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This year’s poetry roundup takes us from the streets of 1920s Harlem to modern-day Ukraine, from the wait for the Covid-19 vaccine to a sea that becomes a “whirlpool of grace.” We get a reflection on the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, and a poem in which Lucky Charms features prominently. Whether explicitly stated or not, these poets find the divine in anything and everything. They alert us that God is not only in the details, but in the details of the details—and the more these poets drill down into sheer reality, the more they reveal the Spirit beneath.

In her new poetry collection, Jill Peláez Baumgaertner displays her mastery of setting and imagery, expertly placing her reader directly next to her everywhere she goes —from Cuba to the former concentration camps of Poland to the Orkney Islands of Scotland. And even in those poems not set in a specific location, such as those in Part I of the book, which is centered around the liturgical year, From Shade to Shine takes the reader on a journey through Jesus’ life as we experience it in the church’s calendar. In “Death is the mother of beauty,” not only is Jesus present and his “hands are splayed/ against the wood,” but also:

the clouds of witnesses,
not always seen but felt,
their multitudes
never crowding,
always standing,
sparking light,
sitting, even reclining
into the plush of grasses.

This is one of Baumgaertner’s talents, calling our attention to the smallest details that then bring us to a greater understanding both of her poems and of the world they illuminate.

Baumgaertner expertly places her reader directly next to her everywhere she goes

The book also includes “Libretto for Cantata,” based on Psalm 139. Written in the style of J. S. Bach’s cantatas, it outlines a dialogue between a stubborn human soul and the ever-merciful Jesus. Though this is the longest poem in the book, it is by no means unconquerable. Baumgaertner provides enough of a thread throughout the collection to tie her poems together so that no idea becomes trite and no detail goes unburnished.
Jill Rice

In the Unwalled City, the 10th volume of poetry from Robert Cording, takes its name from the quotation from Epicurus that opens the volume: “Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it comes to death, we human beings all live in an unwalled city.” Inside this unwalled city is where Cording’s poetry lives as he processes the devastating death of his son, Daniel.

As meditations on love and loss, the poems are concentric circles of grief. Like ripples on a pond, they spread outward from the central dropped stone of Daniel’s early death. They engulf every part of the poet’s life and spiral out to encompass the natural world: “A Pair of Roseate Spoonbills,” which Cording desperately wants to show the deceased Daniel, or “Bobcat,” whose appearance in the backyard a day after Daniel’s death the poet wants to—but can’t—take as a sign.

'There is a holiness in exhaustion,/ is what I keep telling myself.'

As the circles ever widen, we learn more about Daniel’s death. First, the horrible empty space his death leaves behind. Then Daniel’s struggle with chronic back pain while he was alive. The volume ends back at its beginning, the final poem revealing, “My son died of an accidental drug overdose”—Daniel’s opiate pain medication. In the Unwalled City is starkly beautiful in its devastation and in its grappling with spirituality and grief. It is Cording’s way to ensure that Daniel is “never dead. Never nowhere./ Call it The Perpetual-State-of-the-Beloved// who lives in the world/ of Never-To-Be-Found-Again.”
Sarah Vincent

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. That’s the case, at least, with The Life, by Carrie Fountain. The cover resembles a child’s art project: jagged-edge construction paper, subjected to the unmerciful godhood of a child with scissors, bearing the title in glitter glue. It is as good an introduction to The Life as any, a collection exploring the intersections of motherhood, faith and the loving mess of small children.

One of the linchpins to the work comes early in the volume, a poem titled “How Has Motherhood Changed the Way You Write?” This question runs throughout the work, grounded as it is in the realities of family life; the answer is a combination of love, exhaustion, and the war between uncertainty and faith. (“First” opens with the lines “There is a holiness in exhaustion,/ is what I keep telling myself.”)

The Life is accessible, tender and meditative of seeming mundanities: a list of cartoon characters like a litany of saints, a poem about Lucky Charms and a running toilet, a stack of enchilada casseroles that “wait in the freezer/ for their big moment.” Some poems embrace self-doubt, while others celebrate the ability to be “moved by/ love, destroyed by love, and replaced/ by love.” Tying both together are poems like “After the Ascension,” which finds the Apostles discovering “This/ is the feeling of rising with faith alone”—a familiar struggle in both religion and motherhood, and the beating heart of this volume.
Sarah Vincent

'How Has Motherhood Changed the Way You Write?' The answer is a combination of love, exhaustion, and the war between uncertainty and faith.

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, by the former poet laureate of California, Dana Gioia, is a nostalgia-soaked tribute to Los Angeles and the poet’s own life. Containing both original work and translations of poems by Antonio Machado, Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, the volume starts with the titular poem, which recalls remembered nights at a shabby nightclub in “the summer of ’71,/ When all our friends were young and immortal.” Throughout the collection, the golden glow of memory ties together the disparate threads of old friends, old haunts and old ancestors.

