Friday, December 19, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #19: Favorite Contemporary Poetry Collection

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The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe (W. W. Norton)
(bonus: star power to make you weepy!)

Despite being an English/creative writing major and getting my fair share of poems published in my high school and college literary magazines, I don't write or read poetry much these days. It takes something out of the ordinary to commit to the complex, contemplative pleasures of a poetry collection instead of the narrative through line of fiction. And like most of us, I'm sometimes a little intimidated by the whole thing, and subconsciously avoid revealing my ignorance about the world of poetry by staying out of it.

This may be why when Marie Howe read at McNally Jackson earlier this year, I was stunned by the huge crowd that turned out. We do a lot of poetry readings, but mostly with smaller authors who perform their art for friends, family, and a few die-hards -- but Howe packed the house. And she has a presence like an opera diva in the best sense: gracious, majestic, with a speaking voice to match the immensity and humanity of her poems. So that was something out of the ordinary enough to make me buy a book of poetry, which turned out to be one of the books I've gone back to again and again this year.

Howe used the language and symbolism of the Christian liturgy as an illuminating conceit. "Ordinary time" is basically the part of the church calendar that's not Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, or Pentacost -- just everything else. The title poem sketches the characters from Biblical miracles as they find themselves back in the workaday world, with some weird stories to tell and mundane details to navigate. Elsewhere Howe sees lepers in the supermarket, gets a sermon from a bratty kid on the playground, and writes persona poems as Mary (yeah, the mother of God) contemplating the moonlight in a well. Her point is often the longing for transcendence intertwined with a love for the usual and familiar, in plain but freighted language that does the de-familiarizing trick -- making that which we already know seem new, beautiful, strange -- that the best poetry pulls off. Even if you're not well-versed in the liturgical stuff, it's good poetry that helps you in contemplating the ordinary world, even if sometimes you don't feel you're worthy of it.

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