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Poetry Picks — The Best Books of 2009

Selected by Bob Holman

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Poetry Guide Bob Holman has been leafing through the newcomers in his personal poetry library, and has these notes on his favorites from 2009.

Bang Ditto, by Amber Tamblyn

Bang Ditto, by Amber Tamblyn
Manic D Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)

(Manic D Press, 2009) Movie actor/Poet Amber Tamblyn’s new book rocks, snarls your guts with poetry truth serum. “Up yours truly” she signs off her love letter to half the Coen Brothers... “There’s an Amber Alert for the missing identity / of a person who has spent her entire life / pretending to be someone else / for a living,” she writes in “If You’re Going Through Hell,” which concludes with the verbal salvo of someone tuning across the FM dial... and in “Learning to Trust Legs” she dares, “Go ahead. Ask me why I took the offer / to play a hooker when I knew that you always loved me more. Ask me.” Poems about acting and essence played out with a slash and burn humor—in a voice theatrical but totally grounded. A+

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Having None of It, by Adrienne Su

Having None of It, by Adrienne Su
Manic D Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Manic D Press, 2009) Also new from Jen Joseph’s super Manic D Press in San Francisco (celebrating 25 years of iconoclastic poesy) is Adrienne Su’s Having None of It. This is another A+ for its transparent beauty in simplicity. I knew Ms. Su when she was a quiet voice adrift (and winning!) in the early days of Poetry Slam. Her work has matured into a personal reflection reminiscent of slight movements in a lake—far-reaching ripples and unknown but very real depths. Still, quiet and still winning, the portrait of a woman of assurance and doubt, an artist caught in the web of life.
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Manatee/Humanity, by Anne Waldman

Manatee/Humanity, by Anne Waldman
Penguin Group USA (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Penguin, 2009) Manatee/Humanity is Anne Waldman’s book-length poem in search of the connections between species and the joining of ritual and politics. As ever, she’s got the really big issues right between her eyes—she may dance, sing or meditate, she engages in these activities with you, The Reader—but she is never far from from the frontlines of activism, and pushing you to take the Poet’s Vow to change the world along with her. And you’d be a fool to resist. The cover by Kiki Smith—woman devoured by wolf, woman nurturing wolf—helps carry the whole work into inner inner/outer outer space.
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Or To Begin Again, by Ann Lauterbach

Or To Begin Again, by Ann Lauterbach
Penguin Group USA (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Penguin, 2009) The centerpiece of Or To Begin Again is a retelling/deconstruction of Alice in Wonderland called “Alice in the Wasteland” and true to its title it crosses Lewis Carroll and T.S Eliot: it is playful Wittgenstein, just wonderful. Centered on the page, like a great fountain of words, it busies itself with the vision falling down the rabbit hole but illuminates the celestial galaxy. The rest of the book is often a kind of conversation with artists or works of art—Lauterbach notes that she is “interested in the differences between spoken utterance and written text.” All in all, this makes for a breakthrough for this poet of form and consequences—there’s a new springiness here, catapulting us into heretofore unconsidered regions.
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The Touch, by Cynthia Kraman

The Touch, New Poems by Cynthia Kraman
Bowery Books, YBK Publishers
(Bowery Books Series, YBK Publishers, 2009) The Touch is an odd bird—actually two books, Speak in the Dark and My Heart Was Like a Sword, the first plowing an immediacy and the second a kind of medieval transcendence. This mirrors Kraman’s career—she began with a bang, published her first book as Cynthia Genser (Taking on the Local Color, Wesleyan), then gave up her place in line to become punk rocker/poet Chinas Comidas with a rocking chapbook, Club 82, that immortalizes the tranny/punk scene in the East Village ca. 1977. She is currently a professor of Medieval Lit at the College of New Rochelle. This is an astonishing book, at once accessible and profound, formal and punk. I love it, and that’s why I published it at Bowery Books!
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Assorted Poems, by Susan Wheeler

Assorted Poems, by Susan Wheeler
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009) Susan Wheeler couldn’t publish a Selected—she’s much too edgy and lightning-bolt for that. So what we get is Assorted Poems, and that they are, weaving from the opening 17-line sonnet (perfect!) title poem of her first book, “Bag O’ Diamonds,” to the litany that concludes the book, “In Sky,” from the exhibition catalogue of Susanna Coffey. Tweets and pop references mix it up with classical allusions and complex poetic forms—who else could title “Loss Lieder”? A great place to start to know a terrific poet.
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censory impulse, by Erica Kaufman

censory impulse, by Erica Kaufman
Factory School/Heretical Texts (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Factory School, 2009) The run-oningness of Erica Kaufman’s work contradicts her Heretical Texts/Factory School title: censory impulse, which works best in no caps—her style throughout, that and very little punctuation and no titles. Having said that, each of the seven sections in this little classic has its own feel and, in three cases, insistent if idiosyncratic form (e.g., six-lines double spaced, six tercets, half sonnets). Far from the formal aura that is this work’s surface, I find it musical, even melodic, and fun—“another way to respirate / permit sadness ask what book / is the way to knit goodbye?”
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Rob the Plagiarist, by Robert Fitterman

Rob the Plagiarist, by Robert Fitterman
Roof Books (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
(Roof Books, 2009) The cover of proclaims it “A #1 Bestseller Worldwide” and “Coming Soon A Major Motion Picture” and slowly it dawns on you that the whole cover is a send-up of the DaVinci Code—yes, those are Mona Lisa’s eyes. That’s because the Rob of the title is none other than the trickster poet and number one literary appropriator on the planet, Rob Fitterman, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (great title!) was my Book of the Year 2004. This book uses Google searches (Evolution: Fitterman to Flarf), lines from each US state Poet laureate, keyword clouds, and other tricks and antilogics to give us poetry sans voice, or all voice.
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I No Longer Believe in the Sun/Love Poems to Katie Couric, by Derek Fenner

I No Longer Believe in the Sun/Love Poems to Katie Couric, by Derek Fenner
Bootstrap Productions (cover image used with permission)
(Bootstrap Productions, 2009) I don’t quite know what to make of this. At face value, author/artist Derek Fenner is obsessed with Couric, writes her letters about stalking her, makes drawings of her as Britney Spears, as Dorothy with Toto, with a ball gag, in police leathers. There are also home snapshots of Fenner as a boy, in high school, peeking his bearded, overweight self from behind a shower curtain. Then of course there’s the back cover, which seems to be a restraining order dated February 22, 2008, Katherine Anne “Katie” Couric vs. Derek Jack Fenner. There’s a disclaimer in the preface, declaring everything in the book is fiction. “Only the red thong is real,” he says. But of course the photo of him enthonged is in black and white….
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Scandalabra, by Derrick C. Brown

Scandalabra, by Derrick C. Brown
Write Bloody Publishing (cover image used with permission)
(Write Bloody Publishing, 2009) No doubt, Derrick C. Brown is a playa—renowned performer and publisher of fast-rising Write Bloody Books. Scandalabra is the book that cements the playa/performer as poet. This book—poetry, prose—is a beating heart and it can’t survive without the body of readers to surround it. Luckily the poems rule: He watches his mother wash dishes and she loses her wedding ring. He writes a sermon where the Lord is the Lord of Moray eel incisors, of crocodile gut swamp. As a former paratrooper he’s earned the right to tell us “war / is just one side losing less.” As a cross-country motor-cyclist we listen when he advises, “If you stop at the Four Aces Biker Bar, / you should get a bunch of breakfast.”
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