Poetry To Pay Attention To: A Preview Of 2017's Best Verse
Craig Morgan Teicher is a poetry critic and a poet. His most recent book is The Trembling Answers, which comes out in April.
America's greatest triumph is its diversity: the multiplicity of peoples, identities, and voices all gathered and vitally alive in one country. Nothing attests to this diversity more profoundly than American poetry, which elevates those voices to song. At its best, our poetry refutes hate, represents and finds harmony in difference, counters generality with nuance, and speaks out against injustice.
These poets of 2017 represent the best of America, its fierce outrage, its passionate acceptance of divergent ideas and beliefs.
I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems 1960-2014
For over five decades, Bill Knott (1940-2014) was a beloved figure in American poetry, almost in spite of his best efforts. He began his career publishing under a pseudonym, claiming to be a dead poet named Saint Geraud; toward the end of his life, he eschewed the traditional publishing process altogether, feverishly posting his own poems online and mailing boxes of photocopied pamphlets to anyone who emailed him. All the while, he wrote some of the most brilliant, strange, and subversive poetry America has ever seen. This posthumous selection is an attempt by Knott's longtime friend, the poet Thomas Lux, to organize his legacy and make it presentable. Perhaps something essential is lost in curtailing the chaos that Knott himself created, but we are also profoundly lucky not to have this extraordinary body of work cast into oblivion, one of the many unlikely places Knott was willing to take it: "Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest./ They will place my hands like this./ It will look as though I am flying into myself."
In The Language of My Captor
Shane McCrae is the rare poet whose incredible productivity matches his raw talent and the growing appetite for his work. Almost annually, McCrae puts out a book of poems as necessary as the news. This new one, his fifth, is his best yet, telling, in three bracing sequences, the horrific truth of what it is to be non-white in America: "How has it come//To pass/ that I'm on this side of the bars/ And you're on that side," he asks, in the voice of a human exhibit in a kind of allegorical sideshow where the haves come to gape at the have-nots under the watchful eye of a friendly yet also oppressive "keeper." Next is a terrifying prose memoir in which "fear compelled me/ toward the things I feared," that narrates childhood sexual trauma and the dark awakening of identity in a landscape overshadowed by white supremacists. Intermingled are lyrics about Jim Limber, the "adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis" and poems that recall recent acts of violence committed against blacks through the personae of a fictional character named Banjo Yes. It's a painful, essential read, and if McCrae weren't so deft with his sense of humor and so poignant with his ironies, it would be unbearable in its revelations.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé
Morgan Parker's bombastic second book profoundly expresses a black millennial consciousness with anger and appetite. Everywhere Parker looks, she sees a wildly messed-up world — "There's far too many of me dying"; "The President be like/ we lost a young boy today." She also answers a personal and public mandate to re-envision it through humor and confrontation, as in "Slouching Toward Beyoncé," a hilarious take on William Butler Yeats' famous poem, in which Parker reminds us, "Things don't fall/ apart they find new homes."
Marie Howe only publishes a book about every decade, but they are all extraordinary. Her latest — her fourth — is wrapped loosely around the story of Mary Magdalene, though, like all of Howe's books, it is primarily a work about suffering and the endurance needed to overcome it. Howe's Mary Magdalene is an everywoman, someone perhaps not unlike Howe herself, living in a recognizable present-day, who wonders how to live well, how to make sense of life's adversities. In her voice, Howe asks open-ended existential questions — "Who had me before I knew I was an I?" — and ponders, sometimes graphically, sometimes humorously, the depths of sexuality and explorations of love and intimacy, as in the extraordinary poem "On Men, Their Bodies": "One penis pressed against me hard almost every morning, but I got out of bed as if I hadn't heard a word it had said. One penis was so dear to me I kissed it and kissed it even after I knew it had been with someone else." In these powerful and accessible poems, Howe advocates nothing so narrow as a particular religious faith; instead, she seems to argue, loving the world, in spite and because of suffering, is life's great risk, and its reward: "The failure of love might count for most of the suffering in the world."
Map To The Stars
Adrian Matejka's fourth book is a coming-of-age collage set in Reagan-era Indianapolis, a series of intimate verbal snapshots of African American youth and family life. The speaker of these poems is caught between lonesome artifacts of the past — 15 cent disco t-shirts, fathers lost in Vietnam, Sun Ra's jazz from space, Star Trek reruns — and hopeful, strange, and complicated glimpses of possible futures — images from Voyager II, the paintings of Basquiat, burgeoning DJ culture. Matejka swirls these seemingly disparate parts into a stunningly coherent vision of life in the 1980s, growing up poor and black and full of energy and longing. He engages the overlapping cultural worlds that have defined the last three decades — a quote from the poet Wallace Stevens falls half a line from old video games: "So & so on the couch/ in Atari's glow." All of it adds up to a close-up look at distinctly American lives, a bracing view of the past looking toward the future and wondering: are we there yet?
When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities
What does Millennial poetry look like? One answer might be this wild debut from Chen Chen. He seems to run at the mouth, free-associating wildly, switching between lingo and "higher" forms of diction. Nothing's out of bounds or off limits, no culture too "pop" to find its place in poetry — there's a "Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime" — nor anything too silly to point the way toward serious aims. And yet this is a deeply serious and moving book about Chinese-American experience, young love (especially between young men), poetry (one hilarious poem copies the form of the mad poet Christopher Smart to sing the praises of the author's boyfriend: "For I will consider my boyfriend Jeffrey./ For he is an atheist but makes room for the unseen, unsayable"), family, and the family one makes amongst friends. (Full disclosure — Chen and I share a publisher.)
Together and By Ourselves
Alex Dimitrov's second book is a moody and knowing tour through contemporary urban life — "How quickly I found myself in the evening./ How slowly Manhattan invited us there" — as well as the life of the mind in these dark days when "The childhood dog is dead." Homoerotic longing intertwines with an often thwarted wish for social and artistic communion in these rangy poems that feel precisely as skeptical as many of us do as we fight for hope in low light. Dimitrov offers himself as a kind of guide, fully aware he may be leading us places we don't want to go.
Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2017
Postponed and rescheduled, Half-Light is a tremendous literary event. One of the undisputed master poets of our time, Frank Bidart eats and breathes the high culture of the 20th century, from the music of Calais and Edith Piaf to the monuments of classic cinema. But Bidart is no mere aesthete; for him, art is a supreme life force, water in the desert of the soul, a talisman against oblivion. Over his long career, Bidart has honed and refined his relentlessly intense voice, distilling it down to an essential expression of need and desire, of how art, if it can't save us, can at least embody and preserve us: "Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to make something — if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives." Reading him, we feel less alone in our cosmic aloneness.
Don't Call Us Dead
Danez Smith is angry, erotic, politicized, innovative, classical, a formalist, an activist, and blends all of this without seeming to strain. Smith's 2014 debut "[insert] boy" was a blistering critique of American racism and a homoerotic anthem; this follow-up amps things up considerably, ferociously excoriating years of police violence against black Americans and darkly accounting for recent events. Included is the post-election elegy "You're Dead, America," first published on Buzzfeed, in which Smith pulls no punches: "the man from TV// is gonna be president/ he has no words// & hair beyond simile/ you're dead, America// & where you died/ grew something worse –// crop white as the smile/ of a man with his country on his side// a gun on his other side." Alongside these deeply personal political poems are love poems, a crown of sonnets, and all sorts of extended meditations on his central themes of race, sexuality, and violence. This will be one of the year's essential books.
Ordinary Beast is that rare poetry debut that possesses all the assurance and wisdom of a masterful mid-career book. Nicole Sealey is a compassionate observer, an angry moral voice, an African American woman understandably wary of the world and uneasy about hope: "When I hear news of/.../ a child lifting a two-ton sedan/ to free his father pinned underneath," she writes, "my thoughts turn to black people—/ the hysterical strength we must/ possess to survive our very existence." Sealey's poems are unafraid to be humbled, surprised, proved wrong, as in the extraordinary "Virginia is for Lovers," in which a jilted gay friend confesses his ex "gave him the house/ in Virginia," the meaning of which she at first misunderstands. "'It's not a place where you live./ I got the H In V. H I—'/ Before my friend could finish,/ and as if he'd been newly ordained,/ I took his hands and kissed them." Sealy's book is full of such moments of seemingly ordinary revelation turned on its head-.
Ezra Pound said poetry is news that stays news. Rarely however, does it begin as actual news, ripped from today's headlines. This important debut from Javier Zamora, born in El Salvador and writing from California and New York, documents, in graceful, confident lines, the plight of immigrants who are in the country illegally. These poems movingly recount the perils of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and remember with trepidation and hope the beginnings of the Obama presidency: "Today, this country/ chose their first black president. Maybe he changes things./ I've told Mom I don't want to have to choose to get married./ You understand. Abuelita, I can't go back and return./ There's no path to papers." Have things changes? The poems offer myriad answers. Despite plenty of failed hopes and seemingly blocked roads, despite great grief, this book also dreams of a healed world: "Bless the drought of bullets,/ cured cholera, and the comfort of earthquakes." It will stand as a powerful refutation to anyone who claims open borders do not enrich our nation.
from unincorporated territory [lukao]
Craig Santos Perez
Over the past decade, Craig Santos Perez has engaged in a relentless poetic exploration of the history, geography, people, and political implications of his native Guam in a series of books he calls "from incorporated territory." This fourth installment moves beyond verbal means, adding maps, typographical experiments, a glossary, and visual art, pushing at our notions of what qualifies as a text and as a border ("wheredoislandsbeginandend" he asks). Perez's political considerations are personalized and amplified by recurring poems about his wife's pregnancy and the birth of a daughter. Perez continues to speak out as an imperative voice from and for a largely unacknowledged part of the American empire.
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