This is the second in a series of articles focusing on the very best works of contemporary poetry in the United States. The first entry can be found here.
To wander the narrow aisles of Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, perhaps the nation's most awe-inspiring compilation of poetry collections from around the nation and the world, is to be struck by the rank futility of mapping the contemporary poetry scene in America. We are now too many; with between 50,000 and 70,000 working poets now living and writing in the United States alone, we can no longer be fitfully collated into camps, tribes, schools, movements, subgenres, sub-communities, or aesthetic moments. The graceless tantrums of those who would subjugate the majestic diversity of American verse into a single historiography -- or, worse yet, denigrate the vibrancy and vitality of the work the poets of the nation are now producing -- are less welcome now than ever before. They are, in short, increasingly appalling. The aim of this series is to honor the unquantifiable diversity of the poetries now in evidence in the United States, without special preference for or dependence upon any one iteration or any one year of publication. The books in the list below are all "recent" works inasmuch as they were released (in the grand scale of the history of American verse) fairly recently: between 1996 and 2011.
When the Poetry Foundation in Chicago recently dubbed the first set of books selected for this new contemporary poetry review series "charmingly arbitrary", it seemed clear we were onto something. The following books, which are merely part of an ongoing, unranked, non-exhaustive, alphabetically-ordered list of poetry collections eminently worth reading, have not been selected on the basis of anyone's educational pedigree (or lack thereof), book sales, name-recognition, publisher, aesthetic school or camp, poetry-business ("po-biz") connections, or any other traceable characteristic. While no poetry critic can honestly claim to be free of biases and predilections, at the least this series devoutly aims at just the sort of "charming arbitrariness" with which it was recently credited by the Poetry Foundation. These are simply books which achieve excellence in some manner or another, and which consequently (in the view of this author) deserve a wider audience. Hopefully the following brief descriptions and excerpts will give readers a better indication as to why:
1. People Are Tiny in Paintings of China, Cynthia Arrieu-King (Octopus Books, 2010). These relentlessly inventive poems are not only imagistically gorgeous but narratively compelling. Arrieu-King masterfully renders a patchwork of scenarios as a unified, lush landscape which feels both vital and endlessly variable. There is an intricate rendering of the ego here, but as with the best American verse there is also much more: A reason for being, for so warmly engaging the sensual hybridity of real and imagined worlds. An excerpt (from "Oxberry Rostram Camera"): "The taste of wine and lilac sunset / is about to be invented. // And up makes us hopeful as a berry's tilt. / Someone makes all this bullshit: // A moved doll, a whole scene of jerky. / A smile on the face of the slow."
2. The Waste Land and Other Poems, John Beer (Canarium Books, 2010). There are few higher compliments one can imagine bestowing on a book of poetry than to say that one wishes to read it aloud to a loved one on a lakeside at dusk on a Saturday. Beer's collection is one of the few works of the last five years that indisputably deserves this sort of description. This book moves in the ear and in the heart like a living organism; the whole is of a single character, all parts are ineluctable to the sum, and that sum is sublime. If you had this book on a desert island you would not feel alone; it is that vibrant, empathetic, encompassing, and nourishing. Prior knowledge of T.S. Eliot's seminal work is a significant aid but not absolutely essential. An excerpt (from "The Waste Land"): "Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises, the poem once / called 'The Waste Land.' Friends, listen up. He gathered the / remnants of the life he had dreamed. He renounced the burden / of the name he bore. He began to walk."
3. With Deer, Aase Berg, trans. Johannes Göransson (Black Ocean, 2008). So often the hopeful reader of contemporary poetry thumbs through collections in the local bookstore and finds -- particularly amongst the nation's trade-press releases, the releases most commonly reviewed by major media and most commonly stocked in the nation's now-evaporating brick-and-mortar bookstores -- that every book is interchangeable with every other, that the very grammar of thought of one poet is identical to that of another and another and another. Berg's collection, expertly translated by a poet with an encyclopedic knowledge of both his source material specifically and various Scandinavian poetries generally -- is the perfect cure for the spiritual laxness of much contemporary verse.
An exemplar of the "grotesque" aesthetic (a description which only skims the surface of this important text), Berg's words are alive with the transformative processes of the organic: deterioration, deracination, alienation, compulsion. This stomach-churning work is not for the faint of heart; yet the faint of heart probably shouldn't be reading the best contemporary verse has to offer, anyway. Certainly not verse whose epic horrors are so deviously vivid, so preternaturally aware of the darknesses in lit places, and so visceral -- literally and figuratively -- that they cannot help but haunt their readers for many months after the collection has been read and put aside. An excerpt (from "In the Guinea Pig Cave"): "There lay the guinea pigs. There lay the guinea pigs and they / waited with blood around their mouths like my sister. There lay / the guinea pigs and they smelled bad in the cave. There lay my / sister and she swelled and ached and throbbed. There lay the / guinea pigs and they ached all over and their legs stuck straight up like beetles and they looked depraved and were blue under / their eyes as from months of debauchery. / My sister puked / calmly and indifferently: it ran slowly out of her slack mouth..."
4.The Romance of Happy Workers, Anne Boyer (Coffee House Press, 2008). These deeply challenging poems courageously seek to agitate rather than placate. Willfully political, Boyer's verse spears the sacrosanct at every turn -- precisely the sort of dynamic, subversive quality one could wish to see more of in contemporary poetry. Those not yet initiates to this sort of frenetic, disjunctive, tonally and sonically fraught, citational, implied-narrative verse may balk; they should get over themselves. Boyer's poetry provides a tantalizing and exhilarating glimpse of the future of American verse. An excerpt (from "The Romance of Happy Workers"): "1. This mercy I found in the end: when want was a Red Army, / we were czars. // 2. This mercy I found in the tunnels: in the dark I knew no light. // 3. I am still looking for an exit without violence."
5. The Alphabet and It, Inger Christensen (New Directions, 2000 and 2005). Originally published in 1969 (It) and 1981 (The Alphabet) in Christensen's native Danish, in the past decade both of these seminal works of Scandinavian poetry have been translated into English. Praise God -- or whichever earthly or extraterrestrial powers you believe in -- for this gift to American poetry-readers. In her homeland, Christensen (who sadly passed away in 2009) often received the sort of treatment almost unthinkable for a poet in the U.S., that of a rock star; it's not hard to see why. Yet it would be hard to imagine any poet, writing in any language, with a more generous and expansive vision than Christensen's.
It and The Alphabet both, in different ways, seek to chronicle all existence and the history of all language. The poems of these two collections are at once intensely spiritual and incantatory and also carefully plotted and meticulous. Running throughout each book is a sense of wonder that sparkles and pulses; this is the sort of poetry you might read to a loved one in the darkness before sleep, the sort of poetry one almost needs to whisper to properly communicate its gravity and import. To read Christensen is to undergo a transformative experience that alters irrevocably one's sense of what poetry is and what it can do. An excerpt (from "The Alphabet"): "early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought; / seclusion and angels exist; / widows and elk exist; every / detail exists; memory, memory's light / afterglow exists; oaks, elms / junipers, sameness, loneliness exist; / eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar / exist, and the future, the future".
6. The Totality for Kids, Joshua Clover (University of California Press, 2006). More intelligent and politically engaged poems one would be hard pressed to find. This is a major work from a major poet, and one that deserves and demands an educated and fully-committed reader. Clover brings a macrocosmic perspective to questions of space and structure and artifice and exchange which is so sophisticated at times it seems to demand a cultural studies scholar rather than a reader; and yet it's hardly so, really, as The Totality for Kids is by turns amusing and profound and energetic and relevant in a way any serious reader of poetry can appreciate. Should you feel intimidated? Yes. Does much of the best verse of the last century intimidate? Of course. Clover is an ambitious poet with enough reserve of diligence and ethical backbone to justify both his ambition and the demands that ambition places upon his readers. Any attempt to circumscribe the collection fails; it must be experienced as a total institution (visual, sonic, rhetorical, rhythmic, structural, theoretical, historical, cultural). As alive and aware as any poetry being written today. An excerpt (from "The Dark Ages"): "Many people had candles and torches were a dime a dozen. 'You Light / Up My Life' was one of the most popular songs. What about illuminated / manuscripts, and those lightbulbs every time they had an idea--imagine / how that must have been in the Dark Ages! Stealth would favor the village / idiot, but a wise man would be as a strobe light in a rainstorm."
7. Selected Poems, Fanny Howe (University of California Press, 2000). Sparsely-punctuated, sparsely-populated, aphoristic yet disjunctive, almost eerie, a Fanny Howe poem never really begins, never really ends, and doesn't have much of a middle, either--the perfect poem (and poet) for the postmodern condition. There is an atemporal-yet-epic quality to these poems (shades of the equally-expert Jean Follain) that one can't quite put a finger on; they are, finally, epics-in-miniature, "implied" epics, which bear returning to again and again and (almost always) to greater and greater profit. Howe's poems may read as though whispered into the mouth of a well, but it is a deep and timeless space for all that, and one well worth exploring and, in time, fully inhabiting. An excerpt (from "Joy Had I Known"): "There's a lot of the West / On this continent / A large snow is drifting / Towards those parts and smiles / For the art pieces mounted on earth / Rebound as beauty in each thing is cut asunder / Steal the thunder of unclear weapons / And West is West even if you're in it / A US Space Station turns towards our ice palace / Those nearest the palace laugh hardest."
8. Crush, Richard Siken (Yale University Press, 2005). Siken captures better than any other of his generation the borderlessness of eroticism (in this case, homoeroticism): filled with panicked, desperate, off-the-rails longing and obsession, up to paranoia, this collection captures the ease with which lust slips into various violences, slips into despair, slips into oblivion. These poems reek of actual danger; rhythmically and narratively controlled, they nevertheless make the reader feel unsafe -- a place few poetries are wont to take their audience, and more's the pity. Siken embodies the work in a way that renders its force and presence inescapable. The poems (as Louise Glück, who selected Crush for the Yale Younger Poet Series, has written) "swerve and rush" syntactically, a psychosis of passionate paralysis that permeates every line and stanza. Would that the legions of dispossessed youth who think today's print-published poetry deaf to their strongest emotional convictions could read this book; Crush rebukes those critics who think sexy, dangerous, craving poetry can't be rendered in a manner consistent with the very highest standards of art. An excerpt (from "The Torn-up Road"): "I want to tell you this story without having to say that I ran out into the street / to prove something, that he chased after me / and threw me into the gravel. / And he knew it wasn't going to be okay, and he told me / it wasn't going to be okay."
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 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Bloomsbury, 2012).