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“Bookjoy!”

By Rigoberto González

I’m borrowing poet Pat Mora’s favorite expression, and riffing from Javier Huerta’s list entry, although my list will be shorter and I’ll also add a few words of praise about these, my favorites books. Wish Huerta had done the same… ouch! (Much love, Javi, you know I think you’re mad-cool, mi osito de peduche, my laughing robot.)

I keep hundreds of poetry books in my office for my students — it’s a lending library although I’ve lost count how many times the books become de facto gifts because the students don’t return them. It’s all good. I’ve got more books to buy, and the shelf needs to make room for them. There are a few books, however, that I won’t lend (but I highly encourage my students to get their own copies!), and these I keep in my personal library at home. I reach for them whenever I want to revisit those moments when poetry inspired me or made me feel proud to be part of this community of artists.

The following list could have moved in a number of directions, but I decided to write about books and poets I hadn’t written about on Harriet (otherwise I would have including such titles as Leroy V. Quintana’s My Hair Turning Gray Among Strangers, Laura Jensen’s Bad Boats, and Ronald Johnson’s The Shrubberies.) Also, of course García Lorca, of course Cavafy, of course Bishop. But I wanted to keep my recommendations more contemporary:

The Orchard, Brigit Pegeen Kelly (Boa Editions, Ltd., 2004)

When I recommend this title, I always suggest the following: in one sitting, read the last lines to every poem in the book. Kelly is extraordinary, and the fierce way she closes each poem is like getting startled each time by a gavel banging behind your back. One of my favorite poem endings: “Brighter than a bed of lilies struck by snow.”

The Salt Ecstasies, James L. White (Graywolf Press, 1982, 2010)

White wrote some of the most beautiful love poems, though his work (and his story) was also full of pain and grief. When he used the word “love” (why are we so afraid to write that word?) it was always sustained by glorious imagery: “I love you like weathering wood / in a room of empty pianos.”; “Good love is like this. / Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better, / this being out of myself for awhile.”

Winter Stars, Larry Levis (U of Pittsburgh Press, 1985)

If Kelly is the muse of closings, Levis is the muse of openings. Sometimes it’s a single line, others it’s a stanza, but Levis grabs the reader from the get-go — how quickly one makes the commitment to the entire poem: “There are places where the eye can starve, / But not here.”; “Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy.”

Emplumada, Lorna Dee Cervantes (U of Pittsburgh Press, 1981)

Each time I read this book I discover another wondrous layer. The last time I was intrigued by its bestiary, its animal stirrings unsettling the air: starfish clustering are “little martyrs, soldiers, artless suicides / In lifelong liberation from the sea”; spiders “have beautiful women / drawn on their bodies”; and geese “hum / as they go. They have yet / to reach their song.”

Sonnets from the Puerto Rican, Jack Agüeros (Hanging Loose Press, 1996)

East Harlem native Agüeros was a man of many trades — playwright, translator, and in the 1970s he was director of El Museo del Barrio. He was also a chronicler who drew from the imagery of his beloved NYC. His account of the 1990 Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx remains one of my favorite sonnet sequences: “I feel pensive and old like the cannon on top of the round brick jail on Governors Island.”

Piedra de Sol/ Sunstone, Octavio Paz (translated by Eliot Weinberger, New Directions Edition, 1991)

This is a single cyclical sentence, a book-length syllabic poem that reads like a prayer or an inventory of everything beautiful and terrible about the world: “canta la soledad en su corola / pétalos de cristal es cada hora.”

The Monarchs, Alison Hawthorne Deming (Louisiana State U Press, 1997)

Since the monarch butterfly is the symbol of my homeland Michoacán, México, and Deming is a poet whose love of the natural world I greatly admire, this was a winning combination. Her breathtaking language takes me home whenever I’m feeling nostalgic: “It’s beautiful to think that trees have consciousness, / can feel their wood thicken, and, as the sun migrates / south, how the limbs redirect their reaching, / effortless and slow, their movement visible only in the form.”

Rooms Are Never Finished, Agha Shahid Ali (Norton, 2002)

Published shortly after his death, this incredible book by the poet who popularized the ghazal in this country, brims with glory at every (page) turn: “O beating night, what could have reined the sky / in? Come to the window: panes plot the earth / apart. In the moon’s crush, the cobalt stars / shed light —”

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 21st, 2011 by Rigoberto González.