Creating Wider, Deeper, Better Realities: The Millions Interviews Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden begins the acknowledgements to Disparates, his new book of essays, with a quote from the Spanish mystic St. Teresa de Ávila: “The true proficiency of the soul consists not so much in deep thinking or eloquent speaking or beautiful writing as in much and warm loving.” It’s a pleasant thought on its own, but it is especially welcome—and gently radical—as the preface to a book of thinking and writing.

The quote is also apt because Madden’s essays are self-aware, self-critical, inquisitive, encyclopedic, and ultimately what the essayist Brian Doyle called “songs of the small that is not small at all.” The essay as a work of thought, yes, but also as a certain balm for weary times.

Madden’s previous books of essays include Sublime Physick and Quotidiana. He co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, and co-translated Eduardo Milán’s Selected Poems. His essays have appeared in Iowa Review, Portland Magazine, and TriQuarterly, and in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. He co-edits the journal Fourth Genre and teaches creative nonfiction at Brigham Young University.

We spoke about his affinity for the essay form, his background in physics, and how Eduardo Galeano says our experiences are “transfigured in the process of creation.”

The Millions: In the introductory essay to Disparates, you write that essays have “always been concerned with disparates: (seeming) trivialities, absurdities, inanities, flippancies.” You affirm that this book is an “attempt to reassert the value of the disparate, which controverts reason, which shakes our certainties, which lightens our burdens, which alleviates our sorrows and brings us to laughter (of insight or humor).” In a nod to the realities of the publishing world, you acknowledge that disparate essay collections have a stubborn staying power. When I think of genres that, unfortunately, need to continually reaffirm their relevance, I do think of the novella, the short story collection, and the essay collection. Why, in particular, do you think these genres are met with skepticism—and by whom?  

Patrick Madden: This feels a bit like a chicken-egg problem in how marketers want to gauge what sells and focus on that, but what sells is always a function of what is available (and most visible), which is, of course, a function of what the marketers expend their efforts (and money) on. So much in life pretends to reflect people’s “unbiased” and organic preferences, their likes and desires, without recognizing (whether because of ignorance or conniving) that our desires are always a reflection of and response to our culture, which is always relative and can be manipulated (the Payola radio scandal is one instance; the obscene money still spent on advertising is ongoing evidence). I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s example of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, who was never given a chance to learn or write or express her creative self because her culture believed that women were inferior to men and therefore could not succeed at “men’s work,” and thus created or perpetuated the conditions to ensure her (and other women’s) failure. I believe that a similar (certainly less damaging and far-ranging) cycle of expectation/acceptance/confirmation perpetuates the scarcity of these literary forms. As far as the essay goes, though, I’ve been quite encouraged by trends over the past two decades, at least generally. When I was in graduate school, nobody I met believed that publishers would publish an essay collection (especially by an unknown writer like myself), and many such books had to hide their essayness. But nowadays, you see the word “Essays” on all sorts of books, even on front covers, from David Sedaris to hip coastal writers to lots of folks you’ve never heard of before. I think this is great. “Essay” is no longer a kiss of death for a book. The term speaks to a growing contingent of savvy, with-it readers, who’re drawn to the genre, instead of repelled by it. I’m really grateful to be among the beneficiaries of this resurgence in essay-interest.

TM: “Life doesn’t always happen in the best order or with the best details for a story. Fiction writers can simply rearrange and embellish to craft the story they want. For a truth-teller essayist, this is not an option, unless the essayist indicates clearly the manipulations and perhaps offers them to the contemplative reader as fodder for a rumination on the nature of truth or reality or the essay genre.” This is a prefatory note at the start of your essay “Order,” and prompts me to ask two questions: How did you, a physics major at Notre Dame, first become an essayist? And as an essayist, what interests you more: truth (however subjective), or the artifice of literary truth? 

PM: I have to laugh, considering my “essayist origin story.” You’re right that I studied physics, all the way to my B.S. I loved the way physics could explain the workings of the natural world with precision. Within the scientific paradigm, things felt knowable and, by extension, controllable. Unfortunately, real physicists no longer work testing Newton’s mechanical laws, which are already well established. So they tend to specialize in very narrow areas, and some of them spend entire careers colliding subatomic particles deep beneath the earth and then analyzing computer readouts of what other subatomic particles flashed into existence for a nanosecond before disappearing. This did not seem appealing to me. I wanted very much to open outward, instead of collapse inward, and to pursue as an amateur all kinds of interesting ideas. I had the good fortune of leaving on a two-year Latter-day Saint mission to Uruguay soon after graduation, during which time I effectively stripped away most of the buzzing distractions in my life (and this was the mid-90s, long before our hyperdistracted present), so I had plenty of time to ponder anything and everything (it seemed). I came to the conclusion that what I loved more than anything, and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, was to think. Period. Just to think, without any particular object or discipline (I meant this as in “branch of knowledge,” but I like it, too, as “controlled behavior”). When I returned from Uruguay, I cast about a bit, doing temp jobs, long-distance courting Karina (who would agree to marry me soon enough; hooray!), and my mother bought me The Best American Essays 1996, where I found Ian Frazier’s “Take the F,” and I thought “That’s what I want to do: write essays.” I got very lucky to study at BYU for a master’s degree, and then Ohio University for a PhD, and then got hired back at BYU, where I’ve been teaching and writing for 16 years now.

Maybe I should end my story here, but I think it matters, and gets me to your second question, to say that while my worldview prior to taking up the essay was rather binary (and my novice understanding of physics supported this view: that if you but knew the formula, you could predict the results with absolute accuracy), my studies in the essay completely upended all of my unearned certainties. From Montaigne on, essayists have sought and often successfully revealed an expansive, probing, meandering humility in the face of the vast unknowability of the universe. The essay paradigm is filled with both doubt and wonder, seeking not a dominion over but harmony with the world, a recognition of each individual’s insignificance and the mind’s inability to do more than make limited and subjective tests of truth. I’m not sure if this is pointing to (subjective) “truth” or “the artifice of literary truth,” but maybe here those concepts overlap. I’m certainly interested in the ways literature aims at truth, recognizing no unequivocal or oppressively universal truths but instead suggesting that truth is always contextual, limited, a function of interpretation. It is worth noting, too, that even physics, in more recent times, has recognized some fundamental uncertainties (the best known of which, according to Werner Heisenberg, almost a century ago, states that a particle’s location and velocity cannot be known simultaneously, not even with “perfect” instruments for measurement), so I’ve learned that “real physics” does not even conform to my abandoned worldview.

TM: We are both from Whippany, N.J: we went to the same high school, our families went to the same church. How would you describe that place to those who have never been there? How has it found its way into your writing?

PM: Right! I mention this fact (of our shared hometown) in the essay on “Happiness” in the book. I really love Whippany and am happy to have grown up there. My father still lives in the home I grew up in on Clemens Terrace (my mother passed away four years ago; my siblings, like me, have moved to other states). But I find it really difficult to describe the place. Superficially, it’s a Revolutionary War-era town along a river, with streets cradled by trees and lots of tract houses surrounding the few remaining 18th-century mansions. Lots of winding streets and hills and trees and no real “downtown” to speak of. Intersected by a few highways, but home to abundant wildlife (deer, of course, squirrels, turkeys, bears sometimes). During the mid-20th century it was a working-class town with a few industries that expanded the population. By the time my family arrived in 1979 (I was eight), it was a pleasant suburban town, home to lots of commuters. In some ways, Whippany seems indistinguishable from surrounding towns (once I was driving somewhere with my visiting college roommate, who grew up on a chicken farm in Ohio, and he asked “Where does your town end?” and I had to laugh and tell him “We’re four towns away from my town!”). I grew up with a backyard that led to a large tract of woods near the Whippany River, where my friends and I would build forts and bike trails and explore abandoned cars and catch tadpoles and sled down hills and shuffle across a dam to the abandoned Whippany Paper Board factory and climb on rotted-out roofs and explore underground passages and get chased by police and…There’s really so much I can say about Whippany, the place that nurtured me, imbued me with a spirit of adventure and affirmed my best qualities, really formed me in so many ways. But I haven’t written much directly about Whippany. Certainly it finds its way into my writing as a setting for my childhood experiences, but I rarely name it, and, as I say, I haven’t set out to explore it in writing as systematically as I might. Still, I think I’m so deeply shaped by Whippany that its spirit infiltrates my way of being: curious, adventurous, quirky, subversive, a bit pranky, pseudo-intellectual. All that. Oh! And since everybody who grew up in Whippany in the 1980s is a Rush fan, so am I. Big time. And Rush pervades my writing.

TM: There’s a funny scene in “Memory” of you and your childhood friend John eating slices of smoked sausage samples at FoodTown, a local supermarket. At some point, the woman distributing the samples says “You boys are eating up all of my profits.” In the essay, you reflect on how it “seems strange to me that I should remember such an inanity, even more so because I didn’t really understand what she meant. But the phrase stuck, stayed intact, verbatim, somewhere in my mind amidst the millions of other things people have said to me, sometimes people who mean a great deal to me, whom I love, yet whose sayings have gone utterly lost from my brain.” Is this, in some measure, why you write essays? Is this a sense that you get from other essayists—this reckoning with the oddities and confounding grace of existence?

