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My Personal Pantheon of Favorite Poetry Books: Part One


T’is the the season and shoppers are bustling to stores under silver bells on a midnight clear to buy last minute books. For fans of poetry, I thought I’d recap a few of my all-time favorites, both among the Soon-To-Be-Famous (the little guys, so to speak) and the Famous (the name recognition crowd). First things first. For today’s post, the not-so-famous. For tomorrow’s, the better known.

  • Fugitive Pigments by Ruth Bavetta

OK, I admit that I might have missed some of the painting-oriented poems’ allusions, and that I don’t know Alice Neel from Alice B. Toklas, but consider how a “painting poem” works marvelously as a “writing poem,” too:

To Make a Mark

Emptiness is deadly. To master it
you must blemish it. A long slashing
line, a curve curling back
upon itself; a line that winds
with no end in mind.

Once you have destroyed perfection
you will be entering
a country you have not known.
I will not tell you this.

You may find something amazing —
someone to take your hand, a waterfall,
a fall from three flights up.
I will not tell you this, either.

I will tell you that it doesn’t matter
if, by the end, your first mark
has disappeared. It matters only
that you have made it.
Pick up your pencil now.

Reads like a terrific argument against writer’s block to me!

Some poems that spoke to me especially were “Black, White,” “Drawing Conclusions” (will use as an inference exercise in class, thank you), “Fog,” “To Make a Mark,” “First Lesson” (also parallels a writer’s experience, though it calls on artistic masters to make its point), “The Color of Wind” (another great poetry exemplar for the classroom), and “Beacon.”

But these are just froth atop the lovely cream. Rich, rewarding comfort (and sometimes disturbing comfort) food here.


  • The Briar Patch by J. Kates

I had the pleasure of meeting J. Kates at my first poetry reading, where he served ably as reader #2. We exchanged books and, reading The Briar Patch, I feel as though I got to know Kates better. Jim is a New Hampshire poet and, as one might expect, harvests topics from the land around him. But he also explores a wide range of other topics, from the seasons to classic Greeks to Monet paintings to the Buddha to foreigners and exiles to politics to other cultures and history.

The book is divided into four sections, “How It Was,” “Now and Then,” “Desires,” and “Harvest of the Fields.” The last section allows Kates to share one of his passions, translating. It includes a wide range of authors, new and old: Gaius Valerius Catullus, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Richard Plantagenet Coeur de Lion, Olivier de Magney, Gérard de Nerval, Jacques Prévert, René Daumal, Evgeny Saburov, Alexey Shelvakh, Sergey Magid, Aleksandra Sozonova, Nikolai Baitov, and Arsen Mirzaev. There are helpful biographic capsules on each translated poet at the end.

Here is a poem, simple but true, from the “How It Was” section:


Underwater, under cold water
I pull and stroke, holding tight
to my chest the warm air,
letting it out in useless bubbles
by the count of kicks, farther
and farther from the shore.
Even here, there is above and below
darkening as I make for the center
of the wide lake, while overhead
a small circle of everyday
swims with me, always the same blue
and always ready to save my life.

And here Kates shows his facility with rhyming, a place I haven’t gone yet (and may never, for all I know):

Stone Rubbing: A Local Graveyard

These black, faithful slaves who stand
through all weathers by their forgetful masters
at the open door, winged and grinning
and utterly submissive to my cold hand

will not leave off their warnings, prayers,
remembrances, even when I shroud them
and lift their souls into my own book.
Whatever I take, I leave what is most theirs.

I have been their gardener, their tender,
for my own end a servant to these servants
who care as little as their masters do
for anything less than apocalyptic splendor.

Who carved the slate felt for the dead

perhaps, and those who set the stone,
far more than my pathetic fallacies
can do, which take the cold death’s head

and touch it every way but as my own.

The Briar Patch is part of The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series (Hobblebush being a small press that features New Hampshire poets in particular).


  • Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuoung

Nota Bene: I’m not sure Ocean still rates as an “unknown” like the likes of me, but I’m going to insert him here anyway and wish him well because one more book like this one and he’ll happily leave this category for good.
Ocean has a way with words. Words that demand attention. I still remember the Beloit Poetry Journal poem of his I read, “Telemachus.” I loved that poem. And here it is, washed ashore in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I hoped I would find another poem that I loved more, but I still loved this one best:


Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where he left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own and begin
the faithful work of drowning.

Wow. And the father theme is a painful refrain that keeps repeating in this book. Father and prison. Father and alcohol. Father and violence. The exit wounds are all over the page. Here he is again in a poem that landed in some magazine or other called The New Yorker:

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuoung

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

Some cool lines I jotted from the book, lines that sound like the ocean cupped to your ear:

“…the rain falling through him: guitar strings snapping over his globed shoulders”

“Even my name knelt down inside me…”

“Found the way a green bottle might appear at a boy’s feet, containing a year he has never touched”

“He moves like any other fracture, revealing the briefest doors…”

“…as the field shreds itself with cricket cries”

As you can see, OV knows his way around a word. He is a deft master of unexpected word pairs. I admit, it didn’t always work and sometimes led to the big, “Huh?” but when it does work, it is rewarding work, well-worth sweating over.

And so I toil. And recommend YOU toil, too. Despite occasional misfires, some real winners here. And my old friend Telemachus, too. Forgive us, Father, for we have sinned…


  • Running Counterclockwise by Alarie Tenille

Time. Like death, it is one of the universal themes of literature (and hey, death is an embedded aspect of time, no?). In this fine collection, Alarie Tennille gives time the Janus treatment by looking in both directions and finding inspiration for poetry. The collection is an eclectic mix of family, memories, insightful observations on society, and (wildcard!) ekphrastic poems that serve as frosting on the cake.

In “Bequest,” Tennille wonders “what it would be like/to donate 29 of my poems, to open/a new poetry wing at a museum.” This is one of the earliest of many poems to link poetry and painting, often with water lilies and Monet in particular as the mortar.

The bittersweet “Speeding Good-Bye” uses a mother’s death and protecting a father from it to good effect: ”

…So we
packed her tiny shoes and bright
dresses of Goodwill,

kept just just a few pieces of jewelry.
We left him no nightgown
to cradle, no familiar cologne,

no hint she might only
have gone to work for the day.
A cruel kindness.

Other entries using imagery or wry observation include these favorites: “To a Friend Now Dead” about an old high school friend who avoided the camera; “The Gift” about a stapler Dad foolishly gifted Mom for Christmas (and boy, howdy, can men relate to this poem!); “Anastasia” about a women who claimed to be the Romanov great until death and DNA tests out her; “In Pursuit,” which uses the metaphor of a cat chasing a reflection to humans pursuing happiness (Thomas Jefferson-like); and “I Predict,” a nifty morality meditation on fortune mis-tellers.

All in all, a fast and enjoyable trip through time and a collection to be proud of!