“Three Drunk Poets” recalls poetry recitations with friends stumbling home from a bar, while “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz” uses what Gioia calls the traditional poetic form of the poor to tell the story of his vaquero great-grandfather. The poem is followed by three self-proclaimed psalms about Los Angeles praising Gioia’s ancestors, “the unkillable poor,” that invoke the “juvenescent rapture of LA/ Where ecstasy cohabits with despair.”

If that which is golden has passed, what can the future offer? It is not a question that Meet Me at the Lighthouse asks, but a question the volume leaves after it finishes.
Sarah Vincent

As the poet laureate of Madison Street Church, a Brethren in Christ congregation in Riverside, Calif., Nikki Grimes has devoted herself for years to writing poems to complement the Sunday sermons. She notes in the preface to Glory in the Margins: Sunday Poems that “if you’ve spent any time steeped in Scripture, you know that the Bible is rich in poetry, that poetry is one of its staples.”

'If you’ve spent any time steeped in Scripture, you know that the Bible is rich in poetry,'

Grimes highlights this richness in this collection, gathering about 100 poems that each delve into a text or two from the Bible. Because Grimes has organized the book to match the calendar year, January to January, with about eight poems per month, readers get to feel the rhythm of the church year as well.

In some places, the language is somewhat simplistic or the images and figures too familiar. Overall, the book falls into the category of devotional poetry—those unfamiliar with the genre could pick it up and choose a text for the time of year as part of a lectio divina practice.

The best of the poems meld contemporary images with the themes of her Scriptural sources. “Indelible,” for example, describes a searching mind looking at the Bible:

magnifying glass in hand
desperate for some special decoder
or that universal translator
we’ve seen on Star Trek
that can convert our tears
to language El Shaddai can hear.

Lisa Ampleman

I felt chills run across my neck a dozen times, despite my warm room, while reading the evocative poems in the anthology Ukrainian-American Poets Respond. The editor, Olena Jennings, explains that many of the poets featured read their works at two virtual events in March and April 2022.

Even the sound of shaking out a shirt after washing it sounds like a bomb.

All write with Ukrainian heritage and culture in mind, implicitly or explicitly, and while their themes are often the same—the smoke over a burning city, the sounds of bombs, the trauma of forced migration—each brings his or her unique perspective to the tragic invasion of Ukraine by Russia.The poet Lila Dlaboha, who was born in the United States, has volunteered on and off with children in war zones in Ukraine since 2016. The poems paint a raw picture of living in a war zone: Even the sound of shaking out a shirt after washing it sounds like a bomb. ”I jolted from the sound of a bomb in my palm,” she writes in “Day After” about a mundane act turned terrifying.

Vera Sirota’s “Despite all odds” encapsulates the resilience found in many of the poems and within the Ukrainian people. “Hope animates my heart/ despite all odds/ because this is a national trait,” begins the final stanza. With the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion on Feb. 24, these poems remind those of us who are far from the war that it is still a brutal reality for millions of people.
Jill Rice

In a re-release of Claude McKay’s first book of poems published in the United States (now in the public domain), Angelico Press shines a light on religious themes in the poet’s early work. The very first poem of Harlem Shadows, “The Easter Flower,” situates the speaker as “a pagan” who worships at the “shrine” of the “resurrection flower…. Yielding my heart unto its perfumed power.”

'If I Must Die,' is a plea for Black Americans not to be killed 'like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,'

McKay, a central figure in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, is most known today for poems in meter and rhyme like “If I Must Die,” a plea for Black Americans not to be killed “like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” and the book itself echoes today’s conversations about racial justice.

An introduction by the Catholic poet James Matthew Wilson acquaints readers with McKay’s conversion to Catholicism in the 1940s and situates the book in McKay’s biography. The 23-page essay reads more like an academic paper examining McKay’s Catholicism later in life, however, than a straightforward explanation of the importance of Harlem Shadows as an anchor for the Harlem Renaissance.

I was surprised by how much of the book mourned McKay’s lost Eden, Jamaica, where he grew up. In “The Tropics of New York,” for instance, McKay describes a shop window full of fruit, which reminds the speaker of “fruit-like trees laden by low-singing rills,/ And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies/ In benediction over nun-like hills.”
Lisa Ampleman

The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds, Orlando Ricardo Menes’s seventh collection of poetry, narrates the travels of a man with complex feelings about God. With roots in Peru, a childhood in Havana and Florida, and recent visits to Spain and Turkey, he shows us how a global life can affect one’s relationship with both art and the divine.

Love, not the law/ Will be my prayer. The human, not the divine.