PM: I’m glad you put that into words with your questions, Nick. Yes, I write essays to reckon with oddities and confounding grace, which it seems to me are ever present, if only we’re attentive to them. Or, to think of it another way: the externalities of life come at us not quite arbitrarily, but unpredictably, and they land and generate effects both short- and long-term (which suggests a dichotomy of time, which is not accurate), and we cannot know, nor can we control, how they’ll resonate or return to us, but we may have some control over what (or how) they mean. I think we’re surrounded by ready-made categories of meaning, which can be a good thing, such as when someone tells you that one of their family members has died, you know the default response is to express sympathy, even if you don’t know their family member well or at all. Certain communal or universal experiences, too, come attached to a common and easily available set of meanings, such that right now, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we all seem to understand the general anxieties and hardships and experiences of our fellows, and we are equipped to interact with each other from some baseline assumptions about how others are feeling (granted, some of us, unaccountably, choose to respond with callousness and disdain). But essayists have long seemed to recognize that experience does not come attached to meaning, or not to preset meanings at least, and if we can be even a little bit conscious in our engagements with life (usually after the fact, in moments of reflection, often when writing and reading), then we can shape and share our responses in beneficial ways, ways that recognize grace and oddity and see their connections, to each other and to everything. This is one of the many wonders of essays, I think: how they nudge our perceptions and create for us new (wider, deeper, perhaps even “better”) realities.

TM: In “Solstice,” you include some lines from your first conversation with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in which he says that our writing itself—in addition to the real thing we writing about—is also real: “The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.” I’m especially drawn to transfigured here. First, a practical question: what is your “process of creation” for essays like the ones in this new collection? Then, considering the connotations of transfigured, do essays have any semblance of spiritual work or action for you?

PM: I’ve just revisited my transcription of that interview, which was conducted in Spanish, to check on Galeano’s original wording, and sure enough, he said, “Ese hecho que viene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad se transfigura en el proceso de creación.” He reiterates in the next sentence, that “Es inevitable que se transfigure,” or “It’s inevitable that it’s transfigured.” So let’s talk confidently about transfiguration, which Galeano, who was raised Catholic in a country steeped in traditional Catholicism, would surely have understood in its mystical, spiritual senses. Regarding process of creation, I suspect that I’m much the same as you and every other writer of nonfiction: I try to remain attentive to what’s going on, not so much to happenings (though they are important) as to ideas that flit through my consciousness as I’m going about my day. I often take brief notes to jog my memory later, or to spark connections to other ideas. The notes accumulate and call up related ideas, though most of the things I note never grow into essays; they remain jotted in notebooks or in a file on my phone. When I can find a free moment (like now, it occurs to me, sitting in the early morning before anybody’s up, with the faint hum of tires on the nearby roads and the fragrant floral smell of blossoming trees, a slowly brightening, sharpening light as an unseen cloud wafts out of the path of the sun’s rays behind me), I write in binges and for long stretches, attuned to the music of language more than any unfolding narrative, and I seek discovery or surprise with the associations my mind makes when it’s allowed to work free from the usual demands and distractions of harried life. In this sense, absolutely, essays feel deeply spiritual, at times more spiritual than any rite or ritual I’ve participated in. In both reading and writing essays, I find that I am opened, enlarged, elevated from the norms of my life. Essays provide a respite from the systems wherein value is determined monetarily and people are viewed (even view themselves) as cogs in an economic machine. If one accepted binary to understand our lives is material/spiritual, and if “materialism” branches to mean both a philosophy that reduces everything to matter and a system that values only possessions, and if materialism tends to engender a toxic individuality, then essays often successfully break out of those systems and point to something more ephemeral, less tangible, more essential and connected and deeply valuable about us. They gently brush the edge of the cloak of what I believe to be our innermost and truest selves. When I am in an essay, caught up in attentiveness, in interconnectedness, in realizing (both “becoming aware” and “making real”) something never before seen or heard or understood, I feel that not only the essay’s “material” but I myself am transfigured. And I believe this transfiguration is available to others, too, when they read. This feels utterly spiritual to me.

To Be Free of Time: The Millions Interviews Samantha Harvey

Sleep is forever mysterious and mundane, necessary and difficult: endless fodder for writers and artists. In The Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey’s mesmerizing new book, she captures what W.B. Yeats calls “the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake”—in its most melancholy and purgatorial senses.

Harvey moves swiftly and skillfully between narrative modes in the book, between past and present, ghost and real, doctor’s office and bedroom at night. She’s a philosophical writer; although this memoir is focused on her “year of not sleeping,” her experiences reverberate through her entire existence: “My life, all life, opens out in accelerated footage of growth. It doesn’t feel like it could ever stop, and that’s the trick of life—it seems so abundant, and even while we’re watching it die all around us it’s whispering in our ears sweet-nothings of plenitude.”



Her most recent novel is The Western Wind; her other novels include Dear Thief, All Is Song, and The Wilderness, which won the Betty Trask Prize. A senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, her fiction has appeared in Granta and on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Bath, England.

We spoke about the struggle of insomnia, the salvific power of writing, and the wildness of night.

The Millions: Early in the book you reference the medieval Ars moriendi, The Art of Dying: “the deathbed of a man is crowded with them, saints and demons, each vying for his soul.” The mysterious, supernatural world of night feels apt for religious reference—I think of the metaphorical lines from St. John of the Cross: “One dark night, / filled with love’s urgent longing / —ah, the sheer grace!— / I went out unseen, / my house being now all stilled.” What compels you toward those religious and spiritual themes in the early pages of the book, while in bed, “with the light out, here they come, all of them, the holy and the horrifying; here they are”?

Samantha Harvey: Thanks so much, firstly, for your wonderful and challenging questions. It’s interesting that you quote St. John of the Cross, and that lovely first verse, because, as you’ll know, it’s from this poem that we get the phrase dark night of the soul (though it never actually appears in the poem). And that’s a phrase that has often come to me, for obvious reasons.

In the worst months of insomnia, it began to feel that I entered a battle each night between light and dark, trust and fear, calm and panic. The “light,” trusting, faithful part of my human nature would assert, “It’s okay, I will sleep again, if not tonight then soon, there’s nothing to fear,” while the “dark,” terrified part would say, “It’s not alright, you won’t sleep, you’ll go mad, you’ll die of this.”  It would take an enormous effort of will for the “light” part to overcome the “dark”—and it often didn’t succeed. The battle felt biblical in its proportions; I could find no other language that would do it justice.

I guess that religious or spiritual language and symbolism come from an attempt to articulate and map these sorts of internal human experiences. That’s why religion is often a comfort to people in times of trouble, even people without a religious fiber in their bodies—because at its best it’s speaking the language of human experience, it’s mapping the lows, the highs, the conflicts and contradictions, the countless ineffable things of being alive; as poetry often does too. I think that, like poetry, the best religious language is precise and diffuse at the same time, luminous yet elusive, pointing at meaning while also scattering meaning. It’s precisely what I love about writing, why poetry and religion have always been central to what I write and why—predictably—they’re there at the beginning of this book.

TM: Some sections of the book are written in frenetic third-person: “at night, she felt increasingly feral, like a wild animal enduring a cage” and “She reports that she did not understand where the wildness came from at night.” Later in the book, in a wonderful description of falling asleep, you also write: “There’s nothing for you to assign your faith to but this one inevitable act of animal grace that is yours for the taking.” The scenes wonderfully capture what Ingmar Bergman depicted of vargtimmen—the hour of the wolf, a dark time of deaths and births, of frenzied creation. I have to wonder: in the midst of your struggles at night, do you ever feel driven to create? Do you ever write at night?

SH: I love the expression vargtimmen; I hadn’t heard it. There’s also the French expression for dusk, entre chien et loup, between dog and wolf, i.e. when the light is such that you can’t tell the difference between a dog and a wolf, which has metaphorical meanings too—the blurry line between the safe and the wild. I now know that wildness intimately well.

But, it wasn’t this wolfish, feral state that I wrote from. It was the fall-out from it the next day, the wired, exhausted, 50-hours-without-sleep rabid bouts of clarity that surface in the midst of extreme deprivation. That’s when I wrote. I never wrote on the days when I felt relatively well-slept. On those days all I wanted was to be outside, to put aside all thoughts of sleep and not sleep. And hardly any of The Shapeless Unease was written at night.

My insomniac self has tried to write in the night, or draw, or something. Nothing would come. Back when I used to be a good sleeper, I’d occasionally stay up at night and work and I found it a rich, receptive time. With insomnia, not so. When the insomnia was at its worst —while I was writing  The Shapeless Unease—I was often very distressed at night, ranging about, over-adrenalized, in terrified fight or flight. Or, I would lie silent and inert in bed, pretending I was asleep, barely breathing.

Whereas the next day I’d be physically shattered, too shattered to range and rave and rail, but my thoughts were electric and urgent. They had about them a raw lucidity. All I had to do was sit quietly and transcribe them. Without sleep there’s no shock absorbency for the body or mind; nothing is felt mildly or gently. So, writing was both a sort of lightning rod that earthed my electric mind, and also a harness for those raw, clear, fleeting insights—if “insight” is the right word. I’m not sure that all of my seemingly revelatory exhausted thoughts actually made sense…

TM: Time returns often in this book: “Sometimes time, for me, is a medium with a sort of viscosity, like water, or like oil, or like mud, depending on how it impacts on me.” And later, the wonderful line: “Time, not life, is what we live.” How has insomnia impacted your perception of time as a concept, and as a lived experience?

SH: I’m not at all sure how to answer this question. I want to be able to say profound and enlightened things about the nature of night and day and so on. Really, having insomnia quite severely for quite a long time has made me feel imprisoned by time. Time has often felt like the enemy.

I’ve sat in the living room alone at 3 a.m. with the world a dead, dark thing all around me, and the passing of a single second has felt like an hour. Each minute would pass over me very slowly with the weight of a freight train. I wanted nothing more than to be free of time. Because, isn’t that partly what sleep and dreams are—freedom from the push and pull of time? It’s hard when you don’t get much of either; your life collapses inward.

I used to always say to myself at 3 a.m., This will pass, this will pass. But I don’t anymore; the sense of passing just evokes that freight train which will pass, yes, and then come back. Now when I can’t sleep, I tend to say to myself, This is, this is. There’s no desire in that statement and no hope and no fear and no argument and no panic. There’s also no time in it, where time is the engine for all these other things. Desire—I want it to be other than this. Fear—it will always be like this. Hope—maybe it won’t always be like this. Argument—it never used to be like this. Panic—make it stop being like this.

When I sat down to write my experience of sleeplessness I think that’s what I was writing: this is, this is. No fight or fear in that moment, and no waiting for the moment to lapse into the next. Interesting that a whole book could be written from that huge, tiny place. That gives me some happiness now actually, to think of it that way.

TM: You say that an Episcopelian priest from the United States wrote a sermon inspired by your novel, The Western Wind, and an essay that you’d written about anxiety. “He picks up on the sense of anxiety I describe,” you write, “that of something groundless and objectless, something that has to find objects to attach to in order to maintain itself, but which originates without those objects. The mind inflates with a shapeless unease, he says. I find myself going over that phrase again, the loveliness of it, the aptness, the fact that shapeless is a word that occurs to me often lately.” I love that phrase that has become your title—the shapeless unease; could you talk about how that title came to be connected with this book? Did it inspire/influence the writing of the book as a whole, or particular sections?

SH: You’re right that titles do influence the writing of a book, and I like this question because I haven’t properly considered it before.

Yes—the title (that is, the email from the Episcopalian priest to whom I now feel I owe so much) came late in the process and helped me to understand a lot of what I’d already written. For a long time I was just writing vignettes and observations without any sense of their unity. I had no idea I was creating a book. When I read that phrase, the shapeless unease, I could see that all fragments I’d put down were describing that shapelessness—that the shapelessness was, if you like, the very theme.

But then, ironically enough, finding the title of the book helped me find its shape. Within those fragments there were certain shared refrains. I could begin to see how all the pieces I’d written were speaking to one another, becoming a song—how a short story I’d written, for example, spoke to some other sections about my own childhood, which spoke to the fears I’d described when I attempted to sleep, which spoke to what I’d written about my cousin’s death, etc.

It wasn’t that I then had to spell out these connections, or write in neat narrative links; it was just a question of allowing the refrains to come through. At most, all it meant was that I shuffled the order of a few of the sections so that they could relate to one another more plainly, or less plainly. 

In the end, the book, I think, took on a sort of organization of its own, and this was part of what made it so consoling to write—that instinctively I’d created shape out of a raw experience that was panicky and formless. And that the very unease that I was writing about was finding itself eased by the writing. I can’t overemphasize the sense I have of writing having saved me somehow. It is to me such a miraculous thing.

TM: Your insomnia first arrived with the results of the European Referendum. A fractured time, of course, but now we are in the midst of a pandemic, so I have to ask: how are you sleeping now?

SH: Thanks for asking—I’m still a poor sleeper by any measure, but a much better sleeper than I was a year or so ago, and no better or worse a sleeper for the pandemic. In general, now, I find my insomnia is kept going by its own internal engine, rather than by anything that’s happening in the world. It’s become a habit of body and mind rather than something fuelled by circumstance.

It might sound strange to say but I’m not generally a person who gets worried about national or global events—at least not to the point of them affecting my sleep. Brexit got me because it felt so sad and pointless, a right-wing power-grab dressed up as some great national emancipation. And it changed the character and identity of the country I’ve always loved and called home; it felt far more personal than most other political events in my lifetime and it felt like a loss of several things I valued.

A pandemic is different. In itself it’s not an ideologically-driven thing, it’s a huge, shared human problem and there’s something in that—in the rare compulsion for us to act together as a species rather than define ourselves by our divisions and differences. I find something hopeful there—though am neither putting a gloss on the virus nor the political goings-on behind it. I have moments of really feeling the tragedy of this pandemic—my partner’s friend lost his wife to it, another friend has lost her mother. But there’s also the possibility we can use this as a reminder of how senseless it is to make enemies of one another when we have other far bigger and more pressing things to worry about. That’s more a hope than an expectation, but if I think about the pandemic at night at all, it’s that hope that’s in my mind.

Must-Read Poetry: May 2020

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit, edited by Leah Silvieus and Lee Herrick

An anthology that should become a mainstay of poetry classrooms. “It is always the right time for faith and the spirit. It is always the right time for poetry,” the editors write in their introduction. The anthology begins with a long poem, “The City in Which I Love You,” by Li-Young Lee, which sets the appropriate tone of wonder and seeking: “Is prayer, then, the proper attitude / for the mind that longs to be freely blown, / but which gets snagged on the barb / called world, that / tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer // would I build? And to whom?” Several excellent poems here from Matthew Olzmann, a poet both clever and soulful (one trait of a great anthology is that it sends us searching to find more work). From his “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”: “But this is how faith works its craft. / One foot set in front of the other, while the wind / rattles the cage of the living, and the rocks down there // cheer every wobble, and your threads keep / this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. / I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across.” In a later poem of his, an ecumenical prayer: “Our Father, who art in / heaven and also / the centipede grass and the creek / and the engine that warbles / roadside.” The anthology includes “Grace,” a lovely elegy by Joseph O. Legaspi for his father. A carabao “pulling a wooden cart hill-high with watermelons” arrives on the narrator’s street. His father “watermelon lover, scanned the stacked pyramid, held up a dull fruit.” He gave it “a gentle knock,” his “knuckles // bounced off the bell-domed curve, he listened, eyes / closed.” The narrator “watched him then, as I always did, / man of eternal theater, of elegant fingers, this Lazarus / figment memory I call poetry, my father full of grace.” There are poems here that also sound the faithfulness of doubt, like “Vestige” by Michelle Peñaloza: “The creak of pews makes my knees ache, / my palms and fingertips kiss.” The visceral, tangible roll of rosaries connects the narrator with her mother: “I envied the faith she found.” She, though, has other devotions. “I count the day’s / miracles: the sweet butter on wheat toast, / the abundance of coffee, the predictability of doors, / opening and closing.” 

The Park by John Freeman

Freeman’s pensive volume is a fascinating consideration of the park as a place of preserved wilderness. “We / stop, in mourning, / sensing everything / we’ve lost. We call / that ceremony / a park” he writes in the prefatory poem; wildlife passes through those spaces, yet it is only humans who need to ponder the relative absence of wildness elsewhere. The park is an injunction against the neutering of civilization. As Freeman etymologically notes, “It took the overrunning of London / by its immigrant population in 1680 / to turn the word into the spot we’d / park humans, so they could stumble / around in bewilderment at how time / is translation, change is nature’s time.” As he demonstrates in “Walks in the Dark,” layers abound in these considerations of wild spaces. While a child, the narrator entered woods “stark / and bluish-green, lit / by our candles, ninety / young singing boys, / walking to the lake” while “holding our / fathers’ hands.” The woods “darker still because of those / teardrops of light.” The lake’s “black / water absolutely waveless,” the candles floating. Yet the morning after, the narrator “learned / the lake was a reservoir, / water we stole / from the trees that gave us / shade.” He followed the water to the dam “holding back the hoarded / water,” the flow “clogged / with the candles, which were / soggy and gray and not at / all like prayers.” In the end, as Freeman writes in another poem, perhaps the purpose of parks “is to temper the machine / in us.”

White Blood by Kiki Petrosino

Another ambitious volume from Petrosino. Revelation through ancestry test: a narrator wonders how genetic history routes our lives, and how we are to fully reckon with our past, known and unknown. An early section of the book is a skilled double crown sonnet that begins with acceptance—to college, but also the intellectual structure of America—that feels more conditional and tenuous with each successive line. She wonders: “Of those white kids / whose turn (some said) I took. / I took it hard.” She feels like a specimen, a test: “Since I was a living lab / I scythed, skull-clean / my crop of hair.” She “hummed in botanical Latin / the notes of my glasshouse / erudition.” Intensely aware of the economics of the campus, she thinks of her ancestors, and her admirable vulnerability contains despair: “How was I their dream, their hope? / Born too late to know them or walk / the perimeter of their graves / deep in the next country, next / planet, where I couldn’t read the land / or speak the right words in the woods.” Throughout the book, her narrator can’t escape this self-analysis, this worry, this reconsideration, as in “The Shop at Monticello”: “I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies / into money. Now, I have money to spend on little trinkets to remind me / of this fact.” An intriguing collection that weaves themes of lineage and the paradox that race and identity are wielded as souvenirs: commodified souls. 

Audubon’s Sparrow by Juditha Dowd

While living in Louisville, Ky., Lucy Bakewell Audubon wrote to her cousin that her husband, John James, “is constantly at the store,” and that she wishes there was a library or bookstore nearby, because she “should often enjoy a book very much whilst I am alone.” Her correspondence is replete with similar longings. Lucy is often a biographical complement to her husband, or worse, a clarifying footnote. Yet in this poetic biography, Dowd accomplishes the complex task of affirming Lucy’s own life, while also illuminating her husband’s talents. In a September 1804 poetic epistle to her cousin, Lucy writes: “As to how he pronounces my name, you may not be surprised / to learn I now prefer it uttered by the French.” They marry several years later, but their relationship is defined by distance; if not at his general store, he is “off hunting rabbits, or sketching them, / or racing his fine horse.” Dowd also writes several monologues through John James’s voice. “Fall has unmistakably arrayed our woods,” he thinks, but “I cannot see it,” for he is “amid the bales and boxes, / flour bins and raisins, and the wooden socks.” He ends the poem: “I’m a provisioner of farmers, of travelers and families, / while something in me sighs that I am not.” Longing and sacrifice pervade this book. One of the few placid moments appears in Lucy’s December 1824 letter to her sister Eliza: “Be happy for us, Sister. Once more we sing.” Soon the couple would be separate for three years while he worked on and promoted The Birds of America, but that sentiment of hope and return carries through Dowd’s work.

