Must-Read Poetry: June 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in June. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes “I wanted to have my form and explode it too,” said Wanda Coleman of sonnets. Hayes names her with gratitude in this book. Athletic, punchy, sardonic, and swift, Hayes delivers his sonnets with a smirk—and also some sadness. Penned during the administration of the “failed landlord,” his poems are immediate, and though they are all titled the same as the book, they are varied. “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Our feelings and our fears bound in the box of a sonnet. “I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart. / Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.” We get the sense Hayes absolutely loves poetry, and yet: “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Poems, especially sonnets, suffocate. “My problem was I’d decided to make myself / A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly. / It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.” There’s blood in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, but Hayes reminds us: “Still, I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.” The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward A memoir in verse, powered by the strains of family separation, sexuality, and dreams. Daley-Ward grew up West Indian and West African in largely white Chorley, England—where her grandparents raised her in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. She longs for her mother’s love—“Mummy was soft. Warm-milk soft / and everything written in our paperworlds/ made hot, small sense”—but her mother needs to work nights, so she falls into a world of stern faith and high expectations. Grandma “is short and round, always cleaning the house to perfection.” Granddad “is ever so particular.” He “spends an hour deliberately washing his face and trimming his beard each night after dinner. His copper shaving kit is gleaming, his routine precious.” Their love is strict, and she wishes to be with her mother again. Daley-Ward is also beginning to be noticed for her appearance: by men, by teachers, by women. She knows from both Disney and the Song of Solomon that “beauty makes people stay...beauty makes people listen to you.” She loses control over her body, as she is photographed and judged and coveted. The Terrible unfolds as a verse drama: a feverish tale of the perils of modeling, of how our bodies get away from us. A reminder: “You may not run away from the thing that you are / because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you / breathe.” The Body Ghost by Joseph Lease “You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.” Joseph Lease’s description of his poetic technique is doubly accurate: It captures his own mode and method but also makes clear his connection to Robert Creeley. Perhaps possession is the better term, borrowing Susan Stewart’s idea of how there is a haunting of meter, rhythm, and feeling to lyric poetry that transcends the poet’s own hand. Lease’s poems, centered and evenly spaced, feel strangely eternal. There are peculiar and precise phrasings here like “the elegies / are taking off their clothes,” capturing the feeling of arising from mourning, but Lease’s most powerful poetic touch is his recursive energy. Lines and words overlap, their meaning turning as if they are a water wheel: “one story—the boy and the wren—the / wren and the night—the face in the / house—your lips slip the night—your / face slips your eyes—your eyes slip / your yes—love like flying—.” Esoteric in its essence, Lease’s poetry is flesh without the bone, a welcome, curious escape. Of Marriage by Nicole Cooley The routes and ruts and rewards of marriage live in Cooley’s new book. “Marriage,” she writes, “over and over a re-telling. A dress to wear for days on end. A dress to shuck off, stuff under the bed.” Her long lines feel like stabs of perseverance: “When we fight. I make and unmake the bed, fold on the sheets with small blue flowers / in the shapes of stars to imitate the sky, unmake a space for us to slide inside.” In Cooley’s vision of marriage, memories are constant. The present is a reel of the past. To be married is to be bonded: “We’re roped // We’re stitched // with loose, looped yarn. We’re threaded. We’re the quilt still / unfinished, unbacked, unraveling, batting loosening.” Her play with language doesn’t neuter the word, nor does it diminish the beauty and surprise of its gift. Of Marriage moves from humor to sentiment, as in “Marriage, the Museum of Papermaking”: “Last glass case: here is a card composed of small dark windows. // Look into the stereoscope to see the future: / the light was cool and loose that day. My hands on your back. // Our old selves still unlocatable, written and crossed out.” [millions_ad] Her Mouth as Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons “Etched into each fallen leaf is a diagram of a bare tree.” A line such as that, direct and new, sits me up—and Her Mouth as Souvenir is filled with similar precision. From “Event”: “During the flood, I was robbed / in the church parking lot. / The monofilament bobbed / to the surface, but not before // I saw myself facedown in the river. / Before we lost our phone chargers, / but after the excommunication.” Confusion, corralled for the reader: “You used to think those lights / were signal mirrors flashed // by angels until you learned / they were just protein particles / suspended in the vitreous.” A little strange, a little surreal, these poems are moments of struggle. Some scenes exist without resolution. A sequence of love poems offers a little salve without salvation. The narrator of “Origami” laments, “I can pinpoint the exact moment / I become boring, but only in retrospect.” She thinks of other people, other windows—like the one an astronomer looks out, how “turbulence / makes stars shiver and wink.” Her poems often bound from place to space and back again, as in “Do Not Leave This Box,” which begins with a warning to avoid “heat and sunlight,” moves to a stockroom, where a woman “unbinds the plastic-bound / boxes from pallets that arrive in trucks,” the type of boxes that were “expertly assembled / in the Zhejiang Province.” There, a world away but connected by cardboard, a woman’s hidden ornamental boxes under her mattress: “On the lid of the smallest / is a woodcut of a crane, for luck.” Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones Gentle, conversational, introspective: Jones’s biographical, narrative poems exist without artifice and pretense. In “The Biscuit Tin,” he recalls his father’s Kodachrome slides: “I remember him sitting in the dark / behind the projector, the beam of light / shooting across the room, / the white screen filling with image after image, / the sound of locks opening.” Among an “audience of ghosts,” his father explains the photos. A genuine, earnest sense of wonder permeates Stranger on Earth. Melancholy and moving, “The Hidden Meadow” tells the story of how a boy would lie in high grass and “disappear completely.” There, “I made sorrow’s shape.” Jones is the type of poet to send readers outside, or even to look within ourselves for emotions that we’ve taken for granted. In “Nocturne,” “when the children / have gone to bed,” his wife sits at the piano and plays Satie, “the melody / a serene flowering / so quietly intense, / so lucidly palpable / the children in their beds / hold their breath.” A calming poet of family and feeling and optimism.

There Must Be Sacred Art: On Peter O’Leary’s ‘Thick and Dazzling Darkness’

