Reading List: December 2018
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, a novel of New York in 1746, is so delicious I tried to make it last by only reading it for 20 minutes before bed. The North Water by Ian McGuire is brutal and absolutely riveting. I also have been reading The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, who is surely one of the most inventive novelists of our time (or ever). And, finally, a foxed and crumbling 1836 edition of Washington Irving’s Astoria, which I hope to use as the basis/inspiration for some poems and possibly an essay.
This fall I read Alice Oswald’s beautifully paced Falling Awake, Mark Wunderlich’s luminous The Earth Avails; and Heather June Gibbons’s slam-bang debut Her Mouth as Souvenir: “I blow shit up // heart-husk, wax drip, I lick you, there / you’re licked.” I admire the range of Stephanie Burt’s Advice from the Lights (poems about PLAYMOBIL, Anubis, hermit crabs!) and the lyric grace of Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Priscilla Sneff’s o woolly city is a frequent reread; I dip into it often for its gorgeously idiosyncratic language.
O sinking of silk!O padded brocadeof personal feather!
Mark Conway’s “Cult Rivers of the Interior” in KR Online:
when I saw the cranesand grandstands of the viewing partiesand felt my body without endseep into sweetwater
And holds the rope firmly in her own gripwhich is like,and unlikesilhouette tapestries Kara Walkermade of a little girl who was hanged outsidea burning orphanage, one warm nightin 1863.
First there’s John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate. I’m in the sorrowful home stretch of this hefty 1963 biography. I just reached the end of Keats’s writing career, and now I’m gearing up for sickness and Rome. In the narrative of such a brief artistic life, the development of the poet—his style, philosophy, moral vision, “empathic quickness of mind”—is so compressed, such that every month, every week, has a dramatic urgency about it. Very inspiring.
To quote James Wright in a journal entry he wrote after visiting Keats’s grave in Rome, which I read earlier this year in Jonathan Blunk’s vivid biography James Wright: A Life in Poetry:
The tough little bastard got his work done. Never mind his work. You don’t mind it when you stand there and know he is in the ground. You know that the best thing to do is to get your work done. You are going to die, too. Just like John Keats.
Dear poets, get your work done!
As for poetry, I’m currently reading The Unfixed Horizon by Medbh McGuckian, the 1978 Selected Poems of May Sarton, How the Bicycle Shone by Gillian Allnutt, Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, Ground Water by Matthew Hollis, and Like by A.E. Stallings.
I just finished and absolutely adored the novel Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban.
Finally, I continue to read the cultural criticism of the late Mark Fisher. His work has been an energizing moral vitamin, and also—in the way of a sort a tragic gift—an inoculation against despair. I look forward to acquiring the new collection of his k-punk blog reflections just published by Repeater Books.
Here are some loosely sorted piles of books from around my house.
“Sciencey-Type Books About Humans and Why We Do the Stuff We Do”:
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha;
A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon;
The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory by Alexander Luria.
“Fantasy-Type Books I Read a Long Time Ago (when I was maybe 13–14 or so) But Am Curious How I Feel about Them Now (jury’s still out)”:
If I Pay Thee Not in Gold by Mercedes Lackey and Piers Anthony;
Exit to Eden by Anne Rice (originally published under a pen name).
“Biographies of Notable Women” such as:
“Books I’m Rereading Because I Secretly Love to Cry While Reading Them and/or the Food Descriptions Are Enticing”:
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger;
A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
“Books by Chicago-Centric Folks AKA Whoa I Live Here Right Now”:
If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar;
Lake Michigan by Daniel Borzutzky;
Graphite by Patricia Frazier;
Commando by E’mon Lauren;
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez;
Throwing the Crown by Jacob Saenz.
“Shameless Shoutout For My Friend’s Forthcoming Book AKA Y’all Ain’t Ready”:
Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount.
In a time when many poets (and the institutions that support us) are prone to declarations about the inherently counter-hegemonic power of poetry, Juliana Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment offers a sobering historical account of various resistant movements in US literature through and since the twentieth century—and how easily they were neutralized by dominant forces. What I so admire about this book, in addition to its compelling and cogent analysis, is that Spahr refuses easy answers: she is just as skeptical of poetry’s revolutionary potential as she is committed to its possibility. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between poetry and politics.
Diana Hamilton, friend and poet I love, has a new book out called God Was Right that argues poetry is a good form for making arguments. In a series of eleven essay-poems she considers, among other things: consent, heartbreak, bisexuality, the love of animals, and why no one gets pegged in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Hamilton is a hilarious and intelligent poet, and I am as grateful for the acuity of her mind as a reader and writer as I am grateful for it as a friend. In her “Essay on Bad Writing,” she proposes a rubric for determining whether or not a poem is “good” that I find quite useful (“if this poem hurts people, are they people I want to hurt, too?”).
Another friend and poet I love, Sophie Robinson, also has a new book out: Rabbit. Robinson writes—of addiction, love, and obsession—with a kind of sustained fever-pitch intensity that never loosens its grip or loses its strangeness. We got to know each other when she was living in New York last summer and writing some of the final poems in this collection, and I knew at once—from the first moment she read me what she was working on—that I was in the presence of a major talent. I imagine any reader of Rabbit will have the same reaction.
I must admit I’m reading a lot of books simultaneously right now. Well, a lot for me. I’m currently rereading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and The Rest of Love by Carl Phillips. In rereading these books (for who knows how many times), I have discovered something new about intimacy and psychological wandering, something I thought I had already reckoned with. But this time I have fallen in love with how one can be intimate without meaning to. I have also rediscovered beauty in a new light. Or better put, beauty beneath the moonlight. There is something about the way Morrison’s characters reject beauty, or the standard of beauty, while embracing “ugliness.” There is girth in the way Baldwin’s characters wrestle with self-discovery and fear that is both vulnerable and freeing. Phillips has a way of revealing my innermost qualms about love and has a way of interrogating true beauty in the midst of violence. I am taken by all these things once more.
Most recently, I read Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. This book has sort of shaken me. The way she wields adjectives, forcing me to rethink an image, has taught me a new meaning for figurative language—for metaphor, really. I find myself returning to the page thinking, “How would Broido describe this?”
I have tasked myself with reading everything by W.S. Merwin. There was no reason, I just did. I just finished Merwin’s first four books, and his development over those books is wonderful. In his earlier work, he was very dense and his metaphors cast a wide net. And, Lord, his lines, how they swamped me. But by his fourth book he let up a little. Not so much in syntax or in density, but he eventually allows the metaphors to do the work themselves. Or maybe it’s just that, by the fourth book, I have grown familiar with him. Either way, I am happy.
Other books that I have read but haven’t quite found the language for are Angels for the Burning by David Mura, The Carrying by Ada Limón, Beautiful in the Mouth by Keetje Kuipers, and The October Palace by Jane Hirshfield.
Shoutout, too, to these poems online that wrecked me: “Living on a Ghost Plantation / Love Poem” by Natasha Oladokun; “The Blue Jay and the Tulip Field: What Started as a Letter to Saeed Jones” by b: william bearhart; “Virginity” by Jake Skeets; “Everything will hurt for a while” by Ruth Awad; and “The First Black Bachelorette” by Tiana Clark (an excerpt of it is here).
The last few weeks I’ve been writing an essay on Les Murray’s Collected Poems, so for a while now it’s been all Murray all the time. He’s a strange one—not easily slottable into prevailing schools or systems of poetry. In fact, he and his work are best understood, I think, as enactments of antinomy: both free and formal, vernacular and polyglot, outsider and establishment, hoi polloi and highest of art. Above all, he’s solidly himself, and reading him reminds me of what I first—and most—value in poetry: a quality of attention, a way of seeing and saying that feels both alien and true. Sensibility, I guess. Specifically, the possibility of a sensibility outside yours as real as yours. Which is not to say the poet’s sensibility, nor even a single sensibility, nor even necessarily a human one—Murray’s staggering “The Buladelah-Talee Holiday Song Cycle” pulls off—pulls together—a universe of sensibilities separated by self, species, place, race, and time, and does so for the utterest of reasons: to bless (after Auden) “what there is for being.”
Before that, I was writing an essay on David Malouf, so I was mainly reading his stuff (including fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry) and stuff on his stuff. I won’t go into it except to say that his is a kind of sensibility—refined, lucid, luminous—that’s becoming scarcer by the day.
