Reading List: June 2018
Dan Beachy-Quick has been one of the poets I look to when I am looking for inspiration on careful orchestration of line and word interaction. His collection (gentlessness) offers a unique view on how language can proposition such complex collaboration of meaning, sound, celebration, and sorrow. His work, each time I engage with it, shows me new ways words can work together in poems to pursue the endless possibilities of poetic expression. Another collection of his that I turn to is North True South Bright, for many of the same reasons.
I discovered Michael Klein while shopping my first manuscript around. I came across the Sibling Rivalry Press website at the suggestion of a friend. I scanned through their catalog and came across When I Was a Twin. The title was intriguing enough and piqued my interest. I fell in love with this collection because it makes a deep connection for me around the ideas of loss and separation. It also offers a subtle humor, which I find refreshing in poetry. The confessional quality of When I Was a Twin is sublime and visual, weaving pivotal human responses to self and place.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski
I’ve been struck and undone by
GENESIS by Crisosto Apache, a fellow two-spirit and Mescalero Apache. Apache incorporates Ndé Bizaa (Apache language) and Diné Bizaad (Diné/Navajo language), which dovetail and swirl together with English. The chromosome, a marker of gender, also becomes a figure of form as the top half of an X on the page. With spare but devastating and precise imagery (“the arachnid molts its shell”), and what is Xed out or struck-through (the genesis or birth itself, or the creation story of a xian god), a treaty in the year of “their lord” is replaced with an Indigenous meter, ‘isdzán (woman) and haastiń (man) combine into and as the nųbił, the whirling star, gloriously birthing itself.
“A star arriving firmly / at the center of its cluster” is Rodney Koeneke’s Body & Glass. There is something very singing and also staid about these poems. I mean they have both a freshness and the mark of an experienced hand behind them. I hesitate to call it a “maturity” because it has a jouissance I don’t associate with that word. These poems continue to yield fruit on multiple readings: “furzed glebe” ... “prefer your lineaments / to any rotting / thing this world adores.” They feel nutritious to me somehow, nutrient-dense, coming out of great care, great grief, great toil (for all their sprezzatura): “antiphons’ slurring / surmising the psalm.”
As a closet goth and a nature lover and an armchair etymologist, I believe I am the ideal reader of Allison Cobb’s book Green-Wood (forthcoming this Fall), about the titular cemetery in Brooklyn. The book teaches us that “book” and “beech” split from the same root, and that trees are sentient individuals. It’s a must-read for anybody who likes to wander through cemeteries but might be too lazy to do that today and would rather curl up with a book and let the poet give them a guided tour through New York’s ancientest repository for the dead.
Also reading through, with great delight and in no apparent order:
Ariana Reines, Telephone
Roberto Harrison, Bridge of the World
Luci Tapahonso, A Radiant Curve: Poems and Stories
Jane Gregory, Yeah No
Cedar Sigo, Royals
Ivy Johnson, Born Again
kari edwards, Succubus in My Pocket
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
dg nanouk okpik, Corpse Whale
Aja Couchois Duncan
I am surrounded by books. The ones that are on my nightstand, the unfinished ones, and thus the ones I turn to most frequently, are:
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. It was written after Bush was elected as president for a second term and was gifted to me after the election of 45, otherwise known as the orange hazard cone. For those writers, activists, and other sentient beings trying to hold onto optimism in the face of a cataclysmic mudslide (which is actually a good thing—naturalistic metaphors can only be insulted by the parallel) this book is for you. It has kept me going in my darkest hours.
Counternarratives by John Keene. Stories, novellas, and poetic prose drawn from memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, and interrogation transcripts combine to create a book of interwoven narratives of enslavement and those who enslaved, forever linking a past, present, and future that requires our collective reconciliation.
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. A walking tour that surfaces so much about the rituals of place, the interrogations of scholars, and the ever-present history of WWII and the holocaust. It is a writer’s book, one that holds the loneliness of journey alongside the ever-present reality of our impact on one another, the land, and its many species.
