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Three distinct, delightful poetic voices

Acclaimed poets Linda Pastan, Cynthia Zarin, and Peter Cole offer powerful new collections.

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By Linda Pastan
Norton, W.W. & Company
96 pp.

Hymns & Qualms
By Peter Cole
The Sheep Meadow Press
109 pp.

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Linda Pastan's Insomnia (W.W. Norton, 96 pp.), her 13th poetry collection now being released in paperback, is eloquent, insightful, and wonderfully accessible as she ponders some of life's ordinary moments. Here, those moments come when sleep is elusive and the speaker's thoughts turn to a gardener cleaning up after a renegade snowstorm, the space between stars, or the sound of blackbirds in flight.

As the book progresses, those nighttime reflections also focus on love, aging, and the work of writers and artists who desire fame, but must learn that it is the journey that matters most. As always, the voice in Pastan's poems is clear and sure, and her craftsmanship is exquisite, whether she employs free verse or subtle rhymes to transform images and perceptions. In "After the Snow," for example, tree limbs look "like pages/ of inked calligraphy;/ one sparrow,/ high on a branch/ brief as/ a haiku."

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Orbit (Knopf, 96 pp.), Cynthia Zarin's fifth collection, demonstrates that there are worlds within worlds, and that shared history or experience shapes environment and trajectory. Zarin, a careful and perceptive witness, notices small details, whether she's recalling a game played in childhood or the news of the day. She sees what many miss, and conveys both the obvious and hidden aspects.

In the poem "Meltwater," the speaker describes a gang of foxes on the road as a "gaggle, the gutter a Ganges, gravel/ rutting the glacier's slur and cant," and then says "Old proof,/ the past can't solve itself, endlessly drawing/ its stung logos spirograph." No matter the subject, Zarin delves beneath the surface, then emerges with striking language, confessing, "I do not know how to hold all/ the beauty and sorrow of my life."

Hymns & Qualms (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp.) includes more than 20 years' worth of poems and translations by American Peter Cole, whose awards include a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship. New work appears, intermingled, at the front of the book. After that, Cole's original verse alternates with his translations of mystic poetry from the 11th through the 21st centuries, weaving back and forth as if in conversation about life's greatest mysteries.

Cole, who draws from both Hebraic and Arabic traditions, is like a modern psalmist who leads readers on a journey filled with wit, awe, and skepticism. A desire for wisdom and transcendence permeates the collection. Cole understands that poetry "doesn't create out of nothing./ It works through what's found: it discovers,/ and much like influence, it recovers/ a charge that's already there,/ potentially, in the air."