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My Favorite Poetry Books of the Past Year and a Half

If you have a poetry lover in your family or circle of friends — or if you're a fan yourself — many, many excellent poetry books have been published over the past 18 months or so. Here are a few standouts.

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Many years ago, the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti conquered my heart with his book A Coney Island of the Mind. For those few who may not know, Ferlinghetti is the founder of City Lights Books and City Lights Publishers, a staunch defender of the First Amendment, and an all-around gadfly and embodiment of humane values in our quickly degenerating society. It's funny: he's 93 now, and one might, in all good faith, lower one's expectations regarding the quality of his work. That would be a mistake, however, as his latest book, Time of Useful Consciousness, is hands down the best book I've read this year.

It's painful to be concise when someone receives so much from something they've read. I felt that way with Patti Smith's Just Kids and her subsequent book of poems, Woolgathering, and this new book by Ferlinghetti has done the same thing — only over and over and over again. Suffice it to say that Time of Useful Consciousness is an incredible, mind-bending journey across America, reminiscent of Whitman or William Carlos Williams, touching down in Chicago and San Francisco and all points in between, and channeling the voices and visions of poets and writers as diverse as Robinson Jeffers, Carl Sandburg, and Jack Kerouac. The country's seemingly inevitable slide into disaster is a prevalent theme, but so is Ferlinghetti's indefatigable sense of hope and optimism. This is a lovely, incredible, inspiring book. There's more energy on one page than in any 20 books from a mainstream, literary, or academic publisher. It will inform your conscience and help keep you truly sane in a way that's not been on the table in many a publishing cycle.

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One of the strangest books that has passed through my hands this year was Sotere Torregian's On the Planet without Visa. You can always be confident that the good people at Coffee House Press will bring you something that surprises and dazzles, and this book is no exception. At first, I wasn't sure what to think. As I read it, and some of it repeatedly, I came to really like what I'd... what?... discovered? There are no fewer than 15 bookmarks in my copy of On the Planet, and they mark material as diverse as a bizarre interview with the author, a poem titled "You Must Be 'Larger Than Life' Like Mayakovsky" (who doesn't want to be larger than life like Mayakovsky?), and musings and rants on various loves, obsessions, and opinions on the nature of "real" surrealism.

Torregian, as I've come to discover, is a bit of a cult figure in the literary world. He claims Ethiopian, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, and Moorish ancestry, identifies with classical French Surrealism, and is grouped with the New York School of poets. Funny thing is, he has never left the U.S. and apparently doesn't use a dictionary — of any flavor — when he writes. His work, elliptical and fantastic, and ultimately both entertaining and enlightening, is peppered with multilingual words and phrases, and rewards repeated reading.

Constantly entertaining — I guess that's how I'd sum up Sotere Torregian.

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One of my all-time favorite poets is Margo Berdeshevsky, a longtime figure on the literary, artistic, and dramatic scenes in the U.S. and abroad (she currently lives in Paris). Her latest book, Between Soul and Stone, is incredible. This may sound trite, but I can't help but identify Berdeshevsky's work as being like a gossamer web: intensely beautiful, painstakingly crafted into textually dense strands of poetic light. This is not an easy book to read. It demands, it rewards, every ounce of your reading attention. It is also deeply transformative. If nothing else, you'll emerge from your reading with a more exalted sense of what beauty means in our lives. That someone can think, and write, like this is a gift to us all.

We've forgotten, they confess, teach us, please,
again. And he does. And leaves them to their lonely
holiness. No sooner gone, than the old men forget
their prayer, bereft, one runs and chases after:
running on waves to cry oh Father,
Father we've forgotten, tell us again.

There are 92 pages of this stuff. What a feast.

÷ ÷ ÷

I once had the pleasure of meeting, and hearing read, the prominent African-American poet Lucille Clifton. It was a high point of my literary life, as I'd admired her work for years. She died in 2010 and left behind her a raft of awards and citations, no less than 11 books, and more than 60 previously unpublished poems.

Now her main publisher, BOA Editions, has brought out one of the most beautifully designed books of the season with a table of contents that will floor even the casual reader.

The book, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, is published in hardcover with a beautiful color photo of the author on the jacket. It has a sewn binding and a ribbon, and weighs in at a stunning 700-plus pages. It also includes — and this is somehow not surprising considering the weight that Clifton had in the poetry community — a foreword by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.

Clifton was not afraid of tackling hard things. She dealt with abuse, with cancer, with religion, with being Black in a racist world. None of her poems, none of her skill, however, was spent in the throwing of propagandistic rocks. She had no fear. Her work — short, to the point, flawlessly constructed — flew straight to the mark. She was one of a kind.

In fact, it seems fitting to close with this poem:

the tale the shepherds tell the sheep

that some will rise
above shorn clouds of fleece
and some will feel their bodies break
but most will pass through this
into sweet clover
where all     all will be sheltered safe
until the holy shearing
don't think about the days to come
sweet meat
think of my arms
trust me

May you all be blessed in the year to come.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Collected Poems of Lucille... New Hardcover $35.00
  2. Between Soul and Stone Used Trade Paper $10.95
  3. On the Planet Without Visa: Selected... Used Trade Paper $12.50
  4. Woolgathering
    New Hardcover $18.95
  5. Just Kids
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  6. Coney Island of the Mind Used Trade Paper $4.50
  7. Time of Useful Consciousness New Hardcover $22.95

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