Twenty-One Poets Recommend New and Recent Books of Poetry
For the third springtime, I’ve invited poets to tell us about their favorite new books of poetry. This year they picked titles by Richard Jackson, Ted Mathys, Hillel Halkin, Beth Bachmann, Dora Malech, Valzhyna Mort, D.A. Powell, Louise Glück, Kevin Young, John Burnside, Olena Kalytiak Davis, David Blair, John Murillo, Sarah Gambito, Tom Yuill, Heather Hartley, Frannie Lindsay, Douglas Kearney, Maurice Manning, Norman Fischer, Allison Titus, Jason Koo, Roger Mitchell, Philip Clark & David Groff, Joshua Weiner, Peter Campion, Randall Mann, and David Gewanter.
Recommended by Dara Wier
Resonance, poems by Richard Jackson (Ashland Poetry Press)
When I read poems, sometimes what I wish is to be found wanting to be lost in a poet's way of writing sentences revealing how a mind knows together all the things it can of this world. Or at least I'm looking for some ample sample of things & ideas & feelings we find surrounding us, we find ourselves in, which seems to be, the smack-dab middle of everything.
Sometimes I think I exist in a parallel world …
We know better, but we don't or can't always change our minds or adjust our points of view sufficiently to remove ourselves from the center, after all, one is looking out and taking in with the same eyes, taking in and pouring over with the same brain. Which is one reason why another poet's brain's ways of organizing existence can be at once most intimate and most radically strange, can be one way to multiply one's experience, to get to know another fellow human being.
I have imagined you beginning this by candlelight.
In the case of Resonance, Richard Jackson provides what I want when I admit to trusting a poet's thoughts. Poetry is a name for something ineffable and wordless and yet we write it with words, it gets written with words as it occurs in our souls, our hearts, our minds, whatever places one prefers. Jackson's poetry is fearless, & reckless & searching & saving & presenting & loving, meandering and collecting, considering, thinking, feeling, testing, balancing, unbalancing and watching and listening and thinking.
Resonance: the way sounds echo/among interrelated counters in the head.
While the world's abundance (the beauty of it, the horror of it, personal and public) appears to be the book's preoccupation, finally what I admire and love in this book is the gentle and fierce character we come to know through the poems' meditations. There is no question that there is a complicated, living human being writing these poems. There is every reason to believe one is, in these poems, accompanied by a good and true and careful guide. The one poetry's existence allows to come into being.
I don't know whether it includes me.
I like to settle into a poetry like this, do what the poems lead me to consider, think, feel, test, balance, question, balance, unbalance, watch, listen, not to this poetry-less world I do by necessity partially inhabit but to the other world, the one I'm still and I hope always will be trying to find in this one; in this case, Jackson's book, Resonance, resoundingly invites one to savor the complexities, complications & propositions and resolutions it is in the midst of exploring.
I could have been one of those Sumerians
who read the future in the language of footprints
left by birds in the muddy banks of the Euphrates.
Instead, I'm trying to decipher what the shadows
of bees caught between window panes and flitting over
the words on this paper really mean.
[Published January 15, 2010. 94 pages, $15.95 paperback. Italicized lines above are quoted from the book.]
Dara Wier’s Selected Poems was published in 2009 by Wave Books. She directs the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Recommended by Donna Stonecipher
The Spoils by Ted Mathys (Coffee House Press)
I’m recommending Ted Mathys’s The Spoils for the problematics manifested in the book, which made me think, and for the width of his aperture, which lets much air in, an antidote to hypoxia (a word I learned from his book) in all its forms. In The Spoils, Mathys navigates the difficult terrain that is the crossroads of aesthetics and politics. It’s not so much that such subject matter as Henry Kissinger crowd-surfing or soccer games as metaphor for nation-state games is so surprising in our post-everything era, as that one feels in the book’s subjects and forms Mathys in earnest serving two masters—Kissinger and Craft, as it were, a consulting firm from the beyond if there ever was one.
I use the trope of serving masters advisedly, for power is one of the book’s central themes, and the power of the aesthetic holds unquestioned sway in these poems, ordering, compartmentalizing, beautifying, trying with all its might to find patterns, coherence, to contain the ecological mess of our historical moment that Mathys is chiefly concerned with. Nothing is more formal than nature itself, of course, but Mathys’s belief in the redemption of form is contrasted to “the pain of the unruled page” encountered by the book’s cartographer. Mathys’s poems know how to have a good time, too, and the reader gets glimpses into the ambivalently romanticized world of international relations (“so I got drunk and fucked / your superdelegate”) and of a world-weariness that both chafes and charms (“infinity pool disappearing into evening / to give the appearance of being / at sea without being / at sea, et cetera”).
[Published April 1, 2009. 128 pages, $16.00 paperback]
Donna Stonecipher’s most recent book, The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press) is reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Peter Campion
Medicine Show by Tom Yuill. (University of Chicago Press)
In the last line of “To the Sound of a String that Snaps,” one of the poems in Tom Yuill’s superb debut, Medicine Show, the disembodied voice of an old Texan addresses the poet like this: “You can come see me if you can get past my dogs.” That line could be a microcosm of Yuill’s whole book. These are poems of both hospitality and of terror. Yuill welcomes his reader with an almost Horatian warmth: in fact, the poems are often about the necessity of friendship and love in the face of loss, including the loss of both the poet’s parents. Yet these are also poems in which American colloquial speech turns suddenly weird, even menacing. Yuill has a unique talent for simultaneously grounding his language in living speech and distorting that speech, as if he were running it through a wah-wah pedal. If this sounds like surrealism, it derives as much from, say, Townes Van Zandt and The Basement Tapes as from pre-war European lyric.
To put it another way, Yuill succeeds throughout this book in writing the kind of poem that so many younger American poets want to write—a poem of linguistic athletics, of cunning and discontinuous music, of high and low culture invigoratingly jumbled. So often, in the journals and the prize-winning first books, such ambition results in mannerism: for all their seeming subversion, the poems, because they rely on a cool ironic pose, end up maintaining an almost Edwardian sense of decorum. We get what Thom Gunn once called “mild irrationality.” In Yuill’s poems, however, irrationality has teeth. The lexical playfulness and the narrative ruptures flow from the messy stuff of genuine emotion. These poems also have the whole force of prosodic tradition driving their music, as the best possible rhythm section. Take the first two quatrains of “Bit: An Ode with The Rolling Stones Playing in the Background”:
The king squirms, on the spot.
Each remark makes a wound, like a mouth.
Each hot thing grins like a raccoon.
Each moment heats itself against another moment.
Each thing fucks. Each thing wants.
Waste and pain again and again.
They got me with a fine they didn’t tell me was a fine.
They got people like teeth, whose job is being sharp.
I admire the technical successes here: Yuill’s ability to get an entirely end-stopped poem to move with surprise and dynamism, his subtle alternation between iambics and free-verse metrics, and his eloquent yet strange parallelisms. But most of all, I love how fully alive the statements feel. “They got people like teeth, whose job is being sharp”: like Philip Marlowe, or Christopher Marlowe for that matter, Yuill manages to balance wit and composure with a nearly nightmarish vulnerability. This poet is making original art from the volatile stuff of American speech. I can’t think of a more exciting project.
