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Reading List: December 2016
As a Muslim woman of color, I’ve been having a really hard time reading the news lately. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is really strong and it’s painful to live in a world where that exists. I know that it’s probably a bit strange to start out this discussion with what I am not reading, but that’s exactly what I am going to do. Most of the reading that I’ve been doing lately has acted as a balm to that, as a protectant that I can use to heal myself.
I’ll start with Laurie Ann Guerrero—I heard her read an unbelievable essay about the craft of sonnets and what it means to be a woman of color using an inherited form. Her book A Crown for Gumecindo is incredible—it’s a sonnet crown interspersed with journal fragments about the death of her grandfather. The book is a treasure chest I keep in me, a new map to chart a language of grief.
I read Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval. That book blew me away. I dog-ear poems when I like them and that whole book is dog-eared for me. The language and turns in that book are incredible, I’m made stronger by Vievee’s unflinching bravery.
Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal is wondrous. I read her essay on the Poetry Foundation website, “Gabble Like a Thing Most Brutish,” and was blown away. Safiya is creating all kinds of new theory and terrains for existence in Cannibal; it’s one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time.
Lastly, a book that I was very unexpectedly moved by was Service by Bruce Lack. Bruce serves as a marine in Iraq, the book is an unflinching and stark portrayal of his time there. The book moved me so much I wanted to write him a letter about how I felt about it, but I thought that might be creepy so I ended up not doing that.
Working at a poetry bookstore (hey, Open Books!) means a constant banquet of beautiful language and a moral imperative to feast myself silly. Here are just a few of the collections I’ve read (or re-read) recently that continue to haunt / delight / seduce.
—HOUSE A by Jennifer S. Cheng
Akin to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, this book brings poetry to prose and prose to poetry, layering visual image, epistle, and essay into sequences of oceanic depth. One blurb mentions “an intelligence so deep it feels primal.” Yes. That.
—Selfless by Zoe Dzunko
This TAR chapbook crackles with smart, sexy self-quarrels. Dzunko’s quick syntactic swerves and pairings of the delicate with the profane possess me from the first sentence onward. Plus, Australian!
—Not on the Last Day but on the Very Last by Justin Boening
These Freudian parable-like poems are deeply sad, remarkably imaginative, and (to me at least) profoundly funny. Often I find myself repeating the final lines of “Field Kabuki”: “Is there another world? Is it this one? Is there another world? Is it this one?”
—The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay
Usually when I finish reading a book that inspires and destroys me, I immediately go searching through it with my magnifying glass to examine the hidden mechanisms. This book continues to beguile. How is Girmay doing it?
—Romancero Gitano – Poeta en Nueva York – Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías by Federico García Lorca
I chose this old gem to be my travel companion while in Madrid for a few weeks. In addition to Lorca’s delicious repetitions and bizarre images, it includes some of his drawings, which—especially as a poetry comic artist—I love.
—Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis
Just read it. You’ll see.
On my desk right now are: The Empathetic Store by Jackie Kay, Lara by Bernardine Evaristo, Correspondences by Nisha Ramayya, and 199 Japanese Names for Japanese Trees by Sascha Aurora Akhtar. I bought the Jackie Kay book at an event we read at, at the Migration Museum in London. The venue was running an exhibition with artwork from the Calais Jungle. It was an intense evening during which Kay’s poem “Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk,” featuring a Jamaican woman called Bertha having trouble getting past Heathrow airport security, provided a burst of gallows humor.
Lara is an extraordinary book—a novel-in-verse told from multiple perspectives and semi-autobiographical. For such an intricate form it is a surprisingly effortless read: like gliding over ice, only glimpsing the teeming populations of the narrative in the water beneath. I’ve borrowed this copy from my colleague, Helen, who writes brilliantly on Black British literature.
I received Correspondences as a review copy in my capacity as reviewer for the journal The Constant Critic. It explores the concept of “tantric poetics” and I love this definition: “Tantra is…the plucks and glides of your body as you bend between what you want and what you are able to do.”
Akhtar gave me this copy of 199 Japanese Names for Japanese Trees at a launch event for Out of Everywhere 2: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK. We had been talking about gift exchange. In this book, the poems grow as trees/the trees grow as poems through the pages. It is a visually compelling exploration of the English horticultural convention for providing Latin names for trees at the expense of knowing their original “native” names. Writing about this wonderful book here, in some small way, returns her original gift to me.
I most recently read Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), a collection of a year-round correspondence between Giopgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec in the form of weekly postcards on which they communicated to each other one aspect of their daily lives through a language composed of data visualizations. Their inventions fill in spaces for words missing in our language. The result is both cartoonish (reminscient of Roz Chast) as well as formally beautiful when they choose to overview several patterns at once, without their legends. For anyone interested in finding inventive ways to make language where there is none (butting up against Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”), this book will be conceptually and artistically inspiring as well as an abundant visual feast.
