Reading List: June 2017
This spring’s reading has brought me wonderment and worry. The worry—which isn’t worth lingering over for long—stems from my fretting over trite gestures in new poetry. I mean, poetry that’s newly minted and yet enacts aspects of group-think or cliché-passing-for-originality. Self-as-hero, the nifty instead of the haunted. I bemoan these things in others’ poetry because I find them crawling in mine.
This year I’m judging a couple of contests, so I’m reading hundreds of new books. There are—almost silly to say—so many thrilling new voices and familiar voices refreshed. The orchestra of American poetry has more instruments playing in more keys and tempos than ever. With all this influx, I enjoyed the last two weeks on vacation on a quiet island—just me, my partner Page, and lots of iguanas and banana-quits. I brought only three new poetry volumes.
Meghan O’Rourke’s new Sun in Days is a marvel, a heartbreak. O’Rourke pushes her poetry to include tactics her brilliant prose has often pursued—more information, more speculation, more room to meditate. This book is bigger in all ways for O’Rourke, with a couple of incredible long sequences as well as crystalline short lyrics. Individual lines crackle. It’s a book written in the midst of the death of her father and the birth of her son; and underneath everything are O’Rourke’s own harrowing personal narratives, especially her complex health problems. Never has she opened-out her narratives, lingered, explored as she does here.
Martha Rhodes’s new collection, The Thin Wall, as well as Jorie Graham’s Fast came with me on holiday, too. The Thin Wall is lean and dark, as distilled as it is severe, a book about the family, haunted by damage and sorrow. Rhodes’s art is to be powerfully selective, elliptical, where Graham’s is to be expansive. I’m an admitted fan of Graham’s—to lesser or greater degrees depending on the book—but Fast is now among my Graham favorites. There’s vulnerability here among her considerable powers and confidences, stemming from the loss of her parents and from self-loss. (That sounds eerily like the O’Rourke book, to me, as I write that sentence.) She pushes past the body into considerations of the afterlife, cyber-life, cryo-life. Her language is alternately intense and leisurely, her mood, as in all her best work, productively restless, probing.
Finally, I have read—twice in two weeks!—Ali Smith’s masterful novel, Autumn. I had not read Smith before, and Autumn is sublime. Strange. Tender. Post-Brexit. So smart in the way that soulfulness is often the deepest measure of intelligence. No one is brutal, no one kills anyone, no one snarks or tries to out-cool anyone else. And the language is a world of its own—idiosyncratic, deeply interior, deeply vernacular. It’s a version of love story, about friendship, the deep chasm of generations, and deeper connections we make, if we are receptive, if we pay attention, over those chasms.
Jacqueline Jones LaMon
When I think of poetry that inspires my pursuit of rendering voice and of inhabiting persona, there are four poets that remind of how I ought to be pursuing my craft. One such poet is M. Nzadi Keita. It is so very difficult to create a voice of urgency from scarce historical artifacts, but this is exactly what Keita offers us in Brief Evidence of Heaven, a series of memorable persona poems in the voice of Anna Murray Douglass, the often-dismissed core of a wife to abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When my persona requires musicality and the swirl of setting, I turn to the delicate work of Linda Susan Jackson, and in particular, her Etta James-esque intonations that remind me how I might take flight to a dignified time gone by, a time of polished mahogany and pillbox hats, found in her debut collection, What Yellow Sounds Like. When my poetry is striving for layers of narrative complexity on the way to surprise and epiphany, I revisit the brilliant persona poems of A. Van Jordan in Quantum Lyrics, and witness wonder at the ways in which Albert Einstein, superheroes, and familial love circle around an ever-burning fire to create images that speak truth to each other and to the reader. When the poem demands a direct confrontation with the uncomfortable moment, the avoidance of melodrama in the midst of the absolutes of death and truth, I turn to the work of Cornelius Eady, and immerse myself in You Don’t Miss Your Water. These are the first places I go to help me to fortify myself for the work of persona.
2017 has been a miserable year for human rights and institutional compassion, but it is already one of the best years for poetry books I can remember. I’ve already got a backlog of new poetry collections that I’m excited to spend more time with. At the top of the stack are Alex Dimitrov’s Together and by Ourselves, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, and Craig Morgan Teicher’s The Trembling Answers—three collections that consider the public and private in intimate and sophisticated ways. I’ve been knocked out by everything I’ve read in these books so far and I’m looking forward to languishing with them over the summer.
This week, I finished two excellent poetry collections: Shara McCallum’s Madwoman and Samiya Bashir’s Field Theories. The books are in conversation in some minor ways related to how myth and memory work, but each collection has a unique vision of what a poem is and what it can be.
Madwoman is Shara McCallum’s fifth book and she is fully in control of her creative vision. Which shouldn’t be surprising since she’s been out here killing it since the late 1990s. In this collection, McCallum considers constructions of history and mythology as related to self-identity. Poetry International just published a folio of essays about the book that addresses the layers and interrogations of gender and culture, as well as the simply beautiful language in these poems.
Samiya Bashir’s Field Theories riffs off of the science of thermodynamics and coronagraphs, which she uses to consider blackness, gender, and history in innovative and irrefutable ways. Some sections include persona poems voiced John Henry and his wife Polly Ann while others explore the “science” of race. There is so much happening in these poems that trying to summarize the collection feels disrespectful, especially since I’m just mentioning subjects here without addressing her masterful, consistently popping verse.
I first became aware of Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, edited by Amit Majmudar, after reading Alex Dimitrov’s “The Moon After Election Day” in The New York Times. What drew me to this poem is how Dimitrov approaches the subject of America’s election slant or, in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies.”
The failure of recognition—“we have voted and proven again / we do not know one another”—is reflected in the speaker’s attempt to understand the addressed “you” intertwined with the poetic trope of an ode to the moon. While Resistance includes fifty poems, Pamela Uschuk’s Truth to Power anthology contains over three hundred poems. Both anthologies send powerful words of protest into the world during these disturbing and perilous times.
In Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, I was bowled over to discover a new breakthrough in protest poetry, a poetry that reverberates through your body. While reading Long Soldier’s debut book, I was struck by the long prose poem, “38,” where Long Soldier folds into notions of aesthetics a type of ars poetica while bringing to light the crimes against the Lakota tribe and the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men “under orders from President Abraham Lincoln” just days before the Emancipation Proclamation. The image of the mouth stuffed with grass is particularly poignant: “When Myrick’s body was found, / his mouth was stuffed with grass. / I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.” In her brilliant long poem, “Whereas,” which concludes the book, Long Soldier writes: “If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.”
I also highly recommend reading the New Native Writing feature in World Literature Today. As Susan Power writes in her essay, “Native in the Twenty-first Century”: “we’ve got a world to save, yours as well as ours.”
In my graduate poetry workshop this spring, I taught several books, both older and quite new, in order to explore their various approaches to the modalities of line, meter, and stanza: Charles Wright’s Appalachia, for its dropped lines that expand your lung capacity; Jorie Graham’s Erosion, for the contemplative hesitation it creates through enjambment, particularly over stanza breaks; C.S. Giscombe’s Prairie Style, for its epigrammatically regional approach to the prose poem; and Phillis Levin’s Mr. Memory, for its elegant and resonant embrace of a multitude of lineations and forms.
I also reread Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, his book on photography, which still amazes me every time I read it: it’s really a meditation on how systematic thought is undone by grief. I don’t see this book discussed too much in the context of the personal essay, but for me it has been indispensable for many years.
I also read a few recent books that I very much enjoyed: Monica Youn’s Blackacre, which ends with her astonishing sequence on Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” (this sequence first appeared in Poetry); Bruce Bond’s marvelously Keatsian Sacrum; and Andrea Cohen’s Unfathoming, with its witty and sometimes heartbreaking economy.
The semester is over! I’m on sabbatical! Finally, time, to cuddle up with all those poetry volumes I haven’t had time for! And here they are…
Obviously, I’m going to need a system. But first, a few choice lit mags—because I love being knocked out by lots of voices all at once. Also, I’ve been traveling like crazy (Happy birthday, Gwendolyn Brooks!) and journals have the extra added benefit of being gleefully disposable. I can immerse myself in lyric from Jersey to Jakarta, then pass the issue along to my seatmate, who’s been reading over my shoulder the whole time. (And the reach of poetry grows longer. Magic!)
Favorites? Arroyo, definitely and always, Arroyo. Catamaran, with its gorgeous interpretations. Freeman’s, which requires a commitment. Southern Indiana Review. The Normal School. Willow Review, kicking lyrical ass from the itty-bitty College of Lake County in Illinois. PANK, the first love of my weirdest students. Pinch. And Poetry, because it slides so gracefully into my purse, and because it used to be hard to find people of color in its pages, now it isn’t.
What have I pulled from my crammed shelves? I’m at work on some fiction/poetry hybrid thingy, so I’m enviously close-reading Brooks’s Maud Martha and offerings by Kwame Alexander, Helen Frost, and Sharon Creech. For pure friggin’ poetic pleasure, I'm marveling at Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf; Robert Wrigley’s Box (which led me backwards to Reign of Snakes); Airea D. Matthews’s Simulcra; and New Generation African Poets, a lush chapbook boxed set edited by the formidable duo of Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani. (I keep holding my hands out for Rachel McKibbens’s blud, but I guess it isn’t October yet.)
Oh, and I just plucked June Jordan’s memoir Soldier from its place on the shelf—because I have to constantly remind myself that panic is never the answer.
Bettina M. Walker
A good friend upon his return from a poetry-writing workshop gave me Wisława Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Last Poems to read. Szymborska was the winner of the Nobel Prize and New York Times editor’s choice award and deservedly so. I have consumed her for days. The texture of her words resided in my every day, making me feel as if she was peeking through my closed blinds.
“Nothing Twice” (1957) captures how “You can’t repeat the class in summer, this course is only offered once,” cleverly hinting at how you only get to do things once before they become a life lesson. Nineteen years later Szymborska’s “Life While-You-Wait” (1976) reiterates, “Whatever you do will become forever what I’ve done.” The permanency of what one does appears to have made her more conscious of thoughts and actions. My favorite is her poem titled, “The Three Oddest Words” (2002):
When I pronounce the word Future
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.
Szymborska’s revelation of such simple words demonstrates how personable her observations were, not only of herself but also of the implicit world around her.
Roger Bonair-Agard’s Where Brooklyn At? is a compelling collection of poems based on life experiences of an immigrant in the ever-changing gentrification of Brooklyn. Although most of the poems are based on his earlier experiences in New York, the setting could easily resonate among most urban cities, especially Chicago. Bonair-Agard’s “How to Be an Immigrant in East New York Brooklyn” garners empathy in its colloquial musings, such as “Men here speak in tongues of gun oil, the long music of drawn steel.” As a Chicago native, I understand that all too well.