Poetry anthologies, used in college classrooms for years, are like academic mixtapes, showcasing a publisher’s favorites to readers in thick volumes. That’s no knock, as they’re useful for changing attitudes toward poetry by highlighting dynamic voices using different forms. The third edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, at 397 pages, skillfully uses the work of more than 100 poets, both established and up-and-coming, to enlighten readers on the diverse landscape of today’s poetry.
Founded in 1998 by poet Michael Simms, Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press aims to fill the void left by major publishers that eschew poetry for economic reasons. It’s had success with local standouts like Robert Gibb, Ed Ochester, Phillip Terman, Samuel Hazo and Judith Vollmer releasing high-quality recent collections. Anthology’s alphabetical lineup is equally luminous, with editors Simms, Giuliana Certo and Christine Stroud gathering works from Pitt Poetry’s catalog as well as from a host of literary award-winners and poets laureate. However, it’s the poems by the somewhat less well-known that are emblematic here, catching both eye and ear.
A powerful entry from Sheryl St. Germain, who directs Chatham University’s master-of-fine-arts program, has speakers dealing with addiction through first-hand accounts, and a sestina for past lovers. But it’s her "Bread Pudding With Whiskey Sauce" that slyly encapsulates loss most effectively: "French bread goes stale quickly, / like all intensely pleasurable things: / brothers die young and beautiful, / a mother’s smile disappears / to sorrow, passion dies to sex, / but sorrow can be transformed / into bread pudding." Part recipe, part elegy, it’s a great example of poetry’s commandeering unconventional forms, making something both mouthwatering and heartbreaking.
Arkansas’ Jo McDougall, an Autumn House favorite, is another pleaser in a hit-filled gathering. With poems dealing with the loss of a daughter and illness, her imagery allows emotion to be powerfully conveyed, such as in "Dirt," where she writes, "Two weeks ago / we had to coax it / into taking her body. / Today, / after a light rain, / I see it hasn’t bothered / to conceal its seams." Her short, compressed lines allow the image to do the heavy lifting.
While mostly leaning toward the narrative and sometimes self-referential, the anthology includes this counterargument, from Lynn Emanuel’s "Occupation": "Personal experiences are chains and balls / fatally drawn to the magnetic personality." It’s an interesting point that takes nothing away from this excellently edited collection.