Digest, Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, begins with “Written by Himself”: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” His lines carry a mythic rhythm that originate with the self, and then extend out, as in “Problemata,” when neighborhood fireworks flare emotions: “My neighbor’s teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest / patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply / their roughly domesticated manhood, / they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle / rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war.” I like when poets write prose. Air Traffic, Pardlo’s new memoir, is a masterful consideration of manhood in contemporary America: the lies we tell ourselves, the struggle to find our own identity in the shadow of fathers, and the sweet perils of ambition. Pardlo is poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and teaches writing at Columbia University. We spoke about family, poetry, and the stories that, sooner or later, we have to tell. The Millions: Let’s talk about New Jersey, where we both grew up. Your family lived in Willingboro. In 1976, they bought their third home there, and with three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, it “meant the Pardlos had arrived.” There, in one of the three original Levittown communities, your “skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose.” You don’t live here anymore, but what of this state remains with you? Gregory Pardlo: New Jersey is all of America under a shrink ray. Colonial towns next to prefab towns next to shopping malls and farmland. Crumbling highways and curated bike paths lined with mulch and railroad ties. The McDonald’s is a venerable old institution in my hometown. Things that some might find kitschy or crude I take very seriously (which is not to say uncritically). Parts of New Jersey feel like they’re below the Mason-Dixon line while at the same time being the historical home of the black middle class. My concept of this nation—its flaws and potential—grows out of my life in the Garden State. The Isley Brothers are from New Jersey. (Mic drop.) TM: For a state that gets lampooned for other reasons, New Jersey has quite the literary tradition. You won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2015, and Peter Balakian, another NJ writer, got it in 2016. Is our state good for stories? What is it about New Jersey that might elicit good writing? GP: Stephen Dunn, a literary hero of mine, won the Pulitzer in 2000. William Carlos Williams won in 1963, the year that he died. The list of literary achievements in NJ is long, disproportionately so. Maybe it’s because New Jersey occupies that sweet spot between Philly, representing the aspirations of Revolutionary America, and New York City, representing the talent and dynamism of our immigrant soul. TM: Air Traffic is a memoir that arrives in essays. Each section’s discrete; each narrative feels somehow both complete and porous, leaning into the next chapter. How did this book grow (structurally, conceptually)? GP: The earliest drafts were written as straight-up memoir. I was trying my best to write a book the way I thought a book was supposed to be written. I wrote flat grammatical sentences that I hated and that had no relation to the way my imagination actually works. This went on for more than 300 pages. Out of frustration I admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing, and I went hat-in-hand to Columbia’s graduate nonfiction program, begging them to let me in. As a student in the program, I discovered I would much rather write essays that would allow me to think on the page while still aspiring to be literary, as opposed to scholarly. I began to cherry-pick chunks out of that original manuscript and develop them in terms of ideas and themes. My thesis had little more than a family resemblance to the manuscript I brought with me to Columbia. I spent another year or so writing new stuff, revising and reorganizing the manuscript with my agent. After we sold the book to Knopf, it went through another major overhaul. Some of the DNA from that ancestral manuscript is still in Air Traffic, but much of what might feel like porousness or consistency is the result mostly of edits, revisions, arguments, and compromises. TM: Story, narrative, performance, grandiosity: your father’s penchant for rhetorical presence is a theme in this book. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” He has many shades and identities in this book, and the metaphor of him as an air traffic controller is not lost—and yet you are the storyteller here. How does your sense of narrative differ from your father? How are they similar? What were the goals and desires of his stories—and what are yours? [millions_ad] GP: If there were some way to chart my father’s narratives and mine graphically, I think the curves would look very similar. They would differ in the sense that my father privileged sound over substance. He wanted to ravish his listeners more than he wanted to convey anything. My father would have been at home among irony-loving hipsters. He avoided public displays of sincerity. Maybe to be contrary, I crave sincerity although I distrust it. I am sincerely in search of truth and revelatory statements. What this has meant for the book is that as I found myself trying to reproduce his lyricism, his voice stayed with me as an editorial influence, amplifying my self-consciousness. I think this had a big impact on the tone of the book. TM: Your father looms in this book, of course, but your mother also comes alive in these pages. You share a birthday with her. “I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate,” you write. What did you learn, or understand, about your mother from writing this book? GP: Early in the writing process, my therapist kept asking me if I’d written about my mother yet. I realized I was putting it off because I didn’t trust myself to represent her fairly. I definitely couldn’t be objective. I knew I would have to sit down with her and interview her the way my teacher Phillip Lopate had interviewed his mother for his recent book, A Mother’s Tale. The conversation with my mom turned out to be less traumatic than I expected. This encouraged me to go back and look at the places where I had ducked or skated over references to my mom in the manuscript. When I thought I had represented her in a way that honored my own truths as well as hers, I let her read the manuscript. As you know from the book, she’s an artist. She would never tell me what or how to write. When she very gently suggested that I might have been a little hard on her “character,” I knew I had to do some soul-searching. She still gives me a little side-eye when we talk about the book, but I think she trusts that the way I present my own biases suggests to readers a margin of error that she can live with. TM: Before you join the Marines, there’s a great scene in the book when you’re sort of drifting between temporary jobs, having left Rutgers after a few semesters: “More than once I’d stood in line in the parking lot of some warehouse or tool-and-die shop to get a Saran Wrapped tuna fish sandwich, only to find myself overcome by a mild terror when I saw the workaday world rippling in the diamond-patterned stainless steel siding of the truck.” When I read those sentences, we see the poet living in the essayist. Or is it the other way around? What types of stories, scenes, and sentences bring you to poetry instead of prose? GP: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I remember clearly the internal war sentences like that set off in my head. The comp teacher in me was writing in the figurative margin, “how does this advance your argument, how does this help you reach your destination?” And the poetry workshop teacher in me was shouting, “whoo-hoo, we’re going off-road!” So I guess the two coexist, and it comes down to a series of intuitive indulgences in which I allow one or the other to predominate. There are also plenty of passages that are functional in their delivery of data in which I paid attention to the outcome of the argument rather than the pleasure of the language/moment. The goal is to find a balance or synthesis. If I’m trying to capture a nuanced emotion, I turn to poetry. When I suspect there is an insight to be gained that could potentially contribute to the discourse around a particular issue, I bring my essay game. TM: I’m torn between “Cartography,” “Tolle, Lege,” and “Behind the Wheel” as my favorite sections of this book—they are each perfect in their own way—but I want to ask about “Tolle, Lege” since it speaks to poetry. You’re a poet, an editor of poetry, a reader and critic of poetry. You talk about the power of turns in poetry, and how poetry doesn’t require “grand epiphany or catharsis,” but it should feel like “I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own.” Do you look for the same things in poetry as a reader, editor, and professor? GP: The “vicarious encounter” quality is pretty consistent, but each one of those perspectives changes my relationship to the work. As a reader, my needs are self-centered. I don’t care how a poem works for me, only that it does (or does not). As an editor, I’m interested in whether or not the poem rewards re-reading. I want it to work in the moment, but I also want it to work differently the next time I return to it. That way, I can be more confident it’ll speak to a variety of readers who will be bringing various needs and dispositions. As a professor, I want to figure out where a poem promises to take a reader, what route (that is, which “turns”) it takes, and (to triple-dip the metaphor) how close to that destination it arrives. TM: In the book’s introduction, you imply that your story—your life—is still a work in progress. You speak of failure often. Your story, as you say, contains “digressions and indulgences”—and there’s a literary power in your willingness to step aside from your story, smirk, and wonder at what to make of your life. What do you make of it now, as your memoir is set to be released? What does it mean to tell the story of your life—thoroughly, stylistically—in 2018? GP: For anyone to tell their story today is a political act. Our stories are not ours alone. I know it’s popular to defend against cultural appropriation, but you can’t tell the story of a culture exclusive of the cultures surrounding it (and I’m not agreeing that “a culture” is an isolable thing either). And it’s even less possible to tell one person’s story without telling the story of the world surrounding that person. On the one hand, to tell my story is to say, “I exist, and I my presence is relevant and meaningful in the social and political landscape.” On the other hand, my story is necessarily your story. It may be on the lower frequencies, but in a very real sense, I speak for you.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in April. Eye Level by Jenny Xie An excellent debut. Xie is particularly gifted with precise description; I want to linger on these poems. “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” is masterful and patient, expansive without becoming lost. She moves through this city “of a million young faces,” where there’s “new money lapping at these streets.” “In the backseat of a gold Lexus / a minister’s son lies, his eyes shut / dumb with honeyed sleep.” More: “slack lips of suitcases, lukewarm showers up to three times in a day. / Mosquito bites on the arms and thighs, patterned like pips on dice.” At night: “Alley of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers. / Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets.” Eye Level puts us there, with Xie’s sight. Her poems that span pages are nestled between single-stanza songs; consider the tightness of “Naturalization”: “It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap / silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother / to keep our telephone number close, / my beaded coin purse closer.” Her grandmother “prays for fortune / to keep us around and on a short leash. / The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” She also steps back and settles in, as in “Solitude Study”: “I know we can hold more in us than we do / because the body is without core.” And “Inwardly”: “We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it. // Or else, why write.” Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku (translated by Ani Gjika) The narrator’s memories in “Almost Yesterday” begin this book. The midday sight of her father and mother “coming out of the barn / tidying their tangled hair in a hurry, / both flushes, looking around in fear / like two thieves.” Even now, she remembers the barn clearly; after all, “You cannot easily forget what you watch with one closed eye, / the death of the hero in the film, / or your first eclipse of the sun.” Negative Space is flush with wonderfully melancholic stanzas. “When a child is born, we name it after an ancestor, / and so the recycling continues. Not out of nostalgia, / but from our fear of the unknown.” “Where I come from, / there’s only one word for ‘grief’ and for ‘water’ / and both take the form of the containers that hold them: / each to their own fate, each to their own grief.” The title poem holds the scars of the Albanian Cultural Revolution. Churches were sacked. Crosses “were plucked from graves.” Icons and bibles were burned: “Witness stepped further back, / as if looking at love letters / nobody dared to claim.” Lleshanaku has a dizzying talent of capturing our notes of destruction. “And what could replace Sunday mass now?” the narrator wonders. “Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata / that bled in the wrong places— / a new code of sanctification, / of man, by man.” Strange Children by Dan Brady Brady’s debut opens with the dizzy, entrancing “Stroke Diary,” stanzas sifted across pages. The narrator’s wife, a few days after having their child, has a stroke. “Our life together, / like a great whale // breaching, or rather / as fast as a fish // picks a single fly / from the river water.” Shaken and wounded, the family emerges, but the stroke’s shadow holds. A trip to the cardiologist comes with a warning: “Given the risk of recurrence, / you shouldn’t get pregnant again.” Strange Children considers what happens when the certainty of our plans is replaced with a strangely comforting doubt. They wait for news about their adoption request, and the results are inspiring, among shaken lives: “I have lived a thousand lives / with these children and the grief / and joy of each one is a blessing to me.” Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil There are so many reasons to return to Nezhukumatathil’s poems—her affinity for the natural world, her ability to write a love poem that truly works, her humor that surprises and salves—and Oceanic reminds me of yet another: how she can offer readers so many routes within a single poem. “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” begins “Because we think I might have it, / you take the couch.” It’s a real change: “I can count on one hand / the times we have ever slept apart / under the same roof in our five years.” Two sick parents won’t work for a small son. What’s more, the narrator is pregnant: “I carry / a small grapefruit, a second son, inside me.” They are separated by only a room, but, “In bed, I fever for your strong calves, your nightsong breath on my neck.” He comes back to bed: “We decide it is worth it.” And how she ends this poem: “The child still forming / inside me fevers for quiet, the silence of the after, / the silence of cell-bloom within our blood.” Poets are reared to be strong closers, but I’d venture that Nezhukumatathil is the best: throughout Oceanic, we get the sense these poems have been felt through, spoken through, and paced to a precise beat. In “Letter to the Northern Lights,” she ends “I’d rather share sunrise with him and loon call // over the lake with him, the slap of shoreline threaded / through screen windows with him—my heart // slamming in my chest, against my shirt—a kind / of kindling you’d never be able to light on your own.” Added bonus: Nezhukumatathil’s poems will remind you (as did Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop) that wonder is a gift, and great words can get us there. [millions_ad] Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen “I’m always surprised how efficiently // regret can build a machine, a geared thing // charging through the narrow halls of your memory.” Not Here is a book of past pain bled into the present; of youth scenes that remain. In the powerful “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” the narrator’s father, confronted with his cheating, “slapped my mother, came to my room, threw my sleeping body / over his shoulder, & drove off.” There’s a fine shade of complexity at work in his poetics. “Who wouldn’t / beg for a story like this? A story to point & run toward / when asked to explain every decision you’ve ever made / regarding love. A story to blame when your hands rush / toward the exit.” Other stories in this book route toward the narrator’s mother, how “for the longest time, she knelt in front of a shrine & asked // to be blessed with a daughter & here I am: the wrong / monster; truck stop prom queen in his dirt gown.” In Not Here, bodies are imperfect works, subject to doubt, desire, and decay—in equal parts. “Standing in front of a mirror, my mother tells me she is ugly / says the medication is making her fat.” The son sees the mother “pull at her body & it is mine.” After all, “I truly wanted to be beautiful / for her.” In his dreams, he is thin: “I tell my mother she is still beautiful & she laughs. The room fills / with flies. They gather in the shape of a small boy. They lead her / back to the mirror, but my reflection is still there.” Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch by David Bottoms These poems live in the soft hours of late night and early morning. When a narrator takes out his dog “to piss in the yard” and the “bird feeders standing in the smudged shadows / of the maples / look like human skulls impaled on poles.” Or nights when the “trees on the bank are black and soundless, / a fat wall of darkness, / and the silence on the water feels like the voice / of a great absence.” His characters are a bit older. They’re content to listen, and to wait: “Nobody even bothered / to untangle the backlashed reel.” Bottoms’s poems are like dark rooms: we enter and exit through the same door, but we’re a little different on the way out—as with “My Old Man’s Homemade Dagger.” The narrator finds his father’s high school metal shop dagger: “bone handle, / blade cut from a metal file.” His father admonishes him to put it back in a desk, and he does, “but have held it for years in my memory, / just as he must’ve held it / in that desk drawer of rusted sockets and wrenches— // ugly, yes, but one of those things / so well made we could hardly let it go.” I’ve already gone back to the title poem a few times, and its wonder about death: “Maybe we rise again only to the good things—honeysuckle, / robins, mockingbirds, doves, / fireflies toward evening, and along the back fence // the steady harping of tree frogs. / On the prayer porch, among the icons, such fancy notions.” Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith Smith, who is set to begin her second term as America's poet laureate, recently said that she “felt from an early age that poetry was something mysterious, something playful and lilting. As I got older, poems began to offer me new and life-changing ways of looking at the familiar world.” We are in good worlds with Smith leading the poetic charge, as Wade in the Water attests. What range: poems crafted from letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War. Poems about motherhood, like “Annunciation:” a narrator tired of roads, bridges, steel, and lights: “Everything enhanced, rehearsed, / A trick.” She longs to feel, to be “confronted by the real, / By the cold, the pitiless, the bleak.” She ponders her son, “eyes set / At an indeterminate distance, / Ears locked, tuned inward, caught / In some music only he has ever heard.” Poems like “The Angels,” “Two slung themselves across chairs / Once in my motel room. Grizzled, / In leather biker gear. Emissaries / For something I needed to see.” They smell of “rum and gasoline,” and “one’s teeth / Were ground down almost to nubs.” But she feels guilty: “Think of the toil we must cost them, / One scaled perfectly to eternity. / And still, they come, telling us / Through the ages not to fear.” She never sees the angels again, but catches “sightings, flashes, hints” of them. A tree in the sun, wind swaying its branches. The strength of rain. The grace in a tired world.
I only revise poems on a clipboard. Masking tape is wrapped around the clip, the words “Cross Country” written in marker. My wife used it during her coaching days, and I leave the tape on. Poets are sentimental; it is one of our defining traits. Poems command a space. They are structural objects. I need to hold them, see their type on the page. Prose can live on the screen for me, but poetry needs to get out and breathe. A poem on a clipboard is a statement: it’s time to get to work. I learned this method from Erin Aults, a friend from college. We went to a small school on a river where people took writing seriously. I was inspired by how she would revise her poems: she had a clipboard at the library, or sitting around campus, and it seemed like there was a little bit of ceremony to the action. Her poems were wonderful, and she had a great eye as an editor for our school literary magazine, so I trusted her methods. The other defining trait of poets: we believe in ritual and superstition. Years after college—when memories of then had become a little fuzzy, yet still comforting—I was reading an article about an archive of 30,000 horticultural periodicals at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The project was methodical, and necessary. The catalogs ranged back to 1853. More than simply the story of seeds (although that would be enough, I think), they are the stories of cultures and lives. And halfway through the article, I saw someone familiar: Erin. She’s in charge of the archive. How does a poet become an archivist? I think I suspected the answer before I asked Erin: you approach objects with care. [millions_ad] I like to see the routes that lives take, and Erin’s has got me thinking about what draws us to poetry—and what we draw from it. She still feels “almost a euphoria about the language and directness of poetry, that it has both exactness and expansiveness.” After college, she worked at a used bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, which began her “love of the book as an object.” She remembers “especially during the heavy ‘buy season’ (usually spring and summer when the public was selling off their books to us), as this grand battle between me and making order of these objects. The backroom and processing area of the bookstore would be overflowing with books. There was a lot of learning how to ‘conquer’ the books as objects either through stacking or ordering or selling.” Soon after, she was working at the Ohio State University libraries, where she “dissected and mended books and paper, learning their science, understanding materials, form, and outside pressures that affected them.” Later, she handled books of Catholic history at the John M. Kelly Library at University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. Some texts were from the 1500s, and she was “aware that I am one of so many people who have touched this book, that the book is a perfect machine—moveable parts and all. I understood my purpose as a conservator, librarian, and archivist is to help it last another 500 years and to make sure that people have the chance to work with it and be close to it. This is a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.” That sounds like the mechanics of poetry to me. And those 30,000 catalogs at the Royal Botanical Gardens? There’s poetry in them, too. “I can see them as a mix of chapbooks, book art, with a healthy dose of late-night local-channel half-hour-long product commercials,” she says. She finds stories and lives in those books, like ME Blacklock, a “nursery owner and plant breeder during a time when women didn't often get to do that work.” Isabella Preston, the Queen of Horticulture in the 1920s, who bred lilies, lilacs, and roses. I asked Erin if caring for, and curating, this collection might intersect with poetry. She sees “both poetry and archival work as potentially radical and political acts. Both of them are relying on words and language to create opportunities of recognition, change, and justice.” Poetry and archiving are “done often as solitary work but are really reliant on the person who is receiving and interpreting the work...Similarly, the internal logic in both poetry and archives is always present within the creator but the logic is not always evident at first glance. Both reader or researcher might need to dive deep to tease out the meaning the poem or archives holds.” Poems and archives, she says, are “both historical records. They both can be about providing access. Of course, they both require care and observation.” I like that. Let’s think about poems as objects that deserve care, observation, and preservation. An inspiring way to commemorate the work of others—and maybe the right spirit to help us create poems that can last. Image Credit: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images.
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in March. Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah A few years ago, I read “Poetry Recitation at St. Catherine’s School for Girls” in an issue of The Missouri Review, and reading it again feels like discovering a lost prayer. The narrator thinks of her teenage years at a school where girls, “headbands bright green or bangles / yellow, glints that fill the silence like / falling snow,” pray before a hanging cross. The girls “recite poems they // have carried in their mouths for days, / and my desire to go back, to be one / among those slender, long-haired girls // is a thistle, sharp and twisting at my / side.” Their words—“psalm, blessing, lord”—bring her back to that chapel where the priest spoke of an eternal world not possible for her: “the girl I was, heavy and slow in her / thick glasses, knew she would never / enter heaven.” The narrator calms her memory with a final note: “Help me, Lord. / There are so many bodies inside this one.” Tucked nearly halfway through Registers of Illuminated Villages, the poem reverberates elsewhere in the book, as in “Acolyte,” where she again feels “an infidel / in this classroom / church.” There, beneath the white cross and the “window-light” that moves across their bodies, “My mouth is avid; it // sings fidelis, fidelis.” But her mind travels to home, where “maa is in her / kitchen crooning / black-and-white film,” and “baba leans forward / in his chair, the Qur’an / open to the last page.” At school, she bows her head and whispers her own prayer—an affirmation. Faizullah’s entire collection—powerful, wide-ranging—is an affirmation, an accomplished second book. “This elegy is trying / hard to understand how we all become // corpses,” she writes, “but I’m trying to understand permanence.” This book gets us there. Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff Otherworldly, lilting—there’s a surreal touch to Cundieff’s verse that can be downright hypnotic. In “Everything Cruel Is Also Real,” we get a memory in second-person: “you in a yellow dress against the condition / of your kite string. Taut, it lifts you with a thinnest white, / unwinding, tethered to you, kept like a conversation within your fists.” The narrator wonders: “Surely I must be dead, / watching with hollowed-out joy, your physics reaping the late lawn / of its light.” (I’m grateful for poets who deliver consonance). The spirit of Cundieff’s style might be her willingness to offer us poems mid-glance, as in the aptly-titled “In Medias Res”: “I once imagined my life differently, / but no one hears, so I say it again, and again.” The world moves and moves in this book, and strangeness is a welcome song. In “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” there’s a tree with a plaque to memorialize a football player killed by a lightning strike. “There’s nothing special about his name, // William. It makes me think of any football field, / the girls whose toes get muddy from the steps taken up, // down the bleachers. Their blonde hair straight // like church windows that flood then burn with light.” The mystical breaks through even during a long car ride, a narrator chasing the eclipse, their fighting children in the backseat: “I daydream / that bridge bats rupture from beneath an overpass, shrill shapes / without course.” Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah In “The Living Are the Minority,” “the dead don’t cry / and mindful of dehydration / they speak what they drink / and wave to their ventriloquists.” Minimal lines carry so much meaning here. Joudah also peppers his book with supple prose poems, their syntax delivering surprises. In “Horses,” it is a “December evening, smoke in the rain, awn of the rain, from virga to drizzle, a glimpse of horses through large wooden doors.” This is beautiful writing: “Foam in stalactites from equine jaws more exhausted than a crossroad. Steam rising to the roof. The sinews of their hearts. The women were one, the horses one.” What begins as a meditation on setting evolves to include the narrator, as when one of the women asks him how long he has been riding himself. He doesn’t know, but thinks of all “the horses I never rode, their magnetic fields filled with souls of past rides and horses’ past souls, even the plastic ones I used to line up on the sill.” Those fleshed narratives live among pithy exhales, like “1st Love”: “When God began you she / said to me one spring afternoon in bed / God began // with your hands / a woman’s hands // And when God reached your wrists / God made the rest of you man.” We often say that poetry transforms, but Joudah’s verse also transports. Post Traumatic Hood Disorder by David Tomas Martinez In his first book, Hustle, and this new collection, Martinez draws on his early years in San Diego: fathering a son while in high school, joining a gang, and entering the Navy before being kicked out. A former junior-college basketball player, he mixes ambition and anxiety in poems like “And One”: “Look at the homie, / even when in a gang / he came home to crack Nietzsche.” Hope and nihilism live side by side on those streets, and in his scenes: “He’s going places. / Look at homie, trying to fix himself. Thinks / out of repetition comes variation.” Martinez’s book examines masculinity: particularly expectations of Chicano men, California men. There’s a real sadness here: the talent and dreams that never escape the city, an unfortunate truth that kids know early, and captured in poems like “Winter Night.” The narrator’s father beats him with a belt, but between the punishments, there is something like an opening: “After dinner my father sat on the floor / with his corduroy shorts riding up / his thighs while I put on boxing gloves / around his shadow. I floated, stung / I rode his shoulders over crowds, // raised my arms. The oversized gloves / on my hands were smaller, lighter / than my want to punch him.” [millions_ad] Land of Fire by Mario Chard Early in Chard’s debut collection, among mystical visions and dialogues, is “The Oath,” a touching poem about an immigrant family’s arrival in a new land. A mother has her fingerprints taken, and is weighed before standing in line “with others taking turns / reciting words to make them / citizens.” When it is his mother’s turn, she “cleared her throat before / a word then said the word, / made the same sound / I knew to listen for / when I had lost her in a crowd.” That sound, her soul. “They took / her country when she spoke, / but the cords that first / learned Spanish in her throat / spoke first: last strain of loss / and its resistance.” Chard unearths those cautious moments, whether he is writing of this world, or of other worlds—Miltonic shadows, mythic planes. In “Dystocia,” “Sometimes a myth / delivers its prophet // breech.” In “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother,” the weight of personal myths: “When you spoke you sounded like a man ignored, / one orphan speaking to another / who was not.” My favorite here: “Signs and Crossings,” arriving in a Trinitarian structure: the narrator watches a boy who sneaks through joined chain-link fences. “I have watched him make some crude sign of the cross / before his trespass here.” A storm blows out windows. Maples, “stripped for power lines,” are exposed before him—“a symbol of the brain: branched and leafy one side, / barren on the other.” A world, ravaged by storm, is what gives the narrator new sight. “We would make that sign again.” The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky Umansky quotes Gustave Flaubert early in her collection—“The principal thing in this world is to keep one’s soul aloft”—and that line becomes theme and center for the book. Here “Small girls dream while. / The most are slipped graces, / and many graces are slipped.” In this world, “It is hard to quiet the blackberrying pain. / The little chronicles, the streaks, and the intimate workings. // I will face this by red-winging my truths. / I will push my blues into orchids.” Umansky’s poems are expansive, quick, and rooted in a conversational interaction with the page. “I am the one holding the wheel,” she writes, “& the one tying us to the mast.” Yet there’s a refrain of slipping, of losing hold that is reflected in the way her lines careen across the page, a self searching for a steadiness: “You aren’t being robbed of time, / you’re just trying to get out of your landmarks. / You’re being robbed of the present by thinking of the future.” The Explosive Expert’s Wife by Shara Lessley “The Ugly American” captures the spirit of Lessley’s book, one set in Amman, Jordan. Boys beat a jennet, a female donkey, “with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.” The image of violence that opens the poem appears to validate the epigraph: Mark Twain’s stereotypical, dismissive opinion of the Middle East. But this book is aware of its framing. A pregnant woman, a foreigner, enters the narrative; she’s watching the attack, and picks up a stone. The woman “heard herself / curse, think every stupid soulless thing // she’d heard about the filth borne of this region.” A man breaks up the boys’ beating, and the woman, far away but watching, is forced to reckon with the moment: “Please / understand this isn’t metaphor: when // I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.” Based in part on Lessley’s years as an American expatriate, The Explosive Expert’s Wife is a narrative of listening and understanding. In “First Days: August”: “Nights stalled at the screen. I strain / to hear the call to prayer— / what is it Amman’s abandoned / streets are trying to say?” Often Lessley’s poems become laments: “A thousand candles light the Siq. / I grieve / the West, its disinterested ear.” Here Amman is not simply defined by its struggles; it is a world of small miracles, as in “Transfusion,” when the narrator’s peritoneum bleeds—but she is calmed and carried for, her child safe. “The gift comes slow,” she writes. “I listen to us breathe.” Cape Verdean Blues by Shauna Barbosa Barbosa’s poems snap. “Every Year Trying to Get My Body Right”: on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Pickup truck with a broken rearview, her “scraped toes hanging out the passenger side. I keep the window open in the event I need to summer language my mouth into prayer.” One of the keys to prose poems that pulse is the internal rhythms of sentences (whispers of lines, memories of lines), as in a later poem on the sign of Cancer: “The moon is a hammock. A hammock is a moon. Loosen up Cancer. Lie down without moving, ask how she’s doing, and let the dead come.” The cadences of care move throughout this book, including “Making Sense of What We’re Made For”: “I like how the bottoms of my feet feel / like silence.” Those feet have “taken a beating . . . I sweat violence like ceremony.” There’s so much to appreciate in Barbosa’s debut—her humor, the spiritual touches that shine light on family and desire—but I especially like how she plays with the layering of language. Kriolu, the Cape Verdean tongue, cloaks this book. In “Broke,” the narrator’s aunt sweeps the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square “like it’s a Saturday morning in her Cape Verdean home.” When her grandmother calls and yells at her in Kriolu, “I love how it sounds to be loved so fiercely in another language.” Language unites us, but the narrator knows otherwise in an earlier poem: “I know you don’t want to be / cause it’s difficult to be / black, Sis // knows / speaking Portuguese at the traffic stop / won’t save you.” And the sense of being displaced, in “GPS”: “there’s a Duane Reade a mile from Chinatown. It’s 96 degrees on a Saturday. My legs are wet. Sweat stings my contact lenses.” The narrator’s taxi driver is West African: “You are my sister, he says . . . I wanted to ask what his American woman looks like. A lot of time passes and I think about my old west African lover and feel bad for being so American.” You will nod your head, again and again, at lines from this book (“It’s profoundly normal to become fragile while ordering coffee.”) and titles (“You Will, Indeed, Always Be the Same Person After Vacation”).
