The June 1999 issue of Esquire was full of essays about fathers: Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Cash, and Nasdijj. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” was Navajo writer Nasdijj’s dizzying, heartbreaking essay about his young son, who had died from fetal alcohol syndrome. Nasdijj’s essay was as pithy as his cover letter to the magazine, which claimed “In the entire history of Esquire magazine, you have never once published an American Indian writer. This oversight is profound.” Nasdijj claimed that Esquire was only his second publication; the first was a fishing story for Gray’s Sporting Journal. Nasdijj’s essay was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and soon became a memoir; The New York Times called it “a fascinating book, unlike anything you are likely to have read.” A book that “reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society.” Two more memoirs, and more critical acclaim, followed. The truth also followed. Nobody named Nasdijj had ever published a fishing story in Gray’s Sporting Journal, but in September 1996, “The ‘Hemingway’ Boat” had been published by one Tim Barrus. Barrus, it turns out, was Nasdijj. A white writer, not a Navajo writer. “The hoax warns us without warning and informs us without informing,” writes Kevin Young in his new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Young is a fine poet—incoming poetry editor of The New Yorker, no less—and his often recursive, textured prose is the perfect delivery for the cyclical nature of literary lies. Of Barrus’s Hemingway story—another not-so-true tale—Young writes “by claiming Hemingway, Barrus was claiming a connection to the past and Papa and to literature itself. Hemingway would sometimes play soldier (though he really was one), matador, revolutionary, but he was also an actual journalist, drawing fairly clear borders between fiction and non. The writers who followed, especially male writers, would often struggle with Hemingway’s style and lifestyle, mistaking one for the other—and many, from Clifford Irving to James Frey to Barrus, would eventually turn to hoaxing to find their way.” Bunk is teeming with these types of insights. As a poet and historian, Young has the particular skill of seeing the unseen. He understands that at the heart of every lie is a good, perhaps great, story. Often the act of story is the act of persuasion, hypnosis, delusion. For better or worse, we love to be lied to if the song sounds good. Because the hoax is not a lone performance, it needs an audience. In describing literary forgeries, Young writes the hoaxer must fake “a document as well as a backstory—providing a collaboration between present and past, the hoaxer and the audience ...for the forger, like other hoaxers, seeks to make the audience complicit.” It is this well-made point that will make attuned readers of Bunk cringe. We’ve bought half or quarter truths—especially when those lies varnish our biases, our ideologies, our hopes. Young cautions this is not a new phenomenon. Bunk is certainly fascinating in the light of our current post-truth world, but Young demonstrates how lies, frauds, exaggerations, and misinformation are a particularly American exercise—baked into the republic from the years of P.T. Barnum on forward. The digital age continues to blur reality, performance, and hoax, but with greater speed and range. Bunk contains a laundry list of charlatans, including Rachel Dolezal, Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Laura Albert. But what is most powerful is Young’s examination of American lies about race. Barrus was simply one of many who have taken up the identity of a Native person. There is a particular insidiousness at play here, Young offers. When a hoaxer performs as a person on the margins, “hoaxers erase those their story purports to represent.” These are not small sins. They are not postmodern play at the malleability of the Author. The appropriation of another’s identity is a continuation of history. Young connects the unfortunate tendency of white writers to take on Native identities as part of the “sideshow attraction” trend: “Besides reinforcing notions of the West as a continuous battle and justifying Native displacement and death, the Wild West show also cemented the figure of the imaginary Indian—a decidedly Plains Indian look, complete with war bonnet—that would prove dominant in popular thought and in the broader West ever since.” Stories write our history. Stories write our culture. Once sewn into that history and culture, the hoax and the lie are almost impossible to separate from the truth. They become part of our fabric. In Bunk, Young might just have written the most important book this year. Sadly, his book suggests that we might make the same statement for 2018—and the next year, and the next.
“Private letter to you,” wrote Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish on December 1, 1929. Two months earlier, he’d followed the success of The Sun Also Rises with his breakout, bestselling work, A Farewell to Arms. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, James Aswell wrote that upon finishing the book, he is “still a bit breathless, as people often are after a major event in their lives. If before I die I have three more literary experiences as sharp and exciting and terrible as the one I have just been through, I shall know it has been a good world.” But Hemingway was a writer, and writers work. We toil, we dream, we fail, we hope. He was living in Paris with his wife, Pauline, their two children, and Hemingway’s younger sister, Madelaine. His father, Dr. Clarence E. Hemingway, had committed suicide a year earlier, and Hemingway had established a trust fund for his mother and his younger siblings. MacLeish had just been hired as an editor of the recently debuted magazine Fortune, and Hemingway wanted to talk money. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1929-1931 are the fourth volume of his correspondence, and nearly 85 percent of them are being published for the first time. The result is a windfall for Hemingway fans, but also for those trying to understand the daily working life of a major writer—about whom biographer Michael S. Reynolds notes “His contemplative and his active life are jammed together so tightly that only minutes separate them.” Editors Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel are comprehensive and meticulous in their approach—the book is peppered with contextual footnotes that moor the letters—and the result is real insight into a stubborn, driven, accomplished writer. Although the letters document his life as an outdoorsman, as well as his fracturing friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the correspondence best illuminates his life as a writer. “You know how I hate to pull money terms etc. with you,” writes Hemingway to MacLeish, before promptly talking about money. He quotes offers from Collier’s Weekly—$750 for 1000-1200 word stories—so he wants at least $2000 for the long article on the economics of bullfighting in Spain. “I would write it for you for nothing,” he promises, but knows “I have to keep the price up because thats how they judge you.” Hemingway’s article would be published the following year as “Bullfighting, Sport and Industry,” and would later become part of his first bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon. A Farewell to Arms would soon be translated into French and German, and become a Broadway play. Hemingway also sold the film rights, although he hated the film version, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The business of being a writer is a business, and Hemingway’s letters demonstrate that even the most celebrated writers encounter countless setbacks. Writing is a struggle. Publishing is a struggle. It is fine to accept that. Writing is wonderful, it is cathartic, it is frustrating. The pulse of writing is paradox. Poets know this in their lines; freelancers know this when they sit down to pitch. Hemingway’s letters allow us to follow that trail of failures and successes, and how a writer’s life off the page affects their words. In a 1931 letter to Dr. Don Carlos Guffey, a fervent collector of Hemingway’s books who would deliver Hemingway’s son Gregory later that year, Hemingway sounds rushed, nervous, and afraid. He will soon be off to Spain, and has a request of the doctor: “In case anything should happen to me—in the bull ring or any other dumb way—I have told Pauline where to find the copy of the 3 Stories and 10 poems that it is to go to you—Do not expect any disasters nor have any premonitions but have had so many accidents lately that should take that step to protect your interests.” Hemingway laments the paltry money he’d made from In Our Time, and how he couldn’t sell a single story from the collection to a magazine. His final words in the letter about the writing life were true in 1931, and will be true for eternity: “It is a strange business.”
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in November. Saudade by Traci Brimhall Gorgeous and searing, Brimhall’s poems are rooted in the marriage of myth, mysticism, and mystery. Collected with the breadth and power of a novel, but delivered in discrete scenes and dreams, Saudade is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara,” a litany of transformations come from the touch of a shrunken hand. A barren woman gives birth. Crops flourish. The narrator knows the hand’s secrets, and is silent at first: “The town / had waited so long for a miracle, and it was finally // here, enriching the poor, emboldening the meek, / carving acrostic mysteries into the trees.” Salvation soon turns sour, though, and death comes to the town, leading to a public ritual of cleansing that ends with “Startled pigeons roosting on the church / roof took flight when they heard the clapping.” In God-soaked Brazil, Brimhall’s characters can’t help but dance with darkness: “A sinner needs her sin, and mine is beloved.” There’s a causality, a profluence to these poems created by her lyricism, and her swift pivots. When we return to Puraquequara, a camera crew films a telenovela based on the miracles, and the narrator speaks: “An extra in my own story and envious of the ingenue’s unmuddied / shoes and air-conditioned hotel room, I say, Ajudar, ajudar, // and cry on cue.” Dreams bleach reality: “the mayor hangs himself and bequeaths / his second-best bed to his horse, I write romantic obituaries / and send his wife signed photographs of myself.” Disturbing, and masterfully done, Saudade will take you somewhere else, a place you know is true: “I hate to spoil it, / but the end of every biography is death.” Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang Speaking of her previous collection, The Boss, Chang said she wanted her poems “to propel themselves through language”—an equally accurate description of Barbie Chang, her latest book. Chang entrances with wordplay, but the dance never feels hollow: this is performance with poetic soul. There are two strands to her book that sustain each other: a woman both desiring and rejecting the urge to become part of a suburban community, and the woman’s life with her parents. Barbie sees “beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them they have // something to say doves come out of / their mouths that // explode splinters in the sky.” In Chang’s talented turns, mere phrases become fantasy. She’s mastered the art of recursive language, and Barbie Chang—woman, idea, performance—feels incantational as the book progresses. The Circle returns often: villainous, perfect in their plasticity. They are drunk at a school auction, “tossing coins in baskets.” The whole scene a mess, but Barbie “owed it to // her children to make friends to blend / into the dead end.” Background becomes foreground, as Barbie’s father is sick, and Chang’s eschewed punctuation begins to feel like halted breaths. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted litany of linked poems in the middle of the book, evidence how quickly and precisely Chang can turn from comic to comforting to transcendent: “how in one / moment your hands collide as in clapping / how in some other moment they will rise / over my encased body touch in prayer.” I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan Duan’s talents are many, but she’s an especially powerful poet of scene. The collection begins with her title poem, searing in action: “Father’s chopsticks crashed. He threw them.” Angered, “Father could not believe he had raised such a daughter.” He “coughed a mouthful of rice”; he was “extraordinary and old and Chinese.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s mother “does not own a / Laundromat or / a take-out restaurant.” She “is not / from your country, / and I am not / ashamed. // I slip my hands through her wise hair, // and keep.” Duan moves between affirmations of self and the inevitable struggle of difference; “my tongue // my hardest muscle // forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.” Duan sketches these strained emotions with care and courage. This is a book of prejudice and expectations, and how they hurt in various ways. In “When All You Want,” the young narrator is at the piano. Above her, “Mrs. Liu with her / handsome mouth.” Mom watches “anxiously from the window.” A boy plays a violin in the next room. Duan turns back to Mrs. Liu, and the candies in her mouth: “clack, suck, clack, / again—here go all the noises you love.” I Wore Blackest Hair is a storm of senses, a chronicle of strained identity and a stance of power: “don’t mistake / me for a soft woman, / a shy mouth— / I can lash like the / hot, hot rain.” Riddles, Etc. by Geoffrey Hilsabeck There’s a magic at work in these often tight, but never cinctured, poems. In “Remaking the Music Box,” the narrator has advice for us: “First unhurt the accidents. / Plant yourself in what remains.” After all, “No sadness just disaster / no meanness just thrift.” These poems often drift back to youth, when the narrator, “light and white as a candle,” still felt “my childhood pooling like wax at my feet.” Appropriate to the title, the collection contains 17 riddles, their answers revealed on the final page, but well-worth the poetic game of waiting. It’s a playful interlude that gives Hilsabeck’s collection an endearing bit of freedom: we can find the answers to our questions, or we might accept that in poetry, as says W.H. Auden, “you do not call a spade a spade.” Sometime it is enough pleasure to let our poets leave trails of language without firm destinations. Thousands by Lightsey Darst Imagine discovering someone’s notebook, the pages covered margin-to-margin with desire, anxiety, and fear, all wound together through association. Thousands is a raw collection, where each poem bleeds into the next, as if we are reading one long threnody. The effect, admittedly, is sometimes dizzying, and readers will want to devote time to this book, but the work is returned with gifts. Darst offers thanks to Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks here, but blazes her own trail with poem-stories that begin in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2011 and end in Durham, N.C., after 2014. The tension of a timeline opens so many themes: “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” “How do you deal with the casual atrocity of the world?” Darst's poems are running monologues of wonder and worry; in one way, they are a document of a poet’s struggle to give suffering