In “Blackberry Tree,” early in the book, Menes describes a young boy thinking about Mary breastfeeding Jesus. “Fifty years on I now know that His Law slants/ to love,” he says, “and I will not eat their bread of shame/ leavened with fear.” Here and elsewhere, he objects to some messages from the institutional church, including priests who link the body to sinfulness. Similarly, “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” in addressing Abraham, concludes that “Love, not the law/ Will be my prayer. The human, not the divine—/ This ragged, restless world my only shrine.”

Other poems, though, demonstrate a desire for grace (“Grace” begins “We cannot buy it at Trader Joe’s”) and a quest for spiritual connection. In one spoken by Théophile Gautier, a 19th-century French poet, Menes says, “Watch me bless the dawn, watch me charm your sea into whirlpools of grace./ I will not desist in finding God, mine & yours, on these alleys & cul-de-sacs.” Menes’s poems, alive with sound and unexpected words, are as vivid in their descriptions of a multifaceted faith.
Lisa Ampleman

'Watch me bless the dawn, watch me charm your sea into whirlpools of grace'

In Holy Land, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell explores the Middle Eastern region known as the Holy Land, then many other lands made holy simply by the presence of God. Inspired by a pilgrimage she made to the places where Jesus walked, the collection begins on the Mount of Beatitudes and then travels to Collegeville, Minn.; Baltimore, Md.; and Ireland.

From “Lazarus”: “Your story bigger than you and us./ Four feet tall, ten feet under-/ ground,” to “The Land of Forgetting”: The words “slipped out of the fissures of my mind,/ wandered off and found another place/ to dwell.”

Each poem is a bite-sized walk through daily aspects of life, and O’Donnell adeptly guides the reader along the journey. While every poem is savorable, none drags on at a too-slow pace; each is eminently well-paced. Her connections to the present and to the places she is in let the reader in on the experiences she has had. These include standing at the Western Wall with the praying women and awaiting a new grandchild as the world awaited a Covid vaccine.
Jill Rice

'Each minor detail is for me a message, a glimpse of a fleeting angel.'

Luci Shaw, author of more than 35 books, writes poems that focus on how the small, ordinary moments of a day reveal the mystical: “Each minor detail is for me a message, a glimpse of a fleeting angel, a creative word from God,” she says in the foreword to her latest, Angels Everywhere.

While some poems in the book feel like lineated prose, unadorned with the sounds poets can use to make a piece sing, this approach would work well for those who appreciate directness. Shaw often also employs familiar tropes (the individual as a candle flame, life as a journey across the sea), but the book’s strengths are in its surprises, including the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and early lockdowns. This is evident in poems like “Quarantine,” which argues that to “love one another,” per Jesus’ command, might mean “to write/ a note to your granddaughter who/ struggles with distance learning.”

Shaw shows the importance of poetry for Catholics in particular in poems like “A Simple Service”—which begins, “The poet’s job is to notice/ and take notes”—and “Jesus Writes a Poem”:

A poem is made of metaphors: this
is that; those are these—emblems
and actualities both. So naked and
raw, these images. They invite us into
conversation with Jesus. Into our own
thirsty souls and famished bodies.

Lisa Ampleman

Phillip B. Williams’s book Mutiny opens with a kind of Genesis: “In the beginning, I suspect my index is on fire.” The rest of the piece, titled “Final First Poem,” pictures God as “bored too with ransom for art, allusions/ stacked like reluctant saints on a pyre: Eliot, Alighieri,/ Homer.”

These opening lines act as a foundational mythology for the rest of Mutiny, an overthrowing of the historic tyranny of white Western canon. Throughout Mutiny, Williams instead builds his own index, alluding to African folk tales, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Kendrick Lamar, Afro-Brazilian religion and Kiswahili philosophy.

In tense, tightly controlled, intricate verse, Williams rises in a nearly cacophonous crescendo. Among other things, his poems tackle sexual violence, Black identity, faith, and the death of his grandmother. Several address white consumption of Black pain, one poem calling out white literary journals seeking a tokenized Black “mascot,” mockingly asking, “You gots anymo uh dem po-lice poems wit duh/ Hippity Hop references wit dem thugs and da trees?”

'I tried to love them out of their caricature, back into a name, to love a name onto them.'

A standout of the volume is “Final Poem for ‘The Black Body’”: a drawing of a slave ship filled with the word “ditto,” referencing a ship’s inventory that listed one “negro man” and “negro woman,” with every other captive only labeled “ditto,” namelessly interchangeable. Below, Williams writes, “I tried to love them out of their caricature, back into a name, to love a name onto them.” It’s gut-wrenching. Mutiny is a powerful volume deserving of a slow read and a deep unpacking of the new index Williams builds for himself.
Sarah Vincent

We would also like to highlight new collections released over the past year by poets whose work has appeared in our pages: Maker of Heaven &, by Jason Myers; Raising the Sparks, by Jennifer Wallace; All That Will Be New, by Paul Mariani, and Begin With a Question, by Marjorie Maddox.

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