Twenty-Four Poets Name Some Favorites to Celebrate National Poetry Month

Recommended by Robert Wrigley

One Big Self: An Investigation by C. D. Wright (Copper Canyon, 2007, $15.00 paperback)

wright2.jpgOne might argue that C.D. Wright’s One Big Self: An Investigation is hardly a book of poetry at all. Then again, that was precisely the argument made in opposition to Leaves of Grass, lo, these 154 years past. Not that I’m suggesting OBS is somehow the literary equivalent of LoG. No. But its subject — incarceration in a few Louisiana penitentiaries in particular; incarceration in America in general — offers what one might think of as a hellish arrival for Whitman’s supreme poem-nation. No country on the planet imprisons more of its citizens than the land of the free and the home of the brave. That this book was originally the text for a collection of photographs (of inmates from those Louisiana institutions, by Deborah Luster) did, I admit, make me plunk down a substantial sum of money for that original coffee-table-sized text. The photographs are astounding. In this regard, they’re the equal of the text.

wright.jpgWright’s motive is accretive. Much of the work will look like prose, or like exceedingly long lines. But its power is also within its juxtapositions as well as its accumulations. Quotations from inmates, statistics, Louisiana lore and local color, the slightest of narrative details (of the inmates, the poet, the photographer), descriptions of tattoos, scars, the homeliest of witnessed or reported incidents. The effect is immensely powerful. One’s fellow citizens, these are. The sheer number of them is breathtaking. The flashes of individual story can break your heart, appall you, and then do it all again.

If you have not read C.D. Wright before, it might be a good idea to begin not with this book but with her Deepstep Come Shining, in which one finds a similar poetics, though this time focused on American rural southernness. That book seems less purpose-driven, and thus it also seems more aligned somehow with Whitman himself, if one could imagine him as a late-20th century American southerner in love with a homeland worthy of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. Then read One Big Self. And imagine how it would have broken Whitman’s heart, too.

Recommended by Joshua Weiner

Diaries, Letters and Recollections by Lynette Roberts, edited by Patrick McGuinness (Carcanet Press, 2008, $27.95 paperback)

Roberts2.jpgWhen Lynette Roberts's Collected Poems was published in 2005, edited by Patrick McGuinness for Carcanet, serious readers of poetry welcomed the return to print of an erratically brilliant modern British poet who had fallen from view: the significance of her presence on the scene in England around the second world war was blurred by the developing schizophrenia that plagued a long life (1909-1995). T.S. Eliot published her two books with Faber; Dylan Thomas was the best man at her wedding; Robert Graves dedicated The White Goddess to her -- these are some of the facts that gravitate around her work. Born in Buenos Aires, her parents were Welsh, and she eventually returned to a Welsh village, where she lived for a while married to Keidrich Rhys, and later, after her divorce and as a single mother of two, in a caravan. The poetry is scintillate and sharp, experimental in how it pushes lyric language to an edge of meaning, deeply traditional in how it plays with lyric form; but the poetry is also epic in its ambitions, in a recognizable modernist manner that nonetheless is unique in style: "Bring plimsole plover to the tensile sand / And with cuprite crest and petulant feet / Distil our notes into febrile reeds / Crisply starched at the water-rail of tides." If you like that, you should check her out. The longish "Gods with Stainless Ears," a "heroic poem" by her own designation, brings the contemporary/ancient fusion of war that one finds in the work of a poet such as fellow Welshman David Jones back to the Welsh village, where psychological tension and physical hardship rarely find release in action. I don't know of any other poem like it.

Roberts.jpgLast year Patrick McGuinness and Carcanet put into the hands of interested readers Lynette Roberts's Diaries, Letters and Recollections. The diary is a war diary of life in Carmarthenshire, 1939-1948, and throws threads of light onto the poems, suggesting how Roberts' imagination sent through the perceptions of the everyday a stylistically cranked-up mythic charge. The plain prose style here, however, is perfectly suited to serve the more straightforward, frank treatment of the diaries. One also finds an incredible set of memoirist essays about tracking down Lorca; and "Tea with the Sitwells;" and a "Visit to T.S. Eliot," -- this latter piece a stunner for how it dramatizes what would surely be a nightmare for any poet who is also a parent: trying to carry on a conversation with your famous, powerful editor while your children rip up plants and papers, and spit on the floor. Any new poems, Mrs. Roberts? Oh, dear ….., etc. The volume rounds out with a set of letters to Robert Graves and notes towards an autobiography. After the brilliant poems and this memorable volume of prose, readers who want more will have to hunt down The Endeavour, Lynnette Roberts' account of "Captain Cook's First Voyage to Australia."

Recommended by Janice N. Harrington

The Boatloads by Dan Albergotti (BOA Editions, 2008, $16.00 paperback)

Alberghotti.jpgDeeply felt explorations of faith, inventive re-tellings of biblical stories, imaginative meditations, and the celebration of answered and unanswered questions characterize this 2008 A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize winner. In “Still Bound,” Albergotti reconsiders Prometheus whose heart (not his liver) is eaten by an eagle. “The day is long. The day is long when you’re growing a heart. / Still, look at how the sun falls behind that far peak, / how it glows like one steady eye gazing only here, / how it makes those colors burn and emanate where soon / it will be purely black, how it can make a gift of fire.” Albergotti’s gift is a lyrical reinvention of stories that we thought we knew. In poems that are immediate and accessible, he considers God, beauty, love, and lives that unexpectedly match our own. Perhaps we have not defeated death, as Albergotti suggests in the title poem, “The Boatloads,” but maybe, he implies, we have forced death to abandon its bureaucratic efficiency, making it point its finger at each of us in turn. Surely, that is a victory of sorts.

