Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Five Recent Books of Poetry That Reward Rereading

Time & Materials by Robert Hass (Ecco, 2007)—For me every new Hass volume is reason for celebration. They are rare enough occasions, and his most previous book, Sun Under Wood (Ecco, 1996), is the only one that has ever disappointed me, making the wait seem all the longer this time—and more tenuous. Would his poems still speak to me? The opening poem in the book is a mere couplet, but I can’t get enough of it.

Swoon by Victoria Redel (Chicago, 2003)—Though this is the oldest book on the list, it is the one I came across most recently, picking it up in a used book store just a couple weeks ago. I remember hearing something good about it when it was published—I don’t remember what it was or who said it, but I pulled it off the shelf, opened it at random, and almost immediately swooned. “The Bounty” is a wonderful poem set in a Costco about motherhood, the commercial abundance of America, and the desire to be part of the literary world, while also addressing the austere beauty of Jack Gilbert’s work. I even went online and ordered her first book of poems, Already the World (Kent State, 1995), and have found in it poems I will be returning to again and again as well.

Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly (Norton, 2008)—Beth Ann Fennelly is smart, sexy, and funny. I fell in love with her first book, Open House (Zoo, 2001), and was equally taken with her follow-up, Tender Hooks (Norton, 2004). Unmentionables continues her exploration of the places where domesticity and wildness overlap. The sensual poems of parenting from Tender Hooks are continued here, and the influence of John Berryman, which was apparent in Open House, is addressed directly here. In addition, in a number of poems she delves into explorations of her adopted home in the south, most satisfyingly in a twenty-page poem called “The Kudzu Chronicles.”

Green Squall by Jay Hopler (Yale, 2006)—A volume focused on failure and alienation that won one of the most prestigious first book awards in the country. What will he do for an encore? He likes to verb nouns, which is mostly striking, but begins to feel a bit reflexive and overdone at times. His humor about his own failings reminds me of the early volumes of Franz Wright, but Hopler has longer, more loose-limbed lines, and the relentless sunshine of his Florida setting seems instinctively at odds with his despair, though it also engages and offsets it. His is the third strong debut to come out of Florida recently. Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and Randall Mann’s Complaint in the Garden (Zoo, 2004) are both remarkable books. Each of these poets has a very distinctive voice, vital intelligence, knowledge of forms, and curiosity about history. I look forward to seeing what all of them do in their next books.

Bucolics by Maurice Manning (Harcourt, 2007)— This series of 80 unpunctuated and untitled monologues addressed to God (who the speaker refers to as Boss) in the voice of an uneducated farmer are lyrical, devout, questioning, and often very funny. Manning’s ear for the music of the rural vernacular was obvious in his two previous books, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (Yale, 2001) and A Companion for Owls (Harcourt, 2004). This guy is going to be raking in the awards before long.

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