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Seth Abramson

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October 2011 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Posted: 10/17/11 07:11 PM ET

The aim of this ongoing review series is to highlight superlative books of poetry from the last 10 years. Each entry offers an unranked, non-exhaustive list of such collections comprised of brief descriptions of each text and an excerpt. The first and second entries in the series can be found here and here. This third entry recommends the following eight collections as being eminently worth your time and energy, in large part because, in each case, they bring to American poetry something it has rarely if ever seen before:

1. The Difficult Farm, Heather Christle (Octopus Books, 2009). These endlessly inventive and energetic poems create their own microcosms of frenetic humor, actual heartbreak, and keenly-observed bewilderment. If the poems' investments are sometimes elusive, it's an elusiveness generous enough to make us happy to give chase. Self-important poets beware -- Christle can do just as much thematic heavy lifting with a wink, a smile, and a blueberry monster in a squirrel coat. An excerpt (from "Variations on An Animal Kingdom"): "Yesterday a whole tree / emptied itself at once and my garden / was large, sad and full of evidence. / You can do so many bad things / and it is so easy. It takes only / a little research and 90% perspiration. / It takes funding and love for the thrush."

2. Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, Timothy Donnelly (Grove Press, 2003). Best known, now, for his 2010 Wave Books release, The Cloud Corporation, Donnelly's debut collection is every bit as necessary, challenging, and idiosyncratic. To say that Twenty-Seven Props exhibits masterful poetic range is an understatement; these are poems which deserve, and require, serious study, as they are long, disjunctive, and often marked by rhetorical flourishes such as numbered lists (with sub-sections), allusions, and the most complex and varied syntax a reader of poetry could ever expect to encounter. This is a collection of strange, discursive interludes and wrenching, half-buried emotions. An excerpt (from "From a Further Meaning Faded"): "Presto! I don't have to show you anything else. / Let a stranger do it. Let him whittle you down to a shadow in a park. / Let his music exhaust your stinky little orchestra. / For what does it mean, to be 'meant for,' really?"

3. The Maverick Room, Thomas Sayers Ellis (Graywolf, 2005). There's nothing flashy about The Maverick Room; it could even be said that, as to their style, many of the poems in this collection are marked by a carefully-controlled lyricism with ends both clearly-delineated and clearly-achievable. But Thomas Sayers Ellis has stories to tell, and they are worth hearing; images to layer, gorgeously and heart-breakingly, into a true portrait of a cultural landscape, one not easily turned away from; a sense of idiom and lexicon that is not merely exacting but thoroughly capable of lifting from the page these poems' figures, places, and modes of discourse. The Maverick Room maps the real Washington, D.C., those streets and neighborhoods whose stories are hard to tell and even harder, once told, to forget. An important work. An excerpt (from "Giant Steps"): "Sugar Bear is the Abominable Snowman of Go-Go, / Laying stone-cold sheets of bottom / Over forgotten junk farms and Indian deathbeds. // Years ago, a conspiracy to melt him / Was put to sleep by an unlimited freeze. // He bridged the gap between Southeast & Northwest, / Passing through Anacostia and Watergate, / Untouched, plucking veins and exposing hidden tapes. // Bear's melody is Big Foot music; / 2 places at the same time. // On atomic nights / His footprints can be viewed from heaven, / Extinguishing mushrooms."

4. Maximum Gaga, Lara Glenum (Action Books, 2008). How to describe this book: Chilling? Grotesque? Eccentric? Sublime? Ground-breaking? All of the above. One exemplar of the subgenre known as the "gurlesque," Maximum Gaga tackles uncomfortable topics with the sort of energy and zeal that's impossible to bottle. There's a lot going on in these poems, and much of it has to do with gender roles and relations, the relation of sex and violence and terror, and a robust challenge to artificial limitations on what is "appropriate" in polite discourse generally or poetry specifically. These poems will shock, disgust, and intrigue in equal measure, yet none of these reader responses are cheaply earned: Glenum vividly depicts a moral universe in which all normative conduct has been suspended or indeed wiped from the collective subconscious. The result is a world-from-whole-cloth, and a series of interactions between fictional characters that can't help but shed a troubling light on contemporary mores. An excerpt (from "Post Orifice"): "My normopath neighbor (a.k.a. "the Rooster") / started maling / protoplasmic goo into my bone pagoda / He began maling me spermatazoid valentines // He was going postal / He was maling all over me // In the male I discovered coupons / for torch songs & a notice / for Mr. Humpty's Charity Ball / In the male / I received an invitation to a language-den / of squealing verbs / tied to signposts..."

