Thursday, September 17, 2009

Attention Span 2009: Poetry That Stayed With Me

I am indebted to Steve Evans for asking me to contribute to his phenomenal blog, Third Factory, for my 2009 picks for poetry (Attention Span series). Visit his blog and learn up on all the good things that he's been doing, thinking, and recording. Here's where this appears: My Attention Span 2009. There are a host of other poets, critics, and others who have their own lists.

Attention Span 2009 – Philip Metres

At the end of a long summer of reading, listening, and watching, I found myself wondering whether I actually like poetry; I felt as if I luxuriated in the mythic capaciousness of novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Don Quixote, the vivid strangeness of films like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” the documentary power of “When the Levees Broke,” the magical low comedy and strange frames within frames of Arabian Nights, the surreal collage soundscapes of Guided by Voices, the martial punk radicalism of the Minutemen, the sultry ache of Cat Power.

Perhaps the “90% Rule” is in effect, even for poetry—that 90% of anything is bound to be forgettable. Perhaps, too, I find myself dissatisfied with the boundaries we have placed upon our art, its odd professionalisms and its professional oddnesses. But it’s probably also true that the 10% are worth living for. Here are a few books that I’m glad to have read, and have been compelled to re-read, review (excerpted here and there herein), and reiterate.

Mark Nowak | Coal Mountain Elementary | Coffee House | 2009

Whitman’s notion, in his Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, that “poems distilled from other poems will likely pass away,” feels salient to Nowak’s vital anti-poetic stance. Coal Mountain Elementary draws upon and extends resources, voices, and narratives of the Sago mining disaster (and ongoing disasters in Chinese mines) that are—in the hothouse of contemporary poetry—richly unusual, and feel more akin to the projects of the field recordings of the WPA in the 1930s, the interviews of Studs Terkel, the history of Eric Foner and Howard Zinn, etc. It’s also not afraid to learn us something. Coal Mountain Elementary, even in its title, foregrounds strongly the pedagogical/didactic—the “elementary” refers to the project as a primer on the experience of coal miners and their families, at the same time that it interrogates the use and manipulation of education and mass media journalism—in particular, through the sampling of the exercises generated by the U.S. coal industry and the Xinhua wire stories (a numbing catalogue of Chinese mining accidents). Historian Howard Zinn calls the book “a stunning educational tool.” A beautiful book, with haunting photographs to boot.

Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand | Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space | Palm Press | 2008

Landscapes of Dissent provides a forceful reminder of the critical need to reclaim public space as a site of political action, symbolic exchange, and collective being. In the words of geographer Don Mitchell, “public spaces are decisive, for it is here the desires and needs of individuals can be seen, and therefore recognized, resisted, or… wiped out.” (7). Drawing upon the theories and practices of poets engaged in articulating and building a poetics in and of public space, Landscapes of Dissent offers itself both as a microsurvey of guerrilla poetry in the avant-garde tradition, and a how-to manual for future deployments of such locational verse. Accompanied by photos documenting guerrilla poetics in action, the book makes participating in such homespun actions seem more than possible — it makes them seem inviting and necessary.

Peter Cole | Things on Which I’ve Stumbled | New Directions | 2008

The cover image of poet, translator and publisher Peter Cole’s third volume of verse, Things On Which I’ve Stumbled, a woodcut by Joel Shapiro entitled “5748,” anticipates the central poetic concerns of this erudite, politically charged, and often dazzling collection. “5748,” of course, refers to the Jewish calendar year (September 1987-1988) which commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, as well as the advent of the First Palestinian Intifada—the popular uprising against military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The woodcut itself, in its concatenation of blocky rectangles, evokes (at least to these eyes) both a broken swastika and a person mid-stumble. Such is the bifocality of Cole’s project—it is at once a dilatory celebration of the rich mystical and sensual traditions of Jewish life—which has survived despite a history of oppression and marginalization—and an unsparing look at the politics of Israel/Palestine. In this way, Cole’s work offers us nothing less than a poetics of coexistence, in a time when a future of coexistence seems more distant than ever, and never more necessary.

