August 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than a thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

1. Sheer Indefinite, Skip Fox (University of New Orleans Press, 2012); Pickled Dreams Naked, Norman Stock (New York Quarterly Books, 2010). It is a common enough experience, in reading contemporary poetry, to discover that the auditory element of a poem has run well ahead of one's own aural conditioning. It takes no more than a poet who is particularly clever in her use of sonics -- with "cleverness" narrowly defined, here, as the ability to craft soundscapes grander than those for which our workaday experiences prepare us. The same might be said for some poets' precocity with imagery; we regularly encounter imagistic juxtapositions, or in rarer instances exemplars of synesthesia, that impress us by dint of their minimal functionality and maximal originality. But we can only take so much of this. Sonics and imagery are adornments -- or, to leap to another of the five senses, aperitifs. The contemporary poetry reader who has delved deeper than merely the highest strata of the genre is looking for sterner stuff, surely. Poets like Norman Stock (who at times calls to mind an even-less-cautious Ron Padgett) and Skip Fox (who at times calls to mind a closer-to-the-vest Lawrence Ferlinghetti) provide it, though there's a necessary trade-off here some purists will undoubtedly be unwilling to make.

Suffice to say that Stock and Fox are not darlings of the "craft-first" set. There is a choppiness in their work -- up to an aural and visual and even sentimental ungainliness -- and yet it is this very extenuation that permits the greatest achievements of these poets' individual poems: In Pickled Dreams Naked (Stock) and Sheer Indefinite (Fox), one often feels it is the vision of the poet that runs ahead of anything even the conscientious reader could anticipate. These poems startle not because they are pretty, or even prettily constructed, but because their manic energy bears a sort of rough-hewn integrity that invigorates readers with its audacity rather than enervating them with technical perfection. Don't pick up these books expecting glossy linguistic surfaces, airtight structural composition, or even wince-free rhetoric; yet there is a strata of American poetics in which spontaneity and demotic play and generative quirk is the order of the day, and American poetry is the better for it. What Stock and Fox offer -- with their uneven, unpredictable stanzaic structures and punctuation; their eccentric associations and idiosyncratic urgencies; their gleeful strikes against professionalized poetic discourse; their often obtuse narratives, over-eager sentiment, and even willfully offhand language -- is among the most important lessons to which any young poet can be exposed. Namely, that in poetry, as Charles Olson once wrote, every element must be at once a high-energy construct and a high-energy discharge, and the poet is not freed from this prescription merely because he has nicely metaphorized a flower or slant-rhymed "ill" and "shell" across three or four irregularly-metered lines of verse. This reviewer found both Pickled Dreams Naked and Sheer Indefinite palpably rough-edged, to say the least, but also -- largely because (to again quote Olson) the "play of the mind" of these two poets is superlative -- eerily difficult to put down. And what better recommendation can any reader give an artifact of literature than that one? [Excerpts: from Sheer Indefinite (Fox); "What I Said" (Stock)].

2. Bringing the Shovel Down, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Partyknife, Dan Magers (Birds, LLC, 2012). The most tiresome poetry, by a fair margin, is that poetry -- usually written by non-MFAed poets of the preceding generation; that is, those who cut their teeth on the anecdotal-meditative poetry scene of the 1980s and early 1990s -- in which a reader's manure detector shudders and rings like a control tower lately buzzed by Maverick and Goose. The proximate cause: The sheer implausibility and rank preciousness of the lyric-narratives such poetry seeks to encode. The gravedigger, we are told in such poems, is actually thinking of how light pours from history like saccharine wine from a wineskin in de Medici's Italy; the harried mother is reminded of the pleasures of midnight sex in the 1940s by shadows cast from a child's rocking horse; the alabaster skin of a cheese-slice calls to mind immediately, to any and all who see it, the ravages of Pol Pot and the twisting melodies of a music box lost by a running child in Albania under the cruel reign of Generalissimo Hagmet and his corpuscular cavalry sergeant whose nickname translates in Flavian Latin to -- well, et cetera. In my life I've met fewer than ten poets of the mid-Program Era (1998 to present) who find this sort of verse anything short of nauseating.

Poetry is not a playground for orgiastic couplings of sonically-pleasing minutiae; it does not automatically render associative trivia or esoteric memorializations vibrant or mesmerizing; it cannot impute calculable existential value to word-paintings rendered in a High Romantic hash of mawkishness and pretentious obscurity. So, enough already. Not every rudimentary human action need be metaphorized; not every banana peel deserves a coupleted half-rhyme; not every anecdote from your hardscrabble childhood is of greater interest than the similar historical detritus already lodged in every self-help manual, sociological case study, and psychology textbook. Such self-indulgence only confirms -- if not the death of poetry itself -- certainly the death of the conventional lyric, which was well-suited to the foppish leisure class of nineteenth-century England but sits uneasily beside, well, the lived reality of late-capitalist America or pretty much anywhere in our stridently transnational twenty-first century.

Increasingly, we find poets, often children of the mid-to-late Program Era, reinvigorating the lyric by eschewing metaphor, skipping tired lyric-narrative gestures (italicizing dialogue doesn't exonerate you for writing in verse what should have been written as flash fiction), reflexive formal gestures (if the poem is doing nothing at all novel with couplets, it likely ought not be in couplets), and the sort of cheap epiphanies the nation's bards should've gotten out of their collective system during the waning days of the second Reagan Administration. In this category of younger authors we might put the recent work of Dan Magers, whose Partyknife knows the difference between rank absurdity, tepid surrealism, and run-scoring humor (it opts for the last); distinguishes between self-dismissive irony, juxtapositive hipsterism, and impish philosophizing (again, Magers knows this last is best); and stands as wildly entertaining literature even as it unabashedly approaches some of the more serious snafus of modern living.

A seemingly endless parade of prose-syntax, fortune-cookie-like two- and three-line stanzas, Partyknife doesn't always hit the targets its penny maxims are thrown at (there are banalities here by the score) but it's an admirably gutsy performance nonetheless -- and is rarely less than thrilling. Magers simultaneously observes that "I am a scholar of that feeling," "I could stand to be hurt," "I serve everything I get," and "You lowered yourself to my pleasure," while also confessing that "At karaoke, I ruined 'Don't Stop Believing' for everyone," "The races are really getting together in this PowerPoint presentation," and "Rob's shirt was tighter than the color / I fantasized about." The routinized navigation of such tight corners puts this work in the same milieu as Tao Lin's and Mark Leidner's, but also, more subtly, John Ashbery's; these declarations disjunctively perform various dictions, registers, and tones in a way that unsettles our received notions of narrativity, sincerity, and decorum. They enact, at all times, the lived experience of those of a certain generation, but in doing so also confirm such experiences as representative of the changing shape of American ennui, anomie, and gestalt. If these poems are not out saving the world, they are at a minimum pantsing some self-aggrandizing politician self-seriously declaiming on the noble indivisibility of intangibles. It's a start; poetry can do much to incline (in either direction) the plane we all live on, but it must first acknowledge that the only language with real force is that language that concedes the possibility or even probability of collapse: cultural, linguistic, rhetorical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. The time for meticulously-calibrated linguistics may come around again, and perhaps it should, but after a few thousand years of hegemony it ought first open some headway for its tow-headed Chaos-Muppet cousin. Magers may not be substantially improving upon the Ashberian model of cultural and linguistic fracture, but if -- as Gertrude Stein has told us -- time is one of only two things that ever change in literature ("composition" being the other), Magers is registering the ways in which certain poststructuralist methods of literary composition take a different shape in 2012 than they did in 1962. Bravo to Magers for risking occasional mundanity to achieve a lofty goal: a form of generational speech that impresses us with its atmospherics and tonal hybridity even as it touches us with its explorations of porous twenty-first-century subjectivity. [Excerpt: from Partyknife (scroll down to the "Look Inside the Book" section)].

Ross Gay's approach to the lyric is fundmentally anathema to Magers', but no less lively for it. Bringing the Shovel Down reminds us that few verse forms are more powerful than the nursery rhyme; while written entirely in free verse, Gay's tendency to permit rhythms and sounds to recur within poems -- and for rhetorical structures to return again and again in successive poems -- emphasizes the obsessiveness, anxiety, and even rage that attends to deeply-felt emotion and forcibly-witnessed harrowings. The inertia of these rather breathless poems beggars description, as each gliding and intensely readable line begs for another shoe to be dropped, another door to be slammed, another manifestation of hurt to be coldly but perfectly chronicled. There is a great deal of play here, but also the hard work of seeing a difficult thing well and truly. [Excerpt: from Bringing the Shovel Down].

3. Elegy for Dead Languages, Francesco Levato (Marick Press, 2010); The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me, Maged Zaher (Tinfish Press, 2012). Poet Juliana Spahr has encouraged us to consider that it is the sociocultural eccentricities of the Program Era, not the seedy politicization of bohemia promulgated by the historical and subsequent avant-gardes, that best explains the declining dedication of younger poets to direct political action. It's nonsense, of course; if postmodernism gave us increased self-consciousness, it also gave us, simultaneously, an abiding belief in the disunity of the self -- and self-destructive non-academic-institutional communities that performed such disunity daily -- so the gradual loss of Utopian thinking amongst America's literary kinder was more or less a foregone conclusion. If anything, the Program Era has permitted younger poets to plug into institutional spaces in which Romanticism and solipsism still hold sufficient sway to convince the inmates that intellectual, emotional, and spiritual jailbreak is still possible. The progressive fallacy may be an embarrassment to academics and the off-campus literary communes their academicism supports, but you'll find no more ardent adherents to the scholarly infelicity of naïve hope than impoverished grad students. In any case, what is needed now is not the sort of navel-gazing finger-pointing (not the paradox it seems) the Academy is best known for, but a celebration of those younger poets of any background or affiliation who remind us that poetry may best be returned to the praxis of life merely by acknowledging that it happens primarily off the page.

The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me (Zaher) and Elegy for Dead Languages (Levato) are two very different collections which nevertheless equally subscribe to the theory that poetic form permits an uncannily robust iteration of political reportage. Zaher's wispy meditations take last year's Arab Spring as their backdrop, and the poet's on-site, observational poetics lends the work an acute authenticity. These two- to four-line poems would seem slight if they weren't so simultaneously un-selfconscious and self-possessed; reading Zaher, one feels transported to scenes in which the awesome scale of change can only be seen in its fragmentary, incremental manifestations. If there is an urgency in this work, it is because the work has been (capital "I") Inspired -- that instantiation of Life in which the self is finally promoted to centrality not by virtue of arrogance but rather the transcendent qualities of heightened receptivity. I believe in this sort of linguistics, I believe in this poet, and I believe the events to which this poetry collection bears witness have found their most succinct and (though it seem a contradiction) lush presentation in Zaher's skillful authorship. [Excerpt: from The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me].

Levato's Elegy for Dead Languages, while a more baroque and sculpted collection, is also a powerful testament to modernity. Levato traces the blindspots of war, particularly controversial American interventions in the Middle East. Elegy for Dead Languages is an imagistic tour de force, and Levato's unsparing lens is just the sort these subjects deserve and require. The collection's poems seem unduly cerebral only if we forget -- as we must never forget -- that these are real appendages being torn apart, real pieties being eviscerated, real landscapes being ravaged. Brian Turner has already given us a view of war from the front lines; Levato's perspective is a more distant but also (perhaps in consequence of its distance) an even more comprehensive one. It is right that we should again be troubled by poetry; and it is right that when poetry troubles us it should move us not merely to emotion but to action. Levato's book meets the high standards not only of testament but also -- albeit in the sociopolitical, rather than militaristic sense -- a call-to-arms. The horrors of war are too easily rendered as Kantian sublimities for which the stateside mind can find no objective correlative; Levato suffuses us, instead, in the facts, figures, and bureaucratic speech out of which real-time horrors are in actuality composed. A necessary and suitably unforgiving book. [Excerpt: from "War Rug"].

4. All the Garbage of the World, Unite!, Kim Hyesoon [Don Mee Choi, trans.] (Actions Books, 2011). If these stark, urgent poems seem to bear a persistent political cast, it is not merely because Hyesoon's work is often directly topical but also because All the Garbage of the World, Unite! reminds us that where injustices prevail, all speech-acts are inherently politicized. This is as it should be, and Hyesoon's forceful verse is, too, exactly how it should be -- a poetics of disobedience that challenges all it sees and delivers a powerful emotional payload upon each of its many objects and subjects. These are poems that drive their knives deep; Hyesoon isn't messing about in writing on topics ranging from pregnancy to gender inequities to commercialized cruelty to embodied disfigurations of present-self and future-spirit. If there is an element of the grotesque here, it is much more in service of a feminist-inspired ethics-of-looking than a fetishization of aestheticized spectacle. We owe Action Books our sincere thanks for bringing this important work to light; those looking for an uncompromising and energetically-engaged poetics can do no better than this electrifying book. [Excerpt: "All the Garbage of the World, Unite!"].

5. As Long As Trees Last, Hoa Nguyen (Wave Books, 2012). Nguyen is a master of the poetic line, a distinction considerably rarer in these times than it ought to be. As Long As Trees Last insists on the materiality and weight of each word, not merely as a function of Nguyen's evidently dextrous enjambment but also her impressionistic lexicon -- one that communicates emotion through the atmospherics of grammar as well as the dialectics of performative speech. These fifty-seven short poems now and again make tentative gestures toward open form/composition-by-field, but really do most of their important rhetorical work by insinuating sentiment into syntax and leaving no good word unsaid. There is a density here that approximates, alternately, pursed lips or a closed fist; few poets do so much with so little fanfare. Nguyen makes poetry that sticks in the heart and the craw, and she deserves to be widely and aggressively read by those poets (and there are many of us in this camp) who sometimes forget that sonic economies need not be prettified, page-bound bungalows -- but can in fact be powerfully incisive statements of being that chill the heart and wound the spirit for the better. [Excerpt: "After Sappho"; four others].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). Presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, Colorado Review, and elsewhere.

Earlier Editions in the Series: