Reading List: July/August 2018
I’m reading these five books piecemeal and simultaneously in hopes that they’ll help me under- and with- stand these disruptive, profoundly disheartening times.
Though I’ve just finished writing a book of poems called Human Hours, I still couldn’t tell you how time functions, so I’m immersing myself in Carlo Rovelli’s wonderful The Order of Time, which is only confusing me further, in the loveliest of ways. Rovelli points out that “a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table,” and that “time passes more slowly for your feet than it does for your head.” (I wish I’d known that all those mornings when I was running late.) Rovelli also argues that, just as there really is no “now,” there is no “here.”
Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is filled with a rush of unguarded, perfectly tuned feeling-portraits of violence, power, desire, racial injustice, and dangerous patriarchies at play in this extended run. The speaker in some of these poems, all written since the 2016 election, calls himself a “Time Lord,” and Hayes makes a plangent argument that “The subject must speak as if he or she is witness / To a story no one who has lived in the entire / Tangled future and history of the world has told.”
Like Hayes’s new collection, philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear was born in the immediate aftermath of the last presidential election. Nussbaum dissects the dangers and virtues of fear, a basic emotion, she argues, that can too easily misguide us and that may have carried us into the hostilities and schisms currently adrenalizing our political moment. She calls anger “the child of fear” and draws connections between fear and blame, fear and the desire for retribution, fear and love.
Antonio Damasio’s newest book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is in conversation with Nussbaum’s in that both thinkers place feeling at the center of human drive. Since poets are often, as Elizabeth Bishop has said, “thinking with one’s feelings,” this new book, written by a humanist who moonlights as one of the country’s more respected neuroscientists, is particularly welcome for poets.
And for its international voices that demonstrate the persuasive beauty of poems that combine thinking and feeling—bridging now and then, here and there—I feel enlightened and restored by a new anthology, In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide, edited by Ilya Kaminsky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan. I’ve been teaching it to my undergrads this summer, with great (and mutual) pleasure.
Room to Dream is a biography of David Lynch, written by Kristine McKenna, in which each chapter is accompanied by a sort of chapter-length annotation by Lynch himself. I’m reading it because I have always and will always love Lynch’s films, no matter how many indefensibly silly things he says. Amy Key’s second book, Isn’t Forever, opens with an epigraph from Twin Peaks (“Shh, I’ll do the talking” —The Log Lady), so I was bound to like it, and I do. Like Lynch’s films, Key’s poetry enjoys the play of dazzling surfaces, and the sudden plunge into the dark. The poems flicker continually between something impossibly revealing and something crafted with uncompromising artistry: “Most of the time I’m believing there’s a false panel in the armoire / and behind it the bear skin, personal credentials, the uncut / diamonds of future peril.”
The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961–1993 (ed. by Will Carr) brings a selection of Anthony Burgess’s journalism back into print. Burgess is, of course, famously the author of A Clockwork Orange, but he wrote sixty-odd other books (fiction, essays, autobiography) along with music, screenplays, and more. He was a “man of letters,” and perhaps a man’s man of letters—the inclusion of a previously unpublished piece on Hemingway and his self-promulgated myth both confirms and confounds this: it’s scathing and admiring, a sympathetic condemnation. Throughout, Burgess’s judgements can be peremptory, but at least they are also witty, and the bluster seems designed to provoke a response rather than stifle one: “The only long novel that is not too long is Don Quixote, and even that can only be read at the age of 15 and never again.”
I’ve been reading a lot but very sporadically and have been charmed by so many lines, so many books—far too many to mention here. Wild Is the Wind by Carl Phillips is wonderful, as always. Every single one of Phillips’s books (that I have read) is already written at such a high level of mind, of language, of philosophy. Jenny George’s first book, The Dream of Reason, is unique and a really strong debut. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s book Cenzontle is wonderful and lyrical with moments of sparkling imagery. I’ve also been intrigued by Anna Rose Welch’s We, the Almighty Fires, Analicia Sotelo’s Virgin, T.R. Hummer’s Eon, Diane Seuss’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (what a title!). I’ve just started Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails, and Matthew Dickman’s Wonderland. All of which is to say that I’m trying to keep up with the vast amount of books currently on my desk and enjoying the rich time in poetry right now.
Like many people, now that summer is here, I’ve been reading: It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 by Michael Thompson and Teresa H. Baker, as well as issue 101 of the literary journal Brick, Rachel Cusk’s last three novels (Outline, Transit, Kudos), and The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto, contiguous with Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, Marianne Moore’s New Collected Poems (ed. by Heather Cass White), Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, neck and neck with Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution by Todd S. Purdum and The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy, alongside Best Karate: Volume One by M. Nakayama, also The Good Egg: More than 200 Fresh Approaches from Soup to Dessert by Marie Simmons, side by side with the November 1991 issue of Interview magazine (Hi, Gus!) and Wim Wenders’s Once. And all of Les Murray’s poems. And most of Lucia Berlin’s stories.
