That’s What Language Can Do: The Millions Interviews Pádraig Ó Tuama

- | 1

“Faith shelters some,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “and it shadows others.”

We are lucky—those of us who are believers, and those of us who are not—when our theologians are poets. Ó Tuama makes me think about belief, God, and language in such a jarring, revelatory way. Afterward, I don’t want to return to my tired assumptions. 

I felt invited into In the Shelter not because it was about a life quite like mine—although we both come from the Catholic tradition—but through Ó Tuama’s syntax; how his sentences move from past reflection to present encounter. I often think of good books as journeys, and all of the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings that go along with such movement, and In the Shelter feels like it moves. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and host of Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, where he is the Theologian in Residence. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His poetry collections include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles and Readings from the Books of Exile. He is the author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, and, along with Glenn Jordan, Borders & Belonging.

We spoke about language as exploration, the necessity of questioning, and how we seek sanctuary in this world. 

The Millions: Early in the book, you write of being in the monastic community at Taizé, France, during Lent in 1998. Each morning began with reflections in English, French, German, or Spanish, and a monk “would ask, moving casually from language to language, which tongues he should use in order to be understood by everyone.” Then, on Holy Thursday, he reads from the Gospel of John, and others in the group read it in Dutch and Norwegian. There’s this swirl of language as a glorious but also frayed route toward belief throughout your book, and you include moments of Irish as well in the text. Where does language carry or compel you? Does language bring you closer to faith, to God, or to somewhere else?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: When I was a child, my mother wasn’t very well. So, from September 1978 (I was two, soon to be three) I spent a few hours a day with a woman known only to me as Bean an Tí. This lasted for two years. She was from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, an Irish speaking village in West Kerry and was up in Cork city living with her niece. My dad told me later that he’d heard her try to speak in English once, but she was utterly confused. She had some vocabulary, but no sense of the English language. So, for two years I was surrounded by her Irish, fluent as the salt in the sea. I remember she had a gravelly voice. I remember she wore lots of navy. I remember that I had a plastic cup—was it yellow or red?—from which to drink milk halfway through the day. It was a kindergarten of sorts, there were other children there too. I thought she was two hundred years old. She gave me language. Bean an Tí means Woman of the House, a term meaning landlady perhaps. I was affronted when I heard another woman being called Bean an Tí years later, thinking that I knew the one and only. She was from the Ó Bric family, a well known clan in the Dingle peninsula.

All of this goes to say that the question of language, or, to be more accurate, languages has been a part of my life as long as my life has been my life. I loved speaking in Irish and English, once I realized that I could speak them both already. My older sister Áine started learning French at school so I begged her to teach me anything she could. When my mother had a small accident involving two German motorbikers, they were invited (read: forced) to our house for dinner. I sat next to them admiring their sleek jawlines, begging them to teach me anything in German. My auntie Mary is deaf, so I asked her for a sheet of paper with the alphabet for Irish Sign on it.

You get the drift.

I don’t know if language is a pathway to God. But I know it’s a pathway. For me, learning that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say ‘be quiet’ to the waves in the gospel of Mark, but rather said ‘be muzzled’ fills me with wonder. I am not particularly interested in what it means—because that implies it definitely means something, or, even worse, definitely means one thing—but I’m transfixed by what this implies. It implies so much: the sea like a rabid dog, growling, gazing, muzzled temporarily, saliva and ferocity all crowding the experience. It’s the kind of language that makes literature literature. It doesn’t have to mean one thing in order to mean anything. It is like a mouthpiece at the edge of the universe telling its own story to itself.

Language compels me towards more exploration. Sometimes I feel like language is a tool for exploring the underground, the layers of rock underneath the assumptions and messages that are being communicated. When I was 20 and a man who was trying to cure me of being gay told me that my problem was language, I was accidentally landed into an experience of confidence. He claimed to be an authority in religion and psychology, so I—a good Catholic, always submissive to authority—took him at his word. But when I asked him what his obsession with teaching me how to objectify women was, he became angry and told me my problem was language. And suddenly I was more shiny than I’d ever been before. I saw through his trickery. He was a man making up language for the mouth of God, and he was pisspoor at it. I left and never went back.

That’s what language can do, when language is doing its work: it can spur extraordinary action.

Pisspoor—look at that delicious alliteration. P.P. Two little explosive sounds right next to each other. I needed those sounds to describe the explosion of life that happened in me after I realized that language could be part of being more alive. I know I’m not describing anything like a pathway to belief—because mostly, I’ve been affected by an awful kind of religion, so I’ve needed language to lead me away from it, not towards it. God’s own anarchy, giving humanity the faculty by which God created the world. We can create too. And destroy.  Language can be a terror, as we know well.

I know. I’m still not answering. Look at all this language. Once a man I know was telling a group of people how tired he was of fighting for his rights when his rights were being denied by those who said they spoke for God. He was in a room of a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation community I was leading at the time. A woman sitting next to him said. “It’s okay to rest, others will do the standing for you.” Something about the quality of her words meant he heard them. He cried. The seventh day. It was evening. It was morning.

TM: There’s a real strand of Ignatian spirituality in this book. While in a course of Ignatian spiritual direction in Australia, you learned the vision of the world that transformed Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” You also ponder the humanity of Jesus: “We can ask about when he fell, or when he cried, or when he had nightmares. But we must also ask when he learned truth, or courage, or integrity. When did he learn the human art of apology? How did he live with his own body, the move from boy to man, the richness of a life lived in tension?” What has the corporeal sense of Jesus meant to you? Do you think that people fully reckon with his—and maybe our—flesh and blood?

PÓT: Years ago, when I was definitely more religious, I was teaching a class about the Stations of the Cross. It was a class of adults. I had been doing a daily practice of the Stations of the Cross myself for five years by that stage. I’ve always found the three-fold falling of Jesus to be very affecting. I had some images of Jesus that I was using as we were considering the walk of torture for a man about to be executed.

All of this was in a room in Australia. I was the only Catholic, and I was, in a certain sense, trying to prove to the Evangelicals in the room that Catholics, too, can be Christians. I have all kinds of problems with everything that was happening.

Anyway, after the third “Jesus Falls to the Ground” Station, I asked the people in the room what they’d say to Jesus. A woman named Julie said she’d ask him if it was worth it. Julie had lots of piercings and tattoos and half her head was shaved. The hair she had was dyed pink and green. She wore Doc Marten boots, and lots of leather. She was magnificent. Her own self. I hear she went to do a degree in law and worked in public defense of young people who’d been criminalized by a law system bent on marginalizing the already marginalized. She was somewhat of a scandal in this class because she would regularly say she wasn’t a Christian, even though she was on devotional course meant only for Christians. I admired her so much. There was something about the disposition of her question that moved me deeply. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard someone pose a question about—or, even more audaciously, to—Jesus without expecting they knew the answer. I want what she has, I remember thinking, which was: more distance from religion in order to be able to see a little more clearly.

I have never seen her since—this was 20 years ago—but I think about her regularly. She gave me what others resented her for having: distance and non-predatory curiosity. She was able to ask a question of Jesus of Nazareth without having formulated what she thought his answer should be. In the freedom she held in herself, her Jesus was also freer. I could imagine him saying No, it’s not. Get me out of here in response to her.

So whatever my relationship to the complicated question of Jesus’s identity is (and I wrote complicated essays about the hypostatic union in my degree), I always want the curiosity of the brilliant Julie. I’m not interested in being part of a gang who are so desperate to prove we love Jesus that we don’t take him seriously. I don’t know if I love him. I certainly respect him. I have many questions. I imagine he’d have been exhausting as a friend. I imagine he must have had some kind of energy in him that drew people to him with a heavy appeal. I’ve got a few friends like that. I am drawn to them. I come away depleted sometimes.

Who taught him to read? Was he interested in spelling? Did he skip formalities for the spirit of things? What did he say about Herod when nobody was writing down? Why did he tell the story of the desert with a devil in it? Wasn’t it just himself? When he said Why have you forsaken me, was that the end of his belief? It seems to me that when he posted three friends to keep watch as he prayed that he was leaving room for escape. Who is the escaping Jesus? What would he say?

To take Jesus of Nazareth seriously is to take ourselves seriously, I think. And consequently, to treat Jesus like some kind of perfect boy god is to deny the complexity of the secular everyday today. I’ve still got questions. I think I always will.

