What most distinguishes Poetry International from among other similarly sized (600 page) brick, behemoth literary annuals is the emphasis placed upon poetry alone. Unlike many others, there’s no fiction here, no interviews, and barely any critical commentary or other prose. This uniqueness is undeniably detrimental. There aren’t even any contributor bios! But there is good poetry, even if little of it manages to be surprising or challenging.
In an epigraph, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W.H. Auden sets the tone:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
Celebration is sought. A rejoicing in the wealth of living, expounding on the wonders only poets might excel at regarding. Sam Taylor answers Auden: “Not in the bread, but the fingers and the tongue. / Not in the tongue, but the song, in the elegy sung” (“Testimony”). A few pages further, Chard De Niord adds:
I didn’t send you the pomegranate to write about,
but to eat.
It is from this world where every seed
counts for a day of life. (“Pomegranate”)
These poems declare: What’s the use of poetry, if not to offer proof of the beauty—even if damaged—of our human existence? Whiling away the hours, joining together in such matter-of-fact tone, accepting and containing the daily mundane lives of the authors, and the strongest among them remains, well, strong.
Marvin Bell’s “from The Animals” heads in a slightly different direction. Looking to animals for some humble (and not so humble) reminders that there’s other life in the world whose song is just as important, if not more so, than humanity’s own.
We peacocks do not lie.
Listen at dawn or dusk.
We, too, can speak. We can sing.
Like the whale,
like the chimp and the mynah,
like the rooster, like the buffalo,
like the horse, the stork, the camel,
like the high vultures you fear,
we are near. And we are talking, too.
There is a focus on work in translation here as well, of course. A selection of poems from the Polish by Anna ?wirszczy?ska (Swir) provides a good introduction to this “severe poet.” In her poems, as translator Boris Dralyuk tells us, “Medieval and Baroque designs have turned grotesque. Rhythm and alliteration, too, make an essential contribution.” Swir’s work, “He Steals Furs,” is swift and unrelenting in its suddenness:
A shell tears apart the doors
of a fur shop.
A man jumps in,
grabs an armful of furs,
runs, hoisting them, toward the doorway.
At the doorway another shell
tears apart the man.
And there’s a selection of Caribbean poetry presented by Ishion Hutchison, Romanian poetry presented by Martin Woodsdale, a re-visiting of “poems and ritual events from the Indian Americas” presented by Jerome Rothenberg, along with single poem appearances by well recognized poet-heavies such as Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Jacques Prévert among others.
The best of the larger selections of work perk interest, leading to new discoveries, or the revisiting of old ones. In one of the more promising galleries, Mark Weiss presents “Five Poems from Jorge Accame’s Four Poets” noting that “the four poets of the title (three of whom are in this selection) are heteronyms (to borrow Pessoa’s term), not pseudonyms, Accame insists: three independent voices, with distinct biographies and ways of writing.” It makes for fascinating reading, really, and the longing to have more included here.
Meantime, Molly Peacock turns out a solid appearance with “Elle Supine at Her Pool,” a strong, bizarre reoccurring confrontation through the years between a film actress and visitor clad in a suit of armor. Surreal, American, feminist, and eerily noir, this poem sticks around in your thoughts long after first reading.
She hardly dares to pick it up.
When she approached it, her pale, veiny
hand went right through it.
It was only apparent to her eye.
Slowly, the glove began to vanish, with a slight fizz.
It was a bit like sitting in your hotel room after your lover leaves,
except all he had done was hand her a compliment.
Also worth noting, Kwame Dawes’s “Chameleon of Suffering” delivers one of the few extensive statements of poetics to be found here. And Michael Dumanis, in “State of the Union,” takes us back to our goal:
She prays into my ears. They turn to moss.
Possibly, this is the only end: dust,
the star-addled, wind-saddled black
flag of the sky waving over us.
When I grow up, I do not want to be a headstone.
When I grow up, I want to be a book.
Surprisingly, given that it is 600 pages long, finishing this annual only leaves the wish that there was more of a few specific poets and much less of so many others. If it need be said: both quality and quantity over mere quantity.