Top 40 Poetry Books of 2013 [30 – 21]
top 40 poetry books of 2013
[30 – 21]
“What is to come is behind me.”
The poems in The Not Forever, Keith Waldrop’s first book since his National Book Award-winning Transcendental Studies (2009), show an acute awareness of mortality: “Thought will not go far in a negative direction,” Waldrop admonishes, “so things are always worse than we think.” Yes, death is a certainty. Yet there is cunning grace in his sense that eventually, we will be “lost to this world”: a hint of occurrence as permanence interrupted by the abiding knowledge that the human mind is not equipped to explain reality in literal terms. He begins his gorgeous closing sequence “a vanity” by imparting, “The world I see–there–here–is the world I remember. What is to come is behind me. As I look back…” He proceeds to look back and find fragments–“lute, skull, globe, hour- / glass…”–alongside the macabre and humorous observation that he can’t necessarily trust his own recollections of the life he has lived: “I have a terrible habit of remembering the death of people who are still alive, killing them off by an act of memory.” In this and the ten other sequences in The Not Forever, the thingness of a whole life, which includes its ephemerality, becomes both palpable and baffling. The speaker of the poems, “a light sleeper who finds it almost impossible to stay awake,” is always barely between here and there:
“I do not
know,” says the dreamer, “where
my beloved is.”
“And I do not know…”
I do not
“…where I am.”
29. The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather, Sampson Starkweather
“Love as a nail driven into heartwood pine is real.”
It is an act of sheer audacity. It is a provocation and an embrace, at once deadly serious and playful, a self-canonization without self-aggrandizement, an offering not as much to other poets, or to poetry, but to the mythologies we all carry: the mythologies we see in the mirror. In one volume, Sampson Starkweather gives us The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather: four bolts of lightning from the same cumulonimbus, a poetry that is electric and that acknowledges the electric condition. “I was so absorbed with my war,” he writes, “I didn’t even notice the storm.” And without a doubt, there is a war going on: between competing tendencies and competing diction; between desires to truly communicate—to express “love,” to enact “elegy”— and the painful acknowledgement that this task might be fruitless; between wanting to be relevant to the contemporary condition and speaking to tradition.
Underlying all of this remains a lyric voice that is neither unmoored nor paralyzed by the sense of possibility. For surely, as Starkweather puts it in the last of the four books, Self Help Poems, “[w]hen you have no choice, there’s nothing to do but wade around in those unknowns like a child in a kiddy pool, unafraid of what is contained.” What we have here then is a voice that is sometimes “at war with the sea”— with memory and with emotion— while elsewhere sort of trapped in reflexivity and the direct address: “I’m trying to tell you something but the writing keeps getting in the way.”
It is probably impossible to consider any individual book of The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather without the others. Then again, one might be able to say the same thing about a serious consideration of any poet’s works. The poems talk to each other, echo one another, sometimes even wear the same tattered clothing. What unifies them here is a consistent, powerful lyric voice and an almost romantic notion of the poet as both hero and anti-hero. “In the myth I made, I was of course, the King,” he writes in King of the Forest. But the poet in the woods that sometimes appears in these books is the same one that is attached to his city: if not a Lorca in New York, then his literary descendant. The dichotomy here is a construct in itself: everyone has a city inside them; everyone emerges from a forest.
Read the full review here.
28. Pink Reef, Robert Fernandez
“then a shock of rain, / an ecstasy of sudden passage”
A soulful collection inspired by the tropical and filled with blood, Fernandez’s Pink Reef is populated with small poems, often with thin lines that spread like a chain of islands and, absent titles, approach anonymity. Yet the poems speak less of a vacation utopia than a troubling and deeply loved home of variance and despair (“eel coiled around / the throat”). Fernandez takes a risk by pulling the reader between emotionally direct lines with threatening timber (“to hell with those that/hand themselves over//to me/that warm themselves//in me”) and the obscured near-cubist repetition and remixing of canonized text. In his author’s note, Fernandez explains he quotes, adapts, or is otherwise indebted to Blake, Donne, Keats, Lorca, Nietzsche, and others, and spotting samples becomes one of the book’s great pleasures. Stylistically, some poems seem poised between Stein and Williams; a poem early in the collection repeats the lines “the blood oranges / so bright / because they are / against a white / background” three times before concluding, “cold and light / cold and light / cold and light”—reflecting both the elements of Stein’s re-seeing of language and Williams’s directness. With its seemingly subtle approach and referential depth, Fernandez’s incredibly inventive book rewards both a casual read and a more studied one. Pink Reef hits a rare and magnificent sweet spot between unabashed raw emotion and fever-dream iconic imagery.
27. Begging for It, Alex Dimitrov
Four Way Books
“…they walk up and down the narrow streets of your heart.”
The figures populating the poems in Alex Dimitrov’s debut range from kept boys (“Men you’ve lived with / and men you live on”) and out-and-out hustlers (“a check—another zero—and I’m yours”) to screen goddesses and literary giants. And ex-lovers (lots of them), whom the writer is careful not to demonize. These various personae can be read as costumes for the self. From “This is a Personal Poem”: “My self’s self is thinking about itself. / Trying to sell its self a new self.” The body appears throughout, its fluids and edges, as pleasure-giver and prison. In the title poem, the speaker considers “How the body becomes a cage you can’t feel your way out of— // how God rips through the skin / of every man you know. . . .” Elsewhere, it’s the speaker who does the ripping: “I have my filthy lips, my shiny teeth / and they are biting. . . .”
There is a sense in many of the poems of trying to get in. Not just to belong, but to become. There’s an erotic gaze at a father’s neck and a subsequent intimate encounter with his underwear. In the “Self-Portrait as . . .” triptych, Dimitrov inhabits several film characters—all female. In “A Lover’s Discourse,” the speaker studies and tries on his own clothing—“the clothes I last wore / when we were together”—in an effort to become the self he was then. Yet even though the book’s prevailing atmosphere is one of ruin, emptiness is often juxtaposed with hope, or something like it. “Prayer for the New Year” is a third-person account of a night in New York when “love isn’t enough for anyone out here” but “Across the street the blond gives his body / to every man who believes…” And the speaker, who has been a mere witness, enters the poem in the final line: “Saint or stranger, I still recklessly seek you.” Like the thirsty insect in “Sensualism,” who shows a touch more patience: “The mosquito will drink // for as long as I’ll let it. And I do. / I hold still waiting for you. The vein rises. / It is this flood of living that comes.”
Read the full review here.
26. Hemming the Water, Yona Harvey
Four Way Books
“Her little hearse broke down near the exit / that leads to my house. Now she must walk.”
By “hemming water,” the speaker in Yona Harvey’s poems is acknowledging that a pursuit of form within portended formlessness might be futile. But this gives the poet freedom to be lively and varied, to find each poem an organism with potential, to engage in philosophical questioning without reserve and communicate with the living as easily as the dead. The poet consistently finds strength in family, and introspection abounds: “To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking with an aimless switch / in this moment of baptismal snow or abysmal flurry. / There’s a shadow of free-fall frenzy & her unhurried.” Her recurring insistence on a certain chaos at the center of consciousness and decision-making yields a startling clarity: “Who knows what to pray for? Who’s guilty / of beginner’s mind? What life is this // where even the strange feels cyclical: / the roar of waves in a seashell, stingrays, / pregnant corpses washed ashore?” Each of the book’s three sections indicates the human relationship to water–“The Gate to the Water,” “Swimming Lessons,” and “The Shape the Water Takes”–suggesting a larger scope for Keats’s vision of “one whose name was writ in water.” Everything is writ in water, on some level, before washing into something else, as we see when the poet inhabits a persona “In Toni Morrison’s Head”: “I cut my losses / & sprint. I’m smoke, I’m ash, / Holy Ghost & Crucifix, / the preacher reborn to a body / in the grass, chirping, Death / is so much different than I imagined.”
