Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in February. Giant by Richard Georges Giant begins with how the “gods of our fathers rose” from the “unlighted deep.” The ocean “splashed about their groaning limbs, / foaming and licking their creaking bodies / stippled with black barnacle.” The long titular poem that opens the collection unfolds into a stanza of direct address: “Recite the prayers your mother taught you, / measure the depth of your days in sunsets, / count your crosses, the number of your years.” Georges commands a voice both calming and cleansing. Giant is a book of myths and minutiae. In poems like “Brandywine/Tortola,” narrators long for the old music of youth. The past often opens through the night, when “the ghosts / howl the unreasonableness of love // to those, like me, who listen for voices / on the wind.” These narrators wish “to believe again in gods, // and bodies as real as this green earth is.” Night, wind, prayer, and water become his refrain, coupled with a stubborn belief in words: “This is a night full of voices: / the infant wailing at the baptismal font, / the weeping around a silent casket. / The whole damn world is alight / and hungry and nothing is ever enough— / but there is poetry, which will suffice.” Virgin by Analicia Sotelo Sotelo’s poetry reveals the weight of desire, how our hearts drag our bodies. After a narrator heads home from a bar, alone, she’s “discovered / humiliation is physically painful: / the crown-like stigmata of a peach / that’s been twisted, pulled open, / left there.” A later narrator contemplates the “darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.” In “Trauma with White Agnostic Male,” she writes “This is blood / for blood, a prodigal heartbreak // I must return” (in Sotelo’s poems, past is always present). “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” is hilarious—“She was very unhappy and vaguely religious so I put her / at the edge of the lake where the ducks were waddling / along like Victorian children, living out their lives in / blithe, downy softness”—and builds toward an emotional end. Imbued with Catholic cultural touches (“I was a clever rosary”), Sotelo mines the Marian paradox with complexity, grace, and power. And this is a book about Texas, where “there’s no winter,” but “the light changes, grows sharper, // keener, and when I was a girl, / it was breath to me, // walking up the hillside to school, / the wind touching my throat.” Her narrators want more out of life, but they clench what they have—and draw us back to her pages. A significant debut. The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone “No one here is glad anyone is dead. But / there is a certain comfort in knowing / the dead can entertain us, if we wish.” A little bit Inferno, but maybe even more so the deliciously devilish No Exit, Stone’s book is a strange, entertaining journey into an underground world where poor souls are “clinging to our tragedies, finding our favorite face.” Stone offers her reader a topography of a purgatory, a place where you “leave your inhibitions at the door,” and there’s “Grandma, half-blind, naked but for an open / XL flannel and Birkenstocks.” After their shift, dancers give tips to the House Mom, and then they go upstairs to their rooms, where grief “read itself aloud / in gilt fragments and tapestries fallen apart.” For all the spectacle of this netherworld, this grief returns in waves: “I can’t tell anymore whether I am grieving you particularly / or I simply find life and death erroneous.” You’ve never quite seen a poetic party like this: “Death’s last-minute cosmetic surgery, the skin taut / from gravity, confined in beauty for one last hurrah.” Yet at some point in Stone’s vision, the nightmare recedes, and we settle into her narrator’s mind—one pained by the cycles of generational loss, longing for her mother. When Stone finally returns us to that club in the book’s final pages, it is as if we might never leave there ourselves. [millions_ad] The Elegies of Maximianus translated by A.M. Juster “I am not who I was, my greatest part has perished.” Juster’s fluid, engaging translation should bring the curious elegies of Maximianus—whose only previous English edition was in 1900—to a wider audience. A 6th-century Roman poet, Maximianus’s 686 lines arrive in the voice of a “querulous old man” (to quote Michael Roberts’s fine introduction), who laments the loss of his erotic misadventures. Readers of Michel de Montaigne will recognize the poet’s pithy lines quoted in the French essayist’s work (“Alas! how little of life is left to the old.” is crisply rendered by Juster as “how much life remains for old men?”). Juster imbues a profluence to the elegist’s consideration of life. Young Maximianus, full of lust, equally brimmed with folly: “So I, who everyone considered a grave saint, / am wretched and revealed by my own vice.” We can sense his old soul inaccurately lighting the lost loves of his youth—Juster’s translation is sharp, his pacing pure—and the book’s final elegy, a mere dozen lines, arrives with a particular sadness: “Death’s journey is the same for all; the type of life / and exit, though, is not the same for all.” Sometimes there is no solace, not even in memories. Noirmania by Joanna Novak Joyelle McSweeney has called the necropastoral the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classic pastoral.” The necropastoral is a place of “strange meetings,” and it is within that setting Joanna Novak’s Noirmania exists. A dark book with drifting, spaced lines, Noirmania is a series of single-page, untitled poems that depict the stratification of memory. The narrator exists out of time, moving between visions of childhood and a place more severe and stagnant than Theodore Roethke’s root cellar. Sharp lines sneak through: “Who hasn’t / eaten alone at dusk, with the moon / pouring out like a placemat?” While it will take time for readers to settle into Novak’s schema, once they do, there is much to see in the darkness, where “silence studied / my lostness: a mass in a room in a suite / off an impossible house with bats and eaves.” House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?
