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National Poetry Month: 6 new collections to read now

Poems by Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky and others explore identity, life challenges.

"Magical Negro" by Morgan Parker (Tin House, February 2019) Photo Credit: Tin House

'Tap Out' by Edgar Kunz

Many of the people in Edgar Kunz's gritty debut are in tough spots: men trapped in difficult jobs, teens playing with a gun, young adults battling despair or addiction. Some are able to tap out, or escape, before they are seriously hurt. Others don't, and irreparably damage themselves and their loved ones. At the heart of "Tap Out" is the difficult relationship between Kunz and his abusive, alcoholic father, who was heroic only in his own made-up stories. As the speaker explains in one poem, he has spent years measuring the distance between the past and the memories that haunt him, including "The three thousand miles/ between San Francisco/ and the town where the shadows/ of my brothers grow tall./ The cash I don't wire,/ the numbers I don't dial./ The marriage that didn't survive/ the summer." (Mariner, $14.99)

'Magical Negro' by Morgan Parker

In her third collection, "Magical Negro," Morgan Parker continues to fearlessly explore what it means to be a black woman in the United States today. Parker draws on pop culture, current events and history to inform these poems, providing various backdrops and foils that help her challenge stereotypes and define her own complex ideas. "I know the world is dangerous/ Everyone tells me sorry," she notes in one poem. In another, "The hunted must be clever. The hunted has two primary/ tools of survival: imagination and hyperbole." Bold and edgy, the writing spotlights the strength and tenacity that enable the speaker to survive grief and inequity. (Tin House, $15.95)

'Deaf Republic' by Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky's cutting-edge second collection, "Deaf Republic," presents a sweeping drama about a fictional town where residents are oblivious to the military occupation around them. This continues until a deaf boy is murdered, and the people rebel by pretending they can't hear the commands of the soldiers. Kaminsky, who is hard of hearing himself, focuses on key characters who deal with personal challenges as the occupiers become more threatening. In "Soldiers Aim at Us," a character named Alfonso cradles his wife's body, vowing that "Tonight/ we don't die and don't die." As these stories unfold, they contribute to the larger narrative arc, and they parallel that of Kaminsky's own family, who fled Ukraine in the early 1990s. (Graywolf, $16)

'Loves You' by Sarah Gambito

Sarah Gambito's "Loves You" combines poems and recipes to convey the complex and sometimes difficult of experience of Filipinos living in America. The recipes show how food fosters a sense of community and continuity, as in the recipe bibingkang malagkit, which notes that "You're going to have a very certain regard for the people that you make this for as the rice gets very heavy as it cooks and you cannot stop stirring." The book is divided into five sections, each one named after the five basic tastes — umami, sour, salt, bitter, sweet — and the writing reflects a range of emotions, from hope and humor to shame and anger about the way Filipinos and other Asians are often misunderstood and demeaned. Gambito challenges readers to consider what sustains and nurtures them. (Persea, $15.95)

'Only as the Day Is Long' by Dorianne Laux

For nearly 30 years, Dorianne Laux has written about love and violence, survival and grief, in poems that are clear, compelling and insightful. In "Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems" she begins with memories of her abusive father and her complex, challenging mother, then moves through her early adulthood and relationships to more recent days, when she cared for her elderly mother and grieved her passing. Laux shows us how to endure hardships without losing humanity and compassion. This timely, beautifully crafted collection wonderfully balances light and dark. (Norton, $26.95)

'Oculus' by Sally Wen Mao

In the fascinating collection "Oculus," Sally Wen Mao considers exile as a result of time, distance — and modern technology. The title piece reflects on a girl in Shanghai who committed suicide online while "awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns." A series of poems about the first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong, shows her traveling through the past and then to the future of film in a time machine. By telling Wong's story, and those of other women of color who have been defined by images in popular culture, the work explores the ramifications of being seen and objectified but never truly known. (Graywolf, $16)


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