Slamming Open the Door by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno (Alice James Books)
Bonanno's first collection of poetry is riveting and powerful. I heard about this book not through traditional poetry networks but through Terry Gross's interview with Bonanno on Fresh Air. The book is based on Bonanno's experience of her daughter's murder and the subsequent trial of her murderer. It was gripping to her Bonanno talk about the experience and even more so to read the book. The first poem, "Death Barged In," concludes with these lines
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you will write about me.
Slamming Open the Door is a stunning debut collection and, for me, one of the best poetry books of 2009.
Heathen by Lesley Wheeler (C&R Press)
Wheeler's first collection of poetry, Heathen, is smart and quirky. Wheeler mines odd images to make them odder, more disturbing or askew and then brings her readers insight and revelation from this vision of the world. For instance in "Neanderthal Love Song," Wheeler imagines a world of Cro-Magnon guys and the one she loves, "a face in the mud,/those prosperous buttocks." As the poem progresses, she wonders,
When you wait below ground and the breath
of the train lifts the hairs on your arms,
can you glimpse me in the crowd,
does the ice still follow you, do you know
that you are meat, and mud, and ghost,
does your body remember me?
As these lines demonstrate, there is an interesting mind at work in these poems and Heathen is a strong debut. My favorite poem is "Virginia is for Heterosexual Lovers" for the way that Wheeler allies herself with the gay and lesbian community in response to the homophobia of young children. This political sensibility, a sensibility I insist on calling feminist, informs the entire book. Wheeler's second collection has just won a prize and been accepted for publication. This is a poet to watch.
Two established poets published stunning collections this year that are among my favorites. Marilyn Hacker's Names (W. W. Norton) demonstrates her command of formalism as a strategy to make poetry even more immediate and relevant to our everyday lives. These are poems of urgency and beauty rendered in forms that delight and dazzle combined with Hacker's exquisite diction and irrepressible wit. I love everything about this book. Alicia Ostriker's The Book of Seventy (University of Pittsburgh Press) is a stunning collection of a mature poet. Ostriker returns to themes that have been central to her work and thought both in her previous poetry and also in her prose and makes them new and compelling. My favorite part of this book is the series of dramatic monologues (Persephone, Gaia, Demeter) that comprise the third section, but the entire collection is profound and deeply satisfying.
There are four books published in 2009 that I want to read and I think might make my list before the year is out. They are Noelle Kocot's Sunny Wednesday (Wave Books), Marie Ponsot's Easy (Knopf), Julie Kane's Jazz Funeral (Story Line Press), and Brenda Hillman's Practical Water (Wesleyan). I've got a lot of reading to do before December 31st!
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Julie R. Enszer is a poet living in Maryland. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Women’s Studies at Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One's Own, Long Shot, Feminist Studies, and the Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly. You can read more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com or her blog http://JulieREnszer.blogspot.com.