Best Books of Poetry in 2018: Long List

Saturday, December 22, 2018

“If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving”

I have written in this blog about the Search Engine Generation and its relation to “The Information Age.” Lists have certainly proliferated as a form meant to shape how the “hunter-gatherers” of social media perceive their urban environment and strive to include their aspirations within ongoing legal disputes about identity, right, and obligations. (I owe the notion of the transmogrification of clusters of electronically embedded individuals into “hunter-gatherers” to Brooks Roddan, who wrote about it in his blog.) Books and lists of books are a minor part of that confluence, but no matter how minor a role books might be reduced to, they will persist; if books were to vanish — like some species whose evisceration left no wisp of a fossil record — I suspect that someone would “invent” them all over again. And I don’t mean something read on a digital screen, but words printed on paper, cut into pages, and bound in a way as to pose upright on a shelf. In part, this intervention derives from a public ambition: no matter how minor a skill literacy might seem, given its paltry rewards, those who band together to reinforce the poetics of literate consciousness can have an unexpected influence. As I have noted in papers I have presented at various academic conferences, Donald Allen’s anthology did more than serve as an ignition point for “post-modern” poetry. It also announced that a new front had been opened in the civil rights movement, in particular in regards to homosexuality and drug use.

One can see this impetus again in the prevalence of independent presses in the list of recommended books of poetry on the website, Entropy. Although long established publishers such as New Directions, Penguin, Milkweed, Graywolf, and Omnidawn make appearances on Entropy’s list, Entropy’s chorus is permeated by enterprises such as Timeless Infinite Light; University of Hell Press; and Entre Rios Books. Entropy’s list is compiled from suggestions by a large group of its reviewers, and I have serious doubts that every reviewer who contributed to the list has read all the books on the list. I myself only recognize a minority of the poets whose books are on Entropy’s list; on the other hand, the lists drawn up by gatekeeper reviewers such as Dan Chiasson, Elizabeth Lund, David Orr, Adam Morgan, and Michael Robbins have more familiar names, and
here is a list of books I concur with these readers as deserving our sustained attention:

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) EL

Ghost Of by Siana Khoi Nguyen (Omnidawn)

Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

For an Ineffable Metrics of the Desert by Mostafa Nissabouri, Edited by Guy Bennett, Translated by Guy Bennett, Pierre Joris, Addie Leak and Teresa Villa-Ignacio (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions)

Wade in the Water – Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Jyesoon (Tranlated by Don Mee Choi) (New Directions)

At Your Feet by Ana Cristina Cesar, edited by Katrina Dodson (translated by Brenda Hillman and Helen Hillman) (Parlor Press)

Feeld by jos Charles (Milkweed)

Lo Terciario / The Tertiary Raquel Salas Rivera (Timeless Infinite Light)

City of the Future by Sesshu Foster (Kaya Press)

New Poems of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdich (Graywolf)

Like by A. E. Stallings (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave)

Surge by Etel Adnan (Nightboat)

Be With by Forrest Gander (New Directions)

I do wonder, however, how an outstanding book of poetry such as Brendan Lorber’s If This Is Paradise, Why Are We Still Driving did not make a single one of these lists. I want to make it clear that in nominating Lorber’s book as the collection that most renewed my imagination this year that I have no personal connection with him whatsoever. I have never met him, or talked with him; in fact, I had never heard of him until I noticed his listing on SPD’s catalogue intrigued me enough to order it.

Lorber worked on the poems that appear If This Is Paradise,… for 20 years, and that patience no doubt accounts for book’s captivating sinuousness. What I can’t figure out is why others seem to have shunned this book. Of course, maybe other critics didn’t deliberately neglect it. I wish I could have public assurances from all of the above named critics that they inexplicably somehow missed this book, or that they actually read Lorber’s book and consciously rejected it as inferior to the books they nominated. One way or another, it would be good to know. I’m not convinced, however, that they did read it. It’s just a hunch, but books are just as subject to misfortune as any human life.

How else to explain the absence of books from these lists by poets who do fall within the domain of my acquaintances or friends? Surely the above critics read at least two of the following titles:

Wobble by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan)
Strata by Ewa Chrusciel (Omnidawn)
Another Way to Play: Poems 1960-2017 by Michael Lally (Seven Stories)
Sidebend World by Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh)
Shell Game by Jordan Davis (Edge Books)

In truth, I wouldn’t bet much money on it. I suspect that not a single critic, who contributed to or compiled the lists I have referred to, read more than one of the books I have just nominated. l hope you don’t let their preferences hinder your interest in encountering poets who deserve standing room only audiences. It was, in fact, a pleasure to see that Michael Lally received that kind of reception at Beyond Baroque recently.

In the faint hope that my blog might nudge someone who in turn would nudge someone, who in turn etc., I would like to nominate two books in advance as worthy of these critics’ consideration: Tracks by Lynn McGee (Broadstone Books, January 15, 2019); and Every Ravening Thing by Marsha de la O, which is scheduled to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in April, 2019.

I fear, though, that it is no more likely that they will read this pair of books than it is likely that they got around to reading the following books in 2017:

The Zoo at Night by Susan Gubernat
Enter Here by Alexis Rhone Fancher
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang

Verbal assurances will not suffice. I understand that it’s impossible to publish a review on every worthy book, but casual claims will not suffice to verify familiarity with these books. An e-mail in which they wrote at least one friend and commented on at least a pair of these books would serve far better in establishing that West Coast poets are getting a fair hearing. Until then, the incredibly minimal presence of poets based in Southern California from the lists of prominent critics elsewhere leaves me seriously skeptical as to the comprehensive scope of their annual reading. I am grateful that Sesshu Foster is getting his much deserved recognition, but that is such a token gesture towards this region as to be laughable.