“I've made a study of bearing/and forbearance,” writes Mary Karr in her latest volume of poetry, Sinners Welcome, which reads like a stylish dumping ground for all the bitterness this attitude has engendered. “I'd left my homeland/fleeing a man I'd fake first caring, then not caring about,” she drawls in one poem. “He once wrote/he'd take the third rail in his teeth, which is how/loving him turned out” struts another. Make no bones about it, Karr worships toughness, turns it into a religion and a whip. With it, she keeps the reader in line. But the posture grows old and wearying—a shtick long since blunted by repetition. Know my pain, these poems urge, as they wind around and around an invisible center on the page. Irritatingly, Karr seems to be convinced her suffering dwarves our own.
Entering Ed Bok Lee's debut volume is like walking into a strange new neighborhood, where sights and sounds smack you across the face. “[E]y, what is that smell,” begins one poem, “skulking through the city this summer,/snapping at my dreams like a headless/duck on hooks.” Lyric but not excessive, wry without being glib, these are very companionable poems, the sort that make a strong impression and then reward with rereading. The best of them draw from memory. In “A Fable of Fruit,” a meditation on the mentality of “us” and “them,” Lee finds a world of meaning in an old dusty tomato once handed to him by a Korean green grocer. “Kimchi” swirls around and around his childhood kitchen, before switching off like a television set. Proust had his madeleines; Lee apparently had cabbage. It's about time we had our vegetables.
There are really two books inside Frank Bidart's latest volume of poetry, facing off like duelers at 20 paces. On one side stand lyrics of love and art, and Bidart is apt to note how both activities aspire to transcendence. But it is Bidart's lament for the finite and the destructive that creates this book's pocked beauty. “We could have had ecstasies," the poet cries bitterly in the breakup poem "Luggage." Other lyrics focus on lost friends or on talent left to languish. Memory mulches pungently in Bidart's work—the backward glance always encircled by a fog of regret. "We are darkness," says one lover in the exquisite title poem. "We are the city/whose brightness blots the stars from night." The only long poem in this volume, "The Third Hour of the Night," which is told in the voice of Renaissance sculptor and murderer Benvenuto Cellini, reveals how very dangerous the fusion of creation and destruction can be. But it is the shorter poems where this message is most clearly unveiled.
For a man who spent a good deal of his writing life contemplating his nether regions, hardscrabble West Coast poet and dog-racing aficionado Charles Bukowski has had an appropriately virile afterlife. Twelve years after his death, the archive of poems he selected for posthumous publication continues to cough up books, the latest of which is Come On In! Here are all the old Bukowski concerns: the flatulence and falseness of the so-called real world; the beady-eyed self-loathing that develops out of the mere fact of rubbing up against it; and the slow way Bukowski climbed his way out of these depths by writing. "I thought,/Jesus Christ," he says of reading a Truman Capote story, "if this is what they/want,/from now on/I might as well write for/the rats and the spiders/and the air and just for/myself." This is, of course, something of a posture, but Come On In! shows again just how effective a Pied Piper it made of Bukowski. In a world of fakes and frauds, he was the voice you could trust—a Howard Stern of the poetry world when satellite radio was just a gleam in some inventor's eye. But there is an anecdotal nowness to his poems that never seems to age. When Bukowski writes of shuffling off to a café to talk books with his low-down friends, of hunching over his desk to work, it feels as if we are right there watching. In today's environment of willful poetic obscurity, this is refreshing and terribly charming. Like Kurt Vonnegut, Bukowski reminds us we can all still be young at heart, true to our own best selves.
“A bomb falls in a hurry/thinking of something loud to say,” writes poet Ron Slate in The Incentive of the Maggot, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In Slate's universe, violence always unfolds with a sly bit of word play, a shard or two of history. In “Astride the Meridian,” the poet meditates on Greenwich, England, where East officially meets West. He wonders if Hitler's attempt to destroy the town in World War II was an attempt to obliterate time itself, or simply to create “a shallow niche in the flank of the planet/filled with the rubbish of conquest.”
For a poet of the 21st century, Slate feels curiously plugged into the past. Like W.G. Sebald before him, he worries over the moth-holes time has eaten into our memory. Pondering this erosion inspires a kind of metaphysical vertigo that often tips over into anger in these poems. “History begins with indignation,” Slate writes, “because it's so hard to remember/what's been remembered.”
Not all of Slate's poems are so global in their concerns. Other verses address loved ones lost and gone, the meals once served by his mother. But he is most powerful when delivering history to us like it was a love letter lost in the mail. In an old-fashioned world, this would be the kind of book soldiers could take to the front, for solace and political realism. But today these verses drift down from Slate's mind like a kind of rarefied intellectual snowfall.