A bit of a switch-up this year. Rather than give an accounting of every contemporary poetry book I read in 2010, most of which have already been reviewed in some fashion, I’ll instead list my favourite five books in order and in any genre.
1) W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995). Surpassing The Emigrants in breadth, and Vertigo in depth, the late German writer Sebald produced a brilliant meditation on the fascinating trickeries of memory, interspersing archival and passed-on photos with historical excavation, personal sojourns, subjective mood shifts, fictional drama, biographical colour, natural and architectural splendour and decay, and elegiac heartbreak. Much has been made of Sebald’s unassuming gravitas, but perhaps underappreciated (though still praised) is the beauty of the writing itself, here as elsewhere translated into the English by Michael Hulse. Sebald was a hands-on overseer. Lines, sentences, paragraphs, and pages gather in pulses at once heady, hypnotic, and poetically charged with sound and suggestion. Some of the arcane details of Sebald’s masterpiece may be forgotten, but the people featured in these pages will be forever salvaged from the indifference of history.
2) Sean Burke, The Death and Return of the Author (1998). A challenging book-length essay, this densely-packed, intelligently argued, scholarly responsible, clearly linked, and convincingly concluded takedown of postmodern assumptions is a much-needed counterattack to the passively received blather of unstudied core pronouncements by Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida. Using call-and-response quotations, both comparative and contrasting, from the philosophical canon, as well as evidence from novels and -- most importantly -- from the anti-objectivists themselves, Burke highlights the contradictions, simplifications, and outright ironies and mistakes of much of the zeal for castigating authorial stance, meaning, and organic shaping.
3) Michael Harris, Circus (2010). The unfairly obscure Canadian poet Michael Harris produced, this year, his best book to date. Appropriately charged with flair and bounce, his inner-outer narrative of circus people has many layers, with much metaphorical worth. Lyrical acrobatics serve an enjoyable arc, but also use the weave as a stitch-pain in the memory for fascinating suggestions on performer and audience, the collective and the individual, conformity and creativity, and (not least) evil and freedom.
4) James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). A passionate first novel, Baldwin wins on multiple fronts: an about-to-be-coming-of age story; an excoriating study of religious hypocrisy; a wise dip into infidelity and desire; a compassionate look into faith and loyalty, much of it scored with in-your-face as-is dialogue and brave, Old Testament organ-crescendo rhetoric.
5) Dave Smith, Fate's Kite (1995). The veteran American poet’s collection of searching thirteen-liners takes on spiritual concerns, but does it simultaneously with a unique sensual involvement and nostalgia. Just when one thinks the regret-o-meter might be tipping into the red, Smith devastates with a splash of wisdom on present-day experiences. The twists are fascinating, the tones gorgeous and powerful.