Top 40 Poetry Books of 2013 [40 – 31]
Welcome to our seventh annual Year in Review. We have a fairly robust year end package planned for you and are excited to launch it with this first installment of our 2013 top 40 list. This is an editors’ list compiled after reviewing many hundreds of books published in 2013. We know that no list of this nature can be objectively “correct” and that another publication might have an equally apt “top 40” containing none of the same books. But listing can be helpful in pointing people to books they may not have heard of otherwise; they also can be quite fun. This year, for example, the National Book Foundation added a “long list” of ten finalists to its traditional format (customarily, they list five finalists). We think this makes sense; the number of books published, and the number of practicing poets, seems to increase every year, so this is a fun way for us to heartily recommend some favorites. We hope you enjoy! More to come.
40. My Dead, Amy Lawless
“Let’s gather around this statue we made”
The speaker at the center of Amy Lawless’s My Dead is always being direct with you. Sometimes this takes the form of clear, confessional communication: “This week I have been struck by an intense and agonizing fear of death.” Other times, she organizes her experience of the world through a kind of scattered association: “We’ve been praying like this for many generations / Architecture is an act of prayer / Let’s gather around this statue we made and create a beautiful energy / I’ll put a flower behind my ear, my dead / Let’s follow the man without hair.” My Dead is grounded by a difficult wisdom: death is so certain, but so little else is. Still, the poet’s avalanches of obsession and association always make room for the tranquil, or the spiritual, even if these are affected with as much skepticism as anything else: “…this is a monk ringing a bell. / He hits the bell in a special circle.” An urge toward playfulness never outweighs the seriousness of purpose in the poet’s explorations:
I saw a woman hit by a cab in the street in the dead of night some seven months ago, and seeing her shake—seeing the LIFE shake out of her is something that I can’t pretend not to know. It was a sudden dance in the air which changed its stage onto the ground, and as her husband called out Anna I love you don’t go just like one might say to one’s partner as he or she leaves for work in the morning: quiet and urgent and even erotic, it implied a station, a place where we might stay, and yet also a place where we might travel to.
There is no final solution for the poet of My Dead, and trying earnestly to arrive at one would seem like bailing out the Titanic with plastic buckets. But by reconstructing this chaos into poetry, Lawless achieves something powerful.
39. Swamp Isthmus, Joshua Marie Wilkinson
“no era/ just the incantation”
The poems in Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Swamp Isthmus hint at something recognizable. They often feel like a supercut of atmospheric moments from horror movies – one moonlit fence here, one stray dog there, and it becomes easy to throw a bit of ourselves into a collective idea of how perspective, memory, and language come to form thought. Wilkinson creates a dichotomy of murky private moments and open invitations to a collective idea. In “Upholsterer’s Moon,” for example, we see the Bates Motel in the “buzz-snap buzzing / in the vacancy sign.” The titular character in “I go by Edgar Huntly now,” the sixth of the book’s seven poems, refers to an obscure Gothic novel about a sleepwalker. Early in “A Saint among the Stragglers’ Beds,” the speaker introduces “a man named Ashley / & a boy called Small,” which certainly seems to allude to something, though a reasonable Google search comes up nil. Which says, in part, even when things are clear or clearly searchable (like passing references to Max Roach and Geeshie Wiley), sometimes their importance to the speaker remains private.
In “A Saint among the Stragglers’ Beds,” the speaker describes “a six on the back of your hand // it smudges your chin in the rain.” Nothing stops us from understanding what the lines describe, but they invoke a small detail in a personal, encoded narrative, or they allude to something unknown. Either way, without more information, “six” is impenetrable as a signifier of additional meaning. This highlights not the specific significance of the six, but the fact that significance exists at all. The book sustains this continuum of private and public in a way that commands our attention again and again and raises the questions of what can or needs to be known. In the book’s front matter, we are informed that Swamp Isthmus is the second book in Wilkinson’s No Volta pentalogy, and this knowledge extends the possibilities of the book beyond the first and last pages. Most importantly, it frees us to let the poetry wash over us, let the poems simply be, and to look around our own lives and determine what matters and why.
Read the full review here.
38. Bangalore, Kerry James Evans
Copper Canyon Press
“I’ve cleared a path, myself, / and marked, with flags, the safe zone.”
According to a New York Times ArtsBeat profile in December, Kerry James Evans “grew up in the South among the working poor, then spent six years as a combat engineer with the Army National Guard.” Evans describes growing up in the American south attuned to “music in the clacking of dominoes, the creaking of the porch swing, the inflections of daily speech — all of the violence and tenderness that can roll through a day.” His debut reflects such careful attention to subtle extremes, and to the extreme precision required to calculate the chaos of an explosion. His years in the military factors heavily into his exploration into memory and experience: “Bradley e-mailed yesterday to say / Daniels shot himself after the parade / rolled away.” Family also occupies the poet’s consciousness: “My grandfather would pour gasoline / onto the leaves and light a match / beneath his oaks—this before he greased / bacon and fried the house to the ground.” In the Times piece, Evans says that a bangalore torpedo is “a slender explosive device manually implemented into a minefield.” In Bangalore, the poet maps his own experiences and mines them for content. There is never a hint of bitterness or blame in his poems; Bangalore reads as an act of control against a period of time in which he was almost completely controlled by his circumstances, and ultimately, an experience, and attitude, of grace.
37. Imperial Bender, Amanda Smeltz
“I like hungover chats with the living / and the dead. I will come again.”
Amanda Smeltz’s Imperial Bender opens with the morning after: “When I woke up this morning it was lousy. / Lips cracked and a memory of yowling at the bar / about quitting. I struggle a bit of late.” We also learn of the poet’s close relationship with and admiration for the poet Paul Violi, who died in 2011 only months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In Smeltz’s poem, Violi is in the hospital: “Whatever it is, kick its ass. / Shea misses you a lot and so do Jamie and the rest. Poetry / is boring without you. Come back and we’ll have a whole carton / of Winstons.” There is a gigantic heart at the center of the collection, and an empathy that borders on torment. The poet seems grateful for shared time among good people, maybe wiling away the hours, maybe drinking, maybe smoking, but living very much in the present. The poet enacts this sensation with caustic wit and the integration of personal experiences, names of friends, and an eye turned casually toward the infinite. More importantly, though, Smeltz shows incredible promise as a poet with a first rate ear. Her impressive “Crown for the Morning After” — a crown of sonnets — highlights the poet’s ability to turn a musical phrase: “I’m erudite, / but I don’t want to wrestle. / Tonight I cook meth with a mortal and pestle. / I’m cleaning up glass with an oily broom. / Titanic chains creak in deep-sea gloom.” Throughout the crown, it is a marvel to watch her appropriate pop culture phrases while recycling her own phrases in unexpected ways. Smeltz is finding her way in Imperial Bender, literally and figuratively, and establishing herself as a poet to reckon with.
36. Hold It Down, Gina Myers
“…more / disconnected each day.”
In her second collection of poems, and first since 2009’s A Model Year, Gina Myers continues her idiosyncratic investigation into the nature of a 21st century confessional poem. In A Model Year, Myers aligned herself with a New York School lineage—David Shapiro (who supplied a blurb for the book), Barbara Guest and Ted Berrigan were all alluded to or name-checked, and various poems in the book were of a somewhat diaristic, “I do this, I do that” nature. But in Hold It Down, Myers makes clear that this had more to do with her living in New York during a substantial portion of that volume’s gestation and creation and less to do with her aesthetic impulses and tendencies as a poet. Comprised of the serial poems “Hold It Down” and “False Spring,” as well as a medley of shorter poems, the poetic landscape that Myers immerses the reader in with Hold It Down is one of unfettered emotion and interiority. The speaker in these poems—which, due to the volume’s personal nature, many readers will no doubt take to be a stand in for Myers herself— is simultaneously fraught with sorrow and optimism; she implicitly understands the way the world works, yet writes in order to prod, poke and ultimately question that understanding. In its entirety, “Lament,” a later poem in the collection, reads:
Everything broken is still broken.
Fuck making the best of a Monday.
I’m not saying the things I set out to say.
But when night comes I know one thing
to be true: I will be able to fall asleep
or I will not be able to fall asleep.
Hold It Down is that rare collection of poetry that wholly actualizes for its reader the sensation of getting into an author’s head, stepping into her shoes. And in Myers’s case, at least, this prospect is, at its core, pure, entirely lacking dilution. It elucidates the vision of a poet who is concerned with the concrete, the actual, the ordinary of the real—and the extraordinary poetic consequence of such a reality.
Read the full review here.
35. The Inside of an Apple, Joshua Beckman
“in human time the sky”
Here’s Joshua Beckman continuing the inimitable, just-this-side-of-bitter song with which he’s made his name, and by God if the verve isn’t still there. Bite-sized, two or three lines at a time, the majority of the poetry in this book dwells comfortably within his existing oeuvre, reading almost as a collection of remarks on the composition thereof, or a companion piece to humanize the author in passing: “it’s rainy / and the cool air / is all around my head.” Such peace is imbued in Beckman’s turning and overturning, we’re taken aback when his poet’s-poet haymakers connect – this at the cost of emotional handles, though one suspects he wouldn’t have it any other way. Presented with “I’m naked too / and sick // a kind of / blood song / falls out of me,” we’re left with the impression of precision, bereavement, even bewilderment, but to analyze further would risk snuffing the effect. An unfocusing urge shoos us away—just in time, we feel. With this in mind, it seems Beckman’s newest rewards the strained, convincible eye. He becomes a minimalist in transit, on a strict ration of words per line, with each poem feeling as if it took its own length not just to devise its closing phrase, but to earn it. It’s not so much aimlessness as fidelity to aimlessness. To use Beckman’s own words, his “hope is that it happens differently each time,” a precept exemplified again and again in these pages.
Read the full review here.
34. Obscenely Yours, Angelo Nikolopoulos
Alice James Books
“…a well-lit place where ravishing happened.”
To whom or to what is Nikolopoulos bidding farewell in his debut, Obscenely Yours, and why is the tone of his valediction so arch? Before reading a single poem, I was reminded of the scene at the end of Edmund White’s classic 1982 gay coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story, in which the teenage protagonist gives his boarding-school music teacher a blowjob in his office, then turns away without a backward glance, as if walking irrevocably through a door into a gay adulthood characterized irremediably by shame and humiliation, as if to assert, as Catherine Stimpson wrote in her New York Times review of White’s novel, “that growing up is a descent into painful knowledge, indecency and repression.”
And yet, what Nikolopoulos is about here is not (or not only) the pain of knowledge, but its pleasure, and not of knowledge merely, but of experience. And if indecency abounds, as indeed it does, these poems are about the resolute refusal to repress it, indeed, the commitment to insisting upon it. It is this insistence to which the book’s title ultimately gestures, convinced that its minutely enumerated indecencies belong not only to the poet, but to the reader as well: not obscenely mine only but also obscenely yours. “I’d love the body that wasn’t mine,” the speaker says in the book’s prefatory poem, “Take the Body Out,” referring to the “blemished neck” and “goosefleshed thighs” of a high school crush, the “saltwater skin” revealed beneath torn off swim trunks: expression not repression, pleasure not pain, experience not merely knowledge. “To know is to touch the thing itself,” the speaker says in “Fisting: Treading the Walls,” echoing both Aquinas and Wallace Stevens, then echoing the words of Jesus to Doubting Thomas at John 20:27, “Reach out your hand and put it into / my side, he said, and believe.”
Read the full review here.
33. The Talking Day, Michael Klein
Sibling Rivalry Press
“In the museum/of saddest things I’ve ever done that could have been the/saddest”
The titular phase of Michael Klein’s latest comes from a “talking day” that occurred after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. In these circumstances, no one quite grasps the reality of the situation, and everyone spends that first day talking about what happened and reliving it as language — not so much to understand the violence, but to make a kind of recording of it: talking about it, letting go of it, putting it down. Read literally, the process should be familiar to millions of Americans who participated in the national “talking days” after the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. Read metaphorically, the “talking day” describes the modus operandi of Klein’s poetry, and his poems are most poignant when Klein writes about specific people and concrete events. In “Drinking money,” he recounts how he sold his mother’s autographed photograph of Lorenzo Hart—a gift from the composer—to fuel his alcohol addiction, a subject he has addressed in his memoirs. The poem concludes: “In the museum/of saddest things I’ve ever done that could have been the/saddest. It felt like I was making fun of beauty.” Here, the sin is threefold: addiction, filial impiety, and aesthetic disregard. In “The sun in 1949,” he recounts an evening when his 17-year-old mother and 30-something grandmother battle each other for the attention of a teenage boy at a bar on Fire Island. Written in tercets that reinforce the “love” triangle, the poem turns tragic when Klein links the episode to his grandmother’s suicide. And in one of several poems that refer to his brother’s death, Klein writes: “Kevin was dead. I was alive. When I was a twin, Kevin/was alive.” Such simple and stark lines should resonate with anyone who has ever experienced loss.
Read the full review here.
32. Easy Math, Lauren Shapiro
“Then it’s over and a sad monkey with a cap / starts picking up the pistachio shells.”
Throughout her first full-length collection, Lauren Shapiro traffics images strangely juxtaposed with the mundane features of everyday life. There are many instances where it is the shocking image, or accrual of such images, that drives the poem towards its always unexpected, yet vaguely logical conclusion. In an era when some worry that the image may be supplanting the written word as the preferred method of communication, Shapiro seems ready to embrace this change as a way to reconnect with one another at a level deeper than our constant, vocal discussions about our needs and wants: “I extricate the chopsticks from my purse…A three-legged cat with no fur paws by./ I toss my ballet shoes from center stage/ and crumple dramatically. The audience explodes.” The poems in Easy Math suggest that being attuned to one’s natural surroundings, with all five senses, should precede the impetus to speak, and that true understanding can perhaps only be attained by careful attention. Despite its accessible and open tone, despite the poet’s clear word choice and rather informal diction, and despite the concrete imagery placed firmly in modern times, Easy Math is a dizzying and surreal journey that doesn’t offer simplistic answers to any of the questions it may or may not pose. Instead, Shapiro takes familiar experience and expression and bends them just so—“When I lick my shadow,/ it tastes like the ground and vice versa”—barely eluding obvious sense and suggesting that fixed and final understandings always leave us wanting.
Read the full review here.
31. Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, Harryette Mullen
“Native or not, you’re welcome in our gardens.”
Harryette Mullen’s eighth collection of poems, Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, records many of the poet’s encounters with nature and explores the position of human beings in any number of environments. Modeled on the traditional Japanese form that uses 31 syllables, these poems are tranquil and brief, each written, according to the poet, during the “daily practice of walking and writing poetry.” No subject is too commonplace for Mullen, and each tanka’s spontaneous, improvisatory feel signifies the great depth of surface, and of earnest, unplanned interaction with the world in real time. “When you see me walking in the neighborhood, / stopping to admire your garden, I might be / composing a tanka in my head,” reads one poem in its entirety; she concludes the whole series, “Caught a quick glimpse of bright eyes, / yellow feathers, dark wings. Never learned your name— / and to you, bird, I also remain anonymous.” Mullen awards equal attention to the odiferous skunk as to the chorus of crickets or the plight of a homeless woman. In fact, these poems subtly point out that most of everyday life is, in fact, fascinating if we are willing to observe and to ponder. The pleasure in reading this minor masterpiece from one of America’s best poets comes from its invitation to contemplate, to actually see and feel all the small delights of the world of which we are so often unaware. This book makes us envy the opportunity for introspection that it delivers, and it has the power to reinvigorate our relationship with the world outside our windows.