Recommended by Brian Brodeur

See Jack by Russell Edson (University of Pittsburgh, 2009, $14.95 paperback)

Edson.jpgRussell Edson has devoted most of his writing life to mastering the prose poem, adapting the form to his own deliciously perverse concerns. In See Jack, Edson’s nineteenth collection, we encounter such personages as “an old man who pukes metal”; a farmer who falls in love with a turkey hen; and an amateur scientist who builds his own spacecraft only to be ice-picked to death by a stowaway dwarf. Here is one of the shortest poems in the book, “The Conversation,” in its entirety: “There was a woman whose face was a cow’s milk bag, a pink pouch with four dugs pointing out of it . . . // A man with a little three-legged milking stool comes. She stoops and he begins to milk her face . . .” This poem achieves what the best Edson poems achieve, a terrifying hilarity. We cannot help but take offense at the implications of a woman with a “milk bag” for a face. Yet even the most conservative among us gets a guilty chuckle out of the bizarre dramatic tension of the scene, a characteristic which is helped enormously by the poem’s brevity, by what is left unsaid. Here, as always, Edson’s ellipses taunt the reader to fill in the blanks. Why does the man carry around a milking stool? Do the characters know each other or are they strangers? If strangers, has the woman been searching her whole life for such a man with such a stool? As the man tugs at the woman’s “four dugs,” does he drink the milk or let it spill to the ground? . . . Fast-paced, rooted in domestic banalities, playful without being trifling, moral without being preachy, Edson’s poems accomplish a kind of Baudelairian “miracle of poetic prose,” even if they operate within their own principles of technique. “Writing for me,” Edson said in a 2004 interview, “is the fun of discovery. [. . .] Experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream.” To this, I’d add these tenets: tell a story, slant; offend at all costs the sensibilities of the politically correct; be creepy and absurd (for life, friends, is creepy and absurd); and most of all, make them laugh. That’s really the heart of it. Rarely is poetry so belly-laugh inducing, so beguiling, so strange.

Recommended by Jericho Brown

Delivered by Sarah Gambito (Persea Books, 2009, $14.00 paperback)

Gambito.jpgIf Sarah Gambito’s first book, Matadora (Alice James Books, 2004), introduced a new voice rich with sass and flamboyance, then her recent collection, Delivered, proves her wealthy wielding of language much more than a mere fluke. Delivered is inventive and surprising at every line, and the poet does not mind thrilling herself with the truth about politics and poetics — they are indeed one in the same. Of course, Gambito’s subject matter is no different from any other poet’s. She writes about love, death, family, joy, and dissatisfaction. She is singular, though, in a kind of witchery that must make her grin when composing even the saddest line. She means to splice and fuse, mix and concoct, until the poems are as historied and alive as the America that obsesses her. Each piece is careful to measure the strange angles of ordinary things, and with Gambito’s wit, her eye-rolling charm, I’m left with more than poems … A person — whole, complex, and inquisitive — is delivered.

Recommended by Dan Bellm

It was a terrible cloud at twilight by Alessandra Lynch (Pleiades Press, 2008, $16.95 paperback)

Lynch.jpgAlessandra Lynch’s second collection has been one of the most welcome surprises of the past year. I went right to the title poem in the middle of the book and my hair stood on end. It was dark, ominous, and funny all at once, full of strange swerves; it commanded me to slow down and hear. I loved its music: “It was a terrible cloud at twilight, / humped painfully against / the last blast of light; / a threadbare wolf pressed in smoke; / a tyranny of doves on the outset pecking blindly white. // It was a terrible cloud— / everybody stared at its shifting instead of: / crumpled handfuls of animal below, / traffic lights, red beady ones, even yellow flashers, / green signs half-toppled, roofs slack with snow…” All the way through, Terrible cloud is both sublime and cantankerous, two words Lynch uses in the same line to great effect in the book’s opener, “Birthday,” an anti-pastoral scene of childhood and youth that seizes on wishes and their aftermath. Sublime in the way so many of the poems look straight into the weirdness and melancholy of a girl’s coming of age—and not just any girl, either: one piece is called, “My Mother Raised Me to Be a Cowboy.” Cantankerous in the way they swat off any hint of self-dramatizing or self-pity—even a poem about a girl’s bruises, whose refrain is the word, “okay”:

Okay. Bruises banded my neck
yellow as a stain on white fur. And zippered
my spine and pocked my back.

Bruises flowered my arms, nesting on
my thigh, airily appearing around the kneebone,
made themselves at home.

Circled the wrist, okay, bruises on a long
purple parade down the leg, bruises tussling around
the hip, bruises yellowed the chin and mouth…

Ravenous hunger and thirst keep appearing, too: hundreds of mice in the walls of the mother’s house, grotesquely fat birds whirling and squabbling around a feeder, a liquored-up sexual encounter with the apparent goal of release through mutual annihilation. The book closes on a note of hard-won grace and tenderness with a wonderful sequence in memory of the poet’s friend, Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face.

Recommended by Michael Heffernan

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine, photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson (Norton, 2005, $23.95/$17.95)

The Wild Braid is a late self-portrait of Stanley Kunitz, part memoir, part autobiography, part rumination on his vision, his craft as a poet and a gardener, with his Provincetown garden as a physical embodiment of that craft, as well as a living trope for the poet’s act. With Genine Lentine’s presence and encouragement, he also records himself in a running interview that she presents in the book. There are a dozen poems, all from The Collected Poems (2000).

Kunitz.jpgThe splendid photographs are snaps of Kunitz, mostly at work in his garden, or looking at things in it, while stepping along toward his hundredth birthday and beyond. He died in May 2006, eleven weeks short of 101. It seems needless to say, but then it bears saying, that we are not to have very many books like this. And what can a poet say when he gets this good, this wise, and this old? “Who touches this book touches a man,” Whitman wrote of Leaves of Grass.

Part of the work of Stanley Kunitz for decades, the garden reaches its fullest realization in The Wild Braid. Its beauty becomes his own. Now it is his heaven, and this book is where we can go to find him. Here Kunitz talks about finality, the last things, the things that last. Near the book’s end, he introduces the Dark Angel, a kind of companion who comes with death. The segment where he evokes this figure is the book’s summation.

In an earlier passage, Kunitz recounts the “desolate feeling” he suffered over the decision to eliminate an Alberta spruce that had grown to block the path into the garden. He frames the removal this way: “When the time comes for cutting, gathering, moving, removing, one has to be pretty ruthless. It took maybe fifteen minutes for them to cut it down. It came down all in one piece. The root system took longer to hack out than that one decisive cut through the trunk—one can easily sense the metaphorical resonance in that.”

Recommended by Catherine Barnett

Rift by Forrest Hamer (Four Way Books, 2007, 58 pp., $14.95 paper)

Hamer.jpgLast fall I went to a talk given by the poet Forrest Hamer, who is also a psychoanalyst. Addressing a roomful of psychologists, he spoke about “ideal intimacy,” examining the “tension between what is said and what is not yet said” in both poems and in the psychoanalytic relationship. I had been teaching Hamer’s third book of poems, Rift, in a class on “the unspoken,” where we were looking at how and where language pushes up against its own limits. We’d been talking about the relationship between speaker and listener, and how this shapes what gets said (as well as how it gets said). In “What Happened,” Hamer writes:

To say about it one thing. No, two. It was a horror. It could not be spoken.
So first there was the problem of recovering speech.
Calling out to it, listening each other.

Hamer uses the verb “to listen” as a transitive verb, suggesting a more immediate and active relationship between subject and object. This immediacy of listening floods his poems; it is both his subject and his strategy. I am moved by the compassion in these poems, by their refusal to judge, and by their rage: how he manages these three gestures simultaneously is part of the genius of this collection. These are poems of unsentimental urgent feeling, beautifully inarticulate. Hamer’s linguistic inventions are quiet windows through which we glimpse the difficulties of understanding and of communicating. Rift, his third collection of poems, is flooded with silences, with the unspeakable and the unsayable. At the same time it clearly tackles the very real subjects of violence, race, sex, family fractures. It is a book of eloquent, unshowy witness.

Lucy by Jean Valentine (Sarabande Books, 2009, $9.95 paperback)

Valentine.jpgAlso be sure to read Jean Valentine’s new chapbook, Lucy, a sequence of poems that directly addresses Lucy, our oldest human ancestor. This is another book of deepest listening. In an early poem Lucy has “nor no words // only / breath marks // breath marks / only // nor no words….” The speaker feels an immediate connection with her “skeleton mother”: “Lucy, what you want, / that I will do. / To hear you now.” In her resonant fragments, in her Dickinson-inflected non-recoverable deletions, Valentine gives us a charged statement of poetics and love in “My Work of Art”: “My life is for. / In its language. / Your voice.”

Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse by Darcie Dennigan (Fordham University Press, 2008, $18.95 paperback)

For a very different adventure, look at Darcie Dennigan’s Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. This isn’t a book of deep listening but companionship of an altogether more irreverent outspokenness. Dennigan defamiliarizes everything from maternal anxiety to Starbucks to bad jokes to language itself and makes you want to start writing and paying renewed attention to “supper, & sleeps, / garden & lamps & then.” There’s a very fresh heart in these poems.

Recommended by Tom Sleigh

Hollywood and God by Robert Polito (University of Chicago Press, 2009, $22.00 hardcover)

Polito.jpgHollywood and God is a brilliant sui generic work, a surprising mix of fictionalized autobiography, traditional lyric, and psychological reflection that is detached and passionate at the same time. “Sister Elvis,” Polito’s poem about the Elvis impersonator who mutilates her face to look, in her own eyes, like the face of Elvis, is a terrifying and weirdly humorous poem—a kind of Dostoyevskian flight between deliberate bathos and a deeply felt account of one soul’s dark night. This kind of mixed tone is evident throughout the book, and signals how deeply ambivalent the poet is about his own longing for spiritual sublimity, whether accomplished through personae, as in “Sister Elvis,” or in his own propria persona, as in “The Harrowing of Dorchester.” This is a poet who has taken into account the problematic nature of identity, and rather than settle for any one version of the self, he’s interested in inhabiting as many fictions about the self as he can credibly invest with feeling. And so the mixed modes of feeling, as well as the hybrid nature of the poems, veering as they do between the conventions of essayistic analysis and lyric utterance, are beautifully matched to the poet’s fluctuating attraction and repulsion toward a fixed sense of self.

On a larger scale, the poem dramatizes the poet’s need to escape the confines of his own identity: “I myself am Hell” could be the motto of this book, with the emphasis on the grammatically liminal nature of “I”. The poet’s use of autobiographical conventions, in which the poet deftly mixes fact with fiction so as to produce the “feel” of autobiography, even when the reader knows that the poet is resorting to a persona, is a profoundly new way to make poetry escape the dead ends of a Robert Browningish dramatic monologue, in which the poet dons the mask, and never takes it off—as if unaware that a post-modern sensibility sees only the face showing through. It’s perhaps in this profound understanding of how identity needs to keep being refigured in order to maintain it’s integrity that this book is most urgent in its emotional professions. This is a superbly self-aware, deeply felt, and original book.

The Lions by Peter Campion (University of Chicago Press, 2009, $18.00 paperback)

Campion.jpgPeter Campion has written a book in which the personal and political are so closely linked that the usual distinctions between the private and personal are nullified. His appalled sense of American public life leads him to question the mechanics of his own life: a life that is hedged in by daily responsibilities but that seems to open out onto endlessly proliferating webs of technical and political systems. It’s as if he’s watching the inner workings of our national life from the vantage of Cassandra, but a Cassandra powerless to change anyone’s fate. This is especially the case in the title poem, in which Robert McNamara, as the epitome of depersonalized, ruthlessly bureaucratic power, is seen by the child in the poem as demonic, while at the same time being just another guest who has been invited to a family party. That Campion makes this sense of disembodied evil completely plausible and ordinary seeming, while not slighting the almost supernatural feelings that McNamara inspires in him, is one of the book’s great triumphs. Another way to think of it is that Campion has created a legend about the supernatural in which McNamara is Campion’s Grendel—a shapeshifting shadow figure onto which a child’s, and a nation’s, anxieties are displaced. And what creates those anxieties is obscure private guilt, but also public collective ones. Like no other book of poems that I know of, this book explores the twilight way consciousness experiences political and historical trauma from inside an imperial power where the citizenry is safe from violence while subjecting the enemy to massive destruction from high-tech warfare.

His idiom is a plain style that serves him equally well in both lyric and descriptive modes. The impersonality of the voice matches the general tone of restraint. Campion’s stringent economy of statement keeps the temperature from getting too high, so the poems are never in danger of turning into rants: these poems are not “viewy.” They don’t stake out positions or orate at you. They emphatically aren’t public speech, though they do address public occasions. And because of this, the poems about domestic life and the complexities of married love create a seamless continuum between the realms of the public and private. I think that Campion has written a rare book, one in which poetic language isn’t simply interior reflection, but is forceful social speech wedded to social occasions.

Recommended by Lisa Russ Spaar

Watching the Spring Festival by Frank Bidart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, $25.00/$13.00)

Frank Bidart has for decades talked back to and reinvented “what Modernism left out,” producing long, dramatic, often fragmented, serial poems of transgressive eloquence and violent beauty. Rarely lapsing into self-parody, Bidart’s signature mode during his distinguished career has been a dramatic monologue redux, rich with an intertextual, daring mash-up of language-lust, culture, and consciousness, and a wild cast of personae fictive and historical. Stalking Bidart’s forays into other people’s heads, of course, has always been Bidart – his sensibility is bodied forth in his dramaturge/collector’s eye for detail, finical tic, gesture, syntax, voice, pattern, and ritual, and in his obsession with the Freudian (Catholic? human?) turf of guilt and desire, with ars poetica, and perhaps most fundamentally in the elegant and intrepid ways he thinks to juxtapose and connect the matter storied in the wunderkammer of his mind. How thrilling – and, typically, risk-taking – to find his latest collection replete with shorter lyrics whose speakers – often mid- to late-life, God-hungry, guilt-twisted, stoned on beauty – seem less masked than in previous books, as in “Old Man At The Wheel”:

Measured against the immeasurable
universe, no word you have spoken

brought light. Brought
light to what, as a child, you thought

too dark to be survived. By exorcism
you survived. By submission, then making.

you let all the parts of that thing you would
cut out of you enter your poem because

enacting there all its parts allowed you
the illusion you could cut it from your soul.

Dilemmas of choice given what cannot
change alone roused you to words.

As you grip the things that were young when
you were young, they crumble in your hand.

Now you must drive west, which in November
means driving directly into the sun.

Bidart2.jpgOne thinks of Hardy, that most modern of Victorians, like Bidart a consummate artist and formal innovator, turning rich, novelistic persona poems into the ominous, wrenching, transforming majesty of poems like “Neutral Tones” and “During Wind and Rain.” Bidart’s new book is full of such ruthless, ardent, wound-imprinted, ecstatic songs, sestinas, and invented forms -- what Northrop Frye called “charms” (from carmen, song) – whose utterances offer strange hope, as in “Hymn”: “Earth, O fecund, thou. Electric ghosts / / people the horizon, beguiling since childhood / this son of the desert about to disappear. / / They are no less loved and feared because / evanescent. Earth, O fecund, thou.” In “Little O,” Bidart writes, “Everything made is made out of its // refusals: those who follow make it new / by refusing refusals.” Bidart is our Ezra Pound in this respect, bound to and transforming our manifold traditions, “remaking art to cut through.” His new book makes essential reading.

Recommended by John Allman

If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey (University of Georgia Press, 2009, $16.95 paperback)

Journey.jpgAnna Journey’s work is rich in American idiom, that unique mix of autobiography and symbol-shimmering naturescapes. One can get a sense of all that from the titles of the poems: “Apparition with Toenail Music”; “Corpse Flowers and Grackles”; “A Crawdad’ll Hold Until It Hears Thunder”; “Sappho on the Edge of the Bayou”; “Birdskull, Cedar, Rosemary, Stone”; “The Foot Wing of Carolina’s Artificial Limb Factory.” But the power of If Birds Gather comes from the personae of the poems: youth startled into language driven to match the shock of perception and the new weight of memory. This sharp articulation and strange energy are what we look for in first books but rarely find (we usually settle for precocity and move on). David Wojahn has aptly described her “giddy imaginative dexterity” and her “haunted helplessness.” What I hear is the mix of generosity and defenselessness in her expression, a courageous willingness to speak and see what happens. Journey is also an amusing story-teller with a sense for the sinister and the Southern gothic, the “adorable siren” of the book’s opening poem. Here are the opening lines from “Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center”: “I told the serial killer he could feed his Venus flytrap Spam / the summer I worked the outdoor lawn // and garden center. I’d known to say this since fifteen, with my mother / telling me / all men who ask young girls directions / from their white vans are murderers. Especially ones // wearing an arm in a sling who ask you to carry things. This one asked / about hibiscus.”

