November 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and 10 collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and 10 collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two 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. (made), Cara Benson (BookThug, 2010). Easily this month's most pleasant and invigorating surprise is Cara Benson's (made), a brief and spare collection (housed in an 8.5" x 5.5" production, rather than the more common 6" x 9") that condenses language into diamondic fragments that consistently bear rereading and, indeed, cast an even finer and more penetrating light with each subsequent encounter.

Benson does more with the two-word sentence than many poets do in two stanzas or even two poems, largely because it would be difficult to find even a single wasted word in (made). That's an extraordinary achievement in any era, let alone in these times of (as Kenneth Goldsmith's critical writings so often remind us) peak language theory and (as he also implicitly suggests) our national surfeit of organic creativity. Perhaps most striking is that these poems are so lush that they hardly require even the framing of a title; Benson positions her titles at the conclusion of each poem, yet this seems entirely appropriate rather than mere gimmick: These poems produce the sensation of iconic summation, rather than being beholden to titular constructions laying claim to similar effect.

It is especially pleasing, in these times of glorious yet prosaic literary artistry, to come upon a collection which, while not necessarily participant in the so-called "Slow Poetry" movement (cf. Jared Stanley), can only fruitfully be read at a minimal RPM. That certain of the pages in (made) contain only a single word is just one expression of this everywhere-evident phenomenon; elsewhere, Benson manages to weave implied and quasi-narratives that are not merely the stuff of ideational settings and encounters, but spring up, instead, absolutely and entirely from each of the words of which they are comprised. Benson is preternaturally attuned to the small motions of man and nature, to the circumscription of big ideas in small packets of information, and to the minute ways in which what is sounded sounds out the substance of all it says.

There are dozens of half-glimpsed narratives in (made), but what the careful reader primarily derives from this extraordinarily lush and dexterous aggregation of language is that the truest narratives are not comprised of many seconds but are, instead, constituted entirely by, and begun and finished entirely within, individual instants. There is, then, an appreciation of living, and wanting, and needing, and worrying, and watching, and listening in this collection that signals a singular human intelligence to which any discerning reader of poetry should want to immediately attune themselves. Very highly recommend.

2. Eyelid Lick, Donald Dunbar (Fence Books, 2012). Roman Jakobson-influenced scholars and poet-critics will tell you that all written and oral language resides at some point or another on a spectrum with "immanence" at one end and "transcendence" at the other. In its former incarnation, language has what academics term "materiality"; the attention of the reader or listener is focused on the word-qua-word, or on the word as formal element, or on the word as device--a single cog in the machine-made-of-words that is (in this view) a poem. At the other end of this presumptive spectrum, language is entirely gestural and transparent; this is the realm of meanings, then, in which the value of a written mark is the extent to which it permits its audience to envision, in its various mind's eyes, the signified object or subject. Transcendent language, to hear the avant-gardistes tell it, is cheap because it subordinates language beneath an avalanche of representational noise. Your imagined tomato is not my imagined tomato, the thinking goes, though the word-qua-word "tomato" is itself co-equal (or equivalently inert) for both of us. In any case, Jakobson's is a rather nice theory, and it undoubtedly explains much, offering many a starting point for subtle and instructive debates on the niceties, violences, and pratfalls of language.

Lately, though, some have wondered whether the spectrum upon which we map language might not be far longer than Jakobson has imagined it. In Eyelid Lick, Donald Dunbar extends the capacities of language beyond their understood and accepted constraints to illustrate not merely the paucity of our present sociolinguistic theories but also the folly of those self-imposed limitations that foreshorten our most vital discourses about art and cognition.

The publisher's copy for Eyelid Lick makes no bones about the fact that this book was written under the influence of (or at least as some sort of quasi-paean to) psychedelic drugs. The collection is "borne out of individual psychedelic experience," readers are told in the strictest of confidence. This begs the question, however: Of what relevance is this (real or fictive) insight to the compositional technique and/or sociocultural worldview of the book's author? It says here that Dunbar's fidelity to the expansion of human consciousness--whether by Dr. Timothy Leary's means or some less performative and more quietly introspective soul-diving--is the chief accomplishment of Eyelid Lick, and it's an accomplishment not to be sniffed at. What if, the book appears to ask, an author wants more than to have readers "see the word" (as by immanence/materiality) or "see the picture the word describes" (as by transcendence/transparency), but hopes instead to actually collapse sign, signifier, and signified into a single point within the reader-subject? That is, what if this poet wishes his reader to experience the concrete and abstract phenomena of a poem in real time, as though these phenomena were actually happening to the reader? Such an authorial ethos would eschew any focus on Jakobsonian semiotics with the aim of, instead, transforming language into lived experience. But how to accomplish this without the benefit of mind-altering psychedelics, which, in keeping with various state and federal criminal statutes, are not provided gratis with each copy of Dunbar's stellar literary debut?

