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Poetry Picks: The Best of 2004

Lenny Bruce, C.D. Wright, Kirmen Uribe, Youussou N’Dour, Brian Wilson...

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Let the Buyer Beware, by Lenny Bruce
Sony Records

Maybe the best gift poetry can get (remember, You are Poetry!) is the marvelous “The Poetry Issue” of the New York Times Book Review. Dated November 21, 2004, you’ll find Sapphire’s name on the cover, John Ashbery sounding cozy on the inside, and everybody else fits between the covers (except the spoken word crew, of course, but for a sidelong mention in the Dana Gioia review).

List topping is the brand-new six-CD Box of Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware! from Shout! Factory, produced by our old pal Hal Willner, who spent years on this beauty. It shows. The cuts range from familiar classic (“To is a Preposition / Come Is a Verb”) to bootlegged tapes from the Ed Sanders Archive to astonishing work tapes that the obsessive Bruce recorded on four individual tracks of “budget” Shamrock Reel-to-Reel tape (must listen: Zeidler & Zeidler Commercials, as Lenny desperately tries to box himself into a department store radio ad). The notes are precise and readable. Ladies and Gentleman, Lenny Bruce is alive and well, finally –- you better bring your toothbrush.

C.D. Wright won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant this year, and has published two great books recently that show why. Steal Away: Selected & New (Copper Canyon) highlights the diversity of her writing: Arkansas’ tale twang, formalist avant, and her lyrical “Retablos,” which separate the book’s sections. One Big Self (Twin Palms) is a huge coffee table book of portrait photographs of prisoners in Angola and other Louisiana penitentiaries taken by Deborah Luster, who has collaborated with Wright on several projects, accompanied by fragmented verbal portraits that Wright “took” of the incarcerated. Go to the bookstore and look at this book! C.D.’s newest book, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, prose bits and poetry bites, is also from Copper Canyon.

Zaharregia, txikiegia agian (love that Basque! this translates: “Too Old, Too Small, Maybe”) is a book in a CD package of the poetry of Kirmen Uribe, who in his early 30s is already thought of by many as the Basque National Poet (well, if Basque were a nation). With a brilliant four-piece band and accompanied by readings by Kirman and the marvelous translations of Elizabeth Macklin, this is the poetry CD I listened to the most this year. Listenable, danceable, and after you’ve read Kirman’s simple, devastating poems, unforgettable.

Other spoken word CDs not to miss:

  • Youussou N’Dour’s Egypt -- West Africa’s premier griot explores the Egyptian-Jali connect.
  • Putumayo’s Mali to Memphis collaboration of West African & U.S. blues, revealing the mutual influences. Standout: Jessie Mae Hemphill’s composed-on-the-tongue “Standing in my Doorway Crying”
  • Brian Wilson’s Smile -- Van Dyke Parks’ poem “Surf’s Up” is the Greatest Surf Poem Ever Written.

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