Reading List: December 2017
I’ve returned several times to “Longest Month” by Oki Sogumi for its strangeness, precision, obliqueness, intimacy, and insistence on what she calls a politics of care.
erica lewis just leaves everyone shook up when she performs, and in her books, mary wants to be a superwoman, daryl hall is my boyfriend, murmur in the inventory, and camera obscura, I feel let into some fathomless and truly furnished mind, splendid and horror-filled in turn.
I love Community Garden for Lonely Girls by Christine Shan Shan Hou because it’s full of poems that do things that paintings do, and the mind comes at a subject or an idea as if the mind is as large as the universe and as omni-aware. I also love when she bends grammar because I find that comforting. I don’t know if the world has caught up with her yet. Here’s a poem of hers, called “Harvest,” that was in Poetry Northwest:
The onion detectscertainty in dirt, onthe contrary, shame.
Amy Lawless offers us trenchant, joyous absurdity in Broadax. I’ve looked forward to this book for a long time: when she slices off a piece of culture, it’s all the way to the bone, but somehow you feel like she’s done some important realignment of things. I mention alongside Lawless’s book, Alina Pleskova’s chapbook What Urge Will Save Us by, a negotiation of so many demands—sexual, capitalistic, parental—on a truly free spirit. These two poets bring such freshness of mind to their subjects, that quality that reminds you what you like about life—god, do we need that.
In terms of poetry about empire and equity, Emari DiGiorgio’s incredible poetry of witness is afire in The Things a Body Might Become, just a neon athlete at delivering the harsh news of the world and interrogating complicity; Cynthia Dewi Oka’s force-of-nature spirit fills up Salvage, a book that puts us at the center of empire with elemental and royal imagery and intelligence.
Hillary Gravendyk’s posthumous The Soluble Hour is a book of lyric poems that address both the beloved and friends with fantastic intimacy, and virtuosity, and also speak from her younger selves. The sheer love in her work takes my breath away.
These days, I’m only managing to read about a book a year. Right now, it’s the massive two-volume Complete Poems and Plays of Robert Duncan.
I became entranced with Duncan’s open field poetics some time ago and it has influenced both the way I write and the way I read. Even now, when I say entranced, I’m thinking entrance, a way in, a way. Quoth Duncan, “I am not a maker of things, but, if maker, a maker of a way. For the way is itself.”
So, I’ve started reading as though I’m walking, say, in a field, which means a lot of stopping to think about what grows there, or to lie down and be attentive to the space that surrounds.
I admit it’s a strange practice. But I need this kind of practice now, especially alongside our daily national crisis.
So, my poems became first like fields, cubed, three-dimensional, and then became end-stopped, suggestive of this stopping (and, wink, Frost, miles to go). My poem in the December issue is written in this form and begins with a meditation on basic shapes.
There are two books just published that have been deep in my mind and heart these days. The first is Sasha Steensen’s brand new Gatherest. In its pages, as on its covers, a forest fire burns—that force of flame that ignores, because its nature is to ignore, every form of human care. But there is another flame in the book, an internal one, a heart’s ember, that gathers within the pages the people she loves, the animals she cares for, the grammar she writes in, that finds in the daily force of love’s own labor a counter to destruction. The second book is Laynie Browne’s You Envelop Me, a book-length elegy for Patricia Browne. As much as I feel in Sasha’s book some recognition of how love is what our work must be in the near tyranny of the time, in Laynie’s book I find some instruction in how to be in mourning, and loss not as a deadening of life but a threshold into a truer attention to it. Here the poem, the page, is a daily ritual that seeks balm where there is harm without ever denying the harm’s fact—for Laynie, I think, the poem is a kind of healing magic.
I just reread (i.e. put down this morning) Alice Oswald’s Memorial, her shattering excavation of Homer’s Iliad. In its pages one can see by that light that makes the front pages of the newspaper an ancient document—which is to say, the story of war, of refuge sought and mercy lost, of the violence humans are capable of harnessing into awful force, of the possibility of grace if only that force could be dropped, all her abound. The translation of the epic similes offers us back the earth as either compensation for, or example of, the work that is death; and the hundreds of names, most of characters so minor they have left on earth nothing but their names, are a sorrowful reminder of the cherished iota any one life should be. The epic is daily, I guess.
I’ve also been on a years-long tour through ancient Greek literature, turning lately to reading all of Plato. Two texts I hadn’t read before have set-up their tents in the midst of my cares. In the Cratylus, Socrates investigates the origins of words. The immediate pleasure is in the wild play of his etymologies, but there is also happiness more profound to be found. In his investigation of the words for knowledge and thinking (of which, in Greek, there are many) he makes a claim that coursing through each is a sense of “flow,” and that all thinking is properly, all knowing truly arrives at, is an entering into the current of that which is being thought about—an epistemic river, I suppose. The Parminides records a conversation with the old philosopher of the same name that Socrates had when he was a younger man. It is a consideration of the nature of the One, and though I’d be hard pressed to explicate any, there is in the wild riddle of the text a lovely reminder of how the simplest notions bear within them a complexity that not only amazes, but makes of a maze, the mind.
Speaking of that “maze of mind,” a last suggestion, from a writer whose work has become for me the resource of greatest pleasure, in whose pages I can find—on any given one, opened to at random—a sentence of such brilliant oddity and insight you can feel as if your whole life could depend on it and it wouldn’t let you down. That writer is Sir Thomas Browne, and I’d recommend all his writings, though for now I might simply suggest The Garden of Cyrus. In its pages he investigates one shape, the quincunx, finding it everywhere he looks. The search is playful and deadly serious, seeking in the repeated XXXX of the shape the undergirding scaffold that makes of the random world an ordered, cared-of, cared-for thing. It posits occult connection where we’d normally find obvious difference, and makes an implicit promise that to pay closest attention is work not unlike that of prayer or poem.
Given there is a Canadian portfolio in the December issue, I thought I would recommend Canadian books to extend the thought.
The novel Exit by Nelly Arcan (translated by David Scott Hamilton):
My name is Antoinette Beauchamp, but my name doesn’t matter. Let’s not be afraid: I don’t need one anymore. When your social life amounts to just your mother, it’s better not to have one, a name that is. To fall into anonymity, just like leaving a small town to move to the big city, can be comforting, one way of sheltering yourself from all the strange looks you get, especially when the only person whose face you can see is also the one you detest the most.
The poetry book Voodoo Hypothesis by Canisia Lubrin:
The sun’s still got our backs.And while waters still vaporize before usCuriosity will keep on until the organic secretsof that Maritan puzzle become as household to usas carbon. Oxygen wasn’t the only disaster to befall Earth,to bless her with life.
The play The Supine Cobbler by Jill Connell:
A high tone: outside of time.
DOCTOR: There might be this initial shock. This initial strange feeling. What’s strange is you feel normal, just exactly normal, like you could be any place, any time, doing any thing. What’s strange is everything is simpler than normal, no other place to be, no other thing to think, nothing else to do except / just be still.
NURSES: / Just be still.
COBBLER: / Just be still.
Cut sound. Lights return to normal.
The poem “She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars (nikâwi's Song)” by Gregory Scofield:
She is spitting a mouthful of starsShe is laughing more than those who shamed herShe is ten horses breaking open the dayShe is new to these bonesShe is holy in their dust.
Favorite poem of the moment: “Even Now” from Amanda Johnston’s first book, Another Way to Say Enter. June Jordan, another poet who could be playful and truthful in the same poem, would probably nod with approval:
Even Nowa womanis doing you wrongshe is folding your pantsagainst the creaselosing your favorite tie,the paisley one, on purposesipping your bourbonmixed with kool-aid. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . your mamawarned you about southern womenonly thing sharper than her mouthis her bladeonly thing fasterare the bullets in her daddy’s gun.