25. The Late Parade, Adam Fitzgerald
“The valley covered in stars.”
The ruminating, restless mind in Adam Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade traffics associations and approximates conclusions, but “the message,” ultimately, “is to embrace the blossoming obstacle.” Like John Ashbery, a clear influence on The Late Parade, Fitzgerald’s speaker cannot switch his mind off, but can find reasonable, frequently transcendent succor with a line of thought and association before pitching his gaze somewhere else. The poet assuredly progresses through a kind of dream logic, as in these lines from “The Relay Station”: “Wide tracks of things we’ve thought about / cool into a frieze, waiting to be tracked // down one day until a key is minted. / I or someone hums. Tissues are collected.” In fact, much of Fitzgerald’s demeanor finds us in what Ashbery once called a “waking dream”–there is always something unknown, possibly absurd, on the margins of our experience of reality, which perhaps we mute only because of our inability to explain it. Fitzgerald proceeds in the lineage of modernists and abstract expressionists: “A thirst in lake-bright avenues meant / nothing. The trout moon dropped.” He enacts without trying to explain, which keeps the poems in this book fresh, surprising, and durable–especially the long title poem, which concludes the book on a note of hard-won empathy. The poet is in control of his mechanisms, yet one is readily aware of the multitude his book contains: “The self. / The valley covered in stars.”
24. Rise in the Fall, Ana Božičević
“I got all this from / that brief break in the clouds.”
Rise in the Fall, Ana Božičević’s second collection of poems, a collection that includes illustrations by Bianca Stone and titles that allude to a diverse set of cultural figures such as Nietzche, Mayakovsky, Harold Bloom, The Smashing Pumpkins, Frank O’Hara and many more, grapples with death, war, queerness, identity, and the issue of whether poetry can adequately address any of this. Božičević proves it can. Her poems uncover the difficulty of naming and defining the abstract; several tackle the concept of beauty, for instance, and work to uncover beauty’s meanings, origins and limitations. In “Intervals of Please,” the speaker states, “I couldn’t do / it: // couldn’t make bomb / beautiful for / you.” War and destruction loom large in these poems, and not only in the sense of war between countries. As Božičević points out, war can be pervasive, can inhabit many landscapes; the female body provides one such landscape. In “War on a Lunchbreak,” she writes, “I contemplate / starving myself / so I’d be ‘the bomb.’” But the speaker in these poems also holds others accountable: “… A copout. / Something a sexy girl poet would say, like / ‘The terrorists have won, kiss me awake.’” Rise in the Fall commands your attention repeatedly and is infused with the poet’s deep sense of irony, but irony that is often directly followed by truthfulness: “You want this to mean something? / Then make it. Mean / Something.”
23. The Book of Goodbyes, Jillian Weise
“…not the you / I know and not the you / you know either…”
Winner of both the 2013 James Laughlin and Isabella Gardner Poetry Awards, Jillian Weise’s The Book of Goodbyes examines the daily life and consciousness of a speaker with a disability willing to confront all taboos associated with sex, intimacy, identity, gender, and love. In “Café Loop,” Weise, who identifies as a cyborg and has a computerized prosthetic, inhabits the voices and perspectives of two people discussing her and her work over lunch: “She’s had it easy, you know. I knew her / from FSU, back before she was disabled. // I mean she was disabled but she didn’t / write like it.” The poet never comes off angry, and it is exciting to watch her recurring dismissals of banality. Instead of being fed up, she is contemplative and investigative; she pushes herself to find her own comfort levels, as in the book’s final poem “Elegy for Zahra Baker”: “‘You used the word lame on the phone the other day,’ Josh says. ‘Sometimes I use it just to see how it makes me feel,’ I say.” Weise deals in facts, rightfully unapologetic for her knowing unknowing: “I find a website called Gimps Gone Wild. ‘I could make a lot of money selling photo sets,’ I tell Josh… ‘Don’t do that,’ he says. ‘I would never do that,’ I say even though I’m not sure if I would do it or not.” These poems are straightforward, meaning that they do not evade but confront our discomforts, desires, and perhaps most importantly, our agency.
