Julie Marie Wade
In 2001, I was heading to graduate school to pursue a Master’s degree in creative writing. My Aunt Linda had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was moving home to live with her mother. We seemed to pass each other like ships in the night, or more precisely, like ferry boats in the Fauntleroy harbor.
I wanted to give my aunt a gift that she would always remember. I tried to imagine what that gift might be. Aunt Linda, though shy about her artistic endeavors, had always loved painting and writing poems. The den at my grandmother’s house was filled with her art books and brochures from museums she had visited in Europe. There were no poetry books that I could recall.
On one of my last nights in Seattle, I browsed the shelves at Twice Sold Tales, my favorite used bookstore on Capitol Hill. There I found two copies of The Best American Poetry 2000. I did not know the series then. I sat on a stool and began reading the first poem in the anthology— Kim Addonizio’s “Virgin Spring”—which described in heartbreaking detail a film I had never seen. The final lines will always haunt me:
I don’t know what to make of the sister. She’s the one who knows the
world is brutal
and goes on, scattering seed for the hogs, the one who says nothing,
the one who survives.
I bought both copies of the anthology that night. One I kept for myself, and the other I gave to Aunt Linda, suggesting we read and discuss one poem each month by phone and email as a way of keeping in touch.
There are seventy-five poems in each issue of Best American Poetry. My aunt and I made it to forty before she died.
Guest editor Denise Duhamel writes in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 2013, “Walt Whitman knew that in order to have great poets we need to have great audiences. The readership of The Best American Poetry series is that audience” (xxviii). While “great,” like “best,” is an inherently subjective term, I like to think of my Aunt Linda and me as two distinctive facets of that audience. As a student, writer, and future teacher of poetry, The Best American Poetry series would soon become a staple of my education and an essential handbook for my literary career. (I know I am not alone here.) For Linda, the anthology was something else altogether—an introduction to a world of contemporary poets she hadn’t even realized was there.
“It sounds silly,” she told me once, “but I didn’t realize people still published poems. I thought American poetry died with Robert Frost.” Sadly, I don’t think my aunt is alone here either.
Like many people, she wrote poems and kept them to herself. When she read poems, they were always written by poets from long ago and far away. She had no context for the lively poetic conversation of the present day, which The Best American Poetry series both records and amplifies. I like to imagine if she had lived longer, our shared reading of Best American Poetry would have inspired her to write more poems, and perhaps one day, to send them out into the larger world.
Here are some facts about the 2013 edition of Best American Poetry that inspire me: 38 of the featured poets are female, 37 are male. As guest editor, Denise Duhamel selected the most female poets ever included in a single issue of the series. I value Duhamel’s commitment to gender parity. Of the 75 poets she chose to include, 13 are “emerging poets,” having published only one poetry collection to date or no collections at all. I value Duhamel’s commitment to literary potential, honoring the future of American poetry as well as its past. The new issue also includes the first collaborative poem ever to appear in the series, co-written by Angela Veronica Wong and Amy Lawless and compellingly titled “It Can Feel Amazing to Be Targeted by a Narcissist.” Here especially, I value Duhamel’s commitment to innovation as companion to tradition, and not its rival.
Denise Duhamel pledges in her introduction: “This edition represents excellence and inclusivity, neither at the expense of the other.” Let’s test this premise. What’s your pleasure? Do you like epistolary poems? If so, then consider Traci Brimhall’s “Dear Thanatos,” which begins, “I did what you told me to,/ wore antlers and the mask, danced/ in the untilled field, but the promised/ ladder never dropped from the sky.” Thematically, this poem might lead you to “Death” by Kwame Dawes or “This Need Not Be a Comment on Death” by Daisy Fried or “Thanatosis” by Elizabeth Hazen.
Or perhaps Brimhall’s letter poem will lead you to other intimate encounters with the second person, like Maureen Seaton’s “Chelsea/Suicide,” which whispers to a close in the wistful subjunctive: “If you’d lived you’d be asleep now beside me, bent around me like an aura, keeping me safer than I ever thought I had the right to be.”
For as much thanatos as you will find in this collection, there is also eros in abundance. Duhamel has assembled nothing if not a collection as balanced as it is bold. In “I take your T-shirt to bed again…”, Amy Lemmon writes, “I’ve washed my clothes in your soap,/ but that wasn’t it—there must be something sweet your pores/pour forth.” In “Song,” Dorianne Laux sings, “let me touch/ the rosary of your spine,/ your wing nubs […] Let me hold you a moment longer/ in my mortal arms and sway.” Mortality, after all, is what love and death have in common.
