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April 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

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Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than a thousand books of contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period.

1. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, C.A. Conrad (Wave Books, 2012). If there is something singularly grandiose, didactic, and even (normatively) preposterous about A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon--and indeed, at least in spots, there is some strikingly self-important mysticism here--it must be forgiven in light of the fact that its author believes all he writes, practices all he preaches, and in his commitment to the sort of spiritual and neurological ecstasy exhibited in these works quite seriously is far more invested in the world we all share than he is in himself. Few of us can honestly make that claim. Nor have many of us engendered a poetics as deeply committed to both global justice and human wildness (two seeming contradictions) as Conrad's "(Soma)tic poetry." A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon may begin with a form of well-intentioned (if self-indulgent) bravado--a manifesto urging mindfulness, creativity, and interstitial peace--and now and again may strike a similar chord (the collection includes a twenty-page interview with the poet, as well as several lectures), one nevertheless feels there is nothing empty, false, or self-aggrandizing in any of Conrad's artistic gestures. These poems positively glow with earnest, eager, and enlightened attempts at genuine novelty. Not novelty for the sake of novelty, but rather for the sake of finding a very new (or perhaps a very old) way of saving the species--indeed all species--and even the planet itself. It's a heavy burden for any one person to place upon themselves or their poetry, but this side of Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs we simply see too little poetic ambition and courage on this scale. There was a time some of us believed poetry and poets could save the world; C.A. Conrad never stopped believing it--and in that belief, and in the poems produced under the sign of that belief, we can witness an extroverted existentialism that just may be the last best hope for poets and non-poets alike. Conrad's now-discursive, now-fragmentary poetry offers us a mirror we may hold up to ourselves, if only we dare; eccentric, insistent, passionate, and indubitably wide-eyed, it also reflects those precious human traits we too often leave by the wayside on our dreary, unprofitable, and finally destructive searches for well-assimilated lives and loves. [Excerpt: "MUGGED into Poetry"; "Guessing My Death"].

2. Having Been an Accomplice, Laura Cronk (Persea Books, 2012). In Having Been an Accomplice, Cronk explores both the claustrophobic spaces and the endless dark plains of love and longing, and does so in a language alternately paratactic and hypotactic, clinging and racing. To read this book is to remember what it has been like to fall into love, and then out of it, and then into it again after it's gone. As there is in love, there's a haunting beauty in this collection that lingers long after the crucial words have been said and set down. Few poets are as simultaneously intimate and giving as Cronk is; this is a poet truly deserving of our attention. [Excerpt: "Travelling Among Headlines"].

3. Nick Demske, Nick Demske (Fence Books, 2010). Irreverent, funny, and lightning-fast, Demske's (literally) self-titled first book is best understood as a speech exercise, not a polemic. While much is said in this collection that bears saying and bears repeating, at base this is a postmodern performance of the self, of the frantic psyche caught all at once in the gaze of its environs and their denizens. Demske reveals the simultaneously machinelike and lifelike nature of representation; these poems carry only half their possible weight until you see them performed, live, by the poet himself. While work with this sort of frenetic, instantaneous pop isn't for everyone--some may argue, not entirely unfairly, that its compulsiveness too quickly retracts into its origin-point, leaving less of an echo than we hope for--ultimately this is all part of the performance, and a necessary part. Taken on its own terms, Nick Demske ought to be read as a masterful reification of all that is both brilliant and self-eliding in contemporary conventions of speech and culture. [Excerpt: "Notice"; three others].

4. Poems, Ben Mazer (The Pen & Anvil Press, 2010). The unit of measure in many of these poems is the sentence; the unit of knowledge--in all of them--is consistently, and astoundingly so, the universe. Mazer is a talented and enormously ambitious poet whose primary medium is nothing less than the sum total of all our collective and individual memories. On a palette so vast, the most vivid colorations and discolorations can still readily be seen--but only with a sure hand to paint them, so it's fortunate Mazer's hand is so consistently and remarkably sure. It's refreshing to read a poet simultaneously so declarative, so honest, and so (though it may seem a paradox) intricate in his movements; many, many more people should be reading Ben Mazer than presently are. [Excerpts: "The Exile"; "While You Were Watching Richard Harris"].

5. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). These lyric-narrative poems are bracing in large part because Perillo never wastes a word, nor lets her synthesis of events collapse into easy sentimentality. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths records hard-won truths in a language that is both ineluctably humane and jarringly courageous. Perillo is often stark, sometimes funny, and always unforgettable. [Excerpt: "The Second Slaughter"].

6. Chinoiserie, Karen Rigby (Ahsahta Press, 2012). These dense, eerie, sensual narratives are deceptively fabular--Rigby weaves the art of estrangement into even the most seemingly innocuous domestic scenes. Chinoiserie must be read slowly, and savored; it deserves that sort of attention, so alluring are its demands on the senses. There is an intricate delicacy here that puts one in mind of multicolored cobwebs slowly twining around the body. And yet the body doesn't struggle in the midst of this linguistic matrix, it succumbs; indeed, this is a book to whose beguiling delights one invariably must succumb. [Excerpt: "Lovers in Anime"].

7. Croak, Jenny Sampirisi (Coach House Books, 2011). On the first page of Sampirisi's Croak appears the following pronouncement: "[T]here are actions here that dissolve the question of / time and language slash time and the body slash deformity..." She's not kidding; Croak is a powerhouse of dramatic poetry that is as much an Event as a poetry collection. Unreplicable, indescribable, and ineluctably of a piece, this mesmerizing, obsessive metanarrative exploration of--well--everything has as its central characters several narrators, some girls, and some frogs. Hovering behind them all is, of course, Sampirisi, who's just penned as invigorating and idiosyncratic a collection as this reviewer has encountered in some time. A must-read, and one better experienced via the excerpt that follows than in any canned exegesis this reviewer might attempt to proffer. [Excerpt: twenty pages of Croak (opens as PDF)].

8. Traffic with Macbeth, Larissa Szporluk (Tupelo Press, 2012). That we have seen sparse, direct, hyper-paratactic lyricism like this before does not mean we ought not celebrate one of its most talented practitioners. Szporluk is a master of the brief lyric, that focused brand of poetic intelligence that seems but a wisp until it adheres to the soul. Indeed, while the sounds and sights of Traffic with Macbeth are undoubtedly grave and gorgeous, there is also something incantatory--elusively uncanny--in the work. The spell this book weaves is at first too slight to notice; soon enough, however, Szporluk's dark magic alights on your shoulder and begins its terrible, sublime, irreversible whispering. Haunting and lovely. [Excerpt: "Ladybirds"].

9. Barn Burned, Then, Michelle Taransky (Omnidawn Books, 2009). Taransky frustrates so many linguistic conventions here that the myriad refusals become, in time, their own pedagogy. This is a disjunctive, juxtapositional, dynamic poetics whose subject is not merely, reflexively, language itself, but also, more particularly, the operations of language in conditions of emergency. Posited here, too, is that all language is emergency language, the sort of prescription once favored by the Futurists and too long forgotten by their literary successors. Taransky reinvigorates the tradition of the American avant-garde with this fragmentary and ingenious celebration of immanence, immediacy, and materiality over transcendence, literality, and sentimental reductivism. Barn Burned, Then isn't, by any means, an easy read; nevertheless, one can't fully understand the metaphysical contours of human speech and emotion without reading a superlative work like this one, so gird yourself for the challenge and dive courageously into the fire. [Excerpt: "Barn Burning, It"].

10. Further Adventures in Monochrome, John Yau (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). These associative and often sound-driven collages, many of which implicitly explore themes of dislocation and assimilation, are propelled by Yau's explosive imagination, in whose glorious starbursts no end of surprise and delight may be found. Punctuated by a sometimes Dream Songs-like postmodern parody, the "Genghis Chan: Private Eye" series, this hefty collection of poems makes the senseless sensible, the disparate organic, the fabular biting, and the absurd essential. It seems impossible that such a fragment-driven lyricism should again and again accumulate into ridiculously compelling assemblages, but Yau has done such difficult work countless times in the past, and returns to do so once again--and brilliantly--here. [Excerpt: "Genghis Chan: Private Eye XXIII"].

Earlier Editions in the Series:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012