Anytime someone labels “best” to something, I immediately want to hate it. I think this is inherently human, for me dating back to when I was in high school and the superlatives came out in the yearbook and I was runner-up for “Best Couple” with a boy who I didn’t love anyway, or lust for that matter. He had big pores. It was then I learned that not only do I hate things that I’m supposed to love, but I’m shallow when it comes to people, not literature. I remember waiting for the results and watching the real couple, who broke up two months into college, hold hands and hug in the lion circle at the entrance of the school. It happened more when I wasn’t the best at anything. I wasn’t best at swimming, someone was also a toe-touch faster on the flip turn making my best personal time, just second. I didn’t have the best hair, or the best laugh. I cackled and threw my head back, mouth wide as a cavern where bats hid until evening. Cavities hanging upside down. I wasn’t “best” until I got to college and won one short story competition.
I didn’t expect to win. I stapled my late short story to the wooden door of a popular fiction professor. I didn’t take his class because I thought he looked like Penguin from Batman. It was one of those, “it’s-late-so-it-won’t-be-read-competitions.” There was no sliding it under the door. There was only a stapler, a found stapler, on a desk of a graduate student who had left early, Thank God.
This is all to say that I think “best” is an opinion. It’s an opinion like beautiful is an opinion. On Friday, when I asked my creative writing students why “The water was blue” is not a good description of the ocean, they were able to tell me that it shows nothing but a blue haze in their head. They told me lake water is perturbed brown so it must not be a lake that this person is describing. Turning to a blank page, they were able to write descriptions so opinionatedly beautiful that I almost cried at the bell’s announcement. I still cannot get the image of J’s mother, sitting in the hospital, with just one eye left, our of my head. The view of her nine-year-old face looking at her mother, post-surgery, with just one eye and closed skin where the other should be. How does a child see this and still smile, write in her bright permanent markers, share the image with a group of teens who see unworthy and unwashed everyday, but can’t describe it. J’s mother died three days later.
The Best American Poetry of 2013 is an idea of the “best,” but I can’t believe that it is the finite “best.” There is politics in poetry. Like owning a private jet, poetry has to be made through connections. Poets have to look like poets; mermaid hair, black sundress, a slick ability to snap. There are very few poets for poetry left.
Now I love the guest editor, Denise Duhamel, but I’m a little pissed with her. She thinks making poetry, making poetry accessible to all people means placing a few “fucks” here and a bit of “mayonnaise” there. Oh, these must be people poems. This is no longer the snobby, abstract poetry of your mother’s generation, but dirty poetry. You should feel filthy with secrets after you read this poetry. There is grit in the gums of your mouth, left-over words. Poems for the unwashed. Yet, no one poet in this collection moved me the way a single high school girl can describe her mother’s one eye, her mother as Cyclops, J’s braids twisting in the rub of her fingers as she looked at her desk plate and read the truth.
I just want to say that before I praise this.
There are poems. & then there is poetry.
I feel like we’re entering a new age of poetry anyhow. The age of poetry as the everyday where poems titled “Stupid Sandwich” are chosen as “best.” It is becoming less the pretty thing we scrawl at eerie hours of the night against a desk that we hope has some historical value. Instead it is becoming a very concrete thing. Something people can handle in some sort of tangible way. If you know how I am as a reader already, I’m the pretty word reader. The lack-of-plot-who-cares reader. Oh, you make no sense, but you make me want to peel my eyelids back, take out each eyeball on a spoon like a stuffed olive and plop it in my mouth. That, m’dear, is poetry for me.
A line like this from Traci Brimhall’s poem, “Dear Thantos,” |
“There’s a deer in the woman, / a moth in the chimney, / a mote in God’s one good eye.”
A MOTE IN GOD’S ONE GOOD EYE. A fleck, the way your mother will tell you that you were just a twinkle in her eye, or is that my father that always says that to me? I almost wish it said “moat” and I can imagine the castle, the magic in the eye of a Lord that stuffs moths into chimneys while they flap out fairytales and dust. I don’t question this line, I just believe it. A doe-eyed thing in my chest, a grain in God’s pupil, and moths dainty-flap against the brick. How could it be anything else.
Then there’s lines that make me disgusted with my own human like this one from “Divestiture” by Connie Deanovich |
“yesterday I devirginized my own story / stuck my fingers in and out of my own future until I broke its promise”
How visceral is that dirty-girl statement. It makes me mad at sexuality and at poetry all at once. It makes me think of a Special Victims Unit episode, except it’s a story and I think all stories should be devirginized before their published. Authors should have taken the purity long before the novel reaches its final period. I’m bias though, I’m sure there’s books out there made for the sweet.
Hoagland always lands a solid poem in the “best” collections. He had a beautiful light on the inner workings of humans.
“Are you all right? she says, / and all the belts begin to move inside my factory and all the little citizens of me / lay down their tasks, stand up and start to sing / their eight-hour version of The Messiah of my Unhappiness.”
Not only can you dislike yourself in this collection, but you can dislike Americans.
In “The Statue of Responsibility” by Stephen Dunn |
“Give it to the Americans, they like big things for their people, they like to live in the glamour between exaltation and anxiety.”
How true that is. I love living on the edge. Maybe I’ll make my bank account run almost dry and see how long I can last on seven dollars and thirty-four cents. (This isn’t real, Dad). My boyfriend wants the largest tv for his tiny boy’s room. We build gardens, monuments, empires. We line our cities with poles higher than houses and lights that blink on and off in the midnight. We Americans, like our football players to be fed on country grain so that they grow bigger than the average. We talk about men in terms of the size of their shoes. What is important. We have forgotten that good things come in small packages unless we’re watching our Olympic gymnastic team.
Then there’s the quintessential woman’s poetry. We must have this in every collection. Where we dissect a woman’s body, breath or non. The poem, “New Jersey Poem” by Terrance Hayes which is more about grief and its turns then it is about womanhood said |
“A man can be so overwhelmed it becomes a mode of being, / a flavor indistinguishable from spit. He hadn’t done shit with the letters and poems his wife left behind when she killed herself. I think she was running, I think she was being chased. She is almost floating below ground now. The grave is filled with floodwater, the roots of trees men planted after destroying the trees shoot through her hips.”
I just want to believe that after this, even if I’m separated from my earthly body, that I can become a tree, or at least rooted in a tree. When they analyze the rings in a science lab of California, they’ll find the sweat of my still-growing hair. (Probably not though if I’m buried. I’m certainly not a science teacher).
The second half of this collection was just “meh.” I think most of these poets secretly wanted to be fiction writers but only knew how to write in a form with line breaks (so they could breathe) and so they became poets, which just isn’t right. I wasn’t sure if these final poems were trying to teach me something, or just wanted to sound educated. It seems there is still an age for abstract, unnecessary talking. There’s a Dorianne Laux poem thrown in the late middle there that’s beautiful though.
All in all, I think this is a collection that should be read by contemporary writers and readers. While I’m not sure I love where poetry is going, I still vouch for the substance and grit within a few of these poems. I need to remind you that I like a poem that causes me pain and that may be why this collection didn’t reach into me as far as I expected. I do still recommend it.
Here are a few poems that are available online: