Ten Poems and One Contributor’s Note You Should Strongly Consider Reading. . .
Sep 15, 2015
6 Min read time
Jasper Johns's "Map," 1961. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
Ten Poems and One Contributor’s Note You Should Strongly Consider Reading from The Best American Poetry 2015 (Edited by Sherman Alexie), in Alphabetical Order, Just As They Appear in the Volume Itself
1. Mark Bibbins, “Swallowed”
If to see something is to consume it, to take it into yourself, does that mean that in seeing the world, you’ll be using it up? Bibbins’s enthusiastic couplets begin by asking such questions, using bizarre examples: “When I see an escalator I have to kiss / everyone on it, don’t you?” In a poem inspired by the deadly sin of gluttony, Bibbins impersonates a glutton, or maybe a citizen hungry for power—“off // to seize the world, the inside of its machine.” When does a wish for experience become a desire to control the story, to make everything into something that you understand?
2. Jericho Brown, “Homeland”
The joke—or at least the funny part; parts are no joke—is that white America fears vampires and black men, but not in that order, and it would rather watch films about vampires. We can’t bring dead black men back to life, nor can we put back, “at the end of a day in the dark fields,” the ghosts called history, the revenant called “race.” No wonder “nobody named Security ever believes me… Nobody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.”
3. Danielle DeTiberus, “In a Black Tank Top”
Calligrams aren’t just for Apollinaire anymore: DeTiberus (who has yet to publish a book) turns in a poem shaped like a tank top about watching “my man… in a black tank top”: “he looks fifteen / years younger, looks like all those silly boys / I knew in school” (note the break on “fifteen”). At the bottom, the black tank top comes off, and though there’s just a suggestion of skin, DeTiberus keeps up a sexy informality that’s at once cute and powerful, revving, and then reversing, the aren’t-you-hot male gaze.
3 1/2. Terrance Hayes, “Antebellum House Party”
Not the best poem in Hayes’s How to Be Drawn—but How to Be Drawn makes a plausible candidate for this year’s best book. Noteworthy not just for the extended comparison (at once deadpan and outraged) between slaves, or servants, or domestic workers, and furniture, but also as a kind of harbinger: look out for Hayes’s influence below.
4. Laura Kasischke, “For the Young Woman I Saw Hit by a Car While Riding Her Bike”
Not actually a sequel to Kasischke’s masterpiece “Bike Ride with Older Boys,” and not the best poem from Kasischke’s The Infinitesimals (a plausible candidate for last year’s best book), but a trauma witnessed, a trauma imagined, and a worse trauma remembered. The car accident itself was
in ten seconds. She
her wings like a little cough.)
okay?” someone else asked me.
Notice “me”; then go back and notice “wings.”
5. Donna Masini, “Anxieties.”
They’re “like ants / and more ants,” Masini says; her worries are also like “back taxes,” “sins,” “a nest / of jittery ties,” and will be for as long as they “exist.” Or does that last line mean that for a worrier such as Masini, her worries reassure her, somewhat twitchily, that she exists? Masini adopts the Scrabble-like form that Terrance Hayes created for his sequence “A Gram of &s,” back in 2002, in which each line-ending word can use only letters from the one-word title, so that “Anxieties” generates “ants,” “taxes,” “sins,” “exist”. . .
6. Donald Platt, “The Main Event”
Want a narrative poem that doesn’t sound dated, or clunky, or stunt-like? Platt did, so he wrote one: in 1962 one professional boxer killed another, in the ring, on live TV. The victim, Benny “The Kid” Paret, had called the killer, Emile Griffith, “a maricón / Cuban slang for ‘faggot.’” Griffith would later “become / world champ four more times”; he was, in fact, gay, and was once “beaten almost / to death by five young / homophobes, one with a baseball bat.” If you’re wondering why there should be narrative poems or reported stories in verse even today, one answer is that stories like this one benefit from the compression of verse, its ability to focus on single phrases and words. Another answer is Platt’s poem.
7. Raphael Rubinstein “Poem Begun on a Train”
Mostly for the beginning: “Excuse me while I adjust the privacy settings on this poem / so that if it’s ever published it will exist as a legible text / and not as a string of stubborn phrases I silently repeat to myself.” Five more pages about twenty-first century American—drowning in information, three leagues past privacy—follow, with plenty of information (Rubinstein is also a well-published art critic) and few longueurs.
8. Evie Shockley, “legend”
Thirty-three lines, one ex-con, one long-awaited reunion between two women in love, all done with just one vowel: “she’d greet her when / they re-met, necks nestled, / flesh welded, essence deep.” Canadian poet Christian Bök’s Eunoia is perhaps the best-known example of an English-language lipogram (a work that systematically avoids the use of one or more letters; here every vowel but “e”), but Shockley brings it home.
9. A. E. Stallings, “Ajar.”
A minor marital quarrel persuades the poet to retell the story of Pandora’s box, in triple rhyme: “the woes flew and ran riot, / But I say that the woes were words, and the only thing left was quiet.”
9 1/2. Monica Youn, “March of the Hanged Men”
In this series of terrifying monostichs the sources of terror include “hyperarticulated giant black ants,” the Second Coming, death itself, and life itself. Not in that order.
10. LaWanda Walters, “Goodness in Mississippi”
Another sharp poem in another form invented by Hayes: here it’s the Golden Shovel, in which all the lines end with the words, in order, repeated as needed, from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” Walters remembers her best friend from her teen years, now deceased, who “said I wasn’t fat but she was,” along with someone else we can admire:
We moved away from there one June,
Mississippi tight-mouthed as a lid on fig preserves. And we—
we white girls—knew nothing. The fire-bombed store, the owner who died
for paying his friends’ poll taxes. Anorexia would be famous soon.
• • •
One lesson from certain recent quarrels around another poem in Alexie’s volume is that you can make a mistake if you assume, from somebody’s name (LaWanda, for example), that you know their origins, or their skin tone, or how they themselves might describe their race. Walters’s contributor’s note (fuller version here) says she uses Brooks’s poem and Hayes’s Golden Shovel form “to express my white girl’s humility and awe towards a heroism for which all of us can never be grateful enough,” the heroism being that of the store owner, Vernon Dahmer, “who identified himself as black,” and who would “speak on a radio show (the morning before his murder) announcing the venue of his store as a safe place for people to come and sign up to vote.”
Another lesson is that all of us—not just self-identified people of color—have been and are still affected by race, and by racism: white people can and should speak and write about race and racism, about presuppositions and color lines, when we think we have something to say. If white folks—folks raised as white—do so in the wrong way, they (or 'we': I am a white person) may occlude people of color. But if white folks—folks raised as white—do so in the right ways, they can help prevent white perspectives from seeming—as they have seemed for so many white readers—like the “normal,” “natural,” unmarked, goes-without-saying point of view. Walters’s smartly measured poem is, among other things, an effort to do just that.
September 15, 2015
6 Min read time