It's been a cray past few weeks, emotionally, physically, mentally. For some reason during the Long Weekend when I should be sequestering myself, doctors here are finally on the verge of figuring out a health issue I've been having for about ten years. Nothing crazy but I've been hitting my head against a wall trying to elicit help all this time and now suddenly things have started moving and I'm having blood tests run every two days and all sorts of activity during what is probably the most dangerous time to be trying to visit medial facilities. Oh well. It is, as they say, what it is.
I've also been working on some new media poems over the last week or so (more on that later).
But anyway, one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to finish two anthologies I started and then abandoned. There are two huge poetry anthologies I’ve had stacked on my desk half-finished for over year, in one case a few years. The 500+ page New Poets of the American West, edited by Lowell Jaeger, and the 775+ page book Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. This year I made it one of my goals to finish them. Well, to be honest, I had grown impatient or bored with single volumes of poetry.
Some years you like reading single books and some years you want greatest hits. You just have to pay attention to your yen.
Poets of the American West (2010)
I picked up this book as part of my search for poems about New Mexico. This book is organized by state and includes all everything west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. So no Texas. There are a lot of different poets, styles, and subjects. The introductory essays are great. I especially liked this: “Consider the poem as artifact. Try reading the poems as if we are archaeologists on a dig….What can we learn about this person’s world?”
The best thing about anthologies is trolling them (in the good way) to discover new favorite poets. I’ve used many international anthologies that way. Some of my discoveries this round were:
Jim Natal, “The Half-Life of Memory”
Sean Nevin, “Wildfire Triptych”
David St. John: “Los Angeles, 1954”
Noah Eli Gordon, “All Orange Blossoms Have to Do Is Act Naturally”
Jane Hilberry, “The Moment”
Robert King, “Now”
Marilyn Krysl, “Love, That Hugeness” and “Song of Some Ruins”
Sheryl Luna, “Las Alas”
William Johnson, “New Year’s Eve”
Judy Blunt, “Showdown”
Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Meditations on the South Valley, VIII”
Michael Pettit, “Sparrow of Espanola”
David Axelrod, “The Spirit of the Place”
Rob Carney, “January 26, 2009” and “Two-Story, Stone and Brick, Single-Family Dwelling”
Elizabeth Bradfield, “Multi-Use Area”
Bo Moore: “Dry Land” and “Pretty” and “Forecast”
I had some issues with this book.
Most of the poets are assembled by language and then by country within that language, which is cool. But then more than half of the book is English and there are no country subcategories for the English section. Everyone from Canada, England, Australia, America, etc. are all lumped together.
Poet and translator Willis Barnstone, Aliki's father, did many of the translations. They’re not bad but they all use the same category of words (very simple Saxon vocabularies) and they all sound very much like Google Translate after 50 pages. This is probably why a volume of this heft should solicit the skills of a variety of translators.
The introductory essay was slim and the poet bios are not standardized. Some include books written, some include where poets are from, some are long critiques of the poets. It felt very hodge-podge and half-researched.
The volume includes poems of the editor, Aliki Barnstone. I struggled with how to feel about this. Whether or not this seems kosher depends entirely on the kind of anthology you're dealing with: an anthology of feminist or food poems or poets from New York State, for example. But this is Women Poets from Antinquity to Nowish. We assume we’ll have the best of the best in here. It just seems a bit forward to insert yourself in this most serious list, even if you are somewhat contemporary and published.
There were quite a few modern English poets I didn’t know. And meanwhile, some big poets weremissing, like Nikki Giovannie, Alice Walker and Alice Fulton.
Some of the font choices were a bit uncomplimentary with each other.
Overall it feels a bit like a rush job with more effort put to favorite poets.
That said Aliki Batnstone’s book on Emily Dickinson’s poetic development is the best book I’ve read on Emily Dickinson and there were some amazing moments reading this anthology.
I will always appreciate this piece of poetry translated by Willis Barnstone from Song of Songs:
“My love has gone down to his garden,
in the bed of spices,
to feed his sheep in the orchards,
to gather lilies,
I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.
He feeds his flock among the lilies.”
And this Willis Barnstone Sappho translation:
“Like a mountain whirlwind
punishing the oak trees,
love shattered my heart.”
And the book has inspired me to look into some poets like Cecil Bodker, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Julia de Burgos. “To Julia de Burgos” was a great poem translated by Grace Shulman, as was “I Hear You’ve Let Go” by Rosario Ferre. I also want to check out Martha Paley Francesacto, and this was a great poem by Gaspara Stampa translated by J. Vitiello:
“When before those eyes, my life and light,
my beauty and fortune in the world, I stand,
the style, speech, passion, genius I command,
the thoughts, conceits, feelings I incite,
In all I’m overshelmed, utterly spent,
like a deaf mute, virtually dazed,
all reverence, nothing but amazed
in that lovely light, I’m fixed and rent.
Enough, not a word can I intone
for that divine incubus never quits
sapping my strength, leaving my soul prone.
Oh Love, what strange and wonderful fits:
one sole thing, one beauty alone,
can give me life and deprive me of wits.”
Jean Valentine’s “Foraging, part 2 “The Luminous Room” was a very sexy sex poem and Margaret Atwood’s marriage poem “Habitation” was good. I learned a better appreciation for Heather McHugh.
And I have to say this is the first time I’ve read in which I’ve been able to finally understand Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” or Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” after decades of approaching them in classes and other anthologies. You just have to be ready for these things, I guess.