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From Poetry Magazine

Reading List: January 2017

By Lindsay Garbutt
Airan Kang, "Light Reading," 2010.

Airan Kang, “Light Reading,” 2010.

The Reading List is a feature of Poetry magazine’s Editors’ Blog. This month contributors to the January 2017 issue share some books that held their interest.

Farnoosh Fathi
For the past two years, I’ve been ecstatically moored in the Smith College archives, exploring the writings of the visionary poet Joan Murray (1917–1942).

Like the young Rimbaud, Murray intended to make herself a seer, and her astonishing output before her death, from chronic illness, at 24—including hundreds of pages of poetry, several novels, stories and plays—are a resounding testament to her achievement. “There is the fresh imagination and understanding. I may hit directly to the core of the intellectual intuitive. One almost has to forget that others have thought before one so that the essentials may be alive and not inhibited by the second- or third-hand reaction generally exhaled.” Her work is the clearest evidence in American poetry of the visionary nature of youth and of the capacity that we all have to fully embody our experience through art, no matter your age or your condition. Murray’s poems give the courage we need—maybe now more than ever—to heighten and balance our attention: “to recreate what is desolated, to rebuild; the fact that the spirit exists beside every terrible destruction; that the sensitive but inarticulate line is being put upon innumerable plans while all is in shambles.”

I’m looking forward to 2017 because Murray’s remarkable poems will be in print again, so her work can be enjoyed widely, and as much as I do.

Jameson Fitzpatrick
When I haven’t been compulsively scrolling through Twitter to keep up to date with the latest (inter)national crisis, I’ve been busy preparing my syllabi for next semester. This year, that means a re-read of bell hooks’s 1994 classic Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. hooks’s conception of the classroom as a space of radical possibility is the bedrock of my pedagogy, and helps ground me in the reality that a composition class is not only about teaching young people how to write competent essays, but also an opportunity to foster curious, compassionate critical thinkers.

I’m also teaching a new seminar of my own design in the spring called Nobody & Everyone: The Queer History of American Poetry. A survey-cum-theory-cum-creative writing adventure, we’re beginning with Emily Dickinson (the titular Nobody) and Walt Whitman (Everyone) before turning to Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera and the work of contemporary Native poets Tommy Pico and Natalie Diaz to interrogate notions of “American” poetic tradition. We’re then picking back up in the early twentieth century and making our way through several periods, movements, and aesthetics till we again reach the present moment.

I’m working on my lesson plans now, fiddling with exactly which poems to focus on with my students—and still adding new poets to the syllabus. In particular, I want to include three queer poets who published debut collections this fall. They are: Ari Banias’s Anybody (W.W. Norton) (which I’m working on a tardy review of), Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf), and Jen Levitt’s The Off-Season (Four Way Books). Each of them, though quite distinct from one another, inspire, challenge, and instruct me as a poet and person.

Pierre Joris
No matter what else has gone wrong with this year (and much did, obviously, & I won’t dwell on it!), it is going out with a bang: the mailman just handed me today, Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 2:15, a large envelope with a large, gorgeous book: Clark Coolidge, Selected Poems 1962–1985 edited by Larry Fagin and Clark Coolidge, & with an introduction by Bill Berkson (Station Hill Press, 2016). A tome that will see me into the new year as I meet work again that has been a major pleasure for decades (but are the poems we read in a Selected ever the same, or exactly the same, as those we read over the years in magazines, chapbooks, or bigger, “normal” collections? I don’t think so.) As Lyn Hejinian says: “What’s in this beautifully edited volume is, for me, the manifestation of art’s ultimate achievement. Clark Coolidge writes a whole art, an all-moment of being somewhere and thinking it.” I will not only read it but will read it aloud, as behooves the work of our finest sonic craftsman.

For a good part of the year I have been delighting in a leisurely meander through the final two volumes of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s long serial poem Drafts, and have finally arrived at Draft 114, the final poem (in Surge: Drafts 96-114, Salt Publishing, 2013). Wow! What an achievement: the work deploys a dizzying, infinitely expandable (one could think) series of possibilities—formal and content-wise—just turn a page and you are in an elsewhere you didn’t suspect could exist. If Pound called the long poem—the male epic, that is—a poem with history, then this is l’autre face, a long poem, non-epic, but with herstory. Which she has meanwhile continued with a stunning little tour de force: Poesis (Textile series), a writing-over the exact formal layout of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés. Spoiler alert: Mallarmé’s last line—Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés—becomes “All Books Gloss Insatiable Desires for a Further Edge” & I’m de préférence with Blau DuPlessis on this, as on many other such choses.

