Reading List: September 2017
I feel like, while our nation is in the throes of this new bumbling idiot despotism, the poetry nation has risen up in turn as if to compensate, to maintain a balance of goodness and beauty and occasion for gratitude. I can’t remember a season of poetry as rich as the one we’re in right now this very second—and what necessary, soul-saving luck that is. In recent months, I’ve thrilled through new books by Nicole Sealey, Danez Smith, sam sax, Javier Zamora, Marcus Wicker, Ruth Awad, Nicole Tong, Craig Morgan Teicher, Nuar Alsadir, Cait Weiss Orcutt, Maggie Smith, Will Brewer, Carl Phillips, Steph Burt, Donald Platt, Ghayath Almadhoun, Elena Karina Byrne, Patricia Smith, Tyree Daye, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Sommer Browning, Alessandra Lynch, Finn Menzies, Eve L. Ewing, Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah), Franny Choi, Laura Kasischke, and countless others (W.S. Merwin’s Selected! A new June Jordan reader!).
Frank Bidart’s new Collected is a near-religious object and I treat it as such—I don’t think it’s left my side for more than half a day since I got my first galley months ago. It’s so many things, and Bidart’s been so many poets over the years (each one magisterial), but every section of this tome seems to vibrate at exactly the frequency of my specific self-doubt or my specific desire or my specific ambition or my specific fear or or or …
Like everyone else, I’ve gone back into Ashbery in the past few days and have found solace and inspiration in the wild centripetal delight of his verve. I’m presently looking forward to titles by Rachel McKibbens, Traci Brimhall, Ilya Kaminsky, Natalie Eilbert, David Tomas Martinez, Chase Berggrun, Jenny Xie, Emari DiGiorgio, Ben Purkert, Ruth Baumann, Carmen Giménez Smith, Leah Umansky, and Tarfia Faizullah. Jos Charles’s feeld is a manuscript I return to over and over—when it comes out in the world, it’s going to be such an event. I feel similarly about Tiana Clark’s manuscript I Can’t Talk about the Trees without the Blood. Just thinking about it gives me a floaty feeling. Looking over these paragraphs, I feel so wholly lifted. It’s such an astonishingly fortunate time to be a lover of poetry. It’s the load-bearing gratitude of my life, this bounty we poets have in each other.
I try to read a book in translation or a book in Spanish for every three or four I read in English. After taking a six-month hiatus from reading poetry, Black Square by Tadeusz Dabrowski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) brought me back into a space where the world can hinge on a line break. Reading Firefly under the Tongue by Coral Bracho (translated by Forrest Gander) is like moving through a stranger’s dream uninvited, trying to make sense of someone else’s world through their eyes. Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness (translated by Yvette Siegert) is a masterpiece. There is so much to learn from both Pizarnik’s exactitude with language and Siegert’s seemingly seamless translation.
For the past ten years I’ve lived in England for a good part of each summer and that country influences much of what I read and write. This year, I took a day trip to the village of Warboys, where Virginia Woolf lived for a few months when she was seventeen. I’m now reading Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals of Virginia Woolf and reliving my visit through her descriptions of the fens that surround Warboys:
A broad ditch crosses the Fen, in which there is cold brown water even in this hot summer. Tall rushes & water plants grow from it; & small white moths, the inhabitants of the Fens, were fluttering among them in scores when we were there. I wish that once & for all I could put down in this wretched handwriting how this country impresses me—how great I feel the stony-hard flatness & monotony of the plain.
Next to Passionate Apprentice on my desk is the Viking Portable Library’s James Joyce. I’m reading Dubliners but also have bookmarked Joyce’s poem “Tilly”—such a stunning achievement to move, as Woolf did, although far more dramatically, from pastoral description to personal longing, to withhold the “I” until it can no longer be contained. Finally, since my new work focuses, in part, on war I’m reading Pat Barker’s WWI novel, Regeneration. It’s ironic to think that Dubliners, written in 1904, wasn’t published until 1914 because, among other reasons, the printers objected to his frequent use of the taboo expletive “bloody.” And that, for years to come, “the bloody war”—fluid and slang—would fill so many lines of print.
