The Best Poetry of 2009

If I Were Another

Mahmoud Darwish, Poems Translated by Fady Joudah

Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s greatest contemporary poet, died last year. In the hands of fellow Palestinian Fady Joudah, last year’s Yale Younger Poet, the full spectrum of his lyric accomplishment sings across borders. “I was not a passerby in the words of singers… I was the words of singers,” claims Darwish. It’s true.

Sonata Mullatica: Poems

Rita Dove

Set in lush 18th-century Europe, Dove’s quasi-novella in verse recalls a nearly forgotten musician — half-Hungarian, half-African prodigy George Bridgetower, Beethoven’s onetime protégé. Thomas Jefferson makes a cameo at one concert, but he’s a minor character in this engrossing pageant of racism, patronage, enlightenment, and betrayal. In Dove’s poems, Bridgetower’s life sings.

Hollywood & God

Robert Polito

Polito imagines “Hollywood and God” as a real intersection out in the smog near the L.A. freeway. Of course, he’s naming a nexus in the American psyche, too, where glitzy stars cavort with a cinematic patriarch. “If only God would save me, I would know how to hurt you,” says the title poem. Fallen legends drink themselves into ruin; Paris Hilton prays by shooting guns. This collection is shattered, mythic, and dazzling.

The Looking House

Fred Marchant

Marchant, Vietnam veteran, former conscientious objector, keen reader of the classics, knows how to harness the psyche’s uneasy map for times of conflict, nightmare, and war. Better yet, he knows how to sing his map in a way that consoles. His poems offer dense ecosystems of attention, tracing routes towards praise, finding ways “to thread / one soul to the next.”

Apocalyptic Swing: Poems

Gabrielle Cavocoressi

Jazzy, taut, full of skeptical faith, “jagged music,” and mysterious grace, Calvocoressi’s poems range across backrooms, boxing rings, Baptist churches, and country chapels, looking for a City on the Hill and finding instead “cheap needles” and “joyful noises.” Lost lovers change the locks but then wait for ” some rough voice to call you / home.” A marvelous tough kaleidoscope of American resilience.