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My Poetry Picks for 2013
These five books got under my skin. They are not books you read once with admiration but that later end up in your basement. They are also not new books in the conventional sense, except for Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling, which is about an old ballad and so plays off a song sung long before this year.
The rest of these books came out in other editions now out of print or in languages other than English. We needed these books revived because the poems in them are singular and substantial in ways that transcend stylishness and the various divides in American poetry.
These are great books no matter what you know or don’t know about poetry. They mattered when they came out in other editions and in other countries and they are back because they still matter.
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Levertov, all of it. In one book for the first time. When you read these poems, you realize what a central role she played in creating the tone and line of modern poetry. Her groundbreaking poems still feel bold yet also quiet and profound. It is astounding to behold the full scope of what Levertov wrote in her lifetime.
A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik
Translated by Yvette Siegert
If the Argentine writer Alejandra Pizarnik had been a man, she would be as familiar a name to us as Julio Cortázar. In these miraculous prose poems, Pizarnik writes, “solitude is not being able to articulate the solitude.” She writes, “time like a glove upon a drum.” The poet Yvette Siegert really lived with these poems—you can feel it in her translations. Cortázar told Pizarnik this book made him feel as if he were “dangling from the end of the thread like one of those red spiders you see in Provence that seem to have formed an alliance with Darkness.”
Rice by Nikky Finney
Before Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for Head Off & Split, she wrote several other brilliant books and TriQuarterly has just published a new edition of her 1995 book Rice. The book looks at the role of this basic grain in the history of slavery on the coast of South Carolina and all the brutal individual tragedies within that history. Finney’s command of language and the authenticity of emotion in these poems pull you in and keep you there. “I am a woman with keys,” Finney writes, “Unlocking all the buildings.” Indeed.
Ex-Voto by Adélia Prado
Translated by Ellen Doré Watson
The Brazilian poet Adélia Prado talks to Jesus the way most people talk to their neighbors. She calls him Jonathan. She tells him, “you’re so good to us,/ roses, removable dentures/ tufts of grass like tiny palm trees.” Watson lovingly recreates all the candor and incantatory music in these offbeat poems. There is never a day that can’t be improved with a few lines by Adélia Prado.
Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet
Greenstreet writes, “Art was designed to get us through our twenties. After that, you’re on your own.” I go on about this wonderful book at length in a recent review over at Ron Slate’s The Seawall.