Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Best of The Best American Poetry 2017

No, that "2017" in the title is not a typo. I just got around to reading my copy of last year's BAP, guest edited by Natasha Trethewey. When I finish reading all of the books I own, I'll read (perhaps even purchase) BAP 2018. Of course by then the 2019 issue will probably be out...mercy, a lot of reading to do.

But I like reading poetry. I always learn a lot. In the case of BAP, I find new poets to include in my canon, poets to research and read more of their work. But you know that. What you don't know is what poems in BAP 2017 I thought were interesting enough to read a second time (or even more times). And, if you read this blog, you know that's my new definition of what a good poem is--one you want to read again and again and again.

So here's my list of poems I want to re-read. They were written mostly by poets whose work I already know and like. And there were several poems by poets I normally like, whose work in BAP 2017 I didn't care for enough to read again. Probably different from the poems you would select. But, hey, no poem of mine was in the anthology. And probably not one of yours either. That's why John Ashbery, when invited to be the guest editor a few years ago, asked David Lehman if the title could be changed from "The Best..." to "Pretty Good American Poetry." Best is hard to measure. So I guess I should change my title to "Pretty Good Poems from The Best American Poetry 2017." Here they are in the same order (alphabetical) as they appear in the anthology, with a comment or two as to why I will re-read them.

Mary Jo Bang, "Admission"

This poem's first enjambed line was interesting: "My mother was glamorous in a way I knew I never / would be..." But by the time I got to the fourth line, I was hooked:

...Her / bow mouth was forever being twinned to a tissue.

And the remainder of the poem lives up to that terrific verb form of "being twinned to a tissue."

David Barber, "On a Shaker Admonition"

I will re-read this poem countless times in order to allow Barber's list of objects related to locking things up that would be "needless" if everyone followed the admonition of the epigraph:

All should be so trustworthy, that locks and keys shall be needless.

The poem is a two-page delight of articles added to the needless "locks and keys" in such a world. The first two stanzas and the last two will give you the idea of why this list poem made my list:

Needless, useless, pointless, moot: stripped of every honest purpose,
           nothing so haplessly worthless now, so meaningless.

Needless, needless: the deadbolt, the strongbox, the padlock
           lolling from the tall spiked gate, the little metal teeth
all jingle-jangling mindlessly on their rusting ring, the all too obtuse
           fitfulness of pin and tumbler, every chain known to man.

...[and then the last two stanzas]

No senseless wishfulness, no useless ruthlessness, no goods to get on us
            to bust or traduce us, no clauses to bind us, no cause
for redness, no one on the loose, on the make, on the case, nothing for us
            to jimmy or pick, nothing gone missing, not a thing amiss,
no No Tell Motel, no Big House, no Pale beyond us, no tragic chorus in a rumpus
            over the worst in us getting the best of us in spite of us,

just all of us lapsing less and less regardless how rootless, witless, gutless, pissed,
            all that thankless cussed nonsense now behind us: just us, just us.

Vievee Francis, "Given to These Proclivities, By God"

Here is the epigraph and the first few lines to give you idea of this poem...

...bound by sin's galling fetters

And like every sinner, I prayed,
"Take this sin from me" but
the sin was mine, and how to take it
and not call it stealing? And why
place my sin upon another? So

I ate my sin. Like any good sinner
I have an appetite. I could eat as much
as I drink. And you know how much
I like a neat Mark. I don't think twice.
     I swallow it down.
     Two fingers, no water.
Once, then once more. So it burns?
     What won't?

Amy Gerstler, "Dead Butterfly"

In addition to the luscious language that Gerstler's poems typically posses, this one has poignant lines that also strike home with universal meaning. The final line of this excerpt contains my favorite in this poem:

dead empress of winged things
weightless flake of flight
you rest in state on my desk
more delicate and flatter than
this scrap of foolscap you lie on
flatter even than my dad's voice
when he was mad        like death
anger drained him of color
but his temper was gentle
flare-ups were rare
and of course nonexistent now
since he was found
lifeless in bed       a cut on his head
how did he make it down the hall
after he fell do you think? homing instinct?

Terrance Tales, "Ars Poetica with Bacon"

In addition to its quirky title, I love how quickly things move in this poem. From a family's anxiety "about its diminishing food supply" in the first two lines, to "the paddle my mother used to beat me with," in line 7, we get to a homily in line 11: "...jealousy / [does] not, in fact, begin as jealousy, but as desperation." The narrative moves as quickly, with even more interest, as the poem develops...

Tony Hoagland, "Cause of Death: Fox News"

I don't think I need to say anything else about this poem in order to have everyone's appetite whetted.

Yusef Komunyakaa, "from The Last Bohemian of Avenue A"

For me, there are multiple poems within this poem, and I love them all. Komunyakaa always seems to have jazz licks, if not in the entire poem, at least in a few lines. If all this poem had was its third stanza, I would still read it for the rest of my life, if only for its atmospheric rhythms and tones.
But there is so much more...

Even if loneliness arrives
around 3 a.m., it isn't easy
to touch myself because
it's a sin. But now & then
I must hold on to something
to keep me here on Earth,
in the middle of an old tune
& a new one--I touch myself
as a face blooms in my head
& somehow worlds collide
gently. What did she step 
from, or was it on my last gig
at Smoke? Or, maybe she was
wearing a garden of orchids
when we passed, or the face
of a waitress among changes
in a Trane solo as I almost
walked in front of a taxicab.
When I touch myself I am
reaching for some blue note
on the other side of an abyss.
Mary Travers stands before me
in Washington Square Park
in a silvery dress, whispering
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
as I lean against Garibaldi
reaching for his sword,
& blow riffs of luster,
ready to die; go to hell.

Danish Lameris, "The Watch"

A tight poem whose conceit remains consistently good throughout!

Dorianne Laux, "Lapse"

Since it is a short one (an American sonnet, or almost one, depending on your definition), I will include the entire poem:

          Poem beginning with a line from Gwendolyn Brooks

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer. I
see the leaves turning on their stems. I am
not oblivious to the sun as it lowers on its stem, not
fooled by the clock holding off, not deceived
by the weight of its tired hands holding forth. I
do not think my dead will return. They will not do
what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees. Not
even if I kiss their photographs or think
of them as I touch the things they left me. It
isn't possible to raise them from their beds, is
it? Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands? Still-
ness, unearth their faces. Bring me the last dahlias of summer.

Philip Levine, "Rain in Winter"

And oh, how I love this serendipitous placement of Levine's sonnet beside Laux's poem!

Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day is fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.

The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won't appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.

Judgon Mitcham, "White"

A few lines from the end of section 1 of 4 sections will suffice to give you the flavor of this one:

...and this is a poem

of dumb, sputtering astonishment
at the ignorance of our lives--we who went
                                          to our churches and our homes
and our history classes, where no one said a word,
we who lived each day like blank pages,
                                          mistake after mistake after mistake

in the history book.

John Murillo, "Upon Reading That Eric Dolphin Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,"

The first eight and a half couplets of a forty-nine couplet, gripping narrative poem (once again demonstrating how well couplets convey narrative), that I couldn't stop reading, and want to read again and again...

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this--the one

bird frantic, attacking I thought, the way she swooped
down, circled my head, and flailed her wings in my face;

how she seemed to scream each time I swung; how she
dashed back and forth between me and a blood-red Corolla

parked near the opposite curb; how, finally, I understood:
I spied another bird, also calling, his foot inexplicably

caught in the car's closed door, beating his whole bird
body against it. Trying, it appeared, to bang himself free.

And who knows how long he'd been there, flailing. Who
knows--he and the other I mistook, at first, for a bat.

They called to me--something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer--to do something,

anything. And like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak...

Joyce Carol Oates, "To Marlon Brando in Hell"

A five-page anaphoric poem that delightfully names the reasons Brando should be in hell ("Because you suffocated your beauty in fat. / Because you made of our adoration, mockery. / Because you were the predator male, without remorse..."), ending with the lines "Because you have left us. And we are lonely. / And we would join you in Hell, if you would have us."

Sharon Olds, "Ode to the Glans"

Need I say more?

Gregory Orr, "Three Dark Proverb Sonnets"

There is no way to give you any part of these 42 lines without giving you all of them.

Carl Phillips, "Rockabye"

Great first lines:

                       Weeping, he seemed more naked
than when he'd been naked--more, even, than when
we'd both been...

There you have it--my "Best of the Best [of the best]" as Will Smith said mockingly in Men in Black--with apologies to Dan Albergotti, Dan Beachy-Quick, Cyrus Cassell, Billy Collins, Carolyn Forche, Robert Pinsky, Michael Ryan, David St. John, Charles Simic, A.E. Stallings, Christian Wiman, Dean Young, Kevin Young, and Matthew Zapruder--all poets whose work I admire, but whose poems in BAP 2017, although they were good, did not motivate me (at the time) to read them again.

So, just as Will Smith was leery of his fellow candidates for recruitment into the elite band of Men in Black, who were pronounced "The best of the best of the best," readers should be suspicious of this particular selection of mine from BAP 2017. I might pick different poems on a different day. But if the volume is setting on your shelf unread, I suggest you pick it up and try a poem or two from my list, and move on from there. Read a few poems from it each day, until you either finish it, or decide it's not worth finishing, in which case you can get rid of it and make room for something that brings you more joy. Because, after all, if a book doesn't bring you joy, why should you keep it?

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