Twenty Poets Name Some New Favorites to Celebrate National Poetry Month

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked some friends to recommend a new or recent poetry title for the site’s readership. Many thanks to everyone for naming some favorites. RS

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Where X Marks the Spot by Bill Zavatsky (Hanging Loose Press, 2006)
recommended by Michael Collier

zavatsky.jpgUnlike almost all the other New York School Poets -- first or second generation --Zavatsky has distinguished himself not only through his clarity and poignancy but also by his parsimonious output. Where X marks the Spot, his second full-length collection, follows his first, Theories of Rain and Other Poems, after a gap of thirty years. Like many of Frank O'Hara's poems, Zavatsky's are ambulatory and urban, humorous, but they are never self-congratulatory, the way O'Hara is at times, when he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror of art and admires how smart he looks. There is absolutely no posing in Zavatsky. In fact, there is an old fashion humility and self-effacement in his work that reminds us how important it is to wait for the muse to find us, as in the opening lines of the collection's first poem, "104 Bus Uptown": “How bad can it be, / dear whacky New York City, / when the first twelve lines / of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" / blink down at me / from a poster on this bus/ brought to us / courtesy of the MTA / and the Poetry Society of America / (of which, incredibly, I am a member!) / and, to its right, above the rear door, / another poster: Charles Reznikoff's little poem/ about how 'the lights go out--' / in the subway / 'but are on again in a moment,' / a poem I will be teaching to my students / in a few weeks' time." Well, I had meant to quote only a few lines, but Zavatsky's poems are infectious. Here he is confronting his baldness: "In the mirror it's plain to see:/ soon I'll be bald, like the two faceless men/ staring at each other in the word SOON." Zavatsky has also made estimable and highly praised translations of Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, and Valery Larbaud, so it's not as if he's been out of the trade during the last three decades. He's an accomplished jazz pianist and, lucky for his students, he has been a high school English teacher for many years. – MC

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Grace, Fallen from by Marianne Boruch (Wesleyan)
recommended by Barbara Ras

boruch.jpgIn her latest book, her sixth, Marianne Boruch attends to mystery, to absence, to our all-too-human frailty and folly. Yet in reckoning with what we lack, she floods her poems with intelligence, ripples them with humor, and instills in them a musical, sensuous abundance. Take "Happiness: Three Definitions" with its sardonic conversation between Smart and Stupid (reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon): "It's just that, how / stupid to qualify stupid, said / Stupid. Or was it Smart at the window, / talking to no one in particular, squeaking / the balloon into the shape of a duck / or a windmill." Or else read the re-enactment of the original Fall, in "The Garden," where the snake dreams "before falling into dust, / forced to love the filthy water" and becomes "dazzling," "human." Or the astonishingly inventive "Simple Machines," where the fork, the spoon, and the bowl possess winsomeness, while the knife ends the poem with a chilling understated menace. Often the voice in Boruch's poems talks to itself-parenthetically, quizzically-and in these moments, so much is held, so much revealed. I can only shake my head in wonder, grateful for the chance to overhear, happy for these poems that create, ultimately, more grace than they acknowledge as lost, more than what they portray as taken away. -- BR

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Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow/Godine, 2007)
recommended by Joshua Weiner

rezni.jpgBefore the Holocaust became a growth industry in publishing, the American poet, Charles Reznikoff, brought his "objectivist" methods to bear on constructing a poem, “Holocaust” (1975), from the transcripts of the war criminal trials of Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Reznikoff's invisible artistry of arrangement -- the paring of details, the pacing through masterful lineation -- results in a harrowing taxonomy of historical tragedy that is open-eyed, restrained, and all the more potent for its cool reportage. Reznikoff understands that the testimonies of witnesses speak for themselves most eloquently and passionately, but that cunning presentation injects an essential dynamism; and that the art of such attention is an ethical act, and perhaps one of poetry's highest callings. As a documentary poem, it stands chronologically between such works as Rukeyser's “The Book of the Dead” (1938), about the famous Virginia coal-mining disaster, and Mark Nowak's “Shut Up Shut Down” (2004), about U.S. corporate greed and the plight of the contemporary working class. Reissued with an insightful essay by Janet Sutherland on Reznikoff's methods in working with the transcripts. – JW

