THIS month we recap the most exciting poetry books published and reviewed in the Free Press over the past year. Here are 12 for 2012:
50 American Plays, by Matthew and Michael Dickman. A collection of poetry that doubles as a surrealist play, where "The knife buildings / And the knife curtains" rise "Above the knife audience." A stunning blend of humour and horror, beautiful and brilliant.
Antigonick, by Anne Carson. A radical translation of the classical Greek play Antigone, and one of Carson's liveliest works. Sophocles' famous line that man is the most wonderful (or terrible) of the world's wonders appears as "many terribly quiet customers exist but none more / terribly quiet than man." Such transmutations, at their best, revitalize the play's poetic force.
Undark: An Oratorio, by Sandy Pool, revives the thousands of women employed in the early 1900s in factories that exposed them to radium-based paint. They suffered horrific ailments, were often misdiagnosed and uncompensated, and have almost been forgotten. Pool addresses and redresses their historical silence through a stark, affecting elegy.
Repeater, by Andrew McEwan. Drawing on the language of computer programming, "to build a computer of poems," McEwan speaks to the uncertainty of our relationships to code, and their generative potential for self-organized permutations. The titular work reads like two entwined poems, gene-spliced to produce strange new monsters.
New Theatre, by Susan Steudel. From list poems cataloguing and translating sounds to acrostics about Lenin, Steudel deftly blends experiment and convention. The poems shift between styles, yet the book unfolds a consistent vision.
We, Beasts, by Oana Avasilichioaei. Avasilichioaei's poems wind around a core of Grimm-esque fable, as she presses words into uncommon functions. In this book's dark core "the muse, stuck in a bone, is gnawing her way out."
The Unmemntioable, by Ern Moure. Moure collaborates with her fictional self, the poet Elisa Sampedrn, to hide poetry in matrix barcodes and add trout to translated philosophy. The result is a stunning book, blending voices, mixing poetry and prose (not to mention transposing letters), seemingly addressed "to these shaking things that are my mysteries."
Doom: Love Poems for Supervillains, by Natalie Zina Walschots. Mining comic books for inspiration and the avant-garde for its methods, Walschots offers dense, vibrant language, visceral poems in which "every jaundiced system is greased for violence" — yet manages to balance comedy and critique.
Sonar, by Kristian Enright. Through the story of a " 'sigh-borg' able to produce oxygen and / appreciate poetry in the same breath," Enright critiques psychiatric attitudes while subverting the conventions of poetry. He spins many plates without dropping a one, and the show's so much fun you don't notice he's crying.
You Exist. Details Follow, by Stuart Ross, reflects on matters as weighty as the poetic standard of "lost time" through consideration of what might otherwise seem silly (like a campy sci-fi time-travel flick). A smart, strange, and hilarious collection.
Personals, by Ian Williams. Williams has a knack for poeticizing the language and reality of contemporary corporate bureaucracy. Often using simple words or phrases as litanies, the poems can be hypnotic and strange without becoming cryptic.
Testament, by Dennis Lee. Combining and rewriting two previous books, Un and Yesno, Lee offers a dark, disturbing series of poems mediating on ecological disaster. Lee enacts language's failure to grasp the world, even as he celebrates its beautiful potential.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) recently published The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books). His column appears on the fourth weekend of the month.