A major work to reach us in 2016, from England this time, is Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a consequence of shape (Reality Street Editions). The poems (sequences always, never single poems) that make up this nearly 600-page opus, were composed between 1982 & 2006 and published in many chapbooks and volumes over the years. Thought through ab initio as a coherency with fractal topographies, Gravity combines a vast array of knowledges, be they from biological or physical sciences, or from literature and art, with a most powerful degree of formal invention (procedural structures crossed, bent, enriched and written through by processual activities) coupled with a political and social radicalism and insight that are truly stunning. The work is both immediately enjoyable and demanding of long-time immersion, and the thinking is of a complexity similar to that of a Charles Olson (who was certainly a fire-source for Fisher). Happily the University of Alabama Press has just published the perfect companion to Gravity: a volume of Allen Fisher’s essays, Imperfect Fit: Aesthetic Function, Feature & Perception in Art and Writing since 1950. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword to this book.) Both these volumes will see you through a good part of 2017, may even give you some hope that a combination of human intelligence and aesthetic facture can offer us what Olson called meta hodos, a methodology for en-vision-ing an exemplary path towards—in a term that originates in Foucault’s last conferences—parrhēsia, truth-telling, even deep inside the dire straights we’re in.

As I’ve mentioned Olson, let me point you to another excellent book just out: Letters for Olson, gathered & edited by Benjamin Hollander (Spuyten Duyvil Press), with Etel Adnan, Ammiel Alcalay, Amiri Baraka, Michael Boughn, Ed Sanders, Ruth Lepson, Kenneth Warren just a few of the contributors. It was to be Hollander’s penultimate bravura piece: Ben passed away in November—a great loss for his friends & for the wider community of engaged poets. I have been rereading his truly prophetic 2013 book In the House Un-American (Clockroot books) and, on the excellent & radical new online magazine of which he was a board member & major contributor, Dispatches, excerpts from his final work, The Letters of Carla, the letter b. A Mystery in Poetry with a foreword by The Future Guardian of the Letters and an afterword by Benjamin Hollander to be published later this year from Chax Press. Another old departed friend, the Swiss-Italian poet Franco Beltrametti saw (I know you’re looking, wherever you are!) a Selected Poems 1965–1995 called From Almost Everywhere come out, edited by Stefan Hyner & published by Fondazione Franco Beltrametti & Blackberry Books. As Gary Snyder has it, his “smooth-barked Muse leads him across the grids of latitude and longitude to the source of good medicine poems.”

Another writer I admired intensely left us this year: the Algerian poet & novelist Nabile Farès—should you not know his work, try A Passenger from the West, translated by Peter Thompson & including the author’s 1970 interview with James Baldwin (UNO Press) or his Exile and Helplessness (same translator, Dialogos Books). To stay with the Maghreb for a moment: go read the Moroccan poet, essayist, and philosopher Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Tattooed Memory (translated by Peter Thompson, L’Harmattan, 2016), a North African Bildungsroman of the first order.

Two anthologies need mentioning: James Thomas’s Grains of Gold: An Anthology of Occitan Literature, published in late 2015 by Francis Boutle Publishers in London, which reveals to an Anglophone public for the first time the whole wealth of Occitan literature beyond the 11/12 century troubadours translated by Pound & Paul Blackburn—newsflash! The latter’s Proensa has just been reissued by NYRB!—, a wealth colonialistically (if that word doesn’t exist, it should, & does now) suppressed by France imposing their northern dialect (French) on the whole southern half of the country. The other major anthology of the year is A Sulfur Anthology edited by Clayton Eshleman (Wesleyan University Press)—full disclosure: there is work of mine in it—and which I reviewed on my blog, Nomadics.

There were of course other books I read this year, most massively in the first part of 2016, the entire oeuvre of Ingeborg Bachmann. The excuse for that breathtaking adventure was the fact that I wrote a play, The Agony of I.B., dealing with her life and death during those first six months. Rereading her—especially the later prose—made it clear that she is one of the absolutely major voices writing in German in the second part of the last century. If you only know the poetry, go check out the novel Malina (translated by Philip Boehm, Holmes & Meier, 1990) and the unfinished the book of franza & requiem for fanny goldmann (translated by Peter Filkins Northwestern University Press). Two more & we’re done: On my 2016 travels twixt New York, Boise, Paris, Casablanca & Glasgow, I always had two books of poems in my satchel: Robert Kelly’s Heart Thread (Lunar Chandelier Collective) and his Opening The Seals (Autonomedia). Here the opening line of poem 85 of Heart Thread: “Every page is precious especially the blank.”

