A roundup of poetry bestsellers
Five short reviews of some of today's most popular books of verse
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.