The answer to this query lies, of course, in the pages of Eyelid Lick, where one finds poems that directly and even indiscreetly appeal to the peculiar deviations of mind produced by psychedelics. The frosty mind--that is, the impaired consciousness of the drug-user--seeks out and celebrates particular iterations of language: repetition (even to the point of numbness and dumbness); familiar patterns, joyously recast as quirk; associative meanderings that remain tantalizingly elusive as to their connecting threads; simple (down to puerile) humor, often of the physical variety; visual puns; two-dimensionality re-rendered in three dimensions; and exaggerated gestures which may seem, in the mind of the altered, almost cosmically elevated in both expression and import.

Dunbar's, for better or ill, is a psychedelic poetics likely to be most appreciated by those with appetites that likewise lie in the direction of the pharmacological. For instance, the poet's "[A man walks into a bar]" might well be intolerable to those unwilling or unable to properly receive the astonishingly deft transformations Dunbar executes upon this well-worn and even hackneyed joke-starter. Dunbar's love letter to the poet John Beer's The Wasteland and Other Poems, "[He was whom, whom, whom]," sticks its landing precisely because its obsessive-compulsive borrowings and anaphora are infectiously delightful--especially to those in a state of mind to receive such a pleasingly allusive, inertia-driven poetics. This is not to say, of course, that only blazed patrons of the arts can or will appreciate Eyelid Lick, merely that Dunbar is inviting readers to step inside the English language in a way it might be difficult for the all-too-sober poet-scholar to register or accept. Dunbar's conversational-yet-herky jerky poems, which leap and meander and wink and cuddle, are--as "Letter to Assam" insists--"not f***ing around" (expletive elided), which is to say they're doing precisely that but hope you'll participate in the exercise rather than observe from afar.

Few books of poetry cavort as gleefully as Eyelid Lick--imagine a stanza of only numbers; a page with nothing but an "X" and an "O" on it; faux appendices; letters to fictional characters and arguably-fictional deities; visual poetry (e.g., a page of arranged asterisks); clever paeans to contemporaries in literature; reflexive artifices (mock Tables of Contents, bracketed stage directions, et cetera)--and it's for this reason that few books of poetry, or indeed few objects of literary art, are as immediately enjoyable. It helps to be in a friendly state of mind, certainly, but it's by no means required: Dunbar's artistry is of that young sort that still sees (dare we say it) the fun in language, and its opportunities for self-transformation-on-a-dime, and that capacity for expansiveness of mind that pushes past both sign and signifier and signified toward a place in which the language we are living in is ever, only, and entirely us.

Bravo to Dunbar for a ripping good book that's nearly impossible to put down or forget.

[Excerpt: "Untitled Poem"].

3. Pee on Water, Rachel B. Glaser (Publishing Genius, 2010). Rachel Glaser is a literary artist par excellence, having earned a terminal degree in creative writing (from University of Massachusetts-Amherst), produced full-length collections in two genres (poetry and fiction), and earned an undergraduate fine arts degree in the visual arts (painting). She's also, more recently, become an animator, with at least two just-completed animations available for viewing on Vimeo.

Glaser's book (and career) is just one of many reminders that the literary artist has supplanted the generic specialist as the leading hope for American poetry's return to the national consciousness. If the two principal ends of the historical avant-garde were to destroy art-as-institution and return art to the praxis of life, surely it will require different means to achieve these ends in 2012 than it would have in 1912, which in turn means acknowledgment that in the Program Era those who self-identify primarily as poets are living and studying and socializing in the presence of peers and professors who write primarily in other genres, and thus produce work, as such poets are naturally likely to do, that enacts the ways conventionally generic impulses can be made manifest in forms other than the uni-generic. So it is with Glaser, whose short story collection Pee on Water is shot through with such obvious poetic impulses that one may receive it as fiction even while recognizing that it could not have been produced by anyone but a poet.

