Reading List: March 2014
Kareem James Abu-Zeid
Having recently taken part in several shamanic ceremonies and a ten-day silent vipassana meditation course, I’ve been drawn to books on the more “spiritual” end of the reading spectrum. First is the intriguing The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby, which examines (from both a scientific and an anthropological perspective) the effects of the brew known as ayahuasca, long used by shamans in the Peruvian Amazon. Ayahuasca is a therapeutic psychedelic that is becoming increasingly popular outside the Amazon, and Narby’s central thesis is fascinating: namely, that shamans use ayahuasca to “take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA.”
Second on the list is French author Daniel Odier’s Tantric Quest, which details Odier’s journey to the Himalayan foothills to be initiated into the mode of Tantric spirituality known as Kashmiri Shaivism. Odier debunks the common Western view of Tantra as sexual debauchery in spiritual garb. Rather, the Tantra that Odier presents is a rigorous spiritual training of the senses in an effort to overcome ego. Here, the “trick” is to become so present that all objects of the senses become objects of desire in equal measure—which, according to Odier, paradoxically liberates the self from any specific object of desire.
I also recently read the Zen-style teacher Adyashanti’s The End of Your World. This is a remarkably simple how-to book on the process of enlightenment, which Adyashanti views not as any sort of mystical (or even spiritual) path toward self-improvement, but rather as a process of undoing the self, even of self-destruction—“the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”
As for poetry that pairs well with this sort of reading, my go-to book has been A.R. Ammons’s Selected Poems (Expanded Edition, published by Norton).
Veiled Sentiments: Poetry and Honor in Bedouin Society by Lila Abu-Lughod. For two years Abu-Lughod lived with a Bedouin tribe in the Western Desert of Egypt. When the women could not speak their feelings, they recited short poems they wrote, often on the spot. This book led me to mull over how (and why) art veils as it reveals.
The Gate of Horn by Louis Asekoff. Irreverent, learned, heartsore, hilarious, Asekoff, who writes mostly in persona, is a magician, able to worm inside an impossible range of personalities. He is a poet of such lyric force. I don’t know why every high school child in America isn’t made to memorize his poem “Empathy”: “In the Dream of Almost-Perfect-Peace / you wave out the window to your enemy…”
And because I’ve been thinking about war—Men as Trees Walking, a gorgeous book by Gulf War veteran Kevin Honold that traces a soldier’s expansive and ever-partial return.
I’ve also been humming to Joni Wallace’s Blinking Ephemeral Valentine and her as-yet-unpublished extraordinary second act Kingdom Come Radio Show, which is about mule deer, nuclear contamination, and New Mexico—tinny, radio-ghosted, utterly haunting. I hope someone picks it up soon.
I need to write a mash note to Jenny Browne for Dear Stranger, her beautiful book, which contains many epistolary poems. Jenny is a kind of WNBA star of poetry—she can twirl, dunk, slam—she’s gritty and jazzy, but she has a steadfast heart. She wants to know and she is fiercely committed to striving toward a lucidity in her work that moves me greatly.
Last, I’ve been reading (a) lullabye without any music by Jennifer Bartlett. Jen draws from the deep wellspring of her poetic passions—Olson, Duncan, Rukeyser, Eigner. Her interest in the body and its barriers causes her to weight her words in eye-opening ways. Her poems slow you down—and trip you up. Like Gertrude Stein, she writes with a kind of preternatural simplicity that masks a great revolutionary complexity.
As we count down to Split This Rock Poetry Festival at the end of March, I’m immersing myself in the work of the poets who will be featured. The notes here are on six of them.
Myra Sklarew is a DC-area poet who founded and is now retired from the MFA program at American University. Her Harmless (Mayapple Press, 2010) deserves a wide readership—she writes of war and its consequences, among other topics, with a piercing compassion. The poem “Forest” builds to a devastating conclusion:
here a girl of nine
lives for two years
risking her life
for the sound
of a human voice
place safe house
this is what trees
Tim Seibles is a poet whose work I return to frequently. The murders of young Black men, whose killers go so frequently unpunished, has me rereading Seibles’s poem “Hope” from his first collection, Body Moves, recently reissued by Carnegie Mellon Press: "New cells chirp like toads / in the body’s shallows. Listen. / It is this life that matters."
Danez Smith writes frequently on this topic, as well, as in the poems in the magazine this month. I am looking forward tremendously to his first collection, ‘[insert] Boy, coming this fall from YesYes Books, a publisher doing daring and important work. Meanwhile, Smith’s heating up the litosphere; you can read other poems over at Four Way Review.
Another young poet whose stylistic variety and linguistic verve excite me is Franny Choi. Her first book, Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody, 2014), includes prose poems, visual poetry, experimental-spoken-word hybrids, and stark and lovely illustrations by Jessie Chen.