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Tendril, by Bin Ramke (Omnidawn, 2007)
recommended by Reginald Shepherd

ramke.jpgBin Ramke's Tendril is a book of lyric meditations and intellectual musings that mixes personal memory with social and cultural history in a mesh of intertextuality that demonstrates how poems come out of poems and writing comes out of writing, but also out of passion and emotional necessity. This web of literary, scientific, and historical discourses both sustains the voice and is something against which the voice struggles to be heard. Ramke also demonstrates a gift for sustaining his meditations through extended formal, thematic, intellectual, and musical arcs. – RS

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Boy by Patrick Phillips (VQR Poetry Series, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008)
recommended by Jennifer Grotz

boy.jpgIn Phillips’s newly arrived second book, there's a poem, "Matinee," where "after the biopsy, / after the bonescan, / after the consult and the crying," an old wife and husband disappear into the darkness of a movie theater to sit and hold hands while "the late sun lit up an orchard / behind the strip mall." It's an emblematic image -- finding the darkness in the middle of the afternoon sun -- which is what Phillips's poems do with childhood, fatherhood, romantic love, and family. Moments of pain, bleakness, even death, are quietly unraveled back to the founding awe and joy that set them into motion. And while Phillips converses frankly with the tradition he has inherited — from Jonson to Rilke to Hayden to Meredith — his poems seem marvelously impermeable to bitterness and irony, carefully honed as they are with a lyricism sharp enough to cut. -- JG

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Bear by Karen Chase (Cavankerry Press, due out in May, 2008)
recommended by Sandra Beasley

bear.jpgI stumbled across Karen Chase's first book, Kazimierz Square, in the lending library at Vermont Studio Center. The Green Mountains -- a perfect setting in which to discover Chase's witty, vibrant poems. She writes of venison, of apricots, of urban landscape, of Polish flea markets, juxtaposing the natural and unnatural worlds. Apparently the Bear manuscript originated in Chase's research for a non-fiction book about illegal poaching -- a topic ideally suited to her acrobatic lyric skills and her interest in interrogating the very definition of "civilized." I’m dying to read this book. -- SB

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Collected Poems, 1956-2001 by Thomas Kinsella (Wake Forest, 2006)
recommended by Floyd Skloot

This collection shows the full scope of this world-class poet’s achievement, from the elegant early formal masterpieces through the radical shift toward deeply interior work that discovered its own nontraditional structures and emerged in a new kind of dark clarity. The book preserves his long poems and sequences, is demanding, astounding, and fully rewarding. – FS

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City Eclogue by Ed Roberson (Atelos, 2006)
recommended by Reginald Gibbons

In general, and especially in this book, Roberson's work makes a beautiful, slow-moving, very rich use of language; creates vivid visual images; embodies profound ideas about individual experience, and social and material change in cities and environment, in those images; and is thoroughly original, with a poetic style, and style of poetic thinking, that is entirely his own. Some associate his work with that of other “experimental” poets but I don't like classifying it in this way or in any way, especially because I dislike the label “experimental,” which so vague, and so often self-promoting. Every great poet is embarked on his or her own experiment. And Roberson is no exception. Despite his excellence and the soul-refreshing quality of his work, it seems to me that very few readers know about this poet. He is African American, in his mid-sixties, with a number of earlier books, including the earlier selected-size volume called Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In (Iowa). – RG

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Field Folly Snow by Cecily Parks (VQR Poetry Series, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008)
recommended by Victoria Chang

I recommend Cecily Parks' first book of poems, Field Folly Snow, a book with surprising turns of language that doesn't simply rest on its laurels as language. Parks' book also delves into the personal in intriguing ways, making the book a wonderfully composed balance between language and emotion -- real, probing, individual emotion. A strong debut by a very talented poet. Here are a few lines from one of my favorite poems, "Self-Portrait as Seismograph": "If there / be foundation, I have found it / to be oscillating. If there be water, / it is something falling. / Be peak to my trough, be hand / fastened to my throat. Shake me / something fierce and I will be the figure / of what you did." -- VC

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Epistles by Mark Jarman (Sarabande, 2007)
recommended by Tony Hoagland

Epistles is a remarkable fugue of meditations about the spiritual life and the anatomical, temporal one. Nothing I can say about it can quickly capture the subversiveness and sincerity of Jarman's wit, and the grave ingenuity with which he forces us to reconsider the paradoxical human status as a meat-eating angel. "Recently I learned that God no longer delighted in my existence" begins one poem. Another: "We want the operation because we want the cure." This sequence is a marvel of intelligence, feeling and ironic ingenuity -- and even as you try to sprint by, he grabs you by the holy ghost and makes you stop. -- TH

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe (Norton, 2008)
recommended by Tony Hoagland

The Kingdom of Ordinary Time exhibits the wonderful spiritual intelligence Marie Howe is known for. The poems seem like natural, casual acts of responsive perception in daily life, but they have a kind of shapely mythic interiority that goes on resonating. -- TH

Creatures of a Day by Reginald Gibbons (LSU Press, 2008)
recommended by Tony Hoagland

This has quickly become one of my favorite books -- panoramic social scapes that remind me of C.K. Williams’ landmark poems in Tar -- except these are both more detatched, more curious, more tender. Long-lined, full of the presence of a sophisticated but in no way jaded consciousness, these poems find positions and tones in their investigations which I have not heard before, and which seem deeply appropriate to our wide, somewhat crestfallen American moment. Gibbons’ credentials as a classicist have helped him, but they don't account for the formal and substantial brilliance here. The project is distinct from but alike in scope with recent work of Ann Winters, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Hass. -- TH

Backwards Days by Stuart Dischell (Penguin, 2007)
recommended by Tony Hoagland

This is Dischell’s best book -- edgey, crazy, funny, lustful, inventive lyrics -- there's a lot of pleasure and a lot of craft in these terse, jokey, tragic lyric poems. Somewhere between James Tate and James Galvin.

Metropolitan Tang by Linda Bamber (Black Sparrow, 2008)
recommended by Tony Hoagland

I'm really looking forward to the recent arrival of a book called Metropolitian Tang from Black Sparrow Press by a Boston poet named Linda Bamber. I've read this book in manuscript and it fufills my longstanding hope for a contemporary female Frank O’Hara. Bamber is smart, formally dexterous, funny and humane -- it's a super book. It supposedly came out in February but I haven’t found it yet. – TH
[Ed. Note: Black Sparrow reports that the book will be published on May 1.]

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Now You’re the Enemy by James Hall (University of Arkansas Press, 2008) and The History of Anonymity by Jennifer Chang (University of Georgia Press, 2008)
recommended by Robin Ekiss

For everyone who has a complicated relationship with his or her mother, James Hall’s book is the Mother of all Mother books. A stark and surprisingly inventive invective. Jennifer Chang’s fierce fairy tales are altogether unnerving, unswerving, unsettling, and dark. -- RE

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Balancing Acts by Rochelle Ratner (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006)
recommended by Warren Woessner

These childhood memory prose poems are seductive in their simplicity, draw you in with nostalgia, then kick you out onto the mean streets of growing up with alienation, resignation, and loss. – WW

[Sandy McIntosh, managing editor of Marsh Hawk Press, has written to say that Rochelle Ratner died on March 31. -- RS]

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Trick Pear by Suzanne Cleary (Carnegie Mellon, 2007)
recommended by John Allman

The title poem and “Echocardiogram” demonstrate why Suzanne Cleary’s work has been recently included in a Pushcart anthology, The Atlantic, and other places. Her verse is sometimes an update of Wallace Stevens, in how many ways to view a subject, as in “Trick Pear.” She’s both playful and serious, with a keen eye and an interest in aesthetics. Energy and vision. What more to ask for? – JA

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The One-Strand River by Richard Kenney (Knopf, 2008)
recommended by Peter Pereira
His first book in 14 years is well-worth the wait. Its eleven sections travel a range of tones and territories. From political poems skewering Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al, to satirical takes on family dynamics seen on vacation, to witty wordplay and deftly intelligent philosophizing, Kenney has a gift for the provocative turn of phrase, the unexpected rhyme or inversion. Although occasionally he's a little too clever for his own good (the curse of being a MacArthur Genius, I guess), this new book is a thoroughly satisfying read. -- PP