Literary criticism must soon come to understand and accept the limitations of conventional genre, and the folly of reviewing work as though it is the decisions of marketing departments and bookstore stockboys and single-genre degree-granting programs and single-genre bestseller lists that should decide what can and cannot be reviewed in a contemporary poetry review series. To do otherwise is to not merely enable but participate in a literary culture that permits The New York Times to shamefully list only two poetry collections in its 100 Notable Books of 2012, despite the fact that poets writing in prose are producing work of more subtle beauty and linguistic dexterity then many or most of their novel-writing peers.

Why are there no literary magazines whose book-review sections are specifically dedicated to reviewing the short- and long-form lyric prose of self-described poets? Why do the nation's most technically and imaginatively accomplished poets have such little access to trade presses and the audiences such presses' lists habitually accrue? Why must a piece of poetic literature as extraordinary as Pee on Water be published by a press comprised of a single individual living in Baltimore, rather than an international outfit well-experienced in giving exposure to literature of this magnitude and scope? How well can the scions of the avant-guard possibly be guarding against the decline and disappearance of poetry in America, when their implicit insistence that poets write in forms not easily performed on stage ignores the fact that in the Program Era and the Internet Age poets have more opportunities than ever before--online and in real time--to unite page and stage considerations via a bracing, twenty-first century ethos of authorship? Today, a poet writing in English may well go on a sixteen-city reading tour to promote her independent press-published debut publication (cf. fiction-writer/poet Jenny Zhang); if this means that poets-cum-literary artists are now empowered to transfuse their poetic intelligence into generic boxes as readily identifiable as fiction as poetry--the better to engage local and national writing and reading communities--we must deal with it. More, we must celebrate it, which is precisely what this review series means to do.

Certain well-intentioned muckety-mucks among the contemporary avant-garde will see this as a form of brand dilution, and the term "literary artist" as a peculiar and retrograde construction of the risible Program Era. In fact, poetry cannot progress unless it is redefined; or, better said, poetry has never advanced except and where it has been redefined. The Program Era offers a unique opportunity, given its emphasis on the literary artist over the generic specialist, for the anti-generic agenda of the historical avant-garde to be translated into the present via cross-genre hodgepodges beholden to language rather than primarily camp or (even compositionally experimental) convention.

On the inside flap of this reviewer's copy of Pee on Water some unknown soul has written the words, "Why, and who, picks up a book like this?" The collection's briefly-offputting title notwithstanding, it's a surprising question, as the reasons for picking up Pee on Water are obvious and legion--just as there are several obvious reasons Glaser's collection was named a Top 20 Reader's Choice Selection by hip-lit's The Believer. Few other texts, whether conventionally poetic or conventionally prosaic, so regularly subvert reader expectations in mid-sentence, acknowledge the unique taste of each English word and construction, participate so joyously in the rhythm-making activities of language, or revel so artfully in the juxtapositive strangenesses of daily living. These sentences sing the way stanzas do, and their song mesmerizes the way the very best lines of verse do and have done for centuries.

More esoterically, one notes in Glaser the capacity to rush time forward and back in the fashion a poet is wont to enjoy and reify; there is, likewise, a spectacular form of imaginative juvenilia, in Pee on Water, in the way Glaser concocts her descriptive passages. Finally, there is a perpetual subversion of convention and reflexivity as to form and syntax that is absent from the nation's presently most-celebrated prose, which too often worships (and workshops) at the altar of deductive writing (in which the author begins with a rough mapping of plot, dialogue, summary, explication, and description, and thereafter merely transcribes language to fill in the map) rather than inductive writing (that poetic technique in which it is the tonal, syntactic, dictive, and rhythmic contours of individual words and phrases that produce, as a necessary miracle, the whole of which they soon become ineluctable parts).

We must say it, poets: Novelists don't know how to write as we do, for their intersections to and relations with language are not ours, and consequently the work they produce, while often brilliant, could never be mistaken for ours. Consequently, our work ought not blithely be set beside theirs--or behind it--as uncritically as publishers, consumers, critics, and even our literary peers are apparently inclined to do. Glaser helps pave the way for the coming-up generation of literary artists whose exclusive concern will be how the materiality of discrete blocks of language invariably produces larger structures to contain them--larger structures which, in consequence, are unmistakably the product of that seminal condition of language, poetry. Pee on Water is a mixed-genre poetic masterpiece--paradox intended--filled with the sort of humor and sublimity and spiritual inertia that the very best poets understand and even the very best of the rest of us do not. And only the most cynical Madison Avenue hacks will be sorry to hear this said and shouted down the myriad tubes of the Internet.

