American Melancholy: Poems

Ecco: HarperCollins. Feb. 2021. 128p. ISBN 9780063035263. $26.99. POETRY
We do not think of poetry as Oates’s genre; she is so cherished and prolific in prose, especially fiction (e.g., A Book of American Martyrs), that it is difficult to recall that she has always taken an interest in the field, as both critic and writer. This new collection includes works of widely varying lengths and perspectives, from near-narrative pieces such as “Doctor Help Me” to lyrics almost like epigrams such as “The First Room” and even a single work in an approach she has always favored, shaped poetry (“The Kite Poem”—you guessed it). Oates writes with the great fluency and authority of her remarkable experience as the creator of a flood of stories and characters; this particular volume is at its best when she is farthest from her fiction and sees with a poet’s eye, as in “This Is Not a Poem,” in which she distances herself from stale poetic tropes for this: “it is a slew/ of words in search/ of a container—/ a sleek green stalk,/ a transparent lung,/ a single hair’s curl,/ a cooing of vowels / like doves.”
VERDICT Oates’s high profile as a novelist should not discourage avid poetry readers from seeking out this volume, which aptly demonstrates the writer’s gifts in the genre and includes several poems of the highest quality.
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