Reading List: December 2013
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. Here are some recommendations from the poets and writers in our December issue.
A most remarkable translation fell into my hands this summer, poet Karen Kovacik's English version of Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don't Exist by Polish poet Agnieszka Kuciak. This "faux anthology," as Kovacik calls it in her introduction, "belongs in the company of world literature's distinguished fabulists—Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino."
Semi-fleshed out with bio notes, do the 21 poets in this book really not exist?—these irrepressibles called Bionda ("God only knows what she did in Italy" as "a scholarship holder, a student of beauty"), or Eros XL ("had some mystical sexual experience … compared to the conversion of St. Paul") or Mrs. K ("a member of the Circle of Flying Housewives") or Nobody (who "believes she doesn't exist, has never existed, and will not exist in the future.") Yes, they do not. Exist, I mean. With that, I'm reminded of a childhood game I once played with my brother where "yes means no and no means yes" until we laughed ourselves into a confused catatonic state of delight, ie: the couch was there, smack in the center of the room. Its purpose?--to fall off of….
Two weeks ago, Karen Kovacik (a wonderful poet in her own right) came to Purdue University where I teach and put on a readers' theater presentation of Kuciak's masterwork aided and abetted by 14 poets in our MFA program, each in costume, with props (oranges, swimming goggles, sunglasses thrown into the audience), down to hilarious pause and turn. Moving. Most multiple.
Well, yes does mean no, and no: yes yes yes yes.
It sometimes takes me a year or more to catch up on new books, so not all these are from 2013. For example, Richard Wilbur’s Anterooms, published after his collecteds and not incidentally after his wife’s death. In their spareness, expertise with meter, and reticent feeling, the poems will remind you of Frost. Also, Margo Berdeshevsky’s Between Soul & Stone, a reflective and passionate treatment of the themes of war, love, and the lessons that come with age. Powerful, too, is Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall, especially the poems recounting her relationship with her white father. For translation I recommend Marilyn Hacker’s versions of the French-language work of the Algerian poet Habib Tengour, in a volume titled Crossings and Bunting’s Persia, a collection of Basil Bunting’s translations from Persian, including Hafiz and Sa’adi, edited by Don Share. And then Amy Beeder’s Now Make an Altar, work by a poet who has several times appeared in Poetry magazine. I’ll mention one foreign-language book, Riccardo Duranti’s Meditamondo, which interests me partly because the author includes poems he has written in English, along with translations he made of them into Italian.
Books I’ve admired published in 2013 include Will Schutt’s Westerly, the Yale Younger Poet volume for this year; Grace Schulman’s Without a Claim, her best book thus far; and Keith Flynn’s dazzling, globocentric Colony Collapse Disorder. New books from B.K. Fischer St. Rage’s Vault, which takes an experimental approach to ekphrasis; from Charlie Bondhus, whose All the Heat We Could Carry gives a searing depiction of war and its aftermath for gay soldiers; and from Jeff Skinner, whose Glaciology is original and winningly varied. I’d also mention Adam Fitzgerald’s experimental The Late Parade, Scott Edward Anderson’s Fallow Field, some of its contents qualifying as eco-poetry, and Kathryn Levy’s Reports, a compelling treatment of the tragic ironies of our day. For criticism, I recommend Robert Archambeau’s collection of essays The Poet Resigns, a close look at the situation of contemporary poetry production. Finally, a teaching anthology, Robert Pinsky’s Singing School, remarkable not only for the classic poems chosen, but also for his terse, illuminating comments about them. I’m sure there are many fine books published this year that I haven’t yet read, so that’s something to look forward to.
John Clare, Selected Poems, 1990.
Mud-Man Punk-Rocker. Exact contemporary of John Keats. Born the year before Shelley was born and died the year before Yeats was born. Son of a thresher, he wrote some of the most dazzling and dangerous poems in English about birds, badgers, foxes, martins, nests, summer, fall, winter, spring, childhood, first love, folk stories, and more, often without punctuation. He starts and stops on a dime. Suffered psychic breakdowns, was hospitalized, walked everywhere: "Well, honest John, how fare you now at home? / The spring is come and birds are building nests."
John Ashbery, The Double Dream of Spring, 1976.
