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Some Favorite Books of 2008
A few of these books were published last year, and there are definitely others that we’d like to point out to readers, but for the sake of brevity, we limited our picks. We hope you’ll fill in the gaps in the comment stream.
POETRY FOUNDATION STAFF PICKS
Creatures of a Day
Louisiana State Univeristy Press
Creatures of a Day was a finalist for the National Book Award, deservedly so. There are some poems in this book that have become a permanent part of my consciousness. I remember reading “Sleepless in the Cold Dark” in manuscript and thinking that, though you could feel the antecedents (Williams mostly), something here was new. The poem is flat-out beautiful, and it accomplishes its effects with such small, sharp precisions of syntax and linebreaks that you hardly feel your heart breaking until it’s already happened.
Twigs and Knucklebones
Copper Canyon Press
Sarah Lindsay’s new book is unusual among books of contemporary poetry for several reasons. It’s almost completely devoid of the first person pronoun, for one thing. Most of Lindsay’s poems are historical or (as in the stunning sequence “The Kingdom of Nab”) pseudo-historical. One of the most memorable poems in the book is a strange, moving piece called “Elegy for the Quagga.” A Quagga was a zebra-like creature which was hunted to extinction in the late nineteenth century. Lindsay links this extinction with the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, and by the time you finish this poem you realize you’re never going to hear this sound that is the poem’s subject — and yet you’re now dying to. The poem ends “a kind of horse, less picture-esque than a Dodo, still we mourn what we mourn, even if when it sank to its irreplaceable knees, when its unique throat closed behind a sigh, no dust rose to redden a whole year’s sunsets, no one unwittingly busy two thousand miles away jumped at the sound, no ashes rained on ships in the merciless sea.”
The Fifty Minute Mermaid
Nuala Ni Dhomhnail (translated by Paul Muldoon)
Because the Jack Spicer book is already on everybody’s list, and as everyone’s trying to economize this season, here’s a two-fer, The Fifty Minute Mermaid (Gallery Press), poems originally written in Irish by Nuala Ni Dhomhnail and translated by Paul Muldoon. What you’ll get: two terrific poets working in tandem. Her poems are sexy, wry, and completely original, and especially striking in Muldoon’s translations. Though she’s been a surprising poet for years, this book is, even for her, a departure. She’s not so much writing the biff-bang-pow individual poem as poems in sequence with a cumulative effect. Muldoon says that hers is a particularly local kind of Irish, locatable almost to a single neighborhood. Yet it should appeal to just about anybody on the planet because… it’s about a mermaid. Who doesn’t like mermaids? And what’s a better language for mermaids than Irish? These poems convey the strangeness of the Irish language – and of merfolk. Muldoon, of course, is ingenious at deploying the oddities of the Irish, which must be one of the ur-languages of poetry.
I’m cheating here because it’s not exactly a brand-new book, but what makes this paperback reprint special, besides being a lovely book to hold in your hands, is that it comes with an audio CD so you can hear George Oppen read his own work… a revelation in itself. Oppen goes a long way back with Poetry. He was published many times over the years in the magazine, and he’s one of the few people who can say that his book was reviewed in its pages by none other than William Carlos Williams. An absolutely essential book.
Jacqueline Risset, translated from the French by Jennifer Moxley.
Ugly Duckling Presse
In 2008 Ugly Duckling Presse created a Dossier Series “to expand the formal scope of the Presse. Dossier publications don’t share a single genre or form–long poem, lyric essay, criticism, artist book, polemical text–but rather an investigative impulse.” One of eight titles so far, Sleep’s Powers by Jacqueline Risset (tr. by Jennifer Moxley) is page-length and little-longer essays on sleep, dreams, and imagination‹and, consequently, everything else. It’s episodic pullings from literary (Proust, Bataille, Beckett, Rimbaud, Kafka) and personal history (her purring cat, fear of the dark, refuge in the bed of her little brother). Born in Besancon, France in 1936, Risset is considered one of her country’s most important poet-essayists, and UDP is one of the few places to read her in English. Offset and letterpressed at an edition of 1,000, it’s a dream gift for the insomniac in your life.
my vocabulary did this to me The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Dear Jack Spicer, You can blame Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi for completely ruining your effort to prevent the distribution of your books beyond the Bay Area. Even posthumously, you created a force field that made it difficult to find any of the small press editions of your work. And even if one did, it was impossible to understand the scope of your work—your poetry dictation, your letters to Garcia Lorca, your packrat collection of written forms (baseball line-ups, bureaucratic forms, footnotes), your zany poems—until now. Not since Whitman has a poet worked so hard at listening to what form poetry wanted to take. Though you might be miffed that your collected poems “is already on everybody’s list,” as Don Share pointed out, we’re not.
One of the best Welsh poets writing today, Minhinnick’s latest book is full of long, investigative poems that wander freely, but never formlessly. Often weird takes on the dramatic monologues, these poems feature collisions: natural meets unnatural, literary and classical allusions spar with extreme contemporary ones, form battles apparent formlessness. Minhinnick’s interest in hard science scrapes against his other interests in a sort of primitive mysticism and hermits, castaways and other people on the fringes. Though Minhinnick writes well about extreme places, these poems are as interested in extreme mental topographies; like maps, they want to show everything as much as they can.
The Walking-Away World
The Walking-Away World (and its companion volume, We Meet) introduced me to the work of Kenneth Patchen; he immediately became a favorite. TWAW presents the picture poems—paintings and drawings integrating text—he created over the last decade of his life. Combining his brilliant “creatures” and lyric observations intensified by their brevity, this book delights, distresses, and delights again.
Poetry Magazine Critics’ Picks
The Essential George Johnston, selected by Robyn Sarah
The Porcupine’s Quill,
Among the recent and much-hyped rebootings of various reputations – including Crane’s, Spicer’s, and O’Hara’s – this slim thing, The Essential George Johnston (the inaugural edition of a new series on Canadian poets), is an unpretentious, 64-page relief. There is nothing romantic about Johnston’s obscurity. Until his death in 2004, he was an exacting poet who wrote about the unfashionably everyday, with an attention to form (both fixed and free-ish) that was rigorous but natural. He published in the New Yorker, and taught, but was no careerist; if the poem wasn’t fully realized and utterly essential he didn’t write it. This pared-down selection – smartly arranged by another exacting Canadian, Robyn Sarah – is itself all-business, right down to the elegant but unfetishizable cover, a no-frills affair that forces you to turn to the poems – real poems – without delay. Okay, it came out in 2007, but nevermind the copyright date; it’s still the best book of the year.
by Anne Gorrick
Anne Gorrick has developed the reverberating poems of Kyotologic ostensibly upon the foundation Sei Shōnagon’s famed thousand-year-old Pillow Book, yet these poems are anything but imitations. Gorrick’s is a unique and affecting style that depends upon both the look of the poem on the page and the sound and meaning of sentences and phrases. Working with a finely tuned poetic ear, she weaves her almost-stories out of words and phrases to create beautiful and surprising meaningscapes. Her primary technique is a sophisticated use of repetition: she takes a phrase, repeats it at irregular intervals, often mutating the phrase often during this process. She builds her effects slowly within her poems so that these wonderful constructions do not seem like anything less than the wonders of nature sitting before us as they always were supposed to have been.
by Ron Silliman
University of Alabama Press
Size matters, and that is one of the messages of Ron Silliman’s thousand-page poem, The Alphabet. Written in 26 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet itself, Silliman does not so much create a world as reveal one for us. He does this by atomizing his experience and replaying these fragments for us in a huge ongoing reel. The effects are almost like watching a home movie so filled with jump cuts that you cannot hold onto an idea for more than a few seconds, but so full of sharp memories that you could hardly bear to turn away. This book is huge and demanding, but also one of the most accessible bits of experimental poetry you are apt to see. The language is clear and usually declarative, but the unavoidable effects of the accumulation of quotidian detail, when properly controlled, is a grand emotional and intellectual experience.
