Barbara Berman’s 2016 Holiday Poetry Shout-Out


Holiday columns are always a special pleasure, in part because they are, like children, a cause for questions and optimism, and a sense of wonder. How do publishers stay solvent or turn a profit in what seems like a speed-of-light market? How do non-profit book producers survive? How did this gifted writer do that? I’ve been immersed in these questions for decades and stay hopeful for the continued flourishing of American letters.

The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms is a welcome suggestion that my optimism is not misplaced, and it is an essential addition to the library of anyone who cares about poetry. Its entries were judiciously chosen from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, but it is not in the least dumbed-down. “Polytoton” is a delightful example. It derives from the Greek word for “in many cases,” but it also sounds like inspiration for a rapper or the author of a haiku or a sestina, or other forms because it is so often used as a way to explore pattern. Shakespeare is the example in the entry, but we know his ear was ravenous and that he was fearless in his use of vernacular and classic word play.

The entry informs us that “polytoton” is related to “antanaclasis,” the repetition of a word that changes in meaning. Literary grinches may think this is best left to rhetoric classes, but I say bah humbug to them. Buy this book. Now. It is an erudite sound-fest and an especially fine companion to books I am so glad to champion below.


The winter holidays always feel like a time to celebrate giants, and Charles Bernstein is certainly huge. His Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, and Pitch of Poetry are volumes that make me feel small, but also indebted to the immensity of his immersion in making sense of sound. He will take you across many centuries and place you within a long line of people who enriched language. His inclusion of Jed Rasula’s nod to Sidney Lanier’s Science of English Verse is one item that highlights this thought, though there are many others. Lanier declares that “when formal poetry or verse is repeated aloud, it impresses itself upon the ear as verse only by means of certain relations existing among its component words considered purely as sounds, without reference to their associated ideas.” That Bernstein believes this is a fact that has dismayed some critics. I celebrate him here, even when he states the obvious—that poetry aloud brings it to new life.


Pitch of Poetry is also a reminder that contemporary theatre and performed poetry are joined at the hip for those with the sense and senses, and the willingness to comprehend. He is as pleased as I am that The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil includes plays by Leslie Scalapino, Anne Waldman, and others. Bernstein here and elsewhere is a daring, hungry collaborator, with Ashbery, Eric Danut, and Daniel Benjamin to name a few. Taken together Close Listening and Pitch of Poetry are the stuff of long, satisfying immersion.



Peter Gizzi has marvelous mix of surprise and gentle eloquence, and is always rigorous. This sample is from Archeophonics, his latest collection from Wesleyan, and it is called “Glitter”:

The old language
renews the pundits’
chatter, can sometimes
bunch in groups,
power jumbotrons,
or one’s laughter
in particular.
Just now, out
the car window
paper flags and
ballots kite.

Feel the parade
of air on your skin.
A cotton shirt
touching it. The
manufactured rays
are ancient, fall
through a time-gone
ticker tape array.
The floats and whorls
and banners above.

The old language
dozing in the sun.

Part of the appeal of the whole poem and the book is that Gizzi gives a cogent, aurally appealing praise-song to the history of language and its actions. “The old language” is definitely dozing in the sun, but doze is a light sleep, and the language returns refreshed. “Instagrammar” is a perfect pun and I will risk space limits by quoting all of it:

These lost stars
will they be
there when we
wake in our
sorrow, is it us
so lost in the
is it today
we look
to flower

If it were
because the time
we saw and
loved, if it was
because we are
and should be
this, the way
it was then, we
find it glowing
this our future
and bravado

We say how
could this be
when did this
happen that
we’ll find ourselves
somewhere else
in some future
laughing, why
is it incompatible
I mean what does
it matter, whether
the ship were in
the trees or
the ground was
in the water

The stars doubled
in the river
the stars once
floating in past
futures we ran
to, if it all
seems dizzy
and mayhem
if it all seems
promised and

Our future
is in the air.

Almost every word here has striations that bring to mind ancient cliffs. Unspool backward from the title and ponder galactically rich nouns like “stars,” and “futures.” This provides a taste of Gizzi’s generous language, and generous engagement with his instruments-our language, his voice.


Warp is Laura Bylenok’s first book and the winner of the Truman State University Press Prize. Like Gizzi, Bylenok is sure-footed and passionate, so that her very old concept—going into detail about the natural world—becomes fresh when married to her linguistic geometry. “Warp” has a lot going for etymologically, and so does “genome,” the title of a superb poem in this collection. It can mean bees swarming, and with that it mind, the piece takes off:

I’ve been dreaming of a swarm
of bees I’ve kept in a chest of drawers,

bees wriggling like chromosomes, their bodies
shaped like compound sentences I read:
come with me sisters, and we
are the self I have been looking for.

I don’t know what it means.
Its been that way for years. Once, before all this,

I saw a man crush a bee like a cigarette butt
between his thumb and finger.

I wanted to know about the honeybee.
To know the honeybee has 10,000 genes,

has breakable codes in her unbroken crypt.
To know to extract the DNA

each adult bee is crushed individually
with a pestle and homogenized in a buffer.

To know the bee is centrifuged until
unwanted tissues fall away

and form a pellet to be discarded.

The poem has continues vividly until the very end after two more pages and two lines:

when I wake, a chamber
of my own, of my own making.

In this 74-page text, we have a way of seeing that is beautifully acute, and a way of phrasing that is elegant, original and complex.



City Lights Books keeps current for reasons that could fill a book, including the fact that its editors have always had a special instinct for what needs to stay in print, what needs a hiatus, what should be reissued and when, and what should be acquired because it is irresistible as good as its elders. Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar is a collection of old and new translations by Stephen Kessler, and it fits right into the City Lights ethos. Kessler is a distinguished translator, and this bi-lingual edition does justice to the masterful Cortázar, who is better known for fiction. “Blue Funk” is as satisfying as its companions:

You see the Southern Cross,
you breathe the summer with its smell of peaches,
and you walk at night
my little silent ghost
through Buenos Aires,

always through that same Buenos Aires.

Ghost is fantasma in Spanish. Mismo means through, and brings to mind miasma. And it is no secret that Buenos Aires is the capital of a haunted country, and that Cortázar cannot be read without acknowledging the countless ghosts of Latin America. “Dream on Fearlessly Friend,” is a manifesto that is as irrational as it is necessary, and belongs on a short list of the best socially engaged poetry:

Our heart would have little left if we took away its poor
hand-held-night where it plays at having a home ,
food, hot water
and a movie Sundays.

This time of year, every major religion acknowledges what Cortázar says here, at the beginning of the piece. He engages with the pleasures we all find necessary, “stooping to get a good look at a toad /or a blade of grass.” “Gusto” is his word for pleasure, bringing to mind a large bowl that supplies desires and needs. But Cortázar being Cortázar, he is not going to leave without a reference to the dark side of contentment. So be brings in Hiroshima and Vietnam and the “terrible beauty” of both.


“I seem to have found a new way to understand the sonata,” he declares in “Return Trip.” In praising Save Twilight, qualifiers like “seem” are unnecessary, because the book provides is enriching in the way it faces the past and illuminates the human interior.


And remember, you can always buy the poetry-lover in your life a subscription to The Rumpus’s very own Poetry Book Club! We offer 6-month and 12-month subscriptions, and each gift subscription comes with a certificate you can print out and put under the tree—and makes a perfect last-minute gift! –Ed.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →