New and Selected Poems
By Tracy K. Smith
221 pp. Graywolf. $26.
“Every poem is the story of itself,” Smith writes. The stories her poems tell share a number of preoccupations — history and grief, motherhood and mythology, art and identity, internal life and outer space — that traverse her four previous collections, excerpted here along with a section, “Riot,” made up of new poems.
A poet of formal breadth and consistent excellence, Smith has long questioned American individualism, as in this moment from one of the book’s new poems: “Is the world intended for me? Not just me but / the we that fills me?” Smith offers a multiplicity of voices to fill gaps in the historical record, as in “Into the Moonless Night,” which presents dramatic monologues from four Ugandan teenagers kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. “Riot,” the new poems in this volume, are inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’s volume of the same name and are formidable responses to the current moment in America, especially institutional racist violence. In “Found Poem,” an erasure of Woodrow Wilson’s 1924 essay on Robert E. Lee, Smith writes:
If you love a country
that does not
was conceived not to
want you I want
to remind you:
This collection is a commanding reminder that the former poet laureate is one of the most important poets writing today.
ALL THE NAMES GIVEN
By Raymond Antrobus
83 pp. Tin House. Paper, $16.95.
Halfway through Antrobus’s second collection is a prose poem in which many of the book’s thematic concerns intersect. “The Royal Opera House (With Stage Captions)” narrates an opera set in South Africa, with an “all black cast” of performers who “hide the white man who wrote it.” Antrobus lists what else is hidden in the composition: “We don’t see the oil or the Coca-Cola Company or land rights or coups or the arms industry or the drug companies.” Because of these omissions, the audience is “asked to have more compassion for the man who makes it out alive than anyone poverty trapped,” an observation that illuminates the legacies of British colonialism on cultures and individual values. Stage captions, inspired by the deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim and invented for the poem, resist the hearing population’s narrow understanding of sound. Across the book, Antrobus places such captions between exquisite poems. For instance, after a poem about the poet’s white, English grandmother throwing a racial slur at his Black, Jamaican father, Antrobus provides a page on which is written only the following:
[sound of self divided]
[breath on paper]
The “self divided” most apparently references a mixed racial identity. But as one reads this collection, one encounters a self divided between name and identity, hearing and not hearing, exhaustion and love.
A GOD AT THE DOOR
By Tishani Doshi
109 pp. Copper Canyon. Paper, $16.
“The shock we carry is that the world / doesn’t need us,” Doshi writes in “Self.” In this collection so concerned with the apocalyptic inertia of climate change and political violence, however, the self — that is, the human ego at work — is absolutely necessary. Doshi brings complicated emotions to our geopolitical crises; her poems swerve from humorous to plaintive. Humanity, for Doshi, is full of contradiction, of despair coexisting with hope. Take the opening of “After a Shooting in a Maternity Clinic in Kabul”:
No one forgets there’s a war going on,
but there are moments you could be forgiven
for believing the city is still an orchard,
a place where you could make a thing grow.
Throughout the collection, Doshi emphasizes these contradictions through her deft use of line breaks. In “Many Good and Wonderful Things,” for instance, Doshi writes, “History is always / reinventing itself.” At nearly the same moment, Doshi suggests that history is recognizable as one thing and likewise forever changing — two different statements, achieved by the micro-moment in which the reader’s eyes have to move from one line to the next.