Top 40 Poetry Books of 2012 [30-21]


top 40 poetry books of 2012


[40 – 31] — 1/7/13

[30 – 21] — 1/14/13

[20 – 11] — 1/21/13

[10 – 1] — 1/28/13


[30 – 21]


30. The Fact of the Matter, Sally Keith

Milkweed Edtions

“Salt was exploding all over the sea.”

The universe is eternal, our experience of it limited by an infinite barrage of disparate forces, Sally Keith admonishes in The Fact of the Matter. The ocean supplies the perfect metaphor. It is “marvelous less / because of the waves’/  monotonous motion, or / any other character / of composition, color / or shape, but for the sense / inherent in endlessness.” The forces at work in the ocean aren’t unlike the forces of society, the forces within the body, the forces of the mind. They are always seeping into each other, facilitating and interrupting each other: “In 1621 / Johannes Kepler / switches out ‘soul’ / for ‘force.’” Opting out of this system is impossible; even ambivalence to existence is a “force”: “To be ambivalent is not / the fault of the body but rather a natural condition…Force is that which changes / the moment of rest or alters the motion of a body in a line.” If a “line” includes metaphorical possibilities like steadiness, stream, even peace, Keith maneuvers deliberately, favoring a tendency toward terse, declarative sentences, end-stopped lines, longer-lined poems, and a string of classical allusions. She limns the space between interruption and peace, hinting that the breaking of patterns and the development of new patterns are essential to our experience of reality: “My marriage would be an error. / Everybody knew. Still we passed the time with wondering / into how many shapes a body could go.”

–John Deming

29. Exit, Civilian, Idra Novey

University of Georgia Press

“…new prisoners line up outside a pair of doors, enter one at a time.”

Exit, Civilian, chosen by Patricia Smith for the National Poetry Series, examines the psychological and physical landscapes associated with prison life. While pointing to problem areas such as overcrowding, reintegration after release, judgment and sentencing of juveniles, and corrupt legal infrastructures, Idra Novey extends her discussion to confinements of all kinds. Our numerous and inevitable limitations emerge as a kind of status quo, and help produce behaviors that deepen our confinement, both literally and figuratively. Yet Novey maintains a cautiously hopeful tone. As the speaker of “Meanwhile the Watermelon Seed” notes, despite the constant influx of new prisoners, “the world / seems repairable and temporarily right.” In the face of imprisonment, Novey’s poems contain soothing imagery and encourage attention to small details, the  “buttercups and mittens,” small points of hope in a world of “little prisons.”

–Melinda Wilson 

28. Mother Was a Tragic Girl, Sandra Simonds

Cleveland State University Poetry Center

“Self Four says, / “Can’t touch the repressed poem with / its suburban address and Dracula cargo / of sucked flesh…” ”

In Mother Was a Tragic Girl, Sandra Simonds uses fluid, high voltage language to disrupt the orderly notion of a speaking self. We change from moment to moment, so why shouldn’t the “person” behind the poem alter from line to line, even as s/he accumulates? The result is a compelling vision of the self as a thing in flux, grappling with responsibility, desire, and social and historical context. The characters in Simonds’ poems frequently struggle with a forced anonymity: instead of having names, they go by a title or function, like “Wife,” “Dog,” “Pediatrician,” “Mother.” At the same time that these identities are constrained, however, the poems speak with forceful, often violent personality, splashing across the page, doubling over on themselves, prizing histrionics and sudden changes of register above the controlled order of a consistent voice. A study of a poem by Wislawa Szymborska can come just lines after “his wife’s band / drugged my husband / with PCP-laced walnut / cookies about ten / years ago in Dallas.” Diction shifts and flips; the sensational lurks around every corner.

Jay Deshpande


27. Vanitas, Rough, Lisa Russ Spaar

Persea Books

“Is courage artifice?”

Lisa Russ Spaar’s chiseled diction and nimble command of vocabulary ennoble her subjects in ways that are both sensual and cerebral. Her furiously compact, classically restrained poems arrive at weighty moral fulcrums after astonishing flights of virtuosity: “Apricot pendulum lyre ticking// in the locust, blue fieldstones/ of the crumbling fence, old crush// on the world whose beauty I’ve always feared/ to see directly—will that leave me, too…” It’s all earned, and formally packed with such adroitness that her numinous, soul-destroying gestures gust backwards through the lines preceding them.  Strong accoutrement, at once worldly and other-, greets the reader front and center, as in this opening volley: “triangular glasses, brumal volts, gin, / frescade of pearls, plucked, sunned olives.”

Peter Longofono

26. Fjords, Vol. 1, Zachary Schomburg

Black Ocean

“From the very beginning I knew exactly what would kill me.”

 Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords vol. 1 is a continued offering of the distinct, tight, surreal, and prosaic Schomburg voice. His poems distort the domestic and daily, and in their best moments offer all-too-human trains of thought, though exaggerated, in which simple objects like shirts and refrigerators become epic provocations. Schomburg is playfully combative at times (“I climbed a mountain and fucked it into the sea”), but seriously questions what validates life: “I’m afraid we’ll never make it like this to any actual ending, that we’ll just keep on living forever after everyone gives up and goes home.” An increased focus on mortality binds this collection and makes it riveting.

Seth Graves

25. China Cowboy, Kim Gek Lin Short

Tarpaulin Sky Press

“I want to scream. But I don’t. I ask myself // what would Patsy Cline do?”

