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Fall Is Here, So Is the Best of Bay Area Poetry

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Perhaps it is the transformation of the trees, the change in temperature and light, or the beginning of the school year, but whatever the reason autumn has always been the best season for poetry. Don't get me wrong, I love summer, but after a while I'm ready for things to move along. Let's admit it: We want transformation. The same goes for books. It was fun for a while, but you know you're tired of all those shades of gray. Bring on the pumpkins and yellow leaves you say? Unpack the footballs and sweaters? And while you're at it, why not bust out some poems? Well, so be it!

Because you asked, here is an overview of four recent books by four very different Bay Area Poets published by four distinct presses. Sure, there might be some tricks, but there are also treats. After all, these writers put the howl in Halloween . . .

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Aaron Shurin, Citizen. City Lights, 2012.

Without question, Aaron Shurin is one of the great San Francisco poets. By this I mean not just a poet who lives in or chronicles San Francisco but one whose work embodies the city itself. His poems are lush, hip, sassy, fun, and innovative. His most recent collection, Citizen, the first to be published by City Lights, is all that and, like, 60 bags of chips. Known for his lyrical prose poems, Shurin has carved out a singular reputation as a poet who plays by his own rules. He was doing prose poetry before prose poetry was cool, and he has resisted much of the trends in contemporary poetry. There is no postmodern Shurin, no New Formalist Shurin, no flarf Shurin. His new book does introduce the citizen Shurin, and he's a neighbor we'd all be happy to have.

Citizen's lyrics are a fine mixture of the crisp and the luxurious if such a combination is possible. With only two or three exceptions, no poem is more than a page long. Things go quickly. The poet gets in, does his work, and gets out. However within that space is a carnival of language, and the reader loves the short wild ride, in part because Shurin revels in the glory of words. He knows they can take us places and entertain, and he allows them to (read: makes them) do both.

The poems in Citizen are riddled -- that is no accidental verb -- with dashes and ellipses. One thinks of Emily Dickinson often here because Shurin's celebrations are almost always explorations and interrogations. Like Dickinson, the poet wonders at wonder, and the poem becomes a vehicle for the beauty of that which can be asked. Dickinson's dashes, though, are profoundly linked to the poetic line, something that does not explicitly exist in prose poetry. But, Shurin has an amazing ability to make the reader feel the jolt of a line even buried within (or disguised within) prose. Consider, for example, this passage from "Gloria Mundi": "Once I was an old man with wind in his hair -- pulverized by the air -- that wasn't fair so I crawled back over the bridge to where the beautiful nights dance like bears -- and sidling up to the professor of youth who was seething to see me unspooled -- tamped furrows." I hear Gerard Manly Hopkins here as well as William Butler Yeats and a little bit of Mark Doty. The poem moves and sounds like a lyric, but the use of "Once" at the beginning suggests story, perhaps even fairy tale. No surprise. The poem, like the whole book, is an embrace of the fantastic.

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Camille Dungy, Smith Blue. Southern Illinois University Press, 2011

The most eclectic collection under review is Camille T. Dungy's Smith Blue. There are many things to like about this book, but perhaps my favorite is the diversity of forms and the plurality of voices. I know I just listed two favorites, but they are intimately linked. Where Shurin's collection gains momentum from its consistency, Dungy's builds through surprise and accrual. You never know who the speaker of a poem will be or what shape or texture it might take, and in almost every sense, the poem's voice and the way it looks and moves on the page are in concert with each other. The opening poem, entitled "After Opening The New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love" is a self-reflexive neo-sonnet that helps set the stage for the entire book: "There is always something / starting somewhere, and I have lost ambition / to look into the details. Shame fits comfortably / as my best skirt, and what can I do / but walk around in that habit? / Turn the page. / Turn another page." Notice the smart combination of assertion and question followed up by the reference to the poem's textuality as well as the reader's complicity in the reading project. I also like the playful use of "habit" here, in part because it refers back to the poet's invocation of God in the opening line. Shame, god, love, and The New York Times is a pretty good combination. Throw in the turning of the page, and you can't lose.

