Ghosts Who Walk Among Us: The Millions Interviews Claire Cronin

“Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia,” Claire Cronin writes in Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. “I’ve always felt haunted…There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable.”

Some books arrive at the
perfect time, but Cronin’s fascinating book feels absolutely made for this
especially disturbing Halloween. It speaks to the transcendence of her concerns:
she reveals how horror, ghosts, and God exist among each other.

Cronin’s vignette-style
structure arrives like whispers in the dark, or frenetic prayers. Her sense of curiosity
permeates the book. Fans of horror films and Catholics—devoted or drifted—will
love this unique book, but so will those who seek to understand fear.

Cronin is a writer and musician. Her latest album, Big Dread Moon, was described as “a full-length folk horror movie” by The Fader. She has written for Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia.

We spoke about writing that scares us, the power of ritual, and the ghosts who walk among us.

The Millions: Blue Light of the Screen is unique, expansive, and scary—and I don’t think it’s merely because I read it during the Halloween season. Your book mines the spiritual in a true sense: the world of spirits and the spirit. Were you ever scared while writing this book?

Claire Cronin: I did sometimes feel scared of what I was revealing about myself. The process of writing about my past called distant memories to surface, and some of those memories were scary—or sad.

While
working on the book over several years, I also became more attuned to uncanny experiences
and weird synchronicities. By the time I finished it, I found I was more of a
believer in the mysterious and supernatural than when I began, which was not
the outcome I expected.

I think my experience of the spiritual world has always been one of awe, fear, and dread: the “tremendum” in Rudolf Ottos’s definition of the numinous as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It wasn’t ghosts and demons that most frightened me while writing; I was haunted by God.

TM: While reading your book, I recalled this observation by Father Andrew M. Greeley from The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility.” Catholicism and God permeate this book—there’s even a Johannine (Gospel of John) cadence to some of your formulations about horror, like “We see it to believe it, and in believing, see.” What makes Catholics particularly receptive to horror and discussions of mortality?

CC: Well, the version of Catholicism I grew up with combined ordinary, post-Vatican II masses and catechism with my mom’s more magical beliefs and practices. From a very early age, this gave me the sense that our lives stood in a complicated relationship to the hereafter, and that we were sustained by our connections to invisible beings: God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the dead, which meant both saints and dead people we knew personally. I learned that even if I couldn’t directly experience these beings, I should speak to them as if they were always present and listening. That whatever suffering I might face on earth was very small compared to the suffering of those who came before, and smaller still compared to the torments I might face in purgatory or hell. There’s a real horror to this idea, and it’s distinct from the secular, nihilistic horror of a vacuum. It’s a depth that’s filled with something—not a void.

And of course, the central rite of the Catholic mass is the sacrifice of Jesus’s body. This is very violent and mysterious. Catholics are taught to think of the eucharistic bread and wine as the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Through the power of the ritual, these substances are transformed. They are not symbols. When you’re actually in church, however, it’s hard to believe this because the eucharist still tastes and looks like bread…but there are stories of saints who were so holy that when they ate communion, they said it tasted like raw meat.

I
think this muddling of the symbolic and the actual is what set me up to be an
artist. I am, and always have been, fascinated by questions of what’s real and what’s
unreal, what’s manifest and what’s occult. I learned elaborate prayers to the
dead, saw images of wounded and transfigured bodies, heard gruesome stories of
the martyrs, and took seriously the threat of demonic evil. All these things were
present in my psyche before I recognized them in the horror genre.  

TM: “TV is a medium of ghosts,” you write. You title one section “Spirit Box,” and tell the eerie story of the 13th-century St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television—who, unable to attend Mass in person, saw a vision of it projected on her wall in the convent. She is your namesake; what do you have in common with her? What does it mean to experience the world—material and spiritual—through a screen, a vision?

CC: I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to St. Clare. I’m not willing to give up everything I own, become an ascetic, and serve the poor with someone like St. Francis. My dad chose the name for me after his mother, but he’s also had a long career in the television industry, so it  fits in several ways. Or perhaps the name determined my fate, and I grew into it.

I think visions seen on TV, movie, or computer screens are very different from spiritual visions like St. Clare’s, but the problem of visions is something I spend the whole book worrying about. In one sense, a vision is by definition unreal—it’s a delusion, fantasy, or dream. But at the same time, a spiritual vision can reveal something more true and real than what’s normally perceptible.

I don’t know that people are capable of experiencing reality in some pure, unmediated, wholly physical way. We’re always drifting off into visions of the past and future. We become overwhelmed by memories and fantasies and moods, and we spend many hours watching images flicker across screens. Some of us, like St. Clare or William Blake or the poet H.D., have spiritual visions so powerful that ordinary reality fades in comparison.

There is something about watching a convincing horror film that is akin to having a terrible vision or a nightmare. But I think it would be an oversimplification to say that films are the same as dreams or delusions, or that witnessing an apparition of a ghost in a horror movie is the same as seeing a ghost appear at the foot of your own bed. The difference is the essence of the thing, which is the hardest part to define and yet the most important.

TM: I love to see Malachi Martin included in this book! Hostage to the Devil was a book I found in my house as a kid, and, fresh off repeated viewings of The Exorcist (and probably clutching a rosary), I pored through Martin’s disturbing tales. For the uninitiated: could you tell us a little about Father Martin? And how do you see possession relating to ghosts?

CC: Yes, thank you, Malachi Martin is fascinating! I still don’t know what to make of him. He was an Irish priest who left the Jesuits in the mid-1960s because of their alleged corruption, then he moved to New York, where he began a writing career and started practicing as an exorcist. He’s most known for Hostage to the Devil, which gives a terrifying and convincing account of several possessions. The book was a bestseller, but reviewers weren’t sure how seriously to take him, and he won as many followers as enemies.

I like Hostage to the Devil and find it scary, but I’m more convinced when I hear recordings of Martin speak. He gave a few long interviews on Coast to Coast, Art Bell’s long-running fringe paranormal talk show, and I found Martin to be so erudite and charming that I sincerely considered everything he said, though much of it is plainly impossible. The effect of that was chilling.

Within the world of horror, Martin was in the same circle as other paranormal investigators, like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and mentored a few contemporary demonologists who are still working in the field. The stories from these exorcists have been used as fodder for fictional horror films for decades.

As for the differences between demonic possession and ghostly hauntings, I think a person can be haunted, literally or figuratively, in such a strong way that it can seem as if they are possessed. What I mean is almost Freudian: that the ghost of a deceased parent or other ancestor can stay with a person and dwell within them, determining their interests, moods, and thoughts.

A
demonic possession is something totally other. It’s not a frustrated or unhappy
human spirit exerting its influence. It’s a nonhuman entity that has only
hatred for our species and wants to see us utterly destroyed. In horror films and
paranormal reality shows, these two kinds of spirits often coexist: a house or
a person may be tormented by both demons and ghosts. Very unlucky! But a demonic
possession is much worse; your soul is at risk. A demon works with a logic and
power we can’t understand and shouldn’t underestimate. No matter how frightening
a ghost may be, they are essentially the same as us.

In
my book, I think about haunting and possession as different metaphors for the
experience of depression and suicidal ideation. Both are states of being
overtaken by a negative force. My description of those states gets a little
more complicated and nuanced in the manuscript.

TM: Rilke, Plath, McLuhan, Merton, Deleuze, Sontag, Styron, Baudelaire, Kristeva, Freud, Lucretius, and Barthes all make appearances in this book—and that’s nowhere a complete list of thinkers and writers you reference. You include an especially great quote from Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” I can’t help but receive this quote in the world of 2020—and connect it with your observation that horror, possibly more than any other genre, “gives its fans the gratifying daze of repetition.” Are we somnambulating through this moment? How do you view horror films during a time of visceral, worldwide horror?

CC: It’s a good question, and we’ll see what happens in the next few months—if things get better or worse as the year comes to an end. Since lockdown began for me in March, I’ve have had the strange sense that life has never been more virtual, more screen-mediated, yet the danger which keeps me trapped inside is physical. I have never felt more aware of my own bodily fragility and mortality, and never more afraid of the hatred, violence, and delusion in our country, which is making the pandemic so much worse.

No
matter how much time I spend “doom scrolling” on social media or reading the
news on my phone, I don’t feel numb. I don’t think we’re sleepwalking through
this, though time has taken on very strange proportions, and life has often
felt surreal. The distance between me and everything that’s awful (which is,
perhaps, the distance of a screen) doesn’t make the situation less emotionally
charged, it just makes me feel more powerless. But of course I’m grateful that
it’s not my body on the line right now, and that I have the tentative good
fortune of health and safety.

I think people are still watching a lot of horror in 2020. It can be a helpful genre in a terrible time because it works as a distraction (replacing a bad thing with something worse) and as a way to think through questions about evil, violence, and death at an entertaining distance. There are many subgenres of horror that speak directly to the issues we’re dealing with now, though as always, I get the most satisfaction out of ghost stories. I think a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year, and I wonder what those ghosts might ask of us in the future. I suspect they’ll be returning, seeking justice.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersTerrify Yourself with These Ten Horror NovelsTen Haunting Ghost Stories for Halloween

A Liturgy of Language: On Don DeLillo’s ‘The Silence’

1. “Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things.” — Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe 

In the opening chapter of The Silence, the new novel by Don DeLillo, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are flying home. Turbulence will come soon; the plane will go down. But first there is a steadiness: “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating.” All of their speech echoes the novel’s opening line: “Words, sentences, numbers, distance to destination.” DeLillo’s liturgy has always been one of language.

