I Want to Remember This: Featured Poetry by Brenda Shaughnessy

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth book, The Octopus Museum. Stacked with dexterous, inventive pieces that range from prose poetry to letters to dialogues, Shaughnessy also nestles heartfelt poems about the narrator’s children. One of these such poems, “Blueberries for Cal,” is gorgeous, controlled, and complex. When the narrator says “Sometimes I can’t bear // all the things Cal doesn’t get to do,” the stanza break does real work; this is both lamentation and confession. One of the finest poems you’ll read on the sacred strain of parenting, on the force of love.

“Blueberries for Cal”
Watching little Henry, six, scoop up blueberriesand shovel them into his mouth, possessed.
I’m so glad I brought blueberries—wish my kidscould/would eat them. Cal can’t; Simone won’t.
Henry’s sisters Lucy & Jane took turns feeding eachother goldfish crackers and sips of juice.
Arms around each other’s neck and back. Tiny things.I wish my daughter had a sister like that
and my son a nervous system that let him walkand munch berries. Sometimes I can’t bear
all the things Cal doesn’t get to do. I want to curseeverything I can’t give him.
Admire/compare/despair—that’s not the most realfeeling I’m feeling, is it? I feel joy in Henry’s joy.
Blueberries for the child who wants them.There’s all this energetic sweetness, enough to go around,
to give and taste and trust. More than enough.For Cal, too. I want to remember this.
My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.
Where there’s music, someone chose to make a songover all other things on this earth. 


Excerpted from The Octopus Museum. Copyright © 2019 by Brenda Shaughnessy. All rights reserved. First appeared in The Paris Review, issue 223. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

Noise Requires Poetry: The Millions Interviews Shane McCrae

“America I am unnameable.” Several poems in Shane McCrae’s new book, The Gilded Auction Block, begin with America: the idea, the myth, the collective body. The speakers of his poems are nearly ecstatic with frustration: tired and terrified, they are convinced “America you wouldn’t pardon me.”

Shane McCrae has many
gifts as a poet, but among his most hypnotizing is his ability to create poems
that simultaneously blare and beacon. Since his first book, Mule, in 2011, McCrae has been creating
ambitious work that demands—earns—our attention. I often feel out of time when
I am reading his words; they arrive with a Miltonic fury, and yet they are so
contemporary and critical for our present, strange world.

We spoke about our current
political fever, Hell, and how poems sometimes have to wait for the right
moment to arrive.

The Millions: I don’t know if there’s an ideal way to read a particular book of poetry, but I read The Gilded Auction Block after midnight, at my desk, in what seemed like phosphorescent light. I had the feeling of being consumed by the book—particularly “The Hell Poem”—and each time I turned back to the cover, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s monstrous image unnerved me further. It’s rare to experience a book that hits so hard on the levels of form and function and feeling, which leads me to wonder: How did this book come together for you? How did you go about structuring, ordering, arranging these pieces into their profluent whole?

Shane McCrae: Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. Well, “The Hell Poem” came first. In 2014, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a Dante-esque, Inferno-ish poem, which is a terrible thing to get into one’s head—although there is something to be said for going into the writing of a poem knowing it will be impossible for the end result to be anywhere near as good as its inspiration. So I wrote a few sections of “The Hell Poem,” got stuck, and then abandoned the poem. Not long after that, I wrote In the Language of My Captor. Then Trump was elected. And immediately I felt I had to write something in response to Trump’s election, and wrote “We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Maybe a month or so after that, I wrote “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump,” and poems along the lines of that poem followed. Eventually, I started thinking about “The Hell Poem” again, and realized there was a place for Trump in it—indeed, I think the reason I had gotten stuck was that the poem was waiting for Trump.

TM: In other interviews, you’ve spoken with illuminating complexity about confessional poetry, noting that “in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-write writers” because the confessional condition “assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall.” Yet you’ve also described a simultaneous pull toward that space of confession in verse, and I think one of the many powerful modes of The Gilded Auction Block is that the book feels kenotic (both metaphorically and theologically)—an emptying on the way toward reception. Was there a kenotic sense for you in writing these poems—and if so, what has been emptied, and what might be received?

SM: Oh, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve ever done as kenotic, not thoroughly—kenosis is something I think one works toward one’s entire life. But I also think I never manage to really empty myself when writing my autobiographical poems—that’s why I keep returning to certain figures, particularly my grandmother. I don’t ever—not that I can recall at the moment—feel satisfied by the writing of my more autobiographical poems. I can manage to get my non-autobiographical poems to seem finished to me, but my autobiographical poems always seem not quite right. They are the poems I consistently abandon.

TM: Your previous book, In the Language of My Captor, begins with the poem “His God,” which includes the lines “his    / God is a stranger // from no country he has seen.” The Gilded Auction Block begins with “The President Visits the Storm,” which includes a clever allusion to Mary’s Assumption and an ominous nod toward the Book of Revelation—both skillful touches that feel like transfigurations. I enter both books thinking about forms disembodied, and looking for the places of souls. Considering this book is peppered with quotations and permutations of Donald Trump, how have these past years had you thinking about bodies?

SM: Well now I simply do not have a good answer for this—not yet. Let’s see. The reason I initially felt like I didn’t, and wouldn’t, have a good answer for this question was that I don’t really sit around thinking about bodies—I don’t often think about the things it seems smart people think about. But I do think about the bodies of poems sometimes, and I have lately become intrigued by what seem to me to be the contradictory dominant impulses behind the forms of the poems of younger poets writing today—an impulse to expand, and an impulse to compress. Often one will see poems that open up a lot of space inside themselves by expanding across and down the page. But one also sees a lot of prose poems, which, even though they are written from margin to margin, seem very compressed to me—they’re very dense. And I think each of these impulses has to do with the ear rather than the eye. Each, I think, responds to a desire to make the music in poems more apparent than it would otherwise be—or, at least, to make the poet’s attitude toward music more apparent. The spread-out poem isn’t so certain readers will notice its music; the prose poem is more trustful. But I think the popularity of the prose poem is a holdover from life before Trump. Who feels confident their body will be recognized and acknowledged for what it is nowadays?

TM: We’re both editors for Image Journal, a magazine that publishes writing “informed by or grappling with religious faith.” One of your own poems for the magazine that appeared a few years ago ends with the lines “Lord forgive my torturers // Who hate my faults    as if my faults were theirs.” It makes me think of something you said upon publication of your first book, Mule, quipping “I wrote a bunch of poems about God.” I’m drawn to ambitious writers like yourself and Katie Ford, whose religious and theological grappling has a rich poetic lineage. What draws you toward God—in poetry, and in life? Who are poets of doubt and faith whose work has influenced or interested you?

SM: I believe God is; I have no doubts about the existence of God. And I think it’s God’s very being that draws me toward God. If one believes God is, how can one be otherwise but drawn toward God? That said, I find the mystery(ies) of God overpoweringly attractive—when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever. That’s nice. And with regard to thinking, I suspect I’ve been most profoundly influenced and interested by Jorie Graham and Susan Howe—both of them say deeply true things about how the mind works. As for poems that have more explicitly to do with God, I think I’ve been most influenced and interested by George Herbert.

TM: “And even in my dreams I’m in your dreams” ends one of your poems in this new book—a work, like several others, that includes Trumpian excerpts and exhortations. Your book feels like a lament for our age, or perhaps a catalog of spiritual exhaustion: “America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept.” How does it feel to have a book publish now, when the murmurs of a coming election are nearing a crescendo? What might the place of poetry be in a world so full of noise?

SM: I think noise requires poetry, because I think poetry requires a retreat from noise. Although, you know, it’s a book of poetry, and so is unlikely to have a huge reach. I hope nonetheless that The Gilded Auction Block might make some positive contribution to the discourses about Trump and about America. When FSG took the book, there was some feeling that it needed to be published as quickly as possible—both because it was maybe timely, and because, at the time, it was thought that Trump’s presidency might be brief. I feel as if every moment of every day I am actively wishing Trump weren’t president; since he is president, I hope my book, in its small way, can work against him.

TM: I’ve already mentioned “The Hell Poem,” the masterful, long poem that anchors The Gilded Auction Block, but wanted to speak about it more. I’ve read other poets who are transformational with language—giving us new ways to see—but you also have a transfigurative sense, of creating, like Dante and Milton, a surreal world in a poem that still feels grounded in earthly suffering. I’m even reminded of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony; I feel out-of-this-world, and yet reminded of my form: “At that a darkness like the darkness / Before the world was overtook me.” What route led you toward this Hell poem? What caused this poetic descent?

