Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2003 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. A full list of books reviewed and a partial list of titles held can be found here. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article using this form. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period.
1. All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, Charles Bernstein (FSG, 2010).
Charles Bernstein is one of the finest poets of his generation, and is often enough rightly acknowledged as such that his literary biography takes several pages to even summarize and his poetic oeuvre entire volumes of critical prose to investigate. This review cannot and will not do justice to either the man or his verse; those wishing a more robust circumscription of all things Bernsteinian are directed to the Electronic Poetry Center, from whence a proper expedition can be launched. This review of Bernstein's Selected Poems takes as its inspiration and starting point the proposition that Bernstein is by far the most generous of the poets and poet-theorists associated with Language poetry; unlike some of his peers, Bernstein decided long ago to descend from the heights and mingle with the rest of us, meaning that in both his verse and his prose there is an evident desire to communicate the incommunicable, to circumscribe difficult theories of language and the mind in terms that even those of us who have other things to do in life than theorize language can understand.
Evidence of this largeness of spirit is everywhere present in All the Whiskey in Heaven, whose seventy-five poems are not just enduring in their readability but in their conspicuous instructional component as well. One learns from Bernstein that Language poetry can do much more than (perhaps a bit reductively) sass the so-called "self-expressive lyric 'I'", sound out the incapacities of language, marshal the immanence of language (the non-absorptive, non-representational word-qua-word), and use Quixotic critical prose to grossly misrepresent and ridicule every other poetic inclination evident in American verse. These (excepting the last) are valuable contributions to literary discourse in the United States, but far more valuable is finding a means to laterally influence the work of one's contemporaries in generative rather than destructive fashion--in a spirit of generosity and mutual exchange rather than peevishness and martyrdom--and Bernstein accomplishes this difficult and taxing mandate in nearly all of his published works. That being the case, All the Whiskey in Heaven represents a consequential entry in the permanent American canon, a warm entreaty to dialogic handshakes across the literary continuum rather than a scholarly, coastal, end-stopped prescription for a cloistered few.
To read a Bernstein poem is to be simultaneously delighted and challenged, for these poems are as frequently comic as opaque, thrilling as coy, celebratory of language (even accidental or purportedly "bad" language) as deconstructive of it. Bernstein's capacity for playfulness is as ample as his capacity for critique, and consequently the way he appropriates and manipulates language-as-material never strikes his reader as defeatist. There is, of course, great joy in the deployment of language, even accounting for all its infelicities, and Bernstein is as avid a collector of such joys as any poet living--a rare superlative for a poet at least nominally in the camp of those for whom the upper limit of poetry is Continental theory. Yet with Bernstein this last taxonomic aggression feels unfair, for there is music in these poems of the sort their author no doubt not only intends but cherishes. "Pliant feint/ insensate, round," writes the poet in "Islet/Irritations," simultaneously enacting sonic play and describing its shape in the imagination and the mouth. Elsewhere there is, remarkably, actual aphorism, just the sort of communicative content one only dares to hope for in Language or post-Language poetry. "Poetry is like a swoon," Bernstein writes in the wonderfully-titled "The Klupzy Girl," "with this difference: it brings you to your senses." Indeed it does, and one can imagine no better vehicle for such an awakening than the poetry of All the Whiskey in Heaven, which as often calls upon us to sanctify language as memorialize our grievances against it. Some may retort that all Language and post-Language poetry is, on its own terms, a celebration of language; then why does so much of it feel, as so little of Bernstein's work does, entirely without joy?
It is difficult, even under the best of circumstances, to circumscribe an entire poetic oeuvre using a poet's Selected, but with Bernstein the task is positively unthinkable. What this poet ought exemplify for the rest of us, quite apart from the mere fact of his genius, is a tireless willingness to experiment with form and content and their numberless compositive intertwinings. We can all think of celebrated poets whose later works are merely paltry imitations of their earlier; if Bernstein should be celebrated above nearly all other American authors, and he should, it is because he models more than almost any of them the sort of tirelessness a life in poetry requires. It has become de rigueur in avant-garde and post-avant circles to deliberately misread the term "professional" as hopelessly inopportune in the context of the literary, but in fact anyone who has ever worked in a profession knows that "professionalism" is merely a summary term for the highest degrees of commitment, seriousness, ambition, inquisitiveness, courage, patience, perseverance, and humility. It has nothing whatsoever to do with credentialing mechanisms, bureaucratic institutions, or acquisitive one-upmanship, as we have all seen credentialed and sanctioned and beribboned "professionals" act unprofessionally time and again while marveling at how many Americans without pedigree or title regularly exhibit the sort of moral and intellectual gravity we associate with the archetype of the professional. Charles Bernstein is a consummate professional in a way initiates into the proper use of English terminology--rather than self-interested demagogues--have long understood the term.
