This is the time of year in which people make lists. I’ve already done a few of these Best of … etc. stories for my day job, but here’s my poetry list for 2011. You’ll notice that many of these books are not new, but they were new to me this year, which is good enough for my list. You may also notice some themes here. Pennsylvania poets are over-represented because I like supporting people from my own state. We grow damn fine writers here. In addition, you may notice that I have some kind of connection to several of the authors here for a similar reason to the above trend—I like to support the writers I know or have met in person. Poetry is a hand-to-hand business, so getting to meet or know many writers personally is a wonderful benefit.
The Devastation by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Cooper Dillon Books)
“I have sawed through my sorrows
Like a jeweler would facet quartz.”
I came across this book by accident. After reading one of Essbaum’s poems in Poetry and hearing her on a JP Dancing Bear podcast, I noticed this chapbook on a list of titles available at Cooper Dillon (I was preparing to send them my manuscript). Rather than charge a reading fee, Cooper Dillon asks submitting authors to purchase a book. The editors rejected my manuscript, but the wonderful little book was worth it anyway This was a bit of an odd book, and it took me a while to get into the motions of the poems, but once the flow set in and the sort-of narrative began to unfold for me, I found myself liking this volume very much.
The Beds by Martha Rhodes (Autumn House Press)
“ This is a dare-not-
and so persists, tannic and idle”
I heard her at a Bucks County Community College reading. Like Essbaum’s book, The Beds is an entire story, or multiple related stories, strung together in a sequence of poems. They’re mostly short lyrics with sharp edges and piercing language. You haven’t read anything like this before.
Show and Tell by Jim Daniels (University of Wisconsin Press)
“Let’s taste the moon’s
clean white meat.”
Here’s another Pennsylvania poet (from Pittsburgh) and also a fellow Bowling Green MFA alum. This collection brings together many of Daniels’ Digger poems plus lots of other great works, many based on a working-class mythology plus poems about family and modern domesticity, all with a subdued and lovely word craft.
Spit Back a Boy by Iain Haley Pollock (University of Georgia Press)
“And all our sadness will be old Arkansas,
rural and misspoken, its roads smudged
by the fog’s blue prints,”
Here’s another writer I met at a Bucks County Community College reading, and he’s also local to the Philadelphia area. The voice and style varies a lot in this collection showing broad influence, but overall there’s a richly dynamic use of language in here. This collection contains one of the most moving poems I’d read all year: Blue Note 53428. If you only buy one book on this list, buy this one.
The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke (Stephen F. Austin University Press)
“ There’s always an excess that wants let loose.
For example, what are your bedrooms downhill from?
Each and every one of you live below something,
Even if it’s simply a cloudless, benign sky.”
This Pennsylvania poet, from Selinsgrove (Susquehanna University) works in a mostly narrative mode, but I like the more lyric poems in this collection best. I’ve met Fincke a few times (he was one my sister’s teachers 20 years ago), once or twice at readings, and then just a few years ago when I sat in on a session he taught at a writers’ conference.
Gravedigger’s Birthday by BJ Ward (North Atlantic Books)
“As children we learned our shadow
is a darkness we never totally shake”
I picked up this book at a writers’ conference in November after taking two sessions conducted by the author. There are fantastic poems in this collection, mostly focused on family and the speaker looking back at a sometimes troubled childhood. There are marvelously insightful poems here, but more than that, there’s the writer’s masterful use of the poet’s tools. This collection is from 2002, and I certainly hope there’s a new one soon.
The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Transtromer/translater by Robert Bly (Graywolf Press)
“It’s like the child who falls asleep in terror
listening to the heavy thump of his heart.”
I don’t know why it took a Nobel prize for me to pay attention to Transtromer. I wish I’d started reading him years ago—but better late than never. It’s no wonder Robert Bly was attracted to translate these—they share a lot of his love for personal mythologies. What interests me most are the rich images and dynamic use of contrasts and tone shifts. As a person with some Swedish heritage, I should be doing a better job of supporting poets form the motherland.
Holding Company by Major Jackson (Norton)
“Whichever way our shoulders move, there’s joy.
Make a soft hollow noise. We’ve our own hourglass
and no one else to blame.”
This collection actually took me a while to warm up to. I’d read many of his poems in journals over the years, but Holding Company offers a completely different kind of poem than what I was expecting. I later learned in an interview that the shift was intentional. Anyway, these poems, somewhat based on the sonnet form, can be surrealist, and lyric, and sometimes difficult to approach, but most exhibit a wonderful inner logic and gorgeous revelations.
“ The last thing you want to hear is
the sound of your own worn heart. It has a signature,
a silence, like a voice or fingerprint, the heart
line of a the graph the abstract of a mountain range”
I bought Plumly’s collection Boy on a Step years ago when it first came out and loved it then. I came across this 2000 selected book in a used bookstore in Doylestown PA a few months ago and had to snatch it up. Plumly’s richness of language is up there with James Wright, Richard Hugo and Robert Lowell.
When You Become Snow by Doris Ferleger (Finishing Line Press)
“What will I do with all this Splendor you left me?”
I loved Ferleger’s first book, Big Silences In a Year of Rain (reviewed here), but this collection is even better. Much of it follows the path of loss and grieving, but the poems are not given up to that. Ferleger’s poems completely own their subject matter and their worlds and exhibit a power and directness that’s really stunning. When you read this, turn immediately to page 14 for For Example.
Poetry In Person by Edited Alexander Neubaur (Knopf)
This is not a book of poetry, but rather the transcripts of classes conducted by Pearl London at the New School in which her guests were some of the most important poets of the 20th century. London died in 2003, but her recordings of the classes were discovered and turned into this amazing book. Each class begins with the guest poet talking about one of his or her recent poems, and then a Q&A discussion follows about how the poem evolved. Sometimes we even get to see multiple drafts of the poem. Included guests are Maxine Kumin, Stanley Plumly, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, C.K. Williams … it just goes on like that.
Also, I hope you add my book, The Trouble with Rivers, to your favorites of 2012. You can get it here or directly from me at upcoming readings or workshops which I’ll announce on this blog.