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Reading List: July/August 2013 (Part I)
The Reading List is a new feature of the Editors’ Blog this year. Each month we ask Poetry’s contributors to share a book—or several—that held their interest recently. Our July/August double issue features even more poets and writers than usual, so we split this Reading List into two parts. Check back later in the month for the second half.
This summer I’m moving in with my future husband, a painter—hence the monumental task of marrying libraries. While my Norton anthologies eye his Encyclopedia of Jazz with suspicion, and our duplicate illustrated Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style duel to the death, the art books are happy to shack up on the shelf. I’ve been leafing through his edition of The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, a Berliner Dadaist who wore her politics lightly, and whose images bristle with color. I’ve been introduced to Jack Flam’s writings on Henri Matisse, an artist that I had once relegated to dorm posters and coffee mugs. But in Matisse in the Cone Collection: The Poetics of Vision, Flam illuminates the moods and expressions, the attention to pattern, that make his work come alive. I particularly love Matisse’s assertion, “I do not paint things, I paint only the difference between things.”
You’d think, after sending six boxes of books to the basement—after stacking food-memoirs above the kitchen stove—that I could accept my need for a book-buying diet. But no. In June I couldn’t leave Politics & Prose without Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, An Index. What a rich and shattering read. Because the inspiration is so pure, the poems can roam tremendously in form without loss of cohesion. Lindenberg’s book makes me want to write again, which is a tremendous gift when living amidst a tangle of unsorted closets, cardboard, and coax cable.
I’ve been reading Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety, one of his earlier works written in 1950, and I must say, it’s terrific, more provocative with ideas than his later more popular books and hugely useful, extremely lucid. I think of anxiety as the central human problem that fuels a million cruelties, creativities, and awakenings. I suspect this book would hit close to home for a lot of folks, but especially creative ones who are particularly susceptible to anxiety (part of the addiction to possibility and doubt) and yet endowed with the most effective means of transfiguring it. Also I’m enjoying Ray Porter’s Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul—the eighteenth century is that lost time for most contemporary poets and yet it is everywhere asserting itself. In addition: Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Natural History of the Mind, Jack Gilbert’s Collected, Hadara Bar-Nadav’s two poetry books (one of my favorite young writers), and June Singer’s book on Blake—I would highly recommend all of them, but the Taylor book on the brain is my favorite. The more scientific material on the body I read the more I realize how much poetry has to offer the conversation and the less convincing material determinism is to me. As often happens when I read non-narrative nonfiction, poems follow, in part, as the missing part—emotional, relational, invested, embodied, attentive, alive—as the antagonist, lover, and conscience of prose, just as prose might be the conscience of poetry. For me at least, the most exciting poems move line by line toward what they are not, or are not yet, and may never be. To that end, I want to read books powerful enough that I might have a dream about them.
Let me just name a few titles of books I’ve been savoring this week. In each case, the linguistic acuity, expansive intelligence, and pervasive music are profound:
I am currently re-reading Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden, a work that revives all the verbs around writing and enlists Thoreau’s vigorous activities to reflect on how much we have at times narrowed down the endeavor of the writer (“we have a reduced view of what such an enterprise may be”) and Inger Christensen’s book Light, Grass, and Letter in April, which is folded chronically open to the poem, “Meeting,” a sequence that rivals Tsvetaeva’s “Poem of the End” for its insistence on dissecting the metaphysics of human admissions and expulsions.
On my side-table also the recently read and admired TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (a seamless text of triangulated journeys and eternal returns) and The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy (I’ve only just begun it, but the first chapter includes a ruthless yet illuminating scene of a man dying and not realizing he himself is dead, because he is leaning against another man’s beating heart—such arresting and grotesque conjunctions seem likely to characterize this novel).
And, on the top of the stack, a few collections of poems: among them, Peter O’Leary’s consequential and creaturely opus on human consciousness, Phosphorescence of Thought, and its corpuscular corollary—the proofs of Forrest Gander’s forthcoming Eiko & Koma (New Directions Pamphlet Series, 2013), a text that unflinchingly re-members us to our bodies. If the emphatic question of Gander’s previous book Core Samples of the Earth was “quien es?” (who is it?), the unsettling question that dominates this collection—which is based on witnessing (one might almost say “with-nessing”) the work of dancers Eiko & Koma—is “What are they?” Gander’s attention to the metamorphic pressure that these two figures voluntarily impose upon one another merges with his observations of other forms of relentlessly reconfiguring union to body forth a supremely sensate and insistent collection of poems.
Sadiqa de Meijer
I’m rereading the stark, pensive short fiction of Dutch-Iranian writer Khader Abdollah in De Adelaars (the English version is Eagles). The clipped voice of the opening story stays with me: “I work with Gerrit. He is always busy with birds. Dead birds. He stuffs them.”
Which correlates unintentionally well to a book I just brought home—The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Culture of Longing by Rachel Poliquin—an instance of being drawn to a cover and title in the library. It’s fascinatingly illustrated, and the chapter titles include “Wonder,” “Spectacle,” and “Order.”
Slowly making my way through the lucid and thoughtful Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description by Zachariah Pickard. And you know what, this book has a natural history element as well, in the parallels drawn between Bishop’s methods and the work of Darwin.
Early this summer, I was teaching a writing workshop. I asked participants to consider having a “mentor text” to guide them as they tried to shape their endeavors. One of the participants was an octogenarian, well-known in the community for her poems, plays, newspaper articles, oral histories, paintings, organ playing, and elaborate hats. She was, in a sense, her own mentor text. Still, she responded graciously to my admonition. “Do you mean something like this?” She pulled from her bag Ivan Doig’s memoir of growing up in Montana, This House of Sky. She began to read aloud.
Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped. The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which would have me face about and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all. It starts, early in the mountain summer, far back among the high spilling slopes of the Bridger Range of southwestern Montana. The single sound is hidden water–the south fork of Sixteenmile Creek diving down its willow-masked gulch.
The room went very quiet as she read. The words cast a spell over us, and I had a sensation that I wanted that reading to go on forever in Marge’s voice. Time slowed and “quieted.” I thought of and perhaps understood for the first time what Thomas Hobbes meant when he said, “Imagination and Memory, are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.” I had a new mentor text.
Since I spend the rest of the year trying to keep up with the new young poets and whatever I’m teaching, I’ve just been reading fiction this summer: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (I never saw the movie), Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya, The Melancholy Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Night Train To Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, Soul by Andrey Platonov, and The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller.
The novel I’ve been trumpeting to anyone who will listen lately is Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The book follows a group of Iraq Soldiers on a somewhat surreal “victory tour” that ends at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Reviewers have consistently compared the book to Catch-22, but the author it reminds me of is actually John Updike. Like Updike, Fountain use rich, linguistically-alive prose that creates an expansiveness within ordinary moments, and draws us ever-deeper into his character’s consciousness. Also, like Updike’s Rabbit books, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a book the captures what it’s like to be an American at a very specific time.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Frank Bidart’s poetry, and I’ve been working my way through his new collection, Metaphysical Dog, which is a book mostly about memory and looking back. He even spends some time looking back the writing of “Ellen West,” but really it’s in the short, abstract poems where Bidart seems most powerful these days. There’s an emotional density to Bidart’s shorter poems—the more time you spend unknotting them, the more powerfully charged they become.
I also really enjoyed Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, especially the long, very personal title poem. In that poem, she imagines an idealized alternate universe in order to explore the pain and grief of our own.
Alan Shapiro’s Night of the Republic is a book that is full of nearly-perfect poems. Dense and metaphorically rich, while still remaining accessible, the poems are full of emotional turns that seem somehow surprising and inevitable at once. The final section, where Shapiro looks back on his childhood, is particularly moving.
The most recent book I’ve picked up is Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain by Patricia S. Churchland. It’s a book that’s a lot of fun to read, because you feel like you’re learning something new on every page, and of course it has a whole lot to say about what we know (or think we know) about consciousness, memory, identity and free will.
After a rather long and protracted “summer” break back home in England, I’ve been taking the time to dip into my ever-growing column of books “to read,” which means that my recent reading has been pretty erratic in terms of style and period, so I’ll have to be forgiven the apparent randomness of my taste.
Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a beautiful read at any time of year; but, during a rare heatwave, the flowing lines, childhood innocence and delves into the poet’s love of nature and humanity are close to perfect. I’d recommend reading the Penguin Four Texts edition, which prints to 1805 and 1850 texts on parallel pages.
Memorial by Alice Oswald is another book-length poem that, like The Prelude, largely strips away narrative in favor of what Oswald terms “excavation.” Oswald’s powers as a poet are unmistakable, and Memorial, though not quite on par with her earlier book-length poem, Dart, will do nothing to mar her reputation. There is a section describing fire that I had to read and re-read to make sure that it was actually as incredible as I first thought. It was.
Last autumn, on the train to Ilkley Literature Festival, I actually stood up out of my seat and said “NO” in disbelief as I turned a particularly revelatory page in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Quite embarrassing. So, with another journey looming, this time to Gothenburg, Sweden, I picked up his longer novel, Armadale, which I’d been looking forward to reading for some time. It starts a little slowly, but Collins’s wit and atmosphere soon hook the reader in. This novel is broader in scope and size than his more famous mysteries, but Collins’s philosophy of “sensation” is never forgotten.
A few weeks ago, while spending time in upstate New York working on a new group of poems, I read Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage, a book I’ve been meaning to read for many years and finally located in a marvelous reissue by Faber in their Faber Finds series. It’s the memoir of a young man, a born artist, whose unfolding identity reveals itself through a series of perceptions heightened by the losses and dislocations that transform his character, reshape his destiny. The book is compelling for many reasons, in particular the author’s refreshing lack of self-reflection in conjunction with his extreme sensitivity to beauty and uncensored expression of whatever happens to cross his mind. The book appeals to anyone who possesses the soul of a sensualist, which pretty much covers poets and painters as well as children.
In early June, on my first visit to Barcelona, walking and looking and tasting and listening seemed more than enough activity to occupy one’s time. Still, I brought along, and reread, Kathleen Graber’s The Eternal City, finding her meditative lines and surprising juxtapositions a perfect complement to a ramble on La Rambla as well as a journey through medieval streets and baroque clouds. Robert Hughes’s Barcelona the Great Enchantress was as excellent and eccentric an introduction as one could hope for, filled as it is with delicious facts and asides, abundant detours of imagination in a slender volume. Rowan Ricardo Phillips had given me a few inside tips on Barcelona neighborhoods and tapas bars to explore, so it seemed fitting to reread his superb collection, The Ground, after returning to New York; back home I experienced his poems anew, seeing how they search the underground forces shaping a city.
Through the years I have read various translations of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura: being a fan of Alicia Stallings’s poetry, her rendering of this epic was on my must-read list. I am drawn to her ingenious ways of handling rhythm and line, her facility for keeping alive the spirit of the poem, making Lucretius’s allusions and diction contemporary while capturing the aura of his wit and dignity. Along with Dan Pagis’s poetry collection in a translation by Stephen Mitchell, I read the recently published first book by one of my former students, Farnoosh Fathi, who mailed a copy of Great Guns to me several different times before it reached my correct address. The book had a convoluted journey before arriving: I was delighted to hold it in my hands at last and want to keep it in sight (and read it with the special thrill that comes from seeing how a talent one believed in instinctively has developed in ways impossible to predict and found an idiom for flourishing). Maybe there is something in how Fathi approaches myth and memory that dovetails with Pagis’s exquisite sensibility.
The new two-volume Cambridge edition of the poems of D.H. Lawrence recently afforded me the occasion to reread all of Lawrence’s poems, and, while I’ve always admired them, I was bowled over by the power of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, the book Lawrence published in 1923. Wildly divergent tones intersect in individual poems, and the whole book gathers this cacophony together into an utterance greater than the sum of its parts. For me, the book stands with Yeats’s The Winding Stair or Moore’s Observations—one of the great poetic achievements of the twentieth century. And the Cambridge edition offers the poems exactly as Lawrence wrote them for the first time. In all previous versions of “She-Goat” we discover that “when the billy goat mounts her / She is brittle as brimstone.” But what Lawrence wanted to say was this: “when the billy goat mounts her / It is like a red needle entering a small place in a rock.” Elsewhere, as in “Pomegranate,” no poet asks more charismatically threatening questions:
Do you mean to tell me there should be no fissure?
No glittering, compact drops of dawn?
Do you mean it is wrong, the gold-filmed skin, integument, shown ruptured?
The whole book makes a poetics of rupture feel indistinguishable from elegance.
At the beach. Summer a wonderful space to re-read, and poetry needs repeated visitations to reveal its full piquance. Collections of poetry, especially bilingual, introduce other states of mind. I am revisiting three, two of which lead me deeper, one that reels me backwards for greater nourishment.
1. Modern Catalan Poetry, David H. Rosenthal translator. Poems, with related art samples, from the Catalan Renaissance that also spawned Picasso. An acquaintance with some French helps one to hear the trace of medieval troubadours in the lyrics. Striking avant-garde graphic poems reside here with plaints: “Tired of so many poems which give you no companionship…”
2. Contemporary Russian Poetry, Evgeny Bunimovich ed. Many of these are written by poets born in the 1960s and 1970s. Their stances and tone differ from those of Blok, Pasternak and Mayakovsky in the upheavals of the early 20th century. Many seem estranged from the visceral, the political, the suffering of others. Thus: “The ideals papa adhered to seem absurd to me today”. Still embedded, however, is the greedy Jew (“who hears about three wishes..”) rather than the zest of Pushkin. Other poems still stand out with tragic and touching undercurrents:
As a bird dies
the spent bullet inside weeps
because it wanted more than anything else
to fly like a bird
3. D.H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems. I think his span of poems and talent underappreciated. Even the wonderfully bad poems inhabiting these ~1,000 pages contain riveting bursts of the sublime. Or re-enter his early prose poems, as GHOSTS: “And as the dog with its nostrils tracking out the fragments of the beasts’ limbs, and the breath from their feet that they leave in the soft grass, runs upon a path that is pathless to men.” Music most modern still carries the extending line.
If you are a reader, nothing is unrelated. So I was reading Ezra Pound, New Selected Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth, for a travel piece about Pound and Hemingway (I read, among other things, some of Hemingway’s early letters, published by Cambridge University Press), when my wife pointed out to me that I should learn from a master how to mix biography and travel and sent me to Richard Holmes’s extraordinary Footsteps.
Meanwhile, I had an assignment to write about the Library of America two-volume set of the Collected Poems of W. S. Merwin, which gave me more opportunity to meditate on the influence of Ezra Pound, who had been a mentor to the young Merwin. But while this was going on I had pledged to finish several books I had only read in part, so I embarked upon The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno (championed by Pound), and was reaffirmed in my belief that books are journeys.
Soon I’ll be journeying to my wife’s home country, Australia, so I have read Peter Carey’s great novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, and am about to voyage through more books by David Malouf, Les Murray, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. A life of reading is a life of movement.
I’ve been reading On This Side of the River, by David Ferry, whose translations I’ve long known but whose poems I didn’t know before seeing him read this spring and being alarmed that I didn’t know his poems. The reading was in a Boston sports bar and was utterly riveting despite REO Speedwagon and meatheads bellowing at flatscreens.
I’m also reading Eldershaw, by Stephen Edgar. Eldershaw, which is characteristically brilliant, uncharacteristically begins with a long series of blank-verse narratives that manage to put domestic turmoil and the paranormal into meaningful relation. It’s highly-involving, creepy, and extremely virtuosic.
This summer I’m trying to write poems, too, so I’ve been re-reading poets who make me want to do that. Here are four, and some poems of theirs that I read continually:
Jorge Luis Borges (tr. Robert Mezey and Richard Barnes). “Poem of the Gifts,” “Limits,” “The Things.” (This translation is great but tragically unpublished for exasperating legal reasons.)
Gwendolyn Brooks. “Sadie and Maud,” “throwing out the flowers,” “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.”
John Clare. “The Hollow Tree,” “I Am,” “To Be Placed at the Back of his Portrait.”
Edwin Muir. “Ballad of Hector in Hades,” “Animals,” “The Horses.”
Tags: Amy Frykholm, Bruce Bond, Christina Davis, David Mason, James Galvin, James Longenbach, Joshua Mehigan, Laura Manuelidis, Phillis Levin, Reading List, Sadiqa de Meijer, Sandra Beasley, Scott Cairns, Sean Hewitt, Steve Gehrke
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, August 5th, 2013 by Lindsay Garbutt.