Top 30 Poetry Books of 2011

 

Here are our editorial picks for the Top 30 Poetry Books of 2011. Over the next week, check out our remaining 2011 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. Nod House, Nathaniel Mackey

New Directions

“While we’re alive”

Nod House is Nathaniel Mackey’s fifth poetry book, and is the next installment in a career-spanning project in which the poet has settled on two entwined serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu.” The malleable project affords Mackey some improvisatory whim — he has long incorporated the word “nub” into the series for its sonic and metaphorical possibilities, but it wasn’t until 2006′s National Book Award winning Splay Anthem that we saw the “Republic of Nub” and its disintegration. In an introduction to that book, the poet describes  the “flailing Republic of Nub” that the United States became in its response to 9/11.

In Nod House, we see the plight of the refugee, both literal and figurative. Everyone lacks identity, and all is tilt and sway. His obscured characters are obscurely threatened, both with death and with the death of idealism. Even as they achieve the life affirming enthusiasm of establishing a new world and new traditions against adversity, all happiness is backlit by its transience. Mackey’s world is rarely visual; it is heard and felt, like pulse, progressing intuitively and musically. He regularly uses epigraphs from great thinkers, but eagerly avoids philosophical conclusions, always favoring an open turn into the next phrase or phase, imparting the vivid, dreamlike space between thought and action (including thought and speech). It is our ultimate and inevitable gap in knowing, or “more feeling than any of us/could’ve said we felt…” He questions the notion that language can accurately communicate thought or imagination while proving through his own language that it can, if only in the way that music can, or that the ever-adjusting spiral arms of a galaxy can.

“Song of the Andoumboulou,” and “Mu” are separate, but coiled like DNA, arriving at dissonance, two timbres always leaning in and pulling back. The imagination crystallizes at the borders of human thought; Wallace Stevens called it “the palm at the end of the mind.” Mackey lives there. He dazzles with musical turns and treats reality with a sustained, dreamlike shock beyond pretense of understanding. The result is warming and electric, akin to feeling both found and lost. Few if any living poets have found form in the way that Mackey has, and Nod House is arguably his best work yet.

John Deming

 

2. Money Shot, Rae Armantrout

Wesleyan University Press

“They’re beneath you / and it’s hot.”

Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot was released in February 2011, the perfect prelude to a year that would include Occupy Wall Street, a still-struggling economy, and a team of Republican presidential candidates with all the appeal and ideological maturity of a Chuck E. Cheese concert. In a culture where almost all language is designed to manipulate, Armantrout is a confounding filter, a reminder that saying anything is saying too much, lest we contribute to heartily to the coercion. Her intellectual, associative collages are transmitted through Morse code; she organizes ideas, images, dialogue, and ad-speak like a master chef prepping individual ingredients and blending them in a way that is both highly logical and highly sensual, making at least limited sense of “The spray / of all possible paths.” She perfected this form in 2005’s Next Life and 2007′s Pulitzer-winning Versed, which saw the self as immersed in the whole — even as the poet suffered from cancer, the local body contained as much possibility for metaphor and pattern-finding as the rest of the physical world. Money Shot is more squarely aimed at culture, compiling human greed, lust, power, hopefulness and confusion. “The new reality / is a pastiche / of monologues,” and without dialogue, it is our cultural imperative to listen and accept. Armantrout shows what a person with open eyes and open ears can contribute by organizing artifice and showing it for what it is – all the while maintaining a cleverness, intellectual authority and readability that make her one of the best page-poets in the world.

Read a review here.

John Deming

 

3. The Other Poems, Paul Legault

Fence Books

“GOLD: I want to be for cash”

Earlier this year, Stephen Burt and David Mikics published an excellent book called The Art of the Sonnet, which collected important sonnets and performed critical analysis on them. If they had done it a year later, they surely would have needed to include something from Paul Legault’s savvy sonnet sequence The Other Poems, one of the most entertaining poetry books in years. All poems in the sequence follow the same basic form; they are like little screenplays, including seven moments of unpredictable dialogue between disparate and frequently unrelated people and objects. Anytime something is asserted or questioned, it is undercut, subverted or distracted from, not answered. So while there is constant chatter, there is no real narrative. In fact, every time the poet approaches something like a coherent narrative, he smashes it on the floor like a child tired of playing with a particular toy. (The hyper-ironic poet even undercuts his own method, closing with a poem that more or less explains it away.) One comes to find that these are absurd “dialogues with the self,” as Legault’s bpNichol epigraph indicates—an indication that the mind constantly finds order and immediately contradicts that order. But they also are much more, a wholesale interaction with the world as it constantly unveils itself. Everything, it seems, has perspective. Excerpting from individual poems would sacrifice the arc that is so crucial to each poem’s success, but I suggest you find examples here.

