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Three days of year-end lists: Wednesday
The National Book Critics Circle is doing it. So is Third Factory with Attention Span 2007. The New York Times even found a way to include a few poetry titles in theirs.
What are we talking about? End-of-year book lists. This week on Harriet, we’re rolling out three such lists. Day one featured Poetry Foundation staff picks. Day two, recommendations from Poetry magazine contributors. Day three, a range of selections from our current Harriet bloggers. Happy New Year!
Harriet writers’ picks
by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry
Apostrophe is a strange, sublime book that grows out of a very smart, very funny poem (originally written by Bill Kennedy in 1993)—a poem that consists of a few hundred non sequiturs, all of which begin with the phrase “You are….” The poem catalogues a series of utterances addressed in the second-person, doing so, as if to enumerate the potential responses of a witty deity, forever obliged to answer the existential questioning of some poet who keeps asking: “What am I?” The poem almost suggests that the trope of the “apostrophe” has become synonymous with the lyric voice, addressing the reader in a manner that both speaks to and speaks for such a second-person addressee, claiming the pronoun “You” as a poetic cipher for all the potential dialogues of a self speaking to itself.
Rae Armantrout, Next Life (Wesleyan) and Collected Prose (Singing Horse)
Armantrout’s small stanzas and demanding phrases are sour, palate-scouring, smart, and—once you get used to their seeming opacities—fun: “A soul is like a line, then— / one-dimensional?… Our division head wants us / to reverse-engineer the thing.” No other poet now working seems so attuned at once to contemporary lingo, and to the way in which that lingo disappoints—even as it shapes—our inner lives. If you’re already willing to walk long distances to read her verse, you don’t need me to tell you to read her prose. And if you’re not, you might look at her clipped and yet revealing autobiography True—first published in the Atelos series of novella-length works, now republished along with interviews and essays about the poets (Niedecker, Dickinson, Williams) on whom her inventions depend.
HONORABLE MENTION: Donald Revell, A Thief of Strings (Alice James) and The Art of Attention (Graywolf).
BEST BOOK THAT DIDN’T GET MUCH ATTENTION:
All the Lavish in Common
University of Massachusetts
I found his first book, Anonymous Or, by browsing for an hour in a bookstore, took it home years ago, and read it to death: when I saw that his second book won a contest late last year I expected fireworks all around. At least the book is out there, and its subtleties await you, too. If you want to know how to handle a free-verse line so that it includes many, many ideas, how to handle the collision of ideas with sense-perceptions that characterizes a smart painter’s view of the world, how to put complicated and truly visual concepts onto a page, and how to represent most of the middle-range grownup emotions (curiosity, regret, l’esprit d’escalier, self-curtailment, speculative interest, quiet affection) that characterize most of us on our best days, you can’t do much better than to check Peterson out. Here are lines from the middle of one of the shorter poems:
A theory works if it answers the exceptions.
The writing in the air of swallowtails,
from here to where the time changes at Mexico Beach,
is like writing all the armies of the afterlife
waiting underground in China.
We are attuned to shadows. They strafe the shore.
HONORABLE MENTION: Elizabeth Treadwell, Birds and Fancies; Jon Woodward, Rain.
BEST VISIONARY POETRY, BEST LANDSCAPE POETRY, BEST FREE-VERSE LINES, BEST PARADOXES, BEST LOVE POEMS:
A Thief of Strings
The radiant admiration for the desert (first broached in My Mojave) and the reproach, bordering on disdain, for the supposed feats of advanced civilizations (evident through all his work, but clearer now that he has more to admire), and the poems of familial love, all make a new kind of sense here: Revell sets these old topics beside his new visions, and besides the other landscapes (the South, notably, with its Civil Rights marches and its inundated coastlines) in the new poems. I don’t usually believe in poems that present themselves as records of visions, but the acoustics make me believe it here, at the end (e.g.) of the punningly titled “O Rare”:
They came and clad me for death
In graceful ornaments of garlands, gems and hair.
In the valley of the Little Colorado,
Nearer than you suppose,
A skin of a kind and then the skins of every kind
Broke. The sun was born where it is buried,
Here in my bosom and at home.
BEST BOOK THAT DESERVES THE ATTENTION IT HAS RECEIVED:
Time and Materials
The ex-laureate writes an ex-laureate book, part Horace, part haiku, part leisurely, part painterly and partly a grim alarm about global warming, in which the capacity poems have to make sense from nonsense might, if we get lucky enough, predict a larger human capacity to save the planet from ourselves. I’m not the only reader who has been waiting a long time for Hass to write this well: the wait was worth it.
