This was a fiery good year for poetry — maybe it’s just all those poets trying to get a last word in before, you know . . . that thing that didn’t happen a couple of weeks ago. What follows is an attempt at sorting through this surprising bounty for what books kept me coming back to them.
In the poetic spirit of absence being as crucial as presence, let it be known that C.A. Conrad’s “A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon” would be on my list if I wasn’t so sure that I need at least another year with the thing. I likewise suspect Patricia Lockwood’s “Balloon Pop Outlaw Black” might have made it, had I finished reading it. Those are the breaks; here are the books.
By Michael Zapruder (Black Ocean)
With handwritten text, lovely illustrations, pink vinyl 7-inch and 22-track CD, this project, born aboard a leg of the 2006 Poetry Bus Tour (which, full disclosure, I rode for a two-city stint, big fun was had), Zapruder’s “Pink Thunder” is at once a curious experiment and a beautiful document. A musician entranced by the chorus of poetic voices around him (Dorothea Lasky, Joshua Beckman, Hoa Nguyen, Mary Ruefle, D.A. Powell, David Berman and a gang of others), Zapruder set out to put some favorite recent poems to music. The hazards of freighting poetry with “emotional ground” are not lost on Zapruder — it’s as though he sets the poems free into unfamiliar pop habitats to find their own way.
By Matthew Dickman (W.W. Norton)
Fear, loss, and death hang over Dickman’s second collection, but they maintain the singular brightness of his language — and the pull between the hope that moves Dickman from word to word and the profound grief of which he writes keeps the poems in a tense balancing act. Of special note, a central suite on his older brother’s suicide, and a collection of “elegies” — one especially pertinent to recent horrors, “My friend’s daughter is growing up and no one can stop her. . . ”
By Dorothea Lasky (Wave)
One of the reasons that Sharon Olds’s “Stag’s Leap” is relatively deep down on my list is Lasky. Her poems on loss have made just about every loss-poem I’ve read in the past year seem overcooked. Her blood-red realness howls fresh in the poems of “Thunderbird.” It’s intense, dark, assertive, timely, and true. In “What Poets Should Do,” she writes: “And the townspeople, they say to you/ That they may have seen/ A monster/ But no no I was only the dawn.” Chills. Every time. It’s what poets should do.
By John Ashbery (Ecco)
Ashbery is the Sonic Youth of my inner canon, not just because he has his own uniquely identifiable and almost dangerously influential brand of white noise, and not just because anything he does I tend to eat right up, but because of his ability to make dissonance downright idiomatic. “Quick Question” is restless, wise, and hard to put down.
Alien vs. Predator
By Michael Robbins (Penguin)
“In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,/ but where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?” Robbins’s debut collection is full of hard-hitting questions like these, that probe the void of consumerism, desperately searching for a connection — or a Wi-Fi signal. Where David Berman’s tone toward American desire was more contemplative (take his “caribou crossing the Nikon”), Robbins’s lines read like feral tweets that have been tamed into jingles. The grand tradition of our poetry, lost in a brunch coma: “Where are the snow tires of tomorrow?”
As Long As Trees Last
By Hoa Nguyen (Wave)
Nguyen proceeds through Oppen-like regard for space, silence, and detail; a Dickinsonian balance of weighty wisdom and delicate expression; and an entirely unique way of translating the defects and hazards of American life (from mounting debt to shrinking glaciers) into incredibly personal portraits — ones that involve us, together, in the burdens we feel are ours alone. These poems reflect the futility of fear in a world without beginnings or ends (“The middle part playing/ again and again”), and there’s a lovely sense of surrender in Nguyen’s lines, which could so easily be burdened with fear. Think of these poems as a sustainable repurposing of modern hopelessness.
Music for Porn
By Rob Halpern (Nightboat)
The rest of this list may betray my general fondness for contemporary poets who are unafraid of the first part of that term, and Halpern was as fearless as they came in 2012. His stunning third collection was both statement and experiment — a gruesome, erotic, studied, unflinching dissection of the ways that violence, sex, and social order tear at each other. Halpern uses the body as a battleground, and the solider as a stand-in for a range of repressed (and fulfilled) desires. Light reading, it is not; enlightening, challenging, and upsetting, it will be for years to come.
By Jorie Graham (Ecco)
For a number of reasons, Graham’s collections are never a sure thing for me — often her sweeping sense of scale can leave me feeling detached from her lines, and the struggle to find footing can prove as challenging as trailing her associative leaps. “Place,” her 12th collection, was at once a relief and a revelation. The best aspects of Graham’s poetry — her high-resolution attention to detail and her elastic treatment of time, her skill with distilling history (on scales geologic to political) into personal experience, and the compassionate regard she extends to every element of experience, from cells to stars — are on full display here.