Elena Karina Byrne
“Folly and Genius”: Salvador Dalí’s wild cookbook Les Dîners de Gala, if you’re in the mood for snail broth, frog pasties, pig’s ear soup, or Aphrodite’s puree. Breton and Apollinaire’s old surrealism falls short for today’s poets, but I find the waking unconscious is very much alive. Alive and other-worldly like the other books I am reading: Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Breton’s Mad Love. Brendan Constantine’s Dementia My Darling, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Molly Bendall’s Watchful, Kelli Anne Noftle’s Adam Cannot Be Adam, and Tyree Daye’s River Hymns reanimate the imagination, approach their subjects anew, and offer us the beautiful unrest of what it means to be and to be inside poetry’s fossil meats, “to eat rocks” (Dalí) over an “ink blot with wings / a blood spot / that sings a thin hymn” (Constantine). Poetry, like addiction, like hunger, like the animal-erotic impulse, is constantly in search of the next high, the surprise. But surprise is hard-won and sobering, even in its delight.
Bendall’s language “jurisdictions and their snowblooms” make us work, gladly, for that “methody / Embrace” to get “Blotchy / with peach” in the animal world. If there, they “dragged up a drowned / tourist his bloatwhite belly filled with radishes and lambshank” (Akbar) and it was the “eruption of compressed space whose unfurling, like a tidal wave, [that] carries along” (Greene) the present history where we place the endangered self, the caged heart, and “the turtle in the mouth / of the barrel / watch its darkness swallow” (Daye) us whole, then, can the luna moth that “has no mouth” beget a laugh that “begins in the floor” (Constantine). “Between kitchen and library,” (Noftle) this kind of poetry, this “manner of seeing … it recreates desire” (Breton). It consumes and consummates, and reminds us, “Why we are consumed but not ruined” (Noftle) by it.
Four of the books of poetry I am reading are not yet published. The first is Leila Chatti’s chapbook, Tunisya/Amerikiya from Bull City Press, the Editor’s Selection, 2017. This chapbook, though smaller than full size, is hefty in content, and striking in music and metaphor. Powerful new poet. The next is Cynthia Dewi Oka’s Salvage, forthcoming in January 2018 from Northwestern University Press. This is a collection of courageous and visionary poems that are small, tremendous fires in America’s death watch. Then Marilyn Kallet’s How Bodies Are Learned, from Black Widow Press, due Spring 2018. Marilyn’s poems are like sitting at the kitchen table with a friend who is like a sister and knows all the best gossip, can analyze the political scene (similar skills), and is as funny as David Sedaris, only in poetry. And she can sing. And Jennifer Foerster’s Bright Raft in the Afterweather, from University of Arizona Press. Foerster is also Mvskoke. These new poems are also prophetic, and lean into a time that scrolls from “the star’s cold machinery.” Powerful.
I just returned from the Queensland Poetry Festival in Brisbane, Australia, where I met and read the Aboriginal poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. I’m rereading her books of poetry, including Ruby Moonlight, a book destined to be a classic in world poetry. Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood, will be published by Norton this spring. It is a compelling poetic memoir.
I have also been working through Herbie Hancock: Possibilities for a few years. I keep a stack of memoirs and biographies of musicians and singers nearby.
Lately, I’ve been battering around lots of books and not getting that deep enough into any of them. I feel sad about this flittering because something about my life feels like there is never enough space to read as much as I want to, but perhaps that is how many of us feel? Whatever the case, one book that I’ve been really into is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Notebooks. It is so awesome to be able to get within the creative process of an artist and see how their everyday thoughts turn into what we define now as masterpieces. I guess I have a long-term obsession with the creative process and how it’s manifest and documented. Everyday creativity is the path to genius (that is if you believe in the term genius, which I don’t), not just an ancillary quality of it and I think the more we understand this and nurture every person’s individual creative processes, the more masterpieces we will have. Looking at someone’s notebooks makes me feel like a voyeur in all the best ways you can understand that term. It’s at once performative and private. It’s not meant for everyone but of course our most private things we don’t write down, and every artist who writes within a journal has some sense that some reader down the line would care about what they are writing.
