In 1997, the poet Adrienne Rich was selected to receive the National Medal for the Arts. She refused it. “There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice,” she wrote to the head of the National Endowment for the Arts in a letter explaining her reasons. “But I do know that art — in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power that holds it hostage.”
The relationship of art to justice, and of art to political power, is very much at the center of poetry these days, as Tracy K. Smith (the United States poet laureate) noted in a recent issue of the Book Review dedicated to the subject. Books from that issue dominate this week’s recommended titles, from poets new and established, considering everything from class politics to colonialism to queer identity. Our staff critics round things out with a radio host’s book about running and a legal scholar’s argument that corporations have grown too powerful: proof that poets aren’t the only ones thinking about the role of politics in our lives.
Senior Editor, Books
THE INCOMPLETE BOOK OF RUNNING, by Peter Sagal. (Simon & Schuster, $27.) In this memoir, Sagal, the host of the popular news-based show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” on NPR, writes about his life as a runner. He’s a fairly elite one. He’s run 14 marathons, many of them at an eye-popping pace. He guided a blind runner during the 2013 Boston Marathon, passing the finish line only a few minutes before the two pressure-cooker bombs detonated. Our critic, Dwight Garner, writes that the book “fell onto my doorstep at almost exactly the moment I began to go for painful, mist-sucking, aesthetically disastrous but oddly satisfying runs along the Hudson River.” The book “has been a loyal companion. It’s funny, well written (mostly), filled with humility and perpetually on the scan for moments of stray grace.”
THE CURSE OF BIGNESS: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, by Tim Wu. (Columbia Global Reports, paper, $14.99.) Like Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk,” a recent book that shows the potentially terrifying consequences of something most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about — government bureaucracy — Wu’s latest is a surprisingly rousing treatment of another presumably boring subject: mergers and acquisitions. “Wu’s point is simple,” our critic Jennifer Szalai writes. “Giant corporations, seeking to protect their advantage, try to turn their outsize economic power into political power. So to break their grip on American democracy, the government needs to break them up in turn. That this proposal might sound outrageously radical to certain ears is, Wu says, just one sign of how unprepared we are for our current moment.”
BE WITH, by Forrest Gander. (New Directions, paper, $16.95.) A Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry in 2011, Gander brings a restive energy to his new collection of verse, scrupulous and unsparing investigations of separation, suffering and loss following the death of his wife, the poet C. D. Wright. “In many ways, the book’s focus is strikingly inward, showing how grief sounds in the body, mapping paths, making previously hidden regions visible,” Tess Taylor writes in her review. “In another sense, Gander’s poems are public howls that trace a luminous borderland where the self dissolves into the world.”
TO FLOAT IN THE SPACE BETWEEN: A Life and Work in Conversation With the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight, by Terrance Hayes. (Wave, paper, $25.) Hayes, a fast-paced, politically minded poet, slows down appealingly in this hybrid nonfiction tribute to a poetic forebear and other father figures. “This collection offers a deep textural (as opposed to textual) encounter between two important and mercurial minds,” according to Ed Pavlic’s review. “It’s a gift to encounter writers through the precisely calibrated curiosity of a wide-open searcher like this.”
A CRUELTY SPECIAL TO OUR SPECIES: Poems, by Emily Jungmin Yoon. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.95.) Much of Yoon’s arresting debut memorializes the Korean “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution during World War II; it draws considerable power from the testimonies of actual survivors. “The book fixes attention on the conditions these women faced — injected with the arsenic compound salvarsan, offered anti-hemorrhagic agents made from corpses, left to die of infection,” our reviewer, BK Fischer, writes. “Articulation itself is key to these poems’ power: Yoon reminds us that another capacity special to our species is speech. … The counterforce to horror in these poems is pronunciation.”
EVOLUTION, by Eileen Myles. (Grove, $25.) In Myles’s newest book of poetry, we encounter a voice always becoming, unpinnable and queer. Myles’s new poems are transformations, and perhaps a culmination of the poet’s previous inquiries into love, gender, poetry, America and its politics. “Myles’s poems make us reconsider what is experience, and does it have an order or is it a simultaneity?” Natalie Diaz’s review asks. “Both selves, the speaker and reader, are held in the field of unknowing, and in these moments, the poems are at their most transgressive.”
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF BERTOLT BRECHT, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. (Liveright, $49.95.) Many know Brecht as a playwright, but this substantial collection invites readers to discover another side of him. As a poet, Brecht could be a Marxist zealot. He could also be meditative, humane and moving. “The more than 1,000 entries — some published for the first time in English — are only about half of Brecht’s lyric output. But they give a sense of the fertility of his pristine, unsentimental language and the breadth of subject and form,” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in her review. “A collection this size is often said to contain something for everybody. In this one, every reader is sure to find something to take offense at. … And yet. ‘Brecht is a great poet,’ the translators write in their introduction, ‘one of the three or four best in the whole of German literature.’ This volume holds enough evidence to support that claim.”
MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAS, by J. Michael Martinez. (Penguin Books, paper, $20.) Martinez constructs this collection like a curator building a cabinet of curiosities, one whose portraits and specimens complicate the dominant narratives of imperial conquest and control. “Martinez gives readers the sense that each item he incorporates has been carefully selected and thoughtfully juxtaposed with the ones around it,” our reviewer, Kathleen Rooney, writes, adding that the poet’s “approach is as brainy as it is entertaining, as political as it is personal.”
IF THEY COME FOR US: Poems, by Fatimah Asghar. (One World, paper, $16.) Asghar grew up as a queer Muslim orphan in the confusing, unfair months and years after 9/11. From that experience she has made a book that deserves broad attention. Its contents are “set against the kinds of frustration and injustice, existential and political, that Asghar has seen or known,” Stephanie Burt writes in her review. “A standout sequence links the oil and blood of the wars in Iraq to family ties (‘blood’), to menstruation and bad skin, as international conflict and American prejudice inform what would otherwise just come off as teenage angst.”
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