Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Shadow Mountain: Christmas Jars Collector's Edition by Jason F. Wright

From My Shelf

Tarcherperigee: Holiday Must-Haves!

Thunder Bay Press: The Greatest Brick Builds: Amazing Creations in Lego by Nathan Sawaya

Poetry Feed

For the better part of a week in mid-March, authors both acclaimed and emerging published stories on Twitter in the second annual Twitter Fiction Festival. Earlier this year, novelist Teju Cole drew special notice for employing his Twitter feed to publish a short story called "Hafiz," then again with his essay on immigration reform, "A Piece of the Wall." Buzzfeed Books ran the first scoop and then the second, and suddenly the story had become about so much more than literary experimentation.

The platform lends itself nicely to prose, much like serialized, Dickensian-era novels, but I often wonder if it weren't built for poets. Small presses, like T.S. Poetry, are cropping up, built around the social media wave, and I follow many poets on Twitter, where, poem or not, constraints on wordiness and context can conjure some of the most powerful images. I'm certainly not the only one taking interest in Melissa Broder's (@melissabroder) use of Twitter, which reads as delectably as her poems, her latest book being Scarecrone (Publishing Genius, $14.95). And Kevin Young (by the handle @deardarkness, after his superb collection) is another tweeting poet of whom I am very fond. His new collection, Book of Hours (our review and an interview are below), is now gracing bookstore shelves.

Young's latest trembles with the weight of grief, poems shaking against the void of those now absent as he confronts the death of his father.

Poetry's strength often lies in its brevity. It makes me wonder if an agitator like James Baldwin would have been more widely regarded as a poet had Twitter existed in his prime. All of his published poetry now resides in a lovely new book called Jimmy's Blues & Other Poems (Beacon, $16), but his renown was shaped more by his lengthy essays and novels, poetic as they are. Now Twitter, like poetry, has become that accessible platform for experimentation, for discontent, for beauty, for breathlessness--such magnificent qualities in a medium! --Dave Wheeler, publishing assistant, Shelf Awareness


Da Capo Lifelong Books: Veganomicon, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero


Book Candy

How Reading Improves Everything--Except Maybe Dating

Aaron's Books, Lititz, Pa., highlighted the "top 10 ways reading improves everything."

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"You overanalyze every word your significant other says, looking for meaning where there is none." The Huffington Post showcased "15 dating problems only avid readers understand," noting that "loving books can present a few unique conundrums for your love life."

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Some "great unsung science fiction authors that everybody should read" were revealed by io9.

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"In the Swedish tales of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, what is the name of Pippi's pet monkey?" The Guardian featured a "tales in translation quiz."

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For music as well as book lovers, Page Views featured "20 books that Brian Eno loves."

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The solid oak Deer bookshelf was "inspired by wild deer in the forest."


Bonhomie Press: The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel by Erika Mallman


The Writer's Life

Kevin Young: A Song for the Dead

photo: Melanie Dunea

Kevin Young is the author of eight books of poetry and editor of eight others. His collection Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels won the 2012 American Book Award. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and winner of the PEN Open Award. He is Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of literary collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta. Young's new book of poems, Book of Hours (our review is below), is an accessible, musical meditation on death, birth and the blues life can bring.

What early experiences drew you into poetry and the written word?

Looking back, there was a summer class I took and that's when I started writing. It was pretty early--I was 13 or 14. Before that I'd written little stories, but in this class we wrote poems, and that was just amazing for me. I started reading and writing what I could. I was living in Kansas so the bookstore lacked a lot of poetry. In a way, that was good because I picked up whatever was there and it gave me a broad view of poetry, then an eclectic one.

The poems in the Book of Hours have many themes, but the themes that pop out are death and grief and birth and joy. When did it become clear to you that the poems you were writing at the time would move in this direction?

I wish I had a dated time. I don't remember not writing them in the sense that after my father died, [I just wrote] for survival. You're not really trying to get some perfect thing down or even a poem. I didn't feel like writing at all. I certainly didn't feel like writing poems. Later I wrote the poems that were the odes of death and rebirth, poems about food. It was a way of talking about him and the hunger for larger things--odes to greens, odes to crawfish--all the foods from Louisiana where my parents are from and what I grew up eating. Then I returned to these moments and tried to capture what it was like in those days, weeks and years after he died. I don't know if I thought of writing a book of him, but I certainly wanted to get some of that stuff down. I find meaning in it. I think people do after grief.

