Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

Maybe this is the result of going on long runs in the woods, but I am pulled toward itinerant literature: the whisky priest moving across the Mexico countryside in The Power and the Glory, the Bundrens bungling their way across Mississippi in As I Lay Dying, Sethe moving from a past she can never leave behind in Beloved. I like books that move.

On the Road with Saint Augustine by James K.A. Smith moves (and moved me). Smith mines the fascinating life of Augustine, his writings, and how applicable his vision and experience are to our modern anxieties. Don’t miss the “Fathers” chapter, where Smith gets poetic and personal. 

Smith recently talked all things Augustine (and more) at Seattle’s Hugo House with Garth Greenwell, whose novella Mitko I’ve been returning to recently for a sense of moving—of syntax and sense, in his Augustinian moments and even the smaller touches (“After crossing a little wooden footbridge, at the middle of which I stopped for a moment, peering at the churning waters and feeling their vibration in the structure that held me above them, I found a small cafe nestled in a bend in the river, on a plot of land the waters had spared.”). How that sentence moves, the commas like gestures—handing one phrase over to another.

I’ve been moved often by the poetry of Rose McLarney (including her new book, Forage), so I was pleased to see her co-edit a book with Laura-Gray Street: A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia. It is a treat to hold and a pleasure to look at: beautiful illustrations paired with place. There are poems here to the Single-Sorus Spleenwort and the Wine-Leaved Cinquefoil; to the Eastern Wood Rat and the Northern Long-Eared Bat; to the Black-Throated Blue Warbler, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Painted Turtle, the Mottled Sculpin, the Fat Pocketbook Mussel, and Thorell’s Lampshade Spider. There’s even a poem to the American Caesar’s Mushroom: “As the slender stem rises, red / And relentless as mountain sunrise, / As coal fires burning around us.”

Even the Dark by Leslie Williams moves in its own way, from pauses to prayers (one of the latter starts in the eye of a bird: “It sees magnetic fields and ultraviolet light. As it flies, horizons stay precise.”). Her book is a great one to end the year on, or perhaps to start the new year with: “You could pine / for solitude and then complain of loneliness.” I like how her poems pull me here and there, and leave me elsewhere. “What’s a life for?” she asks, mid-poem. Let’s read and figure it out. Or just wander.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

We’ll Laugh About It in the Morning: Featured Poetry by Graham Barnhart

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from The War Makes Everyone Lonely, the debut collection from Graham Barnhart.

In “Somnambulant,” moments of precision—”white sheets turned down // to standard,” a “perfect perforated line”—contrast with the dizzying dullness of military exhaustion: the body ready, the body worn down. Barnhart, a veteran who served as an Army Special Forces medic, creates a tense world that burns into memory.

SOMNAMBULANT
The barracks was Army-green wooland white sheets turned down
to standard, six inches below the pillow,a perfect perforated line
across every gray bunk frameto the gray lockers lining the walls
and blocking the windows.At night, the moon passed
through seams between the lockers,flashing like a film reel
if you walked the dark roomfast enough. Now and then
on fire watch, when you were walking,and the moon was flashing,
and the sheets were disheveledby the sleepers, someone might jump
to attention, for some dreamt ofdrill sergeant screaming.
I told her all of this when she found mestanding in the bedroom doorway.
Just order me back to bed.We’ll laugh about it in the morning—she laughed then too.

From The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart. © 2019 by The University of Chicago. Reproduced by permission.

Must-Read Poetry: December 2019

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The War Makes Everyone Lonely by Graham Barnhart

“Unlike life, / war can be survived.” Barnhart’s debut is full of these sharp, solemn touches about war and the shadow of military service. A former US Army Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barnhart’s book shares the spirit of Phil Klay’s story collection Redeployment: testaments to the lasting memories of lives burned by violence. When he ends one poem “the guns were loud–loud like gods applauding,” there’s an acute sense that Barnhart is especially skilled at capturing the encompassing feeling of war. In the excellent titular poem, the narrator says his sister “had been receiving a lot of calls / from strangers” asking for Elisha, since her number was listed on an escort site. Meanwhile, the narrator, deployed in Afghanistan, sits “in a little plywood room painted red, / hung with pictures of the other guys’ wives.” Bored, he repeats twice that “nothing ever happens.” Barnhart, true to his title, is talented at crafting moments of loneliness–both in scene and in line (one poem, “Survival and Evasion,” is sapped of moisture, so that its lines feel soured and clipped, the perfect tone: “Day nine: turned our tongues to chalk / with unripe persimmons. Used them to bait / a snare instead.”). One of the most important debuts this year. 