Aside from this, I’ve recently read and dug essays by Maria Tumarkin, stories by Jenny Zhang and Deborah Eisenberg, and poems by Keith S. Wilson, A. Frances Johnson, John Murillo, John Beer, Judith Bishop, and Mónica de la Torre.
Karen An-hwei Lee
What is it I love about poets who write prose? And conversely, what is it about prose artists who write poetry? It is an overflowing abundance of one goodness into another, like a psalmist’s cup of blessings, i.e. anointed spiritual and material gifts in a rush. Here are books I’ve loved recently, written by those who blur the boundaries between our diverse modes of expression, poets whom I’ve read afresh in prose or reread with new eyes: Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel; Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud; Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art; Joy Castro’s Island of Bones; and Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress.
In a writer’s utopia, one would read everything, as a bibliophile’s love would consume the world.
I’ve been purging possessions lately and, as a result, many books. I never give away my poetry or art books though. When I’m depressed I want to be surrounded by visual artists and poets. In the last year and a half I’ve been painting a lot, leading me to read more about the lives of painters. And while I was working on my forthcoming book of poetry, The Summer of Dead Birds, I returned to some of my favorite contemporary poets for inspiration. Many of these books reflect that.
When I want comfort for some reason I always return to Joe Brainard’s I Remember.
I’ve been rereading Harmless Medicine by Justin Chin, a dear San Francisco poet who has passed on.
After being floored by Carol Rama’s show at the New Museum I bought Carol Rama: Antibodies just so I would never be without her gorgeous, grotesque watercolors.
I picked up a copy of the art book Kerry James Marshall: Mastry after his show at MOCA in Los Angeles.
I’m reading Naked by the Window by Robert Katz, a nonfiction crime book that looks at the death of Ana Mendieta, whose husband, Carl Andre, was tried for murder.
A year ago I went to Amsterdam and bought the book Life? or Theatre? by artist Charlotte Salomon after an exhibition of her life work: over 800 gouache paintings of her life story set to an opera in her brain, before she was killed by the Nazis. I frequently revisit these drawings.
Just this week I began CAConrad’s collection of poems While Standing in Line for Death.
One of the very best things I’ve read this year is the essay “Hags in Your Face” in Michelle Tea’s book Against Memoir. This essay documents the dyke gang The Hags during their heyday in nineties San Francisco. Tea’s thoughtful reporting with a lens of access, queerness, and class preserves a powerful piece of queer history.
I imagine I will return to these works throughout my life and I hope that by mentioning them here, they will be just as impactful to somebody else.
These four books have really been pushing my writing and reading life over the past month and are definitely must-reads for everyone with even a lick of interest in poetry:
Here are some snippets from what I’ve been reading and rereading lately.
Ángel García’s Teeth Never Sleep, winner of this year’s CantoMundo poetry prize, is a collection I’m so excited is out in the world. It is a much-needed interrogation of straight, cisgender, Latinx masculinity, machismo, and gender norms. This book is self-implicating in all the best ways. From “Broke”:
I take off my work clothesto lie down beside her and feel the creature between us,its breath ragged and difficult—not a child, but a shadow,a space growing between us, wider and deeper becausewhat little we have left, we’ve worked too hard for.
Like many, I’ve also been visiting and revisiting Mexican poet Sara Uribe’s Antígona González, translated by John Pluecker. The collection begins with the quest of voicing those who are searching for the corpses of their loved ones in Tamaulipas after the San Fernando mass grave was found. What unfolds is a lyric meditation on the violence in Mexico during the war on drugs.
How is a body recognized? How to know which isthe right one if it is under ground and in piles? If thehalflight. If the ashes. If this thick mud steadily coversit all. How to claim you, Tadeo, if the bodies here arejust debris?This pain is also mine. This fasting.The absurd, the exhausting, the urgent labor ofunburying a body to bury it anew. To confirm outloud what is so feared, so desired: yes sir, agent, yes sir,medical examiner, yes sir, police officer, this body ismine.
