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Reading List: June 2016
In the humidity of the day, Delmore Schwartz’s name alone has always been a kind of tonic, his fervor and frenzy cutting a swath in the landscape, and so Craig Morgan Teicher’s Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz has had my exclamation points of late. There’s something to be said of being reminded what a letter once stood for, and Schwartz’s note in March of 1939 to Ezra Pound announcing his resignation reigns in this reader’s mind. Especially thrilling about the gathering here—not to mention Ashbery’s rich and empathic introduction—is bearing witness to the passion coursing through poem and story, essay and letter alike, suggesting that poet and citizen are one, the man’s gifts overflowing. Struck as well I was by the timelessness of Schwartz’s essays, “The Isolation of Modern Poetry” and “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World,” written decades ago and sending me straight back to E.B. White’s, “Here Is New York,” originally published in 1949, which I am somewhat embarrassed to say I read for the very first time just a couple of weeks ago.
Best novel I’ve read in some time is Naomi Jackson’s recent The Star Side of Bird Hill. Jackson fully imagines three souls—a young girl, her teenage sister, and their grandmother—with an extraordinary clarity of consciousness for each character. Richly but concisely imagistic. An island landscape that’s pointedly unsentimental and entirely realized in every particular.
Also banging away at Slavoj Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes which I keep on my nightstand. Žižek’s looking for what he believes is an essential and revolutionary vein of idealism—necessary for the looming environmental terrors we’ve unleashed—in historical instances of totalitarian politics. It leads down some very chilly tunnels, but Žižek horrifies and delights simultaneously. My mind is generally happier when provoked. I find reading it right as I’m starting to get dozy aids my understanding, like looking at one of those posters where you have to let your eyes unfocus to find the image in the negative space.
And finally, I highly recommend two websites I’ve come to know well in the last year, Brit writer/editor Russell Bennett’s Berfrois and Queen Mob’s Teahouse (cofounded with the writer Rauan Klassnik).
Berfrois does some of everything well—history, culture, politics, philosophy, canonical and contemporary visual arts, with an international flair. It’s such a vibrant, lively intellectual space. I recently came across an essay there by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn titled “Why It Is Important—Today—To Show and Look at Images of Destroyed Human Bodies” that’s haunted me usefully, giving me the means to work out a poem I’ve carried around for years regarding Gericault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa. My understanding of why it calls to me was utterly changed by this essay.
Queen Mob’s Teahouse is Berfrois’s frequently hilarious sister, focusing on the literary arts, music, media. It’s opened me up more to poetry outside the U.S. (though they have a serious interest in American poets as well). Ruben Quesada, Cornelia Barber, Reb Livingston, and Erik Kennedy keep the poetry conversation fresh, full of quick, pithy interviews. And the cherry on top is Queen Mob’s Twitter game, with one of the funniest feeds going, often brilliantly illustrated by their in-house artist, mysteriously known only as @WhiskeyRadish. I check both of these sites most mornings before heading over to The New York Times and Real Clear Politics with my coffee. They shore me up before having to encounter the daily news.
A hard stretch recently with the difficult deaths of my mother-in-law and brother in rapid succession, but such learnings as well, how we read our way through those atemporal times, reading everything, faces, gestures, texts, morning birdsongs, fireflies like little iPhones lighting up the wide-awake midnight trees, all the while our friends pressing books into our hands, each like a bird we can hold for a time, study, then lift into flight:
Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I wasn’t ready for and which felt as if I were reading while drowning. The Tenth of December, George Saunders’s bite-sized pastiche of vivid renderings of life in all its urgency, reminding us, as Frost said, that it goes on, assuredly, in all its thrumming, manic, tragi-comic fierceness. A new young poet and runner-up for the Kingsley Tufts this year, Henry Walters, and his Field Guide: A Tempo, from Hobblebush Books, as bright and deep and artful as any book of poetry I’ve read in years. Ross Gay, the Kingsley Tufts winner, and his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, including one poem in particular, “Weeping,” worth the price of the book alone, from University of Pittsburgh Press, the finest university press poetry series in the country.
