Top 40 Poetry Books of 2013 [20 – 11]

walker coldfront


top 40 poetry books of 2013

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[40 – 31] — 1/1/14

[30 – 21] — 1/8/14

[20 – 11] — 1/15/14

[10 – 1] — 1/22/14

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[20 – 11]

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20. It Becomes You, Dobby Gibson

Graywolf Press

“…the black of the black in space.”

Above and beyond the primal challenge of writing while child-rearing, Dobby Gibson manages to clinch that wait, I’m a parent now? twinge with verve in his third collection, It Becomes You. The title generously provides a roadmap or touchstone for the poems within—again and again, we find ourselves unpacking two of the phrase’s key resonances:

1. It suits you, it fits you.

2. That which was termed “it” familiarizes into “you,” the addressed/beloved.

Both convey accustomization, that elusive, half-desired engine rumbling beneath many of Gibson’s pieces. He can’t decide (and why should he?) if he’s satisfied or mystified by his own fulfillment of patterns, by the haunt of wry predictability that can define adulthood. The poems here are controlled detonations set off by potent turns where for an exhilirating moment, the narrative becomes us. It probably has something to do with his career in advertising, which fact doesn’t escape Gibson’s scrutiny:

First we invent stuff,
then we invent stuff to make that stuff,
freeing up our time to worry about what to do next
and what kind of lifestyle to do it in,
the paint engineers creating a new hue
to give lovers another reason to argue,
the white of the moon in space,
the black of the space in space.

It would be too easy to impute his thousand-yard stare to some innate Midwestern weltschmerz, though he rivals Cummings in rhapsodizing snow and gives the nod to fellow flyover states. It’s more a baffled stock-taking: is this it? Are we familiar enough with it to call it you?

Read the full review here.

Buy this book.

Peter Longofono

19. Milk and Filth, Carmen Giménez Smith

University of Arizona Press

“in the long term shadow of this body and its vacuum”

Carmen Giménez Smith’s fourth collection, Milk & Filth, addresses the inherently complex evolution of feminism through a variety of lenses, including mythology and lore, fables, cultural heritage and history. The collection’s provocative title harbors a paradox that appears central to these poems. Milk is deemed both nourishment and impurity. One cannot help but think of the recent attacks on public breastfeeding for context. While scientific research tells women to breastfeed, that a mother’s milk is invaluable to her child, our cultural standards often treat the act as though it were a form of smut. And “milk” as a verb means to tap or exploit, which suggests something perhaps fundamental to the condition of women.

These poems are “ripe with female climate.” “Parts of an Autobiography,” a centerpiece to the collection, reads as a feminist manifesto a la Mina Loy. Not intimidated by society’s often misogynistic stance, Giménez Smith confronts issues of domesticity and parenthood with refreshing candor: “I’m the Shitty Parent, I’m a Shitty Parent. I write my reparations but don’t back off from the art. I’ll be the one that teaches my children about complicated people.” And from “[And the Mouth Lies Open]”: “My alternate reality is a dimension / where a psychiatrist stares dumb / at my bosom while we talk about / drowning in the suds of dish rags.” The speaker in these poems is forthright, even when what she says is a direct criticism of herself: “I’m useless. Watch me suffocate.” Her speaker takes cues from Plath and Sexton, but also alludes to Frost and Stevens. Giménez Smith’s speaker is as complex as the issues she treats.

Buy this book.

–Melinda Wilson

18. The Hotel Oneira, August Kleinzahler

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

“Ask any ghost along the Hackensack.”

August Kleinzahler has a rare ability to see the epic within the ordinary, and his meditations are as vivid and affecting as ever in The Hotel Oneira, his first book of all new poems in a decade. (Some new poems also appeared in Sleeping It Rapid City: New and Selected Poems, which was published in 2008 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.) The book opens with its title poem, which is set in the poet’s native north Jersey; the narrator watches a train in the early morning hours and “unaccountably” remembers his Uncle Istvan:

This has been going on quite a lot since I’m here.
How is it that I remember him? I saw him but the one time
and was a very small child, at that:
the madras Bermudas, the foreign, almost spastic gestures?
What is in those railcars is also inside my head,
or I imagine it so–no, not imagine, know.

Serious attention to the outer landscape yields revelations from within, and the poet’s alertness to both make him captivating throughout the whole of The Hotel Oneira. There is curiosity generated from within the mind, but also about the thinking mind, its unpredictability, and its place in whatever landscape it occupies.

