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Collectible Poetry Books by a Portland Small Press

There are so many books, and there are so many good books.

And there are so many good books in particular during National Poetry Month, which we are energetically celebrating here at Powell's.

And then, even among those good books, there are the really good books. In that vein, and in case you haven't already been introduced, please allow me to raise the shining vision of the Portland-based small press Tavern Books. I have to be blunt: I'm utterly smitten.I have to be blunt: I'm utterly smitten. It's been a long time since I've run across a list of books that is as diverse as the voices that Tavern celebrates and in which each and every book is, on its very face, a work of art and a labor of love.

Thus far, most of Tavern's books are chapbooks, what many people think of as pamphlets. One may hesitate at the price, but I'm here to vouch for the quality of each gorgeous and collectible book and the work it contains.

Take, for example, Archeology by Native American poet Adrian C. Louis. Louis has long been one of my favorite poets, his rage and eloquence going a long way toward illustrating for me the reality of living a life of extreme poverty and oppression, a life in which hope just doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

There's a phenomenon in literature in which the greatest and truest writing serves to "flesh out" the concrete facts and statistics that otherwise give only the black and white framework of an individual's life or the life of a people. In Louis's work, this is very true. His poetry, like Leslie Marmon Silko's fiction, gives us the meat and gristle of the day-to-day on the reservation. Nothing is spared; nothing is sacred.

Within all of the righteous pain and anger, though, there is still beauty, and even prophetic vision, as this poem amply demonstrates:

Mourning Log

Summer stops slipping it
to fall & pale winter is born.
New snow slows all chaos
so I dump last night's chili
(not the best batch ever)
in the driveway for crows.
Soon they'll explode darkly
upon this white, little town.
I'm simply a faceless idiot
in a nation of faceless idiots.
I drink powdered espresso &
watch an old neighbor lady
mutter past my house, her
porky English bulldog sports
orange knit booties & when I
smile, the spirit scab thickens
atop this zombie chest where
my heart once loyally lingered.

Fire Water World and Among the Dog Eaters are two of Louis's books that have been out of print for far too long; Tavern's commitment to return them soon to the shelves of booksellers and poetry lovers is to be applauded.

Oregon's own George Hitchcock, the driving force behind the legendary Kayak literary magazine and press, is another voice — and one more different from Adrian Louis than you could imagine — that Tavern is bringing back into print. Their first Hitchcock, the chapbook Six-Minute Poems, brings together the last poems that Hitchcock wrote before his death in 2010. Hitchcock is, by turns, funny, surreal, and prophetic. Sometimes his poems are strange and elliptical; he also wrote some startlingly beautiful nature poems, and his devotion to the "found" poem, where one uses clippings from newspapers, magazines, and advertising to "craft" something totally new, is always both entertaining and provocative.

I've always found Hitchcock's work compelling. There is magic in his vision, and the lyricism of his surrealist-inspired work opens hatchways in my mind and heart from which things of strangeness and beauty are unleashed. But to each their own. His work won't appeal to everyone, but if you like the following small poem (which I love), you'll find that, in some eerie way, you may have come home...

Fever sits on my skull
Living in dread
Thirsting of caustic
And bursting veins
The Gods appear in
Tatters and ribbons
Of glorious song.

Hitchcock wrote a lot, and most of it is now unavailable. But once again, Tavern is stepping into the breach and will be publishing The Wounded Alphabet: Collected Poems 1963-1983. This should be a luscious and engaging book. I eagerly await its arrival.

Not to be outdone by larger houses, Tavern has now unleashed itself in the world of the bound book with a spine and a much larger page count. There is a lovely and dark and mesmerizing collection of poems by Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Nelly Sachs called Glowing Enigmas which weighs in at 103 pages. And then there's a collection of poems by another Nobel laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, titled Baltics, at 152 pages.

Okay, now I'm going to commit myself:

Baltics is simply the best book of poems I've read this year.

I really don't know how to do justice to the depth of my response and feelings about this lovely book. The sheer, breathtaking, and audacious beauty of the poems is, undoubtedly, one reason. While quiet, they sing and resonate and hum with life. The relationship Tranströmer and his family have developed over the years with a vacation house they maintained on a small island in an archipelago near Stockholm is an incredible invocation of the connection that is possible between human beings and the landscape they inhabit. There is the mystery of genius, wonder, and the sublime. Take this from Part II:

The wind walks in the pine forest. It sighs heavily, lightly.
In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the forest
      you're out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the sighing in the trees, her face hardened
      in melancholy when the wind rose:
"You have to think of those out there in the boats."
But she also heard something else in the sighing, as I do, we're
(We're walking together. She's been dead for thirty years.)

One of the other things that won me over with this book is that it includes a lengthy and rather incredible photo-essay about the island and the Tranströmers by Ann Charters, the woman who did so much to chronicle Jack Kerouac and the whole Beat phenomenon, and translator Samuel Charters's wife. The black and white photos are stunning, and each of them is accompanied by an appropriate bit from one of Tranströmer's poems (not necessarily from this book). All together, it makes for a thing of true beauty.

Tavern has so many other books as well. More Tranströmer. Haiku. A sweet little book by Charles Simic. Forthcoming William Stafford and other great names and people. John Haines (another of my favorite poets) was once recorded as saying, "a few books, well read and understood, so that they become part of you, that is what matters." I'm in total agreement, and I'd like to invite you to explore Tavern's list as an easy means to pursue that goal.

Books mentioned in this post

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