Top 40 Poetry Books of 2014 [30 – 21]
by Mathias Svalina
Big Lucks Books
“Some nights some stars flutter to earth with the leaves.”
I dislike all the talk about how quote unquote useful poetry is. I don’t want useful poems. I want poems that stammer, poems that turn you into a sieve, poems that blast and careen and straight fuck you up. I don’t know what poetry can do, but maybe it can help you sometimes. Mathias was having a deathly time of it a few years ago. I don’t mean metaphorically, so permit me to be a little more personal with this entry. I’ve known Mathias for about a decade, we met when he and Zachary Schomburg invited me and my friends out to read for their legendary series called The Clean Part out in Lincoln, Nebraska. Mathias was the first poet I met that insisted we stay up all night just to drink beer and read poems—by Frank Stanford, by Dorothea Lasky, by Joseph Ceravolo—many others I’m sure. So, we did.
As for Wastoid, here’s how Mathias himself puts it:
As I reread Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of the greatest accumulations of sounds & sentences in the English language, I found them this time to be packed with bad advice. It was my job, I realized, to correct the advice, poem by poem, in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
It’s a hilariously ludicrous idea, but it’s perfect, you know? This is years later now, but Mathias and I meet up in Bronxville, NY. We’d coincidentally been invited to read at the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival, which was marvelous: we smoked a little grass outside a dorm with Caroline Bergvall, we joked around with the lovely Craig Dworkin, and I got a plastic cup of wine plucked right out of my hand by the indomitable Bernadette Mayer, who drained it and told me to fetch her another. Which I did. Mathias gave this fevered reading of all these poems from Wastoid, many of them he’d just written in the previous night or two—they were sort of pouring out of him. He came over to my hotel room. We ordered a shitty pizza from Domino’s and watched a basketball game on the tv. Mathias was quiet, just writing his way through it all.
So, the next day, Ben Lerner had given this brilliant intro to his own work and read well from his poems; and then Mathias gets up there—no easy act to follow—in his Cannibal Corpse hat, tufts of hair poking out from underneath, and he goes into the poems, one after another like a tornado that’s about to uncoil over a farm or something. Everybody’s on the floor like school children, leaning in. I’m leaning in, too, thinking he’s gonna die. He’s gonna fall down and die while reading—it was like that. Each of my laughs got louder (I was that asshole guy in the audience), but I was just trying to hold the tears back, I realize now.
I love this book. It’s dedicated to me, so there’s that. But you should buy it. And read them aloud to your friends. And get an extra copy for me to lay onto my chest when they lower me into the ground. You think I’m kidding. But I’m not kidding.
–Joshua Marie Wilkinson
29. A Hotel in Belgium
by Brett Fletcher Lauer
Four Way Books
“And it happens one word // is used for another like the half- / dead carrying on among us.”
Writing poems today, even the 20th Century feels like a throwback to a future already past, or as Brett Fletcher Lauer might put it in his long-awaited debut: “the heart / has previously gone in and out of fashion and in this / news cycle is experiencing great heights.” As hemlines rise and fall, so do poetic fads and blockbuster meds, our homegrown strain of Symbolism and Deep Imagism having gone into hibernation (like God) along with the likes of Larry Levis, Mark Strand and Stephen Dobyns all amplifying a more plain-spoken spellbound tradition in lines and stanzas chiseled to last—this would be in keeping with the company BFL assiduously keeps: “It is crucial / that we notice subtleties of raven against sable, love / against eagerness, hear murmurs and distinguish // whether they are whisperings or heavy palm leaves. / It takes commitment. The moon has begun to falter; / the sea hovers over a body holding its breath, waiting / for predators, a cloud. This is as good a start as any.”
Favorites: A Hotel in Belgium, The Portable Twentieth Century, Seaside Suicide, Prologue and Epilogue, After Reading This Poem.
28. Troy, Michigan
by Wendy S. Walters
“Disquiet / serves as the provocation, the lesson.”
There is an ongoing interplay between geography, population and individual reputation and aspiration in Troy, Michigan. For example, “Digamma/Stigma” taps into our desire to be epic, to be wondrous–but just as all of Garrison Keillor’s resident children cannot be above average, our adult aspirations also dissolve into the inescapably typical. In “Detroit, 1967″ Walters writes:
Before the middle class turned illusive
from faults of compromise, a gray city
inspired folks to think privilege is a
brick house: to live in it is to keep it.
Houses, commercial properties, industrial plants, highways, canals and all the largest-scale trappings of urbana and sprawl are central characters for Walters. Public works and infrastructure become just another dialogue with the self. Over the course of Troy, Michigan, physical environment becomes an extension of self: “The project / of romancing winter relies on salt’s / advantage over ice” (Cogito). Our experience is mitigated and filtered through hugely impersonal forces. We make them personal because, as humans, we must.
From out of the distance of The Public and The Shared comes the intensely personal. The penultimate section is concerned with the discrimination faced by a black daughter. Even the experience of racism is felt through observation and an intermediary but that only amplifies the emotion. “Unsaid” is an intense blaze of unrepentant anger and hate in its dealing with the unrepentant anger and hate of everyday racism. Watching the pain of another life, Walters taps into an even deeper dislocation, and the results are astounding. Troy, Michigan is far-ranging and personal, even when the personal is as cold and distant as a super-highway in winter.
27. Compass Rose
by Arthur Sze
Copper Canyon Press
“and here’s / the infinite in the intervening emptiness.”
The rate at which we receive, process, and jettison information is increasing, not decreasing, and for every study that says reading on screens is killing us and meditation makes us live longer, it doesn’t necessarily seem possible or likely that people will slow down. To that end, I give you Arthur Sze, whose Compass Rose is an ideal companion for your getaway to the woods or even your subway ride to work. The poet, neither an idle nor passive worshipper of beauty, is gifted at seeing the big picture: how the large is made of many small components, how anything perceived as large is tiny on a separate scale, and how emotional reality is built on the intersection of terror and beauty, components of nature that seem somehow to rely on one another.
In “The Curvature of Earth,” “Kiwis hang from branches” and “a cassia tree shades a courtyard”; likewise, “Soldiers fire mortars at enemy bunkers, / while Afghan farmers pause then resume // slicing poppy bulbs and draining resin.” NASA recently released the “largest picture ever taken”–a shot of the Andromeda galaxy that ultimately dwarfs even that galaxy–and in that context, any two things happening anywhere on planet earth seem as related as any two things happening anywhere in a given room. They are related by proximity and by the fact that they exist at all; Sze enacts this simultaneity time and again, often in sweeping sequences wherein each section is a fixture and a necessary part of a larger whole: “The hubble telescope spots a firefly from ten thousand / miles away. Consciousness is an infinite net / in which each hanging jewel absorbs and reflects / every other.” “When is recollection liberation?” asks a poet who seems effortlessly fixed in the present as it entirely absorbs the past. Sze’s book is harrowing and tranquil the way that great meditation needs to be, a book equally for readers interested in the machinations of nature or in social politics; for Sze, these are not separate, and his massive vision makes for a durable book that provides the sensation of being fixed, for a second or so, in space and time.
26. Language Arts
by Cedar Sigo
“Nothing is its other and spiritual side.”
Cedar Sigo’s Language Arts is far from sounding elderly, but what it accomplishes speaks to more classical roles of poetry in the excising of individual tumult and reinforcing of experiences of shared intellectual community—that poetry, in a very romantic sense, still contains “write-through” healing works. Sigo provides invigorating language play set partially in the context of the state of poetry itself, but never overwhelmingly isolatedly so, while more importantly expressing the ways in which literature suits a shared public/private experience (“Were those walls the insides of songs to stir you enough awake to make it back?”). Sigo moves in and out of shared narratives and modalities, articulates a love for dreams and how soon they are lost, and employs the lyric at will in these bricolage mixes (after a melodic mixing of language of the digital and the real, the last line of “Chimes at Midnight” bluntly reads “video games, epic poetry, get money!”). There is also a running theme of mixed languages, detailed by some romps through Paris, and the struggles to reach toward greater empathy without the words to do so (“The dark is a cool stone, spark in life (never cloying) I am in pursuit of absolute fluency”)–evocative maybe of some of David Byrne’s most wondrous, weird and necessary lyrical turns. Sigo exercises adeptness at meaningful switches between the atonal and the lyrical; the poems hit their ugly and beautiful notes all at once, perhaps—but it’s trained, attuned playfulness.
25. Natural History Rape Museum
by Danielle Pafunda
“The fuckwad wants to know why she’s bothering to dress / like a lady.”
Danielle Pafunda’s gripping new collection is about subjugation and control, the ways that people, especially dumbass, power-and-pleasure-seeking patriarchy, impose themselves onto others, literally and figuratively, usually literally, simply because they want to. Pafunda pulls no punches and offers no silver lining, as we see in the title of the book itself: rape is very much the history of our planet; the most evolutionarily successful (or richest, or strongest) take what they can for themselves at the expense of who cares what; the animal brain wins out, and contemplation, ethics, and empathy are perversions that those in pursuit of control are not to be bothered with–or perhaps, that they don’t even have the capacity to understand.
Of course, all of this is subtext in Pafunda’s book. I don’t mean to imply that this kind of ideology can claim Total Victory. But its pervasiveness is already known to anyone with a reasonable sense of intelligence; what makes this book exciting is the way that she performs it instead of simply telling us about it. Natural History Rape Museum marks the full realization of a distinctive tone and style that Pafunda has been cultivating for a while now, and she takes no prisoners: “The fuckwad, I heard him a’singing his organs to heaven.” Throughout, Pafunda uses a “fuckwad” who seems to encompass everything from selfish boyfriend to out-and-out beast. She understands his insistence on dominance, but she is also an irrepressible rebel, showing that the desire for ownership of others–in any of its manifestations–is the ultimate cowardice: “We have come here to discuss the rape death bad mood / of my friend, sister, twin sister, that dead girl // We have come here to look at a series of photographs / made thin by dint of sick glug from the split sass spout.” Reading Pafunda means being reminded of the importance of decoding things into their essential vulgarity; in many poems, the titles are inserted in boxes in the center of the poem, underscoring the theme of subjugation. But the poet owns her ferocity, fuck-it sense of humor, and war-chest of lyrical pyrotechnics. Certain powers insist on themselves; this doesn’t mean that those who know better shouldn’t show them for what they are.
24. The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
by Olena Kalytiak Davis
Copper Canyon Press
“I kept looking there: from many vantages”
The poem “Orpheus and Eurydice (2005)” offers one of many keys to Davis’s The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems. In it, an encounter with an ex spurs a self-examination. This is common ground. However, Davis turns the experience on itself and asks the “real” questions: Am I living my best life, which is to say, is my life beating the lives of others in terms of its fully realized lifeness?
what is, i said, the best approach?
protecting the ones we love
or exposing some/our truth? each
in its stubborn way beyond reproach.
Steeped in Confessionalism, Davis takes on the “experience comparison combat” that comes with such a form. And she does it brilliantly because every piece is anchored in a deep inescapable love of poetry. Her love is mature, not blandly simple or adoring, but lifelong – for Davis, poetry remembers the little things when it’s desperately needed and also leaves the seat up. Poetry is a compulsion that she has learned not to expect anything from, and so she is liberated to trust and enjoy it. In “Hello Poem” Davis writes:
Aren’t you supposed to be all alive and tell me what is going on?
Poem, Kay Ryan does not like you!
Poem, I’m afraid your strangeness is still not that true.
Poem – you say too little.
Poem – you are so not enough.
The reader gets to enjoy the liberation as well. Her fully non-ironic honesty and tone create an exceptional intimacy. As a reader, you are brought into a personal dialogue with poets present and past. Davis states that she has stolen heavily from many poets for the book. However, she does not borrow from past poets as much as she engages with them–Dante and Ruefle, Bishop and Rohrer, heavy doses of Robert Lowell, and more populate Davis’ poems as characters expressed through her relationship with their work. Davis’ awareness of poem-production adds a layer of sincerity rather than defense; she revels in the beauty and the limitations of the art and her shifting intentions towards the creation of poetry.
23. The Wilderness
by Sandra Lim
“The grip of solitude–”
Sandra Lim’s second poetry collection, The Wilderness, which made its quiet debut in the Fall of 2014, is one of those magical must-read collections whose icily etched images can inspire anyone to sit down and write. It’s quite appropriate that Louise Glück chose Lim for the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Like Glück, Lim is a spare and unerring wordsmith; she apprehends the world with a depressive’s cold acuteness that barely conceals the anguish within. Her poetry is aphoristic in the way each line feels like it could be the final line of a poem. There is a surprising restraint in the handling of each line, from its near-sentence-long length to the way a line clips off at the odd preposition. These poems speak of a seemingly mild and composed self who barely holds fury at bay: “loss keeps thudding past my house, telling me I’m not done. / My hearts, still leaping like rats.” Lim’s poems are dark and utterly sublime.
–Cathy Park Hong
by Douglas Kearney
Red Hen Press
“like chick beaks call to me.”
Douglas Kearney’s latest collection is one of only a handful of books I can think of that addresses pregnancy, birth and their surrounding difficulties from the perspective of the father. Patter is about the attempt to attain that title, but the fear of all it entails. Kearney’s music as we know it from his other work is still here, yet continues to push his limits. The diction is straightforward, yet also startles, leaning on consonants and/or complicated syntax and/or grammar that hit you hard – “a tabby bats a wren up-wise” and “my dreams are remembers now / they a when.” This keeps the reader on her toes and forces her to slow down, taking in this complex book at the pace the subject deserves.
Overall, Patter is a book of anxiety about several things: the role Kearney is stepping into as a father and its deeply troubling history, practice, and psychological as well as societal place. Also, as a black man keenly aware of the difficulties as a marginalized member of society in the United States, knowing what lies ahead for his children.
This is a book worth reading in a single sitting, letting it take you under from the get-go. I have trouble quoting from it. It fights being excerpted. But this book is rich – it is a text that you can read many times over for its music, material, bravery, pointed playfulness, its social consciousness, its deep intelligence.
21. The Open Secret
by Jennifer Moxley
“Youth bores me.”
Jennifer Moxley’s The Open Secret transforms commonplace domestic scenes into simultaneously soul-crushing and spine-tingling moments of awakening. A plainspoken and unflinching tone permeates these poems, even as the poet admits to unknowing, uncertainty and uncomfortable internal contradiction. In “Lullaby,” for instance, she assembles quaint and peaceful imagery: imagined children playing innocently in the backyard. The games they play—hopscotch and jump rope—encourage nostalgia in readers, and, in general, their behavior recalls a typical childhood. For instance, they come inside for dinner when called, but do so reluctantly, as most children do, saddened to leave the world of the imagination. Even most adults are reluctant to confront reality.
The entire poem is a hypothetical scenario for the speaker. If she had these children, she imagines she would, “having felt lonely all day long, long to be alone.” There is no guilt in this admission, however; it is a statement of fact. Moxley proves skilled at confronting fact. There’s an eternal ache here that Moxley uncovers, and it has little to do with the presence or absence of children. It simply is, and perhaps was before all else. The poet reveals this ordinary moment of human suffering without dramatization of the female plight as biological determinant. The socio-cultural pressure to want and to have children weighs heavy on many women, and Moxley plainly acknowledges an unpopular though authentic sensibility.
But Moxley’s stance here isn’t so narrow as to only speak to the female. In fact, her speaker is able to imagine existence outside of her own, as she taps a universal vein: fear. “But wouldn’t my children be able / to quiet their fears without me,” she asks. Surely, there is no guarantee of our offspring achieving a healthy independence, one of the many reasons we have to not reproduce. Nevertheless, Moxley’s expression suggests an acceptance of possible failures and a confidence in the future, at least in that it will be. Whatever it is.
Acceptance proves a great strength of Moxley’s, yet she also boldly rejects many attributes of today’s human: our obsession with youth, for one. She writes, “The option to refresh existence by / returning to patterns established in youth / bores me. Youth bores me” in section IV of her long poem “Coastal.” She takes the reader on a journey through her aging, but not in the traditional sense. Rather than imagery of the body, we are directed to the development and maturation of the mind. Moxley’s speaker cultivates a sophisticated emotional intelligence. She examines the youth problem as it often applies to relationships. She concludes:
What they do not tell you is that the slow warming
of the same body over the same flame for many years
is the more various option, not the less. It is easier
to hit repeat and go back to the start than to find yourself
in the middle for the very first time.
Moxley is certainly adept at expressing that which feels untellable.