SM: Folly. Folly got me going, and folly kept me going. The poem came out of nowhere, and in retrospect I think if I had planned it out a little I could have saved myself a lot of work. After I got stuck writing “The Hell Poem” (as I mentioned above), I decided that I had gotten stuck because I didn’t want to write anybody into Hell. And the obvious—to me, at least—solution was to write a poem set in Purgatory instead. So I wrote a considerably longer poem set in Purgatory which I now think was a near-total failure. I say “near-total,” because I did manage to salvage a bit of it and plug that into “The Hell Poem.” But it wasn’t until I had written 60 pages of that Purgatory poem that I realized it was a failure. That failure aside, however, once I was a few sections deep in “The Hell Poem,” I asked Christine Sajecki, with whom I had worked previously, if she would be willing to make some paintings for it, and I still can’t believe she said yes. The paintings she made are wonderful. At bottom, I think I’ve always wanted to say something worthwhile about the world and the people in it, and the ascendance of Trump, because he is a caricature and makes all around him caricature, made the effort to say something a little easier. But, really, I’m still trying.

There’s No One to Witness: Featured Poetry by Edgar Kunz

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from the debut collection by Edgar Kunz, Tap Out. Kunz’s poems are laconic, but also remain fleshy and full—the result of detailed lines that arrive with a good deal of punch. There’s a real sense of love and loss in this layered poem; how it begins with the elegiac “There’s no one left to see his hands.” Kunz cleaves the line at the perfect moment; we can follow the sadness of that idea, or we can dig deeper and ride the rest of the poem as gets more literal. Kunz’s poetry is worth a few reads—so feel free to see the reward of both approaches.

“My Father at 49, Working the Night Shift at B&R Diesel”

There’s no one left to see his hands            lifting from the engine bay, dark and gnarled                          as roots dripping river mud,
no one to see how his palms – slabs of callus            from scouring the long throats of chimneys,                          hauling mortar and brick – move
in the fabricated light. Thumb-knuckle            thick and white as a grub where the box-                          cutter bit. Split nail grown back
scalloped and crooked. The stitch-              puckered skin. And when they fold into and out                          of themselves by the steaming faucet,
when they strip clean, the tap water              running black, then copper, then clear                            into the grease-clotted drain,
there’s no one to witness the slap              of a wet rag tossed in the break-                          room sink or the champ of gravel
in the empty lot. How the stars dim              as morning comes on. How a semi downshifts                            on the overpass and the shop windows rattle

as it goes.

“My Father at 49, Working the Night Shift at B&R Diesel” from Tap Out: Poems by Edgar Kunz. Copyright © 2019 by Edgar Kunz. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in March.

Tap Out by Edgar Kunz

A whirlwind debut. Stories of sclerotic lives told in wrought images, Kunz arrives with real poetic talent. In the first poem, “After the Hurricane,” the narrator’s father sleeps in a van by the Connecticut River, where he “can see the Costco // parking lot through the trees.” Estranged from his wife, he’s hit bottom, scraping sustenance from kidney bean cans and tuna tins. “Wrinkled plastic piss bottles line the dash.” Kunz pulls us into his poems and keeps us there through crisp detail. The narrator’s father returns often, as in “Natick”: “Silence we passed back and forth between us, like a joke.” In the car, father holds his hand—“Nail beds packed with grease. / Knuckles more scar // than skin”—to his son’s, tells the boy he has piano hands. The son “was ashamed, and hid them in the pockets of my coat.” That shame evolves into poems like “Close,” when the narrator’s father, fresh off a work shift and a little drunk, teaches his son how to drive. “We meet / at the end of the loaded bed, exhaust / and brakelight pooling around our knees.” (A hint: trust poets who show back to you the images you’ve seen in glimpses and tucked in the back of your mind.) The son loves the father; he hates the father. Tap Out lives in a bittersweet world, and does so well, but there’s also fine touches here: a mother who has had enough, a son who sees beauty in loss, and in “Farmsitting,” a narrator who, in order to fall asleep, “counted / the measures ticked out // in the porcelain tub, slow drip / to keep the pipes from freezing.”

The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy

To call a collection both
ambitious and pleasant is hopefully not an unacceptable paradox—it feels like
the right description for Shaughnessy’s fifth book of poems. Her book is
ambitious in concept and structure—a dystopian world in which the COO
(Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords), fresh off cute YouTube videos, “took over
every computer, grid and control center”—and capable of melodic sweetness: “I
am a self-cleaning animal and my children were born glistening under all the
soft tree leaves, breathing.” Woven into the book’s speculative moments are
glimpses of motherhood from this world: a six-year-old girl named Simone who
thinks time is “unknowable,” and a boy, Cal, of whom she thinks incessantly. In
“Nest,” the narrator is “in a cabin up in the New Hampshire / woods, in order
to write.” Cal, “coughing and gagging,” probably from allergies, possibly from
something else, is home with her husband. She wonders: “Why am I up here /
writing in the woods when my family needs me / if all I’m doing is failing to
kill innocent wasps / and writing this, this poem I’ll never really finish.” It
is her full-throated poems about Cal that meander among her wild experiments in
syntax, epistolary, and lists that make The
Octopus Museum a breakthrough book.

