Henri Cole's latest book, "Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) offers a sampling of 66 poems from his 25-year career, including works long out of print. Even his earliest poems display his attentiveness to animals and the natural world, as in "The Mare," from 1986's "The Marble Queen": "I remember the shade where I found her / spent and bruised like the fallen apples. / Like them, she was full of darkness, / full of the sweetness which rushes upon us / so soon after death." Throughout, the originality and grace of Cole's language proves startling: "And the body, its brief / unimmaculate youth, will be hoisted / from the water's patina of calm," he writes in "Ascension on Fire Island." In "40 Days and 40 Nights," Coles describes a scene at a clinic with typically rich imagery: "Waiting for blood work with aristocratic calm, / big expectant mothers from Spanish Harlem / appeared cut out, as if Matisse had conceived them." He moves fluidly from personal poems about desire and loss to political terrain, as in the penultimate poem - a damning, powerful "ode" to George W. Bush. Regardless of his subject matter, Cole is one of our finest poets, and a rare talent who keeps getting better with each book.
The current U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan, has just published "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems" (Grove Press, $24), which similarly includes out-of-print poems. If the job of poetry is to distill language and experience, there are few greater contemporary masters of the form than Ryan. She excels at aphoristic wit, yet reveals an intensity of emotion as well: "Words especially / are subject to / the chemistry / of death: it is / an acid bath / which dissolves / or doubles / their strength," she writes in "Chemistry." In "Intention," she wisely notes, "Intention doesn't sweeten. / It should be picked young / and eaten." Ryan favors brief poems, short lines, and one-word titles. You won't find any clutter in her work, which never fails to surprise, enlighten and delight.
East Hampton poet Philip Schultz is a distinguished figure in the poetry world, yet less well known than he should be. His 2008 Pulitzer Prize confirmed that he deserves more hype. (Schultz also founded The Writers Studio in 1987.) His latest book, "The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25) shows off the range of his gifts, whether addressing religious tradition and Jewish identity, or offering personal riffs, such as "What I Like and Don't Like," which evokes the casual voice of Frank O'Hara: "I like to say hello and goodbye. / I like to hug but not shake hands. . . . / I like greeting-card-cliches / but not dressing up or down. / I like being appropriate / but not all the time." Schultz can turn even the most mundane outing into a moment for rich contemplation. In "Bleecker Street," the poet takes a stroll to buy a cup of coffee, "hoping it will empty me / of all my bickering ideas about love / and fate and immortality / so I can hear the fertile songs of spring." For those who have yet to discover Schultz, this strong collection of works from his five books (along with new poems) is an ideal starting point.
If you're looking to further your poetry education beyond the bounds of North America, "The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry," edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris (Ecco, $19.99 paper) is essential reading. This compendium offers selections by canonical poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda and Yehuda Amichai, as well as those who are obscure to most American readers. Some have been translated into English for the first time, which means there's no shortage of marvelous new voices to discover. Spanning generations, cultures and countries, this is truly a landmark publication - and it's a good gift for the poetry lover in your life, even if that person is you.