March 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

There is an inimitable deftness of language in Jericho Brown's work; the level of torque and tension in these lines is enough to snap the neck of even the most jaded reader of contemporary poetry.
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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 contemporary poetry collections. 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.

1. Please, Jericho Brown (New Issues/Western Michigan University Press, 2008). There is an inimitable deftness of language in Brown's work; the level of torque and tension in these lines is enough to snap the neck of even the most jaded reader of contemporary poetry. These poems are highly personal, even mesmerizingly so--suffused with violences, loves, and losses of faith and naivete--but never devolve into the sort of maudlin sentimentality to which so many highly-personal collections finally succumb. Please exhibits an uncanny ear for the unusual rhythms made possible by short lines, aggressive enjambment, and a form of linguistic condensation that nevertheless never sacrifices--not once--the right word for the shorter or syllabically more compact one. These are the right words in the right order, as the old prescription goes, and the sum total is terrifyingly effective. Please introduces the American reading public to a singular voice in American letters. [Excerpt: "Lion"].

2. Union!, Ish Klein (Canarium Books, 2009). The number of published collections in which the poems are centered on the page and those poems, too, are superlative can likely be counted on one hand. But Klein's up to some mischief, here, and Union! is a work simultaneously polished and kinetic, lyric (in the sense of treating with the Great Themes) and highly performative, heart-baring as well as delectably convoluted (at least as to syntax, sentiment, and diction). These poems are by turns funny, solemn, earnest, inventive, and coy. The imagination capable of producing a work this dynamic must by definition be considered one of the best we have. Klein is compulsively readable--one of those rare talents whose post-confessionalist work need not engage in flights of rhetorical fancy or universal prescription to seem absolutely necessary and relevant. Read this book--exclamation point! [Excerpt: "Lithuanian Sunset"; four others].

3. Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, Mark Leidner (Factory Hollow Press, 2011). Sometimes a casual obsession--or merely a minute one--becomes, in time, a foundational imperative. Curiosity widens into love, love into passion, passion into something that would be impossible, even unthinkable, without everything that preceded it. Many of today's younger poets are returning to a half-winking post-confessionalist lyricism that has, however, a great deal of emotional investment behind it which the poet does not mind for you to see. Five years ago, they minded; now, not so much. In Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, Mark Leidner is singing for you, and while his singing may often make you laugh it will, too, often make you pause, or sigh, or experience a wave of nausea, or miss someone you dearly love and will never be able to speak to again. Mark Leidner is singing for you, and it's a gorgeous music he makes--because the beauty in this poetry is born of obsessions and imperatives and curiosities that placate our seminal need for estrangement, even as they come to us in the all the familiar forms of our lives. Watching the evolution of this enviably-talented poet in the coming years will be a genuine joy, and one not to be missed. [Excerpt: "The River"].

4. Complete Minimal Poems, Aram Saroyan (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007). Too often, the American avant-garde and/or "post-avant" are miscast as a series of technical or thematic experiments whose gestures are minor rather than grand--that is, superficial rather than reflexive with respect to semiotics generally and poetic form specifically. There are many Great poetries now in evidence in the United States; few, however, are avant-garde or post-avant in the sense these terms have historically been understood. Indeed, while some of the most exhilarating poetry now being written experiments with on-stage performativity, rhythms received from popular culture (e.g., punk music, hip-hop, jazz, texting technology), non-traditional ("non-poetic") topics and diction, or certain basic maneuvers of syntax, lineation, juxtaposition, disjunction, or parataxis, the avant-garde and post-avant are resolutely poetics-driven, and their approach to poetry characteristically conceptual. Aram Saroyan's Complete Minimal Poems is one of the most important works of avant-garde literature--note that we need not limit this claim to poetry--published this century. These harrowingly-spare poems, often highly visual, frequently humorous and/or profound in their contravention of linguistic and literary presuppositions, are quite possibly capable of entirely rewriting a brain's learned attunement to workaday semiotics . As such, Saroyan should be the very starting point for a young poet's exploration of the Art, not an afterthought or, worse, subsumed beneath a mountain of intriguing poetries whose presumptions to a "light" avant-garde nevertheless belie their non-pejorative conventionality. Such conventionality is nowhere in evidence in Saroyan's work; indeed, this collection is in its own class--a masterpiece. [Excerpt: from Complete Minimal Poems; click on text at link to see additional poems].

5. American Linden, Matthew Zapruder (Tupelo Press, 2002). Zapruder's first book is an underrated gem; in fact, it's one of the best collections of the century's first decade and almost certainly the best of the three collections thus far released by the hugely popular poet and editor. Zapruder recently said in an interview that he writes, these days, for "regular people" more so than "poetry enthusiasts"; while that's an admirable tack for a poetry-writing life to take, collections written under the consciousness of a broad and ever-widening audience may well be less reflexive about language and less subtle in their insistences. While there is much to admire (in fact, a great deal indeed) in Zapruder's second and third collections, American Linden is, of the three, most clearly an iconic example of the contemporary, lightly-elliptical fabular style so popular among today's younger poets and, too, it says here, among regular people--if merely they are permitted to see it. Zapruder is here at his most richly emotional, but also his most cleverly philosophical; here's hoping that readers of contemporary verse--and Zapruder as well--will return to American Linden again and again to learn from its tautness of imagination and succinctness of reason, two traits all too rarely in evidence (at least to this degree) elsewhere in American poetry. This book should be on the bookshelf of every young poet in America. [Excerpt: "The Book of Painting"; two others].

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