Dear Match Book: Seeking Poetry With That Certain Slant of Light – New York Times

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Joon Mo Kang

Dear Match Book,

Got anything in mind with an Emily Dickinson or Anne Carson slant? Most likely I’d expect this to yield poetry but I’m open to less compressed modes too, if they sing and soar.

SARAH RAZOR
CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Dear Sarah,

When you’re reading poems it’s easy to think that meaning lives everywhere: with a bird in a cage, among skunks by the garbage, in woods filling up with snow and lilacs blooming in April and in the dooryard. But one of the singular satisfactions found in poetry lies in watching how the mundane stretches and shifts under a writer’s hand.

State of the Art

Based on your affection for two very different, inventive poets, I’m guessing that you are a patient reader, dedicated to lyrical mysteries and familiar things — plants and flowers or art and classical literature — seen in new light. Like Carson, the poet Susan Howe, author of the intense, poetic study “My Emily Dickinson,” writes about art and literary history with intimacy. Howe’s spare, erudite five-part poetry collection “Debths” includes a prose introduction, sections of poetry inspired by visual art, and another section (“Tom Tit Tot”) composed of tiny typographical collages, letterpress versions of which were shown at the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Object Lessons

The poet Mary Ruefle has written an art book, too — “A Little White Shadow,” published in 2006. But it is her “Selected Poems” (2010) that gives a wide introduction to the pleasures of her work. Loneliness mingles with rueful comedy, and ordinary things — in “The Balloon,” a colander, a toy bear, the bear’s missing eye and a black balloon — become transitional objects on their way to metaphor.

Out of the Blue

In Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets,” waves of allusions to art and literary history part to reveal depths of heartbreak in 240 prose poems — devotionals to the color blue. Mixed in among the refined distillations of the life and ideas of historical figures including Yves Klein, Vincent Van Gogh and a clutch of ancient Greeks are personal sections that are refreshingly carnal and witty and sad.

Mapping the Body

Colors also flash in “Blackacre” (“summer colors, orangey golds/and dim blues and there must have been greens as well”), Monica Youn’s collection of poems of radically varied lines and forms. The title makes reference to legal language used for fictional land parcels, but the book’s real subjects are the landscape of the body and the poet’s struggle with infertility.

Folk Art

The poems in “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who died last October, seem to spring from cracked folk tales. Throughout the book, grace and belief sometimes slip into view, but the images — a tower, a fawn, crows, and woods — belong in the kind of unsettling fairy tales considered too dark for modern children but just right for readers who like wild spaces.

Off the Charts

The steady, surprising rhythms of the lines, the embrace of faith and the intimations of mortality in “Black Zodiac,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection by the former poet laureate Charles Wright, will suit the sensibilities of Dickinson fans. The sweep of these poems is grand. Hadrian, Dante, Keats, St. Francis — they’re all there. But the language hews humbly and close to the page: “The unexamined life’s no different from/the examined life— / Unanswerable questions, small talk, / Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments— / You’ve got to write it all down.”

Yours truly,
Match Book

Do you need book recommendations? Write to matchbook@nytimes.com.

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