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State of the Union

State of the Union
Eds. Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder
Wave Books, 2008

There are many things I like about the new political anthology from Wave Books, State of the Union. I like its size–very manageable at just over 100 pages–and I like almost all of the poets represented within–old favorites like John Ashbery and James Tate alongside new favorites like Matthea Harvey and Tao Lin. I also like its dedication: all royalties for the book will be donated to a nonprofit organization that benefits poor and homeless veterans.

But there are a few things I don’t like about it. Some of these poems seem only superficially political, as though to serve a conscience-easing function for the writer and the reader (and the publisher, I suppose); including the word “war” in a poem, as the second piece in the collection, Nick Flynn’s “Imagination” does, isn’t necessarily going to make me feel anything, be it indignation or rage or complicity. And complaining about the president (“i’m so happy i’m suicidal, like a psilosybin trip that’s moved in for good and his name is george bush,” writes Garrett Caples) may convince me you have good political sense, but it doesn’t convince me you’re a good poet.

Many of the best poems in this collection come at their subject a little more obliquely, but are more fully realized as poems, by virtue of being emotionally complex and provoking more than one thought (e.g., War is bad or The government sucks)–I don’t read poetry to find assertions I already believe to be true (that’s what the Internet is for).

One of my favorite poems in State of the Union is “Forgiveness” by Mathias Svalina, an early-career poet (unlike most of the authors here, he has yet to publish a full-length book). Svalina’s poem manages to be both funny and tragic and contains no platitudes. I felt the last stanza exactly where I was supposed to:

If you see a photograph
of a murdered girl
you will forever after
wear her teeth as a
necklace for your throat.
This is not forgiveness.

It is forgiveness
when you eat
with her teeth.

Another poem I liked was “Covenant of Sticks” by Dan Chelotti:

there is a hunger when I go birdwatching:
I want to yell, do something you fucking bird,

do something that isn’t flying, feeding, landing.
Why don’t you explode? Why aren’t you the bomb

that I want you to be?

Chelotti’s risk lies in admitting an animal appetite for destruction (Mary Ruefle’s poem proclaims, “We should try to be more like animals / and less like them at the same time”), and this opens the poem up to far more nuance than simply stating the obvious, that destruction is bad.

–Elisa Gabbert

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney isDon’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found inColorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.