Books that I have recently read, or recently reread, are on a wooden crate across the room, adjacent to the loveseat on which I most frequently write. I keep these books close, keep their words near. A few of them are:
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier. There are many ways to describe this book. All seem both reductive and needlessly ecstatic. It is a debut collection from an amazing writer who describes herself as “a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation— and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” It is a book to be read. Read it.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. In reinventing an ancient Greek myth, the author weaves together a coming-of-age story that makes the reader, if not the protagonist, thrilled to be alive. That there are such words. That novels can be such poetry.
Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman’s Sourcebook by Paula Ann Gunn. Though she is not my grandmother, Paula Ann Gunn taught me so much about what is essential to carry and potentially bring forth in this terribly imbalanced world.
There are so many others that could be mentioned, should be mentioned. But I will leave it here, at the entrance of this colony of bees, of books.
Heid E. Erdrich
My reading ranges broadly. I come back to books a few times before I shelve them or give them away. On top of one stack, because it is a small gift-book edition and because it keeps me (mostly) from despair and makes me laugh, is Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammars, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues ... ”
A few other books in the stack: Currents, a debut collection by Bojan Louis, a “union of shock and memory” influenced by the Diné Bahane’, the Holy Bible, and the Book of Mormon. Two more fine firsts by Native poets: obstinance as survivance in Arachnid Verve by Shauna Osborn, and
GENESIS in which Crisosto Apache considers sexual identity, weaving, indigenous language, and land. Also in the stack is The Nightlife by Elise Paschen. I indulged in its elegance in flight. Solve for Desire earned a Minnesota Book Award nomination for Caitlin Bailey, as did Thousand Star Hotel for Bao Phi. I am rereading all, and underneath them are a dozen more unread.
Some great things I’ve read this year cannot be stacked: Joshua Whitehead’s letter withdrawing from the Lambda Literary Award in the Transgender Poetry category; First American Art magazine’s summer 2018 issue with Sheila Regan interviewing artist Andrea Carlson; and Jake Skeets in the Shade Journal.
My prose stack: How Dare We! Write edited by Sherry Quan Lee, a multicultural creative writing discourse; Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot; There There by Tommy Orange; and Educated by Tara Westover. Most anticipated novel I’ve yet to read, but that I can see moving up the stack? Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth.
And finally, Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe, though everyone will have to wait until it is out in 2019.
To begin summer, I revisit Ocean Vuong’s work, especially Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I instantly become enthralled all over again. What guts and relentless command over sound, space, and structure. His poetry is elegant and violent, a two-headed animal.
Journeys happen during the summer. It’s June in Arkansas and the fortieth anniversary of Frank Stanford’s death. I’m reading The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, his 383-page unpunctuated epic poem. Enough said.
Ishmael Angaluuk Hope
I’ve only just begun to sink my teeth into some awesome poetry, mostly Native poets. I hadn’t read all that much poetry until a few years back. It’s been eye-opening. Of Tiffany Midge’s The Woman Who Married a Bear, I want to say that it aches. Her rhythmic line has a cadence and timbre to it that evoke for me a warm and deep longing for communities and continuity. I think Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem is lovely. Pico reminds me of John Keats for some reason. I’ve just read a couple Keats poems, but from the few that I did I get a similar vibe. Finally, I really dig Ken White’s poetry. I’m slowly making my way through The Getty Fiend. He was one of my poetry mentors at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I sought him out as an instructor partly because of his superb, profound ear for meter and sonic quality. Every page is lush with lines practically tap-dancing off the page.
Layli Long Soldier
I’m So Fine by Khadijah Queen. I came to this book because I know Khadijah Queen personally; because I’ve heard her read poems from this book, of which I especially remember the piece about the sighting of Billy Dee Williams in Whole Foods and her mother’s reaction; and because of her reading. I had a sense that these poems would be like sitting with a friend who’s taken me into their confidence, giving me the who’s who and the what’s what; leaning back, smiling, spilling details so good that I don’t want to leave. And, like most conversations with close friends do, I had a feeling these poems would lead to deeper considerations. Indeed, I found this true in Queen’s book. Each page is smooth as water to dip, dive, and swim in. I thought about inhabiting (even wielding) the female presence in this great, wide world of celebrity, beauty, the male gaze, desire, impulse and decision, work and money, joy and enjoyment, danger, caution and escape. I nodded my head with Queen, knowing what it is to, “wonder if I am enough but only for a minute because I realized I like my body unassailed by tenderness or roughness & free of obligation I like my peace.” Then a paragraph in “By Any Other Name: A Postscript” drew every floating particle of me into solid form—as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a poet; as one who questions this living and wants all the more to love it. How does one continue in the endless encounters? Queen writes:
Sartre said hell is other people and by the token of time through the ages, surely a French philosopher knows whether man equals less than desire and surely man is in loss, except those who do good works, and enjoin one another to the truth, and enjoin one another to patience and constancy. My mother told me I should keep some things to myself. She should have said keep yourself to yourself but it was in her nature to be generous. I learned that kind of giving leads to further taking and it’s a light that attracts parasites. What’s an ex-Muslim girl to do
In Queen’s writing, I find a deep tunnel space through which there’s no end to the travel—a kind of mystery in the truth. Plainly said, but profoundly unsimple. This is exactly what I come to poetry for. Thank you, Khadijah Queen.
Injun by Jordan Abel. Jordan Abel was generous enough to share notes on his process for writing the poems in Injun, for which he sourced, “text comprised of 91 public domain western novels with a total length of just over ten thousand pages ... [and] searched the source text for the word ‘injun,’ a query that returned 509 results.” Abel goes on to explain his methods for cutting up text to arrange the poems. I say this is generous of Abel because, as I moved through this book, the ways in which he “cut up” text seem to dissolve and become impertinent. The poems are graceful, they sing, and there is clearly an artful and masterful hand at work in each line. This is what matters most. Nonetheless, it’s important to know that the language comes from western novels specifically relegating Indigenous people to injuns. I can’t overlook this, either.
The day I got this book in the mail, I sat with my friend dg nanouk okpik, a fellow Native poet who lives close by, and we read the first fifteen poems out loud, together. dg Oohed and sighed, we both tilted our heads in admiration, and in unison we said Wow! after each piece. As dg held the book in her hands, we looked in amazement at the visual pieces that followed, and at Abel’s accomplished use of space. Then we got in my car and drove to the mall (!) feeling energized, chatting the whole way about poetry, possibilities, our responsibility to push and grow, and the new generation of writers. All this to say that Abel’s book inspires, it challenges, it means something to some of us, especially some Native writers—but really, I believe this book should mean something to everyone. It should matter to everyone living on this continent of western expansion, amid Western ethos and mindset, from which the western novel was birthed; and everyone who has come up under accepted and persistent Western values of “possession,” “territory,” “business,” “money,” “prospect,” “bordering,” or “discovery” that Abel literally sets in bold type and staircases down his pages.
Yet, I return to my initial admiration for Injun—the way it offers a kind of lift and dwelling space that feels true to poesis. Lines with textured shifts, subtlety, catharsis, maybe heartbreak. The opening page swings the door open to all of this:
he played injun in gods country
where boys proved themselves clean
dumb beasts who could cut fire
out of the whitest1 sand
he played English across the trail
where girls turned plum wild
garlic and strained words
through the window of night
he spoke through numb lips and
Again, Wow. And ... sigh. Thank you, Jordan Abel.
