Reading List: May 2017
From Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf: “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the nightmare sleepless hours of the night, and it has all gone. I just miss you, in a quite simple, desperate human way.” (Milan, Thursday, January 21, 1926)
It was reading extracts from the correspondence of Sackville-West and Woolf that led me to further exploration and I’ve recently devoured Victoria Glendinning’s Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West. This won the Whitbread Award for biography in 1983 and it became easy to see why. Sackville-West was complex emotionally and sexually—aristocrat, poet, novelist, gardener, and, while (partially) committed to her husband, the lover of many women. Although the milieu of her world can irritate, I was soon caught up in this detailed study, her psychology and attributes. Glendinning brings her elusive subject strongly and, ultimately, movingly to life. Virginia Woolf was skeptical about Vita’s writing, but fascinated by her as a woman. At one point her advice to her was, “Now that you have mastered the question of technique, throw your technique into the air and let it smash on the pavement.” Something that Vita was unable to do.
Thinking of ways in which to transform the personal, I’m now immersed in Orlando, which Woolf dedicated to Vita. A playful, ground-breaking fantasy, it was certainly ahead of its time in its creative depiction of fluidity in sexuality and gender, and of the composition of a “self.” Orlando, in her female incarnation, is well-placed to consider the social positioning of women: “She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled.” She concludes that “these graces” are not innate and can only be acquired “by the most tedious discipline.”
I've spent the first few months of 2017 in that strange, lovely, twilighty daze that comes with having a newborn baby, so most of my reading has been done online in the early hours. Here’s a few brilliant things that have kept me awake and in love with poems ...
Hands down the best UK online poetry journal, the ever fantastic Prac Crit is an eclectic and exciting mix of poems, close readings, and interviews.
A thing of intelligence, challenge, and loveliness, Tender Journal is full of artwork, poetry, and fiction by female-identified writers and artists. It’s edited by the excellent poets Sophie Collins and Rachael Allen.
The online magazine Poems in Which is always full of things which surprise and fizz.
Printwise, I’ve adored Kit de Waal’s tender and thought-provoking novel My Name Is Leon (Penguin), which tells the story of twelve-year-old Leon and his journey through the foster care system in eighties Birmingham. It’s beautiful and important reading.
Spring reading, apart from what I’m teaching, is like winter swimming in New Haven—it’s more dreamt of than done. Though I’ve managed some. A few highlights, in possibly chronological order:
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, my antidote to the demoralizing (in every sense) November news. The book is a frightening prophecy, which is to say, a clairvoyant reading of the past that anticipates the present—or maybe that should be a clairvoyant reading of a present that anticipates the past;
Marcel Proust’s earliest extant essay, largely on the painter Chardin, finely rendered by Jennie Feldman and published by Zwirner Books: “Seeing that [the painter] has confided to you the secrets he knows from [metals and stoneware and fruits], … still life will become, above all, alive. Like life itself, it will always have something new to tell you, some marvel to highlight, some mystery to reveal.”
Poems by the utterly forgotten and fabulously entertaining Samuel Hoffenstein, whose 1929 book Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing sold some 60,000 copies, and whose Collected Poems contains, apart from a marvelous spoof of Eliot—“The Moist Land”—lines like these, from “Metaphysical”:
The Lord is in the sea and sky;
The Lord is in the rose and root;
The Lord is in my shirt and tie,
My dentist and my either boot;
The Lord is in the earth and air—
In short the Lord is everywhere.
For if He were not everywhere,
He could not then look out for us,
And if He were not everywhere,
He would not be ubiquitous,
And that—but then you know as well
As I, that is unthinkaa-bel….
Else? Ben Lerner’s No Art, a British collection of his poems, new and old, that shows him at the height of his intensifying powers—the poetry absorbing the pleasures and subtleties of his fiction as the fiction has absorbed the cunning of his poems;
The American Songbook, largely but not only in Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball’s Reading Lyrics, which brought me to the likes of this (from another source, written by Sam A. Lewis and Joe Young and sung by Al Jolson): “Where did Robinson Crusoe go with Friday on Saturday night?”;
The Laughter of the Sphinx, by Michael Palmer, who just seems to open out further and further with every volume into a generative space that’s all his own, and now ours.