2.“I think my work has always been informed by mystery; the final answer, if there is one at all, is outside the book. My books are open-ended. I would say that mystery in general rather than the occult is something that weaves in and out of my work. I can’t tell you where it came from or what it leads to. Possibly it is the natural product of a Catholic upbringing.” — DeLillo, Rolling Stone interview (1988)

The Catholic kid from the Bronx. The son of immigrants from Abruzzo. The student who maybe slept through his four years at Cardinal Hayes, but who then went to the Jesuits at Fordham, where they taught him “to be a failed ascetic.” 

One of my former editors at America magazine, the Jesuit review, told me that he and DeLillo shared a professor at Fordham, and he’d gotten a peek at DeLillo’s term papers. At Fordham, DeLillo would have read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist whose theological views of evolution—past and future—later permeated DeLillo’s novels. Teilhard’s influence comes first with Gary Harkness, the running back turned desert monastic in End Zone. Harkness’s fever-stricken body seems to become fully spirit at the end of the novel, but the Jesuit’s presence arrives more explicitly in the Teilhardian titled Point Omega.

3.“I studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin…He went to China, an outlaw priest, China, Mongolia, digging for bones…He said that human thought is alive, it circulates. And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare.” 

***

“Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” 

— Point Omega

DeLillo has said that for a Catholic, “nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”

The Silence, from start to finish, feels like an overcast book—a night book, taking place on that holy day of the Super Bowl. Friends—Martin, Diane, and Max—are watching the spectacle of the game, until the “images onscreen began to shake.” The disruption “formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede.” DeLillo avoids conflagrations; his end of the world is an absence of sound. A pulled plug. A flipped switch.

Why should we expect more from him? From the world?

4.“All pessimistic representations of the earth’s last days—whether in terms of cosmic catastrophe, biological disruptions or simply arrested growth or senility—have this in common: that they take the characteristics and conditions of our individual and elemental ends and extend them without correction to life as a whole.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo’s characters have lost their faith. They are anatheist—they seek faith after faith. “The important thing about the paranoia in my characters,” DeLillo has said, “is that it operates a form of religious awe. It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul.” 

The characters watching the Super Bowl together are left with nothing without the game. Max, bored, speaks in contemporary tongues: “Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.” The silence surrounds them outside. No cars, trucks, or traffic. The characters wonder: “Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones.” 

It recalls lines from Wyatt in DeLillo’s play, The Day Room: “I used to imagine, listening to a ballgame, as a kid, on the radio, that when I turned the radio off, in the seventh inning, say, with two out, men on first and third, that everything sort of shut down at that point. It simply stopped.”

When our power goes out at home, we soon wonder: are we the only ones? There must be others. There’s comfort in that idea. 

5.“The more one reflects on this eventuality….one comes to the conclusion that the great enigma presented to our minds by the phenomenon of man is not so much how life could ever have been kindled on earth as how it could ever be extinguished on earth without finding some continuance elsewhere.” — Père Teilhard, Hymn of the Universe 

The game off, the silence surrounding them in the apartment, Diane quotes a line from Finnegans Wake, “a book I’ve been reading on and off, here and there, for what seems like forever”: “Ere the sockson looked at the dure.” 

Outside, people “began to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.” 

The end will take us all by surprise, but that there will be an end is not surprising. DeLillo is the laureate of this unsettling truth.

6.“Man came silently into the world.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo knows we will also leave the world in silence.

Bonus Links:—End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLilloThe Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLilloFaith in Appearances: Don DeLillo’s ‘The Angel Esmeralda’Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo

Must-Read Poetry: October 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

The Historians by Eavan Boland 

Poetry “doesn’t make things happen. What poetry does, if anything, is show that something else happened at the same time.” Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, and her devotion to the art of poetry wasn’t without an awareness of the limits of art. She lamented that in Ireland, “we’ve always had this terrible gap between rhetoric and reality.” She wrote that the “position of women poets in this country is one thing. The shooting of a baby or a woman or a man on his own doorstep is quite another.” Boland’s realist sentiment imbues her poetry with a certain presence: her views feel well-earned. The Historians, her final book, is a necessary volume. The titular, sequential first poem ranges from the narrator’s mother, who “spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms” to “old Ireland,” where she sees “candle smoke rising towards / the porcelain / yellow faces of the sanctified.” Later, she writes: “I was born in a place where rain / is second nature,” where “rain was a dialect I could listen to / on a winter night: its sibilance.” There are gently heartbreaking pieces here, such as “Be”: “All I know is / as the light went my / infant daughters / were asleep in it, / brightness arcing towards / a cambered distance.” Forgive me for reading a poet’s final book in the enveloping shadow of her passing, but there is an acute power here, as with poems that end with lines like this: “I should have taken more care.” Boland has left us with gifts: “I remember how I longed / to find the plenitude and accuracy needed / to bring words home, / to winter hills, fogged-away stars, / children’s faces fading into sleep. // Now I wonder / if it was enough.”

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

“Arriving in the night / All my forgotten prayers,” Ali writes in “Recite,” the first poem of the collection. “Not prayers really / Nothing to ask for.” After all, “God’s like a misfit / You don’t fit he don’t fit.” Ali’s masterful turns of phrase and feeling make this book feel both encompassing and particular.  The book is anchored by the long titular poem, generous in scope and sense . Born in London in 1965, Sheila Chandra was part of the Indian pop band Monsoon in the early ’80s before going solo. She stopped singing in 2009 because of a rare condition; it hurt gravely to sing or speak. “Laughing and crying also cause me pain,” she wrote in an interview. For Ali, Chandra is a guide and muse; he is entranced by her past voice, for  “Who can in syllables like / Sheila Chandra moan us.” She sings without words / Because a word is a form of rage at / Death.” Before her disease “she sang / In Uzbek contorted her tongue around / Words she never knew learned.” Ali is saddened by her lost voice, but his poem and book know the world moves in strange ways: “In a world governed by storm and noise why / Then should a singer not fall silent.” He lives among her absent song, reflecting back to the book’s originating poem: “Nor do I always turn to the tenor stricken / I have no fear of god but of being / This archangel unfolding to emerge / From god into form.” Such is life: “there is no beginning to any song only the place / the singer picks up the tune.”

Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez

“Sometimes I search for the exact day / I stopped dreaming in the language / that sings my name.” Gómez mines the tactile spaces between cultures and tongues, tinged with the melancholy concern of how it feels “to watch something slowly drift / away without knowing if it might / ever find its way back.” This concern of distance from origin—this unfolding of who we truly are—never ends: “Eleven years later, when you no longer eat pizza / or speak Spanish, when your father’s profile invades // your clenched jawling, you borrow his brisk gait, / his snort, his face. People say you look white. / Your father never does.” Fatherhood—as both father and son—permeates this collection. In “Revisionist,” the narrator’s precise amnesia results in forgotten names of his children, though “each time, / I am called by the wrong name, // I almost correct him, then wonder / the cost of each small revision and / how it might change that sprawling // unknown in the distance.” The narrator wonders if he “might someday need his tools / to right my own family again.” Fractures arrives with the tensions of such precipices.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)

Seungja’s first published poem appeared in 1979, and eight volumes of her poetry have appeared since—most recently Written on the Water (2011) and Empty Like an Empty Boat (2016). Kim and Hong deftly deliver Seungja’s inventive lines, which command our attention from the first poem’s final stanza: “That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.” Seungja’s imagery and metaphors sting. In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she writes of another’s tender touch during winter, until their departure in spring. “Lilacs bloomed like ghosts / but you didn’t smile, even from that far place.” She is “stung in silence,” and makes a vow: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you. / I want to steal into your warm light / and be stung for the last time / and die forever.” Her narrators are singular and assertive: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend.” In “Sleep Comes Without Its Owner,” she warns: “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child.” She will “go all alone / with my old body soaked in poetry and blood.” Seungja believes in poetry—it is not quite an optimistic belief, but it is an art of necessity: “poetry is charting a way,” and in doing so, “leaving a trace of the way.” She places parentheticals within her poems as more than asides—they are new routes of feeling, and they range from solemn reflections to flits of beauty: “(A child is eating / an apple outside the window. / I watch her / savoring / a world.).” Seungja offers those comforts, despite the overbearing feeling that life weighs so much: “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me.” 

Field Music by Alexandria Hall

An engaging debut, steeped in place: “Nothing ever stays / where it ought: runoff dragged into the river / by summer rains from shit-covered fields— / my thickly perfumed Vermont.” In the book’s first poem, she describes how morning glories “creep up the shafts of the garden / vegetables, their seductive curls choking / out my small plot.” After all, sometimes “we can’t see / the dangers we feed, that we nurture.” In “Geosmin,” the narrator ponders: “Her shoulders were much smaller / than mine. I wasn’t sure // how to touch them. If a man / ever felt this way about my body, // how could he / go on touching me?” Touch pervades this book: “I might hold myself like that, // too tightly. I can feel the weight / of my hand resting on my leg / but not the pulp of my thigh // at my fingertip. There are, I’m told, / two sides to touch.” The contour of her syntax reflects this touch, even in the curve of her description: “Stray dogs dodging cars at the Oxxo. / Water level marked on the bluffs. The peonies / gutted and collapsed on the driveway in June. / I am undone, not by grief, but abundance.” Hall suggests that all we can do is reach for each other: “That night we lay strewn on the grass, / a product of restlessness, like garbage / combed through by skunks who, / though they’ve had their fill, / keep searching through the scraps / of plastic. I held my fingers out / to find yours.” 

