For nearly 20 years, the "Best American Poetry" series has been a wonderfully inconsistent survey. The contents of each year's volume are selected by a...

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“The Best American Poetry 2004”

guest editor, Lyn Hejinian

Scribner Poetry, 288 pp., $30

“Burnt Island”

by D. Nurkse

Knopf, 128 pp., $24

“Western Art”

by Debora Greger

Penguin, 105 pp., $18

For nearly 20 years, the “Best American Poetry” series has been a wonderfully inconsistent survey. The contents of each year’s volume are selected by a guest editor, so the result is as much a portrait of one person’s idiosyncratic taste as of the poetry scene. Given the disparate state of contemporary poetry, it could hardly be otherwise, and there probably aren’t many readers who understand that “best” in this context means something like “the poems I happened to see (or that an editorial board brought to my attention) and that I liked.”

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Still, one of the pleasures of each installment is the editor’s introduction, in which he or she goes through an almost ritualistic disavowal of the series title. In the latest edition, Lyn Hejinian, an accomplished poet and essayist, deconstructs each word except “the” but including “2004.”

She also indulges in the kind of obscurity that seems to pervade academic criticism: “I found ‘bestness’ in dislogical poems and in dialogical ones, and I found it in poems in which quixotic pathos is revolutionized into play. I found it in works long enough to sustain negativity and form a relationship with the world in negativity’s terms, and I found it in the strange cosmological positives produced at unexpected points of encounter.”

A fair number of poems here reflect an esthetic as inchoate as Hejinian’s introduction. “Mars Needs Terrorists,” by K. Silem Mohammad, instantly betrays the promise of its engaging title with lines like (no kidding) :.:.:.:8.we are 138.9 teenagers.

A poem with an almost equally interesting title, “Compliance Engineering,” by Ron Silliman, is at least readable: Our true form is the blurb. / Full moon in a clear December sky / on page 215 of my notebook. It’s anyone’s guess which is an example of “quixotic pathos” and which of “strange cosmological positives.”

But perseverance pays. The patient reader will discover “337,000, December, 2000,” by Aaron Fogel, which begins, They are formidable, the wild geese, in their numbers. / They lie down in the rushes and become reeds. / The leaf-shaped facts, in fact, have many shapes. In later lines Fogel plays with the shapes and sounds of words as his images flicker with the shapes and sounds of the geese. It’s a delightful poem in which things and the words that represent them become inseparable.

In “The Centrifuge,” Billy Collins wraps his customary slack lines around an allusive, elusive scene: It is difficult to describe what we felt / after we paid the admission, / entered the aluminum dome, / and stood there with our mouths open … “ As the poem continues, he whirls us through turns as breathtaking as those of the centrifuge itself.

After the jarring inconsistency of Hejinian’s selections, it’s a relief to turn to “Burnt Island,” by D. Nurkse. Each poem is a crafted element of a tightly structured volume, glimpses that add up to a world — or to an island, at least. Here is the first stanza of “North of Althea”:

We followed the Aix River toward the source

three days through box elder.

Often it was just a give under us,

sheen of pollen in the arrow grass,

swerve like the breeze

in runged pine shadow.

Like the river, these lines lead us and repay our attention. The phrase “just a give” and the word “runged” tell us we’re in unknown territory, a place that requires new words.

Much later in the book the poet is not only in a new place but part of it. In “Brittle Star” he experiences the world from a nonhuman perspective that would seem absurd or, at least, sentimental if we hadn’t followed him there and absorbed it with him:

I feel the soft tug

of the starfish — I know it

by its gentleness —

but it persists

longer than my closing muscle

can keep my clamshell shut.

In “Western Art,” Debora Greger ranges the world, sometimes taking us into paintings or buildings and sometimes walking us right through them into a place lighted by color but illuminated by emotion. “The Whispering Gallery,” about a famous part of St. Paul’s Cathedral, begins with the obligatory tourists’ experiment in which one person speaks softly and is heard by another far distant, but that strange contrast of intimacy and distance becomes an allegory for the separations wrought by time, by size, by our places of origin:

What could I say? You were away

on the other side of the cathedral,

waiting for me to whisper in your ear

from where I stood. Far below,

deep in St. Paul’s, the others trailed,

ants trooping their colors raggedly,

tomb to tomb …

The troop of tourists, from the poet’s vantage, move not only among the tombs of the poets interred there but through a larger swatch of time that carries them to their own tombs.

Such dizzying shifts in perspective are the work of a master artist. At nearly the end of the book is “The Art of Poetry,” a fine example of a genre of poetry that explains itself:

The famous poet read out loud

a famous poem

about a fish, not his.

On and on it went, letting out line

just the way my father advised,

the art of fishing

lost on me …

Poetry is the art of saying two (or more) things at once and making them one. In “Western Art” Greger makes many things one, and she does so with the finesse of the artists whose work she gazes upon.