Anna Journey’s “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in Which Natalie Wood Drowned” braids a private love story with a public tragedy through a series of elegant juxtapositions: “That night/ we first met, I had another lover/ but you didn’t/ care. […] “You whispered,/ Guilt is the most/ useless emotion. After Natalie rolled/ into the waves, the wet feathers/ of her down coat wrapped/their white anchors/ at her hips.” Here they are again, paratactic: love and death.
You want an occasion poem, you say? What about Ed Ochester’s “New Year,” which begins “after calling our son & daughter/ to wish them happy & good luck/ we get to bed early but get/ a phone call from my mother/ who died in April.” Or Paisley Rekdal’s “Birthday Poem,” which begins, “It is important to remember that you will die” but goes on to suggest, “Perhaps the worst thing/ in the world would be to live forever./ Otherwise what would be the point/ of memory, without which/ we would have nothing to hurt/ or placate ourselves with later?” Here love and death return for their second encore.
But what about a poem in a traditional form? What about a sonnet? OK. You might like Anne Marie Rooney’s “Lake Sonnet,” which is also a birthday poem and a love poem: “It was July. It was my birthday. I/ was still drinking then. I went with the men/ to a lake with no clothing on.” If we look a little closer, we might even find it’s a bit thanatoptic, too: “Though from there the summer breaks/ off it felt sharp and bright through that last hour,/like glass fired to gold before it breaks.”
Oh, you’re teaching a class in Cultural Studies, you say? In Women’s & Gender & Sexuality Studies? Does this book have anything to offer in the way of “identity poems?” Why, yes! What about “XX” by Sally Wen Mao: “There my mother/ was, half-asleep in her gender,/ and there my sister/ was, locked inside her purity panoply.” Or Aaron Smith’s “What It Feels Like to Be Aaron Smith,” which engages you immediately, before you even realize you’re in the presence of a poem: “Though you would never admit it, you’re still shocked by pubic hair in Diesel ads on Broadway and Houston, and you wonder what conversations lead up to a guy posing with his pants unzipped to the forest.” Or Stacey Waite’s “The Kind of Man I Am at the DMV,” which my own students actually applauded when I read the poem aloud in class: “learning the failure of gender’s tidy little/ story about itself. I try not to look at him/ because, yes that man is a girl. I, man, am a girl.” They make you want to read on, don’t they, these fearless identity poets?
I can’t say my Aunt Linda would like all the poems in this edition of Best American Poetry. She didn’t like all the poems in the 2000 edition either. She thought some were “too radical” and others “too weird,” but what matters is that the poems spurred us forward in our conversations. They gave us something to mull over, sometimes something to debate about, and often something to mutually appreciate—as pleasing as a sunset on a clear day over Puget Sound.
In this volume, I try to imagine what poem my Aunt Linda would say is her favorite. I’m always partial to the meta-poems myself, like Adrienne Su’s “On Writing” or Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry.” Su begins, “A love poem risks becoming a ruin” and later posits, “Who cares about/ a stranger’s bliss?” In his litany of reasons why he turns to poetry, Major Jackson presents a credible answer to Su’s question: “Because I have not thanked enough.” Isn’t sharing your joy with others always a valid expression of gratitude?
I suspect my aunt would like these poems, too, though she might balk at the way they speak directly to the reader, poets as poets addressing the nature of poetry. She always favored poems that moved quietly, stealthily, poems that turned their gaze outward to the poetry of other people’s lives. I think she would have liked Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem very much. I think she would have looked at me and nodded, “Now that’s a poem” before rising to refill her coffee.
I think of Aunt Linda especially as I read the final lines of “All-American” by David Hernandez: “Some of us sell flowers./ Some of us cut hair. Some of us carefully/ steer a mower around the cemetery grounds./ Some of us paint houses. Some of us monitor/ the power grid. Some of us ring you up/ while some of us crisscross a parking lot/ to gather the shopping carts into one long,/ rolling, clamorous and glittering backbone.” She would have liked his perspective. She would have liked his attention to the people we often forget.
The closing image of Hernandez’s poem is also an apt metaphor for what Denise Duhamel has done here: how she has assembled such vibrant and eclectic voices into one “long, rolling, clamorous and glittering” collection—a collection as cohesive as it is diverse, as unique as it is unified.
Fourteen years later, Kim Addonizio appears on the first page of this edition, too. Her poem is “Divine,” another song of survival sung in a different key:
Something bad had to happen
because no trouble, no story, so
Fuck you, fine, whatever,
here come more black trees
hung with sleeping bats
like ugly Christmas ornaments.
As with all the great poems, all the best poems, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.