July 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

07/20/2012 03:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2012
  • Seth Abramson Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire; Series Co-Editor, Best American Experimental Writing

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 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 10-year period. For a full listing of books received and considered, see here.

Scholars of the avant-garde warn darkly that we are suffused, in the twenty-tens, in a period style enamored with pretty rhetorical gestures, self-indulgent egotism, self-expressive melodrama, and bourgeois epiphanies. These scholars have been reading too little and too narrowly; the period style they describe was ubiquitous in the eighties and early nineties and, while now and then evident even today, has in the greater part been replaced by a dramatically divergent aesthetic sensibility. Dominant now are classically paratactic "implied" lyric-narratives--employing the comma, that is, not the caesura; gesturing at story, not fetishizing it--marked by their disjunctive enjambment, eccentric juxtapositions, an absence of temporality, choked-off grammar and syntax, an indifference to the lyrical "I," and a penchant for mastering (in the neo-Modernist lineage) extremely well-said non-sense. This period style's lyricism is all akimbo; its jagged edges and field-composition jump-cuts compose a despairing sort of postmodernist music which yesteryear's neo-Romantics and New Formalists and post-confessionalists would hardly recognize. What's most striking about where we've come to in American poetry is just how universally this period style is well-executed, where present: of the many books not selected for review here, a clear majority exhibited a pleasing-enough competence which, while never jarringly or demonstrably idiosyncratic, nevertheless suggested to this critic that a veritable horde of our nation's younger poets, particularly those hailing from academic-institutional contexts in which a healthy one-upsmanship is now brewing, will shortly enough make us very proud indeed. A second group of younger/youngish authors has learned to dial back the period style just enough, and compound it with their own unique contributions just enough, for all those generative period-features and occasional eccentricities of concept and structure to be appreciated rather than merely noted.

The question, then, is where can we find tomorrow's poems today? Where do we see a poetics (not a mere aesthetic) so entirely unrecognizable--yet so clearly studied and historically-minded--that it turns our attention from a sea of complacent goodness to restless, riotous, engorged breakers whose Great energies properly roar? While there will always be (and always must be) time and space made for the masterful classical lyric-narrative, more and more it seems that a sizable segment of the most innovative work circulating today is alive to the generative possibilities of an aesthetic badness, a refutation of even the well-honed elliptical craft of our time. These are poems, poets, and collections that constantly enforce their noncomformance; as readers we are prone, responding to such texts, to prolonged bouts of "Really?" or "Ah..." or "No no no no no!" We decline; we demur; we disavow; we deride. But we are, for all that, reading. Not "reading through," or "reading of," but "reading against" and sometimes (delightfully) "reading with"--permitting the supposed excesses of the text to wash over us in a way that dirties us thankfully. The result? A sequence of ugly feelings, of unsafe states of being: fear; hilarity; disgust; bewilderment; beguilement; anger; even an aggrieved sort of boredom. Well (it says here) so much the better: it's about time readers of contemporary American poetry got knocked on their collective behinds. So while many of the works reviewed in this series do indeed celebrate and advance the cause of the well-made contemporary lyric, many others are unruly in a way that wakes us urgently from our tepid presuppositions.

1. The Invention of Glass, Emmanuel Hocquard, trans. Cole Swensen and Rod Smith (Canarium Books, 2012). Emmanuel Hocquard's The Invention of Glass reminds us that the truth is atomic: its constituent declamations are elusive and, if captured, impossible to subdivide further. This book presents a long sequence of such elemental aphorisms; it may be divided into one "poem" and one "story," and that poem into twenty sections and that story into twenty chapter-like blocks of citations, but beyond these organizing principles no further rhetorical mitosis is possible. Hocquard presents his reader with a cornucopia of cleverly-enjambed incontrovertibles--foundational declarations on the nature of man, mappings, and matter. Try to interrogate these postulations into wispy poetic nothings, to dilute them with the contemporary reader's skepticism for smart turns of phrase, and you'll always be repelled. The work frustrates, because it's unforgiving and seeds (we must say it) a sluggish imbecilic feeling in the cerebellum that passes only slowly. But to read Hocquard is also to unwittingly find this mantra in the throat of the soul: "Yes, this is true; and this; and this; and this." The second section of the book may be (as its title promises) more prosaic, discursive, and superficially esoteric, but it is no less illuminating than what precedes. The Invention of Glass is a generous and ingenious catalog of what we deny, and how we live, and the cracks between the two that contain everything else we need to know. [Excerpt: from "Poem"; from "Story"].