Sheryl Luna
During this time with a call to build a wall along the Mexican border, Emmy Pérez’s With the River on Our Face (University of Arizona Press) is an important and timely read. In poems with titles like “The History of Silence,” “Left after crossing,” and “What the Arizona SB 1070 copycat bills in Texas can’t abolish,” Pérez uses dense, surprising language to speak to the injustices along the border. The book moves easily between Spanish and English, from borderland cities such as El Paso to Hargill, Texas, between the imagistic poetic line and ambiguity. She speaks to the lack of understanding Washington has of the border:

Where there is yet no steel or concrete
Border, waves from high speed patrol
Boats ripple
Agents shine lines of lights in Reynosa’s trees
The line as discovery, the line as law enforcement
The sky and trees not la migra’s property, nothing here its property
(that’s not true)
As they trespass with light

Paul Manuel Lopez’s The Yearning Feed (University of Notre Dame Press) received the Ernest Sandeen Prize. It also addresses the issue of border crossings, but the California/Mexico border. The book explores the culture of the Imperial Valley, and a number of the poems deal with the drug culture there. Despite this seriousness, the book is humorous and witty. The poems are full of surprises and interesting turns. In “The Lecture” a father pleads with his son to stop reading books:

… Everyone will think you’re crazy
when you walk around town with worn-out books in your back pocket
wearing socks with holes in them, dirty calzones and talking to yourself,
even though you hear Beethoven and Mahler in your head and not that
radio shit everyone listens to. You won’t even have a job, cabrón!

Raymond McDaniel
Some of the recent coverage about the value of poetry focuses on how poetry can restore or reinforce shared values, but right now what I want more than anything else are alternatives: poems that don’t just consider different ways of doing things, but enact them.

Rebecca Gaydos’s Güera presents selfhood not as a series of claims to be asserted or refuted, but as a complex of variables that gain the most meaning when we attend to how messily and richly actual persons live actual lives. In Unbearable Splendor, Sun Yung Shin does something similar with mind itself, crafting a sort of photonegative of the essay form by suborning her catch-all of disparate references to a task of self-making that rejects the idea of “disparate” altogether. Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels, maybe the best book yet by a poet who has never written one that is less than excellent, doesn’t sacrifice the most astonishing delights of sound for the alternative pleasures of plain speaking; it chooses to go so far with each they arrive a kind of hyperbolic orbit, wild and stable all at once. And finally, Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water, a book that breaks my heart every time I reread it, quietly performs the inspirational beauty of embracing multiple ways of seeing and loving, and refuses to yield to the endless pressure to be less than who we are.

It’s a grim time, but I am so irresistibly happy to have poems like these. As events conspire to apply greater and greater pressure to our sense of what is possible, the courage and imagination these books demonstrate and provide will help me strive for a complete and various world.

Sandra McPherson

I.
I feel a need to read three women: Sheila Zamora and Abby Niebauer, who were murdered by their husbands; and Joan Swift, who as a rape victim also testified at the trial of the rapist who subsequently murdered another woman in her neighborhood. Not only should these poets be remembered, read, and valued, we need to hear how the lyric may sing out over the violence meant to still their voices.

All three women’s weapons were their poetics. Joan Swift’s work on rape, the line-up, prosecution, and testimony given in a subsequent murder trial, is readily available in Dragon Gate’s The Dark Path of Our Names, and BOA’s The Tiger Iris; Sheila Zamora’s writing on threats to her life can be located in the posthumous Leaf’s Boundary, L’Epervier Press; and Abby Niebauer’s, Sun Rose, a handset type posthumous edition, can be ordered online.

In this piece, I don’t want to count the words—because these women’s days were numbered.

The opening poem in Niebauer’s Sun Rose begins

The road is laced with oaks.
It is morning. The sun shivers
in these branches, early with frost.
Walking toward me is a man
with a smile that starts and stops.
I am slow. When the corners of my mouth
turn up, his lie straight
and plain. I can read his eyes
only sometimes and then I’m not sure.
I open my eyes wide
so he can travel there if he chooses.