I usually crawl into giant novels in the summer, but this summer I find myself reading three nonfiction books: Eli Clare’s sharp analysis of the many and complex ways we, as a culture, deploy notions of “cure” in Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure; Bassem Youssef’s witty Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring; and Joel Whitney’s Finks, which details the CIA’s Cold War-era collusion with literary magazines like the Paris Review. How wonderful that Olga Tokarczuk has won the Man Booker International Prize (via Jennifer Croft’s translation of her novel Flights). One of Tokarczuk’s earlier books, House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a book about the ways place is layered with dream and story, is one of my favorite novels. As for poetry, I review so much of it these days, it’s hard to know where to begin. So here are three older (slightly older in one case) that have stayed with me and that I think should be better known: Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers, Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, and Lesley Wheeler’s Heterotopia. Finally, the journal Historical Materialism has a new issue on identity politics, and Chi Chi Shi’s article in it, “Defining My Own Oppression: Neoliberalism and the Demands of Victimhood,” is smart, provocative, and, while not focused on poetry, has much to offer in an era in which the commodification of identity bears so visibly on poetry’s circulation and dissemination.
I’m currently working through several texts for a new book project all focusing on quantum mechanics and mathematical theory. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin, Applied Chaos Theory: A Paradigm for Complexity by Ali Bulent Çambel, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning by Victor J. Stenger, and the Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner are all doing numbers on my head right now—but in a good way. Heady theory makes me really want to find grounded praxis to match and find balance, which has led to a lack in interesting chaotic experimentation in my daily routine. This has not boiled over into my literary citizenship roles however—review copies have been stellar recently. For upcoming reviews that I’m scheduled to finish soon, I’m reading: Nightbloom & Cenote by Leslie Contreras Schwartz, which is a wonderfully dark and thoughtful collection; Proximidad, a lyrical memoir collection by Ed O’Casey; and Speaking of Indigenous Politics, an academic collection about international Indigenous activism that was edited by J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. Dark, lyrical, academic activism—that sounds like a pretty awesome synopsis of life right now eh? Or maybe that’s just me ...
Currently, I’m reading The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, which I picked up and got signed this year at AWP in Tampa. A short novel/novella submerged in surreal, urgent longing, and in the grace/terror of carrying a body. Everything seems to bloom under the dark of the imagination. The living and the dead seem to share the same realm. It’s such a striking, gorgeous book that I couldn’t recommend enough: “I must perform my duty to my mother and father. I must burn their bodies and pray over the pyre and release their butterflies into the changing world.”
I also recommend Sáanii (Tacey) Atsitty’s debut collection Rain Scald. The poems grafted to this spine are full of sprawling beauty and sensation. I learn so much about touch and tactility when reading Atsitty’s work, which you can find in this month’s Poetry.
Also, I sat down and read the latest Best New Poets anthology, guest edited by Natalie Diaz, and I can’t get this line from Xandria Phillips’s “Social Death, an Address” out of my head: “Once, a healer’s hands passed through my flesh, / and I went on trial for stealing ten fingers.” For which I’m glad, because her poem was included in Bettering American Poetry Volume Two this past year, and to be haunted again and again by this poem is worth every flit and flutter it leaves to linger in you.
Lastly, and of course, Crush by Richard Siken. Because it holds me. Dearly.
Gwen Nell Westerman
After several false starts over the winter, I picked up Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich on Mother’s Day and read it in one sitting. A frightening dystopian story, it contains beautifully poetic passages that sting with an ever-present threat of destruction.
A poet who combines illustrations with words in The Iraqi Nights, Dunya Mikhail filled a void for me with her haunting descriptions of Iraq. On Veteran’s Day 2016, I read with her and poet Brian Turner, and, as the mother of an infantry Marine, I was moved by the power of her work. “Suffering takes time,” she writes, “we need a second life to learn to live without pain.”
Whenever I need a jump-start, I reach for that creative, wacky genius Lynda Barry. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor refreshes my eyes and my brain after a long dearth of creative output. Packed with writing and drawing exercises, I can open it to any page and be recharged.
And I just finished Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy, an environmental studies and geology professor. What happened to us as human beings when we made the land that sustains us a commodity? Savoy’s physical, emotional, and historical journey across our country is something I’ll be thinking about for quite some time.