Reading List: April 2018
I had a hard time accessing Franco Bifo Berardi’s book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide the last time I tried to read it, partially because—perhaps it’s obvious—its subject was so unpleasant. Nonetheless in the aftermath of Laura Ingraham’s attack on David Hogg and the speech given by Emma Gonzalez at March for Our Lives, I realized that revulsion is a privilege. The book seeks to connect the rise of mass murders and suicide epidemics (of bankers, soldiers, and other at-risk populations) with the deterritorialization and dehumanization of finance capital. It is lucidly written and does not stop at illuminating a problem but proposes real and attainable strategies to live in such a precarious moment.
German philosopher Byung-Chul Han is my new favorite, now that he is available to read in English (The Burnout Society and The Transparency Society). His works form an arc of thought and, for me, continue the thinking of Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard but without some of what I perceived as Virilio’s reactionary instinct and Baudrillard’s cool distance. Han is warm, engaged, and immediate but no less critical of the media-saturated present. His concern (like Berardi’s and Virilio’s) is very much with the individual and the individual’s potential for spiritual and intangible trajectories. His work feels human to me and deeply invested in “humanity.”
On a recent trip to Cambridge the proprietor of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop put a book in my hand by a poet named Stephen Sturgeon. Though I was not familiar with his work, I have been enjoying the linguistically dense and intellectually rich poems I found inside. The volume collects two earlier books, Trees of the Twentieth Century and The Ship. I look forward to discovering more from this exciting voice.
I find Kendra DeColo’s poems almost unbelievably good. Shockingly good. So of the moment, so funny and yet so terrifyingly, intensely beautiful. I know most wouldn’t find it at all unusual to have those things at once, so my response to them is perhaps more of a statement of my own positionality. Still, in a weird world turned upside down, poems like “I Would Like to Tell the President to Eat a Dick in a Non-Homophobic Way” and “I am thinking about the movie Con Air” feed me with their humor, whimsy, and pathos. These poems led me to her most recent full-length collection, My Dinner with Ron Jeremy.
I am really swimming now in the lyrics of Jenny Johnson’s In Full Velvet and Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife. I am new to Johnson’s work but I feel like I have known it my whole life. Half riot, half rapture, she reaches into poetic form and sings the most contemporary vernacular. I feel in the presence of the most ancient of poetic powers in these poems, a feeling shared when I read Witch Wife. Petrosino’s work I am familiar with and love—especially her book Hymn for the Black Terrific. But if anything, with Witch Wife Petrosino achieves what most poets spend all their time hoping for: she gets better and better and better. These two books make a smart set; luckily they share the same publisher, Sarabande Books, which is just doing amazing work these days.
I’ve been doing a lot of rereading these days. That’s one of the great pleasures of reading—experiencing the same work differently because you, the reader, have changed.
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser is as bold and deep today as it was in 1978:
In the body’s ghettonever to go despising the assholenor the useful shit that is our clean clueto what we need. Never to despisethe clitoris in her least speech.Never to despise in myself what I have been taughtto despise. Nor to despise the other.Not to despise the it. To make this relationwith the it : to know that I am it.—From “Despisals”
I’ve also been rereading Alberto Ríos’s The Theater of Night, which is truly like theater, watching and listening to this couple, Clemente and Ventura, as they travel from youth to death. With a striking clarity married to a wild and wondrous imagination, these people come alive and, as in all kinds of love, I feel that their story becomes mine. Don’t you just love this?
I didn’t care so muchAbout the things he said to me.I just liked to watchHis mouth move.—From “The Song of His Hands”
Lynn Emanuel’s The Nerve of It: Poems New and Selected is one book I haven’t been able to put back on the shelf. She opens with an epigraph from Anne Blonstein: “Reading is entering.” And that is absolutely true with Emanuel’s poems. I am taken in by her unpredictable swerves, her perfect metaphors, her syntax, the way her irony leads to truth:
Like Jonas by the fish was I received by it,swung and swept in its dark waters.........................................................How heel over head was I hurled downthe broad road of its throat, stopped insideits chest wide as a hall, and like Jonas I stood upasking where the beast was and finding it nowhere,there in grease and sorrow I build my bower.—From “My Life”
Mahogany L. Browne
When am I feeling everything, I reach for Sonia Sanchez’s Homegirls and Handgrenades. Each poem reads like a mantra or prayer, and who’s to say those aren’t one and the same? When Sister Sanchez writes, in “Ballad,” “forgive me if I laugh / you are so sure of love / you are so young / and I too old to learn of love,” I crawl from the hiding space within my chest and sit by the fire. The book is a fire, yes? And so I warm to it—the blaze of a Black woman’s body, turning into herself, checking out her own gaze and relishing in the release of a stigma. I am happiest when I can see myself with little to no judgment. I am happiest when I can see myself so clearly.
