A roundup of poetry bestsellers
Five short reviews of some of today's most popular books of verse
Last April, Book Sense's poetry bestseller list included two titles by Billy Collins. This year the Top 5 can be summed up in six words: Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. Oliver's impressive feat reflects both an enduring popularity and an unparalleled ability to touch readers on a deep, almost primal level. Rounding out the list, which comes from the Poetry Foundation, is Li Young-Lee, whose honors include the American Book Award, and Natasha Trethewey, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year.Skip to next paragraph
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Red Bird, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $23
Mary Oliver's newest collection, "Red Bird," leapt to the top of the bestseller list two weeks after its release. The book, which contains 61 poems, continues the trajectory of her previous collection, in which she wrote about her life and values more directly than ever before. This new offering begins and ends with a poem about Red Bird, a striking creature that "came all winter/ firing up the landscape/ as nothing else could" and eventually reveals a specific mission. "I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable/ beauty of heaven," it announces on the last page, "this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart." Between the Red Bird book ends, Oliver explores various facets of the human landscape: love, war, politics, prayer, and the devastation humans have caused to the earth. Some of the poems are quite touching, such as the linked love poems, while others feel strained, as if Oliver feels compelled to speak out after decades of observing. Her strongest comments, however, are not blanket statements or pronouncements; they are the images and insights she has offered throughout her career.
The poems in "Behind My Eyes" undulate between the past and present, painful memories and the road to enlightenment. The language, fittingly enough, also swings – from eloquent to intellectual, piercing to plainspoken – sometimes in just a few stanzas. This reflects the tension that underlies the collection. Li-Young Lee, who was born to Chinese parents living in Indonesia, holds dual citizenship, so to speak, in history – with its losses and traumas – and in hope, which is grounded in things that can't be seen. Sometimes Lee succeeds in straddling the two, and sometimes he begins in one realm and the poem leads him into the other. The book is strongest – and at times stunning – when Lee moves toward the metaphysical, as in these lines from "Becoming Becoming": "All of time began when you first answered/ to the names your mother and father gave you./ Soon those names will travel with the leaves./ Then, you can trade places with the wind." Other poems also offer transcendent moments, where Lee soars above uncertainty.
Thirst, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $14