Nobody knows exactly how many books of poetry are published in the United States every year, but Maggie Balistreri is in a better position to know than most. Balistreri is a librarian at Poets House in New York City, a library and literary center founded in 1985 by the poet Stanley Kunitz and administrator Elizabeth Kray that focuses its collection exclusively on poetry books and poetry-related texts. Part of Balistreri’s job involves organizing the Poets House Showcase, a free annual exhibit that attempts to collect and display everything poetry-relevant published in a given year. Based on her work on several Showcases, she offered me a “best guess” of 2,100 books of or about poetry published per annum.
Now, keep in mind that this figure is a minimum, an at least.
For even the most dedicated, voracious reader of poetry—with unlimited time and funds—the feat of keeping up with it all is not so much Herculean as it is Sisyphean. Moreover, to even attempt the task would require adopting a reading practice based on sheer rapidity of consumption—a mode of reading totally antithetical to the values and desires that make us love poetry in the first place. When you start reading poetry in the same way that you read, say, a Twitter feed, whatever victory you achieve in terms of volume is going to be offset by a loss of depth, understanding, and probably pleasure too. At this point, the most relevant Greek won’t be Hercules or Sisyphus, but Pyrrhus.
Now that we’ve diagnosed our problem—and, in so doing, thoroughly bummed ourselves out—I’d like to offer a partial solution. I want to tell you about five books of poetry. That’s .0238 percent of the year’s output. Each one was published by a small or micro press during the last 12 months. Some were sent (or handed) to me by the publisher or the author, while others were purchased on recommendation or else pure whim. This survey is not meant to be authoritative, representative, or in any sense objective. These are just a handful of great books that I suspect you have not had the chance to see for yourself—whose authors and publishers you may not in fact even have ever heard of before reading this. But for the grace of serendipity, I might have just as easily missed out on them myself.
Call this, if you will, the gift of Sisyphus.
The Wonderfull Yeare (a shepherd’s calendar) by Nate Pritts
Cooper Dillon Books, San Diego; fall 2009
Each section of Nate Pritts’s slender, meditative cycle draws its form from a season—the long-lined poems of “Endless Summer” are laid out sideways, for instance, so you have to rotate the book to read them. The haiku-sized numbered sections in “Winter Constellations” accumulate like snowflakes gathering toward the fullness of a snow. Though thoroughly bucolic, nature is neither lamented nor venerated in The Wonderfull Yeare—it just is. Pritts’s world is rich, vivid, intimate, and somewhat troubled. Turmoil between an “I” and a “you” is evoked and alluded to, but never fully detailed. When the speaker addresses “you” as “Darling” in the “Spring Psalter” section, you can feel the warmth of two people sharing a small space. Later, in the summer, when “you lied to me under the stars,” we understand that the pronoun refers to the same person, but we also suspect that she’s not there. The direct address seems to have decayed to a conceit—he’s talking only to himself now, or to us, and we can’t help but hope she will return before the snows come again.
Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino
Sarabande Books, Louisville, Kentucky; late 2009
“These poems do not describe, or pretend to private information about, actual persons,” Petrosino warns us in the front matter. She’s wise to disclaim. “Fort Red Border” is an anagram for “Robert Redford,” and a man called “Redford” stars, as the poet’s lover, in the titular first sequence of the collection. This sounds like a jokey premise, but there’s no stink of the gimmick about these poems. Petrosino’s lines are blades; her images possess the eerie über-clarity of dreams. As narratives, these poems outmatch much of the recent crop of “flash fiction” currently in vogue on the prose side of the literary aisle. (As if to drive this point home, a handful of the poems are in unlineated paragraphs.) There’s a lot to admire about these poems, but perhaps my favorite thing is their emotional complexity, which is perhaps to say “sophistication,” but not to say “seriousness.” Nobody names a poem “Secret Ninja” or “Mustang Bagel” for any reason other than to invite your guffaw, but Petrosino does funny with the same verve and ease she brings to angry, sexy, smart, and—one imagines—anything else she feels like doing or being. Her world is an exhilarating, refreshing place to be.
