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Reading List: July/August 2014
As a new mom, I haven’t gotten the chance to read grown up books lately. I have, however, rediscovered the pleasure of rhyme. I’ve also reconnected with some old friends—The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. Some of my other favorite books to read my son include:
Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Chicka Chicka ABC by Mill Martin Jr. & John Archambault
While parenthood has made reading longer books difficult, it has provided enough time to read journals. I can read my son a poem or two while rocking him before he tries to eat the pages. He seems to already know that every issue of Poetry is absolutely delicious.
I’m off to a wedding in Iceland this week, so I’m furiously trying to finish Sjón’s The Whispering Muse between errands and bouts of packing. It contains stories within stories, blends those stories, blends cultures. This is the first line: “I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.”
Before that, I read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a graphic novel in two volumes that tells the parallel stories of two kids on opposite sides of China’s Boxer Rebellion. Among the things that make it really exciting: beautiful big scenes of sword wielding gods battling British imperialists, one character’s charming and subversive journey into Christianity, a talking raccoon.
For a summer spent on the road, I’ll pack The Secret History of the Mongols and Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey. But I’ll start by reading César Aira’s The Conversations. Aira is the best. I will dutifully read him as long as New Directions continues to dutifully put him out.
Zbigniew Herbert, Selected Poems, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter (Oxford University Press, 1977): Re-reading this slim volume of Herbert’s poems so well translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, I was struck anew by the poems about his family. In “Mother,” for example, he sums up a relationship in one brilliant image: “He fell from her knees like a ball of yarn. / He unwound in a hurry and ran blindly away. / She held the beginning of life. She would wind it / on her finger like a ring, she wanted to preserve him.”
Marc Kaminsky, The Road from Hiroshima: A Narrative Poem (Simon & Schuster, 1984): I’m also re-reading a book that accomplishes what seems impossible. In urgent, clipped lines, Kaminsky channels the voices of Hiroshima survivors: “I began walking over the bodies of the dead / and the disappointment in their eyes // they stared right through me / as if I were the one / who would never again walk / in a man’s body.” As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, a publisher should rescue this classic from its out-of-print limbo.
Tomas Venclova, The Junction: Selected Poems, edited by Ellen Hinsey, translated by Ellen Hinsey, Constantine Rusanov & Diane Senechal (Bloodaxe, 2008): I recently learned about Venclova’s work from a posting to The Book Haven: Cynthia Haven’s Blog for the Written Word. Born in Lithuania just before World War II, Venclova became an anti-Soviet dissident and eventually emigrated to the U.S. What attracts me to his poetry is the craft, and the something more than craft, that transforms his personal experience of oppression and exile into a metaphysics of loss and a passion for true language. As he writes at the start of “Winter Dialogue”: “Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails. / Filled to the brim with voices.”
I find I enjoy poetry most when it somehow surprises me, and this summer I’m revisiting books that had that effect. News that stays news, you know.
As I reread Don Bogen’s An Algebra, I’m struck by the subtle use of abstraction and adroit sense of the line. “Algebra … uses mathematical statements to describe relationships between things that vary over time,” and this protean process is a trope throughout. Bogen’s fragmentary lines suggest restless dichotomies, but things don’t remain autonomous for long. The poems also consider liminal spaces where life and mechanism blur—the virus, the robot. When they speak to memory or our attempts to freeze the frame, the lines, like rulers, hold their edges rather than enjamb. Bogen’s syntax is sometimes disjunctive, sometimes painterly, rich with “flesh music.” I keep discovering new valences in this cerebral, beautifully realized book of “shifting equivalents.”
I’m also re-relishing Sarah Gorham’s Bad Daughter, a collection of good-strange poems that speak to the complexity of mother-daughter relations while avoiding sentimentality. Gorham’s narrative gestures remain gestures: her poems open rather than decide the possibilities, a rhetorical choice that implies an accident at the heart of What-Is. “A queen in contemplation of unsightly things,” she fearlessly encounters disturbing embodiments, crime, violence, and such attendant, repressed feelings as disgust and guilt. The white space between lines becomes a mimesis for a sigh; the endings swerve; the imagery and tone delight in poems that prove to be uncanny and delicate in spite of (or because of) their festering, wild freight.
