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Reading List: February 2016
I have been reading and am very excited about the forthcoming release of Tyehimba Jess’s Olio and Noelle Kocot’s Phantom Pains of Madness, both out this year from Wave, and Currently & Emotion, an anthology of contemporary translations edited by Sophie Collins, published by Test Centre in the spring. Juliana Spahr’s amazing That Winter the Wolf Came has led me to Commune Editions, especially a text by her and Joshua Clover, #MISANTHROPOCENE 24 THESES—a sort of angry but resigned tirade against human impact on ecology and nature (and basically everything) that’s funny and scary. I am also excited about this small publishing endeavor, If a Leaf Falls Press. I was lucky enough to get Sam Riviere’s Cont., a stark experiment with how we categorize species, and am looking forward to reading the others. I’m also reading Han Kang’s brilliant novel Human Acts from Granta. I’m binging on essays published on catapult.co—a site recently set up publishing fiction and essays and memoir—especially those by Bee Lavender, who has a set of three essays about her family and their dealings with her aunt, who was addicted to heroin. They’re unsettling and strange and compulsive: children spitting on their parents’ corpses or being high in Disneyland—familial binds and discord to the extreme.
I’m engaged in a study of poet-mystics, which began as an inquiry on a poetics of the extreme with Nick Flynn. We were looking at dissociation: first in trauma and then, in its flipside, the ecstatic. I brought Yeats to the table; Nick brought Blake. We’re picking this up in a talk at AWP Los Angeles on Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: Poem Pairings, not so much, say, Morrison and Blake, but what it means to channel/write from/through that other side. I just finished the collected Blake and Yeats, and I have Dante, Duncan, Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell, and Plato simmering on the side. At heart, I’m a Symbolist, but these are the current fingers on my hand.
As for contemporaries, joining us on the AWP panel are the stellar Saeed Jones and Kristin Naca. I’m also really excited about the goings-on at my stable, Pitt Poetry. Amazing titles out last year from Ross Gay, Nate Marshall, and Rickey Laurentiis, and I’m thrilled to see the latest Donald Hall wins go to Iliana Rocha and Marci Calabretta. Ed Ochester is legend.
Holly Corfield Carr
I am two years deep into a PhD and finding a strange solace in the buzzy dark of Douglas Oliver’s In the Cave of Suicession. By candlelight, by night, by dragging a typewriter through the tight chokes of Suicide Cave in the Winnats Pass, Derbyshire, the poem claims it was written in conversation with the cave in 1973. The cave has the voice of an older woman and is also full of bees. I feel like I know this voice from somewhere.
From out of this horseshoe-shaped cave, I’ve spelunked straight into another: The Cave, Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s marble-cool collaboration following their explorations of Eldon’s Cave in Massachusetts between 1972 and 1978. It sets up another kind of conversation within earshot of the cave. It’s the sort of conversation that folds out and folds out until everything seems to belong in the cave at the same time the cave is turned out like an old pocket.
Perhaps to provide a bit of light to write by at the back of my burrow, I’ve just started reading Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which offers a helpful vocabulary for thinking about the mesh of human and non-human bodies and their landscapes and materials and languages, and when I find myself here I always want to hunker down to listen to Jen Hadfield listening to the lichen and so I am heading back into her third collection, Byssus.
I’ve mostly been reading science fiction and women of color, and Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro, fits neatly, fiercely, at that intersection. The poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva recommended the comic book to me recently, and I devoured it like a box of Sam’s Club croissants. It’s like a dystopian Orange Is the New Black with radical feminist politics and fabulous, trouble-making women of color protagonists. Hallelujah!
Fatimah Asghar recently released her chapbook After, which I think should be required reading for all young women. I’m always inspired by how fearlessly Fatimah engages with grief, survival, and the body, and that fearlessness absolutely soars in After. It’s also, as a physical product, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen (we share a cover artist, the wildly talented Jess X. Chen).
I read Myung Mi Kim’s Penury in one sitting, mostly with my jaw on the floor. It was like watching someone shatter a vase and create a mosaic out of the pieces. Or like eating an oyster and tasting the whole ocean. In any case, writers like Myung Mi Kim (along with Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Bhanu Kapil, Cathy Park Hong) are a great reminder that there is a long tradition of APIA women avant-garde poets to serve as a counterpoint to the Kenneth Goldsmiths of the world.
I’m currently about halfway through 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, which sits somewhere between sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and impressionist poetry. I think it’s best to approach Murakami’s novels as large-scale (in this case, very large!) poems. His images have a strange resonance that touch me somewhere just past the realm of understanding. (I’ll note that Murakami has received criticism for his treatment of women and trans* characters, criticisms that I share; so far, the 1Q84 is doing better than, say, Kafka on the Shore, but I’ll reserve judgment until I finish it.)