The Last Visit by Chad Abushanab

“The Factory,” a terse,
dizzying poem, appears early in this fantastic debut. “Husks in shadows just
outside of town: / a rusted mess, a postindustrial tomb.” Here “men with bloody
lungs keep / coughing up clots like overripe berries. / Their wives beside them
pretend to be asleep, / imagine different endings to their stories.” The Last Visit teems with distressing
images, offered with fury and skill. In one poem that introduces the book’s
major theme, a narrator wonders about his abusive father: “what made your
cruelties grow / unwieldy.” He stares at portraits for hours, seeking an
explanation, and then remembers, in another poem, how his mother would bring
him to a store “to pick / some cheap toys” after each family fight. “She wore /
green bruises below her eyes. / Her split lip kept her dabbing blood / with
Kleenex—a poppy flowered rag.” The narrator and siblings dig “through crates of
army men,” who they’d line up on their bedroom windowsill. They’d chosen maimed
soldiers who “could not raise their voices despite / their mortal wounds, their
missing limbs.” The Last Visit is
peppered with poignant, curtal ghazals, including: “When my father left for
good, we were living in the desert. / I wouldn’t cry for him. My eyes became a
desert.” Horrors real and cinematic blend together, as in poems like “A Haunted
House,” “Halloween,” “Drive-In,” and “Poem Begun in a West Texas Corn Maze”: “I
listen for children shouting through the dried- / up stalks, but all I hear are
whispers and crows, / what few remain.”

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy

“I’m becoming a prayer / I
never said for myself.” McCarthy’s book of Midwestern threnodies begins in
image and ends in solemnity. In the first poem, the narrator’s pickup truck
spews smoke from the engine. Under the trunk, he finds that a “mangled cat mats
the crankshaft and fan belt, / fur-shredded and soaked.” It’s a morbid scene,
unfolding as rain pounds the street, a shower that seems constant that year. “Switchgrass
quivers in every direction. / It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.”
These poems are filled with a “lost boy” who is meticulous in his observations
of the staid world surrounding him. The August sun burns everyone, including
his “sweating” mother, who “has stuffed pie tins behind our porch lights // to
keep the robins from nesting.” She is stuck in her house as this boy is stuck
in this middle world, an only child left to his imagination. He thinks himself
a scarecrow, who “pretends // that his reflection is his brother or that all
the puddles together / are a group of siblings that understand his strange
body.” McCarthy’s poems are profluent stories—a joy to marvel at this skill,
impressive considering the book’s bleak landscape.

Forest with Castanets by Diane Mehta

A beautiful book. “My
America is half blessed, halfway to exuberance” Mehta ends one poem, her lines replete
with sorrow and mysticism. “Elegy: A Jewish Death” begins “My moon-walking
mother flies sideways in the yard. / Black fences spike and spiral to contain
her.” There’s a levitation to her lines, leading to the first section’s
conclusion: “She shadows me, a rococo menorah, / arms holding prayers up,
pulling light around me.” Mehta traces the gentle and eccentric routes of spirituality,
with an emphasis on spirit: “She
exits my longing, shifts // like the sea at dawn into simpler / things I’d like
to believe will find me later.” She centers the book with fifteen “Unholy
Sonnets,” with lovelorn, savvy lines: “Ravaged, unredeemable, I melt into my
feet / Murderously myself. I long for peace but (admit it) / Laser cut and
polish grief.” Prose is tucked among her verse—I hope more poets follow her
lead, and be generous with genre—making Forest
with Castanets a uniquely arranged collection. In “Sex & Sensibility,”
she considers the anniversary of death and divorce, and the frayed
relationships that follow. She thinks about the struggle for rediscovery: “I
had a married self, a mother self, and a sexual self, but I had no ‘alone’ self
and thus no creative self.” She’s a talented essayist, and the hopeful conclusion
of her second essay leans into more poems, starting with “Churchgoing”: “If
love is divine then what am I / when they are so full of love / excelling? I
believe in showing up. / The sermon starts.” She concludes: “These open-hearted
beaches are so pure they choke me. / I prefer the cold, hard pews and visitor
seating. / I prefer to be deranged and read these pretty prayers / as evil in
my feet taps out a little more universe.”

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Kaminsky, on moving
between and among tongues: “What’s important are those little thefts between
languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, ‘slant’
moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.” Kaminsky’s second
book—which I suspect will be spoken about for years to come—is curved with
beautiful oddities of phrase (even the book’s Dramatis Personae, in describing
the townspeople, includes a phrase about how “on balconies, the wind fondles
laundry lines”). A play in verse, a novel in verse, collective pain in
verse—classifications are unnecessary here, as Kaminsky’s book is at its soul a
story. Although public assemblies are prohibited when occupying forces “march
into town,” the people of Vasenka perform puppet shows. Petya, a deaf boy who is
front and center, sneezes, and draws the military attention. Reprimanded, the
boy spits at a Sergeant, setting the rest of the book in motion. The entire
town becomes silent. Unable to hear, they search for themselves. In one poem: “You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens.” Soon,
an inability to hear becomes an ability to see: “our men, once frightened,
bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts— / deafness passes through
us like a police whistle.” Deaf Republic is
a book of transcendence. See a lullaby: “Little daughter / rainwater // snow
and branches protect you.” See an elegy: “Six
words, / Lord: // please ease / of song // my tongue.” “If there is no
argument inside my work,” Kaminsky has said in an interview, “my work is
worthless. For several reasons, there is only one thing I demand from my own
lines, or from any poetry I love—I want to read it and to have a sense of
having lived. I want to find a texture of life in the lines.” Deaf Republic arrives, textured and
alive.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

They Are Not Calling to You: Featured Poetry by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Paige Ackerson-Kiely from her new book, Dolefully, a Rampart Stands. A great second-person poem is narrated both toward us and past us, its words skimming off our shoulders but leaving marks. “Murmuration” moves far for a relatively short poem—in language, in time, and in tone—a testament to Ackerson-Kiely’s skill and willingness to shift a narrative. We are fully in this world from the poem’s first lines, smooth enough that we want to look up to “the top of the oak tree / or the wires” above, and yet the poem’s route takes us to the power of sound, childhood, and shame.

“Murmuration”
They are not calling to you from the top of the oak tree
or the wires stretched from eaves to transformer 
but they are speaking all the same—
as when you were a childyelling your own name into a box fan
your voice chopped like the long slender note of a carrotin pieces on the floor
swept up by someone else, someone who scolded dirty things
should not touch the mouth—as they threw them all away.
 

From Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Paige Ackerson-Kiely.

Must-Read Poetry: February 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in February.

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

“You put your hands over everything / the throats limned, the tags snipped— / your throats snipped, your hands bit / the roses nip and nod.” Playful, punchy, clever, and strange, Ackerson-Kiely’s poems are on-rhythm and off-center. Her lines make me sit up and sort out: “The folding chairs are separated while mating”; “Inside the house the man’s voice / is a bed turned over by cops. / They find nothing but their own anger, / some old tissues.” These are northeastern pastoral songs, as in “The Grandmothers”: “In spite of what one pictures, / there is no bustle, no bonnet, / no consideration for the teats / swollen like trousers thrown / over a ladder in a soaking rain— / bedewed heifer stock-still in a particular pasture.” That phrase—“teats / swollen like trousers thrown”—stayed in my head, a curious consonance that turns the words inward. Come here for the language, but stay for the long prose poem sequence, “Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed,” a murder investigation that will make you want Ackerson-Kelly to narrate all mysteries. A woman’s clothes are found, her body possibly taken downriver: “Water’s high and full of silt, and it smelled like squash bugs and my ex-girlfriend’s neck when she worried about money.” The officer’s recursive vignettes of the case-in-progress are some of the most unique pieces you’ll read this year.

Magical Negro by Morgan Parker

Parker’s poetic latitudes are impressive. She bounds from anaphoric threnody to soft, recursive lines. She writes of Diana Ross, after Zora Neale Hurston, and in response to the 200th episode of The Jeffersons. She writes of the body: desire, longing, impatience, aching. She is gifted with the severity of single lines, including: “My body is an argument I did not start”; “Even the sun yawns when I pray”; “Isn’t repentance always a question?” Her poems ride cadences by turns clever and cathartic, as in “Why the Jive Bird Sings”: “Because—come / through numb // waters, dragging rosaries / and years, mouthful // of salt and lemon / trees.” Whether she is writing of race or language, Parker reworks syntax and phrases; she is playing the line and the reader. Consider the end of “Black Women for Beginners Pt. 1”: “We get hurt so often we never / run. Every time we lick our lips / the day obeys and repents. // Glory glory hallelujah. / Hot comb on the stove. / Train tracks in the weeds.”