context. “Do you keep a journal / why / why not // Keep one now / keep me in it”: Darst’s intimacy here is masterful: whether it is love, lust, pregnancy, or words: “The poem I can’t write persists.” Helium by Rudy Francisco “When you choose to be a poet // You become a place that people walk through / and then leave when they are ready.” The arrowed exhales of Francisco’s spoken word poems translate well to this debut. Lines flow with the rhythm of conversation, winding toward clever conclusions. True poems like “Mess” abound: “On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore / You called for me.” Then, “I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass. / I hugged your shatter,” but “When it was over, you looked at the stains on the carpet / And blamed me for making a mess.” Maybe we can get people to chant the refrains from poems like “Chameleon”: “And we often forget that sexism is a family heirloom // that we’ve been passing down for generations / As men, it is important that we start asking ourselves // What will the boys learn from us?” Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung “Whatever one witnessed in battle became a silence carried within.” This anthology begins with a haunting foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a consideration of race, Southern identity, and family tradition—one that destined him for military service. A Vietnam veteran himself, Komunyakaa explains that soldiers carry home “echoes of our war...we carry with us the pathos, and our loved ones often inherit the caustic baggage.” Subtitled Poetry & Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, the anthology captures grief and guilt in turns, and its mixture of poetry and prose channels the range of emotions and expressions. In “The Lost Pilot,” a prefatory poem that sets the tone for the book, James Tate elegizes his father: “your face did not rot / like the others—it grew dark, / and hard like ebony.” This is a book about fathers, and rightly so, as Laren McClung notes: “the father is always a source of myth, but the father who has seen war, who has performed the complex work of violence, heroism, or survival, is in many ways inaccessible, a mystery to us.” Inheriting the War mines that mysterious space, how we pursue the soul of those we love who are torn by war, and how those wounds weather our own hands and hearts. We should consider the metaphors and myths, but there is more to encounter here: as poet Brian Ma considers, as a re-outfitted military plane carries him to his parents’ home of Vietnam: “as usual the boundaries are hard to discern. / The guilt is like a fog; in the fog there are people.” Earthling by James Longenbach “One of life’s greatest pleasures, / If I’m allowed the phrase, / Is packing a suitcase. // It’s not like building a fire, / When you want to leave space for air.” Longenbach’s poems occupy a strange yet perceptive place between the real and the unreal. I hesitate to call his verse surreal, because I associate that word with distortion; Longenbach gives his readers a route to follow, and its turns are precise. Poems like “The Dishwasher” drift on a wave of melancholy. A soft song on a Chevette’s radio becomes a hymn to search: “I wanted to hear it again. / I drove to the supermarket, then drove home.” We move to find where we’ve been, like when that character hears his mother’s voice, asking him a question that goes unanswered: “What kind of coffee do you like?” Poets will appreciate works like “Preface to an Unwritten Book,” in which the narrator knows he is supposed to be writing, “But you should realize I’d much rather spend my time / Reading or, since it’s the end / Of summer, sitting. / Our truest impulses are so immature.” There’s a quietude to Longenbach’s lines that is calming, and then there are long poems like “Climate of Reason” that shock me awake and breathless, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “In the middle of the desert / You might be anyone, / Except you’re never in the middle, / You’re at the edge.”
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in October. For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel Pimentel renders passion through crisp, cutting lines. In “The Kiss,” “I’m mad for gravity though / I’m bound, diagonally, to / you.” And: “Leave me // to wither while moss weeps / in the corners, our halo liquid / as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat / our divinity melting.” Later, in “Late September, When the Heat Releases”: “A sage brush flowers, / and all night long, your skin rippled, softening // through gaped window, the cathedral long / with bells.” For Want of Water is a hot book: life in the desert, desire laid bare. “We are learning how to lie down quietly / each afternoon, to let // whimpers fall over us, through / the air, and through // our skin, to forget our wet mouths, their hungry gestures.” A great book doesn’t need two narratives, but there’s a parallel current of pain in this book. “The wives in Juárez are used / to slumping their bellies to their knees.” This grief is thick: “The violins in our home are emptied / of sound, strings stilled, missing / fingers.” Love and struggle, lust and pain, all here under the same poetic roof. Good Bones by Maggie Smith Come for Smith’s viral title poem, but stay for her range as she builds a notable collection, one suffused with grace, and—dare I say it—hope. Poems like “First Fall” make her narrators feel like careful guides, each line a gesture, a lesson: “The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back. I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” This book is full of wonders. Of sky: “As you move through it, you make a tunnel / in the precise size and shape of your body.” Of the past: “The chairs are empty. The children / are unwrapping golden butterscotches / in the cool, shuttered houses.” Of the wisdom that comes from grief: “Where do you carry your dead? . . . what cut shape is made / whole by opening? I mean besides the heart.” Good Bones breathes mystical, pastoral wind, while also hitting notes of longing. The world has to be falling apart—it has to be a place where the narrator might ask “Where is your voice now...What has the land done to your tongue?”—in order for us and our words to lift it back up. Civil Twilight by Jeffrey Schultz “The calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us, / Happen, somehow, beyond us, without us, out in a world as wide / As it is unimaginable.” Civil Twilight is a surreal trip of a book. Schultz describes our world, but does so in a murky, tired tone—as if we have stumbled out of a daze to finally see the light. I felt somewhere in the range of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in these pages, my senses both bombarded and soothed: “We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh / And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences // Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color, / Earth toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism.” The State has exploded into some nearly apocalyptic organism, and Schultz is like some haggard oracle—spent and disgusted with violence and obfuscation, turning to language—there to document the fall: “called here to gather / In memory of what by the end of this will have already been forgotten.” Who Reads Poetry edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share Poetry is most often defended by poets, so this anthology is a welcome addition to the chorus from outside voices. From Neko Case to Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert to Roxane Gay, we hear spirited confessions of those converted to poetry. Ebert recalls his Catholic school assignment to memorize a poem. He never forgot William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., the fifty-sixth superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, sees poetry as an essential tool for communication “because it describes reality with force and concision” and “confronts cadets with new ideas that challenge their worldview.” Jia Tolentino is not a poet, and never talks about the form with others: “that, in the end, is what made me free” to observe, experience, and realize “I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end.” Poetry is malleable and moving; a form that will never tire of importance. Who Reads Poetry is an invaluable testament to a simple truth: we all read poetry, in our ways. As Aleksandar Hemon says, poetry helps us understand “what it meant to live.” Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burt Advice from the Lights is buoyed by two themes: the imagination of youth, and the search for body: its shape, outline, expectations. “If I can’t be weightless,” Burt writes, “or glide among twigs, or sate / myself on dew, then let / my verses live that way.” We begin in 1979, when “I could have trusted my instincts if I had any,” when “I had become convinced / that character was fate.” A year when “My bedtime and I were both eight.” Soon Stephanie arrives in the collection, a second self whose first poem ends in a question, whose other appearances infuse poems with the anxiety of identity: “Because I can’t ever appear / as I would like to appear, / I once tried to make it so you couldn’t see me at all.” Yet there is young hope, as in “Fifth Grade Time Capsule”: “I dream of the day / when I am decoded and vaunted.” Burt’s year-by-year cataloging gives Advice from the Lights an immediacy within its nostalgia, a compelling ars poetica of self. Madness by Sam Sax “I'd say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you:” Sam Sax's advice for writers applies to Madness, a book saturated with misdiagnoses, anxieties, fears, and the paradoxes of bodily desire. In “#hypochondria,” the narrator writes “if i lived two hundred years ago // i’d have been bled nightly, / i’d have slept at the foot of a holy man’s bed / i’d have lapped up his snake waters.” Sax’s book feels like a funhouse of debunked treatments, a suffering mind’s headlong dive into nightmare. In “Willowbrook,” the narrator’s father worked at an asylum: “something funny happens / when a person becomes a patient / the name changes & everything / that follows is bandages.” This book winds its way in and out of these institutions, their corridors and their darkest rooms. Madness wonders: “what does it mean to be descendant / of something monstrous? / to still love the monster?” Can we ever escape unscathed? Devotions: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver Oliver’s religious sense has been considered before, but this volume is quite clearly curated and presented—from the title on to the selections—as a work of (Gerard Manley) Hopkinsesque devotion. It might seem like a small gesture of design, but as a hardcover, Oliver’s play with white space feels almost spiritual. It is affirming that a poet so widely read as Oliver feels new with this work. The selections are ordered from most recent, Felicity, on to No Voyage and Other Poems from the early 1960s. Among those earlier poems, there is the gentle yet ultimately firm “The Swimming Lesson,” where “the endless waves / Reaching around my life” force the speaker to swim. Or even better, to learn “How to put off, one by one, / Dreams and pity, love and grace,— / How to survive in any place.” My favorite is “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”: “Once, in summer, / in the blueberries, / I fell asleep, and woke / when a deer stumbled against me.” She takes us, almost effortlessly, somewhere else. Oliver’s selected is the type of book to leave out on a table and hope somebody—perhaps those not yet converted to verse—will page through and find, inevitably, a voice they’ve been looking to find. Small Gods by Matthew Minicucci Minicucci offers readers a gentle slant on the observed world. In “Wedding,” the “tabernacle / door slides closed like some gilded / impossible hotel.” I linger on that image and drift to the opposing page, where, in “Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians,” “On resurrection: to the dead, the living seem so pointlessly busy.” Like his fine debut chapbook, Reliquary, Minicucci’s new book is suffused with religious nostalgia, a wonder welded to the culture of a Catholic sense, but distant from firm belief. The tension gives structure to the book. We read epistles. We hear of Aquinas. We see a poet clothe description with ancient cadence: “Aperture and embouchure of the living word. Speak, friends, if your mouths have tongues.” This lifts the language; gives Small Gods the song of myth. Tucked between the book’s mystical bookends are mathematical and astronomical works; it’s as if the poet is trying to find worthy forms, or trying to make his voice worthy of forms. There are no easy answers here, but the scars are reminders of struggle: “Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. But blessed more are those who must accept the silvered hangnail of this proof when pressed deep within the cavities of their own flesh.” Words can’t do the ineffable justice. Maybe “salvation is a missive I read backwards.”
Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”
In the climactic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—soon to be re-released on its 40th anniversary—a massive UFO lands at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming. Scientists watch in awe as long-missing pilots from the infamous Flight 19 exit the mothership. A grey-haired, goateed man in a blue suit walks forward between the rapt congregation. He lifts a hand to his face, as if to pause on his chin, but then puts a pipe in his mouth. That scientist was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the man responsible for the film’s namesake classification system. Hynek’s cinematic cameo only lasted six seconds, but his spirit infects the entire film. A new biography reveals how Hynek’s life and legend exemplify a lost era. UFO sightings still make the news, but Hynek was something different: a public intellectual who told us to watch the skies. Steven Spielberg explained he “was very influenced by Hynek because he was not looking at UFOs as science fiction, but looking at them as science speculation.” In The Close Encounters Man, Mark O’Connell notes that Spielberg’s friend suggested the title to the director after reading Hynek’s book The UFO Experience. Upon learning of the film’s production, Hynek wrote a curt letter to Spielberg, quipping “Although I am pleased that this recognition is being given to my terminology, I would really have liked to have been informed of this rather than read about it in a national magazine!” Spielberg apologized, made his creative team read Hynek’s book, and even hired the Northwestern University astronomer as a technical adviser. He could not have made a better choice. Hynek truly embodied the “contradictory nature of scientific inquiry and investigation in the twentieth century, with its simultaneous dependence on and rejection of imagination and wonder.” Hynek had earned his doctorate in astrophysics at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, and began teaching at Ohio State University in 1936. His first government work was during World War II, when he was the reports editor for development of the top-secret proximity fuze at Johns Hopkins. His contributions were brief, but as McConnell demonstrates, cultural history is often the result of unlikely coincidence. Several years later, when an Air National Guard pilot named Capt. Thomas Mantell tragically died while chasing a “metallic” object “of tremendous size,” the Army Air Force tried to claim that he’d crashed his P-51 “while mistakenly pursuing Venus.” The Air Material Command’s newly formed flying saucer unit, Project Sign, needed a scientist to validate their prosaic conclusion, but “where in Central Ohio could the air force find a professional astronomer who already held a high security clearance and could go right to work with a minimum of red tape?” Hynek accepted the position, and saw Project Sign as a “golden opportunity to demonstrate to the public how the scientific method works, how the application of the impersonal and unbiased logic of the scientific method could be used to show that flying saucers were figments of the imagination.” For the most part, Hynek toed the party line and pleased his bosses, casting away sightings with mundane explanations. He was responsible for “astronomical assessments” of select cases, and played no part in the infamous “Estimate of the Situation,” a 1948 internal Project Sign report that concluded UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin. The report was rejected by top brass, and led to a less open-minded military take on UFOs. Project Sign was replaced with the appropriately named Project Grudge: “Articles placed in popular magazines portrayed flying saucer sighting reports as pranks, mistakes, and delusions, and reassured the public that there was nothing to fear.” Meanwhile, Hynek was back in the classroom, and “used his UFO work as a teaching tool of sorts.” In 1952, after a flurry of sightings that included radar-tracked objects over Washington D.C., UFOs became news again. Civilian research groups were being formed across the country. The CIA formed the Robertson Panel, a short-lived investigation that concluded UFOs did not pose a national security threat but, as McConnell writes, “public interest in UFOs—and the public’s growing tendency to report UFO sightings—was of grave concern.” Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official investigation into UFOs, was then formed largely as a public relations front, a misdirection. The Air Force didn’t have to work too hard; these were the years of the Contactee movement—people who claimed they had been invited on spaceships and given secret knowledge about the galaxy. Pulpy UFO books and “alien invasion movies had taken the country by storm.” Time and Life magazines were speculating about other worlds. UFOs were silly entertainment. Hynek “chafed at the miserable circumstance of having to serve a disagreeable master in order to gain access” to the Project Blue Book files. He had to be a public skeptic—see his logic-twisting designation of a Michigan sighting as “swamp gas”—but in private, his views were evolving. After thousands of sightings yielded a fair number of authentically “unknown” cases, Hynek was convinced of two things: UFOs were misunderstood by the scientific community and the public, and they were worthy of serious research. The government had other ideas. The 1968 Condon Report concluded that the Air Force “should terminate Project Blue Book and get out of the UFO business for good.” Hynek was disappointed, but as part of the system, knew such a conclusion was inevitable. In the years that followed, Hynek continued researching on his own, leading to the classification system that so inspired Spielberg. Hynek is a deserving subject, but O’Connell’s book also is notable as a methodical history of the UFO phenomena in America—a story so often overshadowed by the Roswell incident. (It is worth mentioning that Roswell was not even on Spielberg’s radar; even though the incident occurred in the summer of 1947, researchers showed little interest in the alleged crash until 1978). McConnell’s a great storyteller, and that’s what needed in a history of American ufology: someone to connect the dots into a narrative. McConnell reveals how, even in the days of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Percival Lowell’s speculations about intelligent life on Mars, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between science fiction and science fact in the world of UFOs. What Close Encounters of the Third Kind and events like Roswell offer are narratives, stories to help tether the often disparate, mysterious world of UFOs to lived reality. Spielberg’s film doesn’t quite feel dated, but does feel like it came from a more optimistic time. In one of the first scenes, young Barry Guiler awakens in the middle of the night. His toys are spinning and marching, animated by some mysterious force. He goes downstairs. Punctured Coca Cola cans drip on eggs, lettuce and meat strewn across the kitchen floor. In Spielberg’s vision, UFOs and their occupants are more mischievous than nefarious. Like us, they are curious. During the Condon study, Hynek traveled to Colorado with his colleague Jacques Vallée, the esteemed French astronomer and ufologist. They were talking about what got them interested in science, and Hynek’s confession was telling: “So many people get into science looking for power, or for a chance to make some big discovery that will put their name into history books...For me the challenge was to find out the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.” Like a great scientist should be, Hynek was in awe of the world—of all things seen, and unseen.
