In one of these poems, set at a bar in New York City, the speaker’s grown son asks him how he could have betrayed his family. His reply is simultaneously baffling and relatable: “I was disappearing.” The son shakes his head. “The Absurd Man,” Jackson’s erudite fifth collection, examines the contradictions and possibilities in our search for meaning. “What counts is not the best living but the most living,” Camus says in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Jackson brings us across the world to dive deep into this surplus. With settings from Xichang to Philadelphia to Paris, the writing is sophisticated and far more than mere travelogue. Each place is a way to summon moments of keen observation about art, politics and regret: “In the Yi Slavery Museum, a Bimo’s / screeching dispossession of cries and words / reminds me: we have only each other in the end.” Moments of startling linguistic play disrupt Jackson’s elegant, semiformal style. Driving in Vermont, the poet notices how “the road Vanna-Whites its crops / of corn.” When he leaves his wife, she is “entrenched in her prison / of dreams facing her bedside clock ticking / off the minutes.” Two moving elegies, one for Ntozake Shange and one for Derek Walcott, are the central balancing points of the book. For all of this collection’s sense of displacement, both elegies bring us back to an existential truth that only poetry’s fierce tenderness can offer: “We’re bound to earth / and wear each other’s scars.”
By Victoria Chang
115 pp. Copper Canyon. Paper, $17.
Alternating between tanka, a compressed Japanese form, and prose-poem obituaries addressed to various abstractions — “blame,” “privacy,” “reason,” “appetite” — Chang’s fifth collection for adults explores her father’s illness and her mother’s death. In the book’s poetic cosmology, mortality is not a before and after state, but rather a constantly shifting enigma: “To / acknowledge death is to acknowledge / that we must take another shape.” The enigma is further complicated by the poet’s meditation on what it means to “help someone / grow while helping someone die.” The central tension of the book, mirrored by the shifting forms, lies between the desire for hope displayed in the tanka addressed to her children (“I tell my children / that hope is like a blue skirt, / it can twirl and twirl”) and the long, skinny obituaries that depict the gritty world of hospice, caregivers and grief: “They dyed her hair / for the funeral, too black. She looked / like a comic character.” Otherness, the poet reminds us, follows the immigrant, even in death. One obituary begins: “Home — died sometime around 1960 / when my mother left Taiwan. Home / died again on August 3, 2015.” Elsewhere, we find her mother is the only patient who speaks Chinese in a care facility. A serene acceptance of the grief that comes with mortality emerges from these poems, ultimately forging a path ahead for both herself and her children. “I am ready to / admit I love my children,” she writes. “To admit this is / to admit that they will die.”
IN THE LATENESS OF THE WORLD
By Carolyn Forché
77 pp. Penguin Press. $24.
“I think of you,” Forché writes, “in that sea of graves beyond the city, / where many stones have been left, among them, / mine.” “In the Lateness of the World” is a testament to the aftermath of human culture, where all varieties of stone, from “a little piece of dolomite” to “mudstone from temples and tombs,” mark the turmoil of history. But it is not just aftermath that interests Forché. This collection carries forward her project to document the struggles of people experiencing political disaster. In a departure from her previous work, she recognizes suffering cannot be centered as a merely human story: “In the sea, they say, there is an island made of bottles and other trash. / Plastic bags become clouds and the air a place for opportunistic birds.” Steeped in images of sea and border crossings, travel papers and suitcases, the poet’s extraordinary diction coupled with direct address generates a sense of empathy for the dispossessed. In “Exile,” one of three tender poems addressed to her former student, the prizewinning poet Ilya Kaminsky, Forché imagines his return to Odessa, a city he fled in his youth. A ghostly encounter with Kaminsky’s dead father maps deep layers of political trauma: “you visit again together the amusement park where / your ancestors are buried, and then go home to the apartment house / built by German prisoners of war, to whom your father gave bread.” Forché’s belief that it is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth from these wounded cities creates poems that are sometimes difficult to reckon with even as they soar in moments of unexpected beauty.
By Danez Smith
84 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $16.
Solidarity, love and friendship are the backbone of “Homie,” Smith’s newest collection of resistance poems. But can protest take a celebratory form? In this project of gathering and uplifting people of color, Smith (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) argues that the answer is yes: “all that plot / twisted up in the blood,” they write, “but tonight the land hums / all our dead’s beautiful bones, so let’s have a party!” As a black, queer, H.I.V.-positive poet, Smith inhabits a vulnerable body on the front lines of American violence. Some poems here are characterized by exuberant defiance to this violence: “say it with your whole black mouth: i am innocent / & if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy / of forgiveness, of breath after breath.” Other poems respond in elegiac song: “i call for God & out comes your name / & then your blood next, wraps its weight / around your christening.” This spirited and formally innovative work is also marked by moments of playful humor. Lines like “i just want a rich white sugar daddy & i’ll be straight” offer witty insights into the power relations that shape society. Smith’s idols are black activists and celebrities from Colin Kaepernick to Rihanna but they are also America’s unsung cultural heroes — single moms, cooks, weed dealers, teachers and, more than likely, the book’s readers too.