American poets Morgan Parker, Stephen Dunn and the late Robert Lowell are represented with new volumes this season.
“There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” (Tin House) by Morgan Parker is a brash, risqué collection that explores what it means to be a black woman in contemporary American culture. Parker, whose first book won the Gatewood Prize, is as self-assured as the women who appear in these pages, including Queen Latifah, Nikki Giovanni and Michelle Obama. Cultural references, old songs and classic poems spark observations about feminism, sex and desire at a time when “There’s far too many of me dying./ The present is not so different.” A variety of speakers make cameos, including Jesus’ wife, who has been erased from history, and Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, who have traded bodies in a “Freaky Friday”-like incident. Each woman in this fierce collection wants to be seen for who she is, not what society wants her to be, and each demands respect. As one woman explains: “There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé”: self-awareness and education, for example. Wryly celebrating personal growth, the speaker notes: “Combing your records you’ll see the past and think OK/Once I was a different kind of person.”
In “Whereas” (Norton), Stephen Dunn’s signature colloquial style invites readers into the work, his 18th collection. Everyday experiences — looking at the moon, struggling with a difficult student, joking about the state of one’s soul with the neighbors — become a springboard for deeper reflection about what it means to be alive and how people alter their perceptions of the world and themselves over time. In “An Evolution of Prayer,” for example, Dunn masterfully conveys how one man’s appeals to God become more complicated and seem less easily fulfilled as he grows older. The best writing here reveals a deep understanding of human longing and the desire to become more than what we are. In the penultimate poem, Dunn, whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize, articulates the poet’s desire that “What you unearth, resembles,/you hope, the real. You want that boy/ who used to read under the covers by flashlight/ to once again be astonished./ He is.”
“New Selected Poems of Robert Lowell” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), edited by poet and professor Katie Peterson, appears just in time to commemorate what would have been Lowell’s 100th birthday. (He died in 1977.) Peterson’s compilation is more complete than the version that Lowell himself released in 1967 and more condensed than the “Selected Poems: Expanded Edition,” edited by Frank Bidart. Peterson’s introduction is especially apt for 21st-century readers who might not feel an affinity for a 20th-century poet who was born into a Boston Brahmin family. Lowell, explains Peterson, “relies not on ‘privilege’ but on awareness to steady him through changes” that included family issues, political unrest in America and a lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Lowell’s willingness to be grounded in the language of his day and to use a range of styles — from formal to free verse, impersonal to confessional — allowed him to create groundbreaking poems of lasting value. What might resonate most with contemporary readers, however, is Peterson’s perception of Lowell as someone who “emphasizes the perishability of life.” Lowell offered days rather than moments, she says, entanglements rather than the fantasy of a clean slate: “He doesn’t simply live — he lives through” all of life’s complexities. That perspective makes one turn to the poems again, to see how Lowell’s sense of the drama of days might elucidate our own.
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