Suspense, and tension, but also a sense of place, a place she’s made her own, “wire” all the lines in the book. A later poem ends by uniting fear and language:

Don’t say anything.
Hold me.
I haven’t words either.
I just pretend I have
to try and calm
this terrified woman.

Her self-portrait is that of a desirous woman with a capacity to live a full rich life: “I wanted everything, expected almost nothing, but there wasn’t time for even that.” Her killer was convicted 14 years after the murder. A pretense of a misfire of an antique shotgun, on the evening of February 22, 1985, kept James Niebauer from being prosecuted for 14 years until the forensics proved his guilt: shotgun blast to the chest. That explanation did not ring true to friends and relatives who knew that Abby Niebauer was both afraid of guns and of her husband. A well-known poet in the San Jose/Palo Alto area, she was, according to police records, planning to leave her husband at the time of her death. Detective Mike York “fastidiously reconstructed the case by blowing apart his last five shirts.” Friends of the poet’s posthumously assembled Sun Rose, the third of Niebauer’s small-press collections.

II.
“It was a handgun—that’s all I know,” a friend of Sheila Zamora’s wrote me, “He was a retired Lt Colonel—Air Force—had been a bomber pilot. His name was Nathan Reynard.” He killed her in the room next to where their sons were. He received a fairly short sentence and was soon out of prison, but when he stole some gold from the Motorola plant, he was incarcerated for a longer stay. We have Zamora’s collection Leaf’s Boundary thanks to Pamela Stewart, who assembled the delicate and strong poems in an exquisite order. She tells me that “everyone [in the ASU graduate writing program] adored her; she was a humble gentle soul.”  Her poems are written with the tenderness she was seeking in others.

The book could be written in pencil and thread. To her poems Zamora brings gracefully worded attention to light, color, object, and line. The context of this delicacy, however, was a violent home life she was trying to escape when her husband killed her. The poems constantly complicate the tone in ways like this turn: “Fragile, in too much / light, they [geraniums] fall like butterflies / on leaf-wings // multi-colored and deeply blind.” Her urgency of purpose empowers the most perilous of scenes. A kind of poetics is suggested in these opening lines of

The Talk of Two Women

              For Dina

In the study, I turn
the Wandering Jew in an opposite
direction from where it has leaned
toward the light, find in the deep
glossy purple of underleaves
the underside of words.
We share

what we know about fear, about the obvious
risks of loving

Some of us know how in an abusive relationship a poet learns to write using “the underside of words”; leaning is learning too.  I taught for fifteen years a course on Love and Desire in Contemporary American Poetry; though it didn’t often deal in crime, there were a few poems that explored the nature of “love” warped by criminal intent. We had a large unit under the theme called “Trouble.” In that we studied two poems of Zamora’s, which appear on facing pages in Leaf’s Boundary, “April” and “In Return.”

“April” reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s “Trying to Talk with a Man,” in its differing perspectives between man and woman—

The insane birds
and cricket-thunder in a yellow field
blur the tractor ruts. Remnants
of cotton, a few
white spools

wadded in muddy grass.
After supper, we walk the pale dirt road
leading from our house
to the broken weeds where
a small boy’s cheek
crushed beneath that tractor. The hollow breath

of our hate and arguing is brilliantly
strange with grief. Children,
hollowing their fort, pause now to watch us, testing the road

as if it were ice. Clear and ruthless
as your face, my wish
not to see your face. Its leather has softened
with your thoughts of a young boy. He was
like you, and you could love
or forgive him; you knew

his first cruel desire was never cruel as yours.

Like Rich’s poem of conflict, “April” is placed in a particular locale in the Southwest. “In Return” should stand as textbook poetics in the psychoanalysis of violence and its fakery and how it’s excused:

I know you think
you love me. One night,
when your loneliness was storming,
the idea of love was born.
everything became quiet, the night
had that washed, clean smell.
The rain stopped.

I remember your tenderness
toward me. You scrubbed floors,
cleaned house, made love to me
with your love
in mind. I became lazy.

but this wasn’t enough.
You wanted me quiet
while it talked, wanted
to let it tear through the house
like a spoiled child
determining our lives. Even now

you shout at me
if I question you
about your love, its habit
of locking doors, making more
noise than a storm —

making you lonely in return.

“April” and “In Return” treat “underneathness,” what is under the appearance / veneer, what tills us under in the long run perhaps.