[Published April 15, 2010. 80 pages, $14.00 paperback]
Peter Campion is the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. His most recent book is The Lions (University of Chicago Press, 2009), reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Katie Ford
Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort (Copper Canyon Press)
What Robert Lowell said of Sylvia Plath — that “language never dies in her mouth” — is how I feel about Valzhyna Mort. If you’re American, you’re lucky to have her among you. Perhaps you’ll have the chance to hear her read, as she’s one of the most gripping readers in the country. Belarusian by birth, Mort came to America in 2005 and now writes in both Belarusian and English, translating her first book, Factory of Tears, with Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright. Gritty, stunning, Factory of Tears is full of things Mort says “you won’t tell to a priest” but “you’ll reveal to a cabdriver.” In Belarus, she writes, a child’s birth is mysterious: “even our mothers have no idea how we were born / how we parted their legs and crawled out into the world / the way you crawl from the ruins after a bombing.” Mysterious, too, is Mort’s precocious power. Her poems are as fierce as hearts wishing to be grenades wishing to turn away from their task but, alas, they cannot. Stripped awake —that’s how I feel when I read Valzhyna Mort — awakened to the sound of her feisty Belarusian, which she says “is not a language. / it doesn’t have a system. / it is like death—sudden and unscrupulous.” But her poetry is not without resurrection, and I’d hardly call it a book about death. The poet is there, bristling with life, and behind the hard facts of the book she sometimes plays the accordion, the instrument of her country, which has the last word, singing us into its “ta ra ta ta”!
[Published April 1, 2008. 96 pages, $15.00 paperback]
Katie Ford is the author of Deposition and Colosseum. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Franklin & Marshall College, where Valzhyna Mort gave a poetry reading in the fall of 2009.
Recommended by Joshua Weiner
Yehuda Halevi by Hillel Halkin (Nextbook)
The Golden Age of medieval Spain, with its mix of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures, comes to life in this new book about the Hispano-Hebrew poet, Yehuda Halevi (c. 1075-1141). There have been other books about Halevi, the unrivaled master of a poetics that fused Arabic and Hebrew prosodies, but Halkin’s is unique on several counts. Halevi’s story is one of return. Although he made his name working with the classical Andalusian style (even as a teenager he was recognized for his talent), he ends up arguing for a return to Jewish sources in poetry. This turn away from a fusion prosody (the analogy would be if English accentual-syllabic verse had meaningfully fused with a Greek quantitative measure) reflects an analogous turn away from the diverse cultural scene of Spain to a late pilgrimage to Palestine. The move to Palestine — a rejection of the historical Diaspora as divinely decreed exile — was founded, for Halevi, on his philosophical treatise, the Kuzari, a dialogue between a rabbi and a Khazar king that argues for Judaism and against Christianity and Islam. The philosophy became a call to action, and the action ratified the philosophy. The logic was literally embodied in Halevi, just as the poetry came to express and justify the sacrifice and the hopefulness of a spiritual and physically arduous journey, albeit one with a historical basis and a political consequence. Long after his death, Halevi turns into a symbol of Zionism; he becomes a national poet by becoming nationalized; his philosophy and his poetry serve as touchstones for a nation (Israelis know lines of his poetry the way Americans know lines of “My Country, ‘tis of thee”).
Halkin, who made aliyah himself in the 1970’s, clearly loves both Halevi’s poetry and his philosophy -- for themselves and for the life they exemplify--but he refuses to turn Halevi into a different kind of myth, returning him instead to his stubborn historical particularity. And thank goodness for that. This biographical task is not an easy one, however, because the historical record is thin. Halkin goes the distance in some sleuthing, collating dates, tracking movement, and reasoning with forensic precision. Better than that even, he constructs a whole cultural moment of poetry that gains definition and vivacity by virtue of serving a dramatic life story. The interfusion of poetic convention and invention, the circulating social energies that draw poets together, the political tensions that drive them apart, the conflict between cultures as well as the confluence — Halkin captures this all with terrific flavor and flair. He has a wonderful historical imagination, keenly intuitive, and immune to the common idealizing of the Spanish convivencia as a “culture of tolerance” — at different times throughout the period, Jews were still murdered for being Jewish. But the picture Halkin gives us is one of finely woven complexity, an historical tapestry of many threads and colors.
I recommend keeping on hand Peter Cole’s groundbreaking anthology, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 (Princeton, 2007) while reading Halkin’s Halevi. Halkin’s translations of Halevi’s poetry sound really good — he’s adept at capturing the patterning of Hebrew mono-rhyme, internal rhyme, and the wit of the rhymed prose one finds in the letters; and he’s especially helpful at setting up the dramatic context of the poetry, walking a reader through its arguments, the use of poetic technique therein, and the era’s poetic conventions. Peter Cole (who made aliyah 20 years after Halkin) serves as an astute, painstaking, and enthusiastic guide to his unparalleled gathering of the era’s poetry, providing readers with healthy samplings of the major poets (in addition to Halevi, Shmu’el Hanagid, Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra, and Avraham Ibn Ezra), as well as significant if lesser figures. Reading Halevi without reading the others is like reading Donne without any knowledge of Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe or Shakespeare. And Cole’s book serves this purpose, of configuring a stellar poetic constellation. Also, Cole’s own strengths as a poet are everywhere evident in translations that complement and go further than Halkin’s. Halkin has a strong sense of meter, but Cole has a better feel for rhythm, especially that fine tension & release between syntax and line that makes a poem move. In translation, such an ear for cadence trumps metrical know-how. Halkin’s book serves to organize the details of the period through dramatic biographical narrative of its leading figure; and the book has an ethical drive, to suggest the profound implications of making certain choices—as a poet, a citizen, a man of faith. Cole’s book gives us the map of the period’s poetry, with its landmark works; it also has a heart of gold, in how it suggests the artistic possibilities of material mixed from divergent cultures: to make such incorporations requires an imaginative openness that is its own kind of hopeful spiritual journey.
[Published February 16, 2010. 368 pages, $25.00 hardcover]
Joshua Weiner is the author of two books of poetry, The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants, as well as the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (all from Chicago). He teaches at University of Maryland.
Recommended by Lisa Russ Spaar
Temper by Beth Bachmann (University of Pittsburg Press)
“Move closer,” the speaker of Bachmann's “Paternoster” commands. “I want to tell you a story. It has its blood knots, its changing water, / the usual lures: family, violence, a margin left bare for interpretive remark.” Like the distinctive, eponymous bead in a rosary indicating that the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) is to be said, “Paternoster” is an iconic poem in Bachmann’s debut collection; it opens part one and shows the reader how to read what follows: passionately restrained, umbral lyrics that have at their heart the obdurate fact of the violent murder of the speaker’s teenaged sister, and of the ambiguous implication of their father in her death. These etymologically stereoscopic and encoded poems, a series of catholic, guilt-stalked “mysteries” woven among various emotional ciphers, testimonies, and transcriptions, themselves form a kind of rosary, a sequence of iconoclastic penances, curses, petitions, spells, and prayers that restively visit and revisit, in a myriad of weathers, the scene of the crime, literally and figuratively, where the boundaries of blood, love, belief, and brutality blur.
