Reading List: April 2017
What can be annoying about Paul Virilio is how prophetic his mind was about information culture—he wrote Information Bomb, which perfectly captures the toxicity of instantaneity, for example, in 1985. But I am finding comfort in reading a small book of interviews he published in 2012, called The Administration of Fear. It talks about the separation of the individual human body from the concept of “rhythm,” whether in day and night or in seasons, in contemporary American society. Virilio’s work can sometimes feel reactionary in comparison to Berardi or Baudrillard, two of my other favorite theorists, but I suppose it is precisely because Virilio always goes back to the physical body that I appreciate his observations.
For many years my yoga and movement practices have informed my writing. Though I don’t dance in performance anymore, dance has always informed my thinking about the world. I was so very happy to discover Sawako Nakayasu’s new translation of a notebook of dancer Moe Yamamoto’s transcriptions of Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh choreography notes, Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls. It put me very much in mind of choreographer Leah Stein’s collaboration with poet Josey Foo, A Lily Lilies. In both of these books, the spare notes on the page enjoin the reader/performer to embody them, whether in poem or dance.
One must learn about the world in order to live in it so I am trying to learn not only about the political and social circumstances of the moment we live in—Medea Benjamin’s book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.–Saudi Connection is helping me do that—but also the way the physical world itself is actually built. For many years now I have been undertaking an amateur study of physics, in particular trying to understand quantum mechanics and quantum gravity. After a period of reading technical articles, including Stephen Hawking’s, I am trying to now give my brain a little rest and read some books intended for popular audiences. To that end, I’ve been reading, among others, The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
Finally, there are several books of poetry I carry around with me at the moment. They are: Emergency Brake by Ruth Madievsky, which I think is just beautiful and fantastic and strange; Please Bury Me in This by Allison Benis White—my practice is to read this book straight from beginning to end in one sitting, then a couple of days later I do it again; Learn from the Almond Leaf by Eunice de Souza, an Indian poet who publishes only sparsely, but she is truly one of the geniuses of the contemporary literary community in India; Standing on the Earth by Mohsen Emadi, translated from Farsi by Lyn Coffin, a stunning rapture of a collection; and finally, window left open by Jennifer Grotz—this is a book you have to read slowly, very slowly, poem by poem by poem.
When I graze the poetry shelf in a good bookstore—that is, one that has a poetry shelf—I am somewhat desperate. What I’m looking for is poetry that makes me want to write poems. When a poet writes a fine poem, he uncovers the spring where all good poetry comes from. And in spite of the squabbling within the tribe, poets, at their best, are helping each other find their way back to that spring.
The most recent spring I have discovered is Ocean Vuong. He speaks to me across generations, and planets of difference. I can professorially lift off the different strata of the poems: the post-colonial text, the queer text, the refugee text, the racial text, but what magnetizes me is the soul substance that makes a poem a poem, the luminous nervous system of the poem that makes it whole, and Vuong’s ability to do it every time.
He can take a line from Robert Duncan’s poem, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” for the title of his own poem “Queen Under the Hill.” He is drinking here from Duncan’s spring and he writes his own completely original poem, different from Duncan in all ways but the thing that makes poetry, poetry. In “Queen Under the Hill” he leads us out into a meadow where he finds a piano that becomes a horse that becomes a rock that becomes a piano again. He kneels to “play,” not pray, but the prayer that seems to run through the poem, that he be safe, echoes from this interrupted expectation.
Vuong’s first full length book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is physically smaller than the average poetry book, and yet it contains eighty-two pages of poetry. It is almost as if his publisher, Copper Canyon, were intuiting both the density of the poems – their compression, like amber exuded from a tree—and the poet’s inherent modesty. It is a book to be kept close. The poems do not wear out: they catch fire each time you breathe on them.
I keep coming back to Muriel Rukeyser’s book, The Life of Poetry, especially the section called “The Fear of Poetry.” Written during the ascendancy of Joseph McCarthy and the House on Unamerican Activities hearings, the book has much to say about our times and our relation to ourselves and others.
How urgently present the opening paragraph in “The Fear of Poetry”:
In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.
What poetry does, and certainly what Ocean Vuong does, is provide us with “the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.” She mentions poetry as the unacknowledged wisdom in our culture, examines the resistances to poetry and how this is the indicative of the central problem of her times and as we now realize, our own. People are afraid of poetry because they are afraid of venturing into uncharted inner landscapes.
Our conservatives are talking of walls again. Judge Joseph Sirica once quoted Frost in defense of a border fence with Mexico. He said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He neglected to mention the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Nor does he mention that the speaker in the poem is continually questioning the necessity of the wall.
