Reading List: November 2017
The Fire and the Tale by Giorgio Agamben. Agamben is one philosopher who really seems to love literature. I like the way he writes about poetry, particularly in this book. Here is a quote: “Painting is the suspension and exposition of the gaze, just as poetry is the suspension and exposition of language.”
The Unfollowing by Lyn Hejinian. This book is a sequence of unconventional elegies, elegies with no pathos. I might not have seen these poems as elegies except for the dedications and the preface. The elegiac element is mainly formal; no sentence continues the one before it so all are “unfollowed.” This could be frustrating but somehow isn’t, perhaps because there is a subtle, recurrent melancholy throughout. Here are two lines as a sample: “Into the disordered shortening of a circle comes this little fury, this abdicated panic, this dirty Venus, this resemblance to nothing we know of the dead / Sky simultaneous bud, cavity contemporaneous slight.” I feel like this book should have gotten more attention than it did.
Top 40 by Brandon Brown. This book came out in 2014, but I read it only recently. In forty prose poems, Brown takes a philosophical and serio-comic deep dive into the top forty pop songs of September 14, 2013. I’ve tried writing about pop songs too, once in a while, and it isn’t easy—at least for me. I really like the way Brown reads our culture through the songs without sounding judgmental or smug. Clearly his critique, if that’s what it is, comes from love.
I’ve recently finished Jenny Uglow’s terrific biography of Edward Lear—Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense—which is as good on the poetry as it is on the life. For anybody wondering why he matters—or what poets as diverse as T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery admired in him—Uglow’s book is an excellent place to start.
Louise Glück’s American Originality: Essays on Poetry has been worth the wait—full of revealing stringencies, and equally revealing sympathies.
James Longenbach’s latest collection, Earthling, is a gift—wise, aching, unafraid of pleasure and the less-than-pleasurable things that pleasure may commit us to. The whole thing is both grounded and airborne. A wonderful book.
I’m currently reading Frank Bidart’s magnificent Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016, and would struggle to put my feelings about it into one sentence.
I’m about to tuck into Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life, and I can’t wait to get my hands on The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons.
In the spring of 2005, at Wellesley College, I enrolled in my first-ever actual English course. It was called Advanced Poetry (I’m grateful to all of the forces in the cosmos—or, more accurately, to the English Department!—that allowed me, although I lacked every prerequisite, to slip in). I didn’t know much about anything at the time, much less contemporary poetry; and so, accordingly, I spent the first few weeks of the semester not knowing anything about the professor, except that he dressed in all black, often began class by unscrewing the top of a bottle of Sprite, and was named Frank Bidart. My poems were hideous: that I knew, although I didn’t know how to name the strange compulsion I suddenly had to work on them, or how to name my newfound obsession with the question of how to do things with words, to steal J.L. Austin’s famous phrase. Not knowing anything about Bidart, or even about poetry or literature more broadly, allowed me to summon the near-braggadocio required when someone who has never before felt capable of contributing an articulation to our gorgeous and difficult world abruptly, and for the first time, decides she has something she’d like to learn how to say.
This month finds me in a readerly mood that I’m not often in, which differs markedly from the mood I was in when I contributed to this blog in April. I don’t come to you this time with a maelstrom of recommendations. I come to you with one: Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016. I need this book right now very badly, because I’m finding myself once again thinking often about what kinds of articulations can respond to our gorgeous and difficult world, how it could at all be possible to
seewithin the indecipherable, furiouscataract of life, within bewildering, annihilatingFLUX, a great intelligible P R O C E S S
as Bidart writes in “The First Hour of the Night.” That iconic poem, the first in a series of long poems named after hours of the night, has here been revised; in his textual note, he writes that the poem now “has a new body,” and that when he wrote it before, he didn’t yet know “how it should exist in space.” Which is one brief anecdote that illustrates something massive that I love about this book. It’s all here: In the Western Night, Desire, Star Dust, Watching the Spring Festival, Metaphysical Dog. And even simply collecting these together would have made for a treasured volume. But Bidart’s approach to his work makes Half-Light even more than that. It makes the book a lesson in contending with how to exist in space.
