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10 of 2013’s Best Books of Poetry

Imagine Poetry as a figure fighting through a gelatinous blob of pop culture with a big plaque (“CULTURAL RELEVANCE”) displayed on the other side. It is a strange and sluggish creature that is rarely reviewed and honored at its release date. There are gasps for air — the mangled poet whispering, “I-I-I e-exist.” Richard Blanco’s poem for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” countless op-eds debating whether poetry has a pulse — this daunting form of writing made a delightful racket this year.

Poetry is often intimidating to the outsider, and that lack of readership pushes it back into the cytoplasm until the general public remembers it exists once again. This is why I’ve compiled a list of ten of my favorite poetry books from 2013 — all of which are strong, challenging, accessible, poppy, or harrowing. There is a a variety of work in which I’ve given “The Short” (a list of “keywords” I jotted down as quick entry points for those unfamiliar with the work) and “The Long,” which gives a more in-depth look into what glued these books to my brain this year.

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The Disordered, Anhvu Buchanan (Sunnyoutside Press)

The Short:
family, breathless, prose poetry, mental disorders, multiple voices

The Long:
These title-less poems are like the contents of an antique jewelry box. This is not to speak of preciousness, but rather, that each poem is different, evocative, and contains a memory like a brooch or a ring. As The Disordered‘s blurb says, it “investigates the mind overcome and overwhelmed by derangement,” as the quick statements of phantasmagoric voices start to resonate more deeply. The characters who contain complex qualities of many genders are refreshing. Some of my favorite poems of the book use footnotes at the end of each line, and each footnote itself is a line of equal anamnestic movement.

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i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, Mira Gonzalez (Sorry House)

The Short:
candid, solipsism, confessional, xxx, pop culture, alt lit

The Long:
What makes this book of poetry succeed is its lack of filter and complete candor. The poems in this book are incredibly self-aware, but also crafty in the way they echo out like friends-only Livejournal entries — the great pleasure of being told a confession — a secret whispered in your ear. What is “Alt Lit”? What is “New Sincerity”? Is there a checkbox of sans-serif design choices, long titles, and pop cultural references that make something a thing or not a thing? I don’t know. But I know this: this work is good. It is engrossing, brutally honest, anxious, and something I would recommend to those who do not usually read contemporary poetry.

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Getting Lucky, Nicole Steinberg (Spooky Girlfriend Press)

The Short:
fashion, magazine, glossy, celebrity, girly, pop culture, feminism

The Long:
I have written about the Getting Lucky poems multiple times and — full disclosure — toured with Nicole this past fall during the release of this book. There are many things happening in these poems that need to be addressed to understand the brilliance of the project. First, each poem was constructed from found text of one back issue of Lucky, a newsstand magazine about shopping and style, meaning every word that appears in the poems originally appeared in Lucky. Each poem — a sonnet — uses a name of a girl (often a celebrity) that appears in the magazine, which further gives us a lens to examine the gendered ad copy, often flipping this glossy language for a tongue-in-cheek dissection. The poems all have a poppy, exquisite-corpse feel that provides a mirror to our materialistic culture, or to steal a line from Steinberg’s poem “Lindsay” — “built for touch and always taking more.”

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Joe Hall, The Devotional Poems (Black Ocean)

The Short:
religion, trailer trash, devil, blight, god, power, lamb, rural

The Long:
Like a Pentecostal prayer, each poem in this book is a handled snake ready to strike. Trash, thorns, cigarettes, the repetition of “O Beast! O Christ!” — this book is aggressive and contains stark, surprising language. Low culture is pushed against divinity in a nativity of language with lines like “… Floridian blondes/In wet t-shirts and thongs and dudes with stomachs/Like six lacquered doorknobs.” There’s a beautiful terror to these words — even in matters of the soul, there is so much to be sung and salted on this earth.

