Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of Poetry, 2009

APOLOGIES FOR CRIBBING MY own list from the San Francisco Chronicle, but deadlines and grading take precedent over originality. I'll call special attention to my stocking stuffers--excellent books of poems that may fly under the radar of most lists.

The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, (Knopf; 327 pages; $30). A gorgeous and generous selection from the most important American poet of the previous century. Stand in awe at the bling in Stevens' first book, "Harmonium," but linger longer on his final collection, "The Rock," especially gems like "The World as Meditation," "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" and "The Planet on the Table." Amazing and enduring work.

Inseminating the Elephant, by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon; 93 pages; $22). Perillo's insightful work is less silly and more philosophical than Billy Collins', but just as funny. Imagine William Carlos Williams poems on roller skates, holding Roman candles in each hand, wearing a Viking costume, and racing down an abandoned waterslide, and you'll get an idea of what reading Perillo is like.

Face, by Sherman Alexie (Hanging Loose Press; 159 pages; $18). Alexie's poems are razors. Watch him lather up the faces of pop culture, Indian reservations, basketball and family. Then marvel at how his crazy sharp poems scrape them clean. This collection is Alexie's least angry and his most formal.

Archicembalo, by G.C. Waldrep (Tupelo Press; 64 pages; $16.95). Limning the line between verse and prose, this ingenious book takes the form of a 19th century "gamut," a kind of self-help primer that prefaced early American sheet music. The poems, forged in music's fire, instruct the reader not just about music and language but also about what we might call the internal symphony of the self.

Chronic, by D.A. Powell (Graywolf; 78 pages; $20). San Francisco remains one of the world's great cities for poetry, and Powell is its best poet. Powell's poems map the mysterious spaces where the internal and external world overlap, ultimately calling attention to the chronic afflictions affecting both.

Stocking stuffers:
Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno (Alice James Books; 80 pages; $15.95). A harrowing book about the murder of the poet's 18-year old daughter. The poems manage to be affecting and sorrowful without being exploitive, dramatic, or sentimental.

The Looking House by Fred Marchant (Graywolf; 63 pages; $15). An accomplished book about the problems of war and coming home from war. Meditative and introspective, these poems feel particularly relevant as America steps up its involvement in two wars.

The End of the West by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon; 96 pages; $15). A better and more mature book than his brother's more lauded effort. These poems feel like they are about everything.

And How to End It by Brian Clements (Quayle; 122 pages; $14). See my previous post about Clements two recent books. Great stuff from small but outstanding presses.

Sightmap by Brian Teare (University of California Press; 96 pages; $16.95). The ghost of Robert Duncan lives on in these fragmented poems that catapult across the map of the page. I just love what Teare does with language here.