The poets of 2010 held genre-smashing visions, refreshing collisions with strangeness, communications from beyond. Here are our editorial picks for the Top 30 Poetry Books of 2010.
Also check out our remaining 2010 Best Poetry lists, which include Best First Book, Best Second Book, Best Long Poem, Best Selected/Collected, Best New Book By a Canonical Poet, Best Translation, Best Anthology, Best First Poem in a Collection, Best Final Poem in a Collection, Best Opening Lines, Best Closing Lines, Best Book of Thought/Criticism, Best Book Cover, Best Physical Artifact. Enjoy!
1. Nox, Anne Carson
“Herodotus is an historian who trains you as you read.”
From the moment that Anne Carson’s latest spilled like an accordian out of my hands and onto the floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I knew that she was up to something new. Nox, Carson’s elegy for her brother Michael, a poetic scrapbook “epitaph,” is one of the most original, intelligent and affecting art objects of the 21st century. Michael is a hard character who had difficulty making friends as a child; as an adult, he fled the county to avoid going to jail. Their relationship was spotty, occasional, unresolved, but not without love. (He signs one letter, reproduced here, “love you love you love you.”) The poet’s grief finds form in scholarly pursuit, a comfort zone. She provides a near untranslatable elegy that Catullus wrote for a brother, and translates for us as we proceed, one word at a time. Just past the halfway point, we get her translation, a knockout. The brother called her “professor” and “pinhead,” endearing terms “implying intellectual respect” — “So pinhead d’you attain wisdom yet?” The issue of her brother is too big for resolution, possessing the quality of “overtakelessness.” But Nox is wisdom redeemed.
“I won’t be dying after all, not now…”
From Stephen Burt’s review: “…Donnelly’s questions about the futility of thought, the inaccessibility of souls, join up willy-nilly to contemporary questions of political economy. How much of the alienation he describes (so his verse asks) arises from the conditions of all human life, and how much arises, instead, from American lives overstuffed with commodities, based on unsustainable consumption, beclouded by corporate entities, propped up by intermittently visible wars? Had Stevens written anything entitled “The Rumored Existence of Other People” it would have been one of his late poems against solipsism; when Donnelly uses that title, it describes his guilt when he thinks about the ill-paid “people I would never meet or know,” who grow or manufacture most of our stuff. “Intuition stopped short of determining whether or not/ any of the objects kept in contact with their makers.” Half-buried by the shiny new products of alienated labor, we inhabit a new Atlantis, ripe for deluge; “to those who lacked the ability to see// through the radiance of things, the Atlanteans appeared/ to be thriving.”
…At least, like the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the contemplation of still life, of dust on furniture, of words on paper, is mostly harmless. It may even lead to a quasi-Buddhist distance (much sought) from the desiring self, or else to a delight in baroque arrangements (as in the mesh of clauses above), whose very contours seem to lead him back to the “I” that worries so much, though he would rather be led, at last, away: ‘You wager too much, small self, on the way you feel. Nothing/ you have thought should last forever can’t be lost.’”
“Shutup about sameness. Shutup about difference.”
Skin, Inc. is about music and culture, about the living and dead, about identity and alienation, about distinctions and eliminating them. Accordingly, the poet does not allow the potential constraints of genre to limit his vision; he blends poetry with a kind of photo-journalism that reflects the world as it surrounds us now, and the world as it is a product of histories that must never be trivialized or forgotten. “Just looking/ at history hurts.” Amid the deaths of James Brown and Michael Jackson, the election of Barack Obama, and the swarming voices of the dead (James Baldwin’s cameo before the epic elegy for Jackson is particularly memorable), the poet finds time for a private destruction and reconstruction of language. The self as defined by the self, rather than by arbitrary and often lethal social distinctions. Ellis pushes boundaries like it is a bodily function, and Skin, Inc. confirms him as an essential voice in his generation.
Coffee House Press
“I kept repeating to myself: / the mind is not a little spa.”
