Top 40 Poetry Books of 2012 [10-1]

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top 40 poetry books of 2012

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[40 – 31] — 1/7/13

[30 – 21] — 1/14/13

[20 – 11] — 1/21/13

[10 – 1] — 1/28/13

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[10 – 1]

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10. Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, Hannah Gamble

Fence Books

“Listen. Come over: the cold has already eaten / the summer.”

Hannah Gamble’s breakfast originates in the humble, the domestic tradition: you begin in your apartment kitchen staring at the toaster, you fly out the window, you end up rifling your past and shaking your head at all the little versions of you. You finish at “a world where every love scene / begins with a man in a doorway.” Gamble is direct, observant, and quietly biting. Despite the poet’s charm and familiarity, though, she isn’t foolhardy. There are moments where she grinds her teeth at loss and wound, understating its impact. A quiet comic, she notes her dismay like this: “everything / that’s alive stays that way / by tearing heat from another’s belly.” Spending time with Gamble at breakfast is like a living in a Bruegel version of contemporary Chicago: workers, children, folklore, snow, dentists, Teflon pans. Gamble’s poems express origin stories, births, various apparitions of mothers and fathers; they are fairy-tales for slightly off-kilter little boys and girls. In them you will be handed onions and potatoes, houseplants, cats, “egg after egg after egg.” I haven’t had many better meals this year.

Amanda Smeltz

9. Further Adventures in Monochrome, John Yau

Copper Canyon Press

“…when meaning retreats before every attempt / to give it a face”

There is a distinct freedom lurking behind John Yau’s Further Adventures in Monochrome. It is rooted in the poet’s sense that many aspects of the way we exist are arbitrary, including the languages we speak: “yes, we took these words, / gulped them down, knowing they were not ours, / and used them.” The poet is irreverent but patient, often breaking from patterns and adhering to newly formed ones in a single clip. He allows himself great creative freedom; the 23rd section of his exquisite 44-part poem “Ghengis Chan: Private Eye” is a sequence that is its own 30-part “Haiku Logbook” of three-line poems that do not follow a prescribed syllabic pattern. In Yau, there is a great tension between how much of existence is mandated and how much can be remade by simple acts of the imagination: “I made materials that I dreamed up.” If words are made up, what else is made up? The poet gives himself power of declaration–“I went out and began winter”–but also brings himself back to the world of people: “In the meantime, I promise / to stop being a butterfly / long enough to learn / the names of endangered flowers.” Despite the great variety of works in this book, a similar face hides behind each poem. Sometimes it comes by way of a Buddhist tranquility (“Every Friday I carry home a small bird // Upon which I lavish all my attention // Neither green nor red hilltops lure me // I do not speculate about ceaseless wonders”) and sometimes at a barrage of sage advice and agitated association (“Once you’ve experienced / how profitable and simple it is / to develop your own digital identity, / you’ll probably forget / that you ever existed as anything else. / My hind leg raised / I am an ant peeing in your syrup.”). But there is constant affection for the willful testing of constraints, and the peace that comes from discovering freedoms you didn’t know were there.

John Deming

 

8. Nice Weather, Frederick Seidel

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

“Life is inherently unfair. / I don’t care.”