22. Silverchest, Carl Phillips
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
“His body moves like any ocean.”
Silverchest is Carl Phillips’s twelfth book of poems, and while it is a book only Carl Phillips could have written (which I mean as praise and not as a claim of redundancy), it breaks away into a new territory and, at times, new voice, as it deals directly with landscapes informed by the natural world as much as by the sexual imagination. It is also a book that investigates in a somewhat formal way (in tone and not poetics) the consequences of desire and the strange and moody ambivalence of desire. And while Phillips is arguably at his most personal, and therefore revelatory, with Silverchest, he is also at his most spare, while still keeping close to the strong lyric dialectic line that informs all of his other books. It’s a book that feels in tone and suppleness haunted not only by the past, but by what the present is trying to tell the future and beyond the future. Here’s the middle of “After the Afterlife”: “….After / the afterlife, there’s an afterlife. A stand of / cottonwood trees getting ready all over again, / because it’s spring, to release their seeds that / only look like cotton; they’re not cotton, at all.”
What distinguishes this book, though, honestly, is how closely it looks at gay sexuality as something as joyous as it is complicated (“…like any//man for whom sex is, or has at last become,/an added sense by which to pass ungently but more/entirely across a life where, in between the silences,//he leaves what little he’s got to show for himself…” he says in one poem). Most of the poems are raw and short and thrilling the way shortness of breath is thrilling and many of them have terrific titles (“And Other Animals,” “After the Afterlife,” “Black Swan on Water, in Little Rain” and “Darkness Is As Darkness Does,” among them). Sex, of course, at the hand of the poet, can be a vehicle for understanding something bigger and, at times, in direct opposition of sex’s brand of physical force and power—an understanding of beauty and the variable motion of the world. And the sense of understanding—from a distance—the world in its wholeness or simply a man asleep in a bed is a key to the deeper concerns of Silverchest.
Read the full review here.
21. Little Stranger, Lisa Olstein
Copper Canyon Press
“I am hopeful, and the hopeful seek / the hopeless…”
In 2007, Justin Taylor published a review of Lisa Olstein’s debut, Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, in Coldfront. He noted that “the energy that pulses in the veins of these poems is always palpable, like the heart’s beat when the breath is held.” This effect has only intensified in Olstein’s work, culminating in her third and arguably best book yet, Little Stranger. The poet, ostensibly showing reserve, is in fact negotiating a high wire act that requires balancing extremes. Sometimes, we are powerless: “Because prey runs, we learn not to run, / not to turn our backs or look away / from the predator we dread and long / again to see because what we dread most most / is it seeing us without being seen, / which is almost always the way.” Yet the predator is not necessarily culpable either; the title of one poem reminds us, “When You’re a Top Predator, You Have to Survive.”
Olstein always seems to know where to start and where to finish, demonstrating with apparent ease a sense of timing and lyric progression; each poem to turn into a painted, improbable whole that breaks down certain preconceived distinctions between the physical life and the life of the mind. She concludes “Dear Sir,” “I would take no pills/ but I need them. At night/ I lie down flat like a river/ waiting for its blanket of birds.” Only six of the collection’s 55 poems stretch for more than a page. But each is unpredictable and soothes like a balm, an effect that is not particularly common in poets who are as intellectual as Olstein. However much she abstracts away in her meditations, we are reminded that we exist in the real, physical world: “Kiss me in darkness, kiss me in light,/ I seemed to be saying,/ stupidly, while it rained.” Yet this physical world assumes our abstract headspace, involves it, takes it and gives it back. This interplay allows her to arrive at moments of insight that are fresh and undeniably poetic, which I mean in the best possible sense. The book’s penultimate section contains a series of elegies that find grief both tragic at its center and strange at the fringes: “The sun sets differently by degrees // and again the river is a garden, / a mirrored highway for ruby-throats // with exacting coordinates / etched into their flight brains, // a gushing vein that feeds / and feeds the sea.”