Barbara Berman’s National Poetry Month Picks

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If your community has public transit or an institution of higher education, chances are excellent that it has an independent bookstore. If you don’t have one nearby and you don’t check out Indie Bound, shame on you, especially during National Poetry Month, when neighborhood booksellers can get giddy strutting their stuff. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, makes an excellent case for not shopping at Amazon though we all know the beast is unstoppable. See his October 19 New York Times column after you consume my cheerleading.

City Lights Books has just published the 50th Anniversary Edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems highlighting the visual playfulness of the poet/art critic:

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left.

By the end of the piece he says he loves the city, and though that’s obvious before we get there, the line is as necessary as all preceding sparkle.Lunch Poems At the back of the book are reproductions of typed and handwritten correspondence between O’Hara and founding publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a decision that turns this volume into a treasure.

City Lights has long supported the ideas of writers, and David Meltzer’s Two–Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook, is another welcome reissue, with passionate proclamations about creating compositions that sing. “Make every inch of your beloved a poem,” he says, in a kind of “found poem” on page 139. This is not as easy as it sounds, and Meltzer know his mysticism is less easy than it seems. “The poem” he reminds us, “illuminates and conceals. It is as precise and as vague as a mirror.” Two-Way Mirror is a beauty, a manifesto, an inspiration and a challenge.

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Dylan Thomas was born just over a hundred years ago , so it’s a treat to mention his Collected Poems from New Directions, with a new introduction by Paul Muldoon. Yes, Thomas was Welsh, but his American publisher has been breaking ground with homegrown writers and writers from around the globe since 1938, and that has been very good for literature in our country.

Everything in the Collected Poems reminds one of the staying power of the bard of Wales. “My Hero Bares His Nerves” quoted in part, is one of many that make myth of the often-assumed notion that he was not accessible:

My hero bares his nerves that rule from wrist to shoulder
Unpacks the head that like a sleepy ghost,
Leans on my mortal ruler
The proud spine spurning turn and twist.

And these poor nerves, so wired to the skull
Ache on the lovelorn paper
I hug to love with my unruly scrawl
That utters all love hunger
And tells the page the empty ill.

James Laughlin, who founded New Directions while a college student, was also a talented poet, and his Collected Poems, another recent title from the press, magnificently reminds us of that.

Peter Glassgold, in his introduction, suggests the reader “Open these Collected Poems at random or take it at your leisure from beginning to end.” Anyone who does either should be grateful, for years to come. “She Asks Me,” quoted completely, is a fine example:

if I really believe in the gods
I tell her I do but explain that

the gods are drunk a lot of the
time at their nonstop parties

up there on Olympus we must be
mindful that it is more or less

an accident if for a few brief
Laughlin Collectedmoments they pay attention to
their job of looking after us
down here below don’t count on

the gods and don’t waste money
on expensive sacrifices if they

respond to our prayers it is
usually just a whim or because

we are pawns in a row with some
other god or they are irritated

by a bad throw in their tedious
games with the dice the gods

are endlessly bored it is a
very dull profession and the

weather never changes yet the
gods can at time be useful to

poets as furniture to fill an
empty space or two in a poem

The piece is a perfect balance of seriousness and whimsy. Like the whole collection, it satisfies.

The Blue Buick, New and Selected Poems is by B. H. Fairchild, and published by Norton. Like Laughlin, Fairchild is lyrical and conversational, and unlike Laughlin, he spent years in Texas and Oklahoma, listening with fiercely benevolent attention. He writes as if terrified of missing anything, and the lines below convey a sense that if one detail is gone, the composition will not hold. They are from “Mrs. Hill,” selected from Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, which won a California Book Award:

At Roman’s Salvage tire tubes
are hanging from trees, where we threw them.
In the corner window of Beacon Hardware there’s a sign:
WHO HAS 3 OR 4 ROOMS FOR ME. SPEAK NOW.
For some reason Mrs. Hill is wearing mittens.

In large collections by Thomas, Laughlin and Fairchild, we have gifts for people who matter to us. A LOT.

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This space also allows room to celebrate offerings more modest in reach, yet original and affecting. Sandra Lim won the Kore WildernessPress First Book Award for Loveliest Grotesque, and her newest book, The Wilderness, also from Norton, is masterful. “Envoi: Lazarus” engages with the place where ancient source meets contemporary necessity:

Lazarus woke to the miracle of no longer fearing failure.
He lifted his two sides from the ground as he tried
To speak, one part gathering darkness, one part humming.
When he walked out, he glimpsed a world never tried.
At the crucial point, there is yet more than one way
Of proceeding, but it seldom appears that way.

There are countless ways of proceeding to explore this volume, all worthwhile.

Prisoners of Culture, from CC.Marimbo, is a first full-length effort from Judith Ayn Bernhard. Most of the poems concern progressive action, agonies, and memory. Even “A Poem for Spring in Three Parts” paints a crisp political background, especially in part 2:

I’m glad you’re here
my dear asparagus.

Your Mexican cousins
arrived last month.

Oh, they can’t compare
with you local girls.

Picked in adolescence,
you prove the maxim:

You can never be
too thin or too rich.

Like fine short stories, this piece suggests much more than the straightforwardness of its presentation.

Press 53 deserves an audience far beyond the “po biz,” and Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust is its latest release. Her poems are packed with compelling images that never slow things down, as in “Death by Dodge Sportsman,” a piece I think readers, including Fairchild, will appreciate as much as I do:

Paradise DriveHe planned to end it all by “blue suicide,”
he said, after the wild, three-hour chase
through the mean streets of Marin and both ways
across the Richmond Bridge. What made
this hot-pursuit sequence unique was not
the peloton of cop cars that followed him
and could not catch up, but what
he drove to elude them: a motor home.
The twenty-foot ’78 Dodge Sportsman
elbowed the sidewalks of each tiny town,
blew red lights and plowed through more than one
school zone. When he finally stood down,
twelve men with drawn guns forced him to his knees
Where waited whispering Please. Just Do It. Please.

It’s a bravura composition that could be anywhere, much like all its companions.

Paul Genega’s All I Can Recall, is from Salmon Poetry, the distinguished Irish publisher, and it is first-rate. Genega founded the creative writing program at Bloomfield College, and recently retired. He won the Nation Discovery Prize, and All I Can Recall is his fourth full-length collection.

Some of the poems here are quietly wise. Some are anguished reflections on recent history, and all are in complete control. At his sister’s second wedding (“Husband: Man of War”) he was surrounded by current and former military men: “One was packing for Iraq. / The other just back from Kuwait.”

He rightly reminds us that these kids went to war, “sullied by the bloodlust of a bully boy from Yale,” and he “keeps thinking” about their “epic warrior wishes,” and “About their Hollywood hormonal hi jinx rush.”

Later in the piece he says “we celebrate Eros in death-dusted air,” and the juxtapositions make one acutely conscious of the way Genega synthesizes universals. He knows, like Philip Larkin and others in their league, that love makes death-dust endurable, and this knowledge is well served in “Communion,” dedicated to his long-time partner: “—the only one / I wished to talk to was you, my love in the live vile air.”

Paul Genega’s poetry is where the best and the worst on offer will meet, becoming bearable. He has retired from academia. I hope he has not retired from making poems.


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