In Flexible Bones, Maria Melendez Kelson also uses the space of the page to great effect, in all sorts of marvelous ways. The poems are funny and tender and political, often at the same time. “This Is an Automatic Reply” begins:
I will be out of the office for rakish reasons
and will check all my begonias’ pulses
on my return.
Finally, Joy Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave: “It was the spirit of poetry who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.” Yes.
While finishing out my manuscript, I've been reading Korean-Americans, women, and Korean-American women.
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee. A friend of mine told me he’d read this novel out loud to a friend who was feeling sad and wanted to hear something that was sad and beautiful, which is exactly what this is. Gorgeous, poetic, mythical language; so sad; so queer; everything I needed.
Whorled by Ed Bok Lee. Sherman Alexie’s blurb on the back cover calls this book “slyly political,” and he's right. I admire the way Lee approaches race and the immigrant experience in ways that feel human, intimate, often dream-like.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley. I've been on a brief sci-fi kick (sparked by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). Hurley’s world reimagines gender paradigms and reflects on war in really intriguing ways. And there’s something so comforting about a badass female protagonist (who cuts off heads).
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds. I’m sure I don’t have to convince anyone to read this. It’s taught me a lot.
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith. I’ve kept this book in my bathroom for the past month or so—NOT THAT THIS IS A BATHROOM BOOK—Smith is a master of both storytelling and form, and it’s greatly improved my life to read one or two of her poems every day for the past month.
Notes from the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim. Her poems are epic and microscopic all at once, such a graceful rage.
Maria Melendez Kelson
What the holy flock is a sentence? The line I know well—slept with it, fought with it, raised books with it. But a sentence? I’m just learning its favorite color and favorite band. Tiptoeing around the names of its old lovers. Here are snapshots of how it’s gone around with other people: “The curves of her fingertips and of her bosom echoed one another, and she seemed to be in the act of repressing a beautiful confession, tasting words of adoration on her tongue.” That’s from Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, her newest novel following the first detective in nineteenth-century New York City. Staccato phrasing after that first comma plays a drumroll (“she seemed / to be / in the act / of repressing”), building energy that busts out in the crash ride: “a beautiful confession, tasting words of adoration on her tongue.”
But a sentence needn’t be decorous to entice. Rather than the beauty of silk, it can have that of granite. Such is the case in the stories of Iver Arnegard’s collection, Whip and Spur, forthcoming from Goldline Press. Here’s a female protagonist telling how she tries using ranch work to salve the pain of her mother’s death: “Driving cattle across rabbit brush. Kicking fire into my mare and flying above that flat rock. Whip and spur. The only thing I was ever afraid of was sitting still.” The lyricism here is mineral luster. A sequence of fractures elevates the confessional sentence in its startling completeness (“The only thing I was ever afraid of...”), and our landing in emotional clarity is more satisfying by our having leapt cracks and fissures to get there.
I’m scouring prose for insight into how it all works, because I’m in the middle of a genre-jump—revising a mystery novel I wrote in 2012. As in any new relationship, I see-saw between gnawing the flesh of old insecurity or warbling in mindless ecstasy. A rare calm comes from finding ye olde poetry skill set still applies: sound (repress/confess, fire/flying/flat)—and rhythm (words of adoration on her tongue, driving/kicking/flying)—my old loves, here you are again.
Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard. These elegiac poems are pearls brought after diving deep in one’s personal and historical memory. “Memory is a cemetery…” according to Charles Wright. There, the dead mother and the forgotten soldiers are reclaimed through a voice that’s so pure, subtle, and moving. Natasha Trethewey is poetry’s native guard.
1. The ICC Witness Project is an ongoing collaboration between Kenyan poets to imagine and amplify the voices of some of the missing witnesses for the ICC Kenya trials. The poems are unattributed for a number of reasons, discussed at length here.
"I have been told that this is our secret.
Our secret is shameful and should not be shared.
Shared instead is the feeling of being one.
Being one is more important than the truth."
2. I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
The great Audre Lorde, who left us too early, would have turned 80 on February 18, 2014. "My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you."
3. Teaching My Mother to Give Birth by Warsan Shire:
“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?"
4. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics by Adrienne Rich:
"The revolutionary poet...conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying and beloved."
"We're unable to write love, as we so much wish to do, without writing politics."
"You listen, if you do, not just to the poem, but to a part of you reawakened by the poem"
"[A poem] is not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it's an instrument for embodied experience."
5. Winning poems from Lighting the Way: The 3rd Annual Abortion Rights Poetry Contest:
to say to the victims' children
other than your parents died
to help women choose to live?"