Another book that I recommend for similar reasons and that I return to again and again (no way to exhaust it) is The art of typewriting (Thames & Hudson, 2015), a collection of over 570 illustrations of art that Marvin and Ruth Sackner collected in their Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. This book was long in the making, and Ruth Sackner sadly and suddenly passed away right before its publication. It exists for anyone lucky enough to have visited their archive in person, as well as for those who haven’t. Their archive is one of the wonders of the world, saturate, one might say, like Proust’s oeuvre.
Speaking of Proust, I also recently finished Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet, 2014), which is structured as prose poems in numbered sections [like data] [like Wittgenstein’s treatise?]. While at first its architecture boded dryness, continued reading yielded a cubist-like transformation of its flat plane; a conceptual and magical feat.
Another hybrid work that I read recently is Ely Shipley’s chapbook and lyric essay/memoir, Beards (speCt (an imprint of Omnidawn), 2015). After reading, its cover design evokes copper and the greenish blue of oxidization: their melding. Through his lyric texture, Shipley sculpts a bodily imprint; through texture, a rubbing off; a live marking like a pressed flower.
A few other books I’ve read or am in the midst of reading that I find uncommonly fresh include Kathleen Weaver’s Too Much Happens, Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, Robert Seydel’s Songs of S., and Joseph Massey’s Illocality. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention all the reading I’ve been doing in relation to our current political climate, and articles that I find especially insightful, including “The Fascist Bogeyman” by Malcolm Harris and “The Morning After” by M. NourbeSe Philip.
Finally, the sonic meditations of friend and composer Pauline Oliveros, who a few days ago suddenly left this world, resonate in me and others all over. In his biography of Jack Spicer, Kevin Killian notes that as a student, Oliveros took a poetry class taught by Jack Spicer; possibly the live spontaneity of her work has a poetic kin; duende.
I’m delighted to be reading Pacific Standard Time: New & Selected Poems by West Coast poet and small-press publisher, Kevin Opstedal. I first became familiar with Kevin’s work in the early nineties when he was editing Gas, a supercool “high-octane” zine that brought together many of the edgiest and most exciting writers—people like Ed Sanders, Tom Clark, Amy Gerstler, Jim Carroll, Lucia Berlin, and even some of my poems. Kevin’s own writing reflects his gift for collecting and connecting diverse elements, and making a space where nature and pop culture, beauty and garishness can hang out. Casual enough to seem notational and spontaneous, the poems are, at the same time, incredibly deliberate and sharp. In fact, having the opportunity to read so many of them in this satisfyingly rich selection quickly makes it apparent how controlled the work really is. And did I mention hilarious? Pacific Standard Time is rife with literary jokes, absurdist punchlines, and natural born wit. It’s a pleasure to have and hold this elegant, fog-gray lozenge of a book (kudos to Ugly Duckling Presse) containing over 200 pages of Kevin’s work. Too good not to share, this one is already on my poetry workshop syllabus for spring semester.
(Night) & the wind is working in the leaves
manipulative as in April when it’s really July
I should have known better than to rerun lost causes now
as the music swells & the credits roll up
I know the pulse these cold fingers search for
is only a ripple on the surface of a black pool my heart
a stone skipping across the surface of a black pool
bending silver reeds that palpate your aura
My radio indulges in Martian feedback
the hydraulic surge of waves the eye could see
20,000 leagues beneath the parking lot
with Dick Dale & the Deltones
—From A Short History of Surf Music
Joseph O. Legaspi
Like the people I surround myself with, like half of America, I felt sideswiped, blindsided by the recent election result. My emotion ran the gamut from disbelief to denial to worry to anger to catastrophic fear. I am not anywhere near acceptance. Nor compliance. I am, in fact, preparing myself for action.
And so Bertolt Brecht has been tolling like a bell in my mind: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.”
I first came across these lines as the guiding force to Carolyn Forché’s important anthology of witness Against Forgetting. Now I leaf through its pages with a renewed sense of urgency. I need to be in the company of Federico García Lorca, Etheridge Knight, Nazim Hikmet, and others of such eloquent ferocities. I want to hear and give voice to the oppression and suppression I feel. To empower myself.
It is part of my armoring. My resistance. My act of dissent against a soon-to-be hostile state threatened by my skin color, orientation, existence …
Alongside I carry with me Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems: “If you think you can grasp me, think again: / my story flows in more than one direction.”
And Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems: “Because we stayed home, / Because, loving our city / And not winged freedom, / We preserved for ourselves / Its palaces, its fire and water.”
Also my mentor who’s always with me, Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion: “Out of black bean and wet slate bread / Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar …”
And the revolutionary heart of Bei Dao’s The Rose of Time: “I came into this world / Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow. / To proclaim before the judgment / The voice that has been judged.”
Three books have especially stood out this month, for how each of them fashions from wilderness a prosodic tool. By wilderness, I mean something like recklessness, if we can separate recklessness from the idea of not having thought carefully. Although maybe that’s the point. What I call wilderness is the writer’s commitment to an instinct that puts on the page what risks making no sense, or risks not quite having “earned” its place on the page. Careful conscious thought seems less the point than an absolute faith in instinct, a belief that instinct is maybe a more trustworthy form of thought. And the result, for the work, is an effect I’ll call visionary.
One of the books I’m thinking of is Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth, a collection of essays whose wilderness sometimes shows in particular statements thrown out there with no proof behind them except the author’s belief in them (“Some dreams are always awake, waiting to be activated,” or “Yes, love is an eye in an iron needle that circles the globe”), and often shows in how the essay form itself is handled, thoughts collected that do and don’t obviously relate to one another, until they strangely coalesce and keep resonating, after.
The second book is Ed Skoog’s Run the Red Lights, strange poems that are all the stranger for presenting themselves as straightforward narrative poems which then veer variously into the intimacy of lyric and into a morphed syntax that often gives a surreal cast to the poem. The poems shock via the unexpected device—if that’s the word—of nonchalance. Hard to convey in an excerpt, but here is one, from “Sparrow”:
From my own father I live a long way.
We go about our silent cautions, but in a sense
beyond body, I hope if I look toward him
just right to perceive his outline
going about the house, or do I see
one sparrow afternoon when I am a child
pulling nests from barn rafters
with a wire rake, spilling the infants
for me to scoop and commit to the wide
terror of the trash can’s green?
Finally, there’s Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History, which is put together unlike any novel I’ve read before. Reviews mention bricolage, but that isn’t an especially new technique. Plus, I think of bricolage as being less overtly organized than is the case here. We routinely encounter chapters called “Jacob’s Journals,” “Satan’s Interviews,” “In the Clinic,” for example—which is to say, the novel is highly structured—an especially good thing, since this works as a grounding counterpoint to a narrative that risks being chaotic as a way of having us inhabit a mind teetering, throughout, at breakdown. But there are at least three chapters, each titled “Jacob’s Stories,” which increasingly risk seeming to come out of nowhere—yes, they are written by the main character, but what do they have to do with the story overall? Everything and maybe nothing, at once…. This is before I mention the risk of including Satan, Death, oh and fourteen saints as potential rivals for main character. Or the risk of how each sentence is put beside the next one … Wilderness, indeed—at the end of which, there’s a light that looks a lot like brilliance.
Suzie told me to read Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson, so I did. The teacher, a version of Codrescu but not an exact replica, seems dickish, but nevertheless, it would probably be pretty great to take a poetry class with him. My mom told me to read Delia Ephron’s Siracusa and it was SO GOOD. Five deliciously awful people take a trip to Italy together, secrets come out, the ending surprises you but also seems inevitable. My daughter Celie said on Instagram that Hannah Hart’s memoir Buffering made her cry for 10000 hours, so obviously I had to read that and see why. It was good, but it didn’t make me cry for 10000 hours.
Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s new superhero comic book, Angel Catbird, and the most recent edition of The Best American Comics, edited by Roz Chast. I was gleeful to see John Porcellino (King-Cat) included along with two of my favorite makers of comics, Lynda Barry and Kate Beaton, and a new discovery, Cece Bell. On a trip to Los Angeles, I finished Camilla Läckberg’s latest mystery novel, The Lost Boy, and then picked up Judd Apatow’s I Found This Funny from Tom and Wendy’s shelves, and was pleasantly surprised to find several Tony Hoagland poems in it, including “I Have News for You,” the one that begins “There are people who do not see a broken playground swing / as a symbol of a ruined childhood …” Oh and we went to two fantastic bookshops in L.A. and I fell in love with Sanaa Kahn’s tiny zine “The Many Ways of the Potato,” which you can read in about twenty seconds.
Some poems are the refuge I retreat into when the world’s too much. The world’s too much. In this terrifying moment I’ve been having trouble finding the recent poems that once salved salving. So I’m turning back to writing that challenges & scolds & bears witness to historical violence similar to our current moment’s. These include The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Yannis Ritsos’s “Diaries of Exile” poems written in Greek concentration camps during their civil war, Paul Celan’s Selected Poems, & The Complete Works of Pat Parker just newly released this year. It’s important for me to remember that the work that poetry does to resist & agitate & affirm & estrange is as ancient as poetry. Books out this year I can’t wait for, & let me just say faith in books is a kind of insane optimism in people & publishing & readership & the continued survival of our species, are Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing, Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead & so so so many more. I can’t wait to read the poems that must come. We need them desperately.