Emily Jungmin Yoon’s chapbook Ordinary Misfortunes is a text I keep returning to—her poems on Korean comfort women are, I feel, an achievement: “what is a / body in a stolen country. Or whose. What is right in war. What / is left in war.” I can’t wait for her full-length book coming from Ecco in 2018.
In my house on a farm in the Cascade foothills, I have three reading stations, each piled with books and magazines. On my bedside table atop copies of Oregon Historical Quarterly is The 12-Year Reich, A Social History of Nazi Germany 1933–1945 by Richard Grunberger, a subject which bears frightening parallels to our present political situation out here in rural America. On the kitchen table sit issues of the New Yorker; The Education of Will, a mutual memoir of a woman and her dog by animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell; and Pets on the Couch, by Nicholas Dodman, an animal behaviorist at Tufts. I raise horses and write about them and suspect that equines suffer far more stress, anxiety, and emotional trauma than anyone suspected. At my desk upstairs is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, a memoir by a geobiologist about her struggle in academic science and with bipolar disorder. If only I could write as well about animals as she writes about plants. And four poetry books: Waiting for the Light, by Alicia Ostriker, for her intelligence, line breaks, and evocation of much-missed New York; Deep Well, by Dan Bellm, meditates on the death of his mother; Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver, and Sailing by Ravens, by Holly J. Hughes, both for their simplicity, insights, and wisdom about the natural world. I await Tana French’s next crime novel due out in 2018. Her previous books were set in Ireland, and I’m eager to consume more of her powerful and poetic sense of place.
Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Milk Black Carbon has been inducing in me the kind of REM-fueled déjà vu one often experiences in dreams. Places in dreams you swear you’ve been before within a lifespan of dreamworlds. Kane’s poems are like these places. Apertures open on arctic coastlines, fossil fuels, lichen, north, relationality, gender, and embodiment—“the hard mother of the brain.” In “Incognitium (in the Indian Hall),” she writes:
The tongue turns—It may be asked, why I insertthe mammoth, as ifIt still existed? I ask in returnwhy should I omit...
There are subsequent poems composed entirely in Inupiaq Eskimo. There is a friction here between colonial notions of authority, dispossession, language revitalization, and the powers of lyric. It is a book that stays with me, that challenges my thinking and my own poetics—I am grateful for it. Another work that has stayed with me and which I return to with great pleasure is Aisha Sasha John’s I have to live. It’s ecstatically contemporary,
I warmed some hash in butter and wiped a yellow square of cake into it deeply.And I put it in the mini fridge and the next morning, the nextAfternoon—I ate it.
while also gesturing to the incantatory,
This is original ancient poetry.It fashions a universe from its mouth.
and as a whole the book feels like a serene friendship and it makes me want to live.
I spend a lot of time reading chapbooks. To me, they’re the ideal unit of poetry—a quick burst of sound and sense that can be digested in a single sitting. They’re also a great place to scout poets who’ll become household names in the near future. I first read Ocean Vuong in chapbook form; ditto Kaveh Akbar.
The two short collections that have stood out for me this fall are Katie Fewster-Yan’s Sick and I and Conor McDonnell’s Safe Spaces. Sick and I hooked me from its evolution-tinged opening line: “The tadpole carries no idea of itself / into the future.” From there, Fewster-Yan balances the rise of adulthood with a personal account of illness, demonstrating how the two can converge to leave a lasting brand. Conor McDonnell’s book also mines personal history, “reading [his] own genome, and [finding] a dog-ear / where a vital sequence should be.” Safe Spaces is the most human kind of performance—capricious, honest, and yet unwilling to yield easy answers.
I keep a list of the books I read each year—any type of book counts as long as I read it in its entirety. I tally the books up at New Year’s Eve and add one bar to the homemade bar graph I began many years ago. This December I am behind, as usual, but short poetry collections are excellent for catching up in the last month. Or perhaps short poems? English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems edited by John Williams and published by NYRB has been on my shelf, waiting patiently. As has River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks.
