Must-Read Poetry: July 2019

Here are five notable
books of poetry publishing in July.

In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail

In her note to this
collection, Mikhail explains that she drafted these poems “from right to left
and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I
only wrote them twice.” Each text, then, is “born on the tip of another tongue”;
an original creation that carries a shadow. Her title is developed in the book’s
first poem: in Arabic, “Feminine words are followed / by a circle with two dots
over it. / They call this symbol the tied
circle, / knotted with wishes / which come true only when forgotten / or
replaced by the wishes of others.” This feminine sign becomes a source of
wonder and longing, permeating Mikhail’s entire collection. Her settings range
from Baghdad to Detroit, but are connected by sound and her Chaldean Catholic
sense. Are the explosions fireworks, or bombs? Is there a difference to the
ear? When in Baghdad as a child, “we played dead: / we killed each other / with
plastic weapons”; now those games are no longer played, and the children, “motionless
/ on the floor,” no longer “laugh / or hold life / and rise.” Mikhail’s
solemnity arrives in clean lines and shaped stanzas: “Like communion bread /
your words dissolve in my mouth / and never die.” A beautiful book.

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic

In the book’s title poem, Simic begins with birth: “I was born—don’t know the hour— / Slapped on the ass / And handed over crying / To someone many years dead / In a country no longer on a map.” The narrator wonders about life: “Blessed or cursed—who is to say?” Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States, continues to write terse, witty poems with funny moments that also carry a solemn touch. “Skywalking” is a poem aware of mortality: “Much grief awaits us, friends. / From this day on / We’ll be testing our luck / Like a man stretching a wire / Between two skyscrapers.” Out and up there, folly bound to the wind, “We are likely to forget the man / Waving his arms up there / Like a scarecrow in a squall.” Other poems sneak into the book with breathless, cheeky brevity, as with “Haystack”: “Can you find in there / The straw that broke / Your mother’s back?”

No Matter by Jana Prikryl

“I think right now readers
of all genres put a lot of faith in language and its capacity to
reveal—possibly because we live in a time of unhinged political mendacity, so
it’s very comforting to believe that literature can provide direct access to
someone else’s uncomplicated truth?”—Prikryl has followed that conjecture with
her own personal skepticism of language: “For me, the excitement of writing
something like a poem usually resides in prodding and questioning the words
that claim to represent what my brain claims to want to be saying.” No Matter is full of ambiguity and
discovery; poems that move around the linear and logical. Her surprisingly mellifluous
order comes, I think, from a spatial sense. From “Real”: “In which the studio /
grows L-shaped, with an alcove / for the bed, you modest dream, in which the
railroad / widens sideways.” From “Garden”: “I climbed to a railroad apartment
/ long in all directions, known as an open-plan office / the lights were out
anyway / to signify canapés, / at large but shouting / endless prayer.” From “Santo
Stefano Rotondo”: “Come, walk this path / between flapping tarps / holding back
on either side / construction sites // the way a bedsheet hides” labor; how, “Looking
back the path narrows / (memory a scarce resource) / and bends, takes on the
gentle / curve of the earth as if in the space / of that city it were given
your body / to feel for itself the four inches / up and four inches down / per
mile the planet swells.” A deft collection.

Feel Free by Nick Laird

Laird is by turns witty and sentimental, and I think that mixture compels me more toward poems of the latter mode, as in “Silk Cut”: “I was five and stood beside my dad / at a junction somewhere in Dublin / when I slipped my hand in his / and met the red end of a cigarette.” Years pass, cynicism and pain accrues, and then father and son get a pint. The old man’s “voice tears up a bit // about the emptiness in the house.” Later, “waiting / at the turn for the traffic, / when I find / I have to stop my hand from taking his.” Then there’s the moving lines of “Incantation”: “Depending where one stands, each circle / back is a possible fall, a fail, a spiral, / and I would like you to take a few seconds / to write me out one beautiful sentence / to carry now across the night and ocean.” Feel Free never feels maudlin, though, because Laird reminds us to not get too complacent, as in “Temple of Last Resort”: “I wanted the real God to turn and say //  I was just kidding. // About everything.”

Spiritual Exercises by Mark Yakich

“For me, being irreverent
involves a much deeper understanding of reverence,” Yakich says. “It’s like
satire: how does one really fathom something? One makes fun of it in a serious
way.” I wouldn’t consider Spiritual
Exercises merely a jumpy jeremiad against the titular meditations from
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits—I think Yakich is a better
poet than that. His new book continues a tradition of Catholic irreverence (we’ve
seen it in fiction with James Joyce, John Kennedy Toole, and the legion of the
literary lapsed). The best poems in Yakich’s skilled book play with the porous
border between the profane and the sacred. The raunch realism of “Biblical”: “Just
shy of the surface, fish rise / And die, gleaming more / Beautifully when
belly-up.” The curious truths of “Empathy”: “It’s a bit unnerving, for
instance, / To watch someone else extract // A broken wineglass from the
garbage / Disposal.” And yet, how “oddly satisfying to / Dig out those same
shards oneself, / One by one, tenderly, until a finger’s // Pricked.” Empathy, “as
a method of penitence,” rarely “soothes”—but “As a display of // Affection, it’s
nearly foolproof.” Ignatius, smirking, would be proud.

Get on Your Knees Again: Featured Poetry by Mark Yakich

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Spiritual Exercises by Mark Yakich, a writer whose mixture of irreverence and the sublime results in a unique tone. Yakich always feels one line away from a joke or an epiphany, making “Revelations” an appropriate title for his style. So anaphoric that it feels like an incantation, Yakich’s poem compels us to read it forward and backward: a structure ready for descent and ascension.

“Revelations”
When they say, Time heals all wounds,They mean, Worlds.
When they say, Worlds,They mean, You won’t even recall how much you’ll forget.
When they say, Forget,They mean, Someday you won’t know the name of your daughter.
When they say, Daughter,They mean, God.
When they say, God,They mean, Eternity.
When they say, Eternity,They mean, Until you are gone, too.
When they say, Gone,They mean, Everyone.
When they say, Everyone,They mean, We have no idea what happens after this.
When they say, This,They mean, Words.
When they say, Words,They mean, Meaning.
When they say, Meaning,They mean, That which passes for understanding.
When they say, Understanding,They mean, Peace.
When they say, Peace,They mean, By which the end is justified.
When they say, Justified,They mean, Amen.
When they say, Amen,They mean, Say no more.
When they say, More,They mean, Get on your knees again.
When they say, Again,They mean, Love, Love, Love.

From Spiritual Exercises by Mark Yakich, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Yakich.

A Meditation on Exclamation Marks in Contemporary Poetry (!)

“I always got the exclamation mark at the end— / a mere grimace, a small curse.” Luljeta Lleshanaku, in her poem “Negative Space,” writes how she would wait her turn during a reading circle in first grade: “A long sentence tied us to one another / without connotation as if inside an idiom.” Other children would get nouns, verbs, and pronouns, but she was stuck with that vertical punctuation. Likewise, for many contemporary poets, the exclamation mark is a mere grimace; for others, a small curse. It was not always this way.

The Italian writer Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed to have invented the exclamation mark in the 1360s as a way to enunciate admiration rather than a question. In his book The English Grammar (1640), Ben Jonson again stresses the element of admiration, and quotes from Chaucer: “Alas! what harm doth appearance / When it is false in existence!”

Eric Weiskott, in his consideration of how translators shift the punctuation of Beowulf, told the wider history of the exclamation mark: “As the novelty of pointing common interjections wore off, writers reinterpreted the grammatical criterion as a tonal one, and the point of admiration became the point of exclamation.” He credits the “marketing of the first commercial typewriter in 1870” and the “rise of the modern psychological novel, with its penchant for expressive pointing in dialogue” as completing the punctuation mark’s shift from admiration to exclamation.

Older poems teem with the mark. William Wordsworth used three exclamation points in “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” all in the sonnet’s final four lines: “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”

Emily Dickinson used them often in her early poems. Cristanne Miller thinks Dickinson’s exclamation marks were similar to her question marks: “As conclusions to poems, both indicate that what appears to be true is not always to be trusted, that surprising events may disrupt impressions or assumptions.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a stylistic wonder, littered his poems with punctuation. He was an aural poet, and knew punctuation could pinch the page—lift his words at the right moments. His poems are full of exclamation marks. “The Windhover,” dedicated “To Christ our Lord,” includes two line-ending exclamations, perhaps the only way Hopkins saw fit to communicate the sincerity of his faith.

Yet other poems, like “Pied
Beauty,” were comparatively muted. Hopkins was a master of pacing, and it seems
like he’s going to end his poem with an exclamation point, but the tease is
without the expected satisfaction: “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle,
dim; / He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” It makes
perfect sense: Hopkins is talking to his readers, and not God—for whom he saves
his exclamations.

Exclamation marks are not exactly
rare in contemporary poetry—but they are occasional enough for us to take
notice. For all their ubiquity in texts and emails, exclamation marks call
attention toward themselves in poems: they stand straight up.

One of my favorite exclamation marks in recent poetry is in the poem “Undressed” by Kristen Tracy from Half-Hazard. “Part of me wants to throw this ring back,” a woman narrates, “but part of me is happy to have a diamond. / Is love sad?” There is a part of her that wants “to chew the ring up // and die,” and it is that part of herself that most attracts her: she wants to “mend its mittens / and kiss it on the mouth.”

She wavers. Does she want to
stand at the altar? Could she really share a closet? She hears the “clamor of
my lover’s / shoes” traveling across the floor, and “they vibrate in my ring.”
There’s no way his steps could cause such shaking “unless my lover travels like
/ King Kong,” but the implication is clear: he’s home now, and she’s taken out
of the reverie. In the poem’s penultimate line, Tracy adds a parenthetical: “(I
think I love this ring!). It is an interjection within her thoughts. A push
back against the part of her that doesn’t want to get married. It’s a perfectly
timed injunction against the self; a demonstration of how an exclamation mark
can make an entire poem work.