4. Desolation: Souvenir, Paul Hoover (Omnidawn Publishing, 2011). The poems of Paul Hoover's Desolation: Souvenir are almost impossibly elegant, despite their brevity. Hoover's verse, which is accumulative at the unit of the line rather than heavy on enjambment, renders quiet declamation as the highest of artforms. These poems have, if it can be said appreciatively rather than morbidly, the peculiar valence of carefully considered dying declarations--an observation that, admittedly, belies the poet's historical connection with the compositionally rough-and-tumble New York School.

Each poem of Desolation: Souvenir packs at least one or two noteworthy aphoristic constructions, sometimes as many as one per line. (Generally speaking, the poems in this collection do their not insignificant work in under twenty lines of verse.) The scope of these sage pronouncements is always suitably grand, indeed often global: "all the world is hurt / but its words are sweet to savor" (from "how to describe sky blue"); "the color of instruction / is mud between the teeth" ("holding us freezing"); "sweet suffering world / please come to evening / your work is so little rewarded" ("why are children cruel"); "after the guillotine / the impercipient feels / much larger than he is" ("how the white iris feels"); "the child is absent / followed in time / by father and mother / finally no one's there / to know or remember / why spiders are admired" ("thoughts acquire time").

Hoover spends each poem answering questions the reader did not know she had, as the best sort of poetry is wont to do; his words have the concurrent qualities of being riveting and believable, as those of the most historically significant humans have always had; and his tone is at once comforting and ennobling, a tonic few of us do not implicitly cry out for every time we turn to language for belief or understanding. This is a poetry happily free of pyrotechnics and gobbledygook, one that marries form to content only inasmuch as the form is brief and the content beyond reckoning as to size; what we may glean from this seeming paradox is that Hoover well understands Robert Creeley's famous prescription ("form is never more than an extension of content") as an entirely organic--that is to say, entirely human rather than academic or politico-aesthetic--construction.

We have much to learn from Paul Hoover about both poetry and the human, and those at all concerned with either or both ought be reading Desolation: Souvenir right now.

5. The Talking Day, Michael Klein (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013). One looks to Michael Klein not for intricacies of craft or starbursts of poetic form but simply--and to put it directly--damn good poetry. Klein's approachable verse is deceptively unimposing, unadorned, and understated; in fact, the poet says much in demotic terminology that can only be emotionally processed at the level of the sublime.

There is something indubitably heartrending in most of the forty-four poems of which The Talking Day is comprised, the occasional misstep (usually in the form of a merely slight poem) notwithstanding. Often, these Waterloos and resurrections of the will are semi-transparently encoded within the syntax of Klein's sometimes-remarkable sentences, which are inclined to shift their attention and grammatical locution in midstream, or else employ those ancient rhetorical techniques (the periodic sentence particularly) most likely to induce surprise and--dare we say it--deep sadness in the reader.

Consider, from the book-opening "Cartography," the following: "And sometimes I look and see nothing-- / but the elementary smoke rising / from a human village, overpopulated, / and yet under-made. A woman from there is walking along the side of the road / to the next village where she can live without burning." While the grammarian is likely to quibble with the punctuation of these lines--the em-dash is unnecessary, as is the second comma--what Klein brings to bear is, if not consistent technical excellence, its sometimes more interesting opposite number: An abiding syntactic and rhythmic eccentricity that carries just beneath its surface a notably non-normative and intelligent mode of seeing. Again from "Cartography": "He said, he can't believe I don't just see a map / for what it is or a tree just being a tree. / And sometimes, our two spirits part exactly there." The workshop maven will ax the comma in the second line, re-lineate the entire passage, and eliminate the redundant "He said"; what will be lost, however, is the joy of a reader's discovery that a thing can be said both perfectly and inartfully simultaneously.

The above is by no means a back-handed compliment to the accomplished Klein, who has been writing more-than-competent verse for more than two decades. Instead, it's a recognition that many of the books of verse that slip through the cracks of American literary culture are those which either a) are published with small independent presses, as is the case with The Talking Day, and/or b) do not immediately exhibit the sort of surface polish we altogether counter-intuitively associate with Genuine Sight. The bards and seers of today and yesteryear did not and do not mistake the message for the medium, but rather privilege the former over the latter at every turn. One senses this same attribute, and the same potential for unlimited and inimitable vision, in Michael Klein.

Yet what is perhaps most deserving of honor in Klein's work is the poet's willingness to write in media res, that is, out of and into those liminal spaces we as readers only dimly see but know are actually and finally the determiners of what happens and is registered in our lifetimes. The strangenesses of The Talking Day are, consequently, entirely earned and effective. Sometimes one will be struck by the seeming lack of poetry in this poetry, but that's only until one discovers the poetry that is not poetry within the poetry--which, if you follow, is the best sort of poetry there is.

The allowances Klein is asking for are allowances his work deserves to receive. We should all be so lucky as to write poetry as deeply and abidingly rewarding as this.

6. Letters to Borges, Stephen Kuusisto (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). Ours is a society for labels, and these labels are not easily escaped. One is aware, at nearly all times, of one's race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, national origin, et cetera--though of course many of these self-circumscriptions are only in the very distant background for our most intimate and important workaday encounters. Certain other existential statuses are nearly impossible, one imagines, to push even briefly into the recesses of the mind. Blindness is one; mental illness, another. Nor do we expect that stutterers, the morbidly obese, the agoraphobic, or the very very tall or very very short are often permitted to forget those personal qualities that most immediately and viscerally distinguish them from others. One is not always grappling with one's (say) masculinity, though it happens that often one must; by contrast, the inability to see presents a moment-to-moment struggle--but also a range of spectacular opportunities for extraordinary sight--for those who have experienced it either temporarily or permanently.

Stephen Kuusisto has been blind since birth, and while this reviewer will admit to having little to no interest in contextualized lyric-narratives of the many subcommunities of which he himself is a member-- Reform Jew, Caucasian, male, heterosexual, thirty-something, New Englander, ex-Ivy Leaguer, attorney, poet, sufferer of various maladies both small and significant and common and uncommon, not all of which are suitable for public discussion--there ought to be, it seems, universal interest in any physical or psychological condition that dramatically realigns not merely certain fraught moments but indeed each and every moment one lives and breathes.

Few subclassifications of the species are encompassing to this degree. Nevertheless, entire poetries--and literary careers--have arisen which depend in large part on the exploration of self-identities powerfully informative of the self but not, we must concede, second-to-second Tasks of Hercules for those who claim them. Speaking only (as is only appropriate) of the subgroups I myself belong to, I am only rarely called to wrestle unhappily with my religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, pedigree, or profession. Certainly it does happen, and often enough--and indeed when it happens, it changes me profoundly and permanently in ways large and small, seen and unseen--but for Stephen Kuusisto the sound of gunfire from daily skirmishes with his inability to see rarely if ever (again, one imagines) dies off entirely.

In Kuusisto's Letters to Borges, then, is the sort of exploration of the self capable of intriguing almost any audience interested in the capacity of the human spirit. Like most poetry-readers, I have virtually no innate interest in the life and times of poets who are strangers to me unless and until their verse brings me to such specific attention, which any poetry largely bounded by the ego and personal experience is, as it happens, singularly unlikely to do. Rhetorical devices are available for doing so, of course, but more commonly the not unreasonable expectation is that publishers and marketing departments will do the heavy lifting of making each author's personal life at least seem historically and generally relevant. Kuusisto doesn't need such gimmicks; he simply writes damn good poetry that is clear, orderly, modest, engaging, and (often enough) absolutely heartbreaking. Granted, readers today are not easily impressed by verse best typified by adjectives like "clear" or "modest," but then, readers are too rarely confronted with poetry of consummate skill and technique that is, too, on a topic worth writing about clearly and emotionally.

Borges, like Kuusisto, experienced blindness, and it is the latter poet's letters-in-verse to the former that make up the bulk of this volume. These poems, like the other pieces of Letters to Borges, are expertly graceful and pointed. They are also, in the best sense of the term, artless: One sees the man and the life behind these poems, which is only appropriate given Kuusisto's adroitness (and publishing success) as a memoirist. What Kuusisto has, unlike most diaristic poets, is a life worth exploration in more than one genre (even as most of our most egotistical poets struggle to find but one genre worthy of their self-examinations). Kuusisto's is a life one wants to know, detailed sparingly by a man one wants to know, inscribed in a generic form one finds oneself not merely compelled but honored to read. Letters to Borges is highly recommended for those who still find honor and beauty in both simplicity and--can it be?--actually having something to say.

[Excerpt: "Life in Wartime"].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; 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). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

Earlier Editions in the Series:

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community