Reading and thinking about these things connects to one of my favorite books, SABORAMI, by Cecilia Vicuña, and the ways in which her work always resists documentation, especially the linear, limiting kind of documentation we think of when we think of journaling. I also think of course about Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journals and the ways in which that work is also aware and seemingly dismissive of its future readers. Not dismissive, but at times unaware, even painfully so, because its persona is so deep within the self. I love that quality about them. I feel like a future project I would like to work on is to connect all of these books and of course others, too.
I’ve been flirting with reading other things as well, like IMANIMAN: Poets Writing In The Anzalduan Borderlands, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan, and Mr. Splitfoot: A Novel. Also, I’ve been trying to read everything Linda Goodman has ever written, like Gooberz, because I am in the process of writing an astrological bible with Alex Dimitrov. And I am also still reading Live or Die, but I feel I could always say that.
All in all, no matter what I read right now I still feel somewhat centerless, and I don’t think that feeling will end anytime soon. My favorite page of Basquiat’s The Notebooks is when he writes simply and boldly in bright blue crayon (or maybe it is colored pencil):
LOVE IS A LIE
I am sorry to report to you, Dear Readers, that I have found that also to be true.
A few from my nightstand, book bag, dinner table, folders, pots: “the Greeks stored almost everything in pot form, especially stories of the greatest and simplest possibility and the traces of persons,” Allen Grossman.
1. John Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath—rethinking what it felt like to learn English as a second language, how the world and words for it made/make themselves available to me.
2. Mahmoud Darwish’s “I Belong There.” To print and plaster the city with.
3. Thinking of home, chosen or assigned: Will Brewer’s I Know Your Kind, Erica Wright’s All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied.
4. César Vallejo’s “Los Heraldos Negros”: “Some blows in life, they’re so heavy … I don’t know. / Blows dealt as if from God’s own wrath” (translated by Yvette Siegert)—a refrain, always in my mind.
5. Inger Christensen’s “alphabet”: of our seeming predilection to damage the world.
6. Carina Del Valle Schorske’s translation of Marigloria Palma—a rediscovered model.
And, because to listen is to read: Residente, Ani Cordero, Carla Morrison, Balún, Natalia Lafourcade, Julieta Venegas, Lila Downs.
Every year I try to make space for at least one Collected Poems by a poet I don’t know well enough. This year it was Peter Robinson, and his newly published tome from Shearsman Books; it’s always a thrill to see the arc of a poet’s journey, and in particular to spend time with Peter’s early work, his northern English realism that perfectly captures a certain time.
Some poets remain reassuringly recognizable throughout their careers, and come to feel dependable because of that; after my home city of Manchester, England, was attacked it was the poetry of Mary Oliver that I reached for. A new collection by Michael Symmons Roberts, Mancunia, reinvents and rewrites an imagined version of Manchester, and it too felt a timely book to be reading (though, like all the best poetry, it is timeless).
Wayne Holloway-Smith’s debut collection, Alarum, contains a brilliant interrogation of working-class male identity and homosocial interaction. James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements contains possibly the best line of poetry I’ve read all year (I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is).
As always, I’ve been inspired, humbled, and moved by the brilliance of queer poets from across the Atlantic. Randall Mann’s new collection, Proprietary, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds have both been reread many times. Next year we get the privilege of having the vital work of Danez Smith published in the U.K. by Chatto; I’ve devoured everything of his I can find, most recently work in the latest issue of Granta.
There is the past to think of too, and Faber’s new Selected Poems of Thom Gunn is a must-read.
My past few months as a reader have been my first few months as a mother, following a period of bed rest in which becoming a mother was always an uncertainty, and yet the terror of that uncertainty seemed already to have made me a mother. A strange series of liberation and entrapment—recovering the freedom to descend a staircase alone or discovering loneliness in the limits of Los Angeles sprawl with an infant and no driver’s license—has no doubt impacted my choice of reading material as well as the way I’ve been reading. What is a baby? What is a mother? How are women defined by this expectation or others’ expectation of this transformation? What is a woman?
Erika L. Sánchez’s debut Lessons on Expulsion probes the powers and terrors of contemporary womanhood. At times bestial and mystical, Sánchez’s poems depict the misogyny of the Mexican border. The intensity and trauma of the immigrant experience serves as invitation or mandate to investigate the borders and passages within one’s own womanhood. Many poems, such as “Self-Portrait,” read like Plath-like fever dreams in which harrowing sexual violation intersects with a transcendental multiplication of identities: “Call me she / of the two faces. Call me she who gobbles / sin. My silence is an animal / dressed in hooks. My body is a gift / like a bowl of coins … // I can’t stop inseminating myself.” Reading Sánchez is like finding a moonshine religion. From the title poem: “What is God to me // but an open-mouthed / stranger?” The sacred and sacrilegious become synonymous.
Sánchez illuminates not only the contradictions of identity and embodiment, but also the need to reimagine our world in order to make sense of our selves. To satiate my own need to make sense of my son’s preverbal self and relationship, I’ve been hanging William Blake’s illustrated poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience all around my house so they’ve become physically part of our everyday movements, vision, and music. We don’t have language yet, so language has to become something else for us, a kind of synesthetic, full-bodied meaning making. We can share the nursery-like cadences of “Infant Joy” and the brightness of the red open blossom containing mother and infant. Blake reminds me to play, and at a frightening historical moment to be born, he forces me to reconsider where society begins and ends.
I was relieved and astonished by the uncanny publication of Cormac McCarthy’s essay in Nautilus on my baby’s due date: “The Kekule Problem: Where Did Language Come From?” which posits that the unconscious is “a machine for operating an animal” and language is a “parasitic invasion” that has occurred only in humans. While the unconscious understands language, it chooses to communicate through images, which McCarthy suggests are at once more instructive and more memorable than words. What does this mean for poetry, I wonder, where words themselves are memorable, where sound and sense together create images? Maybe metaphor’s unique power is to offer up images that can work on us, the readers, unconsciously. Maybe through poetry, the mother-infant relationship might help us better understand the unconscious and its role in intimate relationships and even the evolution of society.
Speaking of words and images, Mary Ruefle’s chapbook essay “On Imagination” is permanently at home in my diaper bag, a ticket out of every feeling of entrapment. I love how it challenges the distinction between imagination and reality, and also challenges imagination as some purely positive force: “the imagination has its own life and its own autonomy, the imagination is not what you play with, the imagination plays with you. It has the power to both create and destroy, in form and deform.” I am repeatedly (sadistically?) delighted to remember the imagination is destructive. Fear and safety are both byproducts of imagining. At any dullest moment of awe, “On Imagination” reminds me that being a mother, having a baby—both are acts of imagination. The freedom of form in Ruefle’s essay feels essential to its truth. Many of the texts I choose to read have taught me to believe, again and again, that becoming is never linear, being is a beautiful gap, and with every gap there is the choice to be swallowed or leap.
I’ve been rereading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, a stunning poetry debut that justly won the National Book Award—although I wonder if the judges fully grasped how wonderfully incendiary as well as incandescent these poems are. I’ve also returned to yet another rereading of Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching—which bursts free of the sexism in previous English versions, and which dares show a sense of humor in its profundity.
I have started the Man Booker longlisted debut novel Elmet by Fiona Mozley; it’s about dispossession, and land, the stuff of westerns. Mozley uncovers the quiet devastations of strange childhood, her pared style riven out of the cesses and hoss trods of Yorkshire.