I know when W.H. Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen that he did not mean it to be taken as “quite useless” (Wilde’s defense against all art being seen as utilitarian). Two recent publications have reminded me just how powerful a force in the world the arts continue to be despite the crudities of politics. The first is Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Attar’s Conference of the Birds. This book is a beauty, from the calligraphic bird on the cover to the informative appendix. For the uninitiated, Attar’s twelfth-century masterpiece shaped Sufi thought and practice and invented a poetics of the story as allegory and spiritual reliquary. Wolpé, an accomplished poet and playwright, brings a contemporary touch to antiquity without losing sight of the ornate architecture of the whole. The result is a rollicking, delving quest of a poem, an extended riff on what it means to live with art that is not shy of the mundane even as it lifts us up with images and phrases of transcendental thinking.
The second book, that keeps calling me back to it, is Morning, Paramin, Derek Walcott’s final publication in league with the artist Peter Doig, whose 51 paintings call out the poems in the collaboration. Like the production of Wolpé’s definitive translation of Attar, the Walcott and Doig collaboration is another stellar example of the inimitable thinginess of a book, where physical beauty conspires with elucidatory content to uplift the reader. In full color, Doig’s riveting paintings render both stark Northern and lush Caribbean landscapes, which consume his figures. A Scotsman, Doig spent time in Canada before settling in Trinidad. His artistic sensibility works in syncretism with Walcott’s easy, loping lines and mischievous wit and frequently, pure deep feeling for place and people, as in the poem “Paramin,” named after a mountain village in western Trinidad.
Walcott died on March 17, age 87. His work from beginning to end reminds us of the lasting impression of his imagination’s transfigurations of a consciousness at work and at play. What happens in these two books of poetry is not hard to say and needs no apology: both books are events of the mind and both are cultural markers, high points of the life of the imagination and therefore bound to make waves.
I just re-read David Antin’s Tuning and am awaiting the September publication of Maggie Anderson’s new volume, Dear All,. These days much of my reading seems determined by travel. In Paris for a month, I have stayed two blocks from the tavern where Rimbaud read aloud “The Drunken Boat” to friends; the entire text of the poem is painted on the wall across from my narrow street, and I’m reading Louise Varese’s translation of the poem. In Denmark for a dissertation defense, I discovered the late British writer Anne Blonstein’s compelling Letters to No One, in which she quotes Joyce Mansour, a leading figure of postwar, second-wave Surrealism. Mansour’s second book, Déchirures, (Torn Apart), was written in 1955 and translated in the late nineties by Serge Gavronsky. This bilingual edition is pungent and terrifying—much of its violence, eroticism, and blasphemy still raw and vigorous. As Gavronsky points out in his introduction, Mansour’s surrealism is post-Beauvoir’s 1947 Second Sex. The body—especially the woman’s body, but also the male body (often Christ’s)—is present not only in its fair and youthful form but, as well, in old age and poverty, “with blood and sperm on it.”
This spring I also read the American writer Judith Vollmer’s new volume, The Apollonia Poems, which feels and sounds as though it were translated from some gorgeous, lost language. This book continues the ongoing work of Vollmer’s earlier books. It is a palimpsest: the Old World is still inscribed and visible in her beloved, industrialized, exploited, and beautiful American home-city of Pittsburgh. In this fifth book, however, the mythic and actual, the effable and ineffable are layered in an impasto even thicker, deeper, stranger, and more seductive than in previous poems.
In these times of cruelty-by-government, it is bracing to read these muscular, rebellious works.
I’ve been reading a lot of prose by poets, like Alexandra Teague’s gorgeous new novel The Principles Behind Flotation and James Allen Hall’s fearless essay collection I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well. In our current political climate—which for too many people, is not a new political climate—I’ve been returning to Kazim Ali’s Resident Alien: On Border-crossing and the Undocumented Divine. And since my work is in both creative and critical writing, I’ve been looking to a lot of scholarship lately, for either projects of my own or the ongoing, never-ending cultural-political questions we face: Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory; Will Stockton’s Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy; and Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. But poetry is my first love, and I can’t put down Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic.
At the moment I’m in the fortunate position of being able to read a lot of newly-published poetry: as a co-selector for the U.K.’s Poetry Book Society, I read through a stack of pamphlets (chapbooks) every three months in order to make a quarterly choice. This is then advertised in the Society’s bulletin and on social media, alongside the choices and recommendations for full-length collections.
Two pamphlets have made a significant impact on me in the past six months. The first is The Parkinson’s Poems by Northern Irish poet Frank Ormsby, published by Mariscat Press in Edinburgh. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2011, Frank has managed to write a series of poems which are genuinely moving and, against all odds, genuinely funny. The series will be included in his forthcoming full collection, The Darkness of Snow, due out from Bloodaxe Books in September 2017.
The other pamphlet which rattled my marbles was Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament by Geraldine Clarkson, published by smith|doorstop in Sheffield. The title poem appeared in the December 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, and I love the fizzing Gothic energy of Geraldine’s work.
Turning to wider reading, Cate Marvin continues to amaze with Oracle. I first met Cate way back in 1990, when she spent a year studying in Edinburgh—we celebrated her 21st birthday in the Pear Tree pub, as I remember. When I was co-editing issue 67 of the U.K. poetry magazine Magma last year, I had the chance to commission a new poem from Cate, which just happened to coincide with major personal and political upheavals: she moved house from New York to Maine and got married, just as Donald Trump was slouching towards the White House. The poem she sent, “My Father’s Liquor Cabinet,” is a goddamn masterpiece.
This winter I had the pleasure, not for the first time, of teaching The Descent of Alette and finding myself once again in Alice Notley’s terrifying underworld of subway passengers, spirits, witnesses to the Tyrant on a journey narrated by the disembodied voice of our guide, Alette. Like Alette, when I read this book, it is as if “one day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly.”/ “I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or" “who I was” “exactly.” This is both epic poetry and hypnotism. There’s really nothing that has been written in my lifetime that intrigues me, mystifies me, calls me back to it with such force as this poem. I find myself unable to read it as often as I would because I find it radioactive, dangerous, addictive, all-consuming. There are a lot of books on my nightstand and books on my shelf that I return to weekly, or monthly, but The Descent of Alette isn’t one of them. It’s a book I save for sharing, or to which I return when I need to be reminded of what it is to read something with so much gravity that it requires a total surrender.
But I’m also reading Don Paterson: all of it. Right now I’ve got 40 Sonnets, Orpheus: A Version of Rilke, and Rain on the floor next to my bed. This morning I spent some scary moments with “The Lie” (from Rain: a poem I first encountered in Poetry) again, “and locked the door and locked the door and locked the door.”
Watching as the world is rapidly transformed into some kind of insanity and misogyny smoothie—now with added racism!—I find I’m drawn to poetry less in consolation and more as an incitement to action. To that end I’ve been deep in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Sunshine, and How You Might Know Me by Sabrina Mahfouz. I’m no longer remotely impressed by the idea of poetry as something meant to make us feel better. Some things are, and should remain, inconsolable. I read at the moment to remind myself of the necessity for anger and cherish collections that harness the creative power of rage.
Last week, as a treat to myself for putting up with England and it’s near incessant small-island bullshit, I bought myself a secondhand copy of I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles. I love Myles’s lack of compromise, her unapologetic vigor. It’s compelling. It keeps you going.
Outside of reading to suit myself, I’m also mired in practice-based PhD hell, trying (and failing) to write intelligently about poetic strategies for articulating trauma, which means a steady diet of Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, Shoshana Felman, and all the foundational texts of trauma studies. It has also meant reading and rereading Rob Halpern’s staggering Music for Porn, in which Halpern’s radically repurposed language makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
I’ve also been at the Western Manuscript Collection at the Bodleian Library with my head in Vivienne Eliot’s notebooks, in conjunction to which I’ve been reading the excellent biography Painted Shadow by Carole Seymore-Jones, the main result of which has been my coming to hate the sacred cows of Bloomsbury with mounting heat and passion.
