Poems to savor, to resonate with, to help us make sense of our lives.
"I Wish I had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman": Jude Nutter
This is the language with which Jude Nutter works. In her third collection, "I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman," this Minnesota Book Award-winning poet illuminates the importance and difficulty of bearing witness. She reminds us that "even from a distance, suffering / is suffering," and that "with so many bones in its mouth the dirt / will never stop singing." Yet Nutter tempers the dark song that the dirt sings with songs of her own, in a voice at once familiar and strange.
As with most great collections, Nutter's is hard to pigeonhole. It's a book about war, childhood, stories, history, sex. In it you'll find soldiers killing and dying, goats "slaughtered for the spit ... the quick scarves of blood"; four bikini-clad girls on the overpass who "flit and turn like the spinners / and spoons my father taught me to use"; and passages so beautiful you'll want to read them aloud again and again.
How does she hold it all together? Like Whitman ("for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"), Nutter unfurls her poems in long, omnivorous lines. They splash, and all things are taken up. She also maintains a rhythm by punctuating the collection with recurring images. She begins her "Growing Up in Bergen-Belsen" poems with the same three sentences, and in this approach the layman can watch the poet work. By setting the sentences in different stanzas and casting additional implications with each new line break, she shows how drastically the poet can change both the mood and the meaning of a sentence. The reader feels Nutter working her way through this experience. She's stuck, it seems, like many of us, in the collection of images that our lives often are.
"The Chain Letter of the Soul": Bill Holm
If there's any poet equally adept at making sense of our lives and using a language that feels like we're talking to ourselves, it has to be Bill Holm. Although the great Minnesota poet in his final collection, "The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems," sings in a different voice entirely, he sings in one which is no less urgent, no less our own.
In one of the sections in this fine collection, he's focused on the "Miniaturization of the World" and the irony of our further separation from one another and our environments by the very products that claim to keep us connected. In the poem "Earbud," Holm writes: "To get your attention, I touch your arm / to show you the tornado or the polar bear. / Sometimes I catch you humming or talking to the air / as if to a shrunken lover waiting in your ear."
You'll find old favorites from his earlier "Boxelder Bug Variations," "The Dead Get by With Everything" and "Playing the Black Piano," but it's in his new poems, which Holm wrote in the years immediately preceding his 2009 death, where you'll hear his voice sharper than ever. If he's harsh with you, it's the way a brother is harsh, or a best friend. And, more often than not, one doesn't feel accused; instead one feels lucky to be in the presence of Bill Holm making sense of Bill Holm. "From another angle," he writes of Spinoza, "he left the best a man can leave: / his thought, wisdom that might make us free and sane."
"Stupid Hope": Jason Shinder
Like Holm, Jason Shinder leaves us "the best a man can leave" in his posthumous collection, "Stupid Hope." Compiled after his death by four of his "dear and very different friends," these poems speak to us in a language so intimate they seem to whisper. Shinder had been ill with lymphoma and leukemia for several years; in that experience he wrote these poems.
His poems are lean and unadorned, yet they resonate with the beauty and weight of someone who knows he doesn't have much time: "This is a letter, you could say, / about how much I need from you." This collection contains only what is crucial, what is vital under the pressure of an impending end. What he embraces, we learn to embrace. What he excludes, we discover to be trivial.
In his poem "Eternity," and with a language as sure as it is subtle, Shinder dramatizes this concept: A young woman, after reading a poem written 3,000 years ago, "finds the experience of living in that moment / so clearly described as to make her feel finally known / by someone." These poets know us. In 3,000 years, someone will pick up Shinder or Holm or Nutter and listen like she listens to lovers, because in the end she knows what happens to them also happens to us.
Ryan Vine is the author of "Distant Engines," recipient of a 2005 Weldon Kees Award. He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.