New collections to make life more lyrical.
April’s roundup finds me picking two collections that couldn’t be more different from each other except that they both, as wholly formed works from seasoned poets, captured my attention in what has been a month of howling gales and distractions, including the sudden passing of a mentor. While I love a debut or second collection from younger poets, reading the work of poets who’ve lived whole lives beyond their 20s is incredibly important.
(A side note: I am here for any debut collections from over-40 poets. I’d love to see more of them in publishing.)
Later-stage poets have a familiarity with their form and subject matter that can be reassuring, even if it involves emotionally difficult topics. The silences between lines can be longer, heavier with meaning; the format follows an internal logic understood by longtime readers; and there exists a deeper intimacy that comes from following a poet’s work through multiple collections.
I think of Joy Harjo, whom I first began reading as an undergraduate in 2000 — though she was already a well-established poet by that point. Each new project or book of hers helps me measure her growth against my own. I suspect every poet has a Joy Harjo, especially the longer we write. We find ourselves going back to what drew us to them in the first place; their longevity gives us strength to keep climbing in our work. We stand on each other’s shoulders, we poets, and it’s this reliance and support that form the heart of our community.
Tim Z. Hernandez’s latest work, Some of the Light: New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press), is a fully realized collection, and its “new” poems brought me so much comfort on multiple levels. In the first section, Hernandez chronicles fatherhood so beautifully that it gladdens my heart; it is past time to honor — and require parents to include — the presence of children in their poetry.
It seems Hernandez is the primary caregiver in his home, which gives these poems even more importance. I struggle with raising my son and trying to eke out moments to write. I also struggle to write about him while fighting against the dominant social conditioning to not write about him. Hernandez’s children are so gloriously present in offerings like “Unqualified Poem,” which condemns the then-Trump administration’s (and now the Biden administration’s same, if not worse) inhuman immigration policies, one of which denies detained children the ability to be released back to their parents.
Such cruelty is unspeakable for any parent who loves their children, which Hernandez brilliantly lays out via a sleight of hand with language and form, making the poem the object that gazes heartlessly, like the government’s policy, as it doesn’t “qualify/as human”:
“Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and I am writing to you
from my home in El Paso,
where I just had a mushroom omelet, coffee, and two figs
with a human who swore she loved me,
Where I can hold my son, Salvador, and kiss him now
if I want to. He might smell like old milk,
but this poem doesn’t care. Not like I do.
This poem — and its friends — will point its fingers
and deny this to be true.”
Hernandez’s confidence shines on each page, and while he’s not quite an elder, he is a teacher and a father, roles he obviously values and cherishes.
A poet whose numerous accolades precede her, Evie Shockley offers in suddenly we (Wesleyan University Press) a powerful meditation on Black art and how it connects and sings to Black people. What is particularly moving about this collection is how Shockley acknowledges, “During the period in which most of these poems were written, often either the time or the creative wellspring that I need to write was in short supply. At many points, I only managed to find the energy to produce poems when directly asked to do so.”
I know I’m not the only poet who feels this deeply, especially these days, so credit to the work Shockley previously produced that led to the requests for these poems, which she shaped like clay into a powerful book.
The ekphrastic form is always fascinating since it’s poet speaking to art and artist, and it holds an endless world of possibilities. I believe art begets art; I don’t believe in writer’s block. Whenever I need a creative boost or to get myself in the headspace to write, I pick up a book of poetry. It never fails.
I particularly love finding new art to appreciate, especially by Black artists, and suddenly we gives us so much of it. Shockley begins the book with a gorgeous, dream-like multipart tribute, “alma’s arkestral vision (or, farther out),” to pivotal painter Alma Thomas, playing with the words on the page as Thomas did when turning to abstraction later in life.
The painting Shockley writes about, “starry night and the astronauts,” is a moving image to see online, so I can only imagine what it would be like in real life, all those patiently applied, small, dotted brushstrokes creating an ocean of blue, with a tiny red/orange/yellow form that could be a boat or an island in the upper corner. Shockley writes in part II, “blue snowflakes/the night falling/through the night,” and in part VI:
“we sail the starry night
our brush with the infinite
our hope-soaked oars stroke
these glittering blues”
The “we” of suddenly we is established here, the poet and painter connecting to ancestors and the next generation alike. Those “hope-soaked oars” glitter on the page, and though I am not the specifically intended audience, they hold for me an enormous power. Shockley’s poems, even when angry or despairing, transform her collection into a portal.
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.