‘The Best American Poetry 2012’ edited by Mark Doty; series editor David Lehman
Author: Walter Holland
December 25, 2012
As David Lehman suggests in his foreword to The Best American Poetry 2012, Mark Doty collects a wide variety of poems that have a mysterious and “uncanny” quality, poems which are almost haunted by the “spirit in the dark.” In his introduction, Doty himself tell us poetry must “Sing me something”:
To what extent do we understand the process that calls a poem into being? Someone or something comes to us in the dark—literally, or in the darkness of not-knowing and says, “Sing me something.” It’s the uncovering of what is to be sung, and how, which are not two separate things but an intertwining spiral, like a DNA molecule, that gives the process its tension, frustration and, at least sometimes, elation.
Doty suggests that poetry is about what “we can’t say”:
We could also say that phantom who appears to the poet, summoning
words, is some premonition or anticipation of the reader—who turns
to poetry in order to find some music that echoes what we can’t say.
The poems in this collection are varied as much as the current poetry scene. It is to Doty’s credit that he has collected a wide range of styles and approaches, from a dramatic monologue by Richard Howard to a sonnet by Honore Moore to a long narrative poem by Paisley Rekdal. Some bring us to unsettling feminist questions such as Jennifer Chang’s “Dorothy Wordsworth” and Mary Jo Salter’s “The Gods.” Chang writes in her first two stanzas:
The daffodils can go fuck themselves
I’m tired of their crowds, yellow rantings
about the spastic sun that shines and shines
and shines. How are they any different
from me? I, too, have a big messy head
on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind.
I flower and don’t apologize.
. . .Fractious petals, stop
interrupting my poem with boring beauty.
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling it ardor. Who
the hell are they?
Chang takes aim at William Wordworth’s school of old-boy sentiments toward beauty and the female in the guise of the flower as well as his lyrical excesses. Just as Salter takes exception, while listening to an orchestra in a concert hall, looking up to study the ceiling and noting only the names of great men from history chiseled into stone:
All men. Never a woman’s
name, of course, although
gets featured overhead—
and abstractions you might go
to women for, like BEAUTY
One of the few overtly gay poems in the collection was “Daffodil” by Angelo Nikolopoulos. This lovely and clever love poem begins with an epigraph, “A poet could not but be gay” by William Wordsworth. It goes on to personify the daffodil as “April’s rentboy,” and reminds this “blond-eyed boy” “binge-drinking/your way through spring” that the poet has “bloomed like you before” and suggests that he “pipe down.” It is a wonderfully surprising poem, one I enjoyed immensely for its perfect mix of camp and wit and its “praise and condemnation” of youth at the same time.
Another gay poem is a long work by Spencer Reece, “The Road to Emmaus” which speaks fondly of the poet’s memories of a queer man, Durell, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This wonderful poem portrays the unique and telling relationship between the two and gives us an in depth study of this unique fellow’s psyche:
Hours before, while the moon’s neck wobbled on the Charles
like a giraffe’s, or the ghost of a giraffe’s neck,
I imagined Durell labored, having slept only a few hours,
caged in his worries of doctor bills, no money,
and running out of people to ask for it:
mulling over mistakes, broken love affairs—
a hospital orderly, a man upstairs,
he probably mumbled unkind epithets about blacks and Jews,
even though the men he loved were blacks and Jews.
Overweight, having “grown as fat as Elizabeth Taylor,” Durell eventually dies and the poet is located by Durell’s sister. They talk about her brother. She tells the poet “They called him names” “A nancy boy, a priss, a sissy, a fairy. . .” The poem also pays homage to a Franciscan nun who, without judgment, guides the poet in a loving manner toward this discovery of something spiritually significant in his past.
And further there is Bruce Snider’s “The Drag Queen Dies in New Castle” which describes the aftermath of the death of a drag queen in a rural community:
. . . Buried
by the barn, you vanished,
but the church women
bought your wigs
for the Christmas pageant
that year, your blouses sewn
into a quilt under which
two newlyweds lay,
skin to skin as if they
carried some sense
of your undressing.
There are multicultural poems such as “The Autobiography of Khwaja Mustasim,” by Amit Majmudarwhich, is a list poem encompassing the various incarnations of the poet through culture and history:
I stood for twenty years a chess piece in Cordoba, the black rook.
I was a parrot fed melon seeds by the eleventh caliph.
I sparked to life in a Damascus forge, no bigger than my own pupil.
I was the mosquito whose malarial kiss conquered Alexander.
I bound books in Bukhara, burned them in Balkh.
In my four hundred and sixteenth year I came to Qom.
And “Back Matter” by Erica Dawson, which is an interesting study of the black vernacular, a poem as inventive in its language as any in the collection:
Daughter, still, of absurdities,
I like “street-talker” now. Yes, please.
Breathless with ghetto woe
(“. . . and his mama cried”) I’d call
Me too American, too black,
Too Negro dialect. My back
Is to your front. I’m all
Set with my Nikes on.
All in all The Best American Poetry represents the year in poetry and fulfills its mandate of reflecting a cross-section of practicing poets.
The Best American Poetry 2012
Guest Editor: Mark Doty
Series Editor: David Lehman
Paperback, 9781439181522, 213 pp.