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The Poetry Foundation staff’s favorite books of 2011
We read a lot of poetry here at the Poetry Foundation, though there never quite seems to be enough time to read everything we hoped to back in January. 2011 proved to be an exceptionally daunting year in this respect since there were so many great books published and reissued, but we did what we could. Here, then, in no particular order, are some of our staff’s favorites from the past year offered as a small thank you to all the great writers, publishers, translators, editors, and, of course, readers who make all of this wonderful work possible.
Fred Sasaki, Poetry magazine associate editor: Spring and All by William Carlos Williams (New Directions)
Spring and All makes its freestanding return in facsimile edition of the original 1923 manuscript, published by Contact Press—“At any rate, now at last spring is here!….Strange recompense, in the depths of our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging, a curious force awakens. It is HOPE long asleep, aroused once more.”
Michael Slosek, poetryfoundation.org permissions coordinator: Study in Pavilions and Safe Rooms by Paul Foster Johnson (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs) and I Fell in Love with a Monster Truck by Amanda Ackerman (Parrot 8/Insert Press)
No other book I’ve read this year has induced such a sense of vertigo (via claustrophobia) as Paul Foster Johnson’s Study in Pavilions and Safe Rooms, published by Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. Johnson’s poems respond to an array of extreme architectural spaces, from monuments of failed utopias to paranoid survival cages, including the All-Russia Exhibition Center in Moscow erected in the late 1930s, panic-rooms commissioned by oil oligarchs and celebrities, and DIY resources for survivalists and paranoiacs. In choosing to navigate these spaces, the speaker in the poems appears to be moving through a derealized landscape, where the I is partially pixilated and deprived of personal history and futurity. Behind these poems one can sense a sort of awe that evokes both wonder and revulsion, and where the reader senses an intuitive compositional logic that refuses to take the easy route.
In the chapbook category, Amanda Ackerman’s I fell in Love with a Monster Truck, Parrot 8/Insert Press, should be mentioned in a “best of” list for 2011. This short book is comprised of a series of prose paragraphs, each narrating a problem dealing with calisthenics and of situating the body into spaces where it doesn’t seem to want to fit (such as inside a monster truck). The tone of the poems wavers between a diary and language from instruction manuals, while the poems repeat scenarios in each paragraph and push the narrative into unexpected territory (accompanied by simple, charming line drawings of the movements of bodies in space). A beautifully written and designed book, perfect for reading in a single sitting that you’ll want to dip back into again and again.
Katherine Litwin, Librarian: Mule by Shane McCrae (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)
The ethereality of McCrae’s poems of merging and parting belies their emotional power, which comes like a gut punch.
Lindsay Garbutt, Poetry magazine editorial assistant: You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson (Yale University Press)
If reading the first lines of You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake smacks of entering a Choose Your Own Adventure novel (“You and three others are approaching a lake: You have two canoes, your tent, your axes / It is after six / what, precisely, is your procedure?”), that is entirely appropriate. This is a collection that will entertain you first and hit you with the tough questions before you’ve reached the end of the page. Anna Moschovakis mines blog posts, philosophers, the news, offering everything up for the reader’s consideration. The result is personal, smart, and it will not let you go. Near the beginning of the section “Death as a Way of Life,” Anna Moschovakis digresses (for not the first, nor the last, time): “The theologians // (‘The theologians’ is an attractive phrase sounds laughable but / with an underbelly like all my subjects).” Moschovakis presents you with the underbelly. It’s up to you to pierce it. Start with the prologue and don’t stop until you reach the end.
Katherine Larson is a sensual scientist. Drawn in by the specificity of Larson’s language, I couldn’t put this collection down until I’d devoured it whole. And then I started over again. A travelogue, research diary, and dream journal rolled into one, Radial Symmetry reminds us that science results from longing, not certainty:
This branchial heart. After class,
I stole one from the formaldehyde
And watch it bloom in my bathroom sink
Between cubes of ice.
(From “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees”)
While the collection is occasionally epigrammatic (“I know I’m alive because I love / to eat”), Larson’s knack for vivid description and her omnivorous curiosity kept me coming back for more. To get hooked, read: “Statuary,” “Preparing for Sleep,” “Ghost nets, IX,” and the rest of “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees.”
Travis Nichols, poetryfoundation.org associate editor: Scared Text by Eric Baus (Colorado State University) and Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat)
A list of titles will suffice for Baus. “Minotaur Stable,” “Glass Ear,” “Attic Grasses,” “Spoiled Swan,” “Mirror Seed,” “A Delphi,” “Molting Solos,” “The Ur-Mane,” “The Worm’s First Film,” “Votive Scores,” “Canary Aria,” “Clone Burns,” “Eggshell Plumbs,” “Negative Noon,” “Stupid Moon,” “Glass Deer,” “Gored Ox,” “Urned Braid,” “An Ember,” “Puma Mirage,” “Hornet Fleece,” “Coma Silt,” “Exoskeletal Gesture,” “Clovered Ohms,” “Ox Tongue,” “Dove Bomb,” “Migratory Door,” “Variant Aquarium,” “Latent Veins,” “Spiral Scrap,” “Egret Eyes,” “Lamb Comb,” “Owl Wool,” “Dark Sum,” “Aqua Mange,” “Parallel Puma,” “Creature’s Creature,” “Stunned Cove,” “Flooded Cloud,” “Swallow Orbit,” “Feral Dross,” “Black Beacon,” “Flooded Oud,” “Sister Sequence,” “Deer Tongue,” Iris’s Saliva,” and “Common Cloud.”
And Kapil? “Because it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space.”
Holly Amos, library assistant: nick demske by Nick Demske (Fence)
It’s the kind of book that erases whatever else is happening in your brain—a perfect reset button. Demske is forceful yet playful with language, and the musicality is undeniable. He contorts notions of “self” and “speaker”, tearing into the idea of “nick demske” like a highly intelligent, well-trained and language-savvy dog who later points out his own drool.
Catherine Halley, poetryfoundation.org editor: Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday (Fence Books)
In this 2011 Motherwell Prize-winning collection, poet/choreographer Harmony Holiday mourns her soul-musician father. None of the poems in the book look the same on the page, but don’t let that scare you away. Holiday brings the skill of a trained dancer to her formal experimentations. The poems feel like improvisations, but they’re subtly controlled and unintimidating. Negro League Baseball creates a metaphorical “place to play” where Holiday develops a poetics that engages black culture, but “does not wish to draw attention exclusively to race,” as she says in the Afterword. The play continues off the page in an accompanying CD of soundscapes sampling jazz and spoken word.
Don Share, Poetry magazine senior editor: The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956 (Cambridge University Press)
A few quotations will suffice to explain my love for this book, which contains many things useful to human beings in general, as well as poets in particular.
“Still do not understand in what way art can help us to wait patiently.”
“You know I really have no wish to be set free, nor to be helpful, by art or by anything else.”
“I am wary of disasters that let themselves be recorded like a statement of accounts.”
There’s this, composed on his behalf by his partner, Suzanne Dumesnil:
“Beckett’s attitude to literary prizes is a little more difficult to define. What he dreads above all, in the very unlikely event of his receiving a prize, is the publicity which would then be directed, not only at his name and his work, but at the man himself. He judges, rightly, or wrongly, that it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc., etc. And as he feels wholly incapable of this sort of behaviour, he prefers not to expose himself to the risk of being forced into it by entering the competition. Perhaps he has an exaggerated sense of the prizewinner’s duties. But if, as prizewinner, he could without unacceptable rudeness stay out of it all, he would see no objection to being one. You see, it is not an aversion of principle, but simply the fear of the other side of the coin.”
Corina Copp, Harriet staff writer: One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t by Jacqueline Waters (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011)
Such an intricate and demanding collection of work (“Oh margarine in its armored state”); and refreshing in that it took its time — all steadily composed over the past eight years, so I’m told. (“If waiting is patience / Waiting to be recognized, then destiny / Is a little sarcastic…”) Waters’s poems act as guards for other poems and persons and parts until “They themselves become what they behold”. What’s to be valued, protected, now? Why? And moreover this guarding and manufacturing of guarding and admittal of various attempts and failures to do so underscores a possible desire for three-dimensionality — the poems are a production to be apprehended from all sides. This ain’t abstraction, though — just the kind of poetic hyper-awareness that threatens and shapes the supraliminal state. And this lyric can be upended by its author’s turning intelligence at any time. Reading it is sort of like being happily lashed with your own Romantic delusions and Conscience. Oh and she’ll never hear the end of this brilliance: “Think / Of the point at which a disturbance / Intersects itself / To show which side it supports: nobleness / Or misfitness: think of a tampered-with / Racehorse assigned / To the usual oval now think / Of a heat-seeking / Ejaculation into / A can of no-name / Asparagus tips”.
Kristin Gecan, media assistant: Pleasure by Brian Teare (Ahsahta) and Say So by Dora Malech (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)
Brian Teare’s Pleasure is a book that I would have liked to have read in one sitting. It reminds me of hyperventilating, deep breath after deep breath after deep breath. Relatively speaking, it’s probably healthier to get all of your hyperventilating done at once. Dora Malech’s Say So is a much different kind of pleasure-one that makes you catch your breath. Malech’s rhythms propel you forward until you find yourself suddenly rereading the poem, discovering all you’d missed. The book’s short, tight poems facilitate this process.
Patrick Culliton, Harriet staff writer: Either Way I’m Celebrating by Sommer Browning (Birds, LLC)
It toes the waters of tragedy and comedy, without getting douchey, often from one line or stanza to the next. And, from single poems, to serial prose poems, to comics (!), it’s formally inventive without asking the reader if they saw what she just did there.
Delaney Hall, Columbia Journalism Fellow: Coming to That by Dorothea Tanning (Graywolf Press).
Coming to That is Dorothea Tanning’s second collection of poetry, published at the age of 101 (!) after a whole lifetime spent creating surrealist paintings and sculptures. Her surrealist bent comes through in her language and imagery (as in “Cultivation,” when a mouse field sprouts “pink noses poking / Through quilts of loam”) and almost every poem surprises, ending in a place the beginning never suggested. Her topics range from the everyday — doctor’s appointments, making toast, the weather — to the past — her days as a young artist in 1930s New York — to the more metaphysical. The real pleasure (if that’s the right word?) of the collection is experiencing a centenarian’s sharp and vivid mind as she considers time and its increasing shortness.
Ilya Kaminsky, Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute: Honeycomb by Carol Frost (Northwestern University Press) and Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort (Copper Canyon Press)
This is a beautiful lyric sequence–one long poem, really–about memory, motherhood, melancholy. It is dazzling in its lyric; it breaks the heart, it mends. Frost’s ear is brilliant, cruel, kind and spell-binding:
But if memory, as if to illustrate
the mind was not yours to have,
the mind was not given,
fails us, leaving us in our underpants
in the garden, should we not
hate the garden,
or the woman whose garden
it is? And sunlight. Thunder.
Rain. Hardened in heart against
what earth compels and seizes,
goddamning, goddamned rain.
Mort’s first book in English shows her sophistication, her lyric solitudes, her magic asides. She is brave, in this book, to go above and beyond her Factory of Tears, brave to go deeper, to dig, to find new music. Prose pieces in this book made me think of Sebald. She is the master of metaphor, of lyric abandon:
My head, thrown back in laughter, has bought me more
than money thrown forward, and men
pressed me down and worked like a Chinese seamstress.
But none could slap my face as hard as the sea slaps
its adopted child and then steps back, all tears.