2. The Us, Joan Houlihan (Tupelo Press, 2009). Few contemporary poets dare brave the epic; the shadow of the Ancients is not just long but consuming. Houlihan's courageous The Us is an allegorical epic of the first order: an affecting tale of otherness, modernity, violence, and identity. For all its familiar narrative setpieces, its translator's marginalia, and its monomythic sequencing, its vision and integrity is unflinching. It tells the all-too-familiar tale of a clash between "Primitive" and "Advanced" peoples--using the simple and likewise all-too-familiar binary of "the us" and "the thems"--but does so with an authenticity bordering on the uncanny. It is easy to mistake Houlihan's organic diction for a painfully-contrived dialect (her use of the substitutive function to approximate late pleistocenic linguistics is a foremost feature of the text), but in fact the poet, walking a tightrope, is as invested here in allegory as epic, and the diction of the protagonists in The Us is far more a function of the primitive spatialities of ecopoetics than the primitive semiotic networks of anthropology. In other words, speech is as much the plot of this tale as its vehicle. Of course, all this is for naught if there's no tale to tell. Fortunately, Houlihan is a master of both narrative and affective detail, and the tragedy of "father," "ay," "brae," "g'wen," "sen," "she," and "greb"--the central figures in this deadly dance of two tribes--is both fully realized and hauntingly compelling. Houlihan is to be lauded for tangling with one of lyric poetry's most august traditions in the first instance; that she uncovers a new valence in an old inheritance is nothing short of miraculous. [Excerpt: from "Ay"].

3. Percussion Grenade, Joyelle McSweeney (Action Books, 2012). From its opening importuning--"The pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud--a-LOUD!"--the reader of Percussion Grenade is prepared for some kind of single-stage explosive anything. What arrives, instead, is a rocket-propelled everything. This is a big book: materially, conceptually, thematically (if we find theme in concept), and in all its fully-realized, near-fully-realized, and half-abortive ambitions (if we find ambition in rubbed-raw courage). What begins in a gesture toward the permissive forms of received tradition (McSweeney begins with a query: "Is it ok...") soon becomes a neo-Whitmanesque self-admonition ("I loaf and invite myself to lock and load"). And it's this latter prescription that Percussion Grenade spectacularly fills; McSweeney's often breathless, always ecstatic war-cries (up to barbaric yawps) veer wildly toward the edge of sanity and then Thelma-&-Louise it past that edge into a combustive abyssal vacuum. Which is, finally, where Percussion Grenade lives: within a fiery con-fusion of unsafe, unpretty soul-grindings that at once occupy the liminal spaces before, within, and after an explosive crash. One would call this fearless poetry if doing so would not wrongly insinuate that these poems in any sense acknowledge fear. This may be the first poetry collection this critic has encountered that beggars description; it is to be experienced, to be heard, to be felt hot on the cheek--not spoken of quietly in the indoor spaces of polite company and (self-)serious literary criticism. Highly recommended. [Excerpt: eight pages from Percussion Grenade (click "read it now" at link)].

4. Snowflake/Different Streets, Eileen Myles (Wave Books, 2012). You'll think you've seen this before; you haven't. Terse titles, short lines, minimal punctuation, plain speech, fraught interpersonal interactions, earnest sentiment, tiny epiphanies: all the ingredients for a teenage symphony are here. But Myles is neither a teenager nor a mere follower-of-fashion, and these poems unguardedly challenge our presuppositive prejudicies against simplicity. Many younger readers of poetry forget the admonition to read the shortest lines of poetry the slowest; in Snowflake, Myles puts a crystallizing pressure on each immanent sound and transparent image that even the stingiest reader is compelled to honor. Indeed, there is a cold delicacy in these words that belie their nominal habitat (often, Los Angeles and its environs). Too, there is an intricate grandiosity of spirit here that belies individual pieces' sparseness and brevity. Myles confronts the pressing extenuations of identity, materiality, spatiality, and spirituality, and in so doing illuminates a melting quality to these confrontations that is at once spellbinding and sad. Many of the poems in Snowflake are of the "on the road" variety, but Myles isn't flashing us scenic vistas, she's unfolding a necessary and entire landscape. If Different Streets feels like a somewhat lighter affair, it's hardly any less a mesmerizing display of a personality writ large. [Excerpt: "Car Camera"; eight pages from Snowflake/Different Streets].

5. How to Survive a Hotel Fire, Angela Veronica Wong (Coconut Books, 2012). On first read, the first blush comes: there is groaningly, even achingly eager naivete in all this. Surely we must no longer be struck by simple facts about flowers and the sun? Then we reconsider: Which is the truer, the poetry that is exacting about what is, or the poetry prettily evasive in speaking of what is not, a poetry whose metaphoric energies are spilled entirely in the expression of increasingly unlikely poetic sentiments? Then we reread, and we find in How to Survive a Hotel Fire the authentic chronicle of a lived experience a hundred million journaling teens will never touch the corner of: what is finally and forcefully impressed upon us when we are in love, and not; alone, and not; joyful, and not; contemplative, and not; warm-hearted, and not. Wong's language is simple, earnest, and unadorned, and her reflections generally brief, to-the-point, and reflective--without the concurrent noodling of reflexive sentimentalism. This book is filled with things that happened, or could happen, or could not but should be possible, or could not and should not be possible anywhere but in the eye of the heart. The story here is of an unremarkable romance, which is entirely the point: this is not the million-to-one love, it's the one-to-one love, the one that matters because it actually happens. To become smitten with this book is easy; to fully appreciate its elegant simplicity, a harder yet even more rewarding task. If you've ever doubted that poetry can do the most basic form of manual labor--to reify the softer anxieties implicit in modern living--read this book and receive your corrective. [Excerpt: from "What We Learn About Trust"; Three Poems (from uncollected work)].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, 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). Presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, Colorado Review, and elsewhere.

Earlier Editions in the Series: