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Books of 2011: Poetry
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/14/11
Last updated on: 12/15/11
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A number of poetry books concerning glbtq subjects were published in 2011. The one that received the greatest attention is Nikky Finny's luminous collection, Head Off and Split, which won the National Book Award for poetry, edging out Adrienne Rich's Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010. But books by Tim Dlugos, David Trinidad, Atsuro Riley, Christopher Hennessy, and Ian Bradley Marshall are also notable, as is Julie Enser's anthology of Jewish lesbian poets.

Finny's Head Off and Split combines the unblinking anger of an activist with the gentleness of a lover. She has a rare ability to fuse meaningfully the public and the private. She addresses public figures such as Rosa Parks and Condeleeza Rice, but characteristically probes unsuspected dimensions of their private selves. Her poem "Left" is destined to be a classic account of the neglect epitomized by the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, but does so by focusing on a woman abandoned on a rooftop when New Orleans flooded. In addition, however, she includes tender and frankly erotic poems of lesbian desire such as "Orangerie" and "The Aureole."

The publication of the collected poems of the late Tim Dlugos (1950-1990), A Fast Life, is a major publishing event. Edited by David Trinidad, the volume establishes Dlugos as a significant voice of a generation of gay men who came of age at the beginning of the gay liberation movement and matured (and, in Dlugos's case, died) during the AIDS epidemic. An heir to the legacies of Auden and O'Hara, Dlugos wrote poems that are urbane and hip, yet intimate and deeply moving. His powerful late poems, such as "G-9" and "DOA," are heartbreaking.

As the title of David Trinidad's new collection, Dear Prudence, suggests, the poet is deeply immersed in popular culture. Trinidad has rightly been compared with James Schuyler and he has clearly imbibed the influence of O'Hara and Dlugos. His new collection includes a series of 65 haiku based on the 1960s soap opera Peyton Place, as well as other poems that allude to movies and celebrities. But the book also includes poems about former lovers and friends who died of AIDS.

The most dazzling poetry debut of many years is Atsuro Riley's Romey's Order. Set in the lowlands of South Carolina, the book tells a story, but obliquely, through images and impressions rather than plot. The story, which is told through the eyes of a boy whose father is a Vietnam veteran and whose mother is Japanese, is one of barely suppressed violence. The originality of the poetry comes from the unusually expressive music Riley creates from his heavily stressed free verse, which evokes the percussive sounds of Gerard Manley Hopkins but in a distinctly American idiom.

Indeed, Riley's poems need to be heard. Audio tapes of Riley's reading some of the poems in Romey's Order may be found here: Atsuroaudio.org.

Another debut collection is that of glbtq.com contributor Christopher Hennessy. Best known as a critic and interviewer, Hennessy is also an accomplished poet. His first collection, Love-In-Idleness, has attracted praise for its introspection and lyricism. The poems range from childhood reminiscences to a soliloquy by the lover of a Han Dynasty emperor and a dramatization of the death of Saint Sebastian.

Liverpudlian poet Ian Bradley Marshall's Meanderings is a compilation of poetry and prose that address numerous gay issues, including bullying and the suffering of gay people in the Holocaust. Especially notable is the series of poems inspired by the late Justin Fashanu, the English soccer star who is believed to be the first gay male professional athlete in a team sport to come out during his career. Fashanu came out in 1988 and committed suicide in 1998. Bradley's poems inspired by Fashanu and the Justin Campaign, which combats bullying in the U.K., are dramatic, presenting the points of view of both victim and bully. They and the poems concerning the Holocaust, some of which are inspired by John Ottman's music for Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, are frankly sentimental. Other poems in the large collection reveal a kind of Housman-like love of nature and youth, but without Housman's deep sadness.

Another poetry volume of note is Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, edited by Julie Enser. The anthology of contemporary poets features both established writers such as Elana Dykewomon, Marilyn Hacker, Joan Nestle, Lesléa Newman, and Ellen Orleans, as well as new and emerging poets who explore the experience of being Jewish and lesbian.

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