Reading List: January 2018
I’ve been loving Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun’s tremendous book Adrenalin (tr. Catherine Cobham), that speaks into, from, and through crises of exile and war. Reading it, distinctions like “personal” and “political” seem even more absurd than they already did. It’s possessed by intensity—head-on, vivid, unsparing, and anti-sentimental while simultaneously deeply felt. Almadhoun subverts lyricism and turns metaphor on its head to expose, transform, self-indict, confront. In one poem, he eyes “the checkpoints that stand between me and summer”; in another, the consequences of war infuse amorous cliché with a symbolism that refuses to be symbolic, because its horror is actual: “oh God / look where the war has taken us / even in my worst nightmares it never occurred to me / that one day / I would say in a poem / I drown in you as Syrians drown in the sea.” Two other titles in translation I’ve enjoyed recently, both by Greek poets, are Phoebe Giannisi’s Homerica (tr. Brian Sneeden), and Yannis Ritsos’s Monochords, (tr. Paul Merchant). I also just read, for the first time, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s brilliant 1950 essay Discourse on Colonialism (tr. Joan Pinkham), which remains visionary and relevant as ever.
Here are two recent books that I recommend wholeheartedly; both have a strong sense of rootedness, but both are also committed to imaginative dialogues with distant times and cultures.
David Wheatley is an Irish poet who currently lives in Scotland. His fifth collection, The President of Planet Earth, must be one of the most formally diverse books of recent years: its 167 pages contain everything from sestinas to classical translations to Gaelic concrete poems. An invigorating cacophony of voices, the book’s wit, intellectual curiosity, and combination of historical perspectives with close attention to the present moment—as in the sonnet sequence, spoken by Robert Fergusson and written in a form of Scots, which considers the recent Scottish independence referendum—bring Edwin Morgan to mind. And it’s always good to have Edwin Morgan brought to mind.
Sasha Dugdale’s fourth collection, Joy, is equally brilliant. From its opening monologue in the voice of William Blake’s wife Catherine, to its closing poem for Edward Thomas, it gives voice to an English identity always informed by historical and international contexts. (This is not surprising if you know that Dugdale was until recently editor of Modern Poetry in Translation.) In “Mappa Mundi,” after a sensuous description of nearby meadows and woods, Dugdale asks:
Is the world not like this?
An invented place of moving and belonging
A delicious hatred of the other place
A sorry love of this one.
I am writing as much as I can these days about the relationship between black poetics and prison abolition, freedom and lyric, undercommon sociality and ubiquitous confinement, so much of what I have been reading lately is inextricably linked to those concerns. Joy James’s anthology, The New Abolitionists: (Neo)Slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings is a collection of poetry, letters, interviews, and essays that I sought out toward the beginning of my formal interest in the topic, and is one of those books I always try to have on my person or else nearby. Everything in here shimmers: James’s introduction, the interview with George Jackson, Tiyo Attallah Salah El’s “A Call for the Abolition of Prisons.” For those committed to a world without cages, this, I think, is required reading.
In the vein of anthologies, I would be remiss if I did not include Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing here, not only because I am always reading and rereading the thing, but also given that the 50th anniversary of the Black Arts Movement urtext is rapidly approaching. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s In the Mecca and Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison, two books that are connected not only by their year of publication, but by the fact that Brooks crafted a stunning preface to Knight’s monograph; one that is constantly on my mind both for its lyrical quality and deep generosity. Stated plainly, the preface is a masterclass on how we should introduce new writers to the field. That is, with abiding love, and having thoughtfully read what they have written with an eye toward both the future and the archive.
Tongo-Eisen Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes has been on my desk for months. I knew way back when that Eisen-Martin could flat-out write—we first met about a decade ago at the Nuyorican Poets café on a Friday night, and he more or less tore the roof off the spot—but there is simply nothing out there quite like the work he is doing in this collection. Pick up a copy and prepare to be floored. Finally, I would encourage everyone to check out both June Jordan’s collected poems, Directed by Desire, and Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. The latter is a text detailing both the history and core pedagogical practices of the arts program of the same name that Jordan founded at UC Berkeley in 1991. Ever since I first picked it up, the text has inspired me to expand my vision of what a poetry workshop can, and even should, look like if the work is to be effective, beautiful, useful, and most importantly, rooted in the practice of freedom.
