What better way to celebrate April as National Poetry Month than with new books of poems, including one in which a cadaver relates to the students slicing into her withered anatomy.
Fortunately, we are asked to dissect only poetry, lovely tissues of meditation, connected by sinews of rhyme and syllable count.
Joseph Cadora translates Rainer Maria Rilke’s “New Poems” with attention to the original music of the verses. Haiku writers will appreciate the complete haiku of Japanese poet-master Yosa Buson.
This year is the centennial of Kansas poet William Stafford’s birth, and Graywolf Press’ gift is “Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems.” Marianne Boruch, an established poet, will stun readers with her electric new collection, “Cadaver, Speak.”
Ask professional poets who their favorites are, and Ranier Maria Rilke will be among the top picks. Rilke, who lived from 1875 to 1926, was born in Prague, wrote in German and is well known for his Paris years. Rilke attracts almost as many translators as Homer, and each struggles with intricate knots of the German rhyme patterns.
Joseph Cadora, translator of these “New Poems,” transfers Rilke’s original language and retains shiver-filled images. In “The Death of the Poet,” a death mask “is as delicate and bare as the fair / flesh of a fruit that spoils in the open air.” Rilke marries form to content perfectly.
One of the best-known poems from this collection is “The Panther,” where rhymes restrain the panther’s ferocity like bars. “The soft pad of his brawny, rippling pace” is pursued by “like a mighty dance around a tiny space.” Cadora creates patterns that parallel the German without contorting sentences.
This collection includes Parisian scenes — the gardens, the zoo animals, angel statuary, cathedrals and Rodin’s sculptures. Biblical subjects appear, always with inspired immediacy. Aficionados of Rilke will appreciate the longer poems as well as the sonnet-length lyrics.
The translator includes informative notes about Rilke’s life and cultural references that deepen each poem’s reach. These profound meditations will inspire a beginning poetry audience as well as the most advanced.
Haiku is a favorite form in English. The Japanese form has 17 syllables, divided among three lines. Haiku should reference season, and the last line creates surprise. Yosa Buson, a student of Basho, wrote haiku in the 18th century. This new volume is the first complete collection of his works. It establishes him, along with his teacher, as one of the exemplars of the form.
The translators, W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento, include alphabetic Japanese originals side by side with the English versions. They arrange the volume into the four seasons, and within each are categories, like kites, frogs and cherry blossoms for spring.
Even mosquitoes interest this poet. The “Summer” section has 11 mosquito haiku, including this example: “Whenever petals fall/from the honeysuckle/you hear mosquitoes.” Contrast and paradox are implicit undertones..
The wisp-like lines of haiku describe the fleeting nature of autumn especially well. Buson’s “Chrysanthemums” creates a bittersweet taste of a fall flower: “As I hold up the lamp/the color drains/from the yellow chrysanthemums.”
William Stafford also writes about transience, set within the American landscape, especially his Kansas homeland.
He earned a national profile for his poetry published from the 1960s until his death in 1993, including a National Book Award. Because his memorable work often is the length of a sonnet, admirers often memorize it. He appears to write simply, but this is only a trick.
Stafford twists time inside out to create multiple dimensions, like the three-line poem “Indian Caves in the Dry Country”: “There are some canyons/we might use again/sometime.”
This apparently abbreviated narrative, shorter than a haiku, invokes historic context, future peril and the reader’s own moment of perception. Stafford suspends time, as “might” hangs in the middle of the poem.
Stafford is a poet of the American West. He grew up in Plains towns such as Hutchinson, Wichita and Liberal. He attended the University of Kansas and Iowa University for graduate work and taught for 30 years in Oregon.
Europe appears in the gloom of world war in Stafford’s verse, but most often he examines the surroundings at hand. His parablelike narratives probe social justice, pacifism, community, beauty and spirit.
“Traveling Through the Dark” is the most anthologized of Stafford’s poems, about a pregnant doe killed on the highway. He stops to remove the carcass, but discovers the warm belly. He understands he must kill this unborn life. He concludes, “I thought hard for us all — my only swerving — then pushed her over the edge into the river.”
Stafford’s “swerving” continues to inspire new generations of readers. This affordable selection of his best work renews his presence in American literary life.
“Cadaver, Speak” is Marianne Boruch’s eighth book of poetry, and her mastery is apparent as she transmutes visual art subjects into poems.
The two-part book begins with meditations on visual artworks. “Pencil” is her own experience taking drawing lessons. “Portrait” is about her aunt’s “knockoffs” of Amedeo Modigliani. “Little Wife,” set at the Chicago Oriental Institute, describes King Tut’s disproportionately small wife’s fragmentary feet, her only remains, yet the narrator decides, “Oh, I like her better.”
All the poems in the first part of the book consider, directly or indirectly, what appears often in art, the human body. The poem “Human Atlas” focuses more directly on this theme. Boruch declares a body “Can be booked, bound, mapped then, /Or rendered like something off the bone ”
The poem “How Hair Is” takes the exploration of body into a dissection lab. In her acknowledgments, the writer explains her involvement with a life-drawing class and an anatomy course that included a cadaver laboratory.
Boruch, in the concluding section of “Cadaver, Speak,” is the artist as she writes and draws, and then the object itself. Her narrative voice moves inside the corpse, speaking from the point of view of an old woman as students dissect her body:
“Ninety-nine years old: I’m small./One of them touches my shoulder and her hand/stays there./Then I am smaller.” In another section this woman is believable when she says, “the dead know the ways of the living.”
Boruch builds drama as the dissection proceeds part by part, to the very end. What is left after the body is disassembled? The old woman concludes, “Past tense of past drifts/into ruin or myth or/did-it-happen-at-all. I won’t even ask. I dreamt/same as you did. I did.” The poet does not solve the transitory nature of existence, but she describes how closely identity is wound into flesh and bone.
All these books celebrate the vigor of contemporary poetry in April and all months of the year. Poets of the past and present transcend limitations of mortality and speak with us intimately. This is the power of the genre.