Something about it being summer makes me want to devour novels, sometimes whole novels in two or three sittings. I think binge-reading a novel does the same for me that binge-watching a TV show does, except I can do it outside in the sun and not feel so guilty after. This summer I’ve read and loved Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun and finally read Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, both lovely and aching. For research but also for pleasure, I’m just getting started on Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society by Lila Abu-Lughod, which my partner found one day in his aunt’s car and sent to me right as I was gathering up research materials for a project. For almost three years now I’ve been back in a drastically changed Washington, DC, so I am reading Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City by Natalie Hopkinson. I am loving Carlina Duan’s I Wore My Blackest Hair, Anne Carson’s Sappho in If Not, Winter, and I just got Hiwot Adilow’s In the House of My Father in the mail and am super excited to begin.
The World Speaking Back to Denise Riley, edited by Ágnes Lehóczky and Zoë Skoulding is a book of tributes, mostly new poems from ninety-four poets and writers, which gives some indication of how we feel about her contribution to poetry in English. Riley’s wonderful book Say Something Back was published in 2016, and Ken Edwards’s Reality Street Editions published her Selected Poems.
Kelvin Corcoran’s latest pamphlet is Article 50. Of all the reactions to the political catastrophe of Brexit, this was the one I most wanted to read. Look at “Rue des Hiboux” for a sense of how it feels for a humane and liberal culture to be slipping into destructive intolerance and fear. Corcoran gives us biographies of the Brexiteers: Ian Guido Smith, Boris Johnson and the Seventy-Two Virgins, Michael & “Turncoat” Gove. The chapbook also contains “The Sinking Colony Revisited in the Days of Lee Harwood,” a lovely tribute to a fine poet and friend.
A new annotated edition of J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge is just out. This book is a really good introduction to a great Modernist poet. I think that Kerridge’s careful and generous account of divisions in English poetry and his attempt at providing the clearest possible contemporary reading of The Oval Window will be very useful for future readers. Reeve’s essay really develops the idea of Prynne’s poem as a site-specific work (and the photos of Tinkler Crags in Cumbria make this plain), digging into the cultural meanings of transhumance, occupation, and defense, and situating Prynne’s poem in relation to Wordsworth. I love this book; I know I’ll read it many times to come.
I’m very excited about Marilyn Chin’s A Portrait of the Self as Nation, which is a new and selected. I just finished reading it, and I found her consistently intense and personal themes, as well as her really adventurous and ever-changing relationship to form and content, truly inspiring as a reader and writer. And the new poems are terrific.
I also just finished Milk by Dorothea Lasky. As ever, I’m wowed by her relentlessness, her refusal to look away, and I’m especially grateful for her humor and her anger and for her ear, which delivers the humor and anger—as well as the loss and longing and suffering—in an impossibly pleasurable way.
Another book I seriously recommend is Nabila Lovelace’s extraordinary Sons of Achilles. I’m not using the word “extraordinary” in an offhand way. It is really so. Formally inventive, varied, and yet always spot-on, this book delivers heart, rage, and a thorough examination and excoriation of patriarchy amid personal history.
Books I’m in the middle of and quite enjoying: Perennial by Kelly Forsythe, Barnburner by Erin Hoover, and Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays. Also Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters with Dolly Parton edited by Randy L. Schmidt.
I feel very lucky that I just got my hands on Ricardo Alberto Maldonado’s manuscript The Life Assignment because I adore his work, his precision with language, his utterly brilliant and important takes on love and America and the ravages of colonialism. His poems change me. Someone needs to publish this book ASAP!
And I’m anxiously awaiting Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s new book, Strut, which should be on its way to me as I write this. Her voice has been so important to me, and should be to everyone, I think.
In the Shape of a Human Body I am Visiting the Earth is such a beautiful poetry anthology edited by Ilya Kaminsky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan. It includes poems from around the world, both translated and original. This slim but deep anthology includes some hundred-plus voices from near and far places, “an assortment of poems with teeth, in the hope that every poem cuts deep,” as the editors put it. It’s impossible, of course, to be “comprehensive” when you want to collect poems from the whole Earth, just like when you bring pearls from the sea. There are more pearls left there—hopefully someone else can find them—but these are in your hand now, at this moment of history, fresh and unpredictable.
In feast gently, G.C. Waldrep again focuses on the spirit and the flesh and conveys the struggles of living with/in each. His poems demonstrate the power of the most strange to convey the most real. This book begins with the disappearance of bees and is built on vibrant language, aesthetic complexity, and the unexpected turn.
Look by Solmaz Sharif blends the intensity of war with the softness of the bedroom. The poems illuminate the power of the single word, its dropped bomb—how terminology and language ripple out and resonate. “My dummy, my dump, / fender and fireball, / where are you now?”
