Reading List: February 2018
Hera Lindsay Bird
Recently I read three extremely good books in a row.
Over summer I finished The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The moment I closed the last page, it immediately bumped Shirley Jackson and become my favorite novel of all time. I can’t explain why I am so obsessed with it—it’s incredibly funny in this very dry, deadpan way, and reading it completely upended my idea of what a novel is for, and what fiction can do. I have thought about it constantly since I read it and refuse to loan it to anyone because I can’t have a week without it. Also, naming all of your books after Dostoyevsky novels is such a great move. Thank you for writing such a genius book Elif Batuman.
After The Idiot I read Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. I have always liked Patricia Lockwood’s poetry, but I wasn’t sure what to expect with this memoir because it has been so massively hyped. Turns out, the hype doesn’t even do it justice. Her portraits of her family are so brilliantly articulated, and her prose, as usual, leaves everyone else in the dust. There are more good lines on one page than most people manage over an entire career. I can’t stop thinking about God having so many abs he looks like a corn cob. This was one of those books that was so good it honestly made me a little furious to read it.
Then I read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. I explained the plot to my boyfriend and he burst out laughing because it’s such a contemporary fiction plot: two young women enter the lives of an artsy married couple, and a lot of introspection ensues. This was less flamboyantly written than the last two, but totally compulsive, and I found it deeply immersive and incredibly honest. The way Rooney describes the unspoken negotiations between people is brilliant.
Uptalk and Killer by Kimmy Walters are excellent company. The poems are mostly short, quirky moments in a speaker’s life. As you read, you’re absorbed into her world—a provisional zone of youth and hipness, where—and this is Walters unpretentious skill—the everyday comes across as still somehow amazing.
Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather transcribes a year of weather reports from a New York City radio station. Weirdly compelling in small doses, it takes found material and the question of what constitutes poetry to new extremes.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay is that rare thing: a book of cheerful, uplifting poems.
In On Imagination, Mary Ruefle’s thesis is “there is no difference between thinking and imagining.” With good writing, however, how you say something is perhaps more important than what you say, and Ruefle is engagingly on point.
I finally got hold of volume 5 of Faber New Poets showcasing the work of Joe Dunthorne, who’s the most exciting U.K. poet I’ve read in ages. His poems are funny, moving, politically aware, and full of humanity. There’s a good selection of his poems in a book called Generation Txt, which is easier to get than the Faber book.
Locally (Aotearoa/New Zealand), I’ve enjoyed Airini Beautrais’s book Flow—a sequence of poems looking at the Whanganui River region through geological, ecological, and historical lenses. Beautrais uses an impressive variety of forms to interweave the region’s many narratives. I also recently revisited early Ian Wedde in the form of his first book, Homage to Matisse (1971), and his tremendous environmental poem “Pathway to the Sea” (1975). I was interested in how similar some of the phrasing in Homage to Matisse, a sequence, is to early Bill Manhire, whose recent book Some Things to Place in a Coffin also contains two excellent sequences—“Falseweed” and “Known unto God.”
John Newton’s Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908–1945 is immensely readable and reopens Aotearoa/New Zealand’s literary past for debate.
It’s a great time for newish, or youngish, poets; sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, other times (as the song has it) lucky to be alive right now. I’m also lucky in that I work with some of the people who are making some of my favorite books at the moment. One of my favorites is Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, a scorching and difficult—difficult to untangle, difficult to read—book-length blast against rape culture, compulsory heterosexuality, and the idea that women’s bodies are not, or not supposed to be, women’s own. Much of it’s so scary you might not want it to be real, although it’s also much weirder, and more indirect, than the poems about sexual violence some of us remember from the eighties. Rape culture isn’t just one moment, one set of men, one bad actor we can defeat like a boss in a video game; it’s part of how all of us (men too, and those of us who once tried to be men) got trained to act, to predict, to expect: “I told my mom I lived inside a story. When she told me / to draw the words, I could only lift a yellow crayon / and snap it in two.”
Considerably terser, more self-conscious about the literary past, and maybe no less important to the near future, is Sasha Steensen’s Gatherest, a set of three big poems in bite-sized parts, one about water and motherhood and feminist legacies; one about fire and death and climate change; one about (wait for it) the mid-nineteenth-century poet and Christian Transcendentalist mystic Jones Very. The book has a concision, a level of thought per word, that most books—including Steensen’s previous books, if I remember correctly—never approach, and also a level of grown-up irony:
to the barn
where our weapons are
there our heart
shall also be
Beware of mothers bearing sharpened tools. But also read them.
Another early-career book, another collection of thoughtful sequences, at first gimmicky, sometimes propulsively real, is Lauren Haldeman’s Instead of Dying. The first set of prose poems all begin the same way (the same as the title): they are a cumulative elegy, “making the actual story, the story we didn’t want, a little less real.” If you know Susan Howe picked the book for a prize you might expect big, innovative devices that use the page as a frame for high-concept form, and you’ll get them too, as in the set of poems with numbered lines that read both left-to-right and right-to-left. You might not expect admissions like these from those numbered, reversible poems: “Sometimes the voices / of those we love / disgust us. I love you desperately / now leave me alone.... Our research has shown that our / research doesn’t matter.”
A little research might help—you won’t need a lot—if you want to get the most out of Safia Elhillo’s The January Children and you know very little about her part of Africa: the Sudanese American poet has put into the world a set of freestanding, concise poems, some in prose, that introduce her region and its history while also representing, as Yeats said we must, the poet’s quarrels with herself: “home is / a name // maryland / is my / sudan.” The singer Abdelhalim Hafez, famous for his songs about dark girls; the poet’s mother and father, meeting cute in a now-lost postcolonial secular culture; childhood festivals; being African, rather than African American, in America ... there’s a lot to learn here, and I do not think I’ve learned it all, but I’ll stick with the collection until I find out.
Not everything that matters to me is a poem. I’m lucky enough to work, at the Nation, with one of the publishers and editors responsible for Indictus, which is why I can’t review the book in certain high-profile venues; I’m also lucky enough to have spent more time this year writing about genres outside poetry, genres with wider, less academic, or younger audiences. The first YA novel with a trans girl protagonist, Rachel Gold’s Being Emily, appeared in 2013; it comes out in May with an expanded, rewritten, updated edition, and I wrote the introduction. (More here.) I’ve been rereading that book for obvious reasons; I’m glad it’s about to reenter the world.
I had nothing to do with the other YA book that’s excited me most this year, though; that would be Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, along with its sequel, Shadow Scale. They’re books about claiming your stigmatized identity, and finding your people, and learning new languages, and about learning to tell your real friends from manipulators, false priests, and mean girls; they are literally about dragons, and allegorically (at least for trans readers) about coming out as trans (the first book) and claiming your queer sexuality (that’s the second). “These scales, my visible emblem of shame ... which I had hidden, suppressed, and even once tried to pry off with a knife—how was I now able to laugh about them with strangers? Something had changed in me. I was such a long way from where I started.”
Something—a lot of things—have changed in me recently; if you know me, you probably know why. And yet I still love the people I love, and the poems I have cared about since the nineties are poems I care about still. Many of those poems were written by A. R. Ammons, whose complete poems, in two volumes, with Helen Vendler’s introduction, came out in time for Christmas 2017. The very shy and limitlessly smart author of The Snow Poems still needs more attention. Get to know him before the last snow leaves the trees.
John Mulgan published his novel Man Alone in 1939. Its itinerant hero, “Johnson,” rackets around Aotearoa/New Zealand and Europe during the depression that follows WWI. Eventually, after he is implicated in an unfortunate killing and cruelly pursued by the police, Johnson enlists in the Spanish Civil War and vanishes into battle—and legend—as, despite all, A Top Bloke.
Over a dozen reprints, many critical accolades, not to mention fictional homages and a handful of sequels—even its latest incarnation as a Penguin classic—left me cold. I scorned (almost feared) to read Man Alone. Mine was defiance of what I assumed would be its femininity-denying celebration of the stoic machismo of a Real Kiwi Joker.
But then I encountered the post-Freudian feminist theories of Bracha Ettinger in The Matrixial Borderspace. In this volume of brilliant essays, Ettinger delineates the domain of the Matrixial feminine which, in her view, is first experienced by us all in late pre-birth. As a “becoming-infant” I am exposed to the “compassionate hospitality” of my unknown “becoming m/Other.” And she to mine.
Thenceforth, according to Ettinger, this joint, originary attunement to a domain of metaphysical and actual feminine connectivity enables the potential in every human subject, of whatever sex or gender, to treat their “Unknown Other” as more important than “The Self.” An object, yes, but a subject also ...
I wanted to test this ground-breaking thesis for myself. I therefore picked up my novel-most-hated-unread. What I found opening Man Alone, to my continuing shock, was an incendiary subtext that has been ignored by successive generations of critics—but not, now, by me. My analysis of Mulgan’s classic, Smoking, the Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, a Matrixial Reading is forthcoming later this year at Genre Books.
