Reading List: February 2014
I’d like to recommend a wonderful little book called The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire, and published by Readux last year) which offers a dual account of the tragic life stories of two largely forgotten poets: Ivan Blatny, who was born in Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1919, and Nicholas Moore (1918-1986), a star of the London poetry scene in the 1940s, but now little read. Blatny defected to Britain in 1948, and would die here in 1990. Alas, most of these 42 years were spent in a range of mental institutions. I have long been a fan of the poetry of Nicholas Moore (who, incidentally, between 1945 and 1948 published 32 poems in Poetry, which must be some kind of record) and am delighted to announce the publication later this year of a new selection of his work from the British small publisher, Shoestring Press. Blatny, however, I had not encountered before. The Drug of Art, a parallel-text volume of Blatny’s work published in 2007 by Ugly Duckling Presse, is a real treat. I particularly like the late poems that he wrote partly in English, partly in Czech, and partly in German. Blatny was officially declared dead in Czechoslovakia, and his poetry banned, but I understand that he now has many admirers there. These translations by five different poets are beautifully done, and I am grateful to Nenik for introducing me to a poet I’d otherwise probably never have come across. (A word to the wise: the ‘correspondence’ between Moore and Blatny that makes up the second half of Nenik’s little volume—which is more Borgesian than it at first seems—is not in fact to be found in the London Metropolitan Archives, as an Author’s Note claims: it was, in fact, entirely fabricated by the resourceful Nenik himself!)
Wolf and Pilot by Farrah Field: featuring four sisters, a detective and a witchy mother and unique turns of phrase such as "We wanted to be hunchy shoulders with him" and "Or love could be dandruff--/an excuse for one to say oy at the other's collar."
The Giant Beard that Was Evil by Stephen Foster: a pencil-drawn graphic novel about a rogue beard that changes a strict society into something more flexible.
The Nigh-No Place by Jen Hadfield contains a great poem about a prenatal polar bear, and full of wonderful Shetland dialect like "snuskit"--which means "in a sulky frame of mind."
In Pieces by Marion Fayolle: amazing image stories with text only in their titles, depicting such scenes as a cat lady who rolls her cat up into what looks like a yoga mat (a to-go cat?) and a half-sister who is literally half a person.
The poetry collections I’ve spent the most significant portion of time with over the past month or so would be Sharon Olds’s The Gold Cell, Christopher Dewdney’s Predators of the Adoration, and Coral Bracho’s Firefly Under the Tongue.
Predators of the Adoration is a volume of selected poems from the early career of Christopher Dewdney, a weird, unique, and sometimes insanely funny Canadian poet. Dewdney is heavily influenced by science, especially geology. He’s a bit of a cult writer in Canada, and not at all well known outside of Canada.
Firefly Under the Tongue is a collection of poems by contemporary Mexican poet Coral Bracho, translated by Forrest Gander. It gives the original Spanish versions and the English translations on facing pages. I started reading it after hearing him read from it here in Chico, California, and I find myself going back to it again and again. It’s like the record you put on at the end of the night after the party’s over and everyone else has gone home or fallen asleep.
The Gold Cell is famous enough not to need any introduction, description, or recommendation from me, so I’ll just say that every time I go back to it I am astonished by it.
Recent books that I’ve liked a lot and have found myself returning to in the past few weeks include Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage, Lucia Perillo’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, and Dean Young’s Fall Higher. Going through some old files last month I found my copy of Previous Canoes, a recording of Michael Ondaatje reading his delicious poetry in that delicious voice of his, so I’ve been listening to that as well.
This month I got stuck in an airport with nothing but a fashion magazine and an iPad, so I downloaded Jane Eyre, for free—a cure for everything. Every time I read it, it’s the first time. I never know how it will end! I never know what’s going on in that attic! I’m always exquisitely sick with anxiety for Jane. Seriously, I have no idea how such a trick can be performed again and again, but it is, and it was. I’m still in shock.
At home, I’ve got Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean, 2012) beside the bed. And, come to think of it, many of these great prose poems function like miniature Jane Eyre perpetual motion machines! Here’s the beginning of “Costa Rica”: “With the money we get for the couch, we buy a little house on the beach. There is no couch inside. We buy our couch back, but have to sell the house to do it. This cycle is how we keep on living. We never grow poor, and we never age…”
So, maybe that’s the theme of my reading right now, the Horn of Plenty, because I’m also reading Roethke, whose poems I really should know by heart by now, but which never fail to startle me. Although the number of poems he wrote in his life is sadly finite, somehow, being able to withstand so many readings, they seem to multiply. “My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,” makes me gasp every time.
And, of course, it’s not all great literature over here. Let’s be honest. I’ve got a bookmark shoved into the middle of something I won’t tell you much about, except to say that I’m about to find out if the nun is as chaste as she’s been pretending to be, or if this sexy priest whose just arrived in town, etcetera, etcetera, and so on… Yeah, it’s an old story, but who can possibly guess how it will end?
I'm on a James Galvin bender, again. Throughout December my advent calendar was Resurrection Update: Collected Poems, 1975–1997. Each morning I opened and read a bunch of successive pages -- and I never read like that, linearly. Well, I began with the catatonic windmill on page 1 and ran straight through, Merry Christmas, and then I went for his novel, Fencing The Sky (what can't this man write?) in which Mike gets on a horse, in a hurry, and rides for more than 30 chapters, and boy is my butt vicariously sore. And of course there's more to it than that. There's this guest lecturer on pg. 98 who clears his throat and says, "Technology of any kind, from flint knapping to strip mining, rocketeering or particle busting, is a conversation we sustain with nature." And sure enough, the book contains the strains--the whispers, whinnies, and shouting matches of this extended chat with the planet, specifically the arid prairie and mountains called Northern Colorado and Wyoming, and though I've been galloping through it for days, I haven't finished it yet.
