Books of the year: A few of my favorite things

Here are a few of my favorite things from the past year. The list doesn’t represent the best books–it can’t–I haven’t read all the books! It represents books that stuck with me. That I would buy and give and happily have on my shelves. I’m adding a note about gift appeal at the end of these entries because many people ask me about books to give. Some books make great gifts. I want to know what those are too. I’ll open the comment stream for this…and rather than post volume 2, I think I’ll add it when I’m done. So here’s a start. Happy listing.

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, eds. New Directions, 2013

I have this on my coffee table at home and everyone who walks in goes directly to it. And why not? It’s a dream text, part art, part archive, all poetry, and gorgeous. Can a poet be so talented her trash is art? Or, is poetry really a muscle so common it becomes how we see the world? As a friend once said to me of poetry, I don’t understand it all the time, but in terms of reading it’s such a smart investment because I can read the same book again and again… Well, ditto this thing of beauty from New Directions. Huge thanks to Bervin and Werner who must surely have had to advocate for this. And for giving us Emily Dickinson all over again. A whole new way of reading her work. Gift appeal: high & wide.

Louise Glück, Poems 1962-2012, Louise Glück, FSG 2012

So much to say about this collection, and I regret not having time to write a full response, though I do plan on it. This collected made me so happy: how few women’s collecteds grace our shelves? How few take up critical attention? Why is that? I was surprised to see so little discussion on this collected, but do check out Michael Robbins in LARB.

I admit I haven’t always been a Glück fan, so while my peers in the 90s were raving about Wild Iris I was firmly in the Meh, bleh, camp. Really? Flowers? Not for me. Too precious, and to be frank, dull. A poem like “Clear Morning” (251) sums up all that irks. And yet, I was struck by the mind, and so I did go back to her essays, Proofs & Theories, again and again. But, but, encountering the work of Glück in this massive way led me into an interior world that I had not realized how much I missed. I loved “First Born,” “The House on Marshland,” “Descending Figure,” “The Triumph of Achilles.” When I got to the famous books I was decidedly less interested…but now they had context and I was much less impatient. Nothing is resolved. Everything is looked at deeply. Looked at again. You have to have patience for it. But there it is. Here, from The Triumph of Achilles, is “Elms”

All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.

Gift appeal: high.

Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds, Knopf 2013

Ditto Olds! Didn’t we all have to come to terms with her in the 90s and didn’t it seem like she just wrote the same poem over and over again? And aren’t there SOOOOO many Olds imitators that by now it all seems more than a bit laughable? Well, yes, but here, in chronicling her humiliating divorce after a life time of writing about her intimacy, she gets at what she got to in The Gold Cell way back when: that combination of deadly observation, emotional risk and deadly target that slayed us all. Stag’s Leap reminds us of why she is so widely imitated and emulated. She does what she does well: she doesn’t look away from the pain until she transforms it into a key hole she slips out of. Imitate that for one poem, or two, sure, but try it for a lifetime. Like Glück, there is an accumulated force here that’s undeniable. It’s written outside of most of the poetic discourses I respect, but it’s written with a level of emotional temerity and intelligence that is equally impressive to me. Gift appeal: poets and high.

An Army of Lovers, Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, City Lights Books, 2013

Oh my god. That was really my first response to this book. What so many other poets strive to do, Juliana Spahr seems to do in breathing and walking…she makes it look easy to be one of the most exciting poets writing today. This book is a provocation to all poets: put your poetry where you live, where you breathe, where you resist. We’ll be posting an excerpt soon, but it won’t be enough. You have to read the radical rewrite of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry,” because it will knock your assumptions out of this galaxy. Gift appeal: poets and high.

The Polymers, Adam Dickinson, Anansi 2013

Amazing. A fully realized project and also, a thing of beauty.

See the review here, excerpt here, and interview here. Gift appeal: poets.

Trances of the Blast, Mary Ruefle, Wave 2013

Ruefle reminds me of Dorothea Lasky, a poet who is willfully and irrepressibly herself.

