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kevin simmonds

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

cover_bend

When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

Prologue

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for a new theatre piece for which I’ve written both the script and music. For me, rehearsals have always been a time of exciting discovery and profound disappointment. This time is no different. No matter how I try to impart the music in my head, be it written on the page or modeled in my voice or on the piano, I’ve got to accept all that’s inevitably lost in the process—all that won’t make it from my imagination and into the ensemble’s performance.

Publishing a poem is similarly fraught, isn’t it? Poets have intentions as they write. And I’ve got to believe that even the most hermetic or self-assured poet, alike, wants to communicate something specific, has intentions, whatever they might be. Readers will likely recognize some of those intentions but it’s unlikely that those intentions will bear upon the reader in the same way. A poem I intend as a meditation on an age-old civil war might have in it something to suggest to a reader that the poem is primarily about the imperfections of love. Works of art and literature are vessels people fill with their own concerns.

This October, I’ve offered up four poems. And I asked that the poets read them (or have them read) on video. I hope you’ll double your pleasure interacting with their work by listening to the poems being read aloud in a voice other than the one in your head. Quite frankly, the commingling is sure to be exciting and, if not disappointing, a disruption. But I have no idea if the disruption began when the poet started writing the poem or when you encountered it.

Tiny Fires

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____________________________________________
Aimee Suzara 
is a Filipino-American poet, playwright, and educator based in Oakland, CA. Suzara’s mission is to create, and help others create, art that builds community, fosters healing, and provokes important questions through spoken word, theater and movement. Her debut full-length poetry book, SOUVENIR, is forthcoming in 2014.  Suzara’s poems have been published in two chapbooks, including one nominated for the California Book Award; and journals and anthologies such as Kartika Review, Lantern Review, and Walang Hiya (Without Shame)literature taking risks towards liberatory practice (Arkipelago Books 2009).  She has been invited as a featured poet and arts educator at schools, universities and arts venues nationally, including Mt. Holyoke College, Portland State University, Stanford University, and UC Santa Cruz. Her first play, Pagbabalik (Return) was twice the recipient of the Zellerbach Arts Fund and was featured at several Bay Area festivals. Her current play in progress, A History of the Body, has been awarded the East Bay Community Fund Matching Commission, the Oakland Cultural Funding Program grant, National Endowment for the Arts grant, and Zellerbach Arts Fund.  She recently collaborated as a writer and performer with Amara Tabor-Smith’s Deep Waters Dance Theater for the Creative Work Fund recipient Our Daily Bread and was a member of Kreatibo, a queer Pin@y arts collective, whose 2004 play was selected for Curve Magazine’s Best Lesbian Theater Award. Suzara has a Mills College M.F.A. and teaches Creative Writing and English at Bay Area colleges, currently, she is a lecturer at Cal State University Monterey in the Creative Writing and Social Action Program. Suzara has been a Hedgebrook Resident Artist, an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts Playwriting Program, and has been a part of PlayGround at Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Writer’s Pool for the 2012-2013 and current season.  www.aimeesuzara.net

Introduction for October: Being Unreal

I don’t know about you, but my right-now life is laden with reality: bills, the 9-to-5 (necessary to pay said bills), the leaden thing that weighs on everyone at said 9-to-5 (making them mean and me mean), family, the failures of family, a slowing metabolism and no will or energy to exercise. It’s a maddeningly endless personal abyss. And the language that surrounds me every day–mostly sad, simple transactional language–fails.

Yet the poems I’m sharing this darkening October month come from writers who somehow manage to slip out of the trance that keeps us subservient to reality, tethered to the mundane. When they lapse into consciousness, they are possessed as Nietzsche was when he wrote “No artist tolerates reality.” Those who are awake, if only momentarily, are the artists. And by artists, I mean these writers who feel and tinker until they’ve given form to something that exists within the bandwidth of reality but resists humdrum conventionality. Of course, it’s akin to the famed tell it slant. But more than that, they’re telling it like it ain’t, not keeping it real.

Untitled

Once
I wanted to place 100 music boxes in a large circle
in a darkened room

wind them all up
place a tea light in front of each box
light the wicks in succession.

I wanted to open each box
piecemeal
in a careful journey round the circle.

And I wanted to invite my boyfriend to dance
a slow dance
with me inside this flickering ring
until the harsh cacophony dwindled
to a solitary song.

Once
in a parking lot in Tennessee
I looked into the sky and saw two bright white haloes
around the moon

one within the other
one brighter than the other
both destined for disappearance behind approaching clouds.

The spectacle was so large
wispy and perfect
like an animator’s cursive flourish in an old Disney film
that I laughed involuntarily
out loud.

Once
I watched a sick cat die in my parents’ garage.

I’d loved it for all of its life.

I watched its belly rise and fall
its fevered head slant to the floor
and its poor eyes
in tight loops of vertigo
surrender and shut over the course of an afternoon.

I understood in an instant that this
is death
for all things.

Before the plug was pulled
my grandfather’s chest rose
and fell
in exactly the same way
in the two weeks following his stroke.

It was like watching someone sleep
desperately.

Once
is enough for anybody.

Body heat
mumbled nightmares
lullabies
and bones that hollow out and break like promises.

Today
I wished that I had a child.

Children are for people who want an audience for their autobiography
but lack the patience to write the book.

__________________________________________
Joseph Whitt
is an artist, writer and independent curator living and working in New York City. His work has been presented at MOMA PS1, Eyebeam, PPOW Gallery, Deitch Projects, CRG Gallery and Envoy Enterprises, and has been reviewed in The New York Times, Flash Art, and Sculpture. His writings have appeared in Art Papers, ArtUS, Useless Magazine and K48. His second chapbook, Defriendings, will be released by T.M.I. Ltd., a Brooklyn-based micropress, at the end of this month.

R. Stevie Moore is a singer, songwriter, and musician currently based in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to having numerous albums released on established labels around the world, Moore has self-released over 400 cassette and CD-R albums since 1968, as well as dozens of home videos. His eclectic work incorporates a variety of artistic styles; and he is regularly cited (by publications such as Rolling Stone, BOMB, Wire, and The New York Times, just to name a few) as a seminal influence in today’s independent music scene.

Introduction for October: Being Unreal

I don’t know about you, but my right-now life is laden with reality: bills, the 9-to-5 (necessary to pay said bills), the leaden thing that weighs on everyone at said 9-to-5 (making them mean and me mean), family, the failures of family, a slowing metabolism and no will or energy to exercise. It’s a maddeningly endless personal abyss. And the language that surrounds me every day–mostly sad, simple transactional language–fails.

Yet the poems I’m sharing this darkening October month come from writers who somehow manage to slip out of the trance that keeps us subservient to reality, tethered to the mundane. When they lapse into consciousness, they are possessed as Nietzsche was when he wrote “No artist tolerates reality.” Those who are awake, if only momentarily, are the artists. And by artists, I mean these writers who feel and tinker until they’ve given form to something that exists within the bandwidth of reality but resists humdrum conventionality. Of course, it’s akin to the famed tell it slant. But more than that, they’re telling it like it ain’t, not keeping it real.

EASTER 2009
— Sri Lanka

The seas are full. The bones of men
crowd out the bones of fish, and quiet skulls
fall, like dice, before the gathering tide.

Here is the history book of beaches,
the slow parchment unrolling at our feet:
the scattered palm leaves, the empty shell,
the branch, lashed by a dutiful sea.

“Easter” was published in Karavan: Litterar Tidskrift pa Resa Mellan Kulturer (the Literary Journal of Cultural Intersections)
____________________________________________________________
Born in Sri Lanka and raised both there and in England, Pireeni Sundaralingam is co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (U. Arkansas Press, 2010), which , in 2011, won both the national book award from PEN Oakland in 2011 and the N.California Book Award. Her own poetry has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and The Progressive and anthologies by W.W.Norton, Prentice Hall, & Macmillan, and has been translated into several languages, including Gaelic, Swedish, Vietnamese and Tamil.

