Poetry Picks

Celebrate a poetic change of season with essential works from Jim Harrison, Kim Shuck, and Forrest Gander.

Jim Harrison (left), Kim Shuck, and Forrest Gander.
Jim Harrison (left), Kim Shuck, and Forrest Gander.



Edited by Joseph Bednarik
Copper Canyon Press, 200 pages, $18

Jim Harrison had an appetite. He devoured the natural world with gusto and wrote about it with wild energy and sweetly caustic wit. He was a master of the novella (Legends of the Fall) and a gourmand whose nonfiction books about eating (The Raw and the Cooked) out-Bourdain Anthony Bourdain. Harrison was also a prodigious poet, and this thoughtfully curated collection showcases him at his best. Like his fiction, the poems observe the collision between civilization and the wildness outside our cities; they act like geocaches both harrowing and beautiful, as in this line from “Ghazals”: “When it rains I want to go north into the taiga, and before I freeze in the arid cold watch the reindeer watch the northern lights.” Organized chronologically, the material here becomes a time line distilling Harrison’s signature concerns.

—Mark Haskell Smith



By Kim Shuck
City Lights Publishers, 96 pages, $13.95

Love song and lament in equal measure, Kim Shuck’s collection Deer Trails is an intimate and evocative portrait of San Francisco, a city in frenetic flux. A member of the Cherokee Nation, a native of San Francisco, and the city’s seventh poet laureate, Shuck crafts poems haunted by loss and dispossession yet imbued with hope. The acts of attention and observation in this sequence peel back the surface of the city, laying bare its uneasy present and its unsettled past. Shuck, an accomplished beadwork artist and weaver, is also a master of poetic form; the imagery in her stacked, enjambed, and interwoven lines is deft, dramatic, and always finely wrought. Like “little blue butterflies,” these poems have “thumbnail wings.” Their flight reminds us that what is sacred in San Francisco cannot be possessed.

—Heidi Van Horn



By Forrest Gander
New Directions, 96 pages, $16.95

Critics and academics are afraid to admit that much of modern poetry is unreadable. It’s like a charade game in which those who are following the gestures finally give up. Some of Forrest Gander’s poetry fits in that category, but there’s enough in Be With to get the reader’s attention.

Not only that, but certain riffs (“How she fights the sleeping pill,” one begins) are so striking, I keep reading them until the letters on the page fade. I’m struck by the mortality rates among jazz musicians. Some of the greats didn’t reach 40. Poets also perish early, because writing poetry can be a burden on the soul. Gander’s horn is his language. Like other superior poets, he uses images and syntax (his “beak-hard determination”) that are fresh. Gander is a seasoned practitioner who has depth.

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed’s latest novel is The Terrible Fours.
Mark Haskell Smith is the author of six novels, including Moist, Salty, and Blown, as well as three nonfiction books, most recently Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey Through Greece.
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