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

“When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing.” Adnan’s prose-poetic rumination on death would strike a chord at any time, but it feels especially apt in this moment of protracted grief. Peppered with questions—“There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone?”—Adnan’s lamentations are recursive and soothing. To live is to die, and the poets can ease the passage. “My thoughts drip,” Adnan writes, “not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about.” She ponders how we “try to subvert the gods, buy their powers, corrupt their souls.” She wonders: “Can we keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days?” Her rhythms make all things new, big and small, including the unread books that line her shelves: “They’re so aloof, so silent. I spend hours next to them.” Among this accumulated sadness, there might be only one balm: “Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” 

Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

Here are nine notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Horsepower by Joy Priest

One of the best debuts of the year. An early poem, “American Honey,” begins: “It’s easier than you thought—leaving.” Two moves here—the second-person framing and the em dash—give the line power and profluence. From the start of this book, Priest is a captivating guide. “Your long-built dread / dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black / Appalachian sky” portends a recurrent theme of narrator-as-phantom, of transfigured characters. Her storytelling sense is formidable: “Now you can be a girl / on the back patio with three white men & you can leave / with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.” Pitch-perfect lines abound, as in “Blue Heart Baby”: “Every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own // bitterness.” Priest is so adept at sketching place; elsewhere she writes “The darkness / up to our chins. The sky // a bowl of blinking lights above us.” Priest shows that mimesis is about feeling more than realism—the world wobbles while it spins, and her lines have a preternatural ability to reflect this. From “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess”: “Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes / In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet // Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head / Like a crown.” She’s equally adept at sketching scenes. In one poem, the narrator is sitting in “my mother’s white Plymouth” below the “Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights— // Their appliance buzz.” Her mother, inside the story, has been “stunned-still at the sight of my father, // Possibly a mirage.” The narrator’s father is an arresting character in Horsepower. “He sees the world in us. / Knows the huge, abstract names // for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self.” He’s a phantom in his own way, and when we read lines from the final poem—“I’m leaving / & being left. Looking for you / In all your haunts”—their worlds unite.

Be Holding by Ross Gay

The lyrical elements of basketball—hardwood and asphalt, hustle and strain—couldn’t find a better laureate than Gay. Sports, in the end, are about controlling our bodies, bending them toward our wills (especially basketball, in the constrained space). Be Holding is a book-length paean to Dr. J., among other wonders. Gay’s collection includes a hilarious early footnote for the uninitiated to Julius Erving (“You could just look on any of the video algorithim machines…or, better yet, you could just ask an elder.”). Gay invites us into his process, as the clip of Dr. J’s baseline levitation in the 1980 NBA Finals becomes a source of meditation, a recursive fount of energy. He ponders the typical admonition of frustrated coaches: “keep your feet! / again and again, // which makes the leaping—leaving your feet— / sound sacrificial.” Like the doctor himself, Gay’s ability to linger in a moment captures the richness of basketball-as-story: “—have you ever decided anything / in the air?—” The classic video clip brings Gay to other places, times, and subjects, including his youth. “I, too, am a docent / in the museum of black pain,” he writes. “my own white mother // how many times told / by white people // that brown child is not yours, / that curly-headed sun-loved thing // you nurse and whose ass / you wiped the shit from // and whose very body you bore / of your florid gore.” Gay delivers beautiful lines throughout: “my body is made of my father,” he notes: “I sometimes will study // my own hands, / which are his hands, // recalling the way he held / my brother’s and my heads // through the crosswalk.” A unique work of form and substance.

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Gifted in the art of the long poem, Chakraborty, also includes dialogic poems, epigrammatic pieces, and verse essays (with appearances by Foucault, Spinoza, and Dürer)—all pieces touched with the elegiac. In an early segmented prose poem, she offers an apostrophe to the reader: “I am also writing his poem as a fable because at times I have been afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by way of disguise.” Now, she writes, “I tend to think of obstruction and clarity alike as acts of definition.” A centerpiece of the collection is her masterful long poem “Dear, Beloved”: “Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me / all the days of my life, as surely as I know the beasts / I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise, / are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.” Some lines that stopped me: “The secret / about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound / like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks / of the river dark.” In the book’s final poem, Chakraborty writes “There is a space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window. When I next speak, I / will do so through that window”—and it feels absolutely true.

Blizzard by Henri Cole 

A bee swarms out of a black-red peony, and “I am waving / my arms to make you go away. No one / is truly the owner of his own instincts, / but controlling them—this is civilization.” While peeling potatoes, “I put my head down,” and “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought.” Black mushrooms are found, and “Sometimes, / when I’m suffocating from an atmosphere of restraint / within myself, I fry them up in butter, with pepper and salt, / and forget where the hurt came from.” The early poems in Blizzard immediately establish a hypnotic refrain of syntax and focus—no easy feat for a poet to wrest us from the world that quickly, and let us live elsewhere awhile. From “To a Snail”: “It’s a long game— / the whole undignified, insane attempt at living— / so I’ve relocated you to the woods.” His typically concise form never feels inert or bloodless: there’s a sense of poetic calmness or transcendence to his method of staying in a moment and watching, contemplating, speaking. His lines arrive within the tunnel of each poem, but feel like little gifts to carry elsewhere: “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” The book’s second section pivots to an earthly, funereal concern about decaying bodies and anxiety. A gray and white dove that slammed dead into a picture window: “We buried it—in some distorted version of its normal self— / folded in a white cloth napkin in the backyard. / Still soft enough to be cut into like a cabbage, I thought, / I’m glad I’m not dead.” “Agnostic and uninsured,” a later narrator laments, “I eat celery, onions, / and garlic—my Holy Trinity of survival.” These lamentations take a different, more sensuous turn in the third section: “Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. / In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.”

Owed by Joshua Bennett

“You contain / multitudes & are yet / contained everywhere you go.” From “Token Sings the Blues”—the first poem in Bennett’s skilled collection—on forward, Owed is a song of identity. An affirmation of how the narrator’s sister says “You. are everything” and the honest melancholy that “on your best / days above ground you / believe her.” In “Barber Song,” Bennett sings of “Postmodern blackness black / -smith,” how someone can make “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking.” How the barber is a “biweekly / psychoanalyst, first stop / before funeral, before / wedding & block party.” Yet there’s also a finely tuned sense of entropy in this book: “I’m pretty good / at not loving / anything enough / to fear its ruin. / The cruel speed / of our guaranteed / obsolescence suits / me.” One way against the storm, one measure of survival, is “how I lend my hands / to lyric’s labor, as if forsythia / or chrysanthemum could bloom from black / ideas dancing across a screen.” Bennett manages to do so with pieces that are nearly hymnal, as with “Mike Brown is a Type of Christ”: “By which I mean, mostly, that we gaze upon the boy / & all of our fallen return to us, their wounds unhealed / & howling.” And in one of the sections of the “Reparations” sequence: “But what modern-day / black son wasn’t born / knowing how to pray?” Bennett ends with a poem that follows Langston Hughes, and is much about America as it is about being a father and son, and about dogged hope for “some vast and future country / some nation within a nation.”

The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson

An ambitious new book, as Chiasson plays and prods with time, source, structure, and the spectacle of creation. The book’s first poem, a consideration of a 2017 mural by the artist David Teng Olsen, begins the fracturing—“Through his eyes I see in the dark. / I see through change the static”—which ends with the narrator’s son questing Chiasson’s cover of Bicentennial. Fathers and sons become an emblem for this book, which begins with a poem in four phrases—a porous narrative of fragments, dreams, and daydreams. There’s a self bursting against the world here (Chiasson has said in an interview: “I’m fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.”). T.S. Eliot haunts these poems well (“I owned ‘East Coker’ on cassette. / We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” “Over and Over,” the final section of the initial poem, invites the reader to “turn over / her hands to expose her palms,” and to later step away from the page and screen and “ponder who imagined whom.” The titular poem bleeds across adolescent wonders. While the Circus Camp “patches its tents” and at the Farm Camp, “a goat behind a wire fence / prepares to be clumsily milked,” the “Hard problems at the Math Camp wait / all winter for solutions; / engorged sums hibernate / and dream of consolation.” The ultimate equation is youth: “the absolute value of fifteen / or how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division / of days into hours, minutes, seconds.”

