Kooser takes the anxieties that swirl around the “everyday” and then grounds them in the subtleties of the “everyday” Through the buzzing confusion of interaction he says, “No, look, it’s here in the easiest of relationships, the simplest of terms, just open your mind to its possibility.”
- The Alphabet in the Park by Adelia Prado
These are actually the “selected poems” of Adelia Prado but put together in such a way that they this could easily be an individual collection. Prado is a Brazilian poet who does not speak English. She has work solely with translator Ellen Watson for decades. Because of this relationship, these translations feel as though they are being read in their native tongue. Prado is a cerebral and spiritual poet. She inhabits the carnal and tactile world where God and abstractions like love and want can walk alongside people. Poetry is Prado’s identity.
Once in a while God takes poetry away from me.
I look at a stone, I see a stone.
The world, so full of departments,
is not a pretty ball flying free in space.
- from snow and rock and chaos by Hayden Carruth
Why have I loved this book since I picked it up at random five years ago in a used bookstore? The language is sparse, one poem moves directly onto the next, not even needing a new page to do so. It is reverent, it is natural, it is honest, and it reads like the testimony of the poet of who had learned his craft not from other poets, but from nature.
- Mess and Mess and by Douglas Kearney
This is a blueprint. No, it’s a deconstruction of culture. No, it’s an interrogation of history as a body walking our streets. No. It is poetry scooping its wide arms around everything it can see, touch, and hear to create one, huge, mess of a pile. These poems are the log of that mess, a classifying body, a verse taxonomy that places the poet shoulder to shoulder with reader and says, “Look. This is shit show. But if we baulk at the enormity of it, we will just keep meeting back here, shoulder to shoulder, each time a little more maimed.” Kearney shows us his hand.
- The Simple Truth by Philip Levine
The poems in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection invite the reader into the poet’s process. Levine talks himself through the lines—he describes what he is seeing so that both he and the reader can draw their own conclusions. The Simple Truth is a lesson in subtlety from which any poet or lover of poetry can learn stillness—the sort stillness that sprouts revelation.
No one else wonders how each of us
became the other, no one else sits here asking
his own left hand what it holds, while outside
the mourning doves gather in the tall blond grass
under a sky that quickens into blue and blue.
Support your favorite independent bookseller or shop:
Original logo art by Esme Blegvad.