Follow Harriet on Twitter
Reading List: February 2017
I am reeling from the political events taking place on my news feed right now. The world is a terrifying place and the only solace comes from the books that I am reading. At the moment reading seems a respite. An essay that I adore and return to again and again is Solmaz Sharif’s “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and the Poetic Erasure.”
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla landed on my desk today. It is an anthology featuring twenty-one Black, Asian, and minority ethnic voices exploring why immigrants come to the U.K. There are so many writers named that I have not heard of before so I cannot wait to delve into this one. Also the topic is timely in a moment of uncertainty for Muslim travelers.
Olio by Tyehimba Jess is a favorite that I keep reading for its technical experimentation, delightful layout, and painful, superb poetic rendering of African American histories exhumed from obscurity, where we travel from the Southern states of America to the cold shores of Europe.
The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS by Dagmawi Woubshet is undoubtedly the most beautiful and skillful academic rendering of the AIDS epidemic. This book is poetic, academic, and thorough, moving effortlessly from the activist streets of New York to AIDS orphans and their work of mourning in Africa.
Some brief mentions: Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis is a tour de force from a phenomenonal poet whose poems squeezes pain out of our pores. The Undertaker’s Daughter by Toi Derricotte is one of my favorites. John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James is a surreal novel, visceral yet compelling. I am always reading about the nuts and bolts of writing and my current is Structure & Surprise – Engaging Poetic Turns edited by Michael Theune.
In the week following the inauguration, I’m reading with an eye towards resistance. In preparation for Kay Redfield Jamison’s upcoming Setting the River on Fire, I’m taking in all things Robert Lowell: poems, biographies—and have returned to Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. I picked it up last when I was sixteen, but it still captures (brilliantly) the intersection of Lowell’s poetry and activism around the March on the Pentagon.
I’ve also been rereading Colonies by Polish poet Tomasz Różycki, translated by Mira Rosenthal. The book is written as a sonnet sequence in a voice both Eastern European and everyman. In it, he writes of upheaval, then circles and absorbs it, forms a scar. In “47. The Whale,” the world gets off its train, undone by activity, spent:
…Its face is rather gray, decline
is visible, and wrinkles, makeup streaked.
Beside the station, overgrown with nettles
a turbine sits, lost part of the machine
that made the globe turn round. But towns and cities
go on without it, no doubt powered by some other
more dire cause. The world gets off the train and walks
into the fields gone wild, and vanishes.
I’m also enjoying a new book: Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan. In poems about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes (yes—entirely!), it straddles the thin line between hopelessness and tenacity. In “Omar D. Conger, 1922,” a boiler explodes on board a docked ship, its radiator blown into a funeral parlor during a service:
…But even some
who favored coincidence came to feel
differently about the word. They heard,
only coincide, which they mouthed silently
to themselves, slipping in occasional
variations: homicide, suicide, genocide,
so many cides. For them, the lexicon
had changed. A word was redefined
by tragedy, and in certain families
in Port Huron, some smoldering remnant
of that day lives in the language
of those who survived the survivors.
For them, every coincidence
is a kind of death.
And finally, after the onslaught of Facebook tonight after airports erupted in the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban, I again picked up Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America, edited by Abayomi Animashaun—with writing from Sholeh Wolpé, Rigoberto González, Fady Joudah, Ilya Kaminsky, Ocean Vuong, and many others. With them, Danielle Legros Georges reminds us: “American poetry as a body is best when it reflects America’s inherent pluralism and defies the monoculture American never truly was.”
The last few books that completely consumed my attention—my ability to concentrate has been low, lately, and books have unfairly been draining through my head like water (I wish I could apologize to them)—were Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn, Edith Wharton’s Summer, and Charles Portis’s True Grit. All these books are very short.
Last month I took Kate Chopin’s Complete Novels and Stories out at the library and have been enjoying it in very small pieces. I have also been reading Clarissa (it’s remarkable, of course) and everything I can find by Francis Ponge (the poems, Soap). Shortly after I finished reading Mallarmé’s prose poems, Divagations (an excellent translation by Barbara Johnson)—which was a revelatory experience for me—I stumbled onto Ponge’s work in a way that felt really accidental and jarring. In many ways Mallarmé and Ponge are completely different, but I think these two men would have liked each other. It feels very what-a-time-to-be-alive to read them both in the same day, in the same house. It’s good to have a reminder re: being alive.
Living in Israel for the past six months has driven me screaming away from histories like the ones I excitedly started when I got here, like Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore and Noam Chomsky’s On Palestine. Now that I’m tired and homesick and really sad, it’s books like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Larry Levis’s Elegy, another good pairing, that I’m uncomfortably abandoning out of just plain exhaustion. The books I’m preparing to read are Rita Dove’s American Smooth and Marianne Moore’s Observations.
Poetry is always with me, and particularly now—as global fascism threatens so many lives in so many ways, and the ever-present hazard to ecologies and the non-human increases incrementally rather than diminishes—I look to poetry not only to resist directly, but also to help illuminate the recesses of the human psyche that are both redemptive and also damaging. We need to understand the complexity in any way we can.
It is easy to talk of the ineffable in poetry, and that’s fine, but I think poetry can challenge the ineffable, can look to articulate the seemingly inarticulable. That, to me, is the challenge. To go where no human has gone before, so to speak, and illuminate. And so the list that follows is of books I have recently encountered that I read in such a light. Whether or not that’s the light the poets intend is not my point. My point is that a reading experience can help guide us if not out of the darkness, then towards ways of making the darkness a positive (as it should be) rather than negative and destructive experience. I don’t expect overdoses of light; nor do I want a binary of light and dark, but I want a means of reinventing language and reconfiguring ways of seeing the world. In such moments I find hope.
I have read and reviewed Susan Stewart’s poetry for many years, and her Cinder: New and Selected Poems is a gift to literature, language, and these reachings into the “natural” recesses of the human psyche. She challenges the givens, challenges the damage being done in so many ways. One of the most literary-aware of all poets writing in English, she reinvents form to make constantly anew.
Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems 1968–2014 is essential. In the reconfigurings of language, he is always sidestepping and going slant. I feel compelled, as so many others do, to follow him into new possibilities of expression.
And an Australian title that is dazzling me at present: David McCooey’s sophisticated volume Star Struck, in which light and dark play such pivotal roles, and language shifts like a circulatory system finding new ways of moving identity around the body, from the cardiac hospital ward and life-risk to rejiggings of the pastoral through the politics of the “popular” (rock music) against the screen of a page that is unpinnable-down: text and life revisited, reconsidered, and (often with sharp irony) recovered, maybe recuperated.
Finally, there’s Kwame Dawes’s astonishing City of Bones: A Testament. Here are some of the words I contributed to its cover text: “I celebrate Dawes and his achievement, and in doing so celebrate all those who have a space in his poems and all those who are able to tune into his remarkable music, intellect, and spirit.”
2017 is the centennial for Gwendolyn Brooks and there are celebrations of her work planned all over the country. The February issue of Poetry includes an exemplary selection of golden shovel poems written in response to, and in honor of, Ms. Brooks. The anthology from which these stunners were selected, The Golden Shovel Anthology, was edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith and will be released in March.
Another collection of original poetry celebrating Ms. Brooks’s legacy, Revise the Psalm, published in January, was edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana (one of Gwendolyn Brooks’s students) and Sandra Jackson-Opoku. The Whiskey of Our Discontent, a third anthology of essays meditating on Ms. Brooks’s work, is forthcoming in June 2017. It was also edited by Lansana and co-edited by Georgia Popoff. [Full disclosure: I have work in all three anthologies. Another full disclosure: the other work in the anthologies is much more interesting than mine.]
