top 40 poetry books of 2012
[20 - 11]
20. Thunderbird, Dorothea Lasky
“It is feeling out you out there/ It is feeling out oblivion”
Dorothea Lasky’s irreverence and candor skirt the profane until, unexpectedly, the sacred peeks out from underneath like the lace hem of a slip. The word “ass” comes up a lot, but it is in the company of phrases such as “smoke powdered lapis” and “contort this simple smile into a haunting song.” None of this contrast feels contrived. “At least have some human patience/ for what lies on the other side,” she admonishes. The poems present, then revise, both the naïveté and glib of youth; in “Odd Feelings” she writes, “I go, not wild but the opposite/Of silence//Or to not be better not to interact/But to be a floating thing.” Lasky explicitly questions and troubles the writer/reader relationship (“Long Ago I made this poem/And then you read it/And then I ate it”); in doing so, she creates a magnetic voice and an original intimacy.
–Shea Boresi and Seth Graves
19. If I Should Say I Have Hope, Lynn Melnick
“So follow an aspect to the bottom with silver, / say we are lesser. In legend, we are lesser.”
Lynn Melnick’s poems in If I Should Say I Have Hope recall the raw power of Anne Sexton and read like Lynchian dreams. The voice of these poems proves consistent and potent, steeping the book in weather and worry, in impulse and flesh, sometimes in blood. Most of the poems in If I Should Say I Have Hope are formal in structure and tone, built mostly in couplets, sometimes tercets and quatrains, and all demand recognition of truth, of human details we might rather deny. If I should say I have hope, the speaker suggests, I need to say all of these things first. She confesses, “I’ll wreck it if it’s good.” Calling attention to our often-destructive tendencies, the poet admits fallibility and imperfection, while quietly offering refuge to a thing with feathers.
18. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics, CAConrad
“everyone paying attention/ enjoy your visit/ everyone else/ good luck”
More than a collection of poems, Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is a kind of poetry manual tinged with manifesto: a call to nonviolent and creative arms against a world in which “metal and plastic rule the center of gravity,” and against a nation that propagates war and mindless consumption. Conrad’s business—and he makes the case that it is the business of any poet living today—is to re-animate the material world with the spiritual, to make living, itself a kind of poetry, to bring to life poems “to be utilized or invented, everywhere and anywhere.” There is something amazingly democratic and engaging going on, too; every poem here is the result of a “(Soma)tic Exercise,” a specific process which the reader is encouraged to attempt on his or her own. “(Soma)tic 8, DOUBLE-shelter,” for example, advises one to “[l]isten to Philip Glass on the floor, on your back, very still, in, the, dark, just, you, and, Mr. Glass” during which one must “[r]eflect on a personal violence you want undone,” and then “take notes about how the violence in your life will not leave.” Indeed, as much as the poems themselves, the exercises force the reader to change his or her relationship with the world around them. Underlying all of this is Conrad’s insistence that poetry, itself, is an important tool that can fight against the meaninglessness and arbitrary cruelty of contemporary existence: “I’m tired of poetry not/ saving the world/ forgetting its job.”
17. Partyknife, Dan Magers
“And when I die, I’ll just be dead.”
Partyknife is a book in which youthful desperation and its attendant futility are enacted by a speaker whose ego shrinks and shouts; he struggles to define the self, whether through culture or in relation to an unobtainable other: “People are lonely and bored, and need to see / a version of themselves with more possibilities, / possibly going platinum.” Dan Magers offers a pæan to place where place is one’s youth, and one’s youth is a shimmering mess of defeat and hubris, stammering forward like a train dragged by someone else’s stampeding groupies (“At karaoke, I ruined ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ for everyone”). The speaker is obsessed with the social realities around him (one poem is called “In the Manner Loseresque”) and is not well behaved, permitting bodily humor, intentionally bad jokes, awkwardnesses of all kinds. It reads like Lacan’s mirror stage filtered through an art-school haze of bong smoke, glam rock, and scum punk. The poet is dialed into his mode, aware of all of his mechanisms. As readers, we take a gleeful place in a spectacle at least once removed. The poet favors forceful, deliberate lines, often leaving out titles, generating a momentum that perfectly suits his relentlessness as he moves between unbridled self-aggrandizement and a kind of piteous self effacement. The book does what it does with thought, intensity, and a sense of humor.
16. Meme, Susan Wheeler
University of Iowa Press
“Absurd, in other words: regret.”
Susan Wheeler says she “lost [her] mother and [her] marriage” in the course of writing Meme. The term “meme,” credited to Richard Dawkins, is “a word that originated with genetic replication, and has gained currency since Dawkins as a unit of cultural effluvia that spreads widely very quickly,” according to Wheeler. In this book, Wheeler channels idiomatic expressions, slangs, and vernaculars and draws up unique elegies for both her mother and for a relationship. No matter how badly people want to communicate, they are in some ways like parrots, absorbing and repeating what they hear according to their own base interpretations. That’s not to say that our phrasing choices can’t be colorful and identity-making. The first section, “The Maud Poems,” is spoken in the “mid-century vernacular” of the poet’s mother, incorporating her most commonly used phrases and expressions, from very common phrases (“Don’t you wash that down the sink!”), to niche phrases (“He was sick as a horse this morning but now he’s just feeling a little punk”). We don’t only see this mother, we hear her, and she is an enduring character because of it. Meme, at turns calm and unassuming, makes surprising jumps in style and diction that can be confounding at first, making good on the traditions of Language and found poetry at the same time as limerick and sing-song. It is a daring book. And its sub-current of autobiography–the poet’s and everybody’s–alongside a barrage of sometimes-recognizable phrases will leave you with a ghost in the room.
15. Slow Lightning, Eduardo C. Corral
Yale University Press
“and I’m peering through a crack in a wall / revealing a landscape of snow.”
In Slow Lightning, Eduardo C. Corral confronts identity and alienation. Corral, the first Latino to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, presents us with a series of confinements–family identity, racial identity, sexual identity, identity within a relationship, identity within a nation–and simultaneously offers each as a platform for liberation, a kind of fresh frontier of one’s own: “He’s an illegal. / I’m an Illegal-American.” The confinement extends to everyday consciousness; to leave one field of unknowing is always to enter another, which is just as strange, or stranger: “If I dream I’m cupping her face / with my hands, I wake up holding / the skull / of a wolf.” Corral moves with great facility between Spanish and English, and the poems are a joy to read, full of cultural and social implications. The speaker of “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” tells his father’s immigration story: “His coworkers, / unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.” Ekphrastic poems abound alongside stories of violence, illegal border crossing, and lust (“the first / time I knelt for a man, my / lips pressed to his zipper, / I suffered such hunger”). Corral’s poems come from a range of speakers and draw from a variety of influences. All seem to fit. Slow Lightning shows what kind of freedom can be found by persevering in spite of the status quo, even from within a mortal body: “I long to return to my master / who knew neither fear nor patience.”
14. Gravesend, Cole Swensen
University of California Press
“…in the shock of recognition on the face of the dying”
The poems in Gravesend exist in the margin between life and death. In these poems, Cole Swensen considers the ways in which the departed continue to influence, interact with and impart awareness upon those they leave behind. We see the dead in our dreams, in memory and in the faces and bodies of others. With ample blank space, Swensen’s poems visually recall apparitions and suggest that transitioning from one life to another may not be so macabre: “why / are we frightened by doorways; why is there a fear especially made for the sound // of a door or a year or a stare Fear is an aperture.” Gravesend also refers to scripture, history and artwork in its probing, grounded, and human conception of death and afterlife.
13. Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, Patricia Lockwood
“And around it, arrayed in shine lines, / all the minutes of the day.”
Patricia Lockwood reclaims the word “cartoonish” from the pejorative with her first book, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. The poet embraces the essence of cartoons to develop the logic behind lively, surreal, imaginative, and humorous poems, insisting on curious intellectual rigor and formal dignity throughout. Her poems are populated by Popeye, by “a worm wearing glasses”; there’s a cartoon physics by which things can exist out of nowhere, and cause-and-effect is reduced to effect alone, like in “The Cartoon’s Mother Builds a House in Hammerspace,” in which Lockwood writes, “When the cartoon needs to be born, he reaches deep into his pocket where nothing was before and suddenly brandishes her two pink legs.” Her long sequences vacillate between narrative prose and elegant, symphonic verse passages: “and the fruit of a succulent is straight lines, / and her pet wasp lands on her longest finger / and sees the end coming and stings her with it.” There’s an elasticity to the work, the kind a cartoon body displays when turned into an accordion by a plummeting anvil. One of the best debuts of the year.
– Francesco Grisanzio
12. me and Nina, Monica A. Hand
Alice James Books
“I was made/ pure/ commotion/ certainly verily amen”
Monica A. Hand weaves personal narrative and a biographical perspective on Nina Simone, briefly interrupted mid-book with a fictional introspective from Simone, the blues of a woman “Tired of paying these dues.” The book flips between histories of obstacle, including Simone’s rejection from a prestigious classical piano training school (“She was too dark too blue/Made us feel unsure impure”). Interwoven is the life of a narrator whose first opportunity to see Simone in concert never actualized, opportunity usurped by a boy who wants her sex and money (“I want to go. See Nina Simone. He begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: please, please, please”). The poems grasp and revel in the dark as their own Soul tracks, “contrapasso/ ill will/ a settling// not with a grain of salt/ with a heavy hand.”
– Seth Graves
11. Bright Brave Phenomena, Amanda Nadelberg
Coffee House Press
“”Dear Americans, / You run better / than French people fish. / Seriously, like horses.”
Bright Brave Phenomena is a system of 44 resilient, big-hearted machines, the warm chaos of the light in the grass, or the grass in the light, a field of slightly glitched musics tending to the terrible loveliness that makes us human: “Of all the perfect gestures, be good at naked. / In the morning, be pinecones.” Built around direct statements illuminated by a fair amount of semantic wobble, these poems, often very funny, take in and redefine the world, at times turning those definitions over until the poem discovers some little piece of joy or sadness it allows the reader to dance with, feeling complicated and hugged: “Come on, I’m exciting to be with you.” Propelled by a tender attention that resists anything being inconsequential, these poems delight in buoyant movements, establishing a logic based on wonder and emotional truth that asks, as desperately as it does joyfully, how is it we can touch the world knowing we cannot hold on to anything. “I had an angry period,” she confides, “for / the trees to fall down on the / floor, the room of vantaged / things, however long you can / keep this hold you can stay.”