Title: Eleven Poems from BAP 2005
I usually at least skim the annual Best American Poetry, and I tend to find some gems among the too-many poems that start with lines like "The diseased dog lowered her head as I came close..." In recent years, more adventurous poets like Robert Creeley and Lynn Hejinian have edited the collection alternating with safer choices like Robert Hass. This year it's a conservative choice, Paul Muldoon, but there's still plenty to enjoy since most editors at least try to be broad minded. My top eleven (roughly 10% of the 75 poems) began by picking the best of alphabetically determined segments, kicking some off and bringing some in, and then exiling some of the 70+ crowd in favor of newer voices. I like what Charles Wright does, but it's lazy to keep listening to him instead of figuring out what Sarah Manguso is doing.
1. A.R. Ammons, "In View of the Fact." And I must immediately recant, since Ammons is someone I've gotten used to in my 15 years of reading contemporary poetry. I like his relaxed couplets, line breaks on small words, and alternatingly fluid and awkward voice, especially when it bunches on repeated words (like "ourselves ourselves" here). This isn't a great Ammons poem, but it's sad to think he won't be starting off any more anthologies of current work.
2. John Ashbery "In Dearest, Deepest Winter." I wonder how many BAP volumes either Ammons or Ashbery (or the two in sequence) have come at the beginning of? Again, a familiar voice. I almost said "the comfort of a familiar voice" but ambiguity and combination of mundane and disastrous is constant in Ashbery: "What calamity on the second floor could flood us/here on the fifth, and not be gone before morning?"
3. Catherine Bowman. "I Want to Be Your Shoebox." Fun verbal riffing that spins out triplets into a variety of internal rhymes and other effects. My 2 favorite stanzas are "I want to be your moonlit estuary/ want to be your day missing in February/ want to be your floating dock diary" and " want to be your milk money/ want to be your Texas Apiary Honey/ want to be your Texas. Honey"
4. James Cummins, "The Poets March on Washington." This poem uses 8 words in a 4-line stanza repeated (almost) verbatim 3 times. The sole variation is the disappearance of an exclamation mark at the end. Without end punctuation, the poem stays with you a little longer, and you see beyond an apparently silly facade to consider the poet's political role as "unacknowledged legislator."
5. Elaine Equi. "Pre-Raphaelite Pinups." Equi is someone I've always sort-of liked though I've never really explored her work. This poem is a series of 15 captions to absent paintings. You can say something about language as supplement here, blah blah blah. The disjunction also creates a kind of non-sequitor humor ("I never noticed it before,/but that angel's feet are on fire!") on occasion and a constant suggestiveness ("But isn't every story an allegory--/every house strewn with alchemical symbols like these/").
6. Matthea Harvey. "I May After Leaving You Walk Quickly or Even Run." "The translator made the sign//for twenty horses backing away from/a lump of sugar."
7. Anthony Hecht. "Motes." One of at least 4 dead poets in the book, and the second on the list. I picked him instead of Clayton Eshleman because I wanted to write the formal structure. 5 stanzas, 8 iambic trimeter lines (some anapests and meaningful variation) each, rhyme scheme abcdcbda. The first stanza contains a single sentence observing motes in "late afternoon light." It proceeds somewhat up to the first rhyme, line 5 ("That filled me with delight'), the sudden rhyme reflecting delight in discovering pattern where none had existed. Line 6 is a significant variation to trochaic: the preceding stress reflects the sense of "Lifted by an updraft." The second stanza also contains a complete sentence speculating that the motes are tiny angels in training ("flight school"--the terrorist history an unfortunate connotation). The third and final sentence of the poem unfolds across the final 3 stanzas. Stanza 3 compares the mote/angels to Jacob's dream of a ladder to heaven. All rhymes except a include a long ee sound. Make of that what you will. Stanza 4 begins with an appostion to the comparsion, calling it a method for concealing sad difficult truths from children Does he mean heaven itself? The second half of the stanza is a complete phrase linking the secret kept from children to its discovery by "youth." Note the rhyme pairs "youth" reaches back to truth, "no joy...unwept" to the secret "kept," "fears" to prevented "tears," the "justified" fear to the "well-tried" secret. Stanza 5 is another independent clause and another bummer alluding to Macbeth's "poor player": "They were type-cast in some play/With a far from comic plot--/Grief, selfishness, and war/Crowding its dog-eared pages." Though motes began a pleasant thought with led a gloomy reverie. Overall a well-crafted poem, with an exquisite stanza structure I believe of Hecht's design.
8. Lyn Hejinian, from The Fatalist This book is really a work of editing. It carves poems out of a file of all L.H.'s correspondence over a year. She's one of my most admired writers, so I'll have to give this book sustained attention soon.
9. Sarah Manguso, "Hell." Truth be told, the note at the back helped this poem get in. It explains that "The kind of music I want to continue hearing after I am dead is the kind that makes me think I will be capable of hearing it then" refers to "I See a Darkness" by Will Oldham. Those self-penned blurbs at the back are interesting. I don't think you could sell the series without them, since poetry has such a reputation of being 'hard.' The ones I like are ones that help me place the poet's aesthetic (the orginating journal helps me do that too sometimes.) This seems lazy on my part, but one does need to reserve one's attention for that which will reward it, and the poems you like on first reading aren't necessarily those. The notes that kill a poem for me are long analytical ones. There are two poems I didn't finish reading in this collection because they bored me after I began them and then saw the author took multiple pages explaining it.
10. D. Nurske, "Space Marriage." Science fiction poems are rare outside of genre magazines, and rarely good. This poem doesn't use sf as a metaphor any more than an sf novel would. For example, "We built robots who built robots/that had a little of our hesitation,/ our fatigue, our jealousy,/ our longing for Alpha, peace, nonbeing..." I also like the end "Out of spit and dust/we made two lovers/who set fire to the world."
11. Kevin Young. "Black Cat Blues." A true blues, mournful and comic, cosmic and mundane. "I showed up for jury duty--/turns out the one on trial was me."