Ted Kooser writes like some smiley old geezer who lives in a Nebraska sod house and wanders into every Nebraska dawn with a corncob pipe and his faithful hound-dog Buttercup to jot down a few notes, Wordsworth-style, on nature. He also writes poetry of a recognizable and humiliating sort, conjuring up the good old days when men were men and dogs were dogs and poetry was poetry—as Kooser understands it, either comic metaphysical or maudlin metaphysical. Of a thunderstorm:

I saw some trees jostling each other, scrambling

for cover, and one of the ones in the lead—

there were several, shoulder to shoulder—

without slowing, turned back, and tossed

a squirrel to a tree just behind, which bent

forward—the squirrel’s little legs scrabbling

for purchase—and scooped it right out

of the air, tucking it under a limb,

and they all ran on into the rain.

Those lines should begin a children’s book. This is clever stuff, if cleverness is a jackhammer.

Subtlety has never been Kooser’s strong suit. Most of these squibs—and Cotton Candy is self-consciously a book of squibs—take an insufferable metaphor and stretch it like a fan belt until it snaps.1 A poet who sees a line of pond turtles and thinks of a “row of upholstery tacks” may have eyes sharp as, well, tacks; yet for the rest of the poem he can’t help grinding and grinding the metaphor until it turns to dust.

In Kooser we get the stray snatch of country rambling:

Today, on a country road, I found myself

driving behind the shadow of a cloud,

a mere puff of a cloud with a shadow

almost as wide as the gravel, the wind

at our backs as we both rolled south.

On this goes until the cows come home, the poet tweaking the image until cute becomes cutesy, and cutesy becomes the smirk of a ventriloquist’s dummy you’d like to beat to death. In these odes to Nebraska weather, spring poems are followed by summer poems and so on through the seasons, of which there are mercifully only four. Real Nebraska weather, however, can be cold as hell and hot as blazes. In the very temperate Temperate Zone of Kooser’s Nebraska, we get a job lot of puffy clouds, splashy rain, and overripe apples—he’d see even the Garden of Eden, after that little ruckus with the snake, through cotton-candy-colored glasses.

This prairie existentialist, on rare occasion, does call a halt to the cracker-barrel philosophizing, letting a few lines break through the Carhartt manner and Carhartt meaning. Watching raindrops pattering against a lake, he says,

I began to imagine drops

falling not down but up, from beneath that

bright path, thousands of raindrops rising

like minnows to feed on whatever lay

sprinkled over the length of that light.

The inversion calls our timid observations sharply into question. When Kooser manages to go deeper than his instincts, deeper into the brutal private life of his observations, real poetry raises its dirty head. Having come across a fallen, rotting birdhouse,

I . . . pried it open, dug out the moldy nest

of twigs and bits of leaves and feathers,

and found three tiny, shattered eggs,

sticky with strings of yoke [sic], and among them

dozens of ants that I’d disturbed, each with

an egg of her own, white as a grain of rice,

and no place, now, to set it down.

This irrecoverable loss is as harrowing as (and perhaps a conscious echo of) Frost’s more devastating “The Exposed Nest.” Despite the clumsy enjambment (not unusual in these poems), despite the howler of a misspelling (the copy editor should be fired), this is an example of what Kooser could do if he were less willing to be a thumbs-in-his-overalls-straps cotton-candy hawker on the long midway of American verse.

Kooser mostly keeps his darker instincts in check, instead taking snapshots of, say, a yellowjacket chasing a falling apple, “descending a long spiral staircase,// casually whining its way down, while/ brushing the blue crystalline walls/ with the fancy lace gloves of its wings.” The walls are of course the sky. Such lines are gorgeous, but decorative in an empty way, and empty in a decorative way. When Kooser forgets to add the whimsy and the saccharine supplements, the poems have half a chance—but mostly they die before they cross the finish line.

Such lines are gorgeous, but decorative in an empty way, and empty in a decorative way.

Kooser won his Pulitzer and served as poet laureate, which—unless you’re Bob Dylan or Louise Glück—is about all the loot an American poet can expect to drag away, even in a long life. I love his loyalty to the homely landscapes of Nebraska. A lot of poets who grew up in small towns write of rural America only after leaving for good—they’re writing about their childhoods. Born in Iowa, Kooser is still walking the fields of his adopted state, where he’s lived for sixty years. He’s made his home in Garland, a village of scarcely two hundred people. That’s something to be admired.

I’ve quoted so much and elaborated so little because the quotes are their own form of damnation. These drifting rags of poems are not bad (though they’re bad enough) so much as thin, unadventurous, lazy, and as superficial as a Formica countertop. If you want piffle, go to Kooser. His books sell like hotcakes.

Billy Collins’s Musical Tables is an overlong skulk or babble of short poems.2 It’s hard even to define a short poem—when does short begin to develop a midriff bulge? (Collins holds his horses at nine lines, and that many only twice.) In an afterword, he quotes a brilliant short by A. R. Ammons, who for once was not indulging in garrulity:

Their Sex Life

One failure on

Top of another.

Most short poems need a kick like a killer bull’s, one that brings a month-long concussion, if not a trip to the graveyard. Light-verse poets have often contributed knowing examples, like Dorothy Parker’s “Résumé,” the old litany of suicidal ideation that begins, “Razors pain you;/ Rivers are damp;/ Acids stain you;/ And drugs cause cramp.” The form has not been entirely untouched by serious poets. Think of Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” or Pound’s couplet “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.” Pound, who loved short poems for their nearness to haiku, at least until he lost himself in the morass of the never-ending and never-ended Cantos, also wrote the heartbreaking and nearly mystical “Papyrus”:

Spring . . . . . . .

Too long . . . . . .

Gongula . . . . . .

A good short poem should have depths concealed in the folds of its brevity.

Poems of the briefer sort live in the alpha and omega of English poetry. If Collins comes at the lower-priced end, what else would we expect of a poet who made his name in comic, or at least comical, verse? His most pleasing attempts at the form land somewhere between the haiku, which possesses a short body and preferably a long tail (call it a contemplative pause, say, with perhaps a sudden gasp of recognition), and the one-liners of Steven Wright, the deadpan comedian with the look of the permanently stoned, credited with saying, “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

Collins knows how to take advantage of deeply rooted flaws or glitches in the language, the puns and twists on which wordy humor lives; but the most cunning poems here often depend on the title. If you leap straight into one of his poems without reading the title, as I have a habit of doing, you may be lost. (Without the title, Pound’s “In a Station” might have been about an out-of-focus photograph or a bolt of wallpaper.) Collins has a few poems that rival the haiku’s electric charge (“Hitchhiking alone,/ I notice an ant/ walking in the opposite direction”), and the titles of his best pieces give the context or set-up without barging into the poem itself:

Refrigerator Light

The minute

she slams the door

I stop

thinking about her.

You don’t get it until you realize, a millisecond later, that it’s not really about a refrigerator light—it’s the light itself speaking, that or a man suffering a terrible breakup.

Consider “Italian Palindrome” (“A man./ A plan./ A canal./ Canaletto!”), a poem both funnier and more frivolous than it seems—but you have to know the palindrome it departs from. My favorite, however, is a one-liner, “The Sociologist”: “I wandered lonely as a crowd.” You probably remember the Wordsworth; but, if you’ve never heard of the David Reisman, the joke won’t pay off. There are other poems here that reveal, to their benefit, a touch of the literary (“Flaubert”: “As he looked for the right word,/ several wrong words/ appeared in his window”). Collins devotes himself to mild-mannered humor without hope of a guffaw; still, after a lot of grounders to first and flailing strikeouts he occasionally hits a walk-off home run.

The problem with any long book of short poems is that most are going to be fifth- or sixth-rate, like the most undergunned ships of the line. I like “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” (“Trouble/ was not/ his middle name”), but it won’t bear a second reading, ever—doing so would be like trying to stuff the gunpowder back into a firecracker after it goes off. Of the nearly 130 poems, all but a small handful are not penetrating or insightful—even when they try to be as creepy as Kafka, they’re just forced, silly, or merely pointless.

A poet’s gifts don’t always last to the bitter end.

Collins once had a carnivore’s taste for drollery now rare in our poetry (the supply chain has been disrupted by high-mindedness); and no one has written more hilarious poems about writing poetry. He never displays, however, the waspish sting of Dorothy Parker; the needling quippery of Twain; the rage and roar of Mencken; or the shallows of Oscar Wilde, where piranhas lurked. A couple of books ago, alas, Collins stopped being funny—the gift soured or simply abandoned him. A knack is a knack until, as he might once have said, it’s a knick-knack. A poet’s gifts don’t always last to the bitter end—think of Marianne Moore after The Pangolin and Other Verse, Eliot after Four Quartets, or Pound after The Pisan Cantos. Think of the crowds of poets whose talents never make it past their first book—if they make it even that far.

At his best, Collins was almost weightless, like that old mtv astronaut, probably just an empty suit, standing on the vacant expanse of the moon. I didn’t wish this book of short poems any longer. Indeed, I’d have paid twice as much for half as many.

Jana Prikryl’s third book is quirky, off-kilter, and much of the time delightful in its strangeness. The poems in Midwood, over a hundred of them, none over sixteen lines (call that a sonnet and a bite), make their points briefly, then scoot.3 There’s internal punctuation at times, but only twice does an end stop finish off the poem. Like crooks with good lawyers, the others receive a suspended sentence. The publicity sheet reveals that the poems were written over a year of early mornings, which may account for their slight haziness or dreaminess, words falling unfiltered to the page before the governing nigglers and censors had time to react. The poems gesture toward meaning while keeping their privacies private:

not what you used

to trace with a finger, slow words on my back or thigh or hand

and I on yours, a correspondence absent light or sound

especially useful around others, in a car, at the dinner table.

Such lines seem almost pantomimes of meaning, things silent that rise only slowly into speech. The luminous, slightly ghostly scenes perhaps make necessary the titles that so often refer to concrete particulars: “Window Seat,” “Bus Routes,” “The Sidecar,” “Paper Moon,” “Game Show.” The poems wiggle-waggle through narratives, reminiscences, even dreams—it’s hard to tell them apart.

The straitened circumstance and the refusal to say too much (as if the fetish were to say too little) suggest the torque behind experience at once recalled and repressed. The more you get used to the style, the more necessary it seems. I can make rude forays toward interpretation while feeling I’m still on thin ice. Some of the poems completely defeat me, yet I read on in a near-hypnotic stupor:

The solid gabled house

established in an unfortunate position

at the top of a cliff the height of a forearm

seawater incessantly nagging the front door

was the waiting room, no one makes eye contact here.

Is this a real place or a house built in a dreamscape? The poems are haunting, a little troubling or spooky, like fragments from some dream session with Freud. Many seem to thrust forward from memory; others flee from memory instead. The poems aren’t puzzles, not exactly. (There would seem little chance of solving them, even so.) They’re forensic evidence of past scenes, terrors, and violations that have the permanence of gravestones and the evanescence of fireflies.

Not all the poems are equally provocative or intense. They drift from ur-trauma to ur-drama, urgent with meanings never satisfied, unsettling, never laid to rest. (The lack of terminal punctuation is a crime or a clue.) If a few are manufactured from scraps and tinsel and run-on guff, that may be the price of admission:


an oracle around perimeter of which

the words their lipid speeds pull from

and here so on the face of it

reserve, is it a reservoir

                    if spill headfirst another’s shape.

Such unintelligibility is rare. I can’t imagine another poet pulling off this manner, though sometimes, in its fearlessness and panache, it reminds me of Anne Carson—always experimenting, sometimes failing drastically, but taking convention by the throat.

Prikryl’s current style does have limitations. The power of the fragment lies in its longing for completion, but many of her new poems seem thwarted or censored. It’s like receiving a telegram with half the words missing and the rest inked out. Some of her most convincing new poems work toward rather than away from mystery and concealment—they live in a dreamland that might once have been real. Here’s part of a sequence scattered through the book:

Out in the open trees behave differently.

They stand differently, their posture is different.

They might look at you

if that held any interest.

They really dare live alongside,

coexist. Their enormity

which doesn’t need your lifted gaze

has time in it. Where we live, planted

in the span between sidewalk and street

they play their part with competence

and often commitment, invested.

They’re good at being trees.

I make a mild objection to “enormity,” because context suggests “enormousness”; but the rest is superbly staged, a message from some distant border where language possesses different codes. I keep reading because the mind behind the lines is even more riveting than the lines themselves. I’m drawn to these poems that resist the reader, that wave like lost souls, longing for resolutions never to be reached. Even in a minor mode, Prikryl is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable poets we have.

Patrick Phillips is a mild, inconsistent poet with mortal longings. The most affecting poems in Song of the Closing Doors are elegies for a friend who died of stomach cancer.4 A book whose pages are soaked in tears isn’t bad for that reason, since grief is perhaps the deepest emotion poetry suffers. Most of Phillips’s poems, however, are steeped in feeling that slips at a whisper into sentimentality. Whatever sympathies the reader musters dissolve in the battery acid of the poet’s mawkishness. One elegy recalls his thinking that life would last forever, “our eyes shining . . .// like delirious kids,/ when we used to laugh// into the glorious,/ now and forever,// lost eyes/ of our beautiful friends.” It makes you want to quote Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell.

Sometimes Phillips’s poems are just fluff stitched together, like “Meditation at Taccoa Falls,” which begins, “The Irish poet/ Patrick Kavanaugh/ once rhymed/ weather with father.” The point is never exactly clear, unless it’s the obvious psychological one; but the trifling lines that follow don’t help. Eventually you reach two stanzas that bear weight, “some words/ are elegy/ to what they signify,// but others/ summon the dead/ exactly/ as they spoke.” The reader who misses the head-nod in the title probably won’t realize that the beautiful “elegy/ to what they signify” has been lifted, with only slight variation, from Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” not acknowledged here or elsewhere. (This might be dismissed as overconfidence in the reader’s reading or just hack clumsiness.) The final stanza unhappily insists that the dead speak “like grainy voices/ on a gramophone/ that plays/ inside our throats.” The twee surrealist image is hapless compared to the meditation on mortality to which the poem aspires, dressed in a better poet’s finery.

The twee surrealist image is hapless compared to the meditation on mortality to which the poem aspires.

Phillips’s diaphanous lines plead for grounding never offered, the meaning ever more meaningless and often cuddly as well. At the lower end of the bathos imported here is “Jubilate Civitas,” a turn on Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” of which most readers will know little but the passage from Fragment B that begins, “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” and goes on about the kitty for the length of a sermon. Phillips takes the New York exit:

I will consider a slice of pizza.

For rare among pleasures in Gotham, it is both

                     exquisite and blessedly cheap.

For its warmth is embracing, its smell the

                     quintessence of hope.

For it can be found in all boroughs, every few blocks,

                   yet never two slices the same. . . .

For time passes slowly awaiting a slice, and reminds us

                      how sweet it is to be alive at this moment on earth.

This is charming, but the poem goes on so long the poor slice outstays its welcome. Phillips’s emotional turns, especially when he’s banging the tambourine to announce our short stay above ground, are cheerless, depthless, and rather annoying. The losses sustained ought to produce some access to melancholy or darkness; but this is the sunniest book of elegies and regrets I can recall.

At times Phillips seems just a lightweight William Carlos Williams, without any of the charm or innocence that makes Williams Williams. (The good doctor’s winsomeness could usually be forgiven, though he wrote far more slight, awful poems than memorable ones.) The twenty-first-century poet’s attempt to write something in range of “This Is Just to Say” results in “When my sister discovered/ in a raincoat pocket/ the loved dog’s long/ forgotten leash,// she mocked her tears,/ though I will not./ Death is a god/ damned thief.” He can turn almost any poem into something cheap and nasty while trying to make it serious—his tone is always out of tune.

Phillips favors descriptions like “honey-gold light,” “emerald grass,” and “eyes a white-capped black sea,” which come with a thick coating of schmaltz. Even a poem about a failed marriage is cast in the same mushy preciousness. Just when you think Phillips has hit bottom in the Ocean of Bathos, he goes deeper. In another poem for his dead friend,

How many cups of tears

that year

when O was dying?

How many little stars

bobbing in hot cocoa

after all those snow days

in the great fluorescent park?

Elegies are always about ourselves, serving their purpose by leaving the dead behind. Phillips has a broad knowledge of poetry, a feel for turning prose into free verse, and some harrowing experiences—he possesses many of the gifts a poet needs. However true the emotions with which he writes, alas, the sentimental excess finds a way to falsify them. Everything he touches, like Midas, turns into the gold of specious reverence.

Through the peculiarities of contemporary taste or just by dumb luck, Ocean Vuong’s slight, often inconsequent poems have received the blazing fireworks of attention. Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016) won a Whiting Award, the Forward Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize—not long after, Vuong received a MacArthur, sometimes called the Genius Grant. His style might be called Frank O’Hara-lite, if most of O’Hara’s poems weren’t Frank O’Hara-lite already. The young poet’s lines curvet and cavort like a dancer with two left feet:

I dog-eared the book & immediately

Thought of masturbation

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold

The page so it points to the good part

Another country burning on TV.

Time Is a Mother, Vuong’s new book, races toward Armageddon at a hobble.5

The poet was born in Vietnam thirteen years after the last painful, punishing days of the war. When he was two, his family escaped, reaching Connecticut after eight months in a Philippine refugee camp. His father soon left the stage. The scenes of trauma lurking in these poems are entangled in the aftermath of what the Vuong family suffered, which should not be underestimated. Such experience becomes the bad weather in which survivors are forced to live. That said, good poems are not made by the backstory, however awful the backstory may be.

Vuong relies far too much on letting his new poems gush in Joycean frenzy, sometimes without benefit of the punctuation that might help the poor reader make sense of them:

your name sharpens daily

against the marble

of your mother’s teeth there

are sparks in every

calling & called we press

our faces to the womb

till we’re jokes on

our way to cracking up.

He thinks nothing of knocking off seventy or eighty lines as if he were on O’Hara’s lunch hour, tapping away in a typewriter shop at the display model right next to the famous lunch poet—but without, in Vuong’s case, a scrap of O’Hara’s sangfroid.

Worse, the O’Hara manqué is given to handing out scraps of wisdom as welcome as flyers for discount gum-removal or uPVC sash windows, only the flyer reads, “childhood/ is only a cage/ that widens/ like this sunlight,” or “I thought/ the fall would// kill me/ but it only/ made me real,” or “I’m trying to be real but it costs too much.” The winsome, wilting humor may induce terminal seizures in the unwary, especially when as po-faced and inane as “Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I imagine Van Gogh singing/ Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ into his cut ear & feeling peace.” Good luck with that.

The standard Vuong poem runs: anxiety, anxiety, metaphor floating free of sense, prosy gabble that Finnegans Wake would never have gotten away with, ending on absence, death, or, more rarely, staunchness of the fortune-cookie variety (“I was made to die but I’m here to stay”). Occasionally he varies this with, say, a poem in the voice of a dinosaur (“As my relatives melted, I stood/ on one leg”), a pocket diary of dailiness (“Crack// four yolks into a day/ -white bowl, spoon/ the shells”), or just surreal Marshmallow Fluff (“I gathered fistfuls/ of ash, dark as ink,/ hammered them/ into marrow, into/ a skull thick/ enough to keep/ the gentle curse/ of dreams”).

Vuong has become almost pathetically chatty.

Since his last book, Vuong has become almost pathetically chatty, perhaps the result of giving too many readings where the audience responded with rabid applause the more disconnected and “relatable” the lines became. He seems to think that, if you blather long enough, something true must emerge. The curious thing is, at least once he’s right. A prose poem about shoveling snow suddenly veers into

I read, reread, the hand-scrawled recipe given me by the man’s grandmother, the one who, fleeing Stalin, bought a ticket from Vilnius to Dresden without thinking it would stop, it so happened, in Auschwitz (it was a town after all), where she and her brother were asked to get off by soldiers who whispered, keep moving, keep moving, like boys leading horses through wheat fields in the night.

With this as an anchor, the lines that follow become deeper and more compelling than anything else in this self-obsessed book—but of course it’s someone else’s story.

Time Is a Mother is otherwise an endless novelty act of glib chatterboxing, heavy on the whipped cream of pathos (“are you reading this dear/ reader are you my mom yet/ I cannot find her without you this/ place I’ve made you can’t/ enter”), all packaged with too much free association that isn’t free. Vuong has more talent than he shows, but to show it he’d have to lose the thin pretense, the dime-magazine humor, and everything else that avoids looking at the place from which he came. It would be a miracle if reading the poetry of a Ted Kooser, a Billy Collins, or an Ocean Vuong led readers to Seamus Heaney, T. S. Eliot, or that Satan-lover John Milton. The best way to comprehend the dizzying phenomenon of Vuong’s poetry is to invoke that timeworn Victorian handbook, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. You can play to the crowd only so long, however, before it tires of the act.

The Old Testament doesn’t say who named the flora in Eden, only the fauna; but, if not Adam, then who? (Poor fellow, no wonder he needed Eve.) Canopy, Linda Gregerson’s new book, is not as lush with flowers and fruit as Paradise; but, given the mess we’ve made of the only planet we have, whenever something botanical spills across the page you know storm clouds are coming:

Speak plainly, said November to the maples, say

                    what you mean now, now

that summer’s lush declensions lie like the lies

                     they were at your feet. Haven’t

we praised you? Haven’t we summer after summer

                     put our faith in augmentation.6

Her poems fizz with intelligence, especially the intelligence of the saying. This address by November is a plea for guidance in a time without guides for those “counting/ the years to extinction.” The little twiddles or twaddles of wordplay give the lines their feverish temperature: the split-jointed “now, now,” each word wedded to a different thought, or the “lie like the lies” that takes advantage of the torsion of homophones. Gregerson lives in doubled and redoubled meanings, her language that of a poet whose scrupulous attention to language makes density possible.