Ange Mlinko fearlessly penetrates illusions in Shoulder Season. Like Rae Armantrout, Mlinko seems conscious of how language is constantly used to distract and manipulate — how saying anything at all might be saying too much. She finds salvation in images, people, experiences, moments of expression. In a culture of manipulation, a world where it’s near impossible to separate the image of the thing from the thing itself, there is salvation to be found with a balanced mental attack that allows for finding temporary relief, even ecstasy, in the small. Yet this is big picture poetry, poetry of intuition and high intelligence. We are given a clear view of the oppressive weight of illusion, pattern and manufacture–but find that one of the biggest illusions of all is that we have to crumble under it.
Copper Canyon Press
“This afternoon I heard / the small voice speaking again”
From Kathleen Rooney’s review: “Throughout the collection, Zapruder’s poetic persona seems concerned with its own authority: What can he say? What should he be saying? Plenty of poems and poets have covered this turf, with the more language-y ones tending to conclude that there is little to no such authority to begin with—that words inevitably fail, that communication is bound to break down. Yet while Zapruder’s poems are playful and funny, he makes it clear he’s not just playing around. His poems posit that something is at stake, or at least that something ought to be. And the book, though not linked together with any overall story or clearcut throughline, does suggest an arc, the speaker starting out with these doubts, grappling with them, and concluding: yes, I can make meaning and I can make it in such a way that this meaning can keep being made after I am gone. Communication can, does, and should occur. In a way, Come On All You Ghosts poses, wrestles directly and indirectly with, and finally answers yes to the question of whether poetry can matter.”
Copper Canyon Press
“What we might call its physics / Together like applause, a false totality”
From Ken L. Walker’s review (forthcoming): “The “mean free path” Wikipedia page is a boringly fascinating, prosaically interesting piece of internet writing on something that is almost unintelligible because of its many physical formulas, percentages and graphs. One would need a translator. Then, there are appealing statements like this: “A classic application of a mean free path is to estimate the size of atoms or molecules.” Oh, right. We have to estimate the size of those things we cannot see. Science remains abstract. Basically, the distance a thing travels prior to colliding with another thing is its “mean free path,” or is its love or is its significance, or is its coincidence.
This also happens to be the title of Ben Lerner’s third book of poetry, Mean Free Path, a work that closely examines the necessity to complete the statement, which is to say, repair the statement until it is never complete. The book is divided into five sections, beginning with a poem/dedication uncannily entitled “Dedication” and transgresses through two “Mean Free Path” segments, as well as, two “Doppler Elegies” sections. Nothing here is distinct, and nothing is isolated. No poem is individual either.”
Princeton University Press
“Intent seems so small / a part.” From John Deming’s review: “The Eternal City is a city in the clouds, your head in the clouds, leaping into imagined memories and plans, stitching them to the caricature of their realizations…[Graber] sees the history of human thought, and its correspondence with human action, as patchwork — a work in progress at best. For her title poem, she summons Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180, ‘was in love / with Wisdom.’ But Wisdom ‘married him off to Duty instead.’ Aurelius is important because he embodies the fantasy of the leader-philosopher, one who, looking down upon his civilization from the height of meaningful power and success, finds “that all of this has been for nothing.” A leader who realizes his nation’s struggles and loyalties and beheadings take place in the name of sinister fictions.”
“It was another kind of gold.”
From David Sewell’s review: “Sometimes there’s a man in Montana who shoes horses and writes unadorned poems about extraordinary ordinary things, and all the time this is a good thing for the rest of us. The poems in Thin Kimono (as in his previous two books), for the most part, eschew the sudden jumps or shifts in tone, style, placement, or focus that so many poets today hop around on like a crippled albino being chased by a tiger, perhaps also albino…Most of the poems’ images, lines, and thoughts follow what came before in a natural yet not-obvious way. Nearly everything is connected in a logical and emotional sense. This is sometimes called accessibility. Indeed, even the detours are easy to manage—they feel like normal cognitive diversions, following the mind as it follows a tangent to a related place, then returns to the original train of thought like a cross-country traveler who just needed to stretch his legs on the platform for a second. “
“Then the rain stopped. So she forgot the rain.”
If Jennifer L. Knox is a lot of “fun,” she is also one of the bluntest, most cutting poets in the country. And one of the most consistent — The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway is her best book yet, full of ridiculous characters, speedy narratives of scotch-taped sex and drugs, of emotional instabilities that are likeable and addictive. This is a book of odd and unexpected pleasures, a reminder that if nothing is sacred, everything is.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“The bare light bulb swinging on a wire”
The final poem in Charles Simic’s 1990 classic The World Doesn’t End is titled “And My Secret Identity Is…” The poem itself is only two lines: “The room is empty / and the window is open.” In Master of Disguises, Simic’s best book in more than a decade, and arguably one of the best of his oeuvre, he is not so elusive; the final poem, “And Who Are You, Sir?” gives us an old man likened to a goat. His marriage of nightmare, pleasure and astonishment is as fertile as ever. There is an odd grace to be found in the terminally absurd. Maybe there is a master of disguises among us; maybe something is known somewhere. Maybe not. Simic’s compression is the compression of a vast unknowable, as large and small as anyone’s understanding, and finely tuned, perceptive, entertaining. He will renew your childlike curiosity, wonder and terror.
University of Iowa Press
“Comfort is not what keeps me here”
From PJ Gallo’s review: “Samuel Amadon’s new book, Like a Sea, is like a sea in that, when you are floating out in the middle of it, you have no idea where you are. It is also like a sea in that nothing but a sea is really like a sea. The book’s twisted intelligibility comes together over pieces of language that are not strictly supported by meaning or uninterrupted relay of information. It is easy to trip over the big, heavy things Amadon hides amid his poems’ scrambled logic. The poems obsess over the limits of language, moving from clarity into complicated washouts of prepositions, copulae and pronouns. They do plenty of philosophizing. “Each H,” a series of poems that provides a strong, philosophical skeleton for the book, is a premiere example of the book’s overarching mode. “Each H (IX),” for instance, begins with the simple first line, “That it could sound like him.” The speaker then folds the line under itself with, “That it could sound like him / sounding like he knew / what he sounded like.” By the final stanzas of the short poem, we are racing to keep up…”
Copper Canyon Press
“Someone knew, someone told.”
From Steven Karl’s review: “C.D. Wright’s dazzling new book, One with Others, can be seen as a thematic continuation of two previous books, Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which consist of many voices and narratives that expose the corrupt underbelly of the South’s systems of power. In One With Others, Wright focuses on the civil rights movement in the South, specifically Arkansas. She weaves narratives of those that survived the vicious polarizations of hatred and those who did not…Although the bracketed title is [a little book of her days], there is nothing “little” about this book. It is more than 150 pages long, and is formatted as one extended sequence (continuing, and perhaps paying homage to the book-length Southern poem tradition of Frank Stanford). It is full of voices, stories and fragments, and closes with 10 pages listing source material and notes. Wright provides real voices of the Civil Rights-era South. The South at its best — “Then she shocked me saying, They have souls just like us.” — but mostly, at its worst.”
“Sadly the erotics of doubt.”
From Kathleen Rooney’s review: “Jumping right in is a technique at which Story excels; her opening sentences establish scenarios and atmospheres with a subtle blend of specificity and mystery. “We look at a statue and feel uncomfortable,” says the speaker in the book’s first poem. “Time is a series of pellets,” starts another, and “For six years the girls careen in his dream like little flashlights” starts another still. Her second and third sentences, when the blocks go that long, are equally skillful, balancing precision with generality, as when she writes in the ensuing sentences of the aforementioned poems: “I am backward light, which isn’t as cool as it sounds,” and “The gerbil that sniffs them reacts by scratching his neck ferociously,” and “My intelligence is measured by the number of sweat bees in the yard.””
“…full of teeth in the glow.”
