Reading List: September 2018
Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane. I’m intrigued by what I’ve read so far. Murnane’s story “Land Deal,” for instance, reimagines the encounter between colonists and natives and also reconceives the relation between the possible and the actual in a mere four pages. I think it’s the most intriguing piece of speculative fiction I’ve ever read.
Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible by Didier Debaise. This book is a highly-readable response to speculative realism. In it, Debaise seeks a conception of nature that doesn’t begin by dividing the phenomenal from the objective or “real.”
Debths by Susan Howe. Debths brilliantly weaves together various elements of Howe’s life-long project—making us experience loss by examining remnants and traces of the past, both what we have tried to suppress and what we have attempted to preserve.
The End of Something by Kate Greenstreet. This quasi-narrative poem is an “American Lyric” somewhat akin to Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It’s possible to see this relation from a certain distance anyway. Yet when I was reading it, I remember thinking that I’d never before read anything quite like it.
Two recent books have set my imagination ablaze this year. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is a book formed in the wake of her brother’s suicide. Shortly before his death, he cut out his image from the family photos, leaving a blank shape in the frames. The poet replicates this visual hole throughout the book in both subject and form, as we see these haunted cutouts placed at the center of pages. She pastes the ubiquitous and recognizable grammar of family portraits up against the illegible and traumatic event (suicide, the parents’ flight from war), which itself speaks with its hand over its mouth. The book calls up that lyrical dialectic between what’s absent and what’s spectrally present, and what’s been scissored away.
There is nothin
g that is not mu
sic, the pouring
of water from
into another, a
coat of bees d
raped over the
sack of sugar
caving in on
the house f
ull of teeth
Another work contending with loss and remnant is Cecilia Vicuña’s artist’s book About to Happen. A stunning project, this book maps out decades of her compositions, which themselves combine performance, earth art, fiber weaving, animal pelts, dye, objects found by the shore, and (of course) poetry. Presented in photographs and text, these pages search for a thread connecting the personal to the ancestral, though such a line must pierce through the ecological/economic catastrophes of this century. Vicuña’s work always reminds me that poetry will exceed the limits of the book:
we will all go away
a new net
And four books by the bedside entering my dreamscapes are: Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular, and Jos Charles’s feeld.
Since my recent trip to El Salvador, I’ve hardly had any time to read in English. I’ve been engrossed with Lourdes Ferrufino’s chapbook Diluvio. Here’s an excerpt of my translation of “Tuve Suerte” (“I Was Lucky”):
No woman forgets the why of her discomfortDespite everything, yes, she has gone looking for stars during office hoursShe’s been lucky to be a modern womanwith a womb, a sanguine circuit.
I’ve also been reading some poems by Lilian Serpas in Perdidos and Delirantes (The Lost and Delirious), an anthology compiled by Vladimir Amaya focusing on Salvadoran poets who are overlooked, underrated, and forgotten. Here’s an excerpt of my translation of “La Noche” (“Night”):
Within other egos, the detached creature,Night, the definition of the indefinite—to not become defeated matter—hangs from a world in definite pain.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado, cofounder and editor of the publisher Kalina, came out with a book of poems titled Matria. The title is a play-on-words of the Spanish word “patria” (“patria” meaning fatherland, so “matria” meaning motherland) and is dedicated to Regalado’s mother, a Salvadoran. Here’s an excerpt from “Land O’”:
It’s the first time the gringos at Pinecrest Elementary have seen a piñata. The red and yellow burrito hangs from the banyan tree in the school playground—we’ll break it open after the cake. They sip the syrupy brown horchata my mom brought and make faces; the sorpresas wrapped in colored newsprint sit limply in their hands like dead parakeets. My mom lights the candles. I am dreading the “Happy Birthday.”
Abbigail Baldys, a dear friend of mine and an MFA graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California, handmade her own chapbook, Mediocre Woman. Mediocre Woman draws inspiration from Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and meanders on memories of space and being, dwells in a hack-in-slash machine for sensing reality, and lingers in rebellious in-betweenness. Here’s an excerpt from “Barely Dreaming”:
she was gone—that womanyou ro(b)bed yourself inlike cheap fiction, her dressesand bell-shaped skirts, their tintinnabulations lingeringin the halls where theyapologetically sulked. youwore only pants, tried toinvent yourself and then reinventyourself and stay out of the clutchesof mediocrity.
I’ve been reading more drama with Jorgelina Cerritos’s first book of her trilogy La Audiencia de los Confines: Primer Ensayo Sobre la Memoria (Hearing of the Confined: First Essay On Memory). The narrative revolves around three characters—Carola, Mauro, and Alonso—who are trapped in eternal night and cannot remember how they got there or how to make the sun rise again. Each faces their memories, fears, and last moments of life in hopes of escaping the night, all the while illuminating El Salvador’s violent past that many have chosen to forget rather than remember, to move on from rather than heal.
Finally, I’ve been absorbed in Tierra Breve: Antología Centroamericana de Minificción (Brief Earth: Anthology of Central American Microfiction). Personally selected by Federico Hernández Aguilar, Tierra Breve collects microfiction from six Central American countries (Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) with over 20 writers from each.
I’ve got go-to albums on repeat to match moods, or seasons, or road trip landscapes. In the same vein, I’ve got go-to poets:
Lucille Clifton, especially The Terrible Stories. I click with her moonchild sensibility and love how each poem is a kind of singularity I can’t duplicate. I love that she’s fantastic and a mom of six! In my rush to write between my own motherhood duties, I throw everything in the poem-pot while Clifton seems to include only necessities. Each flavor is layered, potent. Delish!
Yusef Komunyakaa, especially Dien Cai Dau. Originally, I went to his work to connect to my father’s experiences as a war veteran but was permanently drawn into his intense voice which, along with his serrated line breaks, became paramount to me as a poetry primer. Lines down to the bone, yet lush! I don’t like to revere, but I revere here.
I’ve got new go-tos, too:
In preparing to go to Dubai to collaborate with several Iraqi women artists as part of a 2017 Her Story Is residency, I read poems by Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail and was seared by her cogent and clear work. Not only do I remember the years and events she writes through, I’m growing painfully aware of America’s culpability in devastating the people and landscape she beautifully details.
Rosa Alice Branco’s Cattle of the Lord is so subversive it’s almost dangerous for me to read because she channels many of my secret doubts and longings. Her rendering of the spirit world and the violence of some religions (in this case I’m guessing Catholic since she’s Portuguese) is cutting and weirdly satisfying.
A few other books I’ve enjoyed recently: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, Cindy Veach’s Gloved Against Blood, and Shauna Barbosa’s Cape Verdean Blues. I’m excited to read Jennifer Martelli’s My Tarantella, and January Gill O’Neil’s Rewilding—both out this fall.
I’m reading an edition of Seamus Heaney called 100 Poems. All the poems were chosen by his family. I have a two-part writing mantra in my head when I’m trying to write a poem: Don Share’s “be mercilessly specific” and Thomas McCarthy quoting Arthur Quiller-Couch with “murder your darlings.” Heaney is the most mercilessly specific poet I’ve ever read, and I don’t doubt that he murdered many of his darlings. The brave way he describes the simplest things gives me courage to try and do the same, although I know I have no chance of approaching anywhere near his brilliance.
I’ve just finished This Is Getting Old by Susan Moon, an American Zen Buddhist. She’s a beautiful and funny writer and realistic about aging. She rings many bells for me, which is alarming at times because I fear she’s truthful about the struggles and losses of aging as well as the gains. One of the gains she mentions is taking time to be present with ordinary things. That’s an attitude that’s helpful to writing.
I’ve just started Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? Published in 1996, it’s a memoir that was an international best seller, but I’ve only just found it on my sister’s bookshelf. O’Faolain is another wonderful writer. It’s extremely hard to put her book down and get on with ordinary life. She writes about childhood in a chaotic family in Ireland and about sixties literary and student life in Dublin, where it was normal to be a poet or writing a novel.
Nothing in a poem surprises me more than the mysterious power of plain, direct speech. This August, running away from rhetoric, I’m back to Anna Swir’s Building the Barricades. It’s been some 15 years since I first picked up this book, and I still find myself shaken inside the small squares of its poems, their vocabulary of fire, fear, milk, meat, gun, and corpse that can be described as “my first words in Polish, a war list.” Their images should be too expected, their details trite. And yet, each time these words and images are extraordinarily new and again I’m startled by the mercilessly unpoetic language of poetry.