Kleinzahler, also a jazz critic and music aficionado, continues his “History of Western Music” series in this book with separate installments focused on bebop jazz and Whitney Houston. In November 2012, he told POS Blog, “I don’t play music in conjunction with my writing, for which I require silence to hear the music in my own head and in the word-sounds and cadences, etc. I don’t use music ‘to get in the mood’ for writing. That said, music, most assuredly percolates into the writing, but in ways that are somewhat mysterious to me, or, at least, unconscious.” The poem focused on bebop provides some “Syncopated commotion”: “BOMBA-GA-BONGA-GA-BUM-GUM- / GA-HUBBLE-BUBBLE-SAMBA.” With all the trains and drums, it seems Kleinzahler likes losing himself in noise. But even the quietest poems in The Hotel Oneira show an exceptionally tuned ear and an ability to sculpt lines according to sound and syntax in a manner sometimes reminiscent of the more coded verses of Robert Lowell. And the book, whatever its variety of modes and characters, proceeds with a consistency of tone wherein the poet takes serious care and resists taking things for granted.  “It has all turned out better than we probably dared hope,” he concludes. “It frightens me, just this moment, to say so.”

Buy this book.

John Deming

17. Red Doc>, Anne Carson

Knopf

“Nothing was happening in my life.”

Anne Carson’s 1998 book Autobiography of Red, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, tells the story of Geryon, a winged red monster, as he comes of age, finds love, and is ultimately heartbroken. 15 years later in Autobiography’s much-anticipated sequel, Red Doc>, Geryon becomes G.— still a winged red monster, but now an adult. Though he faces a new set of struggles and is surrounded by new characters in his life, or rather old characters transformed, the book delivers another captivating and emotional tale.

Red Doc> reads like a novel and unfolds chronologically. In this story, G. no longer carries a camera with him everywhere, as he did in Autiobiography, nor does he spend his time considering German philosophy. He is still quiet and reflective, but now his attention is turned to the works of Marcel Proust and the Russian poet Daniil Kharms. And though he is stronger than he was before, he still seems large-hearted, fragile, and damaged by love. His companions are Ida, an artist and kickboxer, and Sad But Great, a war veteran who appears to suffer from PTSD. When Ida goes to introduce Sad to G., she discovers that they know each other already: “HE WAS FOURTEEN / it was years ago and Sad’s / name wasn’t Sad yet.” One can assume that back then, his name was Herakles, because in Autobiography of Red, Geryon was fourteen when he met and fell in love with Herakles. Here, she is aptly described as “first comet,” due to the relationship’s destructive nature.

In Autobiography of Red, Geryon represents an eyewitness, or the One Who Went and Saw and Came Back. And G. continues in that role here. Among the things he witnesses are Sad, his lover, sleeping with someone else, Sad’s psychotic break, and his own mother’s death. And though there is pain, he survives each. After his mother’s death, Carson writes, “The / weeping has been arriving / about every seven / minutes. In days to / come it will grow less.” And ultimately that is why a reader may be drawn to the strange tale of this winged red monster: he is much like us. When we feel like we can’t go on, we somehow do. For a while, at least. Carson transforms the strange into something wholly recognizable and human.

Buy this book.

Gina Myers (adapted with permission from our friends at Frontier Psychiatrist)

16. People on Sunday, Geoffrey G. O’Brien

Wave Books

“A litter of tones that waits / for the pattern to break.”

“The red that white imagines yellow is.” closes the first couplet in the opening poem of People on Sunday, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s fourth book of poems. The line is vintage O’Brien, formally and intellectually dexterous, casual, certain, a kind of Stevens filtered through Ashbery that makes up his signature voice. Though this isn’t the last time we encounter a classic O’Brien moment in People on Sunday, the poems in this collection move through a looser, more personal, and more generous voice. These poems are packed with material, whether it’s recent political subjects like the Occupy Movement and the Trayvon Martin murder trial, the etymology of words like blatant and quiz, or artworks as varied as a French portrait from 1845 or a German silent film from 1930 (from which the book takes its name). It is in these ekphrastic ventures that the book really shines. They often take on the quality of a lecture (as do a number of other poems), one whose speaker fades in and out of clarity and vision and subject, creating a kind of kaleidoscope effect, and when the different panes align, they often come in the form of well-deserved rhetorical backflips, such as this gem from “D’Haussonville”:

What else do we ever know but that
Torsos sitting on hips the way pots
Cut flowers have been dropped in rest
On credenzas themselves covered in blue velvet
Are what is only partially occluded here.

