Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House Edited by Brenda Shaugnessy and CJ Evans
(Tin House Books, 2008)

There are few exercises that reveal the preferences of an editor as clearly as selecting poems for an anthology. Choosing work for the disposable issues of a journal, by contrast, gives you space to try out work you are uncertain of, to experiment with and expand your own aesthetic preferences. Satellite Convulsions shows the editors of Tin House to have a respectably wide-ranging set of tastes, certainly enough to support CJ Evans's claim in the foreword that "[w]e don't care about schools or who dubs whom what".

The poets range from well-known to little known. Unless keeping track of poets is your full-time job, you will probably find yourself reading someone new when you pick up this anthology. More importantly, you will find yourself reading poets from a variety of nations, though unfortunately, those who appear in translation have not had their original poems published along with the English-language versions. (In fairness, this may have been a rights issue rather than an editorial decision.) Satellite Convulsions also includes poetry by individuals who have lived transnational lives, including Miho Nanaka who was born and raised in Tokyo but is currently an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University.

The poems themselves range from six lines (Donald Hall's "The Touching") to a few pages—which is the longest anyone can really expect in an anthology. To include an epic like Notley's Descent of Alette would be outside the bounds of such a project after all. Though free verse is the dominant more, rhyme is not forgotten, being one of the main carriers of the singsong of Maggie Robbins's Suzy Zeus poems. Less traditional techniques appear in Krista J.H. Leahy's "pearsap", which includes a two-column word-list, and in Mary Ruefle's "Erasure" which consists of an image of two pages from As a Man Thinketh mostly scribbled over but highlighted in places.

Structural diversity extends to the inclusion of prose poems, and lineated verse does not uniformly hug the left margin. Thomas Sayers Ellis's "Ways to Be Black in a Poem" even includes space within lines:
Wherever there is living You must listen
For the            if and when            the vernacular gives birth again.
You will need more than reference
Coulda            woulda            shoulda
And more than edjumacation.

This poem, too, fulfills the claim from the foreword that poetry "can wear its politics on its sleeve, chest, and forehead".

Indeed, the poems diverge in content as well as in form. They have rural and urban settings, sometimes within the same poem. Love is both explicitly heterosexual and homosexual. Rae Armentrout's use of the jacaranda in "Guess" is reminiscent of Marianne Moore's use of lesser-known creatures, while Matthew Dickman sticks with familiar animals--a dog, a cat, and dead mice--in "Apology and Winter Things". Some poems rely on vivid imagery, but Mark Doty's "To the Engraver of My Skin" never describes the tattoo. Olena Kalytiak Davis's Francesca poems talk back to Dante in all lower-case. There are a few explorations of fire.

While such range is the primary strength of Satellite Convulsions, without any sort of editorial writing about the relationships between these poets and poems (the only contextual information comes from the background notes at the end), the sort of novice reader who might pick up this book because they recognize the name of Billy Collins is likely to get lost in the pages. On the other hand, if they were reading it as part of an introductory poetry course with a professor who could fill in the gaps, that might not be such a problem.


Elizabeth Kate Switaj's book, Magdalene & the Mermaids, is published by Paper Kite Press. She edits Crossing Rivers Into Twilight ( and serves as assistant editor for Inertia Magazine ( Her professional experience includes teaching in cities throughout Japan, China, and the US as well as writing online copy for a kimono import company and conducting media research. For more information visit

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