Recommended by Nicky Beer

Flight: New and Selected Poems by Linda Bierds (Putnam, 2008, $24.95 hardcover)

Given the careful, complex construction of full-length works such as The Profile Makers (1997) and The Seconds (2001), one might worry that a selected volume of Linda Bierds’ poetry could be something of a decimation. And yet having nearly twenty-five years’ worth of Bierds’ beautifully precise and deeply humane poetry under the same roof, so to speak, successfully and engagingly illuminates the historical, scientific, and ekphrastic obsessions of Bierds’ oeuvre.

Bierds.jpgIn the opening poem, the title poem of The Stillness, The Dancing (1988), the image of a peacock, “shanks and yellow spurs high-stepping, high-stepping / slowly unfold[ing] its breathless fan” to spectators on a passing train, epitomizes Bierds’ early and consistent commitment to a balance of reticence and ornate display in her poetry. The peacock itself is the “reversal” of the image of the skeletal remains of a mother and child from earlier in the poem, and so, too, does this arrangement of opposites illustrate the mirrors, twins, halves, and other visual echoes that recur in the body of work. The poem “Phantom Pain” from The Ghost Trio (1994) begins with Josiah Wedgwood’s missing limb, “A pain in an absence. A leg-shaped / absence in pain,” and ends with “A glimpse into heaven, perhaps, or its loss / […] a form / flaring nearer while backing away.” In “Vespertilio,” from The Profile Makers, “the great bats / […] flap near the henhouse windows […] as if / they are seeking their lost counterparts,” and in a new poem at the opposite end of the collection, as 17th century anatomist Nicolaas Tulp sketches a caged orangutan, “each / completes the circling gaze—man to beast to page / to man.”

Much of the new work is informed by the German Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer, and poems such as “Biography,” “Accountancy: Dürer at Antwerp,” and “Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice” are not to be missed. For readers who are already fans, or those who have yet to be initiated into the pleasures of her work, this is a book worth having on your shelves—and pulling down again and again.

Recommended by Reginald Gibbons

New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Carcanet Press, 2008, $37.95 paperback)

Warner2.jpgSylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) seems scarcely known in the U.S. as a poet. In 2008 Carcanet Press in England issued her New Collected Poems, edited as a great labor of love by Claire Harman. (Harman has also published a biography of Warner.) Behind Warner the poet, with her great ear and formal gifts, and the swerving moves of her best poems, there stands the almost overwhelming "background reality" (Milosz's phrase, in The Witness of Poetry) of her generation: World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II; the distortions of English law and prejudice against lesbians and gays; and the climate of poetry itself, dominated by men and modernism. Somehow it is not surprising that so many of these poems remained uncollected at Warner's death. Drawn first to the uncollected poems, I found among them some of the most memorable work--even haunting (a word that is truly Warner's) --that I have read in a long time. Whether in strong (but not traditional) stanzaic forms, with intricate rhythms, or in free stanzas and rhythmically looser free-verse lines, Warner writes--over a long career--with remarkable word-music and a somber yet richly detailed sense of nature and of human story, including love. I especially recommend "They cannot be far away--," "I watched the smoke-wreath from your chimney sag," "I would give you Alexander's Bucephalus," "Being watched," "Go the long way, the long way home," "Here, in the corner of the field," "Squat and sullen," "The vinery has been broken for years and years," "A Man in a Landscape," "Mangolds," "Thaelmaon," "Because a smallish man had been," "Waiting for War," "Road, 1940," "It is April nineteen-forty-one," "I always fold my gloves," "Before D. Day," "South Coast 1944," and "In East Anglia."

Recommended by David Clewell

Cinema Muto by Jesse Lee Kercheval (Crab Orchard Review/SIU Press, 2009, $14.95 paperback)

I came to Cinema Muto with next-to-no knowledge of the history of silent film; I knew some of the pre-talkies work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Fields, but nothing of the great artists/directors of the period. Nonetheless, being familiar over the years with Kercheval’s poetry and prose, I figured I’d be in for something good. I was a tad off the mark, though. It turns out I was in for something far more wonderful.

Kercheval.jpgUsing the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (held each October in Pordenone, Italy) as her home base, Kercheval’s speaker immerses the reader in several worlds at once: the world of actual silent movies; a world of language both spoken and unspoken; our quotidian world, made up of so many sounds and silences (so much like poetry itself), a world in which each of us is an actor after a fashion, working from the script of a lifetime—the only one we’ve got. This speaker moves effortlessly through her space/time continuum, fully inhabiting both the public and the private moments she discovers. We sit with her in the Festival audience; with her we enter the life of Ivan Mosjoukine, hugely popular Russian actor in the silent-movie heyday (“Mosjoukine in Exile” is the dazzling centerpiece poem of this book). We ride airplanes, wander the streets, remember a dead mother and daughter, hold hands with a beloved husband (a recurring character in the refreshingly unsentimental love poems in this book), and join her in down-to-earth meditations on the notion of God (“Imagine God as a Camera”). By my lights (or am I just projecting?), Cinema Muto is a booklength love poem: love for the films that give birth to these proceedings; love of family; love of being alive, as fully as ever is possible. And through it all: love of language, even with its myriad imperfections, for everything it tries to say…and love for things unspoken, too, that reside most fully in those spaces words can’t fill. The metaphorical texture of this book is rich, natural, and never less than positively thought-provoking. Kercheval’s own words here move seamlessly among language-worlds of verse, prose poetry, and silent-film catalogue copy as she explores the elasticity of poetry itself.

I learned that the lifetime of silent film was a scant thirty-two years; it evolved into an increasingly sophisticated and expressive form and then, seemingly overnight, died out. Kercheval mines the many literal and figurative implications therein with a generous sense of compassion, brio, and grace. In the book’s opening poem, “Saving Silence,” I learned that eighty percent of the 150,000 silent films are “as lost to us/ as the dust our grand-/ parents returned to”:

So why should I care? Because
my mother was deaf,
because I am tired after years
of talk-talk-talking.
Because as a child, I once
rode the elevator
to the top of the Eiffel Tower
where, like God,
I looked down &
saw the whole world
at my feet—
rendered not motionless,
but silent.