O’Brien’s keen ear hides under his voice’s nonchalance, acting as a sort of guardrail that lets this poet’s intellect wind and weave through varied routes of thought without ever going over the edge. The scattershot, almost incomprehensible absurdity of our political present stirs up the wonder within these works. While a number of poets manage to tap into wonder, few can move it along with such skill and tension as O’Brien, who, at all times, seems to have one eye peeking over the edge.

Buy this book.

–William Brewer

15. Incarnadine, Mary Szybist

Graywolf Press

“Someday Mary would like to think about herself, but she’s not yet sure what it means to think, and she’s even more confused about herself.”

The wish for good news—for a blessing, for a metamorphosis, for a child—can be seen as a simple and beautiful desire. In interviews, Mary Szybist has described how, as a girl at mass, she would watch light changing through stained glass windows. It is the stuff of promise—angels in through the window—and Incarnadine, the angel Gabriel, specifically:  the “slender angel (dark, green-tipped wings folded behind him) reaches his right hand towards the girl; a vase of lilies sits behind them.” Them being Gabriel and Mary, who has just learned of her immaculate conception. The poet’s relationship with the name Mary has apparently always been complicated: “When people say ‘Mary,’ Mary still thinks Holy Virgin! Holy Heavenly Mother! But Mary knows she is not any of those things.” And later in the same poem, “Update on Mary”:

Mary tells herself that if only she could have a child she could carry around like an extra lung, the emptiness inside her would stop gnawing.

It’s hard to tell if she believes this.

Incarnadine consists of 42 poems, including sonnets, a villanelle, an abecedarian, word collages, prose poems, a poem in the shape of the sun, free verse paragraphs, and flashes of rhyme. The book is funny sometimes, but also very dark, with Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary serving as foundation. Szybist frames that encounter, successively, as wondrous, devious, irrelevant, threatening, ecstatic, brutal, contemporary. A great being inseminates a childless country damsel with much news and future. Gabriel and Mary’s collision, in Szybist’s hands, is electrifying, becoming metaphor for the experience of being chosen (or not) and for the feeling of being deeply changed (or not).

And what she has produced in her study of the old stories and paintings—tapestries of angels and gods—is a sense of a doubleness entirely contemporary. She is a poet full of wishes, but she is unwilling to make anything seem to be what it is not. Some will mistake this for quietism. To me, it is stubborn honesty. “Now the dark rain/ looks like dark rain,” she writes in one poem. In another, “afternoons passed like afternoons.” The real is in its place. The truth begins, argues Szybist, with the sober unmetaphor, the literal. What is is. And so when the angels do not visit us—when they have died with God—what then?

Buy this book.

Read the full review here.

Jesse Nathan

14. Elegy Owed, Bob  Hicok

Copper Canyon Press

“…five thousand years/ into the flood, I just don’t know”

Typically categorized as funny, Bob Hicok has also carved out a niche for himself as a master explorer the human condition through the examination of his own thoughts—and has become one of the few poets out there addressing what it actually means to be alive right now in whatever year this is. Elegy Owed, his eighth book, may be his best yet. Using the ode and the elegy as his centerpiece, Hicok comes off as an astronaut who’s launched himself into his own head. The poems serve as random dispatches home—declarative, triumphant and celebratory, but also cautious, hesitant, and lamenting—to a nation of Hicoks eager to find meaning behind the things that happen in life, but disappointed when meaning proves difficult to grasp: “to be the only creatures who notice/ the stars or at least use them metaphorically/ to go on and on about the longing we harbor/ in such tiny spaces relative to the extent/ of our dread that we’re in this alone,” he states at the end of “Ode to ongoing.” The only certainty in the book is that nothing is certain, and that absences perpetually dot our lives. “I thought a good, steady rain/ would bring us to our senses./ But five thousand years/ into the flood, I just don’t know,” Hicok writes in “You can never step into the same not going home again twice.” “Within my heart// is another heart, within that heart,/ a man at war writes home:/ this is like digging a hole in rain,” he states in “Absence makes the heart. That’s it: Absence makes the heart.”

