Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 Round-Up: Poetry

I’m not an adept reader of poetry and am too often content to take refuge in those poems I know well already, but this past year (reader alert: here’s the first of what may be turn into a few late end-of-year posts), I read more collections of poetry than usual:

Hapax, by MacArthur “genius” award winner and classics translator A. E. Stallings - certainly among my favorite contemporary poetry discoveries of recent years. At a dinner the day after I’d finished the book, I annoyingly interrupted several times to exclaim, “Hey, I just read a great poem about exactly that [thing, whatever we all happened to be discussing at the moment].” Stallings’ penetrating observations, tremendous energy and wit rapturously rattle the cages of the neo-classical formalism of her poems, which traverse subjects as varied as arrowheads, sonograms, first love, mint, marriage, eccentric museums, insomnia, thyme, bats. Really? A fantastic poem about bats? I loved this book.

The Half-Finished Heaven and Other Poems by 2011 Nobel Prize winner, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly). Tranströmer’s crystalline, philosophical and often highly moving poems that intimately touch on moments of critical decision and reflection made this poet another favorite new discovery.

The revelatory, free-form, often monumental poems of Syrian poet Adonis (a runner-up for the Nobel Prize) in his first major collection to appear in English, Adonis: Selected Poems (translated by Khaled Mattawa), which opened up a new and vast world to me. I’ve yet to finish this rich volume, which demands slow and patient reading, but am drawn to Adonis as I was to one of my old favorites, St. John Perse, whose poems Adonis, not coincidentally, was the first to translate into Arabic (thanks to M. Lynx Qualey at Arablit for posting on Adonis).

The overblown, internationalist mythos of Frederic Prokosch’s first book of poetry, Assassins – again, echoes of St. John Perse, but difficult to read with a straight face after exposure to Louise Bogan’s delicious parody in “Imitation of a Poem by Frederic Prokosch.”[1]

American nouveau-Beat poet (could I, should I call him that?) John Beer’s audaciously-titled and audaciously-constructed collection, The Waste Land.

The lean, graceful, homo-erotically charged “songs” of early 20th century Portuguese poet António Botto in The Songs of António Botto, translated into English by his better known friend, Fernando Pessoa (thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for alerting me to Botto’s poems).

She Says, by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, a ravishingly beautiful collection of densely surreal and opaque poems filtering Khoury-Ghata’s Lebanese background through expatriate life in France, and her Arabic through her French (and through translator Marilyn Hacker’s glittering English). I marveled at Khoury-Ghata’s daring, striking combinations of images, as well as at her ability to employ a dazzling surface opacity while exploring the disruptions of living suspended between two cultures and languages – and the complications of accessing, in exile, privileges that would have been denied to her as a woman in her native country.

Winning in the “Most Unusual” category: Gwyneth Lewis’ Keeping Mum (brought to my attention by Philip Gross’ brief mention in The Guardian in an article on “writing at the edge of silence”). Lewis also explores the perils of living between two languages. The title is an obvious play on words between the metaphorical meaning of remaining silent and the British shorthand for “mother,” clever for a work explicitly about Lewis’ relationship with her endangered mother tongue, Welsh. Lewis writes one book in Welsh which she then uses as a springboard for another in English, allowing such full play in the act of translating her own words that the English product differs almost completely from its Welsh progenitor (leaving only readers of Welsh privy to the differences). The pattern converges thematically in Keeping Mum, in which Lewis uses her English to interrogate her Welsh, quite literally (literarily) in that the collection becomes a sort of detective story about the murder of the Welsh language, starring a detective/translator, a kind of forensic psychiatrist, and a coterie of angels. Both playful and sober, and written in a variety of mostly formalist styles, Lewis’ poems pull together elements of criminal interrogation and psychiatry, disorders of language, the proximal bleeding across membranes of the languages one knows, the responsibility of the writer towards conserving and deepening language, and the complications of sourcing poetic inspiration by appealing to a kind of estrangement and disarrangement of the personality. I admired the overarching, novelistic conceit of Keeping Mum, since so many poetry collections lack a unifying element. My favorite line in Lewis’ book, though, came not from her poems, but from her introduction, in which she notes that revisiting the Welsh book that preceded Keeping Mum produced several “entirely new” poems in English that she refers to as “translations without an original text – perhaps a useful definition of poetry” - and perhaps a useful thought for anyone interested in translation.

Finally, “poetic” if not strictly “poetry,” I’ll include Ursula Molinaro and John Evans’ pastiche of elements found in a trash can and reassembled into Remnants of an Unknown Woman; Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s experimental collision between a microphone, two conversing friends, and the streets of Manhattan in Ten Walks/Two Talks (a peculiar, clever and fun book, but in my lowbrow response I couldn’t get out of my head Beavis and Butthead’s description of a Beck video as like something from “one of those dudes from the gifted class”); and Harry Mathew’s semi-poetic, joyful vision of a world in the ecstatic throes of masturbation in Singular Pleasures. Rounding out the year was Fernando Pessoa’s tremendous magnum opus The Book of Disquiet, a constant companion for two months. Though Pessoa himself addresses the distinction between poetry and prose, I couldn’t shake the sense that this complex, difficult to define work came across more as poetry than anything else. Let’s say “poeticized prose,” a term cribbed from translator Richard Zenith’s introduction. More about that towards the end of March, as part of the Portuguese Reading Challenge hosted by Wuthering Expectations.

[1] Imitation of a Poem by Frederic Prokosch, by Louise Bogan  (excerpted in Dreamer's Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch, by Robert Greenfield, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010)


  1. Adept enough. I have never thought to do a round-up by form. It works really well.

    I do not know why I have never read a book by Stallings. Individual poems I have read here and there have been quite good.

    Do you have a go-to recommendation for St. John Perse? Anabasis, something else?

  2. Thank you for that "enough." One Perse poem seems to me almost interchangeable with another (sacrilege!), and Anabasis is as good a work as any of his to read - though I find myself partial to Amers (Seamarks) for some reason. Also, though I can't seem to locate them now, I recall reading letters Perse wrote from Peking when he was a diplomat there after World War I and finding them a fascinating look at a Westerner grappling to make sense of the place.

  3. It's one of my plans this year to read more poetry. I tend to read the ones I know again and very rarely modern poems. This is a great list and the descriptions help me to get a feel for them. There are quite a lot I'd like to explore.

  4. Hi.
    I just discovered your blog, I was searching for a review of Rosa Candida. I'm impressed & estatic % happy, there are so many books here that I will discover this year! I love your indepth analysis and your style. I can't trust official book reviews anymore, I'm really tired or them(like the NYT or NYRB or The Guardian) I want to discover authors, from different times and countries...


  5. Caroline - Well, I can only applaud that goal (it's one of mine as well). While I'm generally partial to novels, I found these explorations tremendously rewarding - despite my limitations in understanding some of the work.

    Fantastica - Thanks! I'm glad you stopped by and found the site worthwhile.