I caught up on some excellent reading this summer with a slew of great books. One of the standouts was the collection of short stories, Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enriquez. It has been described as gothic horror, replete with tales that are deeply sinister, but it is so much more than that. Many of the stories contained within this slim volume will linger with me for years, not just for the unexpected narrative arcs but for the adept artistry of Enriquez’s language. Watch out especially for “The Dirty Kid.”
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge was prompted by a blog post that went wildly viral. The resultant treatise reads as a series of reflexive essays that are confronting, direct, and crucial. Eddo-Lodge deftly schools the reader on the history of the non-white citizens of England, on intersectional feminism, justice, racism, and white privilege. She is articulate and astonishing in her ability to cut to the quick of topics that have such urgent global relevance.
Rereading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was like slipping beneath my duvet and taking solace and comfort in the knowledge that parenting and marriage, in her expert hands, are genuinely the stuff of literature. This book perfects the combo of lyric essay, intimate prose, and cunning poetry. What Offill does is blur the lines of genre and give voice to the traumatic in the domestic.
And finally, Solar Bones by Mike McCormick is a revelation. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it would be accurate to call it a masterpiece. Stylistically this work is like nothing I have ever read before. Not a single full stop in sight and yet, instead of rendering it totally unmanageable, it is a work of spectacular virtuosity.
It’s the height of summer here in Aotearoa/New Zealand. What delight to move into the cool space of my writing room, shaded by a spreading ngaio tree and a feijoa which may not hold its fruit because of our droughty days. The walls of this room are covered with the artworks of friends. I like it crowded. As for books, there are heaps of them. Some old, some new, some random strangers I’ve inherited from the library of a beautiful poet friend who died recently.
New to me is the lovely Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich, published in 2003. It’s about a journey she makes with her baby, Kiizhikok, reading as it were her own landscape through that of southern Ontario. “If reading is taken as comprehending, I step back often. I focus.” I love the particularity of the writing, the clarity and tenderness that tie things together, earth and spirit, past and present. I am reminded of the poetry of Joy Harjo, who visited our islands in 2011 and offered such richness.
Belatedly I’ve come across the poems of Francis Ponge, French and English on facing pages. His quirky take on familiar things (rain, grass, apricots), his insights, and his odd sense of humor. Of a swallow he writes, “Steel pen, dipped in blue-black ink, you write yourself so fast! / That you leave no mark ... / Except, in recollection, the memory of a fiery impetus, of a strange poem.” And I’m hooked.
Fale Aitu | Spirit House stands out for me among the collections of poetry published in Aotearoa/New Zealand recently. It is Tusiata Avia’s third book. Her voice is as full of vitality, as passionate as ever but it goes deeper, for example, in her relationship with the Samoan language. And there’s a new expansiveness here, a confidence that has her producing a poem like “I Cannot Write a Poem About Gaza,” which is extraordinary on the page and in performance. Hers is a Pacific voice which speaks to the world. I am happy to celebrate that.
I’m currently reading Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: The Black and White World of George Herriman. The great poet of newspaper comic strips, Herriman was born in New Orleans and his birth certificate listed him as “colored,” but he passed as white from around the age of ten. In this fascinating biography, Tisserand shows how that fact shaped Herriman’s life and work.
I finished Chris Offutt’s My Father the Pornographer a month ago, but I know it will haunt me for years. Offutt’s father was a prolific writer of science fiction novels, pornography, and comic books, and also a brooding, alcoholic tyrant. Offutt’s memoir vividly recreates the overlapping worlds of rural Appalachian Kentucky, seventies science fiction fandom, and sleazy porno pulps. And it shows how one man’s frustrated, ambitious intellect became a prison for himself and his family.
These days, most interesting comics are published in book form. But the last few years have seen a mini-revival of the humble “floppy” comic book, with some excellent ongoing series like Anders Nilsen’s Tongues, Noah van Sciver’s Blammo, and Sammy Harkham’s Crickets. Long may it last!
Of course, there’s no shortage of great graphic novels coming out. Some recent favorites include Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell, Boundless by Jillian Tamaki, and Julia Wertz’s wonderful Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City.
I’ve also been revisiting Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy in anticipation of Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels.
At the top of my “to read” pile is M. John Harrison’s new story collection You Should Come With Us Now. I finally read his meta-fantasy masterpiece, Viriconium, last year and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Harrison quietly dismantles the fantasy genre machine, and then rearranges its pieces into deeply thoughtful meditations on narrative, longing, and place.
I have had a summer of intensive reading, feeling so in love with Elif Batuman’s The Idiot that I am like her heroine, the idiot of the title, who is hopelessly in love with a boy she mainly corresponds with over email, unable to actually speak to him in his company. The level of peculiar detail and the obsession with language makes it feel very un-novel-like, less like poetry and more like a diary. I suspect her of having edited a diary into the novel.
At the same time, I was also reading pieces from Elisa Gabbert’s small book The Self Unstable—six very short essays with each paragraph on a separate page as a small square of text, like a poem. My favorite quote from The Self Unstable: “I regret the mistakes I made in my 20s, though I am the same and would make them again. In fact, I wish I could make them again.”
Like Gabbert’s The Self Unstable, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair is beautifully, painfully nostalgic for the mistakes we make in our twenties, but mistakes in this novel cast long shadows. The structural strangeness of this novel—the leaps in time and perspective—work to completely novelistic ends. Johnny Sparsholt, the novel’s main protagonist, was lucky in the end but even a lucky life ends up over: time is really what the novel is about, and time is always going to win.
But if time is not on the side of characters, it is on the side of literature. I am writing about the pastoral genre in poetry and a friend gave me a copy of James Rebanks’s memoir The Shepherd’s Life, which I thought was rather a literal approach to take to the question, but it was helpful. Rebanks writes about the shepherding term “heft” to describe the adaptation of a flock to a particular landscape, as each year older ewes teach younger ewes where the best grass grows at different times, where to find water, where to shelter from storms, and so on. The older ewes, in turn, learnt much of their knowledge from their mothers and elders, who learned it from the sheep before them. Over time, a flock builds up a wealth of knowledge no single generation of sheep could acquire. “Heft,” I think, gives us a way to think about how a genre such as the pastoral develops over centuries as poets work within a tradition that carries with it the knowledge of what its possibilities are, far beyond what any single poet or generation of poets could come up with alone.
Two books from Aotearoa/New Zealand have stayed with me recently for their engagement with the environment. The first, Flow: Whanganui River Poems by Airini Beautrais, seems to try to replicate the thing of beauty (the river) in sounds and rhythm. And to track the complicated path of being a settler in a landscape. A couple of years ago, the Whanganui River was awarded “personhood” as a legal status (it has a Twitter account!) in a new-for-the-West way of awarding rights. Beautrais’s ecopoetry speaks to—among other things—how we construct our complicated relationship with the real world, how we make it and keep it safe. From “Puanga”: "The children are making the river. / They have sand and pumice. They have ferns."
Lucky Punch by Simone Kaho tells a harsh and unusual love story, in prose poems, set among the tangle of a semi-tropical backyard. The beautiful chunks of language tell how it is to be Brown in the tumble of Auckland. There’s a sense of danger always lurking in these poems, in the undergrowth of them, and in the view of human physicality. From “Pity”:
The food takes on the flavour of dirt.I see themeating into pink gashes in the pig.
Lately, like a goat eating one delicious tuft of mountainside grass after another, I have been selecting books to read because they just happened to appear in front of me. Luckily, the recommendations I get from people are good.
I suppose the interesting poetry and critical titles include Fleur Adcock’s Dragon Talk (which I found discarded in a university Maths department), a Selected Poems by Mary Robinson, Cooper Wilhelm’s Dumbheart / Stupidface, John Newton’s Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908–1945, Danielle Pafunda’s harrowing The Dead Girls Speak in Unison, Anthony Madrid’s “ultra-rare, overexpensive chapbook” The Getting Rid (his words—not mine!), and Marion McCready’s Madame Ecosse. And I am supposed to be reading books by Natalie Shapero, Morgan Parker, and Roddy Lumsden soon, but it’s hard to get things to fit into your schedule the way you want. It’s like trying to stuff flat-pack furniture back in the box.
Finally, just at present I am reading Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, largely because I’ve been amused by the title for about two decades. Its withering depictions of American hucksterism and tabloid journalism are over the top, yet for some reason they feel relevant ...
Two very different books I’ve enjoyed recently are Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox and Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Tinderbox is a totally readable memoir-ish book about writer’s block and the way the digital world is making literary culture and the book trade rethink themselves—all triggered by an attempt to write fan fiction about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The poems in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx are dark and dangerous and use the facts of history to explore whole worlds of suicide, performance, and translation, often in ways that feel surprisingly playful.
