Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015

Poetry forms the core of my well-being. I begin each day by reading two to four poems, cleansing my brain first thing in the morning with compressed stanzas sturdy as bars of soap. I recommend this kind of ablution to everyone. (Of course, verse is perfectly acceptable for noontime or eventide reading as well.)

This year, my poetry reading was dominated by Edna St. Vincent Millay. While reading Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s first-class biography of the early 20th-century poet (as well as a trip through Erika Robuck’s novel, Fallen Beauty), I savored my way through the Library of America collection of Millay’s poems and then proceeded to re-read Millay’s 1928 collection, Buck in the Snow and Other Poems. I love the title poem, which includes these lines:
White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple-orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone-wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.

Now he lies here, his wild blood scalding the snow.

This was also the year I discovered, in depth, the poetry of William Carlos Williams (also courtesy of the Library of America); I learned he was so much more than wheelbarrows glazed with rainwater. Other non-2015 poetry collections which floated to the top of my list this year included Seth Brady Tucker’s We Deserve the Gods We Ask For from last year, poetry which boils with all the courage and outrage of our contemporary wars; Jane Kenyon’s 1997 Otherwise (another re-read for me), which breaks my heart because I wish she could have lived longer and written more beautiful poems like these; and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, published in 2005, which is an astounding collection that travels through time to various stops along a spectrum of America in its most memorable hours.

And now, on to my favorite poetry books which were published in 2015...

Station Zed
By Tom Sleigh
(Graywolf Press)
There was a Bay, there was a Pig, there was a Missile.
There was a Screen, there was a Beard talking loud talk
in Spanish, there was the Screen in English calling him Dictator.

There was the floor of the room, a checkerboard
of brown and white squares, there were Moves
that were the right ones, and Moves that meant War.
       —from “Songs for the Cold War”
Tom Sleigh, a journalist, has done tours of duty in hotbeds of violence like Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Libya. He distills that experience into images that sear and burn and leave grill-marks on our hearts. I mean, just try forgetting a line like “The AK talks the talk of what guns talk.”

Emblems of the Passing World
By Adam Kirsch
(Other Press)
The high white collar and the bowler hat,
The black coat of respectability,
The starched cuff and the brandished cigarette
Are what he has decided we will see,
Though in the closet hangs an apron flecked
With bits of brain beside the rubber boots
Stained bloody brown from wading through the slick
That by the end of every workday coats
The killing floor he stands on.
       —from “Butcher’s Apprentice”
This has to be one of the most unique poetry collections I read this year. Adam Kirsch bases his poems off the work of August Sander, a German photographer whose haunting images caught his countrymen in the uneasy transition between World War One and the rise of Nazism. Kirsch’s words illuminate the photographs and imagine backstories to the war-weary people we see here. (Rather than include the cover of the book, I posted the photo above which accompanies the poem “Butcher’s Apprentice.”) As Kirsch writes in his Introduction: “The snapshot is meant to preserve not just an image but the moment of its taking; its intention is not documentary so much as memorial, and when we look at it we are remembering more than we are actually seeing.” One hundred years from now, a poet will undoubtedly do the same for our generation, writing a book called The Arm’s-Length Ego of the 21st-Century Selfie.

Dream Sender
By David Huddle
(Louisiana State University Press)
depressed is loading the shotgun in the car
to head for the woods when you’re not a hunter
or sitting with your back to the window
all day, and not even noticing you’ve
peed your pants.

                        Soon enough I’ll be Mister
Cheerful. Meanwhile I’m taking this class
for credit at the University of Twilight.
       —from “Okay”
In his poem “Gun Notes,” David Huddle wrote what I consider the epitaph for this sad, baffling year we’ve just gone through: “Violence-addicted gun-idiot/America, I’d shed you like a rattlesnake/scraping off its old skin except I’d still/be a rattlesnake.” Whether it’s dead schoolchildren in Newtown, high school band members who “reek of valve oil,” flu shots at Costco, or memories of his mother’s harsh discipline with a hairbrush, Huddle delivers accessible poems rendered in grounded imagery.

Cloudshade: Poems of the High Plains
By Lori Howe
(Sastrugi Press)
Dusk crosses
slender blue wrists
over the lake.
with augers
and bright jackets
haul away fishhuts
weathered as silver mines
from the Sierra Madres.
       —from “On the Ice”
Lori Howe finds exquisite beauty in the sometimes-barren, occasionally-stark and nearly-always-windswept landscape of Wyoming. In Cloudshade, Howe writes of abandoned houses overtaken by tree roots that ache like phantom limbs of amputees, “useless and attached to nothing/but memory;” of long-awaited rain that forms “a graceful glaze/on windows;” and of pigeons on telephone wires that look like “glad, warm bundles/of pewter/and blue.” These poems, more than any others this year, made me feel washed clean from the inside out.

Approaching Winter
By Floyd Skloot
(Louisiana State University Press)
The night the Martians landed in New Jersey
my father was just across the Hudson River
asking for my mother’s hand in marriage.
My grandfather is supposed to have said
You can have all of her. Then they drank
a schnapps, toasting life, toasting my mother
pacing in another room, and sat on the sofa
listening to chaos rising from the street.
       —from “October 30, 1938”
Starting with that marvelous poem in which his father proposes to his mother on the night of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast which panicked hundreds of people in 1938, Floyd Skloot casts his stanzas in the sepia of memory. Skloot, who is now approaching the winter season of his life, writes of growing up in New York in the 1950s, of the night his father died when “wind-blown snow raged at my bedroom window,” and of the tenderness of his own marriage. There’s also a series of poems about moments (some real, some imagined) in the lives of Dylan Thomas, Handel, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Beckett who throws out the first pitch at a Dodgers’ game. Reading this collection, I felt like I’d been embedded, like a wayward BB pellet, under Skloot’s skin and lived his life. And isn’t that the aim of all great memoirists?

Dark Sparkler
By Amber Tamblyn
(Harper Perennial)
The body is lifted from the red carpet,
put in a black bag,
taken to the mother’s screams
for identification.

The Country says good things
about the body.
       —from “Brittany Murphy”
I’m familiar with the too-short lives of actresses like Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, Dominique Dunne and Brittany Murphy...but Amber Tamblyn wants me to never forget the too-soon deaths of other celebrities and starlets like Thelma Todd, Judith Barsi, Peg Entwistle, Carole Landis, Anissa Jones, and the sad list goes on and on. Nobody rides off happy into a Tinseltown sunset here. Tamblyn’s poems burn, burn, burn with the sulfuric acid of accusation, sorrow and regret. Do you need a wake-up call to the ways Hollywood destroys us even while it entertains us? Read Dark Sparkler.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015

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