After 17 drafts over two weeks, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” was completed on November 4, 1975. The poem began as notes, and evolved into a villanelle. She changed the title. She deleted words. She reached for possible rhymes. Brett Candlish Millier says the “effect of reading all these drafts together one often feels in reading the raw material of her poems and then the poems themselves: the tremendous selectivity of her method and her gift for forcing richness from minimal words.” Revision is art. Denise Levertov said it was dangerous to revise a poem unless “you are hot in it.” Some poets suffer through revision. Other poets find life in revision. All poets do it. Here are 15 poets on the worthy work of revision. “I revise incessantly. Usually when I’m starting to work on a poem, I don’t read it aloud—not until it gets to a certain point. You can lull yourself with your own voice; but I hear it in my head.” — Rita Dove “The energy of revision is the energy of creation and change, which is also the energy of destruction.” — Maggie Anderson “I revise constantly. I used to revise whole poems; now I revise as I go along, from line to line. Sometimes I erase so much I tear a hole in the paper.” — Charles Wright “You can get expert at teaching and be crude in practice. The revision, the consciousness that tinkers with the poem—that has something to do with teaching and criticism. But the impulse that starts a poem and makes it of any importance is distinct from teaching.” — Robert Lowell “Revision teaches me how to push beyond the choices that come easily. It restrains me, challenges me, forces me back and back and back again to my failures. Process saves me from the poverty of my intentions.” — Traci Brimhall “The poets who influenced me most were Yeats and Valéry. Both were poets who revised endlessly, and I believe in revision. But I think you can only do it when you're inspired. In other words, the poem goes dead if you don't revise it white heat. You can't revise it cold, as far as I'm concerned. It's like playing a very stiff three sets of tennis one after another.” — May Sarton “Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece—the revisions—was almost more valuable than producing an original draft.” — W.S. Merwin “Revision is to occupy a poem as spectator instead of as creator. We clean a room so that it looks unoccupied; in revision we work to efface affect, idiosyncrasy and error so that the poem is a hotel room with the sheets turned down, a mint on its pillow.” — Carmen Giménez Smith [millions_ad] “I don't actually revise, or it's very seldom that I revise. What I do is write so leisurely that all the revisions occur in thought or in the margins of the page. It can make for a page which is as dense, graphically, as some men's-room walls. Which is not to say that a poem is like going to the men's room.” — Richard Wilbur “I do sometimes use a reading as part of the revision process. I write wanting the poems to be heard, to be thought of, to be read out loud, as human speech.” — Thomas Lux “I revise endlessly. Even after publication.” — Clarence Major “A poem rarely comes whole and completely dressed. As a rule, it comes in bits and pieces. You get an impression of something—you feel something, you anticipate something, and you begin, feebly, to put these impressions and feelings and anticipation or rememberings into those things which seem so common and handleable—words. And you flail and you falter and you shift and you shake, and finally, you come forth with the first draft. Then, if you're myself and if you're like many of the other poets I know, you revise, and you revise. And often the finished product is nothing like your first draft. Sometimes it is.” — Gwendolyn Brooks “I do read the poems aloud, yes—not while writing, as much, but in the revision stage. I want to test for where things are too rough, or aren’t rough enough, where they fall into patterns of sound and whether or not those are meaningful or distracting patterns.” — Carl Phillips “I revise purposefully and constantly and playfully, as often for sound as for meaning. I lean, too, on the weight of a lifetime of reading poetry. I think back, even, to weekly Mass growing up: its wildly varied poetry, its varying metrical cadences, the call and response, the repetition. I still call on these tools in my poems. — Kerrin McCadden “Sometimes I go through the first revision, the second revision, the third revision, the fourth revision, the fifth revision, the sixth revision and then go, 'Hold it!' You wanna throw the poem down, you want to say all kinds of things. It's sometimes at about the fourth revision that you tear it apart, but if you can just make yourself go past that, it will turn a corner later and it will say, 'Here I am, come get me.' At sometime, by the ninth or tenth revision, when you are practically despairing about it, it turns that corner and that is the most exquisite moment when it happens. And all this is worth the days, the weeks, the months you've spent, and then it flows and the rhythm is there, the imagery is there and it's so wonderful. All that process made it happen. Sometimes you put it down for the night and then you pick it up from the bed in the cold light of the morning. When you read it out loud, in the early morning hours when things are clear, the poem becomes clear also. I always maintain that it's revision that makes that poem turn a corner—and you really don't know how it happens.” — Sonia Sanchez Image Credit: Pxhere.
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in February. Giant by Richard Georges Giant begins with how the “gods of our fathers rose” from the “unlighted deep.” The ocean “splashed about their groaning limbs, / foaming and licking their creaking bodies / stippled with black barnacle.” The long titular poem that opens the collection unfolds into a stanza of direct address: “Recite the prayers your mother taught you, / measure the depth of your days in sunsets, / count your crosses, the number of your years.” Georges commands a voice both calming and cleansing. Giant is a book of myths and minutiae. In poems like “Brandywine/Tortola,” narrators long for the old music of youth. The past often opens through the night, when “the ghosts / howl the unreasonableness of love // to those, like me, who listen for voices / on the wind.” These narrators wish “to believe again in gods, // and bodies as real as this green earth is.” Night, wind, prayer, and water become his refrain, coupled with a stubborn belief in words: “This is a night full of voices: / the infant wailing at the baptismal font, / the weeping around a silent casket. / The whole damn world is alight / and hungry and nothing is ever enough— / but there is poetry, which will suffice.” Virgin by Analicia Sotelo Sotelo’s poetry reveals the weight of desire, how our hearts drag our bodies. After a narrator heads home from a bar, alone, she’s “discovered / humiliation is physically painful: / the crown-like stigmata of a peach / that’s been twisted, pulled open, / left there.” A later narrator contemplates the “darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.” In “Trauma with White Agnostic Male,” she writes “This is blood / for blood, a prodigal heartbreak // I must return” (in Sotelo’s poems, past is always present). “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” is hilarious—“She was very unhappy and vaguely religious so I put her / at the edge of the lake where the ducks were waddling / along like Victorian children, living out their lives in / blithe, downy softness”—and builds toward an emotional end. Imbued with Catholic cultural touches (“I was a clever rosary”), Sotelo mines the Marian paradox with complexity, grace, and power. And this is a book about Texas, where “there’s no winter,” but “the light changes, grows sharper, // keener, and when I was a girl, / it was breath to me, // walking up the hillside to school, / the wind touching my throat.” Her narrators want more out of life, but they clench what they have—and draw us back to her pages. A significant debut. The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone “No one here is glad anyone is dead. But / there is a certain comfort in knowing / the dead can entertain us, if we wish.” A little bit Inferno, but maybe even more so the deliciously devilish No Exit, Stone’s book is a strange, entertaining journey into an underground world where poor souls are “clinging to our tragedies, finding our favorite face.” Stone offers her reader a topography of a purgatory, a place where you “leave your inhibitions at the door,” and there’s “Grandma, half-blind, naked but for an open / XL flannel and Birkenstocks.” After their shift, dancers give tips to the House Mom, and then they go upstairs to their rooms, where grief “read itself aloud / in gilt fragments and tapestries fallen apart.” For all the spectacle of this netherworld, this grief returns in waves: “I can’t tell anymore whether I am grieving you particularly / or I simply find life and death erroneous.” You’ve never quite seen a poetic party like this: “Death’s last-minute cosmetic surgery, the skin taut / from gravity, confined in beauty for one last hurrah.” Yet at some point in Stone’s vision, the nightmare recedes, and we settle into her narrator’s mind—one pained by the cycles of generational loss, longing for her mother. When Stone finally returns us to that club in the book’s final pages, it is as if we might never leave there ourselves. [millions_ad] The Elegies of Maximianus translated by A.M. Juster “I am not who I was, my greatest part has perished.” Juster’s fluid, engaging translation should bring the curious elegies of Maximianus—whose only previous English edition was in 1900—to a wider audience. A 6th-century Roman poet, Maximianus’s 686 lines arrive in the voice of a “querulous old man” (to quote Michael Roberts’s fine introduction), who laments the loss of his erotic misadventures. Readers of Michel de Montaigne will recognize the poet’s pithy lines quoted in the French essayist’s work (“Alas! how little of life is left to the old.” is crisply rendered by Juster as “how much life remains for old men?”). Juster imbues a profluence to the elegist’s consideration of life. Young Maximianus, full of lust, equally brimmed with folly: “So I, who everyone considered a grave saint, / am wretched and revealed by my own vice.” We can sense his old soul inaccurately lighting the lost loves of his youth—Juster’s translation is sharp, his pacing pure—and the book’s final elegy, a mere dozen lines, arrives with a particular sadness: “Death’s journey is the same for all; the type of life / and exit, though, is not the same for all.” Sometimes there is no solace, not even in memories. Noirmania by Joanna Novak Joyelle McSweeney has called the necropastoral the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classic pastoral.” The necropastoral is a place of “strange meetings,” and it is within that setting Joanna Novak’s Noirmania exists. A dark book with drifting, spaced lines, Noirmania is a series of single-page, untitled poems that depict the stratification of memory. The narrator exists out of time, moving between visions of childhood and a place more severe and stagnant than Theodore Roethke’s root cellar. Sharp lines sneak through: “Who hasn’t / eaten alone at dusk, with the moon / pouring out like a placemat?” While it will take time for readers to settle into Novak’s schema, once they do, there is much to see in the darkness, where “silence studied / my lostness: a mass in a room in a suite / off an impossible house with bats and eaves.” House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?
When I really want to feel some measure of control, I write poetry. Poetry is shaped, while prose assumes the shape of the page. Other than indents for dialogue and new paragraphs, prose follows the path set by a document’s margins. We type and let the letters fall where they will—because for essayists and fiction writers, the contours of a sentence are often more of sound than sight. Prose writers are no less precise than poets, but their words have different functions. A sense of control might be why I so often return to Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the introduction he penned to the 1939 version of his Collected Poems. My impulse might appear contradictory; Frost’s essay is best known for his suggestion that the route of a poem is not in control, but surprise—for both reader and writer. “It is but a trick poem and no poem at all,” he says, “if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.” Yet when I say that I write poetry to feel in control, I don’t mean that I write poetry as an act of coercion or prescription. I have a feeling where my poems might go, but I also have a feeling where most of my days might go. I am usually surprised by both. Although I appreciate lines such as “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” my interest in “The Figure a Poem Makes” is focused on other elements. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson said the poet wanted to see if each poem “had a kind of character and shape or form of its own.” A poem, Frost claimed, “had to show that the poet was ‘getting his body into it.’” Frost takes a few paragraphs to get his body—or perhaps his focus—into the essay. He begins with a lament about how abstraction “has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” He stops and starts, but settles into a rhythm when his own abstractions find that figure of poetry, one that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I often drift through his sentences, but pause on one particular gem: that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” While I’m skeptical that poetry will save us, I’ve felt compelled to write poetry again in the past year as a stay against the daily conflagration of argument and noise. Poetry is a salve against the digital exhortation to be constantly engaged in the digital world. I do think poetry and prayer have much in common, but I think good prayer is kenotic; an emptying of self, the hope to be better in how we treat others. If I pray for things I want, I start to feel like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, rambling on in the cathedral. Writing poetry is a return to the self. A claiming of space and soul. An affirmation of worth. [millions_ad] Lately I have been reading H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, and lines like “Let us substitute / enchantment for sentiment, // re-dedicate our gifts / to spiritual realm” make me think of Frost. Poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. I think Frost’s essential word here is momentary; to entirely escape from the world seems not only impossible, but perhaps a bit selfish. Yet to give in to the cultural—or perhaps capitalist—demand to remain superficially engaged, online or otherwise, is to assert the importance of society over spirit. Now I write essays—about poetry, culture, and God—but my first two books were collections of poetry. Those books feel like part of a past life. They were written before my daughters were born. The economics of poetry are unforgiving. Poetry is a place of no deadlines. A place of searching. It is also a world of little remuneration. It is romantic to think that such a thing does not matter. But it does. The writing life is a succession of different acts, with their own failures and conflicts and moments of joy. To live as a writer means to embrace, and perhaps be inspired by, these different seasons. Nostalgia shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but if we’ve opened a window years before, there was probably a good reason. Writing poetry is an act of ordering our thoughts and perceptions into lines and sections. By focusing on a form of writing that embraces structure and selection, we can participate in a daily examen of sorts—and whether that poetry is ever published is not really the point. There are greater rewards. I am writing poems again. And I suspect that I’m not the only one. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in January. Wild Is the Wind by Carl Phillips Listen to Nina Simone’s stirring classic that inspired Phillips’s title, and then settle into this masterful collection. Phillips has found the sweet union between pacing and structure, and each poem in this book, like Simone’s recording, fully inhabits its space. The wideness and wisdom of his first person steps out in the middle of poems, as in “Brothers in Arms”: “I’ve always thought / gratitude’s the one correct response to having been made, / however painfully, to see this life more up close.” And “The happiest / people I know are those whose main strategy has / always been detachment.” This sense of control permeates the book, exemplified in poems like “Stray”: “Sometimes the thought that I’m doomed / to fail—that the body is—keeps me almost steady, if / steadiness is what a gift for a while brings—feathers, burst- / at-last pods of milkweed, October—before it all fades away.” To fade is to drift, disappear, and to lose ourselves—a notion, much like love, that requires some strange confidence and fear. A pleasure to have a poet armed with the architecture of history speaking to us, telling us: “to know utterly what you’ll never be, to understand in doing so / what you are, and say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.” He does so by reminding us how to see, even something as simple and necessary as leaves: “Now they look suspended, like heroes / inside the myth heroes seem bent on making / from the myth of themselves; or like sunlight, in fog.” Indictus by Natalie Eilbert The first poem of Indictus is a preface and schema for the book: “I envision a world where the men are gone who pulled language out of my mouth to push themselves in.” The narrator explains “If I jump around in my details, it is because I have willfully refused details in writing,” and the warning makes sense: “Even in the highest form of truth, to access memory is to blunder its event.” Eilbert’s narrators respond to trauma with fever and force, and we’re plunged into these dark moments in stanzas that stray across the page, little blinks of memory that have pushed their way out. The narrative style here is often mythic—Eilbert’s recursive songs turn words like “hole” into struggles—making Indictus feel like some discovered, aged text of permanence. There often is a freeing sense of vulnerability here; on one page, after a pointed childhood memory, the narrator skips a line like taking a breath, and writes: “What do I want to tell you?” What is told: “A poem is a hole in how it is dug up,” she writes, “the soil purged, the soiled purge—movement likened / to a net uncatching.” Indictus is, among other things, a paean to poetic power: “My obsession with words is a kind of envy, / that they affect meaning as their former usage / is erased, retooled.” Eilbert’s book is an act of reclaiming, revising, transcending—while never forgetting. Luxury by Philip Schultz “As I get older more seems to be needed.” Luxury begins with the anxiety that accompanies awareness. The narrators of the first poems in the collection are frozen, watching the world. An aging man in his home, “worrying about a future my sons / will help make.” A man sitting “next to the toilet” on packed transit, “thinking about Pythagoras, / who believed our souls ended up inside / the bodies of animals selected as rewards / and punishments.” A narrator witness to small-town bickering in line at the grocery store. These are poems of dizzying suburban silence: “I like to stand at my window, / looking for a TV’s futile flickering, / always surprised to see / instead, / the quaint, porous face / of my reflection, / immersed in darkness, / its one abundance.” “Luxury,” the long title poem that encompasses the final quarter of that book, looks deeper into that darkness. It ventures forward and backward—in the bounding way that grief does—and the narrator considers how “the first / and only life I ever managed to save / was my own.” Melancholic without ever become maudlin, Schultz’s new book is a snapshot of our malaise “one luminous, lost imagination at a time.” Take Me with You by Andrea Gibson Gibson’s pithy love poems are a nice match for the book’s pocket size, and Sarah J. Coleman’s line drawings help the eye linger on the page. The final two sections of the book, “On the World” and “On Becoming,” are idealistic calls for unity—that we might compromise enough to listen to each other, but that we don’t have to compromise our souls. The untitled poems make the pages bleed into each other; one page is an affirmation to “write the poem” in the midst of grief, and the opposing page feels right: “I am so desperate to learn / how people reach / each other, / I can’t stop running / around cursing this city / for the day they started / burying the telephone wires / underground.” “You should never trust a ship / that won’t let you get off”—Gibson’s wisdom sails in lines that take curious routes. They might court cliché in some of their love poems, but that makes their later dances with words all the more surprising and powerful “I know a thousand / things louder than / a soldier’s gun. // I know the / heartbeat of his / mother.” A former college basketball player (they played for St. Joseph College’s Lady Monks), they first came out at 20 to their roommate: “I gotta tell you something. I / finally understand God.” [millions_ad] Hymn to the Reckless by Erin Fornoff At a gas station: “slicks of oil tie-dye the puddles / in the concrete.” They “reflect the sun, / turn it wild, hold it in the cracked dips of the ground.” In the forest: “Look at a beech long enough, you want / to run your hands up its trunk like a lover.” Making moonshine: “We wait for a sunny day and begin early, / haul deep pots and propane up the hill / back where the rain-rubbed mountains meet.” Fornoff looks at the world—animate and inanimate—as pulsing, peculiar, worthy of attention. “I manufactured a kinship with the sea,” she writes in one poem: “It flirted. It tweaked my ankles.” Later, when "I fell over the rocks" into the sea, the water “pulled / into the moaning boil, it ignored me, / pounded my sinuses, churned.” Her vision is tempered by realism. “Politeness as identity is taxing.” Hymn to the Reckless moves between the poet’s native North Carolina and her home in Ireland, where she says “the light is different here.” It is from that distance that she looks at her home and wonders, with the weight of elegy, “If the future’s something we have to brace / ourselves against, can we find a space in the dark, / and life courage from the mess?” The Cataracts by Raymond McDaniel Often McDaniel’s narratives unfold from a word’s definition. Decimate, light, haven: “Is the name for the place of safety or refuge. // Though refuge from what is unclear, unspecified, // it matters in that the nature of a haven depends // on what you are fleeing from.” And on his lines go, spinning definition out into discovery. This is a book of blurred vision, a theme imbued into the spaces between the lines, into the memories of the narrator—memories that feel like a game: “Do you know where you are, / if you know that wherever you are, / you are lost?” There are many mirrors in this book, light refracted, vision strained. In one long poem, the narrator speaks of his father’s cataracts: “because we were all broken by the cost of his having been broken.” His pain is a weight upon them, and years later, after his death, the narrator dreams of his father: “he said if you want to stare at the sun // and not go blind you look not at its light // but what it illuminates the world the moon // never the thing itself and always its reflection.” There’s a heavy sadness to this book—a strangely calming one—with a hint of resignation: “I want nothing, / not even to be free of desire."
2017 was the year I was thankfully, happily consumed with poetry. I wrote about 49 new books of poetry for my monthly column here at The Millions. The refrain starts with packages and cardboard mailers that my daughters collect from our front steps. They are stacked next to my desk, and I read and read and read, and then I write. I try to find poems that move me, that comfort me, that make me afraid and help me see where I’ve become complacent. When I am finished with that month’s column, I carry the titles to my bookshelves in another room, where they rest until I read them again. If I’m sentimental about books, forgive me. We need them. Here are some more books of poetry that I read this year. Maps by John Freeman: “If wind asked permission / we might wait and listen / as if night stopped its blue / curtain and wheat bent without scattering / its hope of what happens in the dark, / and happens by accident.” Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair by William Evans: The nurse “bares my shoulder while saying / my, you are a big one, aren’t you. / My shoulder is a bronze /trophy in this nurse’s fingers / and I wait for the needle, wondering / how many bucks heard the wind / whisper how gorgeous they / were through the trees / of a perilous forest / before it carried the first / bullet with it.” Begin With a Failed Body by Natalie J. Graham: “Your body is a jumble, a swarm held together with light. I want / a tangle of glossy leaves scattering light. I want, // perhaps, to hurt your buoyant body as it rises, to make // you feel.” [millions_ad] Book of Twilight by Pablo Neruda: “Blind old man, you cried when your life was / good, when your eyes held the sun, / but if the silence has already arrived, for what are you waiting, / for what are you waiting, blind old man, are you waiting for the pain?” What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan: “I did not ask to be created, / yet here I wait for my creator to return.” Urbilly by Michael Dowdy: “Their headlights rattled down cul-de-sacs, / scanning vinyl shrines skirting a highway / that twists over the hills like licorice / and slips into Tennessee’s puckered lips.” In This Quiet Church of Night I Say Amen by Devin Kelly: “There is too much beauty here / for this to mean nothing. Believe me // when I say there’s a universe / where we can hold each other // in the palms of our hands, both at once.” More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in December. Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino “Who shall change my vile body into a glorious body / when I know there’s glory at the end of my prayer?” The first quarter of Witch Wife is bound by bodies: bodies plagued, bodies unsettled. “For this glob of a girl who feeds like a grub,” Petrosino writes, her consonants bubbling like the incantations suggested by her title. “Poor poorless receptacle for Presidential-fitness-test-sweat, poor pudding poured into too few pans.” The anxiety of the book’s first quarter turns and evolves into something like mist in the second quarter of the book, in poems like “Europe”: “I’ll never be so lonely again, or young enough / to weep in my clothes on the street.” Witch Wife offers that maybe all love stories are stories of bodies. We are within before we are without. Petrosino is a unique voice, churning a mixture of smirk and mirth: “My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas / & adorn themselves in denim.” Anne Sexton haunts the third quarter of this book: “Some ghosts are my mothers / neither angry nor kind / their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.” Witch Wife is a weird wonder, something altogether new in its combinations. From the title poem: “Your gloves are green // & transparent like the skin of Christ / when He returned, filmed over with moss roses— / I’ll conjure as perfect an Easter.” The book’s final quarter shakes like the end of a folk tale, the other world and this world coming together: “It happens at my desk: a gathering in. As if the room were a forehead graying at the lid.” The sky collapsing; “Something happens but it doesn’t keep happening. This is a careful time.” We should believe it. Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader “Everything at the end of a bullet’s journey becomes conjecture,” writes Colum McCann in the introduction to this painfully appropriate collection. The bleak reality that McCann describes is all the more reason for a book whose conviction, he writes, “is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope.” “The long night begins,” ends a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca. “Seasons matter little to him,” writes Kyle Dargan of a Virginia farmer who sells a gun to the “tremulous hand” of a boy: “none of the guns he sells are grown from seed.” Ross Gay stirs me awake with lines I can’t forget: “The bullet, in its hunger, craves the womb / of the body. The warm thrum there. Begs always / release from the chilly, dumb chamber.” Bullets into Bells believes in conversation over false conversion, and in that spirit, includes responses to each poem—a unique, and often moving, element of the book. After Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”—in which he laments “this should not be the brick and mortar / of poetry, the moment when a black father drives / his black sons to school”—Tamir’s mother responds: “When I lost Tamir, I lost a piece of myself.” Poetry won’t make us whole again, but we need a form for our shouts and our cries. Follow Natasha Trethewey here: “And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there? Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell “Jesus, it is a disappointing shed / Where they hang your picture / And drink juice, and conjure / Your person into inferior bread— / I would speak of injustice, / I would not go again into that place.” Kinnell “sacramentalized experience,” Edward Hirsch says, alluding to how the poet’s youthful Catholicism became both a source of tension and nostalgia. His long poem from 1960, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” captures that synthesis. A beautiful, comprehensive, playful snapshot of the city: people, buildings, objects illuminated fresh: “In the pushcart market, on Sunday, / A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.” Kinnell’s Collected also includes The Book of Nightmares, a book of quotable lamentations: “Let our scars fall in love.” There’s a considered gentleness to Kinnell’s verse, as in “Goodbye,” for when “My mother, poor woman, lies tonight / in her last bed. It’s snowing, for her, in her darkness.” By the time the poem ends, like with so many of Kinnell’s tales, we have been carried, and are placed, gently, somewhere else: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.” [millions_ad] Let’s Not Live on Earth by Sarah Blake “You will lose your body to // sadness at a point / like a temperature // and then you will wake and wake / and wake and wake and wake to it.” Melancholy, by nature of its blurred edges and ambiguous heartbeats, is so difficult to capture with poetic precision. Blake gets close to that pained place through her recursive lines, her willingness to linger on moments. “I know people are judging me as a mother all the time,” she writes in a single line, like an exhale of the inevitable. Yet there’s a strength here, and it is often delivered with the humor that comes from frustration. In one poem, after the narrator is almost denied coverage for anxiety medication, she walks her son home in a stroller. It has gotten very warm, and once home, covered in sweat, she thinks what a relief it will be to simply sleep that night. To make it through life, and be given that small grace: “You might call it escapism but this is / how life works, trying to pull / us free, creating the break that we might // split ourselves upon.” Solve for Desire by Caitlin Bailey Grete and Georg Trakl, sister and brother, pianist and poet, are given new life in Bailey’s debut collection. Plagued by addiction, scarred by war, driven to suicide, both are frozen in history, but Bailey offers Grete her voice. The siblings hold a connection beyond even love, some region possibly only accessible through poetry. “The most brilliant part of you exists to haunt me,” she writes. “Sometimes I can’t believe my heart, // how it continues. How it isn’t black and withered.” Bailey often delivers short poems like flashes; those can be held in your palm, however mysterious: “If a horse is allowed / to graze freely after a winter / in the barn / it becomes sick with pleasure.” Other lines, like “I am hostage to your absence,” bleed across the rest of poems, heavy in their chorus. Although Bailey is creating a fictional vision of two hearts, her words rest in that curious space between abstraction and touch, so this is a book to place upon one’s soul. Let’s All Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges In “Ode to My Dishwasher,” the narrator sighs: “It is late, my love, and you are loud / worrying at your work.” “To be a grown woman,” she thinks, “alone / and unclean is a powerful thing.” She thinks of her mother, who “had so many rubber gloves / I was surprised by the sight of her hands // which seemed to me old / even when she was young.” The narrator’s mother is a familiar refrain in Let’s All Die Happy, a book sustained by Adair-Hodges’s often darkly-comic voice. Lament is one of her main modes. She doesn’t quite look back in anger, but there’s a skepticism about the past. Like those years she “thought I loved God and His son,” which might have been because she “liked being good // at Church, A-pluses in verses, hymns.” “I loved Him,” she reflects, “like a savings account, feeling holy // in my asceticism but waiting for the day / I could go to the Bank of Eternal Good Things.” So often in these poems the narrator ends up alone, misunderstood, separated—after she’s opened her heart. In “The Trap,” she knows “There is no greater tragedy than to be young / and think you know what joy will look like / and so clunk and pigeon / through corridors and malls, flapping against the linoleum / of heartbreak.” A sweet book for hearts gone sour, Adair-Hodges skillfully moves between varying songs, and the book’s key lies in a single phrase: “I am graceless but I am not depraved.” The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons: Volume 1 and Volume 2 From his 1955 self-published debut Ommateum with Doxology to the posthumous 2005 collection Bosh and Flapdoodle, these two volumes offer 966 poems from a poet whose complexities and personal labyrinths we have yet to fully understand. In her introduction, Helen Vendler alludes to a forthcoming biography, but for now, we have the poems. He began writing them while in the Navy. He continued writing while he was a scientific glassware salesman. His words hold an oddity and sublimity that sets him apart from even his experimental peers. In “Easter Morning,” on the tragic death of his younger brother: “I have a life that did not become, / that turned aside and stopped, / astonished: / I hold it in me like a pregnancy.” His brother’s young death paused his growth, and he’s remained chained to that moment where he can only “yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place.” Ammons is like some wild radical lover of language in old clothes; his tightly columnar poems are both playful and traditional. Timeless, probably. Often tongue-tied to truth: “Old men drain and dread and dream and dress / and dribble and drift and drink and drip and // drone and drool and droop and drop and drown / and drowse, dry, and dry up.” I love “Soaker”: “You can appreciate / this kind of rain, / thunderless, / small-gauged / after a dry spell, / the wind quiet, / multitudes of leaves / as if yelling / the smallest thanks.” I have never read a poet who brings me so close to infinity, where we are equally in awe and terribly afraid.