Reading List: July/August 2017 (Part II)
The Reading List is a feature of Poetry’s Editors’ Blog. This month contributors to the July/August 2017 issue share some recommendations. So many contributors responded that we divided the list in two. Part I can be found here.
In the medium-sized, suburban Canadian city where I live, surrounded by houses made of ticky tacky, brutalist architecture, an anxious oil economy, and a multitude of experimental poets, I contemplate the uses of poetry. Now, in the middle of that carnival reversal known as the Calgary Stampede, at a time when this garrison outpost of the colonial, resource extraction project dream-manifests into a maverick, wild West, on treatied Siksika, Piikuni, Kainai, Tsuut’ina, and Stoney Nakoda land, at Mohkinstsis where the Elbow River meets the Bow, where, before the installation of the Canadian state, the black cowboy John Ware broke unruly horses and Chinese workers arrived with the Canadian Pacific Railway, does the lineage of the “greats” matter? Does beauty? Originality? The feeling self? Does English even matter, or is it better imagined as a pidgin-in-process, “inglish” as Roy Kiyooka proposed?: “everytime i've gone back there and walked the streets of that lovely city on the pacific, i hear the cadences of my own native speech: both nihongo and inglish subtly transmuted into an undialectical syntax” (Miki, Pacific Windows). Or as anguish, as M. NourbeSe Philip gives it to us?:
Englishis my mother tongue.A mother tongue is notnot a foreign lan lan langlanguagel/anguishanguish— a foreign anguish.(“Discourse on the Logic of Language” in She Tries Her Tongue/ Her Silence Softly Breaks)
What about the other languages that preceded the swinging, hinging, “inging” objectification of the gerund-making master tongue and the mobile pidgin alliances that can still be built across it? I think of Jeannette Armstrong explaining Nsyilxchen as a “twine of many strands” that starts with Syilx land and “extends not just across generations but across species” (Coleman “Indigenous Place and Diaspora Space,” and Armstrong, “Literature of the Land - An Ethos for These Times”). Is a relational language a quality language? For me, the body, experience, history, and memory matter more, as does an eye on the future, as an unpredictable time and place that emerges unexpected on the interstices of the intentional, directed action we take in the present. To that unending end, here are a few books I’m reading now.
Anahita Jamali Rad’s 2016 For Love and Autonomy takes on and takes apart both the lyric and the collective self in a fierce and sometimes hilarious play with the politics and theory of contemporary capital, community building, racialized feminism and, yes, love. Acerbic and witty, she spins Silvan Tompkins on complementary enjoyment: “I may enjoy you better if your nose starts to bleed when you touch me. I may enjoy you better if you make me feel ashamed for enjoying that ...” In a section entitled “post-harem heavy breathing” she shows us how deeply our desires are knit into the war machine: “so lonely/without/ heavy/weaponry ...” Both cheekily irreverent and deeply concerned for the violated and displaced, Rad is engaged in the world as it is, communities of people trying (with all their foibles) to make it better, and yet she is fiercely unafraid of thinking and reading.
I met El Jones at a conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick earlier this spring. A leading light in a younger generation of spoken word poets, she published a book called Live from the Afrikan Resistance in 2014. She is so clear that the book is an artifact on the performance, and that performance is for the time and space of the event: to make community, serve a cause, or empower her people. Poetry for her is important for the social labour it does, and yet the poems are beautiful. Hear this fragment from the poem “Viola Desmond,” addressing the Black woman who refused to sit in the balcony of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, nine years before Rosa Parks: “Don’t make Black women jump through hoops/Like oops. You can’t have one day to honour your roots/I’m just speaking the truth when I say don’t continue to dilute our history.”
Shannon Maguire’s Myrmyrs is one of the brilliant, under-recognized books of the last few years. She explodes the sestina form, connects medieval texts to contemporary politics and puts living systems—from cities to languages to ant colonies—in conversation with one another with her own ear wide open: “of the queen with circus and coo / with wolf-velvet, blackmail / to rim with prowl for fish for flue / with bell of fruit in swing in sew...” This is gorgeous, virtuoso stuff that plays with form, sound, sexuality, and the non-human world.
