Best Books of 2015

Six books of poetry in English from around the world that 2015 will be remembered for

A poet and translator picks the most arresting books of world poetry he read in 2015.

No such list can be complete. This one is a strictly personal selection.

Poems, JH Prynne
An expanded third edition of Poems by the Cambridge giant – a poet perhaps even more obscure than Ezra Pound, yet more playful – who continues to inspire a number of late modernists is a real behemoth. But the rewards of struggling with this monster are immense. Linguistic virtuosity is the hook that makes us read on, lose ourselves in the intricate web of the text, and wait for understanding to follow, fall apart, and be reconstituted, again and again:

What else is there: the captain orders the sight
of land to be erased from the log, as well he might
~ from The Kirghiz Disasters



Chance of a Storm, Rod Mengham
Here is one of the poets inspired by Prynne – inspired, but never derivative, always speaking in a voice that is unmistakably his own. Rod Mengham’s work keeps blurring the line between poetry and prose, always hinting at something epic, with an ever-present political undercurrent and an ironic twist. Written in the spirit of Pound’s formula for poetry proposed in ABC of Reading – DICHTEN = CONDENSARE – Mengham’s poems have the density of osmium, yet every particle (= every word) is exactly where it should be, and the reader will have a lot of intellectual fun negotiating the meanings:

At the same hour every morning, pariah dogs gather in a baker’s dozen to parley and skirmish
~ from 9/11 is the date when the CIA-funded coup removed the Allende government from power in Chile



Breezeway, John Ashbery
Breezeway is Ashbery’s 26th regular collection of poetry. Long gone are the days of the poet’s trademark, meandering, never-ending sentences (like those in the critically acclaimed Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or in the book-length poem Flow Chart). At 88, Ashbery opts for short phrases (Carol Rummens comes up with the term “staccato mood”), yet his pronouns remain vague, the “yous” and “wes” can often fit anyone or anything, which makes these poems wonderfully stretchable, able to accommodate almost any reader’s experience. The poems are replete with echoes and allusions (from every imaginable linguistic stratum and register), and the ominous is mixed with the jocular. In this collection the poem is something casual, quotidian – one does not need a special occasion to write it; thus Breezeway is a portrait of an (old) mind thinking, reminiscing, absorbing, recycling, hearing and sometimes (purposely) mishearing or mispronouncing (as in the collection’s title poem):

[…]
I said we were all homers not homos
but my voice dwindled in the roar of Hurricane Edsel.
We have to live out our precise experimentation.
Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards.


Batman came out and clubbed me.
[…]



Aspects of Strangers, Piotr Gwiazda
Gwiazda is an American poet, translator, literary critic, and academic teacher of Polish descent. Aspects of Strangers is his third collection of poetry. At first, the poems may seem simple, and yet it quickly turns out their simplicity is misleading. Simple phrases keep building up, bringing new pieces of information, sometimes corroborating and sometimes undermining what went before; phrases are sometimes repeated in different contexts, adding to the complex picture of contemporary humans struggling with the paradoxes and pleasures of contemporaneity:

Some crossing the street,
some crossing the plaza,
in random order.
(And yet there are patterns
if you watch closely.
There are patterns
if you listen—)



The structural principles of Aspects of Strangers are accumulation and repetition. In Gwiazda’s book contiguity struggles with incompatibility – people live in close proximity to others, yet remain distant, strangers in a multitude of ways the book explores. Often the poet looks at people as an alien – a Martian perhaps – would:

“They divided their planet into several large countries and thousands of small ones (each with a flag and anthem). Then they began to send probes into outer space. Their hair, in varying color and quantity, is distributed over random parts of their bodies. They don’t know what to make of holograms” (from “Aspects of Strangers”).

The book, published as a pdf file, can be read here.

Alive: New and Selected Poems, Elizabeth Willis
This volume (over 200 pages) gathers poems that span over twenty years, and speak to the reader in a variety of forms and voices, navigating between language, art and nature. The question of poetic voice/identity is essential here:

I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer
~ Address



Perhaps the most gripping part of the book comes from Meteoric Flowers, a collection of prose poems derived from “The Botanic Garden” – a 1791 long poem by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Following the author’s advice – “single words... taken from other authors... are lawful game, wild by nature, the property of all who can capture them” – Willis borrows (or should one say steals?) Darwin’s phrases to use them as her titles. But her bloodless hunt for someone else’s words yields unexpected results: strangely disjointed poems in search for the natural, like “Near and More Near”:

We’re so close to the ocean I can taste it, like the volcanic in Picasso. A hand can fit perfectly over a mouth. I know about the thighbone, but what’s this connected to? A skirt trailing off into scorpion silver at the edge of L.A. Compare this with the habits of the wife of Bath, her passing breezes, the stolen pear, tallied for change, tailed to the last, her little Spanish clock. This star plane is mechanical, it’s having us on. What long teeth you have.

I Must Be Living Twice. New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles has produced over 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama. Though immediately accessible, her work is easily the wittiest, sharpest, most insightful, sensual, and sexual, poetry you will ever read. It almost feels as if she was speaking the poems straight into your ears (she is an amazing performer too). Lively, quick, often autobiographical, her poems are immediately engaging, and the wonderfully short run-on lines make it impossible to stop reading. In “An American Poem” she uses facts from her biography (moving from Boston to New York to become a poet, the discovery of her sexual orientation: “I became a lesbian”) imagining herself to be part of the Kennedy family:

I was born in Boston in
1949. I never wanted
this fact to be known, in
fact I’ve spent the better
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
and have a life that
was clearly just mine
and independent of
the historic fate of
my family. […]



Adam Zdrodowski is a poet and translator; he has published three collections of poetry and translated authors such as Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs. He lives in Warsaw, Poland.

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