Great Books I Read in 2014

I went on a book reading binge two weeks ago to get my huge TBR list knocked out (still over 20 books strong) and to get some new voices trumpeting in my head. There is nothing more refreshing for a poet than to read the words of other poets. Here are a few notes on the books I’ve read over the past weeks. I’ll update this list as time goes on, so check back again soon!

Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral

Selected for the 2011 Yale Series of Younger Poets award, I find the opening forward by contest judge Carl Phillips helpful for giving this book context. I found the first half of Slow Lightning stronger overall than the second half, but my favorite poems were found in both sections: “Border Triptych,” “Poem After Frida Kahlo’s Painting A Broken Column,” “Caballero” and the prose poem “Immigration and Naturalization Service Report #46”. I would recommend the book, especially to poets and readers seeking stories of Mexican-American/Chicano heritage, struggle, and inequalities. Other elements you might find significant here are LBGTQ love/longing, erotic and filial love, code-switching and ekphrastic work.

The Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers

Keetje Kuipers’ first book won the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions. Her second offering, The Keys to the Jail, is definitely my favorite of the two books, though I’ve spoken with other Kuipers readers and they disagree. My take is that the work in Keys compounds the experience of recovery after a break-up/abandonment, whereas Beautiful in the Mouth enacts a new relationship blossoming. I find the losing more compelling than the courting. That said, the first section of the book is fairly weak. I went through it quickly without many lines striking a cord, but the book picks up in the 2nd section with the poem “The Extinct,” gains velocity, and keeps through to the end. Many strong lines and killer images exist in these poems. Here are my favorites: “All the Rivers in the World,” “Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement,” “The Girl,” “Dog Gun Lake,” and “Brotherhood.” The last line of “Brotherhood” is truly remarkable: “Whatever that desire is that men only feel for each other, it’s more than you know how to love me now.” Yes, I would recommend this book!

Mixology by Adrian Matejka

Mixology is Matejka’s second book. I haven’t read his first book, or his third, The Big Smoke, which has gotten a lot of attention for its nominations for The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Big Smoke might be a better place to start with this poet. I don’t dislike Mixology, but I didn’t find the beat-mixing, dub mimicking style that Matejka inhabits enjoyable as much as  similar styles from poets like John Murillo and Patrick Rosal. In fact, if pressed I’d recommend the elegies Rosal writes in Boneshepherds and the music play Murillo uses in Jump Up the Boogie over Mixology. But that doesn’t mean this book has nothing to offer. The central theme of the work is the emotional and elemental state of being a mixed race child who becomes a mixed race man, mulatto is Matejka’s word of choice, and there are several poems that bring this experience into sharp focus. Those are my favorite poems in the book and many of them are found in the first section, titled “Synthetic Race (Dub Style)”: “Do the Right Thing,” “Tyndall Armory,” and “Synth Composite Basketball: No More Fundamentals”. Overall, I have a respect for this work, even if it hasn’t sparked my imagination, and I would read Matejka again in a beat. 

I’ve also read Dearest Creature by Amy Gerstler, Elegy by Mary Jo Bang, The God of Longing by Brent Calderwood, Unpeopled Eden by Rigoberto Gonzalez, and Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann.