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Last words from Ram Dass, new Czech poetry, and verses that thrum with life

Ram Dass speaks on the lawn of Willernica.
Ram Dass speaks on the lawn of Willernica.Rameshwar Das

Be Here Now

“We thought of ourselves as intranauts,” writes the late spiritual seeker Ram Dass in his new posthumous autobiography, “exploring the unmapped worlds of inner space.” The Boston-born Richard Alpert, who died in December 2019, helped lead research into psychedelics at Harvard with Timothy Leary, traveled to India, and brought Eastern wisdom back with him to a generation of Baby Boomers open to the idea that there were worlds below the surface of existence worth exploring. “Being Ram Dass” written with Rameshwar Das (Sounds True), explores Dass’s initiation into the mind-widening experience of mushrooms and LSD, and the soul-finding he did with his Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba. “The true risk taking, the search that has really defined my life, has been about identity and inner truth.” He was a lonely kid, grappled with his sexuality, loved fast cars, was changed by drugs, and his most famous saying, “Be Here Now,” has guided legions in to the possibilities inherent in the depths of our unconscious, and love as the highest power. “My constant reaching for the edge is really a creative act, an existential push to break through to another level, to find that place in myself that answers the question, Who am I, really?” Throughout the book, he is cogent, warm, and wise; the book provides a glimpse into an extraordinary life as well as a historical moment, one that continues to resonate.

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European lyrics

The poems of Tereza Riedlbauchová flare and ghost with images and atmospheres of traces left, boundaries blurred, and the movement toward connection. “Paris Notebook” (Visible Spectrum), a new volume of the contemporary Czech poet’s work, translated by Plymouth-based poet and translator Stephan Delbos, showcases a dreamy lyricism that nods now and then to the deep dark macabre: “I stood on the threshold / below me lay a dead woman / in the shape of the day before.” Her poems are sensual, too, and open to the body and its beauties and horrors. Part of her lover’s body “bridges all the rivers and / halts at the midpoint of all the seas.” Delbos, who serves as poet laureate of Plymouth, offers a deft, sensitive translation, and gives thoughtful context to Riedlbauchová's work in his afterword, noting her place in Czech, European, and transnational poetic traditions. There are whispers of exuberant despair — “from now on nothing matters to me” — and haunting moments of truth — “autumn like a swallowing flower.”

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Bodily verse

In “Tell Me How You Got Here” (Terrapin), Emily Franklin’s debut collection of poetry, she sinks into the meat of life: eggs, plants, food and mugs, sponges, love. Time’s forward throb gets sensitive attention, too: “when this— / the only summer ever in which you are eleven— / will also be gone” and “that summer became all summers—July, July, July / heard in each oar stroke, each scuff on land.” Presence and goneness are forces to be reckoned with, “absence an object itself,” and Franklin, who lives in Massachusetts and has written a number of novels for adults and young adults, is strong when detailing the body: “your baggy forearms / and pumpernickel breath, estuary eyes / of mossy loss.” She writes of “the art show of biology, duret hemorrhages in the pons / identical to cross-sections of thick wood, that slab of redwood / still on display on his desk, the rings irregular and mottled / maroon, the center gold.”

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Coming Out

100 Boyfriendsby Brontez Purnell (FSG)

Land of Big Numbersby Te-Ping Chen (Mariner)

The Bad Muslim Discountby Syed M. Masood (Doubleday)

Pick of the Week

Emma Ramadan at RiffRaff in Providence recommends “Black Forest” by Valérie Mréjen, translated from the French by Katie Shireen Assef (Phoneme Media): “A wonderfully dark little book that will haunt you long after you put it down.”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.