In a regular year, any one of these anthologies would be a gift to poetry readers. But with one dehumanizing edict after another being signed into law by the new occupant of the Executive Branch, it is an obligation right now to revisit one of the singular voices of protest and reason in American poetry. I hope to read Ms. Brooks’s whole catalogue this year, and this month I’m reading In the Mecca, a masterpiece of observation and objection.
The book begins with a long poem about the Mecca, a U-shaped apartment building that was constructed in 1891 as a luxury showplace for wealthy Chicagoans. The building had become an overcrowded tenement and was razed by the time Ms. Brooks begin writing “In the Mecca” in the 1954. “What else is there to say but everything?” the speaker asks early in the poem. I kept coming back to that question as I read the other powerful protests in the book. Ms. Brooks was a master of character and situational critique, and she shows the nuances of black life in elegant detail while maintaining her musical wit. Every poem in the book swings in the truest sense while also serving as calls to action.
Now more than ever we need works like In the Mecca to remind us that protest isn’t a pretty thing, but it’s a necessary thing. If not for ourselves, then for the more vulnerable and disenfranchised among us. As Ms. Brooks says in the collection’s final poem, “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” “This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.”
As an Irish poet I’ve been doing my damnedest in the last three years to get away from history. I’ve been binge-reading myself back into the present moment. Make the poems come from those intimate, infinite spaces within personal life: that’s been my goal.
My present moment begins with August Kleinzahler. His Hotel Oneira is a masterpiece. There is a cranky Evelyn Waugh-like aspect to Kleinzahler’s literary character: he thirsts for accusation. Restlessness is all over these poems: rooms darken, crickets unnerve him, a garbage compacter grinds encyclopedias. The effect is electrifying.
What Paula Meehan has done is also a thing of beauty. Her Geomantic is a set of variations on the music of being alive in Dublin. “I don’t do the past, said my father,” she writes, as, dying, he bets online and watches the horses. Each poem she writes is a fistful of Dublin earth and a prayer. This book is such a beauty it is impossible to put away.
“When I was young I was a comet,” Jan Beatty writes in Red Sugar. Her character flares and burns in these haunting poems of desire, dislocation, abuse, and victory. Beatty’s lyrical gift, her sure poet’s instinct, makes weighty materials soar. This is my favorite book of her many brilliant collections.
Mary O’Donnell’s Those April Fevers is a terrific achievement; elegant, complex, rich in political and social detail. O’Donnell is a poet of great passion and insight, a writer who deserves to be more widely celebrated. With this collection I feel sure that she’s pressed a reset button on her wonderful career.
The venerable John Montague, the first Irish poet to graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has left us his last beautiful collection, Second Childhood. Yes, another giant has departed from our rain-swept valleys.
I have had my vision, says Lily Briscoe at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them
Monstrous was what I often felt myself, now I understood that feeling as the verge of a poem. Monstrous of voice. Monstrous in the truth I had to tell. “Write it,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in “One Art.”
I recently reread the book from which “Planetarium” comes; it was Rich’s sixth book, an incisive 67 pages of poems (it felt shorter, its impact like an ax) published in 1971. I’d passed through it in the decades since, a familiar landscape, but now, suddenly, it felt new, again —sharp, silver, decisive. Another sort of impact but just as sudden, as I read it into this present, illuminated by memory.
I am walking rapidly through striations of light and dark thrown
under an arcade
I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers
and those powers severely limited
by authorities whose faces I rarely see.
I am a woman in the prime of life
driving her dead poet in a black Rolls-Royce
through a landscape of twilight and thorns. . .
(“I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus”)
A galactic vision of the muse from the poet whom I heard that year speak on Emily Dickinson, the lecture was called “Vesuvius at Home” and it prompted me—young sheltered woman that I was—to read our great American anew – “My life had stood a loaded gun…” Again a reminder that the muse for a woman poet need not be merely lyrical—Plath had already told us this, but I liked the assertion here—not a suicide, Emily.