In Elegy Owed, Hicok manages to take all the crazy things swirling about in the world and attempt to understand them in the context of a larger picture. In “Waiting for my foot to ring” from This Clumsy Living, he writes, “Every time I write/ I try to hold the world still by noticing how the world moves. Butterflies/ fear the pins of this method, I fear what happens/ after the pinhole at the end of this sentence.” Elegy Owed is what happens after the pinhole of that sentence: try as he may to freeze the world, it’s constantly moving, and nothing is permanent aside from the reality of our own death, which follows us, like a lit fuse follows a bomb. The bomb is about to explode, and in a world where God may not exist, this book serves as hope that one can find meaning in the complicated ephemera of life.

Read the full review here.

Buy this book.

Jason Bredle

13. Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Daisy Fried

University of Pittsburgh Press

“I couldn’t figure out what else, / to responsible children, there was to say.”

Daisy Fried’s new book, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, begins with a long poem titled “Torment.”  The title suggests distress and provocation, and the poem delivers. Its first stanza is a tight fourteen lines and introduces one of several college seniors at the cusp of the “real” world. Panicked, presumably about his future, the student declares, “ ‘I fucked up bad.’” These are the poem’s opening words. The student, named Justin, is returning from a job interview in the financial district of Manhattan. The poem’s speaker, who turns out to be a professor of Justin’s, observes his behavior on the commuter train like a farmhand might watch a foal take its first wobbly steps before it falls, nose first, into piles of shit. The speaker knows Justin is doomed, as we all are, to torment. Like most of the poems in this collection, “Torment” does not avoid reality, and Fried’s language offers a precise and sobering look at the modern world.

These poems are “Women’s Poetry” in that they are poems presenting the reality of a pregnant woman in a treacherous economic and political climate, a woman forced to engage in meditation on responsibility as her unborn child will inherit these problems of the modern world. The poems offer advice in a “fuck it” sort of way, suggesting that we are perhaps all guilty, all in some way responsible for that which plagues us. Fried also displays an intense and refined attention to the troubles of the present moment. Effectively blending the personal with the more universal, she delves into issues surrounding womanhood, but she also looks at the troubles of humanhood. Often these poems are overtly political. Take “Lyric,” for instance, where Fried’s speaker deals with the very specific problems of the modern moment: “Gas price up again, stink of gouging.” And sporting goods stores that, according to Fried, are really “modernist gun megachurch[es].” Other poems, like “Liberalism,” “Metaphor for Something, or Solving the Credit Crunch” and Attenti Agli Zingari, the long poem that makes up section three of the book, all attend to the political unrest of the age.  

In a way, the poems in Women’s Poetry take place in a modern wasteland. “Elegy” even alludes to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” British literary critic F.R. Leavis insists on a poetry in touch with its time. Leavis believes a poet must be aware of, even one with, his time. The poet’s personal consciousness and the collective consciousness of his/her age must be inseparable, at least in the poetry. Daisy Fried has mastered this, as her poems successfully reflect the contemporary climate. Leavis wrote that T.S. Eliot’s poems “express a modern sensibility, the ways of feeling, the modes of experience, of one fully alive in his own age.” The same can be said of Fried.

Read the full review here.

Buy this book.

Melinda Wilson

12. Trances of the Blast, Mary Ruefle

Wave Books

“I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive”

Questions about what makes a life and a mind abound in Mary Ruefle’s 11th collection of poems, Trances of the Blast, and they are posed with a mix of gravity, sensual beauty, and dark humor. Ruefle’s keen ear steers these poems in their many associative leaps, which occur through both memory and language: “I stride forth filled with a whiff/ What’s to know is always a little to the left.” The poet’s strange and expansive imagination allows the reader to move easily between poems detailing everything from the drama of childhood to fears of mortality and the loss of loved ones. Some of the most interesting poems display Ruefle’s ability to render an interior experience from childhood in all its emotion without any of the condescension or amnesia that so often comes with adulthood. This is particularly salient in “Provenance”:

In the fifth grade
I made a horse of papier mâché
and painted it white
and named it Aurora

We were all going to the hospital
each one with his little animal
to give to the girl who was
lying on her deathbed there
whose name I can’t recall

In “Dolorous Interlude,” the speaker refers to herself as “the world’s/oldest walking infant.” While absurd and funny, this image also expresses the sense of awe for the world that runs throughout Ruefle’s catalogue.  Many of the poems in this collection meditate and even mourn over the ephemeral. But the mourning is countered by the poet’s preservation of such moments through the act of writing them, as in “Fall Leaf Studies”:

They come down slowly
and with many conjectures
afterall that yak
and in that bronzed state
they pause.