So Forth by Rosanna Warren

Warren anoints the ordinary with reverent elegy. “Northeast Corridor” is a wildly accurate sketch of that route. The rider: “Catechist of gnarled oak trees, marshes, suburban marinas, / cinders, and gutted mattresses.” The view: “A dilapidated barge, half-sunk, hunches from slime. / Chain-link fences, dim factories, tumble of trash down a bank– / my country, my countryside, hurls itself away // as twilight catches in each broken window.” The bridge and play of “my country, my countryside” is one example of Warren’s sense of the tragicomic. “The horizon’s illegible. We have left / shingled houses, sidewalks, picket fences behind in a blur / back where we made the childhood promises. / We signed our names but wrote in invisible ink”: few poems capture the region with such perspicuity. She also brings such lucid vision to prosaic spaces, as with the first lines of a later poem: “The poster in the doctor’s office proposes / Eden: varicose peonies tilting / over a lapis lazuli pool. / Blossoms lush, carnal, and tipsy / as aging courtesans.” Warren is able to channel, or conjure, a sense of earnest malaise: “If it’s a god // who touches us when we lose ourselves / he’s the briefest of flashbulbs, the image cannot endure.” This melancholic, skilled sense extends to the unique final section of the collection, mostly set in the forest: “We tread on silver flakes and shadows. / Downward, ever downward, to the meadow / where the ghost lily, late summer wraith, / gapes, ash-pink, with news / of the underworld dusted on its tongue.” 

Must-Read Poetry: April 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Deluge by Leila Chatti

A stunning debut. Chatti enters the Marian tradition of literature with fury, joining Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine as recent works that offer new theory and theology toward the literary Mary. In this God-teeming book, Chatti considers not only herself against Mary—the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an—but all women present and historical against the Marian figure and image. Raised Muslim by her father, her “mother’s family is deeply Catholic,” and she was drawn to the Marian identity across those two faiths, particularly what Mary says in the Qur’an, while giving birth: “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” In Deluge, Chatti emerges from that line with a synthesis of body and spirit, secret and wish, miracle and literal body. “Truth be told,” she starts the first poem, “I like Mary a little better / when I imagine her like this, crouched / and cursing, a boy-God pushing on / her cervix (I like remembering / she had a cervix, her body ordinary / and so like mine).” In other poems, Chatti steps within Mary’s identity, imagining the visitation by Gabriel, “rude / as a dream,” and feeling regret over keeping “my tongue in my mouth.” “Perhaps I’d have been / better off,” she ends the poem, “to be wary, but I’d been waiting so long / to hear God speak—I hadn’t thought to think // of what he might tell me.” In one of several poems titled “Annunciation,” Chatti’s identity folds into Mary as they become one woman who, throughout the book, encounter men (doctors, lovers, more): “I have come to accept the story of my own / obedience.” Each line here a testimony: “You sent a man I could not / look at fully, or touch, he was a flame / which spoke, and I could not / be afraid.”

Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney

McSweeney is one of our most dynamic poets of theme, mood, and syntax, and this new paired collection unifies those ranges in a most powerful fashion. Toxicon examines our necropastoral, digital landscape: “What is it to survive / or lie cossetted in a coma / a bombilation of effects / a thicket of causes—”. McSweeney’s lines and concerns always intersect and interject, as in “Axis”:  “If there is an axis / let it run through my heart / and the heart of my horse // waving this lance like a lancet / toward an abscess in the breast / of the sky, gimlet-eye / into which a planet has just swum.” In ““For Alexandra Negrete,” an elegy for a murdered Mexican worker, she writes  “the sound we call static / is really full of activity / percussing / and injuring itself / and sending the message back / through the sea shell / to the ear canal.” In McSweeney’s poetry, everything surrounding us is active, alive, fervent. Our bodies spasm, jerk, contort: out-of-control, dislocated. Arachne, the second paired text, is a soul-moving song to her daughter, who died so young her spirit rises from these pages: “I who feel so obsolete / An obol and an obelisk / a baffle and a baselisk / With one daughter dead and two living.” McSweeney leaves grief open and breathing: an affirmation that grief can somehow sustain us, give us reason to persevere.


Obit by Victoria Chang

Chang is consistently a poet who resurrects mediums, her work living within surprising spaces and forms, and both exposing and surpassing the possibilities for those structures. In prose poems that channel the obituary style, Chang wonders what death might mean for the living: how lives are filled with passings and grief, and how such pain might remind us what it means to be alive. Chang has the rare poetic talent to follow the edges of dark comedy to find sentiment rather than irony. Her parents loom large here. Her father’s stroke appears in the first poem, and he returns often, as in a voicemail that is poorly documented: “The Transcription Beta could not transcribe dementia. My father really said, I’ll fold the juice, not I love you. Is language the broom or what’s being swept?” In a later poem, she brings her father to an arcade, and, “As if he were visiting his past self in prison, [he touched] the clear glass at his own likeness.” She ends the poem: “He called my dead mother over to see his score, hand waving at me. What happens when the shadow is attached to the wrong object but refuses to let go? I walked over because I wanted to believe him.” When her mother died, and Chang told her children, “the three of us hugged in a circle, burst into tears. As if the tears were already there crying on their own and we, the newly bereaved, exploded into them.” A book that might help us understand the confounding place of loss in our lives.

Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

California: pastoral, urban, suburban—home to myth and magic. Taylor’s book is geologic in concept and theme, both panoramic and particular (her lines are ripe with texture, as in: “Blackberries choke the bike path; / schoolboys squall like gulls or pigeons.”). There’s a self-awareness of identity and place that enables Taylor to write odes that double as measured reflections, as with “Berkeley in the Nineties”: “Too late for hippie heyday / & too young to be yuppies / we wandered creeksides & used bookstores.” Later: “We could say systemic racism / but couldn’t name yet how our lives were implicated.” This youthful freedom and folly is juxtaposed with another California: “In every sale, a list of ways / your home could be destroyed. / Flood, earthquake, fire.” Disruption is inevitable here, and will be watched by the redwoods that “overlook / your fragile real estate.” “Train Through Colma” wonders about the future: “But will anyone teach / the new intelligence to miss / the apricot trees // that bloomed each spring / along these tracks?” Taylor hits the fine note of how nostalgia evolves into worry and lament: “When the robots have souls, / will they feel longing? / When they feel longing, // will they write poems?”

Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres

“Poetry’s slowness,” Metres has written, “its ruminativity, enables us to step back from the distracted and distracting present, to ground ourselves again through language in the realities of our bodies and spirits and their connections to the ecosystems in which we find ourselves.” Metres has emerged as one of the leading Catholic poet-activists. A previous book, Sand Opera, “began as a daily Lenten meditation, working with the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib, to witness to their suffering; it became an attempt to find a language that would sight (to render visible) and site (to locate in the geographical imagination) the war itself, constantly off-screen.” Shrapnel Maps exists along this continuum as a book that feels itinerant, longing for discovery, and fascinating in its conception of neighbor (close and far). “One Tree,” the first poem, arrives like an introductory parable: “They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year.” The tree shadowed their vegetable patch. “Always the same story,” the narrator observers: “one tree, not enough land or light or love.” In “A Concordance of Leaves,” the first extended sequence of the book, the narrator and his family go to Toura in the West Bank for his sister’s wedding: “sister soon you will be written / alongside your future.” She “will find another way / through rutted olive // orchards & soon new sisters / will soften your feet with oil.” “Theater of Operations,” a sequence of sonnets that consider a hypothetical suicide bombing, jar and illuminate: “My tongue wrestles with new words— // so why do I taste metal, like blood in the mouth? / Why do I feel so alive, this close to death?” A riveting, ambitious book.

Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’DonnellO’Connor has a worthy medium in O’Donnell, who has been a perceptive and honest examiner of one of our finest fiction writers (Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor is nicely paired and contrasted with The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor). In this new book, each poem is paired with a line from her letters, stories, or essays. Readers of O’Connor’s correspondence know that she was deft, sarcastic, contemplative, curious: a unique mind that was equally (and paradoxically) at home writing for diocesan publications as she was appearing in Esquire. O’Donnell brings her alive in these pieces. In “Flannery in Iowa,” O’Connor reflects on the “wishes / I brought to that little church. / The swords I laid down on that alter.” In graduate school, “Marooned and alone, I went there in search / of who I needed to become.” The classic line about the Eucharist that O’Connor quipped to Mary McCarthy—”Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”—is dramatized here: “A country and a Catholic girl, I’d come / to the Big City to learn to write, / not to lose the only faith I’d known / and could not live without.” “Compline,” the penultimate section of the book, is melancholy and pensive, and considers O’Connor’s life cut short at 39: “These are my last days, that’s pretty clear— / though sometimes at night I still feel the call / of this life.” A necessary collection for fans of O’Connor, and a welcome introduction to those who want to understand the continuing pull of a truly original writer.

The Vitality of Opposing Energies: The Millions Interviews Paul Lisicky

There’s a refrain of naming in Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, the new memoir by Paul Lisicky. The book follows Lisicky’s life in Provincetown, Mass., during the 1990s. A fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center brings Lisicky to the town, but his life as a young writer becomes intertwined with a search for identity and love.

Lisicky’s prose style is enticing, rhythmic in its route toward emotional authenticity. He tries to identify how his relationships could be named or described. “Do I simply want to own him,” Lisicky wonders, “Or do I want to be owned by him…I wonder if intimacy and attachment are possible without the roof of a category.”

One reason Later is so compelling is that Lisicky mines this difficult space of intimacy so well: allowing the possibility that we might never truly name our deepest desires.

The author of The Narrow Door, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and other books of nonfiction and fiction, Lisicky is an associate professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Tin House, and was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

We spoke about the symbolism and sense of water, how writing can be a way of saying goodbye,  and our mutual admiration for Joy Williams.

The Millions: Among epigraphs from Henry David Thoreau, Mary Heaton Vorse, Eileen Myles, and others, there’s a great paragraph from Denis Johnson’s novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which includes the lines: “we are more water than dust. It is our origin and destination.” This hit me before I read your book, but after Later, I’m even more drawn to the sentiment. Could you talk about being water; being surrounded by water? And about origins and destinations?

Paul Lisicky: I spent a large part of my childhood in a house on the water. There wasn’t any way to ignore water. Our living room faced it, we always heard the sounds of it in our kitchen, it softened the air and our skin. Whenever we dug a hole to plant a tree outside, even if it was just a few feet down, ground water leaked into the hole. I loved being near and over and around that water, and I couldn’t wait to get back near it whenever we drove inland. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live on a mountain or in the desert.

Of course water was also ominous, as we associated it with storms and hurricanes. This was years before anyone talked of climate change, sinking land, and rising seas. Our little ranch house was probably no more than a couple of feet above sea level. And maybe the magnetism of all that water was knowing that it could turn on you, take your beautiful life without warning. It was something that had to be respected, you were going to be corrected if you tried to control it. And it was always in motion. Maybe that motion was the most important thing. Not just on its surface, but in the action of the tides, which left a foam stain on the bulkhead two times a day. I think what I really craved as a young person was the idea of shifting and becoming and evolving into another form, though I never would have put it that way back then.

Would Provincetown have appealed to me if it were dropped down in the middle of a prairie, hundreds of miles from the sea? Probably not, even though the water’s not so visible the way it is in most other places built by the beach. It’s hidden by a wall of stores, and even the beaches of Herring Cove and Race Point must be accessed by crossing a salt marsh or a path over high dunes. Still, you feel it everywhere, you taste it, smell it. Sometimes, if it’s windy, you can hear the open ocean roaring into the West End of town, and that certainly conjures up destination, a physical sense that none of us are here for long. Water is mystery, even though human bodies are technically 45 percent to 75 percent water.

TM: In the book’s first scene, you are standing with your mother in a driveway, your seven-month residency in Provincetown a 21-hour trip away. “She puts her arms around me,” you write, “so I will feel the consequence in my body, the consequence of her losing once again.” It’s the perfect way to describe such separation, and it happens so quickly in the book—as if this story has been building in you. When did you know Later had to exist as its own book, its own story?

PL: It’s interesting that you point to this goodbye scene, as the first draft of the book was written just a few weeks after my father’s death. It had been a tough year. He had been unnervingly healthy and strong through his 80s. I think he even went horseback riding in Uruguay on his 90th birthday. Then, without warning, he came down with pneumonia over the holidays, and long story short: his last months were pretty awful in their rounds of grave illness and recovery. I think I was too close to it all to write about him directly, but I needed a vehicle in which to say goodbye in the largest sense.

I’d been trying to write about those early days in Provincetown for years, when, among other things, it was a refuge for people with HIV and AIDS, but the perspective never felt right. I couldn’t get down the right combination of ominousness and the absurd humor that many of us found ourselves summoning up on a daily level. And I was very conscious of trying to write about emergency—how do people survive when they can’t take for granted they’re going to be around in the morning? What does extremity do to our sense of time, our relationships with friends, romantic attachments, family? How does community happen in the midst of crisis? How do we manage feeling, and are there costs to getting to be to be too good at that: a gold medal winner of denial? When I started the book I must have sensed multiple, overlapping emergencies on the way. And as of today there are so many it’s impossible to list them all: the climate crisis, the brute racism, the destructive politics, the opioid crisis, the crisis at our southern border, and the one that’s swallowing our attention right now…The coronavirus. I must have felt an urgency to look back on another period to see how we managed those days.

TM: I love the description of your walk, or your imagined walk, down the street of Provincetown: “my heels strike the pavement as if I’m possibly damaging my feet. This is what power feels like, but only when power is spread evenly, or when queerness isn’t othered but is central.” Later you write that “the transgressor needs the Puritan. How could a gesture even be experienced as transgressive if there weren’t the possibility of someone with folded arms, a hard, indignant face?” I’m interested in this tension of power and restraint; to be seen and to be watched. Did it remain for you throughout your time in Provincetown? Did it extend beyond your time there?



PL: I think any form of vitality is born out of opposing energies. It needs that push-pull if it’s to be an ongoing force. For some reason that conjures up Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Or better yet, The Songs of Innocence up against The Songs of Experience. If we just had the Lamb and not the Tyger then—would the Lamb be as compelling a figure? That’s not meant in any way to be an argument in favor of tyrants, despots, dictators, or devils—definitely not. But it’s just to say that animation depends on contrasts.

TM: As in much of your work, faith and doubt are never quite distant from the cadence of your prose. One favorite line among favorites: “Nothing I’ve known about the world feels permeable anymore, and the surfaces it gives back—trees, water, the sky—feel as hard and opaque as the bottom of a frying pan.” Was there a spiritual experience to writing this book?

PL: There was, but I wanted to make room for a spirituality that wasn’t simply soothing or comforting—not that comfort should ever be undervalued or disrespected. Especially in these insane times. It seemed important to think about what God might be in these circumstances—why would God be silent, allowing people who were just becoming themselves—people their 20s and 30s—to be crushed and often ostracized from family, work, the larger culture around them? The book doesn’t have answers, but the divine is constantly in the atmosphere, sometimes known as God, at one point known as “Day up against the night.” There’s at least one passage that’s meant to be read as a prayer. There’s another passage in which I recount Ingmar Bergman’s film Winter Light in which a priest loses his faith and thinks about that before celebrating mass. At the most extreme point in the book, I think about the perils of representation, especially of a complicated place like Provincetown: “Looking at those changes straight on? Imagine trying to look at God, and if you think you can do that, God will find a way to break you.” So the spiritual energy is definitely there, but it’s more cold water than warm.

And yet? Honestly? I might be simplifying things because the book becomes something else in “Afterlife,” its final section. Its energy shifts, and there are bursts of optimism amid the recognition of damage. An opening up to the idea of a future. As to whether that shift is spiritual? If it’s experienced as such, it’s not a move I ever determined, and maybe that’s just the work deciding what it wanted to be, not me.

TM: You read Breaking & Entering while in bed with Noah, under the “lousy light.” You quote her sharp lines elsewhere in the book. What does the work of Joy Williams mean to you?

PL: I first came upon Joy Williams’s work when I was in my early 20s. I think it was the story “Skater” from Taking Care, which I came across in some anthology. Its language was sparse—mostly. It wasn’t out to dazzle or impress. But I felt the incredible animation of its descriptive life. They carried terrific weight in the work; they were occasionally strange, and broke the simplistic rules that are often bandied around in workshops. I loved the territory of the work: unnervingly wise children, lost adults, drunks, animals, trees. Not just trees in the general sense, but, say, jacaranda. Jacaranda mattered. The precision of it. It often poked fun at human arrogance and complacency, but there was an evident love for the non-human world, for mystery. The world of animals and trees came across as signposts for the unsayable, and any reader or reviewer who focussed on the work’s misanthropy was clearly missing half of the story. Maybe the whole point of the story.



I also loved what the work did with place. Places always felt like emotional states, in their mixture of junk and beauty and sublimity. She set her work in places that I loved, Florida or coastal New England or Arizona. At that time, Florida and Arizona were underseen in literature, and I loved reading work that managed to see both the beauty of those landscapes while capturing the cost of human ruin upon them. When I was in grad school, I fell in total love with her novel Breaking & Entering, which cast its spell on me. I wrote a whole novel inspired by that book before putting it aside. I think you can also hear her influence on Lawnboy.

I continued to go back to her work. About 20 years ago, I was at a noisy party at a writers conference in Key West about when I saw her walk into the room with Rust Hills. I literally started to tremble. My ex was with me and he laughed. He said, do you want to meet Joy Williams? I’ll take you to meet Joy Williams. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to meet Joy Williams, but it was too late! He was leading me by the elbow across the room, and the next thing I knew my ex left us, and the two of us were talking. She was friendly and polite until I told her that I named the grandfather character in my work after the dog Clem in Breaking & Entering. Her face got very bright. “Now we’re talking,” she said mischievously.

We’ve become friends over the years, and when we’re together at a conference, we’re very good friends. We once got lost together on a walk in Key West. Another time we went to evensong together at an Episcopal church in Amherst, Mass., on a June afternoon when we were the only congregants aside from the choir, and we held one song sheet and sang together. This was preceded by getting martinis at the bar down the street and going to see about getting tattoos. I sat next to her at a dinner party on the night my ex and I broke up. I’m astonished at my life when I narrate these things….

Her work changed my life, taught me how to see and revere animals. I love everything she’s written, but maybe my favorite book right now is Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which I just taught to my MFA students. Anything I’ve said above about her work applies to that book too—it’s Joy Williams concentrated.

TM: “The time line breaks, scrambles.” It’s a sentence late in the book, but it also feels like a compass to much of your work. I think there’s a unique sense of time in your books—it feels accurate in a way that seems more effective than chronology—and I’m trying to find the word to encapsulate it. There’s a fluidity, a recursivity to your sense of time, but maybe there’s a better way to capture it—perhaps a way it especially feels to you. How do you conceive of time in your work?

PL: I know time is crucial in my work, but I never think of it intellectually as I’m writing. I know when it’s working and when it isn’t. It doesn’t seem to move in a straight line (clock time) and refuses it whenever I try to make it behave. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a kind of chronological narrative in Later. It just steps aside from our human construction of time, and it plays out in poetic time. I wish I had a word that wasn’t potentially distracting or obscuring.

On a gut level I want to capture simultaneity, so time, at least in the memoirs, is operating in both the present and the past at once, even though the literal present isn’t often directly acknowledged. I suppose the work is trying to use the tools of the present to capture the heat of the past. There’s nothing terribly new about that. That strategy is a hallmark of lyric poetry, and I’m just allowing myself to write all the way to the right-hand margin.

Some of my work has been interested in connection-building—I think you can see that playing out in The Narrow Door: images, lines being repeated from section to section—another way to suggest simultaneity. I think there’s less of that in Later. Because of its subject matter, this book insisted on fragmentation. Things not lining up, images misbehaving, water flowing outside its channels, unraveling, unraveling.

Crooked Lines of God: On Christian Wiman

Deus escreve direito por linhas tortas, goes the Portuguese saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The sentiment inspired Brother Antoninus, a Dominican lay brother from California, to publish a book of poems titled Crooked Lines of God in 1959. “God writes straight,” Antoninus began his foreword. “My crooked lines, tortured between grace and the depraved human heart (my heart), gouge out the screed of my defection.” He writes that the “crooked is made straight only in anguish.”

Brother Antoninus was William Everson, born and raised on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. First agnostic, and then pantheist, Everson converted to Catholicism, largely inspired by the “fabulous Latin beauty, this Latin sensitivity” of his wife, the poet and artist Mary Fabilli. They separated, and Everson joined the Domincan Order as a lay brother in 1951, beginning one of the most fascinating religious interludes in contemporary poetry. Everson would renounce his vocation—but never his Catholicism—during a dramatic poetry reading in 1969. The latent sensuality of his religious verse had become sexual, and his life followed suit.

Everson’s grand departure makes me think of a poem, “The Priest at the Pool Party,” from Christian Wiman’s masterful new collection, Survival Is a Style. “Bound with vows / like Ulysses strapped to the mast,” a priest “drifts past / the white sirens” of women’s thighs, past “scooped fruits and toothpicked meats” at the party, “and is almost able / to taste the love a lack completes.” Much like the priest of this poem, Everson longed for romantic love again, but the tension between vocation and desire became too much for him.

Wiman’s new book makes him the poet that Everson might have become. This is not to devalue Everson’s life and poetry, but to merely suggest that Everson’s religious verse would have likely evolved in the direction of Wiman’s vision. Although the poets differ in generation, subject matter, and influences, Wiman’s poetry demonstrates a similar mixture of sincerity and gentle satire when it comes to matters of faith.

In his prologue to the book, Wiman writes “I need a space for unbelief to breathe”—and that space is within his poems. His treatment of religious belief and doubt in his work is not merely refreshing, it is endearing and illuminating. We can feel the struggle, the longing, for God. “Good Lord the Light” is perhaps his finest explanation of how belief is sustained by doubt. “Good morning misery, / goodbye belief, / good Lord the light / cutting across the lake / so long gone / to ice—” the poem begins, with “good Lord” functioning as both prayer and sigh. Despite our winter world, “There is an under, always, / through which things still move, breathe, / and have their being.” He ends the poem: “good God the winter / one must wander / one’s own soul / to be.”

Wiman has written of illness, ambition, doubt, and pain. A former editor of Poetry magazine who now teaches at the Yale Divinity School, Wiman has documented the crooked lines of his own life—his wavering routes of faith. He has always been a seeker. Survival Is a Style makes this search into song, and it could not have arrived at a better moment: “It may be Lord our voice is suited now / only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage. // It may be only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us, / gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.”

The search offers no easy answers; in fact, it might offer no answers at all. In one poem, “The Sound,” Wiman writes of a “bird sanctuary with no birds. / Eerie the beauty of the empty marsh.” Here the silence of God becomes the loudest speech, a stirring toward despair. In a long elegy for his father, Wiman wonders: “What happens when we die, / every child of every father eventually asks. / What happens when we don’t / is the better question.” Later in that poem he writes “The love of God is not a thing one comprehends / but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended.”

Those lines bring me back to Everson’s foreword. A poet concerned with his own mythos and reception—he had an infamous row with James Dickey over criticism in The Sewanee Review—Everson’s ambitious plans for his poetry were powerless compared to God. “The Divine writing goes forward,” Everson admits, “with an excoriate straightness, but never in the manner one supposes; nor does it ever relate precisely what one hopes to hear.” I suspect Wiman would appreciate that sentiment, as he closes his new book with a confession: “The more I think the more I feel / reality without reverence is not real. // The more I feel the more I think / that God himself has brought me to this brink / wherein to have more faith means having less. / And love’s the sacred name for loneliness.”

Two superficially different poets, united by a longing for God. Everson’s vision helps reveal Wiman’s tenacious embrace of belief in the face of doubt—or perhaps through doubt. “I wrote; I have written; I will write,” Everson ends his foreword. “But no matter how crooked I set it down, God writes it straight.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

Must-Read Poetry: March 2020

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall

With each successive book, there’s even more grandness to Brimhall’s narrative voice. She writes with a commanding sense, with some poems feeling like the voice beaming to Job, and other poems arriving like a hypnotizing whisper at night. “I left the religion, but kept the sin / and its images,” one narrator writes—an apt description of the permeating sense of God and absence in this ambitious book. With belief in the distance, “None of my prayers are questions anymore. / Just aching stanzas full of chrysanthemums dying / on the kitchen table.” “I want out of exile,” the narrator says in the book’s final poem, “and back to a garden where we can confuse / innocence with goodness.” This longing results in a synthesis of the divine and desire. First, in a conceptual sense: “Every fire thinks it’s a part of God, but lightning / is not a promise, a flag is not a shield. Love wants you / to believe that there’s a God somewhere who can // do your dying for you. There are raptures that won’t / come for you and raptures that will.” Then, elsewhere in the book, Brimhall’s narrators blur love and lust—to use apophatic methods. “I want God’s anger / more, want to rouse the Old Testament in me,” one narrator writes—“want to be both hand and cheek. Even when God / flooded the world, he loved it. Even when he promised / to destroy it again with cleansing fire. That’s the way / I want to love.” She writes to Eros: “I worshipped the myth I made of you, but I’m off my knees / now. I want your hands to become language and make me / offer you one thigh at a time.” The blurring of God and Eros, belief and unbelief, are the result of Brimhall’s provocative and powerful language. “We all want / to be broken for one another,” she writes, to explain how compelled we are to touch. “We all want to kiss our names from someone else’s / mouth.” Another masterful book from one of our finest poets.

Pale Colors in a Tall Field by Carl Phillips

Few poets can deliver such weight with such precision as Phillips, who again marvels in this new collection. In an early piece, “On Being Asked to Be More Specific When It Comes to Longing,” Phillips demonstrates the power of metaphor. A forest opens to a clearing, “a vast / meadow of silverrod, each stem briefly an /angled argument against despair.” Yet that material might only be weeds, with language and form intermingling, blending, and then separating. “Like taking / a horsewhip to a swarm of bees, that they might / more easily disperse, we’d at last reached the point // in twilight where twilight seems most / a bowl designed to turn routinely but / as if by accident half roughly over”: the recursive nature, the mimesis evolving into mysticism—Phillips’s method creates a new, acute world. This is longing! This is what poetry, I think, must do: bring us to the brink, “from the smudged edge of all that / seemed to be left of what we’d called / belief.” The poem ends: “what is faith, but to make a gift of yourself—give, and you shall receive.” In this book, the language and luster of belief is not mere vestige—it is a liturgy of desire. It is an interrogation of the self: “If as shame is to memory, so too desire, / then is this desire, this cloak of shadows, / that I wrap close around me, that I / refuse to take off?” Phillips is the type of writer to make us believe that, perhaps, poetry truly is the form in which story and song best breathe together.

A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems by Lawrence Joseph

Joseph is a Catholic poet for a real world of sin. In one early poem, the narrator was “pulled from the womb / into this city.” He spent hours in prayer, and even more hours in shame. He proclaims himself “the poet of my city,” the pronouncement more a sense of duty than grandiosity. We get that sense elsewhere: in another poem, the narrator, coy, says “I’m only an accessory to particular images.” In a way, it is the perfect summation of Joseph’s project: the self permeating the work as story and symbol, an act of poetic transubstantiation. In one poem, the poet reflects on Catholic school: the Baltimore Catechism, and how he “prayed / to a litany of saints to intercede / on behalf of my father who slept / through the sermon at seven o’clock Mass.” He recited the Book of Jeremiah in fifth grade, confounding his teacher. Yet despair resides in some of these poems: “Heaven answers your prayers with dust and you swallow it.” “There is a God who hates us so much: / we are given ears to hear ribs kicked in, / we are given eyes to see eyes close / before a city that burns itself to death”—these are words of suffering, yes, but despair does not overtake this book. St. Augustine haunts Joseph’s verse, and when we complete this confession, we feel charged and changed. An important book that begins to collect Joseph’s notable writing.

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield

Hirshfield has said that “part of poetry’s core activity, both within an individual and within a culture, is to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life. Whatever it is that isn’t being sufficiently attended to, poetry will be magnetically drawn toward.” In some poems, Hirshfield makes visible our common world, as when she writes: “I admire the amnesia of buckets.” How they are “simple of purpose.” “A bucket upside down / is almost as useful as upright”; how a “bucket receives and returns all it is given, / holds no grudges, fears, / or regret.” She also mines the most confounding elements of our existence. Her poem “I Wanted to be Surprised” begins: “To such a request, the world is obliging.” She is surprised to learn “the stubborn, courteous persistence” that words like please and good morning might still carry weight, “and that when I wake up / the window’s distant mountain remains a mountain, / the borrowed city around me is still a city, and standing.” Perhaps what grounds Hirshfield’s narrators is a humble sense of realism. Of life, one narrator concludes: “This did not have to happen. no part of this had to happen.” Existence isn’t arbitrary, but it requires a graceful skepticism: “I would like / to grow content in you, doubt, / as a double-hung window / settles obedient into its hidden pulleys and ropes.” She’s also capable of stinging elegies. “I said,” she begins one short poem. “I believed / a world without you unimaginable. // Now cutting its flowers to go with you into the fire.”

The Painted Bunting’s Last Molt by Virgil Suárez

A book of leaving and longing. The song of “When Leaving the Country of Your Birth” is anaphoric, entrancing: “Will the wind remember your body,” he begins, writing of a land from which the narrator has left. The questions that follow are heartbreaking: “Will your old house stand in the shadows of all the plantains your father planted?” “Who will remember you, child? Who will sigh your name?” “Who will trace the bread crumbs this far out?” That final question returns to a common theme in the book: what happens when we must finally, truly go home? The narrator’s grandmother wants to return to Cuba: “My grandmother says they will return because they miss // their concave lives, and each night, before she puts me to sleep, / she sings a prayer for the worn, the lost, for the unremembered.” Sadly, she tells that narrator that “we live in countries / we cannot possibly die in.” Despite this pain of distance, Suárez captures the glimmer of hope that exists in escape and travel. Excellent descriptions of water, that route of travel, abound: “At night, other than the star-pocked sky, // there is little difference between the slicked surface / of the water and the heavens.” Later: “What I like about water is it knows // how to keep a secret. A body slices / through without leaving a trace, / when you must leave in the night.”

Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez

A book that captures the inevitable, immediate collision between natural and manufactured worlds. Perez pairs his first poem with a quote from Mythologies by Roland Barthes: “Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.” Plastic—the manufactured world—is ubiquitous, inevitable. It is the probe that the doctor presses against the belly of the narrator’s wife; it is the bag in which her placenta is stored. Later, it is the material of their daughter’s pacifier, and the pump that “whirrs” as “breastmilk drips into a plastic bottle.” The narrator dreams that his daughter is “composed of plastic, / so that she, too, will survive our wasteful hands.” Even his figurative language in the book is steeped in manufactured language: “Darkness spills across the sky like an oil plume.” On Halloween, he says, “let us praise the souls of native youth, whose eyes / are open-pit uranium mines, veins are poisoned / rivers, hearts are tar sands tailings ponds.” Perhaps for this reason, the narrator-fathers of this book have disaster on their minds: “Am I brave enough to bear her // across the razor wires of foreign countries / and racial hatred?” He wonders and worries: “Could I inflate my body into a buoy to hold her above rough waves?” In “Echolocation,” the narrator cooks dinner while his wife plays with their daughter, and he sees a news report about Tahlequah, an orca whale who grieves her dead calf.” Their lives go on—preschool, vaccinations—as the whale carries her dead child “until every wave / is an elegy, / until our planet / is an open / casket.” Elegiac and skillful, Perez’s collection is worth pondering.

To Make Room for the Sea by Adam Clay

Clay once described the poet John Ashbery as a writer “whose work has always struck me as layered on so many levels, though it might seem simple on the surface.” That duality, I think, often resides in Ashbery’s tendency toward the melancholy sense, as in “Vetiver”: “Ages passed slowly, like a load of hay, / As the flowers recited their lines / And pike stirred at the bottom of the pond.” Clay shares that graceful and skillful movement in this new book: “Beneath // every question is an elegy, and beneath / every elegy lives the promise that a life / will persist long after its song.” From: “Meditation for the Silence of Morning” “Imagine finding you look at the world / completely different upon waking one day.” Clay’s usage of the second person is an invitation to grief: “You’ve looked out the door each morning // only to find the view’s changed little over time, but life feels / passive and grows more so the further you go from the bed, // quietly unsure of what the day holds.” One narrator concludes that “Life mostly feels like walking the line / between an elegy and an ode.” Clay, like Ashbery, demonstrates that something remains other than despair. There is “some version of hope or comfort / found within each simple slow ritual, // but what to make of life when there’s no ritual / worth praising? Sometimes even starting / to think of an inevitable void is a comfort / we keep for ourselves, a minor way of curbing / the mind from danger.”

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– A Year in Reading: Jane HirshfieldFifteen Poets on Revision

Nightmares, Dreams, and God: The Millions Interviews Jeff Sharlet

Early in This Brilliant Darkness, the new book of essays and profiles by Jeff Sharlet, we see a photo and short profile of Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. This is his final shift. He’s going to paint the walls of a church, high up on a ladder: “You can’t be afraid up there.” A tear, tattooed by his right eye, is for his son—”who died when he was two months old.”

These moments fill Sharlet’s fascinating, heartfelt book. He has a knack as a writer, as a person, for capturing people in image and word. Sharlet has always been interested in the way the stories we tell shape and reveal the meanings in our lives—with good and bad results (see The Family; and the Netflix series version, for an example of the latter).

Sharlet teaches at Dartmouth College, where he is associate professor of English and creative writing. He is an editor at large for Virginia Quarterly Review, and his writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Oxford American, and The New York Times Magazine. The Family, a celebrated Netflix series, was based on his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

We spoke about belief, sharing stories, and bearing witness to this world.

The Millions: Early in the book, there’s a scene of you driving “over the Green Mountains, to Schenectady” to visit your father. It’s a frequent trip, and you almost always drove at night: “It seemed easier, the steep twisting road more likely to belong to me alone; the radio, when I could find a station, less clogged with news and yet more alive with voices. Night shift-voices.” Those voices, you write, believe “in God, or aliens, or blue-green algae.” You wanted to believe “in other people’s nightmares and dreams, projected onto the black night-glass of the car windows.” It’s beautiful writing, and it makes me wonder: now that the book is finished, do you believe in those nightmares and dreams? What do you believe the night does to them, to us, to you?

Jeff Sharlet: I believe in nightmares and dreams the way I believe in God—what matters most about stories, I think, is what people do with them, how they shape our lives. Whether they’re “real” or not matters, too—I’m a journalist, I love that creature we call “a fact”—but I’m moved by the great modernist poet Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The stories we tell with those “real toads,” the facts, are the imaginary gardens in which we live. Night is a fact, but my experience of it, then and now, is the imaginary garden for which I’ve attempted to write a geography. In the book, I write that darkness isn’t the absence of light, it’s the presence of ink, the stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. I’m not such an insomniac anymore—making this book maybe cured me of that—but I still see night in those terms.

TM: Late one night you stop to see Larry, owner of Treasure Center—“a grackle’s shop of shiny pop culture detritus, samurai swords, and Franklin Mint collectibles.” You say his store also has the best “religious kitsch” that you’ve seen in a while, but he doesn’t like that description. You buy plastic hands—”painted pink matte over veiny knuckles and long pointed fingers, as if they’d come from a horror model kit repurposed for prayer”—and when you think of them later, you write the “faith that put them in a glass case” was “as free of irony as I am of the divine.” Here—and elsewhere in your writing—you often come back to God and absence. Why the frequent return to these subjects? Why—if the perceived irony of Larry’s kitsch exists—are you still drawn to belief?

JS: I think of something my writing students sometimes say, about a book or a story dealing with some reality very different from the way they understand their lives. “I can’t really relate to it,” they say. To which I respond: we read, we look, we try to perceive the world because whether or not we can relate to any given reality, it may well relate to us. That is, the story—broadly speaking here, belief—matters to my life whether or not I believe. I’d better try to understand it. But that’s just being pragmatic. I’ve always been drawn to belief as a nonfiction writer because to engage with it you have to reach beyond the stack of facts that comprise ordinary journalism. Who-what-where-when-why does not account for what Larry saw in those prayer hands, which matters as much or more than any kitsch I might perceive.

TM: In one photo, a man is on the ground, spread in front of a gated archway, smothered in birds. It’s an almost impossibly perfect shot: some birds are mid-flight, others scurry toward him, and one faces the camera. Early in the book, you write that phone cameras can capture a state of reality that the technological perfection of more advanced cameras cannot. Phone cameras, you describe, capture “sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt.” Like so much of This Brilliant Darkness, this is really worth pondering. What is that space between reality and artifice? Is it art? The man smothered in birds—is that moment real?

JS: The pigeon man—he preferred not to use his name—a sort of St. Francis of Dublin, where I met him, is real, and that moment—that snapshot—is as real as any other moment that’s past. The snapshot is its memorial, its echo, its ghost. A friend calls these pictures+words “ghost poems,” and adds, “only, these ghosts show up in photographs.” That feels right to me. The space between reality and artifice—which is, of course, the only means we have to attempt to represent reality—is what we speak of when we speak of documentary art. I’m drawn to work that accounts for the approximation, the mediation of the one who looks and listens and tries to understand. I think there’s a transparency—a hopeful transparency—in recognizing that I can’t tell the pigeon man’s story, or anybody else’s story, any more than I can be a “voice for the voiceless,” an inadvertently arrogant bit of phrasing. These people’s stories, and voices, are their own. What I can share is my story about the moments between us, stories that are made up of bits and pieces of both of us. There’s an idea that empathy is something you extend to another. I don’t think that’s quite right—I think it’s something that happens, usually in brief moments—maybe only the duration of a snapshot, a conversation—between people. Maybe it’s a process of seeing and being seen, that vulnerability like a flickering current between you.

TM: Mary, a 62-year-old woman who lives in a motel, cracks open her door when you knock. “You want to interview me,” she says. “Why? I don’t have any power!” She finally invites you inside. Why did she let you in? Why did people—strangers—talk to you during the years you worked on this book?

JS: Because I asked? I don’t know. As a journalist, with an assignment and a notebook in hand, it’s easy for me to break the fourth wall of daily life. That’s my job. This book was different. I told people I was working on a book, but nobody cared one way or the other about that. I wasn’t on assignment. I found it awkward and embarrassing, sometimes, to approach people who I hoped to talk with often for reasons I myself didn’t yet understand. And those people opened the door, when they did, for as many reasons as there are people in the book. We speak of “taking a photograph,” and some writers thank “subjects” for allowing them to “take their time.” But those manners obscure a much more interesting and often more intimate exchange. I can’t “take” Mary’s photograph, unless I’m sneaking up on her, which I’d never do. For better or worse, we made those images together. Mary wasn’t much interested in them—she’d glance at them—but maybe that was because her contribution—her body, her self—was already so vast. Likewise, I can’t “take” her time. She’s not really my “subject,” I have no authority over her. She opened the door for her own reasons, and this is my story about the time we spent together. Maybe that seems limited, but I don’t think so—I keep coming back to this beautiful line from Leslie Jamison’s brilliant book The Recovering—“the saving alchemy of community.” Leslie’s writing about the recovery community, but I think that alchemy is possible—I think I felt it, anyway—in the smaller exchange of stories that make up this book. This is sentimental, I know, but here I embrace that—there’s a poem in the book my daughter said when she was very little. She’s sort of a quiet current throughout the book—there are ways in which it was written to her and her brother, though they may not read it for years (or ever!). She said: “The night I was born / you were born / we were born / we were born together.” That to me is what the book is about. I think it can be true far beyond the bounds of family.

TM: “Sensation is what’s possible when seeing won’t change anything, when you don’t know enough to bear witness, when all you have is the fact of your eyes, the fact of the camera: a record of things, seen and unseen.” What a fantastic line. Bear witness, seen and unseen, there’s the vocabulary of belief (almost liturgically so). Do you still take photos? What sensation remains now that the book—these stories, these images—is out in the world?

JS: I do still take photographs, though since the heart attack at the end of the book—mine, three years ago—not as many. I’m fully recovered, healthy, I move more than ever, but I do feel sometimes as if even just the fact of my eyes is enough, that the fact of the camera is sometimes more than I need. That line accompanies an image of a burning car, [which I believe] is the same as is on the cover. There’s a body in the car. I was second on the scene; shortly after a young cop arrived. There was absolutely nothing he could do—the car was an inferno. But the next day in the news the police said he had tried to rescue the burning person. That broke my heart a little. I thought that shamed the cop in a way that was terribly wrong, because the undercurrent of that false statement was that somehow he had failed because he had not incinerated himself to recover a body from which any soul was already smoke. I get where the impulse to tell that untrue story comes from, I think. We don’t like to admit the damage done, we’d rather believe it’s never too late than learn how to live with hurt and loss. Bearing witness is, I think, a big part of how we live with hurt and loss. Sometimes when we insist on greater powers than we possess, we obscure powers we actually have. You ask what sensation remains. I think witness remains. The book—originally I subtitled it “a memoir of other people’s lives”—is just a marker of what I saw. Like any book, really. A snapshot. As real as all the other moments that pass and still linger.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:– The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for VeteransJeff Sharlet Revisits The Fellowship

Must-Read Poetry: February 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Through a Small Ghost by Chelsea Dingman

“I wanted to give you the world.” The narrator of “Memento Mori,” the first poem in Dingman’s new book, speaks those words to the child inside of her. And yet she knows “my body is / the house you will ever forget how to breathe in.” Dingman has the gift to see the world through a wound. In “Intersections,” the narrator encounters a mare “alone in a field, her belly / distended, ribs like ladder rungs.” The occasional wind rustles oak trees, and the mare “spits & shakes” as well. “I’ve seen this before,” the narrator says: “the way a woman’s body reaches // for its own ruin.” There’s wind elsewhere in this book, and its spirit and haunt is the perfect metaphor (I think of John 3:8–“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.”). In “Postscript,” she writes: “A wind chime on my mother’s porch. / The prairies. The constant wind / tears through me like a new language. / Like it’s whispering empty empty empty.” These poems are hymns to a lost daughter. An affirmation. “How briefly the body is a story / where everything matters, // even its name.” And: “When the world // shows us that it’s incapable / of mercy, we stay up all night / & practice how to be merciful.” One of the best books this year.

Romances by Lisa Ampleman 

The first two poems of Ampleman’s new collection follow Andreas Capellanus, a likely pseudonym for the author of a 12th century satirical volume on courtly love. Ampleman immediately brings him to the present day with her own form of humor–a little whimsical, a little absurd, always clever (Rule #2: “Unrequited love is like insulation–toxic / cotton candy hidden beneath gypsum board. / It will keep you warm all winter.”). But Ampleman turns in her own direction to create a farcical take on contemporary love, yet one stitched with real sentiment. In “Love-Scrawls,” the narrator thinks about how we “carve trees, scrape the bark to make our confession, / our affinities simplified to initials / in a lopsided heart.” Not to mention the affirmations on bathroom stalls and biceps. We know that “flesh stretches, ink fades,” but love is not logical. Love is unpredictable, of course (this could be the only book to include a sonnet sequence dedicated to Courtney Love–“I transcribe and mimeograph you for the sake / of those who’ve loved and lost, or sighed / over a sonnet.”).  Ampleman is the perfect guide for this subject.

Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

In his prose introduction to this collection, Phillips writes that “we all make art with the same material–time, art is made of time.” Time–inexorable, constant, unconcerned with us despite our obsession with it–plays a distinct role in his new book. He imagines history as a lover who “promises you a kiss / When she comes to bed.” Until then, she, “like every night this summer, stays up / To watch her shows.” History wakes you not with the light of dawn, but “just the white haze of her cell. / You stayed half-awake in the lit darkness / Thinking she owed you something.” Maybe a kiss, maybe more, but then the “light turned off as if it never happened. / And nothing came to you because you were / Owed absolutely nothing.” There’s a touch of Stevens here, of Warren. In another poem, “We wander round ring after ring of life, / One after another, blossoms of light / To which we’re but a mere flotsam of bees.” Remember: “Yesterday’s newspapers becomes last week’s / Newspapers spread like a hand-held fan / In front of the face of the apartment / Door.” The truths of Phillips’s book are plain and perceptive, harsh and oddly soothing.

A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok

Sok has an impressive sense of story in this debut collection. In “American Dancing in the Heart of Darkness,” the narrator, of Cambodian heritage, is in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival. She is surrounded by American students, and considers “maybe I’m American too.” She and the other students stay at the Golden Gate Hotel, where she orders room service–“fresh young coconut, a club sandwich, and French fries”–delivered by a “woman with a bruised face and a silver tray” who has to walk seven floors to her room. The woman will make the same trip almost nine times that night to other rooms, American rooms. The next morning, hundreds are killed and injured in a human stampede at Koh Pich, and the narrator hears from her family. The Americans nod in recognition at the horror, but the narrator is no traveler. Confused, and dizzy with grief, she goes “to the Heart of Darkness, the nightclub empty but open. / We dance with Khmer boys.” The calls announcing deaths continue to arrive that night. It’s an early poem in the book, but Sok never lets up, her detailed sense creating almost constant suspense and tension in this collection. A significant new voice.

Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

These are affirming poems–songs, truly. In the title poem, Wesley writes “Let me come to you at dawn, my children, / my calabash, wet from the early dawn’s / water-fetching run.” Wet, tired, and yet determined: “Let me come to you bearing tears on my face / after the war, after the villages have crumbled / under the weight of grave hate.” The power of Wesley’s collected work here is established in the book’s first poem, “Some of Us Are Made of Steel,” blessedly inspirational verse for a world that needs it: “life has made us cry. / But in our tears, salt, healing, salty, and forever, / we are forever. Yes, some of us are forever.” In one poem, Wesley is thankful for graces common and uncommon, including suffering. Such willingness to see the grace in pain informs the rest of her book, steeped in elegies and remembrances that avoid nihilism. “When I meet my mother,” Wesley writes, “she will take / from my tired hands, this bundle of rotten / leaves and the pail of tears / I have brought to her.” She writes of Liberia and war, and leaving Liberia–but hopefully not forever. “One of these days / there will be rejoicing / all over the place,” she promises. “All of us refugees / will come home again.”

Still Life by Ciaran Carson

The late Carson’s final volume begins with the word “Today,” and that first line ends with the phrase “here I am”–an appropriate formulation. His long lines, their ends pushing past the margin and running down the center, create a root in the present. Carson speaks often of his terminal diagnosis in these poems: “How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is going on. / The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left. / And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.” There is a bravery in offering oneself over to elegy, although the book never feels maudlin–owing to Carson’s range, his almost ravenous curiosity.

Father, I Found the Movies: Featured Poetry by Chad Bennett

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, the new collection by Chad Bennett. Bennett begins his poem with lines from an unpublished interview from the early 1960s between Warhol and the art critic David Bourdon. The interview proper begins with a Warholian question for Bourdon: “Am I really doing anything new?” Bennett is able to channel that particular magic and mystery of Warhol as he inhabits his persona in this poem.

“Andy Warhol”[Unpublished interview, 1962]
I don’t want to know whothe father of this movementis. In those Shirley Templemovies, I was so disappointedwhenever Shirley found herfather. It ruined everything.She had been having such agood time, tap dancing withthe local Kiwanis Club orthe newspaper men in the cityroom. Those newspaper men,who want everything ruined,don’t want to know whoruined it. So in the city I wasa good Shirley Temple, dancingwith men in the club, or withthis local in a room in the city.
Who was it who was withthose men? Who had the time?The city? (Was I in the city?)It disappointed those in the knowwho so want to know who isor was or had been having who isor was or had been dancing.The city was a ruined temple, ora temple of ruined time,I don’t know. Whenever I hadthe time I know I was good, orfound I had been. In time,I ruined everything. Father,I found the movies.

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Chad Bennett. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books.