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.

We Were Born in a World with Predators: Featured Poetry by Rose McLarney

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Forage by Rose McLarney. Her poems always make me want to linger. If poetry, as an art, slows us down, then McLarney’s poems slow us and sink us and rejuvenate our sense of the surrounding world.

McLarney’s poems are so tactile; here we follow the narrator’s hands into the cold chicken, feel the “warmth of eggs / in the time when we / collected them fresh.” These moments of touch allow McLarney to widen her scope with the shift of a line—so that her abstractions feel as tangible as lemons and herbs.

After Hearing of His Passing
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.

From Forage by Rose McLarney, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Rose McLarney. Previously published in the Birmingham Poetry Review.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2019

Here
are eight notable books of poetry publishing in September.

Forage by Rose McLarney

McLarney has been a gifted
storyteller since her first book, The
Always Broken Plates of Mountains
, but I dare say that she’s getting even
better, more hypnotic. She’s one of our finest poets of the wild: her notes of
appreciation are grounded in a love of careful cataloging of the world through
language. There are the paired, almost petite lines of “Pet” about a cat: “How
long I watched, how I loved // to watch, and how I tried / to make him a little
home. // But what is wanted wants / to leg it elsewhere, no matter.” Gentle
lines, but the poem ends with a start: “He would slaughter // his way back to
solitude.” McLarney is masterful at those turns—an awareness of how quickly
life can jolt. That range is also present in “And Still I Want to Bring Life
into This World.” The narrator is driving home from a doctor’s appointment,
listening to a radio broadcast—the words reverberating within that small space.
The broadcaster speaks of “failed fields, washed over.” A dying world. The
narrator can’t help but turn the pain inward: “I can think only of the news //
that I may have no children, when there are more / than the world can manage to
keep alive. // Must the answer be only the variety / of grief? If not to envy
all the irrigated orchards bore, // to sorrow for the trees, sprayed and
sterile?” McLarney’s environmental threnodies move from the quick truth—“Wildflowers
tend to themselves // while all people plant these days are satellite
dishes”—to a sense that has been accumulating across all of her books: how do
we hold on to despair, and dust, and memory? A gorgeous book.   

Ringer by Rebecca Lehmann

“Elegy for Almost,” a poem
that sits halfway through Lehmann’s collection, took my breath away. “It was as
simple as this: I really wanted you / and then you were gone.” Those first
lines—finely-timed and direct—speak across the page and toward the soul. Throughout
her poems, Lehmann is well-paced, creative, and constructive, and the result in
this poem is a powerful song of grief. “I was unconscious when the doctor
slipped / her instruments in and took you out: / sac with no heartbeat,
placenta that wouldn’t / let go its hold, raspberry sized cluster / of cells
that didn’t put together right. / My love.” And then from that stanza to
17-year-old memories: driving, “stoned, around the Wisconsin countryside,”
drifting over the yellow line. Wondering: “Why do I think of those far away
days now, / and again and again?” Ringer
teems with excellent poems, including the title piece, which offers many truths
in a single page. “Each morning trumpeted into being with a chorus of baby
squawks,” the refrains of her life. It is a poem about motherhood, about
occupying space in this weary world. Snow clings to curbs, even as daffodils
push through mud. Life, all around her, tries its best. The narrator brings the
stroller around the block, again and again, the cycle bringing her back to her
son’s birth, when “two medical students / held my legs and joked about going to
the gym. The epidural coursed / strong medicine into my spine. The anesthesiologist
flitted in / and out of the room like a large hummingbird.” Lehmann, generously
and gracefully, swings us through entire lives.

Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder

“When I was fifteen / I suddenly knew / I would never / understand geometry”; where Zapruder begins his poems, and where he ends them, are often quite different places—and that is one of the joys of Father’s Day, a heartfelt, melancholy collection. Often his columnar style naturally guides our eyes: he’s a poet of syntactic movement, often spare with punctuation, instead letting the lines themselves do the lifting. In “When I Was Fifteen,” he remembers “those inscrutable / formulas everyone / was busily into / their notebooks scribbling.” The narrator had his own talents. He writes the story of the field hockey star for the school paper, and then gives his history notes to her. She “took them / from my hands / like the blameless / queen of elegant / violence she was.” Zapruder has a great way of mapping our interiors, as when the narrator, wrapped-up in his down jacket, walks home and “listened to / the analog ghost / in the machine / pour from the cassette / I had drawn / flowers on.” Other poems are wry jabs, as with “Generation X”: “I was born the autumn / after a wave of flowers / swept the land // too late to appear in even / one poem by Frank O’Hara,” and “The Poetry Reading”: “At the poetry reading I am listening / to the endless introduction. / The young poet waits / for a cloud of applause / through which he will go / to his doom.” You’ve got to laugh at po-biz to stay alive. Also: stay for Zapruder’s beautiful afterword.

Daybook 1918: Early Fragments by J.V. Foix (edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti)

Foix is the pen name of Josep Vicenç Foix i Mas (1893-1987), a Catalan poet once lauded by Harold Bloom but largely neglected by English language readers and critics. Venuti does a necessary service in translating and curating these unusual and intriguing pieces. Daybook 1918 includes prose poems and fragments which Venuti notes “endows recognizably Catalan customs and geography with a surrealist quality” through a particular process: “Foix developed a method that favored not automatic writing, freed from rational control, but rather a combination of dream and hypnagogia.” Venuti is a sage and lyric guide through Foix’s strangeness. In one untitled piece, the narrator begins: “She assured me that two hundred young men lived in the village, each the owner of a black horse like mine.” No such thing is true, the man learns, as the “stables lie empty, as do the houses. Only my horse and I wander the village, night and day, through the labyrinth of its shadows.” Another piece, “Without Symbolism,” offers some: “The conductor of the municipal band is so corpulent that he takes up half the square. When he extends an arm, all the village children stretch out their hands to turn somersaults as if they were on the horizontal bar.” Foix’s poems are probably best read between midnight and dawn—or any similar time when we are most attuned to our shadow selves. Added bonus: a few excellent essays on poetry, consciousness, and art by Foix.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

If you’ve somehow never experienced
the work of our new poet laureate, Harjo’s new book is a great introduction.
From “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / To the need of stars /
To know themselves against the dark.” That reflexive turn—themselves—which could be so heavy and stodgy in the hands of a
lesser poet, becomes illuminating here. Sunrise, sunset, morning, night, pilgrimage—much
of Harjo’s book is about movement northward and drifting south. An introductory
note recalling the 1830 Indian Removal Act offers a roadmap to her central
theme: the desire of indigenous peoples to return home. In certain ways, this
happens through story: “I leave you to your ceremony of grieving / Which is
also of celebration / Given when an honored humble one / Leaves behind a trail
of happiness / In the dark of human tribulation.” She writes: “Once there were
songs for everything, / Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting, / For eating,
getting drunk, falling asleep, / For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” An American Sunrise affirms Harjo’s
identity as a poet of testimony. “Let’s honor the maker,” she ends one poem. “Let’s
honor what’s made.”

I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn

“Haecceity,” writes Flynn,
is a word “almost impossible / to pronounce,” but means “thisness, as in here / &
now”—which makes it quite useful. Flynn’s poetry does this: a little turn
or refraction to refocus our gaze, moving from words (their sounds and shapes)
to bodies (our sounds and shapes). “In / the end I held your arms briefly /
over your head & // warned that I was in no way / safe,” the narrator says.
He is “often not filled with any great love // for—of—God,” but “then, briefly
& wholly, your / thisness, like
// beeswax, it / filled me.” Wholly and holy, Flynn’s poems feel encompassing. Yet
there’s a tender fear of that action, as in “Life is Sweet”: “I worry sometimes
// how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem.” That’s a
refreshing worry. Flynn, who has powerfully mined his own life within his
poetry and prose, carries a particular caution in his lines. In “Saltmarsh,” he
writes of finding “a book, splayed / open, spine broken, // facedown in the
flattened // grass.” Turned-over, the “words // slide off the page as if each /
were a bug // that dies in sunlight. It’s how / I want this // poem to be—unreadable—
/ not at the beginning // but by the end.” The words dissolving; the poem
becoming us and everything around us.

