Top 40 Poetry Books of 2014 [10 – 1]
Photo: Grep Hoax
10. Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals
by Patricia Lockwood
Not that long after “Rape Joke” went viral, Patricia Lockwood announced somewhere on social media–I can’t seem to find it at the moment, and this thing is way overdue–something along the lines of “only ever be published by animals.” She was referring to the fact that her first book, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, was published by Octopus Books, and that her second, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, would be published by Penguin. The stakes rose from there; when the book was released, Lockwood was profiled by and reviewed in The New York Times. One of the more compelling things about the whole escalation was that it wasn’t as though Lockwood was next in line, cycling into some pre-existing role of “now-poet” the way pop singers and young rappers tend to–she was establishing a new kind of major poet in a web-centric, tweet-needing, informationally- and emotionally-saturated culture–one that would not have otherwise existed. She momentarily and sharply assumed the cultural zeitgeist in a way that poets pretty much never do.
There’s not much left to say about “Rape Joke”–it’s been around the “universally acclaimed work of genius”-“but is it really that good”-“yes it really is that good”-“but is it really” matterhorn several times now, and at the speed we can expect from the communication culture that Lockwood herself has mastered. And yes, it really is that good–if you don’t think so, read it again–and is possibly the best poem in her book, in part for its ability to do perfectly what she does in all of her best poems: build momentum, keep us paying attention, then clobber us. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as the landing of a great Lockwood poem; “Love Poem Like We Used to Write It” is a standout: “in those days she was the only lady, in those days / she wrote a small round hand, / and I hauled on it saw it fly loop by loop out of her.”
It is often said these days that it easier to get real news–or at least real context on news–from comedians than it is from what we’ve come to accept as news media. To that end, Lockwood is the right poet, in the right place, at the right time, in the right context. She has a comfort and consistency in her voice that most writers could work a lifetime and never achieve, and she uses it to write her way into revelations that always move and surprise. She relentlessly throws clown wigs on the patriarchy and kicks it down the stairs, inspiring the ire of many an internet misogynist, but also, and more commonly, the loyalty of readers who didn’t know how badly our culture needed this until it came along.
9. Slant Six
by Erin Belieu
Copper Canyon Press
“Though if anything is, / your sadness is perfect, // your human disappointment”
Though the poems here often move with the suspense of narrative and with the intimacy of unashamedly confessional gestures, Erin Belieu’s Slant Six presents a road-wise speaker in a decidedly meditative posture, which is to say that these poems are thoughtful and fluent, but nonetheless capable of punching you square in the jaw. By turns elegiac and humorous (did the word “fucockulous” even exist before it turned up in Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year”?), Belieu makes contemplation immediate and sensual by zooming in and out of personal experience while keeping her focus on the interrogation of culture itself. She unveils in a single poem “the swampy taint of [a] Southern city,” and goes on to present a “Lacanian soap dispenser . . ./ that looks like an industrial age dildo” encountered in The Big Apple (“When at a Certain Party in NYC”); Belieu’s aim is not so much to characterize any one region, but rather to devise a lens through which we can see a particular brand of “fabled happiness” that has become quintessentially American (“Someone Asks, What Makes This Poem American?”). But make no mistake, when Belieu asks “What is a kiss / but the mouth’s potential for wreckage?” she’s talking to all lip lovers, not merely those sandwiched between Canada and Mexico (“Love Letter: Final Visitation”). And while the poems here are not exactly “uplifting,” the conflation of emotion and critique achieves a hard-won and undeniable elevation. In other words, Belieu wants to open the mind by way of the heart, and what the hell’s wrong with that? Not a thing.
by Craig Santos Perez
“No one can take our story from us”
Craig Santos Perez discusses the erasure of Guam in the American consciousness in his new title. Guam remains an American territory with a separate and chained national identity. His forms play with polyvocality, mixing languages and splicing commentary and chorus-like voicing into histories. These documentary works (with public statements, geographical notes, raw science, quotation and collected anecdote) are beautiful and personal, even at their most journalistic, as they weave the author’s private genealogy with the exploration of a place with untranslatable bits of language and uncirculated archive. They work to identify and resist to ways in which histories can be oppressively owned and demoted. The corruption of Guam comes off on one hand as shockingly unforgivable; equally profound is how little the people in America seem to actually know about it–the road names, the nutrition of the native people, the heritage and history, all come undone in the name of American strategy, and either nobody knows, or they are willing to accept it as collateral damage. Perez shines a light on this from every angle–personal, political, cultural–and achieves one of the most memorable and important literary achievements of the year.