There are walls and walls. There are the literal, physical walls, along the border at San Ysidro (where there is graffiti on the Mexican side about the Berlin Wall), in Israel, and in the archetype of all xenophobia, the Great Wall of China. There are the walls we erect between each other around difference, and there are the most insidious walls of all, the ones we create inside us, that keep us away from knowing our deeper, loving self, our imagination, and our means of communicating with others at depth.
Rukeyser writes, “if communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication.” For her, this is poetry: “in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source. And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie.”
Reports of the Chief Astronomer of the Northern Boundary 1875 by Captain W. J. Twining, Washington Irving’s Astoria, Marcy’s Exploration of the Red River, Emory’s U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey—if leafing through old books counts.
My father was a lifelong collector of art, antiques and "junk," but especially of rare books about Western expansion and exploration, railroads, etc. When he died I was tasked with cataloging and selling a thousand old books. I kept a few dozen—some remarkable for their crazy archaic language, some for descriptions of landscapes now lost to us. Others I kept for the illustrations: the bird plates and drawings of snakes and cacti in the Boundary Survey are to die for. And of course it’s all material.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in reading more fiction when politics & etc. overwhelm. Recently I’ve found solace in A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell. Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano. Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Re-reading Roland Barthes’s Mythologies has also proved comforting: a lens to regard current events with a little more dispassion.
Poetry books currently above my computer (the place of honor) include Kaveh Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Dana Levin’s Banana Palace, Groundspeed by Emilia Phillips and Large White House Speaking by Mark Irwin.
And finally, thankfully, there is always the joy of reading really good student work. I have a number of private students—one of whom just put out her first book—and their work constantly astonishes with its skill and courage, the essential optimism necessary for writing even the darkest poem.
The notorious favorite is Song, named for the book’s favorite poem, the one praised most for good and haunting reasons though Brigit Pegeen Kelly shook that off—in fact, shrugged off all fanfare—but particularly concerning that piece based on a terrible story drawn from the great world, cut and saved. I think I remember her saying, just happened to read the newspaper that day—as if her genius eye were an accident.
So in the profound shadow of death and sorrow and friendship, I’ve been picking up The Orchard, her final book, each piece of it a well of dark water, sometimes lit as noonday, sometimes the moon gone black, under clouds. (Would she be okay with that description? No, she’d quickly change the subject.)
Consider: how poetry works (it doesn’t: it works us), how this poet’s lines abruptly mean deep.
Consider the book’s unnerving but playful first two: “I told the boy I found him under a bush./What was the harm?” Or the last poem’s initial image, a bird of stone “shot through,” which, if alive, would have “fallen like a bloody cloth to the grass.” Between that and that, her all-absorbing subject—I see now—is timelessness. As in come, step out of all this. As in we never stop. Still it’s a human voice that calls to us, however oracular. Past the beauty and sudden horror of these poems, their repeated gardens and crows and ruins and boughs and step by step, is patience. A rare, richly detailed watchfulness. The thing is: you wait with her as an equal, an intimate. (How does she do that?) Each poem’s an hour in some endless day that keeps passing. Rattled, relentless, she draws you in, to stand there.
But she’d tell you: Really, don’t listen to any of the above….
I’ve recently realized that for the last two and a half years, all of my reading has been clustered unwittingly around a sentence that I only read about six months ago—and I apologize for the strange temporality of that phrase—in Roland Barthes’s The Neutral: “Exit weariness.” What I like about “Exit weariness” is both that it bids weariness leave, like a stage direction . . . and it implies that its accompanying direction, “Enter weariness,” at one point also existed and was followed. (Accordingly, in The Neutral, weariness is one of the central players.) Which takes something that we often feel as though we have a fixed relation to—I’m weary of weariness, we might automatically say—and makes that vision more complex, and more strange.
I’ve spent the last few years rereading these long-term favorites: Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Michel Foucault’s Speech Begins After Death, Lucille Clifton’s Book of Light, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song. Since I’ve been writing “Dear, beloved” since 2014, all of those books were on my mind while writing it, especially Memorial and Song; of the other myriad texts that wandered into it, the ones that are lingering with me into the present day are Italo Calvino’s stunning short essay “The Birds of Paolo Uccello,” Hesiod’s Theogony, and Beowulf (both Seamus Heaney’s and, with an Anglo-Saxon dictionary handy, the original). I’m not much for audiobooks generally, but I will say that there’s little better than hiking mountains with Paradise Lost in your ears—or, for that matter, doing the dishes with Paradise Lost in your ears. There’s an audiobook of it on Audible: it’s pretty expensive, but if you haven’t joined yet, you can join, use your free book download, and then abscond, feeling like a sly jewel thief of domestic and international renown.
