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Poetry for National Poetry Month

David Starkey Reviews a Book a Day


As a former Santa Barbara poet laureate, and a book reviewer for The S.B. Independent, I wanted to do something special for the 2014 edition of National Poetry Month (i.e., April). I decided to write one review for every day of the month. All the books were published in 2013 or 2014 by single authors (no anthologies), and though several of those authors are distant acquaintances, none of them are friends. I read nearly 100 books in preparation for Poetry Month and, in general, chose to silently ignore collections I found less engaging, focusing instead on those I could recommend.

David O’Meara, A Pretty Sight

If David O’Meara isn’t Canada’s greatest living poet, he is certainly among the top contenders for that honor. His latest book, A Pretty Sight, is both artistically challenging and eminently readable. Poems about Kosovo, End Times and a lively dialogue between Socrates and Sid Vicious are among the many highlights.

May Swenson, Collected Poems

May Swenson’s reputation has soared since her death in 1989, and rightfully so. While she’s often pegged as a nature poet—and she certainly writes as well about animals and plants as anyone—Collected Poems shows her to be equally adept at writing about almost anything else one can imagine.

Ava Leavell Haymon, Eldest Daughter

The poems of Ava Leavell Haymon, Louisiana’s poetlaureate, are accessible yet unflinchingly demanding. “This is not / a simply good/evil poem,” she writes, essentially describing all of her work. If nothing else, “Bass Fishing with a Hulapopper” may be the finest poem ever written on that particular subset of angling.

Mary Ruefle, Trances of the Blast

While Mary Ruefle’s poems veer quickly from the serious to the absurd—sometimes within a single line—there is a surprising pathos amidst all that nuttiness. As much as any poet’s, Ruefle’s titles give a clear sense of her aesthetic: “The Bunny Gives Us a Lesson in Eternity,” “Metaphysical Blight.”

Jane Munro, Blue Sonoma

These are delicate, polished poems—poems of few words—and while a fast reader could tear through Blue Sonoma in a half-hour that would be doing a grave disservice to Munro’s craft. The second half of the book, about her partner’s dementia, is so devastating because it is so beautiful.

Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems

A lifetime’s work from an ambitious poet: long poems and lyrics, blasphemies and bad dreams. The reputation of Louis MacNeice, Auden’s contemporary, has languished for decades. Wake Forest University Press, the premier publisher of Irish poetry in America, seeks to remedy that. Much to skim, yes, but much to treasure.

Lucie Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion

The poems in Lucie Brock-Broido’s latest book inhabit the “district of late / Last light.” Initially, her surreal juxtapositions may seem grating, but gradually they come to make an uncanny kind of sense. Brock-Broido is averaging one book a decade—it will be fascinating to see what the 2020’s bring.

J. D. McClatchy, Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems

Erudite and droll, editor of the Yale Review, J. D. McClatchy is the obvious heir to James Merrill, that technically dazzling, if sometimes arcane, master of the highbrow poem. In general, though, McClatchy is more reader-friendly, more tender, more vulnerable. “My Mammogram” is surely a first for a male poet.

Matthew Olzmann, Mezzanines

Quirky, zany, more than a little surreal, Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines contains at least one outrageous surprise on almost every page. One poem is titled “Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Résumé.” In another, the speaker writes letters to a ship wreck at the bottom of Lake Michigan. The shipwreck doesn’t write back.

Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke

Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight-boxing champion, whose life story The Big Smoke tells, loved opera almost as much as he loved women. In this collection of short and lively linked poems, he certainly never backs down, believing, “It’s always better to whip / than to be whipped.”

Mary Rose O’Reilley, Earth Mercy

“Show, don’t tell,” creative writing instructors are forever badgering their students, and Mary Rose O’Reilley’s new book demonstrates why that’s such good advice: A well-chosen image allows even the briefest poem to resonate long after it’s been read. Like Ted Kooser, O’Reilley makes ordinary life in the Midwest seem magical.

Sarah Lindsay, Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower

The title of Sarah Lindsay’s new book is deliberately unlovely, as is the title poem’s subject, a “tender pink plantlike oceangoing worm.” Yet Osedax mucofloris epitomizes the sort of creature that piques Lindsay’s interest in the oddities of the natural world: luminous squid and Komodo dragons, bacteria, fish in trees.

William Stafford, Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems

Editors Vincent Wixon and Paul Merchant have drawn maxims from Stafford’s notebooks and published interviews and reprinted 26 of his most aphoristic poems. As they point out, Pascal and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are precursors, but readers familiar with Stafford’s work will recognize his voice: “Faith is easy; doubt is hard.”

Mary Jo Salter, Nothing by Design

“Things happen but are parables,” Salter writes in a book that includes light verse, a translation from the Anglo-Saxon, a searing sequence of poems aimed at an ex-husband, and any number of insightful and well-crafted poems. “Unbroken Music,” a tribute to her late friend, Amy Clampitt, is superb.

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