September 9, 2004

On Recent American Poetry

Each time I come into the office, I find them in my mailbox. Sometimes they’re shrink-wrapped. Sometimes they have nice notes from the publisher, sometimes just Review Copy printed across the cover. Six or eight books a week, I would guess, new collections of poetry, some of them with true significance—new books, just this month, from Rita Dove, Stephen Dunn, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, along with the selected works of Peter Everwine, Michael Ryan, Nicholas Christopher. Mostly, though, they are books by people I’ve never heard of, many of them winners of first-book contests (often, I haven’t even heard of the contest). If I read them all, there’d be no time to read anything else, not submissions, not student papers, the books I teach, the hundred or so books I’ll need to pass my comps, not all those classic novels that have eluded me all these years, or Tim O’Brien’s new novel, or the new biography of Goya, or other literary magazines, the paper, websites, e-mail, etc. With almost everyone in academia having this same problem, it’s no wonder so many fine books slip between the cracks. With this in mind, I’ve put together a short list of recent books of poetry that were well worth my time.

1) Rodney Jones’s The Kingdom of an Instant is a clear-sighted and dense look upon, among other things, contemporary southern culture, politics and religion. Jones is both critical and nostalgic for the south, while infusing his work with contemporary references to George Bush and 9/11. The book’s politics is secondary to its language though, and in several longer poems in sequence Jones expands on the stylistic range he demonstrated in Elegy for the Southern Drawl.

2) Beth Anne Fennelly’s Tender Hooks finds Fennelly writing with the same authority and grace that made her first book, Open House, a bit of a phenomenon. The book, much of which deals with childbirth and motherhood, not only avoids sentimentality, but actually infuses the mother-daughter relationship with all the violence, sexuality, tenderness and grief that lies at the human core.

3) Balancing realism and surrealism, in poems with titles like “When I was the Moon” and “The Boy with His Mother Inside of Him,” Kelle Groom’s Underwater City introduces us to a voice that is both ghost-like and full of wonder. Her imagery is as fantastical and as clear as Magritte’s and in poems like “Butterfly Dream,” which uses the fantastic image of a thousand butterflies alighting on the skin to move between sexual fantasy and abuse, the tone is elegiac and celebratory at once. At times, Groom’s poems are so powerful that they seem to touch at undiscovered emotional centers that both shake and comfort us.

4) Richard Terrill’s Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the 2004 Minnesota Book Award, brings the sensibility of a musician to poems, not only about music, but about love, family, and “the part of life/ that’s not music.” Even landscape is informed with a sense of jazz, as in these lines from “Solstice,” which move almost improvisationally down the page: “how much/ can we gain how much/ we long to lose to this cold/ garden under a hard snow/ once in each school of days we note.”

5) Lyrical, oftentimes formal, Nick Norwood’s The Soft Blare takes on subjects as daunting as Jan Vermeer and, more idiosyncratically, the life and reign of Ludwig II of Bavaria. Norwood wears his learning lightly, though, never stepping on the toes of his subjects and allowing his insights to rise naturally ought of the fascinating scenes he creates. The story of Ludwig himself, told in a section of poems that moves through a diversity of voices, would be a remarkable book in itself, but there’s plenty to adore in Norwood’s shorter lyrics as well, which are as witty as they are wondrous.

More complete book reviews can be found towards the back of each issue of The Missouri Review.

–Steve Gehrke

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