A Piece of Good News by Katie Peterson

Placed at the
first-quarter point of Peterson’s book is a masterful elegy for her mother
titled “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead.” Its stanzas arranged in concise
sections, the poem is foundational, a tonally divergent work that upends the
playful early poems of her collection and interjects an earned seriousness into
the work. “Sun, make yourself a silence on this house. / If my eyes are closed
I am not sleeping. If they / are open let them rest / in between / the delicate
snowflakes.” Her mother’s death freezes time, and is transformative;
contemplating her, the narrator thinks how “the past and the pastoral / are not
one sense. But past the outskirts / of the city, the fences fall away: /
foundations of a house, / occupied by moss.” Poems after her elegy carry a
melancholic touch, so that Peterson’s book evolves into a series of meditations
and unanswered questions: “Was birth the worst thing, or the first / time a
body left your bed?” An introspective and original collection.

Reenactments by Hai-Dang Phan

In “Quiet Americans,” the narrator and his father are “spooning our chicken vindaloo” in River Falls, Wisconsin, while they watch the film based on Graham Greene’s classic novel. The other half of their family are in Đà Nẵng. The father and son “aren’t interested in the love / triangle or whodunit, but are spellbound / by old Saigon flickering in the rear window, / shadows of rue Catinet.” They long for a world left, but must settle for the peace of their shared moment: “Snow puts the night on mute. / We know how it ends.” Reenactments invites us into Phan’s mind with specificity of scene and memory, as well as skilled usage of second person. “Get to Know Your Ghost” offers good advice: if haunted, learn your spirit’s “habits, eccentricities, fetishes.” The narrator’s ghost “looks like a lost salesman” in a gray suit, “briefcase / bulging with the expired / driver’s licenses of strangers.” In addition to his own work, he offers translations of work from several other Vietnamese poets, including Phan Nhiên Hạo. “Regarding the Spiritual and Social Situation of Vietnam Today” begins “Having lost our senses, / we carry on the struggle of cooking maggot corpses / from a busted refrigerator.” Subtitled with a note that these thoughts come from poets, there’s a melancholy and sarcastic feel to the piece: “Hope is a gas station— / SOLD OUT. / Look at those few sorry daydreamers / pushing their scooters around / so tiresomely.” Phan’s mixture of original and translated work creates a unique debut that is both singular and anthological.

  A Cry in the Snow by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu (translated by Luke Hankins)

A
poet of three languages, this is the first English-language edition of her
French verse, including Un Cri dans la
neige (A Cry in the Snow)
and Journal
aux yeux fermés (Journal with Closed
Eyes). Her lines are smooth, yet surprising, as in “body to body”: “the
tree in place of my thirst // I plant it in my eyes // I send its roots / into
my veins.” Radulescu’s poems are full of these bodily transfigurations,
including “interior”: “I wake in my own body and then / in the other / waking
beside me / jealous that I stirred first.” The part-calm, part-delirium of the
lineated works evolve into the prose poems of the second section, making for a
diverse collection. “You can rearrange those pages. There is no order, no
sequence. You can erase lines, add others, switch out the events.” The narrator
is exasperated, exhausted, but firm: “It’s up to you. I won’t respond anymore.
Too busy staying silent.” There is recursive talk of an unfinished book here;
an ardent desire to write, the narrator’s voice an offering: “It’s three in the
morning, the dead in their graves. I think of them. Thought is alive, warm, it
gathers itself, forms a kernel that attaches itself to the world, and it begins
to move, to shift. / I give the dead this gift, the only one possible.”

33 Poems by Robert Lax

In 1959, Lax received a letter from his old friend, Thomas Merton, praising Lax’s limited-edition book Oedipus: “Picture, poem, picture poem, leave reader swimming in existentialist realization of what is this Oedipus. Short poem hath effect in inverse proportion to length.” Merton might be correct. Lax often swung wide, and while some of his poems ramble more than ruminate, others feel just right: “every / night / in the / world // is a / night // in the / hospital.” Of particular note: his long poem, “The Circus of the Sun,” a menagerie of folly and philosophy. “Fields were set / for the circus,” goes one section, “stars for shows / before ever / elephant lumbered / or tent rose.” Lax asks good questions: “Who is it for whom we now perform, / Cavorting on wire: / For whom does the boy / Climbing the ladder / Balance and whirl— / For whom, / Seen or unseen / In a shield of light?” A needed compendium from a dynamic poet.

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You Can’t Stop Mourning: Featured Poetry by Morgan Parker

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Morgan Parker from her new book, Magical Negro. Parker’s previous book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, ends with the unpunctuated line “Why do you get up in the morning”—and Magical Negro offers playful and powerful answers. This ekphrastic piece follows conceptual artist Adrian Piper, whose “Everything” series pivoted from the poem’s enigmatic title. “Here are some ways in which,” Parker writes, “you are not free.” Her truncated lines often drift into our chests: we’ve been spoken to, and we want to hear more.

