Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Summer Reading Quick Takes (part one)

Now that my summer reading time has crashed and burned, I thought I’d provide just a few brief thoughts about some of the books I read this summer. Look for this series to continue over the next several weeks, if I have time. And I have more than a few books that I picked up this summer that I haven’t yet had the chance to read. I hope I get to them soon but I’m not counting on it.

Contemporary Poetry

Sina Queryas, Expressway. One of the books of contemporary poetry that I most enjoyed this summer, the poems in Expressway have a smart, up-to-the minute geopolitics with a fine combination of irony and intensity. The sense of line was consistently energetic. In particular I was persuaded by the interactions these poems detail between human material construction, environmental problems, and stifling social limitations, all on a world scale that nonetheless always precisely reflects the specifics of locality. A truly translocal poetics.

I also enjoyed reading this summer Queryas’ earlier book Lemon Hound, with intriguing repetition and variation in its sentences, and subject matter moving between the possibilities, sadness and ironies of human interaction and an inventive, knowing pastoralism. An impressive updating of how nature poems can be made to work in a way that doesn’t seem old-fashioned.

Michelle Notebook, Uncaged. This 2009 book of English poems by Michelle Noteboom, resident of Paris, with facing translations by her husband, Oulipo poet Frederic Forte, felt a little overly loose to me at the start but gripped me more and more as the book went on and I absorbed the tone more thoroughly. By the time I finished, I was a big fan. To me the lines and poems were often most effective when most cutting, but there was also a genuine, significant sense of loss that came through even when the poems went most on the attack.

Judith Goldman, The Dispossessions. This 20-some pages chapbook was relentless, beautifully written, brutal and eye-opening. The energy, determination, and frustration, along with the jagged shifts of the lines, make this a totally unforgettable small group of poems. There have to be other people out there besides me who know how good a poet Judith Goldman is, right? Help me out here.

Joshua Harmon, Scape. A powerful sense of mood and place. A sense of desire in isolation too—a different relation to desire and the world than I usually take up even when I'm working with melancholy, but Harmon manages to make it vivid, not so much simply through images but in a feel created by a combination of tone, perspective, and detail. The tightly twisted yet still crackling language may be the thing that made it all work so well. The lines had tension and bounce so that the moodiness never came across as flat. It was especially curious to read this book on the beach in southern California--I think that contrast highlighted for me the regionality of the scapes. It really was a different "world" and I could feel myself in it.

Tim Atkins, Horace. Is anybody right now writing poems wittier than these? Hard to imagine. These free-range “translations” of Horace are sexy, hilarious, and informed, and their playful classicism is somehow utterly contemporary. The sense of line and the consistently inventive line breaks are astonishingly tight.

Johannes Görannson, Pilot (“Johan the Carousel Horse”). Especially noteworthy about these crafty and slippery little poems is how they are placed next to their translations in a way that defamiliarizes the usual poem/facing page translation dichotomy. Neither the Swedish or English versions in this book become in any clear way the dominant or subservient ones. Both seem translations of each other, that is, interactions with each other. Gone here then is the idea that a translation constitutes a second-order poem. There’s also a pleasant bit of creepy gooeyness to add to the bodily instability that these poems often address.

More poetry reviews coming next week.

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