Barbara Berman’s 2017 Holiday Poetry Shout-Out


In keeping with Rumpus tradition, Barbara Berman reviews collections of poetry and books on poetics that would be perfect for any reader on your holiday shopping list—or for yourself. 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.


The Poems of Dylan Thomas by Dylan Thomas (New Directions, October 2017)

It is very old news that Dylan Thomas, Rita Dove, and W.S. Merwin earned their places in poetry’s stratosphere. It’s also widely known that they heeded the call of humane citizenship. This makes the publication of new collections of their work especially timely.

Dylan Thomas blistered and jolted readers thanks to an infatuation with words that became voracious love. It is impossible to overstate the invigorating influence of his work and the tragedy of his early death. John Goodby, a Thomas scholar at the University of Swansea, provides a nimble introduction to the poet and the man, and includes the welcome fact that Thomas marched against brown shirts. His parents spoke Welsh and English but tried not to expose their children to the tongue not spoken by members of the House of Windsor or by the local bourgeoisie. Bilingual families everywhere face comparable stresses that enrich or maim expression with countless consequences.

Goodby also reminds us that Thomas thought sexual repression harmful and that his poetry reflects this. Here is “We, lying by seasand,” which suggests more daring leaps of syntax that followed:

We lying by seasand, watching yellow
And the grave sea, mock who deride
Who follows the red rivers, hollow
Alcove of words out of cicada shade,
For in this yellow grave of sand and sea
A calling for colour calls the wind
That’s grave and hay as grave and sea
Sleeping on either hand.
The lunar silences, the silent tide
Lapping the still canals, the dry tide -master
Ribbed between desert and water storm,
Should cure our ills of the water
With a one-colored calm;
The heavenly music over the sand
Sounds with the grains as they hurry
Hiding the golden mountains and mansions
Of the grave, gay, seaside land.
Bound by a sovereign strip, we lie,
Watch yellow, wish for wind to blow away
The strata of shore and drown red rock;
But wishes breed not, neither
Can we fend off rock arrival,
Lie watching yellow until the golden weather
Breaks, O my heart’s blood, like a heart and hill.

Thomas grew up in Swansea, a hilly port city badly damaged during the blitz. He faced that, and all he experienced, with a sometimes explosive exuberance that never grows stale.


The Essential Merwin by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon, August 2017)

W.S. Merwin won a Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1952. The award has always implied the promise and expectation of continued publication that Merwin, more than many who have received the same prize, has honored. He has won three Pulitzers, written more than a dozen books of poetry, eight books of prose, and has been a prolific, able translator. He has long supported efforts on behalf of the environment and international peace, and was United States Poet Laureate during the Obama presidency.

The Essential Merwin suggests by its title that he, and editor Michael Wiegers, wanted something more comprehensive than “selected,” but also something not a complete “collected.” Merwin is ninety years old and in failing health. It is fair to assume, then, that The Essential Merwin is how he wants to be remembered, and all but the most persnickety sycophant should be satisfied with it.
Here are two poems from the volume that highlight his strengths:

“When the War is Over”:

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again.

And “Dew Light”:

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age.

The first composition lands hard. The second shows Merwin in reverie, with the balanced technique he always delivers.

Merwin’s father was a stern Presbyterian minister, and though Merwin abandoned Western religion, he has said that constant exposure to the King James Bible had a positive effect on his diction. Dowsing in this volume is a bit like dowsing in a canonical text of any major faith: It has a range of emotion and an honorable core that’s flawlessly explored.


Rita Dove: Collected Poems 1974-2004 by Rita Dove (W. W. Norton, November 2017)

Last spring, The Rumpus published my review of Rita Dove’s Collected Poems, which was finalist for both the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 NAACP Image Awards. It’s a hugely satisfying tome that includes seven poetry collections and thirty years of work by the Pulitzer Prize winner, who was the youngest person and the first African American appointed U.S. Poet Laureate. In a Salon interview with David Masciotra in February, Dove directly addressed some essential truths:

I think the human spirit craves the opening and growth that poetry, the arts and humanities offer. […] When I read poems that are about something horrific, sometimes something in me lifts because if we, as human beings, can take that which is most ugly and find creative ways to describe it, that tells us that we have a power to manage the chaos.

“Freedom Ride,” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks, is one of many examples of how Dove’s poetry lives up to to her thoughts about literary citizenship:

As if, after High Street
and the left turn onto Exchange,
the view would veer onto
someplace fresh: Curaçao,
or a mosque adrift on a milk-fed pond.
But there is just more cloud cover,
and germy air
condensing on the tinted glass,
and the little houses with
their fearful patches of yard
rushing into the flames

Pull the cord a stop too soon, and
you’ll find yourself walking
a gauntlet of stares.
Daydream and you’ll wake up
in the stale dark of a cinema,
Dallas playing it’s mistake over and over
until that sad reel won’t stay
stuck—there’s still
Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis,
at every corner the same
scorched brick, darkened windows.

Make no mistake. There’s fire
back where you came from, too.
Pick any stop: You can ride i
nto the afternoon singing with strangers,
or rush home to the scotch
you’ve been pouring all day—
but where you sit is where you’ll be
when the fire hits.

The fire is always present in Dove’s words, and I hear Thomas and Merwin say a hearty Amen, along with the next writers I’ll discuss—Dan Bellm, John Freeman, Heriberto Yeprez, and Aaron Shurin have recently written small, well-designed books that exude erudite passion without pretense and an innate understanding that the other must always be considered inseparable from the community of life and letters.


Deep Well by Dan Bellm (Lavender Ink, April 2017)

Bellm is a distinguished translator and gifted practitioner of elegy. Lavender Ink, an independent press with a multilingual and cross-cultural focus, expands the ear with its growing list, and Bellm’s detailed, meditative lyrics are a fine fit for its mission. Reading one of his poems triggers the appetite for more individual talismans of memory, and the whole book could have been longer if Bellm was less stringent in his self-editing. Bellm’s Deep Well is an extended elegy that includes both original poems and his own translations of poets such as Reverdy, Neruda, and, in “Summation in Autumn” by Julio Cortazar:

__In the vault of the
evening, every bird is a
___point of memory.

__It’s surprising how
the fervor of time comes back,
___comes back without a

__body, or for no
reason- that beauty, so brief
___in its violent

__love, saves one echo
for us in the falling of
___night. So what is there

__to do but stand still,
letting your arms go slack,
___your heart a heap, with

__that taste of dust that
was a rose or a path? Flight
___surpasses the wing.

__To know, not at all
humbly, that what is left
___was gained in the dark

__by means of silence;
that the branch in your hand and
___the dark tears are your

__inheritance, the
man with his history, the
___lamp lighting the way.

I hadn’t planned to quote the whole piece, but in copying a few lines, I became unwilling to stop. The body’s response to poetry has always been essential and at our moment in history this has a new, multifaceted urgency. Deep Well provides inspiration and respite in each line in this poem, and on every page.


Maps by John Freeman (Copper Canyon, October 2017)

“Remember that you work to make a star that will burn—outside you and even for a while after you—high in the sky.” Donald Hall wrote this in “Polonius’ Advice to Poets,” an essay for The Seneca Review in 1979, and which is also in his classic prose collection, The Weather For Poetry. Many writers, including Hall, have edited collections of work by others, and John Freeman is part of that tradition.

As editor of Granta, and now as editor of Freeman’s, he has jumpstarted the careers of many literary stars. He has also edited an anthology of writing about income inequality. Twice I have heard him speak, and his October introduction of novelist, artist, and poetry blogger, Rabih Alameddine, was wonderfully telling: “Every time I talk to [Alameddine] I discover a writer I should read.”

Now it’s Freeman’s turn to be declared a writer of poems one should read. Maps is his first collection and it has a controlled gravitas. “Repeat” is a painful lesson powered by restraint:

I tell it so many times
on 10th Street, over lunch
in a bar to tender eyes,
it begins to sound
like a piece of news—

but once I decide
I’ll tell it how it happened—
how she starved to death,
mumbled her pain,
clung, shat, moaned,
how I was too frightened
to sit with her
through the night
so she wouldn’t die alone.

This poem is a classic example of a specific experience transformed into universal, which is why it’s exact location is wisely unsaid. Voice and under-music are well matched, reinforcing the poem’s power.

“Pumpkins at Night,” with its undeclared orange of the gourds, and undeclared but equally easy to imagine colors in signage, brings to mind Edward Hopper:

Caged in display
torn from roots
before ripe,
gourds full of seeds
unsown. The lights
on, beckoning
people off the slick
night street
with neon signs,
promising festivity,
but this is New York,
so no one’s buying it.

No one’s buying it, but the speaker knows we all want to. And I want a large audience to ingest everything Maps offers.


Transnational Battlefield by Heriberto Yepez (Commune Editions, September 2017)

No one is buying enough good poetry from edgy, independent presses. Commune Editions is a young, welcome addition to cross-cultural writing and Transnational Battlefield, by Heriberto Yepes, dances with an urgent grace. Yepes is Mexican and lives in Tijuana, but writes in English when confronting the United States and in Spanish when dealing with Mexico. What this says to me is that all his work should be published in bilingual versions because Mexico and the United States share not just an immense border, but a kinetic relationship that is porous and volatile. His #13, of “Etho-poetics,” part of which is below, is rigorous and fierce:

Imagining a language
Means imagining a form
Of life
Writes Wittgenstein
Who probably didn’t rewrite his life
Enough. If language games
Only mean
When they make situations
One question is this;
________What situation are we
________Making possible
________Through our postlanguage

It’s unavoidably disconcerting to write about Yepez and every other poet in this column, because the Christian celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace will soon be upon us, yet we have a President who is always in a war of words with Mexico and the rest of the world.

Poetry is othering oneself
_____________& being uttered by another
_____________is to produce social alterity.
_____________is to PRODUCE POSSIBLE POLIS,
_____________i.e., poetry

This is from an earlier section of the same long piece, but it could serve as a heading for all his compositions. Making “other” into a verb and “alter” into a noun is a marvelous bit of essential alchemy for the POLIS (the Greek word for city-state) of poetry, and neatly sums up the terms of the battle. In “About Me,” Yepes writes:

My hopes are these wounds
Are also weapons. But they may be undead
Scholarly jargon.

I am so colonized. I dream of decolonizing.
Myself and others. The images of the dream
Do not match up. I am the body
And the archive.

His images and his dreams do match up, and his body of work here and elsewhere brings readers closer to decolonization, in multicultural art and letters. For all the suffering and essential hair-splitting Yepez does, to read him is to be energized, not exhausted. And so his poetry provides a welcome holiday gift.


Flowers & Sky by Aaron Shurin (Entre Ríos, October 2017)

Aaron Shurin is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose. He taught at the University of San Francisco for many years, and directed it’s creative writing program. Entre Ríos has just published two lectures by Shurin. The first, “The Poet’s Shakespeare,” was hosted in April of last year by the University of Alabama. The second, “The Sky for Example,“ was hosted six months later by the University of Washington, Bothell.

Entre Ríos always includes audio with its books, and Shurin’s engrossing love of his subject can be compared to a one man band with a head full of riveting compositions. He’s available with eyes and ears and skin, and heart memory as well as brain memory. Here he is on Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

I keep circling back as if to unwind a spell…

And what of this bouquet of text, this enchanted embankment where faeries sleep.

In this lecture, Shurin creates a mash note to Shakespeare ‘s Eros, with evocative words like oxlips, eglantine, and many others. The talk also contains a short tribute to Denise Levertov and Shurin’s friendship with her in the late sixties. The relationship was a kind of mutual doxology and can remind others of what Shurin knows but leaves unsaid: If leaders of governments revered the earth as Levertov did, as Shurin does, and if these leaders learned Shakespeare’s symbolic language of flowers, and all plant life, Levertov and hordes of others would not have needed to throw themselves into antiwar activism. Think Agent Orange and other immensely powerful efficient defoliants that have been part of humankind’s arsenals.

To circle back is to enter a chamber of time, and Shurin’s perspective on Shakespeare and Levertov brings to mind one of my favorite lines in the Bard’s Sonnet LX:

And time that gave doth now his gift confound.

How can anyone organize enough time to take pleasure and sustenance from every writer I mention? Writing this review feels like begging for time in a welcome way. I’ll end with a brief look at Shurin’s second lecture, which is a response to people who took the time to tell him about his prolific use of the word “sky.” Reading it, and the poems that accompany it at the end of the book, is, like everything I explore here, a lifting of some of the weight in our “hour of lead.”

And above, there is plenitude, and totality, and openness. Is it the gateway to our feel for the eternal, our ever present sense that things go on and through, our tinted picture of the farthest reaches by which we might keep ourselves in scale?


Successful reading is an act of love and communion, and the word “scale” serves as a reminder that justice and size are part of the equation of hope in the literary enterprise. Give these books to yourself or others, as an act of tipping, or otherwise adjusting, the scale.

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