7. The Second Sex
by Michael Robbins
“Timor mortis conturbat me.”
The Latin phrase quoted above serves as the final line of “Not Fade Away,” a poem in which Michael Robbins elegizes dead rock stars. The final quatrain reads: “Randy Rhoads and Kurt Cobain, / Patsy Cline and Ronnie Lane. / Poly Styrene, Teena Marie. / Timor mortis conturbat me.” The phrase, common to Medieval literature, can be translated as “Fear of death disturbs me.” This can be read as less a personal declaration than a sampling that adds a final layer of context to his poem.
But no doubt, Michael Robbins is disturbed. What disturbs him? Possibly fear of death, and other things, too: “The United States of Fuck You Too / is what you’re about to receive,” he writes, “You can shoot all the kids you like, / but you can never leave.” Robbins likely has your number, too–he has a keen eye for the contradictions of every ideology, and he revels in both bluntness and implication. No one escapes his crosshairs, not the soft targets nor the large ones. In fact, he barely bothers with the soft ones. The confirmation bias evident in, say, the work of Benghazi conspiracy theorists is possibly too tedious to go into, but he is not afraid to remind us that U.S. drone strikes have been as large a threat to innocent children as creatures like Adam Lanza. Notably, Robbins is also maybe the most quotable poet working today: “All along the White House fence // the Redskins mascot leads the chants.” … “Anna Wintour’s discontented. / I’m bathing in the nude. / I’m erring on the side. / I’m pretty sure we’re screwed.”
What excites him? That which is intellectually formidable and authentically not boring, something represented in his style itself (and his wide range of musical tastes, which makes room for both Taylor Swift and Dio). He dares you to keep up with his many references, to unlock his certain subtle musics when you’ve grown accustomed to his more obvious ones, to see the complex and sometimes crucifying logic and social commentary underlying many of his juxtapositions. But as I argued in my review of his first book, Alien Vs. Predator, I think there is empathy lurking behind the poet’s willingness to provide you with a real experience, and a great many of these poems show real heart. Reading Robbins is both extremely easy and a substantial challenge–a contradiction that is hard to achieve and shouldn’t be ignored. His poems can be so fun to read, you forget how clear-eyed he can be about the human-animal predicament: “The mind is a terrible thing. / That outboard motor. / The tedium is the message. / The chimp signs hugs in his enclosure.” And finally, the biggest picture, in which “I’d be more like them / if I were less like this, / a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss.”
6. The Feel Trio
by Fred Moten
Letter Machine Editions
“I got something that makes me wanna shout.”
My disclosure for this entry is that I published The Feel Trio by Fred Moten with a little press I run called Letter Machine Editions. But I’ll tell you that when Fred sent the first full version of the manuscript to me, back in 2010, I stayed up late to read it through—aloud—and twice.
Sometimes you read something so good your heart seems to race and slow down at the same time. The last time that had happened to me, I was on airplane with a copy of Fred’s first book, Hughson’s Tavern, from Leon Works, and I just didn’t want to go anywhere without it. Each time I saw a copy of it in a bookstore, I had to keep myself from buying it again. Maybe you have books like that in your life? I hope that you have.
I’m only just learning how to begin to talk about Fred’s work. He’s a critic, he’s a scholar, he’s a music-lover, he’s a father, he’s a teacher and a collaborator—and all these selves and voices come into his poems in the best ways. His poems are a record of the imagination for the purpose of excavating and asking, to chart desire and love and loss and blackness. And as it’s said, it changes. As it’s thought out and put down it moves away again, ineluctably. Fred’s poems drive softly from Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Arkansas, Cambridge, North Carolina, and Los Angeles to Outerspace, Alabama, as it’s known in The Feel Trio.
In Moten’s own words: “I don’t wanna capture the music, I wanna make music…and I can’t play an instrument but I can make music with words and I want the music to have feeling and have information and knowledge, you know or questions or thought…it’s not that I don’t believe it’s possible to have something direct and definitive to say it’s just that I’m working my way towards that.”
For us, that means the poems are process and mapping—always falling short of any resolved mark by rendering a new path, always finding a way out to another elsewhere before they arrive right here. Yet on his way, there’s relishing, and there’s rubbing and pleasure and frustration, there’s laughter and joy and elegy and anger and singing and recounting.
It’s history through a study of the felt now. It’s memory through talking and asking and play-begging and extoling. It’s the work of learning through holding back, pausing, slowing down, feeling it out, suspending it, as Fred says someplace, and saying: what else and now what? Every diversion is another musical scape of love and violence and wanting and affirmation and dance.
–Joshua Marie Wilkinson
5. They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full
by Mark Bibbins
Copper Canyon Press
“…I tell you that I’m sorry that some insidious force / led you here, but that you, maybe most of all, are welcome.”
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, as the title implies, is a book that thinks and rethinks violence both large and small. Yes, Bibbins thinks about the violence of capitalism and the state of American culture, but he also shows us the violence that is infused in the power dynamics between individuals, in myth as well as every day encounters in contemporary urban life. The violence that Bibbins explores doesn’t take the form of explicit gore, but is far more subtle, crafty and overlaid by a voice that can sing many notes—sometimes the voice is ironic, sometimes sincere, sometimes detached, sometimes fully invested in submerging itself in the moment.
Bibbins’s verse explores gender violence and sexuality and how these can be seen as constructions of patriarchy and nationalism much in the way that someone like Lauren Berlant talks about these matters in critical theory. Some examples of the poet’s queering of language surface in a poem called “Thunderbride.” Bibbins writes, “They will say how do you do Mister. Ms. Thunderbride / and I will say I do it distorted.” Earlier in the poem, he writes in a kind of sing-songy voice (yes, we are raised to believe all of these things from infancy), “Our mother monarchy / sweet land patriarchy / I’ll eat their offspring’s money / and let you have a bite.” A few lines later, a man “breathes through contractions” and Bibbins writes an image of “braids ablaze.” The poet seems determined to set gender ablaze, freeing it from heteronormativity and the rigid conformity of American capitalist culture. In the same poem, he writes, “Tonight our fabulous flock shits napalm on the criminal dads,” which brought to mind the #nodads hashtag on Twitter.
This #nodads theme is taken further in the book in a series of Pat Robertson Transubstantiation poems. In this series, which is as funny and clever as it is serious, Bibbins imagines the notoriously anti-feminist, anti-gay celebrity minister “fellating an African despot/ for his diamonds” and then “praying a hooker to give me (him) back his teeth.” The way some strains of religion are used as an instrument to oppress both sexuality and culture is a subject that seems mysteriously overlooked in contemporary poetry, though it is a subject that most certainly hugely influences many poets’ public and private lives.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story goes that a beautiful maiden is raped by Poseidon, and as punishment for her rape, Athena transforms the maiden into Medusa, that notorious monster. Bibbins’s Medusa seems to be in line with Ovid’s version: “What has unmade me / has made its way here” reads like a pained negotiation and understanding of mythical power that is frustratingly reliant on the archetypical master (again, we see a critique of patriarchy) and the way that power itself is a “choir of masters.” Later in the poem, he writes quite observantly, “when I murdered the master the master, split him / into two masters” and “Master of violence, you plant one seed / two sprouts uncurl.” The poem asks us to think about what power means (Medusa’s power) within a stronger power.
I love that Bibbins creates a world in which there is no real escape from the violence he depicts. He really is relentless in that. He recognizes power, understands its frustrating limits, knows who the masters are, but also uses language to distort it, disrupt it, and turn it back on itself, thereby pushing us to see violence through the broken and complex lens of really great poetic language.
4. Faithful and Virtuous Night
by Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
“Silence had entered me. / It was like the night, and my memories–they were like stars.”
All of Louise Glück’s books are written in the plain and pared down psychological speech of defiance or resignation someone is using to describe the mortality of the family and the physical world. But her new and miraculous Faithful and Virtuous Night is about the mortality of time itself and how it moves through the psyche in life lived and life remembered like a wondrous dream. This is her strangest book and is, in many ways, her masterwork—a book that reads like a magic realist tale about art and life and feels in its joyful melancholy as if it was written in the charged and mysterious space between a great wish and its uncertain outcome. It is, also, more than any of her other books, a fable about hearing music—literally and figuratively—as one of the essential moments about being alive.
3. Forgiveness Forgiveness
by Shane McCrae
Factory Hollow Press
“I go back and I see them / nowhere still // I go back in their skin”
Shane McCrae’s latest, Forgiveness Forgiveness, is a stunning follow-up to his 2013 collection Blood. This book draws on a similar inherited trauma as Blood, but it also dilates the issue to zoom in on moments of personal violence. McCrae probes memory, both collective and individual, and uncovers violence associated with racism as well as physical and sexual abuse. The struggle, however, is not to achieve vengeance, but to forgive. McCrae’s speaker seeks to better understand and to move beyond rage or even apathy.
The first of several sections, “The Visible Boy,” revolves around Little Brown Koko, a character from the obviously racist 1940’s children’s book series Little Brown Koko. In “The Dead Come Back,” we see that history cannot be erased. Imagery of stereotypical White and Black America—Koko rolling “a watermelon / carefully along a picket fence,” for instance—depict a racial divide, and by the poem’s end, the upsetting actuality resonates: “the lynched come back and live forever.” No, they don’t, as we come to see in a later poem, “Forgiveness in America,” which depicts a mass lynching and underscores the permanence of history. The poems feel particularly poignant and necessary in recent months, as racial tensions are palpable after the needless deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other Black Americans. Indeed, the past cannot be undone, and it cannot be redone, and that is McCrae’s point here, as it was in Blood. What do you do next?
McCrae also makes careful study of identity and its origin. The speaker recounts his days as one of the few black kids at his elementary school. In “How My Grandfather Painted Water,” he reveals that racial slurs had subjugated him with them first–the speaker comes from a mixed racial background; his grandparents, also his primary caretakers, are white. The speaker’s grandfather causes much pain, as it is he that sexually abuses the speaker. We see this most vividly in a section titled “The Visible Boy (Alternate Version).” But the speaker’s racial identity and the fact of his abuse intersect. In fact, the speaker is made to feel invisible, a body to be used for another’s purposes, whatever they may be. He notes, “I had / the face of someone / Who brought it on himself.”
And despite all of these offenses, historical crimes of oppression, personal violations of one’s body, desecrations of identity, despite all of it, the speaker seeks paths to compassion. In the titular and final poem of the collection, McCrae abstains from blaming. The speaker’s grandmother, a woman who refused to believe the atrocities her husband committed against their grandson, deserves. But how would the blame, anger and the hatred help? McCrae’s speaker visits his dying grandmother–whose memory is also failing–only once in her final years. Harboring guilt, resentment and hate only breeds more of the same, McCrae finds, and so he ends the book:
and I looked I didn’t see it any shame / Any
ashamed of me
For what we couldn’t she
Or I have stopped
disease had eaten holes / Into her brain
I held her and she didn’t know
why I was holding her
2. Monk Eats an Afro
by Yolanda Wisher
Hanging Loose Press
“Tongue, oh don’t you die”
Yolanda Wisher’s Monk Eats an Afro is the most complete and perfectly constructed book of poems I read in 2014. Each poem seems built ideally unto itself and in the context of the full product. Every single note and line break is perfectly suited to the mood or condition of the poem, and she keeps our attention by fitting the entire manuscript with interludes–“Songs” that are deeply felt, that are deeply musical, and that read like standards. This is not to say that the book is over-planned, but that it fits together the way a sublimely performed piece of improvisational music does after the fact; you’ll experience hooks, sympathies, extremes, emotional and technical risks, and above all, serious care on the part of an artist who cultivates her technique as profoundly as her vision.
But the final construction of the book is not as important as the poet’s voice or her insistence on the importance of using it. Wisher is incredibly smart, incisive and fun to read: “I was ballin / & didn’t have no Nikes on, / only Jordans to cross.” The poet understands lineage and sees herself as very much a part of history–the past that generated her, and the future that will leave her behind: “the space between each contraction / like African sleepin sickness, / motions of slave ships in these hips.” She uses history not to engage in cynicism, but to forge a path forward; she deeply considers her race and her role as a woman, and she emerges, in some passages, with as resonant a voice as we’ve heard in a generation: “kiss the pyramids and trap doors of history / for me. give my love to the sea bottom and the sharks.” She is at times macabre, at time justifiably enraged; but she sees a path forward, if only through lyric and music. Take these lines from “American Valentine,” an elegy for Phyllis Wheatley: “They sayin / this paper holy grail, / and yeah, this our birthright, / being black and writer. / Phillis speaks to us / across auction and museum, / sings the GOSPEL, / puts it all in / the big man’s hands. // Look how the “P” curls / like the hook / of a Christmas ornament. / Look how she’s / carved out a piece of / DOMINION for us / to sup on, our own / dreamy continent / to idle in, / her purple “X” / on the white sheet / of English Lit.”
