Barbara Berman’s Holiday Shopping Guide

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Barbara Berman is a long time Rumpus reviewer. Here she offers her recommendations for books to give during this holiday season and beyond.

Years ago I decided to do as much holiday shopping as possible at independent book stores and non-profit retail outlets. Living in San Francisco makes this easy, with destinations like City Lights, Green Apple and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library bookstore, not to mention the 826 Valencia space and many museum shops.

The Friends bookstore is more than a cheap fix for the paperback novel you devoured as an eBook and want to wrap and share with someone you love. It’s also a trove of collectibles, and like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and Daedalus, the massive remainder house, it has an Internet presence and a devoted staff . My best staff story concerns Tattered Cover in Denver, where a patient woman tracked down a new, cheerfully illustrated cloth edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses, in Spanish, for a bi-lingual baby on my list.

Indie Bound, a national organization of independent booksellers is a tremendous resource, and its Web site provides a store locator and the reminder that for every $100 spent at a local shop, $68 stays in your community. Spend the same amount at a chain or a behemoth online business, and twenty dollars less comes back to the population that needs it. In other words, Amazon is a lot less necessary than many people believe.

Here are some of my current favorite contemporary poetry volumes. Some were published before 2012, but all are immensely rewarding.

First things first. The Fourth Edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This belongs on the dest of anyone teaching creative writing or literature, and anyone over the age of twelve who is serious about poetry.

McSweeney’s has just inaugurated a poetry series, and is off to a splendid start. Love, An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg and Fragile Acts, by Allan Peterson, are first-rate, with covers so stunning you might want to slipcase them in plexiglass and leave them on a coffee table between reads.

With major help from Gary Snyder (all of whose books are worth owning) Lew Welch’s poems have been collected in Ring of Bone and published by City Lights Books. A Beat legend who disappeared, never to be found, Welch did almost everything at full throttle. One’s excesses can overshadow fine work, and this was too often the case with Welch. Snyder serves him well.

Anthologies make special gifts because there is a heightened pleasure in exposing someone to a variety of poetry. Black Nature–Four centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, was edited by award-winning poet (and Rumpus Poetry Book Club Board Member) Camille Dungy. This superb collection is packed with compelling images felt deeply and described with finesse. It also has essays by Dungy, Ed Roberson and others. Published in 2009, I have no doubt it will last.

The Best American Poetry 2012 is another keeper. David Lehman is the series editor and Mark Doty is the guest editor this year. Doty is disarmingly honest in his introduction, announcing “This book might well be called Seventy-five Poems Mark Likes, but who’d buy that? And ‘likes’ is too slight—believes in ? wishes to keep, to dwell within? Its plain that I favor a certain richness of language, a considered relation between restraint and gorgeousness.” The poems he’s selected have that, and though many come from such establishment publications as The New Yorker ( Stephen Dunn, Heather Chrystle and others); Threepenny Review (Kay Ryan and Robert Pinsky, both former U. S Poet Laureates ); The New England Review ( U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey) the writers here take the familiar and make it jittery and new.

Gerard Manley Hopkins will always own “kingfisher,” and Wordsworth will always own ‘daffodil,’ which makes using those words very risky. Angelo Nikolopoulos’ “Daffodil” “makes me wanna dance,” while invoking a sweet memory of my grandfather, a high school English teacher, reciting Wordsworth as we walked in among the daffodils in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Aloud on a wintry night, this could lead to interesting dreams and conversations in lush settings, with or without the epigraph Nikolopoulos supplies :

A poet could not but be gay

–William Wordsworth

Don’t you know, sweetheart,
less is more?
Giving yourself away
so quickly
with your eager trumpet—
April’s rentboy
in your flock of clones,
unreasonably cheerful, cellulose,
as yellow as a crow’s foot—please.
I don’t get you.
Maybe it’s me,
always loving what I can’t have,
the bulb refusing itself,
perennial challenge.
I’d rather have mulch
than three blithe sepals from you.
I’ve never learned
how to handle kindness
from strangers.

It goes on, ending perfectly by declaring : “I’ve bloomed like you before.”

Jennifer Chang, in a piece called “Dorothy Wordsworth” that was first published in The Nation also has welcome, surprising thoughts about daffodils :

The daffodils can go fuck themselves/
I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings
about the spastic sun that shines and shines
and shines. How are they any different
from me? I, too, have a messy head
on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind.
I flower and don’t apologize. There’s nothing
funny about good weather. Oh, spring again.
There’s more, and the last lines are convincing and huge :
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling it ardor. Who
the hell are they? This is a poem about war.

All the poets in The Best American Poetry 2012 add some prose about their process, and all are nourishing, with Dean Rader’s contribution and a few others especially so. In discussing “Self-Portrait as Dido to Aeneas” he points out that “Here I was interested in the connection between and among couplets, couple and coupling. And I was thinking about how long love (and loss) lasts.” The Best American Poetry 2012 is a collection that leads to fresh ways of engaging with the success of its contents.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →