Right now I'm reading Jane Hirshfield
's newest book, After
, and I have to say that I'm totally blown away. These simple and elegant poems stand head and shoulders above most everything that has crossed my path recently. The poems are spare and intimate, and each one falls off the page with a quiet finality. Her themes are nature and our interaction with it, the great tradition of literature as symbolized by the types of Tu Fu
, and the hesitancy inherent in ever claiming to know something categorically.
One moment, the mountain is clear
in strong morning sunlight. The next, vanished in fog.
I return to Tu Fu, afraid to look up again
from my reading and find in the window moonlight
but when I do, the fog is still there,
and only the ancient poets hair has turned gray
while a single wild goose passed him, silently climbing.
Poetry like this is refreshing to the soul, determined to make us richer, and to convince us that looking at the world in a different way, perhaps in a more gentle way, is worth doing. I've not read much Hirshfield before. She's the author of five previous books of poems, and a volume of essays. Damn the budget, I need them all.
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Many people think that politics and poetry don't mix. I don't believe that's true ? witness the work of Nazim Hikmet, Odysseus Elytis, Carolyn Forche, Leonel Rugama, Roque Dalton, Marjorie Agosin, Jack Hirschman, and so many others. All of these poets were or are ardently political. They're also all excellent crafters of verse, able to write equally beautifully about the world they live in and about its inequities and the struggle to right them.
But, sometimes we're surprised when a favorite author who we don't think of as political unexpectedly rears his or her head as a political poet. We've loved their work for years, and suddenly ka pow! they're challenging the powers that be with their art. Denise Levertov is a supreme example of a poet who is loved in her own right as a person of capacious vision, but who also developed a substantial body of work that dealt with the explicitly political. And, she's a fine example of an artist who is able to straddle this twin commitment ? to politics and to an unrelenting beauty in her poetry ? in a seemingly effortless manner.
Making Peace is a brand new collection of some of these poems, culled from her many books. Written over the course of several years ? and several wars ? they address the horrifying realities of our time with grace, beauty, and an indefatigable hope.
"Land of the Death Squads"
The vultures thrive,
clustered in lofty blue above
refuse-dumps where humans too
search for food, dreading
what else may be found.
Noble their wingspread,
hideous their descent
to those who know
what they may feast on:
the quetzal, bird of life, gleaming
green, glittering red, is driven
always further, higher,
This is powerful stuff for new and seasoned readers of Levertov's work. I gotta tell you: the book is great, prophetic, beautiful, and supremely necessary for the surreal and cruel times in which we live.
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Lara Glenum is a very different type of poet, but also very good in her own right. She is, as my dear friend Kevin says, an "attack surrealist." I'm not sure what he means by this, but what I read is that her work is rooted firmly in the vision and style of the likes of Breton or Eluard, and vigorously takes on anything and everything that crosses the path of her imagination. The Hounds of No is delightful: image after image pummels you relentlessly, and the book is intensely interesting typographically. Titles of individual poems include "The Manifestation of Male Hysteria," "Oedipus Sock-Monkey," and "How to Obtain the Girl-Scout Badge for Succeeding in the Afterlife." Check it out.