I am behind primarily because over the past three months I have been “soodling” my way through the complete works of John Clare. I have been reading the Clarendon Press editions of his poetry, which number nine volumes in all. My companion along this trek has been a sturdy hardback, Clare’s Lyric: John Clare and Three Modern Poets by Stephanie Kuduk Weiner. It tracks Clare’s influence on three poets with whom I was previously unfamiliar—Arthur Symons, Edmund Blunden, and John Ashbery—as well as Clare’s development as a lyric poet.
Reading books about books is a nice way to end the year, too. After enjoying Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books earlier in 2017, I read Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books, published by Yale University Press. In a way, libraries are fields of books—forcefields, fieldfares—and as Clare wrote in his lovely poem “Summer Images”:
I love to walk the fields, they are to meA legacy no evil can destroy;They, like a spell, set every rapture freeThat cheer’d me when a boy.Play—pastime—all Time’s blotting pen conceal’d,Comes like a new-born joy,To greet me in the field.
I’ve been reading Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the basis for the recent film Carol. Even though its heroines barely have the vocabulary for what is unfolding between them—a lesbian romance—their conversations edge elegantly toward a shared goal of being queer and happy at the same time. It’s got me revisiting poetry collections that dare to find, amongst the many facets of gay life, joy: Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, and the affirming final pages of Leah Horlick’s For Your Own Good.
Over the last weeks I have been very much enjoying Sasha Dugdale’s new collection, Joy, which explores the places where poetry and dramatic form meet in constantly surprising ways. Like many people, I have been blown away by the rich transnational voice of Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons and have finally caught up with the brilliant Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith; both of them transformed my sense of the possibilities of English.
I am also catching up on a fine year for one of my special interests, “late poems”: including Angel Hill by Michael Longley, such a consummate stylist, Helen Dunmore’s luminous Inside the Wave, and Jorie Graham’s Fast. As Graham said in a recent interview in the Guardian: “I am living in the late season ... but it has its songs, too.”
At the other end of the spectrum, I was lucky enough to be one of the judges this year for the Michael Murphy Memorial Poetry Prize, a U.K. prize for debut collections. This was an absolute joy with a number of brilliant and memorable firsts. Delighted to have found a winner in Rebecca Perry’s sparkling Beauty/Beauty, but there are many to look out for.
A good year for things classical too, with Josephine Balmer’s The Paths of Survival taking its cue from Aeschylus’s lost tragedy Myrmidons and Emily Wilson’s breathtaking new translation of the Odyssey.
Sitting by the bedside as a nightly indulgence is Glyn Maxwell’s hugely entertaining Drinking with Dead Poets: fascinating as much for the ventriloquism as for the sympathetic account of teaching the craft. Some of the most intriguing of my recent reading is also about craft, in what might even be an emerging genre—that of the translation memoir. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance both offer personal philosophical accounts of reading, writing, and living with other voices that have made me think hard about what I do.
An Iron Wind by Peter Fritzsche uses the writing of everyday people in occupied Europe to explore viewpoints about World War II. This book took time to read because of the hardness of its subject. “The great debates of the 1930s had begun,” explains Fritzsche. “They were shaped by the growing might of Hitler and his Nazi supporters who, using the carrot of economic growth and the stick of political terror, rapidly established the most popular dictatorship in the twentieth century.”
Next, interlibrary loan gave me Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic. As small a book as Fritzsche’s was large, it, too, required pauses. Joudah presents an atlas, then makes us pulse. We move through familiar moments of trees and tea while also in terror and war. It reminds me how few words can have great effect. I will study his technique for some time.
But Joudah wasn’t my original interest. I’d requested his book after seeing a poem he had translated on Poetry Daily. Interlibrary loan brought that collection next, The Silence That Remains by Ghassan Zaqtan. It’s just as spare but powerful. As I settled in with it, far-right white nationalism was energized in our national discourse again, and I found myself stuck, unable to think.
