There have been more fine books published this year than we can adequately cite. For this list, we mostly chose standouts from longstanding careers — our tip of the hat to perseverance.
Sight Lines (Copper Canyon), Arthur Sze’s tenth book of poetry, deservedly received the National Book Award. The poems work by juxtaposition with no transitions between the images. “Green tips of tulips are rising out of the earth– / you don’t flense a whale or fire at beer cans / in an arroyo but catch the budding / tips of pear branches and wonder what / it’s like to live along a purling edge of spring. / Jefferson once tried to assemble a mastodon [….].” With a vast command of different fields of inquiry at his fingertips, Sze is able to construct poems brimming with meticulous perceptions, history, science, philosophy, and more, all while reaching unexpected insights. These are the poems of a person alive to the vastness of the landscape he inhabits (New Mexico and what the sky above it contains), to the threads of history (from deep time to the recent past), and the fluctuations of personal experience. What elevates these poems even higher is that they never settle into anecdote or description; they turn vision into the visionary. Sze is one of the finest poets of his generation and his work is finally getting the attention it has long merited. John Yau
Always count on Elaine Equi’s nimble gymnastics to flip the ordinary around and create something rich and strange. She has done so in 13 previous volumes and extends the feat in The Intangibles (Coffee House). Equi explores the unexpected with a wry and curious touch: “We are not used to / thinking food has a past,” she notes in “Food Narratives.” “All we ask / when we are hungry / is that it appear.” But then the somersault: “miraculous as a breast / descending upon us / from a floral sky.” While her poems often begin with a deceptive naiveté (“I keep starting, but not finishing, / a poem about a werewolf” or “Emily Dickinson was weird”), they then veer into improbable territory in which Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf or the weird sisters in Macbeth dispense self-help advice. Equi’s sense of the quotidian is angular in its pursuit of the momentous; she seeks to chart “Not the clatter / of the cataclysm” but “the slow / wearing down / of one order // and the steady / gnawing upward / of another.” These poems do not wear their brooding hearts on their sleeves but rather flirt and banter, drawing us close before revealing their ruminative complexities. Albert Mobilio
Spell (Penguin Poets) is Ann Lauterbach’s tenth book. She has also published a book of essays. I mention the essays because interspersed among the poems in Spell are 13 prose dialogs between “Evening” and an unnamed “I.” In one of the dialogs, Evening announces: ”Nobody mourns me. I come and I go, I do not age, or get sick, or die.” The “I” responds: “And yet, you mark time, day after day.” It is within this space, where time has simultaneously collapsed and stretches out, that these two figures (nature and an individual consciousness) discuss how to move from the past to the future without getting stuck, as we currently are. In Spell, it becomes abundantly clear that Lauterbach wants to bring every kind of writing into her work: dialog, essay, letter, diary, lyric, prose, list, philosophical investigation, dictionary entry, memory, fiction, dream, and citation. This is an inclusive ambition. At the same time – and this needs to stressed – Lauterbach has rejected irony, which has become a commonplace framing device for exposing the limits of language and its ability for representation. There is a reason she rejects the literal: “Facts aren’t the same as persons.” JY
The ongoing political disaster wends its way through Star Black’s The Popular Vote (Saturnalia Books) in ways both obvious and oblique. The white pantsuit Melania Trump wore to the 2018 State of the Union address prompts sharp taxonomic scrutiny (Black is a visual artist whose uncanny collages elucidate inner worlds): “It conjures a reverie and must be stark, / not eggshell white or ivory or champagne, / which is pale, pale beige, but flaxen / and bright, brimming with / adamant control.” While Black handily connects the “bewitching power” of the First Lady’s attire to various dire particulars — DACA protests, Stephen Miller, Hillary — perhaps her most memorable line displays a shrewd understanding of the color’s suggestiveness: “The white pantsuit doesn’t dance” but “pausing above the crowd / is dignified, discreet, trance-like complete.” A gorgeous series titled “Sky Studies” puts Black’s acute visual sensibility in robust communication with her talent for verbal dislocation: “Ruffled gamelans of rain, unconstrained / by all that seems remembered, ting between / splashed pedestrians under obscure clouds. / Today is unshaven, anyone’s haven.” The world now is surely unshaven, but seen through Black’s transformative eye, there remains “the beauty / of revealed creation, day one before Eden.” AM