Wonder & Wrath by A.M. Juster 

“Wood sways and mutters; palsied shutters bang. / The call has come.” “November Requiem” rests nearly in the middle of Wonder & Wrath, the poet and translator Juster’s latest, but radiates throughout the book. Juster is a poet of control—carefully pared lines whose concision creates profluent energy, as in the start of “Behold”: “Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields / so that both empty lanes extend like grace.” That feeling carries the end of “Epilogue”: “There are no robins hymning / or gawkers at this scene— / only a lowered sun, / raw cries of crows, and dimming.” A particular standout here is “Inertia”: “High glinting leaves, / glazed by the post-storm light, / are hushing dark / in reassuring waves.” The calming of gl and s sounds lull the reader into an elegiac state, followed by “Our lichen-clad / old maple lost three limbs / to rain that felt / like reprimands from God.” In Juster’s work, the divine is present (and omnipresent), as well as the sense that our existence is part of a sometimes confounding by always certain scheme. “The world turns liquid,” he begins “Vertigo,” as it “reels and rolls, / as gravity // veers at angles.” His insights are often welcome, as in “Fruit Flies,” which opens with a useful reminder: “They are the best, as pest invasions go: / no bites and no disease, just clouds of small / tan smudges spawned in week-old grapes.” Although they “flit and frustrate,” and “outsmart you with their tiny brains,” just pour “some white wine into a dish, and wait.” They cannot resist. “They soak in joy, relax, then drink no more / It’s no surprise—you’ve seen it all before.” 

Runaway by Jorie Graham 

“My Skin Is”—as Graham’s title begins one poem—”brought to you by Revlon, melancholy, mother’s mother, the pain of others.” There’s a sense of breathless exposure to many of these poems, the long lines reaching across stanzas, their tendons the regular em dashes that serve as both pivots and locks. Graham suggests that something new is among us: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch. Before, they are / transparent.” One of the finest pieces here is “The Hiddenness of the World”: “The lovers disappear into the woods again.” War, blizzard, life accumulates: “But the lovers are in the woods again, the signifier is in / the woods, the revolution of the ploughshare in, clod-crumble in, cloud- / tumble, hope and its stumble in.” It’s within association that the poetic form carries its most force, how lines can carry subjects amongst other subjects (and amongst ourselves), so that the narrator must wonder: “Do I have to end // in order to begin, I ask the light that lingers on the trees—between the / trees—the lovers have disappeared again.” The book’s final work, “Poem,” offers a way forward: “The earth said / remember me. The earth said / don’t let go, // said it one day / when I was / accidentally / listening.”

Red Stilts by Ted Kooser 

I’ve come to believe that a Kooser collection is best thought of as a gift: he never ceases to offer a gentle correction to blurred visions of the world. A Kooser poem often arrives in a flash, and then enters the air: as with “Ohio Blue Tip,” which is a single sentence of a man lighting his pipe “with a stick match pinched from the trough / of the matchbox holder nailed by the door,” and the play of the flame before “the thin curl / of smoke as it lifted away from the tip / and then vanished, and it seemed he could / read something special in that, but he / never would say what it was.” In dredging memory from the past, Kooser offers a way for us to do the same—I think of the opening lines of “Helping”: “Our basement floor sloped to the linty lid / of a drain, with a muddy-smelling darkness / through the holes.” The simple (yet skilled) gesture of layering detail without oversaturation, the prayer-like return to the past. Another single-sentence gem, “Tarnish,” begins so appropriately with the word “unrolled”—as in the revelation of the past in the form of family silverware, “gone ghostly / with inky fingerprints of tarnish,” found in an attic chest. How those fingerprints “have been feeling / their way forward through time / in the manner that flat black paint / on the back of a mirror picks its way / through to the front.” Consider the gentle “Tree Frog”: “Late evening, a velvety black / beyond the high windows, and on one / a tiny tree frog with its legs spread / presses its soft, white belly to the glass. / This night it gets to be the evening star.” Few poets can continue to reveal the world book after book like Kooser. A beautiful collection.

Normal Was a Myth: On ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

1.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found my family’s VHS copy of The Shining in the basement, and pushed play. The turquoise-colored opening credits rolled up the screen in silence. I knew there was supposed to be sound—I’d watched parts of the movie before on TV—but in this old recording, the yellow Volkswagen Beetle drove along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park with only the cassette’s soft fuzz as soundtrack. 

Then, a minute or so into the film, sound pierced the tape—just as the camera shifted from behind the car and drifted left off the mountain road’s shoulder, over a tree-lined cliff that overlooks St. Mary Lake. It had been so quiet in the basement that it was like I’d discovered noise again. 

Years later, I can still hear that moment of sound’s sudden return; it has infected me. I felt it when my soccer coach sped our team’s van along Pike’s Peak Highway, and I imagined us careening into the air. I feel it whenever I drive up a long hill—the worry that my car’s tires will lift off the ground and I will drift away. In those moments, anxiety has little concern for logic.

It feels a lot like disorientation—a total loss of control.

2.The Shining always leaves me tired. It might be that its hallways and rooms invite our eyes to ride the perspective, to become one with the film. The claim of Kubrick aficionados that the Overlook Hotel’s layout is spatially impossible—fully interior rooms with exterior windows, like the manager’s office—helps explain its overwhelming sense of disorientation.

I felt much the same way for most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new Netflix film by Charlie Kaufman—especially the overlong scenes in the car. A “young woman” (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to visit his parents; it will be her first time meeting them, and she’s skeptical there will be a second time. Irish actress Buckley is known to American audiences for her appearance in the Chernobyl series, but the best precedent for this new story is her wild performance in the 2017 film Beast—Buckley shows that she’s the perfect choice to portray a character who has lost her sense of reality.

The young woman thinks that Jake is nice enough, but she’s bored with the relationship. We hear her thoughts—and sometimes Jake seems to also hear them—but we never learn her name. Sometimes their sentences tangle and overlap, and we start to suspect that it’s more than mere coincidence. 

Time is malleable in the film, but even within Kaufman’s blurred reality, the road scene pushes the viewer to a point of frustration. I admire when filmmakers linger long enough to court annoyance, and in Kaufman’s case, it is for good reason. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and rejections of linear narrative. One of the most linear movie tropes of all—a couple moving straight down a long road—is the perfect entrypoint toward this subversion.

When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s childhood home, his mother (Toni Collette) is frantically waving at them from the window—but when they enter the house, she takes a long time to come downstairs. She and Jake’s father (David Thewlis) are hilarious and unhinged; Jake is embarrassed, and his girlfriend is confused. Things are just normal enough—the silly stories of Jake’s youth, the doting mother, the aloof father—but Kaufman turns them toward darkness. The surreal within the painfully domestic creates an eerie sense of distortion and disorientation. 

I watched Kaufman’s film after midnight in August—prime setting to settle into a strange story. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought the most powerful and relevant horror would be zombie films: lumbering, virulent husks of our past selves. But I think we’re past the point of initial shock of the health crisis, and at the curious moment where the most appropriate horror might be one of disorientation. Put simply, maybe things will never get back to normal because normal was a myth.

After the couple leaves the house, there’s another road trip scene—and somehow it feels even longer than the first. The second half of the film descends into the fully surreal while also settling into horror—one especially creepy scene happens at a late-night visit to a roadside ice cream parlor—before becoming fantastical (think somewhere between Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros). The ending won’t quite work for everyone, but that’s probably the point. Kaufman finished this film well before the pandemic, but sometimes coincidence becomes context. I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have arrived at a better time—either we try to fit together the film’s dizzying puzzle, or we accept that its fractures feel especially true.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersMy Chernobyl

Searching for Home: The Millions Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, the debut book of essays from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, made me nostalgic for my childhood—spent poring over encyclopedias and marveling at the entries on animals. 

In fact, I wish Nezhukumatathil would have written those entries—her unique mixture of humor, contemplation, memoir, insight, and paradox reveals the complexities of our natural world. Complemented by beautiful illustrations from Fumi Mini Nakamura, World of Wonders is appropriate to its title. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems. Her most recent book, Oceanic, won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, ESPN, and Tin House. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, she is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. 

We spoke about how her parents inspired her love of nature, the difference between writing poetry and essays, and who gets to tell their stories of the outdoors.

The Millions: Your books of poetry, especially your latest, Oceanic, reveal a world of wonder through verse. How does prose—in the form of essays—affect how you think and write about the natural world?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For me having the space in an essay allows me to unfurl and roll out an image creating whole scenes and while I still use elements of poetry, (metaphor, music, alliteration, etc.), writing an essay allows me to linger instead of rushing down the page.

TM: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.” These are the first two sentences of the book, and I love the poetic paradox of the second line. This reference puts your mother at the literal front of your narrative, and she appears throughout the book, as do other family members. How do you envision your perception of your mother as it relates to the way you see and appreciate nature?

AN: I love that question, but I’m much more interested in seeing how readers see both of my parents, Asian immigrants helping their bookish eldest daughter navigate white spaces both in and out of doors. But I will say that my mother and my father were my first environmental teachers, and silently watching them hold their heads up high while they experienced racism throughout my childhood and yet still maintained their sense of wonder absolutely informs how I shaped this book.

TM: In one section of the book, you describe that most of a beetle’s life is in the shadows: “When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have one or two weeks left to live.” You then write: “Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance.” You have a talent for creating such a mood in your writing: for lack of a better word, I would almost call it a “comfortable” sense of melancholy, a type of resigned peace. What about the natural, wild world elicits that feeling for you? 

AN: Thank you so very much! The easy answer is that being outside was always a place of comfort and magic for me. Fireflies never asked me “what are you?” But I also realize with great sadness that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially many of my friends of color. There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.

TM: Early in the book, you write about the fragile comb jelly, whose “hundreds of thousands of cilia flash mini-rainbows even in the darkest polar and tropical ocean zones,” but which must be handled with the tenderest care (“If you want to observe one up close, scoop it into a clear cup and take a look-see that way.”) That image stayed with me when I read your description of suburban Phoenix in the 1980s: “an abandoned white roller skate, its neon-pink bootlace frayed,” in the parking lot of Fry’s Food and Drug. How you “wore keys tied to yarn around our necks or fastened with a giant safety pin in our pockets like our moms showed us,” since “those were the days our teachers told us of kids who never came home from school.” You mention wanting a “sentinel” of your own, something “to watch out for us.” There feels like a tension between the wild (or perceived wild) world and the constructed safety of the domestic. Where does nature fit within this tension? 

AN: That’s a marvelous question. So much nature writing I grew up with only focused on the wild or places where humans did not primarily live. And these narratives were beautiful and haunting but I had hoped to find someone who could experience awe and wonder from the suburbs or rural small-town America, where a person with brown skin learned to navigate the outdoors and the “constructed safety of the domestic.” You can imagine the pickings were slim to none. I guess I just internalized that for so long, and that, coupled with me not being a scientist but instead a writing professor, meant that my narratives would be inauthentic somehow. But over the years I’ve been happily proven wrong as readers from all over the world have assured me. I’m just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get told and taught and why.

TM: “I’ve felt the sting of moving from home to home.” There’s an itinerant theme to this book; in a way, it feels connected to the cartographic sense of your poetry, with you as explorer (of memories, of narratives). Often in the book you metaphorically connect yourself with animals. Could you talk about these themes of migration and perhaps even metamorphosis? Did the writing of this book—the arranging and retelling of these experiences—move or change you? 

AN: The central question of searching for home is one I’ve been trying to answer my whole writing life, and I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life answering in some way or another. I have different answers for that now in 2020, married and with two tween boys than what I had when I was a newlywed, or when I was fresh out of grad school, or when I was 10 and looking at the nature books I checked out from our school library and wondering why I never saw an Asian American in them. I wrote a good portion of the book after the 2016 election and I’m not going to lie, there were many difficult days in writing about wonder and belonging, when most of the current leadership’s platform was built on fear, xenophobia, and a distrust for knowledge/science. But on my darkest days of writing, when I thought of my loved ones—it was easy to insist on and remember how good it feels to express astonishment and to be curious about others. I try to not be prescriptive in this book, because really, who am I to tell other people how they should live—but my hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things.

Bonus Link: —A Year in Reading: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Rethinking Suburbia: The Millions Interviews Jason Diamond

In fiction, film, and real life, it has become comforting and convenient for us to stereotype the suburbs. Suburbia, so it goes, is a façade; a place where secrets lurk like grubs beneath well-manicured lawns. Jason Diamond’s excellent new book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs reveals the truth is far more complicated.

Diamond’s omnivorous and expansive sense allows him to weave history, popular culture, literature, film, and his own experiences into a revelatory take on suburban life. “The suburbs aren’t one thing or another,” Diamond writes. “[W]e try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better.”

The Sprawl enables such new understanding. Diamond’s first book was Searching for John Hughes. The features editor for InsideHook, he has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Paris Review, New Republic, Pitchfork, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Eater, and elsewhere. 

We spoke about the bucolic melancholy of the suburbs, the perfect movie to capture the feeling of suburbia, and how suburban life is used for political rhetoric.

The Millions: Your preface begins with an affirmation—“I’m suburban. I’m of the suburbs”—and a confession that it took you a long time to admit your appreciation for the small touches of suburbia: freshly cut grass, shopping malls, and “grilling meat on a Weber grill I spent an hour trying to light.” What causes people to hesitate voicing—or even accepting—their affinity for the suburbs?

Jason Diamond: I can only speculate as to people’s reasons, but I’d wager it’s why some people tell you they’re from New York when they’re from Long Island, or they’re from Los Angeles, but don’t specify which part. We don’t have a lot of overt pride in suburban places. The suburbs are just there, defined by what they’re not. Many of these places aren’t built to stand out—they’re just places to live and, for some, to leave. One of the things that I felt more clearly as I did my research is what links one suburb to the next is the feeling of an absent builder. Someone made this place, sold the homes, and moved on. They aren’t structured to cultivate community. Lawns are a far way off from shared green spaces. For people that grew up in cities or in rural areas where community is important, I’m sure that seems really off. For people who grew up in suburbs, that lack of community becomes that feeling of being disconnected, bored, and that there’s nothing to do in your hometown except maybe hang out in the Chili’s parking lot. People aren’t really happy with this explanation. But our individual experience of alienation in suburbia informs our entire idea of what “the suburbs” are, and I don’t think people like me, who left the suburbs, want to revisit that feeling. Which, again, fair. But not every suburban place is the same. 

TM: You note how the suburbs “have taken on the status of cultural oddity,” and include some salient examples: The Twilight Zone, the fiction of Shirley Jackson and John Cheever, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, all works that I teach as examples of suburban literature—to a classroom full of suburban teenagers. I’m especially interested in Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” an iconic tale from 1964 that remains so accurate to a certain sliver of suburban life. You write that his mixture of realism and surrealist scenes show “that no matter what we do, no matter how much we make, how happy we pretend to be, or how far we’re willing to journey, our demons catch up to us.” Why are these ideas especially relevant to the world of the suburbs?

JD: I think Cheever really did a fantastic job of summing up what is dark and odd and messed up about the suburbs, and I think the suburbs do a fantastic job of summing up what is wrong with America in many ways, which is why artists keep going back to these places for inspiration. America has lied to itself for its entire existence. It is a place that has tried to run from its demons, all of the terrible, horrific things it’s done, and hopes that it will all just go away. For too long, America pretended that centuries of racism and violence was in the past, and nothing more. But I believe that the suburbs have really come to symbolize the pathology of “American exceptionalism,” that things aren’t as great as we want to make it out to be, and we don’t want to look under the carpet, so to speak. We don’t want to face these things. Suburbia is a really obvious metaphor. We just hope we’ll be protected by the walls we put up around us. I can read “The Swimmer” today and, sure, it’s still at its heart about a sad, middle-aged man who has lost it all, who cheated on his wife, whose kids probably hate him, and whatever other sins Neddy finally has to face at the haunting end of the story—but I can also look at it as a metaphor for America. That we go through this journey, blind to everything that’s going on around us, and then suddenly we come to a spot where we can’t keep moving. We reach the end and what do we get? A big empty house we’re locked out of. America, especially these days, often feels like it’s at the end of something, just standing outside of some big, empty house that we can’t get into. We tried to hide from all of our past transgressions, and now we’re Neddy Merrill. 

The good news is that I think things can change. At least, I hope they will. 

TM: Your description of a scene from Back to the Future when Marty McFly is at home in Lyon Estates is spot-on: “It’s lonely; something you realize after you’ve watched enough movies and TV shows about the suburbs is that they’re often shot that way.” You share a number of films that dramatize suburbia in all of its permutations. I know it’s a difficult task, but if you had to choose one as The Movie of the Suburbs, what would it be, and why? 

JD: That’s a tough one. Part of me would say Blue Velvet, because it’s a masterpiece, but it also starts out looking at what I talked about in my last answer: what’s underneath. That part where we see all these symbols of a certain type of suburban ideal, then it descends, literally, to the ground beneath the trimmed grass. But I’m actually going to go with the film Over the Edge. It’s obviously dramatized in that really gritty, almost silly late-1970s, early-’80s way, but it also really captures perfectly how alienating and mind-numbing places can be, and how often we really do just build places because we claim the space and then throw them away. 

TM: In the chapter titled “Monsters, Mad Men, and the Mundane,” you write “The truth is that, often, people from the suburbs create the things they’re most afraid of from their anxiety and angst.” You describe the wild Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which often spiked in suburban areas, and I can’t help but think of our shared appreciation for Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I watched while in the suburbs, and which often depicted strange things happening in those suburbs. How does the suburb, a place with “a structured and structuring way of being,” affect our sense of imagination?

JD: Growing up in the suburbs, to me, felt like a challenge to either be one way or another. To accept the way things seemed or to investigate, to push further, to engage a natural curiosity. A lot of suburban places offer wide open spaces, but these places also get filled up with a lot of unnecessary, unnatural filler: parking lots, box stores, office space they’re never going to fill up. I was really fascinated by what Rem Koolhaas calls “Junkspace.” He points out “the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than all previous generations together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales,” and I think that could be applied to so much of what we see in suburbia. And when I talk to people in the suburbs, and from the suburbs, they generally just have overwhelmingly negative things to say. How could we have created so much shit, and have all of it be so empty? The best answer, then, would have to be that actually there was another reality behind the one that we were seeing. It feels like, if you were like me growing up in the suburbs, the only plausible explanation was for there to be some ghost world beneath the one we were seeing. It couldn’t possibly just be subdivisions all the way down. I don’t think people from the suburbs are any more or less creative than people from anywhere else, but I definitely felt like I had a heightened sense of otherworldliness because this world was just so stupid. You have to make things up and that’s how you get by. Imagination in the suburbs isn’t a survival instinct, but it’s close. 

TM: “It’s important that the suburbs, which have long been connected to whiteness and to keeping certain people out, are shown as places where anybody can and does live.” I read that great line of yours the same day that Donald Trump tweeted an article from The New York Post, writing “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” How—and why—are the suburbs such fodder for politics and polemics?

JD: Beyond their outsized symbolic power—truly just titanic rhetorical asteroids—there are good reasons for why the suburbs have these stereotypes attached to them. The suburbs were largely white for most of their history. There is no denying that they were white on purpose. From handshake deals to redlining that kept people of color, immigrants, and Jews from owning a slice of the “American Dream,” there are structural ways the suburbs have been entwined with whiteness. So they mean whiteness to him, because he’s a literal thinker. And because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that the suburbs have demographically changed, you could see why he thinks there is a certain kind of voter in the suburbs who will be attracted to fear-mongering like this. But the suburbs just aren’t demographically as white anymore. The suburbs have changed racially and economically. These places aren’t perfect, but they have changed, and I think that’s good for the country. 

As to why politicians love the suburbs, I think it is a holdover from a different time when you could more easily stereotype suburban voters. They’re “soccer moms” or “commuters” who work in the city, but like in Westchester or something out of Mad Men. And while there are definitely still parents who drive their kids to soccer practice in an SUV, I think politicians and pundits really believe it is that simple: That people are simple, that the suburbs are simple. And maybe it was simple 30 years ago when you knew you were aiming for the hearts and minds of mostly white, middle-class types, that you could put a pin down on a map in any suburb and know what kind of person lived there. But I don’t think it’s that way anymore. I think people in the suburbs are far more complex and diverse, and some politicians get it and others don’t.

Bonus Links:—Returning to My People: Reading Tayeb Salih in the SuburbsZone of Strangeness: On John Cheever’s Subjective SuburbsSomething Sinister on the North ShoreA Year in Reading: Jason Diamond

Must-Read Poetry: August 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

An excellent second collection. “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel,” an ambitious sequence told in shifting intervals, tells the story of those crossing the border from Mexico to Arizona. The water station barrel provides a much-needed salve from the treacherous journey. In the far-reaching poem, dreams, hallucinations, memories, and desires intertwine. No matter what his subject, Corral is a gifted storyteller, precise and dizzying with his imagery: “After my mother’s death, I found, in a box, / her wedding dress. / As I lifted the lid, a stench corkscrewed / into my nostrils: /the dress had curdled like milk.” Later: “Dusk, here, is stunning. Yesterday, I woke to ants crawling / over my body, / to ants crawling / over / the body on the cross around my neck.” I can’t help but linger over his finely-wrought phrases that anchor each poem, as in “Saguaro”: “Sonoran / pictograph ablaze // in cloud shadow, / glass lighting.” From “To Juan Doe #234”: “In Border Patrol / jargon, the word // for border crossers is the same whether / they’re alive or dead.” Corral can capture a world in a poem’s single scene, as in “Córdoba,” when the narrator looks at his reflection in a bathroom mirror. “I reach / to clean, with my thumb” the mirror “speckled / with toothpaste” and blood, but he quickly pulls back his hand. “I don’t touch mirrors. It’s wrong, / my father always said, // to touch a man.” An accomplished book in both style and sense.

Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae

McCrae is a contemporary mythmaker, a poet who is able to lift his art to a spiritual plane. His new book continues a sustained, complex engagement with the ineffable. In “The Hastily Assembled Angel Falls at the Beginning of the World,” “clouds was the last word / He heard the other angels shouting as / They shoved him,” his body too far to hear them, but he “saw their mouths making / Shapes that were not clouds.” McCrae’s method of snipped lines—imbued with breath-spaces—create discrete phrases within each line, creating a layering of the abstract and specific. Near the end of the poem, “as he fell he watched the clouds / Becoming strange    abstract    the way another / Angel would watch a species go extinct,” the effect feels hymnal, symphonic. His ambition and fervor bring to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins, as does his interest in the body as image of God. The angel drifts through these early poems: he “wanders…through centuries of cities / And countries and millennia of cities / And countries and of women and of men.” Next is a sequence of poems about Jim Limber, an adopted, mixed-race son of Jefferson Davis, whose own ethereal drifting sometimes mirrors, sometimes inverts the view of the angel. Limber “yelled when Yankees took me” from his family, and in that way, “home / Follows your sorrow   so it is like Heaven.” Heaven is where he might soon go, and where he wonders if he will become an angel himself: “Will I still be my body if it changes.” Limber and Davis speak in “Old Times There,” a short verse play embedded in the book—which is followed by sections on Limbo and Heaven, where Limber used to hear “the older slaves / Talking about   the fields of bliss.” In Heaven, “They get to keep their bodies    and their minds die.” McCrae is one of the finest poets of God and the unknown.    

Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

harris’s poems teem with emotion, but there’s a control to her lines that feels so clever—as in “Junebug,” the lines “All night I put up your / bad plans on a map” can unfold in so many directions, but the subsequent lines offer even another route: “Your hands / go sideways, like a diagonal gnat / of blankets.” harris has spoken about how poets should play with language, and inherent in her play is a willingness to shift and swing among time and subject. Later in “Junebug”: “in her // photographs she has on the best / lip gloss I’ve ever noticed. Maybe now that I have // stopped flailing my arms and throwing / myself against the walls.” Poems like “Unlike my sister” reveal that harris is original in syntax and rhythm: the poems in this collection never play quite the same song, as if their form keeps us active and alert. “I don’t have children I won’t bring to the city,” the narrator starts, “or to the city beach, or the monkey bars. / I don’t curl my eyelashes in the mirror with a whiteness. or a woman. or an iron bar.” Poems like “Tardigrade” often seem like they are written to a recipient, imbuing the poems with an acoustic touch—perhaps a warning: “I’m not saying close your eyes. I’m saying / don’t look up from your food. your table. your beer. The room is dark for a reason. keeps / everyone at a distance.” 

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen

Her new book opens with a flash of prescience: “In the Event of an Apocalypse, Be Ready to Die,” says the title, “But do also remember galleries, gardens, / herbaria.” Anodyne is full of these “repositories of beauty” among distress, enabling Queen to refute suffering with flits of joy. “The Rule of Opulence” is a beautiful meditation on transcendence: “Bamboo shoots on my grandmother’s side path / grow denser every year they’re harvested for nuisance.” The narrator’s grandmother has, for nine decades, “seen every season stretch out of shape.” The narrator contemplates her on Mother’s Day, although she’s “always disbelieved permanence—newness a habit, / change an addiction—but the difficulty of staying put / lies not in the discipline of upkeep,” she ponders, but in the world’s constant nature. After all, there’s “nothing more permanent than the cracked flagstone / path to the door, that uneven earth, shifting.” Lines from a later poem echo Queen’s refrain of how we might remain in our entropic world: “Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies // Looped into every surface, looped // Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter.” 

Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia

Reflecting on “Warrior Song,” one of the first poems in his debut collection, Garcia has spoken of his usage of first person plural in the poem—how that conception of “we” rather than the “I” of earlier drafts felt more appropriate. “Nothing I have done has been on my own. Our communities—we—have been resisting together.” That collective spirit anchors “Warrior Song”—“When we had no faith luck / was our faith. When we have finished / death will be our luck”—and Garcia’s entire collection. Here the collective is fraught with tension, as when “mom didn’t know I was gay / because she chose not to see,” and later, “My father // didn’t raise me to be a girly man, a fact that might bother him, / except for the other fact: he didn’t raise me.” Garcia returns to a refrain of poems titled “The Language in Question” that ponders language, meaning, and result: “defying gravity after all // isn’t the same as flying”—taken together, these poems affirm identity through distinction, and offer the narrator power. “Confession: during prayers, I don’t close my eyes,” Garcia writes. “Nobody knows this except the other people who don’t close their eyes.” 

Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

“Why is it so tempting / to say the love of a thing / is dependent on its loss?” Hankins considers the paradoxes of holiness in this new collection, his questions often focused on our distance from the divine. It is only human, of course, to seek to lessen that distance, through contemplation or remaking the divine in one’s own image: “I could not presume to know the Maker’s mind, / but I know something of my own— / I could not bear / to make sure magnificent and fleeting things.” Hankins’s narrative voice reaches toward that imperceptible but desirous bridge between mortal and immortal, temporary and eternal. In “Even the River,” “All of nature / seems to address and blame me.” The narrator, physically penitential with “palms upturned,” also offers his “willingness to hold / the guilt that finds no other place to rest.” The natural world returns often in these poems, as a spiritual presence, a creator of awe (in both its inviting and troubling senses): “I feel so far from the meaning of the earth. / It is silent. It lives but does not speak.” And even when we do get seemingly close to the heart of it all—the beautiful vanity of affirming the self—the narrator ultimately ponders Ecclesiastes 1:2-4; that soon enough we become nothing but vapor.   

Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

In Why Did I Get a B?, her memoir about teaching, Shannon Reed writes “I enjoy teenagers. I like that they have to be convinced to like you.” It’s one of the many lines in Reed’s book that feels authentic. 

“Authentic” gets thrown around a lot in the world of secondary school teaching because, like the teenagers peering at a new teacher, educators are a skeptical bunch. We’ve been misrepresented by politicians and bombarded with assessment fads. I say this ready—as one can be during a pandemic—to start my 17th year teaching high school English.

I’m happy to report that Reed’s book about her life as a teacher is not only authentic, it’s quite moving. Early in the book, she writes that “to be a good teacher is to care very much about people.” Ultimately, that’s what makes a great teacher: compassion. Kids are often hurting, and we’re not there to simply teach them content—we’re there to help them to live.

