The opening poem in “Felon” (Norton) by Reginald Dwayne Betts includes these stirring lines: “Dear Warden, my time been served, let me go,/ Promise that some of this I won’t recollect.” Betts, who served more than eight years in prison (for a carjacking he committed at 16), in fact recalls — clearly — how it felt to endure life behind bars. Those stark memories shape the story he tells here of a speaker who, like many of his fellow inmates, grew up in poverty, surrounded by violence, which led to them all “standing on the wrong side of choices.” The poems vividly chronicle how the dehumanizing experience of incarceration doesn’t end with a clean slate but with another long struggle on the outside, one that often includes homelessness, drug abuse and underemployment. (The speaker experiences all of those things and more. So do most inmates nationwide.) Betts, who later earned a graduate degree in creative writing, and a law degree from Yale, writes masterfully, in various forms. He also illustrates the transformative power of love.
“Arias” by Sharon Olds (Knopf) soars with a subtle, sublime music as she confronts various forms of violence in society and in her own past. The collection includes poems about Trayvon Martin and Etan Patz, whose slayings shocked the nation, as well as pieces about motherhood and harrowing recollections of the abuse Olds experienced as a child. “My mother beat me to the meter of ‘Onward,/ Christian Soldiers,’” she writes in the poem “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think.” One smash followed every other syllable, “as if/ language as well as tenderness was being/ savaged.” The book revisits other familiar themes as well — sex, loss, the need for political dissent — and intimates how current events, aging and divorce have galvanized or softened the poet. Olds, whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize for “Stag’s Leap” (2012), displays a range of voices here, from indomitable to vulnerable. The work is most surprising when exquisite melodies combine with flashes of new understanding.
Stephen Dunn explores the divide between who people appear to be and who they really are in his provocative collection “Pagan Virtues” (Norton). “The truth is always different/ from what anyone says out loud,” notes the speaker in one poem. No one in these pages seems to mind, however, as they tell themselves and others white lies or elaborate untruths in an effort to escape the confines of conventional daily life. Some of the falsehoods are archetypal as men and women hide their dark sides, trying to attract lovers. Other delusions mask disappointment when success turns out to be hollow, or they offer the illusory promise of better, alternative lives. Dunn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Different Hours” (2000) writes with compassion and insight about the complex contradictions that reside in so many of us. One of his protagonists, for example, “wasn’t surprised that his heart/ would hit two opposing notes/ at the same time. What could be/ more normal?”