BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Here’s the fourth installment of our Best Books of 2009 series, all about nonfiction. Keep up with the rest of the series here.
And now for something a little different…
Yes, the books I’m about to recommend all came out this year (at least in paperback), and, yes, I can absolutely recommend these books to interested readers without any hesitation on my part. But before reading on, you might just want to consider one word of warning: poetry.
It’s not a subject we’ve touched on much here at C4, but it is a subject we (or at least I) would like to address more in the coming year since digital publishing has implications for this form, too. For now, I’d simply like to offer, in no particular order, four new titles from four of my favorite poets as a reminder to anyone out there who might care to know it that good poetry is still being written today.
Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski
Disclaimer: this one was published in 2008, but the paperback came out this year.
Zagajewski was born in Poland in 1945, and his poetry picks up the mantle of other great Eastern European poets like Herbert, Milosz, and Szymborska. His poems confront the challenges of rebuilding and the question of how best to memorialize times of great catastrophe and crisis.
This most recent collection treats these grand themes with a sensibility both historical and personal. Eternal Enemies presents a cohesive vision of a kind of perpetual state of aftermath, a world constantly in recovery. These pages abound with echoes, invoking great cities, poets, and thinkers both modern and ancient. The product is a landscape of humanity at once immortal and frail, prepared to forge ahead while always wary of what comes next.
What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 by Stephen Dunn
This book makes a great introduction for anyone who hasn’t heard of Dunn. It contains some of my favorite of his recent poems, including work form his Pulitzer Prize winning collection Different Hours, and some biting new verses.
Dunn has a reputation for finding beauty in the mundane, but what I most admire in his work is its ability to mine all kinds of effects from the mundane, spinning out the threads of gossip and evening walks until all the loose ends appear. Often written in short, controlled stanzas, Dunn’s free verse poems demonstrate a mastery of language that renders a direct, colloquial vocabulary into pure music, offering even everyday words the opportunity to show their hidden dimensions.
A Village Life by Louise Glück
Glück’s poetry often draws on domestic situations and classical mythology, rendering loss and adolescent longing in language that manages to sound equally banal and prophetic. Her gift for writing about everyday drama without ever sounding melodramatic is almost unparalleled.
Her newest collection reads very much like a book of linked stories. Set in an unnamed Mediterranean village in an unspecified time, A Village Life creates a world of cycles, the passing of the seasons, sexual awakening, and coming of age. Though the setting offers a great deal of pastoral beauty, the tone of these poems often veers towards the mean or resentful, almost sinister, challenging its subjects and its readers alike.
The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab
Raab writes poetry without any sleight of hand. There’s no withholding or gimmicks, no heavy-handed symbolism or some piece of trivia you really have to know before you can understand. His poems are open investigations of simple ideas that wander freely, arriving at places that seem as fresh and unexpected to the speaker as they might to the reader.
The History of Forgetting invites us to consider memory and legacy, the things we remember and how we remember them. Drawing on a wide range of material, from a set of old family photos to a B movie with a hilarious title, these poems reveal painful humor in serious matters and accidental significance in things that might otherwise be considered trivial.