“Everything Will Be Taken Away      after Adrian Piper”
You can’t stop mourningeverything all the time.
The ’90s, the black Maxima with a tail,CD wrappers, proximity to the earth. 
Glamour and sweating in your sheets.Speaking tongues. Men, even. 
You are a woman nowbut you have always had skin.
Here are some ways in whichyou are not free: the interiors
are all wrong, you are a droughtsprawling. When you see god
you don’t like what you see.It is never enough to be born
again and again.
You like it at church whenstrangers hold your hand.
You have a mouth men bless.You look good enough to bury.

From Magical Negro. Reprinted with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Morgan Parker.

For a Place I Hate, I Invoke You Often: Featured Poetry by Hala Alyan

Today we continue our new series of poetry excerpts with a poem from clinical psychologist, novelist, and poet Hala Alyan. Her fourth book of verse, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is full of swift lines and crisp images. “Oklahoma,” a prose poem from her new book, appears among a variety of poetic styles and subjects—each united by Alyan’s intense language. The confident narrators of her poems shift between sensuality and sentiment, between lust and the lure of family. Even in the prose form of “Oklahoma,” her poetic syntax strikes: an appropriate lament for a state that she once called home, whose memory she can’t shake. “For a place I hate, I invoke you often”: Alyan captures the terrible millstone of memory.

“Oklahoma”
For a place I hate, I invoke you often. Stockholm’s: I am eight years old and the telephone poles are down, the power plant at the edge of town spitting electricity. Before the pickup trucks, the strip malls, dirt beaten by Cherokee feet. Osiyo, tsilugi. Rope swung from mule to tent to man, tornadoes came, the wind rearranged the face of the land like a chessboard. This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings. Under a redwood, two men signed away the land, and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey. The Mexican girls let me sit with them as long as I braid their hair, my fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I try to imitate them at home ​— ​mírame, mama ​— ​but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t come here so I could speak some beggar language. Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.

“Oklahoma” excerpted from The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Published and
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

We Learn to Live: Featured Poetry by Andrés Cerpa

We’re thrilled to begin a new series of poetry excerpts at The Millions. These poems come from selected new books that appear in our monthly must-read poetry column. Our first poem is from Andrés Cerpa’s heartbreaking debut collection, Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy. Like many other poems in this debut book, “The Lesson” churns with frustration—the desperation of a son whose father is living with Parkinson’s Disease. Cerpa’s poems are distilled charges of pure will: the simultaneous anger and sadness of losing a parent in so many ways, and how we long for some miracle or magic to “conjure a former self.” A necessarily bleak book illuminated by authentic and audacious feeling.

“The Lesson”

I say goodnight, smile, walk out the door then sit on the hill               above, & facing my father’s house, smoke anotherspliff & watch his, then my mother’s, windows go dim.

I believe that maybe in the streetlight which flickers & reflects              off the stop sign, at the plateaued road between us,a flutter, a baseball card in a wheel, will conjure a former self

to slip from my old window, to walk here & sit with me awhile,              with his shoulder to my shoulderas he takes a few drags, sighs then says, I’m going back home.

I wouldn’t say things get better. I’d say, We learn to live,               that, human beings can get used to anything. But he already knows this somewhere, though he’ll have to

throw bottles off rooftops, piss himself & sleep in the snow,               wake to his corruptible body & shame,withdraw, close one hand around his father’s throat

like a nail you’d hang a mirror on, as the right hand hammers              the Sheetrock & his mother tries to calm him, crying, blaming herself & holding her palms to her son’s cheeks

as he steps back, wipes his eyes until the Sheetrock damps                          against his veins. He’ll have to walkalone for years to thaw the ash & numb.

“The Lesson” excerpted from Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés Cerpa. Copyright © 2019 by Andrés Cerpa. Published and reprinted by permission of Alice James Books. All rights reserved.

Must-Read Poetry: January 2019

Here
are six notable books of poetry publishing in January.

Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne LauxThe final 20 poems of Laux’s book are written in memory of her late mother, and they are unflinching and resigned. “I am not deceived,” she begins the poem “Lapse.” “I / do not think my dead will return. They will not do / what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees.” Helpless but not hapless, she deftly writes of heartbreak—the absolute, gutting, severe loss of the one who brought her into this world: “go,” she writes to her mother, “where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow / your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies / of despair, your can of beer.” Laux is majestic here: “We never knew which way to run: / into her arms or away from her sharp eyes. / We loved her most when she was gone, / and when, after long absence, she arrived.” The elegies accumulate, settle into our throats, drill down—her selected poems are gorgeous to revisit, but these new pieces are symphonic—and they become a perfect coda of grief. “Soon she will be no more than a passing thought,” Laux knows. “Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus / her happiness, minus her grief.” She ends the book’s titular poem with transcendent precision: her mother belongs to the world now, but not all of her—not “her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms / of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers, / Lord her slippers, where are they now?”

