TOP TEN PROSE POEM COLLECTIONS

photo courtesy of Trish Crapo
Joshua Michael Stewart is a poet and musician who has had poems published in the Massachusetts Review, Salamander, Plainsongs, Brilliant Corners, and many others.
His books are, Break Every String, (Hedgerow Books, 2016) and, The Bastard Children of Dharma Bums, (Human Error Publishing, 2020).
His albums, Three Meditations, and Ghost in the Room, can be found on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and many other platforms. Visit his web site at www.joshuamichaelstewart.com, or better yet, interact with him at www.facebook.com/joshua.m.stewart.526/. 
For this column Joshua will explore poetry, music, and Buddhism, and how they all intersect with each other. He will delve into assorted poetic forms and he will specifically highlight contemporary poets from the New England area, and the poets associated with classical Japanese and Chinese poetry. 
I’ve always loved the prose poem–even when I started exploring this thing called Contemporary American poetry, the prose poem most intrigued me. I was a jazz musician, or at least I tried to be, and it was through my interest in jazz that introduced me to Jack Kerouac and all the Beat Poets. The Beats led me to Langston Hughes, which led me to discover William Matthews, but it was when I found Charles Simic’s Walking the Black Cat, that my eyes, mind, and heart opened up to the world of poetry. At the time, I never even heard of Charles Simic, I picked up the book for no other reason than I thought the dust jacket looked like it could be the cover of a jazz album, but when I opened the book to a random page and read the poem, my whole world changed at that moment. This is what poetry can be? I remember thinking. Here is the poem:

 

Marked Playing Cards

I took my TV and bass fiddle to the pawnshop.

Then I had my car stolen and everything in it.

This morning I’m down to a windbreaker and house slippers,

But I feel cheerful, even though it’s snowing.

This proves she loves me, I said to the crowd

Waiting for the bus. They were afraid to look my way.

 

I let myself be reduced to rags, I explained.

I marked playing cards to cheat against myself.

All my life I kept raising the stakes, knowing

That each new loss assured me of her complete love.

(The bus was late, so they had to hear the rest.)

 

I told them that I never met her, but that I was certain

She had a premonition of my existence,

As I do of hers. Perhaps this is the moment

She comes along and recognizes me standing here?

 

Because my mind was busy with our first kiss,

I didn’t hear the bus arrive and leave.

High over the roofs, the sky was already clearing.

I still had the greasy cards in my pocket.

With my bad luck, I surmised, she was due by nightfall.

Shuffling through the snow and shivering,

I was ready to bet the rest of my clothes on her.

When I read this poem, I was in my sophomore year in college. The music thing wasn’t working out, and I was deeply lost and lonely. This poem didn’t so much speak to me as it did through me. I wanted to read everything Simic wrote, and I did. Eventually, I came across his book of prose poems, The World Does Not End, and once again, I was awestruck by these bizarre narratives. Of course, I didn’t know what a prose poem was, but I wanted to know more about them. I soon came across James Tate (who was teaching at the university I was attending), and his book, Memoir of the Hawk, had me laughing until my sides hurt, the first time any book did that for me. Then I discovered Russel Edson’s selected poems called, The Tunnel, and if I thought Simic’s little fables were wacky, I had no idea how wacky and delightful a prose poem could be. With each book, my universe of the possible expanded more and more.

As the years have gone on, I’ve explored countless prose poem collections, and I’m continuously captivated and surprised by these wonderful works of art. I want to share my top ten favorite prose poem collections for the rest of this article. Naturally, I am leaving so many books and prose poets out of this list. If I were compiling this list on a different day or even at a different hour, the specific books I’d have chosen and the order I’d place them in would make up a completely different list. With that stated, here is the list:

 

  1. Glass Bikini by Kristin Bock

Bock’s collection is the newest book on this list which is the only reason that it places in the tenth position. These are phenomenal poems that are only rivaled by the poems in her first book, Cloisters.

 

How Drones Are Born

A porcelain doll abandons her carriage and crouches like an insect in the corn. The girl, from her bedroom window, reaches for the doll, but slumps in a white ruffled collar. A wafer of arsenic crosses the sky. Green powder blooms from her mother’s dress. A black milk seeps from the child.  Her father, in his rocking chair on the lawn, bites his fat tongue in the dark.  All night, the doll waltzes through the corn until dawn erases her face.  Blades sprout from her neck and she ascends into the crack clouds.