The 75 poems in Trances of the Blast vacillate between bluntness and abstraction in a way that is distinctly Ruefle and that gives her poems an airy, almost ethereal quality, along with blasts of wisdom. Here is “Broken Spoke” in its entirety:

You grow old.
You love everybody.
You forgive everyone.
You think: we are all leaves
dragged along by a wheel.
Then comes a splendid spotted
yellow one–ah, distinction!
And in that moment
you are dragged under.

Buy this book.

–Erin Lynn

11. Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers , Frank X. Walker

University of Georgia Press

“Magnolia trees were bleeding.”

Civil rights icon Medgar Evers was wearing a t-shirt that read “Jim Crow Must Go” on June 12, 1963, when he was shot to death by Byron De La Beckwith, a klansman from Greenwood, Mississippi. De La Beckwith was prosecuted twice for the murder in 1964, but both prosecutions resulted in hung juries–a fact commonly attributed in part to the fact that the juries were all-white, all-male. Frank X. Walker’s riveting new collection of poems is titled after what apparently were Evers’s last words: “turn me loose.” For Walker, this becomes a call to action. In “What Kills Me,” the book’s opener, he assumes the persona of Myrlie Evers, Medgar’s wife, many years after the murder: “When people talk about the movement / as if it started in ’64, it erases every / body who vanished on the way home / from work or school and is still listed // as missing…It means he lived and died for nothing.”

Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers is an immersive and addictive read. By assuming the personas of people peripheral to the case of Evers–but not Evers himself–Walker is able to redirect our attention to this pivotal figure and his legacy, while showing how even senseless hate proceeds according to its own perverse internal logics. He writes from the perspectives of Myrlie Evers, Charles Evers (Medgar’s brother), Byron De La Beckwith, Willie De La Beckwith (Byron’s wife), Thelma De La Beckworth (Byron’s second wife), and a sixth voice that “works like a Greek chorus.”

All of these characters are illuminating; we see not only inside their thoughts, but inside their dreams; by the end, you will feel like you know each of Walker’s reconstructions intimately. You see the particulars of Byron’s entrenched tradition and ideology of hate (“punching and kicking // some body     as hard as you can / for the sheer joy of causing them pain”). Willie De La Beckwith, inspired as she is to “stand by her man,” is also fully imagined: “Like any smart woman / I’ve stormed out // even divorced him once / to make my point // but anybody / who even stops // takes time / to think about it // and still makes their lips ask why // I’m so proud to be / Mrs. Byron De La Beckwith // ain’t never heard / Tammy Wynette sing.” But the most captivating moments are reserved for Myrlie, who reflects on the difficulty of being married to the ambitious, risk-taking Evers, but whose love for him is rendered palpably:  “…and Medgar’s jack hammer heart // finally slowing to match our leaky faucet, as he fell asleep / in my arms, completing the soundtrack for a perfect night.

Turn Me Loose is also thematically anchored by two songs “Dixie,” a song for love of the south that became an anthem in the 19th century and was commonly performed by blackface minsterls, and “Strange Fruit,”  the song famously performed by Billie Holliday and based on a poem Abel Meeropol that depicted a lynching. In a thoughtful and intelligent forward to the collection, Michelle S. Hite singles out the tradition of violence that girdles a song like “Dixie,” and brings to mind revisionist historians who glorify certain aspects of southern history to this day:

Backbreaking and unremitting, unremunerated work gets imagined as tranquil longing through the laboring body of an enslaved person. For those who symbolize this those laboring bodies, nostalgia for such a past and pride in this imagined South offends historical recognition of the toll of the historical South upon their lives.

Charles Evers finds nothing to love in “Dixie:” “Instead of a whiskey-soaked yee haw / I hear a window break // and children sobbing for a father / face down in a pool of blood.” And Walker borrows from “Strange Fruit” for a scene in which Willie De La Beckwith dreams she is being lynched: “Magnolia trees were bleeding. The floor / was turningn to marsh beneath my feet.” Ultimately, Walker’s take on all of these characters is lush, complex, and cinematic; in an age of binge-watching, he gives us a book of short, powerful poems that are as absorbing as they are illuminating.

Buy this book.

John Deming