“We prayed in Arabic everyday,” the poet Kaveh Akbar once wrote, “a language nobody in my family spoke.” His family spoke Farsi and English. Prayer, then, was a transformation: “From an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that.” Akbar writes elsewhere of how another poet, Kazim Ali, explained that the Arabic word ruh “means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ and this seems absolutely essential to my understanding of prayer—a way of directing, bridling the breath-spirit through a kind of focused music.” Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. Peter O’Leary’s book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion. The subject matter is in capable hands. O’Leary’s a poet himself, but he also knows how to curate rather than perform—he offers a healthy amount of sample lines to let the poets shine. He’s also comfortable with God talk. Few things sour many contemporary critics of poetry more than authentic and earnest religious devotion. The problem isn’t always illiteracy of religious texts—and a working knowledge of theology might be a bit much to ask. There’s something else at play: doubt that skilled poets could be religious. The historical evidence towers in the other direction—and yet. The skepticism of these critics reflects the feelings of a fair amount of readers, for whom “the expression of religious convictions...can read as a nuisance or a vestigial remnant of a poet’s childhood faith.” O’Leary begins with a comparison. The contemporary religious poet is much like Moses in Exodus 20:21: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” According to O'Leary, the poet charged with religion approaches that “gloomy and ominous” darkness because “the divine is present, and there is the prospect of law, covenant, revelation, and genuine power.” Although his roster is narrow, O’Leary’s project is ambitious: “The work of these poets suggests that a secular art, even in a secular age, is insufficient for representing reality completely. There must be sacred art. For poets, this means there must be religious poetry written.” They must: O’Leary’s poets are driven to write about God. He leads with Frank Samperi, a little-known poet whose collections were published in the 1970s. O’Leary acknowledges that Samperi is obscure, and the choice to begin with a relatively minor poet might frame such an inquiry in unfortunate terms: Perhaps religious poetry is provincial, if its examples are relatively unknown? No matter. Samperi’s lines are ardent, earnest, fractured. O’Leary describes his poetry as “epiphanic—it frequently resolves in radiant insights—it struggles through melancholic moods, a sense of rote and dreary stations, ones to which the epiphanies stand in sometimes stark contrast.” A Catholic, his “poems utilize a Latinate and church-inflected language...as well as delineating a usually mystical” sense of doctrine. O’Leary finds Samperi’s “principal innovation” to be his ability “to infuse the forms of modernist avant-garde poetry with the content and aspirations of medieval Christian theology.” From Lumen Gloriae (1973): “body in grass / elliptically formed / in turn inscribed / in square / in flame / flower / center / sustained / by / four / angels.” O’Leary is correct in describing Samperi’s mode as incantational; he’s not writing prayers so much as offering a new space for theology. That new space is a strange one—and Robinson Jeffers is on the same wavelength. O’Leary’s decision to follow Samperi with Jeffers is a good one. “Lyrically striking if frequently obtuse” could describe both religious poets, but Jeffers was prolific, famous, controversial, iconic, and Protestant. The “purity and the intensity of his religious convictions—pessimistic and damning but visionary and atomic—can make his work simultaneously so compelling and off-putting.” [millions_ad] Widely read during his lifetime, Jeffers now seems more like a “solitary genius” found more likely “in the pocket of a backpacker in the Rockies than in the satchel of a graduate student.” The subjects of his long, visceral poems were raw—murder, incest, degradation—and O’Leary cautions against academic attempts to sanitize him. Jeffers was coarse. He didn’t particularly like people. He wrote in fear of a “secular, godless, witless republic.” And he did so with the characteristic strangeness of earnest religious poets. “God is the least familiar thing about us but also the thing most native to us,” O’Leary writes, and Jeffers’s usage of strangeness is his defining poetic trait. In the unsettling poem “Hurt Hawks,” the narrator cares for a wounded bird for weeks. “I gave him freedom,” he writes, a bombastic proclamation that prefigures the morbid conclusion. The bird later returns, “asking for death,” and the narrator shoots him. The lines are particularly unsettling: I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.      What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river      cried fear at its rising Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. The pungent strangeness of Jeffers and the minor pyrotechnics of Samperi seem curiosities compared to the transcendent work of Fanny Howe. O’Leary’s chapter on the Catholic convert is the finest in the book: one of the best readings of an important poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose religion has affected her identity, worldview, and language. For O’Leary, Howe’s “expressions of her faith in the context of an experimental poetry lend her work an unmistakable aura of conviction and surprise and give to it a rare value in relation to much of the rest of recent American poetry.” O’Leary’s precision here opens Howe for, hopefully, a new group of readers. She is a poet of misfortune, yet one whose work is “inspired throughout by transcendental love, which comes mysteriously and unconditionally from God.” She’s not a poet of lyrical ramparts like Samperi and Jeffers; her smooth lines “coalesce into aphoristic or even gnomic statements or questions.” In “Plutocracy,” the homeless narrator thinks, “When you eat alone you don’t exist / for anyone but the dish.” There’s a sense of truth in Howe’s despair—the religious poet does not blink in the face of suffering; she documents it, weeps for it. “Catholicism is queer,” Howe says. “It is malleable and reaches extents of thought and culture that really can’t rest anywhere, in terms of nation or specific culture.” O’Leary demonstrates that Howe’s religious sense is marked by an electric, mystical theology, a veneration of the Eucharist, and a steadfast embrace of Catholic social justice. She is a poet of melancholy, a tradition inherited from the sad lines of Hopkins. O’Leary directs the reader toward “Catholic,” Howe’s long poem-essay. The work is an apologia for poets of faith. In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, O’Leary offers readers a reminder of the complexity of earnest religious poetry. He also offers critics a guidebook on how to examine religious verse: with the respect they should afford earnest subjects. If a poet chooses to believe, let’s hear her song. If we listen to Howe, we might hear this: “Doubt allows God to live.”

Must-Read Poetry: May 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in May. Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr Scorched, palpable, sometimes pungent, sometimes brutal: Karr’s new collection is a mixture of tight narratives that end without resolution, hymns of unsettled suffering, and confused prayers. Writing years earlier about becoming a Catholic, Karr said “like poetry, prayer often begins in torment”—her own brand of poetic faith does not end in sweet redemption. Her poetry suggests that Catholics often live in extremes of devotion or doubt, swelled with something like poetic fervor, or sunk down to melancholy. In “The Age of Criticism,” the narrator shares a moment with what seems to be Franz Wright, “his face swollen from drink, his glasses / broken so a Band-Aid taped one wing on.” They smoked and “wondered who might be dumb enough / to print our books or read them or / give us jobs.” Downturned, they are “unable to guess we’d ever be anywhere / else, thick snow coming down and piling up, // sawhorses blocking all the small roads.” Karr’s all-but-accepted that life is full of wayward roads, but she’s dogged in following the routes that remain. In “Illiterate Progenitor,” the narrator thinks about her father, who, in a “house of bookish females, his glasses slid on / for fishing lures and carburetor work, / the obits, my report cards, the scores. / He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.” Yet she finds poetry in his pleasures, his moments, his sense of self. Tropic of Squalor is a catalogue of broken graces. How love can find us in the “predawn murk” of suburbia. How God’s speech is not “lightning bolt or thunderclap,” but rather “sights and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” Maybe we are sustained by what ails us, as the “jackhammer the man in the crosswalk wrestles with / He also leans on.” Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller “I’ve always been the girl in the wrong // clothes for spring, yet I understand my body / is a gift.” Miller’s book is a strange testament, teeming with some of the most original poems you’ll encounter this year. “When my mother slaps / my thighs to circulate the water in the blood, / the bruises still purple. I let blood work / itself small again.” Her work lives in the same world as Sarah Goldstein’s Fables: “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe in mist. We all saw the mother / gnawed to bone in upturned soil. I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” Metamorphoses saturate this book, suggest our bodies and souls are in flux. There’s a lot of wonder to get lost within here; this is a book to awaken the imagination. “When my grandmother fell through / the floorboards, she cupped her hands // to create an echo that crosses / five acres of cows, and they don’t know how // to listen.” When I hear ceremonial, I think ritual, significant, surreal, and Miller encapsulates all of those traits, writing of bodies made of flesh and fog. Bodies wedded to the earth: “What keeps you / tacked to me, my lone // saint of weeds? Maggot — / I mean, may we get // comfortable as suspects / or each other. May we slink // and croon across shrines with our soft bodies.” Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss Mark Doty has said “the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation.” Diane Seuss’s new book fits that description. In “Still Life with Self-Portrait,” she uses Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s as a fount, the genesis of wonder. She wants “to touch him,” though thinks he might have been “a bad man. / Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women / bad as well?” The narrator has lived within the space of bad men, and admits that she’s brought men into her own “badness” as well. Her recursive first stanza leans back into the painting, how Gijsbrechts created optical illusions. “He has offered you his backside and called it / his frontside, has offered you nothing / and called it something. You’ve known men / like Cornelius Gijsbrechts.” We can almost feel Seuss painting her way through this book, playing the page (and us) with her clever lines. But then she stops us and takes our breath, as in “Still Life with Turkey”: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes // are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” Or the elegiac “Silence Again”: “Now, when I embrace it, silence, / especially at night, in the dark, I see my father’s // name, as if silence were a canvas he painted, / and his signature there in the corner.” A skilled, inventive collection. Junk by Tommy Pico Frenetic, furious, exhausted, and exhausting: Pico’s poetry is like a syntactic tidal wave. His books are experiences, and Junk is a trip. There are no breaks here, but his stanzas are paced and one of his skills is how he manipulates our idea of lines: “The air is heavy feathers in mid- // summer, literally and metaphorically in my foul apt above the / chicken slaughterhouse where we wheeze awake.” In this stream, consciousness is a dizzy show, and among the refrains are the many permutations of the word junk, and what we look for in love: “Is it wrong 2 call yr partner a // mirror in the sense that when we’re together I’m with myself / in a way I can’t escape.” There’s more than one wink here: “Convention says a book shd be // this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want / to read in one sitting” and “Ppl are // too busy callin themselves ‘poets’ to notice the canary died.” Taken as a whole, “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Junk is fast and loud, but Pico is really a poet “looking to // connect & inhibit more than I want 2 slip away.” [millions_ad] Fludde by Peter Mishler “I’m embarrassed,” Mishler begins a poem titled “Mild Invective.” “Four deer step / onto the embankment / beside the Sunoco / at dawn, champing / and misting their breath.” The narrator’s “shaving in my car.” Those unusual but precise moments appear throughout Fludde, a debut expansive in subject and skilled in practice. In “To A Feverish Child,” the narrator imagines a child “with the chime of fever in your eyes.” A boy, sick, gifted with a nighttime word from his mother—“delirious”—and the fever dreams that follow. How the narrator dreams (or becomes? poetry has a way with magic) he feels that way, swelled with sickness: “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip / to watch my face among the neighborhood lights, / swallowed and renewed. I felt for one moment / insane and holy.” There’s an inevitability to these types of glimpses, how they return at just the right moments, as in “From the Overflow Motel”: “At quitting time, / I press my forehead / to the hallway’s ice machine, / and see a blood-red curtain / draped across a field.” Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser Poet of place, generations, elegies, spirit, and love, Kooser’s poetry deserves continual praise. He’s often noted as a poet for a broad audience, and certainly his two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and continued cheerleading for poetry attest to his appeal, but let’s not forget that he is also incredibly skilled. His poems are generous; their profluence nearly effortless. The gorgeous, stilled-heart lines of “A Letter”: “I have tried a dozen ways / to say these things / and have failed.” The feel of the moonlight and the cool November dusk, “and what these things / have come to mean to me / without you.” Kooser captures how we wear pain like clothing, how our everyday actions carry a silent song of grief: “I raked the yard / this morning, and it rained / this afternoon. Tonight, / along the shiny street, / the bags of leaves — / wet-shouldered / but warm in their skins — / are huddled together, close, / so close to life.” His lines make me believe in language again, as in “Applesauce”: “the way / her kitchen filled with the warm, / wet breath of apples, as if all / the apples were talking at once, / as if they’d come cold and sour / from chores in the orchard / and were trying to shoulder in / close to the fire.” A recurring theme in Kooser’s work is how all of us—the living and the dead—seek comfort in each other. This collection is a gift.