2018 is the Muriel Spark centenary year, so over the next months I’m aiming to reread a range of her novels. I enjoy her gift for the acerbic and macabre—but most of all I love the suddenness of her prose, something she shares with writers like Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Anderson. And while I’ll miss the samizdat feel of my pdf of Joan Murray’s poems, I’m nevertheless looking forward to replacing it with the newly-edited Drafts, Fragments, and Poems about to appear. I’m also looking forward to Gigi Fenster’s Feverish (a book about creativity and self-induced fever), and to Zaffar Kunial’s first full-length collection, Us, which comes in July.
I was not that sad when David Bowie and Prince died—their deaths felt astral—but when George Michael died it broke my heart. When great American singer/songwriter Guy Clark died in the great celebrity wipeout of 2016 it was not so much a case of heartbreak but a sadness knowing I would never hear from him again. I was pleased then to recently discover the documentary film Heartworn Highways, a 1976 cult classic about the emergent alt-country scene that took its boom-and-bust chic from Hank Williams. Townes Van Zandt even managed to die on the same day as Williams, just forty-four years later.
There are three scenes in the film that stand out for me. First, the willfully impoverished Van Zandt singing “Waiting Around to Die” while Seymour Washington, an aged Black blacksmith born in 1896, cries at the poetry in that song. Equally there is a kind of poetry when Washington sets a little fire and describes shoeing a horse. And in the scene with Guy Clark fixing a guitar, he says a real maker knows to use soluble glue for the neck, so that the “bone sticks” (I think he was referring to frets) he favored for the fingerboard could be adjusted for personal comfort and sound. There is a lesson in this for poets I think. I mean I’ve thought a lot about the difference between song and poetry and it always comes back to what constitutes music, except with poetry the words have to carry the melody as much as the breath. But there are some song lyrics that seem better almost than the best poems. Paul Burch’s “Living, Forgiving” is one of those songs for me.
Also there is a moment in Heartworn Highways where a woman and neighbor takes Washington’s hand as he cries and it’s a version of the South you don’t see or hear much given the current inferno settings, so it seemed especially rare and beautiful. Another vision of America.
Finally I enjoyed the heavy drinking session at the end where Clark’s son can be seen briefly in the background. They break into a drunken yet respectful version of “Silent Night” for the boy.
Courtney Sina Meredith
The power of a woman who writes reading the work of another woman who writes is never lost on me. I feel the same way when it comes to the mahi of writers of color. Here are some moments from books I’ve enjoyed recently:
Mere Taito’s The Light and Dark in our Stuff:
? what are you?? who asked for you??? who is paying for you???? are we paying for you????? how are we paying for you
Vivienne Plumb’s As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry:
The last day is so hot and bright,as if someone has cracked an eggof light over our bodies. We walkpast the alien flora, the white onesthat look like clutches of fingers.
Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother:
She sits within a treeless forestdeep within sorry businesswhen blue skies appear she asks for duskwhen she sees clouds she prays for stars.
Mikael Johani’s we are nowhere and it’s wow:
Mosque’s cool floor, near-cat bending its back intoa young moon over the rim of a trash bin, near-citycoughing up yellowed banana leaves with edges black.
Paula Morris’s False River:
The women in the picture had bread for hair: burnished yellow strands braided, twisted and woven into rolls and pretzels. Fraser stepped closer. Their hair must have been very long; they must have had maids to help them plait and pile. Their scalps must have been pin-cushions.
Tusiata Avia’s The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War:
Nafanua sits like the single white residentin a tiny settlement called French Lick.Zero point zero percent Native Hawai’ian and other Pacific Islandersare stuffing the holes in their houses to the sounds of ghostsand their quiet piroguing down the Tennessee River.Eleven thousand Kurdish are joining the cult of angels.
The fact that ninety percent of humanity lives in the Northern Hemisphere is reason enough for the remaining ten percent—New Zealanders included—to pay particular attention to what is happening across our own underpopulated, southern hemisphere. Aotearoa/New Zealand’s nearest neighbor to the east is South America—a cultural fact we don’t make enough of. That said, poets like Auckland-based Ian Wedde—in his exuberant, indispensable Selected Poems—and Peter Olds—in his latest Cold Hub Press collection, Taking My Jacket for a Walk—have both been influenced by the dexterity, breadth, and sensuality of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Bearing those virtues in mind, Ilan Stavans’s All the Odes/Pablo Neruda—an enormous theme-park of a book—presents itself as a great addition to the literature of the greater South Pacific, as it is to American letters.
Over the past decade, Roger Hickin’s Cold Hub Press, based in Christchurch, has been a singular and vital exercise in bridge-building between Aotearoa/New Zealand and Latin America. Hickin has produced (and often translated) fine collections by poets including the Chilean poet Juan Cameron and the Mexican poet Rogelio Guedea, a long-time Aotearoa/New Zealand resident whose new bilingual collection, Punctuation, can be at once alarming and beautiful. From “Good morning,” translated by Roger Hickin:
To hitmen I say good morning.To corrupt politicians I say good morning.....................................................................To those who buy love I say good morning.To leaders who steal from their citizens I say good morning.To all I say a friendly, solicitous good morning, but I forgive no one.
Any sweep of recent literature across the South Pacific would need to include Fijian poet Sudesh Mishra’s intensely imagined, finely wrought The Lives of Coat Hangers. Poems like “Infinite Hubris” offer a high-flying, euphoric post-colonialism—world-defining, challenging, and ambitious, yet playful and gorgeous:
Tangaya is the wisest of foolsHe wants to understand the flat world of the ancientsAnd he wants to emulate the sacred labour of the godsSo he makes cakes in a pan.His golden atlas, when flipped, reveals new countries, craters.
Along with another powerfully Pacific-inflected collection, Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu | Spirit House, all the aforementioned titles have been freely circulating around the rooms of my house for many, many months now, refusing to be shelved.
The best poetry I read in 2017 was in the form of pamphlets, zines, and chapbooks published by small, independent presses. These are not just books; they are often small works of art.
Blue Pearl by Lesley Harrison contains sparse, echoing poems about Iceland, Greenland, and the Svalbard Archipelago. It is full of whalebones and wind and melting ice, and it left me breathless.
I’ve been reading lots of contemporary U.K. poetry since I moved to London. I was astonished by Rebecca Tamás’s pamphlet Savage. Her poetry is tense, physical, and vibrating with invisible tectonic energy:
please keep the pain, this keening gold,huge fractures and clear lightning.
I also loved Paisley, a pamphlet by young Pakistani poet Rakhshan Rizwan.
Returning to Aotearoa/New Zealand, Bedtime || Riverbed by Ae Hee Lee is unlike any other book. The poems combine Korean Hanja (Classical Chinese characters that have been incorporated into the Korean language) with English. The act of reading (and writing) becomes an act of translation, of navigating a liminal space between languages—something I do every day.
When I left for London, I brought with me two small books: the lovely, wandering Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon by Anna Jackson and You Can’t Promenade Alone, a collaborative zine of poetry and art edited by Natasha Matila-Smith and Grace Ryder. It is a radical, sensual work and features some of the most exciting poets writing in Aotearoa/New Zealand today, such as Faith Wilson and Tayi Tibble, whose poems devastate me.
Next on my reading list is Nancy Huang’s first full-length collection, Favorite Daughter. I first came across her work when I selected two of her intricate, dreamlike poems for publication in the Shanghai Literary Review. She is one to watch.
I teach a workshop in which poets and creative nonfiction writers rub shoulders, and I sometimes need help with easing both the nonfiction writers and the poets into talking about poems. This summer I’ve read Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry, which should do that job nicely. Zapruder shares the late Nicanor Parra’s inclusive attitude that “The poet speaks to all of us, without discrimination.” He offers an unfailingly generous account of why and how he turned to poetry, backed up by lucid readings of individual poems that situate them in life, rather than the classroom, and invite us to look at the ways they go about their business.
In the late-nineties when he was an MFA student, writes Zapruder, it was “a silent article of faith among the students (though not the professors) that any sort of anecdotal narration was by its nature incompatible with poetry.” In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Jenny Bornholdt was gently pushing back against that moment with her long poem “Confessional,” and Anna Livesey, a New Zealander who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early aughts, was apparently feeling the same pressure. Her new book Ordinary Time takes up the conversation. From “Bay Leaves”:
In my first book I was desperate not to be confessional.My poems reached out of myself, pushed myself away.Now that my mother is dead and my children are bornI seem to have nothing else to speak of.
Zapruder reminds us that everybody (rightly) wanted, and still wants, to avoid writing the anecdotal poem that is “really about praising the poet’s own superior qualities of perceptiveness.” Livesey successfully avoids the egotistical sublime, but the poems emerging from the conjunction of birth and death in Ordinary Time are also steely in their determination to look you directly in the eye, as if any kind of veil would betray the deeply embodied nature of the experience. What John Berger says of late Rembrandt seems true of this small but powerful collection: “All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question.”