Ordinary Geniuses: How Two Mavericks Shaped Modern Science by Gino Segre. The story of how Max Delbruck and George Gamow, physicists turned geneticists, turned from exploring cosmology and the foundation of the Big Bang toward, in the case of Gamow, protein synthesis, and for Delbruck highly original work in genetics. My interest: I studied bacterial genetics and bacterial viruses with Delbruck and Luria at Cold Spring Harbor in the fifties.
Vacation Stories by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Father of neurobiology, Santiago Ramon y Cajal dreamed of becoming an artist but was forbidden by his father. His vision of the nervous system was 100 years ahead of his time (and without the ease of visualization that we have today) and gave rise to an understanding of the nervous system still depicted in his exquisite drawings used in today’s textbooks.
Andrey Tarkovsky: Sculpting in Time, Reflections on the Cinema. Words by the great Russian filmmaker. Poems by his father.
Conversations with Myself: Nelson Mandela. We will never be done with learning what Nelson Mandela has to teach us.
Violence by James Gilligan. As a prison psychiatrist, Gilligan sheds light on the nature of violence and on the epidemic in our country of those shut away from the world.
Ponary Diary: 1941-1943, A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder by Kazimierz Sakowicz. A daily account by a witness of mass executions committed in the Ponary Forest where fuel pits had been dug during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The Nazis who occupied Lithuania from 1941-1944 executed close to 100,000 people there, including members of my family.
The majority of the reading I’ve done lately was on the train, so here’s a list of books that almost made me miss my stop.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was one of the first books I’ve loved unashamed and boundlessly. It’s been a while since I read it, and picking it back up I am amazed at how much I forgot. The overload of color, the way time dances and ignores any rules it is expected to abide, the way each paragraph contains its own world, its own creation that burrows within us and rules over us if only for a moment. This is a book that owns you while you read it. Not in the way a slave master does, but in the way a lover or a sibling owns you: with love, with faith, and not always grace.
Roger Reeves’s King Me scared me. Not for any particular horror, not for some gruesome act or malice, but because Reeves has figured something out about the body and spirit of a poem that I do not know a name for. These are fierce meditations on race, violence, love, loss, and country. I ran from these poems only to have them call me back. I was called to these poems only to be floored and wooed by his skill for crafting the poem into a meticulously measured gumbo of lyric, narrative, and words so human they almost breathe on the page.
Kamilah Aisha Moon’s She Has a Name wasn’t technically a train read, I came home from work and found it in the mail. I stood in the middle of my living room with my coat on and my bag pulling a little too hard on my shoulder and read the whole thing. I was lost in that book. I don’t even feel right calling it a book. I felt like I met someone, like I got to watch someone dance alone in their room while I watched from the window, like I was caught in some spirit. This book is not afraid of being difficult, not afraid to not have an answer. To say this book is about ability is ignoring the fact that this is a book about family, about love, about home, about compassion, about independence, about humans making their own way in a world of too many and not enough roads to take. Bless this book.
Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, Ghassan Zaqtan, tr. by Fady Joudah. What does poetry do? Nothing and everything, like air, water, soil; like birds, fish, trees; like love, spirit, our daily words… It lives with us, in and outside us, everywhere, all the time, and yet, we are too often oblivious of this gift. It’s a poet’s job to bring this gift out and back, this gift that makes us human again. And Mr. Zaqtan has done it. His poetry awakens the spirits buried deep in the garden, in our hearts, in the past, present, and future. His singing reminds us why we live and how, in the midst of war, despair, and global changes. His words turn dark into light, hatred into love, death into life. His magic leads us to the clearing where hope becomes possible, where healing begins across individuals, countries, races…and we are one with air, water, soil, birds, fish, trees…our daily words pregnant with beauty, and we begin to sing again till
… the singer
And the song
--“Biography in Charcoal”
This is Mr. Zaqtan’s only “profession.” It’s now also ours.
As a translator of poetry, I know the danger, frustration, and the joy in the process of catching the fire from the original and delivering it through/into another language, another culture, another sentiment. The translator is a messenger, an inventor, a magician who disappears into the original and comes out a new creature. Mr. Joudah delivered with such grace, power, and magic. His poetry received the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2007. My salute to Mr. Joudah, as translator to translator, as poet to poet, as doctor to doctor. I also recommend Textu, an e-book of poetry by Mr. Joudah—delightful and haunting at the same time.
- Sheila Black
- Sarah Manguso
- Reading List
- The Spectator
- Wang Ping
- Brian Blanchfield
- Danez Smith
- Dunya Mikhail
- Myra Sklarew
- Shailja Patel
- Sarah Browning
- Kareem James Abu-Zeid
- Franny Choi
- Maria Melendez Kelson
- 75 at 75
- Zoe R. Panagopoulos
- Poets Against the War
- Ru Freeman
- Cole Heinowitz
- City Arts
- Poetry Will Be Made by All