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02/28/2013 01:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

February 2013 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

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 two thousand books of supplied and already-held 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 ten-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

1. movable TYYPE, Kathleen Fraser (Nightboat Books, 2011). If we consider that collaboration is to social formations as collage is to aesthetics, we can see how Kathleen Fraser's participation in the American poetry community is transformative on not just one level but two. Fraser, a visual poet, challenges not only our received definition of a poem but also our equally narrow understanding of what it means to be a poet. Her frequent collaborations with visual artists permit a return to the tactile in poetry: Our acknowledgment, too often implicit rather than studious, that the visual form of letters and their corresponding sounds and syllables often compel us as much as the ideas, images, and emotions those constructions invoke. Fraser reminds us, that is, that a page is a canvas, not merely an envelope; and words are merely snapshots in the evolution of individual moments, not reliable markers of permanence.

Fraser's movable TYYPE [sic] celebrates the beauty of the fragmentary on its own terms, rather than in relation to some American ideal of wholeness--of form, of belief, of sentiment, of courage--none of us can ever deliver on, anyway. The poems of movable TYYPE, which parlay endlessly with questions of absence, space, typography, orthography, cacography, elision, immobility, mutability, memory, energy transference, and juxtapositive form, are gorgeous and moving not because they satisfy (or, in the alternative, dissatisfy) but because they are relentless and authentic and unforgiving. The combination visual/semantic pun of the book's title--that drifting, ever-questing "Y"--is emblematic of a collection, and a poet, and a poetic oeuvre, and dare we say a subgenre of American poetics (i.e. VisPo), whose irreplaceable contribution to American letters has too long been undervalued. These poems ask us to ask hard questions of the media through which we ask, and in doing so put so much pressure on our presumptions about beauty and form and the canny and sub/intertextuality and discourse and the interconnection of all minute movements and representations that the diamondic brilliance of the result ought surprise precisely no one.

This is highly recommended verse, both for its generosity (the iterability of Fraser's poetic sensibility is seemingly endless, and produces a book of poetry that reads like five or six books in one), its novelty (poems that play with typeface and font-size and negative space are composed with more care and foresight here than almost anywhere else), and for its fierce, unyielding intelligence and bravery.

[Excerpts: Various poems (i); various poems (ii)].

2. Little Stranger, Lisa Olstein (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). There are no great innovations in Lisa Olstein's Little Stranger, which makes the undeniable grace and gravity of the collection more--not less--impressive.

When one is pushing the boundaries of form, it's easy enough to inspire admiration in at least some subsection of one's readership, innovation being so easily confused with insight by initiates to poetry (or any other endeavor, for that matter). But how does one convey excellence in a subgenre of the verse medium--the uncanny lyric-narrative wont to celebrate small victories and rue small defeats, to paint over ordinary life with the brushstrokes of extraordinary imagery--that's as well-trammeled as any in the history of American poetry? It's a question this review can't answer, and won't deign to try. So it'll have to suffice to say this much: Lisa Olstein writes the sort of poetry tens of thousands of poets are even now, in boltholes and cubbyholes across America, trying to write, and she writes it better than almost any of them. Is she just smarter about syntax, more articulate about human drama, more imaginative about eeriness, more insightful about sadness, more capable of turning a novel phrase, more engaging a storyteller than nearly all the rest of her peers? Well, yes.

Read this startlingly engrossing book and see for yourself.

[Excerpts: "This Waking Life"; "Deserter's Information Center"; "Furniture Music"; "Different Habitats Make for Good Neighbors"].

3. to refrain from embracing, Monika Rinck [tr. Nicholas Grindell] (Burning Deck Press, 2011). There is often, with poetry in translation--and, dare it be said, particularly with German poetry in translation--a sense of remove. The hand of the translator is present like fingerprints on glass; what lies on the other side seems not only set apart but, at least emotionally, gingerly obscured from view. Such an oddness lends poetry in translation among its most alluring properties, a mysteriousness that bespeaks (fairly or otherwise) a brand of profundity. Nicholas Grindell's translation of the German poet Monika Rinck is notable not because it preserves that mystery, though it does, but because it's clear that property of the text is uniquely attributable to the poems themselves rather than their mode of translation.