In Dunce (Wave Books), Mary Ruefle’s latest book, the poet writes, “I am going to die” and then recognizes how small and inconsequential she is, all without asking for the reader’s sympathy: “My face a thumbtack / in the earth.” In another poem she writes: “I also saw a leaf-blower / and all the dead leaves / looked like they were having fun / jumping around as if they were alive again.” Dunce is a book haunted by death and the feeling of arriving at a certain age and becoming invisible. Ruefle is a generous poet who recognizes that “At some age / the world begins to drift away.” Instead of trying to hold on, she finds ways to say goodbye without ever descending into the maudlin. Dunce is full of brave, tender, sweet, funny, and brilliant poems. JY
The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights) is a necessary volume long in need of compilation. Expertly edited by Neeli Cherkovski, Raymond Foye, and Tate Swindell, with an informative foreword by devorah major, the work dates from the late-1950s until shortly before the poet’s death in 1986. An influential figure for early Beat poets, Kaufman worked in a variety of innovative forms and styles, mixing high and low vernaculars as he delved into the Surrealist tradition with a salutary irreverence. This is a voice-dominated verse in which the taut snap of lines in some poems jostles productively against the incantatory, oratorical mode of others. “Blues for Hal Waters,” which first appeared in The Ancient Rain (1981) gives vigorous evidence of Kaufman’s wiry and insinuating take on surrealist moves: “My head, my secret cranial guitar, strung with myths plucked / from / Yesterday’s straits, it’s buried in robes of echoes, my eyes / breezeless flags, lacquered to present a glint…” The political critique that percolates through these poems can be humorous, as it is later in “Blues for Hal Waters” (“The Last Buffalo will be torpedoed by an atomic submarine, / firing hydrogen tiepins”), or it can be overt and declamatory, as it is in “Carl Chessman (Reel I, II, III, IV).” This free-flowing prose poem loosely adopts the form of a screenplay to pan widely from Chessman in his “swank” gas chamber (he was the last person to be executed in California) addressing the PTA, to the plains of Nebraska where the convicted kidnapper’s “soul traverses the newly / slaughtered brain, singing benedictions learned from holy birds.” Kaufman’s high-velocity verse is a mental accelerant of the first order. AM
Woman Speaking Inside Film Noir” is the title of one of the earliest poems in A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New & Selected Poems (Nightboat Books) by Gillian Conoley. Like the opening scenes of a movie, the poem pulls us into a self-contained world and state of consciousness: “What I want happens / not when the man leaning on a lamppost / stares up to my room and I meet his gaze / through the blinds, but in the moment after […].” Like a movie camera panning from one spot to another, Conoley’s early poems carry us into an oddly familiar world without ever landing in a well-known terrain, such as transcendent revelation. Starting out with poems set in Texas, where the poet grew up, Conoley moves – literally and figuratively – into a wider, deeper world. Typographically, the poems can run from the verticality of thin columns tugging the reader down to the last word, to a slower unfolding spread out across the page. In “Trying to Write a Poem About Gandhi,” Conoley opens with: “The future leaves roses on the bed / for the long stretch of the waker / at the window left to pull / the day around.” The consciousness of the poet has changed. The poem moves forward, but at a more fractured, receptive pace. What concerns her are the flashing moments of recognition that come to us during our daily life. Citing Gandhi, she writes: “[…] he said / ‘you cannot wake those who are pretending sleep.’” JY
An eloquent and emotionally precise mediation on loss and mourning, Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence (Wave Books) addresses the death of her husband, the sound artist Dale Sherrad, in 2015. The narrator in these poems is thoughtful, questioning, and always alert to contradictions and anomalies of feeling. Remembrance is dexterously infused with conundrum and a profound sense of unflinching observation: “Memories curved and then sounded: were sibilant and jest, and from not-his-mouth, and not-his-teeth, and the breath grew so sharp and he grew so thin and gaunt that he was buried in a slander his body made of him and I could only spurn cancer as an enemy.” This poem, “Sequence 1,” furthers the investigation of its freighted subject with provocative speculation borne of simply being in those moments: “there was not the send-off of which we held each other in the deepness of ourselves . . . . No. It was a disaster of insufficiency that now I learn is what death does with you, if you watch it take out what it needs.” Throughout this affecting yet never sentimental book there is a bracing clarity that tilts against the darkness the poems so piercingly evokes. AM