I’ve mostly been reading Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English edited by Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan, trying to find my place in that tradition. Highlights for me include: Tru Paraha’s “In the belly of the paradox” which explores the fragmentary nature of identity and ends on a startling question mark; Vaughan Rapatahana’s “Aotearoa blues, baby” which explores bourgeois racism with a felt fury, “her / nasty / sneeeeeers / fulcrum / of / some / OTHER / caustic / core rage”; and wonderful spoken-word poet Te Kahu Rolleston’s “The Rena” which explores the power of community in a specific indigenous context juxtaposed against that of colonial-capitalism, “but what’s a re-source, to our Mauri-source.”
Another poet whose work has been enthralling me for some time is that of Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor. Her poem “Femina” (winner of the Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing) is a brilliant study of femininity using the archetype of Eve. The poem functions as a sort of timeline of fragments showing different femme experiences. The poem is critical of gender and plays around with pronouns in a very satisfying way: “Eve hangs asunder in the hot sun. Ripped and torn and bleeding, his mouth is filled with blood and vinegar.” Eve can be male and female and anywhere else on the gender spectrum.
A quick list of other books I enjoyed last year:
Kamau Brathwaite’s Ancestors
Stephanie Christie’s Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter
Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes
Steven Toussaint’s The Bellfounder
Hinemoana Baker’s waha | mouth
Books I’m anticipating this year:
Flung Throne by Cody-Rose Clevidence
feeld by Jos Charles
Kerrin P. Sharpe
George Szirtes is a significant, award-winning poet who came to England as a child after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. His latest collection is Mapping the Delta. The poems in this collection move like a river, yet never abandon the reader. A pivotal sequence of poems in Mapping the Delta is “The Yellow Room.” In a cathartic way we learn from Szirtes, and his deceased father, where our fathers go when they die. In poem 4 of this series, the “lines are blown across the page as in a gust” but we fear no ill, for we know Szirtes will “order them” in the way of truth. From that same order and reassuring voice, the poem “Like That Raw Engine” confronts us with a series of startling, convincing images of night and day: “like time in darkness/undetectable, hanging/uncertain yet clear.”
Following on from this theme of darkness, Szirtes is a major contributor (alongside poets Kayo Chingonyi and Emily Berry) to the artist Sam Winston’s project Darkness Visible, currently at the Southbank Centre in London. In their new works we find ourselves immersed in darkness, and in silence we explore the creative impact of darkness on our work as poets and artists.
I got a big depository bag of books as a late Christmas present, and the one I can’t get my head out of (rather fittingly) is Fragment of the Head of a Queen by Cate Marvin. I am obsessed with the density of her poems. I love the blocks of texts, the lush imagery, all the rhymes, and all the alcohol. It is very feminine and feisty. Intelligent, and so funny. The book came out when I was twelve, but ten years later this book feels so fresh, and cool, and relevant. It’s taken up full-time residence in my handbag and is a perfect little companion as I run around the city with my head off. Another book I have been reading and will probably read forever is Hollywood Forever by Harmony Holiday. I love the book as an object in itself. The book is full of images and overlaid texts unlike any poetry book I have ever read. Layering and texture is also present in the poems and I love how pop culture, history, identity, and politics meet on the page with rich density and urgency.
Do we have a functional grammar for theological reflection in poetry today? This question has served as a guiding principle in the choice of much of my reading lately. Peter O’Leary’s recent collection of critical essays, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, is doubly ambitious. He not only conducts original, searching readings of nine contemporary poets—among them Geoffrey Hill, Fanny Howe, Robert Duncan, and Nathaniel Mackey—but also convincingly argues a “way forward for poetry” that would honor twentieth-century experimentation and pioneering, while at the same time refashioning a language within which intimations of anagogy and apocalypse might seriously contend. O’Leary’s definition of “religion” is capacious enough to include all manner of syncretism and heterodoxy and yet restrained enough to serve as a transformative (even troublesome) force in the poetry he examines. His critical style is refreshingly personal, even anecdotal.
I’ve also been reading Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. This is a wide-ranging book, centering on the claim that, in searching for an ever-more adequate language for talking about God, we should consider those moments when what we think of as everyday or ordinary (or, dare I say, secular) speech admits of profound “oddity,” or fails to express what we feel, nevertheless, compelled to express, so that we are forced beyond description into uncharted semantic territory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Williams has some fascinating things to say about poetry. For further illustration, I’m revisiting the Carcanet edition of The Poems of Rowan Williams, especially this passage from his wonderful sonnet series “Crossings”:
How do we avoidA treaty with the compromising word?Knowing that after, when we have destroyedThe ambiguity, the precious surdOf uncommitted quiet, we shall findOur honesty still waits to be aligned?
Louise Wallace’s third poetry collection, Bad Things, is imbued with wit, humor, and a healthy dose of the unexpected. The line between personal and political is blurred in this collection, with poems that are wheeled in like Trojan Horses, each disguising a barbed punch to the gut. Wallace’s strong suit is her economy with language, but she is just as adept with longer prosaic pieces, such as “All is lost,” in which she finds herself adrift at sea with only Robert Redford as her companion. Wallace is also the founder and coeditor of Starling, a burgeoning literary journal that showcases writing from young Aotearoa/New Zealand writers. The latest issue has just gone live, and it’s another corker.
I’ve just reread Omar Sakr’s debut collection These Wild Houses and was struck once again by its unflinching honesty and powerful imagery. In his bio, Sakr describes himself as a “queer Muslim Arab Australian,” and the poems in this collection interrogate each of those identifiers, individually and simultaneously, to examine the pains and pressures of intersectional identity. Sakr revisits “moments pig-stuck in time” that have led him to where he is now, never once shying away from unearthing the sometimes violent details that have buried themselves in his memory.
It feels like a public debate about racism in Aotearoa/New Zealand is becoming more of a regular occurrence (and, frustratingly, one without any resolution). Emma Ng’s Old Asian, New Asian was first published online as an essay in response to one such public debate, and it has since been expanded and published as a book-length work. As well as being a personal reflection on her own upbringing and experiences as a Chinese New Zealander, Ng’s book surveys the history of anti-Asian sentiment in Aotearoa/New Zealand. “Sometimes it feels as though we’re at a dead end,” writes Ng. “How do we go about overcoming this deadlock—ensuring that this conversation is one that all New Zealanders feel they have some stake in...?" As someone who tackles such questions in my own writing, I was drawn to and appreciative of Ng’s considered examination of the issues at hand.
What compares, in contemporary poetry, with the abiding weirdness of Frederick Seidel? Seidel is sometimes dismissed as a retrograde confessional, and I think he learned a lot from Robert Lowell—“Skunk Hour” could easily be an early Seidel poem. His cadences and diction owe something to the sinister singsong you hear in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (which itself leans heavily on Anne Sexton’s “My Friend, My Friend”). But really, Seidel’s not like anybody else, and while he may use some of their strategies, he’s no confessional. When he says, “I stick my heart on a stick / To toast it over the fire” (in “Mr. Delicious,” from Evening Man), he mocks the very idea of self-revelation.
Outside of the main urban centers, most New Zealanders live in small to medium-sized towns. In “I come from Palmerston North,” poet James Brown evokes the blend of deference and cockiness you often hear in the voices of inhabitants of provincial towns like mine. Every country should have a famous James Brown. Another poet who hails from small-town Aotearoa/New Zealand is Ashleigh Young, whose debut poetry collection, Magnificent Moon, has flashes of Frank O’Hara and of Kenneth Koch, and like her award-winning essays, is exploratory, reflective, and deeply humane.
Jahra Rager is poet/dancer/artist/evocation of something otherworldly. From Aotearoa/New Zealand, she combines poetry with dance, plunging you deeply into her world of spirituality, body, and gods. She lives the words she speaks, and it seems as if they come out of her from another place. I suspect that they do. Check her out on YouTube, or if you get the chance, in person.
Hana Pera Aoake is an artist and writer from Aotearoa/New Zealand who has a profound influence on my work. They are a writer of Māori descent and their writing speaks of the experience of cultural displacement and the inherited trauma of colonization, while also providing some of the only relevant critiques of the local arts scene in Aotearoa New Zealand, institutions and individuals alike. They sent me some stuff they’ve been writing recently, chronicling the experience of heartbreak. I really relate to Aoake because we have similar experiences of feelings of alienation from both Pākehā society and our non-Pākehā (New Zealand European) sides (mine Samoan, theirs Māori)—although these experiences are very different as Aoake is tangata whenua (indigenous to Aotearoa/New Zealand). I think they are one of the most important voices in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
I’m living in a tiny snowy town in Canada at the moment, and my family has a family group chat on Facebook called Whānau Korero (family chat) that we all regularly post to. I’ve got a big and funny family and I swear to god you’re all missing out.