With her previous translations/versions of ancient Greek plays and poetry, Carson has proved that she is the preeminent classicist of our time. She follows her previous efforts with her own version (read: loosely based) on Euripides’ Helen. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, she combines Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe into one persona and places both women in each other's milieu. In doing so, Carson creates a powerful, book-length monologue that tells two similar tales of sorrow, separated by millennia, and explores the way the world destroys women through myth-making powered by the male gaze.
Since the astonishingly direct poems of her 1980 debut, Satan Says, Sharon Olds has redefined the American poetic landscape as few other poets have. Making the body central to her work, she has found the poetry of traditionally “unpoetic” subjects, writing with unflinching honesty and compassion about violence and injustice—both in intimate, personal spaces and in the larger public arena. But as she shows the harm a family can inflict on its members, she also articulates why family is important; exposing the wounds caused by “cruelty/and abuse of power,” she never doubts that the better side of humanity can triumph. Her rich new collection, Arias (Knopf, $29.95 hardcover, $18.95 paper), at nearly 200 pages is a kind of double-album that takes Olds’s abiding concerns to new levels of power and artistry—without sacrificing anything of the conversational clarity that makes her work so compelling. In the opening poem, she moves in just twenty lines from “pouring the hot milk/into the coffee,” to “looking up/the purple martin” to elegizing Trayvon Martin—a deft illustration of the unity of the personal and the political as well as a glimpse of how a poem is made.
In her resounding An American Sunrise (W.W. Norton, $25.95), Joy Harjo, the indefatigable activist, musician, playwright, and fi rst Native American to serve as the U.S. Poet Laureate, tells stories, chants legends, speaks truth to power, and guides the spirit back to its origins. Most of all, she sings. Invoking a past when “there were songs for everything,” she retraces personal, tribal, and national memory to reclaim those songs and sing them anew. This is both in keeping with her Mvskoke legacy—passed on when an elder “blew his most powerful song into the hearts of the children”—and her determination to use her voice to “make a peaceful road/through human history” and not “upset the dead.” While Harjo’s outrage is evident as she recalls the Trail of Tears and the laws which, until 1978, “made it illegal for Native citizens to practice our cultures,” stronger is the impulse to heal divisions, and Harjo writes in the same spirit of inclusiveness with which her ancestors once “made a relative of Jesus, [and] gave him a Mvskoke name.” Squarely facing the losses without losing hope, Harjo practices a timeless “ceremony of grieving/which is also celebration.”