So many poetry books, such little space‚ and never enough reviewers. It’s the problem every review editor faces when publishers start lining up for National Poetry Month in April, with the deluge starting well beforehand. To cover all the books I really want to cover as poetry editor, I have often done an extra roundup in one of LJ‘s April print editions. Now, with my own special online perch, I can offer an extended take on collections publishing in the first four months of this year that, owing to timing or limited reviewer availability, I wasn’t able to get reviewed in the magazine. Sorting through about 200 volumes over several weeks, I’ve come up with 13 core volumes that every library should strongly consider and an additional 24 volumes by rising stars whose newest works really grabbed me. In addition, I’ve given notes on several key volumes of poetry in translation‚ you can’t go wrong with Rimbaud and Rilke and Cardenal.
In poems so vivid, so visceral, you can almost taste them, the remarkable poet/critic Reginald Shepherd, who died in 2008, captures his own untimely waning (Red Clay Weather. Univ. of Pittsburgh. 104p. ISBN 9780822961499. pap. $14.95). The poems, comfortably bleak (It’s winter in my body all year long, I wake up/ with music pouring from my skin), were selected by the poet before his death and arranged by longtime companion Robert Philen. Merging the personal and the political (I tell myself in my teenage hubris/ that I will not work on// Maggie’s Farm like her. Ain’t gonna work like her/ to blindly serve), multiple award winner David Wojahn offers gut-punch poems whose overloaded lines threaten to crash‚ but don’t‚ in World Tree (Univ. of Pittsburgh. 144p. ISBN 9780822961420. pap. $14.95).
Former National Book Award finalists David Kirby, Gail Mazur, and Bruce Smith also display their wares. Kirby keeps up his discursive, fun-house, high culture‚ pop culture work in Talking About Movies with Jesus (Louisiana State Univ. 80p. ISBN 9780807137727. pap. $17.95), and he’s even more personal, often referencing wife Barbara Hamby (also a poet) and asking Gerald Stern, ‚Äòare you the pope of poetry?’ The fizzy glee he attributes to Little Richard in one poem seems a wee bit tempered here.
Mazur (Figures in a Landscape. Univ. of Chicago. 79p. ISBN 9780226514413. pap. $18.) writes wonderfully light, bright, limpid poems (They said the mind is an ocean,/ but sometimes my mind is a pond/ circular, shady). Smith’s Devotions (Univ. of Chicago. 88p. ISBN 9780226764351. pap. $18) are less stained-glass window than weighty contemplation (Hörlust, roughly ‘hearing passion,’ pleasure in sound but also pain/ as the child Tchaikovsky weeping in his bed screams, This music./ It’s here in my head. Save me from it) and would particularly satisfy readers tired of fluff.
Lamont award winner Susan Wood turns elegiac in The Book of Ten (Univ. of Pittsburgh. 96p. ISBN 9780822961390. pap. $14.95), an unfussy volume that opens with these lines: The day my friend died the ivory-billed woodpecker was maybe seen/ in Arkansas. ‚Ä¶Some say it’s an image/ of loss returned as an image of hope. But she’s lighthearted enough to observe that life is sometimes a “gag gift.” Jennifer Grotz also opens her new collection, The Needle (Houghton Harcourt. 80p. ISBN 9780547444123. $23), with tone-setting lines: ‚Ä¶Thought lengths it, pulls/ an invisible world through/ a needle’s eye/ one detail at a time. Indeed, in her carefully observed work, we hear rain glittering on ferns, see a dropped cigarette shredding to embers, sense a Madonna’s face making a dark mirror of what you feel.
Pushcart/Guggenheim honoree Dorianne Laux revisits the Sixties in The Book of Men (Norton. 80p. ISBN 9780393079555. $24.95), using easy, vernacular language to paint scenes that address Vietnam, dating, and Mick Jagger yowling/ with his rubber mouth.” Currently Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome, Karl Kirchwey shimmers between present and past (sometimes far past) in Mount Lebanon (Marian Wood Bk: Putnam. 112p. ISBN 9780399157271. $30), often spikily lyrical in his approach (Moly, mandragor, milk of oblivion). Veteran poet Sydney Lea, founder of New England Review, infuses his new work, Young of the Year (Four Way. 88p. ISBN 9781935536109. pap. $15.95) with a vivid sense of the natural world. But as evidenced by the very title of the poem Six Lies About Nature, Ending with a Soul-Tune Line, he’s no mere sentimentalist.
I’ve always championed the work of Martín Espada, whose The Trouble Ball (Norton. 80p. ISBN 9780393080032. $24.95.) is more loose-limbed and expansive than previous works but remains a powerful poetry of protest (Epiphany is not a blazing light. A blazing light/ blazes when warplanes spread their demon’s wings). Jimmy Santiago Baca, too, can write poetry of protest, but in Breaking Bread with the Darkness: Bk. 1: The Esai Poems (Sherman Asher. 112p. ISBN 9781890932398. pap. $12.95), the first of four volumes, he balances his anger at the world his newborn son now graces with tender observations of Esai himself.
Finally, I admire the way Mark Jarman’s poetry worries spiritual concerns while remaining rooted in the everyday. His Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (Sarabande. 224p. ISBN 9781932511925. $24; pap. ISBN 9781932511895. $16.95) collects poems from eight volumes, starting with 1978’s North Sea, and includes 19 new pieces that are as always brave and honest (And to gather now around pyres of memory/ upon memory,‚Ä¶can make the most terrifying event‚ / auto-da-fé, crucifixion, choose one‚ a celebration”). A great overview collection.
Rising Stars To Consider
When it first arrived, I was immediately captured by Gretchen Steele Pratt’s One Island (Anhinga. 80p. ISBN 978193495166. pap. $17), winner of the 2009 Anhinga Prize for poetry, which opens with this wet and aching and powerfully telescoped line: The past is a humidity. From there, Pratt moves on to deftly detail the world in poems that are rather like Joseph Cornell boxes in verse. Tough-minded Ross Gay does some scary stuff in Bringing Down the Shovel (Univ. of Pittsburgh. 80p. ISBN 9780822961352. pap. $14.95)‚ the title poem captures a dog’s death, and lines like Because the bullet was a dream before it was bird and There she is again, studying her face/ in the mirror of an axe blade suggest a determined, almost gothic fearlessness. But this Cave Canem fellow’s second collection is genuine and inventive.
What to make of the darkly edgy The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees (White Pine. 60p. ISBN 9781935210207. pap. $16) by BOA publisher Peter Connors? It’s an accomplished, tightly written work where The monkeys had been burning all morning and one poem’s persona declares, I was a slave in another life pine boxes were filled with my body. The very title of Joni Wallace’s Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry winner (Blinking Ephemeral Valentine. Four Way. 68p. ISBN 9781935536093. pap. $15.95) suggests that she’s inventive, but despite her brief, packed lines and off-kilter word choices her poems don’t knot up. And she’s accessible, too (Indelible horses./ From your lips a whorl, a vellum soliloquy of stops/ and sirens bowl down). Another favorite line: “You drive, you are miles more dangerous.” That’s the whole of Part 5 of the poem “Eclipse, Eclipse.”
Two books I kept reading, putting down, then going back to with piqued interest: Ish Klein’s energized Moving Day (Canarium. 112p. ISBN 0760982237663. pap. $14) places the poet in the middle of life’s carnival (The actress who played the mother/ was told to throw the no-more-or-less actress-daughter/down the stairs, a line that’s followed a few stanzas later with the fervent declaration, My will is salt). Brian Henry’s Lessness (Ashahta. 112p. ISBN 9781934103203. pap. $17.50), which includes the occasional arresting cross-out (still readable) or completely blacked-out word, is one blasted but mournfully beautiful landscape (My nation is a pasture horseless in demeanor).
Speaking of Ashahta Press, I’ll need to lunch with the editors sometime, because I find myself attracted to their weirdly wonderful books. Protean and in-your-face Kirsten Kaschock (A Beautiful Name for a Girl. 112p. ISBN 9781934103173. pap. $17.50), an English Ph.D. and now a doctoral fellow in dance, offers a second collection that just can’t be summed up; one poem is titled Houdini Dies. I Teach His Obituary, another starts Mother wanted to make me available to the gypsies. I won’t call you/ what you are. In Utopia Minus (104p. ISBN 9781934103197. pap. $17.50), Susan Briante declares that she studies new urbanism, racial/ uprisings, cultural memory,/ patterns of glassworks/ on some foreign field of sand and goes on to offer shuttered buildings, tattered state fairs, the lonely country of sex, and this lovely line: Starlings in the magnolia tree crackle, static, lightning. James Meetze, whose Dayglo (88p. ISBN 9781934103180. pap. $17.50) is the 2010 Sawtooth Poetry Prize winner, offers lyrical sweetness in lines brought down to the essentials: In our city of a year, or whatever/ lark we might be onto/ we always say (inescapably)/ we’re almost there, but it’s only weather, only gold. A dayglowy Rae Armantrout?
In Torn (Four Way. 100p. ISBN 9781935536062. pap. $15.95), C. Dale Young, a practicing physician, reveals an acute and gently forbearing sense when portraying humans as both physical beings (His back is like a drawing at Lascaux,/ blood/ marking his skin/ instead of red clay) and complex psychological knots (You hear people/ sometimes ask for a definition of cruelty/ because you know they have never tried imagining/ a life other than their own). Cynthia Marie Hoffman, whose Sightseer (Braziller: Persea. 67p. ISBN 9780892553686. pap. $15) won the 2010 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, really is for travelers. Hoffman veers engagingly from Provincetown to Krakow, Sintra, St. Petersburg ,and more, often addressing her subjects directly: Dear Sunset, July 12th opens by saying, You put all the palaces and golden spires in Petersburg to shame.
Pleiades editor at large and a prolific poet who has been a finalist for the Poets’ Prize, Kevin Prufer manages to be both forthright and sly in In a Beautiful Country (Four Way. 110p. ISBN 9781935536116. pap. $15.95), his very own (slightly acidulous) I Hear America Singing: Late in the twentieth century/ he arrived/ and for many years had nothing to say./ Darling/ congress told him from the newspaper, How we/ love you‚ .
Having worked at the Dictionary of American Regional English, Rita Mae Reese (The Alphabet Conspiracy. Arktoi: Red Hen. 79p. ISBN 9780980040739. $19.95) not surprisingly loves words, though less as lush props than entities packed with history and meaning (From the Sanskrit duh, the world gets a stream of daughters; I am the ghost word of my father/ in my mother’s life). A Discovery/The Nation and Rona Jaffe Foundation award winner, Reese, a lesbian, also explores issues of social import in her lucid and approachable poems. You can only love a poet who writes, When God closes a door, we break a window.
In Touch Wood (Black Square: Brooklyn Rail. 87p. ISBN 9781934029169. pap. $14), Bookforum coeditor Albert Mobilio writes condensed poetry that deftly captures a scene (Pretend if you can/ that it’s last August’s fairground,/ your conquest amazing/ the guys in their work boots) while to my mind remaining rather pointedly witty. There’s pointed wit and affecting writing, too, in Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split (Northwestern Univ. 80p. ISBN 9780810152168. pap. $15.95), which explores key events in African American history. As President Obama enters to give the State of the Union address, his walk is exquisitely bipartisan; when Condoleezza Rice plays the piano, she and the Steinway/ are the only Black people in the room.
Sage, engaging, and rapturously droll, Martha Silano’s The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (Saturnalia. 90p. ISBN 9780981859194. pap. $14) is the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize winner. This collection works in the vernacular to take readers on a wild ride from gastric juices, taffy, vacuum cleaners, soiled diapers, annoying old wives’ tales (Nauseous? Must be a boy./ Wretching? Girl, girl, girl), and that little office of the title (O perpetual snot? O paperclip in your mouth?) to imagination, geography, aliens (I will tell them about our clapping/ our odometers, and our skillets), and 54 billion galaxies.
In his Iowa Poetry Prize winner, Cloud of Ink (Univ. of Iowa. 64p. ISBN 9781587299711. pap. $17), L.S. Klatt offers a sharp eye and precise, resonant lines: gutting an octopus, he’s soaked in ink and [wears] it like opera gloves in the moonlight. Then there’s this sharp observation: Emerson revised:/ wise moments are fire-/flies that scar the countenance ever. Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s affecting Last Seen (Univ. of Wisconsin. 80p. ISBN 9780299282943. pap. $14.95) is deceptively rush-on and conversational in tone. This 2011 Felix Pollak Prize winner was prompted by the tragedy of missing African American children and opens up to deal with the holes in our lives, everything left behind.
Since so many poets first featured in the Yale Series of Younger Poets have gone on to major careers, it’s worth checking out this year’s entry, Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry (Yale Univ. 66p. ISBN 9780300169195. $35; pap. ISBN 9780300169201. $18). Larson’s murmuring poems crisscross the divide between the natural world and human culture and have moments of real radiance: And suddenly the light/ that light/ The sanctuary with/ its silver offering bowls/ the lepers singing. NEA/Rona Jaffe Foundation/Whiting/Guggenheim honoree Dana Levin is all radiance in Sky Burial (Copper Canyon. 70p. ISBN 9781556593321. pap. $15), an exploration of death that references everything from Tibetan Buddhist burial practices to Aztec sacrifice while finally delivering its own vision in pure, often fractured, still musical lines.
From child-hating Horatia and suspect saint Rita to “polyamorous shaman” Rick, widowed Ann burning a scrap of paper with her husband’s name, Francine wanting not happiness but truth, which was savage/ and dangerous, and even a mirthy owl, Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World (Wave. 96p. ISBN 9781933517520. pap. $16) paints dead-on little portraits of human (and avian) chicanery. Another portrait painter, Melissa Kwasny ranges with gemlike precision from Sanctuary and Sparrow to Telekinesis and The Dream Horse in her new collection of prose poems, The Nine Senses (Milkweed. 94p. ISBN 9781571314376. pap. $16).
Refreshingly, Minnie Bruce Pratt, who’s been publishing poetry since 1981, offers down-to-earth poetry about working stiffs like you and me in Inside the Money Machine (Carolina. Wren. 85p. ISBN 9780932112606. pap. $15.95). With titles ranging from Ordering Paperclips to Getting a Pink Slip, these poems use homey, detailed language and propulsive lines to capture the quotidian and occasionally poignant (The man with the guitar sings mi pobre corazón,/ his heart and empty hat at his feet). Finally, in vivid imagery, warm yet penetrating, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish (Tupelo. 90p. ISBN 9781932195583. pap. $16.95) moves from India (Letter Found at the Tower of Silence”) to the Philippines (Four Amulets for a Frightened Farmer”) to New York state (The Soils I Have Eaten”) to capture a rich life, richly lived.
Notes on Poetry in Translation
Even if you have Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations in your collection, you should strongly consider Pulitzer Prize‚ winning poet John Ashbery’s new translation from Norton (114p. ISBN 9780393076356. $24.95); it’s fresh, and it’s faithful; check out the original en face. I’m thrilled, too, to see a weighty bilingual edition of work by preeminent French modernist René Char (Furor and Mystery & Other Writings. Black Widow. 561p. ISBN 9780984264925. $24), translated by the distinguished Mary Ann Caws with Nancy Kline. This would serve as an excellent introduction for some and a good refresher for the rest of us. More good news: Karl Kichwey, whose Mount Lebanon is featured in “Core Titles,” above, has translated Paul Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens (Poems Under Saturn. Princeton Univ. 176p. ISBN 9780691144856. $39.50; pap. ISBN 9780691144863. $15.95).
It’s astonishing to learn that Rainer Maria Rilke’s Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned. Univ. of New Orleans. 115p. ISBN 9781608010417. pap. $14. 95) has never been translated into English. Apparently, Rilke himself downplayed this early work, published when he was only 21, but this bilingual edition (with translations by Lorne Mook) should still enchant and is important for completists. (I can’t read the original, but I adore Rilke.) Nicaraguan poet/priest Ernesto Cardenal, who has written more than 35 books, is a mainstay of any Latin American collection. His The Origin of Species and Other Poems (Texas Tech Univ. 168p. ISBN 9780896726895. $21.95), translated by John Lyons and featuring a meditation on Darwin’s theory of evolution, includes 20 poems new in English and some poems never before published.