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.
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
It's no surprise that "Thirst" has been on the bestseller list for the past 29 weeks, or that it was at No. 2 this time last year. The book continues to resonate with readers because it delivers what they've come to expect from Oliver – precision, grace, and insight – and it shows sides of the poet she had never shared before. In these pages Oliver reveals how she came to the Christian faith, and how her practice sometimes falls short: "Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but/ still nothing is as shining as it should be/ for you." Some of the most moving poems in "Thirst" explore the loss of Oliver's longtime partner. "From the complications of loving you/ I think there is no end or return./ No answer, no coming out of it/ Which is the only way to love, isn't it?" Readers feel that ache themselves, but unlike Confessional poets, Oliver doesn't wallow in her emotions. Instead, she remains consistent in her tone and approach, and in her role of helping readers appreciate the earth and its creatures.
Native Guard, by Natasha Trethewey, Houghton Mifflin, $13.95
Natasha Trethewey surprised many readers when she beat two bolder, more-established poets to win the Pulitzer Prize last year. "Native Guard," her third collection, is marked by restraint and a quiet voice; it captures a reader's attention the way a whisper catches the ear in a roomful of loud voices.
That approach is apt since the book reclaims the voices of individuals overlooked by history: Trethewey's mother, a black woman who married a white man in the early 1960s, and the Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment that served the Union cause. Those stories shape the collection.
The poem "Incident" epitomizes her understated approach. "We tell the story every year –/ how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –/ though nothing really happened,/ the charred grass now green again." That understatement makes later descriptions more chilling: "It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns..../ The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;/ by morning the flames had all dimmed."
Many of the most striking poems are about Trethewey's mother, who boarded a train for California at 16: "She is leaving behind/ the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film/ of red dust around her ankles...,/ the very idea of home." That journey doesn't end well, nor do her marriages to Trethewey's father or to her second husband. Still, those losses do not outweigh the courage she demonstrated, simply by pressing forward, or the grief caused by her untimely death. This is the real legacy passed to her daughter, the same legacy left by the forgotten black soldiers.
New and selected Poems: Vol. I, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $28.50
If you could own just one Mary Oliver collection, "New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1" would be the obvious choice. Within these pages are some of Oliver's most famous poems – "The Summer Day," "Morning Poem," "Wild Geese" – each of which is achingly lovely and rich, with imagery that is spare, evocative, and essential. The early selections show the poet honing her craft and refining her voice; later choices demonstrate her masterful ability to focus on a seemingly insignificant creature, such as a hermit crab, and show how intertwined and connected it is with larger forces on our planet. Of the crab she writes: "When I set it down, it hurried/ along the tideline/ of the sea,/ which was slashing along as usual,/ shouting and hissing/ toward the future,/ turning its back/ with every tide on the past." Oliver sees what's important yet often elusive, "how the sun/ blazes/ for everyone just/so joyfully." Her powers of observation are keen, as is her ability to create vivid landscapes with just a few brush strokes. In "Starfish" she writes: all summer/ my fear diminished/ as they bloomed through the water/ like flowers, like flecks/ of an uncertain dream,/ while I lay on the rocks, reaching/ into the darkness, learning/ little by little to love/ our only world." Most of the poems in this volume focus on the natural world, yet when Oliver does turn her careful eye to a child in Jakarta or to people in China, the reader feels those experiences deeply as well.