Another recent poem, “Sunset on 14th Street” by Alex Dimitrov, has six exclamation points, and each one feels just right. The opening lines of the poem, “I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately,” are parallel in length and rhythm, and set the tone. When the narrator says “I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself,” we know that he can, but he doesn’t want to—and often those two things are the same.

Dimitrov’s exclamation points
serve as enunciations—observations about the world, us, and the narrator, as
when he says “I’m broke and lonely / in Manhattan—though of course / I’ll never
say it—and besides / it’s almost spring. It’s fine / It’s goth. Hello!” The
poem accumulates toward an exhortation for us to stop “performing our great politics”;
after all, we are “Still terrible / and awful. / Awful and pretending / we’re
not terrible. Such righteous / saints!” Yet Dimitrov’s poem ends with a gentler
declaration: “Look at the sky. Kiss everyone / you can for sure.”

I love when poets use punctuation to control us, to slow us, to focus us. Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”: “Some of the passengers / exclaim in whispers, / childishly, softly,”. Maybe exclamation marks are not shouts. Sometimes a whisper is the loudest sound.

Image credit: Flickr/James St. John.

Celebrity Culture and the Mechanics of Fame

There’s a section of Sharon Marcus’s wonderful new book, The Drama of Celebrity, in which she examines the dizzying appeal of actress Sarah Bernhardt: “Why did hundreds of thousands the world over, including drama critics hired to be professional skeptics, find [Bernhardt] so powerfully attractive and so attractively powerful?” Marcus describes how Bernhardt—praised even by Henry James—had a “superlative management of her own body.” Marcus settles into a meticulous and fascinating discussion of how contemporary audiences and critics pored over Bernhardt’s every turn, pause, flail, and thrust.

The Drama of Celebrity is full of these moments; part interesting anecdote, part revealing analysis. The idea of celebrity is at once everywhere and difficult to understand, but Marcus offers a robust consideration of charisma, fandom, and media. Marcus teaches at Columbia University, where she is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature. A founding editor of Public Books, she is the author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.

We spoke about defiant celebrities, the
parallels between religion and fandom, and who might be to blame for celebrity
culture.

The Millions: In your introduction to the book, you explain that traditionally, media scholars have thought that there are three origins of celebrity, each competing with the others. First, that “celebrities themselves charm the media and wow the public.” Second: “the public decides who will be a star.” Third: “producers, publicists, and journalists determine who will be a celebrity.” Can you summarize your new theory of celebrity culture—and why you think readers should pay attention to the creation of celebrity in America?

Sharon Marcus: All of the theories cited above are wrong—because all of them are right. No one group has a monopoly on creating celebrity. Instead, celebrity culture is a drama involving three equally powerful groups: media producers, members of the public, and celebrities themselves. All three groups have agency, so all three groups influence the tales we tell about celebrities and fans, with none exercising full control. Stars aren’t always (or even often) pawns; members of the public aren’t all dupes all of the time; journalists and publicists are rarely omnipotent Svengalis. It’s the interactions of media, publics, and stars that create celebrity culture, and those interactions are dynamic and unpredictable. Publics engage with celebrity both as onlookers and as active participants—and have been doing so for a long time.

In an era when celebrities can exercise a lot of influence, it’s
important to understand how celebrity works; to recognize that celebrities are
not simply good or bad, deserving or undeserving; and to be aware that
celebrity culture is much older than the internet, People magazine, or Hollywood. As I like to say, if you don’t like
celebrity culture, don’t blame the internet: blame everyone. 

TM: Actress Sarah Bernhardt
(1844-1923), whom you call the “godmother of modern celebrity culture,” is an
absolutely fascinating figure—and her life is the perfect through-line and
refrain for your broader arguments about celebrity culture. How did you first
discover her life and work, and what drew you to her story as a foundational
element of this book?

SM: Sarah Bernhardt has fascinated people for over a century. She belongs to a genealogy of great performers with powerful personas and strong aesthetic visions: Bette Davis, Maria Callas, Laurence Olivier, Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga. Like some of the people on this list, she was outrageous and liked to push limits. Like others on the list, she was a brilliant, highly-respected artist, hailed in her lifetime as a genius and still recognized as one of the very greatest actors of her era, which spanned the 1870s through the 1910s. 

Even better, Bernhardt’s story was triumphant rather than tragic. Her personal life was that rare combination: happy and interesting. She was a single mother who remained close to her only child, a son, who made her a contented grandmother. Her one legal marriage didn’t last long, but she had a lifelong relationship with the painter Louise Abbéma that seems to have given both women freedom to pursue other sexual interests. I’d describe Bernhardt as omnisexual. For most of her life Bernhardt also had a satisfying relationship to her work, and an incredibly successful, long-lasting career. She was classically trained in the 1860s and admitted to France’s prestigious national theater, but she found that too confining and left it to become a free agent. Between 1880 and 1882, she toured Europe, the U.S., and Canada, as well as provincial France.  Her earnings from those tours gave her the resources to lease her own theaters, in effect becoming producer, director, and star. For the rest of her life, she thoroughly enjoyed her freedom to call her own shots.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who
Bernhardt was, although my childhood obsessions were more focused on Hollywood.
 That may be why I only began to
understand how pivotal Bernhardt was to understanding the history of celebrity after
my scholarly work took a turn towards theater history.

In 2003, I became a professor in Columbia University’s department of English and comparative literature, which also houses a theater Ph.D. program. Like most students and scholars of 19th-century literature, I had read only a handful of plays as part of my doctoral training. But once I began to work more with people whose focus was drama, I saw how important theater was to the 19th century.

In the 19th century, millions of people attended the theater each year in London, Paris, New York, Chicago—who knew? No one had ever mentioned that in any of my graduate seminars. Plays by Dion Boucicault, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Victorien Sardou were more popular than most novels. Thanks to steamships and railways, actors and plays could travel, and 19th-century theater culture was genuinely global, making dozens of stage actors household names in many countries.

I realized that to understand the 19th century, I had to understand theater. And if I wanted to understand theater, I had to focus on the actors who were theater’s main attractions. That led me to Bernhardt, the 19th century’s best-known actor, and one of the first modern celebrities.

TM: I grew up in New Jersey during the 1990s, where Donald Trump’s penchant for spectacle was regular news—so it surprised me when people seemed confounded by the speed of his political ascension. You skillfully examine Trump at select moments in The Drama of Celebrity, including in your chapter titled “Defiance.” How might understanding the social elements of celebrity defiance, as well as celebrity culture in general, help us understand the rise of Trump?

SM: Celebrities often represent our ideals, and for some, normalcy is an ideal, which leads to stars who embody the norm du jour. But celebrity culture also shows that normalcy is not our only ideal, because figures like Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Madonna, and Lady Gaga became celebrities by being openly indifferent to norms.

I would not say that Trump is typical of most
defiant celebrities. True, he shows contempt for rules that most other people
and certainly other presidents at least pretended to follow. But stars like
Muhammad Ali and Lady Gaga broke rules in order to expand possibilities for
marginalized people. Trump disregards norms to expand possibilities for
himself, and to assert the right of straight white men to do and say whatever
they feel like. To my mind that makes him a bully, but Trump’s supporters see
him as a maverick.

Defiant celebrities exist across the political
spectrum. That suggests there’s something we like about defiance itself. What
might that be? As social creatures, we have to follow a lot of rules; in
exchange, we reap the benefits of belonging to a collective. But that doesn’t
mean we don’t dream of being able to enjoy those benefits without paying their
costs. Celebrities have wealth, status, power; their success is social. When
they succeed despite defying convention, they make it seem possible that
someone could be rewarded by society for openly disdaining what society holds
most dear: its power to regulate individual excess. The spectacle of celebrity
defiance lets us indulge the anti-social fantasy of getting something for
nothing. And because social existence can be exhausting and constraining, many
of us like to indulge in anti-social fantasies.

TM: “Fandom is often about excess, fantasy, and obsession,” you write. “Audiences under the spell of celebrity attraction daydream, sigh, weep, faint, shriek, roar, and swarm. Whether stampeding or swooning, fans treasure the ecstatic experience of feeling their autonomy, reason, and individuality melt away under the influence of the stars.” I love those sentences from your “Sensation” chapter. Could you talk more about fandom as an ecstatic phenomenon (or perhaps even as a religious one)?

SM: There are many parallels to draw between religion and fandom, depending on how one defines religion. Historian Peter Brown understands religion as fulfilling mundane social needs, so he interprets Christian saints as evolving from pre-Christian patronage systems. People went from asking powerful living friends to intercede on their behalf to praying to dead saints for help. Centuries later, people sought help from celebrities. World-renowned actor Edwin Booth received hundreds of letters between 1860 and 1890; many of his correspondents asked him for advice, money, jobs, and free acting lessons.

We can also define religion as offering transcendent experiences that take us out of ourselves. There too, fandom can resemble or be a religious experience. Fans invest favorite celebrities with superhuman powers, just as believers do with gods. Just as many people find ways to connect to a god they will never see or touch, fans turn stars into imaginary friends. Fans often worship in groups, whether attending a baseball game or a stadium concert. Being part of a crowd can amplify emotion and intensify belief just as a religious service can. A few years ago, I was walking along Seventh Avenue in New York City when suddenly a bunch of teenagers ran past me, screaming “Nicki! Nicki!” They were rushing to surround a limousine carrying Nicki Minaj to a concert. I don’t usually like crowds, but at that moment, I felt the thrill of being in the middle of one.

Ecstatic fandom isn’t always about melting into a collective, though. Star worship can be a surprisingly private experience. There’s a specific thrill to knowing that you can gather material about someone who is by definition known to millions of people, and sequester yourself with it. Many fans develop quirky and secretive relationships to celebrity media, and their behaviors are interesting and important. To research The Drama of Celebrity, I looked at hundreds of scrapbooks from the years between 1880 and 1920, and many seemed very private and internal. One man living in Rochester, N.Y., almost never went to the theater in person—his albums included only a few theater program and ticket stubs. Instead, he clipped material from newspapers and magazines in order to document almost every play, opera, or film mounted in New York City annually. High, low, middle, he didn’t care: pictures from vaudeville acts and follies appear next to reviews of avant-garde European theater troupes. The act of reading about performances meant more to him than attending them; he found mediation more alluring than immediacy.

People who attended live performances often
had a surprisingly individual experience of them. Sarah Bernhardt drew big
crowds, yet people describing what it was like to see her perform often give
the impression that they were alone with her in the theater; they rarely
describe their neighbors’ reactions. It’s as though their awareness of her
blocked out everyone else present. The experience was ecstatic because she took
theatergoers out of themselves by absorbing them completely in her performance.

TM: You engage critic Henry Jenkins’s seminal book, Textual Poachers (1992), which you say “radically transformed celebrity studies.” Jenkins’s position on active fandoms always struck me as interesting, yet rather optimistic—so your rethinking of this conception is quite useful. Now, in 2019, do you think the typical fan is active or passive (and does this depend on the medium of the content, art, or work that is experienced)?

SM: Henry Jenkins aimed to redeem
fans by showing that they are not passive but active, not consumers but
producers, not isolated weirdos but members of thriving communities. But what’s
so bad about being an isolated weirdo, or consuming art instead of creating it?
To the extent that Jenkins was saying that fandom blurs the line between consuming
and producing, his ideas in 1992 were very prescient. But often Textual Poachers aims to present fans as
authors in the most conventional sense: autonomous agents who produce freestanding,
original works. That kind of fan is not typical. Few fans are writing fan
fiction or even online reviews. Most of them are not even bothering to dress up
as their favorite stars for Halloween.

Most fans hover somewhere between activity and
passivity, or toggle between them, no matter where their interests lie—sports,
music, movies, dog shows, ice sculpting. You can be a fan by engaging in
reverie and contemplation. You can be a fan by being a collector, compiler, and
arranger. You can be a researcher. You can be an imitator or impersonator. You
can be a groupie or a stalker. You can be a creator. The ability to occupy so
many different positions is part of the appeal.  

TM: Your book offers important new ways to think about so many elements of celebrity culture, and I appreciate your willingness to rethink foundational critical principles, such as Walter Benjamin’s theories of mechanical reproduction and originality. Rather than destroying “the actor’s singular aura,” you argue that “the age of mechanical reproducibility gave rise to its own version of aura,” what could be coined the “halo of the multiple.” Do you see the possibility of endless reproduction (and manipulation) of image as ultimately benefiting the celebrity’s power, or could it be seen as undermining it?

SM: Western culture has a bias
against copies which have for centuries been viewed as diluted, marred, false,
unoriginal, secondary. I find this odd, because culture exists only because of
our capacity for copying and multiplication. When it comes to celebrity, any
publicist will tell you that proliferation is always a good thing. Stars can
afford to be selective about where their image appears only after they have
become instantly recognizable. And how do they become instantly recognizable?
By having their image, name, and story reproduced multiple times, so that more
and more people become exposed to them.

Despite his claim that film celebrity was
invented to compensate for the disappearance the live actor’s body, I think
that Walter Benjamin recognized that multiplication generates its own glamor.
He equated the aura associated with unique objects one had to travel to see
with their “cult value,” but he also noted that the era of mass reproducibility
had created an “exhibition value” associated with visibility. Celebrities have
cult value and exhibition value. As
real people who can be physically present in only one place at a time, they
have the aura that Benjamin associated with cult value. And as representations
who circulate as copies, celebrities also become endowed with what I call the halo
of the multiple.

TM: Your book is written in such
an effective, engaging mode: meticulously-researched anecdotes and scenes build
toward a broader historical argument about celebrity culture leading to the
present, and there’s also a very empathetic tone here—you seem truly curious
about, and sympathetic to, the lives of fans. How have you experienced fandom
in your own life? How have you perceived celebrities?

SM: I grew up in New York City in the 1970s watching old movies on network television and at the public library. The Academy Awards were a much bigger deal then than they are now, and when I was around eight, I took out a library book about the Oscars, memorized all the major categories, and bugged my parents to quiz me about them. My father liked movies, and knew a lot about them, so the quizzes often led to impromptu lectures. He’d ask me who won the Academy Award for best actor in 1936, I’d say Paul Muni, then he’d tell me about five other movies Muni made, what studios he worked for, and his early work in Yiddish theater.   

My Academy Award book got me interested in Vivien Leigh, who won two Oscars for Best Actress. I acquired my first research skills in order to learn more about her. I figured out how to use an index so that I could see more quickly if a book in the film section of the library discussed her. I learned how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (it was the olden days) to track down articles about her. I even learned how to use a microfilm machine in order to read New York Times reviews of all of Vivien Leigh’s films and theater performances. (A belated thank you to all the librarians at my local public library who let a 12-year-old handle microfilm.)

When I found books about Vivien Leigh in used
bookstores, I bought them. I even began to cut out the pictures and assemble them
in a scrapbook. So even though in adult life I am not much of a fan, I do
remember what it feels like to be obsessed with a celebrity. And because the
celebrity who interested me died the year after I was born, I never perceived
celebrities as people one would seek out in real life.  They always seemed simultaneously close and
distant, present and absent. Stars were people we could picture easily but
never really know, people we might read about in books—or someday write a book
about ourselves. 

Whatever Dirt or Blemish Upon Her Name: Featured Poetry by Eugene Gloria

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Eugene Gloria from his new book, Sightseer in This Killing City, a skilled and fevered examination of strife in the Philippines and the United States. Even Gloria’s domestic poems, like “The Maid,” carry the drama of a poet attuned to how national tension seeps through our walls and shakes our sleep. The poem is bereft of punctuation, save for the em dash near its conclusion, creating a compressed, intense feel. Even within his tense lines, Gloria manages the grace of individual images, like how the maid’s skirt is “a bloomful / Tent for tiny boys cooling with scent of sea air.” This is a poem about secrets and blemishes, told with details that make you want to close your eyes and savor the talented lines.

“The Maid”
Before she let her go not a speck of dirtSullied her bleached blouse except for the darkRope of hair she sometimes coiled intoA tidy bun with beaded sweat gracing theMandarin collar and a pressed hanky the sunLurking so the hanky became both veil andRag unlike her skirt a bloomfulTent for tiny boys cooling with scent of sea airAir rifling through the trees andBloomful sheets with camisoles on the lineAnd the flag flutter warning of forbidden zonesSun scorching the grass into oaken fieldsThe yard where we hunted dragonflies wellInto dinnertime or thereabouts untilDark I suppose or when rain fell—WhateverDirt or blemish upon her name only my mother knew

From Sightseer in This Killing City by Eugene Gloria, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Eugene Gloria.

Must-Read Poetry: June 2019

Here are five notable
books of poetry publishing in June.

Sightseer in This Killing City by Eugene Gloria

“To whom does God pray?
Does He ever sleep? / Why did Judas hang himself?” In Drivers at the Short-Time Motel, Eugene Gloria’s debut back in
2000, the young narrator questions his father, who “clears his voice, / says
nothing, his silence / the very shape of our distance.” Nearly 20 years later,
Gloria’s fourth collection, Sightseer in
This Killing City continues his themes of family, silence, and wonder, but his
poetry has evolved into an even more deft lineation: original phrasings, unique
imagery, and lasting emotions. Gloria is full of surprises. “Apron” gives
curious life to the functional garment which is “agreeable / as a kitchen
mantle with ripening fruit.” Middle-aged, “the apron aspires to stand before /
sinners and saints and carve / verses on stone: Mon Coeur mis à nu, / she’ll tattoo on your chest.” Gloria takes
his illuminating eye to varied subjects: the war on drugs, Thelonious Monk, fathers,
coffins, Dante, and more. We get the sense that Gloria can write about
anything, and can do it well—a rare gift. “There’s only lyric,” Gloria writes
in one poem, “the rest is merely prose.”

Robert Schumann Is Mad Again by Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie once said he
composed most of his poems between midnight and 4 am. He handwrote the first
drafts, typed the next two drafts on typewriters, read the third draft into a
tape recorder (and listened to it again and again, making changes), before
reading it the next day at breakfast. “I look at the poem and choose to keep it
for more work, or I junk it.” Dubie’s poems have that feel: born of late night
frenzy, chiseled into skilled creations that retain shades of strangeness. Some
poems, like “Homage to St. Geraud,” blaze in their brevity: “Sometimes
believing in the beauty / of the fresh elevated incarnate existences / of the
wheel, he wishes instead // for an eternal status, a / stone and fetal sleep /
like that of the uncollected dead / under the linen snows on Everest.” Others,
like “In the Choir Loft,” stretch across pages, from precision to irreverence
and back again. An old church, damaged by fire, has been demolished: “snow
collapsed the slate roof / as if in boxes.” The “giant crucifix / launched
almost across the frozen pond.” The remaining priest emerges as if from a dream
(which, of course, this might be!): “in his nightshirt, / holding a single candle.”
He thinks of the ghost of a Nova Scotia nun that he once loved. The old priest “finally
confessed / he was boiling eggs” on the gas stove, which lead to the flames.
Dubie’s poems often feel a bit askew—but maybe he sees the world a bit sharper
than others.

1919 by Eve L. Ewing

In her introduction to
this book, Ewing explains discovering a 1922 government report, The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race
Relations and a Race Riot. Although she was first interested in learning
more “about housing segregation at the beginning of the Great Migration” for
her most recent scholarly book, Ewing became interested in other passages from
the report. “The report,” she writes, “was like an old tapestry with loose
threads stick out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel,
see what new thing I could weave.” 1919 is
a worthy result. The book begins with that migration of black southerners to
Chicago; an exodus that arrives in a litany of names about to leave. “And the
people gathered at the bank and bade them farewell,” Ewing writes, “and the
river carried them far from the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of
browning blood.” Ewing has powers of inhabitation here: She is with the people
during “quiet nights in the railyard” and then alone, in the city, on “hard
black ground.” In one poem, “Coming from the Stock Yards,” the narrator speaks
about how he “called myself a scholar in Georgia, though that was part fancy,”
but in Chicago he must start anew: “each one of us a foundry. / hands to cut,
to carry. knees to bend. this is still new to me.” A mixture of grand voices,
hushed laments, and ardent dreams, 1919 resurrects
forgotten history.

Aug 9 — Fog by Kathryn Scanlan

The longest text in this
book is Scanlan’s introduction. She explains that the contents of the book are “drawn
from a stranger’s diary.” She’d found the diary 15 years earlier, among
unsold items from a public estate auction. The actual diary is decayed and
withering. The pages are no longer connected to the spine; the binding is
broken and taped. The diary was written by an 86-year-old Illinois woman,
started in 1968 and finished in 1972. Scanlan read the diary, “typed out the
sentences that caught my attention,” and then began mixing and editing them. Scanlan
feels she has become the diarist, and
wonders: “Is it some kind of sacred text—meant for me alone?” Her project will
certainly compel strong reaction, but the product is absolutely fascinating.
Its poetic identity comes from its epigrammatic structure; its imagistic touch.
A dream-like narrative emerges here, as if from the titular fog. “Maude ate
good breakfast, oatmeal, poached eggs, little sausage. Maude ate her dinner
party good. A letter from Lloyd saying John died the 16th.” The book
unfolds this way, in epistle-whispers, all secrets. A terribly melancholic book
that somehow manages to carry affirmation; perhaps it is in the transcendence
of the old woman’s voice, its dogged survival to our digital present. “All
kinds of roads. Dead end roads, roads under construction, cow paths & etc
but had a good time, a grand day.”

The Milk Hours by John James

A single poem never
contains a full book, but the titular poem of James’s collection comes close.
The first poem, “The Milk Hours,” is invoked to two people: the narrator’s
father, who died in 1993, and the narrator’s daughter, born in 2013. The space
between those years is poetic itself. The poem’s lines are mysterious,
ethereal: “The room opens up into white and more white, sun outside / between
steeples.” The milk hours, and their “suckling sound,” are hymns that drift the
narrator to sleep—to dream of his father, although perhaps “what gun, what type”
used no longer matters. “The chopped / copses glisten,” James writes. “Snowmelt
smoothes the stone cuts of his name.” Poems in this collection drift to other
subjects, but they retain this feeling: souls rooted in the ground. Treed.
Planted. “In the catacombs I am impatient. / In this hall shuttling between //
one world and the next, from / nothing to being and back again.”

Even the Sun Itself Has Faded: Featured Poetry by Norman Dubie

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Norman Dubie from his new book, Robert Schumann Is Mad Again, an eclectic and inventive collection. There’s often an irreverent touch to Dubie’s lines, but his language is painfully precise—with an unnerving feel, as if we are looking at the world around us with new eyes. “Zone” begins with a “flag utterly bleached with years of sun, / seemingly made thin with turpentine” — lines that imply color, texture, smell, age, decay, and more. His later description of the flag “rioting with the wind” is such an arresting image, its precision unsettling; a preface, perhaps, for the darkness that invades the rest of the poem.

“Zone”
A flag utterly bleached with years of sun,seemingly made thin with turpentine, isan achievement in the yard of yellow grass.Even the sun itself has fadedsetting in the bee tenement of bearded palms.The flag, nearly detached from its pole,is somehow rioting with the wind.
This is just the first of six months of heatand already a neighbor has been founddead on his patio with a revolverof glassy obsidian fallen to his sandals.He told the maintenance man in the afternoonhe believed those bees were wasps and they,they were going to attack him and his tea, flyinglike zeros right out of the sun that will have blinded him.
John said the lawn mowers prevented himfrom understanding what else he said, the facetruly reddening with the small success of evening.

Copyright 2019 Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Copper Canyon Press.

My Mother Once Gave Up Her Savior: Featured Poetry by Tina Chang

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Tina Chang from her new book, Hybrida. “Mankind Is So Fallible” is a lovely, ambitious poem about the mysteries of belief. Chang’s lines are simultaneously gentle but jarring: we are eased into the murky and mystical place of faith. In Chang’s poem, the narrator’s mother sets aside God—”She no longer believed in the unseen”—leading the narrator to wonder with what one might replace the divine. Perhaps belief “could be as simple as sleep, curling inward / toward an avalanche of hummingbirds.” This poem thrums like that small, beautiful bird’s wings.

“Mankind Is So Fallible”
We lie down to the day as if we could fleefrom the body’s burden. On the ground are notes,candles, a saint’s face painted alive with gold.
Where does God live if not in the shadowsof struggle, marching next to the living,with battlements and a slogan, knowing
faintly more than we do? Someone dispatchesa call for help. Someone notes the patcheson a man’s jacket. Somewhere there is a circle
of people praying and dying at once, the lossof which makes a narrative rain downin news feeds across frames of light.
~
My mother once gave up her savior,walked into our living room to professher love for the here and now.
She no longer believed in the unseen,could no longer bow to invisible idols.She sat on the chair in front of me
more mortal than she ever was, face lit with resolve, done with faith,done with the promise of rapture.
Somewhere, glass breaksand the one who shatters itwears a mask of God’s many faces.
~
How would the body be summonedif we started over? Imagine a blank bookin which the body is drawn.
Would the body lie horizontal like a violinwhose music plays off-key or would it standupright like a totem pole against its own weather?
I place a book under my pillowas the ancient Japanese courtesans didto dream the body into being.
Wind gathers from the past until I am walkingin snow. The arms and legs move in unisonwith the mind, an engine of sinew and meat.
How should I draw it, not the bodybut what it contains. Not its contoursbut its tensions. Not its stew of blood
and clattering bones but its promise.I prefer now to think of the body’s debtand what it owes to the ledger of the living.
~
I imagine the courtesans rising from sleep,hair rushing to the waist like ink. They rubtheir eyes of dream, tighten their robes
as they lift the book from beneath their pillowas if urging a stone from its bedrock.How would they think of the body then,
having wakened from that placeone could describe as near death.Instead, the body startles forward toward infinity.
~
The courtesan runs her hand along the page,feels the blank space, an urgent bell summons her.Dips her brush in ink and draws a line through emptiness.
When a young man enters a church,he seeks a furnace to burn away his hatredand a foundation on which to kneel.
He seeks his mother’s mercyand his father’s vengeance. He passes throughthe doors and we call this worship.
If it could be as simple as sleep, curling inwardtoward an avalanche of hummingbirds, the mindfreeing itself as the body lets go its earthly wreckage.
If it could be like enduring the wholeness of a dreamso real we dissolve into a veil of the past,wind dragged backward, so brutal in its disappearance.

Reprinted from Hybrida: Poems. Copyright © 2019 by Tina Chang. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.

A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”

I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”

Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”

Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”

We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”

A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”

Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”  

I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”

She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
there?”

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.

This Is the Fruit I’ll Never Die For: Featured Poetry by Paisley Rekdal

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Paisley Rekdal from her new book, Nightingale, a careful, hypnotic work. The book opens with “Psalm,” a poem about a narrator’s observation of her impatient, earnest neighbor, who, despite the “ice-sheathed” branches, “waits, with her ladder and sack, for something to break.” In “Pear,” the longing for fruit returns in a meticulous poem that shows Rekdal’s vision and storytelling gifts. “It is not a sin / to eat one,” she writes, “though you may think // of a woman’s body as you do it, / the bell-shaped swell of it / rich in your hand.” By turns sensual and sweet, Rekdal’s narrator captures the many facets of hunger.

 
Pear                                                                                                      after Susan StewartNo one ever died for a biteof one, or came back from the deadfor a single taste: the cool fleshcellular or stony, white
as the belly of the winter hareor a doe’s scut, flicking,before she mates. Even an unripe one
is delicious, its crisp bite cleaneralmost than water and its many namesjust as inviting: Bartlett and Comice,
Anjou, Nashi, Concordeand Seckel, the pomegranate-skinnedStarkrimson, even the medieval
Bosc, which looks like it droppedfrom an oil painting. It is not a sinto eat one, though you may think
of a woman’s body as you do it,the bell-shaped swell of itrich in your hand, and for this reason
it was sacred to Venus, Juno, all womencelebrated or dismissedin its shape, that mealy sweetnesstunneling from its center, a gold
that sinks back into itself with age.To ripen a pear, wrap it in paper,lay it in cloth by an open window
or slip a rotten one beside iton a metal dish: dying cells call alwaysto the fresh ones, the body’s
siren song that, having heardit once, we can’t stop singing.This is not the fruit
 
that will send you to hellnor keep you there;it will not give you knowledge,
childbirth, power, or love:you won’t know more painfor having eaten one, or chokeon a bite to fall asleep
under glass. It has no usefor archer or hero, thoughanything you desire from an apple
you can do with the pear, like a dark sisterwith whom you might live outyour secret desires. Cook it
in wine, mull it with spices, roast itwith honey and cloves. Time sweetensand we taste it, so gather the fruit
weeks before ripeness,let summer and winter bothsimmer inside, for it is
a fall fruit whose name in Chinameans separation, though only the fearfulwon’t eat one with those they love.
To grow a tree from seed,you’ll need a gardenand a grafting quince, bees, a ladder,
shears, a jug; you’ll need waterand patience, sun and mud,a reverence for the elders
who told no true storiesof this fruit’s origin,wanting to give us the freedomof one thing that’s pleasure alone.
Cool and sweet, cellular and stony,this is the fruit I’ll never die for,nor come back from the dead
for a single taste.The juice of the pearshines on my cheeks.
There is no curse in it. I’ll eatwhat I like and throw the restto the grasses. The seeds
will find whatever soils they were meant for.

Copyright 2019 Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Copper Canyon Press.