I Offer My Heart as a Target (Ofrezco Mi Corazón Como Una Diana) by Johanny Vázquez Paz (translated by Lawrence Schimel)

“Love my scar / discover in its ugliness the perfect geography / where tears find their bearings with laughter.” Paz compels us to look closer, and longer, at bodies worn, stressed, and hurt. Often her narrators are hurt by men–in the shadows and under the light, in the past and in the present. “And they say that I let them,” one narrator laments, “by not squealing madly / shouting my panic / to my friends / saving my family / from the shame.” Paz creates a sense of shared shame; after all, her narrators have inherited so much from their family: “I don’t know at what moment / my sisters inhabited me, / when they looted my room / to install their own belongings / and furnish me with their dreams.” She ends the poem: “I am a hundred women in one / hybrid of virgin possibilities / and I feel on my skin the pain and the laughter / of all the warrior women I inherited.” Paz’s book is full of tradition, tension, and rage: “Without strength to fulfill the vengeances / I wreak every night in my sleep / when I dream that I am another woman / who doesn’t awaken in me.” 

Gatekeeper by Patrick Johnson

Fragmented and fractured, Johnson pushes this book to its structural limits–and the result is a successfully jarring and disturbing collection. This is a book of the internet, and of our internal selves: of pursuit, lust, and a closing into the spirit. Prose-poetic pages offer intermittent, dramatic scenes that create a narrative through-line for the book: the narrator, curiosity piqued by the possibilities of the hidden and deep web, begins searching and stalking that space. Johnson’s vision here is a world that we all dabble in–at the least the surface of it, on which these very words are being read–but Johnson pushes us lower, invites us in, and wonders what would help when we follow this medium to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. “We talk for months without exchanging names,” the narrator says of his relationships with Anon, a phantom voice, a source of distant intrigue. Johnson takes on a breakneck feel in the book, and when he steps out from the online space, as in poems like “black mirror (slowly),” the dystopia remains. Even though the narrator takes a break from the computer, he longs for a return: “This desire, an impulse, undoes me.” Is this digital love? Gatekeeper offers uncomfortable possibilities.  

Life Poem by Bob Holman

Holman wrote Life Poem in 1969, when he was 21. There’s been a lifetime between that manuscript and now–a lifetime during which Holman has been an activist, poet, professor, promoter of poetry, and more. When Holman cites the Jesuit critic Walter Ong, S.J. in his foreword (“life fits into poem the way that meaning is nested in sound”), it feels like we are entering into a pleasant and quirky time capsule, and Life Poem delivers in the book proper. “desperate now, i’ve started to write everything that comes into my head” the narrator begins, and he does collect varied streams and rivers of consciousness in looping lines. “what if i laughed louder? / could you believe me then?” the narrator asks, his lines frenzied but never inane, delivered with dizzying wordplay (“university students of the world, ignite!”). Other sections are deceptively, powerfully solemn: “we’ve begun pulling men out of Viet Nam! / hooray! we shout, yea, the boys are coming home! / only they aren’t coming home–they’re being sent to the Middle East / wars should be fought under supervision of mothers / and all the boys must be home by eleven.” 

The Dead Do Not Return: Featured Poetry by Barbara Crooker

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Some Glad Morning, the new collection by Barbara Crooker. “No one gets excited when they see sparrows,” the narrator writes—an apt metaphor for how Crooker looks at human bodies aging and worn, in fear of being forgotten. Crooker’s lines are often steeped in melancholy, but her sense is powerfully redemptive: Those gone from us are still part of the fabric of this world, woven into our longing and our memories.

