Edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer. University of Illinois Press, $19.95.
Dark Horses is a lovingly performed excavation of poems that have eluded canonization. A hundred poets were invited to share a favorite neglected poem, as well as write a short essay on it. The essayists, all published poets, are eager and passionate readers; the format of poem-and-response lends the book an appealing intellectual energy. It’s fascinating to see how one poem, however uncelebrated, can nudge another poet into a swoon, and sometimes a career.
The poems here leap between centuries and forms, yet the lack of organization doesn’t register as problematic. In the introduction, the editors note: “Clearly…[there] would be a kind of orchestral clamor…the poems would be united by the ardor and the enthusiasm of their promoters.” We find the trippy dream logic of 18th-century poet Leigh Hunt, in “The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit,” a kind of “Walt Whitman on acid,” according to Albert Goldbarth. Elsewhere, there’s Edward Barrett’s electric love poem, “Morfudd’s Hair,” based on a Welsh legend. Barrett is a professor in hypertext at MIT and the syntax of “Morfudd’s Hair” is as awkward as a love letter in hypertext, but thrillingly so: “if I try to/push you away it’s phony and fateful/like fate/pushing us to discover what we can’t, thanks, know/because we are it.” Such a poem (and poet) is refreshingly far from the polished lyrics that can clog poetry anthologies.
The essays are livelier when they contain some personal experience of its author. Denise Duhamel charmingly reveals she kept poet Ron Koertge’s “Modifications” in her wallet for decades until it was stolen. Imagining the thief, she wondered if it changed his life, too. But Carl Phillips chooses to spend his essay dissecting the syntax of a poem, and we’re left thinking we could have done without Phillips’s professorial exfoliation.
There are tragic moments in Dark Horses, mostly in the lives of the forgotten poets. Thomas James, a Chicago poet who penned perhaps the most breathtaking poem of the collection, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” took his own life at 27, and his work is out of print. Dark Horses serves a noble purpose in rounding up loose, lost voices like James’s, giving them a chance to meet with readers once again.—Jenny Gillespie