Sunday, February 07, 2010

Top Poetry Picks 2009

I know, I know. The time to post best of the year lists is the last two weeks of December, not the middle of February. But well, I've been busy. And some of these books took time to get hold of (I'm still waiting to get my hands on the new Ashbery). So here they are, better late than never and in no particular order, my top 10 picks from books of poetry published in 2009:

1. Rae Armantrout, Versed

Few poets writing today understand the fault lines of language as intuitively as Armantrout, or are as willing to stand on its cracks. These are poems from the crumbling edge of poetry, every line a tripwire; poems that require a mind nimble with meanings, alert to possibility; poems that leave you with a joy so fragile, so insidious, it can feel like loss.

2. Albert Goldbarth, To be read in 500 years

If Armantrout subverts with precision, Albert Goldbarth's long-winded poems seem like a manifesto for expansiveness, for inclusion. Goldbarth's mind ranges everywhere, like a maniac let loose in a grocery store, picking allusions from shelves high and low, the poem magically coming together at the (invariably witty) check-out line. Goldbarth's inimitable style can seem garrulous, but this is a ruse to disarm you, to win you with trifles before engaging in ideas of deepest consequence. The result is a book of poems marked by generosity, good humor, and an almost philosophical tenderness for the world and everything in it.

3. Ann Lauterbach Or to Begin Again

I confess: I'm still only half way through Ann Lauterbach's Or to Begin Again. This isn't because the book is unreadable. On the contrary, it's because every time I sit down to read Alice in the Wasteland, the long poem at the center of Lauterbach's book, I barely manage a page or two before my mind is totally blown, and I have to stop and just breathe. Alice in the Wasteland is, nominally, an encounter between Carroll and Eliot (you can see why I love this already), but it reads like the love child of Ed Dorn and Anne Carson with a fondness for LSD. One of these days I hope to make it to the end of the poem. Or to begin again.

4. Shrikant Verma, Magadh

And while we're on books I haven't read, I may as well include Shrikant Verma's Magadh, a long extract from which (in translation by Rahul Soni) appears in the current issue of Almost Island, and was enough to convince me that I needed to get my hands on more of Verma's work the next time I'm in India. Verma's poems have a Cavafy-like quality, combining a sparseness of style with an eye for the metaphysical to create poems that seem both conversational and revelatory, both historical and timeless.

5. Anne Carson, An Oresteia

Strictly speaking, Carson's new book - a version of the Oresteia with one play each from Aiskhylos, Sophokles and Euripides - is not a poetry collection. Yet you'd have to be blind and deaf not to sense the poetry pulsing through every line of this book, just waiting to be spilled. Carson's translations - particularly her rendition of Aiskhylos' Agamemnon - breathes life into the old texts, restoring to them their full-throated lyricism, the power of words so savage, so devastatingly beautiful.

6. Kazim Ali, Bright Felon

Kazim Ali's Bright Felon is a book that doesn't so much defy description as evade it. An autobiographical account of the poet's life in the United States, Bright Felon engages with issues of religion, nationality, sexuality, family - all the things that define and complicate identity - in lines delicate and vivid, introspective and indignant. This is a book about displacement pregnant with a deep sense of place, of homes both lost and found, exiles both chosen and enforced.

7. Joshua Clover, The Totality for Kids

Treading a fine line between the visionary and the bizarre, the poems in Joshua Clover's The Totality for Kids inhabit an exhilarating alterverse somewhere between the solipsistic and the apocalyptic. An architecture of urban mythmaking with windows of disillusion.

8. Heather McHugh, Upgraded to Serious

There is a special joy one gets from reading McHugh, whose poems combine a pitch-perfect ear with a twinkling eye. Reading Upgraded to Serious is a bit like listening to Mendelssohn, one is charmed by the sparkling surface of the thing, all wit and melody, then one discovers the music of echoes that lies underneath, an abiding seriousness, idea and insight laughing quietly between themselves.

9. Carl Phillips, Speak Low

The third of the National Book Award finalists on this list (and the one I would have given the prize to) is also one of my 'discoveries' for 2009. In Phillips' best poems you sense a mind treading water, a mind probing, without caution but with care, the nature of what matters - longing, death, thought itself - a poet aware, as only a poet can be, of the fragile arrangements by which inanimate words are brought to resemble life.

10. Rachel Zucker, Museum of Accidents

How can you not love a poet who describes herself as the mother in smothered? Rachel Zucker's Museum of Accidents is a book filled with hilarity and hi-jinx, a verbal trapeze act that is also a half-ironic, half-desperate attempt to ward off the terrible gravity of parenthood and the anxiety of being middle-aged. For all the tedious mommy poems out there, with their propaganda of fulfillment, their miracle-of-life banality, Museum of Accidents is a shot in the arm and a spit in the eye.

Bonus picks: Two of the finest books of poetry I read last year were both technically published in 2008, but need to be mentioned anyway - Jack Spicer's My Vocabulary Did This to Me, which showcases one of modern poetry's most electric and original voices; and Sarah Lindsay's Twigs and Knucklebones, which marries artifice to lyrical insight, and provides an object lesson in how a collection of poetry can be more than the sum of its parts.

Bonus picks [2]: Finally, I feel I ought to include a mention of Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense, which I'm still in the process of working my way through, but which I'd highly recommend to anyone seeking a friendly introduction to contemporary poetry (see also: Burt's blog)


Anonymous said...

I am sorry that I am missing the big picture and choosing to nitpick instead. But I think it should be 'get hold of..' instead of 'get hold off..' in the first few lines somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list. I believe I can get most of these issued from Wilson.

Falstaff said...

Anon: You're right, of course. All fixed now.

And you're welcome.

Anonymous said...

Wilson- 5/13. I Imagined that it would be higher.

Anonymous said...

And that includes Magadha if you want to read it before you can own it.

equivocal said...

Damn good stuff man. This is the best top poetry list I've seen all month, and your writeups are sharp.