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Reading List: December 2015
I’ve been rereading the gloriously titled Worshipful Company of Fletchers, by the late James Tate, arguably his funniest and bleakest collection. For me, Tate’s poetry is a process of unlearning, stripping back the certainty to accept that we’re all “airy and free and broke and lost figure skaters or trigger fish.” He uses words to express the wordlessness, the silence in between question and answer, and I always feel a little more awake after reading his work—even if, no, especially if, I don’t know why. Similarly, whilst devouring Andrew McMillan’s debut, Physical, I relived the bedlam of heartbreak, how it breaks you bodily, and yet weirdly wakes you up; your own bedlam connecting you, with new tenderness, to the bedlam outside: “like dropping a bag of marbles in space.” Finally, Eavan Boland’s masterful new collection, A Woman Without a Country, reminded me that pain, like a tuning fork, sings loudest when held lightly.
I am currently on a 3-week performance tour of South East Asia, and enjoying the books I brought: A Voice and Nothing More by Mladen Dolar, The Calculus of Friendship by Steven Strogatz, and Curves to the Apple by Rosmarie Waldrop.
Unfortunately, I just finished The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré. I hope to find another good novel, but so far I haven’t seen a bookstore here in Penang, Malaysia.
I recently met the U.S, psychiatrist-poet Owen Lewis and we spoke about bereavement and his chapbook Best Man, which I’m reading—23 gritty poems dealing with the death of his brother from a drug overdose. Owen alerted me to Edward Hirsch’s poetry, which I have been looking up also, and Best Man’s epigraph is Hirsch’s: “Look closely and you will see/ Almost everyone carrying bags/ Of cement on their shoulders.”
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. I was handed this novel in the supermarket by a neighbor who knew I was caring for an elderly friend with dementia. At first the correspondences were quite startling, humorous, painful, but the book unexpectedly developed into a page-turning thriller that I had to stay up even later than usual to finish….
Current time restraints make chapbooks, anthologies, and journals especially appealing… I’m delighted by The Forward Book of Poetry 2016: individual poems enticing me to seek out more from Andrew McMillan, Rebecca Perry, Mona Arshi, Sarah James, and Mark Doty (who I was lucky enough to hear read in 2015).
Another anthology I enjoy dipping into is Maps and Legends: Poems to Find Your Way By, and The Emergency Poet, An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology looks good… this may be developing into a poet’s Christmas wish-list…
Journals: along with the current Poetry Review, others I keep close are Ambit, whose prose and art, as well as poetry, are always provoking; Poetry London (Ian Duhig’s “Contracted Silences”); and Magma (whose online archive includes interesting articles, e.g. Laurie Smith’s “A New Kind of Poetry”).
This has been a season of grief—two irreplaceable friends of mine have died, just within a few weeks of each other—and my reading list reflects my state of mind. One of those friends, George Silva, was someone I had known since I was in high school. He was a scientist who labored to discover new knowledge about our genetic makeup, and he was also an avid lover of poetry. Recently, I remembered that he loved T.S. Eliot. I went back to Four Quartets to see if there was something there that would offer consolation, and remarkably, it did, though not in print form. I found an audio recording of T.S. Eliot reading them aloud, and something about his incantation helped me to see the chasms that the poem is capable of crossing.
My other friend, Brett Foster, was one of those rare poets who was also a brilliant scholar. With a foot in both worlds, he was capable of writing meditations on the heart and mind that rival those of John Donne. His intellectual curiosity was boundless, and his attention to sound, rhythm, and their relation to authentic human feeling were so appealing that it is impossible to not love his work. Before he died, I had the chance to read excerpts from his forthcoming book of poems, Extravagant Rescues, which will be published in 2016. Read that book as soon as it’s available; it will not disappoint.
There are lots of good things about being married to a photographer. One of the best perks is leafing through all of his enormous photo books. One of my favorites is Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul, 1850-2000. The chapter that focuses on Duchenne de Boulogne’s electrocution photographs is terrifying and unforgettable. I love too how so many of the portraits in that book seem to function as acts of resurrection, as some attempt to bring the subject to life on paper. Poets do that too, especially in elegies, when we try to articulate the ineffable sadness of loss.
My reading has been even more chaotic than usual recently due to researching very different areas, but Peter Riley’s Due North and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen were the two outstanding books this year for me. I worked with homeless people for fifteen years and keep an involvement with related issues, which has led to a new project involving refugees with PTSD; in this context I read Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery; called “One of the most important psychiatric works since Freud” (New York Times), it impressed me also with convincing political analyses behind those of the individual tragedies it recounts. I thought of the violent stereotype of Muslims peddled now when I read her describe how in Nazi death camps, the fatally passive inmate stage was named “musulman.” Understanding that change in language usage since WWII can’t just be significant to writers.
In manuscript I’ve enjoyed the gobsmacking poems in They Who Saw the Deep by Geraldine Monk whose name I know has spread to the U.S., where this is due out next spring. Steve Ely’s the only poet I know who tweets in Anglo-Saxon but his Englaland is staggeringly original. Researching the “Interventions” commission got me in to see Ronnie Duncan’s even more staggering collection of his old friend Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work, getting me in turn to re-read Alec Finlay’s wonderful selection of his father’s writing. I’ve also re-read Vahni Capildeo’s Utter in anticipation of her forthcoming Measures of Expatriation, already shortlisted for next year’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Finally, I’m at present reading Harry Clifton’s Ireland and Its Elsewheres, one of that country’s most European-minded poet’s lectures as Ireland Chair of Poetry. I should mention in honesty I’m in one of these, grouped with Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson, whose new books, The Beautiful Librarians and 40 Sonnets, I also greatly admired.
Over the summer I read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a compassionate study of writers and drinking. The writing is very tender and beautiful. It affected me so deeply I feel almost apprehensive about reading Laing’s forthcoming book on loneliness (The Lonely City, out March 2016).
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets pretty much broke my heart.
I have been making poems from the words of fashion designers and Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli beat me hands down with its poetic phrase making.
Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women (ed. Makoto Ueda), is a book I’ve had for many years, but I seem to turn to it a lot when I’m not writing much myself, as I find at the moment.
There have been some brilliant poetry books published in the U.K. this year, in particular: Roddy Lumsden’s latest book Melt and Solve, Best British Poetry 2015 edited by Emily Berry, and three debut collections: Rebecca Perry’s Beauty / Beauty, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Jack Underwood’s Happiness.
My to-read list includes Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, and I just ordered The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard.
Finally, I’m reading the last of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. I can’t really bear to finish it.
There are some books I’m never not reading, that figure in my life less as texts than as talismans, touchstones to return to obsessively time and again. I think I might be strange that way. I’m reading the Lament for Art O’Leary like that, and my numerous dog-eared editions of Padraic Fiacc. There are poems in Semper Vacare in particular that still make my palms sweat. Nobody else writes Northern Ireland that way; there’s something squeamish and macabre about his vision, but it rings disturbingly true.
I’m also reading my collected John Clare again. I thought I’d lost it forever but it turned up recently at the bottom of an old, much-travelled rucksack, which seems appropriate. I mentally connect those poems to my time protesting, festing, travelling around, and to the music I was listening to back then, so I’ve been playing a lot of old vinyl lately: The Levellers, New Model Army, Blyth Power, bands like that. I think this should count as reading too, as the lyrics were always the point, especially with Blyth. Joseph Porter’s words have this weird kind of mythy medieval richness to them, which is poetry, definitely.
Other texts are more recent editions to my personal pantheon. I’ve been reading anything I can find by Elisabeth Bletsoe, Beth Bachmann, Noelle Kocot, Chelsey Minnis, and Amy Key. I find reading them together is a bit like the best parts of mixing your drinks, it creates this woozily off-kilter space in your head, a sense of charm and threat in equal measure. It’s really exhilarating. And I’m excited to have finally got my hands on a copy of Roddy Lumsden’s latest, Melt and Solve. I was trying to save it until Christmas but I peeked and was promptly sucked in.
The writing that currently interests me is writing that approaches, or even crosses, the boundary of “good taste.” Exhilaratingly uncomfortable is Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, which I picked up at the Edinburgh Book Festival bookshop where July’s work was featured. Rachel Cusk’s ruthless new version of Medea, which just finished a run at the Almeida Theatre in London and is now available in book form, is thrilling and disturbing. Less coldblooded but still unsettling is Alison Bechdel’s ingenious graphic novel Fun Home. On the poetry side of things, this year’s The Best British Poetry edited by Emily Berry is filled with risky, strange, and uncomfortable poems that cross into the ugly, primal territories that well-behaved poems usually steer clear of.
The nights are getting colder in Sheffield, England, and I’m commuting to my workplace in Leeds while it is still dark outside. Luckily, my companion on these train journeys is Kim Addonizio’s Wild Nights. I heard Kim read for the first time at the Aldeburgh Festival last month and bought her book immediately. Every page contains something I wish I’d written. I find her dark, precise humor and her keen eye incredibly persuasive. Sometimes, the poems are so good I laugh out loud and everyone in the carriage turns to look.
I love non-fiction so I’ve also been reading Capital by Rana Dasgupta, an intoxicating exploration of life in Delhi. I was asked to write a commissioned piece recently about future cities, and this book is a compelling, disturbing, exhilarating portrait of urban development. Alongside it, I’ve been immersed in fictional Tokyo through Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a book that was a gift. The first chapter haunted me and captured something of the kind of half-remembered, half-impossible landscape the best poems also take me to.
The books that I’ve most enjoyed in recent months are: Claudia Rankine’s exceptional Citizen, Andrew McMillan’s Physical, and Kim Moore’s The Art of Falling. I’m currently dipping in and out of You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu, as well as two non-poetry, non-fiction books: Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry; and The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. I am also fortunate to have read early proofs of the debut collection from U.K. poet Angelina D’Roza. The book is forthcoming in March 2016 by Longbarrow Press. I go on holiday next week so might get round to The Martian by Andy Weir!
Erika L. Sánchez
I have a short attention span, so I often read several books at a time, both poetry and prose. I’ve been inspired by so many texts lately. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie has become my new literary hero. I just read Purple Hibiscus, which left me bereft. I had what I call a serious “book hangover,” and to nurse myself back to health, I reread Americanah, which has become one of my favorite books of all time. What a love story! My poetry life has been quite abundant as well. I got a hold of The Darkening Trapeze, Larry Levis’s last book, which was just published by Graywolf Press. Levis is my favorite poet—his poems make my soul turn inside out. (My love for him is so absurd that I recently got a tattoo in his honor.) Some of the poems in that collection, particularly “Idle Companion” and “God Is Always Seventeen,” are simply stunning. Wow. I’ve also been reading Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, which is excellent. The way in which he writes about race and death is so beautiful and heartbreaking. Some of the elegies really kicked me in the heart. And lastly, I just started reading Presto Agitato by Elizabeth Schmuhl, which just came out from Zoo Cake Press. Elizabeth is a multidisciplinary artist, so her book blends genres and includes her own drawings. It’s also set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I’m so excited to delve further into this dynamic book.
My reading’s been scattershot lately. I want the texts to point their own way and make their own associative pivots, so my list is also a faithful and unshod blueprint of what I’m thinking about, obsessing over, worrying about. Yuri Hererra’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, recommended to me by friend and bookseller Jarrod Annis at Greenlight Bookstore, is the book I can’t get out of my head. I love translator Lisa Dillman’s use of “versed,” as a verb, to indicate when a person leaves a room. “Santa Rita de los Imposibles,” a short fiction by Adriana E. Ramírez, is one of those rare pieces of writing for me that cancels all the noise outside of it. “He chose to die in American pants,” what an opening sentence. And Adriana won the inaugural PEN Emerging Writers Prize. I’m very much looking forward to her book Dead Boys. Other debuts I’ve loved: Jay Deshpande’s Love the Stranger, Jennifer Nelson’s Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife, and I can’t wait for Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight (translated by Jennifer Hayashida). It’s been fascinating reading the reissue of Eileen Myles’s 1994 classic Chelsea Girls. Without realizing it I’d been reading Eileen’s prose backwards through its history—Inferno (2010), Importance of Being Iceland (2009), The New Fuck You (1995), and now Chelsea Girls—and it was heartening to me when I finally said to a friend, Eileen’s always written prose Eileen’s way, and then to see her say in her Paris Review interview that she’s suspicious of evolving her style, she’s sort of just the factory. I love that idea. Interesting to pair it with Rebecca Wolff’s new book, One Morning, which I think maps a poetry that delights in evolving from book to book. I saw Tyehimba Jess read and perform the other day; I’ve been rereading the Leadbelly poems lately, and I hadn’t known that Tyehimba is also a harmonica player, a good one, and I was stunned by the work he read via amplifier, distortion pedal, digital delay pedal, a vintage microphone. Time and time again I return to Kate Bernheimer’s beautiful “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” which I believe was first delivered as a speech. I try to map how her thoughts on abstraction, color, intuitive logic, image flatness, and normalized magic overlap with my own, I hardly get anywhere before I need to read it again. I also keep rereading Luis Chaves’s “Equestrian Monuments,” translated from the Spanish by Samantha Zighelboim and Julia Guez; I need to read a pile of Chaves’s books, I think.
While here in Provincetown I’ve been working on my memoir, so I’ve been reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, along with a stack of several memoirs like Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. Cape Cod is at the edge of the world, with the days galloping into wintry darkness, and I find myself re-reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, when I need to feel rooted. I’ve also recently started the stark, startling A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.
Earlier this year I re-read Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête and Jahan Ramazani’s The Hybrid Muse in a close examination of postcolonial poetry and the character of Caliban, as he emerges in my forthcoming collection, Cannibal. As part of my research for the collection, I read Darwin’s The Descent of Man juxtaposed with the pseudo-scientific racist text Crania Americana by Samuel George Morton, exploring how the native is (savagely) defined and othered in each.
For escape, transfiguration, and music, I turn to poetry. Among the poetry collections I enjoyed reading this year, many of which took the top of my head off, the ones I found myself returning to were Danez Smith’s [insert] Boy, Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón, Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise, Barely Composed by Alice Fulton, King Me by Roger Reeves, Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion, and my perennial favorite, Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay.
Tags: Amy Key, Caroline Bird, Danniel Schoonebeek, Erika L. Sanchez, Fran Lock, Geraldine Clarkson, Helen Mort, Ian Duhig, Jaap Blonk, Joanne Diaz, Kathryn Maris, Reading List, Ruby Robinson, Safiya Sinclair
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Wednesday, December 16th, 2015 by Lindsay Garbutt.