This Be the Verse: Our Favorite Poetry Books 2021 (Mostly)

Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene (The Song Cave)

Punks: New & Selected Poems by John Keene, The Song Cave, 2021

Known to many for his smartly inventive stories, particularly those collected in Counternarratives, John Keene is also a poet whose work partakes of the same erudite voice and pointillist eye that marks his fiction. Ranging across two decades of published work, this volume of new and selected poems testifies to his stylistic dexterity as he explores issues of queer and African American identity against a backdrop of landscapes both intimate and historical, urban and pastoral. Some first lines evidence the overall richness of dictions on display: casual (“Like when we went to the Lenox first, for drinks, as he kept saying”), oracular (“Every morning the cry of steel against steel grows / more bearable”), oblique (“over the sighs of fingers and zippers / the projector’s wine the tussle of eyes”), slangy (“Oh little butch queen, don’t try it”), and candid (“Folks are right: my nose is wide open”). An invigorating sense of inhabiting a life permeates the collection; you come to understand that Keene’s multiple poetic tacks signal a larger thematic import—the polyphonic nature of the self. The poem “Sun” from a section titled “Trees” is formally austere yet rigorously sensual:

…our thighs as we lay
there as behind glass
framed on the wall
a relic you brought
me from when
you told me
sun, you taught
me to whisper skin
you taught me things. 

This is lyricism that holds the speaker to account for the actuality of experience; it is set within a volume that teaches us “things” about the beauty of multifarious speech.

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Albert Mobilio

Beautiful and Useless by Kim Min Jeong, translated by Soeun Seo and Jake Levine (Black Ocean, 2020)

Beautiful and Useless by Kim Min Jeong, translated by Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, Black Ocean, 2020

I want to call attention to the good work being done by Black Ocean, particularly through its series Moon Country, which, according to the website, “publishes new English translations of contemporary Korean poetry by both mid-career and up-and-coming poets who debuted after the IMF crisis,” along with many poets I admire. The author of four books of poetry and a selection of essays, Beautiful and Useless is Kim Min Jeong’s first collection in English. The first wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t read like a translation, which is rather miraculous because the poems sound casual and direct, more in the realm of the spoken than the written. “I did a talk with the poet An Chi in Xiamen, China./ She was seven years older than me./I’m a dragon, you’re a chicken, I said/ pretending to know shit.”  Birth years, language differences, feelings of cultural inferiority and superiority are contained within this exchange. Kim Min Jeong’s poems are simultaneously visceral (“if you stroke the stone’s dull manliness so long/it spurts juice”) and disembodied (“Hearts are weird/I send hearts for you/but they become my eyes, sparkling”). In their vulgarity and directness, the poems might seem artless and off the cuff, but they are not. Nor were Frank O’Hara’s. The difference is that O’Hara was a love poet and Kim Min Jeong is not. There is something cold, loveless and powerful about these poems.

John Yau

Twice Alive by Forrest Gander (New Directions)

Twice Alive by Forrest Gander, New Directions, 2021

Following close upon Forrest Gander’s 2019 Pulitzer-winning volume Be With, Twice Alive extends that collection’s meditation on the very essence of being—the way mortality, the limits of the self, sharpen and elevate our understanding of our place in the natural world, as well as our connection to others. With the subtitle “An Ecology of Intimacies,” this book aims to articulate something like a grand unified theory that might reconcile our resolutely interior emotional lives with nature’s ever expansive domain. Focusing on the intricate variations of lichen, the sentience of forests, as well as the man-made catastrophe of the California wildfires, Gander threads the macro through the micro to ecstatic effect. The volume’s second poem, “Unto Ourselves,” seems a clarion call for this transcendent interdependence:

… And as for the budding-out
of being we’d called passion? or the sensual
moments phrased into our gait
when we were coming to feel something,
when our shadows merged (not as
romance, but the real consequence
of our mutuality) with
shadows of the conifers along the steep
ravine, and completely naked and
without relief, the world parsed us
into the inhuman…

Deploying a scientific vocabulary that prizes specificity, Gander conjures heady music from the realm of the barely visible:

though crustose lichen relish
decay, vagrant lichen go all
hygroscophic, spores spurting
out through walls split
at the invagination forms 

The phrase “go all hygroscopic” lends the stanza an ever so slightly colloquial note, a move that the poet repeats in many instances, thus charging the complex imagery with conversational familiarity. Gander looks to remind us that even at the microscopic level we—our haphazard, flawed, quotidian selves—are kin to what we don’t yet understand. Twice Alive investigates and celebrates “the wheeling life around us” with pincer-like precision and unfailing lyricism. The poet is at the height of his considerable powers and, in consequence, makes our heedful attention imperative.


Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer, New Directions, 2021

I read Michael Palmer’s Plan of the City of O (1971) in 1972 and have been reading his work ever since. If, as Ludwig Wittgenstein deduced, language is a model for reality, and all models are simplifications and ultimately wrong, Palmer writes from this place of questioning and doubt, while remaining aware of and open to the contradictions of being alive in a world of widening gaps. The book’s first two lines suggest the parameters of the world the poems address and explore: “singing is prohibited in this café./Torture is permitted in this café.” What do we say? What can be said in a language that is essentially binary (right or wrong, yes or no) in its construction? Palmer has taken the lyric form, which we associate with the “I” and autobiography, and recast it from a social declaration to a philosophical one committed to discovering what can and cannot be said in a language built on binary thinking and its this or that logic. In Little Elegies for Sister Satan, Palmer continues his probing of language’s limits “by the Avenida of Counterfeit Songs/where language at last reaches its end.” What lifts these poems into a resonant domain are the words and music that the author merges to bring us to this: “And so, Sister, it is also true/that today I wrote nothing/and yesterday/same as you.” Palmer finds ways to be expansive within language’s ever tightening noose, its headlong push towards incommensurable extremes. These are profoundly beautiful and moving poems full of despair, sorrow, and humor about what can and cannot be said as we fall further into the brink.


The Matrix: Poems 1960-1970 by N.H. Pritchard (Ugly Duckling Presse); EECCHHOOEESS by N.H. Pritchard (DABA)

The Matrix: Poems 1960-1970 by N.H. Pritchard, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021

The exuberantly experimental poems of N.H. Pritchard—in particular, the volume titled The Matrix—were first published in the early ’70s; shortly thereafter his work ceased appearing in print. As a result, his significant contributions to the African American literary tradition as well as to postmodern poetry have gone unrecognized for decades. This reissue, along with another republished collection titled EECCHHOOEESS, bring a neglected poet back into wider view. A member of the Umbra poets, a group of Black writers who congregated in the East Village beginning in 1962, Pritchard manipulated typography, typeface, lineation, and repetition to create uncompromising work that today remains provocative both for its formal ingenuity and its obliquely pointed exploration of Black racial consciousness. “Totemic” gives some small indication of his skillful joining of Lewis Carroll-like linguistic play and themes of strife and reckoning:

snears bedecked the forest’s call
and the noon was wrecked
and the moon was heckled
and an end foretold a nation’s fall

drums beat upon a plain
and fumes of arrows amid the glooming waned
doom spoke silently proclaiming without song
the omen given by gabled quirk of wrong

However belated (Pritchard died in 1996), this recognition via fresh publication restores the author to his proper place in the avant-garde lineage that includes Concrete poetry, typewriting, and Visual Poetry. In addition to that important fact, having these books is an opportunity to experience the sheer pleasure of an elegantly venturesome mind at serious play.


Double Trio by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2021)

Double Trio by Nathaniel Mackey, New Directions, 2021

That condition of music that Walter Pater said we all aspire to has been reached by Nathaniel Mackey in his wild merging of sound and sense (both in making it and in rejecting its packaged forms). This is just one of pinnacles the poet has nimbly climbed in his three-volume boxed set, Double Trio, which bring together the latest installments of his two serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu.” In “Song of the Andoumboulou,” Mackey sings of dreamers and wanderers, musicians, dancers, philosophers, and poets, spirits in search, while in “Mu” he channels the voices of Dogon elders who lived in Mali, collapsing past and present, history and dream, everyday news and the vibratory lamentations and ecstasies of jazz improvisation. How do you look forward and how do you look back: “‘Don’t look back,’ we passed it on.” How does one live in a world that is trying to squeeze the life out you by any means possible? How does one resist? By the interweaving of music and meaning, of sound and sense (and its diehard pal, nonsense), of deliberate elisions and unexpected shifts, by letting an ornate style supersede sense, by working homophonically and following closely related sounds until you arrive at uninterrupted songs of praise, slowly making a mythic world where it is possible to search for some kind of harmony.


