Verse-atility: Celebrating the power of poetry
National Poetry Month is a time for applauding poetry’s unique appeal—its capacity to surprise and move us, to show us the world in new ways. The new collections below are stellar examples of the genre’s timeless attraction.
POETRY OF TRANSFORMATION
Much like the moon, the human heart waxes and wanes—a fact that provides the foundation for Jonathan Galassi’s beautifully wistful Left-Handed. Following the phases of that fickle organ with a sensitive eye, Galassi’s perceptive poems document the ways in which our desires change with time. “I don’t / know how my dream / became a contraption / for unhappiness,” he writes in “The Scarf,” one of many pieces that show a mind struggling to make sense of an attachment gone awry.
Galassi frequently employs rhyme in the service of mood, using it to exude playfulness, melancholy or awkwardness, as in “Tinsel Tinsel”: “All the fool for love can do is stare. / His neck is permanently out of whack; / he doesn’t care.” Overall, the collection tracks a movement from confusion to clarity, to a place of fresh possibilities, where relationships actually work. The president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and author of two previous collections of verse, Galassi is honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets. His latest book is everything a poetry collection should be: companionable, wise and expertly crafted.
A POETIC DEPARTURE
In Almost Invisible Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Strand forgoes verse for prose, offering a transportive group of poems, each in the form of a short paragraph. Despite their orderly exteriors, the pieces are often surreal, with a touch of the fairy tale about them. Some are full-fledged narratives, and some are musings; others are sharply etched portraits of characters without bearings in the world, who have no sense of connection. In “Like a Leaf Carried Off by the Wind,” a man works at a place “where he is not known and where his job is a mystery even to himself,” while the narrator of “Bury Your Face in Your Hands” struggles with the vagueness of daily existence: “There is no way to clear the haze in which we live . . . The silent snow of thought melts before it has a chance to stick.”
Strand achieves his very own tone—an ominous quality offset by dark humor—and he sustains it from start to finish. These poems soar thanks to his great wit and his remarkable understanding of humanity—its capacity for miscommunication, its tendency to cultivate discontent. “What is it in us that lives in the past and longs for the future, or lives in the future and longs for the past?” he writes in “No Words Can Describe It.” Like all great poets, he articulates the big questions beautifully.
A SOUL IN TRANSIT
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 is a watershed volume that makes the collected poetry of German writer W.G. Sebald available in English for the first time. The author of numerous celebrated novels, including Austerlitz, Sebald died in 2001. Rich with historical allusion, international in scope, these visionary poems—translated from the German by Iain Galbraith—tell of departures and returns, of hotel interludes en route. They’re snapshots of a life marked by transience. Many of the poems reflect a sifting of daily experience as they touch upon everything from art, religion and mythology to past conversations and memories. In the midst of this sifting, spare yet crystalline images serve as points of clarity, like these beautifully refined verbal visuals from a poem called “Panacea”: “A club moss / and a cube of ice / tinted with a jot / of Berlin blue.”
Sebald, whose father served in the Nazi army, was no stranger to the weight of history, and in many of these poems, the past is a force to be reckoned with. “Memo” reads as a telling note to self: “Build fire and read / the future in smoke . . . / Be sure / not to look back / Attempt / the art of metamorphosis.” Sebald’s later poems are delicate balancing acts between memory, the moment at hand and whatever awaits. His mind, it seems, is usually in at least two places at once. “Day Return” contains references to (among other things) Samuel Pepys’ diary, graffiti scrawled on an urban wall and the city of Jerusalem. The products of an expansive intellect and an inquisitive mind, the pieces in this collection are nothing less than transcendent.