I picked up Hello, the Roses, by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge at Deep Vellum Books while on a trip to Dallas. I am loving this book for its long breaths and textures, its sense of perception and fragmentation, and its leisurely pace.
Arcimboldo’s Bulldog: New and Selected Poems by Tim Liardet, the brand-new volume of selected poems by a well-known British poet, is filled with one striking piece after another, with many fierce moments and bold strokes, ardent music, and dazzling images. This book is the dragged net capturing an incredible career thus far.
Also, the poem “what it means to be family” by John Colburn, which I came across recently, captures for me the way that families must become gardens for superficiality: “Now we are going to talk about the weather.”
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. We leave the time of our own secret lives and find ourselves, as one character late at night, “driving without lights to the coast.” Or, as elsewhere in this novel of ambiguities and mysteries, we learn “to walk like sailors and villains on the balls of our feet.” From the murky light of intrigue to the strict margins of clarity, how far is it?
Ondaatje conceals and reveals plot details purposefully in an England lit dimly with sodium lamps after WWII. He operates in the zone where war never ends, but, like life itself, consists of fresh labyrinths of passion and illusion. For Marsh Felon—an instantly classic character, a “gatherer” who recruits people for spying—Ondaatje borrows the refrain, “Sevilla to wound! Córdoba to die!” from Lorca’s Poema del Cante Jondo.
With a naturalist’s eye for detail, the poet Ondaatje makes Warlight radiant. I culled this list from a passage on the construction of a dry fly for fishing: blue-winged olive nymph, small goose feathers, red copper wire, fine nylon, silver foil, cork, pieces of ash, a needle.
One thing about literary geniuses is that they fabricate an aura of vulnerability, like a fragrance, around language. I’m thinking of the perfume Fracas, whose raw material, a small white flower, is notoriously difficult to master. The tuberose, not a rose at all, generates an overpowering scent. You must try it one night. An indulgence, but for those with access, a necessity, like reading a great book.
Joyce Carol Oates
For months I have been recommending to anyone who will listen two crucial books of “general” importance which could be, in an ideal world, required reading in high school: Robert Hass’s fascinating and illuminating A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, and Kevin Young’s equally fascinating and illuminating Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Both are large, capacious, very readable books at once encyclopedic and anecdotal, and (not least) both are by esteemed poets.
It is rare that poets write memoirs, I think; rarer still that a memoir can be so, well, impersonal. Yet, Henri Cole’s Orphic Paris leaves us with an intimate sense of the poet as if we have been invited into his very imagination for the spell of this unique book.
The past several years have been devastating for poetry.... We are all still badly missing the presence of C.K. Williams, whose Selected Later Poems is a beautiful and essential book; now, more recently, Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems and Lucie Brock-Broido’s beautiful, mysterious Stay, Illusion, which lingers long in the memory, like overheard music from an uncertain source. And there is Jonathan Blunk’s James Wright: A Life in Poetry which helps to instruct us, as we should know, that responsible and sympathetic criticism is essential for the well-being of poetry.
And, in a bound galley, a memoir by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?
Heaven Is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin. This Griffin Poetry Prize-nominated collection is part revolutionary grit and part aspirational divinity. “The day all the saints clocked in late / mixed with the first serious talk / seven-year-olds have about war.” See Eisen-Martin read from the collection if you can. If you can’t, don’t worry, the poems speak for themselves and can be read on loop without loss of potency.
Krishnamurti’s Notebook by Jiddu Krishnamurti. There is no I in this notebook, and the reader soon becomes as much Krishnamurti as they once were themselves. One may even go a step further and be neither, be no one.
It’s absolutely necessary for maturity that there should be—1. Complete simplicity which goes with humility, not in things or possessions but in the quality of being. 2. Passion with that intensity which is not merely physical. 3. Beauty; not only the sensitivity to outward reality but being sensitive to that beauty which is beyond and above thought and feeling. 4. Love; the totality of it, not the thing that knows jealousy, attachment, dependence; not that as divided into carnal and divine. The whole immensity of it. 5. And the mind that can pursue, that can penetrate without motive, without purpose, into its own immeasurable depths; that has no barrier, that is free to wander without time-space.
A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer. I was a fan of Boyer’s previous collection, Garments Against Women, and find myself engaging on a new level with the essays in this collection. They are deadly serious about their silliness and unlike anything I’ve read before.
I usually only read poetry but for the last few weeks I have been deep in prose. I recently finished two books by writers who are also poets: Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang, a compilation of critical essays largely on policing and finance; and Mean by Myriam Gurba, a genre-bending, humorous, and vulnerable book on Latina life in California and sexual assault. I am just starting to read How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a book of essays and interviews with Black feminist leaders on decades of intersectional movement work. The first page I flipped to mentioned Audre Lorde, and that’s one of the reasons I bought the book. Poetry is everywhere for me, even when I’m not in poems.