In the annual Forward Fives selection we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of our favorite works of poetry of 2012. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
This year, among the Forward’s five notable poetry books, there are two memorable retrospective collections by Alicia Ostriker and Michael Heller, as well as three books of brand new poetry from Adeena Karasick, Hank Lazer and Rachel Tzvia Back.
It is particularly curious to juxtapose Lazer’s “N18” and Karasick’s “This Poem,” as both books engage with the timely question of the poetic medium: What does poetry look like, and how might it be read in a time when the very process of reading — and the existence of a book — is a blinking question mark. Lazer’s hand-written “shape poems” move against the current of the reflowable text trend, hearkening to poetry’s hand-written past, and also pointing to what might become a hallmark of poetry’s future — multiple points of entry into the non-linear ocean of text. Karasick’s book, however, speeds right along with the media overload, incorporating its methods and lingo, laughing with and at it, both critiquing and poeticizing. Please note that the books are arranged in alphabetic order, based on authors’ last names.
Rachel Tzvia Back, “A Messenger Comes”
Rachel Tzvia Back’s collection “A Messenger Comes” is a book of mourning — that is, poet’s mourning for her father and sister. This isn’t an elegy or tribute, however, but a series of polaroid-like moments of a poet’s giving in to the page, throwing herself against language, testing language’s ability to reflect and uphold her loss, dread, confessions, and above all, unabashed desire to hold on to her loved ones. Back descends to the primordial sorrow that has been for so many centuries, at the very root of poetry.
Michael Heller, “This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010”
Michael Heller’s “This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010” spans a varied and distinguished career of this known poet and thinker. More often than not, Heller lingers within poetics of exploration and uncertainty, in the attempt to reinvent his relationship poetry, its functions and uses. Forward readers might be particularly compelled by Heller’s recent cycle of “Afikomen” poems.
Adeena Karasick, “This Poem”
Adeena Karasick’s “This Poem” is a book-long experimental epic, an exuberant ode to language and all of its shades, modalities, vernaculars and accents. The true sensuality of the hypertext could have gone undetected if not for Karasick’s discerning, and naughty, eye.
Hank Lazer, “N18”
Hank Lazer’s “N18” — a collection of hand-written shape poems reflect author’s interest in what he terms as “vectoral thinking,” a movements of thoughts across the surface of consciousness. Lazer’s poems look like textual paintings, and read like musical ensembles.
Alicia Ostriker, “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011”
Alicia Ostriker’s “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011” is a milestone volume that readers of Jewish poetry will reference, and revel in, for years to come. While Ostriker contribution to the poetry world in the past decades has been invaluable, her contribution to realm of Jewish poetry specifically has been absolutely formative. Her experiments with Midrashic poetry, riffs on Psalms, liturgy, usage of these sources to explore personal questions of faith, gender, and family are simply tremendous.
When we think of great New York poets — Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson, among others — what they’ve immortalized and exalted have been the streets and energies of Manhattan or, on rare and less transcendent occasions, Brooklyn. The Bronx, when it did appear, has always been something of the old country — where immigrant parents and grandparents lived, a remote, provincial satellite. And certainly Riverdale, Bronx’s sleepy neighborhood with a large Jewish population, would appear to have nothing to offer to poetic imagination. Judith Baumel, featured on The Arty Semite last year, seem to have been the only exception.
And yet, Sarah Stern’s recent collection of poems, “Another Word for Love,” is profoundly grounded in Riverdale — in its subway stations and parks, buildings and streets. The first of the two poems featured today, “Morning Prayer,” takes place on the streets of the neighborhood, and features a curious juxtaposition of spiritual experiences, genders and visions. The second piece, “Reentry,” is an homage to exceptional character, evoked so vividly that he practically walks (or rather, waddles) off the lines of the poem.
Morning Prayer: Riverdale, July 2006
Saturday morning and the men
hurry to synagogue with their tallit bags,
I’m jogging past them
thinking about things the way you can
when you know your route,
a military maneuver,
played over in your mind’s eye again and again
until all you’re left with is the after-space,
your feet simply punctuation,
a line break
on the curve to nothing.
Pray for peace, that’s it.
Pray like the squirrel in the grass
with a crab apple in his mouth,
gooseberries barely visible in the thicket,
starlings splashing in pot holes,
the old woman who walks with a cane
to the market for the morning paper,
yellow blossoms turning into tomatoes,
green globes, new planets waiting,
waiting to be named.
Paul Cymerman, a local retired butcher, became the unofficial “Mayor of Henry Hudson Park” in 1989….
— City of New York Parks and Recreation Plaque, December 2000
Each morning Paul unlocks
the gates, swings the metal chain
over the top of the door and
opens the playground.
He makes sure the sand is clean,
turns the toy motorcycles
over before rain. On summer
days when the sun’s out,
you can see the numbers
up his arm frozen beneath
his skin like fish below ice,
almost alive. He still wears
a pin that reads “The Butcher.”
He says he’s got a good
connection with his Maker.
“Don’t jump on the park benches.
Don’t throw sand in the sprinkler,”
he tells the children
as he stands in his black shoes
and creates a periodic table of
his own elements. Toward evening
he walks with his wife beside him.
She holds on to his arm.
Eve, had she grown old in the garden.
Shanir Blumenkranz’s extensive contribution to the world of radical Jewish music can only be compared to Robbie Shakespeare’s formative influence on reggae. Blumenkranz plays on numerous projects issued by the Tzadik label — so many of them, in fact, that his recognizable style of bass playing is virtually inseparable from the sound has come to define so many of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music projects, including Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pitom, Edom, Rashanim and Kef, among others. He has closely collaborated with label’s producer, John Zorn.
So it is particularly exciting to see Blumenkranz in the role of band leader. With guitarists Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian, as well as Kenny Grohowski on drums, Blumenkranz has released “Abraxas: Book of Angels 19,” a set of compositions penned by Zorn. Exchanging his usual electric bass for gimbri — an acoustic African instrument with three strings made of goat skin — Blumenkranz propels his ensemble with raw and intricate rhythms.
In contrast with the previous “Book of Angels” rendition by David Krakauer — a darkly whimsical, phantasmagoric record defined by its androgynous plasticity — Blumenkranz’s album is an all-male, three-guitar-and-drums, no-nonsense affair. Most of the tunes apply a jazz approach to the hard rocking, heavy metal sound. Many tracks are danceable, and yet the impulse towards rocking out goes hand in hand with abstraction, a collision of textures and colors.
Whether frenzied or mellow, virtually every tune builds up to, and arrives at, a deeply hypnotic sound. There’s something ritualistic about the band’s synergy and their approach; it is as if the quartet’s inexplicable direction, at all times, is towards this very hallucinatory, hypnotic place. It is as if these musicians are on a mission to rediscover that sense differently and anew in each new situation.
“Yaasriel,” the fourth track on the album, is a perfect example of this tendency: lusciously slow, sparsely melodic but thoroughly textured. It breathes heavily, yet with grace and precision. It is a Bedouin melancholy in an immaculately produced minimalistic landscape. According to tradition, Yaasriel is the angel or demon armed with 70 pencils, writing and rewriting a divine name on a broken chard over the abyss, saving the world with each gesture.
What better metaphor for an avant-garde collective of musicians who, in their exploration, rediscover the world they find themselves in, sustaining it through compositions that must continue at every moment to survive.
Unlike their pudgy, cherubic, church-tending counterparts, in Jewish mythology angels are not what you’d call angelic. Ominous and conflicted, with a penchant for irony and obscure turns of phrase, they are messages from the personal and collective subconscious for us to wrestle with. These angels create the parameters of our formative and deformative moments. Perhaps it is in such a context that one might understand “The Book of Angels,” a collection of scores penned by avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn. A number of musical groups have tackled these compositions; the latest encounter is David Krakauer’s “Pruflas: The Book of Angels Vol. 18,” released on Tzadik Records earlier this year.
David Krakauer is among the world’s foremost klezmer clarinetists. He has worked with diverse collaborators, from the neo-classical Kronos Quartet to legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley. What he brings to this date, in addition to a virtuosic treatment of the score, is the ability to extract from his clarinet sounds one indeed associates with dark corners of the subconscious.
“Tandal,” the album’s seventh track, opens with clarinet shouts that sound vaguely reminiscent of later John Coltrane free jazz screams. They then evolve into what seem like the existentially frustrated bellows of some angry fantastic bird, run over by a truck of its own fantastic bird lust. On this track, as throughout the whole record, Krakauer is in constant rapport with guitarist Sheryl Baile, each of them pushing and egging the other on so that each piece’s metamorphosis unfolds in a way that’s raw and fresh. The drumming of Michael Sarin is complemented by the laptop beats and arrangements of artist Keepalive. Another rhythm section member, Jerome Harris, not only plays bass but also sings in a manner reminiscent of Bobby McFerrin’s more esoteric moments. All this makes for an unusual configuration for a jazz collective, and further underscores the fluidity of definitions at play.
Listen to ‘Tandal’:
Listening to this album, one gets the impression that although Krakauer himself is comfortable in a variety of genres including funk, hip hop and punk, his clarinet is not equally at home in all of these styles. For reasons that have to do as much with anthropology as tonality we’ve come to associate the dominating horn instruments in these genres with a certain lower-register, supposedly masculine sound.
The clarinet’s upper registers, in contrast, which Krakauer fully utilizes, are characterized by whimsical plasticity and gender ambiguity. Krakauer’s playing is by turn hoarse and gentle, confessional and coy, beautiful and downright mean. The result is an exilic presence in an identity vertigo, a rabbit in bear’s fur coat, who dances the hell out of his alien self. More than ever before Krakauer’s clarinet ventures into the realms of intensely personal yet supra-human. And those are exactly the sorts of places where you’d imagine Zorn’s angels to be.
This article has been sent!Close