Next on my summer rereading list are Brian Henry’s wickedly reverberant The Stripping Point; Rebecca Morgan Frank’s brilliant debut, Little Murders Everywhere; Emily Rosko’s gorgeously witty and allusive Prop Rockery. And more. Till I’m “Further in Summer than the Birds—”
Summer is the time for reading as they say, but I don’t always get as much reading done as I want to in these hot days. Still, this handful of books has been keeping me busy as of late:
1. I saw Dodie Bellamy read from her new book, The TV Sutras (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), at the start of the summer and it cracked my head wide open. It is a stunner—weird, and wonderful—and the blue light of it has carried me through some dark nights in my city’s hell heat pit, like when the Blue Angel in the book says “This is the Blue Light,” I feel the cold rush of benevolent afterlife coming at me through Bellamy’s insanely perfect sentences, a benevolence that gets me asking myself important questions. Like when the book asks, “Is it possible to have spirituality without narcissism?”—I don’t know. But I am going to spend way into the fall wondering about this.
2. I picked up Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (University of California Press, 1997) at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn this July and it was the kind of book that found me with its lush history and immense level of detail, chronicling Loy’s major life events almost monthly, with the kind of rabid insight that makes me feel as if I were there. It’s the kind of book that makes me really wish for time travel, so that I could travel along with Loy through her life, seeing all of these things in action, the movie of history bright and brash and ringing.
3. Speaking of time travel, I have been doing some intense browsing this summer through a little book called simply Art Deco (Thames & Hudson, 1988) by Alastair Duncan. It’s not so much a read or looksee but an exploration into what made what we know as Deco. I think, like lots of design movements to be named, we’ve been reseeing and revisiting Deco for the last century, not so much just reviving it but busting open the patterns and sharp lines of it, asking everything in the world to be within a pattern. Like, for example, what we do with computers. What is a poem without Art Deco in mind to me? I am not sure, but I think it is nothing. I think the trees in lines outside the window now would also agree.
4. Ok, so maybe I am not trying to take a spaceship into other time periods, but maybe I am. Maybe just a ship into an ocean of other realities. Another book I’ve been looking through a lot while sweating my brains out is Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Lives of Wives (Sun & Moon Press, 1988). In this book, (Riding) Jackson looks again at history for what the imagination never lets itself tell in history books, as we see historical figures in their actual everyday contexts. And so, the book let’s us see how more a history history would be if it were not just a timeline but a map of real beings.
5. One last book on my reading list is Eric Baus’s latest book of poems The Tranquilized Tongue, just out from City Lights. Eric Baus has always been a seering poet, creating language that means sound as much as it means anything, creating nothing out of anything and everything and vice versa. These poems start ringing through the glass of themselves as soon as you open the book and feel like the words of a tongue that has been tranquilized and is speaking to say why. A poem like “The Molting Mouth” reads “The word glass. / The word hand. / The word milk. / The word mirror.” In these four lines we are forced to see that a glass becomes a mirror only because we command it to, that we see our own reflection in poems only because the poet is kind enough, or cares enough, to command it to.
I’m in the middle of the Gold Rush. Among recent books:
Adolphus Windeler, The California Gold Rush Diary of a German Sailor. Windeler was one of hundreds of sailors to abandon ship in San Francisco Bay and head for the mines. He had better luck than many but did not get rich. One of my favorite quotations: “Lost my hat, had to beg a chew tobacco.”
William Kelly, An Excursion to California. Kelly had a traveler’s eye and set down in meticulous detail some of the byways of the Rush, including the reuse as stores and offices of the ships abandoned by sailors like Windeler.
Then an odder volume:
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Notes of a Pianist during His Professional Tours. Gottschalk was a beloved popular composer (quite terrible, to listen to examples on YouTube), as well as the first barnstorming American pianist. As a young man, he was refused a place at the Paris Conservatoire because “America was only a country of steam engines.” There is much to enjoy in his portraits of rude audiences and bad hotels.
There’s poetry in my reading, too, of course, and TLS, London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books, ditto. And cereal boxes. And the manual on my heating system.
It’s a strange paradox that I tend to prefer lighter reading in the colder months (I’m sure it has something to do with the academic calendar), whereas in the summer I like long complicated novels and sad poetry. Maybe it’s easier to bear sadness in the summer time when the weather’s not somber and dark. Two recent books that provide a moving encounter with loss, M x T by Sina Queyras and Book of Hours by Kevin Young, are on top of my current reading stack.
Queyras echoes a pantheon of predecessors including Plath, Rich, Whitman, and Wilfred Owen. “How can we move forward carrying the weight of our dead?” she asks and then, “how can we come forward not carrying the weight of our dead?”
Young’s book, meanwhile, begins in bereavement for the passing of his father, even as it reminds us that the body knows more than we do; that it is meant to go on providing for a new generation. “Let me be // like the child who knows / & loves her youthful belly.”
I just picked up Emily Kendal Frey’s Sorrow Arrow, which I find intoxicating and uplifting, despite the gloomy title. I think it’s partially because I totally get Frye’s dark sense of humor. “Make it sad,” she writes, “so it won’t come near again.”
Other recent favorites include Seam by Tarfia Faizullah; a comparatively older book by Larry Eigner, Things Stirring Together or Far Away, which I’m rereading because I misplaced this copy for so long it seems new to me again; and a book I fell in love with last year and am still going back to, Boyishly by Tanya Olson.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by Katie Peterson’s collection of poems, The Accounts. It’s a sober, psychologically delicate work. Peterson endows apparently commonplace observations with immense symbolic resonance and emotional power: it’s an art of strategic understatement.
I’ve been living happily with Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters: Poems, a book of amplitude and mastery. Voigt by now has perfect control of voice: the poems skim, or soar, or drop suddenly, or veer. They move expansively between past and present. It’s breathtaking.
Louise Erdrich’s novel The Roundhouse absorbed me. It’s part thriller-mystery, part painful reckoning with discordant justice systems (Ojibwe Indian and the United States), part coming-of-age story, part keening for violence against Indian women.
Since I moved to Chicago this past year, I’ve been reading books by my new colleagues. In Doubting Thomas, Glenn W. Most rereads the religious tradition of the story of the Apostle Thomas putting his finger in Christ’s wound in order to test the reality of His apparition after death. It turns out there’s no Scriptural evidence of the actual touching: the narrative has to be pieced together from apocryphal writings and an extraordinarily rich history of works of visual art. This astounding book is about reading texts, paintings, and sculptures, and about the conditions of belief.
In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, David Nirenberg examines the ways in which various religious communities, starting with the Ancient Egyptians, and including the Romans, different strains of Christianity, and Islam, have imagined themselves in relation to their imagination of Judaism. Not a standard history of anti-Semitism, this book patiently unfolds a story of virulent projections of the fantasized Other, century after century, in detailed narratives and sometimes mind-boggling documents.
Here’s a list of some of the books that have been following me around lately:
You Good Thing by Dara Wier
The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
Devine Nothingness by Gerald Stern (forthcoming)
The Book for My Brother by Tomaž Šalamun
The Burning History of Anna in 1951 by Kenneth Koch
Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer
April Galleons by John Ashbery
Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan
Tags: Alice Fulton, Amanda Calderon, D.A. Powell, Dean Young, Dorothea Lasky, Philip Fried, Reading List, Rosanna Warren, Traci Brimhall, William Logan
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, July 7th, 2014 by Lindsay Garbutt.