Meanwhile, you could also make the case I'm on a Copper Canyon bender, because I'm simultaneously relishing Connie Wanek's On Speaking Terms, where she (thank you Kinnell's "Saint Francis and the Sow") reteach[es] [every]thing its loveliness--including old snow and frozen chrysanthemums, the green tent and the pumpkins and the fact of long gone children. Or you could say I'm on a "conversations with land” bender, because kid you not I'm reading Greyfields Into Goldfields: Dead Malls Become Living Neighborhoods (published by the Congress for New Urbanism): "almost every community needs something. Stop thinking about these as failed shopping center properties and start thinking about them as mixed-use properties." And, finally, I’ve been grazing in the pages of a twice monthly newspaper out of Oklahoma, a venue that feeds all these poetic, philosophic, narrative, redemptive needs, so aptly titled: This Land.
I spend so much time with lines, I get thirsty for sentences.
I spent much of November in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. These are terrific reads, fully imagined, and beautifully written. A minor character’s death midway through Wolf Hall upset me so much it stopped me cold, and I wasn’t able to pick up the book again for a week. But after that, I ploughed through them both. Thomas Cromwell becomes, as the books go on, almost superhuman in his perception and intelligence, even as a poetry critic. (In the novels, he’s an early—maybe even the first--fan of Sir Thomas Wyatt.). OK, one thing: because the books are written in a limited third person, present tense, one sentence out of six seems to have to clarify its pronoun with the phrase “He, Cromwell.”
My last list included Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets. Friends assured me I’d enjoy his Beautiful Ruins. Which I did. If there’s a movie, who will play Richard Burton?
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: I’ve managed to avoid reading this most of my reading life. I think it came too highly recommended, and I’d been discouraged by the movie. Published in 1932, but set in the “near future,” this comedy of manners cum parody of rural gothic is peppered with references to video phones, private airplanes for transportation, and the “Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ‘46.” I’ve been quoting passages from the book to friends now for months. The novel announces its influence and serious ambition with gusto and verve: “Well,” says the heroine Flora Poste, “When I am 53 I plan to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course.”
Nance Van Winckel
I've been on a hybrid binge lately, intrigued by works that blur genres and/or mediums. Recently I read some prose I thought was riveting and completely original: Ewa Chrusciel's Strata. These pieces mix cups of the surreal, tablespoons of the political, an occasional light pinch of the "spiritual," a half-ounce of deep image here & there, and a goodly smidgen of the avant-garde. Hell, I couldn't peg her poetry brand if I wanted to. But who'd want to? Her voice is like no one else's.
Karen Green's Bough Down is another compelling hybrid work, of the visual-verbal variety, and one of the most moving of those I've read since Carson's Nox. Green blends her visual collages with her own text, which itself is rather collage-like: "flash" memoir-esque essays sharpened and shaped into texts akin to prose poems. There's a manic feel to the art and poetry-making here. She seems to be peering in at the very nexus of pain, and with such an unflinching eye . . . even as she "remakes" that emotional state, using the imagistic fragments from seemingly tentative attempts at healing. "The tuxedoed birds humanely remove my hair from the backyard, strand by strand." She comes at the subject matter (the aftermath of her husband David Foster Wallace's suicide) through evocative and beautifully "slanted" angles. That horrendous tragedy stays hauntingly behind, but not on, these pages. The details of daily life feel disembodied, observed by a shock-victim, someone who must respond in a language equally shaken. Since clearly "the usual" language won't do. Green's visual collages add extra poignancy—no doubt partly because of my admiration for a spirit that wants to—and can!—make something beautiful, both in the midst of disaster and OUT of it.
During the first 15 days of every new year, I practice a vow of silence according to a Zazen Buddhist practice. There are moments when I would stay up deep into the night, and sometimes the early morning, when New York City is very quiet—and bluing, just to read or listen to my heart beat. I find this to be quite a lucid state for reading poetry—which is probably why I enjoyed most of what I've read lately. But one book has really stood out for me, its lines reverberating through the thickening silence.
BlackGirl Mansion, Angel Nafis's debut collection, is a book that nourishes me perpetually. The thin volume is packed with poems that thread through the sutures of a gritty, palpable, and lived life. Nafis, while employing a dynamic and textured language, writes the experience of race, family, and womanhood in a way that removes these themes of their rigid borders, often giving voice to those who cannot speak, who won't be heard. The emotion is wrought through a disassociation of the self, with a keen restraint, a felt absence. “Say a butterfly had to die for you to get a gift," she writes, “There must be some kind of prayer in that.” And yet, the poems are more than prayers, they are urgent declarations of resistance. Because, as Nafis so poignantly reminds us of the butterfly found bereft on a city sidewalk, “It was dead, but not without life.”
In the deep stillness of my speechless days, these poems moved me in all the necessary ways—and then some.
- Matthea Harvey
- Poetry Radio Project
- A.E. Stallings
- The Poetry Connexion
- Laura Kasischke
- Rabindranath Tagore
- Reading List
- The Spectator
- Mark Ford
- Ocean Vuong
- Julia Shipley
- Troy Jollimore
- Nance Van Winckel
- Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
- The Frye Art Museum
- The Making of Americans
- Blake Bronson-Bartlett
- Trevor Joyce