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3 New Poetry Collections Taking the Pulse of the Times

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Three books laid out side by side. The first is black with orange and yellow text, the second features a genderless porcelain figure decoraged with blue paint, the third shows a pink square, a red square and the blades of some scissors.
‘English as a Second Language’ by Jaswinder Bolina, ‘The Kingdom of Surfaces’ by Sally Wen Mao, ‘Pig’ by Sam Sax. (Meghan Collins Sullivan/ NPR)

Poetry takes the pulse of the times.

These times are dark: wars raging; a pandemic that, though it has ebbed, still has everyone confused and afraid; monstrous, hate-filled social media posts spreading like wildfire.

Poets have been writing about all of this in real time, posting and publishing their poems, and now they’re gathering them up into books. Here are three of the first poetry collections to register the still-unfolding social and physical fallout of the pandemic and Trump-era politics.

English as a Second Language by Jaswinder Bolina

With his third collection, Jaswinder Bolina hits his stride, melding fierce and heartbroken politics with a flair for the surreal, to portray America in the throes of the pandemic — and tarnished daily by bold expressions of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the years following Trump’s rise to power. It’s a country where one is accosted constantly by urgent, out-of-context messages in waiting rooms; “in hotel bars that used to be/ so well-regarded when white people wore their finest//laundry and ate snails there”; and splattered on consumer products: “IF YOU’RE NOT ANGRY YOU’RE NOT PAYING/ ATTENTION, hollered a passing tote bag.”

These poems are tightly packed, a whimsical fabric interwoven with snippets of soundbites and telling phrases gathered by a highly alert ear. I don’t mean at all that this is found poetry, but that Bolina’s poems are precisely attuned to the stupidness, bigotry, and willful ignorance encoded into American English. There’s always this “second language” beneath the one we hear — it’s what people aren’t saying, or aren’t quite saying but, of course, they’re actually saying it.

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Bolina’s ironic humor feels like the inevitable vehicle for this insight, and these poems are often darkly laugh-out-loud funny. The book is set up to be read either from the front or the back, complete with a reversed table of contents at the end. Read from the front, it’s a book about American racism and immigrant experience. From the back, there’s a baby in the picture, and a pandemic happening: “I go on debating with myself whether it’d be better/ to die of the plague or to die of anything other than/ the plague during a plague.”

The cynicism of these poems can sometimes feel like too much. Of course, it’s not really cynicism, it’s reportage. Even “the Abominable News,” as Bolina calls it, is ascribed a sinister kind of sentience: “the Bad News hotwires the buzzer,/ invites itself up with its bouquet of wild/ aneurysms and drooping embolisms.” Bolina’s take on parenthood is equally startling and politicized, an occasion for social commentary. “Poor little guy, alighted/ into what he doesn’t know is America.”

The Kingdom of Surfaces by Sally Wen Mao

In the meditative and sometimes essayistic poems and sequences of The Kingdom of Surfaces, Sally Wen Mao visits real and imagined art galleries and other sites of cultural production and display, raging against stereotyped and reductive representations of Chinese women in the arenas of fine art, pop culture, and politics. She visits Wuhan, China, and describes its people with a kind of compassion that has been utterly lacking. The elegant surfaces of these poems belie their internal fury: “It’s a shame/ how people die like their animals.”

In a series of concrete poems shaped like vases, Mao excavates the underbelly of the long history of, and fetishization for, porcelain. Elsewhere she recounts the tyranny of Karens (“A white woman feigns distress,/ calls the cops/ On a black man, a bird-/ watcher“); exposes the dark facts of how silk is made and traded; and, most urgently, revisits her childhood memories of the City of Wuhan (“my birthplace”), and recalls the tides of racism directed at Chinese people during the pandemic years: “security camera footage showed a sixty-five-year-old woman shoved, punched, and kicking in front of 360 West 43rd Street.” A poem about a long-ago sexual assault joins a lamenting chorus that grieves millennia of pillaging: “my feelings were leaves/ that bypassed everyone and buried me.”

Mao’s sentences here are more straightforward than in her two previous books, which I loved for their careful eye and quiet roiling. In The Kingdom of Surfaces, the anger bubbles over, is evident everywhere, and yet these poems have a kind of conversational intimacy that is new to Mao, as if recent events have led her to drop some of the pretense and protection of style. She distills all the ugliness of these years, and the many years before, down to its grim essence: “But beauty is political. But beauty is political. But beauty is political.”

Pig by Sam Sax

For Jews, pork is terefah, forbidden food — and, in this book, with a surprisingly light touch, Sam Sax makes of the pig a powerful, all purpose symbol. It becomes an injunction to search oneself, in rather informal and conversational terms, for hedging pathways forward: “do your work with care, as i have tried & failed here.”

Though every poem involves a pig somehow (as food, as a slur, as a colloquialism for a police officer, as an Animal Farm fascist, as a quizzical farm animal, as Wilbur, the pig saved by language), this one-species menagerie doesn’t feel like a conceit. Sometimes the pig is the poem’s stated subject, but more often it waddles in from the side, a verbal tick, a reminder that a shared set of concerns is pulling on these poems. Each poem needs its pig, and each pig is different so each poem is different. In a way, Sax could write this book about anything and he even says as much: “what would i learn if i were to write/ this book on an entirely different subject:/ antique clock repair, the sex lives of astronomers, joy.”

One might think Sax’s chattiness would somehow diminish the poems’ gravity, but Sax again and again says profound things very informally. I feel like I am conversing with a very articulate and clever friend who understands that there are some serious things best said with humor. And he’s got a way with a sentence, offhandedly delivered, tonally precise, able to say what it’s not saying. Sax deploys a kind of serious sarcasm that isn’t irony — it’s a tonal admission that things are too messed up to meet head on, but they also aren’t funny, and can’t be ignored: “Everything that happens on earth happens everywhere.”

Language is the salve for, or the weapon against, a disordered world: “the phrases either make love or/ set down a border,” Sax writes in “It’s a Little Anxious to Be a Very Small Animal,” a poem that rather remarkably weaves together Passover traditions, the biography of Karl Marx, genetics, fundraising, and the myth of Daphne to speak out of the uncertainty that so many feel in American for so many different reasons.

As a fellow Jew, this book hits hard at this particular moment, though it was of course written well before the current war between Israel and Hamas began. Sax registers the fact that, over the last several years, America has come to feel less safe for Jews, that language, which he sees as the true Jewish homeland, has become less hospitable:

inside the skin but

just exists in language. let me explain. my people

kiss books as a form of prayer. if dropped we

lift them to our lips & mouth an honest &

uncomplicated apology—

nowhere on earth belongs to us.

The stakes are high — this book is about nothing less than survival, and why to survive, what’s worth living for when so much is so obviously so wrong: “what will be left after we’ve left/ I dare not consider it/ instead dance with me a moment/ late in this late extinction/ that you are reading this/ must be enough.”

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Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, including ‘The Trembling Answers,’ which won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the essay collection ‘We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress.’

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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