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Reading List: March 2017
At the beginning of December, putting aside my aversion to ever placing my feet on German soil, I boarded a plane to Frankfurt to help care for a friend who had had a serious injury. Post-election, having immigrant grandparents as well as great grandparents and numerous other relatives murdered in WWII for being Jewish, it seemed important to touch the soil of that history, to see in person what remained, what had been forgotten, what continues to be acknowledged. After all, my feet were thoroughly mired in the equally murderous genocides in soils nearer to my home. Büchenwald was not just across an ocean.
This was part of my reading: The plaques on almost every street corner in the little town in central Germany near where I was staying, naming each member of a Jewish family who was arrested, including where they were taken and where they were murdered (the plaques insisted on the verb murder, nothing less). I wished to see the same on the West Bank, in Aleppo, in my backyard, everywhere—the names, as well as the crimes that befell them, of those who had been murdered, removed, buried, kidnapped, sold—before the subsequent layers of streets, sidewalks, apartments, houses, suburbs, skyscrapers, businesses, gardens, farms. Where naming would never be nearly enough and only the beginning of reparation.
In these times, I have been rereading Reznikoff and Rukeyser and right through Rich’s new Collected. Brooks, Lorde, and Jordan. Saul Friedländer: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1933–1939 and The Years of Extermination, 1939–1945. Edgar Baptiste: The Half Hasn’t Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism; Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders. Yanara Friedland’s just released Uncountry. All confirm the absolute malevolence unleashed through the cynical and murderous triumvirate of capitalism, nationalism, and right-wing ideologies.
Recently I have also read and listened to (sometimes for the second, third, fourth times): Doug Kearney’s Mess and Mess and, Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior, Nathaniel Mackey’s Lay Ghost, Ari Banias’s Anybody, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Cam Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster, Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Raúl Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love (trans. Daniel Borzutzky), Robert Seydel’s Book of Ruth.
On the many long drives I’ve taken across the U.S. over the last few years, I have indulged in audio versions of novels I consider long-form poems. Recent journeys have included The Underground Railroad all through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. James Hannaham’s magnificent narration of Delicious Foods through Texas. Louise Erdrich’s LaRose in Arkansas. Toni Morrison’s whispered singing of Beloved in Missouri. Mile by mile, I have been carried by these tellings and rememberings, and the insistent naming and rewriting of this whole haunted country.
Given our current political climate, I’m heartened to read work by writers from communities that are under attack right now—work by women, people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ writers, and immigrant and first-generation writers. I’ve been marveling over the short fiction in Geeta Kothari’s funny and heart-wrenching collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories. Kothari brings to life deeply authentic characters that are so complex, flawed, and human that we can’t resist seeing in them a reflection of ourselves. In “Small Bang Only,” a broken-heartened immigrant named Milo yearns to get revenge upon his ex-lover, an ambitious young woman who flees the homeland with him to settle in New York City. While Milo’s wife works hard to achieve professional success, Milo grows increasingly embittered by his struggles and failures, and burdened by a growing sense of powerlessness. Even his attempts at expressing his feelings seem to implode, as Kothari conveys hilariously through the awkwardly-phrased graffiti Milo scrawls about his wife in tiny letters, his errors just enough to heighten his sense of emasculation when he’s in the neighborhood.
Attendees of AWP’s annual conference may have heard Tiana Clark deliver a powerful reading from her chapbook, Equilibrium (Bull City Press), winner of the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Poems such as “Black Champagne” and “The Frequency of Goodnight” depict the turmoil and tenderness between a daughter and her overworked mother, a parent who turns easily from singing to shouting with a voice “so guttural, like tiny shovels digging up the body’s gravel after midnight.” In the “The Spot in Antioch,” Clark vividly conveys the discomfort at being singled out for “help” by white churchgoers, as the “the lovely, sugar-fresh ladies came to our one-bedroom / apartment, on the duskier side of town” wielding “yellow gloves like rubber daisies, / plastic buckets, spongy sponges and bleach, so much white white bleach / to clean our home.” Clark’s poems are both scathing and tender, damning and forgiving, as they plunge into the difficult emotional terrain of familial conflict, racial tension, and oppressive notions of beauty.
Other books on my current must-read list include Contradictions in the Design by Matthew Olzmann; In Full Velvet by Jenny Johnson; The Apollonia Poems by Judith Vollmer; and the forthcoming WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier.