A Vicarious Encounter with Gregory Pardlo

Digest, Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, begins with “Written by Himself”: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” His lines carry a mythic rhythm that originate with the self, and then extend out, as in “Problemata,” when neighborhood fireworks flare emotions: “My neighbor’s teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest / patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply / their roughly domesticated manhood, / they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle / rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war.” I like when poets write prose. Air Traffic, Pardlo’s new memoir, is a masterful consideration of manhood in contemporary America: the lies we tell ourselves, the struggle to find our own identity in the shadow of fathers, and the sweet perils of ambition. Pardlo is poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and teaches writing at Columbia University. We spoke about family, poetry, and the stories that, sooner or later, we have to tell. The Millions: Let’s talk about New Jersey, where we both grew up. Your family lived in Willingboro. In 1976, they bought their third home there, and with three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, it “meant the Pardlos had arrived.” There, in one of the three original Levittown communities, your “skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose.” You don’t live here anymore, but what of this state remains with you? Gregory Pardlo: New Jersey is all of America under a shrink ray. Colonial towns next to prefab towns next to shopping malls and farmland. Crumbling highways and curated bike paths lined with mulch and railroad ties. The McDonald’s is a venerable old institution in my hometown. Things that some might find kitschy or crude I take very seriously (which is not to say uncritically). Parts of New Jersey feel like they’re below the Mason-Dixon line while at the same time being the historical home of the black middle class. My concept of this nation—its flaws and potential—grows out of my life in the Garden State. The Isley Brothers are from New Jersey. (Mic drop.) TM: For a state that gets lampooned for other reasons, New Jersey has quite the literary tradition. You won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2015, and Peter Balakian, another NJ writer, got it in 2016. Is our state good for stories? What is it about New Jersey that might elicit good writing? GP: Stephen Dunn, a literary hero of mine, won the Pulitzer in 2000. William Carlos Williams won in 1963, the year that he died. The list of literary achievements in NJ is long, disproportionately so. Maybe it’s because New Jersey occupies that sweet spot between Philly, representing the aspirations of Revolutionary America, and New York City, representing the talent and dynamism of our immigrant soul. TM: Air Traffic is a memoir that arrives in essays. Each section’s discrete; each narrative feels somehow both complete and porous, leaning into the next chapter. How did this book grow (structurally, conceptually)? GP: The earliest drafts were written as straight-up memoir. I was trying my best to write a book the way I thought a book was supposed to be written. I wrote flat grammatical sentences that I hated and that had no relation to the way my imagination actually works. This went on for more than 300 pages. Out of frustration I admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing, and I went hat-in-hand to Columbia’s graduate nonfiction program, begging them to let me in. As a student in the program, I discovered I would much rather write essays that would allow me to think on the page while still aspiring to be literary, as opposed to scholarly. I began to cherry-pick chunks out of that original manuscript and develop them in terms of ideas and themes. My thesis had little more than a family resemblance to the manuscript I brought with me to Columbia. I spent another year or so writing new stuff, revising and reorganizing the manuscript with my agent. After we sold the book to Knopf, it went through another major overhaul. Some of the DNA from that ancestral manuscript is still in Air Traffic, but much of what might feel like porousness or consistency is the result mostly of edits, revisions, arguments, and compromises. TM: Story, narrative, performance, grandiosity: your father’s penchant for rhetorical presence is a theme in this book. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” He has many shades and identities in this book, and the metaphor of him as an air traffic controller is not lost—and yet you are the storyteller here. How does your sense of narrative differ from your father? How are they similar? What were the goals and desires of his stories—and what are yours? [millions_ad] GP: If there were some way to chart my father’s narratives and mine graphically, I think the curves would look very similar. They would differ in the sense that my father privileged sound over substance. He wanted to ravish his listeners more than he wanted to convey anything. My father would have been at home among irony-loving hipsters. He avoided public displays of sincerity. Maybe to be contrary, I crave sincerity although I distrust it. I am sincerely in search of truth and revelatory statements. What this has meant for the book is that as I found myself trying to reproduce his lyricism, his voice stayed with me as an editorial influence, amplifying my self-consciousness. I think this had a big impact on the tone of the book. TM: Your father looms in this book, of course, but your mother also comes alive in these pages. You share a birthday with her. “I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate,” you write. What did you learn, or understand, about your mother from writing this book? GP: Early in the writing process, my therapist kept asking me if I’d written about my mother yet. I realized I was putting it off because I didn’t trust myself to represent her fairly. I definitely couldn’t be objective. I knew I would have to sit down with her and interview her the way my teacher Phillip Lopate had interviewed his mother for his recent book, A Mother’s Tale. The conversation with my mom turned out to be less traumatic than I expected. This encouraged me to go back and look at the places where I had ducked or skated over references to my mom in the manuscript. When I thought I had represented her in a way that honored my own truths as well as hers, I let her read the manuscript. As you know from the book, she’s an artist. She would never tell me what or how to write. When she very gently suggested that I might have been a little hard on her “character,” I knew I had to do some soul-searching. She still gives me a little side-eye when we talk about the book, but I think she trusts that the way I present my own biases suggests to readers a margin of error that she can live with. TM: Before you join the Marines, there’s a great scene in the book when you’re sort of drifting between temporary jobs, having left Rutgers after a few semesters: “More than once I’d stood in line in the parking lot of some warehouse or tool-and-die shop to get a Saran Wrapped tuna fish sandwich, only to find myself overcome by a mild terror when I saw the workaday world rippling in the diamond-patterned stainless steel siding of the truck.” When I read those sentences, we see the poet living in the essayist. Or is it the other way around? What types of stories, scenes, and sentences bring you to poetry instead of prose? GP: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I remember clearly the internal war sentences like that set off in my head. The comp teacher in me was writing in the figurative margin, “how does this advance your argument, how does this help you reach your destination?” And the poetry workshop teacher in me was shouting, “whoo-hoo, we’re going off-road!” So I guess the two coexist, and it comes down to a series of intuitive indulgences in which I allow one or the other to predominate. There are also plenty of passages that are functional in their delivery of data in which I paid attention to the outcome of the argument rather than the pleasure of the language/moment. The goal is to find a balance or synthesis. If I’m trying to capture a nuanced emotion, I turn to poetry. When I suspect there is an insight to be gained that could potentially contribute to the discourse around a particular issue, I bring my essay game. TM: I’m torn between “Cartography,” “Tolle, Lege,” and “Behind the Wheel” as my favorite sections of this book—they are each perfect in their own way—but I want to ask about “Tolle, Lege” since it speaks to poetry. You’re a poet, an editor of poetry, a reader and critic of poetry. You talk about the power of turns in poetry, and how poetry doesn’t require “grand epiphany or catharsis,” but it should feel like “I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own.” Do you look for the same things in poetry as a reader, editor, and professor? GP: The “vicarious encounter” quality is pretty consistent, but each one of those perspectives changes my relationship to the work. As a reader, my needs are self-centered. I don’t care how a poem works for me, only that it does (or does not). As an editor, I’m interested in whether or not the poem rewards re-reading. I want it to work in the moment, but I also want it to work differently the next time I return to it. That way, I can be more confident it’ll speak to a variety of readers who will be bringing various needs and dispositions. As a professor, I want to figure out where a poem promises to take a reader, what route (that is, which “turns”) it takes, and (to triple-dip the metaphor) how close to that destination it arrives. TM: In the book’s introduction, you imply that your story—your life—is still a work in progress. You speak of failure often. Your story, as you say, contains “digressions and indulgences”—and there’s a literary power in your willingness to step aside from your story, smirk, and wonder at what to make of your life. What do you make of it now, as your memoir is set to be released? What does it mean to tell the story of your life—thoroughly, stylistically—in 2018? GP: For anyone to tell their story today is a political act. Our stories are not ours alone. I know it’s popular to defend against cultural appropriation, but you can’t tell the story of a culture exclusive of the cultures surrounding it (and I’m not agreeing that “a culture” is an isolable thing either). And it’s even less possible to tell one person’s story without telling the story of the world surrounding that person. On the one hand, to tell my story is to say, “I exist, and I my presence is relevant and meaningful in the social and political landscape.” On the other hand, my story is necessarily your story. It may be on the lower frequencies, but in a very real sense, I speak for you.  

