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09/28/2012 06:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2012

September 2012 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 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 partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

1. Butcher's Tree, Feng Sun Chen (Black Ocean, 2012). Feng Sun Chen writes poems that occupy the no-place of utopia; they unfold nowhere and everywhere all at once. These are stories we think we know, or must have heard, or believe ourselves at least capable of overhearing, though in fact (even, for instance, when they imaginatively trace the life and times of Grendel of Beowulf) they are entirely fabular and, perhaps, entirely metaphysical as well. Symbol, allegory, archetype, abstract and associative imagery: these are the building-blocks that top Chen's landscapes.

It would be easy to see in Butcher's Tree a sort of notional Surrealism, but the logic here is not dream-logic, and the spaces inhabited by Chen's strange characters are not identifiably dreamspaces. This is, instead, a very heady book in a quite different way: Chen is constructing moodscapes that use archetypes not merely as imagistic window-dressing but as emotionally-fraught constructive gear. Emotional truth, Chen implicitly but convincingly argues, transcends all narrative, temporal, and linguistic limits. When Chen writes, "I want to kill / you, with my glittering heart. I can never stop / until I do. But I am small. / Maybe, said the magic vole, you are too small..." it is neither post-confessionalist self-indulgence nor maze-like allegory; it is, instead, a novel retelling of the everystory of existence, which less presumes the transparency of language than the transparency of experience--a denial of mimetic reality that is every bit as audacious as the most ardent language-experiments of the post-avants.

This reviewer found nearly every word in this book to be capital-r "Right"--and that's an astounding achievement for any author, in any genre. These poems function with equal force as entertainment, amazement, deduction, and instruction. They delight and bewilder in equivalent measure, and the bewilderment is every bit as generative as the delight. This is a book whose implied narratives beguile, whose uncompromisingly eclectic images dazzle, and whose spiritual core commands the existential act of Attention; you must purchase this book, and read it, and treasure it, for a work this perfect comes along but rarely. In fact, this collection is enough to shame a reviewer into the confession, at once the most dispiriting and quietly shocking epiphany a poet-critic can experience, that he wishes--and ardently--he had written this book. [Excerpts: "By the Dark"; "Duck Duck Goose"].

2. Ozalid, Biswamit Dwibedy (1913 Press, 2010). Is it possible for a book's peculiar iterations of language to be at once fragmentary and world-making? Biswamit Dwibedy's startling, stunning debut does precisely that. Indeed, Dwibedy's verse is poised at the cusp of a new movement in English-language poetics: a reconstitutive approach to language that assumes a belief in "wholeness" need not lead inexorably to aesthetic or political fascism. We've been flogging Ezra Pound for too long, says this new paradigm, and not because the man was innocent of the many formal and informal charges leveled against him, but because English-language poets have long since found new ways to further Pound's aesthetic enterprise without leaping blindly into the Great poet's cavernous moral abscesses.

Dwibedy configures bedrock chunks of language alongside one another in ways that acknowledge the invariable fragmentation of language, but also the possibility of holistically realigning such fragments through acts of literature. To read Ozalid is to be awed by the promise of language without falling for discredited myths regarding its moral purity. Dwibedy's unification of linguistic rubble into temple-like edifices is a singular achievement, and not to be missed; these brief, obliquely-titled, visually-fleeting snapshots of in-flux language and thought hang gorgeously in the inner ear. "If you are only a color / be kind," Dwibedy writes, and the subconscious decodes the spiritual significance of this juxtaposition even as the waking mind struggles with its disjunctiveness.

This book encompasses what is best about the work now being produced by young English-language poets the world over: Its triumphalism is reserved for the language-constituted subject. Which means, in other words, that work of this stamp presumes even a world over-attuned to chaos and nonsense and strife can produce a living energy that resurrects the human will and challenges all forms of complacency. If poetry has a beam of light only it can shine, this is it. [Excerpt: "kriti"].

3. Engine Empire, Cathy Park Hong (W.W. Norton, 2012). One is loath to add one's tinny Internet voice to the veritable parade of luminaries who have already praised this work: the back cover of Engine Empire bears the imprint and imprimatur of Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, Matthea Harvey, and, perhaps most compellingly, David Mitchell, whose generationally-significant novel Cloud Atlas will soon grace movie screens from coast to coast. It might be argued, too, that a reviewer ought delve deeper than the trade-press publications by which print-media reviews are so singularly (and often exclusively) beguiled; certainly, W.W. Norton's poetry list needs little introduction to the great mass of American poetry-readers. It would also be untruthful to say that the bulk (or even a significant fraction) of the innovative work in American poetry is now being published by trade presses in New York City--especially as such presses, when they do deign to promote the efforts of youngish or untried authors, generally refuse to look outside the Five Boroughs for new talent. But there are, thankfully, exceptions to all these rules, and while Cathy Park Hong is, like most trade-press poets, a resident of New York City and/or its immediate environs, her work transcends the all-too-frequent limitations of trade-press publishing (aesthetic conservatism, wan talent-scouting, rampant cronyism, and market-driven editorships, among others) to constitute one of the few genuinely unmissable releases coming out of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, or 53rd and Hudson Streets.

What makes Engine Empire such a distinct achievement? It is not, surprisingly, the collection's cohesion or marketability--for despite the professional ad copy on the inside flap, this does not (or does not consistently) feel like a particularly congruent or theme-driven text--but rather Hong's superlatively ambitious eclecticism. More so than many of her pressmates, Hong exhibits a willingness to network disparate contexts and voices into a glorious cacophony of sounds and senses. It is not often we term a major-label release a "bracing read," but in fact Hong's work has never been anything less: from 2002's Translating Mo'um ("honed yet visceral," Rain Taxi oxymoronically, yet quite fairly, gushed at the time) to 2007's incomparably fictive yet also cannily authentic Dance Dance Revolution. If Hong is one of the best poets we have in America--and she is--it's because she filters her deeply-felt topical obsessions through such imaginative lenses that even a well-read reader can only gape in amazement. Here we get, alternately, the Wild West, industrial China, and an entirely-fabular futuristic society--a scope and range any novelist would rightly admire and even envy.

But it's not merely that Hong's verse is equally attentive to its own cinematically-entertaining and intimately-cerebral qualities; it's that the words themselves explicitly sing of (and with) the wonders and willfulness of language. Hong's investigations of written and spoken marks are not merely global in scope but also global in execution: In this relatively brief collection (approximately sixty pages of poetry), we're treated to everything from voice-driven spaghetti westerns ("Fort Ballads"; "Bowietown Ballads"), Eunoia-inspired exercises ("Ballad in O"; "Ballad in A"; "Ballad in I"), Abecedarians ("Abecedarian Western"), Berrymanesque scat ("Man that Scat"), aubades, prose poems, sonnets, vignettes, and (as to visual form) the entire gamut from rigorously end-stopped mantras to sinuous lyrics and haiku-bare stanzas. If, at times, the work seems to bend too artfully and purposefully toward that first prescription of trade-press eligibility--the work must seem to cohere, and marketably so--this may be forgiven on the grounds that Hong is as electric and linguistically dexterous a poet as now writing in English. Whatever the topic, or whatever the moment's allusion to topicality, Hong is as attuned to the texture of individual words as any poet this reviewer has had the pleasure to read.

We can only celebrate the fact that Big Publishing has seen in this work and this poet the same conflagration of genius so many of us in the other 99% of the country have consistently and invariably seen; and we can only ardently wish that, in the future, work of such vision and joyous facility with language will continue to emanate from the usually-provincial seats of the Five Boroughs. [Excerpts: "Year of the Pig"; "Aubade"; and Ballad in A"].

4. In Time's Rift, Ernst Meister [Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick, trans.] (Wave Books, 2012). With the first English-language publication of Ernst Meister's In Time's Rift, another piece of twentieth-century literary history falls into place. One can observe, in the last century, a long and unbroken line of collections--some stateside, some continential--whose metaphysical concerns are directly informed by European and in some instances classical philosophy. The authors of these collections place their work outside any historical framework in an effort to crystallize human awareness of the infinite sublime; our lives are preceded and succeeded by an eternity entirely unimaginable to us, and Meister (1911-1979), like the Frenchman Jean Follain and (to a lesser degree) the American W.S. Merwin, occupies a space on the literary landscape we might rightly term The New Metaphysical. Scholarly taxonomies aside, Meister's penultimate volume offers readers a tantalizing glimpse of what American Objectivism might have become had it ever been more rigorously theorized.

Meister's work is mesmerizingly succinct and elusive, but also ambitious to a degree almost unheard-of among presently-observed aesthetic moments. If the Language poets wished to deconstruct linguistic operations, and the twentieth-century literary mainstream hoped to achieve a perfect mimesis of aestheticized reality, Meister wanted nothing less than to understand the absence of language and the absence of mimesis--because the project of the New Metaphysicals, if we may use the term, was to erase the temporal self in an effort to plumb the depths of the pre-existence/post-apocalyptic Void. We sometimes see interesting traces of this tendency in the post-apocalyptic landscapes of certain younger American poets, but Meister's commitment to a entirely-novel poetics of absence is distinguished by its grace and vision and is undoubtedly historically important. If there is another path for the next generation of American poets besides mimetic lyricism or hermetic psycholinguistics, it is to turn away from both life and language and consider, instead, what survives in the negation of each. We may consider this a novel poetics because its aim is the reconstruction of language from the absence of language, and the reconstruction of sentience (with the aim of positing a pre- or post-sentience) as a diffuse, ambient atmospherics. And unlike the original Metaphysical poets, the New Metaphysicals write poems informed by scientific and philosophic inquiry, not the ideational metaphysics of faith.

To those who would argue that we must not create a literary correlation among far-flung poets likely unacquainted with one another, the best response is to note that Samuel Johnson's original coinage--"the metaphysical poets"--applied to a demographic of seventeenth-century British bards circumscribed primarily by their literary obsessions, not their sociocultural associations. As the Internet Age marches on, it is likely that individual poetics will increasingly be circumscribed (when they are circumscribed) in this fashion; and for those attuned to singular works and inimitable moments in the history of English-language poetry, the publication of this book offers a glorious exemplar of each. Highly recommended. [Excerpts: "Say: may the concept..."; "'In the deepest reaches...'"].

5. The Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems, Jorge Santiago Perednik (Action Books, 2012). The Shock of the Lenders & Other Poems, by Jorge Santiago Perednik (1952-2011), is a bracingly intelligent critique of the terrors of militarism, capitalism, and militaristic capitalism. But it is also, by virtue of its very existence, prima facie evidence of courageous resistance in the face of such threats. Perednik's interrogation of the violences of Argentina's "dirty war" is ingenious in its darkly whimsical freneticism, and it's not difficult to see the relevance of such work to today's terror-manic America.

It is unnerving to consider that Perednik published the bulk of this Spanish-language epic in 1983, the final year of an Argentine military dictatorship's seven-year terrorizing of its citizenry (during which reign of malice between ten and thirty thousand Argentinians "disappeared"). Knowing the history of this work--which is detailed in an excellent eight-page Translator's Introduction--is by no means a prerequisite to recognizing its excellence, but it definitely augments one's wonder at Perednik's achievement. For instance, the occasionally inscrutable text is partly explained, as Perednik himself once wrote, by the fact that "in epochs of severe repression, facility with the forms of saying permits escape from the vigilant gaze of the censor..." Shock of the Lenders undoubtedly exhibits such facility, encoding its political messages within the ostensible framework of the then-infamous Schoklender homicide trial, which saw two teenaged brothers charged with murdering their parents and stuffing their bodies in a car-trunk. Throughout, however, the true lineage of the text is evident: the "fragments" of which the collection's titular long-poem is composed routinely nod to their palimpsestic nature, as when Perednik writes, in the "Main Fragment," "I tell you, not them"--an urgent but subtextual plea to the work's anti-junta audience.

This is a book whose political dimensions transcend the "merely" aesthetic--though there is ample linguistic experimentation in evidence here--and extend, indeed, to temporal domestic politics and life-or-death questions of ethical and moral commitment. Few collections of poetry ever attain even a fraction of the urgency Shock of the Lenders exudes in every line. Perednik's cross-outs, erasures, juxtapositions, disjunctions, and manifest self-editing all speak to the conditions under which this text was produced, a fact that renders the collection historic in both artistic and geopolitical terms.

In an Age in which our foremost scholars wring their First-World hands over the possibility there's simply "too much poetry" in America (a "problem" several billion citizens of the world can only dream of one day "struggling" with) Perednik reminds us that it is not merely the cris de coeur of poetry that render it indispensable to civic engagement at all latitudes and longitudes, but also its infelicities, opacities, and misdirections--which reveal as much about the human condition and the condition of language as the banal workaday exchanges under whose gaze millions are repressed, oppressed, and murdered. Perednik's signature work is one of the best examples "small-d" democrats have of what language looks like in extremis--that is, not the manufactured outrage of an alleged excess of Art and artists, but the actual outrage of a dearth of moral beauty and adherents to same. The lesson of this book is a lesson we in America ignore at our peril. [Excerpts: "Fragments 4, 12, 16, 21, 33, and 35"].

6. Black Peculiar, Khadijah Queen (Noemi Press, 2011). This courageous, emancipatory collection of verse is also an invigoratingly challenging must-read. Queen's point of departure is a fragmented subjectivity which, in the hands of a poet less brave, could easily strangulate itself into enervating incoherence. Instead, Queen opts for modes of proceeding that are entirely generative: a series of defiant, epistolary addresses to various allegorized facets of the psyche; a prose-poem cycle that defies the degradation of torture even as it details its ravages with exemplary lyric detail; and a ribald yet politically-committed play that carries forward the illuminating excesses of Restoration Era-theater approximately 350 years.

Throughout, Queen exhibits little interest in coddling her readers--in breaking the stride of her highly-conceptual poetics to wink coyly or flatteringly at some imagined audience--and an absolute, unshakable commitment to engaging the ways in which language and experience attempt to (ultimately unsuccessfully) shackle the contemporary subject to ideological, representational, and sociocultural setpieces.

This book breaks chains; it is as robust, and yet also as intricate, a staging of the linguistic and psychosocial civil wars of the mind/body complex as we have seen in some time. Queen's work troubles, engages, and inspires. Highly recommended. [Excerpts: "Mostly to uncover the reality of my soothing brand of sickness"; various excerpts].

7. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Frank Stanford (Lost Roads Publishers, 2000 and 2008). With the exception of certain superlative authors--Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe, to name a few--the bulk of post-avant verse in the last two decades has approached mimetic narrative as antithetical to a proper interrogation of language. How can narrativity encode the materiality of language, the thinking goes, or perform the instability of the contemporary subject, or investigate the incapacities of signs and signifiers, if it draws from the same ancient wellspring that spawned classical myth, medieval balladry, and folksy Americana? As is too often the case, the post-avant would throw out not only baby and bathwater, but also the tub they arrived in--or else rename the baby a steeplechase filly, the bathwater "false consciousness," and the tub a Wittgensteinian finger-puzzle. But if there's one thing nearly all abidingly-Great poets do, it's retool convention rather than, like some back-alley mime, pretend invisible walls deactivate authorial bravado as vigorously as they do received wisdom. Frank Stanford is a poet of significant bravado, and a maximalist storyteller of a distinctly American cast, and his The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You challenges conventional narrative structure more effectively than do a thousand other collections which turn their nose up at narrativity rather than, as Stanford does, plunge an arm elbow-deep in its dark and unknowable recesses.

Stanford (1948-1978) wrote The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You--a 15,283-line epic poem with no punctuation or stanza breaks--over the roughly fifteen-year period between the early 1960s and 1977, when his magnum opus was finally published. Stanford would shoot himself in the heart approximately a year later. It seems few read the book in 1977; rather more were made aware of it in 2000, when Lost Roads republished a corrected and line-numbered version of the book; and with the book's much-needed 2008 reprinting, the scope and majesty of Stanford's genius is finally on display for that sizeable American and international audience one hopes is willing and able to receive it.

Stanford has routinely been compared to Walt Whitman, our national bard of unfettered joie de vivre; he has also been termed, by a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, "one of the great voices of death"; and it is these two misreadings, more than any others, which circumscribe the difficulties presented by both Stanford's life and his literature. The poet's crippling self-loathing is historically documented; thus, his brazen indulgence of self-narrativizing is a confrontation of interior darkness unsuitable to comparisons with the extroverted and temperamentally optimistic Whitman (the bulk of which comparisons are merely craft-oriented analyses of Stanford's evident maximalism, in any case). Just so, Stanford's insistence on telling the story of his life via a seemingly unending Matryoshka doll-like narrative structure suggests a psychic vitality--the ability to expand and empower the self through a form of literary free-diving as unyieldingly ambitious as it is suicidal--that undercuts the claim that Stanford's verse is much concerned with termini. In short, Stanford's masterpiece is an exercise in associative, self-mythologizing autobiography that grants materiality to narrativity by creating a body of story so impenetrably dense it achieves the status of allegory by acts of sheer will. This is the work of an uncompromising genius, a man whose personal foibles permitted ungainly or even aesthetically ugly lines and interludes to coexist with moments of such darkly gorgeous insight they achieve the quality of sublimity.

Stanford is deserving of serious scholarly study, and perhaps even the sort of hero-worship usually reserved for national icons like Whitman. In lieu of that eventuality, serious readers of poetry the nation over should presently secure themselves a copy of this work and witness, in its swirling mass of anecdote and prophecy, the simultaneous glory and tragedy of an inimitable poet's ultimately fatal self-awareness. [Excerpt: "['I am afraid after reading...']"; "['Tonight the gars on the trees are swords...']" and other excerpts].

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, including Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize, and Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) 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:

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

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