Cinema Muto world is loaded with motion, and it’s a far, human cry
from silent. Her language soars and plummets, singing out in all directions. Looking ahead at her own passing from the world, the speaker says: “I will fold first at the knees / as if in prayer, then at the slightly worn sprockets // of my spine, my vertebrae having had their final run / through the projector of time. When God calls, / I will not have to stay awake watching any longer” (“Film Upon Film”). She speaks to her majestic, tragic Mosjoukine, up there big as life on the screen: “Arms outstretched, you beckon to the audience. // It makes me feel I am not living / not really though a dictionary might call it by that name. // Moving, you become a perfect poem./ I try to write, & every day // I fail” (“Mosjoukine in Exile”). This fine poet’s new book is irrefutable evidence to the contrary; it is absolutely moving. I here thank her for staying so awake and so carefully watching—and watching out—for all of us.

Recommended by Jay Hopler

As Is by James Galvin (Copper Canyon, 2009, $15.00 paperback, due July)

Galvin.jpgJames Galvin's new book As Is, due out in July, is a wild, idiosyncratic piece of work that is both original (in every sense of the word) and fiercely contemporary. At times hardboiled, at times almost courtly, the poems in As Is negotiate the public and the private in new and interesting ways. It's definitely worth a look. Here are lines from “Prayer”:

O, beginning, daughters of the earth await the sons of heaven, and
vice versa.
They all practice trigger-happiness and chicken scratch.

They practice duration and meltdown.
They primp in your glass.

Recommended by Kelly Cherry

The House of Marriage by Erin Hanusa (LSU Press, 2008, $16.95 paperback)

Hanusa.jpgHanusa’s debut book is about family relationships, except when it is about the White Desert of Egypt or erotic love or a Plymouth in rain or a woman palpating her breasts for possible lumps. There is no limit to what she can write—the personal lyric, the large yet pithy statement, the meditative poem; she brings us the news from everywhere. Her work possesses a preternatural compassion. She also has a genius for metaphor, and Aristotle said that metaphor is genius. You want to read this book and the ones that will follow.

Biogeography by Sandra Meek (Tupelo Press, 2008, $16.95 paperback)

Meek.jpgMeek’s third poetry collection asks a lot of its readers: concentration, patience, and a willingness to go to the dictionary. In return she gives us an intelligence worth fathoming. “[T]he body’s adrift / in when, saturated by since,” she writes. How does she know this, or that the heart has fourteen lines? We recognize the rightness of her poetry as soon as we grasp it. This beautiful and intricate book furthermore obliges us to face the reality of injustice and pain, for while Meek’s lines seem to float on the page, they are as powerful as fists.

Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 by Ron Smith (LSU Press, 2007, $16.95 paperback)

Smith.jpgRon Smith’s first collection in twenty years is nearly as rich and varied as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium in 1923. But Smith writes a clear, clean English, un-Frenchified. His ability to convey the sensuality of our days is astonishing, as are his gorgeous poetic reports of Italy, Greece, and Israel, three sequences of magnitude and humanity. “When the gods bother to look at us,” he asks, “what do they see? / Caves? Dark holes in a world of light?” It’s a good question, and one that the entire wonderful book seeks to answer.

When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women edited by Andrea Hollander Budy (Autumn House, 2008, $29.95 paperback)

Maybe I shouldn’t be recommending this since I’m in it, but if I didn’t I would be ignoring ninety-five other women poets, all of whom produce vibrant, vivid, enthralling work. I read this anthology straight through when it arrived. It covers a large and until now largely unmapped poetic landscape and will surely stand for some time as a text and an introduction.

Recommended by Victoria Chang

National Anthem by Kevin Prufer (Four Way Books, 2008, $15.95 paperback)

Prufer.jpgThis is Prufer’s most sophisticated book to date in thought and in scope, as other reviewers have amply noted. But what I love about National Anthem is not so much the big but the small -- how each arresting image layers on top of others for a complete effect. In a poem called "The Mean Boys," Prufer ends with: "The snow has painted the town away, and I miss the flash when they opened their mouths to laugh." Here, Prufer's images don't only sound interesting, but also serve a greater purpose of indicating a decaying and a fallen world. A distant town is described as "a row of crumbled teeth." Ruin and decay are adeptly made artistic by such original imagery throughout a book that travels skillfully and widely between the macro and the personal.

Recommended by Bill Zavatsky

The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems by Harvey Shapiro (Wesleyan University Press, 2006, paperback just issued, $22.95)

Shapiro.jpgHere is the big book of Harvey Shapiro’s work that makes it possible to read him in bulk. It takes us from his first book, The Eye (1953) to How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems (2001) and includes a wonderful sheaf of new poems. “Desk” is one of my favorites, the very first poem in the book: “After my death, my desk, / which is now so cluttered, / will be bare wood, simple and shining, / as I wanted it to be in my life, / as I wanted my life to be.” “Desk” makes me think of the Chinese masters, invoked by Shapiro throughout his books as brotherly teachers and fellow strugglers in the art of poetry, and illuminati whose clarity and attention to minute detail he has made a cornerstone of his art. Standing alongside them are the Jewish scribes and teachers who are also a powerful presence in his poetry and life., as witnessed in this fragment from his poem “Spirit of Rabbi Nachman,” who taught that “The word moves a bit of air / And this the next / Until it reaches / The man who receives the word of his friend / And receives his soul therein / And is therein awakened—: / If a man ask, can he have / This thing, whether it be / An infusion of soul, or souls, / Steadfast to complete the journeying? / Words moving a bit of air / So that the whole morning moves.” I take it that “This thing” is poetry. Shapiro makes us believe in it again, that poetry can change the world bit by bit. It is literally the medium by which the soul of the poet enters us. Also in these pages are the friends and teachers whose work Shapiro profited from and supported: Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, and Louis Zukofsky.

