Just like last year, I thought I’d put out a call to poetry readers to contribute to a favorite poetry books list that doesn’t pay much heed to critical fashions or even date of publication. I asked people to try to select a single favorite book, which I realize is a tough assignment… and not quite everybody managed it. (I allowed a few reviewers to sneak in a second book, as you’ll see.) Unlike last year, I forgot to do this earlier in December so people could use the list for holiday shopping purposes. Oh well. Poetry books do make great Valentine’s Day gifts! And the responses I got are, I think you’ll agree, wonderfully varied, personal and eccentric. Thanks to everyone who took part. —Dave
I fell happily upon European Hours, collected poems of Anthony Rudolf, published a few months ago by Carcanet. First joy is the cover painting of the poet by his partner, the dazzling Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, and the joys continue through a volume of exquisitely spare, skilled, quirky poems from a long working life as writer, translator (from French, Russian, Hebrew), editor, publisher… Many are abstract and minimalist, but somehow the voice is never less than individual and recognisable. Others evoke lovers, friends, children and places with understated, tender directness. The extended title poem, completed around the time of the Brexit referendum result, praises sights and memories in a long list of European cities. The collection includes just one sonnet, Branca’s Vineyard:
The grapes are drowsy […]
I drink the wine […]
then, for a moment, lingering alone,
wineglass in hand, pen upon this paper,
inhale an ancient oneness which I’d thought
lost for all time, except when I made love
with the woman who has just spoken to me
and broken the spell, as spells are always broken.
So satisfying that I yearned for more, and keep rereading.
Here’s the opener to my review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River, published in the last Hollins Critic: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck. In Clinch River, though, we all may find good rural luck, freshly dug from Appalachian coal country. Progeny of R. H. W. Dillard’s new Groundhog Press, this handsome collection will lure readers and not disappoint (Roanoke, VA: Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017.)” And here’s the closer: “These sound-loving poems of the Appalachian South give us the truth of place and memory. They tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”
Weise, Jillian. The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2007.
This has been a difficult, painful year. I wanted books around me that helped me to understand and express that pain, words that described being broken and stubborn. Much of what I’ve been seeking has not come from poetry, but from graphic memoirs, mashups of terse words strewn across pages of (usually) dark and limber sketches. I prowled through In Between: The Poetry Comics of Mita Mahato (2017) which was magical, but I wasn’t sure it suited this list, or was the poetry book that I felt resonated most strongly with me right now.
It was actually the day I met Mita, before her book was published, that I found Jillian Weise’s book in the used book section of Left Bank Books in Seattle, at the Fisherman’s Wharf. I was unsettled, having struggled up the steps on crutches to the poetry section, rummaging through the shelves for something, something that fit the strange mood I was in.
I’d already gathered half a dozen when this slim dark book emerged from hiding between several much larger volumes, the title jolting and powerful. The poem titles were similarly potent — “The Scar on Her Neck,” “Body As Cloud,” “Beautiful Freak Show,” “The Body In Pain,” “Incision,” “Ode to Agent Orange,” “Let me be reckless with the word love.” These are reckless, fierce, naked poems, full of dreams and nightmares.
Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss (University of Massachusetts Press). It’s a few years old — 2010 — but I came to it because a poem from the collection showed up in my email. I forget which poem-a-day source. “Song in my heart” begins:
If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it
Before she’s done she has God shaving with a straight razor, using the Black Sea as a mirror.
I had to check, and no, the poem isn’t an aberration — she manages some neat dance moves with sacred and profane, comic and dead serious. Her voice feels familiar, like the one in the back of my head when I start to write, before I mess things up.
I read only a little poetry this year. I think last year I may have nominated Paradise Lost, which I read as part of the “hard-book” reading club I belong to. At the moment we are mid-Karenina, we just finished Nabokov’s Ada, and next will be Gravity’s Rainbow. You see?
But it does leave me just enough time to have waded into Garbage by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1993). I am enjoying it for its rolling quality — he keeps hammering and yammering on like an Old Testament beard or the EverReady bunny. That is what makes it difficult to quote, without cutting him off in mid thought. But I’ll try:
[…] and here we are at
last, last, probably, behold, we have replaced
the meadows with oilslick: when words have
driven the sludge in billows higher than our
heads—oh, well, by then words will have left
the poor place behind: we’ll be settling
elsewhere or floating interminably, the universe
a deep place to spoil, a dump compaction will
always make room in! I have nothing to say:
what I want to say is saying: I want to be
singing, sort of: I want to be engaged with
the ongoing: but I have no portmanteau filled
with portfolio: still, I am for something:
My favorite poetry book of the year has been The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Macmillan, 2014). It’s a big book, and it’s been beside the bed all year, where I’ve dipped into it for an hour or just a few minutes, always finding phrases or metaphors, descriptions and emotions that touch me. Walcott’s background is entirely different from mine, but we share some loves, such as classical literature, European cities, the sea, nature, and watercolor painting. But I’ve been moved the most by his writing about being a black man in a white world, his writing about the American South, and his poems about the Caribbean, where he felt at home. His mastery of our language is astounding and often surprising, but I think this collection has brought me a lot closer to sensing the man behind the poems.
I’d like to recommend a book I just started reading, written by a poet I just met: Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚 (Lithic Press, 2017). This is a startling, beautiful book. With titles like “The Laotian Man Who Offered the Lake a Plate of Turtles” and “The Story That Bit the Butterfly’s Breast,” these are poems of precise, heartbreaking detail. From “Palpate the Third Rib Break It If You Have To,” Roxas-Chua 姚 writes “I miss China – the infant apple of her. / Her mountain bruises singing under rain / / and menthol.” These poems are chewy and dense, like black bread, and just as nourishing.
The best book of poems that I read this year was The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith (Tupelo Press, 2015). AMAZING poems. Lots of poems that reference fairy tales in new ways—perhaps they all do? Lots of interesting imagery about the dangers of the world.
It was one of the few books that I read twice this year. When I was waiting for a friend in Panera, and I was going to be loaning her this book, I reread it, and my opinion of it was the same, a month later.
For a book of older poems that still seems to have so much to say to us, that would be a volume by Adrienne Rich: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (Norton, 1995). Wonderful book. “What Kind of Times Are These” continues to haunt me.
Millennial Teeth by Dan Albergotti (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) is a wonder of a poetry collection. Personal, familial, political, theological, formal, intellectual, and emotional, this book seems by turns severely wrought and effortless in its formal beauty. Albergotti works almost exclusively in strict forms, but he is freer to say what he wants than most who write in free verse. Though we differ theologically, his own heartbreak over the absence of God seems to me a feeling that I share, though strangely I find God to be ever-present and this absence my own shortcoming and blindness. Albergotti uses both a telescope and a microscope (and a keen human eye) to get at an understanding of who we are and the deep paradoxical nature of our lives and the beauty and horror we find in our daily lives and our history. But best of all, he even puts his ear to the viewfinder, to listen surreally to what others hope to see. His “Ghazal for Buildings” is one of the best 9/11 poems ever written. And his own invention, the albergonnet, will force any good poet to try her hand at it. So many good poems.
Hard to pin it down to only one. But I would like to offer Vincent Toro’s Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press, 2016) for its dazzling language and use of form/s, and the exploration of what it means to be a hybridized subject — not just “Sorta Rican” — in the 21st century.
Hollywood Starlet by Ivy Alvarez (2015, dancing girl press).
Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman are just some of the acting legends given a fresh voice by Alvarez, who peels away the studio-manufactured facades to explore their inner thoughts and troubled lives. It’s a chapbook I return to again and again.
For me, it’s a toss-up between a book that was new and an old book that I had never read before.
First, Kaveh Akbar’s book Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) deserves all the accolades it is receiving — rich and original language, and despite it being hailed as a book about addiction and recovery, to me it was more a book about desire — physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual — and how we seek always something greater, especially in the face of adversity.
Second, I had read Neruda’s odes and love songs as well as Residence on Earth, but I read El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions) for the first time this spring (both in Spanish, then in the English translation by William O’Daly from Copper Canyon Press since my Spanish is rusty) before visiting Chile this summer. It was one of the eight unpublished manuscripts he left behind when he died and it is both child-like and profound in its wonder. I keep going back to lines like:
And what did the rubies say
standing before the juice of pomegranates?
Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?
The Blomidon Logs, by Deirdre Dwyer (ECW Press, 2016).
The Blomidon Logs came to me when it was most needed. I had been away from my home in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia for many months when it arrived like a starfish thrown out of the waves on a beach. Would anyone other than me think it special? Perhaps you will need to know of this place by the Bay of Fundy, or have spent summers at your family cottage in the 1960s. Maybe you should have grown up around farmers, and loggers, cattle and farm dogs with “pink, spoon-shaped tongues” or slept in your “sleeping bag lined from head to toe with cowboys / repeating their lassos and campfire songs.” Have you wondered how the local brook got its name, or pondered over how your birding field guide might describe a macramé cottage owl? Deirdre Dwyer’s collection of 148 poems builds upon the contents of six logbooks her parents kept of her family’s summers in Cape Blomidon. However, they are just a jumping-off point — field notes from which to draw imagery and much speculation. While the subject matter may seem tame, the delivery is anything but.
My favorite poetry book this year: Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).
I found it smart and moving, and his mastery of sound always makes me want to read the poems out loud. Also, great use of space on the page, fun titles, and the poems converse with each other across the pages.