Susan Schultz | Dementia Blog | 2009

Susan Schultz’s moving Dementia Blog, a book of poetic prose chronicling the personal crisis of her mother’s rapid descent into dementia and increasing need for full-time care, is a remarkable and exemplary chapter in that struggle. But simultaneously, it is a reminder of why we still need an avant-garde practice, and how avant-garde procedures can be as homely and unheimlich as the process of grieving a mother’s decline, set against the backdrop of a nation’s decline.

The 1970s: NPF Conference | authors various | Orono | 2008

Hands down, the best poetry conferences are in Orono, Maine. 2008 merely continued the streak of greatness. Intellectually and artistically stimulating to the point of circuit-overload, but without the smarmy self-promotional aspect of some other well-known literary conferences.

Armand Schwerner | The Tablets | NPF | 1999

A winning, at times hilarious pastiche of scholarly translation of ancient and indigenous texts (fabricated, of course, by Schwerner himself). “The Waste Land” if Eliot had a bawdy sense of humor. Every time “pig” is mentioned, the translator notes it can also mean “god.”

Kazim Ali | “Orange Alert” | U Michigan Press | forthcoming, 2010

Though I sometimes sour on the rhetoric of mysticism, though I sometimes find the rhetoric of political engagement obvious or stultifying, though I roll my eyes at the bathos of identity investigation, Ali’s ability in these essays to bob and weave through these ways of being and writing in the world so effectively quite simply blew my circuits. It helped me not only understand Ali’s poetry in a new way, but also all the work that surrounds his work, and to have a greater feeling for his final reach, that reach toward the ineffable—that which great poetry marks by its limits.

Rachel Loden | Dick of the Dead | Ahsahta | 2009

Rachel Loden’s new collection, Dick of the Dead (Ahsahta, 2009), vibrates with the same parodic music that so energizes her previous collections; I consider her among the pantheon of contemporary poets working the vein of parody (along with Kent Johnson, the flarf collective, conceptualism, etc.), though hers is closest to Johnson’s in its acid take on our imperial politics and our complicity as citizen-poets. I love the music of her poetry, their sheer joie de vivre, their secret rhymes, their snarl and snap.

Kent Johnson | Homage to the Last Avant-Garde | Shearsman 2008

Kent Johnson’s Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, a full-length poetry collection that gathers work from previous chapbooks such as the excoriating Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, extends Johnson’s ongoing parodic provocation of (and through) poetry. Organized in packets of “submissions” to various journals with experimental reputations, beginning with the experimental Evergreen Review (where Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” first appeared in the 1950s) to The World, the book is a subversive talkback to various generations of the avant-garde, and moves in ways that feel both admiring and admonitory. It’s that ambivalence toward the self-appointed avant-garde–and the ways it seems to fall short of its admirable aims to narrow the gap between art and life, to engage in art as social change, to innovate in ways that make revolution possible–that drives Johnson’s project.

Fady Joudah | The Earth in the Attic | Yale | 2008

Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic is the sort of book that shows its textures and layers after re-reading—I’m tempted to say (so I will) the way in which a seemingly wild landscape comes to reveal evidence of human habitation only after careful attention. Joudah, who expertly translated the inimitable Mahmoud Darwish in The Butterfly’s Burden, composes a narrative poetry that defies the linearity of dull narration; instead, his is a braided technique, full of returns, fragments, and veerings-off before inevitable conclusions. This is a kind of story-telling that seems most suited to poetry—where image, texture, and intimation infuse the forms rather than get locked into the inevitabilities of character and plot.

Sharon Mesmer | Annoying Diabetic Bitch | Combo / Zasterle | 2007

There’s something to be said for a book that makes a teacher feel like hurling before having to teach it. Annoying Diabetic Bitch is by turns offensive and hilarious, and instigated some interesting conversation about the definitions and limits of poetry. For a workshop full of undergraduate poets charmed by the dry urbanity of Billy Collins and confused by everything else, Mesmer’s flarf was a necessarily messy hurricane. I’m not even sure I “like” this book, but I like that it exists.

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