So when you’re reading the best American poems for 2010 and one of best poems happens to be set in the very next tiny town from the tiny one you grew up in, that is a Very Cool Moment indeed.
(Or, maybe, I’m just a literary geek like that.)
But seriously, though … you gotta admit that is kind of cool. You don’t exactly expect teeny-tiny Jenkintown, Pennsylvania to pop up on page 131 of The Best American Poetry 2010, but there it is in Philadelphia native Tim Seibles’s poem “Allison Wolff.” (One of the best in this best of collection, mind you … and yes, I’d be saying that even if I didn’t feel all kindred city of brotherly lovey about him and his poem about an interracial, interfaith romance between two high school students in 1972.)
The truth is, many of these 75 poems are ones that are deserving of being called the best. This is only the second Best American Poetry series I’ve read (my first one, 2008, wasn’t quite to my liking) and I found these poems to be surprising, poignant, funny, provocative, and very contemporary. (From guest editor Amy Gerstler’s introduction: “An anthology can also provide a shadowy likeness of its time. Zeitgeist-y concerns and images that crop up in this sample of American poems of 2009 include: race, the ‘wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of lithium and Zoloft, AIDS, ‘presidential blackness’, sex education, religious fundamentalism, divorce, condoms, new views of motherhood, prison, depression, end times, fidelity, standardized tests.”
Among the poems I especially liked, in addition to Tim Seibles’s “Allison Wolff”:
Denise Duhamel’s “Play”: “our niece wrote a one-act play in which a man is being abused/ by his wife who is a witch a demon/ and the man’s kindly sister is trying to help him escape/ I know you are being abused as I was once too the heroine says/ my sister-in-law thought her brother was abused because he vacuumed once/ I guess she thought he was doting on me/ my husband thought he was abused because I asked him to cook dinner/ when he didn’t have a job for over a year.”
Moreso with the ending of this poem than the verses I’ve included here, Louise Gluck’s “At the River” reminded me a bit of Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” (“More and more that summer we understood/ that something was going to happen to us/ that would change us. And the group, all of us who used to meet this way/ the group would shatter, like a shell that falls away/ so the bird can emerge./ Only of course it would be two birds emerging, pairs of birds.”)
Dolly Lemke’s “I never went to that movie at 12:45” (“I’m not really okay with being alone in any sense. I have been afraid of the dark since I was 6 years old. I wish girls liked me more. There is an exact ratio of coffee, cream, and sugar in every cup I drink. Half the books I own I have never read.”)
A grudge becomes almost personified in Jeffrey McDaniel’s “The Grudge”: “I watered the grudge/ not with the fervent devotion/ of a nun clutching rosary beads./ not with the destructive clockwork/ of a drunk spilling vodka/ tumblers on the cactus erupting/through his heart ….”
Sarah Murphy’s “Letter to the Past after Long Silence”: “Listen, I am climbing memory’s slippery rungs. Listen, my hands are cold. Oh, I know it is over, stilled. Still, you filled my lungs with summer. The town was one tunnel of green. And I was still a girl, twirling in the trees, my body softened by August, my heart humming, a field full of bees.”
The letter Q takes on a different meaning in Sharon Olds’s “Q”: “Q belonged to Q. & A, to questions, and to foursomes, and fractions, it belonged to the Queen, to Quakers, to quintets – ”
On the destruction of the environment and society’s overconsumption, there’s J. Allyn Rosser’s “Children’s Children Speech”: “Now that we’re so globally sure it will end / we should prepare a speech defending all/ The spoils we’ve made so much of. Miracles/ Are merely things we think we don’t deserve./ We may as well prepare it now, the speech/ That would explain the things we had to have/ Were merely things we thought we would deserve/ In a heaven we had stopped believing in.”
The posthumous poem “Having My Say-So” by James Schuyler is incredibly powerful, the least reason of which is because it was written in 1956. (“What a dear good boy he is, I said aloud to the empty room. I never expected to feel like Elizabeth Barrett Browning again, not this soon. It’s not so soon. Surely it is undignified for a gent to want to take another gent bouquets, and absurd? Just as surely I could not care less. Surely it’s an incredible invasion of someone else’s privacy to sit around writing unsolicited poems to and about him? Well, as you-know-who would say, I’m sorry but I just can’t help it I feel this way. Deeply.”
On the denizens of the corporate world (we all know people like these here, right?) Terence Winch writes “Objects of Spiritual Significance”: “People love to humiliate each other. They are fools and liars, and will say or do whatever it takes to advance themselves in the world. They sit, one by one, on their barstools contemplating the failures of others, nibbling every downfall. The men are wearing invisible condoms, the women squabbling over who gets the best stem cells.”)
And finally, Matthew Yeager’s eternal questionning “A Jar of Balloons, or The Uncooked Rice,” of which the 12 pages in the anthology is only the beginning of 25 more pages to come. (But it kind of promises you a fun ride for 25 more pages.)
As you can (hopefully) see, these are not high-falutin’ poems. (Well, some of these in this anthology did kind of go over my head.) But you can actually understand the majority of these poems, which is kind of a deal-breaker for me. I have no interest or time in reading things I can’t understand. (Neither, it seems, does guest editor Amy Gerstler, who says “[m]y original idea for this introduction (which I scrapped, because I do not want to be labeled a slacker) was that it should consist in its entirety of this one sentence from Keats’s letters: ‘Here are the Poems – they will explain themselves – as all poems should do without any comment.”) Moreso than the 2008 edition that I read, this one seems to be trying to be accessible.
That seems to be intentional. As Amy Gerstler says, “I badly want this anthology to be read not only by poetry fans but also by famished souls who never dreamed they’d admire any text that called itself a poem.” I’d put myself much closer to the former rather than the latter, but I still find it difficult to say what it is about a particular poem that grabs me.
Ms. Gerstler goes on to add, “I’m not sure how to accomplish this. The publisher has not empowered me to give away thousands of free copies, dropping them from prop planes and blimps. The press run for this book is not going to be large enough to accommodate such a propaganda blitz, anyway. Nevertheless, I would love for this anthology to function as a gateway drug for the poetically resistant, uninitiated, or just plain scared. I’d like it to provide heady textual adventures that both the confirmed poetry parishioner and the new convert can savor.”
That is something that this collection absolutely does.
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