February 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Brigitte Byrd's cerebral prose poems are couched in an air of hyper-rationality that belies their visceral energy.
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Each month, my contemporary poetry review series at The Huffington Post 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 contemporary poetry collections available for review. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the above-listed reviewer. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period.

1. Song of a Living Room, Brigitte Byrd (Ahsahta Press, 2009). Byrd's cerebral prose poems are couched in an air of hyper-rationality that belies their visceral energy. As those progenitors of the contemporary avant-garde, The Futurists, so famously encouraged in the years leading up to WWI, Byrd casts her analogic net so widely it convincingly illuminates the interrelationship between mind and body, subject and object, ego and environment. The sum of these efforts is no less than a new way of knowing--and of knowing the self. Also, some of the most accomplished prose poems of the last decade, work which demands an active readership--one prepared to be challenged by verse so rewarding it bears not only careful reading but re-reading and re-re-reading. Very, very highly recommended. [Excerpt: "(a brittle day passed by)"].

2. A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos, Tim Dlugos [ed. David Trinidad] (Nightboat Books, 2011). In the past decade, there have been a number of critical additions to, and clarifications of, the twentieth-century avant-garde canon. Consider, for instance, the recent emergence (or rather reemergence and resurgence) of Ted Berrigan, John Wieners, and Ed Dorn. It's time to add the name of Tim Dlugos (1950-1990) to this roster of archival resurrections. Dlugos' Collected charts the artistic output of a singular talent most commonly associated with New York City--in whose literary scene he was ubiquitous from 1978 to 1990--who in fact wrote his best poems as a recently-out college student in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. This early work is that of a young man still coming to terms with his sexuality and politics; there is a gentle, tentative longing here that would border on the saccharine were the poet not so evidently and deeply invested in every line. Indeed, Dlugos offers us some of the most touching and earnest work ever associated with any wave of the New York School. The poet may have self-identified as "part of the nostalgia craze," and certainly there's more than a hint of the sentimental in many of these poems, but it's also true that no understanding of American poetry in the seventies or eighties would be complete without some exposure to, and appreciation of, these highly personal--and yet also highly political--lyric poems. [Excerpt: "The Truth"].

3. The Louisiana Purchase, Jim Goar (Rose Metal Press, 2011). From a resolutely historical, "mappable" origin-point, The Louisiana Purchase evolves into an exquisite article of hypertextuality. Goar uses the titular land-grab as a springboard for imaginative--and instructive--investigations into what it means to be an American, and, too, what it means to be steeped in a national narrative with which it becomes increasingly difficult to establish any personal relationship. Goar reifies the interconnectivity of our highly-plastic American iconography--seamlessly integrating cultural touchstones from Ozzie Smith to Richard Nixon to the Immaculate Conception--and in so doing succeeds at an even greater task: Penning a collection of poems brilliantly of and for its time. The Louisiana Purchase is a sterling exemplar of what post-postmodern verse can do in the twenty-first century. [Excerpt: from "The Louisiana Purchase"].

4. Holy Land, Rauan Klassnik (Black Ocean, 2010). These poems may well be among the most vulgar and violent published in the English language in the past quarter-century. Many will be offended by what's in this book; Klassnik doesn't just gore sacred cows, he disembowels them and devours their entrails. A superficial reading of the text might even produce a damning accusation of homicidal misogyny. Yet such a careful study of violences--which is what, in toto, Holy Land is--permits a notable accumulation of gravitas, and Klassnik earns his strong language and deeply distressing imagery. In both its tender and horrifying moments, Holy Land aptly maps how we are chained to time, place, ourselves, and one another by a million minor assaults--only some of which are physical. As a wide-ranging, metaphoric look at death, power, gendered bodies, sublimity, despair, and anguish, Holy Land succeeds even as it terrifies and, yes, turns the stomach. A remarkable achievement, and one which deserves to be (and must be) read in its entirety. [Excerpt: from "Wounded Soldier"].

5. The Bigger World, Noelle Kocot (Wave Books, 2011). The series of third-person narrative vignettes of which The Bigger World is comprised is compulsively readable and not infrequently brilliant. Kocot's characters boast their own distinctive symbology; the landscape upon which these breezily-recounted stories unfold is one in which nothing whatsoever is as might be expected, and what often seem preposterous plots and personalities soon enough take a turn toward the sublime. Kocot's language is more often prosaic than cleverly subtle, but the whole is without question more than the sum of the parts: The Bigger World is one of the most pleasurable reads this reviewer has encountered in some time. Every page in this collection offers a new delight. [Excerpt: "The Circle of Life"].

6. Enola Gay, Mark Levine (University of California Press, 2000). Reading Mark Levine's Enola Gay is a near-religious experience. These poems occupy a landscape at the very brink of its Apocalypse; lovers of Cormac McCarthy's prose will find much to admire in the dark urgencies of Levine's enigmatic yet eloquently stern verse. There can be no doubt that Levine offers readers of American poetry a singular vision, one whose temperate, almost holy prosaicism paradoxically offers a stunningly expansive view of what's possible in the English language. There is real terror beneath the surface of these poems, but also an ethereal dignity that somehow, impossibly, retains a distinctly human cast. You could read contemporary American poetry for many years and not come across a work as distinctive as this; these poems wrench the gaze forward toward a time that has not yet been, one which we hope (for our own sake) and yet do not hope (for the sake of its terrible, pressing beauty) will never be. [Excerpts: "Then for the Seventh Night" and "Eclipse, Eclipse"; click on "Read Chapter 1" at link].

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