Barbara Berman’s 2018 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 Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings by Leonard Cohen (FSG, October 2018)

It’s that time of year again and I have three big books to celebrate and two small gems. Leonard Cohen died on America’s election night two years ago. His last collection of poems, notebook excerpts, lyrics, and drawings, The Flame, was in the works and he knew it would be a valedictory. One of Cohen’s greatest, hard-earned skills was ability to popularize complexities of longing, making pain beautiful without denying its reality. His versatility was honored in many ways, including being presented with the first PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award. Here’s a fine example of his impressive output:

You step out of the shower
O so cool and clean
Smelling like a flower
From a field of green
The world is burning Mary
Its hollow dark and mean

I love to hear you laugh
It takes the world away
I live to hear you laugh
I don’t even have to pray
But now the world is coming back
It’s coming back to stay

Stand beside me Mary
We have no time to waste
The water’s not like water now
It has a bitter taste
Stand beside me Mary
Mary full of grace

I know you have to leave me
The clock is ticking loud
I know it’s time to leave me
The time has come around
My heart has turned to weaponry
That’s why my head is bowed

Stand beside me Mary
We have no time to waste
The animal is bleeding
And the flower is disgraced
Stand beside me Mary
Mary full of grace

This is “Mary Full of Grace,” and, like many pieces in The Flame, the song/poem is illustrated with a black and white sketch by Cohen, in this case, with a softly delineated Madonna with the Infant on her lap. That’s an interesting decision when contrasted with the way he repeats the word “stand” and its implicit strength. If Cohen ever taught in a classroom, his first declaration might have been, “avoid simplicity.” He almost always does, as in “July 10, 2002”:

I forgot to mention
the pillars of gold
and the screams from the dungeon
the fingernails pulled

I forgot to mention
the blank space on my heart
where nothing is written
and the plan falls apart.

Cohen was eighty-three when he died. Wherever he is, I hope he’ll forgive the trite way I say that his spirit will live.


BAX 2018: Best American Experimental Writing, edited by Myung Mi Kim; series editors Seth Abramson and Jessie Damiani (Wesleyan University Press, August 2018)

Cohen rarely disengaged with his surroundings and that made him a hungry consumer of what all senses offer. BAX 2018: Best American Experimental Writing suggests that everyone involved in the project will follow his lead.

Gabriel Gudding is a poet, teacher and translator whose “Bed from Government” is a prose poem bristling with defiance. “Part 1: ON BABIES” is chillingly (did I really need that word?) told in the voice of one who has heard too many bureaucratic proclamations:

We in the government now, noting that with rare exception you are self tormented organisms. Engaging in autosuggestive ruminations and other gripping individualisms. Existence itself for you is a dismantling condition of reclamation and defeat, containing delusions of redemption….

“Part 2: POLICE” begins:

Our police are marvelous. Yet you arrived here as a result of a vast assemblage of stupidities. Every moment somewhere some collection of tumult comes to climax and collapses. Your appliances, no newer, how neat and smooth and regular they once were. Even your tools, the meta objects, which we all temper to be harder than the the sub-world of other objects, succumb to the softening, loosening, breakage and collapse that mothers endeavor to launch their babies into, ushered by our fine police departments.

I’ve quoted about a third of the whole here, and it’s all strong.

The piece below has a punch that covers a lot of territory. It’s called “Leo DiCaprio’s $11 Million Malibu Beach House and the Crushing Agony of Being Human,” and it’s by Julia Wick. The price and the location of the house make Wick think of Camus, but her mention of him to a Redfin agent brings on high entertainment as good as any Second City sketch:

LAist: Hi! Love the house! Just a few questions. Albert Camus once said, “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman.” This house is obviously super beautiful—so you think there is something inhuman about that beauty?

Redfin: Um, wow, that wasn’t the question I was expecting. I think with this house in particular, where it sits especially, it’s an absolutely breathtaking home. I do not think there is anything inhuman about this house. I think it’s a representation of the oceanfront property that it sits on.

Sounds great! Camus also once said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Would a house like this maybe give the buyer an insight into the meaning of life?

Can you repeat that quote again?

Here’s the perfect gift for your edgy friend and/or loved one who appreciates a well crafted joke surrounded by engaging genre benders some of which are technically too complicated to reproduce electronically. BAX is smart, jittery fizz at its finest.

Here’s the perfect gift for your edgy friend and/or loved one who appreciates a well crafted joke surrounded by engaging genre benders some of which are technically too complicated to reproduce electronically. BAX is smart, jittery fizz at its finest.


The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings, edited by Mary Ann Caws (New Directions, September 2018)

“Surreal” is a word that gets used imprecisely by countless people who probably mean well. Many offenders are in shock and should get a pass from finicky critics and other members of the grammar and toolkit police. Think of your average man or woman, stunned by major news, good, bad, peculiar or truly scary. Think of situations or images that defy logic or accepted norms. Now we’re getting closer to why I love The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings. It is edited by Mary Ann Caws, a Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She has translated all the writers in this anthology, but this volume draws from the work of several translators.

Her introduction is crisp and cogent, meeting the core of what defines the Surrealist movement.

Essential to Surrealist behavior is a constant state of openness, of readiness for whatever occurs, whatever object might be encountered by chance that has something marvelous about it, manifesting itself against the already thought, the already lived.

The last paragraph of the essay provides a perfect portal to what’s ahead:

Surrealism has, at its highest moments, a combination of the startling and the lyric, in an unmistakable and sensational style. It opts to occasion and welcomes surprise, for a poetic sense of openness to chance, including the mystery of human encounters beyond the reach of the rational. Texts, manifestos, performances, images, happenings. creations of all sorts bear out this state of mind and its exuberance.

At a time when women are fighting battles old and new, it’s heartening to see Claude Cahun surrounded by sisters and brothers in the creative enterprise. She was born in 1894 and died in 1954, and did not conform to gender norms. She and Suzanne Malherbe, her partner, created art that served the Resistance during World War II. “The Invisible Adventure,” her contribution to The Milk Bowl of Feathers, was translated by Susan de Muth and Agnes Lhermite. “No point in making myself comfortable”, she writes, “The abstraction, the dream are as limited for me as the concrete and the real. What to do? Show part of it only, in a narrow mirror, as if it were the whole? Mix up a halo with spatters?”

This is a classic Surrealist approach, taking a halo, a conforming shape and image, and giving reader/apprehender the chance to turn a plural noun into an active verb. The last line by Cahun is a sentence fragment/manifesto: “Only ever travel in the prow of myself.”

Benjamin Péret moved from Dadaism to help found Surrealism. A widely published French poet, his Marxism was a contributing factor in his trans-Atlantic travels. “Hello” is his poem, and it was translated by Clara Cohen.

My flaming aeroplane NY castle flooded with Rhine wine my Ghetto of black irises my crystal ear my rock tumbling down the cliff to crush the state police my snail of opal my mosquito of air my eiderdown of birds of paradise my hair of black spume mu shattered tomb my rain of red grasshoppers my flying island my turquoise grape my collision of mad and prudent automobiles my savage aisle my pistil of chicory projected into my eye my tulip bulb in the brain my gazelle lost in a boulevard movie my cask of sun my volcano fruit my laughter of a hidden pond where absent minded prophets come to drown my floor of currant brandy my mushroom butterfly my blue cascade like an undertow making spring my revolver of coral whose mouth draws me like the eye of a sparkling well frozen like the mirror where you contemplate the flight of the humming-birds of your gaze lost in a white sale framed with mummies I love you.

A Holocaust survivor who died a few years ago once wrote that “the soul needs storm and fire and dizziness.“ “Hello,” like its better known companions, including work by André Breton, Mina Loy, René Char, and other prominent Surrealists, provides that, and much more. The Milk Bowl of Feathers is a satisfying thrill.


Bury It by sam sax (Wesleyan University Press, September 2018)

Bury It, by queer Jewish poet sam sax, is interesting and unflinching. He categorizes himself with pride, and in doing so he broadens his appeal. It takes courage to call a poem “Kaddish,”—think Ginsberg, of course, and the disgraced Leon Wieseltier—but it’s the right choice:

& just like that the first boy I ever kissed is dead / dress lifted off a mannequin to reveal nothing, / man who becomes only the space he’s left / a puncture wound in the upholstery of my youth / i’ve arranged his pictures around my bathroom sink & shaved my face in the dark /,trying to make his shape appear / as it was then / now in my mirror / first boy I wanted who wanted me back / taught I was worth such a simple thought as hunger / that lost could be a word used to describe my own saturnine skin / what is dead can never rise from bread / what is owed can never be repaid / instead this debt / i’m too small to shoulder / maybe this is my hand’s inheritance / to hold / my grief / a pair of gloves i reach into space / trace the ghost waistband / hear his voice gasp out from the dark.

There’s fine shading in the way these words shape ephemeral and concrete reality. “trace the ghost waistband” bears repeating with that bittersweet wish-I’d-said-that feeling.

“Buena Vista Park 2 AM” has the empathy of August Kleinzahler:

these men carry
famine in them


the lamps throw their light
against branches

the branches rake their shadows
across a man’s naked back

his back flat as a table
the table set for me

i did not come here hungry
& yet

i eat.

Bury It is cinematic and quenching and another reason to be glad sax won a James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, for this book.


Cruel Futures by Carmen Giménez Smith (City Lights Spotlight Series, March 2018)

Carmen Giménez Smith owes a lot to American feminist and Latina forebears, and she deftly honors the debt. Cruel Futures is kinder than its title suggests, and steely. “Careworn Tale” is her take on beauty and it succeeds mightily:

What is beauty I’ve been
asking since someone told me
I was/was not beautiful,
since before body hair and even
before masturbation which required
no beauty, just the creature
desire for gratification.
I think it was Cleopatra who once
said beauty was the element
of surprise, or perhaps
the rare beauty in my heart
said it because she’s chatty,
that one. Beauty is top five
obsession even late in my day.
I pluck stray hairs from my beauty
to assert control over my beauty.
I measure out what I have left.
It is an aftermath, a chariot,
a tax we all pay. I mean
physical beauty, and not of the soul
and I also mean movie ideals
that exempt me for my darkness.
Traces of rage fill my face, then
become my truth borne out as
a category of beauty.
That was a recent revolution.
The moral of the story reads
On the day she truly realized
she was beautiful, she died.

I am so ready to go over this with a teenage relative who is half-Irish, one-quarter-Chinese, one-quarter-Filipina and so much more fabulous than she thinks, despite encouragement from loved ones and teachers. It goes without saying, though sometimes Giménez Smith thinks she has to, that this poem, this writer, this girl are deeply American.

So is this zinger, the title poem:

Head Bootlicker at Rapacious, Inc., / met his colleagues in DC to discuss how loud/ us mongrels had become. Dissidents and Uppities, / Jumpies and Haters, / all our faces pushed with rage, / so in new legislations, they’d Botox us with a penalty grin /to show the children what obedience looked like. / We’re so not-naughty, so tweet-missiles against injustice, but smiling / on the outside, waiting to pay dearly, subject to change.

This is vital language for our time. So is every volume I’ve discussed.

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