TM: You talk about studying redaction criticism during your theology schooling: “the skill of discovering how the texts that we now accept as a literary whole may be the product of decades of editing, with changes, additions, and extractions having happened.” I’m curious: do you find the action of memoir as a form of redaction criticism? What does it mean for you to revisit the stories of your life?

PÓT: A few years ago, I was in a Swatch Watch shop in New York City. I needed a new strap. The people were very friendly in there and after I’d gotten a new strap, the man working there said, “Do you want to come to a Swatch party on Thursday night?” This was not what I was expecting him to say. “What happens at a Swatch party?” I asked. “Oh all kinds of people come and they share their Swatch Story,” he said.

Swatch Story. Jesus. I could almost hear the voice of the branding consultant who came up with this inanity. People had sat in a room wondering how to build their corporate reach, and some overpaid person came up with the idea that the Swatch Story was a way to make people buy more shit.

I didn’t go. Although, I wonder what would have happened if I had. I hope that at that party there were small corners of people talking about what really mattered in their lives. I hope people made friends that night. I hope there are groupings of people who, when someone asks them, “How did you all meet?” answer, “Oh, at some party one Thursday night.” They forget that it was for a brand of watch. They made human in a place where money was the imagination.

Story is everywhere these days as a commodity. And that’s a betrayal of the brilliance of story. Story, if it means anything, is always changing. Story should never be convenient, or pretty, or nice. Stories should have the capacity for change—or, at least, the people who tell them should. If I’m telling the same old story at 60 that I am at 45 then I think I’ll have failed. I’m uninterested in being outraged because sometimes stories of outrage are being told by people who are profiting from my outrage while dodging accountability.

Stories are extraordinarily entertaining, but can leave corpses in their wake. Who is made a hero of a story? Who the scapegoat? How can a new point of view be told? How can a story be told anew? How can powers be re-examined? How can I be suspicious of the neat in a neatly told story? Who is the teller? Is it me? Am I over-identifying with the me in memoir? How can I make plural where commodity insists on single? I need to be made exile and made new. Stories have borders, too. And walls. And guns to keep certain people out. So I need all redaction, all historical criticism, all literary theories, and queering and turning upside down. Life is not a story, but stories—maybe—can help us live a life. So they’d better be good enough.

TM: You intersperse poems in this book, and one in particular, “Staring Match,” really paused me: “I stare at the icon, / the sacrament, and / the sacred story.” I think staring is a form of the ecstatic moment—our eyes locked somewhere, lost and drifting. What causes you to stare, to hold yourself to the point where you can’t look away?

PÓT: I’m intrigued that you’ve found such ecstasy in that poem. And I’m moved, too. That you found this in the poem speaks to me that the poem is doing its work; in that the words made space for you to put yourself into them. Were we sharing a pot of tea (Assam, made with leaves, stewed for seven minutes, proper boiling water. Microwave? Get behind me, Satan.) I’d want to ask you more about the poem, because you are participating in the making of the book, in the sense that you’re engaging with a conversation that I’m only an eavesdropper to.

All of that goes to say that if ever anyone ever says to me “I liked your book,” I always ask, “Why?” Not because I’m interested in checking out whether they’ve read it or not, but because they always say something interesting in answer to the why. Usually I realize the book is just a prompt for them to have a conversation with themselves.

I’d gotten completely stuck halfway through writing In the Shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a plan, as much as I wasn’t sure what the point of writing something new was. I was reading Adam Phillips’s book In Writing, where he says that most things are written in order to be forgotten; but what happens in the experience of reading is what is meant to be remembered. It changed everything for me. I went back to writing.

Staring, for me, in the context of that poem, was actually an accusation. I’d been schooled in the art of the devoted gaze, the gaze of love, the gaze of adoration. I needed something more like the fuck-you-glare towards an icon. If an icon is a window into God, then I had something to say. So much of In the Shelter is a landscape of anger; as well as a landscape of slowly stripping away denial about the violence of religion. Looking at the placid face of Jesus in an icon, I was angry, and in staring at him (through him, to him, with him) I was able to hear parts of my own life that had questions. I didn’t think he was cowed by my anger. I get the impression that if he was listening, he’d have been glad for it. It was my hidden-and-stowed-away questions that required me to get to the stage of exploding towards the very source of the very source. It was such a relief. Like many, I’d found myself caught in a cycle of leaving a suitcase of questions, objections, fantasies and furies at the doorway of the halls of prayer. Learning to bring a few of those items into chapels helped me take whatever it is that religion does more seriously.

The last word in that poem is “hungry.” Hunger, in Irish, is Gorta, a word we use for a body’s hunger, but also a word we use to imply the Great Famine—An Gorta Mór—a famine that was not a potato famine, but was, like most famines, influenced heavily by the political machinations of the day. While perhaps two million Irish people starved to death from the years 1845 to 1847, the British landlords (grabbed lands, I hope you didn’t need me to say that) were making money by supplying over half the corn and half the cattle to Britain. Hungry people were filling ships with foodstuffs they’d farmed but would never be nourished from. People who couldn’t pay the rent to live on the land that had been stolen from them were being evicted. Kindly neighbors who brought in evicted neighbors were subject to a new law that made such hospitality a crime. All of this being watched over by people who said they had God in mind. Jesus Christ. He deserves everything he can get.

TM: You wrote of living overseas, and sharing an occasional meal with people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and “haunted and loved by God,” but who “had found the welcome of the church to be more airy than substantial.” You receive a call that the local priest wants to come to the house and join the dinner, but the caller says the priest “is keen to be seen to respond.” You focus on that language, and consider a few paradoxes. The priest came, brought some wine, and you spent time together. You remain friends. But you let him know that his presence there was fraught, and that what you needed to see “was less his kind words around the privacy of a table and more his public words in the halls of the powerful. Show us your change, please, I asked.” I can’t help but think of your recent erasure poem in response to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the blessing of same-sex unions. Do you feel, as you write in the book, that “faith shelters some, and it shadows others”?

PÓT: God almighty, that priest. He was a lovely man. He’s still a priest, and one of the good ones. But the level of entitlement he had to send a message to me—via a secretary—that he’d heard I had a gathering of LGBT people in my house and he wanted to join, in order to be observed to be doing the right thing… that left me speechless. Of course he couldn’t come. I wouldn’t even tell him the night of the week, and I was aghast at how he’d found out. But he came alone to talk about the message.

There was so little consideration of the safety of the people around that table. Many of them would have feared being fired by him—or, at least, his machinery—had the story of their sexuality become known to him. Was the priest gay? Well, perhaps. But in this instance, unfortunately, who cares? There was a roomful of people seeking sanctuary around a table hoping that a Thursday evening in a kitchen in West Belfast could give enough courage to survive till the next month. His presence there would have been a little echo of empire.

It was a demonstration of the chasm between intention and impact. He would have said that he intended no harm, he intended no worry or threat. But actually his intentions weren’t really of any interest or consequence. His presence there, his self-invited presence, would have had an impact far beyond any intention he’d have used to butter over whatever awkwardness he’d have felt. I’ve grown suspicious of my own intentions, too. It’s all well and good for me to say I mean well. But I’ve been alive long enough to know that when I say I mean well, that that’s only sometimes true, and even when it is true, it can still wreak havoc.

Anyway, like I said. He was a lovely guy, but the luxury of his imagined innocence was a luxury he alone could luxuriate in. I stay in touch, I do. I text him, too. I’m always happy to hear from him, and support him if I can, or ask him for his help if he can give it. He’s not some boogie monster. But he needed to wise up about the impact of his association on a room of people at risk of unemployment.

So of course the establishment of religion works for some and not for others. For some it is important to find a pathway out, knowing that your imagination and safety and creativity might find life outside the borders of religion. Others find religion a salve, and I believe them. Some people say that such violences of religion are evidence of establishment, not Jesus. But I don’t accept that at all. Jesus said many things that, today, would not be considered acceptable. Sheep and Goats and Jews and Dogs and Belief and Gehenna and Pharisees and Divorce and Eunuchs and Devils, oh my. I would love to talk to him. But he’s not an innocent in the corner with angels dancing round his head. There’s blood on his hands, and not just his own. There’s blood on mine, too. Not just my own either.

That recent statement—or Responsum—from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such a strange pronouncement. It was ostensibly aimed towards LGBT people. But any Catholic LGBT person already knew that any space for our unions to receive blessing was unlikely to come from the top. In reality I think that the true target of that document were allies of LGBT people within the structures of the church. It was a shot across the bow of a Cathedral. You next.

Such a use of language from such a platform was a complete failure of language, and authority. So I wanted to mine for something of curiosity within a text that was utterly predictable in its aggression.

Groups of belonging—whether that’s a country, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, or a club—have a long history of violent bordermaking. Some groups are easy to join and impossible to leave. Others deny anything outside them exists. Some are almost impossible to join, but’ll kick you out if you sneeze the wrong question. What is the quality of fluid belonging, is something that’s at the heart of my interest. I don’t need to—or, my god, want to—belong to all the groups. Every group has membership requirements, etc. That’s probably okay, or at least, it could be.  But it’s the quality of entry and departure that interests me. And the quality of the stories told about those who left too; and those who wanted to leave but didn’t for fear of repercussions; and those who needed to; and those who stayed, too; and all of us in the in-between.

We’re back at story. I know. How neat. 

Must-Read Poetry: May 2021

-

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Even Shorn by Isabel Duarte-Gray 

An impressive debut that reverberates with its anchoring sense of place. The “night river is a woman washing / clean the moon / upon forgiving rocks,” Duarte-Gray writes in “Cutter Quilt,” and later wonders: “are these nails my person are they / dead apart of me the callus where / I grip my drawknife.” Western Kentucky pulses in this book, sustained by a folk sense that plays with horror and myth. Deft with the open space of the page and unafraid for lines to linger in those wide fields, Duarte-Gray creates a stunning sense of discomfort. In “Drunkard’s Path,” “My old mother kneaded bread / newborn gathered at the breast / full as circle skirt / her blue-eyed cotton lap” until a man comes home drunk, swinging, “his fists falling like / a basset skull caught the back hoof / of a unbroke horse.” These poems exist like hushed stories passed like terrible gifts across generations—the recognition that perhaps we will remain scarred: “Took me time to learn you can’t heal in body.”

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly 

With an expansive voice that is always tethered to the craft of material of stanzas and lines, Kelly creates a powerful second book. Kelly lines feel sustained by a collective voice—a perspective sometimes grammatically present within the lines, other times occupying something like a heartbeat in the charged material. “We come from abundance,” she begins one poem, “each season / bowed with rain.” She writes: “I watch the shoulder burn, / drive through the smoke that blots the mountains, / and holds the old yolk of sun.” The narrators of these poems are dizzy from pain, and seek to affirm: “Tonight, my love, we are free / of men, of gods, and I am a river // against you, drawn to current and eddy, / ready to make, to be unmade.” In addition to the rupture of childhood, Kelly also reveals the pain of separation—the longing that brings broken hearts temporarily together, and yet ultimately, “the gesture weak, / the occasion quite late.” Kelly’s past and present intermingle: “Fathers are for children,” she ends one poem, “and I was never a child, / only a smaller image of myself.” Absent of belief, her narrators ask incomplete questions and wander in mystery, and yet the wandering itself is affirmation enough: “I’ve always had: a dull knife, / a child afraid of the night and herself, // the woman you left. Still, there’s only doing / and done, the same sun, and who can remember home?”

Flares by Christopher Merrill

While reflecting on his time in Slovenia, Merrill said he found a world where “poets and writers, filmmakers and artists” played a distinct role “in fomenting, prophesying, or attempting to stave off the crisis, and then in bearing witness to what they saw. This was deeply interesting to me as a poet coming from a country in which the arts have a rather marginal place. It was disorienting to be in a place where artists took center stage.” Merrill’s life as a writer has been focused on imagining a world where the storyteller’s vision matters, and that vision sustains Flares, a book that also demonstrates the narrative merit of the prose poem tradition. The vignettes arise from an itinerant eye. In “Fall and Recovery,” a safety inspector describes the concept of “crazing”: the manner of a “rack widening in the window of the plane,” the “mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below.” In the fable “Without,” a goat climbs to the top branch of an acacia tree, blares parables, and then “drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring.” In one of the final poems, Merrill wonders: “What became of the vase of lilacs propped on the windowsill of the house tugged by a truck from one end of the street to the other?” A touching, diverse collection.

Collected Poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Ní Chuilleanáin has joked that she has never really suffered from writer’s block, but added “I think that my complete works in poetry would add up to something about an inch thick.” I can verify the literal truth of this observation through the book on my desk, but there’s a wealth of comedy, tragedy, and wisdom in her statement. We might write for all of our lives, and yet what we leave behind might only be measured in inches. Humbling, certainly, but perhaps also freeing. Her Collected Poems is a worthy testament to a notable life in poetry, beginning with the 1972 collection Acts and Monuments, and reaching to recent works. From that first book, “Family” glows: “Water has no memory / And you drown it in like a kind of absence.” That paradox permeates these collected works. She writes “Our history is a mountain of salt / a leaking strain under the evening cliff / it will be gone in time / grass will grow there— // not in our time.” A book to spend hours, days, years within.

Must-Read Poetry: April 2021

-

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey by Craig Morgan Teicher

Teicher perfectly captures the teetering feel of middle-age: a lament clothed in appreciation (our gifts, collected and overflowing in our arms, can weigh us down). His first narrator remembers what it was like when his generation was “about to // inherit the world.” Now, “look // what we did, and we didn’t. / And now look at us, and it.” Now, “we look up again, decades groggy, // decades late.” What do we have to show for it? A lot, Teicher reminds us: “for joy is always / our secret, the secret of this hurried, harried life / without horses.” Let it never be trite to say that poets reveal the poetry of our lives: a tied garbage bag (“I find myself admiring the swift / dexterity with which I fashion, almost effortlessly, / the weird knot to seal off the bag from the world”), love (“We try to talk during crowded weekend days”), birthday parties (“I owe her happiness / if only because it was I, not she, / who asked for all of this: / marriage, house, for her to be.”). Teicher’s poems often rewind to the past—perhaps age 10, in Lake George, thinking: “He has this one chance / at childhood.” Years later, stretching that child toward man: “All my choices have led me right here, / to this chair, to typing who cares.” A genuine, searching, and honest book of considerable skill. Postscript: the late-collection poem “New Jersey” is magnificent. 

Connoisseurs of Worms by Deborah Warren 

A treat to read these mealy, mucky poems. Warren imbues a dewy, syrup drip to varied subjects, including, somehow, a ventriloquist’s mannequin: “Pumped too full of windy vocables, / he unsags—swells up—he’s about to go / some kind of crazy.” Imagine him, animated by language, softening from plastic to skin, as he “rolls the smile back in to a small pink circle / and spits a blast of shrapnel—plosives, glossals / fricatives.” An epigraph from Job (“I am…a companion to owls”) spurs an appreciation: “Owl, in spite of your reputation / as an icon of sagacity, / Job, comparing himself to you, referred / not to wisdom but to desolation.” Job was wrong: “mistaken.” Warren goes anywhere, inhabits anything: it is fun to see a poet so willing to embrace metamorphosis. Strung by playful song, she can also (pleasantly, but pointedly) shock you: “Being thin, I feel mortality / more than most,” a “frame under the flesh.” “I’m a living ossuary,” she writes. A great book.

If God Is a Virus by Seema Yasmin

Yasmin, a medical doctor who investigated outbreaks for the Epidemic Intelligence Service from the CDC and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, brings considerable experience and a poet’s vision and sense to her depiction of Ebola’s spread through Liberia. To read this work during the coronavirus pandemic is to recognize Yasmin’s prescience, and her ability to unpack how disease intersects with prejudice, race, myth, and poverty. “Dark deaths matter more if they speak / English,” she begins one poem, lamenting how awards are won “for photos of brown faces / eating expired medicines smeared in peanut / butter aid.” Yasmin is deft at inhabiting the voices of those she encountered, including a fortune teller who says that terror “descends here every fourteen years or / fourteen hours depending on your lineage or // ancestor’s prayers.” The woman tells a child: “ask not why war // comes, ask: Why does peace keep leaving?” Yasmin quotes Marwa Helal’s line “poems do work journalism cant,” while demonstrating that the synthesis of those modes can create revelations.

The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz (translated from Spanish by María Baranda and Paul Hoover)

“Tonight I shall sing matins in Heaven” said San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) on his deathbed—after asking the friars around him to “read aloud some verses from Song of Songs.” The enigmatic text greatly influenced him, although he was certainly aware of its sensuality (spiritually and theologically, of course, those elements were essential to the power of his own poetry). As the translators of this collection note, San Juan produced hundreds of pages of exegesis to “clarify his message,” so to speak. With the Spanish on the left in red and the English on the right in black, this is a gorgeously presented book with equally stunning verse. “This life that I live,” San Juan writes, “is the absence of living; / and so is endless dying / until I live with you; / listen, my God, to my words, / that I don’t desire this life; / I die because I don’t die.” Other poems like “Romances” teem with the type of deep paradoxes that sustain faith: “In the beginning resided / the Verb, and it lived in God, / in whom it possessed / its infinite happiness.” The rare poet whose pondering theology exists of songs of love—to God, creation, and our attempts to transcend.

In a Sentimental Mood by Ivana Bodrožić (translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać and Damir Šodan)

The title piece is such a wonderful love poem in spite of itself, in spite of war and pain (we feel Bodrožić tiptoe toward sentiment, even acknowledging that “Jazz is so fragile” in the first line, like she is gently placing the poem in fear it might crack). “We packed up,” she writes, and “selected music for the car, / spread out the map over our knees, / then the earth split open, the road ahead unfurled, / the rivers spilled out of their riverbeds.” The lovers are “searching” for something, and soon find themselves in a hotel room, where they “shudder underneath a single sheet / so thin” while hearing “aggressive men howl, / herding their beasts of steel.” Is language enough? “Give up on words,” she writes elsewhere: “Everything ends, anyway, in silence.” A book of bodily pain and soulful despair.

32 Poems by Hyam Plutzik

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, World War II veteran, and professor whose work arose from and was influenced by his Russian-Jewish heritage, Plutzik receives much-needed consideration here. As editor George B. Henson notes, Plutzik’s death from cancer in 1962—while in his early 50s—left his work an unfinished project. “At the first smell of fall the locusts sing / Louder by far than on the midsummer nights, / Storing song for the later silences,” he writes in “Frederick’s Wood,” his stanzas can exist as their own poems. In “Connecticut Autumn,” he writes: “I have seen the pageantry of the leaves falling— / Their sere, brown frames descending brakingly, / Like old men lying down to rest.” He often returns to a pastoral melancholy, a recognition of death as an inevitable process: “Now the swift rot of the flesh is over. / Now only the slow rot of the bones in the Northern damp.” Poets will find so much that is wonderfully true here: “The poetic process is lonely but theatrical, / Improvisation before an empty house / With the dread that prompter and stagehands will stay away.” Perhaps even more so is his coda, which ends with an affirmation: “We must stay alive, must write then, write as excellently as we can. And if out of our labors and agonies there appears, along with our more moderate triumphs, even one speck of the final distillate, the eternal stuff pure and radiant as a drop of uranium, we are justified.” This bilingual (English/Spanish edition) helps introduce Plutzik to a wider audience.

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade

-

Few debut story collections feel as accomplished as Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas from 2015. “I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives,” Quade has said. “They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.” Night at the Fiestas tells the stories of those everyday saints, whose encounters with faith, doubt, and grace feel absolutely authentic.

I’m not the only one who was thrilled to hear that Quade decided to turn one of the stories into a novel. It is a significant feat, but Quade is uniquely positioned to make the shift in genre and form. Her stories teem with a generous sensibility; a recognition that each life is deeply, mysteriously complex.

Quade won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The New York Times. Quade is an assistant professor at Princeton.

We spoke about how bodies are essential to fiction, the ways myth and folklore sustain her writing, and the challenges and revelations of reimagining a short story as a novel.

The Millions: The Five Wounds begins during Holy Week—the climax of the most dramatic liturgical season of the year. What does Lent conjure for you as a storyteller?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: Lent is a season of introspection and penance and making amends, which are all themes in The Five Wounds. My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.

Amadeo discovers early on that making amends for the way he’s failed the people in his life cannot happen in a single gesture—it has to happen over and over, incrementally, and it can’t be performative.

I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction. When I started writing, Angela Carter’s feminist reimaginings of fairy tales were real inspirations. When I think about the stories from the Old and New Testaments, it’s always been the human conflicts that interest me most. In those wonderful crowded Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion, I’m always drawn to the characters in the crowd who are going about their own business, holding a falcon or chasing a dog or looking wistfully at a friend.

TM: Last year we talked about your wonderful story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which includes a story that evolved into this novel. Among the great things you said that day, I often come back to one line in particular: “You can’t write your own story without fictionalizing it.” In a related way, I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction, especially ones that we live with for years. You’ve lived with Amadeo and Angel for some time now, so: in what ways do you inhabit their story yourself?

KQ: I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell. The short story “The Five Wounds” was published in 2009, so these characters have been with me a very long time. I am in every single one of the characters to varying degrees. I’ve felt Angel’s impatience with the members of her family, and her hopefulness and idealism, too. I’ve felt Amadeo’s longing to be a part of something important and his delusions of grandeur. I’ve definitely been nerdy, bookish Lily in the corner, judging everybody from behind her fat novel.

TM: You write so exquisitely about bodies: bodies in pain, penance, love, longing, and in fear. There’s a great moment when Amadeo is waiting for Angel, his daughter, to have her child. You describe his body perfectly: he is “filled with an electric jangling fear that doesn’t expend itself.” He prays to Jesus, who seems inadequate to understand Amadeo’s situation. Then he prays to God, but can’t picture him “except as a wooly jovial guy.” Finally, he prays to Mary, who gets it, “having had a kid herself and having had to watch that kid go through big troubles.” In this novel, as well as your stories, there is a Marian sensibility—which is of course distinctly Catholic, but also cultural. How does Mary exist in this story, in the lives and imaginations of these characters?

KQ: Bodies are so essential to fiction; I can tell when I’m not fully immersed in the writing, because I’ve somehow forgotten that my characters have bodies—they become just these floating consciousnesses. Paying attention to the physicality of the characters anchors me in the scene and makes the fictional world more vivid.

Mary’s story is, as much as her son’s, so much about the body. I imagine her shock at finding out that, without any say in the matter, she was suddenly pregnant. And sure, even if she thought it was an honor to be impregnated by God, I’ve got to think it was a complicated moment for her. I always focus on the book in her hands in paintings of the Annunciation. Who knows what other plans she had for her life?

The focus on Mary in the Catholicism I grew up with made a lot of sense to me. My family is absolutely a matriarchy; all the women are incredibly strong-willed and competent. They are the ones who hold the family together and get things done.

Likewise, Yolanda is the head of the Padilla family, the center around whom everyone circles, the person they go to for everything they need: allowance, affirmation, comfort. And she’s also completely taken for granted by her offspring. Her illness, then, comes as a shock, and they’re forced to grow up in a way they’ve managed to avoid.

TM: “Saint Amadeo. It has a dignified, archaic ring to it.” Amadeo dismisses the droning priest at Mass and his abstractions, and instead wishes that people would appreciate Amadeo’s own visceral passion: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion.” You’re great at mining the dual ambitions and anxieties of your characters—their desires to be saints while accepting their lives as sinners, as humans. If you had to choose a character from this book to be a saint, who would it be, and why?

KQ: Oh, wow, I don’t think I’d wish sainthood on any of them! Amadeo certainly has a penchant for extremes. I suppose I’d say that Angel has the most promise, since she’s most able to consistently think about other people’s needs and experiences. I like the name Saint Angel. Plus, we could use more lesbian saints!

TM: What did you discover about yourself as a writer—and perhaps in general as a storyteller—in the shift from the structure and style of short fiction to the expanse of a novel? What can a novel accomplish that a story might struggle to achieve?

KQ: The short story ends with an epiphany: Amadeo, who longs so deeply to transform his life, is on the cross, looking down at his pregnant daughter. In that moment, he truly sees her for the first time, and he understands that any hope for transformation will depend on his showing up for the people who need him.

That kind of epiphany works for a short story, but the question kept arising for me: What next? What happens the next morning when he wakes up in the same cramped bed in his childhood bedroom? What will Amadeo do with his new understanding? And I suspected that Amadeo, like many of us, might require more than that one epiphany to actually change his life. The novel grew out of my wanting to see what happens to these characters the next day, and the day after that.

As I expanded the story, the more I cared about the characters: Amadeo, whose efforts are so misplaced; vibrant, forceful, funny Angel who is trying so hard to give her son a good life and who falls so completely in love; and Yolanda, who, after devoting herself to her family, now finds that she must to attend to her own life. I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2021

-

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Peach State by Adrienne Su

An exquisitely textured book. Food is a language, and Su follows its turns and tastes. She announces in “Ginger”: “We’ll affirm its arrival / when it’s not in the titles / of recipes in which it figures / quietly, as moderate slivers.” She rails against recipes that include the admonition to “serve immediately”: “Already the days // overflow with imperatives.” She laments that in “Home Baker,” “Art becomes chore, / your hair, clothes, the floor flecked with powder.” Be wary: “Having baked before marriage for the one you chose, / you pay to the end. Courtship is delusionary, // bread corporeal.” There is an unfortunate paradox: “Now, despite furnishings, a loaf / has the heft of a gift, the hours a miniature life / not spent on a book or a song.” Poems like “Peaches” cover much ground. “I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,” she writes, “stored it in the coolest part of the house, / then devoured it before any could rot.” Other Georgians ask her “But where are you from originally,” and she wants to quip “The homeland of the peach.” She writes about being “Chinese in that part of America, both strangers / and natives on a lonely, beautiful street,” and considers her parents: “Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids // who grew up to confuse work with pleasure, / to become typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.” Peach State is so deliciously crafted through food that it makes me wonder why poetry is written about anything else. 

If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Most of these poems include the narrator wrestling with something: an ode to her brother, happy little clouds, derelict spacecraft, and Rick & Morty (but mostly Rick). “All my timelines lead to this poem,” she writes an especially apt poem about pondering life in a possible simulation. “I suspect / my own veins are rogue simulations/ flitting with a new kind of heightened self- / awareness. Proof: the nurse says they are flighty / & hard to find.” The f sounds of those lines capture the fluttering sense of ourselves: are we really here? Do we always awaken to the same world? “It’s also sad to think / the envy still filling us over some horse / we knew for less than a week / is simulated,” she says. Ben-Oni’s poems often spray across the page, her lines reaching for the edges as if they seek to uncover the outlines of our tenuous existence. In one wonderfully heartfelt poem, “All Palaces Are Temporary Palaces,” she writes of how her six-year-old niece calls her to ask questions. The girl talks of asteroid mining, comets, quarks. “My dear, dear girl,” the narrator responds, “Calling on this overcast day in the spring, where sky is one, long cover / Of impassivity. Why are we here? She’s asking for the first time, / And I hear the anxiety of one who’s stumbled upon a burning / Temple in the fields.” Ben-Oni courts wonder throughout this book, while acknowledging that opening ourselves to the search can be perilous. 

American Wake by Kerrin McCadden

Impressive range in this collection, both within and across poems. In “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” she asks: “what isn’t closer than you thought?” Bills, of course, but also “texts from an ex-husband that you have cleverly given / his own ringtone—the science fiction one, / so that every time he wants something / he breaks into your village home like a flying saucer / landing on earth, so close, all of a sudden / the peace and quiet you have built shattered.” Funny lines, but we sense the tension here, the hesitancy. “A Hagiography” is more comfortably hilarious: “Heads will roll, we say when shit gets bad, / but they don’t anymore—no more Saint Alban, // his head rolling downhill into a well, the water / turning holy.” More good questions: “Where was Saint Denis going when he walked / downhill into Paris, holding his head in his hands? // Where does anyone go with their head in their own hands? And what sermon does he give, this man gone walking // and praying, having played chicken without backing down / from men with swords, scourged and racked?” McCadden’s ability to shift without jarring owes to her care with sound and setting, as in “Our House Behind the Hawthorns”: “Our house // is just stone walls—a box filled with rusted bed- / frames and ploughs.” “Work and haul, kettle and hook, / stick broom, dirt floor, turf-light. At night, tiptoe / the edges of thirteen people sleeping.” When I read the lines “The sheep say their words / with their heads low, as if they know a story // is a sacrament” I feel an inclination toward the spirit that also permeates “The Dead.” The narrator watches her mother at her grandmother’s grave, “surveying lots, / approving and disapproving care and neglect.” She knows: “They worry I won’t keep the graves when they’re gone.” Elsewhere McCadden ponders her Irish lineage, in solemn pieces like “Saying the Rosary, Station Island.” An aged priest leads parishioners in praying the rosary. “I didn’t come for this,” the narrator admits, “but it takes me, and soon / I am walking outside, around and around the chapel, the priest // droning another decade, all of us walking in a circle.” They move “past the lake, past the holy water font, past the restrooms // where the Dyson hand-dryer joins the droning, a little engine / of extra prayer.” 

In the Antarctic Circle by Dennis James Sweeney

Appropriately enough, I settled into this book during a storm that dropped three feet of snow. The mood was externally set, but Sweeney’s book will get you there in any weather. In these prose poems, an unnamed narrator and a companion, Hank, exist in some ethereal plane in Antarctica. “The bed yawns under us,” Sweeney writes, on the introductory page. “He and I grip fingers. Thighs on thighs like batons.” We might consider this a prose-poetic play, discovered in scorched fragments. Each poem has coordinates as its title, leaving us somehow both exact and dizzied. Where are we? Hints of Samuel Beckett and William Gass (snow, wind, eternity, terror) haunt this book. “You will learn,” the narrator warns: “In a whiteout you cannot see shadows, but that does not mean the edges are not there.” Sweeney startles with the precision of his figurative description: “Harpoons loll in our arms like children too old to be held. Along the horizon animals run, disappearing over the brink of snow.” The narrator and Hank might be in love; they might simply be among each other, as we tend to gravitate toward what is warm when we are freezing: “Our rites of love and boredom circle each other, waving their leather whips.” Their purpose in this land is less clear than the explorers that Sweeney critiques. They are often powerless in this book: “Though no savior is due, we make a life of waiting.” The narrator ultimately sighs: “The world has less to offer than you think.” 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

“Echo” is a perfect choice as the first poem for this book: “Gaudí believed in holy sound / and built a cathedral to contain it, / pulling hearing men from their knees / as though Deafness is a kind of Atheism.” The narrator continues: “Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / place where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am unable to answer.” In a later poem, he explains that this is “the reason I sat in saintly silence / during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached / The Good News I only heard / as Babylon’s babbling echoes.” “Dear Hearing World” is a dynamic poem, an ars poetica and more. “I am equal parts sick of your / oh, I’m hard of hearing too, just because / you’ve been on an airplane or suffered head colds. / Your voice has always been the loudest sound in a room.” The narrator’s mother remembers Robert Plant, the “cheeky bugger,” who tried to haggle down her prices. “I didn’t care about Led nothing. / I’m just out in snow on a Saturday market morning / trying to make rent and this is it.” He recalls his father in “Dementia”: “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue, / wet with babbling,” the narrator went close to him, “unravelling a joy.” The narrator then “swallowed his past / until your breath was / warm as Caribbean / concrete.” He understands dementia will take its course, but prays that it will “make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing.” Antrobus can be gentle, tactile, and pointed in this book—which collects into an affirmation, a pronouncement. 

No Chronology by Karen Fish

In “Alibi,” Fish perfectly captures youth: “I knew nothing about anything: school, dreams, tornados, / strangers, smoke-filled bars, silent, oblivious mothers, / the teenage girls across the street, swaying and sashaying through the late afternoons with transistor radios.” She remembers how those years were full “of abrupt boys / running, stopwatches, athletic accidents, stitches, // snuck cigarettes, stashed girlie magazines, pogo sticks, / headlocks, handlebars to fall from.” Elsewhere in her book, there is the sense that the world will pass us: “The river forgets the fish, and the winter sun slides beyond / the far hills.” There’s a similar awareness in “The Accounting”: “Of course, there is some accounting, / right as you leave this world—stepping down // the rocky embankment, a purgatory.” Fish is absolutely exacting in her description, as during “Evening Song”: “The daylilies wince sut, reduced to orange tongues / waving by the woodshed, woozy on the wind.” and in another poem: “Living in the country, the great spaces / between the houses. The river just a black line / that underscored the sky.” And another: “Like most beauty— / the deer arrive unnoticed and then, / simply, are indisputable.” These precise lines (emotionally, syntactically so) are a stay against the mortality she reminds us of elsewhere. That’s comfort enough, I think, for now. 

Must-Read Poetry: February 2021

-

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov

Dimitrov’s clever, casual, and inviting lines—“I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately. / I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself”—are especially welcome right now. But this is a complex collection; in “Waiting at Stonewall,” he ponders, 50 years later: “Those of us who resisted heroes / and sentiment. Those of us / who waited and found neither— / not the promised liberation / in marriage, or the salvation / of laws.” Sit down and appreciate “Love,” a long, anchoring litany-poem: “I love religious spaces though I’m sometimes lost there. / I love the sun for worshipping no one.” In “My Secret,” the narrator shares: “I’m suddenly / one of those people / who goes out / to dinner alone.” He knows: “Everyone I love / is disappointed in me.” This is a book about love, yes, but it is also one of the best recent books about New York City. If you love that city, if you hate that city, if you want to understand that city: read this book. His smirks and winks (“Or even worse / they’re going home to cook / and read this sad poem online”) are tender rather than tendentious; we are invited to experience this book. He calls out all of us, “Such righteous / saints! Repeating easy lines, / performing our great politics.” Dimitrov is good enough—his lines are smooth enough—that the guilty will gladly take the punishment. 

Promoteo by C. Dale Young

“As a child,” Young writes in a poem halfway through this book, “I asked my mother to listen to me / while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more / and more odd for their sounds, their structures.” Drawn to syntax and sound, the narrator remembers the repetition of Mass—how he was “trying to master // the language, the very words, fearful they would master / me, instead.” Years later, Young, the poet (and radiation oncologist) has mastered language in this finely wrought new volume. Continuing a tradition from previous books like The Second Person, Young’s narrators have inherited languages of religion and desire, and they intertwine in their ecstasy. “You punish or are punished,” he writes. “It really is that simple. // Dominus, Holy Father. I have hidden myself / in the cane field. I may have sinned.” “Portrait in Ochre and Seven Whispers” is a searing poem of suffering and abuse, beginning with: “To make and remake one’s self is / the artist’s job, I believed. And so, in poems, / I gave myself wings.” The narrator later laments: “You were supposed to save us. You were / supposed to help save our souls. Isn’t that part / of the vow you made to God when choosing / the life you did?” He ends the stanza: “You must have forgotten that. / You didn’t kill my soul. But you didn’t save it either.” An excellent book.

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod by Kathryn Smith

Playful and smart: Smith shows those traits can synthesize into memorable poems (with great titles). In “Most of Us Aren’t Beautiful, Though Some Learn How,” she admits: “I’m back // where I started: stuck in a parable / I cannot, botanically, and do not, // theologically, believe.” In the first poem, Smith writes: “The beauty of birds isn’t flight. It’s how they let / their young cram pointy beaks down their throats.” In “Dear Sirs,” she wonders—if the “traditional forms of revelation” included “interpretable dream, flashes of light,” then what “are some of the modern forms?” It’s a good question, and Smith is comfortable not answering it, resigned to a truth: “I fear that fire // will burn the insides of my eyes, / flames licking the wounds and disappearing / names of the dead.” Smith’s poems often ponder an entropic world through a theology of absence: “It is said in God / there is no darkness. / It is also said / I am made / in God’s image.” In this way, “I am fearfully and wonderfully / made, made wonderfully / fearful.” She concludes: “Surely goodness / will dog me all the days / of my life.” 

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

God in the machine, God is the machine: Frank’s new book is a menagerie of automation, automatons, sentient verse, errant prophecies. She considers the tradition of mechanical Eves: “fetching your tea, serving / you wine,” they “didn’t have a mind” and “were built from the ribs / of men’s brains.” “Oh, man has made her!” Frank intones (long live exclamation points in poems!), “and she is uncanny (and / infertile!).” Man has long made women “in his own image / for beauty and service, oh, man has / made her, a more pliable Eve / with no desire of her own.” I think of how Thomas Pynchon lifted the Luddites from their 19th century economic vengeance to their contemporary technophobia; Frank similarly mines past art, story, and parable for astoundingly contemporary truths. She follows the metaphor of body-as-machine to its logical end: we are all gears, oiled, “no different than that of medieval / mechanical monkeys lining the bridge // in the park at Hesdin.” Eye-opening, jaunty: this is a whirl of a book.

The Readiness by Alan Gillis

What routes these lines take. Gillis begins one poem with an earthworm who “squinches / through soil to ooze in dew, / only to be pincered / in the beak of a crow, // lifted above the garden, the gable wall, into a sky / of porridge / with faint pools of blue.” I’m a believer in poetic surprise (when Frost created that image of ice on a hot stove, he knew that sometimes the ice melted into itself and steamed into the air: no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader, and so on). Gillis delivers, finding the lolling and lyric in the everyday: “get set for the whigmaleeries of the ticking clock, / spilt milk, the mystery / of missing socks, the transport peeve, the hundred-tonne / weight of to-dos.” Maybe poetry isn’t utilitarian in a grand, salvific sense, but it is a cure for language, and it might be a method to sing boredom into beauty. Gillis wants us to be ready: revelations, small and strange, “could happen at sunset / on a sloping lawn. / In a yawning estate / it could happen at dawn.” “Everything changes,” Gillis writes in a later poem. “In this there is no change.” Gillis’s willingness to bounce between jest and earnestness is a good reminder of how comic-poets can stun us with their well-placed truths: “And you know this, / the oncoming day, is nothing / but the night’s brief parenthesis.”

Must-Read Poetry: January 2021

-

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich 

The book’s first poem, a jaunty etymological journey through the poet’s last name, establishes a folkloric tone to the collection: imagine a trickster who has come from the cold forest one evening to knock on a cabin door. There’s a darkness here foretold by the book’s title, which calls to mind complexity: a God of nothingness, no-thing, absence as an eerie poetic presence. In “Haunted House,” the narrator moves into a home and “gutted it to the bones.” He tore up the floor “to uncover a floor, // sanded tulip poplar to a sheen.” Perhaps that was what stirred the house to “wake,” and its stories came to him: “Now I live here alone with the spirits I cannot see.” Rilke and Roethke haunt this wonderfully melancholic book: “I wanted more—not of summer, // with its swampy air and the nightmare / amphibian whir, but of autumn // with its metallic skies swept with clouds, of the promise of something about to end, // but not yet taken away.” Incantatory, Wunderlich’s poems are perfect for journeying elsewhere—as with “Proposition”: “That the smell of cows drifting in the open window is, indeed, that of a living beast. // That I too am a living beast.” Later: “That we were born suffering, but that we are not meant to suffer.” But what of the title? Where is the no-thing? Everywhere, Wunderlich suggests: “I watch at the edge of the grove, the bees flung out / into the sun. My only life is being spent—today— // the longest day of the year, here on a hill looking out / for a moment and feeling my body unearthed.” Take this book to a silent place, and let yourself go.  

Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch

Lynch can quickly and effectively render uncomfortable moments. In the long first poem, the narrator considers her fractured childhood, how “Not eating was a sign / of grief / in our house.” Her mother “stunned / thin as a rake draped / with her wedding veil, bruised eye / staring out.” Meanwhile, “mouth / stuffed with a fist / lest someone hear,” she recoils in her bedroom. Soon, checked into the hospital with a “yellow wrist ID for the children’s ward,” she sees that “lovers sailed past, / arm-in-arm, ample with flowers.” Lynch’s usage of ample here reveals her instinct for juxtaposition: the world opening beyond a moment of suffering. This sense returns in “Hymnal”: “Book in my hands—thin / & sleek” and “Whelk of syllable, / silk against my cheek, the book is / ballast.” Again, in the poem “Worry”: a hummingbird’s “tiny body throbbed with sound, fast-heaving, clacking / music.” And yet: was the bird “restless prisoner of air or pioneer?” Can any of us ever know?

