Review by Jeannine Hall Gailey
BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007
ed. by Heather McHugh & David Lehman
2007, 192 pp. $16.00
What might you expect from a BAP guest-edited by the famously witty Heather McHugh? Wordplay, whimsy, and a generous extra helping of humor aimed at scrabble-aficionado types? Then you won’t be disappointed. In David Lehman’s introduction, which in itself might be read as an essay defending the humorous poem in a dark age, he writes that “Some of these poems are very funny, and need no further justification. ‘The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter,’ Mark Twain remarked.”
2007’s collection of poems reads like a coherent peek into McHugh’s own bookcase; younger poets fond of irony, parody, and a well-turned pun are represented here, as are a good number of the more experienced experimental poets. You’ll also find BAP regulars, like Louise Gluck, Donald Hall, Billy Collins, Robert Creely, and Robert Pinsky. Of course, it might seem like there are very few poems included indeed, especially compared to the number of pages (forty plus!) of biographical notes by the poets. Perhaps a few more poems, and a few less lines of biography, are called for?
In a way, this collection functions as a response to allegations from some that the poetry world is in a gloomy mood. But to focus on the lighter side the book is not to say that some of the poems don’t take on more serious topics; references to the war in Iraq, as well as more bleakly-toned works, are peppered throughout the collection. These lend gravitas to the more frivolous and foul-mouthed poems, and anchor a reader searching for a theme in the year’s “best” poems.
A poem by Brian Turner represents a more somber look at vocabulary. In What Every Soldier Should Know, Turner demonstrates the nuanced meanings in various translated phrases that might mean life or death to a soldier in Iraq:
O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I’ll shoot.
Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.
Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.
Matthea Harvey, known for her extraordinary playful work, also sounds a darker note in her two poems (slightly modified abecedarians) from The Future of Terror/Terror of the Future series. In the first, The Future of Terror/ 7, Harvey writes a sober message that strikes a chord in today’s America:
Here was my hypothesis: we were inextricably
fucked. We’d killed all the inventors and all
the jesters just when we most needed humor
And from Terror of the Future, a similarly apocryphal note:
Sweetheart, there’s no one in the street.
I attached the speakers to the steeple
but even on its loudest setting, the stereo
gets no reaction.
Peter Pereira’s poem, Nursemaid’s Elbow, examines a medical phrase’s coy origins for a partial dislocation of an elbow when a child’s arm is yanked too hard:
Named not for the mother, frazzled and rushed,
not for the toddler who knows just when to flop…
nor for how swiftly it happens, the soft
chicken wing pop… But
for this: stern servant, hired helpmeet, easy
scapegoat–the one who was not even there.
But if you’re looking for just plain funny, don’t fear; Mike Dockins’ Dead Critics Society (hmm, a backwards abecedarian this time) and Denise Duhamel’s Language Police Report (a tongue-in-cheek poke at politically correct phraseology) will satisfy your cravings.
Zooks! What have I done with my anthologies? I’ll need a
year of sleep after writing my millionth review (with aplomb).
XX bottles of moonshine litter my bedside table like arsenic.
And from Duhamel:
The busybody (banned as sexist, demeaning to older women) who lives next door called my daughter a tomboy (banned as sexist) when she climbed the jungle (banned; replaced with “rain forest”) gym. Then she had the nerve to call her an egghead and a bookwork (both banned as offensive; replace with “intellectual”) because she read fairy (banned because suggests homosexuality; replace with “elf” tales.
While all Best American Poetry collections tend to showcase the guest-editor’s (and David Lehman’s) personal tastes for better or worse (sometimes at the expense of including “better” poems from the year’s publications) 2007’s edition of Best American Poetry is an enjoyable read. Fans of Heather McHugh’s own work will be especially happy with the poems collected here. And you might discover a new poet or two, or even be inspired to try some sonic experiments in your own next poem.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Port Townsend poet whose first book, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books. Poems from the book were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She has recently been awarded a 2007 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize for Poetry and a 2007 Artist Trust GAP grant to work on her new manuscript, She Returns to the Floating World. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Seattle Review, and Rattle; her interviews and reviews have appeared on the Poetry Foundation’s web site and in The American Book Review, The Cincinnati Review, and Calyx. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and teaches with Centrum’s Young Artists Project.