When I am witnessing the rapture, this new (and really old) political trick and pony show (do you see how it always returns to the beast?), I am examining Claudia Rankine’s Citizen alongside Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Rankine proposes, “the sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache,” and Vuong admits, “But the answer never comes. The answer // is the bullet hole in his back, brimming / with seawater. He is so still I think // he could be anyone’s father”—this is where I return. There is no return on the page or in a homeless country and so the words are rafts. I am wading, like my ancestors suggest I do to survive. So I do. This in the spirit of survival. Read the poems that spread like balm, that critically engage a body with its own borders constantly at risk in a country that was built on destroying dreams. I am excited to read new works, poetry informed by these constant slayers of silence and space.
When I am searching for a hopeful moment, a swell of possibility, I am reading How to Love the Empty Air, the newest collection by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. She bellows, “to elope with this grief, / who is not your enemy, / this grief who maybe now is your best friend. / This grief, who is your husband, / the thing you curl into every night,” I am reimagining my survival. I am learning to trust the source of these poems, and I am creating a blueprint of joy. I believe poems should evoke joy. It is not always the case, because the work of the poet is to create a world and undo the injustices. But in that undoing lives a joy. If you believe in justice, if you believe you are worthy of such a hope, the excavation is a place where joy can live. Even if there is death there too. Even if there is sorrow there too. The excavation is the birth of a new understanding—and don’t that smell like joy? Am I being presumptuous? Possibly. Probably. And still I got the audacity to do whatever my Black-ass-woman self chooses to do (because the revolution is a joy/the uprising be a joy too). And I choose these poems. Today, it’s these books. I will return to them like any good North Star. Let them point me to safety.
As usual in the twenty-four-month cycle of my life for the past ten years, I have been reading the poets who will be featured at the upcoming biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Happily, they are also poets appearing in the April issue of Poetry. A few have new books just out or forthcoming in 2018 and so I’ve had the privilege of sneak peeks. Every glimpse I’ve gotten of Sherwin Bitsui’s book-length poem Dissolve is an astonishment. It bewilders and haunts me. Kazim Ali’s Inquisition gives me everything I want in 2018: fight, joy, disgust, humor, resolve. Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a parable of war and disability, won’t be out until 2019, but from what I’ve read, it will be well worth the wait.
A young adult novel in verse about an Afro-Dominican teen poet struggling to find her voice, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is number six on the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover Best Seller List! I’ve just started it and cannot wait for the deep dive. Which brings me to The BreakBeat Poets, Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods. The excerpt in the April issue of Poetry is stunning, as is Browne’s powerful, vulnerable introduction. Already I’m being introduced to poets new to me, as well as finding new work by favorites such as Aracelis Girmay. Get this book!
According to the laws of seventh-century India, when an elephant interposes itself between teacher and pupils, studies must be cancelled for one year. But one teacher, Bhatti, so as not to lose precious time, found a loophole and wrote a grammar primer disguised as a mahākāvya, a “great poem,” in the tradition of the Ramáyana. The poetic grammatical curriculum comes to us as Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Rávana, by Bhatti and translated by Oliver Fallon. Though it is a faithful retelling of the Ramáyana, its structure and constraints are straight out of Oulipo’s playbook: while following the expectations of a seventh-century “great poem” and its subject matter, as well as the dictates of the Eight Books of Pánini (a foundational text in the history of linguistics), each canto exemplifies specific aspects of poetics, rhetoric, and grammar, from double accusatives to “figures of sound” to “the periphrastic future.”
All of this and lines such as “the day lotus ... trembling ... as if angered at the black bee for wearing a smear of night lotus pollen” and “flocks of curlews and their cries increased his longing.” And “He saw Indra’s enemy ... terrible like a cloud at the uncreation.” Plus, there’s an army of talking, divine monkeys.
The book romps and woos, stampedes and intrigues, and comes with a caveat from the author himself: “This composition is like a lamp to those who perceive the meaning of words and like a hand mirror for a blind man to those without grammar.” While we might look askance at the narrow view of someone who cannot use their eyes, this warning still holds: beware to those readers who do not know the difference between there, their, and they’re...
I have been bouncing between poetry collections and graphic novels. I’m halfway through Franny Choi’s Death by Sex Machine. I found myself in line at the airport gasping with every page turn. The way Choi challenges how women are utilized through machines’ voices haunts. Lately I have been struggling with persona poems and my own authenticity within them. Death by Sex Machine pushes my thinking and my growth as a writer.
I have just completed Book One of the graphic novel Bitch Planet. I love well-written dystopian stories. If there is a prison planet for only women what would it look like? What would a woman have to do to land there? Is there a way for her to complete her sentence alive? Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro team up to create an enticing graphic novel. I’m excited to start Book Two of the series soon.
Finally, I have just completed Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. This memoir motivated me to revisit and examine painful memories. Haddish retells her story through a comical lens that still invokes somberness. She reminds me as a writer to maintain balance in my art.
I teach beginning poets, and have often found that students need a greater understanding of what poems can do. My hope is to expose them to a diversity of writers and poetic forms, and to help them develop a practice of reading poetry as engaged literary citizens and poets. I call it “tuning their poetic ear.” I’ve been studying poetic forms using Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, and Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. Both books offer exhaustive explorations into formal poetry with subtle nuances. Turco states,
Since poetry is the product of the poet who is interested in the vehicle itself, in language as the medium for expression, then poetry is “the art of language.” Like the other genres ... poetry also has four elements, but in this case they are levels of language usage ... how do all these levels come together to make a poem?
His book answers this question, while Hass’s observes the energy, or “imagination” behind the forms. Hass quotes Lyn Hejinian from “The Rejection of Closure”: “Writing’s forms are not merely shapes, but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, direction, number and velocities of a work’s motion.” Hass’s exploration helps poets uncover the forces inherit in poetry’s forms.
I’m enjoying quite a few books, as well as revisiting some cherished favorites that are a “poetry talis(wo)man” for my own practice:
Shauna Barcosa’s Cape Verdean Blues
Donika Kelly’s Bestiary
Safia Elhillo’s The January Children
Aja Monet’s My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter
Camille T. Dungy’s Tropic Cascade
Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art
Robert Hayden’s ballads and sonnets in Collected Poems
Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS
Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead
Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010
Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems
Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec
The books I’ve been reading over the past few months have been vastly different, yet all engage one or more of the themes I’ve been exploring in my work: family; Black womanhood (specifically, complicating the accepted definitions of such); the weird and unpredictable; and faith. I cheated myself by taking so long to pick up Jesmyn Ward’s remarkable Salvage the Bones. Besides the necessity of the subject matter—Ward brings the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Black lives into intimate, pressing focus—her use of figurative language is true to her characters and location at every turn. The book is everything a love story should be and nothing you expect a love story to be.
The deliciously weird and disconcerting stories in Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature give us worlds so similar to our own, with one element that throws them into the speculative—like a man who lurks on the lawns of suburban housewives to steal their children, or two neighboring houses slowly becoming submerged underwater as the world ends. Through these speculative elements, the reader is forced to look a little harder at human fallibility. I appreciate how speculative fiction opens up space for us to consider our realities in a different way.
I love Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones for the richness and specificity of the characters. Besides what I have learnt from the mouths of family members, Marshall paints the most honest picture I’ve been exposed to of what it meant to grow up Black and Caribbean in 1940s Brooklyn.
Every page of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead broke me. Despite the ingenious creation of an alternate history where the Underground Railroad was an actual transportation system, Whitehead is relentless in his truth telling about the realities of life for Black folk in the antebellum South.
And Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying is a study in character development, dialogue, and impeccable pacing. Why do we support the conditions that allow another’s humanity to be stripped away?
Bianca Lynne Spriggs
It’s warming up in Ohio, and right now I find I am looking for poems to dawdle with me on the front porch. I’ve got a hankering for something both familiar and new—something to stimulate my concept of risk in poetry—something to keep up with this year’s batch of daffodils and day lilies pushing their way through the earth.
Kahlil Gibran’s Little Book of Life, edited by Neil Douglas-Klotz, makes for a wonderful first course. Enthusiasts of the Lebanese-American poet will enjoy this freshly arranged bouquet of Gibran poems. Douglas-Klotz explores, through Gibran’s gaze, what it means to be alive through observing the natural world, the ever-running dialectic of human interaction, and, of course, the trajectory of the soul.
I have long suspected that the craft of divination and the craft of poetry function in much the same way. Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics performs this congruence and makes it look effortless. But don’t be deceived. This is hybridity at its best—I’m a little obsessed with her seamless structure and arrangement. It feels like reading an ever-revolving Möbius strip, or not being able to tell which part of the sleeping snake we’re looking at behind glass.
Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art proves that collection after collection, she’s basically a juggernaut, and she’s going to outdo herself every time. Just when you thought it could get no better, pack it up everyone. Throw your pens in the river. Queen P has arrived. This collection is set to not only push buttons in terms of content but in terms of form. In my opinion, there’s no poet living right now who writes about racially charged events and social stratification with such clout, particularly when it comes to form. This is one of those collections where you dare not look away.