On the heels of AWP, I feel like I have so many books in my stack that I can’t wait to get my hands on. Kevin Coval just dropped his book A People’s History of Chicago. It’s really amazing to see poetry like this, poetry that serves as textbook and documentation of history in addition to lyric and language. It’s a dope project and I’m excited to dive more fully into it. In my bag right now I have my halal diva Safia Elhillo’s first collection The January Children. The book is gorgeous, and I think Safia is doing such important work in discussing what it means to constantly feel stateless. I also have Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I think Morgan’s work is incredibly successful at widening the definition of what poetry is allowed to be, and breaking so many elitist gates and rules. I’m also really excited to dive into Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On. The table of contents reads as a poem, and I’ve heard so many good things about it.
Zeina Hashem Beck
I attended my first AWP in DC this February and I shipped a box of books I bought there to Dubai. I usually read slowly, and I like to read one book at a time, but when that box of books arrived a few days ago, I couldn’t help but take out a few and start reading simultaneously. Here’s an incomplete list, with some quotes:
Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa (finally!):
“At the center of my life: my mother dances.”
Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium: “the summer wind can mimic almost any wish.”
Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic: “I don’t understand the words / I babble in home movies from Tehran but I assume / they were lovely I have always been a tangle of tongue and pretty / want.”
Jan Beatty’s Jackknife: “Because fuck it—just wait / Because fuck it—just wait” (from “Against Suicide”).
Matthew Olzmann’s Contradictions in the Design:
“Things end. But what he can’t comprehend / is how, around those endings, everything else / continues.”
Safia Elhillo’s The January Children:
“halim can i call you halim i didn’t mean to make you tragic again.”
I’ve also been reading/loving what I can find online by Leila Chatti (“My Mother Makes a Religion // to replace the old gods.”) and Fatimah Asghar (“It’s something in their nature: what america does to men.”)
In non-poetry, which I don’t read much of, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” spoke beautifully to my own relationship with Arabic, French, and English. And I’ve been reading in Arabic (since July!) Abdel Majid Charfi’s Islam: Between Message and History—I like how the book grounds the religion in its historical context and opens it to interpretation.
W.S. Merwin’s latest volume, Garden Time, is wonderful. He wrote it as he was losing his sight, and the spirit of the opening poem’s first line—“Would I love it this way if it could last”—haunts the whole collection. Here, for example, is the opening of “The Mapmaker”:
Vermeer’s geographer goes on looking
out of the window at a world that he
alone sees while in the room around him
the light has not moved as the centuries
have revolved in silence behind their clouds…
I recently went to hear Eileen Myles; her reading from Chelsea Girls was almost as astonishing as the book itself.
Ross Posnock’s Renunciation: Acts of Abandonment by Writers, Philosophers, and Artists is a brilliantly provocative exploration of a fascinating subject.
I’ve also been rereading lots of essays, for pleasure and inspiration; the Penguin Classics edition of The Selected Prose of Charles Lamb is superb, as is Barbara Everett’s Poets in Their Time (Everett’s volume is one of my favorite essay collections on poetry—right up there alongside Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and The Age).
Two things out in the next few months that I can’t wait to read: Louise Glück’s American Originality: Essays on Poetry, and Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems, edited by Heather Cass White. I’m also really looking forward to James Longenbach’s Lyric Knowledge and Adam Phillips’s In Writing.
Cortney Lamar Charleston
As we’re coming off AWP, I’ve built quite a backlog of reading material for myself ranging from Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé to Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS to Safia Elhillo’s The January Children to Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing to Jacques Rancourt’s Novena and at least a dozen other titles I excuse myself from naming so this post doesn’t ramble too far from the point. With so much new material at my fingertips, I’m honestly a bit intimidated and unsure of where to begin, and in such a situation I usually whet my appetite by returning to something loved and familiar.
This time, I came back to Nicole Sealey’s beautiful chapbook The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, though it was a bit by happenstance, or rather, serendipity. As it were, Narrative Magazine recently published a poem from Sealey that popped up in my social media feeds, and upon seeing her name flash across the screen, I knew I had to dive in immediately. The poem, “Hysterical Strength,” is a good encapsulation of all I love and admire about Sealey’s work: it’s clear in its convictions, precise in its language, and broad in its scope (its political inclinations). With Nicole Sealey’s poetry, I’m often reminded that it doesn’t take a lot to tell the truth, but telling the truth is exceedingly difficult to do; it’s a practice, an ongoing willingness to interrogate the questions of our day (the small and intimate, the large and potentially controversial). Sealey’s chapbook, poem after poem, forces the reader to appreciate the magical result of what I imagine as a very deliberate, almost scientific process; it reaffirms to me that when poetry works best, it’s equally built of the mind, body, and spirit. I can’t wait for her first full-length collection, Ordinary Beast, to arrive later this year.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Enormous gratitude to the work of David Antin (1932-2016) for his genre-crossing and boundary-breaking sensibility—part poetry, part analysis, part shaggy dog story, part tenzone—genially performative, and always compelling. His ability to manifest the intricate dynamics of thinking in investigative poems was overwhelming—simply: he is our Montaigne.
In our current political-ethical emergency, another work passionate in its dynamic intensities is the essay by Nathaniel Mackey, “Breath and Precarity,” an elegiac meditation on the strangling and other murders of (often) black men and others by police and thereby the cutting off of all of us from full life and liberty. The essay is moving beyond my capacity to characterize it. (Forthcoming in Poetics and Precarity: The University at Buffalo Robert Creeley Lectures in Poetry and Poetics, ed. Myung Mi Kim and Cristanne Miller, SUNY Press, 2018.) A matching poem (“The Overghost Ourkestra’s Next,” Dispatches from the Poetry Wars) proposes that this murdered breath becomes transposed to an “overghost” of transpersonal breath in the Black community that keeps on “blowing,” through jazz, poetry, and politics, allowing all citizens of Nub to confront and rise out of versions of “precarity,” and economic/political strangulation.
Other poethical work (with thanks to Joan Retallack for that telling word)—Anne Tardos’s cosmopolitan language vignettes in Uxodo (atelos, 1999), Ariel Reznikoff’s parallel heteroglossic play with Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and English in “yinglossia,” some to appear in Golden Handuffs Review. As well, the perpetually sensitive, intelligent, and elegant readings proposed by Patrick Pritchett in his Writing the Messianic; this post on the casual, intent, and “daily life” work of The Whalen Poems by William Corbett (Hanging Loose, 2011). I’ve been reading the British anthology Refugee Tales (from Canterbury and serious détournements of The Canterbury Tales), accounts of “pilgrims” trapped by the “indefinite immigration detention” now operating in the U.K. (eds. David Herd and Anna Pincus, all profits to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help). Assembled for our edification by Carlos Soto Román: The Chile Project: [Re-Classified] (2000), CIA documents, blacked out in “real/artful” ways, concealing all information, though technically “declassified” and thereby resembling radical poetry’s conceptual “page space” presentations. And finally, being also a practitioner of collage-poetry, I admire Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump (atelos 2016); her title barely begins to cover the performances, essays, collages, analyses, and rigorous rage within.
Scriptorium by Melissa Range. Appalachia meets illuminated manuscript. Stunning poems, a mash-up of Tennessee vernacular and ancient English, a formalism so free you may not notice on first read.
3 Arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck. Poetry from a poet who lives in Dubai. See the March 2017 issue of Poetry. I showed my favorites, “Ghazal: Back Home,” and “Adhan,” to my Charleston group. Before reading the latter, we listened to an audio recording of the Islamic call to prayer. None of them had ever heard it. Then we read the poem. It was quite a moment.
Olio by Tyehimba Jess. A tour de force—contrapuntal poems—drawings, foldout poems, and the real Henry has a chat with Berryman.
It has been difficult to find time to read in the aftermath of the election. In the few moments between anxiety and insomnia, I’ve been trying to fill my head with as much knowledge and wisdom as possible before they disappear like climate data from a government server. Some of the things I’m reading: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician and novelist. I haven’t studied math since calculus roughed me up in high school, but I’m enjoying these lessons in reality, from linearity to Bayes’ theorem. I’m also reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard because I’m struck by how history is repeatedly enchanted with authoritarianism. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It is absolutely terrifying as scientists studying a virus that killed 40 million people in a year maneuver in the dark to explain its etiology and workings. With the River on Our Face by Emmy Pérez is forcing me to rediscover my native Rio Grande Valley. What I love about this collection is its long, slow unraveling. And how startling hints of violence and pain seep out in the catalog of beautiful things like carrizo, long-billed thrashers, chapulines, and kiowa dancers. Antígona González by Sara Uribe, in a masterful translation by John Pluecker, is absolutely annihilating. It follows a narrator desperately looking for her brother, missing in the chaos of a Mexican war those of us living in the borderlands know all too well. I’m also enjoying the complex shapes that pay homage to the theorist/philosopher/feminist/sorceress Gloria Anzaldúa take in Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Bordlerlands.
I am such a news junkie (electronic, digital, and print) that I look to books for a different take on life—not escape, but not a conscious focus on the day’s events.