Arriving in the mail soon after, Letter to the Amazon, a translation by A’Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan of a piece written by another of my woman-poet lodestars, Marina Tsvetaeva (the line that keeps returning, from Paul Schmidt’s translation of her great poem of break-up, “Poem of the End”: Did you think love was just a chat at a small table?) This small book is a newly translated text by the Russian, then in Paris, written to Natalie Barney, the American sapphist poet and saloniere—everyone came to her villa—Proust, Romaine Brooks, many others, and now it seems Marina Tsvetaeva!
Okay, put Tsvetaeva in a room with Gide, Proust, and maybe even Nora Joyce! Wowza! This volume (beautifully published by Ugly Duckling Presse as #41 in their Eastern European Poets Series) “plays out” as Catherine Ceipiela’s excellent introduction puts it “a conversation between a Russian emigrée and an American expatriate, both escaped to Paris form their native countries and communicating in French, debating one of modernism’s urgent concerns: woman’s sexuality as expressed through lesbianism.”
For Tsvetaeva, who had a famous affair with the poet Sofia Parnok known as “the Russian Sappho,” the argument centers on the issue of motherhood—she had two children, and Barney, proudly and emblematically, none—a position Tsvetaeva parses as “Lovers do not have children.”—Yes, but they all die, she writes, listing the iconic: Romeo and Juliet, the Amazon and Achilles, Siegfried and Brunhilde. Whatever the song, whatever the time, whatever the place, They have no time for the future that the child is, they have no child because they have no future, they have only the present that is their love and death, always present. I have always counted on Tsvetaeva to blast apart expectation.
An unlikely encounter inspires Molly McCully’s unusual and striking first book, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize winner for 2016), a collection of fictional testimony of women and girls confined and sterilized at a real institution 1910, possibly into the 1970s. The poems achieve their shock through craft, music, and juxtaposition, rather than mere narrative revelation. This child is without a mind, begins one poem. Always surprised by this poet, here is the beginning of “What exactly is overheard”:
by now there are figments talking to me all the time
although they still only prowl along the edges of my sight-line
pale dress tanned hand bell of a lip
drawn close to and then receding like a lantern
When have I read a more piercing account of the coming of a poem?
These last months I’ve started many days by revisiting two volumes: Pablo Neruda’s Canto General (University of California Press, 1993, translated by Jack Schmitt) and W.S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). They help me focus on what’s true and how it can be honored. Both are hefty books, which means I can close my eyes and open at a random page, then explore outwards from there. I have all their work, and am eagerly awaiting the publication of Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems from Bloodaxe Books this April. From the same British publisher I’m also looking forward to C.K. Williams’s final collection, Falling Ill.
It’s important to keep nourished by poetry in these turbulent times. Reading Selima Hill’s The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence (Bloodaxe Books) is like devouring a box of petits fours: each poem is a tiny explosion of icy pleasure. And they are tiny, often two to six lines long. The speaker is in a psychiatric ward and her situation is grim, but these poems, with their menageries of helper-animals, are exuberant in their determination to keep us sane. The surreal juxtaposition of images is stunning, but it’s the brevity I admire most.
Fiona Sampson’s The Catch (Chatto, 2016), achieves that most difficult of tricks: to conjure happiness, and does so with the nimblest lines. Even a visit to the dentist is rapturous, and a garden’s power is harnessed in the lion faces of pansies, making every sound “new, as I was new.” This slim book stays in my handbag, along with Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape, 2016).
I dreamt of Oswald’s magnificent “Swan” last night, and it wasn’t the first time. I think of her writing her masterpiece “Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn.” She says she wrote it each day down by the river, scribbling as dawn came, and I think of that dedication and take heart.