Style is at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion; he admires Campion’s measured cadences, as in the Jesuit’s estimation of the native Gaelic lords: “covenant and indent with them never so warily, yet they have been found faithless and perjured. Where they are joined in colour of surest amity, there they intend to kill.” Waugh’s own sentences are masterly: his languid description of Pius V, “the great beaked nose, the serene and secret curve of the lips,” piles clause upon clause.
Campion appears as a ghostly fugitive in a Dublin attic scaring an old servant shitless in Colm Lennon’s study Richard Stanihurst The Dubliner, 1547–1618. Stanihurst was a scholar, poet, and historian, whose De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis is a compelling, slyly droll history of early modern Ireland, with tales of chancers traveling to Rome to beg the Pope for episcopal office, tuneless blind harpers, and old women rending their garments and wailing at funerals before turning to fellow mourners to ask the name of the dead.
Since the damn folly of the 2016 British referendum to leave Europe and its attendant vicious nostalgias, I’ve had bits of Shakespeare’s King John stuck in my head, as when the Bastard xenophobically announces of England versus the rest of the globe, “And we shall shock them.” Similarly, Hugh MacDiarmid’s marvelous, scabrous 1955 elegy In Memoriam James Joyce provides bitter consolations.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been at an artists’ colony in Auvillar, in southwestern France, so I had to discipline myself regarding the number of books I could bring with me from the States. Given that, my list should start with Rosalie Moffett’s June in Eden, which I left at home because I’d finished it and then have missed everyday I’ve been here. Moffett has a distinctive, charming voice that does nothing to mitigate the often-seriousness of her subject matter. I did bring (and have been reading) Dana Levin’s Banana Palace, meditative, thoughtful, and lyrical; Rodney Jones’s Village Prodigies, hilarious, rich, packed, moving, poignant, beautifully written and executed; Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, visceral, surprising. I brought also Grace Notes, translations by Mary-Sherman Willis of Jean Cocteau’s Appogiatures. Their brand of surrealism is delightfully crisp and quirky (and helpful to me in expanding my French). Also, I have been reading Breton and Apollinaire in the bilingual Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, especially Apollinaire’s “Zone.” The translation in this book is by Samuel Beckett. I found a gorgeous translation online by David Lehman (he said in a comment that he worked on it for years) and a variation on Apollinaire’s poem, “A Time Zone,” by Kenneth Koch. This was a very fun rabbit hole and was accompanied by a side trip to James Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life” and audio recording of it on the Poetry Foundation website. Sometimes, I need to be reminded of what long “occasional” poems can do and why I love them. Finally, I have been reading Kathryn Nuernberger’s book of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past. I adore reading about how someone other than me is fixated on Marie Antoinette’s up-dos. The book is sheer pleasure.
Alison C. Rollins
I am a high school librarian so the start of the school year typically signals my lament for not reading as much as I would have liked over the summer months. Luckily, this summer I had the time to savor Archipelago Books’s English translation of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion. The prose of the text flowed liked poetry as I was entranced in the story of an agoraphobic woman who, on the eve of Angolan independence, bricks herself into her apartment where she stays for thirty years writing her story on the apartment’s walls. I have been recently drawn towards reading translations so I followed up A General Theory of Oblivion with Benjamin Moser’s translation of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. The surreal qualities of both books and their unconventional writing styles really fueled the ways that I was thinking about approaching craft. Along the lines of form and craft, I greatly enjoyed reading Sarah Vap’s End of the Sentimental Journey. In this book-length lyric essay Vap poses questions such as, “When someone says that a poem is difficult, does he or she simply mean that the language of the poem, or the mind of the poem, or the sentiment of the poem is not like his or her language or mind or sentiments? // Or do they mean that they have had to spend a lot of time and effort figuring the poem out? That the poem is hard work for them?” I am teaching an advanced creative writing course this year and I know that Vap’s analysis will frequently prove handy in terms of not only interrogating my own reading practice but also unveiling some of the critical cop-outs we exercise on certain poems. I have been using Vap’s critical commentary on the supposed “difficulty” or “accessibility” of a poem to explore Myung Mi Kim’s Commons. Kim’s particular use of language and the weaving of history and memory have proved an interesting landscape for thinking about sentiment and the emotional charge of poems. Along these lines, I have also been working through Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, C.D. Wright’s ShallCross, and Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins.