The new volume that ends the collection, Thirst (2016), can also be read along similar lines, as when, in the poem “On This Earth Where No Secure Foothold Is,” Bidart asks, “Who do you want to be swallowed by?” and replies with the non-answer, “It’s almost the same question as To be or not to be.” Or when, in the new “The Fourth Hour of the Night,” he declares that “Imagination / clings to / apotheosis,” the italicized words seeming to lean toward the summit they describe. Or when the volume’s final poem, “Visions at 74,” fixes its reader with the stanzaic equivalent of a head-on stare that remakes one of Bidart’s career-long preoccupations, the riddle of what strange substances humans are made:
You are an hypothesis made of flesh.What you will teach the stars is constantrage at the constant prospect of not-being.
Half-Light, as Bidart writes, is “a kind of topography of the life we share—in chaos, an inevitable physiognomy.” Inevitable, and infinite.
Cortney Lamar Charleston
Like many, I’ve been completely taken by Danez Smith’s transformative Don’t Call Us Dead; I’ve also been deeply enamored with Tyree Daye’s debut, River Hymns. Both collections have reinforced my commitment to my ongoing project and provided different frames not only on Black living broadly, but the Black masculine experience and its casual relationships to violences (plural), as victim or agent, and how they’re complicated by other competing, fluctuating markers of identity, which I’ve been interrogating myself as of late; if you’re going to be in a conversation, then it’s best you know who you’re talking to, I think. I’ve also started working Marcus Wicker’s new release, Silencer, into this process as well, and every second I’ve spent with it thus far has been incredibly worthwhile. That equally applies to Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast and Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches, who, as Black women, are important voices to consider in my efforts to trouble what I believe both “Black” and “masculine” mean and how perspective shifts as distance from my intended subject grows.
Yes, I realize that line of thinking can extend to encompass the entire literary universe, but that’s not my only reason for reading right now. Sometimes I simply want to marvel at all that poetry can do. It’s this sentiment that’s called on me to engage Madness, the full-length debut of frequent reading buddy sam sax, the lion-hearted Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, and innovator and literary super-citizen Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Having followed their work for a while, it’s felt amazing to celebrate the culmination in these collections, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t seriously engaged their work yet to do so. That’s true also for these books currently on my to-get list: Will Brewer’s I Know Your Kind, Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion, and Emily Skillings’s Fort Not.
Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson, a Penguin Classic, has become my constant companion. Recently, I even wrote a poem that starts: “Sitting in the waiting room / sucking on the sweet paranoia / of a Shirley Jackson story.” And it’s true—there’s something oddly comforting about watching her characters’ worlds unravel in the space of a few pages, sometimes only a few sentences. I thought I knew something about Shirley Jackson. Like many, I had read her widely-anthologized story “The Lottery” in high school, and later on, was entranced by her chilling novel, The Haunting of Hill House. But it’s only through reading a whole collection of her short stories that I’ve come to appreciate how truly jaw-dropping her level of weirdness is. Two young women staying in an old house become trapped in a painting; a psychic child who’s never taken seriously, casually predicts her parents’ deaths; a woman is convinced her husband, just returned from a business trip, is in fact, a total stranger. For its exploration of psychological horror, Dark Tales deserves to be placed on a shelf next to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, and not far from the ghost stories of Henry James. It’s the perfect volume to savor slowly, or binge-read on a winter night.
