New Year, New Verse: 4 Poetry Collections That Change the World

Photo: Vulture

Poetry ought to be the preeminent form of this age — hell, every age. In a smattering of words, a poem can eulogize, satirize, criticize, proselytize.
The greatest verse clues us into what Jane Hirshfield calls “poetry’s knowing,” its function of “clarification and magnification.” It’s the quintessential hybrid form: an amalgam of essay, lyric, story, polemic, and diary. Poets are penguins, to paraphrase E.E. Cummings. They use their wings to swim.

More importantly, poets can reshape the world. In a time of duplicity and disharmony, they employ multi-dexterous verse for numerous kinds of revision — political, personal, aesthetic, and historical, to name a few. Four standout collections in this first month of the new year specialize in such transformation. These poets reconsider the past in order to to enrich the present and future. They recast popular American films as woeful monuments to bigotry; they use obsequious conversations at the supermarket to comment on war; they turn solemn prayer into self-prosecution. There is always more going on than what our eyes can see or history describe, and poets seek out those neglected perspectives and endow them with eloquent vigor. As one of them, Sally Wen Mao, yearns to say to a young girl like her, to all girls like her, sometime in the future: “go ahead— / rewrite this.”

Though the canon abounds with war poets — Homer, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Walt Whitman — fewer describe the complexities of the home front. Pamela Hart works to correct this by telling the stories, including her own, of the parents, spouses, and children of those who serve. “This isn’t a story of war,” she writes. “This is the mother on the idea of a son at war.”

Mothers dominate the collection. There’s Joanie, “not good at talking / when he’s home on leave”; Mary, who says “The Marines were good / for him”; and Kathy, who asks about your son “but really / wants to talk about her son.” These women attend PSTD meetings, compose stilted emails, and try, as best as they can, to “[keep] the household humming.” What unites them is the will to persist in hope while dreading the knock on the door — like “Private Jonathan Lee Gifford’s Mother,” who “says she doesn’t concern herself / With thoughts about the cost of war / Because there are days when she sits in her kitchen / Turning the blender on and off.”

Hart also considers ancillary war heroes, like Stephanie Kwolek, the scientist who invented Kevlar, and Paula Loyd, a researcher who was set on fire in Afghanistan in 2008. “On the Orange Jumpsuit” is a powerful eulogy for journalists James Foley and Stephen Soloff and aid worker David Haines, all murdered by ISIS, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who served 14 years at Guantánamo Bay without being charged for a crime.

Hart writes of these people, and her own struggles, with unwavering humanity. Though some of the poems on their own might read as slight, when taken together they form a necessary counter-narrative to the war story we’re often told, dismantling what Wilfred Owen called “the old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori”: It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

Laux writes with startling directness of the physical and sexual abuse she and her sister suffered at the hands of her father and its devastating reverberations throughout her adult life. “I want it back,” she declares of her youth in “Ghosts,” after watching a young couple across the street paint their kitchen. “She could have lived so many lives.” But there are other poems, just as frank and openhearted, that celebrate the wondrousness of sex (so skillfully that fiction writers should take note) and the depths of her relationships — reclaiming adult intimacy from the clutches of her tragic childhood.

Beyond her admirable tenacity and spirit, Laux is just plain wise — and refreshingly unpretentious in her wisdom. In “Democracy,” upon seeing some unfortunate souls on a city bus, she realizes “why people become Republicans,” for “if it weren’t for [those people] you could believe in god, / in freedom.” But they do exist, and removing them from public view will not make the problems they represent go away. As grief overcomes her in “Abschied Symphony,” the poet writes:

Death is not romantic. He is dying. that fact
is stark and one-dimensional, a black note
on an empty staff. My feet are cold,
but not as cold as his, and I hate this music
that floods the cramped insides
of my car, my head, slowing the world down
with its lurid majesty, transforming
everything I see into stained memorials
to life…

Laux’s new poems arrive at the end of the collection as a perfect finale, which benefits from what we now know of her life. So when she writes, in “Death of the Mother,” “You taught us how to glean the good / from anything, pardon anyone, even you, awash as we are in your blood,” we understand the bewildering complexity of this act of posthumous forgiveness, as well as the staggering generosity of the poet who committed it.