Must-Read Poetry: April 2018

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in April. Eye Level by Jenny Xie An excellent debut. Xie is particularly gifted with precise description; I want to linger on these poems. “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” is masterful and patient, expansive without becoming lost. She moves through this city “of a million young faces,” where there’s “new money lapping at these streets.” “In the backseat of a gold Lexus / a minister’s son lies, his eyes shut / dumb with honeyed sleep.” More: “slack lips of suitcases, lukewarm showers up to three times in a day. / Mosquito bites on the arms and thighs, patterned like pips on dice.” At night: “Alley of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers. / Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets.” Eye Level puts us there, with Xie’s sight. Her poems that span pages are nestled between single-stanza songs; consider the tightness of “Naturalization”: “It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap / silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother / to keep our telephone number close, / my beaded coin purse closer.” Her grandmother “prays for fortune / to keep us around and on a short leash. / The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” She also steps back and settles in, as in “Solitude Study”: “I know we can hold more in us than we do / because the body is without core.” And “Inwardly”: “We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it. // Or else, why write.” Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku (translated by Ani Gjika) The narrator’s memories in “Almost Yesterday” begin this book. The midday sight of her father and mother “coming out of the barn / tidying their tangled hair in a hurry, / both flushes, looking around in fear / like two thieves.” Even now, she remembers the barn clearly; after all, “You cannot easily forget what you watch with one closed eye, / the death of the hero in the film, / or your first eclipse of the sun.” Negative Space is flush with wonderfully melancholic stanzas. “When a child is born, we name it after an ancestor, / and so the recycling continues. Not out of nostalgia, / but from our fear of the unknown.” “Where I come from, / there’s only one word for ‘grief’ and for ‘water’ / and both take the form of the containers that hold them: / each to their own fate, each to their own grief.” The title poem holds the scars of the Albanian Cultural Revolution. Churches were sacked. Crosses “were plucked from graves.” Icons and bibles were burned: “Witness stepped further back, / as if looking at love letters / nobody dared to claim.” Lleshanaku has a dizzying talent of capturing our notes of destruction. “And what could replace Sunday mass now?” the narrator wonders. “Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata / that bled in the wrong places— / a new code of sanctification, / of man, by man.” Strange Children by Dan Brady Brady’s debut opens with the dizzy, entrancing “Stroke Diary,” stanzas sifted across pages. The narrator’s wife, a few days after having their child, has a stroke. “Our life together, / like a great whale // breaching, or rather / as fast as a fish // picks a single fly / from the river water.” Shaken and wounded, the family emerges, but the stroke’s shadow holds. A trip to the cardiologist comes with a warning: “Given the risk of recurrence, / you shouldn’t get pregnant again.” Strange Children considers what happens when the certainty of our plans is replaced with a strangely comforting doubt. They wait for news about their adoption request, and the results are inspiring, among shaken lives: “I have lived a thousand lives / with these children and the grief / and joy of each one is a blessing to me.” Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil There are so many reasons to return to Nezhukumatathil’s poems—her affinity for the natural world, her ability to write a love poem that truly works, her humor that surprises and salves—and Oceanic reminds me of yet another: how she can offer readers so many routes within a single poem. “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” begins “Because we think I might have it, / you take the couch.” It’s a real change: “I can count on one hand / the times we have ever slept apart / under the same roof in our five years.” Two sick parents won’t work for a small son. What’s more, the narrator is pregnant: “I carry / a small grapefruit, a second son, inside me.” They are separated by only a room, but, “In bed, I fever for your strong calves, your nightsong breath on my neck.” He comes back to bed: “We decide it is worth it.” And how she ends this poem: “The child still forming / inside me fevers for quiet, the silence of the after, / the silence of cell-bloom within our blood.” Poets are reared to be strong closers, but I’d venture that Nezhukumatathil is the best: throughout Oceanic, we get the sense these poems have been felt through, spoken through, and paced to a precise beat. In “Letter to the Northern Lights,” she ends “I’d rather share sunrise with him and loon call // over the lake with him, the slap of shoreline threaded / through screen windows with him—my heart // slamming in my chest, against my shirt—a kind / of kindling you’d never be able to light on your own.” Added bonus: Nezhukumatathil’s poems will remind you (as did Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop) that wonder is a gift, and great words can get us there. [millions_ad] Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen “I’m always surprised how efficiently // regret can build a machine, a geared thing // charging through the narrow halls of your memory.” Not Here is a book of past pain bled into the present; of youth scenes that remain. In the powerful “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” the narrator’s father, confronted with his cheating, “slapped my mother, came to my room, threw my sleeping body / over his shoulder, & drove off.” There’s a fine shade of complexity at work in his poetics. “Who wouldn’t / beg for a story like this? A story to point & run toward / when asked to explain every decision you’ve ever made / regarding love. A story to blame when your hands rush / toward the exit.” Other stories in this book route toward the narrator’s mother, how “for the longest time, she knelt in front of a shrine & asked // to be blessed with a daughter & here I am: the wrong / monster; truck stop prom queen in his dirt gown.” In Not Here, bodies are imperfect works, subject to doubt, desire, and decay—in equal parts. “Standing in front of a mirror, my mother tells me she is ugly / says the medication is making her fat.” The son sees the mother “pull at her body & it is mine.” After all, “I truly wanted to be beautiful / for her.” In his dreams, he is thin: “I tell my mother she is still beautiful & she laughs. The room fills / with flies. They gather in the shape of a small boy. They lead her / back to the mirror, but my reflection is still there.” Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch by David Bottoms These poems live in the soft hours of late night and early morning. When a narrator takes out his dog “to piss in the yard” and the “bird feeders standing in the smudged shadows / of the maples / look like human skulls impaled on poles.” Or nights when the “trees on the bank are black and soundless, / a fat wall of darkness, / and the silence on the water feels like the voice / of a great absence.” His characters are a bit older. They’re content to listen, and to wait: “Nobody even bothered / to untangle the backlashed reel.” Bottoms’s poems are like dark rooms: we enter and exit through the same door, but we’re a little different on the way out—as with “My Old Man’s Homemade Dagger.” The narrator finds his father’s high school metal shop dagger: “bone handle, / blade cut from a metal file.” His father admonishes him to put it back in a desk, and he does, “but have held it for years in my memory, / just as he must’ve held it / in that desk drawer of rusted sockets and wrenches— // ugly, yes, but one of those things / so well made we could hardly let it go.” I’ve already gone back to the title poem a few times, and its wonder about death: “Maybe we rise again only to the good things—honeysuckle, / robins, mockingbirds, doves, / fireflies toward evening, and along the back fence // the steady harping of tree frogs. / On the prayer porch, among the icons, such fancy notions.” Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith Smith, who is set to begin her second term as America's poet laureate, recently said that she “felt from an early age that poetry was something mysterious, something playful and lilting. As I got older, poems began to offer me new and life-changing ways of looking at the familiar world.” We are in good worlds with Smith leading the poetic charge, as Wade in the Water attests. What range: poems crafted from letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War. Poems about motherhood, like “Annunciation:” a narrator tired of roads, bridges, steel, and lights: “Everything enhanced, rehearsed, / A trick.” She longs to feel, to be “confronted by the real, / By the cold, the pitiless, the bleak.” She ponders her son, “eyes set / At an indeterminate distance, / Ears locked, tuned inward, caught / In some music only he has ever heard.” Poems like “The Angels,” “Two slung themselves across chairs / Once in my motel room. Grizzled, / In leather biker gear. Emissaries / For something I needed to see.” They smell of “rum and gasoline,” and “one’s teeth / Were ground down almost to nubs.” But she feels guilty: “Think of the toil we must cost them, / One scaled perfectly to eternity. / And still, they come, telling us / Through the ages not to fear.” She never sees the angels again, but catches “sightings, flashes, hints” of them. A tree in the sun, wind swaying its branches. The strength of rain. The grace in a tired world.

On Poetry and Archiving

I only revise poems on a clipboard. Masking tape is wrapped around the clip, the words “Cross Country” written in marker. My wife used it during her coaching days, and I leave the tape on. Poets are sentimental; it is one of our defining traits. Poems command a space. They are structural objects. I need to hold them, see their type on the page. Prose can live on the screen for me, but poetry needs to get out and breathe. A poem on a clipboard is a statement: it’s time to get to work. I learned this method from Erin Aults, a friend from college. We went to a small school on a river where people took writing seriously. I was inspired by how she would revise her poems: she had a clipboard at the library, or sitting around campus, and it seemed like there was a little bit of ceremony to the action. Her poems were wonderful, and she had a great eye as an editor for our school literary magazine, so I trusted her methods. The other defining trait of poets: we believe in ritual and superstition. Years after college—when memories of then had become a little fuzzy, yet still comforting—I was reading an article about an archive of 30,000 horticultural periodicals at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The project was methodical, and necessary. The catalogs ranged back to 1853. More than simply the story of seeds (although that would be enough, I think), they are the stories of cultures and lives. And halfway through the article, I saw someone familiar: Erin. She’s in charge of the archive. How does a poet become an archivist? I think I suspected the answer before I asked Erin: you approach objects with care. [millions_ad] I like to see the routes that lives take, and Erin’s has got me thinking about what draws us to poetry—and what we draw from it. She still feels “almost a euphoria about the language and directness of poetry, that it has both exactness and expansiveness.” After college, she worked at a used bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, which began her “love of the book as an object.” She remembers “especially during the heavy ‘buy season’ (usually spring and summer when the public was selling off their books to us), as this grand battle between me and making order of these objects. The backroom and processing area of the bookstore would be overflowing with books. There was a lot of learning how to ‘conquer’ the books as objects either through stacking or ordering or selling.” Soon after, she was working at the Ohio State University libraries, where she “dissected and mended books and paper, learning their science, understanding materials, form, and outside pressures that affected them.” Later, she handled books of Catholic history at the John M. Kelly Library at University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. Some texts were from the 1500s, and she was “aware that I am one of so many people who have touched this book, that the book is a perfect machine—moveable parts and all. I understood my purpose as a conservator, librarian, and archivist is to help it last another 500 years and to make sure that people have the chance to work with it and be close to it. This is a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.” That sounds like the mechanics of poetry to me. And those 30,000 catalogs at the Royal Botanical Gardens? There’s poetry in them, too. “I can see them as a mix of chapbooks, book art, with a healthy dose of late-night local-channel half-hour-long product commercials,” she says. She finds stories and lives in those books, like ME Blacklock, a “nursery owner and plant breeder during a time when women didn't often get to do that work.” Isabella Preston, the Queen of Horticulture in the 1920s, who bred lilies, lilacs, and roses. I asked Erin if caring for, and curating, this collection might intersect with poetry. She sees “both poetry and archival work as potentially radical and political acts. Both of them are relying on words and language to create opportunities of recognition, change, and justice.” Poetry and archiving are “done often as solitary work but are really reliant on the person who is receiving and interpreting the work...Similarly, the internal logic in both poetry and archives is always present within the creator but the logic is not always evident at first glance. Both reader or researcher might need to dive deep to tease out the meaning the poem or archives holds.” Poems and archives, she says, are “both historical records. They both can be about providing access. Of course, they both require care and observation.” I like that. Let’s think about poems as objects that deserve care, observation, and preservation. An inspiring way to commemorate the work of others—and maybe the right spirit to help us create poems that can last. Image Credit: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2018

Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in March. Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah A few years ago, I read “Poetry Recitation at St. Catherine’s School for Girls” in an issue of The Missouri Review, and reading it again feels like discovering a lost prayer. The narrator thinks of her teenage years at a school where girls, “headbands bright green or bangles / yellow, glints that fill the silence like / falling snow,” pray before a hanging cross. The girls “recite poems they // have carried in their mouths for days, / and my desire to go back, to be one / among those slender, long-haired girls // is a thistle, sharp and twisting at my / side.” Their words—“psalm, blessing, lord”—bring her back to that chapel where the priest spoke of an eternal world not possible for her: “the girl I was, heavy and slow in her / thick glasses, knew she would never / enter heaven.” The narrator calms her memory with a final note: “Help me, Lord. / There are so many bodies inside this one.” Tucked nearly halfway through Registers of Illuminated Villages, the poem reverberates elsewhere in the book, as in “Acolyte,” where she again feels “an infidel / in this classroom / church.” There, beneath the white cross and the “window-light” that moves across their bodies, “My mouth is avid; it // sings fidelis, fidelis.” But her mind travels to home, where “maa is in her / kitchen crooning / black-and-white film,” and “baba leans forward / in his chair, the Qur’an / open to the last page.” At school, she bows her head and whispers her own prayer—an affirmation. Faizullah’s entire collection—powerful, wide-ranging—is an affirmation, an accomplished second book. “This elegy is trying / hard to understand how we all become // corpses,” she writes, “but I’m trying to understand permanence.” This book gets us there. Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff Otherworldly, lilting—there’s a surreal touch to Cundieff’s verse that can be downright hypnotic. In “Everything Cruel Is Also Real,” we get a memory in second-person: “you in a yellow dress against the condition / of your kite string. Taut, it lifts you with a thinnest white, / unwinding, tethered to you, kept like a conversation within your fists.” The narrator wonders: “Surely I must be dead, / watching with hollowed-out joy, your physics reaping the late lawn / of its light.” (I’m grateful for poets who deliver consonance). The spirit of Cundieff’s style might be her willingness to offer us poems mid-glance, as in the aptly-titled “In Medias Res”: “I once imagined my life differently, / but no one hears, so I say it again, and again.” The world moves and moves in this book, and strangeness is a welcome song. In “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” there’s a tree with a plaque to memorialize a football player killed by a lightning strike. “There’s nothing special about his name, // William. It makes me think of any football field, / the girls whose toes get muddy from the steps taken up, // down the bleachers. Their blonde hair straight // like church windows that flood then burn with light.” The mystical breaks through even during a long car ride, a narrator chasing the eclipse, their fighting children in the backseat: “I daydream / that bridge bats rupture from beneath an overpass, shrill shapes / without course.” Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah In “The Living Are the Minority,” “the dead don’t cry / and mindful of dehydration / they speak what they drink / and wave to their ventriloquists.” Minimal lines carry so much meaning here. Joudah also peppers his book with supple prose poems, their syntax delivering surprises. In “Horses,” it is a “December evening, smoke in the rain, awn of the rain, from virga to drizzle, a glimpse of horses through large wooden doors.” This is beautiful writing: “Foam in stalactites from equine jaws more exhausted than a crossroad. Steam rising to the roof. The sinews of their hearts. The women were one, the horses one.” What begins as a meditation on setting evolves to include the narrator, as when one of the women asks him how long he has been riding himself. He doesn’t know, but thinks of all “the horses I never rode, their magnetic fields filled with souls of past rides and horses’ past souls, even the plastic ones I used to line up on the sill.” Those fleshed narratives live among pithy exhales, like “1st Love”: “When God began you she / said to me one spring afternoon in bed / God began // with your hands / a woman’s hands // And when God reached your wrists / God made the rest of you man.” We often say that poetry transforms, but Joudah’s verse also transports. Post Traumatic Hood Disorder by David Tomas Martinez In his first book, Hustle, and this new collection, Martinez draws on his early years in San Diego: fathering a son while in high school, joining a gang, and entering the Navy before being kicked out. A former junior-college basketball player, he mixes ambition and anxiety in poems like “And One”: “Look at the homie, / even when in a gang / he came home to crack Nietzsche.” Hope and nihilism live side by side on those streets, and in his scenes: “He’s going places. / Look at homie, trying to fix himself. Thinks / out of repetition comes variation.” Martinez’s book examines masculinity: particularly expectations of Chicano men, California men. There’s a real sadness here: the talent and dreams that never escape the city, an unfortunate truth that kids know early, and captured in poems like “Winter Night.” The narrator’s father beats him with a belt, but between the punishments, there is something like an opening: “After dinner my father sat on the floor / with his corduroy shorts riding up / his thighs while I put on boxing gloves / around his shadow. I floated, stung / I rode his shoulders over crowds, // raised my arms. The oversized gloves / on my hands were smaller, lighter / than my want to punch him.” [millions_ad] Land of Fire by Mario Chard Early in Chard’s debut collection, among mystical visions and dialogues, is “The Oath,” a touching poem about an immigrant family’s arrival in a new land. A mother has her fingerprints taken, and is weighed before standing in line “with others taking turns / reciting words to make them / citizens.” When it is his mother’s turn, she “cleared her throat before / a word then said the word, / made the same sound / I knew to listen for / when I had lost her in a crowd.” That sound, her soul. “They took / her country when she spoke, / but the cords that first / learned Spanish in her throat / spoke first: last strain of loss / and its resistance.” Chard unearths those cautious moments, whether he is writing of this world, or of other worlds—Miltonic shadows, mythic planes. In “Dystocia,” “Sometimes a myth / delivers its prophet // breech.” In “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother,” the weight of personal myths: “When you spoke you sounded like a man ignored, / one orphan speaking to another / who was not.” My favorite here: “Signs and Crossings,” arriving in a Trinitarian structure: the narrator watches a boy who sneaks through joined chain-link fences. “I have watched him make some crude sign of the cross / before his trespass here.” A storm blows out windows. Maples, “stripped for power lines,” are exposed before him—“a symbol of the brain: branched and leafy one side, / barren on the other.” A world, ravaged by storm, is what gives the narrator new sight. “We would make that sign again.” The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky Umansky quotes Gustave Flaubert early in her collection—“The principal thing in this world is to keep one’s soul aloft”—and that line becomes theme and center for the book. Here “Small girls dream while. / The most are slipped graces, / and many graces are slipped.” In this world, “It is hard to quiet the blackberrying pain. / The little chronicles, the streaks, and the intimate workings. // I will face this by red-winging my truths. / I will push my blues into orchids.” Umansky’s poems are expansive, quick, and rooted in a conversational interaction with the page. “I am the one holding the wheel,” she writes, “& the one tying us to the mast.” Yet there’s a refrain of slipping, of losing hold that is reflected in the way her lines careen across the page, a self searching for a steadiness: “You aren’t being robbed of time, / you’re just trying to get out of your landmarks. / You’re being robbed of the present by thinking of the future.” The Explosive Expert’s Wife by Shara Lessley “The Ugly American” captures the spirit of Lessley’s book, one set in Amman, Jordan. Boys beat a jennet, a female donkey, “with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.” The image of violence that opens the poem appears to validate the epigraph: Mark Twain’s stereotypical, dismissive opinion of the Middle East. But this book is aware of its framing. A pregnant woman, a foreigner, enters the narrative; she’s watching the attack, and picks up a stone. The woman “heard herself / curse, think every stupid soulless thing // she’d heard about the filth borne of this region.” A man breaks up the boys’ beating, and the woman, far away but watching, is forced to reckon with the moment: “Please / understand this isn’t metaphor: when // I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.” Based in part on Lessley’s years as an American expatriate, The Explosive Expert’s Wife is a narrative of listening and understanding. In “First Days: August”: “Nights stalled at the screen. I strain / to hear the call to prayer— / what is it Amman’s abandoned / streets are trying to say?” Often Lessley’s poems become laments: “A thousand candles light the Siq. / I grieve / the West, its disinterested ear.” Here Amman is not simply defined by its struggles; it is a world of small miracles, as in “Transfusion,” when the narrator’s peritoneum bleeds—but she is calmed and carried for, her child safe. “The gift comes slow,” she writes. “I listen to us breathe.” Cape Verdean Blues by Shauna Barbosa Barbosa’s poems snap. “Every Year Trying to Get My Body Right”: on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Pickup truck with a broken rearview, her “scraped toes hanging out the passenger side. I keep the window open in the event I need to summer language my mouth into prayer.” One of the keys to prose poems that pulse is the internal rhythms of sentences (whispers of lines, memories of lines), as in a later poem on the sign of Cancer: “The moon is a hammock. A hammock is a moon. Loosen up Cancer. Lie down without moving, ask how she’s doing, and let the dead come.” The cadences of care move throughout this book, including “Making Sense of What We’re Made For”: “I like how the bottoms of my feet feel / like silence.” Those feet have “taken a beating . . . I sweat violence like ceremony.” There’s so much to appreciate in Barbosa’s debut—her humor, the spiritual touches that shine light on family and desire—but I especially like how she plays with the layering of language. Kriolu, the Cape Verdean tongue, cloaks this book. In “Broke,” the narrator’s aunt sweeps the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square “like it’s a Saturday morning in her Cape Verdean home.” When her grandmother calls and yells at her in Kriolu, “I love how it sounds to be loved so fiercely in another language.” Language unites us, but the narrator knows otherwise in an earlier poem: “I know you don’t want to be / cause it’s difficult to be / black, Sis // knows / speaking Portuguese at the traffic stop / won’t save you.” And the sense of being displaced, in “GPS”: “there’s a Duane Reade a mile from Chinatown. It’s 96 degrees on a Saturday. My legs are wet. Sweat stings my contact lenses.” The narrator’s taxi driver is West African: “You are my sister, he says . . . I wanted to ask what his American woman looks like. A lot of time passes and I think about my old west African lover and feel bad for being so American.”  You will nod your head, again and again, at lines from this book (“It’s profoundly normal to become fragile while ordering coffee.”) and titles (“You Will, Indeed, Always Be the Same Person After Vacation”).