BEST BOOK BIGGER THAN YOUR HEAD:
W. H. Auden
Complete Prose Volume III
The first two VW Bug-sized volumes of Auden’s prose, and the equally weighty volume of his plays, mattered first of all because their author also wrote Auden’s poems: those first two did yield challenging paradoxes and aphorisms aplenty, but it’s here, in the essays and introductions and whole books (The Enchanted Flood, 1949) Auden wrote in America and in Italy, that he became the fluent, reader-friendly producer of thoughts about writing in general, about literary history, about the connections between poetry and music, about popular culture, and about religion (though I skipped some of the religion), the amiable and understatedly brilliant commentator some of us know from his later book The Dyer’s Hand. Here is Auden’s summary of the figure—visible from Don Quixote to Captain Ahab to Batman—whom Auden calls the Romantic Avenger Hero: “‘My injury,’ he says, ‘is not an injury to me; it is me. If I cancel it out by succeeding in my vengeance, I shall not know who I am and will have to die.’” Here is Auden on the damage done by the movies (the year is 1952): “Those who accuse the movies of having a deleterious moral effect… may well be right, but not for the reasons they usually give. It is not what movies are about—gangsters or adultery—that does the damage, but the naturalistic nature of the medium itself, which encourages a fantastic conception of time.” That is, in a feature film (but not in a novel), “the illusion of real life is so strong that the audience begin to be convinced that, in real life as on the screen, the conquest of a woman takes forty minutes.”
BOOK I HAVE NOT YET OPENED, BUT MOST WANT TO OPEN AND READ: Gael Turnbull
There Are Words: Collected Poems
by Aracelis Girmay
This fierce book of poetry weaves beauty and politics without compromising craft to didacticism. And yet Girmay’s convictions and her pacifist, humane world view ring loudly, lyrically, and true.
by Aracelis Girmay
An ethic of care and responsibility permeates the poetry of Aracelis Girmay, and yet, one does not walk through her stanzas, those stylishly felt rooms, in her debut volume Teeth, feeling somber and humorless. That’s because the woman possesses an adoring intellect and a visual artist’s imagination that finds expression in language that is incisive and ferociously original. With the distillation of her varied cultures and the fierceness of her speech, one thinks of the spirit of painter Frida Kahlo joining hands with Gamba Adisa, the great Audre Lorde, who told us over and over again, such an energetic vision of language and art is erotic, spiritual, and empowering to the core. You’ve only to read such an utterance as “But what man would choose a woman / whose mouth looks stronger than his hands?” in the title poem to grasp her verve and “wild, / raucous blooming.” Girmay writes dutiful poems that defy the oblivion of our lives and cast a joyful order that make even her hemistichs feel as necessary as little chucks of bread.
Ballad of Jamie Allan
by Tom Pickard
Using a variety of forms—free verse, prose, and rhyming balladry—Pickard tells the story of the 18th-century Northumbrian musician who died in Durham jail at the age of 70 for inveterate horse-thieving. Originally a libretto commissioned by John Harle for the Sage Gateshead, BoJA retains the brevity and sensuousness of music on the page. It also conveys the wildness of the Borderlands, claiming for poetry the lawless Borders between past and present, lyric and reportage. (Note to Flood Editions: With Pickard’s next book, consider producing a CD: Pickard’s voice is gripping.)
Orpheus: A version of Rilke
by Don Paterson
Faber and Faber
I would vote for Don Paterson’s never-dull adaptations of Rilke, Orpheus. (I think the book appeared in 2006 in U.K., but 2007 in the U.S.) Paterson has long been a master and a fan of the sonnet, so it is no surprise he would be drawn to this powerful sonnet cycle. Paterson seems to be using these versions to test the form’s tensile strength—lengthening and condensing the line, speeding and slowing, exploring rhyme’s harmony and dissonance. He calls these “versions” rather than translations, giving himself considerable license, and indeed they read like original English poems; yet in channeling Rilke, Paterson’s own voice and scope achieves new depth and resonance. The Afterword and his “Fourteen Notes on the Versions” are themselves worth the price of admission. Maybe this volume is an indication that we are finally at the end of a leveling era in translation in which all poets, regardless of period or style, were rendered into a flat, mid-American, mid-century free verse.