Painter-Poet Cineaste. "New York School" poet who lived mostly in Paris when that term was coined. Born ten years before Yeats died and twenty years after Auden was born. Son of a farmer, he writes some of the funniest and most frightening poems about twentieth and twenty-first century life ever to be beaten out of thin air, including his great "For John Clare": "Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky."
John Koethe, The Late Wisconsin Spring, 1984.
Memory-Haunted Midwest Philosopher. Born twenty years after Frank O'Hara was born and twenty years before Frank O'Hara died. Young, smart, and eager tag-along who hung out with O'Hara and Ashbery and Koch. Dinner etc..Drinks etc...Poems etc...Lyric romantic of dreams and childhood he's written some of the most masterful and wild long poems since James Schuyler: "What I want in poetry is a kind of abstract photography / Of the nerves, but what I like in photography / Is the poetry of literal pictures of the neighborhood."
I've been waking up early to write, usually between 6 and 7, but lately I've been reading more early and writing more late. The new Robert Lax from Wave is incredible and really re-calibrates my brain in the mornings. It's 35 years of his work, 1962-1997. His poems have a quiet, meditative intensity. I've been obsessed with Frank Stanford's You, and I finally got a copy of the full book, so I allow myself one or two poems on the train because I just haven't wanted to finish it and I wish he was alive and writing poems. Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Read those last month. Hold On to Your Dreams by Tim Lawrence, about Arthur Russell and the New York downtown music scene in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, which a friend gave me for my birthday last year and I'm just getting to (I'm skipping around in it). Craig Morgan Teicher's new chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums. Mark Wunderlich's new book of poems, The Earth Avails. Victoria Redel's Make Me Do Things. And I'm looking forward to Saskia Hamilton's Corridor. I admire her poems. I'm going to use the same phrase I used a few sentences ago but, quiet intensity. I'm into that. Oh and I'm taking Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone with me to Paris if I don't finish it before then. It's entertaining and honest and also I just love reading anything about the New York art scene of the past because, well, New York City is the best.
I write these words on Friday 15 November 2013. The past forty-eight hours have been specially rich in nutritious reading; I’ll give a brief account of same, for what little it’s worth.
Last night I read almost all of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. This is a book I’ve dipped into hundreds of times in the last twenty-five years, but it’s been a while since I’ve read the whole thing, floor to ceiling. I was prompted to do so by the fact that I’m about to try and write something more or less equivalent: the all-explaining introduction to my book of limericks.
Yesterday I also read the first three chapters (roughly half the book) of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. This was recommended to me by a woman who used to be my professor and who is now my friend: Sandra Macpherson. (Not the poet; a different one.) Sandra is a person with great authority in my life, on account of the fact that she is never wrong about whether a given thing will interest me. She urged Propp’s book on me under color of its being in complete accord with an idea very dear to my heart—viz., that the formal elements of a work of literature do not have to be code, they don’t have to be a metaphor for something else, they don’t have to contribute to theme. They don’t have to, and they usually don’t. Their goodness (which is huge, essential, etc) lies elsewhere.
Meanwhile, earlier today I read the introduction to the new Penguin translation (Valerie Roebuck, 2010) of the Dhammapada,—a book I couldn’t resist buying when I saw it for six dollars at Powell’s. I love the Carter-and-Palihawadana version from the ’80s , but this new one looks good too. Before that, on the train, I reread the first thirty pages of Pilgrim’s Progress on a lark. And finally, I continue to make progress in Il libro dei nonsense—Carlo Izzo’s 1970 translation of all 212 of Edward Lear’s limericks into Italian.
C’era un vecchio di Merano
Che viveva in modo strano;
Quando nulla lo impediva
Supra un tavolo dormiva,
Quel ridicolo vecchio di Merano.