We lost one of the most important members of the Calgary writing community when Sharron Proulx-Turner died last year. I’m rereading What the Auntys Say, and lingering over “why crow knows weendigo’s not all he’s cracked up to be”: “it’s about late afternoon and picking up the sun and / them crows all singing hollow doo doo I’m a pip hollow doo doo pip / again hollow doo doo give us a bingo to revive us again...” She’s revived and haunting us now, as she promised she would.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
My day job requires a lot from me and the stakes are very high—I’m the Program Director for a social justice community foundation called Chinook Fund. I love it, but that means that I’ve been investing my reading practice in texts that are pleasurable, humanizing, and regenerative, whereas my tendency in the past has been to seek challenge and provocation. These days, I’ve been reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He’s one of my very most favorite thinkers and writers. Reading him is like kissing someone slowly and passionately. Swoon. To get a sense of his magic: “The night dream does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.” Ah!! I love diving into the deep waters of the poetic soul with that man. Wow. For whimsy, I’m re-reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I actually woke up one morning two weeks ago and had a vision that I needed to read this book again... and there it was, waiting for me at the second hand book store. Kismet! Merlin!!! GLAAAH! I also picked up Chiwan Choi’s latest book, The Yellow House, when he cruised through Denver. He writes with this brutal intimacy—capturing its poignancy, the rawness of presence and sharing a moment with someone—so incredibly well. And lastly, I’m reading the July/August 2017 issue of Poetry!! What a historic effort and collection. My faves so far have been the poems by Ocean Vuong and Linh Dinh. Oh drat, I just realized I’m only naming men—but they are so magical, these authors.
Joseph O. Legaspi
Albeit I’ve designated this summer for me to read only Asian and Asian American prose—kicked off by devouring Lan Samantha Chang’s “Hunger,” then grazed Eric Gamalinda’s The Descartes Highlands, nibbled at Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, swallowed up Rhacel Parreñas’s Servants of Globalization, etc., etc.—such determination never applies to my consumption of poems, which flow through me like time itself.
And lately I do perceive my poetry book reading in dimensions of time. As with these titles from the recent (and distant) past that harken back like recurring memory: Hossannah Asuncion’s Object Permanence, a lyrical topography that lives up to its name, continuing to exist beyond the frame; Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, a feverish ramble through mythic wilderness; and Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, haunting me with her otherworldly communiqué and intimate genius.
Presently, and as is often the case, I’m juggling several books. On my bedside table are recent collections: Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War, expertly colluding national identity and militarism; and DéLana R.A. Dameron’s Weary Kingdom, mapping a journey from home to a new world. Also amongst the pile are two older titles that blurrily zoomed by my earlier notice: Kimiko Hahn’s Volatile, which, perhaps, is her most outright political offering; and Stanley Kunitz’s The Testing-Tree, salvaged from a bookstore in New Paltz, New York, reminding me of the pleasures of breathing from cover to cover.
Never least, I’m cherishing the final collection of my forever generous mentor, Philip Levine, appropriately titled The Last Shift. Vintage Phil, the book is full of rage, humor, and fine oratorical storytelling. I could only read a couple of poems at a time before I get teary-eyed. Until I fortify myself again, and hold the book up, in an embrace.
As for the future, I anticipate the births of these collections I was fortunate enough to read in manuscript form from three of the most important women in my life: Jennifer Chang’s Some Say the Lark; Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic; and Sarah Gambito’s Loves You (indeed).
For over a decade Thomas De Quincey has been a mainstay because my academic work focuses on him. He’s the latecomer to the Lake District circle, a lifelong essayist who was Coleridge and Wordsworth’s acolyte, friend, critic, and nuisance. Among many things, he invented the figure of the drug addict, prose poetry, and the word “subconscious.” He wrote a tract of political economy that his contemporaries Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill found credible. His autobiographies of what he calls “impassioned prose” recasted what the genre could do. Virginia Woolf said that any novelist writing after De Quincey simply explores terrain he had already surveyed. Baudelaire fashioned himself after the Brit. Borges too. Hawthorne used this work as primers to teach his daughters literary style. It’s important to recognize, though, that a strong undercurrent throughout his career was a commitment to Toryism, British Imperialism, and partisan politics. It is astonishing to see a reprehensibly violent conservatism underwriting work that is an originary point for the counterculture. Truly instructive to see the dialectic at the source.
I’ve started The Complete Works of Pat Parker, which recently earned a Lammy. Scholar, poet, and editor of Sinister Wisdom, Julie Enszer has done us a great service by making this oeuvre available to us. Parker was a founding sister of the black lesbian feminist movement. Audre Lorde didn’t found the lineage of black American lesbian poetry single-handedly, of course. True for any movement, school, or tradition, it is crucial to see how formative writers wrote amongst their intimate contemporaries, especially for this movement now, since the black lesbian feminists of the late twentieth century were crucial to the establishment of intersectional politics. The opening poem, “Goat Child,” is a tour de force.
Sally Wen Mao
I’m building a moodboard for the combination of delight and despair that pervades summertime dog days, and it involves islands, mermaids, and city wildernesses. My books are water-damaged from my attempts to read them in the bathtub and on the beach. Recently, I’ve swam into Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Kim Yideum. The poem “Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation” takes us to the world of old women deep sea divers and sea cucumbers: “now that it has slashed its body, / cut off its tentacles and anus, where can a soul enter?”
On June Jordan’s birthday, I returned to her book Passion, which reminds me that poetry has never been about romance—rather it’s about dissonance and dissent. In the poem “Grand Army Plaza,” Jordan writes: “We are not survivors of a civil war // We survive our love / because we go on // loving.” I’m trying to hold that close to my heart right now when the mouth of our country is filled with blood. I’m rereading Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Lucille Clifton’s The Terrible Stories also haunts me with her tales of feral foxes and women who suffer and find solace in the wilderness.
I’m excited to read Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, out in August. In anticipation, I’ve been rereading her essay here, “How It Feels,” as well as her interview on YoursTruly with the singer Mitski. It struck me, the candor of that conversation, where Jenny declares that finding a soulmate and a home are all “white dreams,” and Mitski laughs and agrees. What can women of color dream about? Perhaps Lucille Clifton, in “A Dream of Foxes,” answers: “there is a field / and a procession of women / clean as good children … honest women stepping / without fear or guilt or shame / safe through the generous fields.”
Recently, I attended a poetry reading and music performance by Joy Harjo at the University of Michigan. It was so amazing. At the end, I hurried home her book She Had Some Horses. I loved it so much that I searched for articles about it to remain in its spirit. The five-section title poem is between chanting and lamenting, with the symbolic image of the horse in the background of the poem. But my favorite one in the book is the last one, “I Give You Back.” Addressing fear, she says, “I give you back to the soldiers.”
Another book that also fascinates me these days is Fast by Jorie Graham. It consists of brilliant prose poems in which the pronouns shift so masterfully between the internal and the external world. The long lines of the poems are still compact and economical. The word “fast” is relative, and everything in the book is relative. That’s part of what makes it powerful: its question asked without question marks and with no definite answers.
As I drive across the American Southwest I am reading Andre Bagoo’s third collection, Pitch Lake (Peepal Tree Press, 2017). I was lucky enough to hear him launch his collection at the Bocas Literary Festival in April in Trinidad. What struck me were poems that cohere around myth, bound to the terrestrial and the bodily. His viscous images swallow me as a reader; his book aptly named for Pitch Lake, the largest occurring lake of asphalt in Trinidad.
Bagoo writes in “Catullus in Libya,” “At nights I removed my penis / but in the morning it grew whole again.” The speaker considers poetic, ethnic, and ecological inheritances where multiple migrations and complications color the speaker’s inescapable queernesses.
