Reading List: October 2017
The eminently portable volumes of the new Penguin Modern Poets serve as perfect introductions—ripe for following up—to poets familiar to me by name but not by work. Through them I have (so far) fallen for the work of Kathleen Jamie, Nick Laird, Frederick Seidel, Patricia Lockwood, and also Kathryn Maris, whose God Loves You (from UK publisher Seren Books) I did already know and love, and whose forthcoming Penguin full-length collection, The House with Only an Attic and a Basement (the title poem appeared in the December 2015 issue of Poetry magazine), I’m now anticipating even more impatiently.
My to-read list is heftier than my actual reading list (and as I’ll soon be retrieving books from long-term storage, the former is likely to grow ... ). An anthology I’ve been dipping into in past months is Writing Motherhood (also from Seren), edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, which contains poems, essays, and interviews from 85 female writers, and is provokingly wide-ranging and impressive. By way of contrast and complement, a father figure to whom I often return, if only mentally or in spirit, is poet-prophet William Blake.
I’m belatedly discovering the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, beginning with The Gate of Angels, inspired in part by C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures; I’m also reading John Ashbery properly for the first time: while it’s sad to discover artists only on or after their departure, it does also seem like their final gift to us.
Recent and much-relished reading gifts from helpful and big-hearted friends include The Fall by D. Nurkse (whom I had the thrill of meeting and hearing read at the UK Troubadour last year); The Hotel Oneira by August Kleinzahler; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine; Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals; Angelina D’Roza’s Envies the Birds, from Longbarrow Press; also the freshly-blended ultra-smooth Smoothie by Claudine Toutoungi, from Carcanet.
I am especially grateful to have been recently introduced to the haunting and witty Blue Dusk, written by Madeline DeFrees, a poet who was an ex-nun. I spent some years in enclosed monasteries followed by further years in similar situations before I began writing, and am fascinated to see where the mind goes after being deprived of or excluded from secular life and literature ... “Whoever she was, whatever ties, / Here is my claim. I need to come into my own” (“Grandmother Grant,” by Madeline DeFrees). I find that everything still dazzles, and even the smallest crumbs of literature/art/culture tantalize. With the superb abundance that the current international poetry scene provides, in tough times, and after such a famine, my to-read list swells apace.
Ima read Ima read Ima read, Zebra Katz promises. Ima take that bi*ch to college, Ima give that ____ some knowledge. He’s referring to a different kind of literacy, a body and soul scan of another human being, holding a mirror up to the muse until she refuses to remain complicit in her own scandalous use value. I’m reading anything that will read me as affectionately and help me breach our collective apocalyptic decorum. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today, for starters, because it’s a game but we don’t play. And because I’m writing about the tradition of dancing the slaves on ships, the way the chained-together bodies were made to entertain in transit. Baldwin and Amiri everyday. Heidegger’s Poetry Thought and Language for that daily greeting card of pristine ground. Katherine Dunham’s biography because she’s every heroic simile unwound euphoric. Eula Biss because it’s Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog but essays and black bodies swaying from the first telephone poles like flags then calling out in our aggregate swagger for an end to the rumor of us. Wire magazine for radio listening. Faulkner’s Sanctuary, slowly, because I like looking at that word in that morning. Les McCann’s Invitation to Openness because I’m writing about him for Oxford American’s Kentucky Issue and because he looks with us not at us in his photographs which gather and recede like songs, like Zebra’s hyperliterate longing: it’s gon be cohesive, it’s gon be my thesis. Just when we’d reached an impasse in the intellect, it scattered our petty glass house with the mirror stage of now. In the dream in which I saw my hands my hands were black, when I looked in the mirror my face was still white, Burroughs confesses, reading himself, letting the implication threaten the ego just enough to bypass it and touch the soul. Such is the magic of a literacy that begins in the body, such are the lucid obscenities of that closeness.
Every week I read forty pages of Braille with my right index finger: Syndicated Columnists Weekly from National Braille Press. I’m sighted, but I learned Braille many years ago when I had a blind roommate. I’m in love with the physicality of reading tactilely. I like the idea of touching the words. I know that’s just a romantic notion—I mean, Braille readers aren’t more “in touch” with the words than print readers are—but I like it nonetheless. And over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
As for reading with my eyes, I’m currently in the middle of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, which is also a sensual delight in its own way:
The boy lingered in the study and paged through Isabel’s photo albums while the mother sat on the back terrace, smoking. Isabel watched a squirrel ribbon the telephone pole, begin to scurry across the fence top. The squirrel moved as an oscillating sequence of humps, tail and spine bunching in counterpoint. Some humped things are elegant, Isabel mused, thinking of her own shape. Inside, an Italian plasterer reshaped a florette on the parlor ceiling, sweating atop a ladder in the corner by the high front window. The boy at Isabel’s table flapped the laden pages, absorbed as if he were reading. The boy was humped too, over the book. More a hedgehog than a squirrel, Isabel decided.
This summer I attended a writers’ conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Every evening a different poet or writer knocked my socks off with their reading, and each morning I’d run to the campus bookstore and buy their book. I arrived home with an armload and I’ve been gobbling them up one by one: Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, The Shoplifter’s Apprentice by Ellen Lesser, The Cineaste by A. Van Jordan, Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, Love Sick by Sue William Silverman, The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham.
The book I’m carrying everywhere and recommending to all these days is Lawrence Joseph’s So Where Are We?, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux brought out in August. An Arab-American from Detroit, a city whose every aspect is made vivid in his poems, grandson to immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, Joseph is sui generis in American poetry—an apparent insider (frequently anthologized in Best American Poetry and other collections, Jonathan Galassi is his book editor) who spends his days teaching labor law at St. John’s University, far from the MFA circuit. In this, his sixth and best collection, set largely in New York, his adopted city, Joseph turns his uncompromising moral vision on the brutality inherent to the structures of power and calls for their dismantling. While his language and forms are utterly contemporary—this is a new poetry of resistance—his work is doubtlessly informed by Melville and Whitman, Stevens and Stein.
Karen An-hwei Lee
As I ponder the dual existence of love and xenophobia in one nation, I’ve periodically retreated into the solace of reading and rereading books by friends and strangers alike. While reading, I’ve asked myself a question: What is it I love about friends who write, and what is it about strangers who write who make me love them?
The purpose, of course, is to shrink the radius of xenophobia to zero, but I find little consolation in this reality ever coming to pass. In a poet’s utopia, one would’ve read everything; there would be no strangers, as a bibliophile’s love already would’ve consumed the entire world. Curl up with a book: the distances between us diminish.
Here is a short list of books I’ve loved recently by poets who shorten the distances between our hearts, an utterly beautiful thing to do: Khairani Barokka’s Rope, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Ching-In Chen’s Recombinant, Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Luisa A. Igloria’s Haori, Adrian Matejka’s Map to the Stars, Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels, Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water and Salt.
My reading these days, like my time and my focus, is all over the place, so I’m going to mention a few titles that have recently caught my attention.
One book I’ve been sampling in bits and pieces is In Praise of Defeat by the Moroccan-born Francophone poet Abdellatif Laâbi. This book, a hefty 800-plus pages, presents the poems in the original French with English translations on facing pages. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was unfamiliar with Laâbi’s work until now, but in an effort to bolster my French, I’ve been seeking out French poetry that I can approach on the level of the language itself. The work in this collection ranges from the late 1960s to 2014. From his earlier prison poems to his later poems written while in exile in France, this is complex, often raging, often painful work, yet I am again and again taken aback by the beauty of Laâbi’s poems, their (dare I say it) joy.
As research (that’s stretching it!) for my current writing I’ve been reading the letters of Vita Sackville-West, both in Vita and Harold, a selection of her correspondence with her longtime husband Harold Nicolson, and in The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. In the past I’ve always felt sleazy and voyeuristic reading collections of private letters, but apparently no more; I’m finding Vita and Harold in particular completely engrossing. When you look at the sheer volume of words produced in these writers’ letters alone—and these are intelligent, erudite, engaging, super-articulate letters—we e-mailers in comparison are utter slackers!
A couple of other titles whose spines I’ve barely cracked: Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems by Michèle Métail, translated by Jody Gladding; Spiral Staircase, Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi, translated by Sho Sugita. Lastly, Carl Seelig’s Walks with Walser, translated by Anne Posten—as someone who’s both an obsessive walker and variously obsessed, I am loving this little book so far.
Ten Poets of the New Generation has just been published—a brilliant anthology of the ground-breaking Complete Works mentoring program of UK Black and Asian poets. Many gems to be found here, not least Leo Boix’s sensuous “Ode to Deal,” which has been playing in the head these last days. Also on the go are All That Is Solid, Danny Dorking’s exposé about the housing crisis in Britain, Andrew Motion’s Keats, and Where I Live, the selected poems of Maxine Kumin.
Much of my reading is connected to work, and as I’m writing about women writers of the Windrush and after (do US readers know about the Windrush? Think Caribbean-British Mayflower, sort of), I’ve gone back to the brilliant poetry of Grace Nichols, and to collections by Caribbean or mixed-heritage British poets. Karen McCarthy Woolf’s Seasonable Disturbances is a fantastic dystopic reflection on the city, nature, and migration, and I love the chapbook The Red and Yellow Nothing by Jay Bernard, a prequel to a Middle Dutch tale about the Moor, Morien, and in Bernard’s hands transformed into a commentary on race, gender, and science.
And then, just the other day, on our National Poetry Day, I stopped at Waterloo station and bought Usborne’s Look Inside Space for my three-year-old son, who is delighted by the hundred flaps to lift, revealing the planets and moons. And in poignant contrast, Helen Dunmore’s beautiful book of goodbye, Inside the Wave, written as she was dying of breast cancer. An amazing, generous, contemplative book, “Death, hold out your arms for me / … through all this suffering / you have not forgotten me.”
The reading this month doesn’t immediately reveal a through-line, as they say in scriptwriting, or not one that I can identify. I am in the middle of several things at once. Evening after evening, I pick up what seems most appealing or necessary.
So, top of the pile, half-devoured and still in process: the volume of poems by Danez Smith called [Insert] Boy. I first came across this poet in Poetry and he is a new favorite. I happen also to be rereading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. The bricolage effect of a poem by one writer alternated, slantwise and contradictory sometimes, against the poem of another writer delights me.
For novels, I’ve just finished Paulette Jiles’s News of the World. A National Book Award finalist, this 2016 novel is set in Texas in 1870. The central figure makes a living by reading newspapers on the stage to rural and sometimes illiterate audiences. The restraint of the writing compels into the plain-spoke prose an effect of austere poetry.
I’ve moved on to Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which I avoided for some years because it was the last novel my ancient mother recommended to me before she died. But five years have passed since her death, and I feel ready to make that final loop of connection with my most reliable recommender of books. And once again: she was right. It’s riveting.
I’ll close with the Ian Bostridge book on Schubert, called Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. Chapter by chapter, the great contemporary interpreter of Schubert lieder considers each of the 24 songs in “Winterreise.” I read slowly and listen to a CD of the selection under consideration before moving on. Music and lyric: reading—and hearing.
I’m going on vacation to Scotland at the end of the month and so I’m currently stockpiling books to read while I’m there. My idea of the perfect vacation involves a lot of reading and physical books—always physical books. I understand the appeal of the e-reader, but it just doesn’t do it for me. Conveniently, the news cycle has also been busy, which leaves me with less time for reading anything that isn’t a news article.
Anyway, I was trying to save it for reading in a woody Scotland bar by a fire with a glass of whiskey, but it’s just been sitting on my nightstand staring at me, so I finally cracked and started Nicole Krauss’s new book, A Forest Black. I’m also reading Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf and Wolf, again. I read it the first time and was sad to finish, so I’m reading it again. I’m also rereading The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown, which I read for the first time this spring, but felt compelled to pick up again as you can feel fall in the air. The changing of seasons always feels so intertwined with what I feel like reading.
This leaves me with my reading pile for vacation (so far) including Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso, and a book I was recently gifted by a photographer, Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It. There are still a few weeks to pick up some new ones, though, and fall in New York means glorious long weekend afternoons lingering at the bookstore ...
My current reading includes these, which I read interlaced with my composition. Their words, my words, their tone, my freedom to change tone, their color, my changing light. Back and forth, because they are authors to love and creations to inspire wonder.
- Kenneth A. McClane, Take Five: Collected Poems 1971–1986
- Walter Pavlich, Sensational Nightingales: Collected Poems (just out from Lynx House — my late husband’s entire oeuvre, beautiful book)
- Josephine Miles, Kinds of Affection and Civil Poems
- Jane Cooper, Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems
- Olav Hauge, Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems and Journals
- Harry Martinson, Chickweed Wintergreen: Selected Poems
- All Eugenio Montale, the William Arrowsmith translations
- Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro
- Joan Swift, The Body That Follows Us
- Muriel Rukeyser, Breaking Open
- Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi, translators, Women Poets of Japan
- Amy Clampitt, Westward
- George Seferis, Three Secret Poems
- Marianne Moore, New Collected Poems (Heather Cass White, editor)
On a recent trip to Russia I devoured Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, now published as one book. I had to eke out the last of its over 600 pages on the 24-hour train journey from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. After a day of shooting photographs in the dusty, rusty industrial buzz of the Urals, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky embraced me with its escape. In Rashomon-style shifts in perspective it tells intimate, heart-breaking stories of three London characters woven together over the three novels. Their lives are played out against the eccentric workings of The Midnight Bell, the pub that unites them. Written with such an obvious love and reverence for his doomed protagonists, it comes as no surprise to learn that the author shared many of their appetites and habits. It is also a paean to that increasingly endangered species, the English pub.
Just before leaving for Russia I had been entranced by another of Hamilton’s novels, Hangover Square, set on the eve of World War II; published in 1941, he began it in 1939. It’s an unnerving chronicle of dark obsession, with a whiff of contemporary English fascism and a surprisingly modern depiction of louche-living in London’s Earls Court. Hangover Square has strong resonances of the angst most of us in London are feeling about the idiocy and unreality of Brexit. We still ask, is this really happening? With that in mind I look forward to reading Ali Smith’s new book, Autumn, the first post-Brexit novel. Beyond any other books set in London, Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky make me look beyond the apparent banality of my home and savor the city’s richness of existence.
I just bought Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, principally because it’s set in Russia, which is where my head still is, and it sounds comical. So I read books about London in Russia and books about Russia when I am in London ...
I’ve been reading all over the place, as is my custom, so I will just highlight a few of the many stops along the way …
Paul Yoon’s The Mountain, a collection of six stories that don’t announce themselves as linked but slowly, stealthily suggest their various links in the course of the book, has not let go of me. Each story is so different, in terms of its location in place and in time, but the governing concerns are memory and its unreliability, damage sustained and inflicted (on ourselves, on others), and maybe even something like magic—the possibility for it, the need for it. Meanwhile, sentence by sentence, I feel that Yoon is reinventing what fiction can be, what its relationship to language can be.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book of poems where I felt that the poems had to be written, that everything was at stake in the writing of them—that’s how I feel about Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, in terms of what the poems address, variously queerness, life on both sides of the divide between HIV- and HIV+, life in the wake of having lost so many friends to the seeming dailiness of police murdering black men in particular, black people more generally. Far, though, from succumbing to despair, Smith makes of joy—of the expression of joy—both a tool for survival and a form of resistance.
Meanwhile, I’ve been rereading some older favorites, like Larry Levis (Winter Stars) and Thom Gunn (the new selected, just out from Faber, edited by Clive Wilmer), in and around catching up with some very exciting newer, already-necessary voices, including the extraordinary Nicole Sealey (Ordinary Beast), the wit-and-wonder of Morgan Parker (There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce), the tough/tender Javier Zamora (Unaccompanied), and the generous singing that is Kaveh Akbar (Calling a Wolf a Wolf). Throw in a couple novels from Barbara Pym (An Unsuitable Attachment) and Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter), and I’d say it’s been a pretty full season!
I’m reading and enjoying Gregory Leadbetter’s Fetch, published by Nine Arches. He has written a study of Coleridge, and these are Romantic poems (with a large R): both solid and numinous, unashamed of their loveliness. “The outline of a child, afraid / of the dark of which it was made”; “to be awake is to keep / one breath back unbreathed”; “it has often been her game / to go missing. It is where she thrives, / as if she delights in being imagined.” He can be lush (the assonance, in that last quotation)—also pointed. I’ve also been lucky to read James Womack’s On Trust as a first draft, still on its way to publication by Carcanet. A whiskey-whiff of grumpiness and regret! Affairs are tedious in literary fiction—omnipresent, narratively lazy. These poems, however, wryly ironize the illicit passions they convey, without melodrama or forced significance. “We undressed as fast as we were able, / fingers misbehaving on every button they undid.”
Often I write at See-See Coffeeshop on Sandy Boulevard (Portland is a city of poetry because it is a city of coffeeshops) and bring a couple of books for encouragement, or just to rest my elbow on, including, lately, a 1965 book of “true mysteries of the sea” called Invisible Horizons, by Vincent Gaddis, with disappearing islands, submerged lighthouses, and ghost ships; C.D. Wright early (Terrorists) and late (The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures…); Kevin Young’s Blue Laws and Bunk; Captive Voices by Eleanor Ross Taylor; Kurt Slauson’s Incunabulae: Collected Works, 1990–2015; and T.R. Johnson’s The Other Side of Pedagogy, which is a manual for creative thinking in rhet/comp disguise. Many wild new West Coast books too: Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang; Up South by Robert Lashley; Lucinda by John Beer; Mammother by Zachary Schomburg; Weirde Sister by James Gendron; Receipt by Carl Adamshick; and anything from Seattle’s new Gramma Press, especially Ugly Time, by my favorite poet Sarah Galvin.
Charged with the restlessness of poetry in lived experience, these books have been important to me this summer: Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different takes place in one day as the main character tries to memorize a poem (among other conflicts); Anne Gisleson’s The Futilitarians measures a year of reading signal existentialist texts against the specific existential threats of growing up and living in New Orleans; and Ruth Salvaggio’s Hearing Sappho in New Orleans: The Call of Poetry from Congo Square to the Ninth Ward is a brilliant mixture of literary criticism and personal essay, exploring not only Sappho but other women whose “long songs … bear the labor and burdens of a historic pain” in New Orleans and other threshold cities.
Alessandra Lynch’s poems are thrilling. In the words of Dean Young, they are both deft and ferocious. In an italicized intro, called “Excavation,” she discovers a bone that sticks out of its pile and “takes your hand as if for a walk.” It is music supreme, a powerful subject (assault, rape), always personal, even if rendered generally. Unique knowledge—and persistence. Poem after poem. Then, ah, “To dare / write about her as though she is / a flower.” Always the knife. “By a tree where nothing grows.” Gorgeous.
Jane Mead takes on the most difficult of tasks in World of Made and Unmade, her mother’s last days on the family ranch, simultaneously gathering the grape harvest and caring for her “beautiful practical” (and stubborn) mother in the stone cottage near the house, somehow, with piercing accuracy, yet with love, administering to her dying mother, recreating—or shadowing—the life of mother and daughter together, whether close or at odds. Careful language that in all respects is “just right,” somewhere between pure lyric and transformative prose, a 66-page elegy as good as any I have ever read. The ashes they bury on her mother’s pecan farm on the border of Mexico.
In the phone photograph
of us in the orchard now,
Parry holds a tin pitcher
with our mother’s ashes
and we three look small,
wizened, almost, in our grief.
The trees, formidable
and orderly are losing
their leaves, the pecans
pop out of their casings—
ready for their winter harvest.
When I received the invitation to write this piece I was reading in the bath (the book being Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions D’Afrique (whose four cantos each comprise of one long sentence (each of those broken up by a series of bracketed (sometimes there are as many as five brackets within brackets) diversions) because (on occasion) I like to read something I think might do me some good (as though I were swallowing unpalatable medicine (I’m certain the efficacy of the placebo effect of a particular remedy increases with one’s reluctance to swallow it!)), and I was reading this book in particular partly because I know John Ashbery admired Roussel, and I trust his judgement, partly because Mark Ford is the translator, but perhaps mainly out of an anticipation that it might make me suffer in some way that will improve me (though the book had so far been a disappointment in that regard, being fun and funny and having a kind of Ashberian frothy lightness that its meandering deviations seem to produce (I’ve always worried that a liking for Tristram Shandy-ish multiple digressions from the point was a rather adolescent proclivity (and perhaps a rather blokey one to boot)) and, in fact, previous to the Roussel, I’d had a period of reading some of Ashbery’s later books (Can You Hear, Bird, Quick Question, Chinese Whispers, Your Name Here, Breezeway, Commotion of the Birds (my reading of which happened to coincide with his death)) all of which speak in that voice that seems so distinctive as to be in some way hermetic, so that I can take nothing from it that I might make use of for myself, and I’m left with nothing to do but enjoy it (though that enjoyment was tempered by his passing (I welled up with tears when he died (but that’s okay, we poets will dissolve into sobbing if a poor tree stubs its root on a woodlouse (those sweet, lumbering critters)))) and I realized I’d always felt that the fact of Ashbery’s simply being somewhere out there had been a comfort to me, and that although I never met him, I would certainly miss him because he made the world feel safer (to me at least))))) and had just dropped the soap but I successfully retrieved it from between my feet without getting water on the pages of my book.