The poem is riddled with Latinate words, our inheritance from the mother of the Romance languages; and Gregerson makes their antiquity yield its own luxuriance: “summer’s lush declensions,” “our faith in augmentation,” “murmurs of con-/ solation,” “your branched// articulations,” and then the little academic lecture at the end of the poem, titled “Deciduous”: “De +// cidere, say the maples, has another face./ It also means decide.” (There’s also the sadly New Age “course of mindfulness,” but you can’t blame Caesar for that.) Gregerson’s not the first poet to see the link between fall and the Fall, though she’s canny enough not to mention it. In the face of climate change, what might be called the Golden Delicious Rule, not to eat the apple, looks almost reasonable. Think of the savings in the cost of clothing alone. The undercurrent of damage in the poem, destruction both private and global, dredges up the subject half the world is sick of and half in despair over.

In the face of climate change, what might be called the Golden Delicious Rule, not to eat the apple, looks almost reasonable.

Gregerson is not apologetic about her quirks: butchered enjambments; oddly added spacings; and punctuation that in long, complex sentences often goes missing—some sentences seem to devour themselves as well as their neighbors. (The absent question mark at the end of the block quotation above must have driven the copy editor half crazy.) Then there’s the curious lapse of professorial scrutiny: deciduous and decide/decision rise from different Latin roots, cadere (to fall) for the first, cidere (to cut) for the second—her algebraic equation (“De +// cidere”) was a brilliant touch, but a bit of a cheat.

If the new poems don’t always offer such delicious or delicate density, most show off the care of a poet of supreme craft—as well as craftiness. Gregerson relies on readers who either inherit a wealth of knowledge or are willing to scramble for it. The poems, if no longer than they need to be, are long enough at times to seem like loose pages of lecture notes. (She shows a faith in the reader most readers don’t deserve.) The life of the mind traced by her sentences is also lived in the body. Gregerson is not reticent about the life lived, but it lies beneath rather than embedded in her lines. You have to winkle out her secrets or reconstruct them from the puzzle pieces she scatters hither thither. The strategy’s loss of immediacy still beats hell out of poems, all too frequent now, that take trauma as a touchstone. As Randall Jarrell once wrote, it’s “as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with ‘This is a poem’ scrawled on them in lipstick.”

A few poems here too coyly enjoy their game-playing, like a series of heroic and unheroic similes whose twists and turns are as wearying as the Minotaur’s maze. You can ignore the occasional touch of political correctness, but the poems that seem no more than desktop exercises lack the layer of emotion that makes thought worthwhile. These lesser poems are labored, like a ballet choreographed for dancers on their knees.

Such minor pieces are worth wading through to get to poems like that on the statue of the Duke of Cumberland, victor at Culloden. Mounted in London’s Cavendish Square, it was dragged off when public opinion turned against him. The statue has now been replaced, in a sense, by a poem on judging the past with the knowledge of the present:

                   First roundshot, then grapeshot, then

      hand-to-hand on marshy

       ground where, as they had been

trained to do, the English in formation thrust their

bayonets not forward but into the enemy on the

       right. And then

       the butchery in the highlands.

This is not a political poem so much as a poem that, between compassion and horror, tries to live in the residue, the grotesque wastage, politics leaves behind. When her poems verge on lecturing, and the lecturing on hectoring, that’s the price of entry such a poetic mind demands.

You can’t predict where a Gregerson poem will begin or where it will end. (One ends in the middle of a sentence.) She’s that awful thing, a serious poet with things to say and no interest in dumbing down her work. A good poet requires, as an act of trust, that you live in a state of unknowing, a condition that will make some readers want to kick a bucket of kittens down a flight of stairs. The reader who can tolerate her ambiguities will adore her. She’s her own poet in a way few poets are.

A previous version of this essay misstated Ocean Vuong’s date of birth.

  1.   Cotton Candy: Poems Dipped Out of the Air, by Ted Kooser; University of Nebraska Press, 78 pages, $17.95.
  2.   Musical Tables, by Billy Collins; Random House, 145 pages, $27.
  3.   Midwood, by Jana Prikryl; W. W. Norton & Company, 115 pages, $26.95.
  4.   Song of the Closing Doors, by Patrick Phillips; Alfred A. Knopf, 59 pages, $28.
  5.   Time Is a Mother, by Ocean Vuong; Penguin Press, 114 pages, $24.
  6.   Canopy, by Linda Gregerson; Ecco, 74 pages, $25.99.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 60
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