Crabwise to the Hounds
Coach House Press
The most exciting Canadian debut this year, hands down. Part-time archaeologist Jeramy Dodds specializes in densely metaphoric accounts of god-knows-what (surrealist tall tales? gothic head trips?) that nestle so enthusiastically into their internal rhymes, assonances and alliterations that you can’t help but believe—and reread—the ravishingly unbelievable things he tells you (“Capillaries are winter maples scrubbing the mist. / Blood cells are dust-taxied down a flashlight’s path.”) Marrying a maniacal love for oddity (“The tubas are full of fog and fallen thoroughbreds”) with a loathing for recycled language (“Shipwrights shoulder-pole / bedrolls and Swede-saws / through a cellophane of rain”) Crabwise to the Hounds is a five-star livewire act.
Elephants & Butterflies
Alan Michael Parker
I love this book’s noise, its chant-like rhythms, its crazy mix of fact and invention. Alan Michael Parker’s skill is really a kind of serendipity: poems pivot from satire to nostalgia to brashness with self-delighting philosophical curiosity. Like the seven restleness, reinvented sonnets at the book’s centre, Elephants & Butterflies strives for a style nimble enough to turn on a dime. The properly lived life, according to Michael Parker, is a place where a busted Toyota teaches you to “junk the sucker and sing a song about it.” Can’t think of anyone, anywhere, writing such happy, high-energy poetry.
by Ed Barrett
Pressed Wafer (9 Columbus Sq, Boston, MA 02116)
Bosston is the love child of John Ashbery and Dennis Lehane, and it does for the Boston Irish what Robert Lowell did for the Brahmin, creating a mythos at the intersection of tribe and city. A noirish feverdream of buried voices — some literally buried, like the murdered moll Deborah Hussey — it begins with an excerpt from a Boston Magazine article about the intimidation of the State Senator Dianne Wilkerson for her role in ending housing discrimination against African-Americans in South Boston, and as it builds we meet, among others, Emerson, Thoreau, Wieners, Yeats, Dice-K Matsuzaka, the Virgin Mary and of course the Bulger Brothers.
“Boston is a brand,” he said firmly with a directness he knew would not insult his audience but showed respect for the unwritten codes and allegiances they had made their money from: a few of them after a brief time in the business; others at the summit of a longer career who knew how expensive memory and sentiment were and could afford these waters of human existence.
Its dead will simply not stay buried.
Bosston’s publication earlier this year completes an unnamed trilogy that began with Rub Out (2003) and Kevin White (2007). Barrett came to his adopted city by way of Brooklyn; having lived in both places, I can attest to the mood of secretiveness that pervades both towns, the long shadows around their gilt-edged libraries and the angels in their cemeteries. Barrett’s terse, gothic prose poems read as disjunctions but work furiously at that underground conjoining that real poetry does.
For All We Know
by Ciaran Carson
For All We Know is a numerologist’s dream: a haunting, filmic palindrome of seventy sonnets and double-sonnets that provide the harmonic ground for love poetry of unusual delicacy. But it is also a psychological and political thriller, which extends Ciaran Carson’s uniquely necessary project of contextualising the Northern Irish Troubles within European history. Intricate symbolism – a watch, perfume, a patchwork quilt, a pen, Bach’s fugues – “trips” the reader between episodes. Yet, despite its virtuosity, this verse-novel is a moving and profound meditation on the fugal nature of time and love: indelible lyricism uniting the extraordinary multiplicity of its forces. (Small wonder it’s short-listed for the 2008 T.S.Eliot Prize.)
Selected Poems 1969-2005
by David Harsent
David Harsent is a self-evidently major poet. Though much admired by his peers, he’s so busy with the rest of his writing life – as librettist, novelist and writer for screen – this could easily be forgotten. Selected Poems 1969-2005 (short-listed for this year’s Griffin International Prize) traces the development of an utterly individual voice. As well as early dream-poems, it includes great poems of his maturity from Legion and Marriage – my personal favourite, and an extended study of love, desire and the art of looking. Harsent articulates our dreams and nightmares. His luminously-accomplished verse is vivid, direct and undeniable. The book’s a necessity for any serious poetry library.