Constantly threatened, and fearing for her children as well, Sheila separated from her husband in the late Spring of 1978. On June 10th, while picking up the boys from a visit with their father at the house they all had shared, she was shot four times by her husband and died.

III.
In the hills of Montclair, California, a knife was held to a poet’s back. Later, when the rapist was released from Atascadero, a new knife killed Joan Stewart, a botanist who lived three blocks from where the rape of the first Joan S, my friend, had taken place.

In the seventh sonnet of “A Crown,” Swift matches the image of Joan Stewart to her own self and “wears her” in Shakespeare’s model form:

Sister victim, I could have told you storms
aroused him, wind’s way with branches, whole trunks
of trees blocking the road, all the small streams
swollen and spilling out of their ferned banks.
You knew nothing of me and can’t now, breath
stopped by the same hands that grabbed my throat.
Did he chant behind you? No, he filled your mouth
straightforward, then made his awful cut.
I want to think he killed you accidentally
but those words I whispered to him I love
you are rain darkening back as the next day
he did and the police were there. What of
our matching names? I have no blood sister
but your blood stains my breasts, my thighs, my hair.

Swift’s earlier series, “Testimony,” dedicated to this victim includes one poem in the voice of the coroner autopsying the woman she herself could have been (“I sat a long time near the lake inside her mouth. / Semen glistened in the fluorescent light over the table”). Particularly difficult for the poet is the monologue of her own testimony where the language in the courtroom is repulsive to say but the poem on the page must only suggest that, not be made entirely of it.  As Swift assumes, in turn, each persona who spoke from the witness stand, she’s the voice of the coroner, the reflecting mother of the murderer, the husband of the murdered and raped victim, the sister who taught him to read at 19, and the detective, who finds lipstick in the palm of the killer’s glove: “The print was of a slightly open mouth, caught / before the scream.”

From news reporting one can find out that Joan Stewart was killed Jan. 5, 1982, at or about 3:45 p.m.; and that Charles Jackson died in San Quentin Feb. 15, 2002. What survives, we know, is the poet’s voice. Sheila Zamora’s book acknowledges this in its concluding lines, the expectation that there must be “another season / when we will be free for words.”

Andrew Motion
I moved from London to Baltimore in the summer of 2015 to take up a teaching post in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins. One clear reason for changing my life in so dramatic a way was to give myself the chance to bathe more easily in the great Mississippi-flow of American poetry. It’s not that a Brit living in the UK is actually prevented from knowing what’s going on over here—but distance, ignorance, the restrictions of publishing and reviewing make it difficult to get a wide view.

And what does the wide view reveal? Well, the first thing to say is: although there seem to be some common emphases (on formal freedoms, on identity assertion of one kind and another) the range of stuff is frankly astonishing. The upside to this is that individual poets are left to get on with their own thing, and not expected to refer to any kind of centre; the downside is that judgments about quality become too tentative (“Oh, you can’t say that’s no good, it’s just what they do in that school/city/part of the country.”)

So what have I especially enjoyed? As well as immersing myself in poets whose work I already knew (Ashbery, Dove, Graham, Charles Wright), and exploring others I ought to have known better but didn’t (James Wright, in particular), the two recent collections that have meant most to me are: Standing Water by Eleanor Chai, a long and subtle investigation of selfhood and Korean/Japanese inheritance; and Look by Solmaz Sharif, which brilliantly mixes specifically military language with its civilian counterpart to produce some highly original poems about war and conflict.

And so as not to ignore my past entirely, two from this year’s crop in Blighty: a long-awaited round-up of work by Denise Riley, Say Something Back, which includes “A Part Song,” the best elegy written anywhere for a good while; and Falling Awake by Alice Oswald, who is as expert at deploying her lines as exhalations as she is at seeing familiar things (flies, dawns, leaves) afresh.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I write this from Oxford, Mississippi—one of the great literary towns in this country—on the cusp of a new and uncertain new year. All my life I have turned to books for solace and escape and wanting to travel and find out more about this big blue planet and her inhabitants. It is one of my big hopes that in 2017 and beyond, people continue to read and read about experiences different from their own. I’m reading these days for strength and refuge, for bravery to resist and to call out injustice, and as always, for remembering gratitude (even and especially on dark news days). I hope to be always grateful for books and paper and ink, for this planet. And for having a mouth that can read a favorite passage aloud and can kiss and sigh. Here then, is a sampling of recent books that made me read sentences/verses aloud to my sweetheart:

Before Oxford, I lived in a small town where it was especially painful to be one of the only brown bodies I’d ever see on a daily basis. And so to see and imagine more brown bodies, I am grateful for J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed). Professor Lanham is a birdwatcher extraordinaire and I was mesmerized by his graceful descriptions of a world that seemed (all too frequently) to be lacking something like grace. I was particularly moved by his examining of what it means to be “the rare bird, the oddity” of a brown person who loves to examine nature up close.

Another gem that was a delight to read and savor out loud is Allison Joseph’s gorgeous ruby of a chapbook, Mercurial (Mayapple Press), which reminds me of all the fun and sass to be had when writing in traditional form (odes, villanelles, sonnets) and how vital and affirming it is to read about women’s bodies—in all their beautiful shapes—this past year especially.

Hour of the Ox, by Marci Calibretta Cancio-Bello (University of Pittsburgh) is the recent winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, a debut that sings across ocean and bone. This book is “not a love song, nor a glossary of despair,” but rather wholly enchanting and original, bearing the beauties and failures of the body. Grab it and see. And join hands with someone new today.

Alicia Ostriker
Here are some books of poetry that have recently had me jumping up and down with joy, wanting to tell everybody. How nice to have this opportunity to share my delight. I’ll make my list alphabetical because I don’t want to rank these books, only to praise them.

Wendy Barker, One Blackbird at a Time. This is a book for anyone who teaches literature and/or creative writing. The venue is the classroom, but don’t be fooled. Barker is the prof who can’t help embracing literature, students, and life—life sensuous, cruel, funny, generous, outrageous, and deeply personal. A hunky student writing a bad poem reminds her of a hunky boyfriend “fifty-some years back.” In a class on Mrs Dalloway, “nobody around this table wonders / why Septimus hurls himself / out the window, nobody / needs PTSD explained.”

Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. These are lyrical, conversational, ardent poems that include—and are not defeated by—the omnipresence of loss, death, racism, and are able to celebrate family, glee in the natural world, the dearness of friendship, craziness, and humanity. My reading group, which mostly reads fiction and non-fiction, was totally won over. Check out the sidewalk fig tree in the opening poem, and I dare you to stop reading. A special treat is that Gay can write long poems full of surprises, that are just single sentences.

Mohja Kahf, Hagar Poems. Kahf reinvents the voice—ancient but also modern—of the outcast woman in the Bible and the Koran, with high humor and biting satire, spiritual depth and secular raunchiness, anger and pain—and glorious defiance. Irreverence embraces devotion, and though “grieving goes on for ages,” the poet can even imagine Hagar and her rival Sarah, mothers of the Arab and the Jewish people, together bridging Israel-Palestine:

a Hamas sniper, a Mossad assassin fall
to their knees, rocking; each one cries,
“I was only defending my—my—”
Into the arms of each,
Hajar and Sarah place a wiling
orphaned infant. Slow moaning
fills the air: Atone, atone.

What do these three volumes have in common? In a world that seems to grow grimmer every day, a world where we cannot avoid being battered by news of unbearable cruelty and suffering, a world where poets can so easily armor themselves in coolness and irony, these are all books with their hearts open for all to see. They comfort me by reminding me that the torch of human tenderness can burn fiercely even in the darkest times. And they are all terrifically skilled. I read these poets and I think, How do they do that?

Tommy Pico
First and foremost I read myself with this tweet, “I fucking hate bein @ gay bars alone bc im annoyed if ppl want to talk to me & insulted when they dont” because narcissism. Here are some things I read recently that stuck out to me.

Decolonizing My Desire by Jeremy O. Harris—It’s kind of about how whiteness worms its way into the loins of queer folks of color, erasing ourselves in the process, and how writing offers a space for self-“discovery” (though I’m aware of the colonial intimation of that word) and, really, existence itself.

“The Radical Self-Respect of Fiona Apple’s Sleep to Dream 20 Years On” by Jenn Pelly—I read this and promptly listened to the song approx. 69 million times. God I love this album. I had always thought of that line like: I go to sleep to sleep, but I don’t go to sleep to dream—I’m manifesting my gd life. The dream is real. 2016 offered a lot of unprecedented (for me) professional opportunities, so in many ways it’s been the best year of my life (so far)… But there was so much socio-political gloom that I’m not sure how to feel. I can tell you, however, that I don’t go to sleep to dream.

Christopher Soto’s poems in the winter issue of Tin House—full disclosure I’m both friends with Loma and in the issue, so I may be a bit biased, but who cares. Their poems are everything that I love: energetic, a kind of fuel, lyric and beautiful and political. *Heart eyes emoji* GET THE ISSUE KAY? 

Jacob Shores-Argüello
I am delighted to be reading the upcoming Penumbra by Michael Shewmaker. So much gorgeous language, all of it shot through with a graceful attention to form. The book’s strength comes not only from the deftness of its language, but in where this language is allowed to go. These poems move from the historical to the honky-tonk, from the scientific to the mythic, from character study to prayers given to the divine. This book is against simple dichotomy and in making these leaps, often in the span of a single stanza, it manages to throw focus onto the shadows that join even the most seemingly disparate things.

I see this breadth too in the remarkable Vida Ajena by G.A. Chaves. These poems are restless, moving from Costa Rica to Spain to Idaho, from Spanish to English, from inward looking moments fueled by licor de café to sweeping invocations of Catullus and Pound. I am fascinated by slim collections that read fuller than their page count seems to allow for. Chaves has also translated Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa into Spanish, a favorite that I am repeatedly drawn to for many of the same reasons.

Finally, I am reading Emily Pulfer-Terino’s chapbook Stays the Heart. I love the way this book consistently imbues unexpected charge into the artifacts of its world. “Dogwood,” for instance, is a carefully weighed and beautiful description of the titular blossom which, to the surprise of both reader and speaker, ends up not being a flower at all. The delicate sketch of a nest that cannot be entered, the detailed wedding dress the mother wants to be buried in that cannot be found, the book uses its painterly power to give color to longing and loss in a way that I’ve not quite seen before.

Matthew Sweeney
My reading this year has tended to be of older works. For example, I needed to familiarize myself thoroughly with Baudelaire’s prose poems before embarking on my own prose poems that bounced off his—I acquired the paperback edition published by Alma Classics under the title Paris Spleen with translations by Martin Sorrell, and I also had to hand the original posthumously published French collection, Le Spleen de Paris. Weirdly, this reading coincided with an immersion in John Hemming’s magisterial The Conquest of the Incas, with its vivid presentation of their last ruler, Atahualpa, and his incarceration and later execution at the hands of the treacherous Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro. I followed this with a seventy-year-old German novel, detailing life under the Nazis, by Hans Fallada, in a recent Penguin paperback given the title of Alone in Berlin (the original German title Jeder Stirbt fuer sich Allein strikes me as much better), and in a translation by Michael Hofmann. More recently, a commission I received to respond in writing to the work of the late German graphic artist Caspar Walter Rauh (who operated in the tradition of fantastic realism, and was profoundly affected by the horrors he witnessed on the eastern front of WWII) led me back to the astonishing imagistic work of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (himself profoundly affected by the horrors on the eastern front in WWI). Trakl’s most famous translator is, of course, the great poet of the American midwest, James Wright, so I had to revisit (yet again) his work, as well—always a hardship!

Mai Der Vang
Transiting into the new year means leaving behind the tremendous losses of 2016. What lies ahead is difficult to comprehend. Like many, I’ve been trying to find solace in poetry, taking in each poem as a breath and grasping at whatever reaches back.

Top on my current reading list is Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik, whose collected works in Extracting the Stone of Madness, Poems 1962–1972, translated by Yvette Siegert, has deepened my poetic sensitivities to language and imagery. I’m drawn to its spellbinding leaps of imagination and how its silences swell into a kind of wanting: “The light of language covers me like music, like a picture ripped to / shreds by the dogs of grief. And winter reaches for me like a woman who has fallen in love with a wall.”

I also recently finished Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian which teemed with vibrant language and a lively, unyielding voice that enjambed from one line to the next to carry each of the poems home. Between adopted landscapes and a distant homeland, the power of writing for oneself stood out: “I want to say / the names we’ve been given aloud. The ones / they took away. I want to shout out the names / of those who named us.”

Lastly, I had the chance to read Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems where the title poem is an incredible litany of names and descriptions of artwork that include a black female figure. Its industrious gathering and reconstruction of language, when viewed collectively, is an enormously groundbreaking critique of race and the feminine in this era: “Kneeling Negro Woman / lifting Her Fettered Hands / in Supplication to a Female Figure.”

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Wednesday, January 18th, 2017 by Lindsay Garbutt.