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 TwERK (Belladonna*), LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

The Short:
sound, dialect, linguistics, japanese pop culture, translation, race, identity

The Long:
Twerking entered mainstream slang through spectacles like Big Freedia’s Guinness World Record (for the most people twerking) and Miley Cyrus’s co-opting of bounce during many controversial appearances this year. This perhaps becomes even more relevant and resonant after TwERK‘s publication — as it addresses the co-opting of culture and race in its opening poem “mista popo ™ hollas @ jynx™.” If you’re not in the know about ’90s anime, Mister Popo is a character from Dragon Ball Z, who was drawn in the style of blackface. Jynx, a Pokémon, was depicted in the same style of pitch skin and big red lips — until they later revised her skin to slightly-less-racist-but-no-really-this-is-still-racist-as-hell purple. TwERK examines Western culture through iconographic appropriation, fierce language, composite languages, and experiments of dialect and form. While I note the pop culture that makes this work an exciting access point, the juggling of linguistics is not to be overlooked — this book rivals Christian Bök’s Vowels or Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution in terms of its creative wordplay.

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Revenge for Revenge, Christie Ann Reynolds (Coconut Books)*

The Short:
utterance, diction, brutal honesty, revenge, willpower

The Long:
The poems here are straightforward, usually low on enjambment, each fired off like a bullet. The contents of this book are fierce and versatile — from weddings to stutters to car crashes to mirages to perdition to — of course — revenge. These declarations and utterances beg to be read aloud to feel the full impact of all that’s happening inside these lines. For anyone who likes their poetry with a strong, willful voice — this is for you.

*Revenge for Revenge technically came out on Dec. 31, 2012, but it has slid on my 2013 list, being so cusped and so good.

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 The Mysteries of Laura, Andrea Quinlan (Birds of Lace)

The Short:
Victorian, fairy tale, girlhood, pristine, chapbook, haunted

The Long:
Laura is a composite figure, one that shifts and forms out of literary recall. Wuthering Heights, The Secret Garden — even Austen and The Bloody Chamber — there are many parts that make up Laura’s wiles and desires. What made Laura so enjoyable for me is that these poems quietly subvert and toy with the idea of the Victorian heroine and the values of that time period. There is something spooky, even grotesque, lurking under the surface. This is a perfect chapbook for anyone who is a fan of the Victorian era or clean, pristine language.

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 Portuguese, Brandon Shimoda (Octopus Books/Tin House Books)

The Short:
narrative, ethnicity, identity, breathless

The Long:
“While on the bus to elementary school in a small New England town, Brandon Shimoda — the offspring of a Japanese American father and white mother — was taunted for being ‘Portuguese.’ Shimoda’s latest collection returns the author to a moment he felt challenged to become what he was being called, however falsely, and despite feeling confused, flushed, and afraid.”

With no full stops and winding journeys between long lines and sparse bits, Portuguese is a complex work of poetry. There is a strange cadence and rhythm to all of these poems, unlike the other books I’ve mentioned or read this year. From Japanese culture to travels to Lebanon, these poems rule in preservation and hesitations of memory. They are intelligent, sensitive, and make for one of the most compelling reads of 2013.

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Rise Is the Fall, Ana Božičević (Birds, LLC)

The Short:
conversational, pop culture, war, revolution, philosophy, sexuality, play

The Long:
Rise Is the Fall manages to telegraph playfulness while tackling topics like economics, sexuality, and war. The poems are often colloquial — such as the opening one (“About Nietzsche”), which drops “This is the whitest shit/I’ve ever written. Truth is, Osama bin Laden was killed today, two women were shot/in that raid…” Yet this conversational tone is not to dismiss this complex work of the Croatian émigré, a point of view that perhaps gives Božičević an additional angle to approach the English language and contort poetics. Lady Gaga, porn, “Pussy Sushi,” weather control, revolution — there is a vast landscape inside these worldly poems, a charisma that is always in motion.

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Red Doc>, Anne Carson (Knopf)

The Short:
myth, classics, sequel, history, genre-bending, contemporary setting

The Long:
Carson’s Autobiography of Red is a much beloved book. Red Doc> serves as its successor, or spiritual sequel — whichever works best for you. As the bracket in the title hints, this is a work of sporadic punctuation, an experiment of language. Herakles transforms into a shell-shocked veteran, Geryon becomes condensed into a single initial. Other stories fade into the background to make way for appearances from the likes of Proust, building upon a newer type of mythology. This is very contemporary, and perhaps requires a second reading, or at least a reading of Autobiography of Red prior — but it’s delightful and challenging, perfect for any lover of the Classics.

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