Reading List: March 2018
What I’ve been immersed in: John Yau’s Bijoux in the Dark and Rosa Alcalá’s MyOTHER TONGUE, both of which I admire for the indivisibility of their formal range, sound work, and something like the unpredictable ways their respective subject matters dissolve and reform continually within the works. Reading around Yau’s recent book of short essays, The Wild Children of William Blake, which focuses on poets and artists who are or were outsiders—outliers—from the larger culture, led me to the poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton as collected in A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind. They make me want to write back into their openings, and seem to offer another way to reenter the line. This morning I read from parts 40 and 41 of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (trans. Richard Zenith), and wanted to die. That book is in the slow-read category right now, along with The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. My ongoing teaching/editing/work scramble led me to take on two classes last-minute this semester, and in doing so I returned to Harryette Mullen’s great long poem “Muse & Drudge,” which I now believe rewrote parts of my head in the late 1990s (along with Kevin Davies’s poem “Karnal Bunt”). Also rereading Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Death Chamber” and struck by the depth of predictive scope its train of associations regathers. Finally, I’ve just started Mary Clare McKinley’s Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell’s Homage to Juan Gris, because influence is the main place where mystery renews itself for me these days, a point of fate I find pleasantly alarming.
You always have to be grateful for a book that arrives at just the right moment; these past few weeks, that book, for me, has been Natalie Eilbert’s latest poetry collection, Indictus. Arriving on the heels of #MeToo and Time’s Up taking their deserved places at the forefront of our public consciousness, Eilbert’s relentless collection steers us into and through the silence surrounding sexual violence with a knowing intimacy, deftly transforming language and often redefining its conventions with a strong sense of agency not only to indict the abuse but—nodding toward the etymology of the collection’s title—also address the fallibility of language and memory in doing so. This book is not for the faint of heart, which is another way of saying that this book is for everyone, because we can no longer bow to the complacency of the least courageous and most privileged (men) among us. Too much hurt has happened (is happening), too much is at stake, and if you need a clearer idea of exactly what is on the line, I direct you to Eilbert’s lines for personal realignment.
Likewise, this current moment also led to me revisiting a book from last year that I absolutely adored, Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, a title that I find sorely under-celebrated but so aptly titled for our headline-driven society that I’m surprised I haven’t been seeing it all over the place. I admittedly say that in jest, because this marvelous work contemplates a Black woman speaker’s interactions (and Black women are still waiting for anybody to listen to their testimonies on anything), however casual or brief, with men of stature and influence at various points along her journey toward self-actualization and, thus, explores the perils and behavioral calculations stemming from those social entanglements with masculinity emboldened by celebrity and/or clout (power). I imagine it might not cut as viscerally as Indictus for many readers, but it is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth; each book gives readers tremendous insight into the strength and determination of their creators.
As background for a poetry commission, I’ve been reading in translation La Truite (1964) by Roger Vailland—a slippery, multiple-viewpoint novel with the enigmatic Frédérique as the “cold fish” at its center—in tandem with repeated viewings of the film in the original French, and this has induced an appropriately fertile, possibly febrile, state of mind.
Continuing a pattern of being introduced to authors via their obituaries, I’ve also been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels for the first time, along with her short stories.
Constantly mindful of never having formally studied the “poetic canon,” I’ve recently embarked on a number of autodidactic reading sprees with such luminaries as Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—“Christabel,” featuring my evil namesake (“My sire is of a noble line, / And my name is Geraldine”)—and Thomas De Quincey (his prose memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). Also the metaphysical poets, exploring selections from John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Richard Crashaw, and Anne Bradstreet in the various anthologies (e.g. Metaphysical Poetry, ed. Colin Burrow). And dipping into Gerard Manley Hopkins, who seems uniquely to fuse both Romantic and Metaphysical urges. Some Christina Rossetti, too—the repressedly erotic “Goblin Market.”
Black History Month introduced me to devastatingly powerful poems by Audre Lorde (“Father Son and Holy Ghost”), Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and, poignantly and topically, Lucille Clifton:
loaded likespoonsinto the belly of Jesuswhere we lay for weeks for monthsin the sweatand stinkof our own breathing—From “slaveships”
The Poetry Foundation website is a vital go-to reading resource, and the exciting new work in Poetry each month is staple reading. Much of my reading nowadays is prompted by online resources, both contemporary and historical, frequently international—perhaps as a reaction to the dispiriting sense of “pulling up the drawbridge,” and to the fierce parochialism associated with hardest-core Brexit attitudes in the U.K. at present.
For prose nonfiction and as a happy adjunct to the Romantics reading, I’ve been reading Fiona Sampson’s book In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. It is a fascinating read:
Like the monster she created in Frankenstein, she seems to race ahead of us “with more than normal speed” ... Mary’s print is huge ... huge for writing women, for the always emerging, always creative, scientific imagination, and for the dreams and nightmares of the Western world.
Coincidentally, the film director Guillermo del Toro at this year's BAFTA awards cited Mary Shelley as an important and sustaining role model in his life and work: “she gave voice to the voiceless, and presence to the invisible, and showed me that sometimes to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own.”
I just got a copy of Richard Hell’s latest, Untitled, a chapbook of poetry and fiction. Such compression. I devoured the Lars Iyer trilogy Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus. His humor is dastardly and devastating. I read the first book and reread it immediately. I discovered the marvelous short story writer Ann Pancake through her collection Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley. I am now obsessed with Song Cave’s productions, including Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight, Mitch Sisskind’s mix of prose and poems set in Chicago. I am poised to read Rainald Goetz’s Insane, finally translated thirty-five years after it was first published. And I revisited David W. Mauer’s The Big Con, a sociology of confidence men published in 1940 which gave me the maxim, “Never grift on the way out.”
The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs
somethingtofoodabout by Questlove and Ben Greenman
Ancestors by Kamau Brathwaite
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I am making my way slowly, and with awe, through In Person: World Poets, filmed and edited by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley. Each poet is filmed and interviewed with a rare intimacy that brings me right up close to their work and life. And I am reading Leanne O’Sullivan’s third collection, A Quarter of an Hour. As the book description states, in 2013, O’Sullivan’s husband suffered a severe infection in his brain and was in a coma for over three weeks. When he woke his memory had been almost completely destroyed; more present to him were the birds and wild animals that he saw during his recovery. These are urgent poems, with wild, gentle language that pierces to the essence of what it means to be human and animal.
And before it all vanished into darknessyou had lifted herinto your arms, and gestured to meand gentlyset her down like a small fireamong the grasses.—From “The Fox”
The other collection that is precious to me just now is Thomas McCarthy’s Pandemonium. McCarthy is a warrior raging against the pandemonium that followed when, in 2008, the Irish government made an agreement with the IMF and European Bank to protect bondholders, forcing ordinary Irish people to pay back an estimated seventy billion of private debt, causing so much misery and instability with a massive increase in mental illness, evictions, and homelessness. On that same theme he goes back to childhood contrasting the snobbery and bitterness of Ireland’s petite bourgeoisie to his mother’s kindness:
With their little shit of bitterness, their little shit that fellUpon the frozen paths, where she lay the only warm strawShe owned, the only straw laid beneath the Cappoquin shoeless.—From “Largesse”
Lastly, beside my bed, Raymond Carver’s collected, so I am reminded “to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute amazement.”
For poetry, I’ve stayed local (for me, Massachusetts): Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook After Bird and her full-length collection The Uncanny Valley keep me reading, re-reading. Her world is Revere, MA, 1960s; it’s Kitty Genovese’s life and death; today’s brutal politics. Cindy Veach’s Gloved Against Blood centers around the women who worked in the Lowell Mills, a book that is both historical and deeply personal. In Kevin Carey’s books—The One Fifteen to Penn Station and Jesus Was a Homeboy—I recognize my own fears of growing older, letting go, of (unimaginably) dropping my children off at various places on this planet and leaving them there. I just finished J.D. Scrimgeour’s Lifting the Turtle. I love how he delivers his world to his readers. I hear their voices, these local poets, when I read their work alone in my own spaces. They are good company.
For fiction, I loved Lauren Goff’s Fates and the Furies and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, which made me laugh out loud back and forth to Rhode Island last fall as I listened to it while on my way to help care for my mother. I thank him for those moments of forgetting.
Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel kept me reading at the expense of everything else in my life for a day or two. Fascinating stuff. In Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy made me a believer. I felt as if I was under a revival tent, at an all-school sports rally. I can do this! I thought. Anything is possible! That book can’t be far from me anytime I sit down to write now.
Finally, I took my kids to Florida for a few days in February, found two James Patterson titles in the nightstand at the condo and enjoyed them by the pool. So much fun. As welcome as the sun after these bitter New England months.
I’ve recently enjoyed Isabel Galleymore’s pamphlet of subtle, precise, evocative poems, Dazzle Ship. I’ve also been making my way through the new two-volume A.R. Ammons and wondering how on earth to fit into a review the umpteen gorgeous things in it (I’ve dog-eared maybe two hundred pages out of a thousand). Finally, with the satisfaction, I suppose, of someone experiencing a must-see box set years after everyone else, I’ve discovered the lovely, clear, spiritual verse of Thomas Traherne, which it seems daft not to have read before.
