For National Poetry Month, we’re highlighing new collections from four American poets that offer fresh insights into the state of the nation. These visionary writers provide unique perspectives on both inner and outer conflicts: the horrors of war, the decline of the environment, the challenges of relationships.
SPIRIT OF '76
Dan Chiasson moves with sleight-of-hand smoothness through varied poetic forms in Bicentennial. This shape-shifting collection features a pair of plays, a number of compact, epigrammatic poems and longer pieces that unfold over the course of several movements. Cultural references abound as Chiasson revisits his adolescent years in 1970s Vermont, dropping allusions to cartoons, sports and drugs. “Tackle Football” offers an unforgettable verbal sketch of high-schoolers playing in waist-high snow: “We’re Pompeian before Pompeii was hot. / We have the aspect of the classic dead / Or of stranded, shivering astronauts. . . . ”
Chiasson trades the touchstones of adolescence for the paradoxes of parenting in poems like “The Flume,” in which he’s all too aware of “The future doing its usual loop-de-loop, / The sons all turning into fathers.” Chiasson never knew his own father, whose enduring absence seems to be the impulse behind works that explore symmetry and balance—poems in which equilibrium is achieved, and relationships are complementary. In “Nowhere Fast,” the parallelism is literal: “O my compass / Your wilderness / Awaits reply: / Say you and I / Will find our way / Eventually— / Like see and saw, / Or sea and sky.” Chiasson is a master of poetic construction, and his facility with form is on full display in this rewarding collection.
A COLORFUL TAPESTRY
Although the title might indicate otherwise, Maureen N. McLane’s excellent new collection, This Blue, is filled with green imagery: a “tapestried field” is “mossed ferned & grassed,” and the earth itself is “embroidered” with all manner of plants and trees. McLane writes with a deep awareness of geological time, history and human behavior, and the ways in which they’ve influenced the world. Poems like “Another Day in This Here Cosmos” address mankind’s abusive relationship with our world: “A park’s a way to keep / what’s gone enclosed forever.” Instead of being in sync with nature, McLane says, we’re “commuters” to it.
McLane makes delightful use of contemporary syntax. Contractions and abbreviations—sd stands in for said, yr for your—appear at unexpected points in her brief, sculpted lines. Her insights are often sociological in their precision. In “Replay / Repeat,” a playful and profound poem that examines the endurance of human habits, kids do what they’ve always done—“climb trees they’ve eyed for years / in the park, their bicycles / braced against granite.” Frisbees “saucering / the summer into a common / past” point to shared experience and collective memory. Again and again in these radiant, probing poems, McLane excavates the layers of contemporary experience and gets at the heart of what it means to be human.
THE POETRY OF REALITY
W.S. Di Piero’s Tombo could be read as the work of what the author calls a “vagrant imagination,” a mind that “rushes toward the world / in fear of forgetting anything: / witness and invent, it says. . . .” Di Piero seems to possess just such a psyche—capacious and insatiable and motivated by wonderment. He’s a precise recorder of everyday experience for whom small moments are sublime. In “Other Ways to Heaven,” he ponders “systemic pleasures”—preparing breakfast, reading a book—that in their regularity are remarkable because they “make us feel at home in our elusive lives.”
Many of the poems are prompted by a sense of inquiry, an effort to make sense of the world: “Let me be fool enough / to read meaning into / the twiggy lightning that cracks / the darkening distance / such meaning as animals / like me need to see.” In “Bruised Fruit,” Di Piero explains that his intention as a writer is to take readers “beyond / the sleepiness of selfhood” and “to give a right voice to scenes, to breakage and joy, / to plain plates of jam and bread.” In his reverence for details, Di Piero reveals what we might otherwise miss: “the unspeakable beauty of facts.”
ARMS AND THE MAN
U.S. Army veteran Kevin Powers explores the brutality of war in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, an urgent, haunting book that—like his acclaimed novel The Yellow Birds—draws on his experiences as a machine gunner in Iraq. The disconnection between his reality and civilian reality warps the way he sees the world. In “Separation,” he eyes some “Young Republicans” in a bar: “I want to rub their clean / bodies in blood. I want my rifle / and I want them to know / how scared I am still . . . when / I notice it is gone.”
Other poems find Powers pondering his own pre-war history. He writes effectively about his Southern boyhood and offers striking characterizations of his parents. As a whole, this collection is masterful—composed and controlled, taut and contained, with a sense of tamped-down passion that can stop the reader cold.