Reed is hilarious and humble about the teaching profession: the exact right mix. We see her struggle and thrive, teach and learn, help and hope. It’s a great read for educators—rookies and veterans alike. 

Reed has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, Vulture, and The Guardian. She is a visiting lecturer in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. 

We spoke about the dangerous myth of teacher-as-martyr, the adjunct life, and what this upcoming academic year might look like—in or out of the classroom.

The Millions: When people who don’t work in education pontificate about the profession, I often want to spontaneously combust. So I loved your great and accurate list: “If People Talked to Other Professionals the Way They Talk to Teachers.” Later in the book, you note these myths or perceptions continue for you, even as a professor: “I hate that even in the halls of academia, there are folks who feel teachers should be nice, but not funny; hardworking, but not ambitious; proud of their students but not proud of their own accomplishments.” What are one or two of the most troubling misconceptions about teaching and teachers—and why do you think they persist?

Shannon Reed: Truly, I know that all professionals rightly complain that people make assumptions about their jobs, but is there any other profession about which so many people make so many assumptions than teaching? I suspect not. You’re absolutely right—I am obsessed with the mythologies around teaching, and often ruminate about how they hurt teachers (and, more selfishly, me). What never seems to get factored into the conversation, but which might be changing now, due to what the pandemic has taught us, is that our society cannot function without teachers. We really ought to be doing everything we can to keep good teachers in the profession, including giving them the opportunity to become good teachers, and pulling in as many new ones as we can. Eliminating those belittling misconceptions would so help with that. 

Because I deeply appreciate an opportunity to go off about this, I’ll unpack my three most troubling misconceptions. First, because most people attended school, they think they understand what teaching is as a profession. A moment’s thought shows this is nonsense—I go to my car mechanic all the time, but can barely check the oil—but it’s pervasive. Many peoples’ understanding of teaching is located in their recollection of their least favorite high school teacher. I find that this problem is true for many professions—I’m constantly asking my emerging fiction writers not to set their stories in hospitals unless they’ve spent time in one as an adult—but because school is so much a part of our growing up, many more people have a blind spot about what they don’t know about teaching that they simply do not realize.

Second: the idea that teachers must personally like a student in order to teach them well. This baffles me. If I again go back to the car mechanic, while I expect him to be fair to me, I don’t get upset if he doesn’t want to chill with me outside of the half-hour I spent getting my oil changed every few months. He does his job well, and I get what I needed. We don’t need to be besties. Yet some parents deeply believe that their children’s teachers can only do right by their children if we actually really like them. It’s weird. I wouldn’t trust an adult who wanted to befriend my 12-year-old, you know? But people confuse what good parenting is with what good teaching is. 

And, finally, my biggest annoyance is the idea that a good teacher must be a martyr—always available to students, always giving of herself (Let’s be honest, the martyr teacher is usually a woman), never full of dreams and desires and needs and wants of her own. This is so harmful, both to the students and the teachers, while being extremely helpful to those who’d like teachers to have to work so hard they never have the energy to raise concerns about low salaries and stuff like that. I’d offer just two examples of supporting evidence, and leave the reader to think on the harm this misconception causes. First, when I taught first year composition at Pitt, I’d ask students to write about their favorite teachers in high school. The vast majority of them would write about some poor soul who came in at 6 a.m. to tutor them before swim practice, or who came back to school on weekends for test prep. This, my students would always assert, made them the best teacher, unlike the rest of those who just wanted to go home at the end of the day! In a discussion, I would then ask my students if they would like to have a job like that one. Turns out: they did not. Secondly, I cannot tell you how many times a graduating senior has sat in my office and mentioned that they’d like to be a teacher—they like kids, they like education, etc.—but they don’t want to give up their entire lives to their job… or they’re not going to do it. 

Sigh. 

TM: Your father and your grandfather were pastors. Some people thought you would be one, also: “I liked to be center stage, and pastors often are.” But you never felt that calling. Do you feel like there is a pastoral element to your vision of teaching, and working with students? 

SR: My dad and grandfather were ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastors. I’m really proud of being Lutheran, and prouder still of the way the ELCA has become more progressive in my lifetime, ordaining women, performing same-sex marriages, and being a leader in protecting immigrants and refugees. 

To answer the question, yes, I think so. I am not interested in converting my students (or anyone, for that matter), but I welcome the chance to talk about faith and religion with them. They often are struggling to reconcile the principles they were taught by their faith homes with the often-more progressive ideas of academia, and trying to find a way to hold onto both, especially when dealing with a new understanding of their own identity. That’s a tough road to walk, with as many different pathways as there are people, and I hope to be there for them as they do. Of course, this never comes up in the vast majority of student relationships I have, and that’s cool, too. 

For me, being a pastor is rooted in working in love to support your congregation through their life journeys. I see being a teacher very similarly. As I write in the book, I do try to love all of my students, and meet them where they are, then help them move a little bit further down the road. That is a wildly different process—for some students, I may help them discover that they’re fine writers and that they want to start that career path; for others, my big help is to teach them that they have to come to class to pass. It does remind me of what I saw my father trying to do with his congregation—he might have visited a dying member in hospice and then driven directly to counsel a couple getting married, then written a sermon, all in four hours. Flexibility, clarity about the goals of the work, and an overarching desire really help when you’re doing work that varied and intense, whether it’s as a teacher or as a pastor. 

TM: You write about your experiences teaching preschool through college. Were you writing about teaching while teaching primary and secondary students (during lunch, breaks, after school)? Or did these pieces arise afterward?

SR: I’ve been asked this question a number of times, and I think it’s because teachers desperately want to cling to the hope that if they just organize their time correctly, they will be able to pursue an artistic calling while also teaching. So I am truly sorry to say, nope, I didn’t write a single word of this book until I left full-time teaching to go to Pitt’s MFA program. I did teach then, but it was one college course of 20 or so students, not the five different classes of 30 students I was teaching in a New York City high school. I did write a little while I was teaching high school, mostly on weekends and in the summer, but at that time I was focused on writing plays. 

But I don’t want to neglect the other part of your question—I think I would have found it impossible to both teach secondary students and write about teaching secondary students at the same time. (I didn’t think of myself as a writer when I taught preschool, so I don’t know if I would have felt the same.) I remember thinking very carefully about what was happening around me, and writing emails about my work to my parents and friends, and talking to my best friend Andrew about everything, as if I was trying to form the core that I could return to later, when I was ready to write. And when I got to Pitt and finally took a creative nonfiction class in my last year (I was a fiction major) one of the first things I wrote was the first draft of what became “Paulie” in the book. So I think I was subconsciously preparing, and just waiting for the right time to write about teaching. Two years into my three years at Pitt, where I felt safe and appreciated, and knew I would get helpful revision notes from my classmates and professor, then I was ready to dig back into that core. 

TM: You share your experience adjuncting. It’s a perilous situation, as you note, for both exhausted and under-paid (and under-appreciated) adjuncts, as well as the students—who often don’t realize they are being taught by contingent faculty. In “On Adjuncting,” you make an effective case for why the particular sense and security of full-time professors is good for students, so I was wondering: was there a full-time professor during your college years who especially inspired you? 

SR: Thank you for this! I want so much for readers to know and think about adjuncts. I had no idea that all of the professors at my college weren’t full-time, tenured professors, and I think about how differently I would have treated those who were adjuncts if I had recognized that they didn’t have any job security and were paid very little. 

To be honest, I’ve taught in so many schools and gotten several different degrees, so my recollection of specific professors before Pitt is somewhat fuzzy. But I can say that I had amazing professors at Pitt, many of whom are now my colleagues, which is weird, but great! Everyone I took a class from in the MFA program was a full-time, tenured professor, I believe, and not a single one of them failed to teach me a great deal about the work of being a writer. I remain grateful to all of them, but Irina Reyn, Peter Trachtenberg, Angie Cruz, and Michael Meyer really took the time to connect with me and my work. It is a strange thing to teach someone who is around your age, but all of them handled that gracefully with me. In many ways, their belief in my abilities went beyond my own sense of what I would be able to do and gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career. I think that’s a nice thing, to believe in your students a little bit more than they believe in themselves. 

TM: “I think the best part about teaching is the academic year,” you write. “The rise and fall of the seasons.” This is a marked contrast with time spent working in an office, where: “We were never working toward anything—no finals, no breaks. Just a relentless corporate slog to perhaps getting promoted or whatever, something, someday.” I always tell people that the seasons—throughout the academic year, and after—are what make teaching a magical experience for everyone, students included. We are in an unprecedented time, though, for education (and everything else!). What about our seasonless pandemic? How do you feel about the coming academic year?

SR: So unprecedented! I seem to have called down some sort of Office Cubicle Spirit who’s laughing at me now teaching from my home instead of in the midst of Pitt’s beautiful, bustling campus. I apologize, world. This is not what I wanted. 

