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If you’re looking for the Best Poetry of 2010, you might check out this year’s National Book Award nominees, or you might see who won this year’s William Carlos Williams Award or Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. If you’re a reader like me, then you know there’re piles of good poetry collections published every year, more than we could hope to read before the next batch starts appearing.

But, if you’re still looking for more good poetry, here are three of my personal favorites from 2010 and one to get excited about in early 2011.

Master of Disguises by Charles Simic

Charles Simic is one of my all time favorite poets. His often short lyrics are frank and funny in a way that never seems forced or merely ironic. One of his most memorable poems (maybe especially for a male reader) is called “Breasts,” and its power lies in the sincerity of its declarations:

I insist that a girl
Stripped to the waist
Is the first and last miracle,
That the old janitor on his deathbed
Who demands to see the breasts of his wife
For the one last time
Is the greatest poet who ever lived.

Master of Disguises offers familiar sincerity and humor in its imagery. In the title poem, on the lookout for the Master of Disguises, the speaker says, “I wouldn’t even rule out the black cat crossing the street.” It’s a funny line because it’s not a joke. Because in this poem and others like it, “Scribbled in the Dark” and “The Elusive Something,” poems about confrontations with mystery, no potential clue can be ruled out, not “The face of a girl carrying a white dress” or “the sight of a building blackened by fire / where I once went looking for work.”

Here by Wislawa Szymborska

Another one of my favorite poets. In her 1996 Nobel lecture, Szymborska described a poetics of astonishment, astonishment which “exists per se, and it isn’t based on a comparison with something else,” astonishment at the world in its entirety. Maintaining a sense of astonishment at everything there is may seem like an impossibly romantic goal, but her poetry makes a heroic effort towards realizing it, taking in subjects from the mundane to the cosmological, from across cultures and history.

Here carries on Szymborska’s project of indiscriminate astonishment. These are poems about poetry, place, mythology, music, memory, divorce, apocalypse, and television. These are poems about the constant surprise of finding the world as it is, and right where we left it, or where someone else left it:

Just take a closer look:
the table stands exactly where it stood,
the piece of paper still lies where it was spread,
through the open window comes a breath of air,
the walls reveal no terrifying cracks
through which nowhere might extinguish you.

Man on Extremely Small Island by Jason Koo

Now for something completely different. Jason Koo doesn’t hail from any part of Eastern Europe. He’s a Korean-American from the Midwest boasting healthy American obsessions with sports and women. The poems in this debut collection, often mundane in content, are epic in tone, rhapsodizing about lunch, long car rides, baseball games, and lovers’ quarrels. Self-reflective beyond the point of neurosis, these poems find relief in momentary release from ourselves, into lyric, into landscapes, into dreams.

The real challenge presented here lies in negotiating the return trip, in rediscovering ourselves, our desires and anxieties, after a moment of epiphany or something like it. Take the closing form my current favorite in this collection, “How to Watch Your Team Lose Game Seven of the World Series”:

And then this, to see your team up by a run with two outs to go,
To get a glimpse of another life, and to sit there powerless as this life
Is slowly siphoned away from you and replaced with the one
You already have, the one your whole life has been preparing you for.

Coming soon: Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort


This is a little bit of a cheat for a “Best of 2010” post, but I only recently discovered her 2008 collection Factory of Tears. Collected Body won’t be out until after the New Year, but it may already be in the running for my “Best Poetry of 2011” post. Of course I could be biased. I heard her read earlier this fall, and now I think I might be in love.

Valzhyna Mort is beautiful, Belarusian, and brilliant. As the title might suggest, Collected Body is preoccupied with the physical. At her reading, Mort explained to the audience that she would be reading some old poems and some new ones. We’d be able to tell the new poems because they would contain the word “pussy.”

Her poems were vivid and bold. Her descriptions of bodies were both matter-of-fact and tender, somehow both analytical and loving, without ever swerving into euphemism or vulgarity. I look forward to spending some time with these new poems later this winter, and perhaps reminding readers about Mort again next year.