Art in Time by Cole Swensen (Nightboat Books)

Art in Time by Cole Swensen, Nightboat Books, 2021

In her 2005 book of poems, Landscapes on a Train, Cole Swensen turned an acute eye to the problem of representing landscape in language; she put agile pressure on vocabulary, syntax, and lineation to test her technique’s ability to convey the experience of movement through space in time. Art in Time, a category-resistant work in which poems are essays and essays function as poems, furthers that exploration of visual apprehension. These genre-crossing pieces approach a variety of visual artists—Chaïm Soutine, Agnés Varda, Tacita Dean, Renee Gladman, and Gustav Klimt, among others—employing in each case different narrative modes and voices. “Chaïm Soutine: Reeling Trees” intersperses art historical information (“He once commented to another painter, One day I’m going to assassinate my paintings) with elliptical, insightful readings of the paintings. About Soutine’s “Two Children on a Road,” she ruminates:

The children are lost—is the central fact—and that—
is what inheres—what shares the act

that losing is—and how it loosens
the ties that hold their bodies in—how we

are just a whim. Everything here is
children turned to wind—is air shearing

the light off skin. They ran
because they love the storm they were running in.

Swensen’s essay-poems possess a dance-like quality as they move into and around artworks; there is a sense of a peripatetic intelligence unwilling to rest on a predictable vantage. Her hybrid method itself offers an experiential lesson in how we can come to art with a willingness to see and see again.


Refractive Africa by Will Alexander (New Directions)

Refractive Africa by Will Alexander, New Directions, 2021

There is likely no poetry more propulsive, visually kinetic, and intricately layered than that composed by Will Alexander. This continues to be the case with his new volume, Refractive Africa, which features three long poems—“Based on the Bush of Ghosts,” “Congo,” and “Eruption from the Compound of Living”—each of which is a tumultuously multi-syllabic train ride rushing ever forward. Board this express by way of the opening stanza from “The Congo”:

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

As Akashic sangoma
I peer into the Congo
as transpersonal witness
as incisively faceted tiger
having the powers of a shark
via forces that sculpt the lenticular as lightning
perhaps a telepathic wakefulness 
perhaps magisterial conjuration
creating migrational litmus in my blood
thereby knowing the dangerous template that is the Congo

The adjectival surfeit and imagistic swerves can be vertiginous, but if the reader holds on the trip is revelatory. Alexander’s seemingly over-rich language and ideation establish an imaginative realm that is entirely unlike any other, one in which we are immersed in sheer, coruscating energy. “[P]erhaps / I am an osmotic conjurer,” the poet speculates, “alive with aleatoric electrification / that spikes the auspices of all suns.” Embodying an intensity of feeling that brims close to overwhelming, these poems bear persuasive witness to the history of Africa, of colonialism, and of Black selfhood and resistance. Too much on these themes, Alexander asserts, is not nearly enough.


Chicago Review: Contemporary Korean Poetry, curated by Don Mee Choi (Issue 4/Volume 65/Issue 1/2021)

Chicago Review: Contemporary Korean Poetry, curated by Don Mee Choi

Along with death and taxes, and slick spewers of white supremacy claiming to be victims, one thing you can count on is the Chicago Review producing a special issue devoted to a person, movement, or affiliated group that will be of interest to people who want to know what’s going on but are not interested in the marketplace or the latest fad. Over the years they have devoted issues to Barbara Guest, Christopher Middleton, Stan Brakhage, and Ed Dorn, all challenging and important figures. Beginning with Yi Sang (1910-1937), who is widely considered to be one of Korea’s first modernist poets, Don Mee Choi has brought together 12 poets from different generations, including Kim Suyong (1921-1968), Choi Seungja (b. 1952), and Lee Soho (b. 1988). Just as the Dansaekhwa artists broke away from both Japanese imperialism and Western gestural and geometric abstraction, and attained something all their own, it is clear that an equally strong group of poets emerged in Korea, many of them women, beginning in the late 1960s, during a period of political and social turmoil. And just as the painters were deeply involved with the physical nature of a painting, many of the poets engaged with the body. One of the most radical is Kim Eo Hee, whose prose poem “Whisperingly” begins: “it’s me, dear, the genitals of Buddha’s boundless mercy of your dreams, it’s me, me dear, the one you feed your fingers to when it’s night every night […].” There is nothing being written like this in English, which is just one of many reasons to find out what is going on in Korean poetry. Along with essays by Youna Kwak and Stephen Hong Sohn, Don Mee Choi has provided the curious reader with an engaging selection of Korean poems and contexts in which to read them.


These titles are available online and in bookstores.


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