“Absence”

Sparrows for sorrow. One for everyone you’ve loved,the missing. Count them under the feeder: one two threefour five. Mostly whitethroats, singing O Canada orOld Sam Peabody, depending on where you come from. Drab at a distance, but boldly striped when you get close,bodies of tan and brown, stark white throats, a splotch of sun between eye and bill.

No one gets excited when they see sparrows, although the rusty cap of a chipping sparrow signals springwhen they come back. The dead, though, do not return. Spring brings splashes of color: orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, all back from the tropics.But my interior weather is winter, where the missing gather by the fire, then vanish like smoke. The bare tree limbs, the black and white landscape punctuated by the muted palette of brown. And below the feeder. juncos in their gray and white vests, house finches drab as Wednesday mornings, goldfinches stillin their dull winter garb. And sparrows. And sorrow.Come back, we shout, into the wind that scatters them.But they’re gone.

“Absence” from Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker, © 2019. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University Pittsburgh Press.

Must-Read Poetry: November 2019

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf (translated by Yael Segalovitz)

“I can’t speak about it in Hebrew, but in English it’s easier. Maybe because for me the English language contains distance. Hebrew is too intimate.” Shimon Adaf wrote Aviva-No as a book-length elegy for his sister Aviva, who died suddenly at 43. Originally published in Hebrew in 2009, Adaf’s collection appears here in English for the first time, with a skilled translation by Segalovitz. Adaf composed the collection during the year after her death, so he “was forced to spend part of the year of mourning in two worlds, the one of my childhood that had been infused with the presence of my sister and the one of the present, in which she was terribly missing.” The coexistence of Hebrew and English reminds the reader that this is a book of occasion: on outpouring of grief, confusion, and the slippery attempt to capture both through language. The book is steeped with arresting scenes like the poem in which Adaf’s mother explains to the grandchildren that “we will / never see Aviva again.” He hears his mother cry, “not that howling lamentation, just the flow / of one whose strength vanished in the flame.” Afterward, his mother comes to him, and said “how simple it is to see / in the dark, like an ember glowing wild — / losing a child means always losing a child.” A book of remarkable power.

Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker

Crooker often returns to her ekphrastic influences (as she did in Les Fauves and More), and here she crafts some wonderful pieces about aging—our bodies slowed down, spread, inevitably solemn. On the ekphrastic side, there are pieces following Hopper, Mackintosh, Cézanne, Renoir, Derain: “Even the shadows scream for attention.” Most consuming in this collection, though, are the moving poems of memory and worry; of fractured past and uncertain present. In “Personal History”: a narrator writes of the light she lost, “Her skin, on my fingertips, / petals of heliotrope.” How the “pollen of memory clings to my sleeves. / As small as the wind’s shadow, the fleeting / glimpse of her face.” Elsewhere she writes of late September, “how the light is beginning to dim, / tarnished like old silver rubbed thin, / a note from a lover read over and over.” Later, in “Corvus Triolet,” the snowy yard is “full of crows, / their voices ragged scraps of pain.” Their presence “reminds me still that grief is slow, / it comes again like a refrain.” She writes of a Marian statue on a back road near Auvillar, France, “in the midst of a harvested field, stubble at your feet.” Her lines are written with a beautiful chord of melancholy: “Your eyes are cast down, hands folded, lips closed. / Nearby, in a neighboring tillage, someone / in a sunlit vineyard is turning the blood / of ordinary grapes into wine.”  

Black Mountain Poems edited by Jonathan C. Creasy

John Andrew Rice, one of the founders of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, claimed “our central and consistent effort now is to teach method, not content; to emphasize process, not results; to invite the student to the realization that the way of handling facts and himself amid the facts is more important than the facts themselves.” The poet Charles Olson, who taught during the final decade of the college’s existence, told Robert Creeley, “I need a college to think with.” The vision of Black Mountain was of community and collaboration, and Creasy’s approach is a holistic one—he widens the scope to not merely students and professors, but those influenced at a distance. Included here: Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Cage, Hilda Morley, among others. A fine, pocket-sized companion to an important artistic moment.

Alisoun Sings by Caroline Bergvall

Alisoun Sings completes a trilogy for Bergvall, following Meddle English and Drift. She has described this final book as “my take on Chaucer’s wonderful loud-mouth liferider proto-feminist Wife of Bath.” In her Prologue/Preface, Bergvall writes that she senses Alisoun “coming through as a concert of sounds and lives and purposes from a vast patchwork of influences, events, and emotions that accord with her, and revitalise her presence among us.” The result is part experiment and part experience, delivered in “transhistoric English.” The language evolves here, making Alisoun solidly in the forgotten and misunderstood past, while invading the present. This is a manifesto, an affirmation of identity, a recognition of a voice finally given shape. Alisoun says: “first left me reminde youse Im a local lasse. Yes not rose nor trained articulat, yet a wyse woman with appetites. I have lived and live on.” And she continues. 

Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright

“I find myself in my own image, and am neither and both. / I come and go in myself / as though from room to room, / As though the smooth incarnation of some medieval spirit.” Oblivion Banjo spans from Hard Freight (1973) to Caribou (2014), and the healthy selections capture Wright’s particular magic—his leaning lines, his probing questions, his invitation for us to join the worlds of his poems. In one poem, he wonders about St. Thomas and the “wound that cannot be touched.” “Wish him well,” Wright says. “His supper was not holy, his gesture not sinless. / May ours be equal to his, / whatever sky we live under.” His questions spur and sometimes singe. Elsewhere, Wright offers calm melodies, even within tense moments. The ending of “Appalachian Lullaby” is prayer: “Gently the eyelids close. / Not dark, not dark. But almost. / Drift away. And drift away. / A deep and a sweet repose.” 

Her Moment of Escape: Featured Poetry by Shimon Adaf

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a piece from Shimon Adaf’s book-length elegy, Aviva-No. Exquisitely translated from Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz, the book is a song of grief and absence. In this section, Adaf captures the feeling of a life—a relationship—forever unfinished. How we try to grasp onto the “stretched glimmer” of the past, despite the past covered “with soot, / a little cloud.”

A stretched glimmer is the glasson the window, bliss it wasdeserted in that grove.
I took a stone—a pieceshe scorched for mesaid I should lookthrough it at the sun.
It was a eucalyptus grove,its scent awakened, waned.Its flames idle, rustling,green glint burstfrom them, drowned
in a light hard with soot,a little cloud. Thirtyyears my back was turned toher moment of escape

“A stretched glimmer is the glass” (poem) from Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf and translated from Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz, Alice James Books, 2019.

About Brooklyn, All of Brooklyn: The Millions Interviews Thomas J. Campanella

“That which seems long gone is often still about our feet, hidden in plain sight,” writes Thomas J. Campanella: a lovely evocation. Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is an ambitious and accomplished book. 

For lovers of history and of the city, this book is a dream. It feels like a book that Campanella was born to write. An associate professor of urban studies and city planning at Cornell University, he is the historian-in-residence of the New York City Parks Department. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His previous books include The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World and Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm

We spoke about the urban past, Brooklyn’s forgotten figures, and how writing a book can be a “homecoming.”

The Millions: “Like many of Brooklyn’s native sons and daughters,” you write in the preface, “I went through a long period of disdain for the place”—until you were a graduate student at Cornell. Your “rediscovery of Brooklyn also tapped deep family roots”—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more. “My very first debt of gratitude for this book, then, is owed my much-missed parents, who stuck by Brooklyn as everyone else” in your family “fled.” What has it meant for you to have written this book, considering this robust local lineage?

Thomas J. Campanella: Working on this book was a slow-motion homecoming for me, and the closing of a great circle that has literally looped the world—from college and grad school in upstate New York, to New England for my Ph.D., to Hong Kong and China where I lived for several years, to the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill, the American Academy in Rome, and—finally—back to both Brooklyn and Cornell. I have longed to be back “home” for years, but the academic job market is not much swayed by one’s hopes and dreams. Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote that “you can’t go home again”; nothing stays the same. But you can get back to something pretty close. My parents are gone, and except for one cousin, I am the last family member in Brooklyn after four generations. Everyone else is dead, in the suburbs, or down South.

