Reading List: June 2014
I’m in the middle of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V, in anticipation of a trip to St. Louis where they’re being performed as part of a fabulous Shakespeare in the Park festival. They’re a gap in my reading, sadly, though I may have skimmed Henry IV, Part I when preparing for the GRE Literature test a few years back. It deserves more than a skim. Not as sure about Part II . . .
Just finished Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters, by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith. Reading an epistolary conversation is vastly different than wading through someone’s hefty collected letters; partway through this book, it started to feel like a novel. I had to keep reading, to see what happened next. I remember the same thing happening when I read Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell’s letters, Words in Air.
The Road to Emmaus, by Spencer Reece. I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile. I’m reading it slowly, to savor the experience.
Re-reading Incarnadine, by Mary Szybist, another book I’d been anticipating for years before its publication. And now I keep going back to it when my well runs dry.
The Two Yvonnes, by Jessica Greenbaum, after being fascinated by several of her poems in Poetry.
And the two Kevins: Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, by Kevin Powers, and (belatedly) In a Beautiful Country, by Kevin Prufer. As Prufer says, “The gold-haired girl says, Don’t worry // about the armies, says, We live in a time / full of love. You’re thinking about this too much. / Slow down. Nothing bad will happen.” If only.
City of Corners by John Godfrey
Thirty Poems by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton
Collected Poems by Ron Padgett
Works and Days and Theogony by Hesiod, translated by M.L. West
For the Republic by George Scialabba
In a moment of financial desperation last year, I took some books off my shelf, put them in a milk crate, and sat in a parking lot outside a used bookstore. Thankfully, I didn’t go through with it. The crate has been sitting in my basement and a couple weeks ago I found time to put the books back on the shelves. I went to shift the top shelf books to make some room and all my chapbooks (top shelf dwellers), along with all A’s and most of the Bs, fell to the floor. This led to complete shelf reorganization and a day spent on the floor dipping into books I hadn’t touched in a good long while—a veritable reading I Ching.
The first three texts, all chapbooks, on the following list were read on that fateful day.
The Hotel Wentley Poems by John Wieners
Spring Logic by David Bartone
New Age of Ferociousness by Jeannie Hoag
Isa the Truck Named Isadore by Amanda Nadelberg
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. Glaser
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.
Journal 1992—2012 by Renate Graf.
The Funk & Wag from A to Z by Mel Chin.
The Beginning of My End by Eric Fair.
MOTHERs and The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker.
Money Money Money | Water Water Water by Jane Mead.
What Light Can Do by Robert Hass.
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle.
Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West.
I don’t get much time to sit and read a whole book of poetry during the school year, so things pile up for summer. This year it’s a long list that seems to grow longer rather than shorter as time passes.
I bought Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems last year and I’m about 2/3 of the way through it now. I like Collecteds, though some, like Padgett’s, can be a little difficult to toss into a suitcase. So at home it stays. And I make slow progress. There’s an ephemeral quality to his tone that I really like, it’s how he works with dailiness, and it’s quite musical. It’s fascinating watching his development from book to book, how some methods pop in and then go away (especially in the earlier work), and how others become his dominant, or signature I guess, style.
The recent deaths of Bill Knott and Russell Edson have sent me back to them, both being poets whose work I’ve been thankful for, but that I haven’t gone back to recently. It’s sent me into a revisiting of my bookshelves plan, where I’ll spend some time each morning going through them, browsing a bit. I hope I do it. It sounds great to me right now.
But there’s still my BIG PILE that awaits, that I’m wanting to tackle, with new (some aren’t really all that new anymore!) books from Julie Carr, Karla Kelsey, Nick Courtright, Kelly Moffett, Elizabeth Robinson, Aaron Belz, Elise Cowen (Trigilio, ed), Kevin Prufer, David J. Daniels, Sandra Meek, Kathleen Jesme, Gillian Conoley, Amy Catanzano, Dana Roeser, Andrew Zawacki, Christine Hume, Jeff Alessandrelli, Rachel Zucker, Lucy Ives, Martha Ronk, Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Lesle Lewis, Natasha Sajé, Craig Morgan Teicher, Christopher Salerno, Victoria Chang, Nate Klug, Rusty Morrison, David Bartone, Maxine Chernoff, Geoffrey Nutter, Dariusz Sośnicki, Mark Bibbins, Brenda Shaughnessy, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Ralph Angel, Jane Gregory, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Matthew Zapruder, Peter Gizzi, and others I have scattered around the house in odd places that I’ll find someday. I once lost Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town for several years in my living room.
Among the many excellent new poetry titles in recent months, two have struck and stayed with me in particular: Dan Chiasson’s Bicentennial and Cathy Linh Che’s Split. Both books deal with autobiographical subject matter in ways I admire and am instructed by—Chiasson’s for his formal concerns and skill at writing about time, Che’s for her candor and precision, and both for their obsessive focuses, which they nevertheless manage to make new throughout. How to work in the medium of obsession is something I think about a lot in my own poems.
I’ve also been doing a lot of re-reading, an act I enjoy and value—like pulling on a favorite old sweater. The approaching summer has led me back to Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s (genius!) journals, as well as the letters of Abelard and Heloise (the Penguin Classics edition translated by Betty Radice). I’m partial to Heloise’s unrepentant eroticization of lack, though I’m also jealous that Abelard came up with the title Historia Calamitatum back in the 12th century, beating us all to it.
Since seeing his visionary new performance at this year’s Whitney Biennial (“Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/”), I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Miguel Gutierrez’s When You Rise Up, a book of performance texts. Gutierrez is an artist and dancer who works in and with all sorts of media, including these poem-texts, which maintain a clear-sighted and unpretentious brilliance on the page. His inquiries into queer desire (and queer time and queer futurity) are, I think, among the most vital of any artist working in any medium today. I come to these writings to be both moved and challenged.
One of the perks of living in Nashville is the collaborative nature of the artist community. Lately I’ve been reading Kendra DeColo’s Thieves in the Afterlife, a tender and profane meditation on the body, and Christina Stoddard’s forthcoming Hive, a volume on the relationship between the self and God and the inevitable difference that is to the relationship of the self to religion.
But I read (and write) all my poetry from September to June and it’s summer again, which means I allow myself to read all the fiction I can: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston and The Flamethrowersby Rachel Kushner. And as always—Beowulf and Count of Monte Cristo are my default beach reading. Both bring me back to being 10 years old and going to the library (and the best air conditioner for three counties) with my grandmother in Meridian, MS.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal.
Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus by Stephen Halliwell.
Now, Now by Jennifer Maier.
Other Romes by Derek Mong.
Restoration by Christina Pugh.
Collected Poems by Naomi Replansky.
Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Angela Livingstone.
Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, a reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine.
Whose Flesh is Flame, Whose Bone is Time by V. Penelope Pelizzon.
Vivarium by Natasha Sajé.
Though the stack of books on my night table is threatening to tip over, lately I have increased this delicious burden by adding a few works I received from out of the blue—gifts sent in the mail. Dipping in and out of several a day is my usual practice, a rhythm that alters as soon as one possesses my attention entirely. I have separated a small group, vowing that I will devote myself to them and not put them aside. I refrain from commenting on these books because while I am in their thrall any attempt to verbalize my experience will create a cognitive distance I want to avoid or generate a succession of superlatives failing to illuminate their power. It isn’t that I want to remain speechless; but for now a simple list must suffice, except for a brief mention of context for three of these. When Patricia Hampl sent me a copy of Naomi Replansky’s Collected Poems, the act of her sending this book by post was all the persuasion I needed, the message being clear that this was a voice necessary for me to hear. The ceramic artist Edmund de Waal’s book was so often recommended by friends of such diverse sensibilities, all saying that this was something I had to read, that his book became an object I would open and close and open and close, as if it were a Pandora’s box more than a treasure. And finally I am following through on reading Derek Mong’s first collection, Other Romes, which the author sent me three summers ago, along with a beautiful note I just reread: when he reminded me of how we met while he was still an undergraduate at Denison University, where in 2004 I was giving a reading, and how he has followed my work over the years, I realized that this note is part of my essential reading. For the correspondences between writers establish new correspondences within and between us.
Summer begins with some light reading—Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, a satire about the machinations behind a fictional book prize. (A po-biz version would be even more delicious.) One character reflects: “Art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society than sexual perversions or methods of torture. … Perhaps in future generations a law would be passed allowing consenting adults to practice art openly; an Intellect Relations Board might be set up to encourage tolerance towards people who, through no fault of their own, were interested in ideas.” St. Aubyn always cheers me up. Meanwhile, I’m also reading the bilingual Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s poems in English. I used to watch YouTube videos of Joanna Newsom playing the harp and wonder what an analogue in language would look like. Answer: intricate Welsh-derived rhyming forms. Lewis has great poetic skill. That, too, cheers me up.
The most rewarding aspect of my work as co-founder of CantoMundo is encountering new work by Latina/o poets. The past year has yielded a bumper crop of books by Canto fellows: Rosebud Ben-Oni, Barbara Brinson Curiel, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Raina León, Manuel Paul López, Sheryl Luna, David Tomas Martinez, Pablo Miguel Martínez, Celeste Mendoza, José Antonio Rodríguez, Ire'ne Lara Silva, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Carmen Tafolla.
I have been living in Paris this year, surrendering more and more to being lost—linguistically, culturally, geographically. It's a city that encourages deviation and distraction. I've found solace in Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost: "The question then," Solnit instructs, "is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery."
In my meandering, I've returned lately to Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau and have also been reading two stunning debut collections about war and its aftermath: Kevin Powers's Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and Cathy Linh Che's Split. Powers, an Iraq veteran, writes, "You came home / with nothing, and you still / have most of it left." I find deep resonance with Che who, like me, is a daughter of Vietnam—she of refugees and I of a drafted veteran—and am inspired by the sparse, emotional daring of her poems.
Amidst all this loss, my daughter has become obsessed with Hercules after seeing dubbed reruns on French TV. So, I've found myself re-reading D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, one of my favorites as a child, to re-acquaint myself with Hercules's twelve labors, wishing she had fallen for someone with a bit more finesse or poetic flair. But, alas, she has fallen for the brute and I'm at a loss, left pondering the bellicose thumbprint of the gods.
I am currently in the midst of reading three different types of books, with a somewhat singular agenda:
The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (editors Paul Auster and Ron Padgett), reprints Brainard’s well-known “I Remember” alongside lesser-known rememberings. The collage and miniature artist whose illustrations lined and bound the pages of so many New York School productions—offers a poetry, too, of assembly:
I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
… I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of icecream.
… I remember the clock from three to three-thirty.
… I remember animal smells and very cold water on your face in the morning.
I remember how heavy the cornbread was.
Brainard’s counter-Proustian quotidian patchwork blends urban, rural, and queer experiences, moving forward while leaning backward. I’m reminded of lines from his peer, Kenneth Koch, who describes memory as “the eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities.”
I’m also reading David Caplan’s Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry and Contemporary Rhyming Culture, which a bright student put on my academic desk. A refreshingly serious and stimulating consideration of the formal tendencies of hip hop, Caplan’s study infuses previous readings of hip hop’s social concerns and historical situations with an exacting look at the pleasures and ramifications of rhyme.
And on the bedside table lies Ali Smith’s Artful, a compilation of the lectures Smith gave in 2012 at Oxford. I attended the last of her spring talks--45 invigorating minutes of navigating, among other things, the distance between “I” and “You.” Structured as a collection of essays on writing, the book reads as a literary love story, indulging and delighting the poetry lover with a short break from poetry’s line breaks.
I keep turning to June Jordan’s papers. When I think of a poet’s life, when I think of what a poet’s whole life in America in the twentieth century could look like, I think of June. She kept everything, meticulously, and has made them all (all) public—former lease agreements, exercise regimens, medical records, journals from her travels to Nicaragua, wrathful letters to bosses, to editors of papers and journals and presses, drafts of “Poem About My Rights” on yellow legal paper, and on and on. The catalog description on the library site alone reads monumental. To leave these things to us reifies the openness and urgency her work, her life not only embody but encourage.
With the death of Amiri Baraka, of Maya Angelou, of June herself, with the passing of poets of big, enabling, bristling lives, I do despair. I wonder, well, are we ready, whatever our we may be? And I turn to June, to what she wrote in “The Mountain and the Man Who Was Not God: An Essay on the Life and Ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”:
I would hope that we shall once again begin to build beloved community not looking for a leader, but determined to respect and activate the leadership capacities within each of us. As we, millions of leaders of our own lives, united according to shared values and priorities, if we are lucky enough to discover another Dr. King among us, so much the better for our good speed towards our goals. But, if we do not, then we will not languish, mute and immobilized.
We are not gods.
But we are many.
We better be.
A few weeks ago a sinus infection and fever made me too stupid to read well or for long and my hand dropped onto a catalogue of van Gogh's paintings, from his period in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. For ten years his paintings have put me inside of them quickly when I find them in museums, but I hadn't spent much time with reproductions and was grateful for them on the fever bed. They were something coherent, beautiful, and wordless to wake up to, and when I felt better I started reading his letters straight through. I am in 1883. Vincent is about to split with Sien and leave the Hague to move in with his parents once again, this time in Nuenen.
Going into the letters I knew, like everyone else, how the story would end. I had little idea of how it began though, and I was astonished at its banality: a middle class kid doesn't like the job his family arranged for him and steadily becomes inept working it, then revels in religious fanaticism to inject meaning into failure. Which makes the middle period, his decision to take up drawing and painting and make art the way a firefighter lugs people out of a burning building, as an intensely focused and desperate imperative, more shocking still. The circumstances of his life made his chances of becoming a good artist negligible, of his becoming a great master impossible. It is obvious that to know him personally was hell, and one wonders who was the bigger genius at what, Vincent at painting or Theo at patient love.
I've been using the old three-volume Bulfinch Press edition for reading, essentially the same edition Theo's widow Johanna published in 1914. It is entirely serviceable on its own. All of the letters are also freely available online, in new translations, freshly annotated and with images of the very many art works Vincent mentions during his correspondence, all extremely valuable features.
And, because it is summer now and it made last summer's sun even sunnier, I'm reading Guy Davenport's short story collection The Cardiff Team again, but this time next to James Clifford's Person and Myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian World, as Leenhardt's time in New Caledonia is a bracing thread that runs through a few of the stories.
*Above illustration by Amze Emmons for small press/artist book exhibition Publisher! Publisher! at NEIU Art Center Gallery, Chicago, June 13–July 25.
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