Some of your past collections--To Repel Ghosts, for example--riff on your cultural heroes and almost speak through them. With Book of Hours, are we getting Kevin Young unplugged? Everything seems direct in your recent poems.

I think that as far as poems go, I specifically didn't want there to be an "I." I wanted it to be a "we" or "you," anything other than "I." I was writing about Basquiat, who I didn't know, but I seemed to know through his paintings. This is sort of inside out: I wanted there to be an "I," but I hope there is a "we" in the sense that we go through grief in different ways, at different times. I wanted that to resonate with people. I've been really honored to have people come up to me and say that's what happened as they read the book.

What does "the blues" mean for you? What are the blues in life and in poetry composition or art? What place does it have in your life?

Well, blues are a kind of map. They're a way of looking at the world and a record about it, that way of laughing that keeps you from crying. They're a way of trying to name a thing in order to get past it, as opposed to many other forms which are about glossing over it. It is really about going to the heart of the thing--not side-stepping it, but stepping through it and coming out on the other side.

There is a wonderful series of poems in the book addressed to your wife and child. What was it like to write these? I see some joy, but also some apprehension.

I think they came along the way. I was writing them as a kind of necessity. When your life changes, you want to write about it. I didn't know if they would ever become poems, but they seemed to, more and more. I love the language of pregnancy. It's like a whole other world. That was also part of the investigation of these poems--the pleasure of it, at least.

Later in the collection, in the poem "Pieta," you write, "I hunted heaven for him/ no dice." Are you talking about your father and his passing? How much of this poem is you shaking your fist at heaven, or are you just learning to accept?

That is a good question! I would leave it to readers to feel that out. I don't know if I totally know. I still feel so close to the poems. I think I was trying to understand the afterlife of grief, not just afterlife in the big sense. What does it mean a year or 10 years later, which it is now. There is a poem, for instance, about getting my eyes checked when no one in my life had ever done that. That's a crazy strange feeling, and the eyes become symbolic and that courses through the book. I was trying to wrestle with those facts and that questioning. Doubt is a part of faith. I also think the poems are interested in seeing everydayness as a kind of faith, and also memory, as in being faithful to someone's memory. There's a lot swirling around in there.

The last section of the Book of Hours seems like the place where you pull together the strands--the grief about your dad's death and the birth of your child. The language in that section is more simple and direct. How do you see that in relation to the rest of the poems?

I really wanted that last part to be resonant and musical--simple in the best sense, like a choir. I think pure and beautiful and clear are the sounds I wanted, natural and high, like reaching for a high note. They're kind of pastoral, which is kind of a natural balm which happens in grief.

I wanted them to have structure, and I thought a lot about an actual Book of Hours, which traditionally has hours of the day for prayer, so things are evening or morning. There is a lot of language that comes from the spiritual; the valley and the river, really large landscapes, meaningful places, some of the music I love and some of the feelings with wresting with grief. I wanted the voice to be muscular and something that wasn't talking about autobiography, but about self in the bigger sense.

There is a musicality to your voice. Sometimes people take poetry as this overly innate thing, but yours is blues-based. How do you develop that music to the line while keeping it simple?

If I knew, I'd try to do it more! I thought a lot about the line as a kind of music, and I really hope that came to fruition in this book. [I was] trying to create a song for the dead, but also for the future. What's great about music is that it's time-bound and also timeless. You hear a song you love and remember the moment you first heard it. Then, you hear it again. Poems do that, and they can do that over a longer period of time. I love that there are poems I read when I was 20 and that I liked but didn't know why, but now I know exactly why. We move through life and see different things at different moments, and that's the book I wanted to write. --Donald Powell, freelance writer


Lion Forge: Generations by Flavia Biondi


Book Review

Fiction

My Wish List

by Gregoire Delacourt, trans. by Anthea Bell


Middle age is a time for reflection. But for Jocelyne Guerbette, the 47-year-old owner of a haberdashery in Arras, France, the stakes grow higher when she wins an $18-million lottery jackpot. For more than 20 years, Jocelyne has lived an uneventful life in "a dreary town, no airport, a grey place." She has endured the loss of a child and marital ups and downs to a handsome man, now sober, who works for Häagen-Dazs and whom Jocelyne imagines dreams of driving a Porsche and being married to a younger, thinner wife. She loves her two adult children, but they clearly have lives of their own. Tending to the shop, cultivating lighthearted friendships and caring for an infirm and much-adored father have sustained her, along with maintaining a successful blog that has enough "unique visitors" that advertisers now want space.

Jocelyne narrates Gregoire Delacourt's compressed, evocative My Wish List in short, revelatory chapters, infused with an unexpected twist that speaks volumes about the nature of truth, love and happiness. When Jocelyne learns of her lottery win, she is faced with a choice: share the news or hide the truth? As Jocelyne reassesses her life--and everything and everyone in it--she compiles lists of what she might do with the winnings. Should she buy a potato peeler? A flat-screen TV? Or maybe a home by the sea? Or would the money wreck the however imperfect life that Jocelyne comes to believe she deeply loves? --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: Winning the lottery forces a middle-aged Frenchwoman to face startling truths about the realities of her life.

Penguin Books, $15, paperback, 9780143124658

Storey Publishing: Baking Class: 50 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Bake! by Deanna F. Cook


The World's Smallest Bible

by Dennis Must


In a small Pennsylvania mill town haunted by World War II, two young boys lie awake each night discussing the ghosts in their room. They are Ethan and Jeremiah Mueller, and it is through their eyes that we discover the fantastical world of Dennis Must's The World's Smallest Bible.

Lacking the diversions of television or formal hobbies, the boys concoct spirits and stories. At first, these are informed mainly by their strict Christian upbringing, but as they're exposed to more--the Nazis' nightmarish tactics, the eerie carnival lurking on the outskirts of town--these details are incorporated into their game, blurring the line between the real and the imagined.

Theirs is a world in which every idea and person seems constantly called into question. Preachers are taunted by lurid temptations and the ranting of amateur philosophers. Their lustful father stands in stark opposition to their pious mother. And as time goes on, even their mother is revealed to be a duality, encompassing chaos and order, darkness and light. Which side is stronger at any given moment is unclear.

Fans of historical fiction will enjoy the jaunty midcentury dialogue, as expressed in colorful phrases such as "the rowdies and their chickadees," "you're the mooncalf," and "Papa warbled for dames." The voice keeps the novel upbeat even when the subject matter is dark. --Annie Atherton

Discover: A fantastical novel about two brothers growing up in a Pennsylvania mill town during World War II.

Red Hen Press, $15.95, paperback, 9781597099721

Biography & Memoir

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert

by John Drury


George Herbert, a Welsh-born Anglican priest in the 17th century, led a quiet life as a country parson. It was only after his death, at age 39, that his poetry came to light. In this biography, John Drury (also a minister) invites us in to see how Herbert lived and created some of the greatest religious poetry in the English language.

Like John Donne (Herbert's friend), he's probably one of those metaphysical poets you studied in school and have forgotten. Drury reads the poetry for today, demystifying its Anglican, devotional lyricism to highlight the way many of the poems are about love--love of God, yes, but love of others, of nature, too, making the poems more "universal," less "scriptural." He notes that Simone Weil, the French philosopher/mystic and political activist, thought Herbert's poem "Love III" the "most beautiful poem in the world": "Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back."

Drury is good at demonstrating the significance of Herbert's playful and delightful use of new poetic forms, with some shaped as birds' wings or an altar. He points out that today, many popular church hymns draw their lyrics from Herbert poems, like "King of Glory, King of Peace." Composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten have set his poems to music. Join Dickinson, Emerson, Hopkins, Eliot, Auden and Bishop--all of whom appreciate the parson's work--in enjoying Herbert's poetry. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A welcoming, rich and illuminating biography about the great poet and Anglican minister.

University of Chicago Press, $35, hardcover, 9780226134444

Children's & Young Adult

Going Over

by Beth Kephart


Going Over, the newest novel from Beth Kephart, like her Small Damages, reveals the unseen scars of war.

Set in early 1983, it's the romantic, gut-wrenching story of Ada and Stefan, teens living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, who alternate as narrators. The deep friendship between their grandmothers, Omi and Grossmutter, dating back to World War II, means graffiti artist Ada has known Stefan since she was two years old and "loved him since the day I turned 12." With her grandmother Omi, Ada makes the journey across the Wall to Stefan's East Berlin several times a year. As Ada nears her 16th birthday, she is desperate for Stefan to do the unthinkable: cross the Wall. While Stefan weighs the consequences, Ada finds herself entangled in another struggle when Savas, a young Turkish boy from the daycare center she works for, goes missing. Kephart shows the struggles of life on both sides of a divided Berlin. Beautiful characters bring to light the power of love in its various facets. From rebellious Arabella and her American suitor to Ada's mother's new artist boyfriend, who may or may not abandon her, to the decades-long friendship of Omi and Grossmutter, love abounds in Kephart's novel.

Going Over carefully balances love and heartbreak, propelling readers through the story, constantly wondering about the fate of Savas and whether Stefan will be able to cross over. The dangers and consequences Kephart portrays are as real as the victories and joys. --Kyla Paterno, trade book buyer and blogger, Garfield Book Company at PLU

Discover: Two teens live on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall: Will one risk death so they can be together?

Chronicle, $17.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 14-up, 9781452124575

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud

by Tracey Fern, illus. by Emily Arnold McCully


Tracey Fern (Barnum's Bones) and Caldecott Medalist Emily McCully (Mirette on the High Wire) team up for the true story of a 19th-century girl who dreamed of following in her sea captain father's footsteps.

Ellen Prentiss's father taught his daughter how to hoist a sail, splice a rope and hold a sextant: "[H]e taught her something that most sailors and even some captains never learned. He taught her how to navigate." Soon Ellen has practiced enough to race the fishing fleet across Massachusetts Bay. Her father tells her to slow down: "A true navigator must have the caution to read the sea, as well as the courage to dare the wind." This advice later served Ellen well as she embarked on a journey on the Flying Cloud, with her husband, Perkins Creesy. Perkins served as captain of the ship, Ellen as navigator. On the ship's maiden voyage, they sailed a 15,000-mile route from New York around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco, ferrying people to the Gold Rush.

This suspenseful picture book will keep readers riveted as Ellen, Perkins and their crew race to outsail the other ships. They deal with a broken mainmast, "the doldrums" (mysterious areas of calm near the equator) and must navigate treacherous shoals off the coast of Brazil. McCully's action-packed watercolor seascapes give readers a flavor of the turbulent ride, while also highlighting Ellen's sense of calm when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. A map shows the 15,000-mile route. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Discover: The inspiring story of Ellen Prentiss, who navigated a 15,000-mile ocean journey during the 19th-century Gold Rush.

Margaret Ferguson/FSG, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-8, 9780374316990

Poetry

Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems

by J.D. McClatchy


J.D. McClatchy is an architect of the poetic form. He builds structural wonders with words and fills these structures with thought and reflection. The author of six poetry collections, McClatchy also teaches at Yale University and edits the Yale Review, in addition to poetry compilations for Vintage and the Everyman's Library. Plundered Hearts is a definitive collection of some of his finest poems from the past 30 years.

Following in the rich tradition of such luminaries as W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, McClatchy explores the recesses of desire, revealing what touches our hearts and what breaks them. In "Proust in Bed" he writes, "For the next forbidden fruit--the taste/ Of apricots and ripe gruyere is on the hand/ He licks--the next wide-open mouth/ To slip his tongue into the communion/ Wafer." In "Late Night Ode," he laments, "Some nights I've laughed so hard the tears/ Won't stop. Look at me now. Why now?/ I long ago gave up pretending to believe/ Anyone's memory will give as good as it gets."

His poems are like gleaming glass skyscrapers--formal, sparkling and spare. Inside the polished exteriors are the intricate, sometimes dark workings that make us who we are. And shimmer the poems do, reflecting not only the life of the author, but the life of the reader as well. We're built, McClatchy seems to say, with the same materials, just not in the same ways. His life's work highlights our differences and our similarities. --Jonathan Shipley, freelance writer

Discover: Passionate and intricate poems from an American architect of words.

Knopf, $28.95, hardcover, 9780385351515

Put This On, Please: New and Selected Poems

by William Trowbridge


William Trowbridge's newest collection of poetry can be distilled in the opening lines of "Kong Meets Godzilla," a lunch date between the famous movie monsters: "I was eating lunchware at the commissary/ when he called me over to his table/ and offered a seat." Trowbridge's poems aren't sacramental enigmas that one has to decipher. They're funny. They're strange. They're approachable. This is poetry that's warm and welcoming.

Poet Laureate of Missouri, Trowbridge has published five other poetry collections (Ship of Fool, Enter Dark Stranger). With Put This On, Please, he's included work from all those collections plus new ones. Peppered with pop-culture references, his poems might seem slight or unimportant, but they aren't. He easily captures the rhythm and hum of everyday life. Discussing Buster Keaton or Chuck Berry, King Kong or Wile E. Coyote, Trowbridge wittily explores our need for fulfillment and our failures in finding it.

Examining the human condition using Tilt-A-Whirls, The Maltese Falcon and James Dean is no easy feat. Trowbridge succeeds--making readers smile while plumbing something deeper than a giggle. "So here we stand, crossed up in time's unfunny/ funhouse, exclaiming, shaking hands," he writes in "Encounter at an Out-of-Town Bar."

Plainspoken Trowbridge extends his hand to readers with this collection. You'd do well to take him up on his offer. --Jonathan Shipley, freelance writer

Discover: Poetry that can be fun, approachable and thought-provoking.

Red Hen Press, $19.95, paperback, 9781597099660

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words that Move Them

by Ben Holden, Anthony Holden, editors


Charles Darwin described tears as that "special expression of man's," and it is still widely held that we are the only species that cries in grief or sorrow. The father-and-son team of Anthony and Ben Holden partner with Amnesty International to gather Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, an extraordinary anthology of famous men telling us about the one poem that can make them cry, along with the poems themselves.

The 100 grown men the Holdens call upon are quite a group, from John le Carré, Stanley Tucci, Kenneth Branagh and Chris Cooper to Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, James Earl Jones and Patrick Stewart. British verse is strongly represented: Auden is the most tear-inducing poet, with five poems; Housman, Hardy and Larkin are close behind, with three each. Five contributors even selected the same poems (including Christina Rossetti's "Remember" and Housman's "Last Poems XI"). Billy Collins tears up at Victoria Redel's "Bedecked," while J.J. Abrams sniffles at Collins's "The Lanyard," which "gripped me in a way that poetry never had before."

This collection is about the emotional power of art, and the Holdens cast aside any accusations of sentimentality or mawkishness. Anyone who reads Poems That Make Grown Men Cry will be roused, disturbed and exalted by the poems selected. As Seamus Heaney says of his Thomas Hardy selection: "The tear ducts do congest when I read 'The Voice.' " Sentimentality, indeed. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: An anthology full of surprises, as famous men tell us why certain poems make them cry.

Simon & Schuster, $25, hardcover, 9781476712772

Jump Soul: New and Selected Poems

by Charlie Smith


In Jump Soul, Georgia-born writer Charlie Smith's new poems are a mature vision of the considerable promise and pleasures of his earlier work, the best of which are included here. They are fierce, lyrical and fully accommodate the opposites held in each moment.

Smith's impact as a young poet was immediate: his first collection, Red Roads, was a National Poetry Series selection, and George Plimpton once introduced him as a young William Faulkner. His early themes--family, the failures to erase the distance between the people one loves, the power of memory, the inevitability of loss--are the stuff of life and of poetry, but Smith wakes them up with explosions of words and images.

Many of Smith's selections are longer, confessional works. In "As for Trees," his character remembers his boyhood to count "the stupendous oaks and hickories I climbed,/ catafalques and monuments, broken-down harassed, improvident trees,/ unconnected, poorly constructed unsought after trees...." Later in the poem, as the trees shift meaning and become symbols for the people he's lost, the word pleasure remains. This recognition of the paradox of loss in the midst of life's fullness is especially pronounced in the new selections, many of which are among Smith's best.

Smith's ability to make these connections--between the dark and the light, between seemingly unrelated images--to allow us to see something new marks him as a major poet. The kinetic energy of his words and the concrete and grounded imagery make this volume a pleasure to read. --Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: Charlie Smith's new poems (and the best from his eight previous collections) give a fresh look at universal truths.

Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780393240221

Book of Hours

by Kevin Young


National Book Award finalist and PEN Open Award winner Kevin Young's new poetry collection is a work of great emotional power and beauty. Circling around the themes of grief (the loss of his father) and new life (the birth of his child), Young has crafted a rare work of art that is both immediately accessible and deeply philosophical.

