Poetry reviews: "The Apple Trees at Olema" and "The Best of It"

Two of America's best known poets offer new collections for poetry month.

The Apple Trees at Olema By Robert Hass Ecco 352 pp., $34.99

When major poets release their collections of “new and selected poems,” fans often ask two questions: Do the compilations provide valuable insights? Are the new poems as good as the old ones? In many cases, the answer to one or both is no, and what should have been a literary milestone feels like repackaging.

Readers are hoping for two affirmatives from Robert Hass and Kay Ryan this spring. Both writers have served as poet laureate of the United States (a position Ryan still holds), and both have earned their place among the nation’s most esteemed poets. That’s where the similarities end.

The Apple Trees at Olema illustrates why Robert Hass’s work has been widely admired. He masterly conveys the beauty and fragility of the physical world and the people who often stumble and struggle as they move through it. His selected poems are earthy yet illuminating, complex yet clear-eyed, and as the work progresses, readers watch Hass experiment with line lengths and form as his subject matter, narratives, or aesthetics demand.

The result is poetry that seems to breathe, inhaling softly in some cases, exhaling sharply in others. The strongest writing almost pulses with imagery, as in the closing lines of “The Beginning of September,” from Hass’s prize-winning second book, “Praise.”

So summer gives over –
white to the color of straw
dove gray to slate blue
a little rain
a little light on the water

As the compilation progresses, Hass’s work becomes looser and more meditative, allowing him to explore the human landscape and his own experience – which includes growing up with an alcoholic mother, parenting, and marriage. The poems can be challenging, with lines that are languorous and long. Yet what earned accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, for his first five books, was Hass’s careful craftsmanship and his astute eye.

The new poems in “The Apple Trees at Olema” lack those elements, which make them feel like early drafts rather than finished poems.

Take, for example, “July Notebook: the Birds,” which begins with “Sleep like the down elevator’s/ imitation of a memory lapse./ Then early light./ Why were you born, voyager? One is not born for a reason,/ though there is a skein of causes.”

The notebook musings try to suggest spontaneity, but are too dense at times, too fragmented at others. The poems about Hass’s brother, who followed their mother’s path of self-destruction, sound oddly distant or disconnected. Even the more successful poems, such as some of the summer lyrics, pale in comparison with earlier work. There just isn’t enough of Hass’s discipline and thoughtful focus to satisfy high expectations.

Kay Ryan’s collection, The Best of It, is vastly different in tone, approach, and style. Her work is concise, exquisitely crafted, and explores the landscape of the mind, rather than personal experience. Those qualities set her poetry apart, as does her consistency. Every section lives up to the title.

That’s a remarkable feat, especially since Ryan’s writing is so unusual. She uses logic and insight the way most poets use narrative and description. She often begins with an observation that sounds as if it should be an adage, but Ryan doesn’t try to sound wise. Her poems spring from a depth of understanding that piques and holds the reader’s attention.

Take, for example, these openings from some of Ryan’s new poems: “It is at the edges/ that time thins,” “There are bands/in the sky where/ what happens/ matches prayer,” “The moral is/ simple: don’t/ help other people/ with their secrets.”

Each statement is rich yet easy to understand, and that combination entices readers – both experienced and novice – to follow Ryan down a slide that twists and turns in delightful ways. The poems never end where you think they will, yet they feel so right, so fully realized.

“Polish and Balm,” one of Ryan’s new offerings, is a good example:

Dust develops
from inside
as well as
on top when
objects stop
being used.
No unguent
can soothe
the chap of
Who knew the polish
and balm in
a person’s
simple passage
among her things.
We knew she
loved them
but not what
love means.

As readers move into Ryan’s selected poems, they will notice – and appreciate – that she handles every topic with grace and confidence, whether she’s writing about giraffes or someone’s bitter regrets. The careful chiseling of language and thought shape each individual poem as well as the arc of the book.

In other words, “The Best of It” lives up to its promise and has the potential to change the way many American poets think and write. The book may also earn Ryan the wide audience she hasn’t yet achieved.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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