Top 40 Poetry Books of 2014 [20 – 11]
20. Things To Do With Your Mouth
by Divya Victor
Les Figues Press
“whether you are wanting”
Things To Do With Your Mouth is a fire-breathing text that screams back against the multifarious ways in which social apparati choke, restrict, and destroy women’s voices. Victor constitutes themes around multiple takes on the word “gag,” from the literal/physical to the psychological/social erasures of “gagging” the voice to the conceptual plays of form and the poetic—at one point, and in one of its most intimately disturbing sections, with leading fill-in-the-blanks that feel like psych ward medical surveys: “1 I am sound of mind, /2 I was born on ______ (date of birth) in /vvvvvvv_________ (country of birth) /5 I was married on _____ (dd/mm/yyyy).” Perhaps comparable to the art of Francis Bacon—not to mention the traumatic opening to Return to Oz, in which Dorothy is given electric shock treatment for her fantasies—Victor constructs affects over the daily potential for, and execution of, horrors upon the human body. Some read like a how-to, and the repetitions of forms in each section hurt like a deluge, ploys that refuse to “let up.”
Thing To Do With Your Mouth is a complex and virtuosic text that speaks through innuendo as easily as through catalogues of circumstance: “whether you are wanting / whether you are waiting / whether you cannot bear the expense / whether you want to do it yourself.” The poet seems to trust that the reader is capable of discerning his or her own conclusions or questions. Ostensibly simple ideas–“If you want / to put something / in a fixed place / between or / among other / things, you can / insert it”–carry subtle metaphorical weight and develop over pages of linked verses; “If you have / remarks, statements, / or questions / to introduce / in an abrupt / or forced manner, / you’ll have to / interject them,” she writes, and on the next page, “If you interject / too often, however, / you risk offending / the speaker and / may have to ask / someone to mediate, / which means to / settle a dispute / or bring about / a compromise / by taking a stand / midway between extremes.” Victor is deceptively plainspoken and works by power of implication, so any resolution about this book risks oversimplifying; she works well in a dizzying array of modes, ultimately offering a social commentary by bluntly serving back our status quo.
19. A Progressive Education
by Richard Howard
Turtle Point Press
“to learn / less about death and more about life–”
Fans of the “School Days” sequence in Richard Howard’s 2008 National Book Award-nominated Without Saying will be glad to see that his newest collection, A Progressive Education, comprises a more in depth visit to the students of Park School, a “progressive education” middle school. Several poems are identical to sections in the original sequence, but in his new book, Howard broadens the character base. Notably, he has also moved his cast of students from fifth grade to sixth grade, with poems that used to say “fifth grade” now saying “sixth grade,” a harmless change that does not disrupt the acute syllabics the poet is famous for.
These students are whip-smart and punchy, perfect grammarians, and generally more evolved than any ten-year-olds I’ve ever met. Maybe the world of Progressive Education is slightly cartoonish. Or maybe their erudition comes from the progressive system of which they’re so proud, although the students admit that tacking the word progressive onto any phrase “would make whatever / goes on around here sound ever so / democratic and therefore enlightened….”
Whereas Howard’s previous characters lampoon, lament, and luxuriate a know-it-all air, the Sixth Grade Class at Park School presents a passion play of knowledge, yearning for the facts of adulthood, but damning “typical grown-up reasoning”–that which comes not from textbook logic but from emotional experience. With acute attention to subtle turns of thought, Howard walks us through the hyper-rational minds of ten-year-olds wrestling with the metaphysical. They want so badly to understand the world of adults. I’m embarrassed and moved by the familiarity of these sixth-graders: their stubbornness was my own pushed into the absurd only a little. I have a feeling these students could rattle off every American president in reverse chronological order and solve complex logarithmic equations, but they flatly deny those grand subjects of life: Sex and Death. And is it any wonder? Are we adults any different now? I don’t think so.
–Eric Dean Wilson
18. City of Eternal Spring
by Afaa Michael Weaver
University of Pittsburgh Press
“So that I might hear the quiet voice of the union of heart and mind, help me forget the past and the future.”
The above quote is the English rendering of an Afaa Michael Weaver poem composed in Chinese characters and emblazoned on the cover of City of Eternal Spring, the conclusion to a trilogy of works that began with 2007’s The Plum Flower Dance and continued through 2013’s The Government of Nature. Weaver’s longstanding spiritual quest–he earned a Fulbright to teach at National Taiwan University and Taipei National University of the Arts in 2002, and at that time began the daily practice of Daoist sitting meditation–bears real fruit in this trilogy, especially in its final act. His patient explorations of love, intimacy, and time strike like opiates: “Being is filling the sack of something, knowing / yourself as a space, having mind take over / everything, ignoring the tubes and liquids / that give it something to drive, the mind driving, / stopped only by pain.” His committed mindfulness allows him to explore relationships with past and present–intimacies, family dynamics, losses that still permeate–all while seeing and resisting knowingness. He sees history all around him, allowing him to develop a clear-eyed political conscience while embracing and acknowledging the ephemerality of his own insights: “I knew the weight”–not know the weight–“of what is too much / to try to see.”
17. Sun Bear
by Matthew Zapruder
Copper Canyon Press
“…and felt a peace I am happy / I will never be able to explain.”
Spacious, readable, conscious, humble, Sun Bear is Zapruder’s best book of poems to date. The carefully modulated plain speech, well chosen visual details, and ability to defamiliarize subject matter with an easy, curious calm have been features of Zapruder’s work for years. Fans will also recognize the geographical hymns to distant places, random states, whole countries and principalities; few poets are able to translate into words the sheer pleasure (and strangeness) of holding an entire region in the mind; what’s remarkable over the course of the volume is how the consciousness in one poem affects the next: the hugeness of the world seems to hover, like a blimp cam, above even the simplest domestic scenes. Zapruder is at his best when he can meditate freely through a subject toward an understanding of the self that surprises both poet and reader. In Sun Bear, he comes into a type of poem for which this sensibility is uniquely suited. His seventeen “poems for” (“Poem for California,” “Poem for Plutocrats,” “Poem for a Vial of Nameless Perfume,” et al) trade on the multiple meanings of that small word “for,” and have the unfakable fluency one finds in Neruda’s odes and Koch’s late addresses. It was my favorite volume of the year.
16. The Infinitesimals
by Laura Kasischke
Copper Canyon Press
“And now / the monster-white flower made of sound / is coming down. / Is coming down.”
The Infinitesimals has to be the most haunting, most haunted book of 2015, and the most hopeful. Open the big book of short poems—Kasischke’s ninth–at almost any point and you will find either an allegorical vision, or a realist snapshot, ready to show how and why and where, in the midst of life, we are in death; the ordinary rituals and the improvisations of bourgeois families’ days gain in value (maybe they gain most of their value) from the fact that you and your life partner and your kids, if you have kids, and your parents, if you have parents, and your friends, are going to die. In “The Book of Life” we read about what comes after life: “Pale and naked without their bodies, the souls / examine the book / in which they hope to find / their names,” but the book is “Made of soap. Now. Made / of smoke.”
In other poems we read about what comes before adult life, the unruliness of childhood, girlhood, boyhood, which mothers—which Kasischke as a mother—cannot protect or preserve: “All // the small boys pouring from the world’s fissure into / the world: My // father with a ball and bat. My/ husband with a wooden gun.” (Killer toys, prophylactics against real death.) There is also the common cold, and hospice care; there is “the young woman I saw hit by a car while riding her bike,” “the oncologist, The postman. The woman / who agreed to do my taxes,” and there is the poet, taking it all in.
Kasischke’s unruly line breaks, her array of irregular midline rhyme, and her prose blocks (less prose, more lines, here than in her last volume, Space, in Chains) speak to the blessed unpredictability in the middles of lives with predetermined ends: her own experience as a survivor of breast cancer, and her memories of losing her father, set the facts behind the poems apart. But the facts aren’t the point—nor, even, are the allegories (new in her oeuvre) of sea-gods and the Johannine apocalypse: to live inside her poetry is to live inside an American language whose sounds will keep on surprising you, and a language that tells the truth about exciting, sad mortal bodies, about health and illness, about how to get through the years and the days, not overwhelmed, not broken-down, sometimes joyful, not alone.
15. The Earth Avails
by Mark Wunderlich
“All this will be taken from me, this I know.”
Mark Wunderlich’s The Earth Avails is saturated with beauty. Contentedly beholden to the earth,Wunderlich’s speaker savors every detail of the nature that surrounds him in the impressive opening poem “Once I walked Out.” The poem begins, “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side.” Reminding readers of our irrevocable and sacred connection to the earth, the speaker celebrates seemingly insignificant details and in doing so, he magnifies the minutia until they transcend the limitations of this world. A herd of grazing sheep, for instance, “bleated with sensitivity, touched / black muzzles to the grass.”
Often in couplets, these poems are as disciplined and precise as they are rapturous. They do not attempt to circumvent the reality of our presence on this earth. In fact, in plainspoken language, Wunderlich confronts the more oppressive moments of this life, as in “Dwell in My House” when the poet admits, “When I see my aging, childless body, // bring me back to the company I keep. / All this will be taken from me, this I know. // There is more for me to suffer.” In poems like this one, Wunderlich’s verse reads as elegy. Many poems also read as benedictions, prayers to “the author of all truths” that admit and embrace a degree of uncertainty rather than feigning total comprehension. There is no desperate reaching for control; rather the poet accepts unknowing, powerlessness.
Wunderlich’s book is an exemplary model for the kind of everyday study and introspection that leads to clarity. It can teach readers how to accept that which we cannot fully govern. Most importantly, however, this book inspires us to renew our gaze each time we open our eyes.
14. The Pedestrians
by Rachel Zucker
“these details / make life unbearable & without which meaningless”
You don’t really become aware of how much contemporary poetry relies on lazy mystification until you read something that doesn’t engage in it at all. Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians is such a book. Rather, two books. Split into sections of roughly equal length, the 141-page collection is divided first into a book called “Fables” and second into one called “The Pedestrians.” The former consists of five fairly long, lyrical prose pieces and the latter of 43 poems, most of them lineated and some of them in prose, including several that are framed as dreams. What causes their being published under one cover to make sense is that both depict a process of unknowing or an unwinding of illegitimate—or perhaps just imposed—forms of knowledge.
It seems fitting that a double collection should have a title that has a double meaning, and that Zucker should then collapse that double meaning, too. For the book deals with the concept of “pedestrian” as in both “not interesting or unusual” and as in “relating to or designed for people who are walking.” But the poetry is interesting and unusual in its deliberate usualness because Zucker takes the familiar and makes it fresh, as when in the “Fables” section, she writes:
Sometimes her heart would beat a bit faster or irregularly as if her body was fighting back, clinging to wakefulness. Mostly, though, she enjoyed the feeling of the sleeping pill taking hold, pulling her toward quietude. It was foreplay with a predictable outcome. So unusual: that kind of kept promise.
In her eyes, lots of other commonplace items and occurrences become unusual, too, even things as quotidian as salt: “The uneven crystals glittered like drugs or a geode’s innards.”
Zucker writes in the fable called “Apartment” that after reading a novel, “It is not that she is hearing voices but that her thoughts have become inflected and unfamiliar,” and that’s what Zucker’s book does, too. The Pedestrians is, in most ways, a book about small things, but its effect is not a small one at all. It may even be epic.
13. The New Testament
by Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon Press
“I cannot locate the origin / Of slaughter, but I know / How my own feels…”
At The New Testament‘s core is the act of survival and an authoritative speaker who takes on the role of interpreter. Passing encounters become new myth, and Brown lifts the recounting of love, death and disease–the central themes of his collection–from a passive experience, something done to us, to fateful acts that illustrate the versatility of human understanding.
If Brown is confessional in his work, he is conscious of his performance and his audience. He turns the autobiography into parable. As with “Romans 12:1,” Brown lays out a narrative alongside a means to interpretation:
A certain obsession overtook
My body, or I should say,
I let a man touch me until I bled,
Until my blood met his hunger
And so was changed, was given
A new name
As is the practice among my people
Who are several and whole, holy
And acceptable. On the whole
Hurt by me, they will not call me
As the title “Romans 12:1” suggests, this is a reworking of the biblical script “that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God,” but the speaker is not facing the divine. He presents himself to a society fearful of sexuality, gender and race: “Hear me coming, /And they cross their legs. As men /Are wont to hate women, As women are taught to hate / Themselves, they hate a woman / They smell in me, every muscle / Of her body clenched / In fits beneath men.”
The New Testament presents a disappointing America, but Brown’s poetry is loving and poignant. He illustrates an ability to reach beyond the modern plagues–yes bodily diseases, but also racism, homophobia and complacency. He creates new faith in our own stories, in our ability to create purpose and place for ourselves.
“…BLAM take / THAT BABY it’s / american / fashion”
CAConrad’s Ecodeviance is a collection of poems inlaid with essays which not only provide histories for how the poems were born, but offer instructions for how to write such poems and, more broadly, how to live as a human animal in an increasingly sterile world. The resulting poems are prayer-like meditations which take on everything from war to furniture, all unified by Conrad’s insistence on making strange that which we are wont to take as natural. He also insists on embracing the natural, both with his treatment of plant and animal life–“when humans / trust weeds / know them / hear / tone of grass see visions of / milking their blades to / blend with ordinary / gentleness of wind”–and of the less social aspects of human biology, with commands like “taste birth canal.”
While many of these instructions/rituals yield one poem each, “Full Moon Hawk Application” produces 13, and “The Painted Pigeon Project” 17. These series allow Conrad to move through image and sound associations, exploring his psyche with the direct intention of reflecting it back to us, all the while defamiliarizing language: “squid as prefix to love.” But with all of the wildness that Conrad vividly conjures, we are always aware of his “plot to cover the place with tenderness.”
11. Go Find Your Father / A Famous Blues
by Harmony Holiday
“Imma take my time Imma just try a little, if it don’t come out right, fuck it”
In ESPN’s documentary Without Bias, the former basketball coach John Thompson says, “Failing is a very common thing in our society, the unique thing is success […] so how many people could teach him [ Len Bias, a promising basketball player who died of a cocaine overdose] about it or talk to him, very few.” The path to success is a central concern in Harmony Holiday’s stellar second book, as are the ideas of hero- and myth-making. In particular, Holiday explores black males and their relationship to hero worship within the structure of family, community, and the business of entertainment. Holiday’s work raises the question: how much of one’s life is of their own making, and how much is the myth we create for them, or the myth that has been handed down to us?
Holiday is the daughter of the famous R&B singer and songwriter Jimmy Holiday, and Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues is a tête-bêche book-length hybrid containing lyric essay, poetry, photography, and fragments of hand-written notes. Holiday weaves in numerous references and includes a wide range of poets, intellectuals, and musicians, while updating the content and context. For example, in “Alternate Ending/ Why We Are A Destiny/ Why Are We A Destiny,” she references William Carlos Williams:
Stereotype, lifestyle, still life with don’t move or I’ll shoot. A blues parallel, a crop circle, a rhinestone sharecropper, a yellow girl enters the red wheelbarrow and the chicken gotta go. And sacrifice is an acoustic condition, we learn, so much depends upon the way the drums pick up and snag just when you’re about the heave into the body of an animal and release the blood from the spirit…”
Holiday further explores the “acoustic condition” of sacrifice when she writes, “I know it has to do with the ideas of the black male, black masculinity, the creative and destructive powers that the trade winds pave into the black male psyche, gender and endlessness.” (“Dear Dad”)
Holiday also examines the complicated construct of race throughout the book. In “See-Through Rivers,” she tackles the ways “Blackness” is appropriated:
When White America fell in love with Blackness and tried to hold it captive as a means of accessing and appropriating its fruits, so-called Whiteness was re-arranged just as Africanness was. When my mother fell in Love with my father not only were both of them altered, I came forth as an emblem of that mutually re-arranging capacity, let’s say, as all children of mixed and re-mixed race do and will.
Throughout the book, Holiday textures the white/black paradigm by reminding the readers of the complexities of her experience as a mix-raced person. What makes this book such a vital read is that it manages to capture the timeless urgency for and the examination of love. This book blazes with its “Sun Ra’s Blues,” “Saturn’s Blues,” “Melvin Van Peeble’s Blues,” “Langston’s Blues,” “True Blues,” and “Famous Blues.” Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues is a necessary blues for all breathing beings.