Ah, the pleasures of a slender volume of verse. Like the one leaf left glowing on a late autumn tree, it is a captivating thing, made all the more powerful by its hint of the ephemeral, its brevity. Yet a tome of poems can be equally enthralling, with a pleasurable heft that comes not just from page-count but from the rich accumulation of a poet’s voice. Sure, vita is brevis, but a generous gathering of poetry goes a long way toward reassuring us that art does indeed last, and that, in a way, we last within it.
When several large poetry collections arrived at the bookstore this November, it dawned on me that 2012 has been a particularly fruitful year for such books, one of those years when a poetry lover’s library gains volumes that will be kept as touchstones. So, I thought we’d walk the shelves and look at a few of them.
The latest to cross our threshold is Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glück, one of the most compelling poets writing today. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize, she has spent the last fifty years creating a poetry of fierce beauty, or maybe beautiful ferocity. Written in unadorned yet transporting language, her work is both intimately personal and powerfully archetypal. Dreams and myths are interleaved with memories of childhood and an adult’s hard-earned understanding. This volume, jointly published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Ecco, comprises all eleven of her collections, and like the planet on its cover, draws the reader into its orbit.
I take my basket to the brazen market,
to the gathering place.
I ask you, how much beauty
can a person bear? It is
heavier than ugliness, even the burden
of emptiness is nothing beside it.
Crates of eggs, papaya, sacks of yellow lemons–
I am not a strong woman. It isn’t easy
to want so much, to walk
with such a heavy basket, either
bent reed, or willow.
In two cases, this year brought both a new collection and, sadly, news of the poet’s death. The iconic and influential writer Adrienne Rich died this March at 82, leaving behind a body of work that is ardent, urgent, provocative and embracing. W. W. Norton, her longtime publisher, recently released Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971-2012, a selection she herself made from twelve volumes of her work. It includes some of her most lauded poems as well as ten previously uncollected pieces. She was a citizen of the world, loving it deeply even as she was deeply pained by the injustice she saw here.
from “For Memory”
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark–
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together inch-by-inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
Earlier this year marked the much anticipated arrival of Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, published by Knopf, which contains all his work along with twenty pages of uncollected poetry. A poet whose volumes have come slowly and whose earlier work hasn’t been readily available, Gilbert lived to see this book’s publication but died in November after a debilitating illness. His lyrical poetry can be as light-saturated as the Greek island he lived on for a number of years and as gritty as his native Pittsburgh. He wrote movingly of love and of loss in poems that are sensual, intense and quietly graceful.
from “Haunted Importantly”
In Madrid, he heard a bell begin somewhere
in the night rain. Worked his way through
the tangle of alleys, the sound deeper and more
powerful as he got closer. Short of the plaza,
it filled all of him and he turned back. No need,
he thought, to see the bell. It was not the bell
he was trying to find, but the angel lost
in our bodies. The music that thinking is.
He wanted to know what he heard, not to get closer.
That Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was one of the original poetic voices of our time is revealed in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, published by BOA Editions and combining all of her volumes and many unpublished poems. Within its more than 700 pages is poetry of family, of the African-American experience, of womanhood, but that is not to reduce her work to its supposed frequent “topics.” As Toni Morrison notes in her foreword, Clifton was a “stone-eyed intellect.” Her multifarious intelligence could at times seem otherworldly—she inhabited both physical and spiritual plains. While her work could be contemporary and personal, she was often drawn to tell and retell ancient tales. She was an enlightened and enlightening poet, and this collection shines a welcome light on her work.
someone is helping me with onions
who peels in the opposite direction
without tears and promises
different soup. i sit with her
watching her learning to love her but
who is she who is she who
The poetry of Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz (1914-1998) has been released by New Directions in a new volume that ranges from his first poem, published at seventeen, to his last, written two years before his death. A bilingual edition, it includes poems that have never before appeared in English as well as new translations based on Paz’s final revisions, all overseen by Eliot Weinberger, who has translated Paz’s writing for more than forty years. Grounded yet metaphysical, vitally musical, and deeply humane, the work in The Poems of Octavio Paz is, as Susan Sontag wrote, “intensely alert, serenely readable, [and] often thrilling.”
“Concert in the Garden”
The hour is an enormous eye.
Inside it, we come and go like reflections.
The river of music
enters my blood.
If I say body, it answers wind.
If I say earth, it answers where?
The world, a double blossom, opens:
sadness of having come,
joy of being here.
I walk lost in my own center.
The nearly thousand pages of Edward Dorn’s Collected Poems, published by England’s Carcanet Press, should go a distance toward bringing this under-recognized, inventive poet some new readers — and satisfy those ardent followers who have sought out his work over the years. Though he was born in 1929 in rural Illinois, he is often thought of as a poet of the West, where he traveled as a young man and eventually settled, teaching at the University of Idaho and the University of Colorado. He died of cancer in 1999 (his sharp wit present to the end, he titled his last book Chemo Sábe). This deliciously thick volume has all his work, including his famous Gunslinger series, with its talking horse, and many previously uncollected pieces. He was a passionate iconoclast and an immensely skillful poet.
from “Hands Up”
desperadoes are only desperate
and brown pastures
are there our battles
with hands off, nature
let me be
one who, as I can
turn green, russet
tan and gold
let mine eyes turn
to mountains with patches
with the famous indian
in the cold shack
surculose, that word,
please pass the dignity
under the gale from that
I’ll end the Big Book Tour here. Oh, let’s go ahead and call them doorstops. There’s no shame in that. After all, they keep a door open.
Christine Deavel co-owns Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of two poetry-only bookstores in the United States. Her collection of poetry, Woodnote, won a 2012 Washington State Book Award.