TM: “The urban past is all around us, and it conditions and qualifies the present,” you write. “The modern city is replete with palimpsests and pentimenti, stubborn stains and traces of what went before, keepsakes that beckon us to unpack and explore and to understand.” You say Brooklyn is “overexposed as it is understudied.” Why is that so? What do you hope that your book does for these “stubborn stains and traces of what went before”?

TC: This book will be successful if it gets people to look at their everyday environs, the ordinary urban landscape of Brooklyn, with fresh eyes and searching curiosity. Every corner of our city is layered with history, and this book is an attempt to peel back some of those layers—not every inch in every place, but at strategic points—to reveal the treasures concealed below. The book covers all of Brooklyn, but much of it focuses—by necessity—on the city south of the terminal moraine, below Prospect Park. If Brooklyn has long been in Manhattan’s shadow, deep-south Brooklyn is in the shadow of both. What drove me initially to write this book was the almost complete lack of historical scholarship on the extraordinarily rich Native American and colonial history of places like Flatlands and Marine Park. Or Jamaica Bay, the great building boom that turned the old Dutch farms into blocks of Tudor-revival houses for escapees from the Lower East Side. Or Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and one of the cradles of American aviation. Brooklyn is a global superbrand today; but it’s still understudied terrain, especially in relation to Manhattan. And nowhere is this more true than in the borough’s vast and peopled southern hemisphere. I have seen maps—of Brooklyn, no less!—that simply cut off everything below Prospect Park. Snip. Coney Island usually gets a call‐out box. Deep‐south Brooklyn is the flyover country of New York City. I want to make people think again, and more deeply, about Brooklyn, all of Brooklyn.

TM: Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, as you note in the introduction, is not a book “driven by a grand thesis, but rather a telling that plaits key strands of Brooklyn’s past into a narrative about the once and future city.” It’s a fine approach, and one that made me excited to encounter all of the fascinating residents portrayed in the book—like Deborah Moody. A 19th-century Englishwoman who was a child of nobility, she “was America’s first woman town planner”—now the neighborhood of Gravesend. Your book teems with characters like this: How did you decide whom, like Moody, to include (and perhaps, whom to leave out)?

TC: This book began as an eight-chapter proposal and wound up as an 18‐chapter tome. As I delved into the research I just uncovered things that had to be in the book. Fortunately my editor at Princeton is the kind that authors dream about working with. She not only tolerated multiple, years-long delays but encouraged my habit of going down enticing rabbit holes uncovered in my research. Many of these led to little more than a footnote, but others yielded entire chapters. The chapter on the search for the lost Maryland regiment and the creation of Green-Wood Cemetery was one; the one on Olmsted’s extraordinary scheme to extend green fingers from Prospect Park all the way back to Central Park was another. I was especially interested in throwing light on lost and forgotten figures, extraordinary people like Moody or Newell Dwight Hillis of Plymouth Church or the ingenious charlatan who tried to build the world’s tallest tower, Sam Friede. I steered clear, for the most part, of people and subjects well-covered by others—Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, for example—and only dwell on the overexposed subject of the Dodgers in terms of the postwar urban renewal. It’s pretty hard to write about Brooklyn without eventually bumping up against the Dodgers, especially when your name is Campanella!

TM: You mentioned that this book took nearly a decade to write, so I can’t help asking a process question. You start Chapter 4, “Yankee Ways,” with a lucid and concise paragraph that’s a precursor to your section on Prospect Park. In a few packed but smooth sentences, you contextualize the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a “wanderlusting Yale dropout,” the forerunner of American landscape architecture. How did you distill what seems like an almost overwhelming amount of Brooklyn culture, lore, data, story, and more into one book?

TC: Well, the book in larval form was a very different creature than what I assume you have in front of you now. It started as an effort to tell about failed and forgotten planning projects—what the late German historian Reinhart Koselleck called “the onetime futures of past generations.” And from that it grew and grew, its reach steadily expanding as I became more confident about its thrust and scope. There are pieces of the book that I can trace much further back in time—I did the initial research on Deborah Moody as a grad student at MIT in the early 1990s—but had no idea they would end up in this book. I also had to avoid the “totality trap,” trying to cover every aspect and every age. That would have required three volumes and probably would have killed me.