Rajiv Mohabir, advance copy of The Cowherd’s Son (forthcoming from Tupelo Press). His language play and imagery are a literal and figurative diaspora with references to Krishna to the borough of Queens to the lover’s journey, same-sex in this case. There is a feeling of travel although ultimately the poems act as buoys.
Jean Valentine, Lucy, Quarternote Chapbook Series #8, Sarabande Books. I am a crazed chapbook advocate and this one from newly-minted Bollingen Prize-winner is a handsome volume that takes its title from the 3.2 million year old skeleton. One long poem, spare and haunting.
A. Hyatt Verrill, Strange Sea Shells and Their Stories (1936) and his Strange Insects (1938)—both books written for children. The tone of these two “middle-grade” books is as playful as the content is fascinating:
Many strange and interesting insects, especially beetles, may be found by raking over dead leaves and spreading them on a piece of white cloth. Many others may be found in decayed fruit, under cow dung and about carrion. But by far the best way to find interesting and strange insects … is to ‘beat’ a field or a meadow where the grass and weeds grow tall and rank.
This makes me happy.
Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson, eds. FLASHed, anthology of linked flash fiction in comics and prose. I’ve read a few graphic novels as well as nonfiction narratives. The genre fascinates me and I’d like to learn more.
For years, I’d been hearing about Marcel Proust’s A recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This mysterious six-volume autobiographical novel became an obsession: I knew that one day I had to read it. But when? It would require a major commitment of time.
The opportunity came in the spring of 2012. As I was winding down a visit with friends in Milan, I realized that I had nothing on my calendar for nearly six months. It was now or never.
Such an ambitious undertaking required a plan, and I had one: I would read the first volume, then take a break and read something else before returning to Volume 2 and so on and so on until I’d read all six volumes.
I started reading Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, the revised 1992 translation by D. J. Enright, in June 2012. My “plan” was immediately abandoned: Once I began I couldn’t stop. I was hooked. I’d even wake up in the middle of the night, read a few pages, then go back to sleep. Not once did I interrupt myself to read something else. I just wasn’t interested. By the end of October, I had read the entire magnum opus.
What did In Search of Lost Time do for me? It has made me a better poet. Proust showed me that it was OK to break rules. He plays with tenses, for example, mixing past and present; I’ve experimented with this device in my own work. The experience has allowed me to see how far I can go without feeling inhibited. It freed up the language, but the language also freed me to explore further the internal workings of the poem. Some years later, I’m still on that journey.
Keith S. Wilson
I have been reading I have learned to define a field as a space between mountains. This chapbook makes me restless: I cannot wait for Rio Cortez’s first collection of poetry. I’ve described Rio’s writing many times before as blood poetry, by which I mean to say I can’t always describe what a poem or line or title (lord, some of these titles) is doing to me, but it’s there, working in me. Like in “Questions of the Last Relative Slave,” this impossible question: “Butchered by the wind / Then, did he love the wind?” I have been trying to write that. I wish I had written that.
Speaking of what I wish I had written: Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior has lines that make me actually shake my head: “blade to the soft and the soft flashed open / was the breakage of robins.” Find me, right now. Let’s talk all day about those lines.
Ladan Osman’s interviews, essays, and folios. There is an idealized conception of what art should be that Ladan actually lives, which is one that allows for the mind to wander with force across borders of genre or form or formality. Wander is the wrong word. It is the way someone would walk if they were able to lay stones before every step. But in any case, I am as inspired in her talking about what she sees, or thinks about, or hears, as when she’s in the poem itself.
Look by Solmaz Sharif is my most beautiful textbook right now for what I aspire for poetry to be.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine (this copy borrowed): a book that changed poetry for me when I first read it, and somehow, continues to change it every time after.
Emily Jungmin Yoon
The first poetry collection I finished this year is Muriel Leung’s debut book, Bone Confetti, the winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Poetry Award. “Mourn you better” is a line repeated in the titles and bodies of poems. In order to mourn “you,” us, and the world better, she creates a city in which the dead and alive coexist and pass through one another. They know of one another’s presence through their absence. Her poems are elegiac but firm; she commands the reader to not only listen but inhabit this newly acquired landscape, in which “eyes descend into an imagined color” and we “walk side by side, more ghost than ghosts.”
Tags: Cortney Lamar Charleston, Dilruba Ahmed, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Fatimah Asghar, Gerard Malanga, Keith S. Wilson, Kimiko Hahn, Matthew Bevis, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Reading List, Richard Garcia, Rodney Gomez, Samuel Ace, Zeina Hashem Beck
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, March 16th, 2017 by Lindsay Garbutt.