And so I picked up the latest issue of Oxford American and opened to “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal” by Crystal Wilkinson. Its woman with her robin inside was “turning memories over and then holding them up so” we both “could see them better.” As lost as she was, she wasn’t. Wilkinson’s lyrical voice in this short story centered me, and I could begin to explore again.
Where We Might Have Been, a 2010 collection by acclaimed poet Don Coles, who died at 90 on November 29: It’s a speaker watching himself think, write, and live; a memoir taking small observations of conversation, or material conditions, through to a self-irony that settles in sometimes decades after events occur. In “A Walk in the Woods” he is watching his young daughter in a way only one who is fully aware of being responsible for another human life could be, with a distinctive present and absent sensibility, an awareness of intense fragility:
Suddenly frightened because, havingwalked ahead of me around a bendin the path, she found the sumac all at oncenodding its garish heads too close to her,she called out, Daddy, Daddy, andwith no warning or permissionthe call convenanted itselfwith all the pending years of my life.What a long time it’s beento be the only one who heard it,who will ever hear it,even she wasn’t listening.
Talking to the Diaspora by Cree and Salish poet and activist Lee Maracle: When she writes “On Turtle Island anyone who is not indigenous / is part of some Diaspora” and “It’s December / Toronto / Gaza / is on fire again / another Wounded Knee / another massacre,” or “-40 Celsius in Winnipeg / Palestinians and Indians wave placards / … / … Free Palestindians” she makes a vital, empathic link between sites in need of decolonization.
Five Ways of Being a Painting and Other Essays, a volume of nominated works for the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize: The winner, by William Max Nelson, is a gorgeous, episodic rumination juxtaposing Walter Benjamin’s reflections on being caught up in the thinginess of objects and art with the author’s childhood objects and memories, and the strange and familiar identity awareness of immersing oneself in paintings or selected portraits in history.
It’s that time of year when “Best of 2017” lists start to remind me, a bit naggingly, about how much I’ve missed or already forgotten about a year’s reading.
First things first, and the latest book I’ve been poring over: strange harmonies are what I love in Conor O’Callaghan’s poems, something hushed, charmed, and haunted about the way he puts lines together. His new book, Live Streaming, is more overtly haunted, beginning with an inventory of a life he is about to leave (“Thank you echoes echoing”), then proceeding to a series of poems which reckon, agitatedly, agonizingly, with the death of his estranged father: “The still / point comes / to life and we’ve / but to wait.”
Earlier this year, the Derry poet Colette Bryce, who is just about to take up a post at Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia, published a Selected Poems. These are ingenious, patiently made poems, attuned to a very particular way of looking and listening. They ask for patience, too, but gift their readers a store of resonant images.
Working with Igor Klikovac on his poems has been an enlightening, conversation-driven process, checking lines and contexts via Skype, and then emailing with queries. But accuracy is just one part of translation, especially in poetry, where so much can go wrong between words and from line to line. I have no real sense if I am connecting with the original poem when I read Matthew Francis’s version of the Welsh epic poem The Mabinogi, but even if, as may be the case, he has appropriated and reconceived the poem, his version is a magical book in its own right. Likewise, Peter Fallon’s inventive version of Hesiod, Deeds and Their Days, with its custom-built, rhyming six-line stanzas, offering advice and know-how to the poet’s brother, Perses.
Outside of Europe, I’ve been admiring the passionate syntax of Sebastian Agudelo’s new book The Bosses and of Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings, while two of my favorite poets published excellent new books with New Zealand’s Victoria University Press in the past year or so. Jenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems is observational, ruminative, self-conscious, and amused, properly experimental, seeming to test each line or image as it emerges. Bill Manhire’s Some Things to Place in a Coffin has some of the same godlike comedy in its make-up. Here’s all of (the unforgettable?) “How Memory Works”: “Come over here / we say to the days that disappear. // No, over here.”
