Saturday, January 01, 2011

Favorite Poetry in 2010

5. Sherman Alexie, Face. I'm a late comer to Alexie, but was immediately hooked. Granted, in the vein of Billy Collins, Alexie is probably one of our most accessible poets, but without the schmaltz of, say, Mary Oliver. I found this collection sincere and searingly honest, opening up worlds for me that would otherwise have remain unexplored territory.

4. Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected. I have a dirty little confession to make: if a lot of Christians like a poet, I tend to avoid him/her like the plague. Yes, yes, I know it's stupid and sophomoric and obnoxious. But I've just seen too much Luci Shaw in chapel. For a long time, unfortunately, Scott Cairns fell into that category for me, until someone gifted me with a copy of Compass of Affection. Mea culpa: I should have been reading him long ago. None of the tired cliches I worried about. Indeed, not even the "spiritual" fixation I expected.

3. Jeanne Murray Walker, New Tracks, Night Falling. Ditto for Jeanne Murray Walker. And mea culpa redux. Walker and I were both teaching at Regent College last summer. I was immediately charmed by the person, and then when I had the opportunity to hear her read from these poems, I was captivated. Several of these poems were constant companions through a difficult summer. "Adam's Choice" is probably my favorite but I can't find it available online. Fortunately another favorite is, "Staying Power":
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can't go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I'm focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It's the attention, maybe, to what isn't there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they've found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn't
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God's not fire, say anything, say God's
a phone, maybe. You know you didn't order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don't know who it could be.

You don't want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

2. Michael Robbins in Poetry, December 2010 (The Q&A Issue). This was a late discovery for me. While I was initially skeptical of the very premise of the Q&A issue (if you want to know what a poem means, don't ask the poet; read the poem), but Robbins' feisty charm only deepened my delight with his semantic energy lexical play. Give yourself permission to lose yourself for a moment in "I Did This to My Vocabulary" (and then listen to Robbins' thoughts about the poem):
The moon is my alibi. My tenders throw hissy fits.
My scalp’s at the foot of the precipice.
My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar.
You can stand under my umbrella, Ella.

Who put pubic hair on my headphones?
Who put the ram in Ramallah?
I’m just sitting here spinning my spinning wheels—
where are the snow tires of tomorrow?

The llama is burning! My heart is an ovary!
Let’s chase dawn’s tail across state lines,
sing “Crimson and Clover” over and overy,
till wonders are taken for road signs.

My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.
The boys like the girls who like heavy metal.
On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom,
on Motörhead, Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem . . .

1. The Best American Poetry 2009, edited by David Wagoner. It might seem odd to extol one of these stock anthologies as a top pick, but this is just a downright exemplary collection--an almost perfect collection, given the constraints of the series. Wagoner does a masterful job of pulling together a widely representative collection, including both senior and junior poets, stars and up-and-comers, as well as poets from a wide range of regions in the United States. In other words, none of the typical New-York-centrism here. And thankfully, this isn't another anthology of "the best of recent MFA graduates." The reader should carefully consider the "Contributors' Notes and Comments" (45 pages worth!) to gain an appreciation for the breadth represented here. Wagoner also valorizes online publishing by selecting poems that only previously appeared in e-magazines. I'm guessing avant garde aficionados will think their favorites are under-represented; I wish I could muster the sympathy to agree with them.

I can't recommend this collection highly enough. You'll find favorites like John Ashberry and Albert Goldbarth and Bob Hicok, as well as less familiar names (at least to me) like Bruce Bond and Jennifer Grotz. At the risk of doing injustice to others in the collection that deserve attention, let me note just one, Grotz's poem, "The Record":

Kisses, too, tasted of iron
the year we lived in twilights. They tilted warily
like bags of groceries I’d carry up the stairs
to find you in boxers, the smell of coffee mixed with vinegar
from the bowl of pickle juice you soaked your fingers in
trying to hurry the callouses. We trafficked in the grief
of incompatible day and night, we stretched the hours
as best we could, but mostly we practiced
a kind of starving, excruciating to recall
how hard we tried. I’d unpack the groceries
and tell you about the day, and after dinner
you’d pick out a tune on the guitar
(it was the year you apprenticed to the blues).
Before each night shift, in uniform and socks,
you’d climb into bed and hold me until I fell asleep.
Then you would slip quietly out.
and when I dreamed, I glimpsed the gods in you,
I dreamt you were Hephaestus with the iron forge,
the sweat covering you when you jogged home
was holy, it was the sweat of the whole city,
even the roses, even the bus exhaust.
The mind circles back like a record spinning,
a little molten, a little wobbly, a record
shiny as your black hair, a record player
crackling and stuttering over a scratch, an urge
to ask forgiveness even though it’s dark now
and you’ve already forgiven me.