Friday, December 26, 2008

Poetry Books, Published in 2008

Twenty Great Ones

A top ten list just won’t do it, given my enthusiasm for the prodigious production of poets in 2008. Here are twenty poetry books published this year that I bought, read, read again, and then again and again (etcetera). These poets, I do believe, drank deep from Hippocrene waters (and thus the Pegasus above), and I thank them. The books are listed in no particular order. Books I’ve written about previously here in the glade have a link back to those posts (scroll cursor over text); all book titles link to sites where you can buy ’em. So here we go, twenty great poetry books, published in 2008:

John Olson, Backscatter
(Boston: Black Widow Press)

A collection of new and selected poems – mostly prose-poems – by the extraordinary poet from Seattle. I’m an enthusiast of the first order. I wrote about this book’s creative energy a few weeks ago (click thru, if you please). And it’s not just me. See here what Travis Nichols had to say about the book in The Believer (“[w]ith every word and part of speech, nothing is commonplace and everything is loud and out of school”) or what the great writer Norman Lock had to say in elimae (“One can only be astonished at John Olson's apparently limitless invention”).

Lisa Jarnot, Night Scenes
(Chicago: Flood Editions)

This book has three sections. Many poems in the first section have numerous end rhymes, which is quite a jolt (it’s a long way from the decidely experimental prose of Jarnot’s first book, Some Other Kind of Mission, is what I mean to say). The rhymes aren’t overdone, and come off as entirely up-to-date, though of course part of the fun is that they seem partly of another era. The second section’s poems, generally speaking, are more casual: a list poem or two, a self-portrait that’s a charmer, the transcendent wonder of an ostrich farm, a couple of odes (again, the old-fashioned becomes au courant) and the marvelous “Whole Hog,” said to be “after Barrett Watten” (it’s in the style of his 1985 poem “Complete Thought”): fifty pairs of short, sort of gnomic sentences, with each pair capable of inducing reveries for a day or two, or more. For example,
Cultivation orders the task at hand.
Foliation is cut into squares.
The book’s final section seems a kind of potpourri of poems. I especially love “The Real,” about (to me) a William Carlos Williams no ideas but in things mind-thought-dream, if there is such a thing, and of course there is, and it’s this poem. And especially the perfect, sweet “Bee Ode.” Who says unabashed wear-it-on-yr-sleeve passion is out-of-style, or hokey? Well, it ain’t, at least not when done as well as this.

Ron Silliman, the Alphabet
(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press)

Wonderful accretions of words, mostly in sentences, of “be here now” realism, superbly done, including sharp perceptions and a willingness to accept that mistakes are a part writing (of our lives). Calibrate your mind to take in Silliman’s almost non-stop mighty parade of particulars, and reading the book’s 1,000 plus pages becomes easy, even addicting. These poems, written over a 30 year period, should once and for all put an end to claims that Silliman’s work (often termed L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing) is difficult, non-referential, and non-subjective. Anyone can read and understand the Alphabet, and the poems are dominated by the poet and his life. I wrote about the puns in the book a few weeks back (click through, if you please)

Lamantia perhaps would have liked the order of this book’s sections flipped, so that the Hoffman came first, but it’s great nevertheless. The Hoffman poems are mostly sparse but mysterious and powerful; some of them were were read by Lamantia at the epoch-making 6 Gallery reading in 1955 (an excellent account of why Lamantia read Hoffman’s poems that night, based on a long talk with Lamantia by John Suiter, can be read by clicking through this parenthetical comment). Among a number of good reviews this book received, I especially enjoyed the one written by Joseph Donahue in The Brooklyn Rail. This publication of these two collections brought to light a heretofore little known sub-chapter of the late 1940s / early 1950s San Francisco Renaissance. Here’s another thought: per what Lamantia told me several years ago, when he talked about having the Hoffman collection published, there are at least three other little known or forgotten books of poems from that era that ought to be re-published: Sanders Russell, The Chemical Image (Ark Press: San Francisco, CA, 1947), Christopher Maclaine, The Automatic Wound (Columbus : Golden Goose Press, 1949), and Gogo Nesbit, Graffiti (San Francisco: Bern Porter Books, 1955). Maybe some publisher can do this?

Jordan Scott, blert
(Toronto: Coach House Press)

From the publisher: “The bright, taut, explosive poems in Jordan Scott’s Blert represent a spelunk into the mouth of the stutterer.” I enthused about this book’s explosive marvelousness about two months ago (click through, if you please).

Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
(Minneapolis: Coffee House Press)

Slam energy harnessed to lineated verse, vivid language, and a heck of a subject: Katrina. Shifting imagined perspectives, including of those who lived in New Orleans, Bush and minions, and most mysteriously and powerfully, of the ‘cane itself. Very effective, and very memorable. A National Book Award finalist.

Craig Dworkin, Parse
(Berkeley: Atelos Press)

A high concept out there prose poem, page-after-page of the skeleton of grammar. I love this book, lots, as previously explained.

Jack Spicer, my vocabulary did this to me
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

Here are all of Spicer’s books from After Lorca forward, plus many (though not all) of the early poems and several previously unpublished. After a long stretch out-of-print, Spicer’s poems are again and finally readily available to readers, hoo-ray, hoo-ray. When the book was released, I both raved about it and ranted about an unfortunate mistake by the editors (click through to read).

Christopher Rizzo, Naturalistless
(Jamaica Plain, MA: The Greying Ghost Press)

A tiny chapbook of newword poems, imaginative and elegant. See further discussion (click through, please) here.

A chapbook that presents newwords that any of us could make. Fun, clever, and a noble attempt to generate a bit of new life for our language. See further discussion (click through, please) here.

Jackson Mac Low, Thing of Beauty
(Berkeley: University of California Press)

Let’s see: you’ll find traditional poems here, as well aleatoric, deterministic, diastic, liminal, gathered, intuitive, spontaneous, intentionally composed and god knows, even more. This collection of selected and previously unpublished poems by the great experimentalist is lots of fun. The book includes the four pager about the guy who plucks down an asper for a quiet date, a perfectly pitched and paced, not a word out of place, erotic fantasia of a prose poem.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Sports
(Los Angeles: Make Now Press)

Poetic transcribed baseball. I liked it so much, I wrote about twice, first (click through, please) here, then here.

A gorgeous fold-out book. From the publisher’s website: “This is the first full-color, full-size (79 by 15 in.) facsimile of the original 1913 collaboration between the poet Blaise Cendrars and the artist Sonia Delaunay that came to define the modern artist’s book and stands as one of the most beautiful books ever created.” An English translation of the poem is provided in an accompanying booklet.

Malcolm de Chazal, Sens-Plastique
(Los Angeles: Green Integer)

A little brick of a book, the first complete translation of the Mauritian writer’s 1948 masterwork. Prose poem-y aphoristic observational and/or speculative meditative nuggets. As such: “The eye is the loveliest of all places to have an encounter in.” And: “The cerebrum of the poet is a lyre played by his cerebellum.” And: “Red. A circular flaming. Light in a continuous hoop. An engagement ring endlessly circling the finger of the sun.” And so on, for more than 750 pages!!!

Andre Breton, Martinique / Snake Charmer
(Austin: University of Texas Press)

A translation of a collection first published in France in 1948. The book is thin: the actual text, including contributions (written and visual) by Andre Masson is only about 60 pages long (introductory and end note material almost doubles that number). That part of the book I keep reading is even less substantial, size-wise: eight single paragraph prose poems collectively titled (in English) “Some Trembling Pins.” These short poems were written by Breton on the back of picture postcards, the size of which limited the length of each poem. These poems comprise only a few or several sentences, and one simply lists place names. But oh how they evoke and inspire. Here, big reveries come in small poems. There’s an excellent essay on the book as a whole by poet George Kalamaras, in the current (Winter 2008-2009) print edition of Rain Taxi.

How possibly can we reconcile the quotidian in our lives with the increasingly dire environmental destruction? Ignore it? Climb a tree and sit? How about mediating between these seemingly disjunctive realities via prose poems involving both extinct species and daily life, written directly and with utmost sincerity? Sometimes poetry hitched to something bigger is not only necessary but a success, and this book’s an example. Hamill has a keen way with words and emotions. The sense of loss and her relationship to it seems very, very true.

These are “homolinguistic” translations of the poems of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I can’t say I fully understand “homolinguistic” as applied here, and the resulting poems are as inpenetrable as Stein’s buttons. And that’s exactly why I keep returning to McCaffery’s poems published here thirty years after the first, mimeographed edition of 100 copies. As the ol’ radio show was titled, I Love A Mystery.

Andrew Joron, The Sound Mirror
(Chicago: Flood Editions)

Although Small Press Distribution lists this book as having a January 1, 2009 publication date, the book has a 2008 copyright date, and has been for sale for about a month. Imagine listening to a phonetics wizard deploy, in an echo chamber, huge numbers of diphthongs, fricatives, phonemes and other sounds of language, all for your edification and pleasure.

An extremely well-done selection and thus an unbeatable introduction to the poetry and writing of a mighty, and deep, thinker (and one of the best magazine editors and translators of our time). Ron Silliman posted a great review of this book (click through to read) in mid-November.

Truong Tran, four letter words
(Berkeley: Apogee Press)

Mostly but not entirely blocked texts of prose. Mysterious. Off-putting but irresistible. A great one on page 64, with a few recognizable words jammed between seemingly random letters, with no spaces, like this (actual quotation):
. . . wbnlwewoundscmleofihourwordssowiehdknksyourskjld . . .
Another poem, immediately preceding the one quoted above, has the letters of the poet’s name arrayed in a square grid, separated by spaces, including once in the correct order but otherwise jumbled. Similar inventiveness appears evident when words are more traditionally arranged. Other folks have been similarly beguiled (click here for Claire Light’s well-put thoughts on the book).

And that’s the list of twenty!
Thanks for taking a look!
Think maybe I've forgotten something?
Please (please) add a comment.
I’m all eyes and ears.


csperez said...

hey steven,

great posts! how does one contact you? my email is csperez06 [at] gmail [dot] com.


Joseph Donahue said...

It's Joron's world, we just write in it. J

Lemon Hound said...

great list!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for the notes and comments, Craig, Joseph, and Sina. And Happy New Year to everyone!

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