Ten New Fairy Tales (McPherson & Company) by Robert Kelly with illustrations by Emma Polyakov is not technically a book of poems, but it is by one of our best poets. The expansiveness of Kelly’s writing — novels, short stories, fairy tales, long poems, and lyrics — along with his many publications (more than 50 books) has blinded many to just how good he is. In “The Umbrella,” from the current volume, a snake tells a man: “You must understand that those of us who live flat on the ground all the time must take pains to avoid the intemperate aggressions from the upper air–excessive heat and light and water and (I have been told) even ice and snow in the mountains.” Inhabiting the snake’s perspective, he voices his own vulnerabilities. Each tale is a small, sparkling gem. Years ago, Kelly challenged himself in a poem: “Write everything,” and has gone to do just that. I think what he deserves is a well-edited, two-volume reader that brings together the best examples of his writing. JY
I have been reading John Koethe’s poetry since I picked up Domes (Columbia University Press, 1973). Falling Water (HarperPerennial, 1997) and North Point North: New and Selected (HarperCollins, 2002) should have convinced anybody who cares about poetry that Koethe is a major poet who had taken inspiration from John Ashbery and James Schuyler, and turned their influence into something all his own. Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) bring together a half a century of work, from the terse lyrics of the late 1960s to his long, discursive, musical poems of the last three decades. Koethe, who taught philosophy for many years, is one of the few poets who can make rhyme seem as natural as walking while chewing gum.“Tulsa” follows him as he begins researching the 1921 race riot there, when white mobs murdered black residents and destroyed their businesses. Throughout the poem – and all of his work – Koethe’s penchant for detail always guides him. He is a poet of passionate precision who tells us that “biplanes / From an airfield near town, left over from WWI, dropped firebombs […]” on Tulsa during the riot. Although he never spells it out, the lesson is clear: Germany wasn’t the first to bomb a civilian population when it attacked Guernica in 1937. Koethe can move from this pessimistic view of American history to the experience of seeing Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 movie The Red Shoes as a child growing up in San Diego, California, to contemplating the nature of memory and our inability to escape time. At once personal, collective, and philosophical, the scope of Koethe’s work is a wonder to behold. JY
This combined reissue of two books by Douglas Crase, one published in 1981 and the other in 2017, is an occasion for rejoicing. The Revisionist & The Astropastorals (Nightboat Books) testifies to the poet’s enduring relevance to the art — this is verse so meticulous in its construction, exquisite in its intelligence, and ravishing in its imagery that fellow poets cannot help but feel both daunted and inspired by the achievement. In the title poem “The Revisionist,” Crase animates familiar American landscapes with Whitmanesque empathy and wonder: “The canal rubs up against the railroad / As if it always had, without a trace of the engineering / That made it possible to shoulder the water to one side / And raise the thruway in its bed.” His vision extends into geologic time to observe “The canal loses / Its dimensions in a lake beneath which the salt beds / Go down a half mile.” There, too, is Whitman’s sense of grandeur and the way national purpose might be experienced intimately: “Even in separation, the grace of potential union / Spills around us to indicate how my course of action, / Freed from the peculiar moment which pointed it here / Or there, could have widened in other directions / Toward the horizon: the 360-degree / Horizon I have to turn around for in order to see.” Despite their intricate arguments (or perhaps because of them), these poems rush forward with kinetic momentum; we are always verging upon some fresh perceptual discovery—“Unlike the other countries, this one / Begins in houses, specific houses and the upstairs room / Where constitutions vibrate in the blockfront drawers [. . .].” In Astropastorals, Crase remains alert to immanent meanings and he renders such potential understandings as well as the process of their apprehension. From the opening of that book’s title poem:
As much as the image of you, I have seen
You again, live, as in live indecision you brighten
The limbs of an earth that so earnestly turns
To reflect you, the sky’s brightest body
And the last beacon for those who are everywhere
Coded in spirals and want to unbend
Who bear in the dark turned toward you
This message they have to deliver to even live,
To linger in real time before you, to meet or to
Blow you away—and yes I have seen you receive them
But you are not there.
Thinking here has been arrayed with grace enough to belie its density. Crase’s linguistic domain is at once tantalizingly abstract yet present and palpable. His poems are alive on the tongue while being read and even more so days later, as a recollected fragment surfaces unbidden amid the flux of thought. AM
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