Must-Read Poetry: August 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

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

Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae

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

Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

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

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen

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

Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia

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

Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

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

Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis

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

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald

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

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie

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

Code by Charlotte Pence

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

Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison

A unique and memorable collaboration that considers friendship, compassion, and the vulnerability and resiliency of our bodies. Nevison and Brown have collaborated on meaningful prose pieces for The New York Times and Image, and this new book is a collection of verse letters between the two poets. “I am always writing from within my body and with my body,” Nevison has said in an interview. “When I write about disability, I’m trying to render the body in new and exciting ways. I seek to place disability at the center and not at the margins.” In this book, the alternating addresses appear as “Dear M” and “Dear S,” appearing without writer names (although implying Molly and Susannah), creating the effect of this conversation being something other than letters passed and more like a shared catharsis. Among all else, there is love in these letters. Nevison writes “The dream where I’m legless / isn’t a nightmare, and I’m not / afraid.” Brown responds “Let’s go / back to wherever it is / we were made for first,” ending her first response: “Sister, take my hand.” These poetic epistles of friendship are beautiful in their compassion, but the poets remain honest about their bodies. “Half the nights / I don’t know my body when I wake to it,” Brown writes, “and there’s grief in the returning, remembering / pain, familiar as a fist I know.” Later she admits: “Sometimes I think it’s true that nothing’s ours / to keep: no version of ourselves and / not the near-eruption of another heart / beating in sleep, so vigilant with dreaming / you can almost see it.” Nevison’s wavering narratives feel authentic. She longs “to go back to before / I knew my body as shrapnel / and shred,” but also acknowledges her truth: “It’s impossible to go back, / but I want it anyway, endlessly, / the moment I’m a small and tender / beast, the fur of me still matted / by birth’s strange coincidence.” Each section of the book ends with a few poems addressed to “Dear Maker”; here the poets collapse into each other, offering a single proclamation. In lines that capture the sentiment of the entire collection, they write: “Under my body’s din, / a hum that won’t quiet, / I still hear what you’ve hidden / in all the waves of sound.” The field between them, ultimately, is lessened by compassion and understanding. In the end, they proclaim together to their maker: “Even if it’s true that my body’s / just a transitory letter, a note / you sent, a piece of paper / covered with your writing, / I’d like to know what it is / you meant.” 

Tertulia by Vincent Toro

Toro’s book encapsulates an entire tertulia in print, capturing what Ramón Gómez de la Serna called an artistic “place and event” in the early 20th century. As Louie Dean Valencia-García notes, the Spanish incarnation of the café—as opposed to the French salon—was “held in the public sphere,” where the avant-garde could break established forms (Gómez de la Serna said he chose Café Pombo in Madrid as his tertulia “because there was no better place to sound out our ideas of modernity than in that old cellar”). Toro’s book successfully captures this spirit; it arrives with different shades and sections, unified by his risks (and successes) with poetic language. In poems like “Core Curriculum Standards: PS 137” and “Human Instamatic,” phrases are wrought and wrangled. In the former, there are lists, patterns, objects, and almost tiles of phrases, capturing a dilapidated school: “ambling through unkempt / hallways fissure fresco / of soda stains.” In the latter poem, extreme focus and concision creates new visions: “Handball / court liturgies.” “Expired hydrants / mimic Cepheus, wait to be // rezoned.” “Gas mask revelation, paper lamps / bequeathed to repo lots.” The poem “Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead” documents how, after Hurricane Maria, funeral homes cremated bodies. A powerful poem in its own right, the piece is revelatory to revisit during the collective pain of the pandemic: “The grief-stricken ashes are expelled data / offering contrition to the brass. Crippled / funeral parlors obliterate forensics, the sky / replete with muted quarter tones of lamenting / townsfolk destined to live as smoke.” Death tolls blurred for bureaucratic reasons. The dead, metaphorically, go back into the world: “Oxygen is put on the black market. Bones are used / to hold up infected roofs. Unidentified remains / get poured like concrete into jilted lungs.” “On Appropriation,” an equally complex piece, is one of the finest in the collection. The narrator thinks back to his youth: “We were owning the bleachers at our school / basketball game, ignoring the score, the raucous boilerplate / pageant of male bravado was a flu caught from our fathers’ / garages and sports highlight reels.” In the midst of the jostling, the narrator uses a slur—in jest, but the damage is apparent. He looks to his friend “for backup,” but the lack of support is “a frigid reminder that being spawned / from the same archipelago did not mean I could claim / ownership of their blackness, for I would never be placed / into a lower track at school before even being tested. My tint / had never provoked purse clutching.” Awareness and vulnerability in this collection are complemented by empathy, as in the playful but sincere “Ofrenda for Tom the Janitor.” “If no one else // will sing for you, Tom, I will,” the narrator writes. “Tom, with a paunch like a cast-iron stove and hair receding // like coastal banks, old leather shoes clomping through unkempt / stairwells. I will speak of you.”   

More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems edited by Lisa Russ Spaar

For me, an anthology is impressive when something about it feels very particular—theme, subject, style—and yet the book as a whole feels expansive and universal. Spaar accomplishes both here in a well-selected presentation of poems that investigate the self. In her introduction to the collection, she posits that “twenty-first-century proliferation of self-portraiture is so rampant that it’s possible for viewers and readers to become inured to its magic, craft, and power.” In her view, it was not until “the appearance of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror that the practice of writing deliberately identified self-portrait poems appears to burgeon in America.” This collection is the opposite of empty gazes; the pieces are steeped in self-doubt and vulnerability. From “Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror” by Mary Jo Bang: “My eye repeats horizontally what I by this time already know: there is no turning back to be someone I might have been.” Resignation and acceptance are countered with the lack of agency captured in “Self-Portrait with Demons” by James Tate: “I am / sorry my car is wavering. // It hauls me. I am not / in control anymore.” To live, perhaps, is to accept that we are here for the ride, as in “Self-Portrait at Treeline” by Anna V. Q. Ross. “My body moves ahead of me / into underbrush,” she writes. “I am shadow, / fern, ripple.” Then there’s “Written by Himself” by the always-wonderful Gregory Pardlo. He delivers grandness in his voice and reach; the self becomes almost infinite. “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” “I was born” is a refrain in the poem: an affirmation that yes, for some time, we exist.

The Clearing by Allison Adair

The opening poem in the collection feels like a fable and nightmare; a scene out of time. “We’ll write this story again and again, // how her mouth blooms to its raw venous throat—that tunnel / of marbled wetness, beefy, muted, new, pillow for our star // sapphire, our sluggish prospecting—and how dark birds come / after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.” We leave the poem a little scared, a little curious, and certainly more aware: The Clearing meditates on what is asked of women, and what is taken from them. The prose poem “Letter to my Niece, in Silverton, Colorado” ponders the years of our lives that are gone forever: “Someday you will watch your mother lean on the rim of the sink to wash dishes in a way she never has before and you will wonder if she was ever young.” The narrator recalls that “It used to be that idling cars might have stopped for the tide, to watch it slide its wet hands up the day’s sand line. But dusk grew tired of resisting, I guess.” A similar glimpse into a forgotten time—of youth, and perhaps of risk—arrives in “Hitching”: “Hoops pierced into high cartilage because we weren’t afraid // at twelve to get into a stranger’s Chevette.” The narrator tells us the story “as if there were grace— / ful streetlamps craning toward us, as if nostalgia drips like a willow / from my mouth. As if you, Reader, and I, have no reason to regret.” Regret plays a complicated role in “Crown Cinquain for the Tattooed Man I Refused,” a powerful piece about how what is refused is not necessarily forgotten. She remembers his “thick, bruised Hebrew, scripture-stung skin,” and wonders: “What would have sung in us, / what prayer worthy of the temple / we were?” 

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’