The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets, ed. Joan McBreen (Salmon Poetry/Dufour Editions) €18/$32.95
Acclaimed anthologist and poet Joan McBreen has compiled a selection of younger Irish poets, the majority born in the sixties. Most names will be unfamiliar to even quite avid readers of poetry in America, but include Loius de Paor (in translation from the Irish), Mary O’Donoghue, Patrick Quinn, and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Despite its origin in a Derek Mahon poem, the title retains some triteness: it is hard, in America at least, to seriously consider any volume of poetry with the word “heart” in its title.
In her introduction McBreen writes that these poets should be considered part of the ongoing dialogue of Irish poetry and poetics. Owing to the limited space allotted each poet—a mere three poems—the book reads just like that, a sort of introductory conversation with the poets themselves, all who have published at least two books, none of whom the reader can fully comprehend here. Unlike Graywolf’s New British and New European anthologies, which are generally more generous in their selection of poems (especially the former), The Watchful Heart does not offer any critical introductions, however brief, but instead begins each selection with a simple biographical note.
Like several other UK anthologies—notably Carcanet’s OxfordPoets series—McBreen’s pairs original poems with brief essays by the poets. The essays are particularly noteworthy, often contextualizing the poetry that precedes them or more satisfyingly expounding on topics ranging from the relationship between poetry and work to poetry in the electronic age to Patrick Chapman’s “Fortune Cookies” aphorisms, a sort of Irish Sargentville Notebooks without Strand’s whimsical surrealism.
The poetry itself is contemporary, fully engaged in conversation with European, American, and world poetry. Irish in origin but universal in theme, the poems within make for good, enjoyable reading. Like the best anthologies, one can open to any page and find something worthwhile. Leontia Flynn, in her poem “Art and Wine,” writes,
And would you, I mused, perhaps understand me more,
if I could, for a single second, shut the fuck up?
Though in context the question is certainly rhetorical, I speak to the included poets as well as their anthologist when I request that they not shut up but continue to dialogue with world poetry.
Oaxaca Siete Poetas, ed. Raúl Renán & Jorge Pech Casanova (Almadía/Luna Zeta) $75 MXP
In his introduction, Jorge Pech offers a thumbnail sketch of contemporary poetry in the Southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, beginning with its relative absence—owing, he argues, to its role as a solemn keeper of tradition rather than the innovation needed to fuel good poetry—then detailing the oral poetry of mystic hero María Sabina, the rise of the Isthmus Zapotec poets of the 1970s—whom he claims, with some truth, have never been translated well enough into Spanish to reflect their skill—the eighties, when Oaxacan poets began to write in earnest, and today, whose poets he praises for having shed the provincialism of past generations.
The volume’s poets, born between 1967 and 1978, are represented generously, in Spanish only, with over ten pages apiece. If trends in translation continue, it’s unlikely that English-language readers will see much, if any, of these poets’ work within the next few decades, when availability is more often the result of professional relationships than quality. Still, for Spanish readers and translators alike the volume is a valuable snapshot of contemporary Mexican poetry. My favorites include Abraham O Nahón, aphorist and aphoristic poet:
Darkness converts us into mystery
& cedes to other senses.
Light has no limits,
its wounds are infinite.
XXXthe scum beneath day’s fingernails.
There exists a word that draws our shadow,
that we inevitably are,
that I will never tell you,
that will make me necessary.
has created more monstrosities
the considered nostalgia of Alonso Aguilar Orihuela:
We had to walk up 72 stairs
to arrive at our paradise
—which was also a hell—:
a kitchen without a stove or fridge,
the room with its crazy dreams,
the balcony where we made love
& a bedroom to be lulled by the ocean.
We lived with so little!
You put on the Beatles CDs,
you danced & sang across the space,
I brought home a few pesos,
everyday stories, a pair of dreams
& poems that we’d read that cat at sundown.
that inhabited this
and Guadalupe Ángela’s mythic tales:
In the well, a carp lives
there’s no space or horizon
only falling & darkness
The carp rises to the surface
& looks at the light,
blind, she falls again.
The carp floats in her solitude,
a mosquito approaches
& she, stunned, eats it.
The carp draws
the thousandth circle
of her existence.
The carp crashes
against the curve of its house
& dies for negligence.
There is no carp
in the well
just a cloud of mosquitos.
all translations mine
Essential Pleasures: An Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, ed. Robert Pinsky (W.W. Norton) $29.95
The fattest of these three anthologies, Pinsky’s is also the most predictable, certainly because its target audience is not the same. The volume’s concept sprang from one of Pinsky’s most public passions: the auditory appreciation of poetry, which he manifested with his Favorite Poem Project as Poet Laureate of the United States (from 1997 – 2000) and in his short book The Sounds of Poetry.
Even with a general interest audience in mind, Pinsky is keen to include a diverse line-up of contemporary poets. Among Shakespeare, Byron, Whitman, and Dickinson: Simic, Kenyon, Koch, Harper Webb, (C.K.) Williams, Hass, Dobyns, Collins, Corn, and even Hejinian. The poems are grouped into seven categorical chapters, with titles like “Short Lines, Frequent Rhymes” and “Parodies, Ripostes, Jokes, and Insults.”
To further maximize the volume’s accessibility it includes a CD of 21 tracks of poems by 20 different poets, all read aloud by Pinsky himself. While certainly a noteworthy reader, the CD is difficult to listen to in its entirety, as any reading of poetry at that length. Still, the book is altogether a pleasure. As Pinsky writes in his introduction:
Pleasure in poetry, like speech itself, is both intellectual and bodily. Spoken language, an elaborate code of articulated grunts, provides a satisfaction central to life, with all the immediacy of our senses. Though complex, the pleasure is not arcane.