John Yau and Albert Mobilio offer an annotated list of some of their favorite poetry books published in 2012.
Quick Question by John Ashbery (Ecco Press)
The book opens with: “The drive down was smooth/but after we arrived things started to go haywire,/first one thing and then another.” Each of these poems can be likened to a journey (or a trip to the store to buy eggs) in which anything and everything becomes something unexpected. Contradictions bloom and vanish, suddenly as they came. Isn’t each of us “like a tenant in a rented house?”
Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, with drawings by Joe Brainard (Granary Books)
Bean Spasms, which was originally published in 1967 by Kulchur Press, has been lovingly reprinted by Granary Books in a facsimile edition. There are plays, sonnets, a fictitious interview with John Cage and dramatic monologues that seem to have been uttered by someone with a multiple personality disorder multiplied by ten. Joe Brainard’s drawings are, as Ted Berrigan would say, ”terrific,” and that’s only the beginning. The book is legendary. Find out why.
Dissolves by Joseph Donahue (Talisman House)
Dissolves continues Joseph Donahue’s multi-year project, “Terra Lucida,” a poem that, in its sociological breadth and meditative intensity, conjures ready associations with some of the last century’s epic works — James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, Louis Zukofsky’s A, and John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Each of these extended works, while various in execution and sensibility, share a profound alertness to the drama of our spiritual life, both collective and individual, and Donahue extends this attention to (and longing for) the possibility of a single unheard melody. His omnivorous eye casts widely, taking in Jimi Hendrix as well as Christ, the Rg Veda and the Koran, Vladimir Tatlin and the Boston Strangler, but these are no cameo appearances: with a pointillist’s touch, the poet deploys his references for precise effects. Nor is this historical or philosophical spectacle. Throughout the poem, we dwell in the most intimate of landscapes, Donahue’s evocation of the hospital room, the deathbed, the very aloneness of experience is piercing in a way that reminds readers of those calvaries writ small: “Maternal touch, only / now some heat dispelling. / Maternal words, only waves / in the air / stories, only / wave after wave the / years, only atoms, / our names only / a crest of sound, / music only a scattering / in the air, your voice, / only a trembling / through the house.”
Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit by Stacy Doris (Nightboat)
Stacy Doris died in January of 2012, and Fledge was published shortly thereafter. As with so much of her work, the volume exhibits a rigor of both thought and lyrical technique. Composed in six syllable lines with mostly one and three syllable words these poems pay detailed attention to the unseeable: “Your eyes dig up the flakes / run pitch through a drone’s curls / to spoon it. The ‘o’ grip / whose hold unmoors our fly, / their crocuses, my road. / Since I cramped the forks I’ll / go there to replant them.” Not sweet, not what’s typically called lyrical, this music sounds out the hard zig-and-zag of Theolonius Monk. Big ideas about how thought actually feels burst from her bite-size words.
Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong (W. W. Norton)
Cathy Park Hong is her generation’s ventriloquist. In Engine Empire, which is divided into three discrete sections, each with its own idiolect, she uses radical forms and devices — a list, an abededarian, a lipogram — to propel her poems out of the lyric torpor so many other poets embrace. She doesn’t speak as an authority, but as one who listens closely to the “juddering slam of hammering jack…”
ROTC KILLS by John Koethe (Harper Perennial)
In ROTC Kills, John Koethe’s ninth book of poetry, the “immediate data of consciousness,” as the philosopher Henri Bergson defined it — that is to say one’s past (memories) and present (direct experience) — merge in surprising and unexpected ways. The point is not to use a larger narrative, such as religion or self-glorification, to guide the poem towards one of those familiar epiphanic states that have become a cliché, but to succumb to the train of thought, however wayward it might be. In the twenty-five poems and prose mediations Koethe proves to be a poet of vulnerability as he submits to the waywardness of thinking.
Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney (Fence Books)
The title sells you right off. And the poems — purposeful, political — smack the air as promised. A preface tells readers that the pieces “should be read aloud, a-LOUD,” but the directive isn’t quite necessary: the imagistic vibrancy, syntactic pace, and high-intensity vocabulizing that McSweeney deals out command volume. With a monologist’s performative verve, she ignites on cue: “I cannot tell you how verbatim I feel today, / struck from the rear flank of liberty, an off-guard, struck from the account, / posing face-up for my photo in the ditch, my eyes / pinched, my grin, girdled in fixative, miming redaction overseas / while my white slip signals acquisition.” Boom.
Just Look at the Dancers: Canticles, Fumes, Monostichs by Christopher Middleton (Sheep Meadow Press)
In Lives of The Poets, Michael Schmidt, the poet and publisher of Carcanet, has this to say about Middleton: “In his poems various historical periods are sighted through a personal lens and in a shifting perspective: those of a man now captive, now free. Transformation is his theme, one kind of moment or thing changing into another.” The editors concur. Middleton, who brought us Robert Walser, deserves to be better known for his own poems and essays.