A similarly impressionist and powerful experience (though very different in form) has been Lo Kwa Mei-En’s Yearling. Her poems are bright, sensual, and densely packed, and I always leave them feeling something profound and unnameable. I want to write poems that are as hungry as hers.
Two anthologies I have been teaching from are The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. The former, edited by Nate Marshall, Kevin Coval, and Quraysh Ali Lansana, is the best proof I’ve seen that poetry is alive and thriving. It includes some of the most exciting work by my favorite contemporary poets, and (great news for educators!) it’s eminently teachable. The latter, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, includes stories by both established writers and folks deeply rooted in movement work, and it is a beautiful blueprint for the world(s) we’re working to build.
Next on the horizon for me are Planet for Rent by Yoss, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, allegiance by francine j. harris, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Lots to read and learn from!
I just finished Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser. A quirky, lovable book about looking at pictures that could have only been written by Robert Walser.
The most uncomfortably hypnotic novel I read just last week is Bird, a novel written by Noy Holland. She writes such taut, muscular, and spare prose that not a word or comma is wasted. Holland is a poet’s novelist, if ever there was one.
John Ashbery’s latest book, Breezeway, has been in heavy rotation since it came out last year. John seems to have hit a new stride with this book. Both hilarious and moving, he manages to be crystal clear and pleasantly fractured at the very same time. John is always an inspiration.
Ron Padgett’s translations of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone: Selected Poems was a revelation. There are a lot of poems in this volume that I have never seen translated. Ron Padgett has the perfect sensibility to translate Guillaume Apollinaire. Like Apollinaire, he’s funny, irreverent, and boldly direct.
This morning I was reading Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners and was moved to the point of tears. Editors Robert Dewhurst, Joshua Beckman, and CAConrad did a marvelous job putting this important book together.
Of all the big “race books” that have come out over the past two years, Eddie Glaude Jr.’s Democracy in Black is the first one that has really spoken to and penetrated me. “Racial theatre is somehow the stand-in for actually confronting the racial problem,” Glaude writes. “It lets us move on feeling like we’ve done something without challenging the order of things.” Naming and confronting the root (which for Glaude is what he calls the “value gap”) is the pivot I think we need to make, but that is risky and not good, commercially-viable “race theatre.”
Being in DC, I am often thinking about gentrification (and what it is telling us about cultural and socioeconomic shifts in America). Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City and Marc Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community have really helped me think about these shifts in our community-forming habits in more sophisticated ways.
Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory—yo, that book is so serious. It is so casual and sharp—and sincerely impatient—in its undressing of misogyny and male chauvinism. “Men love talking about women at least then they don’t have to talk about themselves,” she writes toward the end of the book. “How is it that in thirty years no man has produced the slightest innovative work on masculinity?” I am working on this new poetry manuscript in which I am trying to deconstruct and reverse engineer my own masculinity. I am taking Despentes’s words as a charge.
Last thing: Susan Napier’s Anime: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. Japanese anime and manga stimulates my mind so much. I am trying to study up on the art form’s historical and cultural context. Three chapters in, and it is a really insightful text thus far.
I’m currently rereading sections I-III of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. I haven’t read sections VI and V yet because, well, I’m stalling and like this feeling that there’s more Levis to come. Elegy, his first posthumous collection, is one of my favorite books of poetry. Top five, easily. (I actually own two copies: one warped by spilled coffee and my clumsy hand, and one still shrink-wrapped in plastic, protected from accident.) I had a small worry that The Darkening Trapeze would read as Elegy B-sides, but that concern was put to rest by the first few lines “La Strada,” the third poem in the collection:
This life & no other. The flesh so innocent it walks along
The road, believing it, & ceases to be ours.
We’re fate carrying a blown-out bicycle tire in one hand,
Flesh that has stepped out of its flesh,
Always ahead of ourselves, leaving the body behind us on the road.
All that anyone could want from a new Larry Levis book is right here (in sections I-III, at least): his cinematic vision, the surprising leaps of imagination, the looping back of previous lines and themes, his preoccupation with time and emptiness and silence, the grand mystery of existence. No other poet makes me more acutely aware of this world.