I think it was Saturday and my mother was
pregnant with me and she could not find
a place to eat the restaurants were crowded
it was the Saturday before Christmas
so she bought a meatpie some fries
a carton of milk from a kiosk
and I became a person.

I could just quote lines from Ruefle all day. “Everything that ever happened to me/ is just hanging–crushed/ and sparkling–in the air/ waiting to happen to you.” I could Tweet them like little origami bubble gum wrappers: “You are helium. You make everything rise.” Leave them like little squeaky toys under cushions for anonymous diners. I could talk about the metaphysical anxiety, the displacement of time, the joy of imagination, the delight in visual metaphor, the way the family is embodied and memory given space, I could. But I’m just saying, I liked it. A lot. Gift appeal: select.

Boycott, Vanessa Place, UDP 2013

Place is one of our most mischievous writers. As conceptual poets go she is probably the most “in your face.” Recently she incorporated herself. Why do I love her? She’s voraciously intelligent and rakish. She’s engaged in a kind of end-game poetics, but she can also have a lot of fun. In Boycott she asks, quite simply, what happens when you change the gender in famous feminist texts. Here’s a sample:

I write man; man must write man. And man, man. So only an oblique consideration will be found here of man; it’s up to him to say where his masculinity and masculinity are at: this will concern us once men have opened their eyes and seen themselves clearly! (see full excerpt here)

Gift appeal: high and poet.

Seven American Deaths and Disasters, Kenneth Goldsmith, Powerhouse Books, 2013


I’ll let Dwight Garner, from the New York Times recommend this one:

Mr. Goldsmith, who refers to his writing as “mimetic and uncreative,” recently became the first poet laureate appointed by the Museum of Modern Art. There’s a good deal of Andy Warhol in his deadpan attack. His stuff has often been more rewarding to think about than to read.

His potent new book, “Seven American Deaths and Disasters,” takes its title from a series of Warhol paintings. It’s made up entirely of other people’s words, and in many senses it’s like everything he’s done. Yet it’s like nothing he’s done. It knocks the air from your lungs.

To make “Seven American Deaths and Disasters,” Mr. Goldsmith has combed through archival radio and television broadcasts of painful events over the past six decades: there are chapters about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and John Lennon; the explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger; the shootings at Columbine High School; the attacks at the World Trade Center; and the death of Michael Jackson — and he has transcribed the reports as they unfurled on the air, live and unmediated.

To Mr. Goldsmith’s detractors this may seem like a cheap stunt, a snort of disaster porn. Or it may seem like proof that, in the author’s case, even a blind and snoutless pig will occasionally find a truffle. At times it made me uneasy.

But Mr. Goldsmith has also delivered a kind of found treasure of the American vernacular. His book is about the sounds our culture makes when the reassuring smooth jazz of much of our broadcast media breaks down, when disc jockeys and news anchors are forced to find words for events that are nearly impossible to describe. This book is about language under duress.

Gift appeal: high and wide.

Lazy Bastardism: Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry, Carmine Starnino, Gaspereau 2012

Well wrought, old school essays, by Carmine Starnino, who has made a career of taking down the overly-discussed and plotting revenge for the under-appreciated. This stance limits the appeal, I think, but despite not agreeing with much of his assessment of bp Nichol, for example, I admired the author for trying to grapple outside of his usual fields and makes for an engaging read. I don’t think it’s such a risk to write an essay in praise of Karen Solie or David O’Meara and I don’t think these essays, particularly the Solie, add much insight to her body of work (she treats her unladylike bon mots like the organic accretions of an emotional and psychological state),  but I very much enjoyed reading about John Glassco–that’s a fantastic chapter, and partly I think because the author is having a lot of fun too. I was unconvinced that either Michael Harris or Robyn Sarah are under-appreciated, but like Starnino, I do wonder what all the fuss over AF Moritz is. In the same vein, I didn’t care for Margaret Atwood’s The Door, but I’m not surprised by that given the breadth of her career. The essay seems an indictment of fame, but again, it’s an intriguing read. You should see for yourself. Wherever you stand, you’ll appreciate the clarity, and the drive–twenty years of peering into the heart of Canadian poetry–even if, as in my case, you don’t agree with many of the arguments at hand. You can read an excerpt here. Also, I have to ask why this book not talked about and reviewed more? What comparable book on Canadian poetry was published in the last 18 months? Gift appeal: select.

Drunk Mom, Jowita Bydlowska. Doubleday Canada, 2013

Loved this breath of fresh air. Energetic, harrowing, deadpan. Here’s a bit from my earlier review:

“Bydlowska doesn’t offer a happy moment at the end of her narrative, though since the author is sober and the book exists we know that the sobriety has lasted long enough for us to feel okay about her future. This lack of an appropriate conclusion is partly what seems to have pissed off Hampson and caused her to scold Bydlowska. This should be very familiar to women writers everywhere. And the reason Virginia Woolf wrote about killing the angel in the house. This should be familiar to those of us who feel trapped by feminine virtues. I would say though, that what we need to kill is the narrative structures and expectations that contain women a/ in the house b/ with tongues latched half shut and c/ swirling around in self-doubt. I am wary of the ways in which women have to perform certain kinds of conciliatory or redemptive endings. At the end, the author of Drunk Mom is aware she’s a drunk. She’s no longer delusional about managing her addiction–a huge step. I’m not sure what more we can ask for.”

Find the review here. Gift appeal: high & wide.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, Scribner 2013

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s vast novel set in the New York art world of the 70s and Italy, and then back in time to Brazil, and including many cameos of famous artists and the invention of the motorcyle, and more. It’s a fabulously sprawling novel with speed and art at its core. Brilliant language and sentences (I’ll add some samples later on). But what caught me and held me was the promise of the central character, well, arguably the central character, a young woman in the 1970s who rides a motorcyle, briefly and who is, briefly, “the world’s fastest chick.” The book was less thrilling when the two dominant male characters took over and we had a more conventional love plot with Reno at the center. Still, these are great characters, so the irritation was not as high as it would have been, but we never see our girl achieve the art she is set out to achieve…and by now I’ve had enough of the aborted awakening narrative, I want to see the girl win. A fantastic read. Gift appeal: high & wide.

Hellgoing, Lynn Coady, Anansi 2013

There’s Alice Munro and then there’s dull…so goes the story about Canadian fiction, right? No, not right, but some days it feels that way. The first story in this collection felt like a workshop story to me, so I resisted it for a few weeks, but I perservered and was rewarded. One of the smartest, least full of itself collections of Canadian fiction I have read in some time. Not a whiff of self importance. Gift appeal: high.

Infinity Net, Yayoi Kusama, University of Chicago, 2012
Yayoi Kusama, Tate, 2012

No matter how I may suffer for my art, I will have no regrets. This is the way I have lived my life, and it is the way I shall go on living.  -Yayoi Kusama

Both the autobiography, Infinity Net, recently translated into English, and the catalog from her retrospective deserve to be in every poet and art lover’s library. Nine decades of art. This is the woman who created the famous happenings in NYC in the 60s. She’s the one who made Andy Warhol work so hard. She’s the one who wrote the President of France for advice on how to come to his country, and who wrote to Georgia O’Keefe, “How can I live in this world?” She has been in an asylum in Toyo for more than a decade, but continues, every day, to go to her studio and make art. Gift appeal: high and vast.

The Water Here Is Never Blue, Shelagh Plunkett, Penguin 2013

You can find an excerpt from this arresting memoir up on volume 7. This is a memoir in the sense of active remembering, or trying to piece together a raft of memories, a few facts, a lot of feeling. Ironically it captured a moment from my own childhood, and I think many of us who grew up in the 70s and witnessed, or had fantasies of slipping away into another world. This is an account of that, and a whole lot more. Gift appeal: wide.

Sina Queyras, Montreal