Normally I'm just swamped with reading for my professional duties—syllabuses, reviews—but some books I squeeze in for no other reason than I am sure to be inspired. Recently, they have included Sinéad Morrissey's On Balance, published by Carcanet on the other side of the pond. I was already a fan of her selected poems, Parallax, but this new collection is a rare achievement where every poem is a singularity yet each also fits within the book's broad concept of balance threatened and balance restored—physically, emotionally, geopolitically. My second book is Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, a compact little book that is an ode in beautiful prose to that most refined poet. I especially loved his yoking of Bishop, Thom Gunn, and Joseph Brodsky, a small illustration of how poetry doesn’t just express emotion—it shapes emotion.
I’m spending this year in Rome and on that occasion I haven’t been reading much in English. A Belarusian poet at the American Academy in Italy, writing poems in two languages at once, I think among eternal Roman stones of what it means to have roots, to have an “I.” Several poetry books next to me right now are by two contemporary Russian poets, Maria Stepanova and Polina Barskova. Perhaps a good introduction to these books could be this quote from Hélène Cixous: “This is why I never ask myself ‘who am I?’ but I ask myself ‘what are I?’ … What is a human subject, what is it that makes us live so well and so badly, so that after millions of years we still do not know how to die nor what death is?... A subject is at least a thousand people.” In English both of these poets are included in Relocations: Three Contemporary Russian Women Poets, while Barksova also has The Zoo in Winter and This Lamentable City.
There are two English-language books I read before leaving for Rome that moved me greatly and had me asking “what are I?” First, Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration, which is the most elegant and insightful meditation on the sublime, an intimate tour through the mind of a great artist. Secondly, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior is a gift of insight into earth and language. This book includes Niedecker’s poem of the same title, the journal of her visit to Lake Superior, and other writings that explore poetry, geology, and history.
Because the books we read are given to us somehow, by hand or by birthright, I’ll mention two books offered to me by my home province of New Brunswick. Crossover by M. Travis Lane got shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and thereby was “discovered” at the level of nation, but before this point the octogenarian Lane remained under a limbo bar of radar, or practiced as a “secret master,” as Carmine Starnino has said, of craft. Lane is the author of sixteen full-length collections and her most recent trade collection of new work demonstrates no deterioration in abilities, only a richening and deepening of her trademark ecopoetics and (rare nowadays) an acute documenting of aging. Lane’s work is something special given to me based on my provenance as Maritimer—too few Canadians outside of the Maritimes had read her seriously until her latter-day reputational renaissance. Lane has joked that, because Alden Nowlan lived below her on Windsor Street in Fredericton, that she was the “only poet in Canada who could look down on Alden Nowlan.” The second text I put forward to Poetry’s readers, Alden Nowlan: Collected Poems, is a massive 682-pager that provides interested readers with every poem from Nowlan’s many trade editions. Nowlan, the most important twentieth century poet from the Maritimes, emerged from an early life of crushing rural poverty to publish some of the best work Canada has ever seen. The new book resends the signal of a greatness restricted to extreme adumbration by out-of-date and idiosyncratic selected volumes. Nowlan’s poems are various, but many represent a harsh rural world with gale-force emotional winds blowing through, like “For Nicholas of All the Russias”:
Wind in a rocky country and the harvestmeagre, the sparrows eaten, all the cattlegone with the ragged troopers, winter coming,mother will starve for love of you.
Both Crossover and Alden Nowlan: Collected Poems are a good introduction to the literary Maritimes.
Lately, I’ve been flipping through Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems, recently released by Faber & Faber and edited by Clive Wilmer. Gunn is one of my favorite writers, and I have most of his individual collections, but I’m always a sucker for Faber’s sleek, minimalist design. Furthermore, I wanted to see how Wilmer’s introduction would appraise the expat poet’s oeuvre: for the most part, Wilmer hews closely to Gunn’s biography, though he includes many lucid observations about the trajectories and arrangements of Gunn’s books. But the most striking scholarship resides in the endnotes: Wilmer has done a wonderful job of contextualizing every poem in the book, tracing allusions, and providing relevant excerpts from Gunn’s interviews, criticism, and journal entries.
