Here is a Thanksgiving cornucopia of significant new books of poetry -- each one worthy of our attention as it spins out a new and challenging perspective. Again, these are endorsements -- not complete reviews -- though each book here deserves a full critical examination and inquiry.
First, a formal nod to this year's National Book Award judges -- who chose Terrance Hayes' Lighthead (Penguin Poets' Series, 2010) for the prize. A wise acknowledgement of a poet who is enlightening poetic history. Terrance Hayes' "Lighthead" persona is a figure as resounding and reverberative as John Berryman's "Mr. Bones." But perhaps Hayes' persona is closer to Wallace Stevens - in this collection of poems as "light longing for lightness". Wherever the mind travels in these poems -- we find the embodiment of lyric and political power - whether we encounter Stevens or Harriet Tubman or Fela Kuti. Many criticize poetry for not being "essential" or "political". Read Lighthead and see that a great lyric poet can be political - and also aesthetically inventive - bigtime.
Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010) is a nearly-indescribable collection of poems. It is the second book from a very visible presence in American poetry. Tim Donnelly is poetry editor for Boston Review and professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
But The Cloud Corporation
In our digitally-soaked age, an overly-inclusive consciousness is hard to dignify. Yet Donnelly dignifies it: "The world tries hard to bore me to death, but not hard enough." He is nimble in eluding the "canker anchored/at the root of everything." (Notice the slam-rhyme and play on "canker", "cancer", "root" -- even as the line echoes Shelley's "Wail, for the World's wrong!") And notice also the sheer power of lyrical music in the following:
After the first weeks after, I lost myself remembering
the worth of what was lost , the cost of which was nothing.
Between myself and where I stood, there fell a distance
only loss could fill, an empty world, a simpleness, its shadows
thrown across my window. Often the mind would try
to stay itself by imagining...
"Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow"
Dramatic tension, humor, lyrical profundity. This is an utterly ingenious and proudly inclusive voice, incorporating clouds -- you cannot turn away from it, just as you cannot turn away from "a stage in wakefulness" beyond "a door without mystery." You are riveted - in the presence of the altered and yet absolutely accurate indication of a sensibility so urgent we find ourselves momentarily re-inventing the term Poet.
Deborah Allbery's Fimbul-Winter has been called a "verbal Vermeer" -- yet the reader would make a mistake in assuming that these poems concern themselves only with surfaces. Like the raging fire underground in mining country - "A mine fire burned beneath my mother's/southern Ohio town for a hundred years", baking potatoes in the garden, heating the bricks - the Fire beneath the surface burning for a century singes what is seen, shifts it into a strange familiarity.
After the Native American, after meditations on Old English -- and on into the contemporary -- Allbery describes her gaze as "on the field's new blank lines, the slow settle/of twilight over the combines' undoing". This is Midwestern Wordsworthian alertness to joy and desperation - this is "...what's near now/what's newly distant."
As in an ancient Anglo-Saxon riddle - "the wave over the wave... water became bone" (The Exeter Book, Riddle 68) - these utterly still and deep poems take flight, take intense power from what is perceived - leading us to what seems, on the surface, alien - but is kin to us, alive.
Far District is a first book by the Jamaican poet, Ishion Hutchinson -- and it is a powerful debut. This young poet is inspired by his own prodigious literary imagination and also influenced by the great Derek Walcott, whose shadow lingers on these pages. It is not an obliterating shadow, but a tantalizing shade ("the luminous sea of myth"), drawing the reader deeper into Ishion Hutchinson's home country - and deeper into vision of what "home" is.
Ishion Hutchinson moves in and out of "borders", geographical and emotional - and in and out of traditions (singing to Claude McKay) so gracefully that at times the reader has to remind herself of dark intent, which is undeniably here. We are here to reinvestigate origins, (as in a poem called "Anthropology"): "The houses are shut, the neighbors gone/to the burning fields at the mangrove's edge, /where the heatstruck anthropologist writes/his prophecy in a wrenched tense:/ Their Gods... they've drowned."
This is, finally, a deeply affecting literary journey. A young poet, filled with the music of his starting-place, moves on into the endless possibilities of poetry -- and what results is brilliant and unforgettable, "between the barracks and the rum bars". Illuminations!
From his haunting poem, "Icarus After" -- "When grief strikes in the house/ open the sea Ariel protects /stitch glowworms in book spines,/give an ear to Thelonius, a sparrow/in your lap."