Guest Editor David Wagoner / Series Editor David Lehman
Reviewed by Cindy Sostchen-Hochman
Begun in 1988, the annual Best American Poetry series turns 21 this year, and thus attains legal status. A toast is in order.
The series is the brainchild of David Lehman, a poet/critic/anthologist who is deft at opening up contemporary poetry and making it seem digestible. BAP tends to blend contemporary knowns and unknowns in a way that has prompted a curious cross-pollination with as general a reading public as there is in contemporary American poetry.
The popularity of the series has garnered it some critics over the years, and somehow, Lehman and crew can’t seem to shake a reductive debate over what is intended by the word “best.” But critics might remember that the series, by its nature, does not profess to engender the 75 greatest poems published that year – only 75 of the best. Each edition offers a new guest editor, meaning some measure of diversity from year to year, and resulting, over the long haul, in as honestly imperfect and interesting a method of cataloging journal-published poetry as we could have asked for.
In his annual forward, Lehman turns to criticism itself, assessing the corrosive nature and deleterious effect of acid-tongued critics through the ages, citing their patent disregard for the genius of poets from Keats to Hart Crane. Interestingly, and as if to buttress his point, Mr. Lehman’s commentary, while passionate, is even-tempered and conciliatory. Conceding that “every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one,” Mr. Lehman cautions that “if you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul.” He points out that critics who replace close reading and fully-enumerated points with ferocious snap and bite have, in the end, entertained, but said nothing.
This year, the guest editor is another David, the acclaimed poet and novelist David Wagoner. Wagoner, the former editor of Poetry Northwest, shares in his introduction some genial and welcoming personal anecdotes. Many of Wagoner’s own poems, and many of the poems in this anthology, could be described as doing the same. As a whole, the poems that Mr. Wagoner has chosen do not reek of sameness, though an observant reader may find plenty of connective threads; Sartre once wrote that existentialism is a philosophy for the priveleged — for those who can the afford the luxury of taking time to sit and to contemplate — and here we are reminded that one is in many ways lucky to be born in America. The book is heavy on reflection and contemplation; its best thinkers arrive at music.
There are literal and figurative roadmaps; Mark Bibbins offers a knowing and ludicrous journey across (and away from) the states, John Ashbery a concise chart of human desire built entirely of movie titles (“They came to blow up America. / They came to rob Las Vegas.”) The Father of Psychobabble makes two appearances, the first in the James Cummins sestina “Freud” (“Come to think of it, I never speak of Mom much now, though I go on and on about Dad”), the second in Douglas Goetsch’s “First Time Reading Freud.”
Aging is also a dilemma in this anthology. The finely-drawn, skin-and-bone details in Marianne Boruch’s poem “The Doctor” make my own over-50 body creak in iambic pentameter (Ms. Boruch compares her body to “a city suddenly built so badly” – oh, Marianne, I’ve been to that city!). Sharon Olds’s “Self-Exam” (“dense, cystic, phthistic, each breast like the innards / of a cell”) is not much of a departure for Olds, but is a useful guide to female self-acceptance in spite of a woman’s ever-changing topography.
Walt Whitman thought he could “turn and live with the animals,” and maybe some of these poets could too, judging by the reverence with which they approach our winged and four-legged friends. Witness the sparse but beautiful narrative “Red” by the often-read but under-appreciated Mary Oliver; in the poem, the violent death of two gray foxes is no less tragic than a human death (“He showed me / how he could ripple / how he could bleed”). Terrance Hayes’s mea culpa, “A House is Not a Home,” goes to the heart of the human animal and its need to redeem itself from temptation and weakness:
It was the night I embraced Ron’s wife a bit too long
because he’d refused to kiss me goodbye
that I realized the essential nature of sound.
When she slapped me across one ear,
and he punched me in the other, I recalled,
almost instantly, the purr of liquor sliding
along the neck of the bottle a few hours earlier
as the three of us took turns imitating the croon
of the recently-deceased Luther Vandross.
Many poems present the American day-to-day — how lives and relationships can veer from status quo, how small epiphanies slip in and slip past. Fleda Brown’s narrator has roofers on her roof in “Roofers,” and hears in them “…great rolls of thunder, the roof / of heaven cluttered with Gods.” In the end our narrator is filled “with tenderness for the little world I had going on / inside, my grief that it was not the world.”
Amidst the lonely roads of America (real or imagined), and with the constant need to acknowledge our own mortality, BAP 2009 offers a sense of unity, a testament to the wonders and contradictions of each day. As Lehman points out, “we need to remember that poetry springs from joy as often as from sorrow.” So let the critics and curmudgeons continue their quibbling ad nauseum regarding the efficacy of the word “best”; to my mind, the words “good,” “memorable,” “valuable,” – and in a couple of cases, “essential” – are just as accurate.