Sum of Every Lost Ship by Allison Titus
Cleveland State University Poetry Center; winter 2010
“Snow and after, each bidding / and restlessness turns the goat’s heart / fallow: long hours of ice and bluster: / asymmetry of wind.” So begins “Inclement,” a poem that seems to me to adequately represent the emotional weather of this lonely, bracing book. Titus’s poems are wintry catalogs of the ruined and missing—a former automotive plant, a dead-letter office, “Instructions from the Narwhal,” patron saints of the most obscure things imaginable (“the larvae in its wooden chamber”; “the wheelchair’s rusty pedal”), and several motels. A section in the middle, “From the Lost Diary of Anna Anderson,” explores the inner life of a woman best known for claiming to be the lost Duchess Anastasia of Russia. Though she had many supporters, her claims were never verified during her life, and were in fact disproved some time after she died—in the United States in 1984, at age 87—but Titus’s interest pre-dates all of this trivia. The diary is set in Berlin in 1920, when Anderson was confined at Elisabeth Hospital after a failed attempt to drown herself in a river. At the time she was known solely as Fräulein Unbekannt, which translates to “Miss Unknown.”
The Drunk Sonnets by Daniel Bailey
Magic Helicopter Press, Northampton, Massachusetts; late 2009
Daniel Bailey is this kid—not quite 26—who had one of those great-slash-stupid ideas that’s just perfect for the Internet: (1) write sonnets exclusively while drunk, and (2) post them on a blog. The Drunk Sonnets remains available free and complete at metaphysicaldrinking.blogspot.com, but I think it’s worth owning on paper. In fact, I’ve known about Bailey’s blog more or less since it was launched back in early 2008, but have never enjoyed his work half so much in its Web form as I have in this pale blue book, small enough to fit almost comfortably in the pocket of almost any jacket or pair of jeans, and therefore perfect waiting-for-my-train reading after a great hard night on the town. The poems are concerned with subjects ranging from the vicissitudes of love to how messed up the world is to how wasted the author is, which is to say that they swervingly plow that oversharing, oversincere land that is the sharecrop acreage of all world-class drunks. The sparingly punctuated poems are frequently hilarious—never more than when they attempt to declaim wisdom. “HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM / AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES / AND SWALLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT,” Bailey writes in “Drunk Sonnet 14.” I’m not sure this fits on a fortune cookie, but it is beautiful. Oh, also, you might have noticed that the quote is in all-caps, the universally understood Internet equivalent of shouting at the person you are talking to. The entire book is in all-caps, and this extra tweak of affect might be reasonably understood as obnoxious, but you’d do better to regard it as an extension of the main theme. The guy at the end of the bar is a shouter, after all; how else will he hear himself over the jukebox?
Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner
Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington; spring 2010
This is the odd book out on my list, inasmuch as Copper Canyon is the largest of the small presses under consideration here, and Mean Free Path is the one title I can reasonably assume you’ll hear about on your own. Lerner’s first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, won the Hayden Carruth award in 2003; his second book, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006. Nonetheless, I can think of no other way to conclude this roundup than with what is sure to be among the best collections published in 2010. The world of Mean Free Path is fragmented and recursive; the poems are scrambled transmissions whose only clear message is their urgency: “Pathos returns with a vengeance and painters / Pull grids apart in grief. Only a master / Only a butcher can unmake sense. The rest of us / Have axes to grind into glass.” The poems are charged with the full force of Lerner’s monumental talent, which begins with the finely chiseled line and extends to the architecture of the book entire. Images and phrases suddenly break off, disappear, and then later resurface in new contexts, colliding with or collapsing into one another, recombining to make themselves and the whole world new again, albeit through a process that bears an uncanny (and unsettling) resemblance to endlessly flipping through TV channels in the deep ditch of insomniac night.