“The damaged retina has started to peel away leaving innumerable black floaters, like a flock of starlings swirling…” I am rereading (after a gap of many years) the late filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman’s Chroma, his fractured, fragmented meditation on color and AIDS—and memory. For Jarman, who at the time of writing Chroma was losing his eyesight because of AIDs, color was increasingly becoming a function of memory. I’d forgotten how lovely, poignant, and evocative this book is. Poetic. A pastiche of color-lore and art history, personal journal entries and lives of the artists, all interlaced with quotations about color by voices as wide-ranging as Diana Vreeland and Isaac Newton.
Color also infuses Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s poetry collection, Heaven, a book that has received much attention, deservedly so. From its blue, watery cover to lines such as “plum and pear-green/Parapets, pomegranate balustrades” (“The Empyrean”), or to his poem “Mirror for the Mirror” in which “This night sky won’t always be so Rothko,” Phillips’s poems are layered and playful, complex and musical, as color-saturated as they are pixilated with light and air. Like the Chuck Close paintings in his poem “Lucas and Mark,” Phillips’s poems shift and expand, reveal themselves and then reveal themselves anew with each reading.
A quick mention: I am just starting on G.C. Waldrep’s book-length poem Testament. Waldrep’s work is, I think, consistently brilliant. I am also reading the Slovene poet Milan Jesih’s Selected Poems translated by Nada Groselj, and David Ferry’s 2005 translation of Virgil’s The Georgics.
For reasons now lost to me, I read Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel soon after it was translated into English by William Weaver in the seventies; this is a huge, sprawling book, and I was a teenager who’d read almost nothing. I’m rereading the book now, and it’s even more thrilling than I remember—sprawling, yes, but also seductively precise, both in the acuity of its psychological observations (even the dog is a gripping character) and in the plain-spoken lyricality of its sentences (as Weaver recreates them in English). I don’t know of another book, poetry or prose, that feels so big because of its devotions to everything small—a book that feels so pressingly relevant because of its disavowal of all the trappings of relevancy.
The Coleridge I’m also rereading comes close, however. Part of what’s so moving to me about poems like “Frost at Midnight” is the way in which this poet of such enormous capacity of mind becomes so tender, so exquisitely observant both of the mundanities of human experience and of the weights of English syllables: “Only that film, which fluttered on the grate, / Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.” The most familiar modes of human tenderness feel, in Coleridge, inexplicably weird.
Rereading seems to be what I’m doing lately, I don’t know why; maybe because it’s winter.
Before traveling to Iceland I had to read the Icelandic Sagas in which is found a verse form based on metaphor. To make the metaphor you mention something that is not at all like, then something it is like. For instance, the wind is the giant enemy of the mast, or, a sea king’s swan is a ship. The wind is like rowing in opposition; it is the enemy of wood of which the ship is made. This kind of metaphor is called a kenning. The verse form is called drottkbaedi but that’s not a d and the pronunciation and word order in Icelandic are unexpected. But do not doubt that it is fascinating.
I wonder if James Laughlin ever read them. In his complete poems is a book that’s a commonplace book. These used to be done all the time. They’re books of quotations from your reading. Laughlin’s is made of 5-line poems, called pentastics. This is your homework assignment—it might take a year. Meanwhile practice those Icelandic metaphors. My first entry is from Von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative: “The high mountains have their ranunculuses.”
In the past six months there have been landmark publications by the two poets whose work has done more than any to shape my sense of the present possibilities and resources of poetry. The third edition of J.H. Prynne’s poems presents the most formidable poetic achievement of the last half century—but do not fear; the only examination you will face is the one you will set yourself as you write and read in the universe these poems reform. It is good news that at the end of March NYRB Poets will reissue Prynne’s foundational early collection The White Stones; but Prynne is a poet whose work develops into an entirety, and the entirety is Poems. Go for it and go into it. Next, suddenly it seems readers beyond a coterie are ready for the unashamed, embarrassingly poetic stance and diction of John Wieners. Politically the moment is right, and queer/trans* poets and scholars have been Wieners’s passionate advocates. At the same time long-term editorial and research projects on Wieners have come to fruition, at just the moment when a particular phase of avant-gardism seems played out. The place to start is with Supplication, the selected poems published in the US by Wave and in the UK by Enitharmon. Now I wait to hear that a publisher has had the courage to green light the Collected Poems.
A compelling recent collection is A Timeshare by Margaret Ross, whose ravellings of syntax and tenses produce an effect of prospective elegy. This is a compelling twist on the pervasive poetic mourning for lost childhood which now seems to begin in high school; in Ross’s poems the inhabited moment is mourned from an imagined future, and by the end of the book a strange feeling of looking back upon the moment of humanity from a post-anthropocene vantage starts to pervade its formal intricacies. But then, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar.
Phillip B. Williams
Two books I’ve been returning to are Lo Kwa Mei-en’s Yearling and J. Michael Martinez’s debut collection Heredities. I’ve been working through a recent fascination with building a contemporary mythology that explains the inexplicable of our times. Yearling’s language is a documentation of a revision of how to see the world in a different way. Mei-en writes lines like “Wife-beatered, bedroom burst with birds/and sons, my grandfather turns left on red/forever,” and “The underworld is what you thought it’d be,/but not where.” Mei-en’s surreal and often times hyperreal vision alters the way I think about how what we see is often revised by how we express the seen with words.
Heredities does similar work with its integrations of Spanish and with how it manipulates white space on the page to delineate rifts between what is spoken, how, to whom, and with what intention. Martinez, and I could be reading this utterly wrong, seems fascinated with how endings work. We are forced to confront the end of knowledge of gods, of history itself, and with these endings we are left with something new: “No longer the human/frame for world’s sake/bones the weight/and bend of sacrifice,” and “You told me my tongue is the latitude of constant vanishing. I said, I rush thought the dispersed body of the sky,” ring in my ear as how to navigate my own interests of myth-making, origin stories, and therefore the inevitable end.
I’m enthralled by these collections and expect to return to them for a very long time. There is so much to discover in their strange and sometimes eerie perspectives. I do encourage everyone to add these to their collections.
Writing about books you love is like eating potato chips. How do you stop?
I’ve just reread “When the Chips Were Down,” a poem in School for the Blind by Daniel Simpson. In this impassioned memoir, Simpson, who’s blind, tells of his odyssey from a four-year-old “left tonight/with his twin brother/at the boarding school” (a school for blind people) to an adult thinking, “I don’t know what a rainbow looks like/or that my life would be better if I could see one.” Simpson turns a lunchtime squabble over chips into an unforgettable saga of inhumanity. “What else they served for lunch that day…I can’t say,” he writes, “It could have been their infamous sausage…Whatever it was, we’d have to count on the community bowl of potato chips…to carry us to dinner.”
Historically, LGBTQ and/or disabled poets have been excluded from the poetry table. Thankfully, our voices are now being heard! I’m reading QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology. A few of my poems are in this volume, but that’s not why I love this book. QDA, edited by Raymond Luczak, a deaf, gay poet, transforms intersectionality from a cliche into provocative reality. QDA, featuring fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and comics by 48 queer and disabled writers gives voice to defiant, exuberant, and talented code-breakers.
The poem I so wish I’d written: “The Day I Tried to Commit Suicide” from Sit Down Says Love by Grace Cavalieri. Only Cavalieri could joyously write, “I slept under the electric blanket/with the dial up HIGH/before…deciding…to kiss a stranger right on the lips/without washing my hands afterwards.”
Emily Braun, an expert in twentieth-century Italian art, organized Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting for the Guggenheim Museum (October 9, 2015 – January 6, 2016). It was Burri’s first retrospective in the United States in more than thirty-five years. I found the catalogue essay, “The Trauma of Painting,” wonderfully absent of academic jargon and hyperbole, making it a pleasure to read, and decided to look up Braun’s writings on other artists. Most recently, I finished De Chirico: The Song of Love, a short book in the Museum of Modern Art’s One on One series, focusing on a single work in the museum’s collection. Writing about the red rubber glove in this mysterious painting from 1914, one that I have looked at many times, Braun offers this unforeseen insight:
A verbal dimension gives the glove another, crucial layer of meaning, In The Song of Love, the slack fingertips of the rubber glove point to the artist’s signature. Pronounced in Greek as “Chiricos,” the artist’s name combines the words cheir, meaning “hand,” and oikos, meaning “house”; the glove, then, is the “house of the hand.” De Chirico also chose a rubber glove, made for surgeons, knowing well that the Greek word for surgeon, cheirougos, signifies “work of the hand.” A synecdoche for the artist himself, a symbol of his handicraft and his hieroglyphic signature, the glove emerges as cheir-eikon, or an icon of his name.
I am about to start her study, Mario Sironi and Italian Modernism: Art and Politics under Fascism. When not reading art history, I have been making my way through a book of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, a book of poems, the same-different by Hannah Sanghee Park, and Simon Critchley’s collection of brief lives, The Book of Dead Philosophers.
Tags: Bernadette Mayer, Beth Bachmann, David Hernández, Franny Choi, Holly Corfield Carr, James Longenbach, John Wilkinson, John Yau, Kathi Wolfe, Kyle Dargan, Phillip B. Williams, Rachel Allen, Reading List, Sylvia Legris, Todd Colby
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, February 22nd, 2016 by Lindsay Garbutt.