Attention Span 2012 | Brent Cunningham
Dana Ward | This Can’t Be Life | Edge | 2012
In a year filled with terrific books of poetry I had to invent some new method to filter them, so I thought about which books seemed to be pointing towards new possibilities with uncompromising particularity. Ward’s work, though it owes a lot to the chatty poetics of various forerunners, feels like a beginning—of what, I can’t exactly say. Ted Berrigan is the obvious precursor but to me Ward’s dilates the immediate even further out, so that the question of what he’s doing, the politics and the high theory of poetic choices, also become integral to the poems. It’s an alchemical, weirdifying act, even as it’s also just one dude talking.
Samantha Giles | hurdis addo | Displaced | 2011
A lot of Giles’s work is interested in a surface flatness, i.e. a seeming lack of affect, where things only expose their vulnerability in wider contexts. The emotion (in this case anger at Oakland’s homicide rate and all it implies about American capitalistic society) comes at you through sometimes foundish, sometimes factish, and sometimes abstractish language (to coin three terms at a go). To me her writing feels like what conceptualism might have been, or still might be—more the conjunction of the communal and the experiential, less the marketing.
Judith Goldman | l.b.; or, catenaries | Krupskaya | 2011
Goldman’s writing has always been intellectually passionate and politically fearless. It also tends to risk over-abundance. But as long as this particular book is (and it’s long) the writing is tighter and more focused than ever. Moreover, the frame (which, loosely, is the vast juggernaut of poetic inheritance from Romanticism, manifested here mostly as a dialectic between voice and textual materiality) is in such perfect tension with her concerns, and illuminates her sense of contemporary poetics so brilliantly, I feel sure this will be considered among her very best works.
Brandon Brown | The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus | Krupskaya | 2011
Here, again, is a work that to me feels like a model for a potential new avenue in poetry. It’s certainly busy ripping down idols, in particular the ones that professional translators guard zealously, and while it’s no longer new to hide subversive or even expressivist intentions inside the Trojan horse of classic/classical allusions (or inside “kinda-sorta” translations) it’s not usually done with such irreverent, brainy abandon.
Tyrone Williams | Howell | Atelos | 2011
I love and rely on Williams’s work for its seriousness of purpose—you really remember, reading him, what it means to be challenged not because the text has anxiety about being overly accessible, nor out of some political justification where disjointed language supposedly subverts commercial language, but because the writer is directly knee-deep in difficult problems, aesthetic and social. My sense is that Howell might be better than both On Spec and C.C., and I really wouldn’t have believed that possible.
Dawn Lundy Martin | Discipline | Nightboat | 2011
Martin was a new discovery for me this year, and I’ve recommended this book to many friends. Maybe it doesn’t offer a completely new formal model for the future of poetry, but it does show how language stripped of sentimentality and drippy “lyrical” manipulation can still dig way down into the constructions of self and society, and do it absolutely movingly. “The I is a condensed system.” Condensed, like these poems, by race, gender, history, and thought.
Chris Vitiello | Obedience | Ahsahta | 2012
This is like one of those old sci-fi “flip” books: turn it in one direction and it contains one text; turn it around and there’s a second text. But, here, each line has an upside-down mirror line across the fold. Sometimes the mirror line expresses the same idea differently, sometimes it expresses a different idea samely. While this all might sound like a superficial “trick” book, it’s the quality of thought that takes it to another plane—just a huge, challenging cache of Wittgensteinian questions, insights, reflections, and genuine ideas (which are so much rarer in poetry than we like to assume) on every page.
Suzanne Stein | Tout Va Bien | Displaced | 2012
Like with Chris Vitiello’s book Obedience, there’s some conceptual-sounding “tricks” to this book that you might hear about first, i.e. it’s sold at a price of “free,” and it reproduces a Donald Judd essay precisely (somewhat enacting the famous Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote “). But it’s on my list as much for the “straight” poetry sections, where Stein sounds and thinks like no one I can think of—rigorous yet dreamy, probing yet reflexive.
Pamela Lu | Ambient Parking Lot | Kenning | 2011
Some will put this in the “poet’s novel” category because it has a more rigorous formal structure than the average novel-novel, but it’s really a delightful and breezy read regardless, lovingly satirizing not just the musicians that make up the main characters but by implication everyone involved in obscure art forms. Yes, that means you and me, dear reader.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski | Advice for Lovers | City Lights | 2012
I put Julian’s first book, gowanus atropolis, on an Attention Span in the past, and some friends said just wait because xe is going to write an even better book. I was skeptical but now I’m wavering, for there’s everything to love about Lovers. To me this is a love manual the way Henri Michaux’s Tent Posts is wisdom literature, which is to say it isn’t, but then again maybe it’s the only actually useful example ever written (Jalal Toufic’s Undying Love might be another). No matter, though: to me no one lives deeper in sound than this finger-pickin’ vaudevillian Renaissance scholar-slash-lover.
Harold Abramowitz | Not Blessed | Les Figues | 2012
To me the title of this book isn’t quite perfect, but the text is terrific. It’s more fiction than poetry, telling a single incident twenty-eight times, with variations. Hence it resembles Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (except the Robert-Walser-influenced style never changes). The retellings start to feel like a pursuit of the deepest truths of that small incident, so there is formal stasis but great mental movement—which, come to think of it, also seems like a better model for what conceptualism could have been, or could still be.
Brent Cunningham lives in Oakland. He works at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley. His second book, Journey to the Sun, was published in 2012 by Atelos Press. He and Neil Alger are the founders of Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing and ephemera.