Poetry May-September 2012: 56 Works from Trethewey, Plumly, Shaughnessy, & More

No matter how much za’atar you eat/ you still gotta work to be an/ Arab/writer/woman. I love that line, actually a section title from Laila Halaby’s My Name Is on His Tongue, a poetry collection out this month from Syracuse University Press. You’ll soon see a starred review in Library Journal (and elsewhere, I bet), but one of my great frustrations as poetry editor is that I cannot manage to review all the good books that come my way. Hence my periodic poetry roundups, framing the possibilities for interested readers. This roundup covers summer titles (May 2012‚ September 2012); surely, pop fiction isn’t the only good beach reading around.

In the past, I’ve often divided roundups into core works and up-and-comers or standard categories like nature poetry, political poetry, and so forth. This time ’round, I was struck more by the idea of affect, or the experience of reading; some collections are obviously outer-directed, discussing a community or heritage; others more personal, unfolding layers of the self; still others almost philosophical meditations, delineating the life of the mind. Of course, as the Halaby quote shows, poetry doesn’t like to confine itself to such categories, and I expect that I will get emails protesting this or that category, this or that placement. But this is how I saw it‚ anything that gets more poetry delivered to you.

The World at Large
A Discover Great New Writers and PEN/Beyond Margins honoree for her fiction, Laila Halaby leaps genres with a debut poetry collection (My Name Is on His Tongue. Syracuse Univ. May 2012. 136p. ISBN 9780815632948. pap. $17.95) that explores her dual reality as an Arab American woman, using vivid imagery (My name rests in the mouth of a man on horseback) to negotiate past and present, East and West. Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall (Houghton Harcourt. Sept. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780547571607. $23) considers the forces that have shaped her life as a mixed-race person. Trethewey won the first Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a first-book award for African American poets that most recently went to Nicole Terez Dutton’s lyrical, edgy If One of Us Should Fall (Univ. of Pittsburgh. Aug. 2012. NAp. ISBN 9780822962236. pap. $15.95).

Barton Sutter uses mostly formal structure and quietly unadorned language to chronicle village life on the Canadian border and the culture of ancient Siberian reindeer herders in The Reindeer Camps (BOA. May 2012. 126p. ISBN 9781934414842. pap. $16). Michael McGriff, a 2007 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize winner, brings alive the forests, wildlife, and blue-collar struggles of the Pacific Northwest in Home Burial (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 120p. ISBN 9781556593840. pap. $15). And in her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 124p. ISBN 9781556593833. pap. $16), Natalie Diaz writes with heartfelt grandeur (and occasional needling wit) about the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in Needles, CA, where she was raised.

In Murder Ballad (Alice James. May 2012. 80p. ISBN 9781882295937. pap. $15.95), a Beatrice Hawley Award winner, Jane Springer visualizes the complexities of her Southern heritage in rich, ropy lines. In A Night in Brooklyn (Knopf. Jul. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780307959324. $26), D. Nurske uses personal memory to construct an image of his distinctive hometown. Michael Dickman and twin brother Matthew go nationwide with 50 American Plays (Poems) (Copper Canyon. Jun. 2012. 110p. ISBN 9781556593932. pap. $16), which aims for summing-up witticism about each state.

Bringing in History
In The Crossed-Out Swastika (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 210p. ISBN 9781556593796. pap. $16), multi-award winner Cyrus Cassells uses figures both historical and fictionalized to commemorate a group of young people who suffered during World War II. Eugene Gloria takes on the interesting task of reenvisioning 16th-century Japanese warlord Hideyoshi in My Favorite Warlord (Penguin Poets. Jun. 2012. 80p. ISBN 9780143121404. pap. $18).

In Rough, and Savage (Coffee House, dist. by Consortium. Sept. 2012. 114p. ISBN 9781566893145. pap. $16), Sun Yung Shin expresses her own sense of isolation through epic-style writing and an exploration of Korean history (My fact a vast blank/ a half-savage nomad, I admit, I/ admire my advance). Cofounder with Juliana Spahr of the literary magazine Chain and now coeditor with Spahr of the ChainLinks Book series, multi-award winner Jena Osman draws on a slide lecture to offer a meditation on public statuary in Philadelphia, particularly those bearing arms (Public Figures. Wesleyan Univ. Sept. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780819573117. $22.95).

Up Front and Personal
One of our most courageous poets (and a James Laughlin Award winner), Brenda Shaughnessy makes us feel the anguish of traumatic childbirth and fractured faith in Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon. Sept. 2012. 130p. ISBN 9781556594106. pap. $16), even imagining an alternate world as she writes with heart/ fighting fire with fire/ flightless. Craig Morgan Teicher, a Colorado Prize for Poetry winner (and Shaughnessy’s husband) offers clear-eyed, blazing verse as he tracks a path from son (who lost a mother young) to husband and father in To Keep Love Blurry (BOA. Sept. 2012. 110p. ISBN 9781934414934.pap. $16).

Ever capable of keen-eyed, keenly detailed chronicles of the everyday, Sharon Olds limns the end of her marriage in Stag’s Leap (Knopf. Sept. 2012. 112p. ISBN 9780307959904. $26.95). Lucia Perillo, whose Pulitzer Prize finalist, Inseminating the Elephant, treated her multiple sclerosis, examines her life more broadly in the viscerally dark and edgy On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 120p. ISBN 9781556593970. $22).

Sandra Meek sends sharp-edged poems flying in Road Scatter (Persea. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780892554195. pap. $15.95) as she mourns her mother’s fall toward death yet remains acutely aware of the larger world. In Dorset Prize winner After Urgency (Tupelo. May 2012. 71p. ISBN 9781932195415. pap. $16.95), Rusty Morrison contemplates the death of both parents in still, deeply contemplative verse.

Jo Sarzotti’s debut collection, Mother Desert (Graywolf. May 2012. 72p. ISBN 9781555976156. pap. $15) captures an interior landscape by taking us through exterior ones, from the desert to the cold North (Death was a kind of earth I walked on). A multiple prize winner (e.g., National Poetry Series, Fence Modern Poets), Elizabeth Robinson also initiates a search for the self in Counterpart (Ahsahta. Sept 2012. ISBN NA. $NA.): I, a hand, reached into the sea for a piece of the sea.

Catherine Barnett, winner of a Whiting Writer’s Award, considers the unsteady light of love (family or passionate) in her second collection, The Game of Boxes (Graywolf. Aug. 2012. 88p. ISBN 9781555976200. pap. $15). Winner of the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, Laura Cronk’s Having Been an Accomplice (Persea. Sept. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780892554133. pap. $15) also considers love‚ especially as it is remade during times of war.

Francesca Abbate’s Troy, Unincorporated (Phoenix Poets: Univ. of Chicago. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780226001203. pap. $18) retells Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as a story of shattered teenage love in contemporary, slightly grungy middle America (I was a boy./ I believed what Beauty said). The inaugural Aleda Shirley Prize winner in 2008, Paula Bohince looks back at nature’s enduring and defining cycles in her new collection, The Children (Sarabande. May 2012. 69p. ISBN 9781936747283. pap. $14.95), finally concluding In the end, we were landmark,/ compass. Catherine Wing’s Gin & Bleach (Sarabande. Jul. 2012. 72p. ISBN 9781936747306. pap. $14.95) aims to burn us clear (as only corrosives like gin and bleach can do) to a better understanding of our place in the world.

Leslie Adrienne Miller’s Y (Graywolf. Sept. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781555976224. pap. $15) dares to explore motherhood, capturing the growth of her son (like the math’s unknown variable, y, he’s something to be discovered). In An Individual History (Norton. Jul. 2012. 80p. ISBN 9780393082494. $25.95), National Book Critics Circle finalist Michael Collier forthrightly tells the story of a life with reference to family and the pop cultural iconography of the late 20th century. Katrina Vandenberg’s unusual second collection, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World (Milkweed. Jul. 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781571314468. pap. $16) names its poems for letters of the Phoenician alphabet while considering how we struggle to forgive.

Finding My Elegy
Hayden Carruth’s gentle and eloquent good-bye, Last Poems (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 120p. ISBN 9781556593819. pap. $16)‚ acknowledging Loneliness and the absurd atrocities of/ Foreign policy‚ include his last works plus the final poems of each of his previous volumes. Three poets taking the long perspective include Ursula K. Le Guin, doyenne of imaginative fiction, who offers 30 selected and 90 new poems encompassing her life (Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems. Houghton Harcourt. Sept. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9780547858203. $22). In his usual sparkling verse (cancer falling into one’s mouth like stardust), Stanley Plumly looks for reconciliation in Orphan Hours (Norton. Jun. 2012. 112p. ISBN 9780393076646. $25.95), while at 93 Lawrence Ferlinghetti stays enviably feisty in Time of Useful Consciousness (New Directions. Sept. 2012. 88p. ISBN 9780811220316. $22.95).

Pressing language to its limit‚ not to mention image, as he evokes the monochromatic painter Yves Klein‚ Brooklyn Rail arts editor John Yau draws on art criticism and social theory to write engagingly cutting poetry in Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781556593963. pap. $15). As he says in these lines from Exhibits: Signing up for Free Membership works best in a failing economy./ In case of emergency, please vacuum the premises.” Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade: Poems & Plays (Fence. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781934200520. pap. $15.95) lands with a boom, challenging our notion of beauty and iamge while creatively deconstructing the world.

Looking closely at nature, two-time PEN Center USA Award winner Donald Revell continues his heartfelt search for the otherworldly in Tantivy (Alice James. Sept. 2012. 80p. ISBN 9781882295975. pap. $15.95): starvation,/ Like a pack of dogs with jeweled mouths,/ Pauses a moment, howls, and the young woman/ Recites a poem to herself. In Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf. May 2012. 80p. ISBN 9781555976132. pap. $15), former National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia reflects on our limits (Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless./ Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way).

Polish poet Jacek Gutorow’s bilingual The Folding Star: And Other Poems (BOA. Jun. 2012. 92p. ISBN 9781934414880. pap. $16), translated by Piotr Florczyk, captures our angst in sleek, chiseled verse (Joy thinks I’m on its side/ when I run through a snowy field/ but death keeps its eyes open). In calm, liquid language, Herder Prize‚ winning Romanian poet Nichita Stanescu tips beautifully over the edge, representing a real world that seems mystical (Wheel with a Single Spoke: And Other Poems. Archipelago. Jun. 2012. 265p. ISBN 9781935744153. pap. $18).

Two intellectually bracing works from Ahsahta: Dan Beachy-Quick (Circle’s Apprentice) and Matthew Goulish (39 Microlectures) join forces in Work from Memory (Sept. 2012. ISBN NA. $NA.), which reflects on the writings of Marcel Proust. David Mutschlecner’s Enigma and Light (May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781934103289. pap. $17.50) shows us how ideas are born by juxtaposing Dante and Heidegger, American abstract painter Agnes Martin and the Gee’s Bend quilters.

Finally, Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize winner Marjorie Welish’s out-there In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy (Coffee House, dist. by consortium. May 2012. 112p. ISBN 9781566893022. pap. $16) is an experimental double-header. The first part is a matrix for works being constructed, while the second offers translations free-ranging from prior ones. Obviously, it’s a work to be grasped in the reading‚ and rereading.

So Surreal
The word surreal comes up freuqently with regard to three poets publishing this summer. Dean Young, whose vivid writing explores the enduring issues of life, death, and self, returns with an overview in Bender: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon. Sept. 2012. 300p. ISBN 9781556594038. $26). An American poet of Ethiopian, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, and Moorish ancestry, Sotère Torregian has a lot to say about current politics and culture, which he does with punchy, over-the-edge lyricism in On the Planet Without Visa: Selected Poetry and Other Writings (Coffee House, dist. by Consortium. Aug. 2012. 300p. ISBN 9781566893015. pap. $18.) National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Michael O’Brien treads thruogh astonishing dreamscapes in Avenue (Flood. Jun. 2012. 64p. ISBN 9780983889311. pap. $12.95).

The Contemporary World Is Insane
Selected for the National Poetry Series by Lucie Brock-Broido, Julianne Buchsbaum’s The Apothecary’s Heir (Penguin Poets. Jun. 2012. 80p. ISBN 9780143121411. pap. $18) focuses on the particular‚ microchips, gas stations, bomb shelters‚ to examine our contemporary lack of connectedness. Using different voices for context, ever-cheeky Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire (Norton. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9780393082845. $24.95) portrays our current dislocation by ranging from the Old West to a fictionalized boomtown recalling contemporary Shenzhen, China, to a shattered far future world.

Through his urgent narrator, Matthew Pennock steps right up to examine war and surveillance, economic boom and collapse in his first collection, Sudden Dog (Alice James. Apr. 2012. 80p. ISBN 9781882295920. pap. $15.95). Sharon Dolin’s Whirlwind (Univ. of Pittsburgh. Sept. 2012. NAp. ISBN 9780822962212. pap. $15.95), which has just come to my attention, should expand on the Donald Hall Prize winner’s edgy examination of contemporary life.

Mekong Delta‚ born Hoa Nguyen’s As Long as Trees Last (Wave. Sept. 2012. 88p. ISBN 9781933517612. pap. $16.) gives an up-to-the-minute, street-smart take on being alive in the 21st century. (You have to love a poet who founded a literary magazine called Skanky Possum.) Finally, Lidija Dimkovska’s pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon. May 2012. 72p. ISBN 9781556593758. pap. $16), translated by Ljubica Arsovska and Peggy Reid, shows us that life’s little snags and snares are the same anywhere, including in the ravaged Balkans: I exorcise zombies professionally! Be free again!

Collections can be tricky. Do you really need the collected works of a poet whose individual titles adorn your shelves? Just how interesting is the theme of a multi-author collection? Actually, The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (Univ. of Chicago. Sept. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9780226750705. $20), edited by Don Share and Christian Wiman, sounds pretty invaluable. Poetry lovers should lso be intrigued by Sunken Garden Poetry: 1992‚ 2011 (Wesleyan. Jun. 2012. 280p. ISBN 9780819572905. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780819572912. $16.95), edited by Brad Davis, which represents works from the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT.

Three individual collections stand out. Recently deceased, National Book Award and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner Lucille Clifton will be honored with The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965‚ 2010 (BOA. Sept. 2012. 720p. ISBN 9781934414903. $35), essential for most poetry collections. Lew Welch, a noted Beat poet believed to have committed suicide in 1971, though his body was never found, is represented by a new and expanded edition of Ring of Bone: Collected Poems (City Lights. Jun. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780872865792. pap. $17.95). Still with us, Michael Heller, a veteran poet who often combines examination of the avant-garde with Jewish and post-Holocaust themes, gets the full-blown treatment with This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965‚ 2010 (Nightboat. Jun. 2012. 600p. ISBN 9781937658021. $22.95).


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Beatriz Fernandez says:

    Love poetry–write poetry–love this blog!