I’m currently in Hong Kong with my husband, visiting his family for the winter holiday season, and in the middle of rereading the entire bilingual edition of Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems by Yehuda Amichai; it’s the only book I brought with me for our three-week trip here as I’m finishing up a new essay based around the collection. I didn’t have plans to purchase any books on this trip, as my reading shelf is full of many books waiting at home for me, but while visiting Causeway Bay today in the western part of the city, I somehow steered us toward The Commercial Press Bookstore, which has an incredible selection of English translations of Chinese authors—just to browse, of course. While I chatted with an employee who turned out to be a poetry lover, my husband surprised me with two selections: a copy of Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, or rather, “13 Visions of the Future from China”; Liu also translated all of the works. He also picked up a copy of Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, which I’ve wanted to read for some time. Once I’m back stateside, there are quite a few books I’m anticipating, such as Virgin by Analicia Sotelo, This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jenkins, Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith, and Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah. I’m also still knee-deep in the Minhat Yehuda which I can’t recommend enough to those with an interest in Jewish mysticism.
I’ve been keeping an eye on the moving publication date for Carolyn Forché’s next collection, In the Lateness of the World. She has evidently put her own poetry on a back burner, busy with projects such as The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King, coedited with the Scots Makar, Jackie Kay. This anthology is an essential read.
I deeply admire poets who take their time, producing realized work from patient labor. It can be tempting to close the process down prematurely, which brings Seamus Heaney to mind, who said “If you think it’s finished, get another bit further.” Which brings me to Leontia Flynn’s The Radio. I rarely read a book straight through, though this one I did; it features a direct, unflinching, and adage-rich elegy for Heaney, along with poems that shock us into conflict territory from a perspective reminiscent of Forché: humane, grounded, and vitally engaged.
This leads me to another highlight of 2017, Ahren Warner’s Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted. The poems are, to say the least, unnerving; a “spirit of the age,” created from the tussle with gravity and getting stuck in. This brilliant collection also features a series of photographs that act like pointers to a subtextual abyss which is also a place of transformation.
I’d like to read The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by James Gillman (1838), Coleridge’s friend, confidant, and doctor. And the Biographia Literaria (1817) —in full. I’ve been thinking of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as a prophetic, partly unconscious, creation, warning of the consequences of breaking our bond with nature. Coleridge will last me a lifetime.
People want this speech, this immediacy. They need it. The fear of poetry is a complicated and civilized repression of that need.
Hayan Charara’s Something Sinister: Transfixed by the first poem, the authority of it—or by authority I mean the confidence that the poems build inside the reader, that feeling when you trust the driver of the car so completely you forget the danger of driving at all, or are free to choose to feel it—I read every poem that followed until the last:
Do not be ashamed
The past is a strange land.
Go because you can.
Go because you can
W.S. Di Piero’s Memory and Enthusiasm: The essays are dense and fiercely intelligent. I have always enjoyed his “out of notebooks” sections best. Here’s a note I returned to recently on Keats’s “negative capability,” what Di Piero worries has become a “literary cult object”: “Keats was advising himself to be patient in the quest for definitiveness.”
Spencer Reece’s The Road to Emmaus: I am reminded again and again of Frost’s North of Boston—still maybe the greatest single book of poems—for the way Reece’s narratives here, held up by their forms and patterns of sound, can also appear so seamless, precise. The first poem is a wonder:
On rounds, the newborns eyed me, each one
like Orpheus in his dark hallway, saying:
I knew I would find you, I knew I would lose you.