TM: As a fan of periodical and publishing history, I loved your anecdotes about the Brooklyn Eagle. “Founded in 1841, the Eagle had been published without a break for 114 years and was one of New York’s oldest and most storied institutions. One of its early editors was none other than Walt Whitman.” The newspaper folded in 1955. You share a quote from Pete Hamill: Although never a great paper, the Eagle “had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.” That’s high praise for the paper! Do you agree with Hamill? (And a side question, which you can feel free to ignore! Do you think any other publications, print or digital, have since captured the spirit of Brooklyn?)

TC: To your side question: No, not even close. The Eagle has been resuscitated in name, and its editor Ned Berke is doing yeoman’s work getting the hatchling to spread its wings. They have a superb real‐estate reporter, Lore Croghan, who is as history‐obsessed as I am and writes well. But these are not easy days for any newspaper. The old Eagle was a massive operation, with an eight­‐story building all their own. As for Hamill; yes, completely. I would have used “tribal settlements” rather than hamlets, which makes me think of towns in the Adirondacks; but the idea of boundedness and vague or hostile relations betwixt and between is spot‐on. And yes the Eagle helped bind everyone together; so did the Dodgers, frankly, and Steeplechase Park, and the Navy Yard, and the trolleys. And by the mid‐1960s every last one of these was closed, gone, or destroyed.

TM: The plans for the Linear City project in Brooklyn “were trotted out in a swirl of publicity on Feb. 25, 1967. By May 1969, the plans were shuttered. What was appealing about the plan in the first place—and why did it never come to pass?

TC: The racial politics of the era became too complex and too fractious for any compromise to be reached on the project’s many fronts, largely due to the terrible public school crisis and teacher’s strike of 1968 (which was centered on the very neighborhoods that Linear City would have served, Brownsville and East New York). It was a very convulsive time in the city’s history. What really grabbed me about Linear City was its hopefulness, its attempted reconciliation of the sledgehammer approach to highway infrastructure made infamous by Robert Moses and the yarn‐and­‐needles grassroots activism of Jane Jacobs. If Jacobs and Moses ever hooked up and had a baby, it would be Linear City. It was schools, community centers, art galleries, neighborhood shops and stores, all built atop one of the few expressway plans in New York that actually made real sense. Remember it was to run in an existing transportation corridor, the Long Island Railroad’s Bay Ridge division tracks. It could easily have accommodated below‐grade road that would have diverted a huge percentage of Long Island‐bound traffic away from the ever­‐clogged Gowanus and BQE.

TM: In your epilogue, you consider the future city, first turning back to how in the late 1960s, a “trickle of college‐educated, young, and mostly white progressives began moving” into Brooklyn. They were the “children of Woodstock, straining against the status quo,” and they “relished the borough’s working‐class grit.” For them, Brooklyn was “a place with everything Levittown lacked—a storied past, architectural splendor, racial diversity, down‐to­‐earth folk more or less tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles.” What might the future city of Brooklyn look like?

TC: Well, you can get a good sense of that by walking around any of the sought‐after neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn, where most apartments start over the million-dollar mark. Lots of highly educated folks, mostly from elsewhere, mostly white and mostly well‐off—or well on their way to being well-off. An enticing array of bespoke and handcrafted, cruelty‐free and grass­‐fed. The good life, the well‐appointed life. I am certainly not immune to this. But the hungry grasping hand of gentrification can reach only so far—and you can map how far by studying the subway lines. I’ve advocated for extending the long‐promised Utica and Nostrand Avenue lines into Flatlands and East Flatbush and Mill Basin; but there is always a chance that the unique qualities of the outlying communities, trolleyburbs of the 1920s, will change in fundamental ways once you make them more accessible. It’s a delicate balance. I’ve often wished there were cafes and wine bars and galleries closer to me in Marine Park. Or a bookstore! There are only two general‐market bookstores in all the vastness south of Prospect Park. But after a long day in the city, or a night out in Dumbo or Cobble Hill, I find it comforting to be off the radar.

