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Poetry Picks — The Best Books of 2009

Selected by Bob Holman

By

The Book of Frank, by CA Conrad

(Chax Press, 2009) Hey, the short interlocking stanzas of CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank are poignant life boilers, sensuous colloquialisms, a saga of the everyday gone wrong and then righted and then wobbling on down the road thataway. Frank’s a surrealist realist, a guy who knows no pronouns, who hammers carrots all day so the earth can’t leave us. I like CA this way, when the colors all seem to harmonize and life itself is one big poem. Hard to match, this book reads itself to you.
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What the Right Hand Knows, by Tom Healy

What the Right Hand Knows, by Tom Healy
Four Way Books (cover image courtesy of Four Way Books)
(Four Way Books, 2009) “…we got giddy / drunk on good weather,” writes Tom Healy, and you believe him. “It’s called sistering / the joint,” and we understand. And what we believe and understand in this shimmering debut is that there is so much below the surface, inside the silence, contained in seemingly simple phrases, in, as the title says, What the Right Hand Knows. The insightful introduction by Richard Howard completes the package.
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Pink Elephant, by Rachel McKibbens

Pink Elephant, by Rachel McKibbens
Cypher Books (cover illustration by Mike Stilkey, designed by Emma White)
(Cypher Books, 2009) Another first book is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant, a brawling, voracious work of street punk. These are stories that bleed truth until they become something fantastic, no bars held. Mother of five doesn’t begin to describe this Mother of Us All. These poems don’t nurture you so much as kick you out and give you an independence you didn’t know you had in you. “The water was running. I couldn’t quite hear you. / I was pouring old milk out, into the sink.”
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Amuse Bouche, by Adeena Karasick

Amuse Bouche, by Adeena Karasick
Talonbooks, Ltd. (cover image used with permission)
(Talonbooks, Ltd., 2009) I came to Adeena Karasick’s Amuse Bouche by way of her hilarious, highly controversial “I’ve Got a Crush on Osama,” a parody of Obama Girl. Shoulda known that the book itself actually IS a series of “treats for the mouth,” one-offs, each “taste” a different recontextualization of “poem.” Try “Sure Plays a Mean Pin Ball” for tongue-tripping sound poetry; try on “Rules to Text By” for social networking etiquette. Karasick is never content with all the way, can’t stop at over the top: her “Commatery” takes commas and treats them graphically to match her puns: “commarade” has a Che face on the comma head. Fun with your new head—that’s Adeena Karasick.
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More Work Lovin’ It, by Beau Sia

More Work Lovin’ It, by Beau Sia
Beau Sia (cover image used with permission)
On the front of the chapbook, a drawing of a double fried egg, sunnyside up, and on the back, two sizzling bacon slices. It’s Beau Sia’s self-published More Work Lovin’ It, 60 pages of love. Beau lives his life as if it were art, and this book, like his concerts, performances, readings, one-man shows and releases on You Tube and on CD—well, it’s all projects. So there’s a slapdash feeling, an utter release and relief. But there’s also a ton of great go-for-broke writing, oddball quirkiness morphing into universal wisdom nuggets, and a ton of humor. He asks to be on the Guest List for the revolution. I ask you to see his new monovid, or buy this chapbook from beau.sia@gmail.com.

Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century, by Ed Sanders

Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century, by Ed Sanders
Coffee House Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Coffee House Press, 2009) Coffee House Press, bless their hearts, used 2009 to come out with two companion volumes of Ed Sanders: a revised “new and revised” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century (Selected Poems, 1961-85) and the new and selected listed below. Beautifully paced, with gorgeous glyphs and other image-tracks, Sanders again goes the way of the Muse and Maestri—paeans to his mentors, Creeley, Olson, Ginsberg, an ode to Ted Berrigan bemoaning the lack of health care, a new Sappho, Melville’s father, how Amram could have saved Kerouac from Republicanism and a plan hatched by McClure to give up a stash of Kerouac coats to Depp, some words set to Satie, the deer his partner Miriam feeds, additions to the Greek muses....
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Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War, by Ed Sanders

Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War, by Ed Sanders
Coffee House Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Coffee House Press, 2009) This is the second Coffee House collection from the Fugs’ lead warbler issued in 2009: Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War (New and Selected Poems 1986-2009), with an introduction by Joanne Kyger. Far-ranging, historically acute, and painfully beautiful, these two books are a great place to start to encounter A True American Original, our Whitman! Put the covers of these two gorgeous volumes together and each is half a bust of Sanders. Get ’em both!
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Made Flesh, by Craig Arnold

Made Flesh, by Craig Arnold
Ausable Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Ausable Press, 2009) Craig Arnold’s death while volcanoing in the outreaches of Japan this year leaves his Made Flesh just hanging there. The man was his own creation, a thrilling, jumpy performer and a take-no-prisoners, emotive, beauty-before-politesse writer. His poems rush at you, don’t stop even for the rhymes that try to anchor them: “And maybe the glass will spill and shatter / and maybe the man rejected / will kneel to help collect the small disaster / into a napkin…” Though there are plans for a posthumous volume, this book is the stuff of raw fire and feels like a writer on accelerants.
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Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish, by Breyten Breytenbach

Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish, by Breyten Breytenbach
Archipelago Books (cover art by Breyten Breytenbach, cover design by David Bullen Design)
(Archipelago Books, 2009) Book of the Year! A slender volume, a collaboration, a translation, a voice raised from the grave, a voice raised to the heavens for rebirth. Darwish died a few weeks after a reading he and Breytenbach gave, that last reading “shot through by an ongoing conversation with death.” Breytenbach began writing then, a conversation with Darwish that expanded and exploded after his death. It encompasses Darwish in Arabic and in English and French translations, Breytenbach working back and forth in Afrikaans and English. The poem, Voice Over, is a cry of love and loss—that Darwish’s voice will not be stilled, that Breytenbach’s retelling is in fact a first telling....
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Intimate Stranger, by Breyten Breytenbach

Intimate Stranger, by Breyten Breytenbach
Archipelago Books (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Archipelago Books, 2009) How can the world survive when the voice that held the slender hope, Darwish as poet of Palestine, is stilled? Perhaps by being kept alive by another fighter/writer for peace, Breytenbach, head of the extraordinary Goree Writers Institute on the “slave island” in Senegal, and South African freedom fighter. Archipelago Books has also published Breytenbach's Intimate Stranger this year—“candid and provocative reflections on reading and writing [that] guide without guiding, open mental channels, surprise, and inspire. A stirring glimpse into the mind of an artist...”
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