China Cowboy follows the “Hong Kong wannabe cowgirl La La” and her “dysfunctional relationship with her kidnapper, Ren.” La La dreams of being a country star, and develops her alter ego, “Patsy Clone,” as a child. Her country ideal is a fantasy that, like most fantasies, is just an escape mechanism. And she has plenty to escape from. Her relationship with Ren, which will make you think of Humbert Humbert and Lolita, is horrific on every level; Ren is a violent, manipulative, narcissistic pedophile, and Gek Lin Short spares no detail (“La La sees something in Ren’s pants she thinks of mollusks.”). But her writing is as savage as it is entertaining, and her ambitious story–while bleak–is a marvel of modern storytelling, full of blunt, memorable verses. Her rapid fire lines cluster clauses with optional punctuation and transmit a general sense of unease, compulsiveness, and fear: “No one sees the man behind her a cowboy an American tall thin wiping his face with a blue bandana. Even though his wounds are healed he wipes. No one sees how the bandana turns red even though his wounds are healed, it is miraculous, but no one sees it.” Gek Lin Short has crafted characters whose stories will haunt you long after you finish the book, and will more than likely draw you back for another read.

Read an interview with Kim Gek Lin Short here.

John Deming & Steven Karl

24. Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless, Matt Hart

Typecast Publishing

“The sun beams down     The earth / shoots up”

Matt Hart’s newest is as furious as ever. These poems confront the relationship between the daily and the eternal in a sea of rock history. It’s certainly relentless: long-breathed long lines with internal line breaks that mimic a quick, violent performative breath. Hart is our poet in love with everything (“Intention doesn’t matter when intention’s contradiction/ The lingerie model under water in spring         I love my love/ the way it fires”). His inimitable energy towards and in the poetic shines in the book’s final chapter, “Blood Brothers and Weird Sisters” (“I too will learn to speak with unconditional directness/ to anyone and everyone who will hear it in the music./ My name is strawberry, and I go to bed whistling.”). The book serves as a sort of meandering power-scramble on music history, and the whole thing is a full-hearted unchained melody.

Seth Graves

23. Grand & Arsenal, Kerri Webster

University of Iowa Press

“Bless me I am not myself. These days.”

Kerri Webster fuses the importance of place with the cognate manmade redundancies of the American landscape: big suburban infrastructural grandiosities (“On cruise control we drove the saint’s/ wide avenue”), big Walgreens (“Folly becomes us, the end of empire uncomfortable and strange, in the Walgreens’ parking lot always someone with hand outstretched and I am stretched inside”), big Wal-Mart, big pork chops, big sky (“The sky gets in my clothes./The fireplace stars/small apocalypses./Across the sea,/the goldsmith rubs her eyes.”). Webster’s poems are fiery and verbose. She injects the biblical-apocalyptic into the seeming mendacity of chain stores, thrift shops, big skies, and small airports. Her concerns become an unfamiliar kind of unease, her sonic chops and twists always juxtaposed with the expansiveness of her subjects of place, imbuing the fear that these days, folks can willingly accept an imitation for the natural.

Seth Graves

22. ROTC Kills, John Koethe

Harper Perennial

“The day is wide and meaningless.”

“The memory doesn’t matter,” John Koethe confides in “Watchful Waiting,” the immersive long poem that closes ROTC Kills: “what matters is the interval / It restores to life, the feeling of abstracted time made tangible,  / Of duration without any destination, of a sense of a life.” The accumulations of a life–memories, objects, a body that has aged without compromise–are perpetual reminders of the absurd notion that time passes at all, as we live our lives “dimensionless, atemporal, imprisoned in the present.” Koethe, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisonsin-Milwaukee, balances his cerebral postulations with an elastic, conversational tone. The poet is warm and inviting, constant analyzing the moment and finding himself shocked to be alive, to be part of a system in which we experience only “figments of perspective, of a point of view from which the time is always now, the place is always here, and the thought of something hiding underneath the surface a seductive spell.” Koethe’s work is important because he finds the perpetual trappings of time, including dying, puzzling and spectacular. The poet checks in with himself and finds he has grown older; he assures himself that he is closer than ever to his death, but that the day is just as “wide” as ever, ripe with possibility for new experience: “Shit,” he says to Diane in “Watchful Waiting,” “We could go to Vegas.”

John Deming

21. The Glimmering Room, Cynthia Cruz

Four Way Books

“Strange sister // Walk into the white sun / With me.”

The Glimmering Room opens with a poem called “Kingdom of Dirt,” in which a “waste land” landscape takes shape. In the poem, the speaker asserts that death is “Disguised inside me, already.” Images of destruction, death and illness dominate the pages of Cruz’s collection. Some poems also hint at sexual abuses inflicted by church clergy. In one poem, Brother Rainer tells the speaker, a young girl of eleven, “Women…/ should offer sex to men.” Cruz’s is a world of abuse, drugs, sex, poverty and desperation. Somehow, though, the poems yield beauty: “Her loneliness is so brutal, / It is beautiful,” and as Cruz disseminates cruel truths, she empowers. Here’s the entirety of “Notes on the Disaster”:

Tore the plastic tubes from my arms.
I still have the scars and I walked
Right out of that place. I say
If I’m going down, then I’ll do
The killing –-

–Melinda Wilson