5. F2F, Janet Holmes (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). F2F (texting-speak for "face-to-face") is replete with the sort of ironies implied by its title. Holmes offers a sort of poetry here that mirrors its inspiration and (perhaps in some instances) source material: The poems are comprised of short bursts of communication between two speakers, and sometimes even the author and the reader. That F2F is an erudite and thought-provoking work is clear from the very first poem, titled "Writely" (a title that simultaneously operates as a pun and as an allusion to Roland Barthes' notion of a "writerly text," or one that positions its reader as a producer of text and meaning rather than merely a consumer). Roland Barthes would be proud; Holmes has documented exquisitely the changes in reading and writing habits wrought by recent developments in human communication, and not surprisingly these changes are as troubling as they are historic. Holmes deftly turns visual puns, complex sonic structures, and a subtle but compelling use of the page as "field" to do much more than merely produce a historicity of contemporary language; F2F is a sociopolitical work of enduring significance. An excerpt (from "From: Date: To: Subject:"): "One day she was there speaking from the flatscreen. / He was there one day saying things. / Typing. / We say saying, meaning writing. / You liked the things written that were as if said. / She or he "interesting" you. / You stayed online. / [Idiom for connected.] / Giving your madeup name. / To himher, whobeit. / You did not, on this level, trust."

6. Angle of Yaw, Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). Alternating between sections of prose poems and sections of traditional lyric verses, Angle of Yaw covers a heck of a lot of ground in an understated way that's both endearing and impressive. Variously political, cleverly sentimental, funny, and wryly observational, these generally short poems offer a wealth of insight from an immensely-talented poet. As with many younger writers, Lerner comes at his subjects from an angle, letting his speaker's thoughts pinball through complicated intellectual tasks, sometimes logically and sometimes fitfully. Angle of Yaw is full of deadpan, non sequiturs, disjunction, and sardonic wit. But above all, the book is simply a great deal of fun to read -- and yes, that still matters (and is possible) in poetry. Poets like Lerner remind us that pleasure is not merely a nineteenth century poetic principle. An excerpt (from "Talk Me Down, Man, Talk Me Down"): "Talk me down, man, talk me down. Obsessive repetition / of meaningless gestures. A dangerous level of light in the blood. The / caller claims to have discovered the imprint of a trilobite embedded in / the sky. It's the kind of thing, he says, that makes you pray to God. That / you might live forever. In these several states of shock. At what point in / the conversation did you realize her breathing had stopped? When I / kissed her."

7. Whim Man Mammon, Abraham Smith (Action Books, 2007). It helps, in reading Whim Man Mammon, if you've heard Abraham Smith read his poetry live. Fortunately, in the Information Age all that requires is typing in his name on YouTube. Certainly, Smith has one of the most distinctive deliveries in contemporary American poetry, which wouldn't mean nearly as much if the poetry weren't just as distinctive. If you, like many poetry readers, open up each book of poetry asking yourself (and the book itself), "What am I going to see and hear here that I've never seen or heard before? How is this poet's voice and style and form a unique literary presence?," this book, and this poet, is for you. Smith's all-lower-case, highly-performative, propulsive, almost breathless lines practically leap off the page: You can almost smell, taste, and touch every word and image. Smith doesn't believe in periods, as you'd expect in a book whose poems feel like living entities confined only ephemerally to print. The rural bohemian landscape Smith evokes is rarely captured in poetry; it's not one you'll want to leave, though, because there's an integrity to the lived experience found here that bears any reader's devotion of time and attention. An excerpt (from "Thickets of Sleeves"): "sparrow I am no / intense fan of // o you rang a bell / searching / the penny dish / for a dime / is old hat and down // I am just going to / meek cat one / little mewling bomb // I am no ox / not parapet / no fancy // no moon cow / treating / moos to / manacles // another dead level / ground swell / of shivering // I shall stitch / a hat / in the shape / of how you feel..."

8. Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, Craig Morgan Teicher (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2007). Full of Whitmanesque anaphora and the elegance of a rhetorically-active syntax, Teicher has compiled here a series of highly-lyrical poems in the very best tradition of our fundamentally-oral art-form. These are poems meant to be read aloud, to be shared, to be heard first with one's eyes closed and then, only after, to be seen on the page. They are almost presumptuously good; not only do they exhibit a cunning awareness for the power of the spoken word, they also bring to bear, just as importantly, a tenderness that never dips into empty sentiment or nostalgia. You'll be glad you opened the book, and disinclined -- promise -- to put it down anytime soon. An excerpt (from "I Am a Poet"): "I am a poet, a soft singer, one who / sings when the birds are asleep / for I am one who sees only others / in his mirror and who sees only / himself in others' shattered / faces. I have seen myself in one / hundred thousand poses, / my skin shaded each of the rainbow's / one million colors, my tongue snaking / around one billion impossibly / shaped words, my hands lifting / one trillion grains of sand / from the driftwood beaches / of one country to the hypodermic / beaches of another..."

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). He is currently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.