At the moment, in addition to The Neutral, I’m making my way through Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS, just out from Graywolf—slowly, because it shifts its own tectonic plates at every turn—and I’m about calf-deep in Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, which is an experimental ethnography and/but which I prefer to describe as prose poems (if you like Bluets as much as I do, I suspect you'll like this, although they're of course far from identical). I’m rereading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and History of Madness, as both are very much on my mind for matters political and personal. I’ve recently finished Joshua Bennett’s astounding The Sobbing School, one of the National Poetry Series winners; Sarah Ruhl’s play Stage Kiss, which I’d meant to get to a long time ago; and Carlo Rovello’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, rereads both. I always have at least one art book on my mind. For a long time, it’s mainly been Louise Bourgeois’s Insomnia Drawings, and sometimes some others of hers, including Emotions Abstracted and Homesickness. Currently, I’m very drawn to Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium, which I showed my students a couple months ago and haven’t been able to wholly put down since.
Thank you so much for asking me what I am reading. Poetry and always poetry is the short answer and I read it every single day. These are 18 titles from the last year that have made me very happy to be alive RIGHT NOW when poetry has never been more exciting!
Ari Banias, Anybody (W.W. Norton, 2016)
Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Of Mongrelitude (Wave Books, 2017)
Jos Charles, Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016)
Don Mee Choi, Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016)
Allison Cobb, After We All Died (Ahsahta Press, 2016)
Claudia Cortese, Wasp Queen (Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
Jennifer Firestone, Gates & Fields (Belladonna*, 2017)
Adam Fitzgerald, George Washington (Liveright Publishing, 2016)
Peter Gizzi, Archeophonics (Wesleyan University Press, 2016)
Dan Hoy, The Deathbed Editions (Octopus Books, 2016)
Chely Lima, What the Werewolf Told Them, translated by Margaret Randall (The Operating System, 2017)
Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017)
Hoa Nguyen, Violet Energy Ingots (Wave Books, 2016)
Tommy Pico, IRL (Birds, LLC, 2016)
Jennifer Scappettone, The Republic of Exit 43 (Atelos, 2016)
Stacy Szymaszek, Journal of Ugly Sites (Fence Books, 2016)
Nikki Wallschlaeger, Crawlspace (Bloof Books, 2017)
Mia You, I, Too, Dislike It (1913 Press, 2016)
My friend Tom Raworth died recently, so I’m reading his poetry. He was somewhat of a mentor to me. One of my first meetings with Tom was at the last reading Anselm Hollo ever gave, an event I helped organize. After Anselm’s death I felt the urge to seek out every single one of his books and read them from first to last. That experience utterly changed my perception of my writing, and the books I publish. When I read Anselm’s earlier work, when he was in London in the sixties, it felt as though he had lived exact elements of the life I am living now, but just fifty years removed. And tracing his life through his poems I realized these books were a palpable record, a concrete legacy of his life in writing. I knew then I wanted that, and not a big readership, or critical success, not to unleash the “perfect” collection every ten years. Just a quiet record of my life in poetry would be fine. So I decided to publish whenever I felt the urge, or whenever a publisher would support me, which is why I have six collections after eight years writing. I did the same when Tomaž Šalamun died, followed his life in poems, he had been very kind to me too. But Tom was a light to me, he taught me the most, and so I’m in the middle of this journey now, reading him book by book, remembering him this way.
The only other poetry I’m reading is that of my current and former students at Kingston University in London. Like many poets, I support myself through teaching. I think the quality of their work is indicative of a unobtrusively brilliant time for poetry in the U.K., there is so much talent around at the moment. Molly Bergin, Zakia Carpenter-Hall, Matt Navey, Dacy Lim, Julia Lewis—all names to watch. There is also something inevitably poignant and powerful about reading young poets coming into their own alongside the works of a great poet, just departed. A sense of my own place on the wheel is palpable, that I’m still rising but soon to drop off.
You can imagine my surprise when the Brooklyn Public Library said that they still had a copy of Megan Marshall’s new biography of Elizabeth Bishop on the shelf! I jet packed over there and then drank it down in a few days. I felt strangely affected by it, as one is when immersed in someone else’s life, but especially hers. (Wait. You’re telling me, like . . . she died?)