The to-read list is endless! But I’ll close with Adélia Prado’s Ex-Voto, Ellen Doré Watson’s recent collection of translations. Funny, devotional, erotic—poems unashamed to be “charged with the grandeur of God” and “smeared with toil,” thinking (always) of Hopkins. Prado’s short poem “Parameter”:
God is better-looking than I am.
And He’s not young.
I’ve recently been reading and rereading not only the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, but also many of the books which focus (or touch) on her life and work. Lydia Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals (1938–1941) provides a unique view of Akhmatova’s day-to-day struggles through this terrible period—a period in which many of her most powerful poems were written. Chukovskaya published further volumes of journals covering 1952 to 1966, though inexplicably these haven’t been published in English. I hope an intrepid publisher can soon rectify that.
Roddy Lumsden’s So Glad I’m Me and Ahren Warner’s Hello. Your promise has been extracted were stand-out recent collections. The latter had such an impact on me, I had to read it straight through twice. I’m also still feeling powerful reverberations from Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and Denise Riley’s Say Something Back.
Next on my reading pile is Joy by Sasha Dugdale, followed by David Wheatley’s President of Planet Earth, though there’s much to look forward over the next few months, including Oli Hazzard’s Blotter, Jeremy Noel-Tod’s Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, Sean O’Brien’s Europa, Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear, Wake by Gillian Allnutt, and Tim Turnbull’s Avanti! I’ve also heard a rumor—hopefully true—that Picador will soon be publishing Jericho Brown in the U.K.
Sophie Collins’s small white monkeys is a book of tremendous importance for me. One of the poems in it is called “Women Begin to Meet Each Other in Private.” As I read the book I felt powerfully connected—in a way that felt radical, uncontainable & left me quaking with gratitude—to Sophie and to others who, like me, have experienced sexual assault and/or abuse. The very reading of this book was a kind of public (but intimate!) meeting of women that I so desperately needed.
Spurred by conversations with Sophie as she worked on small white monkeys I returned to Selima Hill’s devastating Bunny—a book I found too painful to read when I first encountered it.
I love Poems (2012–2017) by Oki Sogumi (“I unscrew my body from its cringing why”). An online bio says “her writing dreams via ... squirmy life forms” which is wonderfully suggestive of her strange poems.
Oli Hazzard’s Graig Syfyrddin, or Edmund’s Tump is so weird and brilliant—a long poem that takes some of its language from online walking forums. I saw him read from it a little while back, which he did so fast and without hesitation it felt as though I was somehow miniaturized and standing under a cold tap at full force.
Nights of Poor Sleep is a collaboration between poet Rachael Allen and artist Marie Jacotey. Their collaboration took place over a number of years, with Rachael initially responding to Marie’s pastel drawings and then, as the collaboration deepened, Marie taking Rachael’s words—and the associations they came up through their conversations—into her work. This kind of zigzag of influence has produced a book that is dreamy, but bleakly so, and beautiful, but with a sharp and unmistakable sense of danger.
I want to mention two fantastic debut pamphlets: Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s pamphlet Girl B and Daisy Lafarge’s understudies for air.
There are loads of books I’m looking forward to reading this year so I’ll limit myself to a few coming out over the next couple of months: Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, Emily Hasler’s The Built Environment, Richard Scott’s Soho, and Sophie Collins’s Who Is Mary Sue.
Recently, via fellowships and travel, I’ve had access to Harvard’s libraries and New Mexico’s very decent public library system: I binge-read for two years. Now I’m temporarily based in the Burren in County Clare where sourcing free books is harder, so I’m savoring the ones in the suitcase. I’ve been reading and rereading John Keene’s Counternarratives. I press the book on everyone I meet. Keene throws his voice into colonial and post-colonial “New Worlds” and Africa, too. His writing is an empathic, historically-informed, and stylistically original. Also in the suitcase: Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation for her erudition and wit; Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake for her uncanny ability to make me love (not gag on) nature poems; Susan Howe’s Debths for its depth, deaths, and debts and John Felstiner’s translations of Paul Celan because ______. I am reading Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, an inoculation against political complacency.
I am hoping the air from Galway Bay will infect me with a bit of the brilliance I’ve found in two books from local authors: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is profound and religious in the way that it focuses on invisible networks that bind things together including civil engineering and sentences and love. Featured in the book is Galway’s public water supply and the awful cryptosporidium outbreak a few years back (which is why I’m focusing on the beneficent air). Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is a song in an eccentric, unforgettable lone voice from a cottage on the outskirts of the town. I’m waiting for Charlie Byrne’s bookshop to get in Trevor Joyce’s Fastness, his version of Spenser’s Mutability Cantos, and Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel of settledness and displacement in contemporary Germany, Go, Went, Gone.
I go to PracCrit.com for close readings of contemporary Anglophone poetry. There I encountered the amazing “To the Poet Who After My Reading Said ‘Your Poems Are Good. Eccentric, But Good’” by Kathleen Ossip. I’m also grateful to Rabih Alameddine who posts a poem daily at theartdivas.com—he’s got great taste.
On the strength of her crazy-lovely “The Ode on a Grecian Urn” in Poetry, I’ve just finished Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (borrowed from the public library in Woodstock, Vermont, where I spent Xmas). Some paragraphs I read aloud for their music and beautifully contorted thinking.
Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed: Psychoanalytic Writings—a gorgeous two volume box-set with reproductions of Bourgeois’s greatest works and diary-esque writings that she wrote during her time in therapy from the fifties onwards. A wonderful, rich accompaniment to her work—“I was always conscious of a possibility of silence falling like the lid of a grave and engulfing me forever and ever.”
Psalmody by Maria Apichella, a fellow Eyewear Publishing poet. Apichella’s collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2017. It is a beautifully written narrative love story very much influenced by and in response to the biblical Psalms, exploring love, faith, doubt. I raced through the collection on first reading gripped by the “story” and I’m now going back over it and so enjoying the poems. “Son of all poets, / where is this baby-like sleep you promised?”
Tomas Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems, translated by the wonderful Robin Fulton. I’ve always been a fan of Tranströmer but in recent months I’ve lived by his genius poems daily—those utterly perfect metaphors and the way he seamlessly combines the internal and external. “And in the evening I lie like a ship / with lights out, just at the right distance / from reality.”
The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, a Slovenian poet I came across through an article written in praise of him by Durs Grünbein (a favorite poet of mine). It’s a clever and imaginative collection of object poems giving voice to chocolate and a toothpick amongst many other things: ‘When you kill it at the edge of the pan, you don’t notice / that the egg grows an eye in death.”
It is my pleasure to currently be reading the following books for humanitarian and aesthetic enlightenment:
William Witherup, Down Wind, Down River.
Stephen Kuusisto, Letters to Borges.
Louie Skipper, The Work Ethic of the Common Fly.
The three above are people I’ve known personally in greater and lesser ways, but I’m wanting to know more deeply through their creations.
Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness: Dr. Sacks was kind enough decades ago to respond to a letter of inquiry I sent him after his autism portrait of Temple Grandin was an extraordinary description of someone in my bloodline.
The Rothenberg is the God-Book! The Schuyler is snuggleable any time of the day or night.
The 350th anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost was in 2017: a good time to return to Milton, who then led on to rereading John Donne. Meanwhile, there appeared a new Selected Poems of Thom Gunn, a poet strongly shaped by an earlier phase of the Renaissance. The editor Clive Wilmer’s introductory essay delivered an absorbing combination of criticism and personal memoir.
In 1963 Gunn, with Ted Hughes, edited Five American Poets, which introduced poets I’ve long admired—Howard Nemerov and Louis Simpson—to the British readership of the day. When I recently found a copy it gave me a belated opportunity to discover Hyam Plutzik’s haunting work.
In her final book, Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore (1952–2017) encountered death with the same acuity and—dare one say it?—generosity she brought to all her writing as both poet and novelist.
I also found myself going back to impressive younger poets such as Paul Batchelor (The Love Darg), John Challis (The Black Cab), Edward Doegar (For Now), Frances Leviston (Disinformation), and Ahren Warner (Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted). As ever, I reread William Empson (“This Last Pain”) and Zbigniew Herbert (“Elegy of Fortinbras”). And I’m currently reading Ishion Hutchinson’s intriguing House of Lords and Commons.
These past few months have been sharply focused upon our youngest child, Lucie, who, after an extended stay in the pediatric ICU, is home once again and doing well. With so many hours of driving and vigil, my reading became both fugitive and crucial. I was in great need and without leisure. Two books kept faith with me the entire time. In the early mornings, I read Branka Arsic’s Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Here is a brilliant work of criticism that immediately and sustainedly rises to the level of philosophy, rhyming in spirit with Heraclitus and Whitehead. I quote: “To originate things is to recover them; life begins through convalescence. There is no other beginning, no origin; rather, everything starts from the middle.” Arsic has discovered the fact of Thoreau’s immortality, and her book is thrilling. In the evenings, just as I was about to fall into bed, I read a page or so from Ezra Pound’s Rock-Drill De Los Cantares LXXXV–XCV. “But that the child / walk in peace in her basilica, / The light there almost solid.” Paradise is merely the case, and I slept.
As usual, I’m behind the curve. Few books I read last year were published last year. And now, in the last days of a holiday stay in rural Saskatchewan, I have none of them to hand, my outbound suitcase having been filled with Scottish gin, oven mitts, Elise Gravel’s Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere, and Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The considerable substance of Jean Claude Roy’s Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, Pam Hall’s Toward an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge, and Stan Dragland’s Gerald Squires got me charged an extra hundred bucks at the St. John’s International Airport. The Heavy/Louard tag, in Air Canada Retribution Orange, is still on my suitcase. Worth it, though. They’re gorgeous books for anyone interested in the art and work of Newfoundland.
A list of poetry I admired this year would be long. Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons stands out for its depths of technique and insight, intriguing and complex in its use of register alone. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost and Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers speak beautifully, trenchantly, each from its ground, to how art, philosophy, and politics are records of bodies in time in place. I’m grateful for new work by four writers whose light I see by—Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, Anne Carson’s Float, Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake, and C.D. Wright’s Shallcross. Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian and Rachel Cusk’s Transit are both much bigger inside than out, powerful examples of proliferations that can be achieved by narrative restraint. Going into my suitcase for the trip back east tomorrow will be George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Fifty pages in, I’m already pretty sure it will be on my list of favorites next year.
Normally I’m the worst at superlatives, but when it comes to the books that got me through the end of 2017, some are easy enough to verify. The book whose ceaselessly quotable one-liners helped me cheat through the greatest number of social situations, not to mention the book that taught me to love small caps, was Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child. The book whose title I was giddiest to copy and paste and share and flash at bystanders was Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. The book I rendered illegibly smudgy with pencil lead—unraveling tight braids of phonemes, conspiracy-theorizing in the margins—was Ange Mlinko’s Distant Mandate. The book I now keep at my desk as a reference work (for recommended reading, daredevil verse-forms, Prince jams) is Evie Shockley’s semiautomatic. The book I’ve carried around most, wearing down its cover to favorite-sweater softness, was Adrienne Raphel’s What Was It For. And the book I’ll gladly carry around for decades to come is Frank Bidart’s Half-light: Collected Poems 1965–2016: it took me around five thousand words to fully explain why (stay tuned for that).
If I’m being honest, no reading helped me through both the majorly and minorly bonkers moments of 2017 quite like articles in Reductress, ClickHole, and The Onion. I hope I’m not the only poet who reads their word-perfect headlines and wants to be half as good at compressing a phrase, ending a line, or stretching out, twisting, and bending back a conceit into a Möbius strip of just-right nonsensicality. Or the only one convinced that whoever wrote this NSFW Onion headline back in 2013, praise packaged in profanity, must have been a huge fan of John Ashbery (who, let’s not forget, wrote some brilliantly NSFW titles of his own). Since September, I’ve had “This Room” up in my room: I still read it every day.