When I really want to feel some measure of control, I write poetry. Poetry is shaped, while prose assumes the shape of the page. Other than indents for dialogue and new paragraphs, prose follows the path set by a document’s margins. We type and let the letters fall where they will—because for essayists and fiction writers, the contours of a sentence are often more of sound than sight. Prose writers are no less precise than poets, but their words have different functions. A sense of control might be why I so often return to Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the introduction he penned to the 1939 version of his Collected Poems. My impulse might appear contradictory; Frost’s essay is best known for his suggestion that the route of a poem is not in control, but surprise—for both reader and writer. “It is but a trick poem and no poem at all,” he says, “if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.” Yet when I say that I write poetry to feel in control, I don’t mean that I write poetry as an act of coercion or prescription. I have a feeling where my poems might go, but I also have a feeling where most of my days might go. I am usually surprised by both. Although I appreciate lines such as “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” my interest in “The Figure a Poem Makes” is focused on other elements. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson said the poet wanted to see if each poem “had a kind of character and shape or form of its own.” A poem, Frost claimed, “had to show that the poet was ‘getting his body into it.’” Frost takes a few paragraphs to get his body—or perhaps his focus—into the essay. He begins with a lament about how abstraction “has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” He stops and starts, but settles into a rhythm when his own abstractions find that figure of poetry, one that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I often drift through his sentences, but pause on one particular gem: that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” While I’m skeptical that poetry will save us, I’ve felt compelled to write poetry again in the past year as a stay against the daily conflagration of argument and noise. Poetry is a salve against the digital exhortation to be constantly engaged in the digital world. I do think poetry and prayer have much in common, but I think good prayer is kenotic; an emptying of self, the hope to be better in how we treat others. If I pray for things I want, I start to feel like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, rambling on in the cathedral. Writing poetry is a return to the self. A claiming of space and soul. An affirmation of worth. [millions_ad] Lately I have been reading H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, and lines like “Let us substitute / enchantment for sentiment, // re-dedicate our gifts / to spiritual realm” make me think of Frost. Poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. I think Frost’s essential word here is momentary; to entirely escape from the world seems not only impossible, but perhaps a bit selfish. Yet to give in to the cultural—or perhaps capitalist—demand to remain superficially engaged, online or otherwise, is to assert the importance of society over spirit. Now I write essays—about poetry, culture, and God—but my first two books were collections of poetry. Those books feel like part of a past life. They were written before my daughters were born. The economics of poetry are unforgiving. Poetry is a place of no deadlines. A place of searching. It is also a world of little remuneration. It is romantic to think that such a thing does not matter. But it does. The writing life is a succession of different acts, with their own failures and conflicts and moments of joy. To live as a writer means to embrace, and perhaps be inspired by, these different seasons. Nostalgia shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but if we’ve opened a window years before, there was probably a good reason. Writing poetry is an act of ordering our thoughts and perceptions into lines and sections. By focusing on a form of writing that embraces structure and selection, we can participate in a daily examen of sorts—and whether that poetry is ever published is not really the point. There are greater rewards. I am writing poems again. And I suspect that I’m not the only one. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in January. Wild Is the Wind by Carl Phillips Listen to Nina Simone’s stirring classic that inspired Phillips’s title, and then settle into this masterful collection. Phillips has found the sweet union between pacing and structure, and each poem in this book, like Simone’s recording, fully inhabits its space. The wideness and wisdom of his first person steps out in the middle of poems, as in “Brothers in Arms”: “I’ve always thought / gratitude’s the one correct response to having been made, / however painfully, to see this life more up close.” And “The happiest / people I know are those whose main strategy has / always been detachment.” This sense of control permeates the book, exemplified in poems like “Stray”: “Sometimes the thought that I’m doomed / to fail—that the body is—keeps me almost steady, if / steadiness is what a gift for a while brings—feathers, burst- / at-last pods of milkweed, October—before it all fades away.” To fade is to drift, disappear, and to lose ourselves—a notion, much like love, that requires some strange confidence and fear. A pleasure to have a poet armed with the architecture of history speaking to us, telling us: “to know utterly what you’ll never be, to understand in doing so / what you are, and say no to it, not to who you are, to say no to despair.” He does so by reminding us how to see, even something as simple and necessary as leaves: “Now they look suspended, like heroes / inside the myth heroes seem bent on making / from the myth of themselves; or like sunlight, in fog.” Indictus by Natalie Eilbert The first poem of Indictus is a preface and schema for the book: “I envision a world where the men are gone who pulled language out of my mouth to push themselves in.” The narrator explains “If I jump around in my details, it is because I have willfully refused details in writing,” and the warning makes sense: “Even in the highest form of truth, to access memory is to blunder its event.” Eilbert’s narrators respond to trauma with fever and force, and we’re plunged into these dark moments in stanzas that stray across the page, little blinks of memory that have pushed their way out. The narrative style here is often mythic—Eilbert’s recursive songs turn words like “hole” into struggles—making Indictus feel like some discovered, aged text of permanence. There often is a freeing sense of vulnerability here; on one page, after a pointed childhood memory, the narrator skips a line like taking a breath, and writes: “What do I want to tell you?” What is told: “A poem is a hole in how it is dug up,” she writes, “the soil purged, the soiled purge—movement likened / to a net uncatching.” Indictus is, among other things, a paean to poetic power: “My obsession with words is a kind of envy, / that they affect meaning as their former usage / is erased, retooled.” Eilbert’s book is an act of reclaiming, revising, transcending—while never forgetting. Luxury by Philip Schultz “As I get older more seems to be needed.” Luxury begins with the anxiety that accompanies awareness. The narrators of the first poems in the collection are frozen, watching the world. An aging man in his home, “worrying about a future my sons / will help make.” A man sitting “next to the toilet” on packed transit, “thinking about Pythagoras, / who believed our souls ended up inside / the bodies of animals selected as rewards / and punishments.” A narrator witness to small-town bickering in line at the grocery store. These are poems of dizzying suburban silence: “I like to stand at my window, / looking for a TV’s futile flickering, / always surprised to see / instead, / the quaint, porous face / of my reflection, / immersed in darkness, / its one abundance.” “Luxury,” the long title poem that encompasses the final quarter of that book, looks deeper into that darkness. It ventures forward and backward—in the bounding way that grief does—and the narrator considers how “the first / and only life I ever managed to save / was my own.” Melancholic without ever become maudlin, Schultz’s new book is a snapshot of our malaise “one luminous, lost imagination at a time.” Take Me with You by Andrea Gibson Gibson’s pithy love poems are a nice match for the book’s pocket size, and Sarah J. Coleman’s line drawings help the eye linger on the page. The final two sections of the book, “On the World” and “On Becoming,” are idealistic calls for unity—that we might compromise enough to listen to each other, but that we don’t have to compromise our souls. The untitled poems make the pages bleed into each other; one page is an affirmation to “write the poem” in the midst of grief, and the opposing page feels right: “I am so desperate to learn / how people reach / each other, / I can’t stop running / around cursing this city / for the day they started / burying the telephone wires / underground.” “You should never trust a ship / that won’t let you get off”—Gibson’s wisdom sails in lines that take curious routes. They might court cliché in some of their love poems, but that makes their later dances with words all the more surprising and powerful “I know a thousand / things louder than / a soldier’s gun. // I know the / heartbeat of his / mother.” A former college basketball player (they played for St. Joseph College’s Lady Monks), they first came out at 20 to their roommate: “I gotta tell you something. I / finally understand God.” [millions_ad] Hymn to the Reckless by Erin Fornoff At a gas station: “slicks of oil tie-dye the puddles / in the concrete.” They “reflect the sun, / turn it wild, hold it in the cracked dips of the ground.” In the forest: “Look at a beech long enough, you want / to run your hands up its trunk like a lover.” Making moonshine: “We wait for a sunny day and begin early, / haul deep pots and propane up the hill / back where the rain-rubbed mountains meet.” Fornoff looks at the world—animate and inanimate—as pulsing, peculiar, worthy of attention. “I manufactured a kinship with the sea,” she writes in one poem: “It flirted. It tweaked my ankles.” Later, when "I fell over the rocks" into the sea, the water “pulled / into the moaning boil, it ignored me, / pounded my sinuses, churned.” Her vision is tempered by realism. “Politeness as identity is taxing.” Hymn to the Reckless moves between the poet’s native North Carolina and her home in Ireland, where she says “the light is different here.” It is from that distance that she looks at her home and wonders, with the weight of elegy, “If the future’s something we have to brace / ourselves against, can we find a space in the dark, / and life courage from the mess?” The Cataracts by Raymond McDaniel Often McDaniel’s narratives unfold from a word’s definition. Decimate, light, haven: “Is the name for the place of safety or refuge. // Though refuge from what is unclear, unspecified, // it matters in that the nature of a haven depends // on what you are fleeing from.” And on his lines go, spinning definition out into discovery. This is a book of blurred vision, a theme imbued into the spaces between the lines, into the memories of the narrator—memories that feel like a game: “Do you know where you are, / if you know that wherever you are, / you are lost?” There are many mirrors in this book, light refracted, vision strained. In one long poem, the narrator speaks of his father’s cataracts: “because we were all broken by the cost of his having been broken.” His pain is a weight upon them, and years later, after his death, the narrator dreams of his father: “he said if you want to stare at the sun // and not go blind you look not at its light // but what it illuminates the world the moon // never the thing itself and always its reflection.” There’s a heavy sadness to this book—a strangely calming one—with a hint of resignation: “I want nothing, / not even to be free of desire."
2017 was the year I was thankfully, happily consumed with poetry. I wrote about 49 new books of poetry for my monthly column here at The Millions. The refrain starts with packages and cardboard mailers that my daughters collect from our front steps. They are stacked next to my desk, and I read and read and read, and then I write. I try to find poems that move me, that comfort me, that make me afraid and help me see where I’ve become complacent. When I am finished with that month’s column, I carry the titles to my bookshelves in another room, where they rest until I read them again. If I’m sentimental about books, forgive me. We need them. Here are some more books of poetry that I read this year. Maps by John Freeman: “If wind asked permission / we might wait and listen / as if night stopped its blue / curtain and wheat bent without scattering / its hope of what happens in the dark, / and happens by accident.” Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair by William Evans: The nurse “bares my shoulder while saying / my, you are a big one, aren’t you. / My shoulder is a bronze /trophy in this nurse’s fingers / and I wait for the needle, wondering / how many bucks heard the wind / whisper how gorgeous they / were through the trees / of a perilous forest / before it carried the first / bullet with it.” Begin With a Failed Body by Natalie J. Graham: “Your body is a jumble, a swarm held together with light. I want / a tangle of glossy leaves scattering light. I want, // perhaps, to hurt your buoyant body as it rises, to make // you feel.” [millions_ad] Book of Twilight by Pablo Neruda: “Blind old man, you cried when your life was / good, when your eyes held the sun, / but if the silence has already arrived, for what are you waiting, / for what are you waiting, blind old man, are you waiting for the pain?” What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan: “I did not ask to be created, / yet here I wait for my creator to return.” Urbilly by Michael Dowdy: “Their headlights rattled down cul-de-sacs, / scanning vinyl shrines skirting a highway / that twists over the hills like licorice / and slips into Tennessee’s puckered lips.” In This Quiet Church of Night I Say Amen by Devin Kelly: “There is too much beauty here / for this to mean nothing. Believe me // when I say there’s a universe / where we can hold each other // in the palms of our hands, both at once.” More from A Year in Reading 2017 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 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in December. Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino “Who shall change my vile body into a glorious body / when I know there’s glory at the end of my prayer?” The first quarter of Witch Wife is bound by bodies: bodies plagued, bodies unsettled. “For this glob of a girl who feeds like a grub,” Petrosino writes, her consonants bubbling like the incantations suggested by her title. “Poor poorless receptacle for Presidential-fitness-test-sweat, poor pudding poured into too few pans.” The anxiety of the book’s first quarter turns and evolves into something like mist in the second quarter of the book, in poems like “Europe”: “I’ll never be so lonely again, or young enough / to weep in my clothes on the street.” Witch Wife offers that maybe all love stories are stories of bodies. We are within before we are without. Petrosino is a unique voice, churning a mixture of smirk and mirth: “My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas / & adorn themselves in denim.” Anne Sexton haunts the third quarter of this book: “Some ghosts are my mothers / neither angry nor kind / their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.” Witch Wife is a weird wonder, something altogether new in its combinations. From the title poem: “Your gloves are green // & transparent like the skin of Christ / when He returned, filmed over with moss roses— / I’ll conjure as perfect an Easter.” The book’s final quarter shakes like the end of a folk tale, the other world and this world coming together: “It happens at my desk: a gathering in. As if the room were a forehead graying at the lid.” The sky collapsing; “Something happens but it doesn’t keep happening. This is a careful time.” We should believe it. Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader “Everything at the end of a bullet’s journey becomes conjecture,” writes Colum McCann in the introduction to this painfully appropriate collection. The bleak reality that McCann describes is all the more reason for a book whose conviction, he writes, “is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope.” “The long night begins,” ends a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca. “Seasons matter little to him,” writes Kyle Dargan of a Virginia farmer who sells a gun to the “tremulous hand” of a boy: “none of the guns he sells are grown from seed.” Ross Gay stirs me awake with lines I can’t forget: “The bullet, in its hunger, craves the womb / of the body. The warm thrum there. Begs always / release from the chilly, dumb chamber.” Bullets into Bells believes in conversation over false conversion, and in that spirit, includes responses to each poem—a unique, and often moving, element of the book. After Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”—in which he laments “this should not be the brick and mortar / of poetry, the moment when a black father drives / his black sons to school”—Tamir’s mother responds: “When I lost Tamir, I lost a piece of myself.” Poetry won’t make us whole again, but we need a form for our shouts and our cries. Follow Natasha Trethewey here: “And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there? Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell “Jesus, it is a disappointing shed / Where they hang your picture / And drink juice, and conjure / Your person into inferior bread— / I would speak of injustice, / I would not go again into that place.” Kinnell “sacramentalized experience,” Edward Hirsch says, alluding to how the poet’s youthful Catholicism became both a source of tension and nostalgia. His long poem from 1960, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” captures that synthesis. A beautiful, comprehensive, playful snapshot of the city: people, buildings, objects illuminated fresh: “In the pushcart market, on Sunday, / A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.” Kinnell’s Collected also includes The Book of Nightmares, a book of quotable lamentations: “Let our scars fall in love.” There’s a considered gentleness to Kinnell’s verse, as in “Goodbye,” for when “My mother, poor woman, lies tonight / in her last bed. It’s snowing, for her, in her darkness.” By the time the poem ends, like with so many of Kinnell’s tales, we have been carried, and are placed, gently, somewhere else: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.” [millions_ad] Let’s Not Live on Earth by Sarah Blake “You will lose your body to // sadness at a point / like a temperature // and then you will wake and wake / and wake and wake and wake to it.” Melancholy, by nature of its blurred edges and ambiguous heartbeats, is so difficult to capture with poetic precision. Blake gets close to that pained place through her recursive lines, her willingness to linger on moments. “I know people are judging me as a mother all the time,” she writes in a single line, like an exhale of the inevitable. Yet there’s a strength here, and it is often delivered with the humor that comes from frustration. In one poem, after the narrator is almost denied coverage for anxiety medication, she walks her son home in a stroller. It has gotten very warm, and once home, covered in sweat, she thinks what a relief it will be to simply sleep that night. To make it through life, and be given that small grace: “You might call it escapism but this is / how life works, trying to pull / us free, creating the break that we might // split ourselves upon.” Solve for Desire by Caitlin Bailey Grete and Georg Trakl, sister and brother, pianist and poet, are given new life in Bailey’s debut collection. Plagued by addiction, scarred by war, driven to suicide, both are frozen in history, but Bailey offers Grete her voice. The siblings hold a connection beyond even love, some region possibly only accessible through poetry. “The most brilliant part of you exists to haunt me,” she writes. “Sometimes I can’t believe my heart, // how it continues. How it isn’t black and withered.” Bailey often delivers short poems like flashes; those can be held in your palm, however mysterious: “If a horse is allowed / to graze freely after a winter / in the barn / it becomes sick with pleasure.” Other lines, like “I am hostage to your absence,” bleed across the rest of poems, heavy in their chorus. Although Bailey is creating a fictional vision of two hearts, her words rest in that curious space between abstraction and touch, so this is a book to place upon one’s soul. Let’s All Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges In “Ode to My Dishwasher,” the narrator sighs: “It is late, my love, and you are loud / worrying at your work.” “To be a grown woman,” she thinks, “alone / and unclean is a powerful thing.” She thinks of her mother, who “had so many rubber gloves / I was surprised by the sight of her hands // which seemed to me old / even when she was young.” The narrator’s mother is a familiar refrain in Let’s All Die Happy, a book sustained by Adair-Hodges’s often darkly-comic voice. Lament is one of her main modes. She doesn’t quite look back in anger, but there’s a skepticism about the past. Like those years she “thought I loved God and His son,” which might have been because she “liked being good // at Church, A-pluses in verses, hymns.” “I loved Him,” she reflects, “like a savings account, feeling holy // in my asceticism but waiting for the day / I could go to the Bank of Eternal Good Things.” So often in these poems the narrator ends up alone, misunderstood, separated—after she’s opened her heart. In “The Trap,” she knows “There is no greater tragedy than to be young / and think you know what joy will look like / and so clunk and pigeon / through corridors and malls, flapping against the linoleum / of heartbreak.” A sweet book for hearts gone sour, Adair-Hodges skillfully moves between varying songs, and the book’s key lies in a single phrase: “I am graceless but I am not depraved.” The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons: Volume 1 and Volume 2 From his 1955 self-published debut Ommateum with Doxology to the posthumous 2005 collection Bosh and Flapdoodle, these two volumes offer 966 poems from a poet whose complexities and personal labyrinths we have yet to fully understand. In her introduction, Helen Vendler alludes to a forthcoming biography, but for now, we have the poems. He began writing them while in the Navy. He continued writing while he was a scientific glassware salesman. His words hold an oddity and sublimity that sets him apart from even his experimental peers. In “Easter Morning,” on the tragic death of his younger brother: “I have a life that did not become, / that turned aside and stopped, / astonished: / I hold it in me like a pregnancy.” His brother’s young death paused his growth, and he’s remained chained to that moment where he can only “yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place.” Ammons is like some wild radical lover of language in old clothes; his tightly columnar poems are both playful and traditional. Timeless, probably. Often tongue-tied to truth: “Old men drain and dread and dream and dress / and dribble and drift and drink and drip and // drone and drool and droop and drop and drown / and drowse, dry, and dry up.” I love “Soaker”: “You can appreciate / this kind of rain, / thunderless, / small-gauged / after a dry spell, / the wind quiet, / multitudes of leaves / as if yelling / the smallest thanks.” I have never read a poet who brings me so close to infinity, where we are equally in awe and terribly afraid.
