Reading List, January 2013
We're pleased to welcome a new series to the Editors' Blog this year. Each month we will ask Poetry's recent contributors to share a book—or several—that they've been poring over. A big thanks to our January contributors for kicking things off.
As a teenager, I studied jazz guitar. The results were mediocre, and still are. But the experience of getting to behold great art from the inside out remains a gift. So, what am I reading? I’m reading music again. Wayne Shorter. Tunes like "Orbits," "Footprints," and "Nefertiti," that he wrote first for Miles Davis’s second quintet.
Shorter’s compositions are often sparse, but always subtle: he produces tremendous effects from small variations of phrase. And the harmonies are their own spiritual math. I love the transitions in these songs. Shorter, in fact, helped to introduce textures and forms from Asian and African musics into American music. Modal vamps and syncopated rhythms alternate in many of these tunes with more familiar structures such as thirty-two bar song form, bossa nova, and the twelve bar blues.
I first read Conditions of Grace: New and Selected Poems by Mark Sanders over a year ago, but as I keep it by my side, it's always recent. Mark Sanders is a Westerner, widely published but not well known. He should be. His poems possess rare poise, an intelligence that sees the world in all its complexity yet conveys his vision clearly, without fuss, without second-guessing. I had been following his work before Conditions of Grace; I admired his hard-earned intimacy with nature, his benign wit, and his comprehension of animal life, plant life, daily life. But after I read Conditions, I understood that he has become a master of poetry. It is, perhaps, that poise in particular that makes his poems so trustworthy and meaningful. "Blessed is the man, his head bowed now / in the manner of his horses, standing in blue grass." That is the voice of a poet who has transcended ego to enter the long tradition of poetry.
I'm rereading Jim Quinn's superb hilarious tragic pair of novellas, Waiting for the Wars to End (Pressed Wafer), both set at the Jersey Shore, about money and sex and trapped Americans plummeting out of the middle class. I'm reading in manuscript Sebastian Agudelo's second book of poems, Each Chartered Street (forthcoming, Saturnalia), a complicated wonderful humanist book about urban life and urban characters, novelistic in its reach, intricate in its lingo, literary in its references and alive to the troubled streets of Philadelphia. Do put it on your list. Plus Francis Ponge's thing-prose-poems, which I'm loving, mostly in C.K. Williams's translations. Also, Twenty Prose Poems by Charles Baudelaire (tr. Michael Hamburger), which are, of course, astonishing, despite my recent semi-dissing of Baudelaire in Poetry. I read Ponge and Baudelaire in the original simultaneous with the English so I guess I'm reading some negotiation between the two rather than original alone or translation alone.
Recently, I've been enjoying a mix of poetry, prose, prose about poetry, and Presley, which is to say: Groundwork by Amanda Jernigan; The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker; Lazy Bastardism by Carmine Starnino (my editor, for the record); and Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick.
The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry is a beautiful, superbly edited anthology. Geoffrey Brock, a first-rate formalist poet and one of the best living translators in his own right, here provides an overview of a tradition. His introduction is intelligent and passionate. I opened this book on "Xenia," a longer poem-sequence by Montale which is represented here by several different translators (thus making the sequence itself a little anthology in its own right).
At the center of Catherine Barnett’s The Game of Boxes is a series of love poems, “Sweet Double, Talk-Talk”–to my mind this is the best series of love poems yet published by a poet of Barnett’s generation. It is truly go-for-broke gorgeous long poem of love and eros and timeless, universal pain. And, yet, the voices in it are utterly modern, particular, and strange. Strange in a way any truly beautiful lyric poetry is.
I would buy any book of Kamau Brathwaite’s–from his splendid Island trilogy to his passionate, intricate “Born to Slow Horses.” But this new book, Trench Town Rock, is very much its own animal, its own concerto, its own dramatic tone. It is political, it is personal, it is lyrical–all at once.
Katharine Kilalea’s One Eye’d Leigh has wonderful metaphors, wonderful turns of phrase, wonderful, unexpected takes on something we thought we knew all too well. Kilalea writes like a painter who has also listened to a lot of music—and now can make it all on her own. And she makes it like no one else. This is a new poet to watch.
I read the galleys of Where the Trees Are Going by Venus Khoury-Ghata (tr. Marilyn Hacker), and fell in love with the amazing metaphors, with the feeling of mythos, with fearless tone, with the spell-binding refrains. I was struck by Khoury-Ghata’s ability to make myth of our moment in time, to combine Western innovation and purely Arabic imagination. An exile from Lebanon, she says: I write in Arabic through French. And, as she does so, her work changes the way we think of contemporary French poetics.