Bernstein's professionalism is, of course, as the best sort of professionalism among writers is wont to be, primarily on the page. No poet is more expert at delimiting language (in each of the two opposing senses of the word) using the illustrative function: The poems of All the Whiskey in Heaven practice what they preach in a way that is impossible to mistake, as in "The Years As Swatches" ("Voice seems/ to break/ over these/ short lines"), "The Lives of the Toll Takers" ("There appears to be a receiver off the hook. Not that// you care"), "Dark City" ("'The words/ come out of/ her heart/ & into the/ language'/ & the language/ is in the heart/ of that girl/ who is in the heart/ of you"). This last excerpt is a particularly apt example of how Bernstein cleverly encodes the pedagogical function of his poems in a veneer of readable whimsy. This section of "Dark City" is on its face not just terse but irreparably banal, when in fact it traces an unbroken line from the signified to the signifier to the sign-author (poet) to the signified to the signifier to the sign-recipient (the reader). Indeed, a sequence of lines at first blush of little worth is in its effect a semiotic road-map for the lyric function poets the world over have been executing with varying degrees of success for thousands of years.
It's a commonly accepted wisdom that wisdom is only won at great price, yet I challenge anyone who owns the hardcover edition of All the Whiskey in Heaven to set the price of wisdom at a penny over twenty-six dollars. No poet seriously committed to poetry can afford to be without this book.
2. Enter the Raccoon, Beatriz Hausner (Book Thug, 2012).
It's hard to know what to make of Beatriz Hausner's Enter the Raccoon. In brief blocks of italicized poetic prose, Hausner describes illicit interspecies copulation in generic modes ranging from the softcore pornographic to the saccharine emptiness of a romance novel; meanwhile, on the odd-numbered pages, the poet ruminates with minimal discursiveness on a series of discrete philosophical topics. In play here, throughout, are the ways in which we--the collection implies, women particularly--are caught between the equally obtuse allure of the animal and the machine. These two poles stand in, one presumes, for our variously organic and inorganic progressions through the arduous processes of self-discovery.
In Enter the Raccoon, Raccoon, a human-sized raccoon with an attractive penis and at least one partially mechanical limb, arouses psychic awareness in the book's speaker in a loquacious and deeply sensual dreamspace, even as somewhat more mechanized constructions in the "real" world (e.g., a vibrator, a stereo, textual exegeses) impliedly lend themselves to discoveries of other (but sometimes similar) kinds. Hanging pendantly between these two extremes is, Enter the Raccoon makes quite clear, the myriad artforms endemic to Civilization: Everything from classical and contemporary literature to classical and popular music. The question at the heart of this self-reflective narrative-discursive speech-act is, one imagines, "Whither the modern woman, when she is caught between her animal and machine selves, her past and present, her memory and her culture?" The answer is complicated enough as to be impossible to summarize here, except to reiterate categorically that, along the way, quite a bit of illicit interspecies copulation is apparently involved. In other words, there's a healthy dose of preposterous fabulism in Enter the Raccoon, but it's a testament to Hausner's moral and intellectual seriousness that the book never descends into the comic, and even its flirtations with mawkishness are but brief.
There is substantial and important literary work afoot in Enter the Raccoon, and many aesthetic pleasures to be found; it doesn't all quite come together in the end, but it's certainly as mimetic as one could ever hope a fictive memoir of illicit interspecies copulation to be. Bravo to Hausner for a daring collection, one that only occasionally "places the endurance of pleasure at the service of chance" (pg. 40), and far more commonly "leaves a record of [its] quest...the hidden birthright of humanity" (pg. 45).
3. 10 Mississippi, Steve Healey (Coffee House Press, 2010).
Steve Healey's 10 Mississippi is a testament to the fact that declaratives accelerate and accumulate on the strength of their grammatical imperatives, even when and where their directionality is only intermittently scrutable. Most American adults of a certain age will remember at one point or another in their childhood leaning their head against a tree-trunk to count Mississippis at the initiation of a game of hide-and-seek; it's likely that an equal number of American adults of a certain age have no earthly idea why one of the nation's poorest states--or, as you like, its second-longest river--is a natural choice for the universal shibboleth of children. One supposes the use of "Mississippi" as a totemic signifier of child's play is syllabic in origin; it's the duration of the sound, not its content, that really matters. Healey's 10 Mississippi seems to draw from the same philosophical wellspring, inasmuch as it's an endearingly convincing book whose authority derives from its repetitive and rhythmic insistence on the reader's attention.
Regular readers of poetry, most of whom (in America at least) are poets themselves, long ago embraced the sort of "negative capability" that allows us to abide in ambiguities or even--briefly or otherwise, depending upon the reader--outright confusion. What poets are less apt at doing is rendering ambiguity as beguiling or even authoritative in their own work. The presumption seems to be that ambiguities swirl rather than march, and poetry readers (like poets) are cats impossible to herd. Healey's verse makes a good case for the proposition that this needn't be so, that poets can use the very ambiguities they abide in to mesmerize those whose attraction to ambiguity is only fitful. 10 Mississippi is composed in substantial part of grammatically elementary independent clauses layered atop one another like a countdown for a shuttle launch or (in keeping with the motif) a child's energetic and imaginative play. Not every building block is equally primed for immediate use, but the whole generates something rather extraordinary indeed: a linguistic mandate, in other words a sequencing as convincing for its durational element as its substantive one. This is not to say the book isn't content-oriented--it is, albeit the content tends to be organized, mantra-like, around repeated objects and concepts--but what forces the reader's ear to fully open is the beat, not the entreaty.
There is a lot of quirky poetry being written today, but unlike Healey's quirky verse most of the eccentricities deployed by today's younger poets are not particularly obsessive in character and can sometimes seem, in consequence, inconsequential. 10 Mississippi offers something entirely different, not merely because it is attuned to the dangers of collective living in a way which is, often enough, quietly harrowing, but because it presents to its reader a "transitive poetics" in which the poet's station-to-station logic is truly transportive. That is, while the poems of 10 Mississippi are by no means linear, their grammatical structure suggests otherwise: Many of the poems follow an "A + B = C; C + D = E; E + F = G" equational logic. The result is that they take us much further afield than we at first realize, for computations which are algebraic when their only medium is numerics are expansive and profound when their medium is the imagination.
10 Mississippi is a startlingly rich and absorbing read that also stakes a claim to big ideas, and does so using the sort of simple yet endlessly inventive metrics equally familiar to precocious children and the very best poets of our times. Highly recommended.
4. A Step in the Right Direction, Morten Søndergaard [trans. Barbara Haveland] (Book Thug, 2012).
If there's one thing that's hard to do in poetry, it's write in the first-person plural. Who has the right to speak for us, after all? You? No, it's impossible, so we (irony noted) stick to the first-person singular or, if we're particularly invested in the avant-garde, we treat the "I" as a pariah from whom all crimes against humanity ultimately spring, as though when a hospital patient is sick the best thing to do is kill him immediately. If there's a second thing that's hard to do in poetry, it's to establish in verse precisely the means and methods time has for ravaging us; after all, if one recent spectacularly misguided literary algorithm is to be believed, "professional poets" (whatever that means in the context of a Politics and International Relations dissertation) almost never make reference to time. And why should they, after all? Time, like the self, is troublesomely malleable and impossible to quantify and thus best forgotten under a heap of woefully misread Wittgensteinian tracts marked up by amateurs.
Morten Søndergaard takes a different view of both the self and time, inasmuch as he believes it's possible to at least (at the risk of being disruptively punny) take a step in the right direction toward rendering both the "self" and "time" as meaningful, if undefined. The book begins with a torturously slow, step-by-step description of not just a single life but a collation of lives, a first-person plural cacophony of modern living, and like so much of this poetry collection there's no easy term to describe it as text except to say that it's absolutely riveting. What Søndergaard does is decline to delimit; he circumscribes common experience so broadly yet lushly that few of us can fail to see our own lives in the forms of collective living Søndergaard details. This last word, "detail," is particularly key, as Søndergaard's escape from the finger-puzzle of Wittgensteinian misreadings--that is, from the torturous declamations of those who believe that because no definitions can be held in common, all definition lacks utility--is to eschew description while embracing detail. If, for instance, to use one popular Wittgensteinian example, we define "game" as "encounter" rather than some more specific circumscription, we find it harder to locate instances of gaming that can't answer to their new "definition." Those of us who have gradually or even precipitately removed adjectives, metaphors, description, and specificity from our poems as one means of solving the dilemma posed by Wittgenstein will undoubtedly find much to admire in the work of Søndergaard, much as we do in the poems of his late countrywoman and fellow poetry experimentalist Inger Christensen, whose book-length lists were worthy of empathy not because all their entrants were familiar but because almost all of us are silenced by vastness.