Looking over at the ziggurat of books piled on my small bedside table, I can’t find much of a high concept to make them all hang together, other than their genre-defying tendencies. Eileen Myles’s tender and trippy Afterglow (A Memoir) is as much an experimental poem as a memoir, parts of it ghostwritten by her deceased pit bull Rosie. Duncan Hannah’s Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, which I’m reading in violet-tinted galleys from Knopf, is out next March. This first-time book by a perennial poet’s painter is not really a memoir either but his teen and post-teen diaries full of exhilarated prose. It’s a Pillow Book from a decade when no one ever slept. Two chapters in, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, designed as a guide to the world for his unborn daughter, is as devoid of other people as his My Struggle is full of their centripetal forces. The more he describes our mundane world of plastic cups and falling leaves the stranger it all becomes. For emboldening, as I continue to translate Rumi with my Iranian-American collaborator, Maryam Mortaz, I keep returning to Peter Cole’s Hymns & Qualms, which bravely sets his translations of medieval Hebrew and Arabic poems next to his own meditative slices of verse. And in memoriam, I am rereading John Ashbery’s Three Poems, the original shapeshifter, at least in my younger reading life. One of its gnomic “prose” lines might help make the above pile feel more viable: “We must drink the confusion.”
Here’s a snippet of what I’ve been reading and some lines that have stuck with me:
Tyree Daye’s River Hymns:
I come from a clutter of folksfixing fish plates in the dead of the dim hour,with only a few flood lights lighting faces.
Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied:
I don’t know where the drybacks are who ran with dogs chasing after them. Correction: I do know. At night, they return to say sobreviviste bicho, sobreviviste carnal. Yes, we over-lived.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s Beast Meridian:
I find the victims in the valley I hunt the wilderness in myself I stalk my prey
through myself let hornets hive my womb I am born fragrant stars
Rosa Alcalá’s MyOther Tongue:
English keeps an opentab and never sleepsalone. English is a smooth talkerwho makes me say please. It’s a bit of role-playingand I like a good tease.
Erika L. Sánchez’s Lesson on Explusion:
Each night I inhalemy own wingswhen my skinremembers asters.
Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child:
In those old hotels, I was always afraidsomeone would need sudden measure. TO WHOMDO YOU ADMINISTER CPR? THE LIVING BUT NOTBREATHING. THE LIVING BUT NOT BREATHING.
Finally, I’m re-visiting Garbiel Celaya’s “La poesía es un arma cargada de futuro” because he seems to have some wisdom on creating art in the face of a totalitarian regime:
Porque vivimos a golpes, porque apenassi nos dejandecir que somos quien somos,nuestros cantares no pueden ser sinpecado un adorno.Estamos tocando el fondo.
I’ve been sitting this week with Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities, a hybrid collection of text and photography that explores nuclear energy, militarism, nationalism, enforced silence, and the profound environmental, physiological, and psychic damage that results. The book is haunted by a host of soundbites, including the assertion, attributed to Ronald Reagan, that “all the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” I’ve also been reading Judy Wajcman’s Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, which I recommend for its insights into how ostentatious busyness has become a modern-day marker of status.
I am currently journeying with the books and performances of the legendary Canadian outsider artist and poet bill bissett: Pomes for Yoshi, Awake in th red desert, Living with th vishyun, Stardust, Inkorrect thots, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, B leev abul char ak trs. There are so many. There is never enough. These are my desert island books!
A trio of goodness recently arrived from the U.K.: Jeff Hilson’s Latanoprost Variations, Tim Atkins’s On Fathers < On Daughtyrs, and Colin Herd’s Click & Collect. Expansive, humorous, and compassionate. A poetics of everything. Partly influenced by New York School poetics. The very best of British poetry. All from the new Boiler House Press.
My commuting bag is full of great books from Dostoyevsky Wannabe. A terrific U.K. press out of Manchester. This week on rotation it is: Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble, Victoria Brown’s Cherry Bomb, Judson Hamilton’s Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice, and Richard Brammer’s experimental chapbook The End of History.
A recent retreat for writing and study was enhanced by the following books, wanting to pay homage to poets recently deceased still echoing, vibrating in the void.