O ye that stand upon the brink,Whom I so near me through the chink,With wonder see: what faces there,Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?I my companions seeIn you, another me.They seemèd others, but are we;Our second selves those shadows be.—From “Shadows in the Water”
In ninth grade my English teacher handed out a dittoed packet of Emily Dickinson poems. I wasn’t easily swayed—but a poem beginning “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -”? It was difficult to look away.
I trace my forty-plus-year love of Dickinson back to that dingy classroom on Grove Avenue, to that purple ink proclaiming, “I dwell in possibility.” So, why had I never committed to reading all 1,789 of her known poems? A few weeks ago, I took the plunge. As of today, I’m 120 poems in, and the top of my head has been blown off countless times; for example (from 42):
There is a wordWhich bears a swordCan pierce an armed man –It hurls its barbed syllablesAnd is mute again –
Speaking of fiercely individual voices, I’m also reading Megan Snyder-Camp’s Wintering, a quietly powerful volume chronicling three consecutive Novembers wandering the environs where Lewis and Clark spent a damp winter camped at the Pacific. Under the spell of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, Snyder-Camp weaves image-rich poetry with poetic prose as she journeys between the hearts and minds of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, and Jefferson, as well as the locals, librarians, and rangers who try and fail to deliver anything close to a single Truth. The book’s success hinges on its musings and meanderings about the slipperiness of history, the ceaseless editing of shore, memory, history, and the self. Everywhere Snyder-Camp turns, she finds dead ends: “what they remembered and what they kept trying to see.” She’s conducting research, trying to get the “facts,” but what she learns is that: “The librarians won’t bring out the oldest maps. It’s near closing time and they want to go home”; that “What’s gone is gone … You never know what you’re looking at”; and “No, never just one path [is] taken; five paths are taken at once.”
All winter I’ve been dipping in and out of Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, finding delight in her enjambed, lighting-speed-rhymed revelations:
The doctor says hospice as if sheis a hostess andwants Barbie Chang to try thecrawfish there areno longer many crawl spaces left forher mother who nolonger can take her own showersonce she cut flowersbut now her lungs are burnt crustlost in their ownrusting—From “The Doctor Says Hospice”
Much like Dickinson, Melissa Stein’s Terrible Blooms brims with insects, animals, and flowers. Her poems disturb and disrupt, are brushed clean of cliché; her images sting:
Barn collapsing in wet clay. Antsstranded on grass-tips, signalinglike the blind. Sun scraped across winterin its numb chariot. Fiddlehead, godhead,the universe crammed in that green spiral—larch limbs swaying like anemones, tossed—sweat-streaked stallion hide, unspeakablegrace——From “Semaphore”
There’s a tough and sexy gleam to these poems. In “Jealous,” she states, “I’ll bite, / you’ll snarl, we’ll part / for good.” Ferociousness abounds, but also the faith that “cure has many forms / the key is merely / to stay alive.”
Lately, I’ve been reading through The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire (tr. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman). Césaire was cofounder (with Léopold Sédar Senghor) of the négritude movement. After establishing himself as one of the great surrealist poets, Cesaire’s political career led to a significant portion of his poetry, namely Solar Throat Slashed, becoming obscured through self-censorship. I am glad to see that the translators of this volume have found an easy way around this. By simply ignoring the poet’s later changes and reverting to his original editions, we can have Césaire in all his unexpurgated richness.
I admire how intensely and fluidly Césaire can string his imagery together. The poem “The Scapegoat” gives a good example:
so fragile so fragile at the edge of the nights the pastry of the landscape that at last a white-headed jubilation of sea eagles she flies there but for the eye that sees itself there is on the wall prophet of shadows and trembling at the whim of pyrites a heart pumping a blood made of light and grass
I am also struck by how gorgeously volcanic Césaire can be, as he is in “Lynch 1”:
O lynch loveable companion beautiful squirted eye huge mouth mute unless a jerking there spills the delirium of mucus weave well, lightning bolt, on your loom a continent exploding into islands an oracle contortedly slithering like a scolopendra a moon settling in the breech the sulfur peacock ascending in the succinct murderess-hole of my assassinated hearing.
The startling transitions and powerful feelings in Césaire’s work are natural, familiar territory to me as an Autistic reader and writer. These aspects of his poetics encourage my efforts to let neurodivergence inform my own approach. A Césaire poem, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1948, “explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket ... it perpetually surpasses itself.”