It's this sense of vastness Søndergaard imbues in the first section of A Step in the Right Direction, entitled "Vademecum," a term meaning (if we permit the indulgence of definition) "a concise manual providing information about a subject." At first blush it's difficult to connect the notion of a vademecum with that sense of infinite space reified in verse by Inger Christensen, but as Søndergaard's subject is "walking" his audience is, we may rest assured, suitably vast. Nearly all of us have walked, and it's likely that those of us who have never done so spend even more time thinking of it than those who've been ambulatory since birth. It's the sort of term that's not particularly conducive to misunderstanding, in other words, not because we all experience locomotion in the same way, as we do not, but because walking implies the forward progression through time to which all of us are equally moored. Other sections of A Step in the Right Direction take similarly expansive approaches to sleeplessness, dreaming, love, and other activities we nearly all participate in on our own as well as collective terms.
This , then, is the sort of sublimity one finds in A Step in the Right Direction--and make no mistake, this is one of the more sublime books of poetry available--the sort of sublimity that's beneath the nose at all times both because we do not see it and because it's everything we breathe in to survive. That so many of the sublime works of contemporary literature are other than American in origin is troubling, as it makes precisely the commentary you'd think it does about all the intangible goods America's consumer culture fails to slow for. It's little matter, though: For now we have Søndergaard, and a collection of poems so worthy of your attention and attachment that it bears repeating again and again, with rising urgency, how good this book is.
5. Borrowed Tales, Deborah Woodard (Stockport Flats, 2012).
Deborah Woodard's obtuse, far-ranging, persona-driven poems are more believable by far than the rich courses of historical personae so often fed to us by the nation's most high-profile poets. Recovery of erased (or never written) sections of our collective historical archive is an admirable task to set for oneself; the problem is that to use personae is to appropriate, and to appropriate requires some degree of enforced compliance, and for poets armed only with pens enforced compliance is usually achieved via the long-prior death of the subject. That's why so many persona-driven poems read as though the work's historical subject had, in fact, volunteered for the assignment and would now like to tell you, dear reader, his or her story in smartly-paced stanzas with an evident thematic throughline. In the case of Woodard's aptly named Borrowed Tales, the personae are still covered with the damp earth they were buried under, and speak to us as from a great distance and through a morass of great confusion. We may term that distance "time and context," and that confusion "sponsored history and the sanctioned archive," which is another way of saying that Woodard doesn't cut the corners other poets with similar projects have cut. We may not always know what the ideational lips of Ophelia, Hamlet, Gertrude, and Horatio are trying to tell us, but what's certain about Borrowed Tales is that Woodard's poems induce in us just the sort of credulousness an expert persona poem requires. Not because these historical specters--some of whom were fictional from the start, some of whom have simply become fictions over time--are somehow true to their original form, but because Woodard enlivens them into forms unfamiliar to us but credibly organic. These poems, filled to brimming with anachronism and opaque allusiveness and contemporary diction, nevertheless are just the sort of ghostly apparitions we ought to expect when speaking to (or, in Woodard's case, speaking from and for) the past. The past speaks to us in tongues, always; it is not likely to author for us a crown of sonnets.
If Woodard's poems straddle the line between poetry and prose, it's only appropriate that they do so, as they are ever epistolary in mood if not in form--and if there's one thing we know about our letter-writing ancestors, it's that their missives contained more poetry in each syllable and clause than a whole anthology of contemporary verse. And that's just how these poems read: A little grimy, a little musty, a little ghastly, a lot more than the bare words they contain. The poet's artistry, here, is in resurrecting known and as yet unknown tales in a way that acknowledges the inadvertent infelicities of interlocutors by doing nothing to correct them. Somehow this seems a truer history than any other, as Woodard stain hers subjects--now Shakespearean creations, now characters of varying ages and ethnicities and territories answering to names like Vince, Lorna, Gordon, Martha, Junius, and McGuffey--with the same reek of days and months and years that covers us all.
Borrowed Tales is the best book of persona poems in years, not because it tells the stories you ought to hear in the way they were meant to be told, but because it tells stories you'd never think to listen to in the way they might have been lived by the only people who matter: The real people who live behind the easy fictions we poets, lacking any other recourse, must ever make of them.
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) and a regular contributor to both Poets & Writers and Indiewire, 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, Fence, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.
Earlier Editions in the Series: