Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 6, 2014

Denise Duhamel and David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2013_

IN RECENT YEARS, I have taken to reading BAP not just to enjoy the poetry (which I usually do) but to see how far the aesthetic of the poems selected conforms to that of the poems of its editor. Hard to that approach in the present instance, however, as Duhamel contains multitudes--or, at least, she's stylistically unpredictable. It is hard to say a poem is like a Duhamel poem, when Duhanel poems are so often unlike other Duhamel poems.

One can say, however, the contents for 2013 have the same range and versatility that Duhamel's poetry does: funny, but sometimes in a scary way; edgy, but usually in a friendly way; formally deft, but idiosyncratic in their development; sometimes arch, sometimes disarmingly honest.  Some of the volume's most... Duhamelian poems were among my favorites, actually--John Koethe's "Eggheads" ("In the fifties people who were smart / And looked smart were called eggheads"), A. Van Jordan's "Blazing Saddles" ("What's so funny about racism / is how racists never get the joke"), and Mitch Sisskind's "Joe Adamczyk," the story of a bartender who in late middle age discovers philosophy ("The vigor with which he / Once devoured Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels / Now energized his attack on Gottlob Frege's / Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik, which he read / Using Langensheidt's German-English dictionary").

I was also struck by Anthony Madrid's "Once upon a Time," with its wacky riffing on Prince's "When Doves Cry":

Maybe I 'm just like my mother.
She's never satisfied.
Maybe I'm just like my father.
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Maybe I'm just like my cat:
Licking invisible balls.
Perhaps you'll reflect upon that,
Next time you're screening your calls.

Turns out, though, Madrid himself doesn't really care much for "Once upon a Time."  In his note on the poem, he writes, "I sent it to Poetry as a joke. And now it's in this thing, and people are going to think this is how I write." Interesting problem, no?  Madrid probably got a boatload of congratulations for making BAP, and every compliment was perhaps like that paper cut on your finger that bangs against something every few minutes all day long.

Quite a few periodicals represented that I had not so much as heard of before: Fifth Wednesday Journal,  Harpur Palate, Vitrine, which suggests to me that Duhamel took her job seriously, and good for her. The most intriguing one, though, is Gulfshore Life, which sounds like one of those tourism magazines that come free with your hotel stay. I myself would not page through such a thing looking for poems, but apparently Duhanel did, and she found a really nice one, Jesse Millner's "In Praise of Small Gods."  The poem's gentle, lyrical gratitude might get a rough ride in the average of MFA workshop, but it worked for me:

I praise this morning.
I praise drainage ditch and mosquitoes,
I praise the tiny insect stings,
which argue for my own life.

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