Aristotle, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, John Keats, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Pinsky. Poetry has had its fair share of apologists. In Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art, Jeannine Johnson documents a tradition of poetic apology, but notes two important shifts. Shelley “contends with a charge that poetry has become culturally obsolete,” and Matthew Arnold “links the activity of defending poetry with that of defending literary criticism.” Johnson explains that “poets in modern poetic defenses converse with their own anxieties.” In poetry, as in other elements of life, it is more dramatic to have a villain than a friend. Poetry is not the only genre that requires resident apologists—you won’t have to wait long for the next article announcing that the novel is dead—but poetry's form and function inherently require defense. Simply put, prose is our default mode. Poetry is a process of selection, of white space and rhythm. If prose is prayer, poetry is hymn. In my own teaching experience, poetry is best sold to students as one of two extremes. There is the utilitarian mode, in which poetry is weight-training for prose (the syntactic and verbal difficulties of poetry make even layered prose seem conquerable; it is easier to read William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison after first reading Countee Cullen). Then there is the dream-like approach, where poetry is a surreal escape from everyday life—a realm where rules defer to feelings. Both extremes, of course, are exaggerations. But hyperbole has a useful home in the classroom. I love poetry, and I want others to love poetry—or at least listen, for a long moment, to words made with care. I suspect that my job might become a little easier after Why Poetry, the new book by Matthew Zapruder, who recently finished his yearlong tenure selecting poetry for The New York Times. For his final poem, Zapruder selected “The Afterlife” by James Tate, a poem that reminds me of W. Somerset Maugham’s version of “The Appointment in Samarra.” “A man fell out of the tree in our backyard. I ran over / to help him,” it begins, those odd but plain lines following the heavy title. A conversation follows, the dialogue running across lines, with tags peppering the poem—another prosaic stake into this whimsical ground. I shouldn’t spoil the end; channeling Zapruder, I think poetry is better experienced than explained. While Zapruder’s book enters an established canon, he isn’t interested in throwing scholarly elbows. He writes with clear and inviting prose. His tone is careful, but direct. Early in the book he laments that the “act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetuate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place.” Poetry shouldn’t be difficult. Now, that might sound easy for as talented a poet and teacher as Zapruder to say, but he reminds us we each have particular weapons. “We are all experts in words,” he promises us—well-versed in our own ways. And in a pleasant quirk of the book I love, he sends us to dictionaries (how we have lost that communion of searching, skimming, reading, learning, and returning to a text with understanding!). “The better the poem,” Zapruder asserts, “the harder it is to talk about it.” Zapruder’s book avoids the eschatological tone that mars other pronouncements about poetry. He doesn’t think poetry is in danger, and “Probably even robots will write it, just as soon as they get souls.” But for someone like Zapruder, we don’t need sickness for attention. Why Poetry is part-inspiration, part-guidebook, and part literary memoir. We learn his hesitance toward poetry in high school, how he fell for the work of W.H. Auden without fully understanding it. Rather, he offers, we are naturally inclined toward verse: “the energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the language that we recognize and know.” Zapruder walks us through how select poems develop, rather than “what” they mean. Poems remind us of the “miraculous, tenuous ability of language to connect us to each other and the world around us.” He excerpts a speech from Pope Francis to demonstrate how “To live morally, to avoid self-delusion and even monstrosity, we have to think about what we are saying, and to avoid euphemism and cliché.” Poems help us be honest; poems help us be true. They are like whispers of faith, “that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.” Zapruder’s spiritual undercurrent raises Why Poetry into something rare: the cogent and lively argument that poetry truly matters, fueled by passion rather than pretense.
“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters. Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal. Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren. If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books. Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth. What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” I can’t stand him. This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut. Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin. Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth. Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others. Who would be your literary torturers in Hell? Image Credit: Pixabay.
August is an especially strong month for debuts, and includes the collected poems of an essential American voice. Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim Benaim’s debut is charged and honest, but the reader is eased into this journey through a direct invitation voiced on the first pages. True to the title, this is a book about depression, and about the occasional magic tricks that spur us against anxiety. “explaining my depression to my mother a conversation” is masterful, the type of poem I wish could reach so many teenage ears. “mom, / my depression is a shape shifter”—the narrator struggles to distill her world, but her mother’s interrogations are skeptical and curt. Benaim captures the complexity of depression, how “insomnia sweeps me up into its arms, / dips me in the kitchen by the small glow of stove light.” She tries going on walks at night, but her “stuttering kneecaps clank like silver spoons” and “ring in my ears like clumsy church bells, / reminding me i am sleepwalking on an ocean of happiness / i cannot baptize myself in.” So many of these poems made me pause on the page, with quotable lines aplenty: “when my father tells me i am beautiful, / i always hope it’s because i remind him of my mother” and “i don’t know how to connect in a world like this; / in times like these, / where i can’t even speak about myself in first person.” This is a book to share, a poetic window into someone “standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice.” Rummage by Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa A powerful debut, structured around four themes: shame, identity, physicality, and spirituality. “Kwansaba For My Mother” is a seven-line wonder, the type of poem to read again and again to reflect on its weight. A woman’s body “tenses at his / cold touch under her Easter dress, lace / stained by trusted hands.” But this is a praise poem, and a daughter is praising the resolve of her mother, wounded by the past. In “Portrait of Memory With Night Terror,” another poem of shame, a family drives to a carnival “three counties over.” The children want to go on rides, “to slick their fingers with sugar and grease,” but the adults “hadn’t come for fun. / We needed them to feel at home among the grotesque.” They bring the children to the sideshow, teaching them that the mere action of perception often results in objectification. I also think of lines later in the book, when the narrator says she remembers “how good the glint of the strange can be // when you stumble / toward it.” In Rummage, there’s a constant movement closer, as in the palpable “How Not to Itch:” “You have learned how slow // the pulse of grief beats.” Just when I felt settled into the tangible, Oputa turns to the spiritual. I loved “The Prophet Wants to Atone,” which begins “Ask me what it’s like to be a world / always in need of rescue.” What truth. Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow The heart of Dubrow’s poems originate from an autobiographical truth: her husband is a career Navy officer, so much of their marriage exists at a distance. While that subject is apt for personal narrative, Dubrow taps into a general feeling of longing that makes her poems feel in the tradition of works about lovers separated by war. Dots & Dashes is a nuanced take on patriotism and service, and the anxiety created by distance. In “Old Glory,” the narrator watches as a neighbor’s flag “jittered in the rain” during the night. The narrator knows a flag “shouldn’t be torn or crumpled;” although she sees the neighbor “drop it, / leave a mudprint on the corner,” she says nothing, leaving “the stars unthreaded / on his patriotic lawn.” Inert and silent, the narrator of “Old Glory” helps the reader understand the unique anxieties of milspouses, who can feel inert while their other halves travel. Dubrow evens-out those emotions with moving love poems like “The Long Deployment” (“I breathe his body in the sheet / until he starts to fade, made incomplete.”) and “Liberty” (“I believed / in the seam our bodies made, / but when in the morning he put on / his uniform, it was what I’d sewn / myself that held, miraculous, / our warmth.”). Despite the pain in many lines of this collection, there’s a genuine thread of inspiring hope for reunion. So Where Are We? by Lawrence Joseph Joseph’s poems are necessary, immediate, somehow absolutely now and eerily ancient. Themes of his previous collections—Lebanese and Syrian Catholic faith and culture, the memory of Detroit, life in New York City—are resurrected here, but this new book feels like a stake in the ground. The interrogation of the title is whispered throughout as a fear. Maybe we are in a moment unlike any others? If so, Joseph has the care and reach to document our present. Poems like “And for the Record” are tight and heavy, capturing surreal moments—a man babbling in the street—that contain unfortunate truths. After all, “the mind, / like the night, has a thousand eyes.” Joseph documents the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, how the “flow of data // since the attacks has surged. / Technocapital, permanently, digitally, // semioticized, virtually unlimited / in freedom and power, taking // billions of bodies on the planet / with it.” It is not paranoid to feel that something is happening. There is “Too much consciousness / of too much at once, a tangle of tenses / and parallel thoughts.” Harried and brutal, we’ve reached “the point at which / violence becomes ontology.” Joseph is the kind of poet who helps us parse the prophecies from the noise. Testify by Simone John Whenever I see the word “testify,” I think of a scene from James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain when the congregation joins Brother Elisha on the church floor: “the tarry service moved from its first stage of steady murmuring, broken by moans and now again an isolated cry, into that stage of tears and groaning, of calling aloud and singing.” John’s method in this notable debut is incantational. She mixes court transcripts and dashboard recordings with prose poems and personal narratives to create poetic testament. The book is a memorial to Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, to black transwomen and more lives taken early (in “Back Seats,” John writes “We know we age in dog years” and “We savor our youth knowing / midlife ended in middle school.”). This is a book of anger and lament, as in the searing “Trayvon,” how the narrator says she saw her own brother “Fall prey to baited / traps. Some boys can overcome, / but that requires // the luxury of / time.” In Testify, there is not much time. Poems like “Mourning Rites (Or: How We Bury Our Sons)” are acknowledgments that we’ve heard these threnodies before, and they continue to wound as they accumulate. “When the sound of Jays on concrete / makes a sob crawl up your throat, finger // the nylon like prayer beads.” John’s book offers poetry as solace, knowing it is only a temporary salve for the pain. “Eventually you’ll develop / an inner compass to navigate / this path,” one narrator says to her son. “I am laying the groundwork / to keep you alive long enough to get there.” A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang In a concluding note to this volume, Bang writes “These poems are not about her but were written by someone who knew of her.” She is referring to Lucia Moholy, a Czech-born photographer whose work was infamously used without attribution (Bang notes this was done to raise the prestige of the Bauhaus school). While A Doll for Throwing is certainly not meant to be autobiographical, there is the spirit of a photographer throughout. Many of these prose poems are dream-like, philosophical takes that require time and reflection (this is a collection to move through slowly). It is a book about creation, art, and distance, and begins with “A Model of a Machine,” and lines out of an ars poetica: “In the blank space between the following day and the previous night, you see the beauty of a propeller, for instance, and think, yes, I want that silver metal to mean something more than just flight.” These poems reach that ambiguous space. I returned to “Two Nudes,” a tight example of Bang’s style. The narrator escapes work by going on a walk with a friend. The poem seems like it will be a casual jaunt through a day, but by the end of the second sentence, she’s married. Her poems splice time—“Every day was a twenty-four-hour standstill on a bridge from which we discretely looked into the distance, hoping to catch sight of the future”—as easily as they split identity. “I constructed a second self,” she writes. “I photographed myself as if I were a building.” With those second selves, those photographic negatives, Bang can make her narrators find the surreal moments from their pasts that ring curiously true: “The cheek waits to be kissed by air as it was once kissed by the dark-haired boy in the boathouse whose late-night lesson was that the distance between what had been described and what was now happening was immeasurable.” In that distance lies poetry. Half-Light (Collected) by Frank Bidart A massive book that covers 50 years of words, Bidart’s collected contains enough routes and themes to produce years of reading. His style—capitalized words, italics, shifting speakers, personae, autobiography—result in a modern mythmaker who channels the old masters. A poet finely attuned to the contours of sensuality, he can simultaneously be spare and weighty, as in “In the Western Night:” “Two cigarette butts— / left by you // the first time you visited my apartment. / The next day // I found them, they were still there— // picking one up, I put my lips where / yours had been.” Bidart's Catholicism has always been central and generative to the tension in his poems. He's said “something very fundamental to the Catholicism that at least I grew up in was the notion that there is a kind of war between the mind and the body, between the spirit and the body…there is tremendous disparity between the demands of the spirit and the demands of the body, between what the body can offer the spirit and what the spirit wants or needs.” Art “is the closest thing I have found to God. Art is the way I have survived. It has deflected the hunger for the absolute.” Art has been a way of crafting his own sense of a soul, as in “Queer:” “For each gay kid whose adolescence // was America in the forties or fifties / the primary, the crucial // scenario // forever is coming out— / or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” Perhaps what allows Bidart to so fully, and sometimes so shockingly inhabit the lives of others through dramatic monologues is that longing for the absolute in a world with incorrect guideposts: “A journey you still most travel, for / which you have no language // since you no longer believe it exists.”
Poetry forces us to slow down, sit, and pay attention. Poets make us work, and we should be thankful for that; language is resurrected when it’s spun and stretched and smoothed. 2017 is a banner year for poetry: debuts, new takes by established authors, and collections that span careers. In this monthly column, I’ll profile new titles that are worth your time. Stories of transfigurations and conflagrations. Poets affirming their existence on the page. Poetry that cuts through the daily noise and does justice to words. Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in July. Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez Sánchez’s debut collection begins with “Quinceañera,” a poem about desire born when “Summer boredom flutters its / sticky wings.” Cooking wine is guzzled. Old whiskey is downed. “In the warmth of your bedroom,” the narrator pierces her navel with a safety pin, and tumbles backward in time as her skin remains pressed against the present. Out “in the murky dance clubs,” music “vibrating / your face and skull,” there is a pain that “suckles you,” and “Everywhere, / you hold its lumpy head to your breast like a saint.” I put a lot of worth on a poet’s opening salvo, and Sánchez sets her heels into the dirt. Her lines pop and pivot, from sex to God (and divine absence), to immigration and identity. I keep going back to the elegiac “Amá” (“I know you think only white people leave / their families. / I undid my braids too early, I know.”) and a searing thunder of a poem, “Baptism,” whose final lines cut: “Watch me dance / on borders in this dirty dress, / until my wig catches fire.” This is a collection that outlasts its final page, that feeds us endless questions to ponder, that makes us want more: “Amá, I leave because / I feel like an unfinished / poem, because I’m always trying / to bridge the difference.” Some Say by Maureen N. McLane In McLane's poetic-memoir, My Poets, she's written about how listening to recordings of poets transforms their works: "recordings offer a great way to refocus one's attention on the poem." McLane's columnar, phrase-long lines in Some Say made me want to read them aloud. I find that white-paged poems, lines short and margins wide, really help coax the language alive because there’s nowhere to hide (as in prose). “If I say abstract,” she writes, “I don’t mean ideal. / I mean real.” Yes. McLane’s poems often wander into nature, but they always turn back to language, our terribly insufficient but tonally beautiful attempts at naming, placing, cataloging, and feeling the world. She’s also hilarious, as in “Tips for Survival,” which include: “Don’t date flyboys. / Carry blister tape” and “Accept no gift / unless you want that relationship.” My favorite poem here is “Yo,” which bends language without breaking it: “Talking to birches / I am an idiot // & I know you get it / reader—no idiolect // this dialect / riddled with defects // time will fix / or forget/ Whatevs.” All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned by Erica Wright I loved the strangeness of Wright's debut, Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and she’s back with her unique storytelling touch (Wright is also a crime novelist—The Granite Moth and The Red Chameleon—and burns a profluent path through her poems). There’s humor in the face of apocalypse, too: “Quirks of survival leave us roaches / but not pterodactyls. So much for majesty.” In “Spontaneous Human Combustion,” there’s a sense of unknowing: “Someone was here, and now he’s not.” Appropriate to the book’s title, many of these narrators tell strange tales, shrug their shoulders, and move on—but the readers are left transfixed. Take the sublime “American Ghosts:” “These see-throughs want to shake your hand, / none of this calling out to mirrors, letting // daughters burn their locks with matches.” Their translucent forms assemble, and once “outfitted with hymnals,” they “push the light from their palms / until bells ring like rivers cracking in spring.” Although the dead “remember the weight of boots” they “prefer the company of dust.” There’s a matter-of-factness to Wright’s crisp lines, as if we are entering a weird but valid world between these covers. It is not the final poem in the collection, but I recommend doubling-back to the open atmosphere of “American Highways in Billboard Country,” and one epitaph-worthy couplet in particular: “What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?” Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi "Survive long enough / and eventually / everything becomes a revolution.” “Being Asian in America,” one of the shortest poems in Phi’s collection, reverberates outward through the book. There’s sparkling range within these poems, and the reach is fluid. In “Vocabulary,” we begin with two minimum-wage workers pushing shopping carts along the parking lot asphalt to where they rest in the corral. One winter, two workers stand “near the weak warmth of the rattling heat vent.” Like the narrator, the other man “was a nonwhite boy from a poor family.” The man missed his girlfriend, but they’d spent the previous night together, and his joy was obvious: “He said it like their love / saturated every atom of his being, / and shook him, / as if all his veins were laid bare.” The man soon became ashamed that he’d opened his heart to another, and never speaks of his emotions again. Phi might have ended the poem there, but as he does throughout Thousand Star Hotel, he takes disparate and precise moments of family, work, fatherhood, and shows their wider echo. Twenty years after that co-worker closed his heart to the narrator, he turns to the reader: “I make my living with words” but “I still can’t reach out to my friends, / especially my fellow straight boys...I find myself wanting to tell my mother and father I love them and / I just / can’t.” Such piercing laments contained in these lines. Distant Mandate by Ange Mlinko Mlinko's notes for the collection read like a dense prose-poem of poetic ancestry and influences. She writes that her title is taken from László Krasznahorkai's novel Seiobo There Below: “everything is forcing him to take part in a dream that he himself is not dreaming, and to be awake in another's dream is the most horrifying burden—but at the same time he is a favored being, as he can see something, for the sight of which there is only a distant mandate, or there isn't one at all, this cannot be known, he can see, in any event, the moment of creation of the world, of course all the while understanding nothing of it.” A recursive and accurate definition of poetry. Mlinko’s verse calls to mind W.B. Yeats's concept of “Spiritus Mundi,” a depository of souls and spirits, a place where poets’ minds drift in that space between sleeping and waking moments. Distant Mandate feels like it exists in that purgatorial setting, starting with “Cottonmouth:” “A levitating anvil. Omen of seagull / Blown inland. Ranch gate said RIVERSTYX, / but it was the woodland that looked lethal: // no place to put down your foot.” Mlinko’s poems tend to burrow into the dirt and dust while their words lift the prosaic world into abstraction. It’s a collection that demands attention and patience, but there are so many rewards, as in “The Fort:” “From the weathered boards knots pop / like the eyes of potatoes. From brick / salient not a clink of a pupil in a loop-/ hole.” Read those lines aloud, feel your tongue go. Close your eyes, and there you are in the scorched Texan land, with a poet whose ear is tuned to myth.