My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Release Date: January 31, 2023
This anthology (and the accompanying analytical essays by Hirsch) covers over two-hundred years of poetry and works with a large set of translated languages as well as poems of English language origin. Therefore, the poems include an eclectic set of forms and schools of poetry. There are narrative poems and philosophical poems. There are sparse poems and elaborate poems. Besides the fact that they are all short to intermediate length poems (a few pages, at most,) the only thing the included poems have in common is some serious subject matter at each poem’s core. There are elegies and cathartic poems of illness or ended relationships, as well as tales of various types of tragedy (personal, global, and of scales in between.)
That said, not all of the poems feature a dark and melancholic tone. There are several poems that are humorous — in a gallows humor sort of way. Such poems include: Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard,” Harryette Mullen’s “We Are Not Responsible,” and Stanley Kunitz’s “Halley’s Comet.”
Of course, there are many poems that are as devastatingly sad as the title leads one to expect. Of these, Eavan Boland’s “Quarantine,” the story of a man carrying his illness-ravaged wife in search of survival during a famine in Ireland in 1847 takes the award for saddest. There are poems in this book that are more brutal, encompass vaster scales of suffering, or combine lyrical skill and emotional experience more artfully. But none of those poems socked me in the chest like Boland’s. One thing that struck me during my reading was what an intense force multiplier story is in creating poignant poems. Several others among my favorites told stories that made for visceral reads. These include: “Song” by Brigit Pageen Kelly, “The Race” by Sharon Olds, “Terminus” by Nicholas Christopher (also among the most savage tear-jerkers,) and “The Gas-Poker” by Thom Gunn.
Other favorites include: Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl,” Miklós Radnóti’s “The Fifth Eclogue,” Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” and “Mendocino Rose” by Garrett Hongo.
I’d highly recommend this book for poetry readers.
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