Read a review here.

John Deming

 

4. Sky Burial, Dana Levin

Copper Canyon Press

“I’d wanted to know if it was alright to live.”

In her new book Sky Burial, Dana Levin looks the devil square in the eyes, performing honest appraisal of definite, inevitable death of all things and finding “the art of matter / is limit and splendor.” The book is written in the wake of the deaths of the poet’s mother, father and sister (her parents died within six months of each other) and elegizes all three. Levin investigates mortality like a Gothic Buddhist, assailing the body as temporary meat, but finding peace in the fact that dying is an unavoidable consequence of the opportunity to bear witness. Sometimes the poems are so cold you fear your hand will freeze to the surface; you are reminded starkly that the human body is a collection of underlying objects, matter, like a car or computer, food for worms, vultures, decay, other eaters: “I had to shake my dream / of I-am-I.” But much of it is also casual and inviting, the warm light of a near death experience, a loving communion with reality: “a yellow quiet light //that softens the edges of sharpest night—.” She is severe, but not unfriendly, and not even pessimistic – just conscious of her unknowing, and sad to see everything go: “Saying, You’re dying, you’re dead. You can withdraw from this orbit of mirrors.”

Read a review here.

John Deming

 

 

5. Negro League Baseball, Harmony Holiday

Fence Books

“So if I had never met // anyone but you, // I would have known which way to go”

Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer and songwriter Jimmy Holiday, and her first book of poems Negro League Baseball reads like a cosmic inevitability. Holiday is sharp in wit and in her ability to develop nuanced musical progressions—but she is warm and loving in character, elegizing the father she never knew and generally channeling the severity of her most important relationships into a rapid-fire, associative eloquence: “Allegedly I am sister somebody caught soft running, pretty little theme, helpless desire…” She is agitated, sometimes even moody (“Ideas are the saddest thing       Ideals are the next saddest”), but never haphazard. However associative or progressive a passage, Holiday never switches to autopilot; everything has consequence. The cover contains a photograph of Big Jay McNeely onstage, on his back, blasting through his saxophone as adoring fans pound the stage. Holiday’s voice is also consuming enough to blow the doors off the hinges.

Read a review here.

John Deming


6. Fall Higher, Dean Young

Copper Canyon Press

“My books are full of mistakes”

A trend has developed in reviews of Dean Young’s books wherein the reviewer begins by acknowledging common criticisms of Young’s poetry that originate just as much from the left of the poetry world as the right, which the reviewer then quickly dismisses, claiming that the book under review surmounts those criticisms. But why do we have to continue to introduce our discussions of Young’s poetry by first defending the poems (not common with reviews of other poets) when the consensus, at least from those us who are actually reading the poems, is that each book holds more surprises and depths than the last, and that none of his books actually succumb to the criticisms mentioned. I say it’s time to put this trend to rest. Here’s the deal: Dean Young has always written manically original, subversive, hysterical, emotionally potent poetry and, due to a heart transplant in April, will continue to do so. Young’s most recent, and thirteenth book, Fall Higher, is no exception. Indeed, these poems show Young as irreverent as ever, but the speaker is simultaneously more human, more fallible, than ever before. Fall Higher is dominated by an awareness of the poet’s mortality that comes across as equal parts dread and celebration, a line that Young balances by mixing Keatsian rhymes, a menagerie of contemporary wreckage, and the ripping tension between the limits of his own body and illimitable potential of poetry.

Read a review here.

Nick Sturm

 

7. Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney

Triquarterly Books/Northwestern

“I have spoken the best I know how.”