Then buzz sawed through David Grossman’s new A Horse Walks into a Bar, which is a book that takes place in one evening in a comedy club, and so that seemed to be the right speed for reading. But then again, I come from the Borscht Belt.
I just began James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which made me laugh out loud in the first five pages plus it is going to teach me a hell of a lot, so I am looking forward.
I am also reading the deeply wonderful collection of Philip Levine essays, My Lost Poets (edited by Edward Hirsch). At this moment in history, hearing Levine’s salt-and-potatoes voice and revelatory intelligence almost doubles as an act of resistance. And maybe it’s as good as a nightclub act at moments like this: He and Thom Gunn were talking about William Stafford. Levine writes, “As we stood waiting for the elevator, I said, ‘I really like his poems.’ Meaning Stafford’s of course. ‘So do I,’ said Thom, and after a brief pause, ‘I wonder who writes them.’”
These days I’m tuned to two poetry “channels”: Listening for the Lost, an ever-expanding, personally curated grief playlist of work by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Thomas Lux, Derek Walcott, etc; and Brave New Voices, the first/second collections of poets who are newly shaping the American landscape.
Among the latter, Ari Banias’s Anybody is a marvel of perceptiveness and I love to follow the twists of his thinking as he sorts out any number of things, from the emptiness of pockets to the slipperiness of being an “I.” Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal demonstrates her brilliant command of diction and fiercely renegotiates long-accepted literary archetypes like Caliban. Dana Koster’s Binary Stars also has serious upstart appeal, recasting fairy tale figures and motherhood myths in sharply funny ways. Brittany Perham’s Double Portrait has the beautiful, inventive, unsettling effect of looking at a Cindy Sherman series—deep down, the same person is in all the pictures, and yet each time she also appears entirely different.
I’m also hooked on Harvard Review’s online renga for Obama, which Major Jackson started curating on January 21. The unfolding work is celebrating our former president with paired haiku/waki from poetry duos (Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Muldoon; Ocean Vuong, Jane Hirshfield; Jill McDonough, Rosanna Warren) and it’s a wonderful evocation of multiplicity in unity.
Because I am spending the spring in Venice, living in a small apartment just off the Giudecca Canal in Dorsoduro, I have been rereading (strategic hyperbole here) the greatest prose performance in the English Language: John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851–53). Though it consists of nothing but meticulous descriptions of Venetian churches and palazzi, it conjures an apocalyptic vision of Western culture that ultimately makes the book feel like a prose Paradise Lost. Ruskin’s endlessly inventive syntax is the vehicle of the vision:
Now we can see nothing but what seems a low and monotonous dock-yard wall, with flat arches to let the tide through it;—this is the railroad bridge, conspicuous above all things. But at the end of those dismal arches, there rises, out of the wide water, a straggling line of low and confused brick buildings, which, but for the many towers which are mingled among them, might be the suburbs of an English manufacturing town. Four or five domes, pale, and apparently at a greater distance, rise over the centre of the line but the object which first catches the eye is a sullen cloud of black smoke brooding over the northern half of it, and which issues from the belfry of a church.
It is Venice.
Reading the many hundreds of pages of The Stones of Venice is an overwhelming experience, but probably the best place to start is with Sarah Quill’s selection, Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited, which is complemented by Quill’s gorgeous photographs. The best place to read the book is the waterside café of the Calcina, the little hotel where Ruskin lived in the later years of his life. Even better is putting down the book, ordering a negroni, and watching the sun set over the Giudecca Canal.
David Tomas Martinez
I know the sophisticated readers of Poetry don’t need me to tell them that Adrian Matejka is a good writer; in fact, I assume right now every reader of Poetry is angrily tapping the heel of their slipper against an exotic carpet, scoffing in exasperation, “Aye homes, I know who pinche Adrian Matejka is, Ese!” But again, for the cheap seats, Mr. Matejka can write. And Map to the Stars is probably Matejka’s most intimate portrayal of himself yet. The references often intone popular culture, albeit of the eighties and nineties, elongating into complicated metaphorical image-systems. Matejka has built a beautiful book that is organized in vignettes, focused on staring into the sky with Adidas firmly grounded on terra firma.
Next, Carolina Ebeid is a poet I have long admired, and I have eagerly awaited her debut collection, You Ask Me to Talk about the Interior. This title perfectly encapsulates the best of what Ebeid does poetically and balances a meta-critical approach with an emotional core. The lines are exact while still containing traces of the shamanic chant of spoken music. While she has a sizable following, I still believe Ebeid to be grossly underappreciated as a poet.