The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang

Wang’s debut collection, formally diverse and marked with a sardonic tinge, suggests a porous border between the dream and waking worlds. “Who is the woman lurking in the woods?” she wonders in an early poem, recognizing that she is a “fellow traveler,” for “She is lost and I am lost.” Wang drifts between the real and unreal, documenting an almost Yeatsian interest in that third space, a poetic place between, where the absurd is necessary. She imbues her lines with this hypnotic sense: “In the rain, in her head, an elegy for the not-quite-dead.” Among sentences from Cixous, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and others, Wang outlines a poetics perhaps best captured by her reference to Anne Carson, and her translation of Sappho when “brackets appear in the poems where the papyrus has disintegrated, as papyrus is the structure of dreams. Never intact.”

Stay Safe by Emma Hine 

One particular poem that stayed with me from this nice debut was “A Circling,” an understated tale of a man who was attacked by a shark, a “bite of thigh missing, skin like a spider tried / to stop the hole with web.” The narrator can barely look at her great-uncle after seeing his wound, but she becomes so attached to his presence: “By the time he’d died, I’d memorized his shape in the recliner, / the pattern of beer bottles across his floor. Mapping / his aftermath like a frontier.” I’ve been thinking about that dissonance, that looking but not looking, and it is an apt way to consider Hine’s method: a catalogue of bodies spent and passed, of sisters, of those who “want to say that together / we could be two words / the sort that hold hands / but still keep their original meanings.” Hine often returns to shared scars, body markings; in “Still,” the narrator thinks about how her great-grandmother, while nursing her grandmother, saw a foot-long centipede “falling toward her / from a branch, its back-plates twisting.” She moves away the baby, and the centipede, “segmented and heavy, / landed on her exposed breast.” It left a scar that never vanished; Hine’s collection captures that feeling.

Not for Luck by Derek Sheffield 

Sheffield is very adept at finely crafting scenes as the spaces for poems (they expand beyond the time and place of these scenes, but they feel syntactically rooted and united, one by one in the book). An early poem in the collection, “The Scientists Gather at Mount St. Helens,” opens with a question—“What does it mean?”—asked by one of the scientists amid “the wind / of a gray plain” while they look at the “crater’s living steam.” The patchwork of “shrubby trees” among “the clean white spikes / of the countless dead” stand behind them. The poem’s structure suggests a theme and method for Sheffield: what does it mean to be within a world that exists beyond us, longer than us? Melancholy pieces live among heartfelt moments, as in “Daughter and Father in Winter”: “we clap the stuttering // snaps of the kindling / coming to life in the stove.” Later: “More river than daughter / her arms fill with treasures” of rocks, “her pockets // already clack-and-bristle.” Poetry to make you long for moments in the wild. 

The Visible Woman by Allison Funk 

Funk’s newest collection begins with a statement against vanishing; the narrator summons a woman “rib by rib, scapula, tibia,” but “she turns and speeds away / like someone fleeing fire.” The poem establishes an immediate and lasting paradox of body and spirit, request and rejection. In “The Visible Woman,” she affirms: “Mine, too, is a story / of how we disappear” as she considers her childhood assembly kit for an anatomical model of a woman. It was a woman fully revealed, and she now longs “to go back to when I was ten, / to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I’m trying to glue together.” Funk often returns to the body as a source of wonder, fear, and possibility. The narrator’s father in “Blood” goes pale at the sight of any of the titular fluid, “so I learned / to hide my wounds—scraped knees, / little playground injuries, even gashes / that needed stitching.” In “Vespers,” she partially laments: “This late I’m still not in the body / I’m trying to occupy.” This sense comes back in “A Nun’s Prayer,” a revision from Psalm 22: “My God my God,” she calls, “I am poured out // bones heart breast // they stare and gloat over me.” Women are forever revealed in these poems. 

Must-Read Poetry: December 2020

-

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Nothing but the Music by Thulani Davis 

“Well, this isn’t poetry, I don’t know what it is, but keep writing it.” Elizabeth Hardwick’s advice to her student, a young Thulani Davis, resonated: Davis stepped aside from fiction for some time, and began writing poetry, including work that was performed with Ntozake Shange and Gylan Kain. Nothing but the Music collects work from 1974-1992, often originally performed, with frequent footnotes of date and venue. “I don’t wanna riot / don’t wanna riot / it’s Saturday morning / and I wanna dance,” Davis thrums in “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue,” a poem that begins with play and ends with resonance: “a kid from Brownsville asked me / had I ever seen any violence / that’s why I clean my house / listening to songs from the past / times when no one asked anyone / if they’d seen a town burn / cause baby everybody had.” In “Zoom (the Commodores),” the narrator recalls driving through a thick thunderstorm to Atlantic City to see the Spinners in concert, and when she discovered the Commodores, the “tasteless fleshiness of the seventies,” a pulpy feel she still recalls: “give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City / on the Fourth of July / the corny promises of Motown / give me the romance & the Zoom.” A vibrant and yet smooth collection, steeped in rhythm. 

The Strangeness of the Good by James Matthew Wilson

Wilson aptly begins with “After the Ice Storm,” when a rough storm splits trees and knocks out the power: “One night was all it took to give / What men had built back to the earth.” The piece establishes a tone of something greater; a grander, more mysterious presence than quotidian life. That sense also permeates “Those Days of Weighted Solitude,” a poem that ponders a narrator’s melancholy past. He remembers walking down the “quiet avenues of Sunday morning” and “passing by the large, neglected houses” on his way to church. “Along these ways,” he recalls, “I’d drag myself, head bowed, / The leaf bed softening my steps to silence.” He “bore not just a sense of loneliness, / But sorrow and remorse, and would have gone / Alone, in any case, ashamed to share / With anyone this walk of half-belief.” One his way home, the “Eucharist a dry taste in my mouth,” he “did not know that there would be whole years, / Where neither grief nor joy could pound my chest.” Wilson has an acute sense of the space between faith and doubt—the lingering latitude of weary belief. The book is anchored by “Quarantine Notebook,” a masterful sequential poem that spans March 15-May 17, 2020. The poem is one of the finest, most focused pieces to come thus far from the pandemic. In the sequence’s first poem, a neighbor’s tree has just bloomed: “White blossoms hang like egg shells in the air, / While down the road the restaurants shut their doors.” The narrator drearily goes to a store to buy bags of mulch, and then “toss / Them one by one like limp, resistless bodies.” He begins to shovel and spread the mulch, doing “the small, familiar, yearly tasks / That after a long winter one must do / To overcome its slow decay.” Spring arrives, but without its requisite joy. Elsewhere in the sequence, Wilson writes of celebrating Mass at home, the churches shuttered, and there’s a curiously cavernous, quiet feel to the homebound ritual. In a later poem, he goes to help with Mass at the parish when it is recorded on a Saturday. The next morning, while making pancakes for his children, the virtual Mass plays in the kitchen. His children seem him on the screen. He wonders why “one curious miracle / In many of the saints’ lives is the act / Of bilocation”: the self in two settings. He concludes that “we all want / To be both fully present in the flesh / And yet give some clue that our spirits can / Stretch out beyond themselves, can penetrate / The lives of others in a real communion.” We could use such transcendence right now. 

The Candlelight Master by Michael Longley

“The most urgent political problems are ecological,” Longley has said: “how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political.” Born in Belfast in 1939, Longley has demonstrated that so much of writing “is adoration. For me, celebrating the wildflowers or the birds is like a kind of worship.” This worship is based in a sentiment of dirt and death; a poetics of natural cycles, of human as earth. Longley follows The Song of Amergin with his own affirmation through litany: “I am the pipistrelle bat / At home among constellations. / I am the raindrop enclosing / Fairy flax or brookweed.” Longley’s is a wildly genuine voice; a poet whose talk of mortality is calming. We are here, and then we are not, and yet we live on in the love of others. “I hear the sandpiper from years ago,” he writes, “Just there, at the end of the dunes, a peep / Where the lost burial mound used to be.” He writes of his granddaughter, who “spotted tadpoles / In the rainwater puddle / Under the rustling cattle-grid / That marks a boundary between / Thallabaun and Corragaun.” She returns in the book, prodding him with child-questions: “Which one of my feet is your favourite?” He answers, as a poet: “The one stepping over a skylark’s / Or a ringed-plover’s nest, I’d say.”