The Baroque is a singing master to crisis, gifted to tease matters eternal far beyond the reach of charlatans and of so-called “current” events. These past twelve weeks or so, it has been a comfort to me to return to the origins of the Baroque in our poetry, and in particular to Richard Crashaw and to St Robert Southwell. (Both poets, thanks to the good offices of Fyfield Books, are easily accessible in beautiful paperbound format.)
Crashaw’s long poem in Latin, Bulla, proves an inexhaustible masterpiece, ebullient and strange:
Sum fluxae pretium spei
Thus, literally, Crashaw assures his readers, hope floats and flows. Its music is uncontainable. Small wonder, then, that Bulla inspired the American composer Elliott Carter’s Symphonia, a late work of bold affirmations. Genuine anthems are a great blessing in these dark days.
And of course there is Southwell’s “The Burning Babe”:
As I in hoary Winters night stoode shyveringe in the snowe
Surpris’d I was with sodayne heat, which made my hart to glowe
And lifting up a fearfull eye to vewe what fire was nere
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the ayre appeare…
In the poem’s very last line, Southwell realizes that it was Christmas daye. An absolute Christmas: exactly what is needed in our perishing republic now.
I have been preceded in comfort and angry consolation by two splendid advocates of Southwell, and I’ve been reading them with gratitude. Anne R. Sweeney’s brilliant study, Snow in Arcadia: redrawing the English lyric landscape 1586-95 (Manchester University Press) prepares us well for the long winter ahead. And prime, forever now, is Geoffrey Hill’s essay “The Utter Reasonableness of Robert Southwell” in The Lords of Limit (Oxford University Press).
Getting great books in the mail can make any day feel like a holiday, and that certainly felt like the case when my friend and sometime poetry collaborator Elisa Gabbert sent me her newest collection, L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems, late last year. Published in October of 2016 by Black Ocean, the book unfolds in the mind and from the perspective of Judy, one of three characters in the Wallace Shawn play, The Designated Mourner, whose plot involves the breakdown of a marriage in the midst of a political revolution. Ekphrastic and persona-driven, the book astounds you with how many small and graceful epiphanies it can pack into every page, like:
I have discovered
that two dull activities
become interesting together;
take cleaning while
listening to Brahms.
Also late last year, right before Christmas, Mark Leidner sent me a copy of his latest chapbook, 21 Extremely Bad Breakups. Leidner is one of my favorite living poets and I frequently teach his collection Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me in my Advanced Poetry classes at DePaul University. This book, however, consists of prose, and was published as the winner of the 2015 Newfound Press Prize. The book itself is a beautiful object, bright red and stab-stitched with black string, and the stories themselves are funny, weird, and totally charming.
The last book that I want to recommend, Break the Habit by Tara Betts from Trio House Press, didn’t arrive in the mail, but that’s because it didn’t have to. I got to hear its author read, live and in person, in late January in Chicago’s fantastic Wit Rabbit Reading Series. I was sold when she read the book’s opening poem, “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and it struck me as one of the best ekphrastic poems I’d heard in a while, cross-referential, deeply felt, and full of intersecting histories. The rest of the book is wonderful as well. Maybe you should order a copy and mail it to someone you know who needs a good read?
These are some of the books that have been sharing my bed, the books that have been shoring me up against the rising horrors. I don’t know about you, but often the last thing I want when I’m horrified is comfort. I turn, instead, to books like Aaron Smith’s Primer, whose epigraph, from Reginald Shepherd, is “You can’t walk through / the thinghood empty-handed, shirking the knives / of fact.” As we navigate the current thinghood of alternative facts, I find I need poems that antagonize violence with their unclosetings and offer the exhilarative resistance of honest, heartbreaking obscenity. This book is the antidote to a plagiarized, Styrofoam inaugural cake. Read the poem called “Jennifer Lawrence.” It’ll get you through the night.
Anne Cecelia Holmes’s collection The Jitters opens with these lines from Clarice Lispector: “Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means / to be a person?” The speaker in these poems is awash in dread, contemplating her monstrous selfhood while awaiting the big boom, whether via explosion or implosion. The Jitters is witty in the way the traumatized are witty, with a smile full of teeth and hands as fidgety as Jell-O. These poems remind me of someone talking to themselves as they walk through a graveyard at dusk, using words to keep from flying apart. One of her titles reads: “If I were an honorable person the honorable thing I would say is brace yourself.” Indeed.
Poet Conrad Hilberry said he wanted to die just after Christmas, and that’s just what he did, trading the world of the literal scene, of “the bronze chrysanthemums along the walk / that bloom as solid as the heads of nails” (“The Happy Man,” 1980) for the filmy mystery of the spirit. Con was the kind of poet they don’t make much anymore. He was self-effacing, amiable, not particularly invested in the ambitions of the poetry world, but very much invested in poetry, in the verb of it, and of inviting anyone interested to sit at its table. “People,” he said to me more than once, “are more important than poems.” This month, especially, I keep his many books close: Sorting the Smoke, his new and selected which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, After-Music, Until the Full Moon Has Its Say, Player Piano, and The Moon Seen as a Slice of Pineapple, among several others. His poems are often written in a deft blank verse. The heartbeat cadences of iambic pentameter kept him company, he said, as he drafted poems on legal pads, in pencil, with a calligraphic hand. Con’s work, on love and loss, matter and mind, ought to last. I often read the last little section of an early poem he wrote on the accidental death of his young daughter, Katharine: “On this day of your death, / We love. The steep / Water of your making / Is still green— / And will be, will be. The fern, the falls, / The keeping on.” With that insistent “will be,” the poem pushes an existential faith out in front of itself so we are obligated to grow into it. In these cold and lethal days, poems can be a repository of love and its making, a fortification against forgetting that there was once such a thing—as green.
Brian Kim Stefans
I’ve recently reread The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations, 1967), the Situationist classic by Raoul Vaneigem in preparation for a new set of poems based on sentences and paragraphs from that book. The project is tentatively titled “100 Maxims from Raoul Vaneigem.” Yes, terribly ambitious—I think of it as my Dream Songs—but if I only make it to 10 or 15, that’s fine.
I’m reading three short works by Henry James—“Glasses” (1896), “The Way It Came” (1896) and the novella In the Cage (1898)—each of which concerns some aspect of relatively new technology at the time (eyeglasses, photographs, and the telegraph, respectively). For the most part the central characters are women and the locales are in England. I plan on writing a screenplay that weaves all of these stories together (following the three female protagonists) and place it in Los Angeles at the turn of the century.
Other odds and ends are inspired by our new political climate in an attempt to understand the mindset of people I never actually meet or talk to at length—namely, the right. So, for example: the platform of the Libertarian Party of California, the autobiography of Mussolini, Breitbart and related websites, etc. I think we have to know.
I also have a recent biography of the singer Scott Walker on my shelf that I’m looking forward to. I’m about a third of the way through Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style. I’m training myself in Logic Pro X.
I didn’t read any poetry for the first 16 days of 2017, but on the seventeenth day Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi (UDP Books) finally arrived in my mailbox, as per my greedy pre-order. Sho Sugita’s translations of Renkichi, a Japanese Futurist writer who died in 1922 at the young age of 29, are marvelous, precise, and generously show off Renkichi’s range of styles and emotional modes. The poems are formally radical, wry, performative, obsessive, gorgeous. They read like music. They also fundamentally challenge difficult-to-kill cultural stereotypes of writing from East Asia, be it ancient or contemporary, and that is vital work. I hope Renkichi becomes an avant-garde classic. I can’t get enough.
Tags: Adrian Matejka, Brian Kim Stefans, Christine Gosnay, Diane Seuss, Donald Revell, Honor Moore, John Kinsella, Kathleen Rooney, Malika Booker, Pascale Petit, Reading List, Thomas McCarthy, Wendy Xu
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, February 16th, 2017 by Lindsay Garbutt.