Here are some books of poems I’ve been enjoying recently. I’d like to write more about these books later if I ever have more time, but who knows when I will? Outside of business for work, at most I can read a few poems here and there. I mean, there's only five minutes until the door opens.
Is it possible to be a major contemporary poet that no one much has heard of? Robert Mittenthal might be an example. His poetry is always structurally complex, socially insightful, and more lyrical than one might expect for a poet who understands so much about the relation between language, history, and large-scale social structures. Value Unmapped, his new chapbook, starts out with a few intriguing short poems, perhaps not his most energetic work, that nonetheless bristle with misdirection and lost chances. The second half of the chapbook, though, contains the major work here, the long poem “Value UnMapped,” which is as good a poem as I’ve read by anybody in a while, a meditation on the alienation fostered by a public world in which words rarely mean what they say. “I saw you at the stop and pray, a temple built to Morse comma Samuel. The guy who dashed and dotted—fingers snapping in synch with his head—so that our mouths rope off whatever miswired thought.” Mittenthal lives in Seattle but in its understanding of the relation between political and linguistic structures, his writing is closest in spirit to the poets of Vancouver (where he lived for some years). If you see his work somewhere, don’t pass it by.
This second book by Susan Landers came as quite a surprise to me because it’s so completely unlike her first book. A sort of landscape poetry of contemporary, post 9/11 NYC is juxtaposed and intermingled with a rewriting, and a loosely procedural writing through, of Dante’s Inferno. I was somewhat skeptical of the concept at first: projects that write through another text can often turn into dry, overly intellectual exercises (and I say this having done them myself), and the metaphorical connection between hell and NYC seems a tad strained and obvious. But the poems themselves quickly overcame these worries by being so consistently inventive and powerful: “nothing about this is funny/ the way I come to enter this place / I am crowded by sleep and sleepy crowds crowding/” The quick cuts between lines and social frameworks make this book a very dynamic reading experience.
The world of poetry changes fast. Now that he’s lived in Paris for a few years, I’m not sure how many American poets remain aware of Joe Ross (I can hear Johannes Goransson complaining already, and rightly so). Joe’s writing has always been carefully crafted, not to mention socially and politically thoughtful. Among his numerous books and chapbooks, EQUATIONS just might be the best, a book that’s unafraid to risk emotional darkness along with its social insights. Don’t read more than a few at a time; short though they are, these are poems that require slowing down. They’re flatly conversational yet constantly veering towards hinted-at abysses: “There is no it there being smoked to the core. Empty rooms and hope: left./Stranded on the edge of strategy, you are the only and forget once again comes to mind.” I may not see Joe on the streets of DC anymore, but these new poems are ones I’m going to think about a long time.
If Elisa Gabbert isn’t my favorite writer among a younger generation of lyric poets whom I’ve never met, then.... well, wait, she is my favorite of those poets. Hands down, as they say. These poems, co-written with Kathleen Rooney, have some of the necessary creakiness of co-written works, but that creakiness only further serves the charm and biting humor that makes these poems, well, just more entertaining than poems are supposed to be. And I’m not using the word “entertaining” as some kind of sly put down either. These poems have more human interaction going on in a couple of lines than many writers manage in a couple of books. The linguistic energy and, really, virtuosity, can be stunning. These are poems that know what people are like when they’re around people. “Say your prayers, princess—/I didn’t become a knight to meet girls./I wouldn’t slay a dragon—/I became a knight to meet dragons.” I have to admit that I don’t know Kathleen Rooney’s solo writing, but I look forward to finding out more.
This first book by Los Angeles area writer Vanessa Place is only one sentence long. Kinda screwed up minimalism is that? But the sentence itself may just be the longest single sentence ever written. I’m still checking that out, so if anybody knows any sentences that are more than 130 pages, please fill me in. Clearly, such a book risks being mere intellectual exercise. But a startling range of subjects emerge and re-emerge in an obsessive focus that is easy to pay attention to and is simultaneously a rejection of singular focus. Read it directly from beginning to end, if you can manage that, or jump around. I was reminded somewhat of Steve McCafferys book Black Debt, at least on the level of the combination of intense restraint and intense chaos. And there’s black humor in plentiful doses too. “...those who would refuse to be the Empire’s lapdog, don’t fret, my pets, you’ll get the hang soon enough, and if not that, the gate...” I’ll be interested to see where Place’s work goes next.