Alongside poetry I have been reading the diaries of Korney Chukovsky, 1901-1929 and 1930-1969, with particular interest in the great degree in which chaotic fragments of thought, quick notes, records of dailiness (“you won’t tell my diary from that of a shopkeeper”) contain an exemplary sense of formal composition. Here are some quick fragments, at random, that could be pieces of flash fiction: “14 February. This day is empty—without books, without work. I binded a broken sledge—a day after tomorrow Zhenya is sledding to Baltflot for our food ration.” “I didn’t go to Lisa’s, didn’t write my ‘lecture,’ but instead I tossed snow, scratched my face and ran for milk.” “Went for a haircut. Talked with a hairdresser about operettas. He was rejoiced. It must be quite a life: have a guitar, to subscribe to The Motherland and to rejoice over operettas.”
This month I’m looking forward to reading Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.
Rebecca Ariel Porte
As translated into English by Jody Gladding from Michèle Métail’s French, which translates, in turn, the original Chinese, Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems might reanimate for you (as it has for me) formalism’s hopes, those slender fires. The reversible poems in this collection are, to paraphrase the lucent words of the scholar and critic Nan Z. Da (whom you should rush to read alongside the Métail), creations we do not and cannot deserve, and so the active vessels of a magnificent decadence whose “basic attitude,” Da theorizes, “can be practised at the level of the lover, the literary establishment, the state, or the world.” A salutary lesson. Decadently, I recommend to your delectation Su Hui’s “The Map of the Armillary Sphere,” in part for its particular agilities of luxurious squandering, in part because it is, like all translated things, impossible—and in part because you don’t deserve it and neither do I (and won’t) and now that we know this, we are going to know this for a good, long time.
The fall school term has just begun, and so a lot of my reading has been determined by a poetry course I’ve put together. In this course, my students choose the collections we’ll use: they read, they research, they propose, and they vote. This term, my students chose Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us, Ari Banias’s Anybody, Sharon Olds’s The Father, and Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
Because of the course, I’m reading and rereading these collections mostly for their craft—and what’s so thrilling to me is what craft doesn’t readily explain: I don’t know how Banias can shift so seamlessly between extreme tones in a poem like “Giant Snowballs,” or how Asghar capitalizes, visually, on cacophony in a poem like “Microaggression Bingo.” I don’t know how, especially knowing the narrative of The Father, I can read poems like “The Race” or “Nullipara” and still—after maybe my 30th read of the book?—weep (like, a lot): I don’t know how Olds structures narrative shifts in such a way that they continue to surprise and hurt. And Smith navigates such a complex sublimity in poems like “Dinosaurs in the Hood”: the poem’s final image can be read as sublime in the most traditional sense of what the sublime is, but it’s delivered within the context of a hypothetical narrative. It’s an imaginary sublime, and that resonates so complexly in that poem and in their work in general.
On my own, I’ve been taking my time with Jos Charles’s feeld. I’m nowhere near ready to articulate any kind of craft-based interpretation of that book, and I’m loving every minute of my bewilderment.
Alison C. Rollins
At the moment I am utterly consumed with visual artist Nick Cave’s book for his exhibition Until. At the heart of Cave’s installation is what he describes as a “paradisiacal landscape where [black-faced lawn] jockeys appear—made from the crystals that would normally go into chandeliers, on a raised platform accessible via four ladders.” As a meditation on the collision of gun violence and racism, Cave’s piece is a reflection on the question “Is there racism in heaven?” Until has called me to revisit notions of heaven and hell in poetry. I am increasingly interested in epic presentations of mythic world-building surrounding the afterlife. I have returned to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song and Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Upon suggestion I picked up T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions. Jos Charles’s feeld is breathtaking in its lyric brilliance and innovation. I am always trying to spend time with texts that push linguistic boundaries.
I find Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa incredibly powerful and have been enthralled by the concept of resurrection in Boris Groys’s Russian Cosmism, which offers English translations of leading Russian cosmists. Working as a lecturer and librarian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I am exploring the artist book form more. I recently read Anne Carson’s Nox and Float. I just picked up Terrance Hayes’s To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight and can’t wait to dig in!
Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America gives much-needed historical and philosophical context to Vladimir Putin’s effort to destabilize the European Union and America, including successfully routing the Ukrainian effort to join the EU. It’s cyberwar—with military support—and in truth it’s WWIII. Snyder shows how a country without great wealth, all of it in the hands of a few, keeps its place through sophisticated media manipulation, for instance utilizing the fiction “Donald Trump, successful businessman” with cash infusions (Trump apartments heavily utilized as money “laundromats”). The book is dedicated to “the reporters, the heroes of our time.”
Putin has no successor, his “Eurasia” exists in a timeless realm with no institutions but “enemies” assailing its innocence ceaselessly, a dictator’s paradise. America, under severe threat, still exists in time, with institutions that foster orderly succession. Snyder’s final chapter begins with an epigraph from Alexander Hamilton in 1788:
Every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?
“There is no such thing as not voting,” wrote David Foster Wallace.
I just moved back to Oakland, like a week ago, and still being on East Coast time has, for the first time in my life, turned me into an early riser. Who knew how productive those dawn hours could be?! (Seemingly much of the world.) Over the past week alone I’ve done quite a bit of reading between 6-9AM. I never thought I’d be that person and yet I’ve got this little stack of books at my bedside as proof of this new practice. Over the past week I’ve read some really remarkable books: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Let’s Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges; Soft Science by Franny Choi (forthcoming); Inquisition by Kazim Ali; and an original copy of The Awful Rowing Toward God by Anne Sexton ,which I’m a 100-percent sure I’m going to spill coffee and/or chocolate on. The common thread that bound this reading list together, besides the hour, is how I left each book different from when I entered it. Each collection in its own way made me look at the world askew and consider the various ways language can be used.
This summer, my girlfriend and I went to a friend’s then-empty white house surrounded by pistachio trees in Greece, to write and read and swim. I read James Longenbach on parataxis and hypotaxis in The Resistance to Poetry and thought a lot about what these forms of syntax do to time. It seems true that parataxis can create both simultaneity and also a quality of no-time, at once, with its side-by-side sentences of equal weight. It felt that way, there: the light doubles around; the sea keeps on; the pistachios’ heavy pods lower on the trees; have you seen this sunshine? Repeat. I thought also about how hypotactic sentences, with their subordinating clauses, can create a fissure in time, a newness. Because they didn’t want to be apart anymore, they went to Greece. And it’s true, the person I wrote “On World-Making” about, we’re together again: “I know/knew / those hands, hers.” On reading the poem, Jenny Xie wrote me about “the ache” of those two tenses, “but the brightness of returns in real life.”
I did my anthropology reading inside, on a white couch, away from the glare of the sun. I was writing two essays: one about the militarization of empathy (and thinking with Judith Butler on grievability and Mick Taussig on mimesis) and one about representation and violence—really how to render edge states (in conversation with Veena Das and Elaine Scarry, on pain and violence, on interiority and the social). I also read many astonishing poems this summer over and over again, a million different strands of music. Here are a few I kept returning to:
Jennifer Funk, “Again, Again”: “Sometimes you tell the story in fits, sometimes / one line at a time.”
Lisa Hiton, “The Dwelling Place, or Scoring the Death of the Firstborn”: “There will be thyme for the chickens, thyme for tea, / Thyme for roasts and hosts of honeybees. / Do you trust this song as a gift upon the bough?”
Luke Hankins, “The Garden Reaches”: “The most remarkable thing has happened— / I exist, and you, / reading this.”
And this stunning story, “Heartwood,” by Rose Skelton about a wood turner, and about fumbling in the world after loss: “Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.”
Wow! Armeika by Umniya Najaer knocks me out. One of the 2018 New-Generation African Poets, the series handsomely edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, it traces her father’s torture in a Sudanese “ghost house” to the suicide of a migrant in Germany and ends in the dark with female circumcision. Elegant, bold, and enduring. Equally as sophisticated, Henk Roussouw’s Xamissa: The Water Archives, emphasizes the fluidity of identity—and not. Xamissa is the first name for Cape Town, a city submerged in doublespeak and erasure. It should be read “now-now.”
During the New Zealand book tour for the biography I wrote of Lola Ridge, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, I met former poet laureate Michele Leggott. Leggott is blind, and her Vanishing Points concerns the sophisticated intersection of everything but sight: “What does detail do but cut out, it eats connection,” (from “eating detail”). I read with Jeffrey Paparoa Holman who gave me his book Dylan Junkie, a very hip response to the Nobel winner. I applaud the cheeky New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird and her “The DaVinci Code.” From Tusiata Avia’s chap “The New Adventures of Nafanua, Samoan Goddess of War”:
She hauls on her jeans in Seneca village. The eyes of two-sixty-four dispossessed dead. “We are the eyesore,” they say, in the whisper of the razed-to-the-ground with their-schools-and-their-churches, “we are the ones of no living descendants, we are the eminent domain.
Back in the US, it’s Yolanda J. Franklin’s edgy/sexy Blood Vinyls with everything from hip-hop—“Blacks make money from white folks enhancing (t)heir rhythm”—to grandma’s pancakes—“I replicated those intimate memorials / of rigor and grits with my own hands.” In the Collected Poems of Naomi Replansky, the 100-year-old lesbian socialist, “When I melt down in your furnace” is very hot and radically unfashionable. I just bought Laura Kasischke’s award-winning Space, in Chains. Envy: “The trees / in their temporary trances, and we in our animate brevity.”
I’ve been jumping between three very different collections of late, some newer to me than others. Mona Arshi’s delicate and often devastating Small Hands came out to deserved high praise in 2015. It’s full of intricately wrought snapshots that capture love and loss with unflinching intimacy. When I read Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx for the first time last year, her poems infiltrated my blood stream to an alarming degree. Medical intervention wasn’t required, but I’ve had to keep the book close ever since. The poems are insistent, disquieting, droll, often tinged with violence, and they utterly resist categorization. Having recently discovered and very much enjoyed Catherine Barnett’s wonderfully soulful poems in the pages of Poetry, it was a treat to get hold of The Game of Boxes and encounter its beguiling, bittersweet voices. I’m delighted that her next collection, Human Hours, is hovering on the horizon, and I hope, by hook or by crook, it’ll be purchasable in the UK. Two UK writers whose deftness and delicious wit make their upcoming publications tantalizing prospects are Penny Boxall, whose second collection, Who Goes There?, is out this month, and Emma Harding, whose pamphlet whatever means the good inaugurates new UK poetry publisher RNR Press in 2019. Finally, from brief forays into the land of prose, I recently loved and lapped up Alix Ohlin’s short story collection, Signs and Wonders, for its impressive verve and panoply of compelling psychological dramas. And if you haven’t already, do read George Saunders’s astounding and joyous short story “Fox 8,” a tour de force that makes you reconsider everything about our world and teaches you to talk fox in the process.
Keith S. Wilson
In my move to Kenyon College in Ohio, I tried to be tactical and bring books I suspected would floor me. One month later, here I am, broadcasting from the floor. I’d seen recorded readings of Mai Der Vang, so I had insider knowledge when choosing Afterland.
You must knowI am the ghostwith creosote mouthhiding behindyour silent headin the vermillion portrait.My body reducedto three urns of calories.
Damn. These are the poems I needed: work rooted in the ever-presence of love and history. And war, which is important to all of us living in a country that brings war but rarely suffers its consequences outside of the price of gas.
I’ve also been reading Donika Kelly’s Bestiary. I want to tell you she ends a love poem with “I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth.” I keep returning to her line breaks (her line breaks!) because of their sense of unease and displacement and intrigue. And on invention: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, which is one of those collections of short stories that works like a potato chip (for me, Doritos), where you plan on having one and suddenly you’ve lost the night. There’s so much formal creativity in this collection—decisions which both drive the stories and have me taking notes about what prose can and ought to do.
I’ve also been reading Tommy Pico’s Junk, which is epic in scope and execution (and if you haven’t seen him do a reading ... someone get this man an audiobook). Finally, I’m supplementing my small book supply with work available online. In particular, the wildly inspiring formal invention of Anuradha Bhowmik’s and Anthony Coda’s recent work and the transformative, risk-taking poems of Destiny Birdsong.