Here are a few lines from a poem in The Man with Night Sweats that I constantly return to:
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of teaIn a dry mouth. You had gone from meAs if your body had sought out martyrdomIn the far Canada of a hospital room.Once there, you entered fully the distressAnd long pale rigours of the wilderness.A gust of morphine hid you.
On my nightstand, I have an unwieldy pile of poetry collections that I keep returning to, including Nyla Matuk’s uncanny and beautiful Stranger:
A man walks on the horizon,freely given harbour and hound of love.I sing of shells and a splendoured shutter,of seaworthy drapery, of self-erasure.
Matthew Nienow’s meticulously-crafted House of Water:
There’s the paring chisel’s purposein the steamed cedar strake, its long warplaid strong against the benchwhose pocked surface is the bookof what has already been madeor marred in learning’s wake.
And Hannah Sanghee Park’s linguistically mutable The Same-Different:
Some days I felt volant, as opposed toa vole, an ant, things committed to dirt,committed to crawl and burrow below.This is no life for me.
The poetry of June Jordan guided me early on, when I began writing poems. On the day of my college graduation in Washington, D.C., I checked out Directed by Desire from the library. I needed to find “Free Flight,” which I heard someone read at the 2012 Split This Rock Festival. The last lines struck me:
Maybe when I wake up in the middle of the nightI should go downstairsdump the refrigerator contents on the floorand stand there in the middle of the spilled milkand the wasted butter spread beneath my dirty feetwriting poemswriting poemsmaybe I just need to love myself myself andanywayI’m working on it.
“And / anyway / I’m working on it” could be the universal line that all my friends and I are singing together, as we figure out how to create spaces in which we feel safe while thriving in our artistic endeavors. When I heard this poem read aloud, I relished the thought of dumping all the refrigerator contents on the floor. I savored the realness, the musicality, the energy, the leaps, the dailiness of life and news and teaching that Jordan encompassed in this one poem. So I’ve picked up Jordan’s collected poems again, after so many years, and it is incredible to be in tune with her spirit.
On the same note, I’m excited to read We’re On: A June Jordan Reader, which just came out. On December 6, 2017, Pen + Brush hosted a celebration reading for We’re On. It was an electric room. Following that reading, a few days later on a Friday night, was the celebration of the legendary Patricia Smith at Poets House. I recommend all books by this special wordsmith, whose work is the best of the best. She is what we all aspire to become. Read her latest book Incendiary Art, and know why. The poets who read in tribute to Smith (Tyehimba Jess, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Mahogany L. Browne, Nicole Sealey, and others) also mentioned how much sense it made to have honored Jordan’s poetry just a few days earlier. I will never forget how both Jordan and Smith made me feel this week, this final month of 2017, which closed out the year of poetry readings for me. I will continue to dive into the work that both poets have gifted us, and you should too.
As a poet and children’s book writer, I have a book bag and bedside table loaded with lots of literary variety. I’m reading The Deaths of Henry King by Jesse Ball and Brian Evenson, because witnessing the increasingly absurd ways one man can die appeals to me. I also love funny stuff and ridiculously whip-smart stories, so I’m reading Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon. Hanlon is one of the most interesting and imaginative writers for young people I’ve read in years. I recently finished Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, because I’m a longtime fan of her writing and her voice has the ability to lift me. I haven’t taken the book out of my book bag yet, which means I dip back into it whenever life forces me to wait somewhere (I have a four-year-old son; my life forces me to wait somewhere often). The book I’m getting ready to start is A Faithful Existence by Forrest Gander. I’m a fan of his poetry and translations, and this is the first time I’ll be reading his essays. I really love Forrest, so I’m curious and eager to discover what he has to say in a longer form. Also, part of my longtime relationship to poetry has been that of a student, so many of my recently finished books include former teachers I’ve worked with over the years. Honestly, I think I read them as a way to continue my studies with them (more one-sided now, but still lovely and effective): David Rivard’s Standoff, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, Tom Sleigh’s Station Zed, Billy Collins’s The Rain in Portugal, Bob Hicok’s Sex & Love &, and Stephen Dunn’s Whereas. They teach me over and over, poem by poem, how to live and to write in this wacky, troublesome world.