A few months ago or so, on Castro Street, I saw a box of discarded books, as one does in the city—an offering of sorts—in front of someone’s Edwardian. I fished out this yellowed anthology, Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms, published in 1969. What a find. In it: one groovy introduction by editors Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey (“Their poems take shape from the shapes of their emotions, the shapes their minds make in thought, and certainly don’t need interpreters”); nineteen poets (seventeen men, two women, ahem); nineteen black-and-white photos with big hair, burning cigarettes, and choice accessories (dig, say, Mezey’s massive amulet, John Berryman’s bowtie—and hey, Philip Levine was hot!); eleven essays on craft by the poets, the most awesome of which might be “Some Yips & Barks in the Dark” by Gary Snyder, not least because it contains the compound “energy-mind-field-dance”; and nearly four-hundred pages of poetry written “more or less from the end of World War II to this afternoon, sometime before World War III.” Time has said its requisite I-told-you-so to many of these poems, but what one wouldn’t give for more poems like “The Smiles of the Bathers” by the disappeared, half-forgotten Weldon Kees, which ends: “And the world, like a beast, impatient and quick, / Waits only for those that are dead. No death for you. You are involved.” And then there are the selections by the greats. Robert Lowell, like a thunderbolt. Berryman, whose Dream Songs here feel more desolate and moving than ever. And Plath, allotted fewer pages than almost all of these men, her words reducing almost all these men to dust.
In the Continuing Education department, I'm reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature and Leopardi's Zibaldone. "The oldest texts are charms," Borges reminds us (in a lecture on the Anglo-Saxons), and "in the Middle Ages, people believed in the divine origin of dreams, and this made them dream better dreams." Leopardi, a century before, also insisted that the illusion of charms and dreams is paramount to life: "all pleasures are illusions or based on illusion, and life is formed and consists of such illusions. So if I cannot have any, what pleasure is left to me? What is the point of living?" If you're looking for a foil to this, look no farther than the witheringly disillusioned Impromptus, Michael Hofmann's new translation of Gottfried Benn: "O that we might be our ancestors' ancestors./A clump of slime in a warm bog./Life and death, fertilising and giving birth/Would all be functions of our silent juices." I am perversely pleased with reading one side against the other. Meanwhile, I was sent The Wolf, a marvelous journal founded and edited by James Byrne. He maintains an international profile, with links to Burmese, Syrian, Serbian, and French poetry communities. In issue 28, the standout poem is by Irish poet Jodi Johnson, an elegy called "Eloidhech." Finally, I have just started to read my colleague David Mikics's new book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age; his chapter on poetry is guided by this perfect thought: "A reader might be impressed, even deeply moved, but still mystified by a poem. In just this way, reading a poem resembles falling in love: we're attracted by what we don't get."
Tomás Q. Morín
I recently read The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. Not only is it a sobering account of the difficult, often impoverished lives of those who live in Primorye in Russia's Far East, but it's also a story that reveals the nature and psychology of an apex predator like the tiger. This story transported me to a place in the world where, while it's quickly vanishing, man and tiger live side by side in peace and mutual respect, until that respect is violated.
Even though it was first published 30 years ago, I am just now finally enjoying the majesty and power of Tar by C.K. Williams. While I'm only 1/3 of the way through, I've already encountered more than a few devastating moments. While I might be late to the party, it's instantly clear to me why this book has been a book to conjure with for three decades. I have no doubt it will probably continue to be a magical touchstone for many more decades to come.
I'm fortunate to have gotten an advance read of the most recent chapbook to win Button Poetry and Exploding Pinecone Press's contest. Highway or Belief by J. Scott Brownlee dissects the lives of young men spoiled by the Texas sun, sports, machismo, and ambivalence. What I admire is that in the face of this waste land he chronicles, he sidesteps gloom and instead tenderly trumpets, "Dedicate every carrion kill-cry // to me. I will reach to kiss you / the way I always have."
Finally, I am reading Charles M. Schulz: Conversations. I have long been a fan of his work. I admire the humility he displays for someone who quickly climbed to the top of his profession and then managed to stay there for 50 years without any visible drop off in the excellence of his work. We should all be so lucky as the original Charlie Brown.
Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog: There are a double handful of poets whose new books I devour (like a physical dog) the minute I can get my hands (teeth) on them. Frank Bidart is one of my indispensables. The subjects of Metaphysical Dog are the eternal and only subjects: love, death, and the death of love; the topics are family history, couplehood, art, and popular art. Bidart is entire where the other confessional and post-confessional poets are partial, because he organizes not only with performance and memory but with authentic, urgent thought. This hard thinking and the resulting, fought-for ultimate statements (every line and every poem an ultimate statement) are a gift. Here, Bidart also revisits his earlier thinking and writing, correcting and regretting: another deeply generous gift. But this poet’s true miracle is that with each book he gets clearer and more open than should be humanly possible. It’s an inspiration to see that it is possible.
Bernadette Mayer, The Helens of Troy: When I heard about this little book, I pounced: put out by New Directions; written by Mayer; set in Troy, NY, where I went to high school; high concept (Mayer interviewed all of the Helens she could find in Troy and used their words to compose the poems): check, check, check, and check.
Nowhere does Mayer insert herself or any flourish of “poetic” sensibility. She honors her subjects by applying her usual strategies of form and found-ness to their stories. This is also a scintillating example of “poetry of place.” Troy in this book is Troy as I know it: desperately sinking, proud of past glories, deeply nostalgic, with small, important reserves of pluck, clear-sightedness and acceptance. The Helens are heroines and their blunt upstate twang is music.
Yuko Otomo, Small Poems: Some books you make a beeline for; some books you meander to. When I have some free time (when I have so much to do that the only thing I can possibly do is procrastinate), I amble over to Ugly Duckling Presse’s online archive of chapbooks. It’s instantly accessible and a true devotee of procrastination can read one of the chaps in a sitting.
Small Poems was a perfect companion for a cozy day at home. Who doesn’t love little poems? But big transformations of introversion and extroversion take place between “a house cat is watching” and “a magic to learn/and eyes to follow/to the river.” So I sat by the hearth (warm laptop) in the empty house near the river with my cats and read.
Nights, it’s Flaubert, specifically Sentimental Education. For years, Frédéric Moreau loves Madame Arnoux, an older married woman. Right now, it’s the Revolution of 1848 and Frédéric has retreated to the country with his current companion, Rosanette. Even in translation, Flaubert’s sentences read with a cadence not unlike poetry; plus, the descriptions! I always feel like I have a kind of depth perception when reading Flaubert—something I sense more in poems due to their texture of sound on image than in prose. Consider this passage, from the page I’m now on:
One day they climbed halfway up a sand-hill. Its untrodden surface was grooved with symmetrical undulations; here and there, like promontories on the dried-up bed of an ocean, rose rocks vaguely resembling animals, tortoises thrusting their heads forward, seals crawling along, hippopotamuses, and bears. Not a soul. Not a sound. The sand was dazzling in the sunshine; and all of sudden, in the quivering light, the animals seemed to move.
As for poetry, of late, the Collecteds of Dylan Thomas and Charles Reznikoff have kept me company, but much of my reading time in this genre is devoted to books I’m reviewing or those by authors I’m interviewing for 32 Poems and elsewhere. (Spoiler alert!) In lieu of saying too much about them, as I’ll do that soon enough, I thought I’d give you a few lines from each like a little fortune inside a cookie:
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz: “The tongue will wrestle its mouth to death and lose— / language is a cemetery.”
Pima Road Notebook by Keith Ekiss: “What threatens will disappear. Hurry home.”
Horse In the Dark by Vievee Francis: “Sugar / from your palm? No. Give me your fingers.”
Missing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson: “I would feed you a lie, // one of the little ones—the kind that turns / strangers to lovers, that turns words to poems.”
Hum by Jamaal May: “Become origami. / Fold yourself smaller / than ever before. Become less. More / in some ways but less / in the way a famine is less.”
Praise Nothing by Joshua Robbins: “the last unlit // match perhaps, which, when struck / and held in the cup of a palm, // has everything to do with prayer.”
Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro: “You could say the silence / is the sound of one ear / listening for the other.”
Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt: “the wounds were old and ugly he kept them fresh.”
- Ange Mlinko
- Jordan Davis
- Eileen Myles
- Michael Dickman
- Wislawa Szymborska
- Rae Armantrout
- Anthony Madrid
- Andy Warhol
- Map Literary
- Alex Dimitrov
- Michelle Tea
- Reading List
- The Spectator
- Marianne Boruch
- Dorothy Parker
- Kathleen Ossip
- Randall Mann
- Emily P. Lawsin
- Alfred Corn
- Tomas Morin
- Emilia Phillips
- Tino Villanueva
- Emma Trelles
- John Chavez