In addition to her work as a writer, Sundaralingam has also held research posts as a cognitive scientist at MIT and Oxford University, and national fellowships in both poetry and cognitive, as well as, most recently, a fellowship in interdisciplinary thinking at the Institute for Spatial Experiments, in Berlin. She is currently writing a book on Creativity, Poetry, and The Brain.

Introduction for October: Being Unreal

I don’t know about you, but my right-now life is laden with reality: bills, the 9-to-5 (necessary to pay said bills), the leaden thing that weighs on everyone at said 9-to-5 (making them mean and me mean), family, the failures of family, a slowing metabolism and no will or energy to exercise. It’s a maddeningly endless personal abyss. And the language that surrounds me every day–mostly sad, simple transactional language–fails.

Yet the poems I’m sharing this darkening October month come from writers who somehow manage to slip out of the trance that keeps us subservient to reality, tethered to the mundane. When they lapse into consciousness, they are possessed as Nietzsche was when he wrote “No artist tolerates reality.” Those who are awake, if only momentarily, are the artists. And by artists, I mean these writers who feel and tinker until they’ve given form to something that exists within the bandwidth of reality but resists humdrum conventionality. Of course, it’s akin to the famed tell it slant. But more than that, they’re telling it like it ain’t, not keeping it real.

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5
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This poem appeared previously in the chapbook, in the way of harbors (Dancing Girl Press, 2013).

_________________________________
Alexandra Mattraw’s third chapbook, in the way of harbors, is now available at Dancing Girl Press.  Her first two chapbooks were published through Achiote Press and Beard of Bees.  Her poems and reviews have also appeared in journals including VOLT, Cultural Society, Verse, Word For/Word, Seneca Review, Realpoetik, Denver Quarterly, alice blue, Lost Roads Press, and American Letters & Commentary. Alexandra’s first full manuscript has been selected as a finalist by Nightboat Books and 1913 Press, and her second, Inside the Mind’s Hotel, was recently chosen as a finalist for the Colorado Review Prize.  A former Vermont Studio Center resident, she curates a writing, reading, and art series called Lone Glen in Oakland, California. If you are interested in learning more about Alexandra’s projects, please visit http://alexandramattraw.wordpress.com.

Download a PDF of the strip here.

Voices of Haiti was published in July 2012 by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The contributors to the book are the poet Kwame Dawes, the journalist Lisa Armstrong, the photographer Andre Lambertson, and the composer and writer Kevin Simmonds.

Voices of Haiti takes place in Port-au-Prince less than a month after the fatal quake; in Tombs, the first chapter, the authors illustrate their initial impressions of the loss of life and security, and reflect on the ways in which the earthquake deepened existing fissures in Haitian society. The next two chapters, Mother of Mothers and Storm, delve deeper into local life in Haiti; authors interview aid workers and local doctors and spend time in squatter camps, churches, and houses of local informants. The final four chapters—Ganthier, Job, Boy in Blue, and Bebe’s Wish—focus on the stories of particular individuals and the ways in which they exercise agency through improvisation.

This book has two stated aims. The first is to draw “intimate portraits of individual Haitians;” the second is to “explore critical issues affecting Haiti’s future [such as] development, poverty, displacement, [and] HIV/AIDS”. While both of these aims are admirable, I initially wondered if they might be at cross-purposes. Art as activism is always tricky business; when a text simultaneously seeks to produce both formal merit and social advocacy, it typically achieves neither.

On the whole, however, Voices of Haiti does an admirable job. It is aided in its dually aesthetic and ethical goals by two primary strengths. The first is the intimacy between author and subject. In Voices of Haiti, informants bring the writers into their homes, share meals with them, and introduce them to their children; they confess their most shameful secrets and reveal their hopes about the future. These are not the sorts of details outsiders are typically privy to. Perhaps Haitians are simply very open; maybe artists just make the best ethnographers. Whatever the reason, the trust between participant and observer in Voices of Haiti is palpable, and adds much to the project.

Another strength of the book is its format. Voices of Haiti is a multimedia document that brings together text, sound, and image in a carefully organized way. Each section begins with a poetry reading that is accompanied by a slide show of photographs and a short musical score. Every chapter ends with an article or story. Interspersed throughout the book are additional clips of personal interviews and 1-2 minute musical performances. While each individual photo or poem might be assessed on its own independent artistic merits, this is hardly the point; the document is meant to be understood holistically, and its parts are knitted together in a fashion uncharacteristic of most cross-disciplinary collaborative artistic endeavors.