Fifteen Poets on Revision

After 17 drafts over two weeks, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” was completed on November 4, 1975. The poem began as notes, and evolved into a villanelle. She changed the title. She deleted words. She reached for possible rhymes. Brett Candlish Millier says the “effect of reading all these drafts together one often feels in reading the raw material of her poems and then the poems themselves: the tremendous selectivity of her method and her gift for forcing richness from minimal words.” Revision is art. Denise Levertov said it was dangerous to revise a poem unless “you are hot in it.” Some poets suffer through revision. Other poets find life in revision. All poets do it. Here are 15 poets on the worthy work of revision. “I revise incessantly. Usually when I’m starting to work on a poem, I don’t read it aloud—not until it gets to a certain point. You can lull yourself with your own voice; but I hear it in my head.” — Rita Dove “The energy of revision is the energy of creation and change, which is also the energy of destruction.” — Maggie Anderson “I revise constantly. I used to revise whole poems; now I revise as I go along, from line to line. Sometimes I erase so much I tear a hole in the paper.” — Charles Wright “You can get expert at teaching and be crude in practice. The revision, the consciousness that tinkers with the poem—that has something to do with teaching and criticism. But the impulse that starts a poem and makes it of any importance is distinct from teaching.” — Robert Lowell “Revision teaches me how to push beyond the choices that come easily. It restrains me, challenges me, forces me back and back and back again to my failures. Process saves me from the poverty of my intentions.” — Traci Brimhall “The poets who influenced me most were Yeats and Valéry. Both were poets who revised endlessly, and I believe in revision. But I think you can only do it when you're inspired. In other words, the poem goes dead if you don't revise it white heat. You can't revise it cold, as far as I'm concerned. It's like playing a very stiff three sets of tennis one after another.” — May Sarton “Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece—the revisions—was almost more valuable than producing an original draft.” — W.S. Merwin “Revision is to occupy a poem as spectator instead of as creator. We clean a room so that it looks unoccupied; in revision we work to efface affect, idiosyncrasy and error so that the poem is a hotel room with the sheets turned down, a mint on its pillow.” — Carmen Giménez Smith [millions_ad] “I don't actually revise, or it's very seldom that I revise. What I do is write so leisurely that all the revisions occur in thought or in the margins of the page. It can make for a page which is as dense, graphically, as some men's-room walls. Which is not to say that a poem is like going to the men's room.”  — Richard Wilbur “I do sometimes use a reading as part of the revision process. I write wanting the poems to be heard, to be thought of, to be read out loud, as human speech.” — Thomas Lux “I revise endlessly. Even after publication.” — Clarence Major “A poem rarely comes whole and completely dressed. As a rule, it comes in bits and pieces. You get an impression of something—you feel something, you anticipate something, and you begin, feebly, to put these impressions and feelings and anticipation or rememberings into those things which seem so common and handleable—words.  And you flail and you falter and you shift and you shake, and finally, you come forth with the first draft. Then, if you're myself and if you're like many of the other poets I know, you revise, and you revise. And often the finished product is nothing like your first draft. Sometimes it is.” — Gwendolyn Brooks “I do read the poems aloud, yes—not while writing, as much, but in the revision stage. I want to test for where things are too rough, or aren’t rough enough, where they fall into patterns of sound and whether or not those are meaningful or distracting patterns.” — Carl Phillips “I revise purposefully and constantly and playfully, as often for sound as for meaning. I lean, too, on the weight of a lifetime of reading poetry. I think back, even, to weekly Mass growing up: its wildly varied poetry, its varying metrical cadences, the call and response, the repetition. I still call on these tools in my poems. — Kerrin McCadden “Sometimes I go through the first revision, the second revision, the third revision, the fourth revision, the fifth revision, the sixth revision and then go, 'Hold it!' You wanna throw the poem down, you want to say all kinds of things. It's sometimes at about the fourth revision that you tear it apart, but if you can just make yourself go past that, it will turn a corner later and it will say, 'Here I am, come get me.' At sometime, by the ninth or tenth revision, when you are practically despairing about it, it turns that corner and that is the most exquisite moment when it happens. And all this is worth the days, the weeks, the months you've spent, and then it flows and the rhythm is there, the imagery is there and it's so wonderful. All that process made it happen. Sometimes you put it down for the night and then you pick it up from the bed in the cold light of the morning. When you read it out loud, in the early morning hours when things are clear, the poem becomes clear also. I always maintain that it's revision that makes that poem turn a corner—and you really don't know how it happens.” — Sonia Sanchez Image Credit: Pxhere.

