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3 Books That Capture America In Poetry


Our poetry reviewer, Tess Taylor, is sharing some books that she says capture different voices from American life right now. One's by a poet from West Virginia, another an immigrant and a third an African-American woman. Hi, Tess.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Ari, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. Let me start with a really basic question. Doesn't every American poet in some way capture different voices from American life? What binds these three particular collections together?

TAYLOR: Well, it is really true. I mean, Walt Whitman in "Leaves Of Grass" said, I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear. And I just think, you know, it's very American to capture some segment of your life and amplify it to become part of a wider American fabric. And that was happening a lot in poetry collections this year. I just picked three that really spoke to me and felt like they spoke to the wider American moment.

SHAPIRO: And these three are very specific versions of American life. In William Brewer's collection "I Know Your Kind," it's stories of white Americans dying from opioid overdoses and struggling with addiction. In "Unaccompanied" by Javier Zamora, who is an immigrant from Central America, it's stories of people trying to cross the border, in some cases suffering and dying. And then "Starshine And Clay," which is a collection by Kamilah Aisha Moon, has poems to or about some of the young African-American men who have died at the hands of police. There's a lot of darkness in them.

TAYLOR: There is a lot of darkness in them. But they're also such wonderful personal stories that let us into empathy, I think. So one of the things I think can be amazing about poetry is that when you're reading a poem, you're not only inside somebody's story. You're inside their breath. You know, you're inside the way that they've patterned language with their breath.

And so it's a really amazing way of coming to understand somebody else's life and, actually, the lives of lots of other people. So I thought these collections were particularly brave in that they all were really rooted in the personal, and yet they spoke to and for these wider problems that we as Americans are facing, these wider challenges.

SHAPIRO: Let's get specific. Give us an example from one of these collections.

TAYLOR: Oh, well, you started with William Brewer's book, and I will, too. You know, it's set in West Virginia and from a section of West Virginia that's really leading the nation in opioid addiction right now. And so it seems like the characters in this book are suffering. They're rising and falling. They're trying so hard to get back on their feet. And Brewer writes about them with such, you know, inner knowledge and such compassion. He's got this incredibly sad language - refill, refill, refill until they stopped. Then I fixed on scraping out my veins, a trembling maze, a skein of blue. And, you know, sometimes he's clever. He says, I wear a belt because my pants don't fit. My pants don't fit because I wear a belt.

SHAPIRO: These poems feel so physical. There's so much about the body. I mean, obviously it's poetry. There's conceptual stuff. But a lot of it is, like, hitting somebody's hand with a hammer to go to the emergency room to get painkillers.

TAYLOR: Exactly. And then there's these incredibly dreamy, mythic images of Icarus rising and falling, of geese rising and falling, of people stumbling, of people hoping, of people losing each other. And I love this book because it brought us into such empathy and compassion and tenderness towards this suffering.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about Javier Zamora's book "Unaccompanied," which is really focused on the border and the experience of trying to cross the border.

TAYLOR: Yes, it is. Javier Zamora was left by his parents when he was young and lived with his grandmother. And he was sent across the border when he was 9. And his sense of longing, of being displaced - and this is a collection of poetry that brings this experience that many, many people are going through down to this human scale. You know, the feeling of losing your backyard or your rosebushes or your grandmother and longing for other people, of adjusting to a new country. And so he's doing us this incredible service because this is something that, you know, some people read about as just sort of a news phenomenon. It becomes incredibly personal in his hands.

SHAPIRO: There's one of these poems in the collection that is just so beautifully human. It's called "Let Me Try Again." And it describes people trying to cross the border, meeting a border agent. And it says, (reading) procedure says he should have taken us back to the station, checked our fingerprints, et cetera. He must've remembered his family over the border or the border coming over them because he drove us to the border and told us, next time rest at least five days. Don't trust anyone calling themselves coyotes. Bring more tortillas, sardines, Alhambra. He knew we would try again and again like everyone does.

TAYLOR: I love those lines. And I love the figure of trying and trying again because this is a book really about longing, you know? And it's a book about trying to belong, trying to arrive, trying to go home, missing where you're from.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the third collection you've brought here. It's called "Starshine And Clay" by Kamilah Aisha Moon.

TAYLOR: You know, it was funny. I was thinking of these three books together, and I realized that the Moon book was incredibly moving to me because it's sort of Whitman even deeper. It's Whitman singing the body electric. These other poems that are sort of American carols about American bodies tell these stories of American life.

And Kamilah Aisha Moon does that as well. You know, she's talking about what it's like to be in a black body, in a woman's body, in a sick body, in a body that needs surgery. She's talking about all these things at different times and all at once. And they are poems that are so rich with empathy and compassion, you know, for other people, for herself, for the kind of sufferings of the body. And I just found that they were just wonderful. I almost couldn't put this collection down. I read it all through.

SHAPIRO: One of my favorite poems in this collection was towards the end. And I think it speaks to an experience many of us have had. The title is "To A Dear Friend Mothering Misery." And it says, (reading) every time your grief cries, you pick it up, cradle it like a newborn. But your pain isn't precious, not your lifelong responsibility. For each doting moment, your soul refuses to sing for days. And the world needs your music too much.

It goes on from there, but to me, that sentiment is just so universal.

TAYLOR: And I think it speaks to poets. The world needs your music. One of my favorite lines in this book of poems is also the first where - it's the - literally the first line in the book says, haunted by wholeness. And I really think haunted by wholeness - that's what I loved about these collections, is that they each held a fragment of American experience, and yet they spoke in a way that made us all feel more whole, as if we're leaning towards something bigger through them. And so, you know, as we're all gathering for the holidays and gathering with each other, with our families, it was really great to celebrate this kind of wider American experience captured in poetry in these three books.

SHAPIRO: Those books once again are "Starshine And Clay" by Kamilah Aisha Moon, "Unaccompanied" by Javier Zamora and "I Know Your Kind" by William Brewer. Tess Taylor. Her latest collection is "Work And Days." Tess, it's been great talking with you. Thanks so much.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Ari, a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ CAM QUARTET'S "REBIRTH OF COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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