There is probably room in poetry for one Frederick Seidel, tops. He’s filthy rich, and he loves to make blood boil, both in spite of and because of this. In the poem “At the Knick,” he opens, “My lining is reversible. I turn the Seidel sackcloth inside out and there’s / The city and the evening and the Knickerbocker Club, / On whose posh porch across from Central Park who really cares: / It’s summer and it’s evening and we’re smoking fine cigars!” All right, Mr. Seidel. He plays at racism and sexism, always antagonizing, dishing out morally crap and totally verbose personae. And yet, there is always a sense that if you take his machinations too seriously, you are the butt of the joke. Remember that the poet is Jewish, for example, when reading these lines: “Patent leather makes my shoes / Easter eggs by Fabergé. / The shoes say New York is still run by the Jews, / Who glitter when they walk, and aren’t going away.” Nice Weather is full of willful reminders that nothing is sacred, which in itself would not be so successful a notion if not for the fact that the poet offers a sonic, rhythmic, and comic goldmine: the Seidel standard of jarring lines in rhyme and turn. He’s got a poem about HPV, a disease that “Would seem to require us / To abjure oral relations, / Nutritious sixty-nine, the yodeling muff-divings and fellations.” So: “Stick to intercourse, / Though it’s not safe either, of course. / Ride a horse.” He is misanthropic as Philip Larkin, elite as Mr. Burns, and funny as hell; sometimes, he even betrays a nostalgic intimacy: “I love the future I won’t live to see. I don’t know why. / And don’t even know if it’s true. / Maybe I’ve already lived to see the future.” For a good and meaningful kick in the face—in here are extremely valuable conversations about age and beauty, wealth, political affiliation and humanism, and simply what ultimately matters about living—read the book. Just don’t invite him to your kid’s birthday party…unless he’s buying?

Seth Graves

7. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, David Ferry

University of Chicago Press

“Had I gone down into the world of the dead?”

“What am I doing inside this old man’s body?” David Ferry asks in “Soul.” “I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster, / All thought and all digestion…” The poet’s body has become an absurd exoskeleton; he sees “From here inside myself, my waving claws / Inconsequential, wavering, and my feelers / Preternatural, trembling…” The poem ends in remembrance of a lost lobster: “Where is it that she has gone to, as / The cold sea water’s washing over my back?” It becomes all the more moving when one remembers that Bewilderment is dedicated to the literary scholar Anne Ferry, David Ferry’s wife of nearly 50 years, who died in 2006. Ferry, who will turn 90 next year, fills Bewilderment with ghosts. Even his translations, seamlessly interspersed, seem like a way of communing with the poets of the past. Yet the poet seems conscious that these ghosts exist only in his mind: “Unable to know is a condition I’ve lived in / All my life,” he tells us in “Resemblance,” a poem in which he purports to see his deceased father “in that restaurant / On Central Avenue in Orange, New Jersey.” Somehow, the book never comes across as morbid, but instead as one of the more inspiring and bewildered assessments of mortality to come along in a while. David Ferry is wise: “…there is a silence that we / Are all of us forbidden to cross, not only / The silence that divides the dead from the living, / But, antecedent to that, is it the silence / There is between the living and the living, / Unable to reach across that silence through / The baffling light there always is between us?” Ferry performs the impossible task of making us okay with death for awhile without trivializing loss. His book is a gift.

Read Dan Chiasson’s review at The New Yorker.

John Deming

6. To Keep Love Blurry, Craig Morgan Teicher

BOA Editions

“I was alone inside a book as I’d wished.”

With To Keep Love Blurry, we open a world of poems that ask obsessive questions of choice and consequence. These are poems of an interior that reimagines the past, pays tribute to predecessors, and above all, values frankness above artifice. “I don’t want to be so mad at my wife,” Teicher writes in “Layoff.” Concerns and confessions take on a variety of forms, especially rhyming sonnets, and remain unforced and unhampered: “Even what was left of me wasn’t. / My bones were as brittle as a text, religious, with no teacher. / Looking back, there was no future, no future.” His formal dexterity and ease of confession recall Robert Lowell, who is summoned in “Confession” (“No one loves a truly self-loathing lad, / though one and all are charmed / by a man’s interest in his own evil”). In the sonnet “Father,” the poet channels his father’s voice: “There are no big answers, no revelations. / Isn’t my life proof enough that anything I hid / I lost? I’ll die, and so will you, without explanations.” The poems are severe in their honesty, which makes them riveting. In “Fame,” he lies awake at night, fearing for his wife and disabled son (“who will take care of him when Brenda and I are dead?”). Teicher revitalizes formal autobiographical verse in this collection and earns a hard-won conclusion in “Grief: A Celebration”: “Death has earned the key to every city. For who else / tends to all of the sick? Who else takes // in the old? Who else wants us all? / Not even our mothers. In fact, / only death always keeps its promise.”
–Jamie Edlin

5. Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Copper Canyon Press

“Don’t let him find / us, Cal. Don’t let him find us again.”

