January 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

01/20/2012 12:29 pm ET | Updated Mar 21, 2012
  • Seth Abramson Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire; Series Co-Editor, Best American Experimental Writing

1. The Irrationalist, Suzanne Buffam (Canarium Books, 2010). These poems ruminate. They're aphoristic, and the intelligence behind them is robust enough (with room to spare) to command the sort of attention aphorism requires. If the traditional lyric-narrative form of parataxis is dead -- and it is, and it should be -- discursive, hypotactic poetry like this is what's saved us all. Buffam impresses with her wisdom, grace, and generosity: This is warm, engaging poetry and it deserves the broadest possible audience. [Excerpt: from "Little Commentaries"].

2. Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, MacGregor Card (Fence Books, 2009). These poems read as the oration of a speaker one step from Lear-worthy madness. Yet that one step is critical; a lot can be done in the liminal space between sanity and its opposite, and Card does just about all of it. The scope of this work is exquisite, as is its novel reification of the metaphysical tug-of-war between two equally-entrancing illusions: Control of one's environment, and self-control. These are the words one might utter if one were a remarkably talented poet and also, sidebar, were bleeding out. Without question, there's a terrible beauty in this book. [Excerpt: "The Libertine's Punishment"].

3. A Handmade Museum, Brenda Coultas (Coffee House Press, 2003). This book is a goddamn treasure. As a born-and-bred Boston-area Masshole, I was raised to be circumspect of our cosmopolitan neighbor four hours to the southwest. Yet Coultas's account of a brief stretch of concrete near her home in New York City nearly brought me to tears, and made me long to embrace -- with all its flaws; flaws Coultas sees and relates, too, with stunning acuity -- a city I have never before felt kinship with. Such is the power of these prose poems, which I can say without reservation are some of the most affecting, perceptive, and subtly complex this reviewer has ever encountered. Read this book. [Excerpt: "The Bowery Project"].

4. Yes, Master, Michael Earl Craig (Fence Books, 2006). Equal parts allegorical, rhetorical, and anecdotal, Yes, Master is -- the cover art compels a sports metaphor -- not a touchdown. It's not a touchdown because it's far more than that: It's a rout so gallingly and impractically unsportsmanlike the "mercy rule" is blown past in the first quarter and the losing team decides to disband on the bus-ride home. This is accessible but challenging work; loquaciously prosaic, yet layered; whimsical yet salted with tender sincerity. Michael Earl Craig is a superstar -- and if you aren't yet reading him, explain yourself. Better yet, get yourself some Raisinets, have a seat, and enjoy. [Excerpt: "Poem"].

5. Dead Ahead, Ben Doller (Fence Books, 2010). Doller's poetry is like a pinball machine in Wizard Mode: All poetry's most explosive, unpredictable capacities have been activated, and the result is joyous pandemonium. This is a poetics of possibility, both technical (visual rhyme, slippage, juxtaposition, disjunction, metalanguage, idiomatic inversions, allusion, an electrifyingly broad vocabulary, and genuine humor) and thematic -- inasmuch as the bitonalities and atonalities of the work, along with its frenetic pacing and eclectic visual topography, permit a simultaneous investigation of everything everywhere. [Excerpt: "A Pointing Habit"].

6. Felt, Alice Fulton (Norton, 2001). Alice Fulton has for years been one of the nation's most eloquently cerebral poets, and in Felt she adds still another dimension to her enviably erudite poetics: a richness of sense and emotion that in 2001 heralded her strongest and most accessible single collection to date. Fulton's command of language, theory, rhetorical structure, and technique is so sure one little doubts one is in the presence of a Master. [Excerpt: "About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument"].

7. Awe, Dorothea Lasky (Wave Books, 2007). To read Lasky's Awe is to feel oneself in the presence of a life writ large; these poems, many of which forthrightly map the intersection between gender and the Great Themes, are epic in scope and Whitmanesque/O'Hara-like in their quiet and not-so-quiet ecstasies. Lasky's fearless, penetrating gaze is equally gripping in whichever mode she elects: narrative, dreamstate, confessional, or epiphanic. Undoubtedly one of the nation's most talented younger poets. [Excerpt: "Old Ideas"].

8. To See the Earth Before the End of the World, Ed Roberson (Wesleyan University Press, 2010). One of the nation's great underappreciated talents, Roberson writes poems that dance between imminent and transcendent meaning--now adopting a disjunctive post-confessionalist pose, now conjoining charged metaphysical fragments in a manner reminiscent of Blaser or Ceravolo. What Kenneth Koch once wrote of the latter's work is operative here as well: "[T]he oddnesses are there not to be resolved but to be given in to, so that the poem can have its say." And what a beautifully fractured "say" it is. Abstract yet parseable lines like "on history's days we all die at once" are interposed with less naked yet equally urgent lines, such as "Trees have whole streets / of when they were planted..." Roberson is an important poet writing important work. [Excerpt: "All at Once"].

9. Heavy Petting, Gregory Sherl (YesYes Books, 2011). The problem with post-confessionalism is that its most uninspired iterations have been sprinkled across America for the past quarter-century; that is, the problem with post-confessionalism isn't post-confessionalism, it's post-confessionalists. No longer: Gregory Sherl is the post-confessionalist we've been looking for, which is to say that there's nothing smarmy, self-important, or false about these poems or this poet. Sherl is that rare author who can speak earnestly about the vagaries, pleasures, and discouragements of living and still charm your pants off. You'll enjoy walking around his head a bit, I guarantee. [Excerpt: "Watermelon Beer"; also: "We Are Under This Sound"].

Previous Editions:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011

Note to publishers: If you would like any of your titles to be considered for a future edition of this series, please e-mail the series author directly. Any book of poetry published within the last 10 years will be considered, and all books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period.