On their face, Rinck's poems are often strikingly demotic, even chatty, though their topical preoccupations--degeneration, despair, and demise--would seem ill-suited to such easy speech. The result is a bewildering but frankly mesmerizing mélange of tonalities, from the playful to the ethereal, from the gentle to the apocalyptic. What makes these brief, all-lower-case, often staccato lyrics sing is their imagery--even images that read as asides could be stepped into and lived in for an eternity or more--which implicitly calls to task the otherwise demotic diction for its languidness. To be spoken to in friendly and colloquial fashion by a strange woman at a roadside diner counter while outside, known to her but not to you, the End of the World is in mid-unfolding (pickups tumbling end over end down the dusty highway, the sound of distant jets, a green sky sending twisters to earth each half-mile or less) is about how these poems read. The implication is that talk is easy, the sort of emotion that sticks damnably difficult; story-structures are easy (description, narrative, dialogue), but placing those structures into the heart's circuitous framework darkens and perverts them irreparably.

Rinck's poems, which are often, to make matters even more complicated, occasionally gilded with light humor, make generous use of the three- and four-word in-line sentence--as though the poetic line is longer still than the capacity of human memory or the length of the human backbone, two harrowing possibilities--and it is this quality, as much as any other, that renders these poems distinctly Rinck's and distinctly human, the unavoidable need for an interlocutor (for English-speaking audiences) notwithstanding. Burning Deck has been a must-read press for years, and to refrain from embracing is no exception among its superlative list: A jarring yet riveting read that deserves every accolade it gets. Highly recommended.

[Excerpts: "ntl"; "my thinking"].

4. Counterpart, Elizabeth Robinson (Ahsahta Press, 2012). To credit Elizabeth Robinson with writing some of the most alluring "epics of language" we have in English is insufficient; what Robinson offers her readers, in a voice by turns bardic and seer-like, is an epic of the mouth itself--what it requires, what it takes, what it offers, and what (again) it takes. There is a whiff of the religious text in Robinson's Counterpart, inasmuch as the words its pages contain strike this reviewer as so intuitively true they could only have been received from Elsewhere, some objective-correlative Outsider capable of reorganizing sense and spirit in a fashion more cognizably adequate than its present constitution. "What I think of as a story is only what I think it is, and / there I am alone in all the world," one poem begins, and that's obviously true. "Do you mind, she asked, if I steal a bit from you," another poem begins, one whose narrator soon discerns that "the mere asking got her what she wanted"--and this too seems equally inscrutable and equally (undeniably) so. In other words, Robinson unearths the truth that lies beneath syntax, diction, and conventional sense, and in doing so leaves us more spiritually complete than we were previously (if not, or not always, conspicuously wiser).

If Counterpart is filled to brimming with two things, it's epigraphs and monsters. The relation between the two may at first blush seem tenuous, but in fact epigraphs and monsters are candidates (along with the bifurcated self) for the collection's titular "counterpart"; the first contends with what is said and what is heard, the second with what is done and what is felt. Epigraphs ring familiar, and in this way communicate content beyond their semantic sense; monsters are to their core unfamiliar, and in this way (likewise) communicate more than merely the groans of a golem, the moans of a ghost, or the fleshlike tones of a doppelgänger (all baddies with memorable appearances in Counterpart). In other words, the unfamiliar is as necessary as the familiar when we seek to map the gaps in our understanding, the gaps in our language for understanding and misunderstanding, and even--at the risk of literality--the physical gaps in our physical forms through which we emanate our confusions. To read in Robinson shamanic references to the forms of both language and flesh is both appropriate and deeply instructive; if these eerie, almost koan-like half-narratives draw shivers down the spine it is a shiver equal parts sensual and forbidding.

We should all be regularly unsettled in the way Robinson's poetry--among the best now being written in America--unsettles. We should all be grateful for our wholenesses (however illusory some are) in the way Robinson's poetry is filled with gratefulness for those forces ever massing beyond the edge of reason: Ready, in equal measure, to kiss or to kill, but in any case to rip our delicate sensibilities apart. More poetry like this, please--much more.

[Excerpts: "Sanctuary"; "Turn";

5. The New Poetics, Mathew Timmons (Les Figues Press, 2010). At a recent meeting of the nation's academic intelligentsia in Louisville, Kentucky, the phrase "The New Gnosticism" was bandied about as a promising contender for this year's shibboleth among the Wise.
You might wonder whether yet another New _______--the hundredth consecutive year in the last century academia has offered us a New _______ in place of any useful synthesis of workaday realities--is of any more utility than an umbrella in an avalanche. It's a reasonable anxiety (indeed, not a New Anxiety) to suspect that our nation's professorial class spends far too much time aggregating the unknown into parseable yet calorie-free praxes, and far too little time battling back the unknown with original research and courageous yet humble inquiry. That the number of working poets in America has swelled from an estimated 5,000 thirty years ago to more than fifteen times that number today, with no commensurate acknowledgment amongst the academic set that totalizing literary-critical constructions like the New Gnosticism are therefore and necessarily doomed to seem instantly provincial and glancing, is astounding. And unsettling. And it's this sort of angst, anxiety, anger, and astonishment captured by Mathew Timmons in his The New Poetics.

Divided into more than 300 alphabetically-arranged chapters--some of which are blank but for their title, all of whom are titled using some variation of the construction "The New _______"--Timmons' 2010 collection exposes just how tiresome and sad most forms of novelty are. That so many of the chapters in The New Poetics are empty (including some, such as The New Criticism and The New Deal, we might expect to be not just present but loquaciously so) reveal that allegedly novel thinking is often little more than an agenda-driven slogan waiting on its substance, or worse--as with The New Criticism and The New Deal--an old promise still waiting to be properly delivered upon. What chapters are present here are alternately hilarious (see The New Kitten, The New Love, and The New Night) and impenetrable (The New Acrostic, The New Alexandrine, and a number of others). Throughout, one suspects that (at best) chance operations or (at worst) The Google-sculpting of flarf is afoot: These prose poems often read as search-engine mash-ups, though unlike much flarf there's more than enough cream beneath the steam to warrant a deep sip of what Timmons has brewed. The poet's poems jaunt off on so many wild and entirely unforeseeable diversions that the total effect is one of biting social critique. Words escape us, Timmons implies; they signify flirtatiously, eschewing fidelity on instinct the way false loves often do. Ideas, in this view, are all in their use, and what we make of them is, ultimately, all they are. (We may say the same of love, of course, both the New and Old varieties.)

This reviewer found The New Poetics not only invigorating but endlessly entertaining. Timmons has a gift for pacing that's worthy of abiding admiration, and his book lays down enough red thread to make any labyrinth-breaker proud. In the same way Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves exposed the vanity of inquiry and the circularity of all citation by flooding an ostensible horror novel with spurious footnotes, Timmons reveals knowledge production mechanisms as necessarily degenerative and even, often enough, cannibalistic. (There may be no entry for "The New Deal" in The New Poetics, but "The New New Deal" gets one, and it's a dystopic vision par excellence.) And cultural transactions in which empty forms of capital are accrued and transferred come in for similar (equally-deserved) treatment.

The whole of The New Poetics can be a bit of a maddening read, but that's the point of an exercise like this one, and the collection's frustrations are as well-wrought and instructive as its more evident joys. After all, if the Epic of Language is in fact an Ouroboros, we should all--lovers and poets both--feel a bit chewed upon from time to time. In sum: Brilliant, bracing work, this.

[Excerpts: The New Writing on the Wall"; various selections].

A graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; 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). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.

Earlier Editions in the Series:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
November 2012
December 2012
January 2013