 

  1. Oh Baby by Kim Chinquee

A wonderful collection of prose poems and flash fiction. I’ve been championing this book since its first release.

Batter

I washed my grandma’s chickens, soaking bodies, stripping feathers, headless. Kool-Aid made me hiccup. My father yelled shutthefuckup. I pretended. My mouth was taped with duct tape. I caused my father’s ulcers. I was about to bat. The coach said I was bunting. I knew how. I was fast.

Cook

My mother baked things. Always. One time, she made brownies, saying they were for our retriever, Savage. “It’s his prize,” she said. She knew I wouldn’t eat them. She told me to take a nap. When I woke up the brownies were all gone and so was my mother. She was lying on a sofa. She smelled like gasoline.

  1. Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess

Set on the margins of Seattle, beneath bridges and on the banks of waterways, in strip clubs and flooded farmland, the prose poems in TINDERBOX LAWN illuminate the intersection of domesticity and bohemia, orthodoxy and passion.”—Eileen Myles.

These untitled prose poems tell a loose story about living in the Upper Northwest, during the time of the Green River Murders.

We watched the girl through her open window. 45th Street was hot but she was on fire. We were thinking we should fuck her as she undressed in front of a face or a mirror. I said look at her hair, soft. You said look at her lips, bloom. We’d prepared our room: dog in her cage, silk over skylights because of the heat. You said she’s sweet.  I said three’s sweeter. And after we’d take notes on who was better. Seattle had never been hotter. You had a bottle and I had a bottle. A building caught fire, rows of condos attached at the hip. Fire trucks slipped on glossy pavement. Water filled the moonlit basement. A man flew from a balcony into the air. Ash stained our hair and the whorls of our dresses. Water caressed us, the thick blue knife slicing away burnt boards and glass. We lit cigarettes off the burning grass and breathed smoke until the streets were clean, the dog lay dreaming, and you were mine again. Breezes fanned the trees and the tinderbox lawn. Both the window and the girl were gone.

  1. High Water Mark by David Shumate

Probably one of the lesser-known poets on this list and that’s a shame because I think this book is one of the best of the best. No wonder it made it on this list.

Household Buddhas

A thousand Buddhas populate this house. The Buddha of pepper. The Buddha of brooms. The chimney Buddha and the dustpan Buddha. While we are away the Buddha of bowties stands in front of the mirror and marvels at how handsome he can become. The landscape Buddha snips at the hedges with his scissors. The wildlife Buddha tends to the tranquility of birds. The Buddha of good tidings greets us upon our return and the Buddha of raincoats and galoshes assists us with our wraps. The Buddahs of yet unspecified destinies wait in the hallway. One will become the Buddha of smoothed over domestic squabbles. Another the Buddha of unrealized dreams. Each morning a thin, old Buddha rakes a pattern into the sand of the Zen garden. When he is finished he looks over his shoulder at me standing behind the picture window. He knows this should be enough to lead me to the end of the Great Path. If only I were ready.

  1. Nice Fish by Louis Jenkins

Depending on the day, this collection surely lands in the number-one position of not just favorite prose poem collections, but favorite books of all time. I absolutely love Jenkins’ work and it has a lasting influence on my own creative work. I was heartbroken to learn of his passing a few years ago.

To quote someone already mentioned in this article, here is what Charles Simic had to say about Louis Jenkins: “To imagine what it means to be another human being is an act of love. These are poems written by a great lover of the world. Everything in it that stands alone, unobserved, and luminous. Solitary people with their solitary destinies…If there’s a native, archetypical American solitude, Louis Jenkins has given us its flavor.”

Walking Through a Wall

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, ‘Say, I want to try that.’ Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren’t so good. They won’t hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren’t pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it’s the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don’t know, but I’ve torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it’s a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

  1. You Can Tell The Horse Anything by Mary A. Koncel

Not only one of my all-time favorite books, but Mary Koncel is one of my favorite people. I have been extremely lucky and thankful to know her on a personal level. I was absolutely delighted when I learned that the publisher of my first collection of poems, Break Every String, Hedgerow Books, would be publishing Koncel’s second collection of prose poems, The Last Blonde.

When the Babies Read the Book of the Dead

We can’t stop them. We say, “Babies, don’t turn the page.” But they try to sound out every word, gum each corner until it’s soft and sticky. We say, “Babies, look here—Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, a monarch butterfly wafting over a bed of red and white petunias.” The babies ignore us. They huddle together, drool across the cover. They like the pictures best—trees, man and shaggy dog together, the long, rocky trek against time. We try to distract the babies, tickle their round cherry chins, but they’re relentless. Their fingers, eyes, mouths, every bit of them so little but relentless. Sometimes we think the babies might not be ours. We could ask them, but we’re afraid. The babies don’t sleep at night. We hear them rocking upstairs beneath the crib, the book held between them like another prayer. We don’t know who to call.

  1. The Tunnel: Selected Poems by Russell Edson

Again, one of those books that depending on the day could easily be marked as number one. Simply put, without Russell Edson, there would be no Contemporary American Prose Poem.

The Fall

There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.

Counting Sheep

A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture

for them.

They are like grains of rice.

He wonders if it is possible to shrink something out of existence.

He wonders if the sheep are aware of their tininess, if they have any sense of scale. Perhaps they think

the test tube is a glass barn …

He wonders what he should do with them; they certainly have less meat and wool than ordinary

sheep. Has he reduced their commercial value?

He wonders if they could be used as a substitute for rice, a sort of woolly rice . . .

He wonders if he shouldn’t rub them into a red paste between his fingers.

He wonders if they are breeding, or if any of them have died.

He puts them under a microscope, and falls asleep counting them . . .

  1. The World Does Not End by Charles Simic

This collection won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first book of prose poems to ever have done so.

We Were So Poor

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.

 

My Mother Was a Braid of Black Smoke

My mother was a braid of black smoke. She bore me swaddled over the burning cities. The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play. We met many others who were just like us. They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke. The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.

  1. Memoir of the Hawk by James Tate

As I mentioned before, these prose poems will have you in tears laughing. I’ve read this book so much my copy is held together by duct tape. Now, despite how these poems look on the page, they are indeed prose poems. Prose poets love to zig when everyone else likes to zag right. So just when everyone (or mostly everyone) was just getting used to these blocky poems, Tate stirred the turd by putting them in lines.

An Afternoon in Hell

He cries awhile, for no apparent reason.

Sniffs, blows his nose. Then goes about his

business, stomp, pound, smashed, crushed, explode.

Then cries a little more, sob, blubber, bleat.

It’s awful, he says. It’s of no use. He throws

his chair through the window. It’s a mess, he says.

the whole damn thing is useless. Now he’s

really weeping, Cascades, waterfalls, Rivers.

I shouldn’t bother, he says. It’s a big, miserable

waste of time. His wife walks in. Honey,

haven’t you finished changing the baby yet?

Almost finished, he chirps.

  1. No Other Life by Gary Young

What can I say about Gary Young’s prose poems? I simply love them. He is a practicing Buddhist and his prose poems are richly influenced by classical Japanese and Chinese Classical poetry. If Basho, Issa, Li Po, and the like lived in contemporary America and wrote prose poems, they’d be ripping off Gary Young.

As I finish this list, I’m realizing all the collections and prose poem anthologies I am not mentioning. There are so many wonderful books out there related to the prose poem. Thirty years ago, there were so few. We are truly lucky. I wish to leave you with two untitled prose poems by Gary Young:

Each night before going to bed, I bend over my sons and kiss them while they sleep. I like to kiss their lips when their faces are slack; I like to lay my cheek on theirs and smell their breath. There is no other life. Last night my wife was waiting up to make love, but she’d already fallen asleep when I crawled in beside her. The sheets were warm; she must have been lying on my side of the bed. The baby called out from the other room, but I could tell he was happy. I don’t know which of us fell asleep first.

I don’t know where the owls go when they leave this place, or if they never leave, but simply leave off calling sometimes and their hollow voices. But tonight they are here: one in the redwood beyond the creek, and one high in the fir tree above the house. Repelled through their voices, those three long vowels the darkness speaks in, I forget my own worthlessness which has troubled me all day.

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