The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala AlyanAlyan’s fourth book of poems arrives with the earnest ambition of a debut, but the care of a poet whose lines have earned their sentiment. Poems of sorrow and shame live next to verses of desire. In “The Female of the Species,” “They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases / full of spices and cassettes.” The narrator can “tell stories about the women I know. / They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.” She also thinks about her cousin, how “the best night of my life was the one // she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed, / and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.” The narrator thinks of her father in “The Socratic Method,” a man “as lonely as Wyoming, a perfect country for no one to see.” Sometimes, in the mornings, she will “clutch my chest and chant God forbid God forbid,” thinking of his death. The Twenty-Ninth Year bursts with lamentations, hopes, fears, and a weary but wide faith: “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon.”

Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés CerpaOne of the most moving books of family and illness in recent years, Cerpa’s debut is a force of poetic will. The narrator’s father is living with Parkinson’s Disease, and each successive poem feels like a step deeper into darkness. The narrator knows “the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old, // he is kind & clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle, he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” Bicycles turn and return throughout this book: They move the narrator and his father across the Bronx, across time. The narrator arises from his grief but never forgets its origin; not when he is in Barcelona and “burnt a cigarette into my wrist like a botched tattoo”; not when, with resignation and acceptance, he concludes: “Let the earth do what it will — / have me, spin the spokes until my memory fades to a ruthless spring.”

Oculus by Sally Wen MaoThe poems in this collection consider the detritus and delirium of digital life. In “Live Feed,” the narrator warns that “After I am dead, I will hunt you / day and night. // Pixelated ghosts / will haunt your ears.” Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door. The collection’s titular poem bends time and sense: “Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” Online we are dead, alive, temporary, and permanent. Mao’s serene descriptions are masterfully unsettling: “How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” Mao further examines our technological transfigurations in “Electronic Necropolis,” set in Guiyu Village, China, where ditched electronics are collected and recycled. Mao’s descriptions are precise and surreal, a next phase of evolution: “By slicing open dead circuitboards, / I cultivate rebirth. I douse / the hardware in pyretic acids / before it scrapes me, enters me, a lather of data / against my organs, bless them, / my warring insides.” An expansive book, but each poem bears careful reading.

Mothers Over Nangarhar by Pamela Hart“Dear one / From the yard I see Mars / While you keep watch in far-off deserts.” Hart’s collection begins with such a simple yet profound sentiment: We are so often mired in longing and distance, yet if we merely look up, we are together. Hart has said she has been inspired by lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Her son has served overseas with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and the poems in this book teem with domestic despair of many forms. A group of mothers speak in a Red Cross parking lot, after a meeting on PTSD. In “Sometimes We Talk About Nothing,” “Her son’s platoon / is moving / to a dangerous place // At the market Beth says / the strawberries / are huge // So sweet she eats / some / every day.” Eschewing punctuation and blending joy with fear, Hart captures the paradox of a service member’s family: Hope keeps them alive, but hope is exhausting. Hart’s book ponders the mixture of pride and love for a son, fear for his safety, anxiety and guilt over violence. “He was small and almost perfect at birth,” she writes. “Did I raise him up to be a warrior.” There is no question mark here because, Hart knows, there is no answer.

Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies edited by Harold Schechter and Michael WatersThis pocket-sized Everyman’s Library book is worth sneaking into the theater to browse during the coming attractions. A diverse selection ranging from the early days of cinema to auteurs and remakes, poetic cinephiles will find much to love here. Juliana Gray asks us to “Look closer” at Hitchcock’s Rope: “They’ve shut their secret in a chest, but failed / to lock it.” Virgil Suarez offers an ode to the late Harry Dean Stanton: “See it in the crow-black eyes, the stubble / And the way his lids sag as he belts out / The next sad song.” Chase Twichell thinks “Matinees are the best time / for bad movies.” Marcus Wicker writes a love letter to Pam Grier: “Even now I don’t know how / to love you right.” And Joseph O. Legaspi reminds us that the theater is always more than projector, screen, and sight: “My mother favors / tearjerkers in which women suffer in martyrdom, / fall from high grace, seek revenge, and reap moral / redemption. In this communal, cavernous space / celluloid glow outlines each solitary audience, / embraced by air-conditioning, drowsing into / forgetfulness.”