A collection for Lucille Clifton including a poem for Rosa Parks, Nikki Finney’s Head Off & Split boldly confronts a world in which “On hurricane-soaked rooftops Black people have been abandoned—again” and “only white people could drive to the store / at midnight for milk / (without having to watch the rearview).” The poems in this collection observe humans acting without humanity, but their accounts do not lack hope or positivity. Instead, they emphasize the need and the will to survive, the body and mind’s insistence upon existence. “Keep yourself rooted in the sun,” Finney urges.

Read a review here.

Melinda Wilson

 

8. You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis

Coffee House Press

“ANNABOT: I cannot feel your hand. / HUMAN MACHINE: I cannot feel your heart.”

Culpability shadows You and Three Others Are Approaching A Lake: the culpability of early Western industrialists, whose greed led to the depletion and ruin of our natural world; the culpability of those who prefer violence to rhetoric (“can a grammar kill?” asks a quoted poet in “Death as a Way of Life”); and the culpability of those “person-bots,” perhaps all of us, who choose to exist online over existing humanly. As Annabot, Moschovakis shows us provocatively what our online lives have the risk of doing to our psyches by placing them in an important historical narrative—that of past moments where cheap indulgence (meat over corn, hunting over cultivating, Craigslist sex over human connection) leads to an erosion of our very moral centers. Our anti-bots, our human selves.

Read the full review here.

Rachel Mennies

 

9. The Chameleon Couch, Yusef Komunyakaa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Yeah, / honey, I know something about talking with ghosts.”

The Chameleon Couch relies on music as a mode of exploration, as a muse, as a spiritual guide, as a means of survival. Komunyakaa sets the scene: “In the days of night riders / when life tongued a reed / till blues & sorrow song / called out of the deep night.” Against a fear-inducing and often violent background, these poems contest the rigidity of self, suggest instead its intense mutability. The past haunts as ghosts in these poems but reminds that the future is not fixed.

Read a review here.

Melinda Wilson

 

 

10. Touch, Henri Cole

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“We only have a little time, darling.”

In his newest book, Henri Cole stretches the limits of his minimalist style, delves deeper into family memory, and widens the scope of the tensions he explores. Touch is divided into three sections, moving from the poet’s mother’s death to a troubled relationship with a younger man addicted to drugs. The volume begins with “Asleep in Jesus at Rest,” a poem of long lines laid out in overlapping caesuras, a looser and more expansive form than what we’ve come to expect from Cole. He repeats this form later in “Legend,” a bit further into the volume. And he includes “Grebe,” a poem that he translated from the French with the author, Claire Malroux. Although he continues his familiar syllabics, Cole includes more experimental pieces in Touch, such as the free verse collage of “By the Name of God, The Most Merciful and Gracious,” which gives voice to a victim of torture. If Blackbird’s “For the Forty-third President” signaled a more engagé stance, Touch does not disappoint, with additional anti-war poems such as “Quai Aux Fleurs” and “Sleeping Soldiers.”

Read the full review here.

James Cihlar


 

 

11. Destroyer & Preserver, Matthew Rohrer

Wave Books

“I see you, I see you / I whispered to her / but I would never see her like /
this again”

There is Poetry that articulates & deepens our conception of what it means to be alive–a flawed human fumbling, glimpsed however imperfectly through a busted lens.  Matthew Rohrer’s Destroyer and Preserver struggles heroically with the need for concentration & revelation against a field of distraction & shattered perceptions.  Rohrer has written with such tender affection–for people, for places, for the very ability to feel & think–that each poem feels weighted with equal parts nostalgia & hope.

In many of these poems, the speaker is presented in everyday situations or scenarios; “Poem for Starlings” describes a visit to the bank, though the speaker is obviously out of synch with his surroundings–both humorously in terms of action, as in “When you try to make a joke / in a bank / it falls flat,” & also emotionally in terms of attention, as in

my step as high
as the starlings
bickering in the sky
the birdsong
of the city
and the paper lifting off
the sidewalks
goodbye, I wish
the world were different

This wish fuels much of the Poetry in this collection, made up of a desire to see the world more precisely as it is, to open the self more fully to the range of human experience, to make some kind of lasting change.

Read the full review here.

Nate Pritts


12. Thread, Michael Palmer

New Directions

“That poem I dreamed last night / No need to write it down”

The voice behind the poems in Thread, Michael Palmer’s best book since the ’80s, appears fixated on time, its “stillness and motion,” its limits and contents. The poems investigate “those unmeasured and unmarked hours / just outside of time,” and in doing so, they uncover questions of mortality and existence. In these poems, Palmer privileges the surreal: “When the dancer split in half, we envied her that. When the halves be- / gan to dance, we applauded that.” His poems speak to themselves, “Poem, don’t be so strange.” As he pushes the limits of time, Palmer also pushes the limits of reality, achieving a stillness of motion that makes time palpable.

Read a review here.

Melinda Wilson

 

13. Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Toward Them, Jenny Boully

Tarpaulin Sky Press

“My dear, my dear pet wolf: I will tell you the difference between A and Z”

The best folk tales and children’s stories are the dark ones, the ones that hint at the world and human relations as they really are and so continue to haunt our adult dreams, shocking us awake to reel at the true terrors of abandonment, our inevitable decay, heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. The act of parsing out and presenting these adult truths from beneath the veils of children’s fantasy is the project at the heart of Jenny Boully’s masterful new book, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them. The book is a brilliant alternate version of J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s book Peter and Wendy. Boully maintains a fluid text but shies away from straightforward narration, providing a modern re-envisioning of a cultural touchstone that is also a commentary on itself. She weaves a gorgeous fever-dream where our half-remembered childhood stories now stand revealed as adult archetypes. Time itself becomes unstuck, as even Peter and the Lost Boys begin to contemplate “how we can continue on here without having to reinvent too much. Or, better yet, let’s…ascertain just what has transpired so that we can make it all new again.”  This moment seems like an embedded ars poetica, as the book itself also continually makes itself new and reinvents its source texts. The text warns Wendy continually that Peter will tire of her, will forget her, will leave her, yet an “I” suddenly speaks near the end, saying “You see, Peter, I too, alone, without you, can have adventures….I can leave you.” The idea of who has left who is suddenly open to new interpretation–was it Peter’s waywardness or Wendy’s ability to mature (something Peter lacks) that is the greater and decisive abandonment? Either way, aging and memory are chilling.

Read the full review here.

Kate Angus

 

14. Devotions, Bruce Smith

University of Chicago Press

“Vectors for fugue / and spontaneous bruising.”

Bruce Smith’s “Devotions” are smart, tough, and rough-hewn. They are real snapshots of real living woven into a manic, sometimes frantic battle charge. Smith beats a drum but wears a grave face: “Looking up the way the myrmidons looked up / at the sun, skeptical, sweaty while they killed the ram and ewe, / strung the bow, lifted timbers. It was their job to fight / for someone’s love and rage, someone’s beauty worth dying for.” If Smith’s seriousness of purpose was passed down by the Hemingway mentality (or Hemingway as dreamed up by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris), his swiftness and organizational acumen are simply the result of incredible intelligence and a composer’s ear. Part Mahler’s Ninth, part NFL fullback, Bruce Smith energizes and invigorates in his best book to date.

Read a review here.

John Deming


15. I ♥ Your Fate, Anthony McCann

Wave Books

“And stood there all naked and human and shaking”

I ♥ Your Fate is as electrified as it is buttery, as glue-faced as it is full of angles and soul—constant surprises, the turnings of corners, trap doors, blinding sunrises, Samuel Taylor Coleridge!—why can I not just type out all of the poems here and call it a day?—alibis forever, the visitor’s locker room, which turns out to be a vagina—an interview with Kobe Bryant—O beautiful for “EAGLES/big as nouns,” “…something as thoughtful as chairs in the snow…”  I could go on forever.  It goes on forever.  Figuring and reconfiguring—and then it ends, leaving me to retrace my steps, with hope, looking forward to the next tracks. The thing is, I almost don’t believe these poems exist.

Read the full review here.

Matt Hart

 

16. The Nine Senses, Melissa Kwasny

Milkweed Editions

“If that is true, then whose soul is this?”

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Melissa Kwasny’s work is in the way it brings attention to how much power a poet can have in shaping perception. In the opening lines of the title poem in The Nine Senses, we are given a view of the start of day, as if all depth-of-field has been flattened by the eye of the speaker: “See how the morning light lies on the top planes of the Venetian blinds. And the tree, whole and shining, in the spaces between. Through the cracks, look. A simile, its little hinge.” From this point of view, the potential to re-open the conversation comes from less familiar ways of engaging:

The Sufis say the five senses are supplemented by four more. Curl of the living creek under the squabbling of birds, their breakfast talk, their famous comebacks. Taste of one’s tongue until there is coffee. Perhaps the extra four senses contribute to our sense of the surreal, as resolution of the real and the dream.

Throughout The Nine Senses, incidents of illumination occur outside of era or duration. Because of this lack of time-specificity, a personal urgency manifests instead of a historical one. The book’s refusal to be one thing or the other—not prose or poetry; not poetry or philosophy; not public or personal—represents the liminal spaces on which it reflects, those spaces at the threshold of sensation. While much of this book refutes the necessity of genre, a sense of frustration in one’s inability to be contained engenders its core tension. Kwasny’s poems are candid about the impossibility of removing oneself from one’s perception of the natural world, and her vision of this profound entanglement continues to be groundbreaking.

Read the full review here.

–Wendy S. Walters

 

17. I Want To Make You Safe, Amy King

Litmus Press

“…a lack of hate to push death into.”

Walt Whitman made us feel safe, calling that “death is great as life,” imparting that if we ever need him, we can find him. Amy King’s love is just as wide, her breath more modern. In I Want to Make You Safe, her best book yet, King is both warm and tactically evasive. She goes from conversational to abstract to personal with impressive fluidity, creating absorbing tones and swells in the course of a poem. Her methods will sometimes remind you of great poets like Rae Armantrout or Ange Mlinko, but runnier; she might also remind you of John Ashbery, who blurbs here, claiming King is “emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” He is right, and ultimately, any comparison is reductive. King wavers between obscurity and candor, creating a dissonance that is completely unique, that derives from a singularly productive and skeptical mix of unconditional love and ferocious social conscience: “Nothing desired is property, / nothing given, given, we lie in glass sheds.” Her book is not a self-serving venture, but a collective surge towards “a lack of hate to push death into.”

Read a review here.

John Deming


18. Threshold Songs, Peter Gizzi

Wesleyan University Press

“I am rooted but alive./ I am flowering and dying.”

Peter Gizzi’s friends and former students affectionately refer to him as “The GZA.”  No coincidence that Gizzi is nicknamed for a Wu-tang Clan member, as both the hip-hopper and poet are known for deft word-play, intelligence, high-minded lyricism. Threshold Songs provides all of these hallmark Gizzi traits, but also manages to be beautiful and poignant in its intimacy. As Charles Bernstein so eloquently wrote, “They are the soundtrack of a political and cultural moment whose echoic presence Gizzi makes as viscous as the ‘dark blooming surfs of winter ice.’” Gizzi is insistently absurd, relishing in moves that duck away from sense just as he is about to make it, lest he paint himself into a corner. But the poems always have heart, a brave, insistent music.

Read a full review here.

Steven Karl


19. Light-Headed, Matt Hart

BlazeVOX [books]

“Living in Cincinnati means rapture”

Light-Headed is Matt Hart’s most concentrated effort yet. He proves himself a versatile and imaginative formalist, his own innate, absurd energy finding forms, civilizing them, then busting their seams. Hart’s forte is an avalanche of musical anxiety that leads to a childlike, if consciously imagined, crystallization of hope. But much about this sequence of poems also involves ominous endings and flares of hard perspective. In the long poem “All the Hours We’re Awake,” the poem title serves as almost singsong regular refrain;  in between, Hart blends jagged sonic and mental associations with great agility. The poem concludes:

You wheeze and you grope.
You butterfly knife off the high board,
but praying. Where is my past life
to save me the most? The future
of damaging yellow-cake
uranium. I knew it, said the crocodile
harvesting egg yolks.
Peace is a difficult baby.

Read a review here.

John Deming


20. Applies to Oranges, Maureen Thorson

Ugly Duckling Presse

“We’ve all hid our feelings in the greenery”

Applies to Oranges is part escapist fantasy, part deadpan breakup book. Recurring images suggestive of private meaning — oranges, spiders, Zenith televisions — dip in and out, providing pulse while allowing the poet to effectively lament her loss. The title suggests the casual irony and wry wit with which the poet delivers every poem in her project. Don’t pity me, she seems to say, but acknowledge how ridiculous the whole picture is: people, food, televisions, relationships, breaking them.

Read a review here.

John Deming


21. Either Way I’m Celebrating, Sommer Browning

Birds, LLC

“I collect books found in celebrities’ bathrooms; so far/ my life sucks.”

Sommer Browning’s debut, Either Way I’m Celebrating, captures the awkwardness of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood, or more slyly, questions and redefines what it means to be an adult. The book contains comics, most of them “adult”-themed, poking fun at prude ideas of sex and bodily functions. Some of Browning’s poems are laugh-out-loud funny, like “Officer and a Gentleman,” which begins, “Movie. First word. Sounds like…making a box with/your hands…” There is also ample black humor, as in the poem, “When Christopher died I didn’t believe it,” and seriousness, as in “The Meat from the Dream the Heart Knows,” which concludes with “Pretty/ is the flimsiest word to describe how pretty we were on the fraying/ rope bridge. So pretty. So pretty. So pretty.” Either Way I’m Celebrating is smart, funny, deliciously dark, absurd and filled with compassion. Or maybe Browning said it best in the poem, “Notes About Art Pepper”: “Something he said, tender harshness./ A child pulls a dandelion out of soil. A row of wind-crooked trees/ becomes unbearable. Want to hear a great knock-knock joke?/ Ok, you start.”

Read a review here.

Steven Karl


22. Utopia Minus, Susan Briante

Ahsahta Press

“…in the highest breath of atmosphere”

Throughout Susan Briante’s new collection, there is a lot of attention given to  nature and the manmade world, but there is often a sense of disconnection or distance—a demonstrated ability to be aware of nature, but to be separate from it, which is perhaps yet another way in which we’re ruined. Human life often feels hollow here—reading the circulars stuck in the screen door—while nature threatens: “It will get us.” There is a great sense of foreboding, dread, and threat in this collection, portraying what it feels like to be alive during a time of endless war. In deft images, Briante is able to capture this mood. In a short poem, “December,” “Pigeons ascend to high voltage cables,” is at once a familiar and an ominous image.

Read the full review here.

Gina Meyers


23. June, Daniel Brenner

Fence Books

“In the flood’s wake / Myths drench / & defend us”

Daniel Brenner’s second book is one of the most addictive reads around. Brenner is a puzzle-maker and works with the same compressed, highly efficient abstractions that typified his excellent first book, The Stupefying Flashbulbs. Poems in both books seem like chips off some invisible, tragicomic whole. All are short, sometimes with the density of a list of ingredients: “Retinal / Aftertastes / Bring candy / 2 radioactive reeds / Books / Burn or are buried.” The compression is robotic but sensitive, sometimes arriving at unexpectedly cinematic passages like this one from “Heat”:

Evil blood I know you are the
Night we put under
To light our wet windows
To advertise our heat
Mud flakes on the hardwood
Whiskey floor title reversal
Whirlpool window war animals
Hot rivers swollen
With rain

You begin to recognize the same energy in similar, deceptively on guard passages. June also hints more at narrative arc than Brenner’s first book, making it a magnet for re-reads, new understandings, recontextualizations.

Read a review here.

–John Deming

 

24. Red Missed Aches, Read Missed Aches, Red Mistakes, Read Mistakes, Jennifer Tamayo

Switchback Books

“[M]y immigrant ecstasies are / knots nestled behind / the sutures”

Jennifer Tamayo’s debut is fueled with a feminist DIY punk aesthetic weaving in and out of narratives which explore the “body” as well as personal and cultural identity. Tamayo layers her fragmented poems with complexity by mixing in English, Spanish, and Spanglish, moving from elevated language to guttural yawps as a means of exploring and ultimately contesting borders and barriers.

Read a review here.

Steven Karl

 

25. The Bigger World, Noelle Kocot

Wave Books

“There is no other life.”

As the title suggests, this is a book of amplification, which I mean both as the act of making something larger and also as the process of artificial, large-scale reproduction of DNA sequences. These poems are ontological; they are clear windows on a world that is brittle and elegant. From “Fugue”:

The building gleamed
In the midday rain. The cats
Ate their turkey dinner. She
Screened phone call after
Phone call. A wild loneliness
Descended like a flock of
Robins drained of their red.

The Bigger World is self-identified as a book of character poems; each poem has its own unique, unrepeated cast, and this cast animates and is animated by Kocot’s imagination, a la James Tate in Return to the City of White Donkeys and The Ghost Soldiers. One poem in this book tells us about Jelka, a woman who lives in an MRI machine for a few months. Another describes how Jim once had a tricycle accident but is now a butterfly. But these poems resist these kinds of futile synopses. Something big and full of light and pressure lives inside them.

Read the full review here.

Nick Sturm


26. Twin Cities, Carol Muske-Dukes

Penguin Books

“Sometimes I wake up / In somebody else’s night”

Twin Cities is Carol Muske-Dukes’s first poetry book since 2004′s National Book Award-nominated Sparrow, a series of poems that elegized her husband, the actor David Dukes. Twin Cities occupies spaces of grief as well as joy with a constant sense of purpose and serious agenda.  The poems assert that the self is multiple and is forever dividing into a series of disparate selves. This division is replicated in many objects and images throughout the book: “A tree divided. It grew like that— / Its slender trunk suddenly forking” and “City and City and // River and river of this, my Ever-Dividing Reflection.” These poems are effigies of the speaker’s world, little mirrors reflecting: “You could fail accurately at describing/ Your own life.”

Read a review here.

Melinda Wilson

 

27. The Blue Tower, Tomaž Šalamun

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“The paint has peeled off. / The walls are heavy and wide.”

The most recent collection from Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, The Blue Tower presents poems that are simultaneously biting and blithe: “Death is a ceramic. A Montesquiourous /           dog shits in it” and “stroke a dolphin, sometimes set Armenia on fire.” Šalamun’s poems straddle a seemingly fine border between real and surreal. There are concealed horrors in all of them, yet they preserve a perfect ambiguity. The poet appeals to strangeness and peculiar juxtapositions instead of emotion, and indulges in the pleasures of language without drowning in them.

Read a review here.

Melinda Wilson

 

28. The Grief Performance, Emily Kendal Frey

Cleveland State University Press

“I am not/ as beautiful as that/ terrarium”

The Grief Performance is an enchanting book. Frey’s voice seduces you into a world that is at times hilarious and at times heart-achingly sad.  Most of Frey’s poems consist of short lines, and like Rae Armantrout, Frey is able to pack a lot into a little space: “Elves, backyard pit barbeque, lilacs, / termites in the backseat: / the sum of it makes a person / want to: lemons, lemons, lemons.” They are like orchids, beautiful upon first sight but so delicate and intricate upon closer inspection. You’ll memorize these poems and chant them in your dreams.

Read a review here.

Steven Karl


29. The Trees The Trees, Heather Christle

Octopus Books

“life is very easy     you just have to memorize it     in/ advance…”

In her second book, Heather Christle continues her trademark absurd glances, imaginative lines and astounding wit. At times dark and always ecstatic, Christle has written a book that is filled with wonder, humor, and surprise, connecting personally with the reader by acknowledging an inability to truly do so: “either you are reading / or I am / statistics favor you / it seems unfair / you get the living hands.” Her frantic enthusiasm is contagious.

Read a review here.

Steven Karl

 

30. One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t, Jacqueline Waters

Ugly Duckling Presse

“It was anxiety that led me to love”

Abstract and dream-like, the poems in One Sleeps, The Other Doesn’t deal with diverse and often heavy subjects—death, spirituality, suffering, war, greed—but they do so using the scaffolding of familiar and light-hearted stories such as Groundhog Day. “Objects come / hold up their secondary merit / to your primary gaze / drop on you the leisure / of moments of suffering,” writes Waters. The poems flow down the page, sometimes spanning the length of many pages, but they move openly and swiftly. Like Joshua Beckman’s best long poems, these poems breath; they waver between frankness, coyness, digression and wonder, and make for an absorbing, immersive read.

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Melinda Wilson