Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books
edited by Jordon Davis and Sarah Manguso
Subpress, $16 (paper)

The editors of Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books propose that such writers are not yet bound in obedience to the “government of poetry land,” not yet constrained by the demands and expectations that a first collection will engender. Such freedom, they suggest, fuels work most “unpredictable” and “genuine.” Fair to say, but equally tenable is the view that new writers have not had time to break through the currently favored poetic strategies and stances, or break from the normalizing prescriptions of popular culture in general, with anxiety of influence beside (but perhaps consorting with) the point. Reading the sampling in this collection suggests that both views hold true, and in some cases both can be demonstrated within the work of a given poet—even within a given poem. But while editors pronounce provocatively, readers may simply take pleasure where they will, and there is much to be found here. Amid the smartly curt ironies—“Forget that night & your wet socks. Low-flying engines. She’ll never happen again” (Jeni Olin, “Tom Brokaw”)—readers will find intimate feelings exposed and an unabashed interest in insight that, despite the exhaustion of ideas, compromised values, and banality of urban life, transcends its own irony: “Paying for this, / each moment a new bird, / you touch your partner’s shoulder” (Savitz, “The Bird”); “Poetry is not entirely unhappy / with its debasement” (Alan Gilbert, “Relative Heat Index”). Here, too, are many poets with the capacity to recognize “a blossom made from weariness” (Max Winter, “TheAscent”) as well as seekers too jaded for the utopic, who relish instead “the ur-disaster, the one to which all others pale. The one that sets you free” (B.J. Atwood-Fukuda, “Ballybunion”). Making good on the title’s optimism, no fewer than three of the 18 poets included here (Olin, Jim Behrle, and Jennifer L. Knox) are slated to publish their first books this fall, with others sure to follow.