One of the problems with picking the best poetry books in a given year is that poems — unlike, say, chapters in a novel — are often judged apart from the works in which they appear. For example, “Directive” is one of Robert Frost’s two or three greatest poems, but it was first published in his 1947 collection “Steeple Bush,” which is otherwise generously laden with cornpone. So how good is “Steeple Bush,” then? Can a single astonishing ingredient redeem an otherwise unremarkable dish? By the same token, should a collection that is consistently accomplished (but no more than that) be considered more worthy than an uneven book with a few genuinely arresting pages? When we’re evaluating books of poems, a great deal depends on which noun — books or poems — we think should be stressed.
Fortunately, good poems, like good people, do tend to congregate. Below are 10 poetry collections published since January that are worthwhile regardless of whether you’re looking for a memorable book, a memorable poem or a memorable book of memorable poems. In keeping with Times policy, this list contains no relatives, close friends, students, colleagues and so forth. I’ve also generally favored books that seem worthy of more attention than they’ve received thus far.
HUMAN HOURS, by Catherine Barnett. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) Barnett’s third collection is a fast-paced but unflappable tour of hotels, airports, college drop-offs, gynecologists’ offices and the cafes of Lower Manhattan — as Barnett puts it, “The mind, yes, is always moving.” But the moments of stillness in “Human Hours” are equally compelling. Consider “The Skin of the Face Is That Which Stays Most Naked, Most Destitute” (the line is from the philosopher Emanuel Levinas): “But it’s in perfectly fine shape, the face in the mirror said — / When I first acquired you, yes, ok, years ago / on a lark, and you were just something to wear then, / to the store, or the park, not alone in the dark.”
THE POPOL VUH, translated by Michael Bazzett. (Milkweed, paper, $16.) The Popol Vuh is a free-verse translation of a Mayan origin narrative that we know only because it was copied by a Franciscan friar in the early 18th century. (The original manuscript was lost, and was presumably a transcription of stories that were usually told, not read — making the Popol Vuh, as Bazzett puts it in his deft introduction, “the copy of an echo.”) For nonscholars, the first test of any translation is simply whether it’s pleasurable to read, and Bazzett’s limpid, smoothly paced version is more than satisfying on that score. And it’s a good thing to be reminded, perhaps especially now, and perhaps especially by a text originating in Guatemala, that “However many nations / live in the world today, / however many countless people, / they all had but one dawn.”
YEARS, MONTHS, AND DAYS, by Amanda Jernigan. (Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) Jernigan’s book is tiny — it comes in at only 50 postcard-size pages, with many of those pages containing just nine or 10 words. It’s also a highly unusual project: a quasi translation of Mennonite hymns into lyrics that are half prayer, half reflected secular yearning (Jernigan is not herself religious). The book is carried by Jernigan’s obvious respect for her sponsoring material and by her superb ear, as in this calmly devastating slant rhyme:
come to think
how well a coffin
comes at last
to fit a person
DARK WOODS, by Richard Sanger. (Biblioasis, paper, $14.95.) The rueful, lucid, deliberately casual poems in “Dark Woods” can surprise you with their tenderness, but also with their prickly intelligence. In “Artichoke,” we’re presented with the familiar “Handsome knob, armadillo, hand-grenade / of army green, armour-plated petals,” but things quickly take a turn: “Here your lot is to keep it in, / to remain tight-lipped and celibate, / nodding your bald pate wisely at the rumour / of pleasures you shall never taste— / the pleasures we have to drag out of you.”
WADE IN THE WATER, by Tracy K. Smith. (Graywolf, $24.) Smith’s fourth book is the strongest and most wide-ranging she’s written. Many readers will be drawn to the series of poems here composed from the letters and statements of African-American soldiers in the Civil War and their dependents. This work is admirable, but it would be a mistake to overlook Smith’s growing command of the domestic poem, which presents unique and subtle challenges that are easy to underestimate. Here’s Smith on a 4½-year-old:
She’s like an island
Made of rock, with one lone tree on top
Of the only mountain. She’s like the sole
Incongruous goat tethered to the tree,
Smiling almost as you approach, scraping
The ground with its horns, and then —
Lickety split — lurching hard, daring
The rope to snap.
A MEMORY OF THE FUTURE, by Elizabeth Spires. (Norton, $26.95.) The spare, sly lines in “A Memory of the Future” are a reminder that the game of a poem is sometimes better advanced by underplaying. In “Pome,” for instance, Spires toys with the word “pome” (“Common as an apple. Or / more rare. A quince or pear”), allowing seemingly throwaway internal rhymes to quietly reinforce the connection the reader automatically makes between “pome” and “poem” (“What to do? What to do? / I could give it to you”). This sets up a conclusion that is a quiet showcase in tone management:
O I remember days…
Climbing the branches of a tree
ripe and heavy with pomes.
Taking whatever I wanted.
There were always enough then.
LIKE, by A. E. Stallings. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.) Stallings is widely admired for her formal agility and classical expertise (she’s translated Lucretius and Hesiod). In “Like,” her fourth book of poems, we get the rhyming wit one expects from Stallings, although in the best poems here that wit is attractively darkened by experience in a place that is, to take Stallings slightly out of context, “Deep in the woods where things escape their names.” Consider the end of “The Stain”:
What they suspect
The stain will know,
The stain records
What you forget.
If you wear it,
It will show;
If you wash it,
It will set.
TRANSACTION HISTORIES, by Donna Stonecipher. (University of Iowa, paper, $19.95.) The prospect of a book filled with prose poems is admittedly better than the prospect of a book filled with thumbtacks, but not by much. So it is greatly to Stonecipher’s credit that “Transaction Histories” is a delight: a mordant yet romantic survey of art, love, hunger and plastic owls in which seemingly unrelated observations are meticulously knit together to form a resonant whole. The method here is generally to put a figure or phrase in play — for example, a little girl who “turned out to have just one wish for her tenth birthday: an entire box of fortune cookies to herself” — and then to move immediately away from it, only to return again later in an altered context that forms the poetic equivalent of a chord (several pages later, the girl and her fortune cookies return as a counterpoint to a man who “felt most at home in airports”).
BLOOD LABORS, by Daniel Tobin. (Four Way, paper, $15.95.) Tobin has written smartly on Irish poets like Seamus Heaney, and that connection emerges to appealing effect in the robust, formally dexterous writing in “Blood Labors.” Particularly notable here is the multipart poem “Downstream,” which comments on a series of surrealist paintings by Eleanor Spiess-Ferris and becomes a kind of hypnotic, deeply strange creation saga. Here’s the beginning of the section titled “River”: “When I rose from the river I was still / The river, and in my red hair flamed / The encircling wheels, wheels within wheels, / By which the very air around me moved.”
HEY, MARFA, by Jeffrey Yang. (Graywolf, paper, $20.) Yang’s third book of poems is an ode to the past and present of, yes, Marfa — the West Texas town with a population of roughly 2,000 and a reputation in the art world that exceeds those of most state capitals. Yang collaborates here with the artist Rackstraw Downes, and the elegant precision of Downes’s paintings and drawings of an electrical substation is nicely matched by Yang’s playfully exacting lines: “Gray day faraway water-tower potentiometer / enclosed by a series of right-angle triangles, guy- / line hypotenuse cables lengthening to anchor / pole.…”
David Orr writes the On Poetry column for the Book Review. He is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “Dangerous Household Items.”
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