Most of the poems in Smith Blue are combinations of observations and assertions that are buttressed by questions and interrogations. In a poem like "It Is," the speaker alternates between question and answer, sometimes questioning answers but never really answering the questions. The best example of this is the eight-part 13-page "Prayer for P --" that moves back and forth between the meditative and the conversive. Amazingly, this long poem is also an acrostic that pays homage to C. P. Cavafy's famous "Prayer." Deciphering the vertical message is as much fun as reading horizontally.

One reason this book is so much fun is because Dungy has never met a poetic form she doesn't like. Swing a dead cat and you hit a different form: acrostics, prose poems, lyrics with scattered lines, poems in couplets, tercets, and quatrains, not to mention both stichic and stanza poems. Additionally, many of her poems enter into conversation with other poets and poems including Carl Phillips, Gertrude, Stein, Adrienne Rich, D. A. Powell, and Ravi Shankar. Throw in some artwork, music, explorers, modified foods, and you have a fantastic collection of poems that is both engaging and inclusive.

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W. S. Di Piero, Nitro Nights. Copper Canyon, 2011.

If Smith Blue is the most eclectic of these collections, W. S. Di Piero's Nitro Nights is the coolest. I mean, the title alone is hard to beat, but best of all is that the poems got a little nitro their own selves.

I've been trying to think of the best way to describe Di Piero as a poet, and what I've come up with is a moniker I'm not happy with, but here it is nonetheless: a compressed urban Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Di Piero is fond of the list, the unfurling catalog of descriptive nouns, and also like Whitman he gives voice to the voiceless. In this case, it's the overlooked people on the margins of city life; characters we are accustomed to seeing in films and novels but rarely in contemporary poetry. Most of the poems take place at night, outside bars or bus stops, hospitals and low riders. It is a refreshing if unusual landscape to inhabit in a book of poems and one that makes good use of the elasticity of language and poetic form.

Some of the best lyrics in Nitro Nights are persona poems. I've always been intrigued by (perhaps even leery of) the persona poem, in part because I am often unsure of how I am to interact with them when they are also printed alongside and among straightforward lyric poems. Di Piero does a masterful job of intertwining the two, as though the poet's voice is part and parcel of cast of characters in his play. Is the "me" in "Big City Speech" the poet or his persona or both?

Use me
Abuse me
Turn wheels of fire
on manhole hotheads

Sing me
Sour me
Secrete dark matter's sheen
on our smarting skin

Like Dungy, Di Piero has great fun with craft and presentation. He loves the sonic vibrancy of city life, its din and danger, and in this book he, rather masterfully, merges the frenetic sounds of poetry and the polis.

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Jane Hirshfield, Come, Thief. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Nothing is harder to write than a good short poem, and two of the best practitioners of that form live in the Bay Area: Kay Ryan and Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield's new collection Come, Thief is a tour-de-force of the compressed meditative lyric. In an 89-page book I counted 91 poems. No wonder Hirshfield is beckoning a thief -- even if he steals a poem, she's still got 90 to spare!

Even so, the title begs a number of questions: who is this thief Hirshfield has in mind? Why is she taunting him? What if the thief is a she? Could the thief be time? Or memory? Or the poet herself? The mysterious title poem suggests it could be all of these (and more). "A fire requires its own conflagration. / As birth does. As love does. / Saying to time to the end, 'Dear one, enter.'" This poem made me feel like I was the thief. I like that. I like that a lot.

Throughout the book, I kept thinking of the great Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz. Like Juarroz, Hirshfield has the ability to combine philosophy, haiku, aphorism, and parable. I know of no other poet, except perhaps the W. S. Merwin of the late '60s and early '70s with such a repertoire. And, while Hirshfield herself would never intend this, her breadth as a poet makes me think the title is an invitation, a la T. S. Eliot, to other poets: Come, thieves...