Halfway through October I decided on a total news-blackout in order to build a personal parallel universe from which I excluded a number of assorted political loonies. I’m not naming them here, not wishing to give them the oxygen of publicity. This universe is proving a great success, freeing my spirit into a deeper, richer, and yet more exacting experience of poetry, both as reader and writer.
I have been re-reading Peter Davidson’s The Palace of Oblivion. These wrought and gorgeous poems merge the contemporary world with taut mysterious interventions from the seventeenth century; vistas and encounters stretch from his own north-lit Hibernia to Europe and Spanish America; they are often shot through with glimpses of a strange forgotten Catholicism. He writes:
Weep, grieving rivers, mourning from your springs
Silver Lune, black Mersey, deplore them, still,
Offer your tears to the seas, to the ebb-tide ever receding;
As drifting England mourns offshore,
Foundered in mist and schism still.
A few days ago I received a copy of Elizabeth Burns’s posthumous volume, Lightkeepers. Born in Scotland, Elizabeth died in 2015 aged 58. Her last poems are brimful of her characteristically scrupulous compressed lyric composure. In every pure line she discerns where the spirit visits and is welcomed into ordinary places, a recovery room, a kitchen, an old cupboard. Through the grace and power of her language these places become portals into the sacred, which is (in her work) always down-to-earth and full of utter reality, as here:
… and Bach himself
who is like a mountain covered in wildflowers …
—from Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Kitchen
Naomi Shihab Nye’s Transfer (2011), which mourns the poet’s father, speaks to me now. Quotidian details—accidentally undercounting lemons and arousing a cashier’s suspicion in “Chicho Brothers Fruit & Vegetable #2,” or reading in a library that lends garden tools in “Burlington, Vermont”—are magnified by unspoken grief. Political conflict in the Middle East is sometimes stated but always present. That “Knowing” is an elegy gives its opening great weight: “On April 16, 1953, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a letter / to my father answering one of his own. / No, she said. I do not think Arab refugees / should be permitted to return to their homes / in Israel.” A series of poems whose titles are taken from the father’s notebooks merge the voices of father and daughter and capture some of the complexities of being an immigrant or the child of an immigrant in America. Some favorite titles: “A Kansas Preacher Called Me Muscleman,” “Is Misery Near Kansas, I Asked,” “Fifty Years Since I Prayed or Thought in Arabic.”
My own father’s exile from home, though from a different country, began in the same year as Nye’s father’s, 1948. I must be interested in that era because another book that has moved me recently is a cookbook, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao (1945). With recipes such as “Asparagus Stirs Chicken Shreds” and “The Red First-Rank Pot,” it captures territory lost between Chinese and English. Confident in its quirkiness, it introduces “Sour-Hot Soup” thus:
This is also a very famous soup that sometimes will help you get rid of leftovers. But sometimes we also purposely make it with fresh materials. Whichever its origins, it is a most appetizing soup, if properly made, and is very helpful when one is not hungry but has to eat.
I spent most of my 2016 at different places in Germany—discovered the forest, where Goethe wrote his Erl-King (in East-Germany, in Jena, almost on every stone there is an engraving, “Schiller or Goethe sat once here”). But next to the vivid combination of classics and post-socialism there are amazing young writers and poets in this country, who are also available in English; for example, the great Ann Cotten, who has such a “fresh” way of description with a super sense of humor. After the East I went to the South and at the castle of Academy Schloss Solitude you cannot avoid amazing international voices. This time I met mostly story tellers, like Chandrahas Choudhury and Amandeep Sandhu, who are specialists in picturing the smallest situation and “attack” all our senses. The year ends and my street is the neighborhood of Günter Grass and Thomas Mann, again two heavy men, as well as stone engravings in the magical Lübeck. Günter Grass’s graphic design and combined visual prose/visual poetry appears on the walls with thick chopped animal heads and with the citation: “A graphic artist who also writes is someone who does not change the ink.” A special German humor, so to speak. Next to them a bit of Heinrich Böll, whose Women in a River Landscape shows how our society, the class system, the unprocessed past affects and poisons our everyday life. But after that amount of classics and high-level literature I pretty much need to go back to my old habits and buy a Lustiges Taschenbuch to enrich my collection of German expressions—Donald Duck is a perfect partner for this.
Tags: Adrienne Su, Carl Phillips, Elaine Equi, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Fatimah Asghar, Gabrielle Bates, Jessy Randall, Joseph O. Legaspi, Kinga Toth, Penelope Shuttle, Reading List, Sam Sax, Shira Dentz
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 by Lindsay Garbutt.