Finally, I always try to add critical work to my regular reading diet. Currently I’m in the middle of Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Julian Lim. It is a fascinating critical look at the history of law enforcement and migration in cities like El Paso, Texas of African American, Mexican, and Chinese immigrants. Lim shows how the borderlands, and specifically the city of El Paso, was written about as early as 1883 as the “future immense,” or the place of brutal, fast-paced commerce and constant human migration. As Lim points out, El Paso was not just a thoroughfare for Mexican migration, but also the place where African Americans could find refuge from the violence of Jim Crow laws, and where Chinese immigrants could escape “anti-coolie” exclusionist campaigns from the West Coast. In this way begins the rhetoric that El Paso is decidedly not a part of Texas, but part of a separate space, the borderlands.
I’m working on a critical piece about Chelsey Minnis, so it’s been great fun rereading Bad Bad and Zirconia, and I just finished her latest, Baby, I Don’t Care, which is wickedly funny. I’m a huge fan of my colleagues’ work at Ashland University’s low residency MFA program so I’ve reading and teaching their brilliant books. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle is beautiful and moving. I’ve heard that he has a memoir coming out soon, so I’m very excited to read that! Douglas Manuel’s reading from Testify blew me away this summer and I highly recommend it. I’ve also been reading Dexter L. Booth’s elegant and virtuosic Scratching the Ghost.
I’m writing a graduate thesis at Washington University in St. Louis that I hope will constitute my first collection of poems. The manuscript challenges commonplace ideologies about survival and addresses the link between survival and knowledge production for a queer and transgender Vietnamese American speaker in the aftermath of rape. Reading Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall, Suji Kwock Kim’s Notes from the Divided Country, and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris has shaped my conviction that “whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice” (Glück). While I’ve obsessed with what the enduring voice might say, I’m now interested in the imperatives to return and to find and how my speaker is implicated in advancing, thwarting, or even misunderstanding their survival. Carl Phillips’s Cortège, Linda Gregg’s Chosen by the Lion, and Paisley Rekdal’s forthcoming Nightingale have been instructive in my thinking about language not simply in terms of patterning and surprise but also as vector for enacting the daily struggles for agency, for healing a fragmented self. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song and Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing have likewise taught me ways to reengineer and render language as strange and ambiguous and mystic as my own thoughts. Take, for example, the last sentence in “A Model of a Machine.” Bang writes:
In the blank space between the following day and the previous night, you see the beauty of a propeller, for instance, and think, yes, I want that silver metal to mean something more than just flight.
I’ve indeed looked at what’s been my life and wanted it to mean more than what it’s meant. These authors, their books, their poems—they give me meaning and purpose each time I read them, each time I reread them again.
I am editing an edition of Kay Ryan’s prose, so I have been in Ryanlandia of late. It’s a very particular country, all angles and speed, quite enlivening. It will be a while before the book is available, but readers of Poetry can find some of the best pieces right on this website, including her brilliant and funny sojourn into the bowels of AWP.
I recommend Finestra’s Window by my friend Patricia Corbus. Most of these poems dwell in Florida, where Corbus’s father kept a shop of shells and other oceanic miscellany, and at Lake Michigan—two of water’s big bodies, silky and luscious until they thrash, then again after. Corbus’s lines tase themselves into the nervous system: zap of noise and rhythm, helpless muscular shimmy as I read, recall, and read again. From “Open the sky box, Uncle” to “a dizzy moon, its path fizzing, the mermaid road rising,” these poems fix their feet down to earth even as sights and sounds rollick shamelessly into cosmos and eternity. Tough customer that I am, I’m not even embarrassed—I roll over, all four paws up, kneading the air in delight. Word clusters seem to sui-generate unpremeditated meaning from assonance and rhyme, as in this hygenic caution to “free (the mind) from giddiness, lusts, gusts, gauds, bawds or flutterings”; likewise footloose swing-dancing meters, with lots of (my personal favorite) spondees: “a googol / of saints naked in top hats, caps, capes, fright wigs. Prison stripes.” Chew on the mouthfeel: “enchantments, bog sprites, cobwebs and ructions” or “Madame Mortmain tipping out a surly / stinking manikin in grave clothes to waltz.” Dig diction(s): “O mon brave, mon fur piece, mon hair shirt, mon bucko.” Find surprises and inappropriate comparisons such as “svelte buzzards” in “Cold Poem.” Stumble into the punch of ordinary helpless humanity in “Dead American Boy.”