I’m reading Kingsley Amis’s out-of-print anthology The Faber Popular Reciter. I found a used paperback some months ago, but have now placed a second order, in hardcover; it’s a book to return to.
Amis claims in his introduction that “When I was a school boy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting.” They were “learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings.” He clearly loves this stuff—pious hymns, jingoistic ballads, moral exhortations. Most belong to the nineteenth century. It’s easy to see how English-language poetry has broadened since Victoria’s day. Diversity has become our watchword, and it’s heartening to behold how much broader our subject matter has become, how much broader the chorus of voices. Harder to see is the way we’ve generally closed off subjects the Victorians embraced: religious thanksgiving, patriotic gratitude, parental advice, and poems of adventure.
I have some pairings to share. Two chicken poems, one by Vladimír Holan (“The Chicken”), the other by Lisa Jarnot (“Indian Hot Wings”), are excellent additions to the fowl canon and can be profitably read beside a certain wheelbarrow. These birds have agency, power, even divinity—and why not? Jules Supervielle’s “Prophecy” and “The Raindrop” listen in on creation and casually speak for God, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do. Christopher Reid revels in poetic diction yet often dispenses with it entirely, as in “A Perversion,” about cannibalism, and “Intelligentsia,” about Gertrude Stein’s sister—two tiny clever gems in Mermaids Explained. Finally, I offer Thomas Carlyle’s withering sketches of Coleridge and Wordsworth in their dotage. Now, I love both poets, but Carlyle is merciless and hilarious, especially on Coleridge’s endless and aimless pontifications. Then again, impenetrable labyrinths of words and ideas were Carlyle’s métier, too, so takes one to know one. Perhaps his ornate Victorian wit could be profitably studied by...Internet trolls?
The Dune's Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant is a slim book recently published by University of Chicago Press; its author, Gabriel Levin, is an American-born Israeli poet who has parlayed his restless peripatetics into a poetics. Here he wanders through Jordan and the "Empty Quarter" of Saudi Arabia, quoting the pre-Islamic poets and ruminating on Melville's journey to the Holy Land. But most intriguingly of all, Levin compares Frank O'Hara to the nomadic poets of the Mu'allaqat and suggests
"Is not the Arabesque very much part of our culture of appearances and surface detail, entrenched in the realm of pastiche and misattributed authorship, of self-effacing, discontinuous texts and shifting personal pronouns, of deferral of meaning and nonlinear narrative? Why, for example, would John Ashbery title a poem 'Scheherezade' if not to emphasize the ceaseless, wily disposability of narrative?"
Right now, I’m reading (or re-reading, rather) Tomás Morín’s A Larger Country. The collection, which recently won the APR Honickman First Book Prize, is a challenging and masterfully unique collection of insights into the human existence. In a number of ways, his poems examine just how much we are capable of, emotionally, ontologically, spiritually. For me, each poem uncovers a new longstanding secret about myself. And no matter how often I read them, each time, they unveil a little more of the world around me. Reading his work, I’ve come to think that maybe I never knew myself at all. It’s the greatest feeling that poetry could give to a skeptic like me. This book will be on my desk for a long time to come.
I am currently reading Dreamless and Possible: Poems New and Selected by Christopher Howell, a book I return to because I find in the pages a sincere call followed by an ecstatic response—I hear him asking us to engage or embrace or perhaps embody the deep image and from this embodiment we can release the fierce grip of our woundedness and self-pity, and love others more than we thought possible. In Light’s Ladder, of all Howell’s books of poems the one I carry like a talisman, fire is united with mourning, with the essence of touch between people, and with the ascension we experience in the contemplation of the face of the beloved. Specifically, I think of this stanza from a poem written after the death of a loved one:
who knows why
or how to live in these
empty rooms, but I remember
what love is
and hold on to that.
Howell’s rhythms return me to the wilderness that is my life, the life of my wife and three daughters, the life of everyone I know. I was born and raised in Montana, and in Montana the sun is big and bright and fills the sky with light. When I consider the gravity of the losses we face in this life, in Christopher Howell’s poems I find solace, beauty, and the will to love even or perhaps especially in the ground of our individual and collective desolations.
I’m re-reading Malcolm Lowry’s 1940s novel Under the Volcano which really is one long poem—it’s like being in a trance. It makes me want to 1) live in Mexico, 2) try some mescaline and 3) visit El Amor de los Amores. Also finished Frederick Seidel’s Nice Weather, which is just as good as Ooga-Booga. He might be "full of bull in Istanbul" but I think people should read as much Seidel as they possibly can. Here the drink of choice is "hypersonic grappa." When I read Seidel I want to dance, I want to dance le danse macabre. He is, indisputably, an American great.
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