Must-Read Poetry: February 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in February. Giant by Richard Georges Giant begins with how the “gods of our fathers rose” from the “unlighted deep.” The ocean “splashed about their groaning limbs, / foaming and licking their creaking bodies / stippled with black barnacle.” The long titular poem that opens the collection unfolds into a stanza of direct address: “Recite the prayers your mother taught you, / measure the depth of your days in sunsets, / count your crosses, the number of your years.” Georges commands a voice both calming and cleansing. Giant is a book of myths and minutiae. In poems like “Brandywine/Tortola,” narrators long for the old music of youth. The past often opens through the night, when “the ghosts / howl the unreasonableness of love // to those, like me, who listen for voices / on the wind.” These narrators wish “to believe again in gods, // and bodies as real as this green earth is.” Night, wind, prayer, and water become his refrain, coupled with a stubborn belief in words: “This is a night full of voices: / the infant wailing at the baptismal font, / the weeping around a silent casket. / The whole damn world is alight / and hungry and nothing is ever enough— / but there is poetry, which will suffice.” Virgin by Analicia Sotelo Sotelo’s poetry reveals the weight of desire, how our hearts drag our bodies. After a narrator heads home from a bar, alone, she’s “discovered / humiliation is physically painful: / the crown-like stigmata of a peach / that’s been twisted, pulled open, / left there.” A later narrator contemplates the “darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.” In “Trauma with White Agnostic Male,” she writes “This is blood / for blood, a prodigal heartbreak // I must return” (in Sotelo’s poems, past is always present). “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” is hilarious—“She was very unhappy and vaguely religious so I put her / at the edge of the lake where the ducks were waddling / along like Victorian children, living out their lives in / blithe, downy softness”—and builds toward an emotional end. Imbued with Catholic cultural touches (“I was a clever rosary”), Sotelo mines the Marian paradox with complexity, grace, and power. And this is a book about Texas, where “there’s no winter,” but “the light changes, grows sharper, // keener, and when I was a girl, / it was breath to me, // walking up the hillside to school, / the wind touching my throat.” Her narrators want more out of life, but they clench what they have—and draw us back to her pages. A significant debut. The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone “No one here is glad anyone is dead. But / there is a certain comfort in knowing / the dead can entertain us, if we wish.” A little bit Inferno, but maybe even more so the deliciously devilish No Exit, Stone’s book is a strange, entertaining journey into an underground world where poor souls are “clinging to our tragedies, finding our favorite face.” Stone offers her reader a topography of a purgatory, a place where you “leave your inhibitions at the door,” and there’s “Grandma, half-blind, naked but for an open / XL flannel and Birkenstocks.” After their shift, dancers give tips to the House Mom, and then they go upstairs to their rooms, where grief “read itself aloud / in gilt fragments and tapestries fallen apart.” For all the spectacle of this netherworld, this grief returns in waves: “I can’t tell anymore whether I am grieving you particularly / or I simply find life and death erroneous.” You’ve never quite seen a poetic party like this: “Death’s last-minute cosmetic surgery, the skin taut / from gravity, confined in beauty for one last hurrah.” Yet at some point in Stone’s vision, the nightmare recedes, and we settle into her narrator’s mind—one pained by the cycles of generational loss, longing for her mother. When Stone finally returns us to that club in the book’s final pages, it is as if we might never leave there ourselves. [millions_ad] The Elegies of Maximianus translated by A.M. Juster “I am not who I was, my greatest part has perished.” Juster’s fluid, engaging translation should bring the curious elegies of Maximianus—whose only previous English edition was in 1900—to a wider audience. A 6th-century Roman poet, Maximianus’s 686 lines arrive in the voice of a “querulous old man” (to quote Michael Roberts’s fine introduction), who laments the loss of his erotic misadventures. Readers of Michel de Montaigne will recognize the poet’s pithy lines quoted in the French essayist’s work (“Alas! how little of life is left to the old.” is crisply rendered by Juster as “how much life remains for old men?”). Juster imbues a profluence to the elegist’s consideration of life. Young Maximianus, full of lust, equally brimmed with folly: “So I, who everyone considered a grave saint, / am wretched and revealed by my own vice.” We can sense his old soul inaccurately lighting the lost loves of his youth—Juster’s translation is sharp, his pacing pure—and the book’s final elegy, a mere dozen lines, arrives with a particular sadness: “Death’s journey is the same for all; the type of life / and exit, though, is not the same for all.” Sometimes there is no solace, not even in memories. Noirmania by Joanna Novak Joyelle McSweeney has called the necropastoral the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classic pastoral.” The necropastoral is a place of “strange meetings,” and it is within that setting Joanna Novak’s Noirmania exists. A dark book with drifting, spaced lines, Noirmania is a series of single-page, untitled poems that depict the stratification of memory. The narrator exists out of time, moving between visions of childhood and a place more severe and stagnant than Theodore Roethke’s root cellar. Sharp lines sneak through: “Who hasn’t / eaten alone at dusk, with the moon / pouring out like a placemat?” While it will take time for readers to settle into Novak’s schema, once they do, there is much to see in the darkness, where “silence studied / my lostness: a mass in a room in a suite / off an impossible house with bats and eaves.” House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?

A Stay Against Confusion: On Why I Started Writing Poetry Again

When I really want to feel some measure of control, I write poetry. Poetry is shaped, while prose assumes the shape of the page. Other than indents for dialogue and new paragraphs, prose follows the path set by a document’s margins. We type and let the letters fall where they will—because for essayists and fiction writers, the contours of a sentence are often more of sound than sight. Prose writers are no less precise than poets, but their words have different functions. A sense of control might be why I so often return to Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the introduction he penned to the 1939 version of his Collected Poems. My impulse might appear contradictory; Frost’s essay is best known for his suggestion that the route of a poem is not in control, but surprise—for both reader and writer. “It is but a trick poem and no poem at all,” he says, “if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.” Yet when I say that I write poetry to feel in control, I don’t mean that I write poetry as an act of coercion or prescription. I have a feeling where my poems might go, but I also have a feeling where most of my days might go. I am usually surprised by both. Although I appreciate lines such as “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” my interest in “The Figure a Poem Makes” is focused on other elements. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson said the poet wanted to see if each poem “had a kind of character and shape or form of its own.” A poem, Frost claimed, “had to show that the poet was ‘getting his body into it.’” Frost takes a few paragraphs to get his body—or perhaps his focus—into the essay. He begins with a lament about how abstraction “has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” He stops and starts, but settles into a rhythm when his own abstractions find that figure of poetry, one that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I often drift through his sentences, but pause on one particular gem: that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” While I’m skeptical that poetry will save us, I’ve felt compelled to write poetry again in the past year as a stay against the daily conflagration of argument and noise. Poetry is a salve against the digital exhortation to be constantly engaged in the digital world. I do think poetry and prayer have much in common, but I think good prayer is kenotic; an emptying of self, the hope to be better in how we treat others. If I pray for things I want, I start to feel like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, rambling on in the cathedral. Writing poetry is a return to the self. A claiming of space and soul. An affirmation of worth. [millions_ad] Lately I have been reading H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, and lines like “Let us substitute / enchantment for sentiment, // re-dedicate our gifts / to spiritual realm” make me think of Frost. Poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. I think Frost’s essential word here is momentary; to entirely escape from the world seems not only impossible, but perhaps a bit selfish. Yet to give in to the cultural—or perhaps capitalist—demand to remain superficially engaged, online or otherwise, is to assert the importance of society over spirit. Now I write essays—about poetry, culture, and God—but my first two books were collections of poetry. Those books feel like part of a past life. They were written before my daughters were born. The economics of poetry are unforgiving. Poetry is a place of no deadlines. A place of searching. It is also a world of little remuneration. It is romantic to think that such a thing does not matter. But it does. The writing life is a succession of different acts, with their own failures and conflicts and moments of joy. To live as a writer means to embrace, and perhaps be inspired by, these different seasons. Nostalgia shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but if we’ve opened a window years before, there was probably a good reason. Writing poetry is an act of ordering our thoughts and perceptions into lines and sections. By focusing on a form of writing that embraces structure and selection, we can participate in a daily examen of sorts—and whether that poetry is ever published is not really the point. There are greater rewards. I am writing poems again. And I suspect that I’m not the only one. Image Credit: Pixabay.