Reading List: February 2013
The Reading List is a new feature of the Editors’ Blog this year. Each month we ask Poetry’s recent contributors to share a book—or several—that they’ve been poring over. Here are some recommendations from our February contributors:
The book that I cannot shake from my head is Paul Metcalf’s Genoa. The plot component hardly exists: a father heats up dinner for his children and climbs up to the attic to read while he his wife finishes the second shift at the factory. This narrator doesn’t sit with a single book and let imagination unfold; he is not in any normal form of reading’s reverie. Rather, he reads as Proust might read, if Proust had no social life and had instead a family and a factory job: turning from book to book, entering into them as one might enter into the reality of another person. The result is a kind of common-place book that has nothing to do with the common, each chapter a collage of Melville’s work and letters, of medical texts (the narrator having a clubfoot whose sensation of tightness he is painfully aware), and of the history of Columbus. I’ve never read a book so aware that our isolation consists of the very thing that might rescue us from it: this sea of books and pages that can be folded so as to make a paper boat. Genoa—offering itself as a vision of the mind as archive, a vision of the imagination as a sub-sub-librarian reading the tomes it is his job to dust—offers an example, like none I’ve ever seen, of how our lives are built by words inherited, and by the same words our lives are broken apart.
Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini is Sarah McPhee’s surefooted, subtle account of the woman who posed for Gianlorenzo Bernini’s only personally conceived portrait bust. The sculptural image—I wrote a poem about mysteriously not getting to see it in the flesh at the Getty Museum in 2008—is a stunner, as is the final hairpin turn of their relationship with its notorious slasher incident as a matter of course. Sarah McPhee presents all the available documents and their implications, deftly handling every plot twist and bringing both the marble likeness and the adventurous woman herself piquantly to life.
I open at random to a sentence from Adam Phillip’s latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life: “If getting it [the joke, the work of art] gives us some kind of pleasure, what are the pleasures of not getting it, out being, as we say, left out or in the dark, or clueless.” This segues into one of Phillip’s loving mulls on what it is to be humiliated. (Humiliation stays more memorable than any pleasure.) Phillips is a psychoanalyst and a wonderful writer, many of whose provocations derive from poems. (He sees psychoanalysis as “a kind of practical poetry.”) Among his best books are On Flirtation; On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; The Beast in the Nursery; and probably this new one (to be continued in April).
I have been exploring Anglo-Saxon poetry lately, particularly a poem called "The Battle of Brunanburh," written in 937 A.D. I wanted to hear it read aloud in the original and found a beautiful recording on YouTube by Prof. Michael D. C. Drout of Wheaton College, sumptuous and sonorous. I'm looking forward to reading Rae Armantrout's new book of poems, just out, called Just Saying—I know quite a few of the poems already, having read them as they were published, and it will be a pleasure to revisit them. I always find her work fresh and rich, funny and stimulating. Lastly, I'm reading a book given to me a long time ago by one of the co-authors when I was driving across the country—The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior by George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport. Such a lot has been written about the Holocaust, but this book, though it dates back to 1980, takes account of previous histories and speculation in a thoughtful way that provides some at least partial answers to complex and plaguing questions.
I suppose some day it will be time for me to move on, but I have spent the last half year with David Ferry's Bewilderment with no signs of moving on. It doesn't age. It surprises me again and again. And another book they may have to pry from my cold, dead hands: Primo Levi's Collected Poems translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann. Again, the poems are a kind of vortex. Each one moves and stretches differently each time you enter it. ("You'll have to run the last lap deaf, / You'll have to run the last lap by yourself..." from "Voices"). Inbetween forays into Ferry's and Levi's immortal poems, I've also been riveted to Missing 411: Eastern United States by David Paulides (good luck getting your hands on a copy: you might have to borrow mine.) You would not believe (unless you're also reading this book) how many people disappear, and have disappeared, in, say, swamps and briar patches in the United States! Bloodhounds can't follow their scents! Their footprints simply vanish! Their companions turn around and find them gone without a trace! Somehow these accounts and the experience of repeatedly reading the heartbreaking, brilliant, shimmeringly elusive poems of David Ferry and Primo Levi seem very similar to me.
Lord Byron’s Foot by George Green is brilliant, and actually original. The title poem is a killingly funny meditation on Byron’s anxiety over his club foot. I’ve seen it reduce audiences to tears of laughter, but it’s also a devastating study of the artistic ego. All these poems deliver fascinating and unexpected payoffs, and they all rock.
Birds of the Air by David Yezzi: Vivid language amplified by ass-kicking sonic effects. Also, an exceptionally versatile range: lyric, dramatic, discursive, gnomic, dense, lucid. Moving and melodic poems, but with a satisfying acid edge.
The Sleep of Reason by Morri Creech is composed of complex, deeply intelligent, often disturbing poems. They are somewhat dense, but the density yields. A rare contemporary example of outstanding technique kept always in the service of meaning.
On my special shelf between Tuckerman and Hardy is the Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson. Right now I’m teaching her: “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” “’Tis not the dying hurts us so,” etc. She scares the bejeezus out of me.
I’ve been reading a memoir so fascinating I literally couldn’t put it down: Brigitta Ehrenreich’s Celan’s Kreidestern (Suhrkamp 2011). An Austrian-born Paris anthropologist, Ehrenreich tells the story, hitherto wholly unknown, of her ten-year affair (1953-62) with Paul Celan—a story not only revisionary in its biographical thrust but immensely informative about the poetry. Ehrenreich suggests, for example, that, living in Paris and married to a Frenchwoman, Celan urgently needed contact with someone who spoke his native Austrian language—the language in which, after all, he composed his poetry. I hope Kreidestern (Chalk Star) will soon be available in English; it complements the wonderful correspondence with Celan’s other Austrian love, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, which is available in English from Seagull Press. Among new poetry books this month I’m especially enjoying the defamiliarization, caustic energy, and turn toward meditation of Rae Armantrout’s Just Saying (Wesleyan), the “small song[s]” of A. L. Nielsen’s A Brand New Beggar (Steerage), the astonishing verbal experiments of an Austrian poet unknown to me, Elfriede Czurda, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop as Almost 1 Book / Almost 1 Life (Burning Deck), and the red cover slit /verbal mutilation of Vanessa Place’s deconstruction of canonical feminist texts in Boycott (Ugly Duckling).
I'm reading David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. I slather myself with hand sanitizer after touching a doorknob, so for me this is like The Exorcist for Catholic children. Quammen tells riveting stories about the pathogens that cause Ebola, Lyme disease, AIDS, SARS, and a host of lesser known (and even scarier) diseases, all of them zoonoses (animal infections that, through a process known as "spillover," become transmissible to humans). Increased human disruption of ecosystems that have been relatively stable for millennia means that zoonotic diseases will occur with more frequency and with more devastating lethality. (As you read, you can't help noticing how often the reservoir host of these diseases turns out to be one or another species of bat. "What is the deal with bats?" Quammen asks.) But what makes Spillover so wonderful is that, unlike almost every other popular science writer I've ever read, Quammen is a tremendous stylist. He has flair, wit, economy, and a intense gift for metaphor.
I'm also reading Renata Adler's Speedboat, just reissued on NYRB Classics, which is unlike any other novel I've ever read, even though I've read hundreds of novels that try to be like it. Like Georg Lichtenberg and David Markson, Adler makes fragmentation and juxtaposition seem like the naturalistic devices their ideologists are always telling us they are. A section will begin, "In the matter of Doberman Pinschers ..."; or, "In actual fact, the lady on the Boeing 707 from Zurich was talking to me about seaweed"; or, "The coffee table seemed to be whale vertebrae." Adler is a speed demon. Speedboat is as vital a document of the last half of the American century as The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Slouching towards Bethlehem.
Lisa Russ Spaar
Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological meditations—The Poetics of Reverie, for instance, and his iconic The Poetics of Space (with its provocative plunderings of cellars, attics, linen closets, wardrobes, drawers, nests, and shells)—have been touchstones for me for decades, but this winter I have just gotten around to savoring The Psychoanalysis of Fire. One finds in this marvelous text not only Bachelard’s animated treatment of the mythic, primitive, chemical, alchemical, and literary origins of fire, but also his forays into the incendiary realms of hearths, cook-ovens, bonfires, volcanoes, forges, heart-fire, groin fire, desire, and the annealing forges of glassworks, as well as the locked “box” fires of resins, oils, bitumens, and gums. (A favorite passage involves the special properties of alcohol, eau de feu, fire-water.) His texts are a treasure trove for poets; at one point, Bachelard writes that “fire is, among the makers of images, the one that is most dialecticized. It alone is subject and object.... The result is that in the last analysis all the complexes attached to fire are painful complexes, complexes both conducive to the acquiring of a neurosis and to the writing of poetry, complexes that are reversible: one can find paradise in fire’s movement or in its repose, in the flame or in the ashes.” Bachelard concludes his fiery gem of a book (it is only 112 pages long in the Beacon paperback edition, minus notes) with a fragment of a poem by Paul Eluard:
In the bright crystal of your eyes
Show the havoc of fire, show its inspired works
And the paradise of its ashes.
This book makes rich, compelling fare in any season.