Finally, I just started the provocative and brilliant Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin. It makes the blood boil, but in a good way.
I happened to be in Corpse Pose when Psalm 40, by way of U2’s “Forty,” visited me, and I was overcome by its childlike gratitude: “I will sing a new song.” (Pound’s “Make it New!” is not new at all.) What makes U2’s version poetry is how it returns to the question from “Bloody Sunday”: “How long to sing this song?” We careen between wonder and weariness, gratitude and hurt.
These days, I’m drawn to poetry that embodies John Paul Lederach’s “moral imagination”: “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to something that does not yet exist.” I came to poetry because I was obsessed by the past, but I’m looking for Innisfrees now, like Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere,” from Don’t Call Us Dead, in which he suddenly begins speaking from this made and made-safe space.
Shout-outs to these bee-loud recents:
Samiya Bashir, Field Theories
Zeina Hashem Beck, Louder Than Hearts
Hayan Charara, Something Sinister
Tyehimba Jess, Olio
Christopher Kempf, Late in the Empire of Men
Yehoshua November, Two Worlds Exist
Solmaz Sharif, Look
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Water and Salt
David Wojahn, For the Scribe
I’m quite looking forward to these glimmering forthcomings:
Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Ruth Awad, Set to Music a Wildfire
Marwa Helal, Invasive Species
Shara Lessley, The Explosive Expert’s Wife
Margaree Little, Rest
Nomi Stone, Kill Class
Ilya Kaminsky, The Deaf Republic
After last June’s vote for the U.K. to leave the European union all the great British fault lines—race, class, generations, education, England vs. Scotland, etc.—seemed starker than ever. This year I’ve been reading Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide, a mixture of memoir and social commentary. Reading Respectable felt, at times, like a generous—and sometimes painful—hug of recognition. Hanley is very adept at describing the “wall in the head,” the ways we internalize the power structures that shape our lives. I’ve realized over the past couple of years that all sorts of strategies in my writing—invented characters, countries, languages—are partly ways of writing about class. Svetlana Alexeivich’s Chernobyl Prayer is another, though very different, account of ordinary people’s lives shaped by forces beyond their control. It’s a chorus of oral testimonies about the experience and aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster. The book is not only an elegy for those dead and dying (the mortality rate in Belarus rose by 23.5% in the 10 years after the disaster) but also for belief and faith in the Soviet state: “A belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first.”
Poetry-wise, I’ve been enjoying Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Emily Berry’s blistering exploration of grief in Stranger, Baby. I’ve also been reading Eley Williams’s short stories in Attrib—full of funny, very twenty-first century Prufrocks who struggle to say just what they mean.
I’ve been reading a lot of books of late that have taken the top of my head off. Thus I have no head and can hardly remember. But these are the ones I recall, that sucked all the yuck-gravity out of the room until I was just floating there—beheaded:
Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan
There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
All of my teacher Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s books
Harmless Medicine by Justin Chin
The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser
The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith
Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair
When death grabs a writer’s pen, the reader’s grief is heightened knowing no more words will flow from that pen. This anguish is even more palpable when the loss is of a titan like Derek Walcott. Months before his passing, I bought his final collection of poems Morning, Paramin; poems in conversation with his friend Peter Doig’s paintings. Walcott seemed to predict his imminent death in “Purple Jesus (Black Rainbow)” where he says “The light makes life harder to understand / and day declines with every brightening minute”—or maybe this was just Walcott being as lyrical as he always was. My love of his work proceeds in no small part because he was born on St. Lucia, just a stone’s throw away from my parents’ neighboring Grenadine islands and because I know my father—a closet poet—would have been so proud of Walcott’s accomplishments. But this is no mere “hail countryfellow” on my part, although visions of my Dad dressed in his game-whites come to mind upon reading “Paragon”—“trying to bowl faster / to the breaker’s edge where the wave leaps to catch / the calm joy of figures in this cricket match.” This is a deep sense of loss for the man who wrote in “Santa Cruz III,” “I lifted the pen up and it began to sing …”
But the stage Walcott has set for Caribbean-born poets is replete with his literary progeny. For example, Ishion Hutchinson, who says in one poem in his House of Lords and Commons:
The genie says build a studio. I build
a studio from ash. I make it out of peril and slum
and Safiya Sinclair, who reassures in a poem from her collection Cannibal:
I am the wild diviner unparting
miracles this morning.
Clearly, Caribbean-born poets have cemented their place in the canon and it will move forward in more than capable hands.
On more than one occasion, while working through a poem, I have found myself asking, “what would Hera Lindsay Bird do?” There should be bumper stickers. Bird’s debut, the self-titled Hera Lindsay Bird is an exhilarating read, but what most enthrall me are her extravagant and cartoonish images: “I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it / Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire.”
Her speakers are often subject to this kind of purgatorial public humiliation. In the same poem (“Monica”) she remembers what it was like
not to want
To strap concrete blocks to my head
And drown myself in a public fountain
The poems flaunt their own staginess. “Ex-girlfriends” are “draped over a piano at the edge of the thicket / playing the lonely upper hand of chopsticks.” In “Planet of the Apes” Bird uses a blockbuster camera shot to talk about hopeless love and stomach-clenching regret:
looking at you is like looking
backwards out the window of a slow moving helicopter
into the 19th-century cornfield of your face.
If Bird is an enfant terrible, Anne Carson attacks generic and presentational conventions like a precocious child taking a screwdriver to a radio. Her most recent publication, Float, is “a collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various.” There are play fragments, art notes, lectures, lists, sonnets, translations, and biographical studies. Amongst all this delightful wackiness are some wondrous things—H.G. Wells renaming his wife because he felt “Jane” “embodied domestic ability”:
Yet sometimes, he says, he saw Amy Catherine “look at [him] out of Jane’s brown eyes, and vanish.”
Zeusbits is a sequence of short lyrics about a neurotic emperor, a text for our time:
Zeus’ tigers lay cold and golden amid their lawyers.
A welcome day off from the war on lichen.
for the women who
scream down their knives as they clean the blood off the trees.
Bird and Carson have both expanded my sense of what a poem might be, and you cannot ask for more than that.
I love the wild, which often means I am far from home, preferably hiking. But if I want something closer, Scotland is not so far away. So I was delighted to discover Nan Shepherd’s sublime book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It is an object lesson in being truly present, and I scribbled notes-to-self on nearly every page. Hiking in the wild throws up practical considerations, not least encounters with megafauna! So, a reassuring presence on my desk is Dave Smith’s Backcountry Bear Basics. I am also interested in global myths around the Great Bear, and spent two months in Mongolia last year trying to discover their origin of the constellation. On my last day there, a woman in a bookshop randomly handed me a collection of Mongolian folktales called How Did the Great Bear Originate. One of those perfect moments of synchronicity. Recently I discovered my several times great-grandfather lived next door to the poet Thomas Love Peacock, so I have just read his novella Nightmare Abbey, which fondly lampoons Shelley and other Romantics. As for poetry, Jerome Rothenberg’s Barbaric, Vast and Wild anthology sent me off on many gloriously mad tangents. Maggie Nelson’s catechism of color and longing, Bluets, keeps finding its way into my back pocket. Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus lurched from gorgeous to gut-wrenching in a kind of brilliant sea sickness. And Susie Campbell’s excellent chapbook Frock Enquiry got a recent re-visit as it has just been made available online. Lastly, I am slowly working on a translation of Monique Wittig’s feminist classic, Les Guérillères, a book I have been dipping in and out of since my teens, with other touchstones I regularly visit including Anne Carson’s Plainwater and Alice Oswald’s poem Dunt, which lives on my desk.