Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

Here are nine notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Horsepower by Joy Priest

One of the best debuts of the year. An early poem, “American Honey,” begins: “It’s easier than you thought—leaving.” Two moves here—the second-person framing and the em dash—give the line power and profluence. From the start of this book, Priest is a captivating guide. “Your long-built dread / dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black / Appalachian sky” portends a recurrent theme of narrator-as-phantom, of transfigured characters. Her storytelling sense is formidable: “Now you can be a girl / on the back patio with three white men & you can leave / with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.” Pitch-perfect lines abound, as in “Blue Heart Baby”: “Every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own // bitterness.” Priest is so adept at sketching place; elsewhere she writes “The darkness / up to our chins. The sky // a bowl of blinking lights above us.” Priest shows that mimesis is about feeling more than realism—the world wobbles while it spins, and her lines have a preternatural ability to reflect this. From “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess”: “Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes / In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet // Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head / Like a crown.” She’s equally adept at sketching scenes. In one poem, the narrator is sitting in “my mother’s white Plymouth” below the “Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights— // Their appliance buzz.” Her mother, inside the story, has been “stunned-still at the sight of my father, // Possibly a mirage.” The narrator’s father is an arresting character in Horsepower. “He sees the world in us. / Knows the huge, abstract names // for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self.” He’s a phantom in his own way, and when we read lines from the final poem—“I’m leaving / & being left. Looking for you / In all your haunts”—their worlds unite.

Be Holding by Ross Gay

The lyrical elements of basketball—hardwood and asphalt, hustle and strain—couldn’t find a better laureate than Gay. Sports, in the end, are about controlling our bodies, bending them toward our wills (especially basketball, in the constrained space). Be Holding is a book-length paean to Dr. J., among other wonders. Gay’s collection includes a hilarious early footnote for the uninitiated to Julius Erving (“You could just look on any of the video algorithim machines…or, better yet, you could just ask an elder.”). Gay invites us into his process, as the clip of Dr. J’s baseline levitation in the 1980 NBA Finals becomes a source of meditation, a recursive fount of energy. He ponders the typical admonition of frustrated coaches: “keep your feet! / again and again, // which makes the leaping—leaving your feet— / sound sacrificial.” Like the doctor himself, Gay’s ability to linger in a moment captures the richness of basketball-as-story: “—have you ever decided anything / in the air?—” The classic video clip brings Gay to other places, times, and subjects, including his youth. “I, too, am a docent / in the museum of black pain,” he writes. “my own white mother // how many times told / by white people // that brown child is not yours, / that curly-headed sun-loved thing // you nurse and whose ass / you wiped the shit from // and whose very body you bore / of your florid gore.” Gay delivers beautiful lines throughout: “my body is made of my father,” he notes: “I sometimes will study // my own hands, / which are his hands, // recalling the way he held / my brother’s and my heads // through the crosswalk.” A unique work of form and substance.

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Gifted in the art of the long poem, Chakraborty, also includes dialogic poems, epigrammatic pieces, and verse essays (with appearances by Foucault, Spinoza, and Dürer)—all pieces touched with the elegiac. In an early segmented prose poem, she offers an apostrophe to the reader: “I am also writing his poem as a fable because at times I have been afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by way of disguise.” Now, she writes, “I tend to think of obstruction and clarity alike as acts of definition.” A centerpiece of the collection is her masterful long poem “Dear, Beloved”: “Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me / all the days of my life, as surely as I know the beasts / I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise, / are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.” Some lines that stopped me: “The secret / about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound / like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks / of the river dark.” In the book’s final poem, Chakraborty writes “There is a space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window. When I next speak, I / will do so through that window”—and it feels absolutely true.

Blizzard by Henri Cole 

A bee swarms out of a black-red peony, and “I am waving / my arms to make you go away. No one / is truly the owner of his own instincts, / but controlling them—this is civilization.” While peeling potatoes, “I put my head down,” and “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought.” Black mushrooms are found, and “Sometimes, / when I’m suffocating from an atmosphere of restraint / within myself, I fry them up in butter, with pepper and salt, / and forget where the hurt came from.” The early poems in Blizzard immediately establish a hypnotic refrain of syntax and focus—no easy feat for a poet to wrest us from the world that quickly, and let us live elsewhere awhile. From “To a Snail”: “It’s a long game— / the whole undignified, insane attempt at living— / so I’ve relocated you to the woods.” His typically concise form never feels inert or bloodless: there’s a sense of poetic calmness or transcendence to his method of staying in a moment and watching, contemplating, speaking. His lines arrive within the tunnel of each poem, but feel like little gifts to carry elsewhere: “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” The book’s second section pivots to an earthly, funereal concern about decaying bodies and anxiety. A gray and white dove that slammed dead into a picture window: “We buried it—in some distorted version of its normal self— / folded in a white cloth napkin in the backyard. / Still soft enough to be cut into like a cabbage, I thought, / I’m glad I’m not dead.” “Agnostic and uninsured,” a later narrator laments, “I eat celery, onions, / and garlic—my Holy Trinity of survival.” These lamentations take a different, more sensuous turn in the third section: “Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. / In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.”

Owed by Joshua Bennett

“You contain / multitudes & are yet / contained everywhere you go.” From “Token Sings the Blues”—the first poem in Bennett’s skilled collection—on forward, Owed is a song of identity. An affirmation of how the narrator’s sister says “You. are everything” and the honest melancholy that “on your best / days above ground you / believe her.” In “Barber Song,” Bennett sings of “Postmodern blackness black / -smith,” how someone can make “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking.” How the barber is a “biweekly / psychoanalyst, first stop / before funeral, before / wedding & block party.” Yet there’s also a finely tuned sense of entropy in this book: “I’m pretty good / at not loving / anything enough / to fear its ruin. / The cruel speed / of our guaranteed / obsolescence suits / me.” One way against the storm, one measure of survival, is “how I lend my hands / to lyric’s labor, as if forsythia / or chrysanthemum could bloom from black / ideas dancing across a screen.” Bennett manages to do so with pieces that are nearly hymnal, as with “Mike Brown is a Type of Christ”: “By which I mean, mostly, that we gaze upon the boy / & all of our fallen return to us, their wounds unhealed / & howling.” And in one of the sections of the “Reparations” sequence: “But what modern-day / black son wasn’t born / knowing how to pray?” Bennett ends with a poem that follows Langston Hughes, and is much about America as it is about being a father and son, and about dogged hope for “some vast and future country / some nation within a nation.”

The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson

An ambitious new book, as Chiasson plays and prods with time, source, structure, and the spectacle of creation. The book’s first poem, a consideration of a 2017 mural by the artist David Teng Olsen, begins the fracturing—“Through his eyes I see in the dark. / I see through change the static”—which ends with the narrator’s son questing Chiasson’s cover of Bicentennial. Fathers and sons become an emblem for this book, which begins with a poem in four phrases—a porous narrative of fragments, dreams, and daydreams. There’s a self bursting against the world here (Chiasson has said in an interview: “I’m fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.”). T.S. Eliot haunts these poems well (“I owned ‘East Coker’ on cassette. / We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” “Over and Over,” the final section of the initial poem, invites the reader to “turn over / her hands to expose her palms,” and to later step away from the page and screen and “ponder who imagined whom.” The titular poem bleeds across adolescent wonders. While the Circus Camp “patches its tents” and at the Farm Camp, “a goat behind a wire fence / prepares to be clumsily milked,” the “Hard problems at the Math Camp wait / all winter for solutions; / engorged sums hibernate / and dream of consolation.” The ultimate equation is youth: “the absolute value of fifteen / or how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division / of days into hours, minutes, seconds.”

Wonder & Wrath by A.M. Juster 

“Wood sways and mutters; palsied shutters bang. / The call has come.” “November Requiem” rests nearly in the middle of Wonder & Wrath, the poet and translator Juster’s latest, but radiates throughout the book. Juster is a poet of control—carefully pared lines whose concision creates profluent energy, as in the start of “Behold”: “Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields / so that both empty lanes extend like grace.” That feeling carries the end of “Epilogue”: “There are no robins hymning / or gawkers at this scene— / only a lowered sun, / raw cries of crows, and dimming.” A particular standout here is “Inertia”: “High glinting leaves, / glazed by the post-storm light, / are hushing dark / in reassuring waves.” The calming of gl and s sounds lull the reader into an elegiac state, followed by “Our lichen-clad / old maple lost three limbs / to rain that felt / like reprimands from God.” In Juster’s work, the divine is present (and omnipresent), as well as the sense that our existence is part of a sometimes confounding by always certain scheme. “The world turns liquid,” he begins “Vertigo,” as it “reels and rolls, / as gravity // veers at angles.” His insights are often welcome, as in “Fruit Flies,” which opens with a useful reminder: “They are the best, as pest invasions go: / no bites and no disease, just clouds of small / tan smudges spawned in week-old grapes.” Although they “flit and frustrate,” and “outsmart you with their tiny brains,” just pour “some white wine into a dish, and wait.” They cannot resist. “They soak in joy, relax, then drink no more / It’s no surprise—you’ve seen it all before.” 

Runaway by Jorie Graham 

“My Skin Is”—as Graham’s title begins one poem—”brought to you by Revlon, melancholy, mother’s mother, the pain of others.” There’s a sense of breathless exposure to many of these poems, the long lines reaching across stanzas, their tendons the regular em dashes that serve as both pivots and locks. Graham suggests that something new is among us: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch. Before, they are / transparent.” One of the finest pieces here is “The Hiddenness of the World”: “The lovers disappear into the woods again.” War, blizzard, life accumulates: “But the lovers are in the woods again, the signifier is in / the woods, the revolution of the ploughshare in, clod-crumble in, cloud- / tumble, hope and its stumble in.” It’s within association that the poetic form carries its most force, how lines can carry subjects amongst other subjects (and amongst ourselves), so that the narrator must wonder: “Do I have to end // in order to begin, I ask the light that lingers on the trees—between the / trees—the lovers have disappeared again.” The book’s final work, “Poem,” offers a way forward: “The earth said / remember me. The earth said / don’t let go, // said it one day / when I was / accidentally / listening.”

Red Stilts by Ted Kooser 

I’ve come to believe that a Kooser collection is best thought of as a gift: he never ceases to offer a gentle correction to blurred visions of the world. A Kooser poem often arrives in a flash, and then enters the air: as with “Ohio Blue Tip,” which is a single sentence of a man lighting his pipe “with a stick match pinched from the trough / of the matchbox holder nailed by the door,” and the play of the flame before “the thin curl / of smoke as it lifted away from the tip / and then vanished, and it seemed he could / read something special in that, but he / never would say what it was.” In dredging memory from the past, Kooser offers a way for us to do the same—I think of the opening lines of “Helping”: “Our basement floor sloped to the linty lid / of a drain, with a muddy-smelling darkness / through the holes.” The simple (yet skilled) gesture of layering detail without oversaturation, the prayer-like return to the past. Another single-sentence gem, “Tarnish,” begins so appropriately with the word “unrolled”—as in the revelation of the past in the form of family silverware, “gone ghostly / with inky fingerprints of tarnish,” found in an attic chest. How those fingerprints “have been feeling / their way forward through time / in the manner that flat black paint / on the back of a mirror picks its way / through to the front.” Consider the gentle “Tree Frog”: “Late evening, a velvety black / beyond the high windows, and on one / a tiny tree frog with its legs spread / presses its soft, white belly to the glass. / This night it gets to be the evening star.” Few poets can continue to reveal the world book after book like Kooser. A beautiful collection.

Normal Was a Myth: On ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

1.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found my family’s VHS copy of The Shining in the basement, and pushed play. The turquoise-colored opening credits rolled up the screen in silence. I knew there was supposed to be sound—I’d watched parts of the movie before on TV—but in this old recording, the yellow Volkswagen Beetle drove along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park with only the cassette’s soft fuzz as soundtrack. 

Then, a minute or so into the film, sound pierced the tape—just as the camera shifted from behind the car and drifted left off the mountain road’s shoulder, over a tree-lined cliff that overlooks St. Mary Lake. It had been so quiet in the basement that it was like I’d discovered noise again. 

Years later, I can still hear that moment of sound’s sudden return; it has infected me. I felt it when my soccer coach sped our team’s van along Pike’s Peak Highway, and I imagined us careening into the air. I feel it whenever I drive up a long hill—the worry that my car’s tires will lift off the ground and I will drift away. In those moments, anxiety has little concern for logic.

It feels a lot like disorientation—a total loss of control.

2.The Shining always leaves me tired. It might be that its hallways and rooms invite our eyes to ride the perspective, to become one with the film. The claim of Kubrick aficionados that the Overlook Hotel’s layout is spatially impossible—fully interior rooms with exterior windows, like the manager’s office—helps explain its overwhelming sense of disorientation.

I felt much the same way for most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new Netflix film by Charlie Kaufman—especially the overlong scenes in the car. A “young woman” (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to visit his parents; it will be her first time meeting them, and she’s skeptical there will be a second time. Irish actress Buckley is known to American audiences for her appearance in the Chernobyl series, but the best precedent for this new story is her wild performance in the 2017 film Beast—Buckley shows that she’s the perfect choice to portray a character who has lost her sense of reality.

The young woman thinks that Jake is nice enough, but she’s bored with the relationship. We hear her thoughts—and sometimes Jake seems to also hear them—but we never learn her name. Sometimes their sentences tangle and overlap, and we start to suspect that it’s more than mere coincidence. 

Time is malleable in the film, but even within Kaufman’s blurred reality, the road scene pushes the viewer to a point of frustration. I admire when filmmakers linger long enough to court annoyance, and in Kaufman’s case, it is for good reason. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and rejections of linear narrative. One of the most linear movie tropes of all—a couple moving straight down a long road—is the perfect entrypoint toward this subversion.

When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s childhood home, his mother (Toni Collette) is frantically waving at them from the window—but when they enter the house, she takes a long time to come downstairs. She and Jake’s father (David Thewlis) are hilarious and unhinged; Jake is embarrassed, and his girlfriend is confused. Things are just normal enough—the silly stories of Jake’s youth, the doting mother, the aloof father—but Kaufman turns them toward darkness. The surreal within the painfully domestic creates an eerie sense of distortion and disorientation. 

I watched Kaufman’s film after midnight in August—prime setting to settle into a strange story. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought the most powerful and relevant horror would be zombie films: lumbering, virulent husks of our past selves. But I think we’re past the point of initial shock of the health crisis, and at the curious moment where the most appropriate horror might be one of disorientation. Put simply, maybe things will never get back to normal because normal was a myth.

After the couple leaves the house, there’s another road trip scene—and somehow it feels even longer than the first. The second half of the film descends into the fully surreal while also settling into horror—one especially creepy scene happens at a late-night visit to a roadside ice cream parlor—before becoming fantastical (think somewhere between Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros). The ending won’t quite work for everyone, but that’s probably the point. Kaufman finished this film well before the pandemic, but sometimes coincidence becomes context. I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have arrived at a better time—either we try to fit together the film’s dizzying puzzle, or we accept that its fractures feel especially true.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersMy Chernobyl

Searching for Home: The Millions Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, the debut book of essays from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, made me nostalgic for my childhood—spent poring over encyclopedias and marveling at the entries on animals. 

In fact, I wish Nezhukumatathil would have written those entries—her unique mixture of humor, contemplation, memoir, insight, and paradox reveals the complexities of our natural world. Complemented by beautiful illustrations from Fumi Mini Nakamura, World of Wonders is appropriate to its title. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems. Her most recent book, Oceanic, won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, ESPN, and Tin House. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, she is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. 

We spoke about how her parents inspired her love of nature, the difference between writing poetry and essays, and who gets to tell their stories of the outdoors.

The Millions: Your books of poetry, especially your latest, Oceanic, reveal a world of wonder through verse. How does prose—in the form of essays—affect how you think and write about the natural world?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For me having the space in an essay allows me to unfurl and roll out an image creating whole scenes and while I still use elements of poetry, (metaphor, music, alliteration, etc.), writing an essay allows me to linger instead of rushing down the page.

TM: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.” These are the first two sentences of the book, and I love the poetic paradox of the second line. This reference puts your mother at the literal front of your narrative, and she appears throughout the book, as do other family members. How do you envision your perception of your mother as it relates to the way you see and appreciate nature?

AN: I love that question, but I’m much more interested in seeing how readers see both of my parents, Asian immigrants helping their bookish eldest daughter navigate white spaces both in and out of doors. But I will say that my mother and my father were my first environmental teachers, and silently watching them hold their heads up high while they experienced racism throughout my childhood and yet still maintained their sense of wonder absolutely informs how I shaped this book.

TM: In one section of the book, you describe that most of a beetle’s life is in the shadows: “When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have one or two weeks left to live.” You then write: “Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance.” You have a talent for creating such a mood in your writing: for lack of a better word, I would almost call it a “comfortable” sense of melancholy, a type of resigned peace. What about the natural, wild world elicits that feeling for you? 

AN: Thank you so very much! The easy answer is that being outside was always a place of comfort and magic for me. Fireflies never asked me “what are you?” But I also realize with great sadness that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially many of my friends of color. There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.

TM: Early in the book, you write about the fragile comb jelly, whose “hundreds of thousands of cilia flash mini-rainbows even in the darkest polar and tropical ocean zones,” but which must be handled with the tenderest care (“If you want to observe one up close, scoop it into a clear cup and take a look-see that way.”) That image stayed with me when I read your description of suburban Phoenix in the 1980s: “an abandoned white roller skate, its neon-pink bootlace frayed,” in the parking lot of Fry’s Food and Drug. How you “wore keys tied to yarn around our necks or fastened with a giant safety pin in our pockets like our moms showed us,” since “those were the days our teachers told us of kids who never came home from school.” You mention wanting a “sentinel” of your own, something “to watch out for us.” There feels like a tension between the wild (or perceived wild) world and the constructed safety of the domestic. Where does nature fit within this tension? 

AN: That’s a marvelous question. So much nature writing I grew up with only focused on the wild or places where humans did not primarily live. And these narratives were beautiful and haunting but I had hoped to find someone who could experience awe and wonder from the suburbs or rural small-town America, where a person with brown skin learned to navigate the outdoors and the “constructed safety of the domestic.” You can imagine the pickings were slim to none. I guess I just internalized that for so long, and that, coupled with me not being a scientist but instead a writing professor, meant that my narratives would be inauthentic somehow. But over the years I’ve been happily proven wrong as readers from all over the world have assured me. I’m just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get told and taught and why.

TM: “I’ve felt the sting of moving from home to home.” There’s an itinerant theme to this book; in a way, it feels connected to the cartographic sense of your poetry, with you as explorer (of memories, of narratives). Often in the book you metaphorically connect yourself with animals. Could you talk about these themes of migration and perhaps even metamorphosis? Did the writing of this book—the arranging and retelling of these experiences—move or change you? 

AN: The central question of searching for home is one I’ve been trying to answer my whole writing life, and I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life answering in some way or another. I have different answers for that now in 2020, married and with two tween boys than what I had when I was a newlywed, or when I was fresh out of grad school, or when I was 10 and looking at the nature books I checked out from our school library and wondering why I never saw an Asian American in them. I wrote a good portion of the book after the 2016 election and I’m not going to lie, there were many difficult days in writing about wonder and belonging, when most of the current leadership’s platform was built on fear, xenophobia, and a distrust for knowledge/science. But on my darkest days of writing, when I thought of my loved ones—it was easy to insist on and remember how good it feels to express astonishment and to be curious about others. I try to not be prescriptive in this book, because really, who am I to tell other people how they should live—but my hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things.

Bonus Link: —A Year in Reading: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Rethinking Suburbia: The Millions Interviews Jason Diamond

In fiction, film, and real life, it has become comforting and convenient for us to stereotype the suburbs. Suburbia, so it goes, is a façade; a place where secrets lurk like grubs beneath well-manicured lawns. Jason Diamond’s excellent new book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs reveals the truth is far more complicated.

Diamond’s omnivorous and expansive sense allows him to weave history, popular culture, literature, film, and his own experiences into a revelatory take on suburban life. “The suburbs aren’t one thing or another,” Diamond writes. “[W]e try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better.”

The Sprawl enables such new understanding. Diamond’s first book was Searching for John Hughes. The features editor for InsideHook, he has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Paris Review, New Republic, Pitchfork, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Eater, and elsewhere. 

We spoke about the bucolic melancholy of the suburbs, the perfect movie to capture the feeling of suburbia, and how suburban life is used for political rhetoric.

The Millions: Your preface begins with an affirmation—“I’m suburban. I’m of the suburbs”—and a confession that it took you a long time to admit your appreciation for the small touches of suburbia: freshly cut grass, shopping malls, and “grilling meat on a Weber grill I spent an hour trying to light.” What causes people to hesitate voicing—or even accepting—their affinity for the suburbs?

Jason Diamond: I can only speculate as to people’s reasons, but I’d wager it’s why some people tell you they’re from New York when they’re from Long Island, or they’re from Los Angeles, but don’t specify which part. We don’t have a lot of overt pride in suburban places. The suburbs are just there, defined by what they’re not. Many of these places aren’t built to stand out—they’re just places to live and, for some, to leave. One of the things that I felt more clearly as I did my research is what links one suburb to the next is the feeling of an absent builder. Someone made this place, sold the homes, and moved on. They aren’t structured to cultivate community. Lawns are a far way off from shared green spaces. For people that grew up in cities or in rural areas where community is important, I’m sure that seems really off. For people who grew up in suburbs, that lack of community becomes that feeling of being disconnected, bored, and that there’s nothing to do in your hometown except maybe hang out in the Chili’s parking lot. People aren’t really happy with this explanation. But our individual experience of alienation in suburbia informs our entire idea of what “the suburbs” are, and I don’t think people like me, who left the suburbs, want to revisit that feeling. Which, again, fair. But not every suburban place is the same. 

TM: You note how the suburbs “have taken on the status of cultural oddity,” and include some salient examples: The Twilight Zone, the fiction of Shirley Jackson and John Cheever, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, all works that I teach as examples of suburban literature—to a classroom full of suburban teenagers. I’m especially interested in Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” an iconic tale from 1964 that remains so accurate to a certain sliver of suburban life. You write that his mixture of realism and surrealist scenes show “that no matter what we do, no matter how much we make, how happy we pretend to be, or how far we’re willing to journey, our demons catch up to us.” Why are these ideas especially relevant to the world of the suburbs?

JD: I think Cheever really did a fantastic job of summing up what is dark and odd and messed up about the suburbs, and I think the suburbs do a fantastic job of summing up what is wrong with America in many ways, which is why artists keep going back to these places for inspiration. America has lied to itself for its entire existence. It is a place that has tried to run from its demons, all of the terrible, horrific things it’s done, and hopes that it will all just go away. For too long, America pretended that centuries of racism and violence was in the past, and nothing more. But I believe that the suburbs have really come to symbolize the pathology of “American exceptionalism,” that things aren’t as great as we want to make it out to be, and we don’t want to look under the carpet, so to speak. We don’t want to face these things. Suburbia is a really obvious metaphor. We just hope we’ll be protected by the walls we put up around us. I can read “The Swimmer” today and, sure, it’s still at its heart about a sad, middle-aged man who has lost it all, who cheated on his wife, whose kids probably hate him, and whatever other sins Neddy finally has to face at the haunting end of the story—but I can also look at it as a metaphor for America. That we go through this journey, blind to everything that’s going on around us, and then suddenly we come to a spot where we can’t keep moving. We reach the end and what do we get? A big empty house we’re locked out of. America, especially these days, often feels like it’s at the end of something, just standing outside of some big, empty house that we can’t get into. We tried to hide from all of our past transgressions, and now we’re Neddy Merrill. 

The good news is that I think things can change. At least, I hope they will. 

TM: Your description of a scene from Back to the Future when Marty McFly is at home in Lyon Estates is spot-on: “It’s lonely; something you realize after you’ve watched enough movies and TV shows about the suburbs is that they’re often shot that way.” You share a number of films that dramatize suburbia in all of its permutations. I know it’s a difficult task, but if you had to choose one as The Movie of the Suburbs, what would it be, and why? 

JD: That’s a tough one. Part of me would say Blue Velvet, because it’s a masterpiece, but it also starts out looking at what I talked about in my last answer: what’s underneath. That part where we see all these symbols of a certain type of suburban ideal, then it descends, literally, to the ground beneath the trimmed grass. But I’m actually going to go with the film Over the Edge. It’s obviously dramatized in that really gritty, almost silly late-1970s, early-’80s way, but it also really captures perfectly how alienating and mind-numbing places can be, and how often we really do just build places because we claim the space and then throw them away. 