The June 1999 issue of Esquire was full of essays about fathers: Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Cash, and Nasdijj. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” was Navajo writer Nasdijj’s dizzying, heartbreaking essay about his young son, who had died from fetal alcohol syndrome. Nasdijj’s essay was as pithy as his cover letter to the magazine, which claimed “In the entire history of Esquire magazine, you have never once published an American Indian writer. This oversight is profound.” Nasdijj claimed that Esquire was only his second publication; the first was a fishing story for Gray’s Sporting Journal. Nasdijj’s essay was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and soon became a memoir; The New York Times called it “a fascinating book, unlike anything you are likely to have read.” A book that “reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society.” Two more memoirs, and more critical acclaim, followed. The truth also followed. Nobody named Nasdijj had ever published a fishing story in Gray’s Sporting Journal, but in September 1996, “The ‘Hemingway’ Boat” had been published by one Tim Barrus. Barrus, it turns out, was Nasdijj. A white writer, not a Navajo writer. “The hoax warns us without warning and informs us without informing,” writes Kevin Young in his new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Young is a fine poet—incoming poetry editor of The New Yorker, no less—and his often recursive, textured prose is the perfect delivery for the cyclical nature of literary lies. Of Barrus’s Hemingway story—another not-so-true tale—Young writes “by claiming Hemingway, Barrus was claiming a connection to the past and Papa and to literature itself. Hemingway would sometimes play soldier (though he really was one), matador, revolutionary, but he was also an actual journalist, drawing fairly clear borders between fiction and non. The writers who followed, especially male writers, would often struggle with Hemingway’s style and lifestyle, mistaking one for the other—and many, from Clifford Irving to James Frey to Barrus, would eventually turn to hoaxing to find their way.” Bunk is teeming with these types of insights. As a poet and historian, Young has the particular skill of seeing the unseen. He understands that at the heart of every lie is a good, perhaps great, story. Often the act of story is the act of persuasion, hypnosis, delusion. For better or worse, we love to be lied to if the song sounds good. Because the hoax is not a lone performance, it needs an audience. In describing literary forgeries, Young writes the hoaxer must fake “a document as well as a backstory—providing a collaboration between present and past, the hoaxer and the audience ...for the forger, like other hoaxers, seeks to make the audience complicit.” It is this well-made point that will make attuned readers of Bunk cringe. We’ve bought half or quarter truths—especially when those lies varnish our biases, our ideologies, our hopes. Young cautions this is not a new phenomenon. Bunk is certainly fascinating in the light of our current post-truth world, but Young demonstrates how lies, frauds, exaggerations, and misinformation are a particularly American exercise—baked into the republic from the years of P.T. Barnum on forward. The digital age continues to blur reality, performance, and hoax, but with greater speed and range. Bunk contains a laundry list of charlatans, including Rachel Dolezal, Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Laura Albert. But what is most powerful is Young’s examination of American lies about race. Barrus was simply one of many who have taken up the identity of a Native person. There is a particular insidiousness at play here, Young offers. When a hoaxer performs as a person on the margins, “hoaxers erase those their story purports to represent.” These are not small sins. They are not postmodern play at the malleability of the Author. The appropriation of another’s identity is a continuation of history. Young connects the unfortunate tendency of white writers to take on Native identities as part of the “sideshow attraction” trend: “Besides reinforcing notions of the West as a continuous battle and justifying Native displacement and death, the Wild West show also cemented the figure of the imaginary Indian—a decidedly Plains Indian look, complete with war bonnet—that would prove dominant in popular thought and in the broader West ever since.” Stories write our history. Stories write our culture. Once sewn into that history and culture, the hoax and the lie are almost impossible to separate from the truth. They become part of our fabric. In Bunk, Young might just have written the most important book this year. Sadly, his book suggests that we might make the same statement for 2018—and the next year, and the next.
“Private letter to you,” wrote Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish on December 1, 1929. Two months earlier, he’d followed the success of The Sun Also Rises with his breakout, bestselling work, A Farewell to Arms. In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, James Aswell wrote that upon finishing the book, he is “still a bit breathless, as people often are after a major event in their lives. If before I die I have three more literary experiences as sharp and exciting and terrible as the one I have just been through, I shall know it has been a good world.” But Hemingway was a writer, and writers work. We toil, we dream, we fail, we hope. He was living in Paris with his wife, Pauline, their two children, and Hemingway’s younger sister, Madelaine. His father, Dr. Clarence E. Hemingway, had committed suicide a year earlier, and Hemingway had established a trust fund for his mother and his younger siblings. MacLeish had just been hired as an editor of the recently debuted magazine Fortune, and Hemingway wanted to talk money. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1929-1931 are the fourth volume of his correspondence, and nearly 85 percent of them are being published for the first time. The result is a windfall for Hemingway fans, but also for those trying to understand the daily working life of a major writer—about whom biographer Michael S. Reynolds notes “His contemplative and his active life are jammed together so tightly that only minutes separate them.” Editors Sandra Spanier and Miriam B. Mandel are comprehensive and meticulous in their approach—the book is peppered with contextual footnotes that moor the letters—and the result is real insight into a stubborn, driven, accomplished writer. Although the letters document his life as an outdoorsman, as well as his fracturing friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the correspondence best illuminates his life as a writer. “You know how I hate to pull money terms etc. with you,” writes Hemingway to MacLeish, before promptly talking about money. He quotes offers from Collier’s Weekly—$750 for 1000-1200 word stories—so he wants at least $2000 for the long article on the economics of bullfighting in Spain. “I would write it for you for nothing,” he promises, but knows “I have to keep the price up because thats how they judge you.” Hemingway’s article would be published the following year as “Bullfighting, Sport and Industry,” and would later become part of his first bullfighting book, Death in the Afternoon. A Farewell to Arms would soon be translated into French and German, and become a Broadway play. Hemingway also sold the film rights, although he hated the film version, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The business of being a writer is a business, and Hemingway’s letters demonstrate that even the most celebrated writers encounter countless setbacks. Writing is a struggle. Publishing is a struggle. It is fine to accept that. Writing is wonderful, it is cathartic, it is frustrating. The pulse of writing is paradox. Poets know this in their lines; freelancers know this when they sit down to pitch. Hemingway’s letters allow us to follow that trail of failures and successes, and how a writer’s life off the page affects their words. In a 1931 letter to Dr. Don Carlos Guffey, a fervent collector of Hemingway’s books who would deliver Hemingway’s son Gregory later that year, Hemingway sounds rushed, nervous, and afraid. He will soon be off to Spain, and has a request of the doctor: “In case anything should happen to me—in the bull ring or any other dumb way—I have told Pauline where to find the copy of the 3 Stories and 10 poems that it is to go to you—Do not expect any disasters nor have any premonitions but have had so many accidents lately that should take that step to protect your interests.” Hemingway laments the paltry money he’d made from In Our Time, and how he couldn’t sell a single story from the collection to a magazine. His final words in the letter about the writing life were true in 1931, and will be true for eternity: “It is a strange business.”
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in November. Saudade by Traci Brimhall Gorgeous and searing, Brimhall’s poems are rooted in the marriage of myth, mysticism, and mystery. Collected with the breadth and power of a novel, but delivered in discrete scenes and dreams, Saudade is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara,” a litany of transformations come from the touch of a shrunken hand. A barren woman gives birth. Crops flourish. The narrator knows the hand’s secrets, and is silent at first: “The town / had waited so long for a miracle, and it was finally // here, enriching the poor, emboldening the meek, / carving acrostic mysteries into the trees.” Salvation soon turns sour, though, and death comes to the town, leading to a public ritual of cleansing that ends with “Startled pigeons roosting on the church / roof took flight when they heard the clapping.” In God-soaked Brazil, Brimhall’s characters can’t help but dance with darkness: “A sinner needs her sin, and mine is beloved.” There’s a causality, a profluence to these poems created by her lyricism, and her swift pivots. When we return to Puraquequara, a camera crew films a telenovela based on the miracles, and the narrator speaks: “An extra in my own story and envious of the ingenue’s unmuddied / shoes and air-conditioned hotel room, I say, Ajudar, ajudar, // and cry on cue.” Dreams bleach reality: “the mayor hangs himself and bequeaths / his second-best bed to his horse, I write romantic obituaries / and send his wife signed photographs of myself.” Disturbing, and masterfully done, Saudade will take you somewhere else, a place you know is true: “I hate to spoil it, / but the end of every biography is death.” Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang Speaking of her previous collection, The Boss, Chang said she wanted her poems “to propel themselves through language”—an equally accurate description of Barbie Chang, her latest book. Chang entrances with wordplay, but the dance never feels hollow: this is performance with poetic soul. There are two strands to her book that sustain each other: a woman both desiring and rejecting the urge to become part of a suburban community, and the woman’s life with her parents. Barbie sees “beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them they have // something to say doves come out of / their mouths that // explode splinters in the sky.” In Chang’s talented turns, mere phrases become fantasy. She’s mastered the art of recursive language, and Barbie Chang—woman, idea, performance—feels incantational as the book progresses. The Circle returns often: villainous, perfect in their plasticity. They are drunk at a school auction, “tossing coins in baskets.” The whole scene a mess, but Barbie “owed it to // her children to make friends to blend / into the dead end.” Background becomes foreground, as Barbie’s father is sick, and Chang’s eschewed punctuation begins to feel like halted breaths. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted litany of linked poems in the middle of the book, evidence how quickly and precisely Chang can turn from comic to comforting to transcendent: “how in one / moment your hands collide as in clapping / how in some other moment they will rise / over my encased body touch in prayer.” I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan Duan’s talents are many, but she’s an especially powerful poet of scene. The collection begins with her title poem, searing in action: “Father’s chopsticks crashed. He threw them.” Angered, “Father could not believe he had raised such a daughter.” He “coughed a mouthful of rice”; he was “extraordinary and old and Chinese.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s mother “does not own a / Laundromat or / a take-out restaurant.” She “is not / from your country, / and I am not / ashamed. // I slip my hands through her wise hair, // and keep.” Duan moves between affirmations of self and the inevitable struggle of difference; “my tongue // my hardest muscle // forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.” Duan sketches these strained emotions with care and courage. This is a book of prejudice and expectations, and how they hurt in various ways. In “When All You Want,” the young narrator is at the piano. Above her, “Mrs. Liu with her / handsome mouth.” Mom watches “anxiously from the window.” A boy plays a violin in the next room. Duan turns back to Mrs. Liu, and the candies in her mouth: “clack, suck, clack, / again—here go all the noises you love.” I Wore Blackest Hair is a storm of senses, a chronicle of strained identity and a stance of power: “don’t mistake / me for a soft woman, / a shy mouth— / I can lash like the / hot, hot rain.” Riddles, Etc. by Geoffrey Hilsabeck There’s a magic at work in these often tight, but never cinctured, poems. In “Remaking the Music Box,” the narrator has advice for us: “First unhurt the accidents. / Plant yourself in what remains.” After all, “No sadness just disaster / no meanness just thrift.” These poems often drift back to youth, when the narrator, “light and white as a candle,” still felt “my childhood pooling like wax at my feet.” Appropriate to the title, the collection contains 17 riddles, their answers revealed on the final page, but well-worth the poetic game of waiting. It’s a playful interlude that gives Hilsabeck’s collection an endearing bit of freedom: we can find the answers to our questions, or we might accept that in poetry, as says W.H. Auden, “you do not call a spade a spade.” Sometime it is enough pleasure to let our poets leave trails of language without firm destinations. Thousands by Lightsey Darst Imagine discovering someone’s notebook, the pages covered margin-to-margin with desire, anxiety, and fear, all wound together through association. Thousands is a raw collection, where each poem bleeds into the next, as if we are reading one long threnody. The effect, admittedly, is sometimes dizzying, and readers will want to devote time to this book, but the work is returned with gifts. Darst offers thanks to Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks here, but blazes her own trail with poem-stories that begin in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2011 and end in Durham, N.C., after 2014. The tension of a timeline opens so many themes: “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” “How do you deal with the casual atrocity of the world?” Darst's poems are running monologues of wonder and worry; in one way, they are a document of a poet’s struggle to give suffering context. “Do you keep a journal / why / why not // Keep one now / keep me in it”: Darst’s intimacy here is masterful: whether it is love, lust, pregnancy, or words: “The poem I can’t write persists.” Helium by Rudy Francisco “When you choose to be a poet // You become a place that people walk through / and then leave when they are ready.” The arrowed exhales of Francisco’s spoken word poems translate well to this debut. Lines flow with the rhythm of conversation, winding toward clever conclusions. True poems like “Mess” abound: “On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore / You called for me.” Then, “I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass. / I hugged your shatter,” but “When it was over, you looked at the stains on the carpet / And blamed me for making a mess.” Maybe we can get people to chant the refrains from poems like “Chameleon”: “And we often forget that sexism is a family heirloom // that we’ve been passing down for generations / As men, it is important that we start asking ourselves // What will the boys learn from us?” Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung “Whatever one witnessed in battle became a silence carried within.” This anthology begins with a haunting foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a consideration of race, Southern identity, and family tradition—one that destined him for military service. A Vietnam veteran himself, Komunyakaa explains that soldiers carry home “echoes of our war...we carry with us the pathos, and our loved ones often inherit the caustic baggage.” Subtitled Poetry & Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, the anthology captures grief and guilt in turns, and its mixture of poetry and prose channels the range of emotions and expressions. In “The Lost Pilot,” a prefatory poem that sets the tone for the book, James Tate elegizes his father: “your face did not rot / like the others—it grew dark, / and hard like ebony.” This is a book about fathers, and rightly so, as Laren McClung notes: “the father is always a source of myth, but the father who has seen war, who has performed the complex work of violence, heroism, or survival, is in many ways inaccessible, a mystery to us.” Inheriting the War mines that mysterious space, how we pursue the soul of those we love who are torn by war, and how those wounds weather our own hands and hearts. We should consider the metaphors and myths, but there is more to encounter here: as poet Brian Ma considers, as a re-outfitted military plane carries him to his parents’ home of Vietnam: “as usual the boundaries are hard to discern. / The guilt is like a fog; in the fog there are people.” Earthling by James Longenbach “One of life’s greatest pleasures, / If I’m allowed the phrase, / Is packing a suitcase. // It’s not like building a fire, / When you want to leave space for air.” Longenbach’s poems occupy a strange yet perceptive place between the real and the unreal. I hesitate to call his verse surreal, because I associate that word with distortion; Longenbach gives his readers a route to follow, and its turns are precise. Poems like “The Dishwasher” drift on a wave of melancholy. A soft song on a Chevette’s radio becomes a hymn to search: “I wanted to hear it again. / I drove to the supermarket, then drove home.” We move to find where we’ve been, like when that character hears his mother’s voice, asking him a question that goes unanswered: “What kind of coffee do you like?” Poets will appreciate works like “Preface to an Unwritten Book,” in which the narrator knows he is supposed to be writing, “But you should realize I’d much rather spend my time / Reading or, since it’s the end / Of summer, sitting. / Our truest impulses are so immature.” There’s a quietude to Longenbach’s lines that is calming, and then there are long poems like “Climate of Reason” that shock me awake and breathless, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “In the middle of the desert / You might be anyone, / Except you’re never in the middle, / You’re at the edge.”
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in October. For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel Pimentel renders passion through crisp, cutting lines. In “The Kiss,” “I’m mad for gravity though / I’m bound, diagonally, to / you.” And: “Leave me // to wither while moss weeps / in the corners, our halo liquid / as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat / our divinity melting.” Later, in “Late September, When the Heat Releases”: “A sage brush flowers, / and all night long, your skin rippled, softening // through gaped window, the cathedral long / with bells.” For Want of Water is a hot book: life in the desert, desire laid bare. “We are learning how to lie down quietly / each afternoon, to let // whimpers fall over us, through / the air, and through // our skin, to forget our wet mouths, their hungry gestures.” A great book doesn’t need two narratives, but there’s a parallel current of pain in this book. “The wives in Juárez are used / to slumping their bellies to their knees.” This grief is thick: “The violins in our home are emptied / of sound, strings stilled, missing / fingers.” Love and struggle, lust and pain, all here under the same poetic roof. Good Bones by Maggie Smith Come for Smith’s viral title poem, but stay for her range as she builds a notable collection, one suffused with grace, and—dare I say it—hope. Poems like “First Fall” make her narrators feel like careful guides, each line a gesture, a lesson: “The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back. I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” This book is full of wonders. Of sky: “As you move through it, you make a tunnel / in the precise size and shape of your body.” Of the past: “The chairs are empty. The children / are unwrapping golden butterscotches / in the cool, shuttered houses.” Of the wisdom that comes from grief: “Where do you carry your dead? . . . what cut shape is made / whole by opening? I mean besides the heart.” Good Bones breathes mystical, pastoral wind, while also hitting notes of longing. The world has to be falling apart—it has to be a place where the narrator might ask “Where is your voice now...What has the land done to your tongue?”—in order for us and our words to lift it back up. Civil Twilight by Jeffrey Schultz “The calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us, / Happen, somehow, beyond us, without us, out in a world as wide / As it is unimaginable.” Civil Twilight is a surreal trip of a book. Schultz describes our world, but does so in a murky, tired tone—as if we have stumbled out of a daze to finally see the light. I felt somewhere in the range of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in these pages, my senses both bombarded and soothed: “We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh / And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences // Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color, / Earth toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism.” The State has exploded into some nearly apocalyptic organism, and Schultz is like some haggard oracle—spent and disgusted with violence and obfuscation, turning to language—there to document the fall: “called here to gather / In memory of what by the end of this will have already been forgotten.” Who Reads Poetry edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share Poetry is most often defended by poets, so this anthology is a welcome addition to the chorus from outside voices. From Neko Case to Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert to Roxane Gay, we hear spirited confessions of those converted to poetry. Ebert recalls his Catholic school assignment to memorize a poem. He never forgot William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., the fifty-sixth superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, sees poetry as an essential tool for communication “because it describes reality with force and concision” and “confronts cadets with new ideas that challenge their worldview.” Jia Tolentino is not a poet, and never talks about the form with others: “that, in the end, is what made me free” to observe, experience, and realize “I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end.” Poetry is malleable and moving; a form that will never tire of importance. Who Reads Poetry is an invaluable testament to a simple truth: we all read poetry, in our ways. As Aleksandar Hemon says, poetry helps us understand “what it meant to live.” Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burt Advice from the Lights is buoyed by two themes: the imagination of youth, and the search for body: its shape, outline, expectations. “If I can’t be weightless,” Burt writes, “or glide among twigs, or sate / myself on dew, then let / my verses live that way.” We begin in 1979, when “I could have trusted my instincts if I had any,” when “I had become convinced / that character was fate.” A year when “My bedtime and I were both eight.” Soon Stephanie arrives in the collection, a second self whose first poem ends in a question, whose other appearances infuse poems with the anxiety of identity: “Because I can’t ever appear / as I would like to appear, / I once tried to make it so you couldn’t see me at all.” Yet there is young hope, as in “Fifth Grade Time Capsule”: “I dream of the day / when I am decoded and vaunted.” Burt’s year-by-year cataloging gives Advice from the Lights an immediacy within its nostalgia, a compelling ars poetica of self. Madness by Sam Sax “I'd say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you:” Sam Sax's advice for writers applies to Madness, a book saturated with misdiagnoses, anxieties, fears, and the paradoxes of bodily desire. In “#hypochondria,” the narrator writes “if i lived two hundred years ago // i’d have been bled nightly, / i’d have slept at the foot of a holy man’s bed / i’d have lapped up his snake waters.” Sax’s book feels like a funhouse of debunked treatments, a suffering mind’s headlong dive into nightmare. In “Willowbrook,” the narrator’s father worked at an asylum: “something funny happens / when a person becomes a patient / the name changes & everything / that follows is bandages.” This book winds its way in and out of these institutions, their corridors and their darkest rooms. Madness wonders: “what does it mean to be descendant / of something monstrous? / to still love the monster?” Can we ever escape unscathed? Devotions: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver Oliver’s religious sense has been considered before, but this volume is quite clearly curated and presented—from the title on to the selections—as a work of (Gerard Manley) Hopkinsesque devotion. It might seem like a small gesture of design, but as a hardcover, Oliver’s play with white space feels almost spiritual. It is affirming that a poet so widely read as Oliver feels new with this work. The selections are ordered from most recent, Felicity, on to No Voyage and Other Poems from the early 1960s. Among those earlier poems, there is the gentle yet ultimately firm “The Swimming Lesson,” where “the endless waves / Reaching around my life” force the speaker to swim. Or even better, to learn “How to put off, one by one, / Dreams and pity, love and grace,— / How to survive in any place.” My favorite is “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”: “Once, in summer, / in the blueberries, / I fell asleep, and woke / when a deer stumbled against me.” She takes us, almost effortlessly, somewhere else. Oliver’s selected is the type of book to leave out on a table and hope somebody—perhaps those not yet converted to verse—will page through and find, inevitably, a voice they’ve been looking to find. Small Gods by Matthew Minicucci Minicucci offers readers a gentle slant on the observed world. In “Wedding,” the “tabernacle / door slides closed like some gilded / impossible hotel.” I linger on that image and drift to the opposing page, where, in “Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians,” “On resurrection: to the dead, the living seem so pointlessly busy.” Like his fine debut chapbook, Reliquary, Minicucci’s new book is suffused with religious nostalgia, a wonder welded to the culture of a Catholic sense, but distant from firm belief. The tension gives structure to the book. We read epistles. We hear of Aquinas. We see a poet clothe description with ancient cadence: “Aperture and embouchure of the living word. Speak, friends, if your mouths have tongues.” This lifts the language; gives Small Gods the song of myth. Tucked between the book’s mystical bookends are mathematical and astronomical works; it’s as if the poet is trying to find worthy forms, or trying to make his voice worthy of forms. There are no easy answers here, but the scars are reminders of struggle: “Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. But blessed more are those who must accept the silvered hangnail of this proof when pressed deep within the cavities of their own flesh.” Words can’t do the ineffable justice. Maybe “salvation is a missive I read backwards.”
Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”