There is a wonderful range in Harvey Shapiro’s poetry that embraces the erotic (he is one of the sexiest poets I know when he talks of the man-woman business), the philosophical (especially the Jewish tradition, its teachers, and the fate of the Jews in the 20th century), and the life of the great cities where he settled, raised a family, and worked—Brooklyn and Manhattan. For many years Shapiro was a New York Times Magazine editor, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review. Also, he assembled the best anthology of poetry from his war, Poets of World War II, published by the Library of America. He is now eighty-five and still writing gorgeous, powerful poems, deeply moving poems that range from the pellucid few lines of “Desk” to longer works, particularly the powerful mid-period poem “Battle Report” (from his 1966 collection of the same name), which chronicles his experience as a gunner in a B-25:

In this slow dream’s rehearsal,
Again I am the death-instructed kid,
Gun in its cradle, sun at my back,
Cities below me without sound.
That tensed, corrugated hose
Feeding to my face the air of substance,
I face the mirroring past.
We swarm the skies, determined armies,
To seek the war’s end, the silence stealing,
The mind grown hesitant as breath.

Shapiro moved from formal poetry and the influence of Robert Lowell to a clarity that can be flat on the ground or luminous. He gets jazz, family life, street scenes, the Brooklyn waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge into his work. “National Cold Storage Company” is still, I believe, the best poem on the assassination of JFK, and in chilling, prophetic lines Shapiro reconfigures the interior of this behemoth of a structure, where “A monstrous birth inside the warehouse / Must be fed by everything—ships, poems, / Stars, all the years of our lives.” It sounds like the greedy ego of the United States of America gobbling up all the economies of the world (and much else), and the vision presented in the poem still gives me the willies.

Recommended by Peter Pereira

Chronic by D. A. Powell (Graywolf, 2009, $20.00 hardcover)

Powell.jpgIn Chronic, D. A. Powell's fourth book, this lucid and exacting poet melds the issues of chronic illness on a personal level -- sickness, love loss, fatigue --, with chronic illness on a world-wide level -- environmental degradation, invasive species, global warming. If that sounds glum, don't worry, Powell's wit and humor and high archness will carry you away. The book's three sections, "Initial C," "Chronic" and "Final C," playfully arrange themselves around that hard consonant, and the repetition of that letter throughout the titles of the poems serves as a kind of chime or charm, appearing in many original and unexpected ways throughout, as in: " . . . "kiss me, I got keys to the pharmacy" see? [si, si, si]" (from "shut the fuck up and drink your gin & tonic").

But perhaps the most memorable (and devastating) poems in this book are those that deal with love and loss of love. From the final pair of "corydon & alexis" poems:

"example: he took me to the ocean to say farewell. I mean me: farewell to ocean / the ocean, for that matter, to me. us both fatigued, showing signs of wreckage // and that man I loved stood back from the edge of things // he did not hold me // I expected not to be held"

Recommended by Sandra Beasley

Figure Studies by Claudia Emerson (LSU Press, 2008, $16.95 paperback)

emerson.jpgEmerson had already established a flair for Southern narrative when she turned inward, toward autobiographical experience, with her third book Late Wife (winner of the Pulitzer Prize). Late Wife explored the complexities of divorce, followed by marriage to a widower. The bold subject matter was balanced by the restraint of sonnets and other forms. When I heard her read from it at American University, before the book had even been published, I leaned over to my friend and whispered, "this takes the roof off her earlier work." But when the roof is gone, what next? Raze the house? In a perverse way, it's tough to be a poet writing post-Pulitzer. Your audience is filled with critics anxious to declare you're an emperor with no clothes — and devotees who may resist your style's evolution.

Fortunately, Figure Studies is absolutely winning. Opening with a lyric sequence set in an all-girls boarding school, the book moves through worlds of women. Not women filling traditional maternal or romantic roles but the Latin teacher, the elevator operator, the anatomical model, the cat lady, the polio victim, the gossips, the girl playing Mary in the living nativity. These portraits are rendered with concision and luminosity. The poems’ formal properties (couplets employed throughout) lend unity to the collection. This is a worthy successor to Late Wife and actually, I'm surprised to admit, in some ways my favorite of the two.

So often when we speak of humor in contemporary poetry, we refer to the explicit jokes or analytical bon mots of someone like Tony Hoagland. In Figure Studies, Emerson presents the dark wit of direct detail, organic to the scene -- the humor of the mordant, the really gothic and the gothic real. Her technique provides a useful reminder that there is more than one way to skin a cat (or, as illustrated in one memorable poem, to destroy a piano).

Recommended by Jake Adam York

Winners Have Yet To Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway by Ed Pavlic (University of Georgia Press, 2008, $19.95 paperback)

Pavlic.jpgAlthough this book came out last spring, it has stuck with me and in me: I feel it in the back of my mind, like it’s following me, and then I realize I’m following it. Ostensibly, Winners is an exploration of the life of Donny Hathaway, the soul singer who walked out a 13-storey window in 1979 — in many ways a work of investigative poetics, built from liner notes, newspaper articles, and interviews with fellow musicians, friends, and family. The work is comprises several prose poems, some called “interviews,” that present observations of Hathaway or reported conversations, and others called “listening notes” that present what Pavlic calls in his notes his “own transcriptions of nonverbal elements of [Hathaway’s] music,” presented as if in Hathaway’s voice.

