Reading many books in one genre, too close together, can make you numb, like repeating the same word over and over again kills the sense of the word. I can get to this point with poetry, especially if I read a lot of poems from the same year. Literature is a cliché-generating machine – we belong to the era, we probe its spirit. Yet every year some books shake me out of my zeitgeist hypnosis. They send me back to reread and keep giving up Lake meaning, no less. They also generate language and meaning in me – if I love a book, I want to describe it.
One of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time HYPERFANTASY, by Sara Deniz Akant, is so chaotic that I initially thought a misprint in my copy was intentional. (It’s backwards, with page 1 at the end.) The poems reminded me both of John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”—these too are haunted by spectral presences—and of the Gurlesque school of eights, its grotesque camp. Take “Renovation Song”: “Nowadays I fill an absence with a candle. I carry/carry the word CARE around as if I have a right to./I dump CARE out the window.” I wish more poems were so irreverent and disorienting, full of “garbage lyrics” and “blank code,” gloriously abdicating the responsibility of language to directly communicate, “I have no plan.” “No, that’s just not/what information means.” “Who said that?” Akant asks repeatedly, as if possessed. “My soul flies up and down.”
MOTHMAN APOLOGY, by Robert Wood Lynn, hits a lilting, Larry Levis-esque register, both elegiac and witty, with a series of persona poems based on the Mothman, a West Virginia cryptid who appears in legend as a warning. In one, the Mothman opines on the “curse of interesting times”: “Everything I’ve learned I wish I hadn’t. Nothing:/the only thing I like to know. I’ll take the long way home.” And in the book’s opener, “(The Mothman Gets High)”, “There is a point where one gets tired of knowledge.” A skeptic’s poetics: knowledge is always accompanied by doubt or regret. I didn’t think/believe it was possible, but/also something I thought/was likely to happen to me,” Lynn writes. But a skeptic, I guess, still believes in faith. “I try, I do But it’s not the kind of thing that trying solves.”
Tawanda Mulalus MAKE ME PRETTY, I DON’T WANT TO DIE would have to be incredible to live up to the title and cover image (Podkowiński’s “Frenzy of Exultations,” in which a naked woman clings to a totally deranged-looking horse in apparent adoration). And it is – a stunningly good book of poems arranged by season, with a fascinating relationship with Sylvia Plath. For example, the second of two poems, called “Aria,” evokes “Ariel” in its title, takes its caption from Plath’s “Thalidomide,” and gestures in its body to the fear (and repression) of influence: “All my poems are in white face. That makes me clean, / bearable. Is my life viable. This poem/Is not mine.” Mulalu can be Plathian in his extravagance (“The stars suffer too. Immense and dead, their gases burn/Far away like castanets of antebellum teeth”) but can also string the simplest words into memorable grand lines: “So, I am part of this thing where fish learned to walk.
Inviting, dark and quiet, like a museum at night, the poems in it BORDER VIEW, by Anni Liu, are about change and transition, about memory (the noun, the memory) and remembering (the verb, the practice). They are also always very attentive to language: “Slink, if you will, make your scales sound like tiles in an earthquake.” Liu’s work often holds something in reserve, such as dreams, so that “amazement of insight” (as William Meredith put it) is especially noticeable when it arrives. “Why document this, as if forgetting is the worst thing,” she writes in a poem. And in another: “All my life / I’ve been afraid of the wrong things.”
The surprising book by Niina Pollari PATH OF TOTAL, about the death of a child, is a prismatic portrait of grief and its transformations over time – grief as shame, grief as love, grief as physical presence: “Behind everyone who walks into a room is a jack-of-all-trades of their past. If they walk into a train and ride along, so does their past.” “I saw dust on the piano. Was there a piano? Dust came down so hard it made holes.” I found ‘Path of Totality’ mysteriously more powerful, as if offering proof that the human spirit equals great tragedy: ‘The suffering seemed to come from me, but it was everywhere. … I have already forgotten the pain.” “I hope no one will ever ask, but then I hope someone asks. I hope more than anything.” “This poem is not crazy.”
John Koethe’s work constitutes a candid philosophy – to the extent that poetry can be truly candid – that questions endlessly what is life and what is poetry, which he sees as related issues. “A life is just the sum of the details, but for a while it’s all there is,” he declares in his latest collection, UNBELIEVEABLE. And poems “are simply articulated by life”: “If I’m asked / What my poems say, I say it’s what I think about – for life / Means you have something on your mind whether you understand it or not.” “Sometimes I think I’m terrified / That it was all a style,” Koethe writes, “That’s had its day and I’ve wasted my life.” But he remains charmingly true to his calling. Poets are people who hear these voices and need to capture them; they are both source and witness: “O you, I conjure, to whom I speak as to myself, listen.”
IN THE SAME LIGHT: 200 Poems for Our Century from the Migrants and Exiles of the Tang Dynasty collects Wong May’s translations of 38 writings from poets 1,200 years ago, and in her hands these poems not only feel new – they feel modern, romantic, Shakespearean, timeless. As she writes in her wonderfully sprawling afterword about language, poetry, history, everything, “Du Fu comes alive.” There are echoes here, or whatever the reverse of an echo is – as if the mirror takes precedence over the face – of Pound and Eliot (in Liu Zongyuan: “Icy blossoms blow about,/Disparate, each to each”), Stevens ( in Li Bai: “From now on / No green willows, she sent / No willow green”), Bishop (in Chen Tao: “You can’t change”), Rilke, Yeats. Does the translator—born in China in 1944, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and now lives in Dublin—import these Western minds? Or were they already there? It makes you feel like all the poetry is connected. She juxtaposes a passage from Wang Wei with a passage from ‘King Lear’: ‘These two are literal translations of each other,’ she writes, recalling Jack Spicer’s notion that all poets of all countries, at some level, ‘write the same poem ,” a concerted effort toward infinity.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of six volumes of poetry, essays and criticism, most recently “Normal Distance”. Her columns On Poetry appear four times a year.