Top 40 Poetry Books of 2014 [40 – 31]
Welcome to our annual list of the Top 40 Poetry Books of the Year. It took a little longer than usual to assemble it this year, but we are very excited by it and hope you find something you like. This year’s list will unfold over the next four days (40-31 are listed below) and will feature prose-about-poetry by Diana Arterian, Stephen Burt, Shanna Compton, Crystal Curry, John Deming, Asa Drake, Seth Graves, Cathy Park Hong, Steven Karl, James Kimbrell, Michael Klein, Timothy Liu, Erin Lynn, Sandra Simonds, Matt Soucy, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Eric Dean Wilson, Melinda Wilson and Matthew Yeager. As we say every year, obviously no list like this is anything but highly subjective, but our team of readers read hundreds of books when trying to develop this, and we think everything on here is worthy of a slot on your already too-full bookshelf. Many other agencies, magazines, prizes, etc select a favorite book of the year, and we like to share our process of winnowing our way down to a favorite. Thanks to all the presses and poets who helped out, and thanks again to all who helped with our Kickstarter initiative a year ago. Enjoy, and Happy (Belated) New Year.
40. Wet Land
by Lucas De Lima
“We fall into upper case letters like rows of teeth.”
To call any book of poetry the “strangest” of the year would have to be an overstatement given the number and variety of modes that poets publish in these days. Suffice it to say, a lot of people are trying a lot of things. But rarely does a balancing act as bizarre as Lucas De Lima’s in Wet Land come so fully realized, so humane, so self-aware, so diabolical. The book is inspired by the tragic death of the poet’s close friend Ana Maria, who was killed—in the book, and in life—by a “10 FOOT 400 POUND / ALLIGATOR.” The gator becomes even larger in the poet’s imagination: a ferocious, unmitigating god of death that we must ultimately become allies with if we are to accept our own lurking mortality, the hysterical absurdity of anyone’s demise, the lack of clarity and meaning underlying the whole human project.
Much of the book is written in all caps, an effect that seems almost designed to wall readers out of a project that the artist has his suspicions about. Is a long elegy ultimately more about the author creating his own showpiece than honoring the person that he and others have lost? But if you are put off a bit at first by the caps, you may ultimately come around to the uncompromising menace they represent: “THE ALLIGATOR IS A GOD UNDERWATER WITH TWO SETS OF EYELIDS. / I BORROW THE DEPTH OF HIS SIGHT. / IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTARY THE ACTRESS LOOKS / NOTHING LIKE ANA MARIA; / THE OTHER ACTRESS LOOKS NOTHING LIKE HER FRIEND. / A SIMULATION OF SNORKELING WITH A DEITY COULD ALWAYS BE REDDER.” It becomes a blunt, vulgar, but also rather loving elegy–“EVERYTHING WAS FUNNY AT THE CEREMONY BECAUSE / I COULD IMAGINE ANA MARIA’S REMARKS”– and Ana Maria gets represented not only by the poet’s words, but by her own, as De Lima samples her e-mails and other writings.
The book is further complicated as an elegy not only for this one friend, but also for those who have died as a result of the AIDS epidemic. HIV/AIDS is another tragedy of nature that is close to the poet’s heart, that comes in all caps, and that exists in bizarre proportion to alligators: “After discovering that the alligator’s blood is so potent it can destroy HIV, I begin to understand our alliance.” We all know what’s at the bottom of the swamp; nevertheless, De Lima’s response is decidedly uncynical: “To write this book–to inscribe myself into its bloodstained ecology–I have to become a bird.”
by Dorothea Lasky
“And what it was / And what it is / It is again”
Dorothea Lasky’s Rome is a balancing act between wry observance and a pervasive sense of individual sadness. Lasky’s masterful, signature voice drives this book with a series of “I” statements that bear witness to the rawness of living. Poems like “Porn” manage to be both hilarious and devastating: “Her friends shouted, nah girl, now you’re free / But no she’s not she’s in a movie.” The long, titular poem that closes the book explores the conceit of Rome, which provides a landscape for the speaker’s past as well as a space where the human is its most primal: a gladiator’s world of brutality. Rome is where the speaker can most directly address the “you” of many of the poems, and, more importantly, herself: “This isn’t about you…Love is a strange dance / I do with myself.” Readers journey with the speaker through her many revisions of classic themes: love, death, loneliness, as she constantly zooms closer in on “The real/Bloody and awful.”
38. Backup Singers
by Sommer Browning
“Hello. We’re here. We only have so much power.”
Sommer Browning’s second full-length collection displays enormous range over the course of its four sections. Tackling topics that require pensiveness in the first half of the book, Browning develops a new and refreshingly serious voice. Hints of loss and pools of nostalgia populate these poems as they delve into the speaker’s experience with the domestic sphere. Gripping imagery of motherhood captures the imagination: “pull the eggplant from its brine bath, tight placenta; / above them inky gelatin of night.” Browning reaches for the cosmic here, and she proves skilled at addressing the infinitesimal. Her poems comfort us, as we grasp for the same small moments of understanding: “Each satellite, lonely. Each satellite spears itself with / mortal messages. Hello. We’re here. We only have so much power.”
Equally powerful are the moments in which Browning’s speaker displays a Whitmanian ecstasy despite her ordinary surroundings. In one poem, the speaker finds herself in a shopping mall parking lot when she encounters a particularly stunning sunset. Browning writes, “What tenderness the world arranges when we aren’t looking! / And when we do, we drop all of our shopping bags.” Browning complicates our small existences through her attention to the moments in which they intersect with the Elysian.
Backup Singers, however, wouldn’t be a Sommer Browning book without a return to Browning’s wheelhouse. In section III, she reenters her darkly humorous and quick-witted observation. In part 30 of that section, she discusses the ways in which a poem can be “smooth.” “There is smooth like a baby rump or a George Benson song. / Smooth like Victor Noir’s overly fondled bronze member at Père Lachaise,” she quips. If you don’t know, George Benson is a popular jazz guitarist, and Victor Noir…well, look it up. It’s worth it, as is reading and rereading Backup Singers.
37. Someone Else’s Wedding Vows
by Bianca Stone
Octopus Books/Tin House Books
“…we will perceive our own pain in others.”
Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows consists of narrative interwoven with surreal insights and beautiful imagery: “I can love like a farmhouse or a grief- / chimney that funnels from the ovens / of my earlier unpopular period.” The quiet but clear voice throughout this book confesses things like “I would pay to feel good all the time” while painting light-filled visuals: “The sun drapes its modern dread across everything.” The speaker moves through interactions with others both in the present and in the past, creating a social history for herself which also comments more generally upon how individuals, with our strange and nearly untranslatable minds, exist among others. The intimate voice of “Monsieur” gives us a modern love poem— one that is honest about the singular way even mutual love is experienced. In mutedly musical lines, Stone translates her inner world gorgeously.
36. Prelude to Bruise
by Saeed Jones
Coffee House Press
“I am not / your boy. I am not.”
Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones’s debut collection, candidly explores the many facets of an identity plagued by misrepresentation, abuse, hatred and alienation. Interested in the intersections of sexual and racial identity, Jones uncovers what exactly is at stake when one presents oneself authentically, when one insists on being oneself regardless of the consequences. We learn that relationships suffer or are malformed, stunted. The speaker reveals a fraught relationship with his father very early on in the book: “I would say sorry Papa; I would never / ask for mother again.” And later: “Father in my room / looking for more sissy clothes / to burn.” The speaker suffers systematic and unrelenting assault on his character, his very selfness.
Relationships are central to the speaker’s bruising. Sexual relationships, in particular, are littered with potential hazards. In “Body & Kentucky Bourbon,” for instance, the speaker faces the realization that “you drank // so you could face me the morning after.” The speaker’s lover finds it impossible to accept his sexuality while sober, but the speaker, admirably, isn’t vengeful. Jones writes, “What did I know / of your father’s backhand.” The echo of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” reminds readers how very difficult any love relationship can be. Jones also carefully considers the impact of context and environment with regard to one’s identity. We are again reminded of Robert Hayden (think “Night, Death, Mississippi”) when we encounter Jones’s “Jasper, 1998,” a poem in three parts that details a horrific hate crime leading to the death of James Byrd Jr., a Black man in Texas.
For all the world’s brutality, however, Jones’s poetry insists that beauty and desire will remain: “The only regret is that I waited / longer than a breath / to scatter the sun’s reflection / with my body.”
35. My Not-My Soldier
by Jennifer Mackenzie
“At the center is not being / able to breathe.”
Winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series, and released in December 2014, Jennifer Mackenzie’s My Not-My Soldier traces a textured path through a tumultuous exterior landscape beset by wars. In the poems, the air hangs heavy with gloom–things are broken and destroyed and burned. This is filtered, however, through a greener, pastel-pinker and more nostalgic camera that asks: why don’t the author’s epistemologies work in this space? Loosely based on the author’s time in Damascus during the recent violence, Mackenzie uses various registers of confusion, desperation and defiance to execute an extremely tight inquisition into the boundaries of body, law and the fiction of history. The writing is superior–open and with a unified semantic field that shows an extremely deft mind and pen. It is current, it is urgent–both journalistic and fantastical–and leaves you a distinctly emotional-plus-intellectual resonance like few other books: “Someone thinks / I am for sale and touches my arm / more insistently. How much / the limbs perceive, cooled and viva // After kissing I sit feral, waiting / for my played skin to become audible / A crouched white traitor. Ace”
by Christopher Salerno
Georgetown Review Press
“…a liqueur full of suspended flakes of gold.”
Wallace Stevens quipped that “Money is a kind of poetry,” but could he have imagined the state of global political capital we find ourselves ensnared within today? Not since Katy Lederer’s Heaven-Sent Leaf have I encountered a book so willing to examine the dirtiest little secret that drives us all back and forth from work place to the bank, and by bank, Salerno means an institution now emptied of humans (and the lyric imagination which the Romantics once prized) where the machines have finally taken over.
Disclosures: I did help CS get hired at the institution wherein we are now enslaved–colleagues to the bitter end!
Favorites: Start with any of the poems entitled $, $$, $$$, or Card No. XXXX-XXXX-XXXX#### and see what funds remain.
33. The Sonnets
by Sandra Simonds
“All the pink sands of the universe / funnel through this mess of narcotic clouds”
The Sonnets by Sandra Simonds steeps in pop culture and tokens of the Internet age. Simonds blends high and low cultural references—Shakespeare and a tampon soaked in vodka both populate one sonnet, for instance—and it is these unlikely combinations that illuminate the dark underbelly of the world this speaker’s consciousness inhabits. This is a modern world wherein student loan debt and suburban depression dominate the landscape. Our reliance on genetic modification of our food supply “scramble[s] the fields of American eggs / into hot dogs.” The speaker comments on “how everyone eats with four stomachs.”
The speaker, who sometimes refers to herself, or is referred to, as Sandman, also finds herself obsessed (meant both positively and negatively) by the domestic sphere. She is both a mother and wife, and poems like “Ode to Marriage” and “Dismantle the Cradle” reveal some of the more difficult facets of these roles. “Dismantle the Cradle,” in particular, resonates as an intimate and deeply revealing love poem. Other poems, such as “Immense Fields of Work” are semi-surrealist and challenge the boring assumptions we might have about the world in favor of dreamscapes in which “each cold storm had, at its / center, a hollow fruit.” There’s social commentary in these poems that can, at times, be depressing, and The Sonnets, Simonds’s third collection, lets us observe the ways in which one being chooses to cope with existence in such a world.
32. If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?
by Matthea Harvey
“New legs. New legs. New legs.”
Matthea Harvey puts her technical skill and capacious imagination to work in If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, an ambitious generative project that uses the poet’s own visual imagery to supplement or inspire intelligent, energetic poems. An early sequence focused on a cast of mermaids sets you up for the epic and discerning enchantment that is to follow. “The Deadbeat Mermaid,” we learn, “would have done better in a world with rules…Between meals, the Deadbeat Mermaid floats on her back and watches the giant sky, stuck on the same stupid cloud channel all day long.” One senses that Matthea Harvey can grow a piece of writing out of almost anything, and this beautifully laid out book allows her readers to actually watch her imagination at work from root to vine. The language in the poems and the accompanying imagery exist in a closed loop wherein they are there own subject matter; in “My Owl Other,” she writes, “Yes, there’s an owl in bowl, and no, / there’s no bowl in owl, unless we count / the hollow in a willow left behind / when one flies away.” One is reminded that she recently authored a children’s book, and by giving herself space to run her experiments–or to play, depending on your perspective–Harvey, as sharp and precise a writer as we have in contemporary poetry, puts herself in a position to arrive at satisfying insights: “Is there a God? Probably not. A puppeteer, maybe.” But in this book, we never doubt who is pulling the strings, as she reminds in closing: “When I kiss Esterre on her lips, then on each cheek, dim the lights, so the audience can only just see her slip back into the sea. Close the trapdoor quietly as the actress slips under the stage. Curtain.”
31. Book of Hours
by Kevin Young
“Father, // find me when / you want. I’ll wait.”
One of the great pleasures of reading Kevin Young’s poems has always been their driving tranquility: there is pulse and rhythm, but also clear sight, seriousness of purpose, and meditative vision. He is effortlessly readable (he even made NYC’s “Poets in Motion” subway series), and at least one or two of his now eight poetry books ought to be counted among the best published this millennium. (For my money, Jelly Roll: A Blues and For the Confederate Dead.) In Book of Hours, Young plunges into darkness and doubt that present themselves after his father dies in a tragic hunting accident. In “Easter,” we are told that the Easter holiday “is the last time we spoke. / We were light, & even joked / how many turkeys–tons– // flooded wild his farm. / A week later he was dead / hunting them with a friend.” And afterwards, there is “Only // the hector of him gone / waking me, early, or uneasy / sent asleep.”
The calm, intelligent, level-headed speaker is unmercifully tormented by the suddenness and horror of the loss, and then more so by memory and the very nature of time snuffing out everyone’s long story like it never was there, the world keeping on. At night, he counts “not the stars / but the dark” and reminds us that “Doubt keeps a kind / of faith, is belief / without a word / for what / it knows– / plenty / for what we don’t.” Young, a project-oriented poet, seems more than prepared to attack this issue from all sides of his mind, and revelations are made throughout Book of Hours, but what also places this on the mantle of great Young books–and great elegies–is the way that no revelation, however profound, no image, however finely detailed, actually seems capable of bringing him any peace. Time does not heal wounds, it only complicates them: “The day will come // when you’ll be dead longer / than alive.” He reflects on “those // infant months, when I knew / your voice, your bearded // face, not your name.” In Book of Hours, Young has the boldness to avoid trying to “move past” a loss; instead, in perfect pitch, he synthesizes himself with it, understanding he is lost too–that he will be lost even further–before finally acknowledging, “The storm lifts / up the leaves. // Why not sing.”