As the book’s title suggests, a range of psychological temperatures flare in the poems, from blunt ire and outrage (“If you think of a torso as a box, you can see / how someone might want to open it with his fingers” from “Second Mystery of My Sister”) to a mitigating, tempered detachment “When pressured, the bones also respond” from “Supple”), which even, at times, moves into the realm of consolation, usually achieved by forays into art (perspective, the male gaze, theories of rapture), as in “Colorization”:
Black and white distances the viewer.
A broken crow drops from the jaw of some animal into the snow.
If we were to encounter it, with our chins tucked to our chests to block the blizzard,
we might think of it as shadow, but in truth, the body is red.
There are two ways to define this: restoration and desecration.
It comes down to a question of actuality and intent.
When you enter my room, it is dark. What you can see
are broad patterns, the bars the blinds discard onto the linen.
If this were in color, would you know whether or not to be afraid?
The reader is charged in Bachmann’s story at every station of its journey (“It’s not easy . . . to go below the surface. / To ask you to offer me your open throat” from “Paternoster”). To her credit, Bachmann’s speaker is inseparable from her narrative as well (“I retell the story as myth, as if it were my own body devoured” from “Hunger”). In her lush economies, psychic darkness, and imperative forthrightness, Bachmann is clearly an heir of Louise Glück, and there’s a trace of Whitman here, too – “I keep coming back to the grass that grows / near dumpsters, that startles my leg after dusk” from “Cold Logic” – but the poems very much have the feel of themselves about them – they grow beautifully and complexly out of their own urgencies, the way the best poems must:
No shepherds. No nymphs. Maybe just one:
The girl the fawn strips like a fisherman’s rose.
Death turns its mouth red. It can no longer lie
In the lilies. Not on my watch. The lake is filthy
With silver fish sticky with leeches. Lovesick,
I flick a feather into the water. No stones.
Only the one in my pocket, heavy as a tongue.
The grief in Temper is raw, relentless, and unadorned; in the crucible of Bachmann’s sensibility, this sorrow becomes gracious force.
[Published August 28, 2009. 80 pages, $14.95 paperback. Winner of the 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry.]
Lisa Russ Spaar’s most recent book, Satin Cash (Persea Books) is reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Randall Mann
Chronic, by D.A. Powell (Graywolf)
A Village Life, by Louise Glück (Farrar Straus Giroux)
In 2009, two nearly perfect individual volumes of poetry were published, D.A. Powell’s Chronic and Louise Glück’s A Village Life. Much critical ink has been spilled praising these uncommon books, but I would like to add this: perhaps what I like most about these collections is that, at first, they seem, if one merely tries on the jacket copy and window-shops the tables of contents, like Project Books: Chronic as love-loss-love story with, curiously, the letter C initially or terminally in each poem title; A Village Life as a chronicle of villagers in some out-of-time, subversively mundane, twisted Glück village. Well, yes and no. They are in a sense projects — that is, visionary undertakings—and they certainly are, um, books, but the project in each book stays humble, stays lower case, and Powell and Glück resist period fashion by — wait for it — crafting poems so compelling that one forgets that there are overarching artifices that bind each book.
These innovators are vastly different poets (Powell’s a well-dressed alchemist, word-rich yet always movingly noting “the insignificance of fortunes”; Glück’s a myth-maker of unadorned speech and steely deprivation [“Nothing remains of love, / only estrangement and hatred,” she ends one poem]), yet they share a perspicacious stare at the unforgivable human condition — of belatedness, of loss, of us — and urge the shivering, fortunate reader to be worthy of it.
[Chronic: Published February 17, 2009, 64 pages, $20.00 hardcover. A Village Life: Published September 1, 2009, 80 pages, $23.00 hardcover]
Randall Mann’s second collection of poetry is Breakfast With Thom Gunn (University of Chicago). Winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize, he is co-author of the textbook Writing Poems (Pearson Longman). He lives in San Francisco.
Recommended by Erica Funkhouser
Dear Darkness by Kevin Young (Knopf)
Kevin Young’s poetry is noted for its clever use of the vernacular, the fluid backbone of blues that arches through his poems, and the warm rhythms of Southern language that are, as Young himself has said, hard to separate from the rhythms of black language. I’d like to add a point about the ways in which Young plays with the bright surface of the lyric in order to stir up the darker solos inspired by despair.
Clichés somersaulted back into language that demands our attention abound in Dear Darkness: “I’m in an anger / encouragement class” [“Lime Light Blues”]; “I prefer my cars / not so much used / as betrayed,” [“May Day Blues”]; “Misery / is the only company / that would hire me,” [“Farm Team”]. Even in the list of regional traits representative of his adopted home in “New England Ode,” Young keeps the surface of the poem alive with wit: “Straight-backed pews / painted white / Compost, not trash / Boston marriage / Public school or Private / Paper, not plastic / Frappe, not milkshake…” There’s political awareness as well as regional color in many of these over-turnings of received expectation. In “Flood,” Young writes, “We knew the levee wouldn’t hold / because the Sheriff said / it would.”
Dear Darkness is a book of elegies addressed to a number of Young’s beloved friends and family, including most importantly, his father, whose violent death is the subject of many of the odes to food. But it’s also a book of nearly unbounded joy – in family, in place, in cooking and eating, and in music. Reading it, I thought of the words of Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.” Change a few nouns around -- If food be the music of death, eat on – and you’ve got a fair description of Dear Darkness. The surfeit is here, but it whets the appetite rather than killing it. The poems are tasty one-bite meals, some so hot they’ll bring tears to your eyes. At times, as in the poem “Ode to Chitlins,” the edibles seem to take on the form of a human relative, vivid as the beloved aunts and uncles addressed in other poems:
of the pig, monk
of all meat, you warn me
with your vows
that cleanliness is next
to impossible, that inside
anything can sing.
To keep alive to the day, despite our griefs, is the poet’s project in Dear Darkness, and the book includes a few poems that confess that darkness itself has at times kept the poet writing. The book’s title comes from the poem “I Don’t Burn,” a praise poem addressed to the despair that has brought to Young these poems he might not have found at dawn or by the harsh light of noon. “How I would sing / like a kettle to keep you,” the poet declares at the end of “I Don’t Burn.” Despair, I won’t burn you, he promises, reversing the conventional relationship between a suffering human and his grief. Young takes a similar stance in “Prayer for Black-Eyed Peas,” an homage to god, his own art, family both living and dead, memory, darkness itself, and the things of the world, even those as small as peas:
of me misses you, part knows
you’ll never leave, the rest
wants you to hear my every
Reading Young, I thought of Robert Hass, to whom Young gives a nod in the phrase “all our bright visitations,” a term for the fragments of memory, language and human and inhuman company that keep us in the feeling world, even when those feelings tend toward desperation. In his poem “On Squaw Peak,” Hass writes a greatly compressed elegy to an unborn child. The mournful hiker in the poem, startled out of his grief by the alpine world’s magnificent abundance, reminds himself, and us, that the small blooming things on the mountain were “for their season alive in the bright vanishings / of air we ran through.” Kevin Young runs through the air as well, but he’s carrying a platter full of ribs as he goes.
[Published July 6, 2008. 216 pages, $26.95/$17.00]
Erica Funkhouser's most recent book of poems is Earthly (Houghton Mifflin 2008). She teaches the Introductory and Advanced Poetry Writing Workshops at MIT.
Recommended by David Wojahn
Selected Poems by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, UK)
Clearly, this volume is not a new collection, but I would like to bring it to readers' attention for the simple reason that John Burnside is to my mind, along with Ciaran Carson, the most compelling poet at work in the British Isles today. American readers know the Northern Irish poet Carson to some degree, thanks to Wake Forest Press, which has issued all of his collections as part of its contemporary Irish poetry series, including last year's Collected Poems, which makes a strong case for Carson as one of the major poets of the langugage.
But Irish poets have some cachet in the US: Scottish poets such as Burnside don't. Although a few recent Scots poets -- most notably Robin Robertson and Kathleen Jamie -- have found American publishers, Burnside, puzzlingly, has not: although it seems to me that these other poets, formidable as they may be, have been significantly influenced by Burnside. My bafflement at this situation is compounded by the fact that Burnside is a prolific and commercially successful writer in several genres; he's the author of some haunting and oddball memoirs and of detective fiction of the first order. Some of these books have been given publication in the US, but Burnside's poetry, the genre where his heart and real genius seem to reside, remains unpublished here.
Burnside's Selected, drawn from nine earlier volumes, is a good but perhaps too stingy introduction to his oeuvre. He is a master of a terse but brooding psychological lyric, characterized by sudden associative leaps that on a superficial level will recall the surrealists. More specifically, American readers will be reminded of Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer (whose influence continues to be an abiding one among American poets) and Charles Wright. Like Tranströmer, Burnside is apt to focus upon moments of perceptual turmoil, events in which the world of domestic reality and the world of dream collide and commingle. And Burnside also possesses something of Tranströmer's dumbfounding capacity to unflinchingly inhabit the cusp between these two worlds, and to report back to us with a nonplussed steadiness. Here's a characteristic early poem, from his debut collection, Common Knowledge (1991):
SIGNAL STOP, NEAR HORSLEY
Smoke in the woods
like someone walking in a silent film
beside the tracks.
A shape I recognize -- not smoke, or not just smoke,
and not just snow on hazels
or fox-trails from the platform to the trees
but winter, neither friend
nor stranger, like the girl I sometimes glimpse
at daybreak near the crossing, in a dress
of sleet and berries, gazing at the train.
There's a an admirable precision to this, and as Burnside's career develops he grows more sweeping and ruminative without sacrificing this precision, favoring long-ish lyric sequences that will remind American readers of Wright-by-way-of Montale. He begins to favor a longer and more enjambed line, stepped to make engaging use of white space. He begins to bear a thematic resemblance to Wright as well, making effortless shifts from the lyrical present to Wordsworthian recollection, and offering up spiritual reckonings of affecting gravity--but all the while remaining firmly grounded in the quotidian. As with Tranströmer and Wright, what appeals to me about Burnside's work is its hauntedness, the after-images that linger and persist long after I've read the poems; the poems possess a quiet insistence that seems to me a very rare within contemporary poetry. Burnside is an antidote to the schtick-mongering of the poets who seek too earnestly to charm and enrage us with their attention to voice, and to the aridness of those poets whose intellectual complexity seems impressive but soulless. We need the likes of John Burnside on this side of the Atlantic, now more than ever.
[Published April 26, 2006 in paperback by Random House UK. 128 pages. Inquire about pricing.]
David Wojahn directs the creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. His Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems was published by University of Pittsburgh Press (2006).
Recommended by Kara Candito
On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed by Olena Kalytiak Davis (Hollyridge Press)
In her recent chapbook, Olena Kalytiak Davis juggles the competing impulses of autobiographical lyricism and postmodern performativity to deliver an irreverent and destabilizing enactment of poetic identity with its pants down. A series of sonnet variations give bawdy voice to Dante’s Francesca only to end with the wry apologia, “Francesca Can Too Stop Thinking about Sex, Reflect on Her Position in Poetry, Write a Real Sonnet.” Confession becomes linguistic theatre, fraught with guilt (“pilgrim, I did not mean to be so loose / of tongue, so bold in all I loosely told/in my smut so smug, so overly sold.”) and also transformative moments of identification (“… my vice / in your verse will tempt others to try // and sing: readers, lovers forever rapt/and about to sweetly sigh: paradise! / thank you, poet, for keeping me alive”).
Resurrecting Catullus’s Lesbia, Davis uses caustic humor to reveal uncomfortable truths about the conflict between gender expectations and the writing life: “o Lesbia, daughter of _____ and wife of _____ and mistress of _____ / mother of _____, ha! ceded what? The one so valued/what she had on her one pretty mind / she traded in everyone for that?” Self-conscious anti-epiphanic moments such as this one catch us with our pants down; even as we laugh, we are compelled to acknowledge our complicity in the toxic, cacophonous world Davis evokes.
For all of its experimentations with hyperbolic end-rhyme, typography, and manic shifts in tone, On the Kitchen Table From Which Everything Has Been Hastily Removed is an arresting, uncomfortably exacting exploration of the quotidian forces that construct and constrain identity. Here are the final lines of “The Lyric “I” Drives to Pick Up Her Children From School: A Poem In the Postconfessional Mode”: ““I” has fucked with the facts so “you” think she’s robert lowell (but whoever saw a girl like robert Lowell?) / “i” doesn’t care if “you,” silent human auditor, present or absent,/never heard of, could give a flying fuck about, robert lowell.”
[Published July 1, 2009. 48 pages, $10.00 paperback. Click here for more about Hollyridge Press’ Chapbook Series.]
Kara Candito’s first book, A Taste of Cherry, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2009, is reviewed here by Ron Slate
Recommended by Tony Hoagland
Ascension Days, poems by David Blair (Del Sol Press)
The first pleasure in David Blair's book Ascension Days -- which I've been enjoying for the last few months -- is data: big chunks and streaks of it, imparting a kind of marbled quality, like steak, to the poems. Then the mouthfuls of diction, and the poet's love of sampling the vernacular, idiomatic speech that suffuses our American days and nights.
Here’s the very charming beginning of "Graduation Poem":
It’s a ruckus in the mezzanine: Shontel, Shontel,
Barry, Barry, Dougie, Wanda, Brenda, Dorie.
The sweat stands out above their thick glasses
and rolls down furrowed brows. The kids leaving
parry wildly and gesticulate. They take the harps
back down from the trees and use them.
The light at graduation is somewhat dressier
than at normal times. This light is from black marble
details at the Syria Mosque and the beaux glass
fixtures in the auditorium and the stairwells.
The dark sphinxes out front have golden wigs
and temperate paws. If you stand in the middle
of graduations, you feel the rivers spread their silt.
The way some people stop and watch weddings
leave the lean downtown churches in white cars,
I climb balconies in expectation.
The extroversion of these cityscapes and pastorals indicate a refreshing lack of egotism in such a young poet, and to that plus I would add Blair's painterly, often unobtrusive interest in texture and technical effects for their own sake -- as in the opening flourish of "ruckus in the mezzanine," letting the reader know he's crossing a threshold of speech as well as that of an urban environment.
Blair loves the tactile milieu of public worlds-- the street, the city aquarium, the school cafeteria, the deserted beach town. He has a great appetite for what Charles Olsen called the sensorium. This outwardness marks him as a member of the New York School diplomatic corps, striding through the world as generously and energetically as O'Hara. It's only as you keep reading that you notice small signature splotches of poetic pigment, like the compressed detail, here, of sphinxes with " golden wigs and temperate paws," or the fine poetic extravagance of "If you stand in the middle / of graduations you feel the rivers spread their silt," which affirms the intuition that the Bronx and the Nile have a surprising kinship. Bravo.
Modes of poetic representation are always changing, in the endless campaign of the ants to take possession of the picnic table, and our time is no different. Blair's poems, I think, manifest some of his generation's new descriptive manners, style and techniques which have arisen in our era of polymorphic poetics. His figurative richness is rich, fast-paced, omnivorous, but he doesn't cling too tightly to sense. It's only after reading for awhile that one notices the odd, intentionally crimped quality of some moments; an affection for perceptual "rawness;" stylized coinages, hybrid grammars and bent figurative creations. He's not what one would call "experimental" -- overall his style is more hearty than fragmentary; more relational than elliptical. But he's not afraid of being weird.
Here s a stanza from "Black Eyes," a pastoral which is quiet, yet eerie with subjective colorations:
The waterfront sent seal calls and caulked groans,
the echoes of docked boats rubbed out on the sides of piers.
It wasn't right, the waterfront hotels and the privacy of boats
where the drinkers of gin wore life vests.
Out in points of weeds, there were benches
and rusted ladders out of the harbor.
The drainage of the sky split the spaces
between loud party boats where sounds
swallowed themselves in black water.
Blair's linguistic palette can be seen in the intermittent slant of little moments, like the touch of "rubbed out" above, its idiomatic echo of gangster talk. Likewise, the undeveloped thrust of "It wasn't right..." a lyric gesture which creates atmosphere, not narrative. This is a perception-rich texture, but also one which withholds, omits and quietly adds, and so makes a signature of sensibility.
The rawness and oddness of such moments adds a non-New-Yorky ingredient of alienation to this world, a psychic dislocation also suggested by odd constructions like "and rusted ladders out of the harbor". Such mixed density and nuance make Ascension Days buoyant yet dark.
I'm making Blair seem more sociorealist than he actually is -- in fact, that is only one of his proclivities. In other poems (some of them sonnets, some longish sectioned poems) he is more cryptic and more radically lyric than these examples. He likes odd moments of entry, as in "Goethe Bop," which starts with the lines "Go, whiter plates. / Because its quiet, the nymphs / would feel more comfortable with hitched-up cut offs." He's not afraid of overt oddity, a kind of action- painterly mode of lyric improvisation. At such times, he becomes more expressionist and less impressionist, even sounding at times, a little like Ashbery:
Speak stones, to me, speak, your high palaces.
The streets readied their words. Your place spirit
got stubborn, dropping across the gargoyles' chops,
statues, Gandhi & Churchill. The robber barons
took their sticks and went walking around town.
There was a way for a tourist to tug on the brim
of his baseball cap, keeping identity and anonymity.
He had an eye out for the proceedings,
hoping to catch a bit of arm or bedroom breast
through drapery, nightgowns and loose sheets.
Then Emil Jannings does the chicken dance,
I can camcord this book. Everything went backstage …
(from "Roman Elegies")
I don't understand every step of Ascension Days. The poems sometimes go opaque, or seem rudely joined, or a little clotted in their disoriented splendor, in ways that are hard to identify as intentional or not. They are occasionally cluttered with the very stuff that makes them good.
But Blair's poems energize me in a way not many other first books have in recent years. They make me hear new language in my head. His ear and love for scenery reminds me a little of Ann Winters, Basil Bunting, August Kleinzahler, David Rivard, Lee Bricetti, and others. Blair has got a thing going on. I suppose that the long range question is whether it will evolve into more -- but that is not an occasion for concern now. When I read lines like these, from "I Vitelloni," I just feel good about poetry again:
The lobsters were sending click code to each other in their paper bag
and tasted of sweat socks once they were cooked
far from the idea of the capitol, which was like a lit runway
seen from outlying areas, from hills and palisades and shoreline...
Some old cats had slices of pizza by the January seawall in their Cadillac.
David Blair’s Ascension Days is like an album full of great dark pop songs. I cheer him on.
[Published October 15, 2007. 84 pages, $14.95 paperback]
Graywolf Press has just published Tony Hoagland’s fourth book of poems, Unincorporated Persons of the Late Honda Dynasty. He has a real bug up his ass about the New Poetry, and is seeking therapy.
Recommended by Jericho Brown
Up Jump the Boogie by John Murillo (Cypher Books, 2010)
John Murillo’s first book, Up Jump the Boogie, brings to American poetry a singular voice that, poem after poem, pairs practical compassion with sensual wisdom. Through both formal and free verse, Murillo holds language in his hands and makes of it a world any reader with an eye would choose to love. The energy of this book, from its all-knowing allusions to its precise similes, remind me of the kind of work the heart does as it pumps blood to the extremities. Each word rushes forward against the notion that poetry cannot mean or make us better.
[Published February 23, 2010. 112 pages, $12.95 paperback]
Delivered by Sarah Gambito (Persea Books, 2009)
If 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 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.
[Published January 28, 2009. 64 pages, $14.00 paperback]
Jericho Brown is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and a Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University. His first book, Please, won the 2009 American Book Award.
Recommended by Nicky Beer
Man on Extremely Small Island by Jason Koo (C & R Press)
Serious play dominates and enlivens Jason Koo’s debut book of poetry. Many of the poems practice a masterful slight-of-hand, in which the jokey, the conversational, and the quotidian reveal themselves to be strategic entries to meditations as unmistakably urgent in their seriousness as they are in their joy. The opening poem’s road-trippy, shoot-the-shit riff on the name of Effingham, IL expands to a sincere empathy for “the purgatorial stream / of interstate travelers, many of whom / may, like me, have spent the last 300 miles / kicking a love in their brains / astonished at the swift toggle / between tenderness and fuck you.”
The compassion in Koo’s work is a kind of inverted Whitmanian inclusiveness: rather than the poet flinging wide his lyrical arms to contain multitudes, Koo recognizes that we are all united in the isolation of our private lonelinesses and heartbreaks. In “Standby at Chicago O’Hare,” the banality and sensory assault of the airport births a rageful ars poetica. In “Cell,” “Bad Break-Up Television,” “How to Watch Your Team Lose Game Seven of the World Series,” “I’m Charlie Tuna,” and “Target,” we experience a kind of shock of self-recognition, and an odd comfort: the text messages of unrequited love, crappy movies on cable, sports bar anguish, eating a sad lunch alone at home—poetry exists for all of these moments, too, “when you wake up in the morning and look down / at your body like an émigré looking back / Disgustedly at his homeland.”
The understated diction of the poems also serves as a sly Trojan horse for a startling precision of imagery, from which storms “the knife-peel of anguish,” the sound of fucking like “slurped noodles,” and a “she” who would “accept my mouth / briefly the way a secretary / might accept a memo.” This precision extends to the poems’ characterizations of the human heart, in which we find a canny balance struck between romance and realism. Even as the speakers seek love to facilitate “the shredding of the dull fabric of days,” the “fabric / of restrooms and receipts, computer labs, / dentist offices, pipeline, wiring, fast-food interiors,” they acknowledge that “[s]omething about love refuses to see itself from / outside.”
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that darkness is the modus operandi of Koo’s work. To do so would be to ignore the loopy exuberance of “Shopping with Mayakovsky,” with its intimations of Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” and O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” and “Spring Motions,” in which we are exhorted to “[s]werve into someone else’s life leave fingerprints on her appliances.” The latter poem in particular exemplifies why April is the ideal occasion for National Poetry Month: as the season refreshes and renews, so too must we be reminded that poetry exists to refresh and renew our spirits after graying stretches of silence and chill. Poetry is the vehicle by which we may “approach the horizon with a new pair of pants and magnificence.”
[Published December 1, 2009. 88 pages, $14.95 paper.]
Recommended by Sandra Beasley
Knock Knock by Heather Hartley (Carnegie Mellon UP)
I do not know how Heather Hartley came to be living in France, where she is the Paris Editor for Tin House and a co-director of the Shakespeare & Co. Literary Festival. Perhaps her muses beckoned her there, since in Knock Knock I find many hallmarks of the European Surrealists: surprising juxtaposition, non sequiturs, and, at times, a dark gallows humor. "His fork outlasted his fuck," declares the title poem, without explanation or apology. "His landlord was the king of butter." Yet unlike Andre Breton and the original Dada-ist generation, Hartley develops these poems as art, and not the mere artifact of philosophical discourse. Her lines are measured and purposeful and her images unforgettable, such as "the Slavic sandman in his fur cap" who "slings mud and spare ribs instead of sweet dreams."
My favorite poems from the collection are centered on a naturalistic, seemingly consistent first-person speaker; a woman with wry intelligence who is both resigned and resigned to hope. These vignettes glimmer with compassion, as in this excerpt from "Advice for the Hirsute":
... The lawyer has lost her mind but O she can dance.
For years, she didn't like her hands
but you can only hide them so long, I said, a girl's got only so many pockets.
(Now she's in love with them like a teenage girl.)
If I gave you the same gift again, wrapped differently,
but the exact same thing,
would you be happy again, a second time?
[Published January 8, 2010. 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Mayweed by Frannie Lindsay (The Word Works)
Frannie Lindsay's third collection, Mayweed, operates in a different emotional register: meditative, grieving, at times painterly. I have been a fan of Lindsay's work throughout her renaissance career -- after many years of no poetry, focusing instead on performing as a classically trained pianist, Lindsay has published three books within five years of each other. This burst of output aligns with the unpacking of a painful family history, which sees a natural summation in this volume as a daughter comes to terms with the death of the man who was both father and abuser. Such wrenching material can overwhelm the craft of a lesser poet but Lindsay keeps a tight reign, revealing tension primarily though relentless enjambment and stark image. As in Knock Knock, Mayweed throws us some fantastic curveball moments, as in the opening of the poem "Visiting Hours":
Sometimes he tried to crank the bed by himself,
and his baby blue snowflaked gown would ride up
and there was his drowsy penis that meant nothing to him,
his thigh skin gathered like prom gown taffeta ...
Both these books refreshed my thoughts on mortality; both stayed with me long after the first reading, and the second, and the third.
[Published February 1, 2010. 76 pages, $15.00 paperback]
Sandra Beasley’s new second collection, I Was the Jukebox (Norton), won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Recommended by Ed Skoog
The Black Automaton by Douglas Kearney (Fence Books)
Douglas Kearney culture-jams his pages to a visceral, wild life in The Black Automaton, which, through its typographical mapping of mumble and shout, seems as much a book of graphic design as a collection of poems, but what great poems they make, engaging the reader’s eyes, ears, and understanding. These visually signaling poems, destinations themselves, serve in the book as transitions between more conventional-seeming poems and sequences, like graffiti between storefronts perhaps (graffiti by many hands, full of allusion and call-backs) (these poems are almost 3-D; one might need crazy glasses to read them). These intervening poems are built-to-last desolations and joys. Joy at making poetry & music & art is ever-present in The Black Automaton; the desolation is a city desolation, cities of “searchlights and dead cats” and cruelty that are at times Los Angeles and New Orleans, at other times more conceptual cities, including the community of “washed offices” where cover letters declare “I should like to publish in your little magazines.” It’s a wild book, a direct challenge to contemporary poets to speak up and not succumb to merely over and over doing the robot.
[Published December 8, 2009, 96 pp., $16.00]
Ed Skoog is the author of Mister Skylight (Copper Canyon, 2009).
Recommended by Brian Brodeur
The Common Man by Maurice Manning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Composed of thirty-nine poems of varying lengths in unrhymed tetrameter couplets, The Common Man assembles tales and anecdotes, meditations and jokes, all told by a wise-cracking, idiomatic speaker from Appalachian Kentucky. One poem, “Three Truths, One Story,” begins: “Well heck-o, Hoss, I can’t make up / a name like Turnipseed!” -- and goes on to narrate the story of multiple characters living in the “out-there places” of backwoods mountain settlements, individuals and families subsisting off the land in a way that few still do, concluding:
There are words and there are deeds, and both
are dying out, dying away
from where they were and what they meant.
God save the man who has the heart
to think of anything more sad.
This passage sounds the most prominent leitmotif of the collection: the preservation of a rapidly vanishing landscape and the people inhabiting that world who, as Manning writes in the book’s dedication, “made these stories happen.” Indeed, The Common Man itself is an act of conservation. Manning, who owns a twenty-acre farm in central Kentucky and, along with other Kentucky writers such as Wendell Berry and Anne Shelby, periodically demonstrates against mountaintop-removal mining in the region, has given us a radically accessible sequence of poems bespeaking both “the big ideas” and base desires of what it means to be human. “The Man Who Lived with Joy and Pain: His Own Account” begins:
Suppose you were a farrier,
a man designed to hammer shoes
on horses’ hooves, and you were good
enough that all you had to do
was listen to a horse’s walk —
the clip is right, but the clop is off,
you’d say, a hand rung round your ear,
to tell the shoe was shoddy.
These lines attest to the wisdom of self-deprecation, of surrendering one’s “iron” preconceptions to the vaster intelligence of the natural world. “The answers are there,” Manning seems to be arguing, “if we only listen for them.”
Vigorous and vernacular, sly and complex, the voices in The Common Man seem captured, as Robert Frost wrote in his famous “sound of sense” letter to John Bartlett, “fresh from talk.” Speaking throughout the collection “not as a preacher might / but as a man whose troubled heart / was sad for everyone of us” (“Old Negro Spiritual”), Manning’s greatest gift is his uncanny ability to translate the spoken language of his region onto the page and make it sing. In our historical moment, in which we come across such a resistance to poetry, it is refreshing to discover a book that constantly argues for itself, that justifies its existence through the telling of tales both heartbreaking and hilarious, and announces so clearly its relevance to our lives.
[Published April 9, 2010. 112 pages, $22.00 hardcover]
Recommended by Hank Lazer
Questions / Places / Voices / Seasons by Norman Fischer (Singing Horse Press)
Light years away from the planet “poem as fortune cookie, the poem that closes with a sweet, reliable, didactic message,” there is the poetry of Norman Fischer. He has been publishing for more than thirty years. Once associated with the Language poets of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s, Fischer went another way with his intensive training in Zen Buddhism. A Zen Buddhist priest, Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and the founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, (an extraordinary resource for poetry, dharma talks, and practical information about zen practice).
Over the past few years, Fischer’s writings have taken on an astonishing and impressive variety of forms and directions, from his superb translations of the Psalms, Opening to You, to his Buddhist reading of the Odyssey, Sailing Home, to several volumes of poetry, Success (2000), Slowly but Dearly (2004), I Was Blown Back (2005) and Charlotte’s Way (2008).
Fischer’s newest collection of poems, Questions / Places / Voices / Seasons (in a beautiful large format), is built, as the title suggests, on multiple styles, approaches, voices, and locations. Indeed, it is a celebration of the multiplicity, otherness, and indeterminacy that are at the heart of innovative poetry and of Judaism (as a set of textual relations based on an ongoing and endless questioning and conversing) and of zen meditative practice. In fact, in addition to the pleasure of reading these poems, a major value of Fischer’s poetry is his inadvertent, unintentional investigation (for 30+ years) of poetry as a means of experiencing a purposeless pursuit, a renewing location for a beginner’s mind, and a writing and thinking and reading for its own sake.
While there is much to commend in this new book – and I suspect that each reader will experience a different affinity with the book’s various sections – my personal favorite is “Charlotte’s Way,” set in the Muir Beach terrain where Fischer lives. The book presents us with the kinds of questions that withdraw content and call into question our habitual assumptions of knowledge, as at the beginning of “Questions,” “Why is today not yesterday/ Why am I I and you you?/ Why is here not elsewhere,/ Why does a period end a sentence/ And would a sentence end otherwise/ Or would it roll on endlessly,/ Is it rolling on still?”, or later in the same section of the book, where Fischer asks, “When I call who answers?/ When I answer who asks?”.
In “Charlotte’s Way,” there is a sinuous continuity, with each new section of the poem beginning with the concluding phrase of the prior section. What make “Charlotte’s Way” so impressive – and perhaps marks this long poem as central to Fischer’s endeavor as a poet – are the lucidity and integrity of its perpetual motion in and out of statement (or arrival) and drift (or a renewal of thinking in an unanticipated direction). What we have, then, is a dance of consciousness, which is not to be valued so much because it “belongs” to Norman Fischer but is to be cherished as an instance of the grace and unpredictability of consciousness which is a common-wealth:
The words are fluid in the mouth and so blessing takes
Fountain of all life, bending the knee in trickery
For without trickery there’s no groove within the world
Without deception and ambiguity the world would just lay there a sleeping princess
Like a cream cake upon the table
Instead the world goes up and down trembles and bursts forth all red and raw
Is personable, a diver, interested always in fate, technique, all sorts of operations
The fun should be unsettling – we call it an experiment never an exercise
To do something to or with the body’s not right –
The body’s right
It begins and ends there (here)
[Published August 1, 2009. 176 pages, $16.00 paperback]
Hank Lazer’s latest collection is Portions, reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Jake Adam York
Sum of Every Lost Ship by Allison Titus (Cleveland State Poetry Center)
I waited for this book. I read a version of it two, maybe three years ago, and was struck then by all the qualities that make this a singular and indispensable book: while all around us people speak or write of “the Dickensonian,” which has become a by-word for a kind of ellipticism, Allison Titus’s poems more truly extend what I have found and valued in Dickenson—not merely ellipticism, but a slant and a slight that create new occasions for truth.
That may sound glib, but there’s no other way to say it. This is a poetry that knows a great deal and has already perfected the articulation of that knowledge. It describes the canned remarks of casual visitors as “casserole / voices.” The sadness or predictability of motels: “A palsied etiquette of retreat. Our familiar vocabularies ruined.” An unusual but not misfit consciousness: a purer distillate of our own. An unusual but not inscrutable idiom: “We have made a confederacy of meanwhile, tender by tender. Evidence of how we were faithful won’t valentine the century so rived.” A confident compression, flashes quick as ideas.
There are touches of the antique century, in salvaged verbiage and nautical imaginings that recall Melville as much as Dickinson, but Sum of Every Lost Ship is no revenant. Titus knows more than they this time around and is, perhaps, more decisive both in the preservation and the abandonment:
Tragedies rummage the most appropriate dress
from the attic
those that lengthen darkly
and trail behind the heels.
Elbows in: there are observances to make,
gifts each mouth must summarize.
Other recent books I much admire with their interest in the Nineteenth Century — Dan Beachy-Quick’s This Nest, Swift Passerine with its Emersonian/Thoreauvian ventriloquism, Christine Hume’s older Musca Domestica. Sum of Every Lost Ship takes its place beside these, but also speaks of this century in such a way that it is hard to imagine I hadn’t always been reading this book before and just as hard to imagine I am not reading it now, whatever else I am reading. A rare achievement, and one I am glad to hold between covers.
[Published November 20, 2009. 80 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Jake Adam York’s second book of poems is A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois UP, 2008), reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Elaine Sexton
Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems 1967-2008, by Roger Mitchell (Ausable Press)
After reading a little “ditty,” a short poem with perfect pitch in Poetry magazine a few years ago, I set out to find more work by its maker, Roger Mitchell, finding a cache of his seamless and shapely poems and a new and selected collection in the offing with Ausable Press. Though Mitchell tends to favor a longer, more narrative structure, his 16-line “Fisherman’s Ditty,” included there, waves the flag of his disposition:
Goodbye to the little yard full of clover and crabgrass,
the sagging carport and the neighbors. Farewell to the rabbi
who ate nothing but pizza, to splitting wood in the driveway
on a portable stump, which the neighbors watched
from the shadows in back of their kitchens as I brought
the maul down on a life that was hardly a life at all
but a series of internal negotiations over which of us
put on the most orderly, incumbent trash of the week.
It was a life I asked for and loved and never knew why
it never seemed to be mine but a wave that washed over me,
my head full of voluptuous seaweed, shipwreck and foam.
Believe me, I love to lie here singing this fisherman’s ditty,
a bit of rope in my hands for practicing knots,
mind loosened by grog, whine of the squeezebox, wheeze
of the salts cantering out onto the deck under the stars.
Beneath the tune, unmistakable and huge, the sea’s heave.
An acute observer of the human condition Mitchell plucks at curious chords, choosing just the right deadpan particulars to make a taut song from “a life that was hardly a life at all.” A quiet intelligence is his armature, lifting “the sea’s heave” from the “whine of a squeezebox.”
A stand-out from the selected works is “Delicate Bait,” the title poem from his eighth full- length collection. The intimate becomes universal in sinuous detail, turning a meal shared between lovers into a thanksgiving: “That we should come / and go, eating the few thousand meals, / a few hundred fish, a room full of grains, / that we should put the world in our mouths / and swallow, become the fish, / the deer, the goat, the field of wheat, / walking graveyard with no stones, body of death / and the world.” The setting could be a Greek Isle or a waterside meal anywhere on earth, an anthem to a lifetime of meals, to being alive, manifest in, “I was here, and the fish/is a part of my body, and I thank/the fish and the cook and the person/who brought it to me and those/at the other tables making cairns/out of words and gestures,/glances in every direction.”
I’ll admit to a bias in these examples. Rural America, rather than sea, form the backdrop for much of Mitchell’s work. A 1988 collection has the simple title: Adirondack. The titles of his last four books illustrate the compression found in his best work: Braid (1997), Savage Baggage (2001), Delicate Bait (2003), Half/Mask (2007). Lemon Peeled the Moment Before offers selections from nine of his books and includes 29 new poems. In all, this poet’s diction is plainspoken, finding the elegant in the ordinary. In another “new” poem, “Born Collector,” he quotes a collector of bowling balls from text found in an exhibit catalogue: “Lots of anything is more interesting to me than one of anything.” Mitchell tends to light small fires in his poems, and let go the sparks, in his own words: “I was a born collector. I did not choose to be one./ In the early days it was hairs from my father’s chin.” What to make of the gathered hairs from a father’s chin? Here’s where the art of collage meets poetry, is poetry, to take a found thing, a spent thing, and redeploy it to make art, something Roger Mitchell does with finesse.
[Published September 1, 2008. 230 pages. $16.00 paperback]
Persistent Voices: Poetry of Writers Lost to AIDS, edited by Philip Clark & David Groff (Alyson Books)
Two inevitable pleasures in a much-anticipated anthology like this one are finding poems you already know and love and discovering new work you will come to. Embedded in Persistent Voices, however, is a new and jarring sensation – simply knowing the “hero” always dies. Our voyage begins with the cover, an elegant, more-subtle-than-this-sounds collage by Joe Brainard, showing an open matchbook with two unspent matches under the words, “I Met You.” Lines from Brainard’s cult-classic, “I Remember,” are among selections by many other luminaries such as Reinaldo Arenas, James Merrill, Reginald Shepherd, Tory Dent, and the first openly gay writer to be awarded a National Book Award, Paul Monette. Of the 45 writers represented, some were still largely unknown at the time of their deaths, like Donald Britton, and others, known, but new-to-me, like Essex Hemphill, stand-out. One of his poems, “Family Jewels,” begins: “I live in a town / where pretense and bone structure / prevail as credentials / of status and beauty…”
A preface by Kim Addonizio nails the prevailing climate of the early years of AIDS, when “everyone seemed to know someone who had died, or was dying.” Such a simple statement, but true for so many of us who have survived them. Even though we know the context of the collection, “poetry of writers lost to AIDS,” the gash of loss is fresh, new, as we bear witness, again, as we read with a kind of reverse foreboding. In poem after poem we are reminded of the physical and psychological suffering these writers and artists endured. AIDS, not always the literal subject matter of these poems, is always present in the resounding void. The editors have parented an anthology that brings to mind the sting of the often quoted lines by Phillip Larkin (a poet not lost to AIDS): “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they do not mean to, but they do.” This collection messes with you, uncannily, unexpectedly. It may not mean to…. but it does. Persistent Voices is a container of gorgeous sadness, an important and aptly-named literary documentary.
[Published January 1, 2020, 240 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Elaine Sexton's most recent book of poems is Causeway (New Issues Poetry & Prose), reviewed here by Ron Slate.
Recommended by Darcie Dennigan
Shore Ordered Ocean by Dora Malech (The Waywiser Press)
When I really like something, all of the praise coming out of my keyboard sounds flat. Fake. Like this: “Dora Malech is the real thing. Ever since I heard her read two poems aloud in 2004, I’ve been waiting for a book from her.”
Oh dear, I really mean that. But how can you hear it? You cringe. Or at best the cliché washes over you, like a ripple in a wave pool.
So I tried the online anagram engine. Dora Malech’s Shore Ordered Ocean is
A Credo Redone She Or.
A Code Reorder Shone.
A Corrode Nosed Here.
Of the 58, 524 anagrams of the collection's title, ready-made in eight seconds, here’s what I like about the three above: Each captures how Malech’s poems alter — redo, reorder, corrode — the world. Patterns are heaped upon broken patterns. Here Name Your is the title one bears. Oh go disfigure, another poem says.
When the poems don’t know what to say, they sing — until they hit upon something, or end.
Her diction is clipped. Her ear is impeccably playful. Oomph inhabits her lines. Her rhythms! These poems are laced with some kind of metrical chemical. So you just march on and suddenly the book is done.
Stop though. Don’t equate playfulness with innocence or obliviousness. The poems are full of breaking-here-means-broken-elsewhere news—local and international.
Your mother yells at you as you’re stepping off the curb, Look both ways before you cross! You’ve heard it so many times before that you don’t hear it anymore. So you don’t look. You get hit by a car. And then Dora Malech comes along and says Cross both ways before you look, and it makes sense — you can understand English again — and of course, you’re not safe — you’ve already been in a horrible car accident and you know there’s no safe passage to be had — but at least now you have an anthem. Or a creed. And A Creed Doors Hereon.
[Published December 18, 2009 in the UK. American publication March 1, 2010. 96 pages, $16.95 paperback]
Darcie Dennigan was a 2007 Discovery/The Nation winner. Her first poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, was published in 2008.
Recommended by Tom Sleigh
At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn (Univ. of Chicago Press)
Breakfast With Thom Gunn by Randall Mann (Univ. of Chicago Press)
Hollywood and God by Robert Polito (Univ. of Chicago Press)
The Lions by Peter Campion (Univ. of Chicago Press]
War Bird by David Gewanter (Univ. of Chicago Press)
Josh Weiner has edited an incredibly wide-ranging, galvanizing book of essays about Thom Gunn, At the Barriers. Gunn’s poetics, his life as a gay man and as an ordinary citizen, his involvement with what used to be called “the counter-culture,” are all taken up by writers who are deeply passionate and discriminating readers of Gunn’s poems. What this book shows you is Gunn’s complete immunity to literary fashion or reputation: his genius resides in his complete integrity in knowing the limits of what he knows about what other people know, but without compromising the range of emotion and experience that he got into his poems. “A strength so lavish he can limit it” would be the signature of his kind of greatness.
I also greatly admired Randall Mann’s book of poems, Breakfast with Thom Gunn, for the formal ease, the straightforwardness of the voice in how his use of rhyme becomes part of the syntactic flow and in fact makes the poems seem that much more colloquial. This kind of quiet formal virtuosity is rare nowadays, but I don’t want to paint him as a Dead White Guys throwback because he writes in rhyme and meter at times, or to make him seem like he’s embraced his inner fuddyduddy. In a sense, his formal ease becomes invisible, and what you focus on is how complex the feeling and the thinking in the poems become.
In Robert Polito’s new book of poems, Hollywood and God, 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. This is a tough and compassionate book in its profound understanding of how identity needs to keep being refigured in order to maintain its integrity that this book is most urgent and original in its emotional professions.
Peter Campion’s book, The Lions, 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. Campion’s stringent economy of statement keeps the temperature from getting too high”: these poems are not “viewy.” His use of poetic language—he writes in a flexible, well-modulated plain style—isn’t simply interior reflection, but is forceful social speech wedded to social occasions.
In David Gewanter’s War Bird, autobiography has been turned into allusion, and the allusiveness refers to the world at large: in that way, Gewanter has created a theater of the self that encompasses our sad, but unwaveringly surreal political and social life. He anatomizes class, race, societal upheaval, and what Jonathan Franzen once called “the loneliness of the deeply married.” His agility of mind is truly astonishing.
[At the Barriers: Published 7/1/09, 375 pages, $24.75 paperback ... Breakfast With Thom Gunn: Published 4/1/09, 80 pages, $18.00 paperback ... Hollywood and God: Published 4/1/09, 88 pages, $22.00 hardcover ... The Lions: 4/1//09, 80 pages, $18,00 paperback ... War Bird: 10/15/09, 88 pages, $18.00 paperback]