Westerns by Richard Dankleff (Oregon State University Press, 1984). When I read a description of Dankleff’s Westerns in another book, Erik Muller’s excellent Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets, I realized that I had a copy of Westerns tucked away on a shelf and had never read it. So I pulled it down, cracked it open — and ended up in one of those literary epiphanies that I wanted to tell all my friends about, spending the next three nights engrossed in that book, reading and rereading each poem and reciting them out loud to my sleepy cat. Dankleff’s approach — crafting into poems the historical accounts, diaries, and journals of Old West settlers, trappers, Native Americans, explorers, and journalists — could have been trite or patronizing in the wrong hands. But Dankleff, who died in 2010, was a hell of a poet, deftly moving between lyricism, narrative, and visceral punches depicting the more disturbing aspects of the Westward Expansion. He shows true genius in the small intimacies—a ranch hand alone with his beloved horses, the dreams of a gaunt buffalo, or a haunted roadside in modern-day Kansas. From the shockingly violent cover photo to the meticulous and entertaining endnotes (which made me want to read every historical book he cites), Westerns made me constantly wonder why Dankleff isn’t a better-known poet.
The book that touched my heart most deeply in 2017 is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). His voice is lyrical, intimate, yet measured. The poem in the collection that floors me with its mastery is “Aubade With Burning City.” Hearing him read the poem is an intense experience. The reader is in the room with the two lovers as ash floats outside their hotel room, ashes like snow falling in the lyrics of White Christmas that played over the loudspeakers during the Fall of Saigon. All of Ocean Vuong’s poems are highly imagistic—clear, yet complex.
I’d like to recommend Cristina J. Baptista’s The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I do know Cristina (virtually), although we’ve never met in person. I know her well enough to ask her to sign my copy of her book for me. I like the book well enough that I haven’t been willing to part with it long enough to mail it to her and wait for it to come back. It’s a powerful collection of poems… they demand my full presence and attention whenever I sit down with them, and I read only a few at a time, and those stay with me for days after.
Bethany W. Pope’s Silage (Indigo Dreams, 2017) hums with tension. Two forces pull on the string that threads this work. At one end of the string, there is a dire need to tell an extremely traumatic story and to tell it well. The other end leads to a tiger, waiting at the bottom of a pit, ravening, ready to drag the speaker down. So to keep the tiger at bay, the speaker recounts her story, as flatly as possible. It works, mostly. But then again, there are scars. There is blood.
Dave Bonta’s Ice Mountain (Phoenicia Publishing, 2017) is my favourite collection read this year. The book takes us for a walk comprised of many walks, through changing seasons in woods near to Dave’s home. Each step is well grounded. Each poem consists of three-by-three lines, a formal repetition I found satisfying as a frame for the writing of each day. I admire the discipline of Dave’s multi-faceted creativity, which includes publishing, video making, writing and photography. His dedication and long experience pays off in the refined simplicity, keen observations, intellect and emotion of this collection. I chime in various ways with Dave’s views of the world and the creatures in it, including human. On this level, Ice Mountain reads to me as an elegy for the land, and for life on earth.
My disclosure of personal connection to Dave is as one of his many friends over the net over the past few years (as long as I’ve been involved with video poetry, he was instrumental in getting me started). We have corresponded by email occasionally and he’s published some of my videos in Moving Poems. Because Dave publishes his poems on a Creative Commons license, I have been free to make a few videos from his writing, including two from poems in Ice Mountain. My connection with Dave is an extension of my respect for him as a key creative artist in the field of contemporary poetry, as I experience it.
OK, that’s embarrassing. Thanks, Marie! Here’s to online collaboration and community. I will resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating remark and move swiftly on to my own review.
Rachael Boast’s Void Studies (Picador, 2016) is the book I kept re-reading this summer. I found it in a London bookshop, opened it at random, read a couple of poems and was hooked. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for poems that exhibit negative capability… and as you might be able to gather from the title, this book has negative capability out the wazoo. The premise derives from something Arthur Rimbaud had B.S.ed about but never gotten around to doing himself: a collection of poems written more or less along the lines of musical etudes, which “would not convey any direct message, but instead summon the abstract spirit of the subject” as the back cover description puts it. So Boast took up the challenge, and while apparently the results aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (3.33 out of 5 stars on Goodreads?!) if you like poems that pulsate with magic and dwell in possibility, Void Studies is as close to a perfect collection of poetry as you’re ever likely to find. And it only works because the poems are full of keenly observed particulars; the “void” of the title is no airy emptiness, but something closer to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, in which the absence of any intrinsic nature or essence enables a direct apprehension of reality. I mean, check out this spot-on description of a murmuration of starlings in “The Call”:
Stepping through the last of the sky
held by half-asleep mirrors
of the rain storm along the path
by the river where over
the other side the trees uphold
a language picking away
the fabric of reality, the woods
rising with everything to say
at once, with black wings,
with sound shuffling the air.