TM: In the chapter titled “Monsters, Mad Men, and the Mundane,” you write “The truth is that, often, people from the suburbs create the things they’re most afraid of from their anxiety and angst.” You describe the wild Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which often spiked in suburban areas, and I can’t help but think of our shared appreciation for Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I watched while in the suburbs, and which often depicted strange things happening in those suburbs. How does the suburb, a place with “a structured and structuring way of being,” affect our sense of imagination?

JD: Growing up in the suburbs, to me, felt like a challenge to either be one way or another. To accept the way things seemed or to investigate, to push further, to engage a natural curiosity. A lot of suburban places offer wide open spaces, but these places also get filled up with a lot of unnecessary, unnatural filler: parking lots, box stores, office space they’re never going to fill up. I was really fascinated by what Rem Koolhaas calls “Junkspace.” He points out “the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than all previous generations together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales,” and I think that could be applied to so much of what we see in suburbia. And when I talk to people in the suburbs, and from the suburbs, they generally just have overwhelmingly negative things to say. How could we have created so much shit, and have all of it be so empty? The best answer, then, would have to be that actually there was another reality behind the one that we were seeing. It feels like, if you were like me growing up in the suburbs, the only plausible explanation was for there to be some ghost world beneath the one we were seeing. It couldn’t possibly just be subdivisions all the way down. I don’t think people from the suburbs are any more or less creative than people from anywhere else, but I definitely felt like I had a heightened sense of otherworldliness because this world was just so stupid. You have to make things up and that’s how you get by. Imagination in the suburbs isn’t a survival instinct, but it’s close. 

TM: “It’s important that the suburbs, which have long been connected to whiteness and to keeping certain people out, are shown as places where anybody can and does live.” I read that great line of yours the same day that Donald Trump tweeted an article from The New York Post, writing “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” How—and why—are the suburbs such fodder for politics and polemics?

JD: Beyond their outsized symbolic power—truly just titanic rhetorical asteroids—there are good reasons for why the suburbs have these stereotypes attached to them. The suburbs were largely white for most of their history. There is no denying that they were white on purpose. From handshake deals to redlining that kept people of color, immigrants, and Jews from owning a slice of the “American Dream,” there are structural ways the suburbs have been entwined with whiteness. So they mean whiteness to him, because he’s a literal thinker. And because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that the suburbs have demographically changed, you could see why he thinks there is a certain kind of voter in the suburbs who will be attracted to fear-mongering like this. But the suburbs just aren’t demographically as white anymore. The suburbs have changed racially and economically. These places aren’t perfect, but they have changed, and I think that’s good for the country. 

As to why politicians love the suburbs, I think it is a holdover from a different time when you could more easily stereotype suburban voters. They’re “soccer moms” or “commuters” who work in the city, but like in Westchester or something out of Mad Men. And while there are definitely still parents who drive their kids to soccer practice in an SUV, I think politicians and pundits really believe it is that simple: That people are simple, that the suburbs are simple. And maybe it was simple 30 years ago when you knew you were aiming for the hearts and minds of mostly white, middle-class types, that you could put a pin down on a map in any suburb and know what kind of person lived there. But I don’t think it’s that way anymore. I think people in the suburbs are far more complex and diverse, and some politicians get it and others don’t.

Bonus Links:—Returning to My People: Reading Tayeb Salih in the SuburbsZone of Strangeness: On John Cheever’s Subjective SuburbsSomething Sinister on the North ShoreA Year in Reading: Jason Diamond

Must-Read Poetry: August 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

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

Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae

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

Here Is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

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

Anodyne by Khadijah Queen

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

Thrown in the Throat by Benjamin Garcia

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

Radiant Obstacles by Luke Hankins

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

Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis

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

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald

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

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie

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

Code by Charlotte Pence

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

Must-Read Poetry: June 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month. 

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

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

Tertulia by Vincent Toro

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

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

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

The Clearing by Allison Adair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Free of Time: The Millions Interviews Samantha Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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