That said, I don’t see the pandemic as seasonless. Yes, I have spent too much time peering into a laptop from my dining room over the last four months. Yes, there is a strange sameness to the days—I just wondered to myself, “Why are you working so hard on a Saturday afternoon?” It’s Thursday morning.—but I am still aware of the passage of time, and the change of the seasons, and I would encourage everyone to connect with the environment around them if they possibly can, in order to help that awareness grow. I try to take a walk every morning, and note what’s blooming, what’s dying off, how the sun is hitting the sidewalk today. This is the information I’d take in without really realizing it if I was on campus, from the way the acorns bop me on the head early in the semester to my switch to entirely sensible duck boots as we finish off finals in the snow. I’m just trying to be more intentional about seeing its subtleties. 

How to translate that intention into my courses, which are very likely to be online, is something I’m thinking a lot about. Whereas I might have begun an in-person class with a casual comment about the weather, I’ll need to be more intentional about that online and find those little moments of human connection—what are you doing over the weekend, has anyone watched that new Netflix show—that would otherwise not happen. Intentionality can feel forced, but I try to think of it more as a deliberateness, which is not a bad quality in a classroom. I’ll tell my students what I am doing, and why, too. 

I have my concerns about the upcoming school year, as does every educator I know. In many ways, I will have an easier time of it: I do not have kids that will need my supervision, I’m not worried about a partner’s job loss, and I generally teach small classes of motivated students who have elected to be there. All of that will help, and I’m lucky. My deepest concerns are about how my health and disability will affect my students’ experience. Because I augment my bad hearing with lip-reading, classes in which everyone is masked are essentially pointless for me, unless I wanted to lecture for the entire time, which I do not. I also have some autoimmune issues, so I really doubt that I can safely be teaching in person this coming fall. Thus, it’s on me to make my online classes as engaging, worthwhile, and accessible as possible, so I am doing a lot of thinking about that. My supervisors in the English department are, too, and I feel a true confidence that our department’s classes will still be worthwhile for our students. 

At the same time, I try not to sink into despair. While it’s important for teachers and professors to plan as enriching a classroom experience as we possibly can, there are always factors out of our control—if the course meets in a sunny room without air-conditioning, it’s nap time for everyone. If that unique mix of students really hit it off, it doesn’t matter if I’m on my A game or not—they’re going to have amazing discussions. So there are always things out of my control, and those seasons I can’t force are part of the fun of teaching for me: the season of 8 a.m. composition class, and the season of the math professor who never erased the five blackboards he filled with problems before he turned over the classroom to us, and the season of having a student who worked for a pizza place who would bring free pies to Wednesday night classes. This will be a different season of over-earnest how-are-yous and sketchy wifi connections and never really knowing how tall any of my students are, I guess. There will be benefits to teaching online I haven’t thought of yet. I’m still excited about the new school year! 

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis


An excellent collection that leads with her new poems, finely attuned to the body and aging. “Bed-Bound” begins: “I live in the seam of stitches and throb.” The narrator wakes to hear the “insistent / ceiling fan above, dull blade / covered with detritus, spinning / to a vague thunder.” Mathis knows the power of pacing and line breaks. “Time creeps”: a phrase stabbed in the middle ground of the poem. “The storm of tiny bugs / the heat brought in, hovering / over the skin of pockmarked fruit.” The narrator quarantined, with “nothing but pain to consider.” Time will pass. Bodies will age. Yet: “it is patient— / so patient, pain is.” The theme returns in “After Chemo,” when mice “took the house” because they “never expected me back.” “My house is a sieve. In and out they go / with sunflower hulls, cartilage bits, / nesting, nesting.” Mathis considers aging further in “Not Myself”: “For the first time, I could see a link / between me and all the other / impossibly dead, or the one who had gripped the dead / in their arms.” There is an elegiac strain to these new poems: a mother bemoaning the passing of her elders, lamenting the turn of her own body, hoping for a long life for the young. Readers new to Mathis will appreciate her selected work that follows the more recent material. “The Perfect Service” is one of several great poems about parenting: “The truth is, the child protects me, takes away / the obligation to be someone other than myself.” The narrator watches her child move in the spring, “his clumsy feet / hidden in the grass, his fat palms in the thick / clumps of narcissus, everything’s naked.” She wonders how “he might disappear / if I turn my back.” Her child would enfold into the world, escape, but “what about me, / how could I face all this beauty in his absence?” Other selected pieces ponder nature and death—inevitable processes. “In Lent”: a deer dies near a gate. “Do I have to watch it be eaten? Do I have to see / who comes first, who quarrels, who stays?” She wonders “which flesh preferred by which creature— / which sinew and fat, the organs, the eyes.” Mathis suggests that we are surrounded by ferocious appetites. “And I hear the crows, complaint, complaint / splitting the morning, hunched over the skull. / They know their offices.”

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald


A hazy, mysterious, transporting book by the Oxford professor. Oswald’s epigraph notes that when Agamemnon journeyed to Troy, he paid a poet to watch his wife, but the poet was rowed to a stony island. The bard has drifted, off-course and forgotten: left “as a lump of food for the birds.” The book is suffused with a shifty, macabre feel of disembodied spirits and chants, an ingenious method of capturing the eerie sea. Oswald captures the feel in her lines: “As the mind flutters in a man who has travelled widely / and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere.” Even stories “flutter about / as fast as torchlight.” Fate speaks of the poet stranded on a stony island, where “he paces there as dry as an ashtray,” blithering errant poems, watched skeptically by the sea-crows: “what does it matter what he sings.” Oswald’s description sings throughout. Seals breathe out “the sea’s bad breath / snuffle about all afternoon in sleeping bags.” A little dazed ourselves, we can easily imagine “hundreds of these broken and dropped-open mouths / sulking and full of silt on the seabed.” Among this ancient world, Oswald drops prescient lines: “there are people still going about their work / unfurling sails and loosening knots / it’s as if they didn’t know they were drowned.” A purgatorial sense pervades the poem, capturing the terrible and magnificent sea: “a man is a nobody underneath a big wave / his loneliness expands his hair floats out like seaweed / and when he surfaces his head full of green water / sitting alone on his raft in the middle of death.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi here, a wild vastness beyond us: “Let me tell you what the sea does / to those who live by it first it shrinks then it / hardens and simplifies and half-buries us / and sometimes you find us shivering in museums.”

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie


“In terms of poetics and philosophy,” Solie has said during an interview, “I do find the limit of language a profound and powerful zone. It’s where failure becomes energy.” The Caiplie Caves ponders that zone of linguistic border and failure, especially what happens when we see the progression of a narrator’s ruminations. The collection begins with a prefatory note that tells the story of Ethernan, a 7th-century Irish monk who went to the Caiplie Caves in Scotland “in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active.’” Framed and interspersed with these monastic contemplations, many poems in the collection are anchored in the contemporary. The interplay between imagined past and literary present creates a rich effect. The contemporary sections are rife with great lines: “My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.” Others stir with their figurative language: “but for the banks of wild roses, the poppies you loved // parked like an ambulance by the barley field.” Solie’s verse feels operatic at points: “Our culture is best described as heroic. / Courageous in self-promotion, noble / in the circulation of others’ disgrace, // its preoccupation with death in a context of immortal glory / truly epic, and the task becomes to keep / the particulars in motion // lest they settle into categories whose opera / is bad infinity.” Among these present concerns, Ethernan continues to contemplate, often with wit: “In this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape // thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice.” He is not the type of person “who leads others into battle // or inspires love.” The devil is in the discernment: “if one asks for a sign // must one accept what’s given?” After all, “I wanted an answer, not a choice.” Ethernan’s life is long gone, but his spirit allows Solie to make contemplation a form of haunting: “I have outlived my future, why invite its ghosts // to bother me where I sleep?”

Code by Charlotte Pence

A book suffused with genuine optimism—without sentimentality. An early poem in the collection, “The Weight of the Sun,” sets the pensive stage. The narrator is “tilting / the rocking chair back and forth / with my toes,” a rhythm that carries her through a 4 a.m. feeding. She looks outside, and wonders if “everyone on this block” is “wishing for sleep, / for peace, for the coming day to be better // than the last.  She stares at the blades of grass; realizes that a red fox “is the one who / flattens the path through the lawn.” Her mind wanders: “Behind every square of light flipped on, / someone is standing or slouching, // stretching of sighing, covering / or uncovering her face.” Other poems, like “While Reading About Semiotics,” deliver sharp moments of dread, as when a cottonmouth seethes, rushing toward her “with its wide ghost of throat.” It’s a great, odd image. Pence often has a pleasantly sideways manner of looking and layering, as in “Lightening,” which plays with the multiple connotations of the word. “You are dropping, / my baby. Twisting / your way down.” The word, the narrator notes, is also used to describe “the moment before / death. Another release.” Yet there’s no etymological explanation “for such a linguistic hike.” She wonders this wordplay while walking “these brown woods / where deer thin / to vines.” Similar playfulness exists in the meandering “Zwerp”: “Three mud- / puddle frogs // leap-flee / from me.” The frogs “take light — / blur it, bold it — / with long, slick / legs, all muscle // memory / of place and space.” One late poem, “I’m Thinking Again of That Lone Boxer,” reveals her range in subject and style. The narrator watches a man boxing in Baltimore’s Herring Run Park: “City gridlock stood / beside him as he slipped and bobbed, countered / and angled.” She thinks for a moment about herself, about motherhood, but is drawn to the man’s precise swings. She won’t call him a dancer; he’s “a man fighting in an empty / field against himself,” and the sight stirs her: despite him being ready to land or receive a punch, “how / can I not believe in the possibility of peace?”