Dale M. Smith
Books accumulate in my study, which is in a corner off our dining room. Susan Howe’s Debths now occupies a prominent location on the kitchen table. She blends autobiography and critical meditation on fragments of the American (and Anglo-Irish) literary past; her prose and verse stanzas also present wholly vivid encounters with the artwork of Paul Thek and the eccentric Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum collection in Boston. Howe writes to discover, and here personal memory and cultural memory are realized in a “philological wilderness” of densely layered typographic assemblages. “A work of art,” she insists, “is a world of signs, at least to the poet’s / nursery bookshelf sheltered behind the artist’s ear.”
An advanced copy of Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens, brings to print a 2009 festschrift originally published online in Jacket Magazine. The book has several additions and visual enhancements, including photographs of and by Williams. More than a celebration, admiring participants reflect on Williams’s contribution to poetry and small press publishing (he was the renowned publisher of the Jargon Society, printing beautifully-designed books by Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker, Paul Metcalf, and others). Among the volume’s contributors are Basil Bunting, Robert Kelly, Ronald Johnson, Peter O’Leary, Thomas Meyer, Guy Davenport, Robert Duncan, and James Maynard.
Bruce Holsapple’s The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form is attuned to what WCW calls “the threshold of expression.” Close readings and literary contextualization provide the critical engine for this immense study of modernist form. Descending from Williams’s vernacular lineage, Cedar Sigo’s Clearly Present, published in a series of quarterly newsletters by Slow Poetry in America, gives homage to the late Joanne Kyger. “Poetry is the part / that no one sees,” Sigo writes in a poem dedicated to her. “Clip the flower / burn the brush // watch rain stream // down / the moon viewing // window.” His edited collection of Kyger’s interviews, journals, and ephemera, There You Are, is just out from Wave Books.
I’m just finishing A Bigger Message, a book by the British art historian Martin Gayford based on a series of conversations with David Hockney. Gayford edits and contextualizes the interviews so that the whole reads like a page-turner of a novel in which the main characters are Hockney’s problematic relationship to single-point perspective, an eighteenth-century Chinese scroll, his love of trees (“Yes, the trees become friends”), and so forth. And I’m reading Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment. Ingold is an anthropologist who takes a more or less phenomenological approach, exploring perception through a notion of participation that erodes the strict boundary between culture and nature. Somewhat related is an article I just read by Eleanore Widger titled “Walking Women: Embodied Perception in Romantic and Contemporary Radical Landscape Poetry.” She focuses on contemporary poets who approach walking as a mode of being-in-the-world, and of breaking down the subject/object divide and that between the body and the world. The whole article is available on the Internet—really interesting in relation to ecopoetics as well as to poetic form. But much of my reading during the summer is what I’m translating—books that I end up reading over and over, both in French and in English; this summer, they’re Calme-toi Lison (Calm Down, Lison) by Jean Frémon, a wonderful piece on Louise Bourgeois, whom he knew for decades—that’s coming out soon from Green Integer—and Vak Spectre (House Haunt) by Suzanne Doppelt, a book on curious dioramic model of a house made by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten—an odd subject perhaps for a book of poetry, but its strange tricks of perspective have great poetic potential—and Récupérer (Recuperate) by Vincent Broqua, a very formally inventive mixed-genre book about screens and screen culture.
It’s been a season for intricate fiction. For years, I’d heard about the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, and finally plunged in. Bowen, who died in 1973, wrote at an angle to everything she saw, inwardly and outwardly: every leaf twitches, air shimmers, furniture gleams with excessive polish, and the air is electric with the characters’ unstated and half-understood feelings. Her sentences are delicately estranged. Her first novel, The Hotel (1928), expertly manages the conventional tale of a group of English middle-class tourists in a hotel on the Italian Riviera, but it goes deeper than social satire in its analysis of lostness and mild cruelty. Her last novel, Eva Trout (1968), is a monstrously strange tale with a monster for a heroine. One of her early books, The Last September (1929), portrays the illusions of the Anglo-Irish gentry clinging to their grand houses and rituals of parties and tennis games during the War of Irish Independence while Irish revolutionaries roam the woods and occupying British soldiers tumble into ambushes. As in all her books, violence lurks just beneath polite surfaces. Bowen is a poet of lights and darks, optically but also psychologically: “She thought she need not worry about her youth; it wasted itself spontaneously, like sunshine elsewhere or firelight in an empty room” (The Last September).
The Death of the Heart (1938), one of her most famous novels, places an adolescent orphan girl in London, in the unloving house of her half-brother and his cold wife; there she falls prey to an unscrupulous, self-destructive young man. It’s a story of love misfiring at all levels, and a terrifying study of innocence: “The innocent are so few that two of them seldom meet—when they do, their victims lie strewn around.”
John Banville, the Irish novelist, writes sentences even more self-consciously estranged and estranging than Bowen. Plot isn’t so much the point as a Nabokovian glitter of style. Banville’s main protagonists narrate their own stories, a tissue of fabrications, deceptions, and self-deceptions, in tales about deception. That is, tales about the art of fiction, fiction as a way of life—dangerous, costly, at times murderous. Like Nabokov, Banville seems to be playing a sinister game of chess with the reader. Can we be seduced into sympathizing with his hyper-intelligent, at times repellent and self-abasing characters? So far, I’ve read two of his books. The Sea (2005) is spoken in the voice of a cynical art historian, a grieving widower who returns to the seaside resort where, as a poor boy, he first glimpsed a world of wealth, elegance, and nonchalance, felt the confusion of desire, and witnessed a shocking sacrifice. There’s something of Alberto Moravia in this study of class and erotic longing. Right on the first page, we suspect that things will go badly: “The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam.” Ghosts, from 1993, is the second volume in a trilogy. In this elaborate fantasia lightly traced over The Tempest, the protagonist-murderer is a disgraced scientist and art lover who has taken refuge on an Irish island in the household of a Prospero-like art historian tainted by scandal. This story follows upon an earlier book, The Book of Evidence (1989), which will be next on my list. I don’t expect that reading to clear up the mysteries of Ghosts so much as to compound and elaborate them. No matter: the point is the wending of clause into clause, the glint of sense struck from unfamiliar word-facets.
And poetry. I’ve been rereading John Wieners, especially now that a large selection has appeared in Supplication (2015). Wieners, who died in 2002, was a follower of Olson, a student at Black Mountain, and a member of the San Francisco poetry scene in the late fifties. He was gay, drank a lot, and took a lot of drugs. He suffered several psychiatric hospitalizations. Yet he managed to produce quite a few volumes of poetry along the way, and though (because?) he lived on the edge, on many edges, some of these poems have a darting, startling life. He’s more than a wannabe Romantic American poète maudit. Not all of his poems maintain their promise all the way through, and some are riddled with self-pity, or simply lose focus. But when he’s strong, he’s savagely strong, more imaginative and caustic than many anthologized poets of our day. His first lines can seize you by the throat:
I’m infused with the day
even tho the day may destroy me.
—“A Poem for Early Risers”
Today the Lamb of God arrives in the mail.
— “The Blind See Only This World”
Your letters and my answer
sleep in a book of poetry.
I recently took my very first reading challenge, the #SealeyChallenge. Poet Nicole Sealey challenged anyone to read 31 books in the month of August. I tried so hard to read one a day but probably ended up reading about 20. Here are some of the highlights as well as books I’m looking forward to reading this fall.
Tyree Daye, River Hymns
Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night
Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World
W.S. Merwin, The Lice
Erika L. Sánchez, Lessons on Expulsion
Brenda Shaughnessy, So Much Synth
Joseph Rios, Shadowboxing
Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast
Vickie Vértiz, Palm Fronds with Its Throat Cut
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Beast Meridia