She insists on her incredibly strong voice, and can also unleash a torrent of rhymes, as we see in “Song: Evolution”: “I’m the virtuous / I’m the blamed / I’m the yearnin / I’m the grave / I’m the lost cause / I’m the slave / I’m the tired / I’m the fat-ass / I’m the coward / I’m the bombast / I’m the preacher / I’m the dog / I’m the chickenhead / I’m the hog / I’m the pilot / Of this plane / Better drive it / Past the sugar cane / Past tobacco / Past Colt 45 / Past the bling / Past the shuck & jive // Evolution // I’m the fallen / I’m the first / I’m the burden / I’m the has-been / I’m the shallow / I’m the deep / Steady walkin / In my sleep / Oh I’m greedy / Oh I’m starved / Always singin / Steady marchin / I am a band / Of Africans // Evolution”
The quotable lines are too many, so I’ll leave you with these from the book’s final act: “But fourth life, ghosts put me upon a ship / Sufferin burned my skin like lye / I tucked my language back behind my ears / & sang, ‘Tongue, oh don’t you die.’” Yolanda Wisher emerges fully in Monk Eats an Afro—her first book—and I can’t wait for the next act.
by Claudia Rankine
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you.
It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
Whose face do you see in that empty hoodie?
The artwork on the cover is called “In the Hood,” cut from a Champion sweatshirt and suspended by a supporting length of wire, by artist David Hammons. By the time Trayvon Martin’s face surfaced in our collective consciousness to fill it, the work was already a decade old. “Did David Hammons Presage Trayvon Martin?” the critics asked, marveling at the the prescience of the newly emblematic piece.
I can’t have been the only reader of Rankine’s 2004 release, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (also subtitled An American Lyric), to see George W. Bush’s face in that snowy television screen. In that case, we see the face there because it is there, though subliminalized in Photoshop. In the case of the hoodie, Martin’s face isn’t actually part of the image—we’ve supplied it.
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve read dozens of articles summing up 2014 as “the year of” something—the year women won, the year black lives mattered, the year we took to the streets. The truth is, of course, that the year was like most others, and a series of events rose in our awareness until it could not be ignored, and we spilled over:
Serena in HD before your eyes becomes overcome by a rage you recognize and have been taught to hold at a distance for your own good. Serena’s behavior, on this particular Sunday afternoon, suggests all the injustice she has played through all the years of her illustrious career flashes before her and she decides finally to respond to all of it with a string of invectives. […] Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.
Depending on whom one asks, Citizen is either the emblematic poem of its year…or not really a poem at all. The subtitle positions it as “An American Lyric,” and those who have argued the latter seem categorically troubled by Rankine’s documentary-style reportage, presented mostly in prose blocks. Which is not to say the lines don’t sing:
Your ill-spirited, cooked, hell on Main Street, nobody’s here, broken-down, first person could be one of many definitions of being to pass on.
The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.
Citizen might already have been in galleys when Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed; it was already published when the grand juries called for no indictments. On the same night it didn’t win a National Book Award, one of the ceremony hosts let slip a bizarre, racially charged joke in a scene that could have been an anecdote from its pages.
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.
This is why the prose feels right to me: the dailyness and surface-seeming of the sentences and paragraphs get punctuated by lineated sequences where different rhythms click into place, the tone changes:
Everything shaded everything darkened everything
is the stripped is the struck—
is the trace
is the aftertaste.
And I’m also buying into Rankine’s use of the second person vs. the traditional lyric I. It reads to me both like an invitation (here, put on this hoodie) and a calling out. Plural and fluid, it’s also collective, inclusive. It seems in many places to indicate self-directed talk:
[S]ometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.
Prescience isn’t the right word. For something to be prescient it must precede. Rankine’s work would have been as electric in any year, expressing for us what she feels (meeting the definition of lyric, yep) has gone unsaid, or at least unheard: the fatigue of the constant threat, how low-level aggressions like remarks or looks or not-seeing slowly build and burden. How when someone is finally shot or choked in the street, some of us may be shocked, but lots of us knew it was coming. Every day, even from friends, even in situations that should be safe.
The drama in Rankine’s personal and borrowed anecdotes is cool and concealed, until it goes off. It turns out, there’s a gun in every pocket, or there could be. Each moment feels like one of those lingering scenes in a horror or thriller film—we’re watching a character walking in a beautiful but isolated place, or doing something mundane like entering the kitchen for a glass of water. A minute can feel like a mile, while nothing is happening. But that’s a misperception, and we know it. We’re steeled for the jolt.
Read Timothy Liu’s review here.