These are dark times; our feeds are filled with news of shootings as well as the hateful speech that always results. Every year, writing this preview, I think of how poetry is one of our surest consolations. It can’t do much about the fear and violence running rampant in America right now, but in the books to be published in 2016 especially, poets are taking responsibility, speaking out, identifying themselves, speaking the truth. Honesty may be poetry’s best gift in the coming year, as these writers and others say what needs to be said about guns, anger, racism, family, and how we can think and feel more precisely and truthfully about one another.
Twenty out of the 21 poems that compose this volume were found among the late Nobel laureate’s papers in 2014. Searingly translated by Forrest Gander, they are vintage Pablo Neruda, literally and figuratively â€” untitled meditations on all his favorite subjects: sex and sensuality, politics, the lone voice reaching out to the world for camaraderie and getting as close as a poet can to finding it. Neruda wrote the book â€” wrote many, in fact â€” on how the personal and the political are inextricably entwined. Reading these poems feels like stumbling on a lost chapter. Plus he makes poetry fans and general readers alike swoon with lines like “Crossing the sky I near/ the red ray of your hair.”
Robyn Schiff remembers some of the deep, old qualities that many contemporary poets seem to forget â€” the way forms and sounds can meet with subjects to say unsayable things about the everyday world. The long, dense poems of her third book snake their way through the anxieties of new motherhood in the age of terror and rampant viruses (“my thermometer is digital and pink/ and its beep is my name/ being read from the book of life”), the buying of baby furniture, how “Everyone has a cousin Benjamin Bunny,” and the trials of suburban neighborliness. It sounds tame, but it’s not. Schiff can wake the ordinary, making it alien and widely alive, with the subtlest flick of a word.
Karen Volkman’s poems are inscrutable at first. They demand effort, but when examined these poems reveal depths teeming with microscopic life. After her previous two books, Spar, a seminal collection of love poems in prose, and Nomina, a sequence of nonsense sonnets, Volkman has relaxed mostly into free verse in which she can describe “false content,/ the splayed flower, arterial, like the premise of a door,” and other vagaries of the heart. She may be elliptical and strange, but make no mistake, she is a master, able to get inside the mind of a dancer’s body, for instance â€” “Some leg says, ‘Pulse and pause, arch, flex, /contract. This is kind of a step, kind of/ sideways flying'” â€” and transport the willing reader into the deepest folds of true attention.
If there was ever a time for this book, it is now. Herein, H.L. Hix, a prolific wellspring, froths, rages, boils over. Gathering snippets of speech, turning anxiety into aphorism, Hix probes the reasoning behind gun ownership (“A gun in the hand is worth two in the Walmart”), the meaning of a clenched fist (“Every little fit helps. Every puncture tells a story.”), and the great cost of repression: “I was told plenty often I couldn’t be angry./ Who was there to tell me I could?” This is a big book, with poems of many kinds, including sonnets, narratives, villanelles and pages “intentionally left passive-aggressive.” Hix doesn’t speak for or against anything so much as out of America’s climate of rage, as though channeling raw feeling itself. It’s a disturbingly accurate take on current events. Unless you are made of stone, you will find, in these troubled and troubling times, some of your heart echoed here.
If you’ve read a literary magazine in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve read a fierce, no-b****** t poem or two by Francine J. Harris, who, for good reason, many have wanted to publish, and whose second book is a stunner. Earnest, sometimes frenzied, packed with surprising metaphors that never give away their secrets yet never quite hide their meanings, these poems deal with the vagaries of sex (“I am sad when I hear the first cupped moan of a woman. It is usually from behind a wall. It is usually in the quiet. It is usually not dark enough.”); rape, suicide, and religion; the harrowing traumas of adolescence (“if I// am not on/ the bus to school, then who is// in those pipelines dartmouth-green seats…”); and many other too-little-discussed trials and dangers women face.
This debut from Solmaz Sharif, a poet of Iranian descent, offers another kind of take on the most pressing issues of our moment: war in the Middle East, the war on terror, the devastation ravaged upon families in the name of freedom. Sharif has a vast poet’s toolkit. She employs definitions taken from a dictionary by the U.S. Department of Defense, bulleted lists, bombed narratives and exploded memories, and even a rhetorical form the mad genius Christopher Smart once used to describe his cat but which is here put to more serious use: “Whereas today we celebrate things like his transfer to a detention center closer to home;/…/”Whereas I made nothing happen.” All the while, she entreats us not to avert our eyes, because “We say the war is over, but still/ the woman leans across/ the passenger seat/ my son, my son.”
Crowned by an extraordinary long poem interweaving the childhood of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose neighbor “turns,/ with her white looking,/ his telescope into a gun” with the author’s hopes for her own unborn child â€” “Maybe he will be the boy who studies stars” â€“ Aracelis Girmay’s third book of poetry looks at the crimes committed against African Americans throughout history and now. In sequences, untitled lyrics, long poems, and a series of “Estrangements,” Girmay follows the deepest roots of her language to their sources: “It is my history raiding me,” she writes. These poems repeat themselves, reuse lines, feel anxious and scattershot, but there is beauty and imperative witness everywhere here.
It’s been a decade since Tyehimba Jess’s debut, and this sprawling, extraordinary book shows he’s used his time well. In it Jess presents a musical history of the long fight against slavery, marshaling a vast cast of historical figures including the slaves, some freed, whose music was the basis for the blues and jazz in the 19th century. They ask, “Once burst loose from human bondage,/ do our songs still tow our pain like a mule?” In the process, Jess offers a subversive account of how black musicians have been exploited by whites from the get-go. He sings and swings through the last 200 years, introducing a pair of blind pianists, Scott Joplin, and a dozen others, tuning our ears in.
Also coming in 2016 is a shelf’s worth of collected and selected poems â€” mighty tomes by living greats and the Great Dead. Most monumental is The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich, one of the major feminist pioneers of the second half of the 20th century; Claudia Rankine was tapped to write the introduction. Another must-have is All The Poems of Stevie Smith, the newly edited complete works by the darkly whimsical mid-century British poet. Among the living, we have collected volumes from Marie Ponsot, Rita Dove, Frank Bidart, and a selected volume from the prolific Kevin Young.
Every year it happens that I’m excited about too many new books to fully preview here: Anne Carson will be back with a new book called Float; National Book Award finalist Monica Youn brings out her third collection, Blackacre, which wrestles with the legal implications of places, and look out for new collections from C. Dale Young, Paisley Rekdal, Anna Moskovakis, and Patrick Rosal.
While these books won’t solve our problems, they will be good company in the struggles ahead. As always, we need poetry now more than ever.
Craig Morgan Teicher’s is a writer and editor, most recently of the collection, Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, releasing April 2016.