Saturday, November 17, 2012

Best American Poetry 2012: The Rest of the Best

I had planned over the next several days to post a separate blog on each of several more poets/poems from Best American Poetry 2012--my personal best in this year's issue. There are, however, so many additional poets I want to write about that I'm going to condense these BAP poets into one final post, and then move on.

Jane Hirshfield's, "In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed"

At the risk of losing some of my readers, I'll be very honest: I don't like many of Jane Hirshfield's poems. I find most of them simplistic, more about expressing pet ideas of the poet than about forwarding language, or creating art. Happily, "In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed" subverted all of my expectations. Its diction, its themes, its tropes, its typography all work together to create heightened language in the service of nothing except for art. Since it is a short poem, here it is in its entirety:

In a Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed

In a kitchen where mushroom were washed,
the mushroom scent lingers.

As the sea must keep for a long time the scent of the whole.

As a person who's once loved completely,
a country once conquered,
does not release that stunned knowledge.

They must want to be found, those strange-shaped, rising morels,
clownish puffballs.

Lichens have served as a lamp wick.
Clean-burning coconuts, olives.
Dried salmon, sheep fat, a carcass of petrel set blazing:
light that is fume and abradement.

Unburnable mushrooms are other.
They darken the air they come into.

Theirs the scent of having been traveled, been taken.

Steve Orlen's, "Where Do We Go After We Die"

Orlen has created a lyrical-narrative poem at its best, all classical stages of an interesting story neatly packed into a stanza-less box, with room enough for several moments of the ineffable. The setting is the favorite bar of the deceased and friends after the funeral. The conversation begins with the big question of what happens after death. Orlen tells us "The question/Commands and divides them." He then, in turn, has his characters each give us their versions: "One sees the pictograph/Of the great wheel; another, a figure of closed eyes,/Another, the heavenly throne surrounded by a choir of angels,/Remembered from Sunday School."

More opinions. More brew. Then stories about Jon, the recently deceased. Other friends who have died. Then Orlen finds the lyrical that is always residing in the material, waiting for the poet to titrate it out with the magic of language:

...they drink, they complicate,
They begin to forget the quirks they loved
And the spirit that flows like a river powerful enough
To ignore the seasons. The lights flash off and on,
The bartender is drying the last of the glasses,
Stories slide under the chairs into the shadows,
Speech reverts to its ancient, parabolic self--"Yea,
Though I walk through the valley"--
And actions lose their agency--"It came to pass"--
The things of the world become scarce,
And what's left spreads its wings
And flies around among them, like bats at dusk.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's, "The Afterlife"

"The Afterlife" is even more narrative than Orlen's poem. Although less lyrical, it certainly is musical with sound work like "I dreamed I was in the afterlife" and "Who should I search for? The answer came quick: my mother."

And so the story of the poem develops: everyone is looking for her mother--even all of the mothers, on their own quests, no time to help their children with theirs. Hear the words of the narrator's own mother:

Here is no help, no love, only the looking. This
is what death means, my child, this is how we pass
eternity, looking

for the love we no longer know how to give.

This is not just another poem about death. It is a poem that gives insight into why poets seem to gravitate to it--because it is emblematic of life.

Natasha Trethewey's, "Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1951"

I would be remiss in an article about my personal "Best of the Best" if I failed to mention another friend of this blogspot (see my November 7 post, "Natasha Trethewey: A Poet Laureate for our Time"). Natasha Trethewey's powerful poem of historical witness represents the first section of three in the longer poem, "The Americans" from her recent book, "Thrall." I will not delve deeply into the poem here, but rather will point my readers to the longer work, in order to be able to appreciate it as fully as it deserves.

In the same spirit, I must mention the final selection in my own person "best of the best", and perhaps the best poem of all that Mark Doty selected for this year's BAP anthology:

Spencer Reece's, "The Road to Emmaus"

Fully thirteen pages long, Reece's six-part condensation of conversations he had with a Catholic nun of the Franciscan order over a seven-year period, is also too long to even begin an analysis here. I will mention that the title is from the New Testament story of 2 disciples traveling the road to Emmaus after Jesus' death, and their encounter with a stranger. I will also mention that Reece comments in the contributor's notes that "[the] experience of not realize the love that is in front of you until it is gone resonates deeply for me." For anything more, I point you to the actual poem, in the actual anthology, Best American Poetry 2012.

In closing, I remind readers that the poems I have written about from this year's BAP are merely my personal favorites. In the same way that Mark Doty said he could only really represent his choices as "Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes," and went on to say, "but who'd buy that?", I can only say that these last few blog posts could be collectively entitled "Nine Poems from BAP 2012 that Terry Likes." It would be interesting to hear back from any of you whose taste might agree or disagree with mine.

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