New collections to make life more lyrical.
I find myself returning to particular poems during specific months, almost as if they are old friends returning to herald the beginning of a season. As soon as the first true chill slices through my bones, I recall Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” where an adult recounts a childhood with a father who, despite laboring hard during the week, would wake early on weekend mornings to build a fire for his family.
It’s a short poem, only 14 lines — likely a variation on the sonnet, though not formal — broken into three stanzas built as five-four-five lines. It’s a haunting poem as we witness the speaker’s love for a parent who was seemingly distant with his affections, with the last two lines holding an achingly beautiful, constrained emotion: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Those “austere and lonely offices” not only bring winter to full realization for me but also echo the past two years of separation due to the pandemic. Where are the places we long for connection: for those we cannot visit due to circumstance, for those we have lost too early and suddenly, for the places and sights we can no longer access?
December is earmarked as a time of celebration, but it also holds the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. How do we get through the interminable dark? We fight through it with the light, with a Yule log in the fire, the candles of the menorah, or even just twinkling light strands threaded through pine branches. We tell stories, sing songs, and read poems to bring us together inside our shelters. In a like vein, these three quiet and contemplative yet powerful collections each embraces the restraint of form to unfold worlds of yearning and the need to bridge distances both physical and emotional.
During the first months of the pandemic in Paris, Marilyn Hacker asked her friend and fellow poet Karthika Naïr to collaborate on a renga, an interlinked form with origins in Japan and a precursor to the more-popular haiku. In A Different Distance (Milkweed Editions), Hacker and Naïr each exchanged poems using the tercet-couplet-tercet-couplet as directed, though often deviating from the stricter parts of the form, such as syllable count. The result is one of the more complete poetic pictures of the first year of pre-vaccine lockdown, both universal and fiercely individual through each poet’s lens.
A renga naturally lends itself to a spare profundity, and in Hacker and Naïr’s able hands, we bear witness to the loneliness, mundane sameness, and ever-present apprehension of living with the threat of death looming around every corner. For the poets, who live near each other but are only able to meet in person twice from March 2020 to March 2021, their longing and anxiety through this time of unending sameness peals like a bell even as they write about meals, music, and the callousness of political leaders. Naïr’s concerns about those left behind in the thick of the sickness is prevalent as she writes in her April 28, 2020, poem:
“Vagrants left unfed, unsafe,
even as the cops slap fines
on their unhoused hands,
and leaders applaud our state-
wide lockdown success.
Some deaths never figure, not
Even as nameless figures.”
Hacker contends with her faith, or lack thereof, and her own long-lived life while being a cancer survivor alive during a time of such death and grief, writing: “The length of my life/now defines me” and “My atheist heart’s/an impatient physician,/has no words to calm/vertigoes,/palpitations/provoked by a sentence/in a news brief.”
Despite its seeming brevity of both overall length and poems’ length, this is not a collection one can simply breeze through, as the enormity of the poets’ emotions and experiences are deeply rendered and strike so very close to home, as intended.
We turn to musings on the wider physical world in Charles Rafferty’s A Cluster of Noisy Planets (BOA Editions), his recent collection of prose poems. Each is fewer than 10 lines, perfectly nestled into this wonderfully aesthetic, block-like form and contains its own story, as if holding a brand-new bag of swirl-patterned marbles. The poems’ subject matter isn’t particularly heavy-handed but contains the intellectual musings of the poet, often focusing on the incremental changes to both humans and the Earth throughout time. In “Perspective,” Rafferty writes about viewing coprolites at a museum:
“The little cards speculated on the
animals that might have made them, but two things were certain: They
were older than any religion; they would outlast any poem.”
He writes longingly more than once about the night-sky view changing throughout his lifetime, which belies the current and forthcoming seriousness of light pollution. The thought of soon looking up at the stars and having them blocked by Elon Musk’s satellites is profoundly distressing; to be cut off from the visible infinite is an unthinkable yet horrifying possibility. That same night sky that inspired our ancestors holds Rafferty’s attention, such as in “Constellations,” when the speaker attempts to show his children Sagittarius:
“When I step/outside to show my daughters Sagittarius, the very center of our galaxy,/they point on at the twinkling of passing jets. I need my neighbor to/turn his floodlights off.”
By contrast, Danielle Badra’s Like We Still Speak (University of Arkansas Press), winner of the 2021 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, is heartbreakingly intimate in its grief and remembrance. It’s sadly fitting, as we just lost Adnan, a celebrated Lebanese American poet, this November, and since Badra’s collection centers on the sudden death of her older sister and, later, their father’s passing.
She uses the contrapuntal form to devastating effect, many feature her sister’s poems in the left-hand column, with Badra’s response on the right. The poems become tender, wistful conversations that can be read as separate or intertwined pieces. In “An Entire Universe,” Badra responds to her sister’s poem about mixed emotions with her own bittersweet survival:
“crying into scattered asteroid belts
while comets burn on impact
smiling I am somehow
Like all poetry collections, certain words and themes repeat, and Badra uses repetition to create a provocative echo effect; something as simple as an onion dipped in sugar plays over and over on different levels, beginning with “Ode to Onion,” which evokes Lebanon, distant family, and childhood memories: “My tears taste like red onion saltwater./I lick them from my hands, a favorite meal.”
Toward the end of the collection comes “Some Days Honey, Some Days Onion,” a poem that expresses the nonlinear journey of grief through intentionally broken and interposed language:
“staggering is grief my days some
song wild a was who sister my
and silence dead a her after
out held notes piano like sound almost echoes”
And in the theme of light guarding against darkness, Badra’s last two poems are focused on memory and love. In “A Candle from Rome, Italy (2003),” both sisters and their father are together in Rome, and he weeps at the feet of a statue of martyr Giordano Bruno:
“my father would not weep like that again/until he held my sister’s hands while she was seizing/I watched him weeping while my sister was seizing/we held hands”
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.