Working her theme of the eye (in Latin, oculus), Mao explores the way Chinese women are viewed — in every sense of that word — in our culture, past and present. In the first of two poems titled “Oculus,” she considers a young girl from Shanghai who posted her suicide on Instagram. “No Resolution” is dedicated to Ashley Han, the daughter of a man who “was pushed into the train tracks of an oncoming Q train.” Mao invokes the first Chinese-American film star, Anna May Wong, in a scathing series of poems that traverse the history of racist stereotypes in movies, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (“I yawn / at another generation of white men in yellowface”) to Sixteen Candles (“Now it’s 1984 and Long / Duck Dong is the white girl’s houseguest. He dances, / drunk, agog with gong sounds.”). Anna May Wong mutates, in the heartbreaking finale, into a “webcam girl.” Another figure, Afong Moy, who a note informs us was “the first Chinese woman to travel to the United States in 1834,” tells of being put on display by men who “knew I’d make / it rain for them.”

Mao presents the many ways in which Chinese people have become unwitting spectacles for American audiences on celluloid, online and in life — gazed at through a lens they don’t control, even when they’re behind the camera. By giving voice to, composing odes for, or revising these figures, Mao creates a poignant, albeit cautious, optimism. The final poem, “Resurrection,” finds her spotting subway posters for a “New-York Historical / Society exhibition,” which feature the visage of Anna May Wong. “But dear universe,” Mao writes, “if I can recognize / her face under this tunnel of endless shadows / against the luminance of all that is extinct / and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.”

Oculus is a deftly structured volume of hauntingly perceptive poems, peering backward through the 20th century while penetrating our contemporary moment. It’s an homage to pioneering Chinese Americans and an indictment of Asian representation in American culture, which never for a moment shies away from the difficult tasks of taking on race and history and technology all at once, but confidently looks them right in the eye, unblinking.

Of all the books here, Alyan’s best exemplifies poetry’s hybridity. She blends forms, tangles modes, travels through time and space and leaps from the intensely personal to the acerbically political. With scathing wit, fierce self-examination, and challenging syntax, Alyan’s fourth collection uses the threshold age of the title to investigate the poet’s struggles with alcoholism, anorexia, sexuality, and her own jumbled identity.

Born in Illinois and raised in Kuwait, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, and Lebanon, Alyan studied in Beirut, New York City, and New Jersey. Her poems reflect the cultural collage of her upbringing. “I’m divisible only by myself,” she writes in “Dirty Girl.”  In “Gospel: Texas,” she recalls her “grandmother / asking the Burger King cashier / for pommes frites.” “Pray Like You Mean It” infuses the Al-Fatiha, the opening prayer of the Quran, with the speaker’s catalogue of sins, including “hundred-dollar meals thrown up / one tequila / over speed limit” and “a stolen bag of cocaine.”

The men encountered here range from drunken, one-night regrets (“I kiss the bartender who calls me disaster”) to philanderers (“he texted me during the fireworks to say he had a wife”) to the downright monstrous (“I’ll fuck the Arab out of you”). But just as frequently, Alyan indicts herself. In “I’m Not Speaking First,” she writes, of her husband, “You wanted me thin, so I ate. You wanted me sober / so I drank. I’ve always liked my lies.” And later: “You know me. I’ll spin my bruised hipbone / into an affair” — one of several infidelities in the book.

These honest assessments begin, finally, to yield hard-won results. After she got sober, “a nurse … asked me about God. I said I have held / the engine of myself against my own ear and, dear miracle, / I recognized the song.” Alyan takes great risks, drips her full, naked self onto the page, and inspires her readers to embrace and examine our gravest mistakes, for every part of ourselves is a piece of a complicated puzzle that we can’t — mustn’t — stop trying to solve.

New Year, New Verse: 4 Collections That Change the World