I never set out to be a critic of poetry, and still refuse the label. Actually writing poems is already thankless enough. But because my day job as an art critic (“You call that a job?”) accustomed me to writing reviews, and because there didn’t seem to be enough reviews of poetry books, I decided a few years ago to write some. But I resolved that I would never be a poetry critic in the way that I’m an art critic: I would not try to have a comprehensive overview of the whole field as it is practiced in the present, and I would not feel ready to, in a pinch, respond with a spontaneous fusion of impulse and reflection to anything the world could throw at me as long as it counted as a serious artistic (or in this case, poetic) effort. I’ve kept to that resolution. There are just things I’d rather do than read all the poetry being published out there, or even a representative sample of it (however that might be arrived at). Most of the book reviews I’ve written have been on poets whose work I’ve been reading and thinking about for decades.
And yet, once I’d written some reviews of poetry, people started to take me for a critic. From time to time I get a nice email from someone who’d like to send me a review copy of his or her new book, and I usually respond with words something like, “Well, I don’t really write many book reviews, so the chances aren’t that likely I’ll get around to reviewing yours, but I’d be glad to read it if you still want to send it to me.” They usually do send it, and I often do eventually get around to reading it, and I usually don’t review it. On top of that, some presses simply started sending me copies of all the poetry books they put out. I try to read the ones that look the most interesting, though they do tend to pile up. It all makes me feel just a little guilty. But it’s given me the opportunity to read a fair amount of good contemporary poetry that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, or in many cases even known about. That’s why I’ve decided now to write some short notices of a few of those lucky discoveries of mine, good books by poets I’d never heard of before their latest volumes showed up in the mail. Some readers — some poets — will be astonished that I was previously unacquainted with names that may be quite prominent, even almost famous. To them I apologize; but consider that I am always ready to learn.
Erin Belieu, Slant Six, Copper Canyon Press (2014)
Erin Belieu is a poet who knows how to charm — and like all charmers, can sometimes irritate by charming too much or too well. As a result I fear that my review of her fourth book, Slant Six, may turn out sounding like a complaint though I took much pleasure in it. But it’s only because there is so much in her work that I like, I feel let down when I don’t like it as much. Often the reason is that what she says can feel at odds with what she does — and I prefer what she does. In a funny poem called “H.-Res. 21-1: Proposing a Ban on Push-Up Bras, Etc.” — which I think is in part a take-off on the Allen Ginsberg of “America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?” — she waxes slyly fancy, pretending to be plainspoken when she’s really a mercurial, rhetorical hoot. Which is why it bugs me that the poem ends with precisely the moral that everything else in it belies: “We must learn / to want each other / in direct sunlight, / no more or less than /what we really are.” The poem itself is more neon than sunlight, and loves the humor and power of hyperbole and litotes; it knows that “If Benjamin Franklin / were alive today, you know /he’d be working a thong and / Rollerblades on Venice Beach, / flying his freak flag / just beneath Old Glory!” What gives me a little thrill is when Belieu goes for the more-than-things-are that they somehow nonetheless are — when not only is it that “Each day I start anew, launching myself / against the great sea of / / myself,” but even more so, that in doing this, “my dinghy is not / in any way personal”; in Belieu’s world, when someone’s been nurturing a disappointment, not only has it been cared for like a beloved child, it’s been “raised like a baby / in a black Babybjörn, / coaxing it into the best sadness // anything warm could hope for.” I just wish she’d stop trying to sound sensible—professing herself “pleased to be plain” when she’s as fancy as anyone.
Rachel Zucker, The Pedestrians, Wave Books (2014)
Rachel Zucker has published five previous books and, with Arielle Greenberg, has edited two and written one. How did I miss all that? Luckily there’s always catching up. Her most recent book, The Pedestrians, consists mainly of prose poems. The first half of the book is labeled “Fables,” but the rest of it, which is called “The Pedestrians,” like the volume as a whole, maintains the tone of fable. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you could like these the way you like, say, Lydia Davis or Lucia Berlin, no problem. Their tone is quizzical; they look at ordinary life from oblique angles. They feel abstract despite having in them things like IUDs and UPS trucks and the records of Phil Collins, not to mention a suspiciously real-seeming husband and some kids — what an epigraph from John Ashbery’s “The One Thing That Can Save America” calls “The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,/And you know instantly what I mean.” But then: “Police cars scuttle past streetlamps whose cyclopean, compound eyes shine demurely from long, thin necks.” Some of Zucker’s poem-poems use breathlessly unpunctuated phrases sutured together by ampersands to present what feels like the anxious underside to the cooler, more obviously controlled percepts of the prose poems: the unmusical music of a mind racing through the harrying, sometimes horrifying particulars of the urban quotidian, and an unspoken protest against whatever “separates poetry from the pedestrian.” Only when I got to the acknowledgements at the end did I realize that the half-mythical husband is my daughter’s former high school English teacher. What a small town New York is.
John Coletti, Deep Code, City Lights (2014)
Every poet kills the Ashbery book he he loves. In John Coletti’s case, that would be, I reckon, The Tennis Court Oath — challenging prey. Disjunction and parataxis are at a premium here, each line its own thing, sometimes even each word (“restaurant / aerosol / lepidolite /periwinkle /chalked up / ship / present” etc. — a far cry from Rilke’s “house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window” and yet maybe not as far as it seems). Or rather, almost its own thing, because after all there remains a wisp of a rhythm that orients each line to the others, however loosely — a last hint of innate sensibility. But good luck putting your finger on it (as a reader) or being sure you’ve kept faith with it (as a writer). It would take something like the physics that describes the path of a stone skipping across the surface of a pond to calculate the pattern formed by the points this sensation touches before sinking away, lost. And that is where what we usually call meaning occurs, in Coletti’s poems: totally submerged, only its ripples still visible. And those disperse so quickly! — maybe too quickly for my taste, sometimes. Coletti sometimes (not too often) trades in trivialities. But that’s the only way this game can be played: for the pebble of meaning to touch down any less lightly on the poem’s surfaces would mean sinking almost before it’s left its traces.
Like Zucker, Coletti is something of a New York regionalist, albeit probably of a younger generation. His kind of skittish hipster lullabies are not the sort you’d sing your kids, and the takeaway, the book’s last lines, convey a wisdom not to be wasted on minors: “candy is delicious / you should eat some every day.” Certainly it takes some local knowledge to understand, for instance, what’s funny about a title like “Park Slope Metal Bar.” On the other hand, certain little mannerisms, like using “b/c” for “because,” “yr” for “your,” and an ampersand for “and,” ring a little oddly, as if Coletti were speaking New American Poetry as a second language. But that might be where his potentially too knowing tone becomes endearingly earnest — as though he really believed that this would place him in the tradition, and that such a thing is important. All in all, I like this poetry best when it lets its guard down:
if I’m sick
you’ll take care of me?
Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Copper Canyon Press (2014)
According to Romans 12:1, the body is “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” But whose body is truly acceptable has been a matter of dispute since ancient times. In his poem “Romans 12:1,” Jericho Brown describes his sexuality as a kind of conversion experience and that conversion as something that separates him from a community:
I let a man touch me until I bled,
Until my blood met his hunger
And so was changed, was given
A new name.
As is the practice among my people
Who are several and whole, holy
And acceptable. On the whole
Hurt by me, they will not call me
Brother. Hear me coming,
And they cross their legs. As men
Are wont to hate women,
As women are taught to hate
Themselves, they hate a woman
They smell in me
Brown must one of the few poets writing these days in whose work the rhetoric of religion still retains something like its old power, but that’s because he turns it against itself. “Those who hear / The voice of God and other old music,” he writes in another poem, “speak / In metaphors” in order “to bring bad news.” Brown understands you don’t even need words to make metaphor, or rather that the words need only be implicit: “How many times can a woman say why / With her hands in the moonlight?”
Brown speaks of “humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Am I one of them? Maybe. The New Testament contains more characters than most poetry books (it’s Brown’s second) and they’re pretty much all black. They don’t feel unfamiliar to a human who’s not black though like most people they might take some getting used to. They’ve got unpaid bills, they might have been to prison, they’ve experienced love and hate. They cannot speak directly of who they are but they tell it slant. “I am not a liar, I tell the cashier,” one of them says. Brown’s poems gather at the corner of tenor and vehicle, of oratory and slang, which turns out to be a good spot from which to watch death’s “sting / Last and be transfigured.”