Complications abound also in Hari Alluri’s debut collection of poems called The Flayed City (Kaya Press, 2017). Alluri packs departures and arrivals into his lines, keenly aware of the neocolonial settler colonial apparatus that keeps migrants’ stories deadly. In his poems the speaker constantly negotiates their positionality—being from elsewhere, always.
The flaying in Alluri’s book is not just through migration and the mosaic it makes of cities. Humans assault the earth itself as they move from place to place embracing one another or shutting them out. Alluri’s poem “Fingers, on a Suitcase, Walk,” echoes as I consider the world under corporate and racist siege. He writes, “soldiers pick their teeth with / egrets, orcas try to wash off oil-slicked gulls.” He asks, what have we done, what will we do?
I am also reading Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s memoir, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015), Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press, 2017), and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s Arrival (Triquarterly, 2017).
Summer usually means tending to my garden, and reading and writing in my garden—but I’ve just returned from a month teaching in the Writing Workshops in Greece program. While there, my husband, two boys, and I lived in a studio apartment for a month. When my friends gasp and say How on EARTH did you survive that, my short answer is: reading! Reading kept us all grounded. As it always does. Reading while overlooking the Aegean Sea, reading at the beach, reading while waiting the requisite thirty minutes to snorkel, reading on ferries and planes—here, then, is a sampling of my reading-across-the-sea:
Hunger, by Roxane Gay. My friends know this is the highest compliment: in Greece, there was a live octopus hunt going on not 100 feet from me on the beach and still, I kept reading—just one more chapter, just one more …
Camino Island, by John Grisham. The least I could do for my fairy godfather of sorts and you’ll be tickled to know HE was tickled that I was reading his nimble prose and jaunty dialogue on an actual island myself.
Octopus: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, by Jennifer Mather, Roland Anderson, and James Wood.
Silencer, by Marcus Wicker. So happy to be able to usher in this book via an early blurb: “In these pages, sailfish and hummingbirds assert their frenetic movements on a planet simmering with racial tensions, which in turn forms its own kind of bopping and buoyant religion.”
The Shark Lady, by Jess Keating. My sons are in love with a gorgeous picture book highlighting the ground-breaking work of Dr. Eugenie Clark—and so am I.
Terminal Human Velocity, by Christina Olson. The second book of Olson’s—dazzling and electric lines of the natural world and its glorious strangeness—a former student of mine, yes, and my first-ever to have two books!
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue, by Maurice Sendak. I have a spirited six-year old who thinks this is the scariest/funniest book he’s ever read.
Some Say the Lark, by Jennifer Chang. Another book I was lucky enough to read in an early version and I just know it will be one of this fall’s most anticipated books. Breath-taking compression and gentle but unflinching vistas into the natural world.
Craig Santos Perez
I have read four recent collections that all powerfully speak to eco-poetic themes Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, Scott Starbuck’s Hawk on Wire: Ecopoems, and Lehua M. Taitano’s Sonoma.
I have also read several journal issues dedicated to Native poetry: Yellow Medicine Review 10th Anniversary Retrospective, World Literature Today (New Native Writing issue edited by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish), and Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing issue 90 (Native North American Literature and Literary Activism, edited by Kimberly M. Blaeser).
Lastly, I am reading the anthology The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, edited by Diane Glancy and Linda Rodriguez.
I’ve been trying to finish up a poetry collection titled “Grief Sequence,” which has been inspired by reading a whole host of works that tie into its themes, like Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, which explores the significant and yet private emotional terms of grieving and thinking through devastating loss and intimacy through short reflective lines.
But I also go into exciting, deft, and spirited spaces of inquiry, social practice, theory, and lyricism. I just purchased Jeanne Heuving’s The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics (I’m interested in pulling out ideas of love and eroticism from avant-garde modernity and the relation between “love poetics” and “love poesis”) and Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977–1997 edited by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, which catalogues powerful, rich cultural writing that delves into its sense of community.
Juliana Huxtable’s Mucus in My Pinneal Gland was just recommended to me when I was in New York last month—authorial, ontic, and descriptive—as well as White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, which I am using in a social justice class in the fall, plus Layli Long Soldier’s powerful and essential Whereas, which I’m also teaching. Katy Lederer’s stark lyric lines in The bright red horse—and the blue—Poems; and Nathaniel Mackey’s Lay Ghost. So many more I love, too.
Milkweed Publisher Daniel Slager handed me a copy of Sea Summit by the Chinese poet Yi Lu, and I got hooked right away. Her poetry is a stream of melted glacial water from Everest: pure, cool, quenching the deep thirst of the soul. Don’t be fooled by her simple style. In the clarity, there’s depth and weight. And in that clarity, there’s no room for fluffy or fake. The best poetry that has survived three thousand years of Chinese history is the simplest at the first glance, like the poems by Li Po, Du Fu, Li Qingzhao.
H. L. Hix’s American Anger hit home from a different angle. It’s raw, bloody, violent, and of course, angry. It never flinches, no matter how painful, from the brutal honesty about the poet himself, his family, America, or humanity. Reading the poems feels like reading Greek tragedy, with a thousand needles thrown at you, but after the bleeding stops, you feel a strange calmness, because you’ve just pulled the scab and let out the pus that has been causing the festering fever and pain … and now you know the fresh blood can come in and do the healing.
It may feel strange to read these two poets together, like trying to reach the south and north poles at the same time. But if we try to start from the south and north, and aim for the center of the earth, the deep of our consciousness/soul/spirit, these two books are great launching vehicles. They’ll take you to places, some beautiful, some dark, always alive, never boring or anemic.
Desolation: Souvenir by Paul Hoover and Skinwalkers by John Yu Branscum took me on quantum trips through quantum leaps, quantum entanglement, quantum uncertainty. Very different styles, yet both led me into the quantum web of emotional complexity, clarity and wholeness. It’s almost impossible to describe with words. You have to experience it yourself by diving into their words, their consciousness, their silence. You won’t return as the same being.
There are four books that I have been reading these days, while sitting at my desk or taking the subway to go to an art gallery to see an exhibition that I might review: Feelings Above Sea Level: Prose Poems from the Chinese of Shang Qin, translated by Stephen Bradbury (Zephyr Press, 2006); Diadem: Selected Poems by Marosa di Giorgio, translated from the Spanish with an Introduction by Adam Gianelli (BOA Editions, 2012); The History of Violets by Marosa di Giorgio, translated from the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010); My Private Property by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books, 2016).
The first three books are prose poems, while Ruefle’s book rises out of a conflation of prose poetry, the personal essay, inspired testimony, and something much less definable. The title piece, “My Private Property,” is one of my favorite works of short prose, belonging in special section that includes prose by Franz Kafka, John Ashbery, Albert Mobilio, Guy Davenport, Francis Ponge, and Clarice Lispector. It begins: “It is sad, is it not, that no one displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.”
In his “Translator’s Preface,” Bradbury describe Qin as “among the first poets in Taiwan to have expressed a significant interest in surrealism and is the finest poet writing in Chinese on either side of the Formosa Strait to have made the prose poem his métier.” This is how “The Third Week of Mourning” begins: “In order to explain that he had not in fact been executed for spying, he lost no time in returning to my window, where, as always, the faint odor of seaside that perpetually hung about him infuriated the Siamese cat lolling in its corner of the roof.”
Marosa di Giorgio, who grew up in Uruguay, writes poems without lineation, which is why many consider them prose poems. Her poems are situated in an imaginary landscape that shares something with the farm where she grew up, part fairy tale and part bug infested. An untitled piece in Diadem begins: “In the clear light of dawn my relatives walked through the olive trees, hunting for prey.”
As the opening lines that I have quoted suggest, it is never evident where the author will go next. I find that faith sustaining in these grim times.