A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib

“& I tell my boys
there is a reason songs from the 90s are having a revival & it’s because
the heart & tongue are the muscles with the most irresistible histories.” Abdurraqib’s
lines lunge; his titles blur into the text. There’s real energy in this book,
and there’s also a compelling sense of love, longing, and loss. His poems hold
hope, but a measured one: “If one must pray, I imagine // it is most worthwhile
to pray towards endings. / The only difference between sunsets and funerals //
is whether or not a town mistakes the howls / of a crying woman for madness.” In
a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time
Like This”—a question that is, tellingly, also a statement—Abdurraqib delivers
some of his most pointed lines: “maybe all the blues / requires is a door /
through which a person / can enter and exit.” He ends one poem: “a father
stands / over his crying son & hisses / I’ll
give you something to cry about / as if he didn’t already / bring a child
into a world / that requires neither of them.” A deft collection.

Valuing by Christopher Kondrich

Valuing opens with an apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.” Her words mark this collection. “It is alright,” Kondrich writes. “You may dwell in me.” Elsewhere: “In order to be immortal you have to be invisible to the part of you that knows you have to die.” Kondrich’s poems have the curious gift of being gently abstract—not vague, but broad, perhaps even kenotic. From Caedmon: “I sit with my head in my hands, turned / against everything. I’m facing what I think // is the wind. It has the eyes I’ve sought, / the skin I’ve felt under stone.” This outward sense makes many of Kondrich’s poems feel like hymns released into the sky. Valuing is a refreshingly sincere and skilled book about the ineffable: “Friend, if you are there, / come to meet me. I am drifting devoured. / I am ready to say goodnight. / Come meet me so I can release it.”

The Space Between Silence & Enough: Featured Poetry by Nick Flynn

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn. His books are often God-haunted, with doubt and faith giving breath to each other.

Flynn has said that he writes “about Jesus quite a lot, he’s appeared in nearly every book I’ve written, it seems…distilled down to his essence, I think he’s a beautiful figure…he is a scrim for each generation to project upon—he seems the perfect ambiguous image, which forces us to figure out what he means, over and over again.”

The complex identity and legacy of St. Augustine fits that same description, and in this poem, the final in Flynn’s excellent new book, we feel the narrator’s conversation with the past. “Even as I write each word I am farther from God,” he says—a powerful song of longing.

“Saint Augustine”
Saint Augustine preached humility &the need to simply be on the ground.Do you wish to rise? he asked. Whatwould he say of these words then, which,after all, are meant to replace us? Whatwould he say of the way I go back, again& again, to the burning house, the housewe’ve already escaped? These words—so quick, the way they rise up, like sparks,or smoke, a person could get lost in the skywatching them, a person could lose trackof the important things. Spot quiz: What’sthe opposite of standing before a houseon fire, trying to understand the flames,& knowing you will never understand?I want to enter into that moment my motherstrikes her first match, but I’m still asleepupstairs. In the dream I’m walking throughthe marsh, because only there, surroundedby water, am I safe. Are your handsthe water? Are these words the flame?The reeds are taller than I am, the mudslows everything down. In some waysI cannot imagine seeing you again, but hereI am, kneeling as in prayer at your bedside,counting our breaths. What would stop mefrom taking your hand then & placing it on mychest? O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.Even as I write each word I am farther fromGod—sometimes I just can’t find it. If only I couldhave the faith I hear coming from the radio,the way it always knows I’m listening. One daythese years will be known as the space betweensilence & enough. I still have trouble being alonein either, which is why the radio is always on.Do you wish to rise? Augustine asks. Beginby descending.

“Saint Augustine,” from I Will Destroy You. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Flynn. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.