Heaven Beneath by Anne Marie Macari

In an essay about the lyric impulse in a time of extinction, Macari has wondered how the lyric form “crosses, even erases, boundaries, connects us to the other and to other worlds, helping us enter the ineffable, to let go briefly our false sense of dominion or safety.” She channels this kenotic gesture in her new book, and follows her lyrics to parts of herself that have drifted away. In one poem, the narrator laments that “I know less than when I was young.” Elsewhere she airily and earnestly writes “Each day I start out I don’t know / where I am, stay with me if you can.” There’s a longing that bursts beneath these lines, as in “I Feel the Need of a Deeper Baptism,” in which she wishes “to be with nettles and thorns / to be with tree stumps, withered fruit, // to be with the drowning dog.” Another poem of the same title, she again affirms: “I feel the need of the hole / in sand that froths // when water’s called back.” Her poems want to stay there, above and alive, as she writes in “Yielding and Simple”: “Don’t go down into heaven, don’t go down / to heaven’s woods, where / deer lead the way into circles  // of birch, through circles and shadows, too fast / to follow.” Perhaps, as she suggests in “Hummingbird Bones,” our mortality is what weds us with the natural world. She thinks of how a child “makes a nest of her palm,” a gesturing cradle for life to rest in—in the same way “a small box, in a museum cabinet” is a resting place for bones. “One day,” as she writes in a later poem, “I’ll let go // this hunger and thirst / to find you’ve / been here all // along.” 

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

- | 2

The first book I read this year—or I should say re-read—was Blaise Pascal’s Pensées

I have a few copies of the book, for no good reason. One is a relatively new Penguin version: healthy and intact. The other is an aged copy of used bookstore origin. I really like the book—I cycle through it every few years, like writing letters to an old friend—but I really am not sure why I have more than one copy.

This is a recurring problem.

My house is full of books. It is overflowing. My books creep and crawl: on the floor, between pieces of furniture, behind bookcases—where they have fallen and collect dust, only to be resurrected, dusted, and re-shelved. 

My wife has patience with my obsession. We have bookcases on bookcases. They fill, they overflow, and that flow snakes into rooms that have no business storing books. 

For years, each day brought piles of new books to the mailbox, the doorstep, the driveway in front of the garage. I write about books—lots of books—so the refrain continued. This year, it paused; or I should say, it became virtual. I appreciate the digital access, but I miss fresh new books, arriving through expectation or surprise.

Despite the slowed stream, there are many books in our house. I often send my twin daughters on searches for books. Find me Redeployment or The Crying of Lot 49, I say. They have become good at these literary hunts.

Occasionally they help me discover other books of which I have multiple copies. Beloved. The Bluest Eye. Pale Colors in a Tall Field. Ulysses.

Sometimes they are in separate rooms, like displaced siblings. Other times they are in the same bookcase, separated by wood and brother-and-sister books. Once in a while they are together: twins.

I can’t let go of them. They often have different covers, or different colors. The pagination or font differs. The soul is the same.

Book lovers, those of you who are reading this: you understand. At some point, we fell in love with books. It is a silly love, a stubborn love. 

There are worse loves. There are worse devotions. I hope that books have kept you company this year. I hope that some books have given you comfort, and that others have made you feel uncomfortable for good reasons.

I was reading Pascal for a review that I was writing, but like much of my reading, it started with a purpose and was continued by curiosity. I finished the review, but stayed with Pascal for a little bit. I am still with him.

He wrote: “Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us whither we desire to go.”

I hope that 2021 is a gentle river.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Stories We Become: On William Cash’s ‘Restoration Heart’

-

Restoration Heart begins in 2009 with William Cash, the British journalist and publisher, hiding from the tabloids. He listens as a photographer and reporter banter outside his front door. Cash, frazzled and melancholy, huddles inside. His girlfriend’s photo appears “on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, alongside that of a well-known British politician, touted as a future prime minister.” Cash’s girlfriend was embroiled in a political sex scandal with none other than Boris Johnson.

Cash, who has often written of society and scandal, is adept at setting dramatic scenes throughout his memoir. Yet there’s another layer to Restoration Heart—an acute literary sense. While “camping out in a former tack room,” lamenting another failed relationship and the family he has always longed to have, Cash thinks of a line from Graham Greene: “No man is a success to himself.”

It is an appropriate quote—Cash once wrote a biography of Greene that examined his long affair with Catherine Walston, a relationship that influenced The End of the Affair—yet another line from Greene might be even more appropriate: “I feel there’s something awful in sealing up the envelope, not being able to add to this.” Cash’s memoir is the story of a man whose penchant for letters suggests a desire to hold on to the present. Sealing up the envelope means ending the letter; it means allowing our fantasies and stories to be finished, read, and judged.

Greene haunts this book in the way perhaps only the British novelist can; a lingering but vacillating Catholicism, a predilection for drama, and the worry that life is a series of disappointments. Those disappointments—and accompanying hopes—are often set at Upton Cressett, an Elizabethan manor in Shropshire, England. In 1970, Cash’s parents “had become afflicted with that most British and expensive of diseases: the ‘dream’ of finding an old English manor house and restoring it, the more of an overgrown ruin beyond hope, the better.” Built in 1580, the house, Cash quips, “has always been the most durable of my relationships—more reliable than any love affair or marriage.”

In 1899, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote in Nooks and Corners of Shropshire of the home’s past: “The course of the moat, the ancient well, and the site of the drawbridge can still be identified.” Rumor has it that an underground tunnel once ran from the home to Holgate Castle in Corve Dale, six miles away. Yet now, Cash laments, the home “had come to resemble an architectural salvage yard.” He decides to renovate the house, and his life.

The action is uniquely British. “The Germans, French, and Italians don’t understand the British Cult of Restoration,” Cash affirms: “restoring an old manor farmhouse, mill or ruined abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. It relates to our national obsession with the past and how our best domestic architecture—from castles to cottages—gives character and identity not only to our towns and villages but also defines who we are.” 

Cash quotes P. H. Ditchfield, from The Manor Houses of England, that manors such as his “do not court attention,” nor do they “seek to attract the eye by glaring incongruities or obtrusive detail. They seem in quest of peace, love and obscurity.” For much of his life, Cash seemed the opposite. Drama found him, or compelled him. Failed relationships were compounded by literary ambitions. 

He documented it all. One of his teachers at Trinity College was Eric Griffiths, who made Cash realize that “Letters or poems to those we have loved, or still love, can live on, long after the relationship is dead. I am sure this contributed to my chronic inability to let go of my past, and my habit of photocopying and collecting my letters.” Cash tended to fax his letters to lovers, friends, and foes, which left him with boxes full of originals. He confessed his deepest desires, but those desires also remained near. It is a not-always pleasant paradox to have our secrets archived and in reach.

Cash is full of secrets and stories. In a representative tale, he first met the actress Elizabeth Hurley in 1992, and lived with her for some time, including “when Hugh Grant had his notorious back-seat encounter on Sunset Boulevard with Divine Brown.” Cash hunkered down while paparazzi swarmed their home—perhaps preparing for his own encounters with the gossip press.

Cash placed Hurley “far too high on my usual pedestal for anything more than being her confidant.” Although Hurley was only a friend, Cash had a succession of girlfriends and lovers, and each relationship seems not only a potential marriage, but a marriage with children—which might include “having twins, writing bestselling thrillers, buying two borzoi puppies, importing wild board to roam around the medieval wood and peacocks for the garden, flooding our medieval moat, learning to cook, paying my credit-card bills each month.” 

Restoration Heart is buoyed by Cash’s self-effacing humor. He’s a romantic when it comes to love, and also writing.  The novelist Jay McInerney once told Cash there are two types of books: “the type you put in everything you know, and the type you leave out everything. Make sure you know which yours is before you start.” Cash puts his life—loves, losses, and longings—on display here, and the result is a paean to hard-worn optimism, and an affirmation of the epistle as cherished form. Reflecting on his many letters, Cash concludes: “So many are hopelessly self-indulgent attempts to win a heart or offer some thread of hope (often self-deceptive) to myself. Is the narrator of my letters really me, or a persona I created? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.” Restoration Heart suggests we don’t need an answer; that the stories we tell others, ultimately, become us.