While the Possible is Possible: A 2021 Poetry Preview, Part 3
Welcome to the final installment of this year's poetry preview. I'd like to thank Ana, Ken, Evie, and Phillip for joining me this year and bringing their unique sensibilities to this glimpse into the future. Our collective picks for the must-read poetry books of the coming year (don't forget to check out parts one and two of the preview) show, among other things, the incredible capaciousness of contemporary poetry.
I've never felt the urgent need for that breadth and diversity as I do now, as I struggle — as all of us are struggling — to understand the chaos of the last four years and look, with as much hope as we can muster, toward an uncertain horizon. May these books be sustaining company for you as they have been for us. And stay safe! — Craig Morgan Teicher
the she said dialogues: flesh memory
Akilah Oliver, January
T.S. Eliot told poets to purify the language, but Oliver suggests something different: "Vulgarize the living sentence." The she said dialogues throbs with sexual excess, the erotic as a pulsing of cosmic inundations, what she calls "the menstrual blood of angels." By "refashioning the Black female tongue," Oliver seeks to trouble the distinction between sacred and profane (this, she tantalizingly argues, is what W.E.B. Du Bois actually meant by double consciousness). She sings the wounds of a lover, the politics of Black lesbianism, and casts herself as the priestess of a Sapphic paganism.
I read Oliver when I heard about the passing of Diane Di Prima, whose Revolutionary Letters expresses the magic, radicalism, and agitprop of the '60s. While she also offers an intimate and political testimony, Oliver feels both wilder and more defeated
Originally published in 1993 and reprinted thanks to efforts by Nightboat Books and the Belladonna Collective, dialogues articulates a generational fatalism: The book celebrates Blackness (gospel, Otis Redding singing in Algiers), but expresses the disappointment of being the generation after desegregation and realizing how little the New Left actually accomplished: "Unplanted placenta. Every failed insurrection in corn fields."
A transcription of political grief, this book glimpses the anticolonial politics and radical aspirations of Oliver's parents' generation vanishing in the rearview mirror. This line, one of dialogue's many staccato juxtapositions, shows how the book invents a new metonymy of ideas. Oliver passed away in 2011, and many poems read like benedictions, but what strikes me is how useful dialogues feels now. These poems affirm a Black queerness and a poetics of the body, while also mourning and questioning what these things might mean: It is a "pleasure to be here earthling in this time of seductive tears staining the ground of our planet." — Ken Chen
Nikki Wallschlaeger, April
In Waterbaby, Wallschlaeger's third book, the poet opens her metaphysical vision to water and the flood of life-giving and life-draining realities and metaphors it conjures. These poems are filled with planes, cars, and other machines that run on oil, as well as some powered by lifeblood and haunted by images of an American life that mandates "only good vibes," not the "silent memoirs" of mothers running households and bloodlines, taking shelter in the bathtub from the shadow of "Capitalism Hill, Incorporated."
Wallschlaeger's poems move through complex textures and varied verbal registers, from the ravines of slim, precise lyric, to lakes of reportage and not-so-speculative prose poetry, to the river of song. Waterbaby is a book for this moment, when "our soul's bodies are half hanging out all the time;" it's a scorching indictment as much as a drink for the scorched. The book's "manic xennial vulnerability" and lyric genius zoom in on daily lives and details, leaving nothing and no one unseen. These far-reaching poems reveal a broad perspective and horizon where a future America can be glimpsed. Its poetry is already here. — Ana Božičević
Kathleen Ossip, June
Kathleen Ossip is one of my favorite poets, and, in my estimation, one of the best now writing. She is the rare poet who can "Uber home with guilt" on one page and, on another, claim to have "made a God": "I used no clay, no bronze, no iron. / I used my parts to make her whole./ And then I was part of the whole." July navigates these disparate registers seamlessly, making little distinction between the public and the private
That's not to say Ossip is particularly loquacious — every word here is placed with careful elegance and strict attention to poetic line and form. And, somehow, while the poems are often quite funny ("A candle is grandma to a pair of wax lips"), they simultaneously manage a deep seriousness, the verbal sleight-of-hand that makes poetry poetry, and a tone that matches this uncertain time: "We need faith while the possible is possible./ After, we need hope." July has a bit, or a bunch, of everything, from public outrage, to motherly anxiety, to assertive nods to the literary tradition, such as a reverent pastiche of a famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop. This is one of the most encompassing and exciting books of poetry I've read in a long time. — Craig Morgan Teicher
Nathaniel Mackey, April
Ornette Coleman once said, "The theme you play at the start of a number is the territory. And that which comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure." For decades, National Book Award-winner Mackey has devoted himself to creating a long poem that covers ambitious territory — and he begins this installment by recalling how early free jazz musicians re-invented the multi-disc record collection because they needed several albums to record their fertile improvisations; you might say that Double Trio is Mackey's multi-disc box set. The book consists of 924 pages that sprawl over three volumes — which makes any attempt to review it in one paragraph like this one utterly absurd — and continues Mackey's heroic efforts at creating a poetic universe that is utterly his own.
Mackey conceives of poetry as a kind of world-building, one informed by a syncretism of different African belief systems, and Double Trio chronicles a pilgrimage through that allegorical world. Many of the poems are songs written in the voices of the Andoumboulou, the imaginary failed earlier incarnation of humanity from Dogon mythology: "Letter less than edict, so read our reeds'/ decree. We drank beer brewed with polar ice melt,/ we/ the dead who died of love's inconsequence."
Other poems consist of love songs from a character named Anuncio; Mackey calls the two lovers involved Zeno and Zenette, conceptualizing love as a kind of asymptotic journey towards the infinite, but these meditations are interrupted by the words of President Obama talking on the radio about Trayvon Martin. This juxtaposition gives a sense of Mackey's nimbleness and the book's sudden chord changes, switching from allegory to, say, the history of the cotton, or leaping from philosophy to matters more pleasurable and banal (there is a lot of eating in this book!), or silly (at one point the speaker is fitted with a balloon-suit). Double Trio is a libretto of metaphysical music and probably the most important poetry collection to come out this year. — Ken Chen
Tomaž Šalamun, edited by Joshua Beckman, Fall 2021
The autobiographical narrative in verse recounts with otherworldly honesty the early poetic, political, and personal journey of Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014), from his first poems through the writing of A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, published in the early 80s. Guided by the intuitive hand of longtime translator Joshua Beckman, this delicate dance of denial and privilege across the stages of Yugoslav communism and American capitalism under the shadow of fascism and WWII spins a mythopoesis of encounters with friends, lovers, and guides in art.
Tomaž pulls the curtain back on the churn of a life that settles into words, in which one day the young poet who likened himself to the morning star might be meeting his hero John Ashbery, and the next thrown in a communist jail for his hubris. In contemporary poetry, Šalamun's legacy endures like a watermark, guiding poets and poetry like a daytime moon. Poets like Šalamun, Vasko Popa, and Charles Simic, hailing from the lands of former Yugoslavia, show how the destabilization of language can foster resilience in the face of unstable realities. — Ana Božičević
Born in '77 & raised in Croatia, living in Brooklyn since '97, Ana Božičević is a poet, translator, teacher, and occasional singer. She is the author of Povratak lišća / Return of the Leaves, Selected Poems in Croatian, the Lambda Award-winning Rise in the Fall and other books of poetry and translation. More at www.anabozicevic.com.
Ken Chen is the author of Juvenilia, a winner of the Yale Poets of Younger Series, and is working on a book about visiting the underworld and encountering those sent there by colonialism.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, including The Trembling Answers, which won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. His next collection of poems, Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey, will be out in April.