In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin writes of the tortured relationship between musician and instrument: how the musician wants to make the instrument do “everything.” Hart’s poems want to do everything, and come very close; even once his book has closed, even after his acknowledgements, he slips in a hidden track, a final poem in tribute to people that matter to him. He lists them by name: “Cesar and Roberto and the Everyman I forgot, the Every- / Woman–everybody stand up, everybody everybody, / I’m stupid with flamingoes, I’m stupid but lucky…” We are lucky to have Wolf Face, an extraordinary book establishing Matt Hart as a dark horse on track to becoming one of his generation’s most important and enduring poets. He writes a poetry of absurdity, illogic, darkness, and unshakable compassion. One of his poem titles might sum up the whole book: “Ode to Anybody Left Standing.”
“The mind light-headed and hawked.”
From Melinda Wilson’s review (forthcoming): “Terrance Hayes is in complete control in Lighthead, and the result is a commanding openness. He offers an impressive variety of poems that are bound by the way that seem to vaporize, or become atmosphere, the moment you finish reading, the moment before you re-read just to mimic the sensation. He moves from high drama to music making to both at the same time, grounding his sequence only with the recurring character “Lighthead,” and concluding with freedom as a kind of essential state: “I have no form because / I have no allegiance / to form.” All of his realities become real, simultaneous or duplicitous as they may be. He is careful to distinguish between “living” and “surviving.” Pretending that the two are synonymous comes across as dangerous. In a poem called “Nothing,” the speaker differentiates between two other oft-confused abstract nouns: “I believe happiness / is not the same thing as success.” …Hayes employs multiple forms and techniques, and individual poems are nearly flawless.”
Ugly Duckling Presse
“I am sure a fugue is near”
Karen Weiser’s first book is a cosmic, down home, smart-headed, giggling fantasy. Just when a sentence seems to be nonsense, Weiser closes the equation; we always know what we she means, even if we don’t know for sure. It is the logic of life in a dream: it makes sense while we are there, and we leave it knowing it makes sense, and that the world can, too. Or doesn’t have to, even if you’re a mother.
17. (made), Cara Benson
“Caffeine hangovers. Bygones.”
Cara Benson’s prose poems come like blasts of machine gun fire. They feel like important memories, or memories of dreams you know you won’t access by falling back asleep, no matter how much you want to. They haunt with their brevity. The poet provides the details and spares the story. Her poems affect like music.
“What is also is already…”
From Clay Matthews’s review: “In Ander Monson’s new book, The Available World, we find a loose retelling of the Icarus story, and a speaker who’s trying to come to terms with a technological world where nearly everything is ephemeral except for the constants of human emotion and questions about our interaction with the world…Monson finds a way to bridge the questions and apprehensions that a technological world presents to an individual—questions about self, what’s real, what we can or should hang on to when everything seems to eventually wind up in code or buried under re-runs and Wal-Mart bags.”
“I said I loved rocks and water and fish.”
Human beings are like all animals: they perform duties in patterns, they seek comfort and survival. Ada Limon explores what it means to be a creature in the universe. There is always a hint of irony — it’s not a mistake that the final poem is called “Fin” — but also an overtaking charm and friendliness. Poems conclude with surprising, smart and devastating turns. The book will have you watching humanity like you might watch an antfarm, and leaves you with compassion and wonder.
“The warring span of song, road map illimitable”
Iteration Nets is a monster of ideation. It’s not uncommon for poets to generate systems of limitation for themselves in order to engage in process that allows for both creation and discovery. Kelsey willfully limits herself in a variety of ways here, dismantling and reforming the “sonnet” and turning it into extended meditation. It is the music of limitless chances governed by limited immediate options, and so about living life in the present.
“I sleep…but my heart is awake”
From Kate Angus’s review: “Christopher Sunset, Geoffrey Nutter’s most recent collection, is a book that sails forward into a world of transformations and immense possibility. In it, one might buy “watermelon / sold from a blue shack, or a shark,” and Nutter’s openness to the potential inherent within that tiny consonant-shift allows him to present a world where “If shark, the fruit / has quills, exquisite” and, by the poem’s end, “banished from the abstract,” readers finds themselves somewhere with “all doors ajar.””
“I get so twitchy / when they call themselves me.”
From Matt Soucy’s review: “Ben Doller’s new book, Dead Ahead, is, dare I say…fun. The dedication is “hey Sandra,” and the opening quotation is from a piece of colloquial writing by a seventeenth-century sea captain who explored the Pacific…Once you are started it is easy to be carried along from sound to sound and poem to poem. There is a vivid coherence of image and thought without the feeling of being brought into some writer’s overly-intense personal world. Doller uses a fair balance of sea-faring images, abstraction and personal interjection. His social commentary is quick and broad enough to apply to more than just current social woes.”
“Stirred / little thieves–the little bones in their faces.”
From Kate Angus’s review: “The first question a reader might ask when opening Paul Legault’s lovely debut collection, The Madeleine Poems, is perhaps the most obvious: who is Madeleine, our title character, our heroine? The question might be better phrased as who is she not, however, as even the table of contents reveals Madeleine’s mutability…Madeleine seems, at first, potentially vulnerable, admitting that others could hold some physical power over her, as they have the ability to “Wash me or tear me; knead me in lye,” but this acknowledgement is immediately followed by the declaration, “know then that I will outlast you.” And outlast us she shall, in her multiplicity of incarnations.”
“When in one last spasm / Her cataclysm ceased.”
Ai’s final book is full of earthy, character-driven narratives, culminating in the four-part “The Cancer Chronicles,” which concludes with a narrator’s vision of her own death. It is a book about how people think and why; it is also a book about how people die and how they survive each other’s deaths. No Surrender is what Robert Frost called his own North of Boston: a “book of people.”
“Weird. I almost died.”
In her first book, Elisa Gabbert picks up from the hyper-ironic, starry-eyed, net-generation introspection in That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, her excellent 2008 collaboration with Kathleen Rooney. Her ‘blogpoems’ in particular are swift, chatty and consequential. Like Frank O’Hara, Gabbert is frequently occasional, given to the speed of the moment, or to present emotional obsessions concerning individuals she loves or has loved: family members, ex-boyfriends, etc. The final poem for her brother is particularly endearing. One of the best first books this year.
“And how can I long for something that is right here?”
From Tyler Dorholt’s review (forthcoming): “Rosmarie Waldrop continues to actualize surprising poems. Language is active and it enacts. In Driven to Abstraction, questions are often answers—“Only God can create out of nothing. But did he use up the void?”— and statements often questions. This specialized form of constructing prose builds many lessons; sidling up against bigger and more layered themes, the book reads like a semester full of engaging seminars. Note: engaging. One cannot help but take notes.”
The Mississippi Review Poetry Series
“I think I remember ruin: / nothing green.”
From Melinda Wilson’s review (forthcoming): “In Minimum Heroic, Christopher Salerno builds his poems’ environment from the matter of the natural world. Animals are essential to understanding, as are gardens, parks, hilltops. His poems proceed with compression, concision, attention to detail. His poems seem to request, or perhaps recommend, a Thoreau-like return to simplicity. Reading Minimum Heroic is just that.”
“…there is me // talking to you now…”
Poetry provides Nate Pritts with a way to blend minds: he seeks and finds direct contact with his reader. He takes us with him into his day, with all its stumbles and fuck-ups, all of its flaws and great celebrations. The fact of our being with him presents an opportunity for communion within chaos, with something meaningful, something abstract and sustaining as sunlight.
Tarpaulin Sky Press
“…when you sell a horse he will not come back.”
Shelly Taylor’s debut is a symphony of language, association, deconstruction. The poet’s associations and ideation make her seem completely mad at times, but a persistent homey quality makes us follow her from move to move with total fascination. We are led somewhere, and led, and led back. Nothing is traditional, nothing old fashioned; everything is strange.
Alice James Books
“A fern was ringing. / A tombstone.”
From Kate Angus’s review: “Although there are many smaller pleasures in Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney’s latest collection, the book’s greatest strength is Sweeney’s embrace of mutability and potential. The poems in this book move effortlessly between the concrete logical world and a place where the laws of nature are suspended or irrelevant. Through his use of associative imagery and elegant line breaks, Sweeney creates a liminal space where the real work of poetry begins, which is to say that his readers–with a tip of the hat to an older master– wander through a series of shifting images that allow them to “find (themselves) more truly and more strange.””