The cooperative spirit of the project and its successful integration of many divergent types of media makes Voices of Haiti a fine read (or should I say, experience) for anyone seeking a humanistic portrayal of the post-earthquake Haitian world and the people who inhabit it. That is not to say, however, that this document is an easy read. The book raises some difficult issues and asks important questions about development, cultural history, and especially agency in Haiti.

AGENCY AND VICTIMHOOD:

At its core, Voices of Haiti is an exploration of what agency is (from both a philosophical/historical standpoint and a more practical, localized one) how it is expressed, and how it is achieved.

There is a conflict between the world’s perception of Haiti and Haitians perception of themselves. The authors assert that Haitians do not think of themselves as helpless, and actively fight against the status of victimhood that is constantly imposed on them by foreign governments and even well meaning aid workers.

Some of the informants seem to acknowledge that it is difficult not to internalize expectations of helplessness; in Chapter 4, a frustrated informant named Andre (responding to a Christian sermon on the power of suffering) states the following: “So we must just accept this suffering and not do a thing about it? I can’t accept that. We have become passive; we have let the feeling that we must be cursed like this take a hold of us.”

At the same time, however, few of the Haitians interviewed or portrayed in the book describe themselves as victims or dwell on their personal misfortune. One woman in Chapter 3 states resolutely: “Crying cannot make us better. Crying cannot help us rebuild.” Similarly, Dr. Jean William Pape of GHESIKO and Dr. D’ Meza of PIH, for example, stress that it is “solidarity not charity” that builds relationships between doctors and patients and leads to sustainable solutions.

Where, then, does the myth of Haiti’s perpetual victimhood come from? The authors suggest that the myth is derived not from Haitians themselves, but from the seemingly impossible situations into which they are placed; they acknowledge in the first chapter that part of the reason the earthquake was so bad is that it exacerbates pre-existing fissures in Haitian society, and that Haitians are “as puzzled by the vicious irony of their circumstances as we are.”

I would contend, however, that any Haitian person who knows the history of Haiti is not quite as puzzled as the authors might suggest. If we want to know where Haiti’s problems come from , we need only to look at history to understand the answer. Since its inception as the first democracy founded by a slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti has been punished by regional powers for beating the odds. Case in point: Haiti’s liberation debt to France, it’s U.S. backed dictators, and it’s occupation by the U.S. military between 1915 and 1935.

While the authors of the book never directly connect Haitian defiance of Western powers to the country’s subsequent economic and political marginalization, they do allude to it indirectly, particularly in their discussion of the statue of Neg Mawon, a Haitian Freedom Fighter. They note that Dr. Joia Mukherjee rejoiced when, in the post-quake rubble, she saw the statue still erect because it reminded her: “the free man can never be destroyed.”

So, what do the free people of Haiti do in cataclysmic circumstances like these? The book abounds with examples. In Sou Piste, a group of 40,000 displaced people have constructed improvised housing on an old airstrip. Here, many Haitians are doing what they have always done; fetching water, bartering for food, and flying kites. In Ganthier, a woman named Malia Jean (upon the discovery of her positive HIV status) started her own activist group for women. Similarly, in Carrefour, the preacher Joel Sainton, ousted from his congregation for refusing to reject his HIV-positive wife, makes home visits to others affected with HIV/AIDS. In his community

Finally, in Petionville there is the indomitable Bebe, an assertive sex worker/beer brewer/hair stylist “who moves through the world as if she owns it.” Bebe of the contagious smile and the confidence that borders on defiance is a promise incarnate; the poem at the beginning of her chapter teasingly asks “How much do you think I am worth? How much for a piece of me.” While this questions is quite serious (after all, Bebe must provide for her young sons, and her business has taken a hit since the quake) it is also playful and hopeful—“Her view is for tomorrow; calmer days, no more riots, streets filled with expats, money in her pockets, a chance to make a go at something else.”

PERFORMANCE, TRAUMA, AND MEMORY:

While reading Voices of Haiti, I could not help but think of a very different book written several years ago by the theater historian Joseph Roach. Called Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic performance, the book proposes an interesting concept: that in societies that experience great hardship, where the voices of the many (and the suffering) have been silenced by official record-keeping and where both bodily and cultural oppression are widespread, the rituals of daily life, which are themselves a kind of performance, can serve as the site of new identity formation through a process he calls surrogation. In other words, the bodies of the living elegize the passage of the dead not only by sustaining particular rituals (burial, dance, familial structures, religion) but also by improvising new ones. The restored body, performing a new task, is a substitution for what is lost. Roach argues that this is why performance and trauma are inextricably related:

In the life of a community, surrogation does not begin or end, but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure…survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives.

Roach understands “community” as a rhizomatic entity; vibrant but center-less, it is in a continual process of substitution and restitution. Arguing that performance is “restored behavior, twice-behaved, and always subject to revision.” Roach suggests that all definitions of performance offer it as a substitute for something that pre-exists it.

Performance stands in for an elusive entity that it is not, but must vainly aspire both to embody and replace. Hence flourish the abiding yet vexed identities between performance and memory, out of which blossom the most florid nostalgias for authenticity and origin.

Performance, which Roach defines as both “remembered motions… [and] imaginary movements dreamed in minds” is what the authors of Voices of Haiti are documenting in their book. They examine practical formulas of daily living, death and burials, laws and disobedience, commodification and violence. They explore moments of celebration and activity that go “beyond survival” and seem to recognize a cohesive, connecting force that transcends the finite problems of weak human bodies: “When I sing, I know how to fly, and how to reach where the water eases the spinning in my stomach/ this blood is not my enemy when I sing.”

In Voices of Haiti, moreover, it is certain individuals (frequently women) that act as keepers of culture, oral historians, caregivers, and community philosophers. It is their efforts that sustain and reshape the Haitian cultural identity; “Mother of mothers, in your bandana and with your holy testament, you must draw a line of defense around beleaguered souls/and speak a torrent of curses/ on the beasts lurking in the shadows.” By performing daily acts of kindness and stabilizing rituals, Haitians emerge from the tragedy as a reimagined people. Their persistent commitment to life is an elegy to the dead and an act of defiance against those forces (real or abstracted) than conspire to break apart and destroy bodies and lives.

CONCLUSION

Voices of Haiti is a book about the experience of freedom and trauma, and the complex ways people process both, weaving them into narratives and identities. This book, which is quite literally embedded with voices, is only an artifact of many performances; it documents the authors experiences in Haiti, but also their subsequent poetry and musical performances of the piece in Miami and Washington D.C., among other places.

Thus, the book effectively analogizes the Haitian experience, in not only content but also form; Voices of Haiti encapsulates the interplay between text and orality that is so essential to understanding the cultural development of all contemporary societies—in particular those societies in which the voices of the suffering, the poor, and the abused, are so often silenced by official histories.

At times, this multiplicity of voices and formats makes the piece seem incomplete; however, the book is a peace with its fragmentary nature and acknowledges the snapshot-like quality of its endeavor. Voices of Haiti is a synchronic document, the proverbial Bermuda grass of sensory experiences; it has no fixed center, no predominate bassline, and no resounding agenda, other than that of presenting the shimmering diversity of lives in the post-earthquake world of Haiti. This is somewhat of an accomplishment for a book that delicately straddles the line between activism and art.

Crude

H2
its smothered
O

circling
for sense

there is none

three-eyed
or blind

delirious
with repair

eventually
or now

_________________________________________________
Kevin Simmonds is a San Francisco-based writer, musician and filmmaker originally from New Orleans. His writing has appeared in jubilat, Kyoto Journal, Massachusetts Review and Poetry. His books include the poetry collection Mad for Meat and two edited works: the poetry anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality and the late poet Carrie Allen McCray’s Ota Benga under My Mother’s Roof. He wrote the music for the Emmy Award-winning documentary Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and Voice.

 

Three poets name their favorite books and poems from the 2011.

b bearhart

1. Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (UAPress) edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Indigenous Americas. Nuff said. (It’s a poet’s wet dream. Can I say that? Cause I just did.)

2. Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) by Kevin Simmonds
This collection is honest and beautiful. No frills or tricks. Simply fantastic poems by a very talented human.

3. “En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith” by Tarfia Faizullah
Thank god for poet friends. So many people linked this poem on social networking sites. I love the way this poem builds through sound.

4. “The Blue Dress in Mother’s Closet” by Saeed Jones
Who is this dude?! This poem is brilliant. Read it.

5. “Yard Sale” by Melissa Jones
This poem is not like my other picks. Or maybe it is and I’m not getting the connection. I like the jarring nature of this poem. It felt like I was reading two poems fighting. And I enjoyed that.

(See and hear b bearhart’s own poem here.)

Alexander Long

1. The Insomniac’s Weather Report by Jessica Goodfellow
In The Insomniac’s Weather Report, we are introduced to Jessica Goodfellow’s method in which the subsequent image or idea pushes the image or idea that preceded it in surprising yet inevitable ways. It’s as though Goodfellow is, at times, entrenched in a game of high-stakes poker against herself, and the ante is steadily raised from image to line to stanza to poem to book until someone wins (we, the readers) and someone loses (she, the poet). And so, the poet clears the table and begins again “by learning the 10,000 ways/ to spell water”.

2. White Shirt by Christopher Buckley
In this, his eighteenth, book, Buckley mines material that readers of his work may initially find familiar: childhood, The Pacific Ocean, the aftershocks of a Catholic upbringing, homage to poets who matter to him. But what may first appear to be nostalgia is actually a confrontation with not just the past but the present, and how the future influences them both. White Shirt is evidence of a poet’s resilience giving way to an almost pure music.

3. Bright Body by Aliki Barnstone
Pastoral, political, erotic, maternal, measured, candid, and always lucent, Barnstone’s seventh book accomplishes something I thought impossible: she makes even Las Vegas gleam with classic beauty, a place where such beauty runs far beneath the surface of glitzy tawdry…as long as the observations are Barnstone’s. Mothers and daughters reveal the brightest light in these poems.

4. Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This book has, rightly, received a good amount of press, most of it well done. I won’t repeat what others have said here explicitly. But I will say what’s obviously been implied: if you are an American and if you don’t know your history (I realize I’m dangerously close to being redundant in that statement), get this book. The Amistad narrative is as American as any of the other so-called feel-good narratives spoonfed to us since grade school.

5. Clean by Kate Northrop
Northrop’s poems have always struck me as strange, beautifully strange, the way angels must appear to us as someone/something strange…at first. I’ve been reading Northrop’s poems for nearly half my life now, and Clean shows me, again, how lucid her vision is, how honed her craft has become.

Jonterri Gadson

1. “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux
The way this poem is both specific and universal excited me. It’s a reminder that nothing is a waste of time, there are no mistakes, and that–one day–the pain will be worth it. Well, at the very least, this poem makes those things seem true. This is a poem worth reading every day.

2. “What I Should Have Told the Homeless Man in Cleveland Who Mistook Me for Mary’s Son” by L. Lamar Wilson
This poem explores the complexities of humanity, sexuality, and religion. Yes, all in one. It took me to church in a way I’d never been before and I loved it. Honestly, this poet is worth Google-ing. It was hard for me to choose just one of his poems that stunned me this year.

3. “Midas Passional” by Lisa Russ-Spaar
This poem’s first line gripped, transformed, and transported me. I love how it works both in and out of the context of the Midas myth. The last line makes me want to write.

4. “Found” by Stephanie Levin
I love how this poem gets more and more interesting with every line. It doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of loss.

5. “Ardency” by Kevin Young
This is Kevin Young’s amazing chronicle of the events and people involved with the Amistad slave ship. It’s a full-length poetry collection, but it’s more than just poetry–it is history and it is music and it lent blood and bones to the voices of the Amistad rebels.

(See and hear Jonterri Gadson’s own poem here.)

 

What were your favorite poems & books of 2011? Share them in the comments or on Twitter @thethepoetry.