Here are a few bits from Breezeway, by John Ashbery. I enjoy the playful insouciance here, and always appreciate the ever-iconoclastic J.A.:
There’s no Shakespeare.Through the window, Casanova.Couldn't get to sleep in the dumb incidentof those days, crimping the frozen feet of Lincoln.—From “Bunch of Stuff”
Or from “Homeschooled”:
Headbangers all.You have to have some Elmer’s crayon juice.
From “East February”:
Not expecting friendsThat you don’t know yet are comingFoxtrot,Performance artThat I gaze on so fondly today—This hymn to dowdinessHowdy-Doody shaped …
This time it set off a lemon telenovela.Chickens bolted—bummer!—From “Front and Pearl”
Ashbery’s ear was often attuned to the banal, the current, the least overtly poetic. Things others wouldn’t dare let in their poems. As I wrote in a recent memoir re: the sixties: “It was a heady time. I was an eager child of poetry and John Ashbery was our breakthrough poet, having riveted an ever-growing number of friends, artists, readers, strangers, young poets to an elevated shift of frequency. The apocalypse had taken place with The Tennis Court Oath (1962) with its mystical dream fragments cut ups/non-sequiturs, shaped to intellect and sound.”
Joanne Kyger’s There You Are: Interviews, Journals and Ephemera, edited by Cedar Sigo, is a charming compendium of treasures including tributes by others, but primarily a selection of insightful historic interviews, letters, and poems by this witty Buddhist West Coast poet long associated with the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat literary movement.
It is lonelyI must draw water from the well 75 buckets for the bathI mix a drink—gin, fizz water, lemon juice, a spoonfulof strawberry jamAnd place in a champagne glass—it is hard workTo make the bathAnd my winter clothes are dusty and should be put awayIn storage. Have I lost all values I wonderthe world is slippery to hold ontoWhen you begin to deny it.Outside are the crickets and frogs in the rice fieldsLarge black butterflies like bird.
Also highly recommended is Kyger’s Japan and India Journals, recently republished by Nightboat Books, in which Joanne stands around India in her drip-dry black dress waiting for some “wild martini attention,” traveling as she is with the young Allen Ginsberg, eager to read “Howl” to anyone who will listen, including the Dalai Lama, and her husband Gary Snyder intent on a stricter eco-tourist agenda of temple visits and steep climbing. In his journal covering the same years he is delighted when Joanne finally casts off her inconvenient (and irritating) high heels.
When the semester is in full swing, I tend to do my reading sporadically, in fits and starts—often during snatches of stolen time on subway commutes or during solitary meals. I welcome occasions when a book can draw me into a state of absorption that mutes the demands of my schedule. Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, is one such work. I read it twice in one sitting. Farrokhzad gives polyphonic treatment to the rifts and ruptures accompanying migration, war, familial uprooting, cultural assimilation, and the reshaping of intergenerational relations. The book attends to the psychical complications of inherited languages, histories, and traumas through stark, aphoristic fragments that ask to be chewed over and over.
I’ve also taken deep delight in revisiting Adélia Prado’s Alphabet in the Park, translated from the Portuguese by Ellen Dore Watson. Prado’s jaunty voice and her tonal brilliance are bracing. I marvel at the supple mind at work on these pages, and the linguistic and syntactic verve in each line. James Richardson’s luminous During is another collection that I keep close. I return to it for its clear-headed wisdom, its quality of attention.
There’s been long list of excellent books published in the past few months, which I’ve been wading through. Among them: Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Sahar Muradi’s [G A T E S], Marwa Helal’s i am made to leave i made to return, Ya Hsien’s Abyss, Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, Emily Jungmin Yoon’s Ordinary Misfortunes, Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, sam sax’s madness, Steph Burt’s Advice from the Lights, Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye, Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular, and Joseph O. Legaspi’s Threshold.
Finally, not on my bookshelf, but on my mind: the visual poetry of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues.