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Seth Abramson

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December 2011 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Posted: 12/19/11 03:28 PM ET

1. Under Virga, Joe Amato (Chax Press, 2006). This glorious mess is an exhausting but also exhilarating archive of language and metalanguage. If it functions (or purports to function) as a viable linguistic operation, it appears somewhere in this juxtaposition-happy assemblage: stage directions, mailing addresses, quotations, footnotes, cross-outs, untranslated foreign-language bons mots -- you get the picture. Pound would be proud. These units of meaning may not ultimately accumulate, but that's hardly the point; Amato forces his reader to acknowledge the fundamental falseness, absurdity, aimlessness, and (finally) emptiness of demotic linguistic conventions.

2. Free Cell, Anselm Berrigan (City Lights Books, 2009). The fragments of concrete poetry that make up the bulk of Free Cell honor the rapid-fire plausibility of waking thought, which is to say the collection's often self-contained stanzas are by turns intimate, aphoristic, and incoherent -- but never less than truthful. Consider: "It's been good to / celebrate impure / origins. I'll pros- / titute this ability / to celebrate for / awhile longer / I like to think." Now picture those words in the shape of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Or: "Time / you ruinous agent of / possibility, will you ever / truly get your point across?" That one looks a little like a seahorse. Taken as an ineluctable entirety, these units of self-measure are intense, unnerving, and productively bewildering.

3. Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Toward Them, Jenny Boully (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011). Peter Pan was a postmodern tour de force written at the height of Modernism -- and if the very best collections of literary art at least gesture toward their immediate influences, this is undoubtedly the contemporary re-treatment that Peter Pan deserves. Boully has captured the darkness of Barrie's text, and in elevating its inter- and sub-textualities to the level of discourse she illuminates and reinvigorates her source material without sacrificing any of its creepiness, wonder, or violence. Simultaneously metaphysical and visceral, these addresses from Wendy to Peter in lyric prose are scary, sexual, and intellectually disarming. An except: "This much is ever so real; this much isn't make-believe. Peter Pan can / do a great deal in ten minutes. He can do a great deal to you. For example, / he can put a little something inside of you, and you will carry that for / the rest of your life..."

4. Mercury, Ariana Reines (Fence Books, 2011). This is unspeakably affecting work; to call it "haunting" is to understate the case. In fact, each word feels chipped from a wall of darkness hidden miles beneath the earth. Two poems, in their entirety: "I loathe you / But I will let you pass // Through me. Your / Stupidity smeared all over me // Your hot breath in my ear / Tonight I am the only door / Through which you can be made / To disappear" ("Solve"); "I've swept the floor. / I've shaven // All the wood and leaves off the bed / Brackish semen fills the sky // And dazed bees browse my drooping / Curls // Look asshole. I know exactly who you are / I know what you're trying to do to me" ("Arena"). It's so often said of individual men and women that they say what they mean that it means nothing anymore to say so; something different may be said of Ariana Reines: She says what we mean. These poems function as powerful glyphs -- and their reflexive simplicity terrifies even as it deeply resonates.

5. Panic Attack, U.S.A., Nate Slawson (YesYes Books, 2011). Peter Markus' Foreword contends that Slawson "writes with a hard-on"; he goes on to describe Slawson as "a good man," "a father and a husband and a son," "a man who lets everything hang out," and (most tellingly) both "a man in disguise" and "a man naked." Markus might as well have been describing the existential state of a burgeoning class of male poets who use masculine-coded grammar, syntax, diction, rhythm, and rhetoric to reify the terminally-compromised state of masculinity in the present era. The work being done in this subgenre is important work, and it's being done by important poets like Slawson, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Rohrer, Matt Hart, and others. Panic Attack, U.S.A. is a series of heartbreaking evasions, alternating with a series of equally heartbreaking effusions; its central figure is by turns distraught, wry, coy, angry, self-defeating, and self-effacing. All of which coalesces into a wrenching, convincing, and instructive portrayal of American manhood in the early twenty-first century.

6. This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, Juliana Spahr (University of California Press, 2005). Spahr's sprawling paean to humankind is by turns spiritual and political, philosophical and practical. Few books attempt this sort of range, and fewer still succeed as dramatically as does this one. No corner of the globe is left unexplored in this ambitious, emotionally-generous exhortation for Homo sapiens to become a more fully realized species. Those who worry that contemporary poetry has lowered its sights from the peaks of previous epochs -- opting for form and technique over the grandeur of the human imagination -- can read this book and be heartened. An excerpt: "But outside of this shape is space. // There is space between the hands. // There is space between the hands and space around the hands. // There is space around the hands and space in the room. // There is space in the room that surrounds the shapes of everyone's / hands and body and feet and cells and the beating contained / within."

Previous Editions:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 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 10years will be considered, and all books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a 10-year period.