Now You're the Enemy by James Allen Hall (Arkansas, 2008)
recommended by Peter Pereira
Chosen by Enid Shomer for the Arkansas Press Poetry Series, this is one of the most memorable first books of poems I’ve read in a while. Hall has taken a deeply enmeshed and troubled relationship with his mother, and made art: portraying her variously as the History of the Republic of Texas, Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby (which makes Hall … um, the devil's child?), Philomena, and Victorine Meurent. Hall’s father and future lovers also become transmuted in this nervy book. At turns hilarious and riveting, poignant and shocking, this is a rollicking good read. – PP

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The Boatloads by Dan Albergotti (BOA Editions, 2008)
recommended by Edward Hirsch

Dan Albergotti's first book, The Boatloads, which I chose for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, is filled with the spirit of mystery. Albergotti is a poet of deep conviction, a rare quality in our cynical times. He is a seeker, a poet on a spiritual quest, a stubborn questioner, and his poems are infused with the sense that the earth itself is sacred. -- EH

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Gold Star Road by Richard Hoffman (Barrow Street Press, 2007)
recommended by Judith Harris

Winner of the Barrow Street Press poetry prize, Richard Hoffman’s range of poems bridges the gap of American poetry's rivaling tastes by showing how human a poem is --whether led by language's alterity or by the emotional currents of experience. The poems are superbly crafted without giving themselves up to surface beauty or narrative discontinuity. Instead, they reveal a unique intimacy with a birthright of guilt -- from which no one can claim innocence -- and transcendent forgiveness. (Hoffman is also the author of the unforgettable Half the House: A Memoir) -- JH

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A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York (So. Illinois, 2008)
recommended by David Wojahn

York's notes to the volume state that it is "part of an ongoing project to elegiaze and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement." The book proves worthy of its goal. It's a large and sweeping documentary poem in the tradition of Rukeyser's Book of the Dead and Reznikoff's Testimony, with a cast of characters ranging from Emmett Till to Sun Ra. Long poem projects along these lines often seem tethered to their "research" and end up smelling like a library carel -- not so York's collection. His struggle with the benighted history of his native South is conveyed with great urgency, and with a terse concision that brings to mind the early work of Heaney. It's a book of unusual ambition and range. – DW

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Old War by Alan Shapiro (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
recommended by Tom Sleigh

I’ve been reading Alan Shapiro’s quirky, subtle, prosodically intricate meditations on desire, war, and death in his new book, Old War. I'm surprised and moved by the quiet, painful, but essentially comic nature of his vision: a comedy that goes all the way to the bottom, but in which the bottom isn’t just shit and muck and dirty leaves. Although Shapiro always sees the bottom with as much clarity as it’s ever been seen, he also knows how to make his poems subtle reflectors of light, like seeing the glimmer of a snag as you swim through mineral-darkened water. -- TS

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A Metaphorical God: Poems by Kimberly Johnson (Persea Books, due out July, 2008)
recommended by Jay Hopler

Johnson's A Metaphorical God combines the kind of intellectual seriousness and linguistic pyrotechnics for which her first collection (Leviathan with a Hook, Persea 2002) has been roundly praised with magnificent viciousness and lyrical/emotional intensity. A Metaphorical God grabs the reader by the throat and holds on. It's an impressive piece of work. -- JH

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Meaning A Cloud by John Marshall (Oberlin, 2008)
recommended by Catharine Barnett

I'm partial to John Marshall's first book, Meaning A Cloud, just published by Oberlin; he won the Field Poetry Prize. I'm drawn to Marshall's disarming tone and to the way he ferries us into the worlds of inhospitable institutions, which he doesn't so much humanize as make wrenchingly strange. I'm reminded of a letter Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell: "...[If] after I read a poem the world looks like that poem for 24 hrs. or so I'm sure it's a good one...." Be forewarned: Marshall's poems might haunt you for a good little while. -- CB