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As David Lehman suggests in his foreword to The Best American Poetry 2012, Mark Doty collects a wide variety of poems that have a mysterious and âuncannyâ quality, poems which are almost haunted by the âspirit in the dark.â In his introduction, Doty himself tell us poetry must âSing me somethingâ:
To what extent do we understand the process that calls a poem into being?Â Someone or something comes to us in the darkâliterally, or in the darknessÂ of not-knowing and says, âSing me something.â Itâs the uncovering of whatÂ is to be sung, and how, which are not two separate things but an intertwiningÂ spiral, like a DNA molecule, that gives the process its tension, frustration and,Â at least sometimes, elation.
Doty suggests that poetry is about what âwe canât sayâ:
We could also say that phantom who appears to the poet, summoning
words, is some premonition or anticipation of the readerâwho turns
to poetry in order to find some music that echoes what we canât say.
The poems in this collection are varied as much as the current poetry scene. It is to Dotyâs credit that he has collected a wide range of styles and approaches, from a dramatic monologue by Richard Howard to a sonnet by Honore Moore to a long narrative poem by Paisley Rekdal. Some bring us to unsettling feminist questions such as Jennifer Changâs âDorothy Wordsworthâ and Mary Jo Salterâs âThe Gods.â Chang writes in her first two stanzas:
The daffodils can go fuck themselves
Iâm tired of their crowds, yellow rantings
about the spastic sun that shines and shines
and shines. How are they any different
from me? I, too, have a big messy head
on a fragile stalk. I spin with the wind.
I flower and donât apologize.
. . .Fractious petals, stop
interrupting my poem with boring beauty.
All the boys are in the field gnawing raw
bones of ambition and calling it ardor. Who
the hell are they?
Chang takes aim at William Wordworthâs school of old-boy sentiments toward beauty and the female in the guise of the flower as well as his lyrical excesses. Just as Salter takes exception, while listening to an orchestra in a concert hall, looking up to study the ceiling and noting only the names of great men from history chiseled into stone:
All men. Never a womanâs
name, of course, although
gets featured overheadâ
and abstractions you might go
to women for, like BEAUTY
One of the few overtly gay poems in the collection was âDaffodilâ by Angelo Nikolopoulos. This lovely and clever love poem begins with an epigraph, âA poet could not but be gayâ by William Wordsworth. It goes on to personify the daffodil as âAprilâs rentboy,â and reminds this âblond-eyed boyâÂ âbinge-drinking/your way through springâ that the poet has âbloomed like you beforeâ and suggests that he âpipe down.âÂ It is a wonderfully surprising poem, one I enjoyed immensely for its perfect mix of camp and wit and its âpraise and condemnationâ of youth at the same time.
Another gay poem is a long work by Spencer Reece, âThe Road to Emmausâ which speaks fondly of the poetâs memories of a queer man, Durell, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This wonderful poem portrays the unique and telling relationship between the two and gives us an in depth study of this unique fellowâs psyche:
Hours before, while the moonâs neck wobbled on the Charles
like a giraffeâs, or the ghost of a giraffeâs neck,
I imagined Durell labored, having slept only a few hours,
caged in his worries of doctor bills, no money,
and running out of people to ask for it:
mulling over mistakes, broken love affairsâ
a hospital orderly, a man upstairs,
he probably mumbled unkind epithets about blacks and Jews,
even though the men he loved wereÂ blacks and Jews.
Overweight, having âgrown as fat as Elizabeth Taylor,â Durell eventually dies and the poet is located by Durellâs sister. They talk about her brother. She tells the poet âThey called him namesâ âA nancy boy, a priss, a sissy, a fairy. . .â The poem also pays homage to a Franciscan nun who, without judgment, guides the poet in a loving manner toward this discovery of something spiritually significant in his past.
And further there is Bruce Sniderâs âThe Drag Queen Dies in New Castleâ which describes the aftermath of the death of a drag queen in a rural community:
. . . Buried
by the barn, you vanished,
but the church women
bought your wigs
for the Christmas pageant
that year, your blouses sewn
into a quilt under which
two newlyweds lay,
skin to skin as if they
carried some sense
of your undressing.
There are multicultural poems such as âThe Autobiography of Khwaja Mustasim,â by Amit Majmudarwhich, Â is a list poem encompassing the various incarnations of the poet through culture and history:
I stood for twenty years a chess piece in Cordoba, the black rook.
I was a parrot fed melon seeds by the eleventh caliph.
I sparked to life in a Damascus forge, no bigger than my own pupil.
I was the mosquito whose malarial kiss conquered Alexander.
I bound books in Bukhara, burned them in Balkh.
In my four hundred and sixteenth year I came to Qom.
And âBack Matterâ by Erica Dawson, which is an interesting study of the black vernacular, a poem as inventive in its language as any in the collection:
Daughter, still, of absurdities,
I like âstreet-talkerâ now. Yes, please.
Breathless with ghetto woe
(â. . . and his mama criedâ) Iâd call
Me too American, too black,
Too Negro dialect. My back
Is to your front. Iâm all
Set with my Nikes on.
All in all The Best American Poetry represents the year in poetry and fulfills its mandate of reflecting a cross-section of practicing poets.
The Best American Poetry 2012
Guest Editor: Mark Doty
Series Editor: David Lehman
Paperback, 9781439181522, Â 213 pp.
September Â 2012