But what may appear novel or documentary in form and purport is, more seriously, an investigation of music and, more importantly, listening. There are many books about sight and seeing, but few about hearing and listening, and even among those few books about listening, Pavlic’s speaks out, a keening meditation on the need to cut through meaningless or meaning-eroding noise to the significant tones or the significant silences out of which meaning is born.

So, it’s a book about perception, but, as such a meditation, a book about alterity, otherness, and its dangers. Perhaps most remarkably, it’s a book about immersion —about going all the way — that inundates you, that surrounds you with its sentences and immerses you, so it’s not just about perception and alterity — it produces an altering perception. If you crave the poetry of Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or of Nathaniel Mackey’s jazz novels, including Bedouin Hornbook and Bass Cathedral, this is your next book.

Recommended by Lucia Perillo

My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge by Paul Guest (Ecco, 2008, $23.95 hardcover)

Guest.jpgGuest’s poems take a form that is currently popular—the long poem that whooshes past without pausing for a stanza break—and they swerve the subject at hand by side-stepping through metonymic substitution. But Guest is a romantic whose life has subjected him to the utmost duress. and though these poems often set out to damn the world they can’t help falling in love with it.

The Usable Field by Jane Mead (Alice James, 2008, $14.95 paperback)

Guest is capacious, but Jane Mead’s poems accrue their power from what goes unsaid. An academic turned vineyard owner, Mead tries to find the music inherent in running a business, and she is lucky that her business occurs on a piece of property that’s been in her family for generations and is therefore well-populated by ghosts. [Published ]

The Extremities by Timothy Kelly (Oberlin, 2008, $15.95 paperback)

Kelly.jpgKelly is one of the few well-published poets who has not held a job in academia, and that may explain why, though this is his fourth book, he remains little known. Like Mead, Kelly has a quote-unquote-job, and his work as a physical therapist provides him with his poems’ meat, the human body, a subject that many contemporary poets like to seize on, though in Kelly’s hands the body is stripped, made real (that is, damaged), and un-metaphorized.

All-American Poem by Matthew Dickman (American Poetry Review, 2008, $14.00 paperback)

Dickman is another unstanziated whoosher, but he is an ironist instead of a romantic, and his loyalties may be more to the narrative than to the lyric. Dickman is half of a set of young-ish twin poet brothers who have had much success in poetry’s fishbowl lately, and one of the charming things about his work is the fierce and physical and unabashed love that it extends toward his brother.

Domestic Interior by Stephanie Brown (University of Pittsburgh, 2008, $14.00 paperback)

Brown.jpgBrown is one of the most original poets out there, and one of the meanest, willing to hurl her thunderbolts at her environment in Southern California. The poet Tony Hoagland called my attention to her first book, Allegory of the Supermarket, but it was a poem about her job (Brown is another worker) as a public librarian in the computer age that drew me to this book. If you’ve wondered about what it feels like to teach homeless men how to do a google search for porn, here is your answer.

Recommended by Barbara Ras

She Heads into the Wilderness by Anne Marie Macari (Autumn House, 2008, $14.95 paperback)

Macari.jpgThe first poem, "Earth Elegy," gives a hint of what's in store: "The dining and the dead together . . . like us on our axis, pitched toward some / ever-place." The poems in this dazzling --yes, dazzling!-- collection conjoin worldly and otherworldly, here and eternity, the human and the nonhuman, singing and silence. Anne Marie Macari delivers up this original concoction in the cup of a hand -- the poems are that intimate, that close, that delicate. It's as if she's tuned in to a frequency that whispers secrets only to her, and she writes them out for us in stories we've never heard before: "In the beginning was the animal / of space licking earth to life."

I, for one, have never heard a voice like the one speaking in the sequence, "Their Eyes Were Opened," thirty-six poems that make up the heart of this book. Macari transforms Eve and God, the garden and its fruit, the body and its offspring, knowing and unknowing, geology and time (and much more) and cooks up a broth of lucid intelligence and uncannily startling metaphors. Both personal and prophetic, these poems discover a language for mystery, a code for being. In Macari's words, "I came / for this, to raise up the rock of sound / and find what's underneath."

Recommended by Joanna Klink

The End of the West by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon, 2009, $15.00 paperback)

After the violent childhood, the parties, the drugs—after the deaths of friends and more friends—after the gods, the freeways, needles, fists and stars—what is left? When I read Michael Dickman’s poems, it feels as if everything, terribly, beautifully, is left. Things bear the traces of having been thoroughly burned. In the old neighborhood, the dead are present:

There they are
Walking up the street
dragged up the street
by their hair
by you

His mother, in her “black and glassy” afterlife, is present, the worn-out selves are present, voices on the patio, ambulances, dogs. Dickman moves through a world drained of shock and even after-shock, but one that is intensely radiant. In this after-dream, where exhaustion and immobility make the world seem at times very slow, liquid and vast, a belt buckle gleams. In a restaurant there are “small / and glowing / loaves of bread.” The lure of being taken back into the dream — its proximity to death — is palpable. “None of my friends are / kings / anymore,” and nobody is good at being alive.

Dickman.jpgPerhaps there never was a state of innocence, in this world. It is at least clear that being young and free, for both the dead and the living, is no longer possible. What is possible is the freedom of vision, where invisible worlds rise into light: we are full of chandeliers and shining surgical instruments, and the quiet of the whales in their deeps, “moving the sea around,” is the same quiet we feel inside us as we wait. Dickman is especially attentive to the way people open and close, the way experience takes us in then shuts us out, and I can make sense of the bitterness in some of these poems if I understand the speaker as struggling to stay inside a life that has been shot through with disillusion. Against a pared-down and almost blank diction, the rhinestones and death-gowns flash out; the title poem and “Seeing Whales” are extraordinary.


For a perceptive, sensitive, and finely written review of Jane Mead's THE USABLE FIELD - the strongest of her three books to date - please see: