EARLIER POEMS (Knopf, May 8, 272 pages, $26) is a compilation of the many books and chapbooks that FRANZ WRIGHT published before 2001, when he came into his own and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a work filled with pain, loss, and sadness — a collection of young man’s poems that often reads like a prayer to poetry. For long stretches, Wright is his only subject. Yet over the course of 245 pages, he delves deeper with arid but not desert-like effect, searching for what is described by one of his titles as “A Place to Be.” Here, Wright’s despair is so intense that one would expect him to hear his own voice, pause, and make light of it. Yet his humor is dry enough to be, as one line puts it, “The extension cord to the black house.” Readers who are just discovering Wright will have to read only a few pages to know if his poetry is for them. His voice is that indelible.
CHARLES NORTH’s CADENZA (Hanging Loose Press, 76 pages, $15, paper) continues his pursuit of what poetry can be. His poems are improbable and wholehearted engagements of a man’s imagination with life and language, which, here, are presented as harmonious entities. While North adeptly commands life-giving language in an eight-line poem like “My Ship Has Sails,” he is equally as adventurous with longer works like “Cadenza” and “Boul’ Mich.” His work displays a particular ability to turn on a dime, yet also allows a beautiful poem such as “Romantic Note” to remain that. There’s nothing fussy or experimental here, just freestanding poems of original and exhilarating character, devoid of overbearing description.
What sets KEVIN YOUNG’s books apart from other collections of poems? They have been built around, in order: the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, blues, detective fiction, and — with FOR THE CONFEDERATE DEAD (Knopf, 176 pages, $24.95) — what the flap describes as “African American griefs and passages.” Here, Young has written individual — not serial — poems that combine to form long ones. (It must be noted that Young edited John Berryman’s selected poems in the Library of America “American Poets Project” series, so it is fair to assume that Berryman’s Dream Songs had an impact on him.) His subjects range from Gwendolyn Brooks to Lionel Hampton’s last concert in Paris, Jim Crow to Phyllis Wheatley, and a trip to Spain that inspired “Guernica.” The predominant theme, however, is the division of the black and white races in American life and how this has created a legacy that the black writer cannot escape and must therefore embrace. Young is a documentary poet whose means are so basic and confidence so steady that many of his poems could be ascribed to Trad or Anon. Each book leaves the reader with the impression that he’s heard this music before, seen this life somewhere, and knows the truth of it but is estranged — perhaps on purpose — from the implications of what he knows.
REBEL YELLS: For Kevin Young, the division between black and white in America is a legacy the black writer cannot escape.
ELAINE EQUI’s new and selected poems contained in RIPPLE EFFECT (Coffee House Press, 270 pages, $18, paper) represent 30 years’ worth of work that is both self-confident and unafraid of outside influence. Indeed, Equi embraces a veritable phonebook of enthusiasms, from John Coltrane to Louis Zukofsky, David Hockney to the Bible, and Joe Brainard to Lorine Niedecker, whose work has perhaps meant more to her than any other poet. Basil Bunting once praised Niedecker for being so subtle with so few words, yet, while Equi has developed this skill, she is not as austere or as bookish as Niedecker. Instead, she is an urban woman — a New Yorker from Chicago — who knows how to say “yes” to her sense of humor and accepts what the muse gives her without attempting to inflate a minor moment. This is not a poet of big, gloomy thoughts — the imponderables that critics like to exalt as important — but of small jets of life that, in the right words, are here and now.