top 40 poetry books of 2012
Happy New Year! We extended our annual list to 40 poetry books this year. 40 sounds like a lot until you remember that more 2,000 books of poetry were published in the U.S. this year. We went through hundreds and hudreds. Over the next couple of weeks, we will reveal our staff picks for our favorite 40 books. We will also, in the coming days, round up other 2012 poetry books: best first books, selected/collected editions, anthologies, and book covers. Here is a schedule for the top 40:
40 – 31
40. I Live in a Hut, S.E. Smith
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
“That is the one thing I am not here to say.”
I Live in a Hut, selected by Matthea Harvey as the winner of the 2011 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, presents a world thriving on surprise and astonishment, full of wonder and buoyancy, relentless in its optimism and resolute in its playfulness. I’m able to hold on because there is a great deal of empathy here, a feeling of camaraderie inside the confusion of living. Joy and despair are equally inexorable, horribly, humanly linked. “Let us bed down / with the pony of darkness, let us / totally overwhelm it with apples, / a ride in the gondola,” she writes in “The Pony of Darkness,” showing the generosity of her voice, and her faith in the luscious, crushing splendor of the world.
39. Hider Roser, Ben Mirov
“When you return from the asylum / be sure to gaze at the trees / covered in snow.”
Equal parts playful and dark, inviting and against interpretation, Mirov’s first publication with Octopus Books is somethin’ special. Mirov’s poems are surreal and unabashedly youthful. As in the title poem, in which Mirov begins, “You want to write about a horse/ but you have written hose,” the book confronts mistakes of language—both the memetic intentional and the unintentional—and their influence on the interpersonal. “I’ve spent a long time/ with these words in my head/,” says the narrator in “Ribbon,” “and now here they are// like snowmelt. Like a long dark/ slipstream of mistakes/ trailing out of the future.” Mirov moves his declarative lines with messy mental processes, including a consistent address of Ben Mirov as a character in the poems (think maybe “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich”); he manages to project at once his wit with the über-contemporary and a strong sense of humanity.
38. The Game of Boxes, Catherine Barnett
“I’m studying the unspoken.”
The compressed, evocative poems in Catherine Barnett’s collection The Game of Boxes are full of domestic imagery and moments of gratefulness. The speaker is clearly grateful for motherhood and certain memories she preserves from her own childhood. Her relationship with her young son establishes an inquisitive and sometimes pensive mood for most of the book, although “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk,” a long poem in 24 short parts, details a romantic relationship. While the relationship often appears loving, at times, the long poem hints at violence and a sense of numbness: “when you spoke I heard only the come-on / hard-on voice of this is how I’ll do it to you so I moved away, / I wanted you to leave.” The riddle-like nature of many of the poems, along with Barnett’s juxtaposition of varying depictions of love, reveals a universal complexity and inevitable human struggle.
37. how to survive a hotel fire, Angela Veronica Wong
“Had she known, everything might have turned out differently.”
Angela Veronica Wong’s debut book is an exploration of intimacy and its fracturing. Throughout the book’s six sections, the poems capitulate between modes of naiveté, humor, confidence, deceit, and the subtle desperation that comes when one who knows too much. These wonderfully anxious poems are filled with asphyxiation, falling plants, abandoned buildings and playing children who “scream like death.” One of numerous titular poems opens with, “The weird thing is I just had a dream about a hotel fire, and now that I think about it, I/ probably didn’t do the right thing.” In another section, “What We Learn About Trust,” a poem begins, “By leaving my hair unwashed, I have brought the/ ocean into our bed.” The poems in this book burn with such intensity that we vacillate between being consumed by the fire or sifting through the ashes and wondering if “we didn’t do the right thing.”
36. Charms Against Lightning, James Arthur
Copper Canyon Press
“the deep sky welters and the windows quiver”
The speaker of “At Klipsan Beach,” a short poem from James Arthur’s debut collection Charms Against Lightning, stands on a beach observing the tide and contemplating his eventual death: “We are, and then we aren’t; / that’s the mortal art.” Most of Arthur’s poems concern themselves with questions of mortality. They offer introspection and appreciation of a life that keeps moving, of “what moves, / what is moved, by what / immense machinery…” Arthur is a stargazer, an almost traditional American contemplator with a sharp eye and ear who never denies his poems the sensuality and terror he finds in the natural word.
35. Robinson Alone, Kathleen Rooney
Gold Wake Press
“The arteries / are hardening; there is much worry.”
Kathleen Rooney’s Robinson Alone takes its title character from the poems of Weldon Kees. A novel in verse, Robinson Alone provides an extension of Kees’s persona, delving into Robinson’s search for self-fulfillment and his travels out of Nebraska where “most of the world is not.” Slightly heavy with its concept, Rooney’s collection is an ambitious 130 pages, but each of its poems acutely delivers a dose of Robinson’s solitude and regret, his need for actualization and clarity, for purpose. Rooney’s poems are thorough and controlled; they effectively employ an array of rhyme patterns and surprising slant and internal rhyme. Through Robinson, Rooney explores the human condition and pays signficant tribute to the work of Weldon Kees.
34. Quick Question, John Ashbery
“We’re very into whatever it is we’re doing, / I say. // But it matters.”
There are people in the Coldfront halls who think I’ll pick anything Ashbery to be on a list like this. It is probably true. At the launch party for Quick Question, Ashbery said that he doesn’t arrange his manuscripts according to certain specific themes–the poems do not necessarily relate to each other, he said, he just waits until he has enough poems for a reasonable-sized manuscript. In a recent interview with me, Doug Powell pointed out that “some people write one book for their whole lives and call it Leaves of Grass.” It has become clear in recent years how close Ashbery’s project is to projects like Whitman’s, and to conceptions of time like those we see in his other major influences, especially Proust. In Quick Question, Ashbery sounds off in his singular voice, mixing abstract association and conversational idiom as the day moves gracelessly along, and providing us with at least two new masterpieces, “[Untitled]” (“The pillars, the parquet embroidered it / into permanence. We needed that.”) and “Rest Area” (“That as they say is the puzzle / the great total that touches your plate / as the siren goes off kissing the child / on the shoulder and tanks retreat / as though the war was never meant / and none of us were supposed to die as / we in fact weren’t.”)
33. The Ground, Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“We are early in the life of the poet.”
In its best moments, Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s first book is an ode to New York City. The author begins with his birth at Harlem Hospital, and much of the book is driven by his urge to tell you his own coming-to-awareness stories in structured stanzas that vary in tone and diction. He displays real lyricism in poems like “Tonight” (“And because tonight is curing the beginning let me through. / And everywhere was blurring halogen. Love the place that welcomed you.”) and “The Greenness of the Ground” (“The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god. / Green-gripped, who dripped the moon half eaten, jaded mud and char.”). Ultimately, the poet emerges with resonance as a wounded, but optimistic voice in post-9-11 New York; city lovers will revel: “Near the black island’s old and tongueless lighthouse / That forks the East River’s passage to the ocean / And makes where there was once one current // Thousands of circling currents, circling…” (“Hell Gate, East River, New York”).
32. Victory, Ben Kopel
“they are twitching like a clinic in the winter”
Ben Kopel’s Victory is a trunk load of fireworks bought on the side of the road in a state where the legality of blowing up the sky is an emotional concern. These poems suggest that kissing and spitting under flickering parking lot lights is where all great loves begin. Rarely does a book sustain such volume of feeling, screaming and careening between our bodies’ shared traffic using a voice that is equal parts gasoline and flame. Which is to say these poems are burning amplifications of how love defines, defiles, deafens, and detonates us. What pretty monsters we’ve become. “My head is full of plastic fangs / and sheet music and / squirrel skulls,” Kopel writes in “Like A Song Unsung,” confirming the sublime in stereo recordings and yearly reborn potholes, giving his head to his readers to make what bloody happiness they can of it.
31. Madame X, Darcie Dennigan
“She was my mother and she was also, in the dream, a large bird.”