Western Practice by Stephen Motika (Alice James Books)
Featuring poems that join elements of Charles Olson’s field composition to a far more idiosyncratic, personal sensibility, Stephen Motika’s Western Practice revives the inherent musicality of spatial play; this makes sense given the poet’s subjects are music (specifically the composer Harry Partch) and space (specifically, the vistas of California). Both themes — their mythic dimensions in full play — mix to powerful effect in “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch (1901-1974),” a poem whose stanzas and individual lines work in measured contrapuntal relation across its pages:
Enduring Freedom by Laura Mullen (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions)
Laura Mullen has expanded the parameters of poetry to include performance art, installation and theater. As Michael Leong wrote in his review of Enduring Freedom for Hyperallergic Weekend:
Mullen’s willful conflation of romance and war makes us all the more aware of Bush’s ill-advised romanticization of war. In a March 2008 videoconference to military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan President Bush said: “I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you…in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.” Afghanistan, framed here as a “young democracy,” as a kind of dangerous bride to the U.S. as dashing soldier-groom, is understood by Bush as nothing other than Mullen’s “Colonized Bride,” as a country to be “plundered” by Bush’s gaffe-filled mouth.
Snowflake / Different Streets by Eileen Myles (Wave Books)
Is there any doubt that, among many applicable superlatives, Eileen Myles is one of the most entertaining poets of her generation? And this — to entertain, to do so via poetry — is no small achievement. Given its inclination to concision and metaphor, verse can perplex some readers, but Myles consistently finds ways around such potential resistance while sacrificing nothing in terms of technical elegance or complexity of persona. Both are presented straightforwardly, but deceptively so. You think she is her poem, but she’s not. Snowflake / Different Streets (two separate books bound as one)offers the poet in various moods—meditative, comic, rueful, abstruse, and irritable—even as Myles maintains that voice, so familiar, so close to your ear, that you want to reply as if the two of you were talking: “I’m trying / to figure / out what / kind of fucked / up flower / a reflection / is / when everything / dances / in a bowl / of aluminum / day’s on / no extra / light / just the color / scheme / of the gym / & thinking / about that / the tile is that / exact / shade which / is not quite / white / they choose / it and it’s / why the / feeling is not / exact.”
Avenue by Michael O’Brien (Flood Editions)
Inhabited rather than observed, such are the ghostly domains of city and country that Michael O’Brien has rendered with as much an eye to telling detail as to the poet’s own perceptual dilemma. How can we ever see, just see, what’s in front of us with minds that ever tend backwards, inward, away from what can be written and catalogued, toward what can only be sensed? “Out of the corner / of his eye the / other world, the one / that always seems the / real one, the one / without us / on the hill a / saddle of light.” Memorable locutions such as “saddle of light,” an image concrete in its evanescence, the two nouns invading one another, litter this slender, emotionally striking book-length poem.
Citizen by Aaron Shurin (City Lights)
Aaron Shurin’s book of prose poems or very short (and determinedly plotless) stories registers close kinship with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, if one recalls the Italian author’s fondness for fantastical conception realized in tactile, meticulously visual detail. Citizen traffics in interior landscapes as various as its vocal ranges — we are sure of nothing except, perhaps, that “the sky itself” is “always a page molded by the yielding winds,” or that “we were in the loop… slick with information and good timing,” or, again, glancing upward, “[t]he sky is already icy clear, cloudless, fuel for projection.” Indeed, language is charged here and in some way fuel for projection. These poems seem to mythologize self-consciousness and make a weird beauty of the machinery of perception:
If I had language I would be a kiosk on the hill, a clubhouse of inflection and glide—indicative pivots—You know that spot by the big tree with its matador arms and deep shade of ardor? You could have a key too to the vibrating lock with spit in the hole like a sun leaking through the leaves to juice the inner sanctum.
And where that leaves us, I have no idea, except to say it’s somewhere very real, but not so much so you can’t go there without this poet’s guidance.
Meme by Susan Wheeler (University of Iowa Press)
In her sharp and sometimes vulgar aural montages of different voices that the poet has heard — ones that left a deep impression on her — Wheeler is attuned to different idioms and encodings. She recognizes that these idioms and slangs are evidence of the various processes of entropy and change each language undergoes at any moment in time. Wheeler, who is a master of form, brings such degraded possibilities as limerick and nursery into the realm of poetry. In Wheeler’s poems, vaudeville humor is brought back to life.
Alpha Donut by Matvei Yankelevich (United Artists Books)
As translator and one of the forces behind Ugly Duckling Presse, Matvei Yankelevich is an unrivaled cultural provider for those who want to know about the neglected poets of our turbulent times. His translation of Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook TP, 2009) was a major event recognized by the TLS and the Guardian. In his own writing, his humor is at once playful and dark: “My work is simply writing on the page. There is no more depth. Where there is depth it gets too dark to see. Some days I feel like seeing no one.” The logic of these lines is discovered through the poet’s attention to words. That’s what elevates Yankelevich’s seemingly casual poetry into another realm of consciousness.
Ardency: A Chronicle of the Armistead Rebels by Kevin Young (Knopf)
In To Repel Ghosts (2006) Kevin Young channeled Jean-Michel Basquiat and his friends. Since then, a wide range of voices have sung their plaintive songs through this poet — from the fictional detective A.K.A Jones to, most recently, the men who engineered the mutiny on the slave ship Armistad and tried to get back to Africa. In an interview, Young stated: “I hope with this book to talk about the living aspect of history and culture. I want to connect the experience of the Mendi in the 19th century to challenges of race, culture, language and violence in our own time. I didn’t want to write something old-timey. It’s not about the past, really; it’s about America and African America.”