Young's poetry is capable of enchanting the ear and stimulating the mind in the space of a few short lines: "These the things the waves want/ thieves--kiss/ the coursing sand, lick/ the coarse shore smooth/ as stone." There are wonderful poems of familial bliss, even when the child is still safely ensconced in the mother's womb: "Between your mother and me/ it seems we are only one soul/ sleeping--one of us awake/ while the train cradles/ the other into dreams."

Regarding his father's death and the grief that followed, Young both shakes a fist at the heavens and accepts the down-in-the-dirt fate we all share: "I hunted heaven/ for him./ No Dice./ Too uppity,/ it was. Not enough/ music, or dark dirt." In the long-sustained last section--"Book of Hours," from which the collection takes its title--Young fully embraces the dichotomies of this dance with death and birth. His language achieves an almost zen-like simplicity, wise with the blues of life.

Book of Hours is a major work by an important writer at the top of his game, a rewarding and impressive collection, that may catapult Young to the forefront of American poetry. --Donald Powell, freelance writer

Discover: A powerful collection of poetry on grief and new life by National Book Award finalist and PEN Open Award winner Kevin Young.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 9780307272249

Caribou

by Charles Wright


After many years, many books and many prestigious awards, Charles Wright seems to be asking himself in Caribou if there's anything left to say. The beautiful black-and-white cover design certainly has something to say, with its caribou antlers and their shadows laid over a plain background, looking like elegant fingers reaching up for something--but what? Do the poems provide an answer?

The 55 poems of Caribou are arranged in three sections, each full of feelings, thoughts and ideas. These are quiet and reflective poems, subtle and suggestive, carefully crafted, mostly short. Some of the titles ("Ancient of Days," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Last Word," "I've Been Sitting Here Thinking Back over My Life") point to the book's underlying theme, while the last poem, "Translations from a Forgotten Tongue," confronts time, a night sky, the "other side," with a question:

"Under the push of our footprints,
the earth is ready for us.
Who knows how long this will go on?"

Wright tells us these are poems "written by someone who's spent his life/ Looking for the truth." He also tells us there isn't one "truth." Rather, these poems rejoice in a setting sun, autumn, the simple things of nature, a "slight wrinkle on the pond." As he writes in "So Long It's Been Good to Know You":

"The bat swoops over, listening for food.
It's starting to rain and I got to go home.
Be good,
See that my grave is kept clean."
                 --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

Discover: A profound and thoughtful collection of poems from one of our finest poets--"an old man's poetry," looking, always looking.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, hardcover, 9780374119027

Bicentennial

by Dan Chiasson


Epic yet intimate, Dan Chiasson's fourth poetry collection evokes Milton and Blake with its nuanced states of innocence and experience. The title poem depicts Chiasson as a five-year-old boy, hoisted onto his neighbor's shoulders to watch the 1976 bicentennial festivities in Boston. From this vantage point, he imagines seeing his absentee father--who fled to South Korea with a new wife and a Taiwanese reggae band--dancing down the street "with his brand-new family." In "One on One," the poet cheekily chides this father, who also trekked to Alaska to teach English to the Inuits: "The choice is to stick around on a slender chance/ a person's son turns into a canonical writer./ The point is not to shiver on the horizon/ And correct an Inuit's prepositions."

While Chiasson's questing father represents the unreliable past, the unrevealed future can be comforting. The poet, now also a father, tells his children, "All of history, even the Romans/ they happen later, tonight sleep tight." Although Chiasson claims he never knew his father, the older man's features "idle inside/ And thicken my sons' cheekbones."

In "Star Catcher," the poet's reference to Thurman Munson--the New York Yankees player who died in 1979 while practicing landing his Cessna--brings to mind the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Throughout, Chiasson's main motif is the Ferris wheel; like Yeats's widening gyre, it spins forward and backward in time. Bicentennial is both tragic and comic, exploring the tension between past and present, tradition and progress, colonization and independence. --Thuy Dinh, editor, Da Mau magazine

Discover: Elegiac, deeply affecting poems on fate and free will, fathers and sons, public and private histories.

Knopf, $26.95, hardcover, 9780385349819

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