Trippingly on the Tongue: Featured Poetry by Maurice Manning

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Maurice Manning’s new collection, Railsplitter. Written in the persona of Abraham Lincoln, the poems are by turns lively, contemplative, and pungent—swollen with lament and anger. Lincoln, taken down in a theater, returns to the stage and the shooter often in these poems. He liked Shakespeare’s tragedies best, and here, among the lines and lore of Hamlet, we feel his struggle toward ghostly moderation: “gestures must not be over done, or else / Chaos will upend the unity desired.”

Aside. Wormwood, wormwood.
Trippingly on the tongue, so Hamlet says,How lines must be delivered from the stage,Especially when passion must be tempered,
And gestures must not be over done, or elseChaos will upend the unity desired.The groundlings, claims this son, are capableOf nothing but dumb-shows and noise, nicelyReaching beyond the stage to pander and pun,
Which makes one wonder how serious is thisEntreaty, then, to hold the mirror up toNature? In the play within the play, a mouse-Trap catches a king unnaturally.
To be or not to be, was never my pick.O my offence is rank, is the better speech—
Heaven is how high it smells, the offence—Enlivened language for murder, ironically.Low act, but elevated thought, to playLightly a scene of wretchedness and folly.

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

Everything Here Is a Test: Featured Poetry by Paige Lewis

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Space Struck, a deft, entertaining debut by Paige Lewis. Lewis is a poet of surprise, but never mere novelty: behind play or pun, there remains transcendence. In this great second-person piece, the narrator gives instructions on how to leave that place of permanent stasis. “Lift your arms toward / the sky and receive nothing.” The poem loops and spins, perhaps, forever.

“So You Want to Leave Purgatory” 

Here, take this knife. Walk down the road until you come across 
a red calf in its pasture. It will run toward you with a rope tied 
around its neck. Climb over the fence. Hold the rope like a leash. 
You haven’t eaten in years. Think— are you being tested? Yes, everything 
here is a test. Stop baring teeth upon teeth and leave the calf 
to its grazing. Lift your arms toward the sky and receive nothing. Keep 
walking and think about the rope around that calf’s neck. Consider 
how fast its throat will be choked by its own growing. Walk until you 
understand what the knife was for. Now forget it. Here, take this knife. 

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Paige Lewis. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books. 

Must-Read Poetry: October 2019

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in October.

Railsplitter by Maurice Manning

Manning’s collection of poems written through the persona of our sixteenth president begins, appropriately enough, with an exercise in persona from the man himself. Dated July 19, 1863, Lincoln’s short satire channels the voice of General Lee: “The Yankees they got arter us, and / giv us particular hell.” While the piece isn’t his best work (he wrote a fair number of poems), it is appropriate for Manning’s difficult project: how to write new and arresting work in such an established voice? The key, perhaps, comes from Manning’s perception of poetry as rooted in theatrics: he imagines writing poems “that could be performed on a stage with a set.” That mixture of oration, space, and the certain surrealism of theater matches well with Railsplitter. In “Transcendentalism,” he starts: “One of the things the actor’s bullet failed / to do was to interrupt the rhythm // of thought, the flow of the mind as it moves around.” Witty, whimsical, and imbued with the strangeness of the afterlife, Manning’s Lincoln is an endearing, complex narrator. A favorite among favorites is “The Smell of Open Ground in Spring.” Unmarked family graves surround the narrator. Those dead, like so many “innumerable / existences” who “have come and gone and gone / to dust.” He thinks of his mother’s death, and thinks of the power of poetry. He concludes: “While irony may wrap itself around / a poem, the true poem in the end / escapes the shroud. It’s the art of resurrection.”

Space Struck by Paige Lewis

One of the best debuts of the year. Poem by poem, Lewis builds a menagerie of mood and matter. In “No One Cares Until You’re the Last of Something,” “a line of binoculared men” have come to the narrator’s house bearing “buckets of mealworms.” An ivory-billed woodpecker on the narrator’s back porch has captivated these anxious souls. Decked in “splendid hiking shorts,” the bird-watchers “press their noses against my sliding glass door” and seek entry. At night, the narrator turns off the lights, but soon the visitors make a nest of the home: “They remove their shoes and lie down on countertops, / in closets, and underneath my staircase. Wherever / there’s space, they fill it—body against tired body— / pressed close as feathers.” A Lewis poem can go anywhere. “Saccadic Masking” is visceral, internal. “When They Find the Ark” is clever. “The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal” is hilarious. “God Stops By” is curious—a trademark Lewis piece. There, God offers the narrator fat from his steak, but the narrator passes: “it’s hard to feel hungry / when everything in this world tastes small  // and wrong, like rubber grapes or sun-boiled / eggs.” Space Struck demonstrates range, delivered in comedic lines that reveal a unique humor. “Build me a house with so many rooms,” one poem begins—an apt metaphor to capture Lewis’s approach. 

Nervous System by Rosalie Moffett

“I’m seeking to understand my mother’s brain and life post severe concussion,” Moffett has said of the long, titular poem in her new book, “and also grappling in a larger way with my fears and horror of having a mother, who, like all mothers, is mortal. Often, I’m casting around for a way look in—to the body, to the brain, to the ‘beyond’—but can only do it by trafficking in the seen world, in the world we all share.” Nervous System builds with sometimes bold, sometimes weary stretches toward that lost sense of understanding that comes from an injured brain. A “bright midday” head injury causes a concussion: “a shell, cool well / of clues.” Her bed-ridden mother “relearned the names / for things—flood, daughter, glove—lights // flickering on in her planetarium.” We grasp for metaphor when we need representation, and Moffett lunges and leaps there: “I’ve drawn a lot of pictures / because it’s hard for me to believe // in anything / that hasn’t been made / into something else.” Nervous System works so well because, in addition to her relational language, the long poem is steeped in flashback detail, and the inextricable link between mother and daughter: “I am gentle, patient, easy to awe. This goodness I got // from her is bound / to be yoked to a curse—no bargain / is so good.”

Can I Kick It? by Idris Goodwin

“Black art is inherently about disruption—that’s what jazz is, that’s what hip-hop is,” Goodwin once told American Theatre. Goodwin was talking specifically about his plays, but that sense of disruption is central to his new book of poems. Mixes and revisions abound here. In the collection’s first poem, “Back to the Afro-Future, 1965,” the narrator messes with stereo equipment and old record players to “blend the Temptations into the Tops.” Soon he is lost in the moment and its meaning: “I start cutting it up / crab, transform / scratch, blend”—his lines moving from sentences to phrases, a fissure in the poem and memory. “Break Down,” a poem in response to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s admitted 80s-era blackface, follows those faultlines of both culture and language: “Rap make you wanna be another man / You Black your face, Black your face // It’s not racist, you’re such a fan.” “Of the Lord” is a poem invoked to classic skywalker Dominique Wilkins: “We like our names with / Peaks, slopes, and vowels // We like our names to be aerial / and aural, throat and teeth and tongue / Our names gotta be songs.”  

Bodega by Su Hwang

These poems demand to be sounded-out and savored. “Manholes hiss secrets,” Hwang begins one poem. “Inside: a transistor radio with foil-tipped antennae sputters the Yankees doubleheader.” We are in a Queensbridge bodega owned by Korean immigrants, and the narrative eye and ear is gentle, encompassing, hypnotic. “Gust of wet heat enters with an elderly Nigerian man wearing a beret & wooden cane in the other—his salt-and-pepper hair gathered into a seahorse.” Hwang is adept at capturing action and setting, as well as more intangible touches: “How far do you have to travel to arrive / at dying,” she writes in an elegy for her grandmothers. Some poems swoop across the page, riding sound and form; others, like “Latchkeys,” are pointed narratives contained by closed spaces. In that poem, the narrator is with her brother, waiting for her parents to come home. When their “headlights cast shadow / puppets against the living / room wall,” she and her brother scramble to seem responsible: studying biology, playing the upright Yamaha. Her father would head into the backyard “to hit / a golf ball on a string / while mother silently made / dinner: rice, kimchi, Spam / as we three listened / from different corners / of the house / to a tiny white ball / greeting iron.” A strong debut.