Jim Johnstone is a Canadian poet who comes to us by reproductive physiology. (Don’t we all?) By way of. His fifth and most recent collection, The Chemical Life, tackles mental health issues by resituating medical language (dopamine, serotonin, Carisoprodol) into personal contexts. He’s the only poet I know who can include equations and graphic chemical structures into a poem in a way that’s not merely ornamental.
Another fifth book: Myronn Hardy’s Radioactive Starlings. Hardy is an American poet who lives in Morocco, and like the best black expat writers, he has the vantage to write America from outside its borders and thereby reposition it from the center. The second poem is called “Failure.”
Just about anything by Dara Wier is worth one’s time. (I dipped into Reverse Rapture) (which is like reading the ocean) (the entire book is parsed) (into parentheses) I went back to Voyages in English because I’m thinking a lot lately about grammar. Dara Wier is a Lydia-Davis-Gertrude-Stein centaur—syntactically surefooted, metatextual but not irksomely so, aphoristic before Twitter. I’d like to get a monthly subscription to just Dara Wier poems.
Bonus. I lent my only copy of Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics, a collection of modern love poems, to a friend and I’ve wanted it back almost every day. Fortunately, I keep a photograph of one of my favorite poems on my phone. It ends:
You held out your handI took your fingerprintsYou asked for loveI gave you only descriptionsPlease die I saidso I can write about it.
Living in the U.K., I’m prevented from being able to obtain collections by the American poets I’ve been wanting to read easily, so I’m behind the times with book recommendations. What I’ve been loving lately (mostly online) are the dazzling “Magical Negro” poems of Morgan Parker listed here; I also greatly admire her last book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Dazzling in a contrasting way is Safiya Sinclair’s debut collection, Cannibal, with its elaborate imagery, jeweled syntax, and intense musicality; her style reminds me a bit of Lucie Brock-Broido and Timothy Donnelly, while being wholly her own.
After reading Patrick Rosal’s work, I look forward to getting my hands on Brooklyn Antediluvian. I’ve been on the waiting list for Danez Smith’s [insert] Boy and Jericho Brown’s The New Testament at London’s Poetry Library for months, but have been nourished meantime by their poems online, such as Brown’s here. (Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead and Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf are being published in the UK next year, hurrah!)
The newer poems of Natalie Eilbert and, especially, Hala Alyan make me absolutely salivate for their forthcoming collections. Last but not least, Amy Woolard’s poems are a feast of language, imaginative metaphor and simile, and heart that I wish I had the talent to write.
I tend to read more novels than poetry, and more crime fiction than literary fiction (for better or worse). Recently I’ve enjoyed an older Attica Locke novel, The Cutting Season, which I mistakenly thought I’d read after reading her first two books. I was happily nudged toward The Cutting Season by the enthusiastic coverage Locke’s new novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, has been receiving; I eagerly await it at my local library.
- Ange Mlinko
- John McAuliffe
- Reading List
- Dan Beachy-Quick
- Cornelius Eady
- Beth Bachmann
- Jim Johnstone
- Liz Howard
- Jane Yeh
- Valzhyna Mort
- Ben Ladouceur
- Karen Leeder
- Cynthia Arrieu-King
- Dani Couture
- Jana Harris
- Clare Jones
- Ange Macri
- Nyla Matuk
- Shane Neilson
- Michael Prior
- Ian Williams
- Monica Sok
- Kristen Tracy