In the stunning Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy confronts the realities of raising a child born with serious disabilities. The result is her best, most important, most imaginative, and most personal work to date. It also contains an indisputedly major poem. Thick for a single volume, in terms of its overall structure, Our Andromeda is redolant of Seamus Heaney’s classic Seeing Things. The earlier portions of the volume presage/prefigure/build towards a long poem at the end, a poem that is necessarily long because its undertaking is large and necessarilyat the end because it represents the poet’s most difficult undertaking. “Our Andromeda” is a large and single and all-important poetic task: “When we get to Andromeda, Cal, / you’ll have the babyhood you deserved.” In terms of page-length, it isn’t half of the book, but it weighs like half.  Its final pages carry the volume as a whole to a conclusion much more profound than your average lyric or narrative exit, and the conclusion it comes to, when earned over 30 pages of utterly honest work, amounts to a revelation. It shocked me how real the light was at the end of this poem, and at the end of this book.  Arriving there was the 2012 highlight of my poetry consumption.

–Matthew Yeager

4. Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Patricia Smith

Coffee House Press

“cause Diana said Make sure it gleamsno matter what it is.”

In Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Patricia Smith focuses on the mid-century migration of African-Americans from south to north while skillfully touching on issues of family, race, sexuality, and music. The book exhibits a poet not only talented in her craft, but passionate about subjects that push the personal beyond the self and into the realm of the social and political. In the title poem, even the young poet in Chicago can’t escape the influence of her mother’s Alabama. Though her father would secretly call her “Jimi Savannah,” her mother “scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins / of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield / and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap / of it.”  In this first section, by focusing on her parents (especially her mother) and the family’s connection to the South, Smith sets up the tension between north and south, mother and daughter, youth and age, that accumulate to an eventual breaking point. The experience of music becomes central to the poet’s experience of a complicated world, reflected on from a matured perspective; she remembers The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, seeing them as flawed heroes (“Little did we know that they’d condemn / us to live so tethered to the ground / while every song they sang told us to wait”) whose contributions could make all the difference: “The Temps, all swerve and pivot, conjured schemes / that had us skipping school, made us forget / how mamas schooled us hard against the threat / of five-part harmony and sharkskin seams.” The result is a whole-cloth remembrance, lament, and celebration that is not to be missed.

Read the full review here.

Nick DePascal

3. Snowflake / Different Streets, Eileen Myles

Wave Books

“This is the emerging / possibility of writing / this way”

Eileen Myles’s latest collection is actually two collections starting on opposite sides and ending in the middle. They are very intended as distinct books, as each is rendered in a different font. We even know when they were finished relative to each other: Snowflake is subtitled “New Poems” and Different Streets “Newer Poems.” Yet something about the way the poet’s chopped and fragmented lines limn her psyche in both, the way the two excellent books interlock, makes for one of the strangest and greatest occasions of poetry this year. As a whole, the project is a clean, aesthetic accomplishment. In Snowflake, Myles presents a narrow highway full of chiaroscuro (“storms are bright”) to encapsulate a narrator’s conscious dictation on a road trip. She writes in jolting, skinny, interrupted lines: the emerging / possibility of writing / this way / down a thimble of / a street with a cake of a / view.” Her poems are full of lament, but nearly soul-searching for distraction: “who threw / a snowball / against the / glass / and scared / me in my seat /so hot /with rage / why am I dry /freezing /I want to go /home”). The work cumulates like long stretches of daydreaming; moments melt into each other, become re-worked, and exhausted: “we’re everything / else. And it’s ours. And I / love you in the blind spot.” In Different Streets, too, she constructs things one piece at a time, like placing beads on a string: “The new poems / are poems of / healing. / But first I’ll / be funny.” The poems in this sequence are redemptive, powerful and patient; over the course of the two books, she turns from lament to love ode–always in the process of doubting and figuring, but finally concluding that “we’re everything / else. And it’s ours.”

Molly Gallentine

2. Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys, D.A. Powell

Graywolf Press

“The place where they begin. Therefore, belong.”

D.A. Powell channels the “merciful present tense” and absorbs every landscape in his new book: “fragile, flecked with nimbleweed, / and so alone, / it almost welcomed its own ravishment.” The result is a lust for open engagement with the physical world not unlike Whitman’s. It is an escape, sure, but brings great peace and open possibilities for metaphor: “Persimmons ripen with the first frost. / The bitterness inflicted on them / takes their bitterness away. // Would that there were some other way.” Change is constant in every landscape. “The weather changed little,” Powell says, “but it has changed irrevocably.” He keys in on the urge to access now,  to experience now, while something is as it will never be again. It’s a losing battle, and the poet knows this, which is a significant part of his appeal: “I’ve already pieced it out in my head: / there’s almost nothing to go back to.” In another poem,  he laments, “Love, when it’s truly sorry, is sorrier than a broke-dick dog.” Kevin Prufer called his first three books, Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails, a “harrowing and beautiful trilogy” confronting the AIDS epidemic. His fourth book, Chronic, deepened the exploration and led to numerous honors, including the Kingsley Tufts Award. Powell changes pace in some ways with his new book; for one, he abandons his one-word titles for two separate titles: Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys. Formally, this book is a also  a departure–he abandons the long, unpunctuated lines that were the hallmark of his earlier work in favor of taut lines, poems that look more traditionally like “poems.” His familiar music shines through as he jumps from persona to persona, employing a feverish wit and intractable sexuality: “I’d blow the devil if he offered. Apparently he did.” Powell has always amazed with his ability to achieve a charmed state of Zen in the midst of, and as a defense against, chaos–“My undesirable body, you’re all  I have to fiddle with.” He emerges in this book as a guide, someone with hard-earned lessons–“The first knot doesn’t count. / You’re bound to fuck it up.”–who we learn to count on for release, who we’ll follow anywhere: “Triumph over death with me. And we’ll divide the air.”

John Deming

1. Engine Empire, Cathy Park Hong

W.W. Norton

“And this is what I saw.”

One of the best things about Engine Empire is how improbable a book it seems while you are reading it. The first section is set in the boomtowns of the west, the second in present-day industrial China, and the third in the tech-cloud of the near-future. The poet performs an incredible balancing act. The sections are set in ostensibly dissimilar times, but each correspondingly betrays an era of human “progress” as a giant lateral step—boom and bust, boom and bust—where metaphysical longing remains a constant. The poet, though, is not stern or humorless. She glories in the exotic human animal while exhibiting its flaws and contradictions (“Recall the frontier inside us when the business / of memory booms”). Human hubris manifests itself in an addiction to expansion and ever-promising frontiers, be they the American west, urban Chinese industry, the tunnels of technology. It is our perpetual distraction, the coping mechanism of animals who know for certain they will die one day and don’t know what else to do. The settings of her poems are as central as the characters, and they serve as stages from which to build playful, durable poems. Hong covers a staggering amount of ground in a short space. She jumps around formally and stylistically, including ballad sequences, prose poems, free verse, an abecedarian, a sonnet, an aubade, and some lipograms. It is a virtuosic performance that never takes itself seriously enough to become drab or pedantic. In Hong’s future, “minds flood into minds,” and pop-up ads blow by like leaves, leaving the average citizen “half transparent / with depression.” She has crafted an incredibly human book by looking beyond her personal suffering and into the contradictions that drive the human animal.  It is a chance to find the world hysterical, but from a position of empathy that does not undermine the suffering we experience—suffering that, like beauty, is sometimes human-generated, and sometimes simply a mark of our reality.

Read the full review here.

–John Deming