And works in progress, mss. that come my way that are busy being born: One of our finest poets, Christopher Howell, and his upcoming book of poems, Love’s Last Number, due out next year from Milkweed Editions, and worth looking out for, one poem, “Wyoming,” again, worth the price alone. Christie Hodgen, Guggenheim-winning author and Professor of English at UMKC, and, luckily, my daughter, and her upcoming novel The Family Gift, a Dickens-wide masterful exploration and excoriation of the one-percenters and the Occupy Wall Streeters, and our expanding cultural abyss, a book beautifully written, at once heartfelt, hilarious, and ultimately devastating.
Throw in six or seven teetering back issues of The New Yorker, three or four poetry journals, every new poem by Julie Marie Wade, a book of quotes and reflections about the concept of vocation I’m editing for the SOPHIA Initiative at Assumption College, a new ms. I’m readying for the aforementioned University of Pittsburgh Press, a third reading of Andrew Motion’s remarkable Keats, and a bedside doorstop tome, heavy as a canned ham, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, a chapter a night, and I’m good.
Donna Stonecipher’s Model City is remarkable for its modulations on “it was like”: “It was like feeling unable to fend off the chilly mise-en-abyme of the advertisements advertising themselves, as if one had accidentally placed a fingertip on the city’s tender spot.” I’ve also enjoyed Follow-Haswed by Laura Walker, based on entries in Volume VI of the Oxford English Dictionary. Also from Apogee Press, Peeping Mot by Andrew Maxwell, with lines like “And then there’s this motto: Candor is the brightest shield.” The hybrid work Bluets by Maggie Nelson impresses me greatly with its confessional yet fictional prose entries, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a must-read that takes the reader to a series of racial injuries, understandings, and regrets. Likewise, the highly experimental Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, with its homophonic wordplays, such as salve and slave, réve and rave. Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio is driven by music, history, and personal listening: “the residual mirror and the drag / behind it. The hesitant buzz in the interval, / on the bias, / at the zoning variance, juked manic, / gone’s punctuated garment.” The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa has been following me around with its incisive melancholy. I’ve lifted some lines as my own titles: “I’m the size of what I see.” I also like to return to a long-established work, Inger Christensen’s alphabet, for its lyrical enumeration of actualities. Finally, C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil, with its firm common sense, especially the essay “Concerning Complexity,” and Maxine Chernoff’s glorious Here, in particular the poem “Staggering Man.”
I moved through Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds and My Walk with Bob in advance of his spring reading here in Portland, his hometown. Bruce shared memories of Stephen Rodefer when I asked, whose Four Lectures hasn’t left the nightstand since he died. He and Michael Gizzi, whose Collected Poems The Figures lovingly published last year, were two hands that helped me up onto the poetry train in the nineties.
I miss Gizzi’s fizz, but found some again in Julien Poirier’s minty new Out of Print. He and Garrett Caples just sprung Frank Lima’s Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems from criminal neglect. Another rescue operation: Linda Leavell’s, fishing out Marianne Moore’s Observations from the overgrown reefs of the Collecteds. On a similar tick, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them regathers the work into Dickinson’s own fascicles, a new path into that blazing mind.
Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952- 2012 pairs better than either would probably want to admit with J.H. Prynne’s newly reissued The White Stones, prefaced by a Gizzi. From the distance of the Pacific, they snuggle and blur at the edges like an Oxbridge yin and yang.
Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Selected Poems in Five Sets and John Beer’s Lucinda have been making the philosophy muscles tingle; soon or soon-ought-to-be published manuscripts by Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, and Alli Warren remind me why I wanted to hop that train in the first place.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie—a wonderful book of essays on explorations and lyrical journeys into the natural world. I’ve forced myself to diet on the book extremely slowly so I can glean every crumb of inspiration for my own occasional forays into non-fiction.
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bates—rather tabloid and salacious in places but some very good background information on Hughes’s writing.
This Is Yarrow by Tara Bergin—a fascinating collection, Bergin is an Irish poet but her work is very much influenced by Eastern European poetry.
The Wild Braid by Stanley Kunitz—a simply beautiful book of poems and meditations on writing and gardening.
The Golden Bough by James Fraser—I’m engaged in a long term project of close reading of this incredible book.
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Delphi Complete Poetry of D.H. Lawrence, and Sujata Bhatt: Collected Poems—my trinity of poetic inspiration, I always have these three books close at hand.
The Divided Self by R.D. Laing—a fascinating study into the existential causes of schizophrenia by a Scottish psychiatrist. Published in the 1960s, many of Laing’s ideas are of course dated but he was incredibly influential in leading the way towards current attitudes of breaking down barriers between patient and professional in mental health settings.
I’ve recently been reading all of Matthew Francis’s four collections to date, published in the UK by Faber and Faber: Blizzard, Dragons, Mandeville, and Muscovy (and have only just realized as I list these that Francis has a penchant for single-word titles). He’s a quirky and underrated poet who hit the ground running: Blizzard has many of the hallmarks of the later books, with little sense of its vision, imagination, or formal poise being embryonic, rather than fully achieved. At the end of Blizzard we get the title poem: a tour-de-force, composed in rhyming quatrains, which describes a contemporary Britain in which it won’t stop snowing. “Blizzard” posits the credible conditions of drastic and unstoppable climate change, from living off looted food (canned or in packets—it can be hard to tell), to falling dangerously ill, to the collapse of the government itself. The quatrains are astonishingly capacious: they contain a variety of moods and tones, from the comic, to the liturgical, to the apocalyptic. I’d also list “Frog Chronicle” and “Dream of the Twentieth Century” from Dragons as super-poems in the Francis oeuvre. “Frog Chronicle” literally invents a new language for sex, à la the worst sex education class imaginable, and manages to be both funny and excoriatingly ashamed at the same time (“There are worse griefs,” it tells is, “but none so embarrassing”). “Dream of the Twentieth Century” takes us on a roller-coaster trance-ride, one stanza per decade, between 1900 and 1999, in which an amazing amount of what happened manages to get convincingly summed up in less than two pages. Finally cast your eye over “Phone Box Elegy” from Muscovy: if you’re of my generation or older (44), and can remember life before mobile phones, or even common landlines, you’ll wish you’d thought of this one first.
I just finished Angela Hume’s Middle Time and Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, brilliant and extremely brave books facing disaster (ecological, emotional), and Lauret Savoy’s Trace (memory, history, race, and the American landscape)—and because I’m doing a little prep for the hybrid forms seminar I’m teaching in the fall I’m rereading Cane. And I’m sporadically reading William Burroughs’s The Adding Machine and William Gass’s Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, part of the postmodernism I absorbed rather than studied (“omg,” said the friend who saw the Gass open on the couch, “I haven’t read that since graduate school!”). And just before that I finally read Geek Love, the writing is faultless—Flannery O’Connor on steroids, right? As self-consciously weird as any of its characters, as lovelorn, as ferociously despairing. What stays with me is the image of the Siamese twins with one sex and two heads: one loved, the other (hated-feared) lobotomized, forced to bear the child of the literally faceless man (their would-be murderer) sent by their brother to rape them. Maybe an image for the condition of American womanhood as we head into the reduction of healthcare rights in the twenty-first century: the “nice” twin lugging around the comatose feminist, both knocked up? On my kitchen table I keep the big Broodthaers catalogue from the MoMA retrospective open: his ability to mix creativity and analysis while putting the focus on the frameworks, from micro (egg) to macro (museum), cheers me. And last night I went out to hear Carolyn Hembree and Rodrigo Toscano read from their amazing new books: Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague and Explosion Rocks Springfield. On my to-read shelf: the posthumous C.D. Wright collections, essays, and poems.
An amazing recent book of poetry I read recently is The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, by Kai Miller. A short classic of twentieth-century fiction would be Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939. What these books have in common is bitterly topical: a subtle grasp of the ways violence weaves its way into the texture of our lives. In that vein, an extraordinary brand-new poetry collection is Olio by Tyehimba Jess.
Three years ago I lost my entire library, including many of my own books. The realtor who bought the whole house with its contents told me he was a Rotary Club member and, not to worry, all the books would be sent on a container ship to Africa. Many signed first edition hardcovers of books by friends, and by my teacher Elizabeth Bishop, have gone on that worthy voyage.
Back on my feet, I’ve started picking up works that came out in 1970 or shortly thereafter, when many friends published their first accumulation of thoughts-in-lines. I was able to find several that were signed to people I knew and didn’t know, but signed in the hand that I knew. Three of these are University of Pittsburgh Press volumes: Jon Anderson’s second book, 1974, In Sepia, signed warmly to “Paul & Sue, Erik & Justine”; Michael S. Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane, “To Tom and Pam”; and Gerald Barrax’s Another Kind of Rain, signed to my late husband Walter Pavlich and myself, when Jerry visited our home in Davis, California.
Jon wrote to his friends, “It seems to me I have two families now, my own and yours — With my love”; Mike wrote, “To a pair who’ve followed many of these poems from their inception — a love supreme —”; Jerry wrote, “with affection and praise.”
Alison C. Rollins
Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing is a text that I often find myself returning to regarding understanding human beings’ “paradoxical duplicity” or inner discourse of “I the living one and I the dying one.” In the chapter “The School of the Dead,” writing “in the direction of truth” allies truth with death because “telling the truth and dying go together.” Through this lens I have been working through francine j. harris’s latest collection of poetry, play dead, from Alice James. Whether it is the line “Let the bodies lie ghost for awhile” in “enough food and a mom” or “I lie so still and wait / to see how still, it will take” in “apparent death” I am left trying to understand the tonic immobility that can be indicative of loving and surviving.
In addition to play dead I have been enjoying Phillip B. Williams’s debut collection Thief in the Interior, also from Alice James. Williams’s collection invites the reader to taste the threat of truth no matter the risk involved: “A wolf’s entrails opened and I stepped / into them. I stepped into the jowls / of the dead, into the stench.” As Junot Díaz writes, “The only way out is in.” And thus as a poet I have been working through these states of fight or flight and even paralysis on the journey inward; just as Williams states in “Of Shadows and Mirrors,” “When I die I’ll die / clutching final words on the final inhale. I think / if I don’t speak then maybe I won’t die.”
Other collections I am thoroughly savoring at the moment are: Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, Carl Phillips’s Reconnaissance, and Lawrence Raab’s Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts.
My reading life of late’s been all hectic & fragmented as I’m packing up my books in preparation for a big move across the country. I’ve both been thinning out my library & getting an influx of the books I’ve leant out over the past several years in Austin. And I’ve been rereading these wayward texts as they’re returned to their rightful place on the shelf I’m about to sell. The most notables are Octavia Butler’s Blood Child, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, Quan Barry’s Water Puppets, & D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscapes or a Guide for Boys which are also the books I turn to most often when I need something to push against my writing or personhood. I’ve been real struck how differently they all read from the last time I sat down with them, which really speaks to reading being a participatory & generative activity. As far as the new(er) acquisitions to my little library, I’ve been reading francine j. harris’s phenomenal & fractured & perfect second collection Play Dead over & over & Cameron Awkward-Rich’s first tour-de-force Sympathetic Little Monster. On the forthcoming front I’ve been lucky enough to read Hieu Minh Nguyen’s & Danez Smith’s second books which are about to do big things to literature & fuck it all up.
A few months ago, Matthew Zapruder was kind enough to send me a bunch of books published by Wave. Among the books was Supplication, the selected poems of John Wieners. I love the raw emotional power of the poems, mixture in terms of their treatment of the shocking and mundane, their simultaneous mysteriousness and simplicity.
I really enjoyed the last issue of Verse Magazine, particularly the chapbooks included in the magazine by Natalie Eilbert and Timothy Liu.
I just read No Object by Natalie Shapero, which was crafty and intense.
For teaching, in the last few months, I have read and enjoyed Citizen by Claudia Rankine, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which I thought were all very powerful books.
Lastly, I sort of feel like I live inside the Fleurs du mal since I’ve been working on experimental translations of these poems for the last few years.
Tags: Alison C. Rollins, D. Nurkse, Erin Belieu, Howard Altmann, John Hodgen, Laura Mullen, Marion McCready, Paul Hoover, Reading List, Rodney Koeneke, Sam Sax, Sandra McPherson, Sandra Simonds, Sinéad Morrissey
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, June 16th, 2016 by Lindsay Garbutt.