When I first met Chen Chen, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas Tech, and he was a doctoral student. We would sit over coffee and discuss the essentials of aesthetics and puppies. We would talk about where his manuscript was headed, how much further seasoning it needed, and how to transition from New York to West Texas. It was obvious he would write an excellent book(s). When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities is a raucous gallop through poems, stopping to sip from the raunchy and the ethereal. The poems consistently surprise and engage me, leaping to unexpected associations. Onward!
Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet is a tightly wound spring of a book, bound with so much meaning. The concept is striking. In a nutshell, when a buck doesn’t shed his velvet because of testicular trauma or genetic defect, the gender binary is disrupted. Johnson highlights this in other animals, using it as a historical and biological analogy to our own culture. It’s fascinating.
Penultimately, Tomás Q. Morín’s Patient Zero is an emotionally probing, multi-layered book that is constantly shifting with design, intent on breaking patterns. The forms of the poems continually change, and the sentence constructions are heavily varied. Morín’s verse has a formality that I find engaging, allowing the poems to jump associatively in thought and feels.
Lastly, I’d like to give a shout out to three books that I am currently reading but haven’t finished, Rebecca Gayle Howell’s American Purgatory; Airea D. Matthews’s Simulcra; and Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine. Get these books! Get all of the books!
I moved to New York from Pakistan about six months ago for my MFA and immediately dived into as many poetry books I could afford to buy. Because I had not been able to order books back home, either because it was too expensive or publications did not deliver to my part of the world, I made quite a radical leap in terms of my exposure to poetry. Online publications are incredible in that sense since they allow for poems to be seen, read, and heard all over the world.
My first instinct when I arrived was to familiarize myself with as many young female poets as I could. Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal and Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast were both, in different ways, preoccupied with the most extreme possibilities of language. I’m currently reading Beth Bachmann and Ada Limón, both of whom I had a chance to hear at a recent reading. Mary Ruefle is a poet I will always go back to—her poem “Snow” gives you a glimpse into the workings of a mind, completely courageous and confident in letting her thought associations, no matter how bizarre or funny, grow on the page.
I discovered Arthur Sze’s work a few months ago and read his two recent collections, Quipu and Compass Rose. His ecological sensibility, along with the tightness of his lines and how each poem weaves into the next, allows his collections to exist as an organic, living breathing entity. I go back to poets like Rilke and Lorca every now and then to see how and if my reading of them has changed in any way. Lorca was in fact my entry into poetry.
Aside from this, I’ve been reading the work of my peers and students!
On a tip that the late English poet Peter Reading had experimented in classical meters, I found his Work in Regress (great title!) and alighted on the poem “Ovidian,” which when I looked further turns out to be a version of Tristia 10.3. The odd meter really does alchemize the terse, plain style (compare it to the dutiful translations in iambic pentameter or hexameter) and makes Ovid suddenly tremendously exciting again. And that reminds me of one of the best novels I’ve read recently, The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr, a fantastical imagining of Ovid’s world in that desolate terminus by the Black Sea. It suits the national mood too, in its own oblique way.
Preparing to teach visual aesthetics in poetry, I recently revisited Annah Sobelman’s In the Bee Latitudes. The voice in this gem of a book is so deliciously sensual, so often replete with delight, it sings to its readers in a language akin to that of birds or trees or beetles. Sobelman is witty, oracular, precise, and in her musings, in her words on the page and punctuation marks that leave little pictographs of percussive expression, we sense traces of the nervous system of the planet, its creatures: “the springy fire set by one long experience on earth.” Commas buzz about evoking bees in long latitudinal lines; snakes are evoked in colons and waves. When, in a poem titled “It Has Been Given Me to Understand Bats,” Sobelman declares, “you blare out the obvious/ nobody hears that,” I burst out laughing, while in “The Ghosts Are Different from the Love of Some Brains” syntactical inversions fall so gracefully onto the page and with a yearning for embodiment so fierce, I’m caught breathless between Sobelman’s subtle yet stirring homage to Dickinson and my sense of the speaker’s peril. In the final lines of the closing poem of the book, Sobelman leaves her readers with a question regarding essence for which In the Bee Latitudes is her inquisitive, celebratory, timeless, and life-affirming answer.
Other books that have recently compelled my attention include Robin Coste Lewis’s astonishing Voyage of the Sable Venus; Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This; Anna Deeny Morales’s translations of Chilean poet Raúl Zurita in Sky Below: Selected Works; theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics; and Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things.
One of the marvelous things about recent American poetry is its aesthetic diversity and energy. Some of the books I've read recently, with great pleasure, are:
Along with two first books:
Laura Bylenok, Warp
Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS