Billie Holiday appeared on the cover of the July 1949 issue of Ebony magazine; inside her essay “I’m Cured for Good Now” was a short but heartfelt testament of her recent struggles. She’d pled guilty to drug charges “on the promise of treatment for addiction” and was confined to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Her intake form listed her occupation as singer, and her religion as Catholic. In the essay—likely ghostwritten by one of the magazine’s staff writers—Holiday said her “priest was extremely helpful to me in those first weeks and helped me chart the course I should travel in order to build my life upon new strong foundations.” She was “determined to remake my entire life.” This spiritual route was an inevitable one for Holiday. In Religion Around Billie Holiday, a focused, enlightening examination of the gifted singer, Tracy Fessenden demonstrates that Holiday’s Catholicism was complex and formative. Fessenden is clear that her book “is not a brief for Holiday’s piety or impiety... It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious.” Instead she focuses “on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form.” This is a welcome approach. Holiday’s talent has earned her status as a legend, and we often seek to remake legends in our own image. When Fessenden writes that “at various moments,” Holiday “may or may not have been a believing Catholic, a practicing Catholic, a lapsed or cafeteria or recovering Catholic,” she is not being evasive. Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 autobiography, has been plagued by claims of inaccuracies and exaggerations. Fessenden notes that “Publicity photographs show Holiday at the typewriter, or in reading glasses, examining proofs—Doubleday insisted she initial every page—but Holiday would later claim she hadn’t so much as read the book.” The autobiography was co-authored by William Dufty and went “from conception to press in three months.” Discerning what is Dufty and what is Holiday, then, is no easy task. Rather than engage in the folly of explicating Holiday’s personal and private beliefs, Fessenden methodically documents her life in Catholic institutions, and within Catholic culture. Here the word “around” within the title is essential: “To consider religion around is to pay attention to ambient feeling and mood, to energies, pressures, frequencies, powers.” Her conclusion: Holiday “was indisputably a trained Catholic, and this training shaped her moves within what horizons of possibility were hers to navigate over the whole of her life.” Sadie Fagan, Holiday’s mother, was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore when she was 13. Holiday described her mother as a “Mass every Sunday” Catholic “with her candles and creeping up to the altar.” Holiday herself was sent to Good Shepherd twice, in 1925 and 1927, after attending kindergarten at St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls. Fessenden does not whitewash those parochial years as anything near perfect, noting that certain, more lurid details have been shown to be apocryphal (and are likely vestiges of the convent exposé genre). To claim that Holiday was a raw talent, someone uncontrollable and nearly miraculous, is to diminish her selfhood: “As much as it discounts a taxing apprenticeship on the streets of a jazz-loving city, the myth of Holiday’s untutored genius also neglects her musical training in the institution where being a street kid landed her.” At Good Shepherd, Holiday “attended a compulsory Catholic Mass every day and sang every day from the forms set forth in the Liber Usualis, the common book of Gregorian chant used in the Mass, in daily and seasonal devotions, and in all feasts and celebrations in the liturgical year.” Holiday’s years at Good Shepherd followed Pope Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini, which offered new guidance on liturgical music, including the “freshly revived Gregorian chant.” Dom Joseph Gajard, the choirmaster of Solesmes Abbey, said the new approach to the chant was such that “the rhythm, of material, becomes a thing of the spirit.” These “combined apprenticeships, convent and street, went to Billie Holiday’s distinctive undemonstrative cool, her soft parlando delivery of straight-up talk turned to song.” The influence went even beyond her music. The girls at Good Shepherd had been sent “by legal authority to the Sisters in order to remove them from evil surroundings and bad parents.” It was a place of asylum, a “setting devoted to the structuring or restructuring of a young woman’s life along a particular narrative arc.” The positives and negatives of such an approach are worthy of another book, but Fessenden’s focus is on influence: “If the stories you hear and the examples you are given make injured and suffering girls both romantic and valuable, then your idea of self, your subjectivity, will gather substance from that fact.” Holiday held on to that Catholicism as much as she held on to her rosary, “wrapped around her hand,” when she spoke to the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams at a funeral. She held on to that faith when was driving with the jazz singer Thelma Carpenter, and the car’s brakes failed on the highway in Newark. Carpenter said, “I figured I’d hug the highway and we sort of prayed real good and finally we made it.” Holiday consoled her by turning the dying words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux into witness: “She let some of those rosebuds fall down on us.” Williams and Carpenter were both fellow Catholics, which is a cultural note that Fessenden perfectly captures: Catholicism is a shared, visceral experience of community and ritual. “Billie Holiday’s Catholicism,” Fessenden writes, “like Louis Armstrong’s, was casual and attenuated, lived in ways that prompted neither avowal nor rebellion. But Catholicism puts them both into a larger musical conversation than the relay between rural South and urban North, between spirituals and swing.” Around 1953, Billie Holiday returned to Good Shephard for a copy of her baptismal certificate. She showed John Levy, then her manager and boyfriend, the chapel in which she was baptized, as well as the dormitory rooms. The sisters asked her to sing, and she did. Her song “My Man” includes the haunting lines “All my life is just despair / but I don’t care.” I wonder what Holiday might have been thinking when those words settled into the walls.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. The Carrying by Ada Limón For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year. Perennial by Kelly Forsythe Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.” If You Have to Go by Katie Ford “The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.” If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world. [millions_ad] The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.” feeld by Jos Charles “Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.” How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.
“Southern gentle lady, / Do not swoon. / They’ve just hung a black man / In the dark of the moon.” “Silhouette” by Langston Hughes rests on one of the middle pages of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now by Asma Naeem, the poem’s white lines centered against black background. “They’ve hung a black man / To a roadside tree / In the dark of the moon / For the world to see.” The word silhouette appears only in the title, not the actual text of the poem. Its presence comes from its absence. Black Out began as an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., but Naeem’s examination extends to a consideration of how the silhouette rose as a powerful and economical art form—and how it symbolically, and sometimes literally, captures the way we see race in America. In her introduction to the collection, Naeem cites Emily Jackson from The History of the Silhouette (1911): “At its best, black profile portraiture is a thing of real beauty, almost worthy to take its place with the best miniature painting; at its worst, it is a quaintly appealing handicraft, revealing the fashions and foibles, the intimate domestic life and conventions of its day.” In contrast, Black Out offers a more nuanced understanding of silhouettes through image and essay, history and analysis. The silhouettist Auguste Edouart once received a letter praising his “shadow”—a 19th-century term for silhouettes—which the admirer said was “almost alive and breathing.” For those new to the art form, Penley Knipe’s essay from the collection, although placed last, should be read first. Her anecdote about Edouart begins an essay that offers readers a practical and historical understanding of the art form’s early development—and its particular power. By the 1780s, silhouettes were popular in America, and affordable. “Much less expensive than the portrait miniature,” these silhouettes “were often snipped for a few pennies.” For the first time, “people could possess an inexpensive, nearly instantaneous likeness of themselves or a loved one—before the silhouette, portraiture was for the royal and the wealthy.” Even amateurs tried their hands at the art form, using “a candle to cast a shadow or a pencil to draw freehand before taking up scissors to create an instant likeness of the sitter.” Whether skilled artist or hobbyist, techniques included full cutouts, busts, hollow-cuts, and the “conversation piece,” where friends or family are collected in a domestic space. One example reproduced in the collection is Edouart’s “Magic Lantern.” Nearly a dozen people are arranged in the family parlor, transfixed by the image projected from the magic lantern—a precursor to the projector. A bandit flees, chased by men on horseback. Pigs and ducks scurry in the street. Yet what is far more fascinating than the dizzying scene projected on the curtain are the black figures, whose dark bodies feel risen from the paper. Silhouette, performed with skill, is both exquisite and dizzying. In Edouart’s creation, a woman holds a child in front of the image. An old man’s peg leg points in the direction of the image, while an old woman sits, her profile stern. At the back of the room, the family’s African-American servant has opened the door to peek at the show. He is half in the room, half out; his presence is nearly shadow. Black Out expertly demonstrates that, as an art form and as a symbol, silhouettes have often been about race. Naeem writes that early American silhouettes “attempted to reconcile contradictory views on such pressing issues as colonial independence, slavery, and national identity. The cutting of the body and the head, the contour as a unit of meaning, the Spartan simplicity, and the cumulative uniformity of individuals from all walks of life as one black profile after another—all of these aspects of silhouettes registered highly charged debates of the day.” “Silhouette portraiture,” Naeem explains, “can be seen as an elision between high art and popular culture wherein European conventions of portraiture—contrived poses and stylized mises-en-scènes—were demoted in favor of simplified profile forms with no accoutrements, illusionism, or artifice.” Silhouettes were fast art, and since the sitter was the subject, silhouettes were instant affirmations of self. “No longer requiring rank or an oil commission to be imaged, lower and middle-class patrons could carry home images of themselves, their own medallions of greatness.” That power was not only personal. The silhouette style was used by abolitionist William Elford in his often-reproduced text “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.” Naeem shows how Elford expertly used the silhouette style to make a political, and moral, point: “With the voiding of interior details of each person, the bodies inhumanely appear as cargo or things, even coffins, and the viewer quickly gathers the magnitude of the brutality from the cumulative effect of the graphic patterning.” Black Out documents the pre-Civil War heyday of silhouettes but also demonstrates how contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Kumi Yamashita reinvent the art form. The result is a book that should serve as both introduction and inspiration; hopefully, even more scholars will consider the implications of the silhouette. As Naeem so appropriately writes, “shadows are always around us. Beyond manifestations of light and presence, beyond indicating the position of the sun, they encompass all of our unique places in the material and immaterial worlds.”
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July. A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.” New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.” [millions_ad] Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.” The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander) These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.” Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman “I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide...How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.” Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin “I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.
A few months before Donald Barthelme’s “Game” appeared in the July 31, 1965, issue of The New Yorker, a cloud moved over Los Angeles. The cloud originated in Jackass Flats, Nevada, born from a nuclear rocket test. The Atomic Energy Commission wanted a “controlled excursion.” That excursion rode hundreds of miles before drifting into the ocean. This was the era of Dr. Strangelove. A time when hundreds of kilograms of Uranium-235 went missing from a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The years when American B-52s secretly flew above Europe, hydrogen bombs at the ready, first strike only a moment away. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme captured the sentiment that charged “Game.” His words could apply to the Cold War, as well as our painful present: “The doomsday clock has been set up a few notches, I gather. The way our present government is talking is absolutely mad.” “Game,” reprinted in Sixty Stories, is a paranoid, recursive, claustrophobic, uncomfortable tale. It takes place a single room. Shotwell and the narrator are two military officers stuck in an underground bunker “in Utah, Montana or Idaho” for 133 days, “owing to an oversight.” They are bored; they are frustrated. Shotwell is stubborn. He plays jacks but does not let the narrator join the game. The narrator wants the jacks, but Shotwell stuffs them into his attaché case. This double game—a game of hiding a game—continues as they watch the console. They both are outfitted with .45s, along with hidden backup pistols, and are supposed to shoot “if the other is behaving strangely.” They are strange from the first word to the final word of the story, but strangeness is relative in Barthelme’s box of a story. Their job is significant: If “certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys.” They are to release the “bird,” the missile that will destroy a city. It is a hypothetical situation. It never happens. But it could, and its possibility is the story’s profluence. Barthelme’s recursive tale moves between several repeated signs—birds, guns, attaché case—but I am most drawn to its anomalies, its variables. A great short story has a pulse. A great short story is tightly wound—no wasted words or breaths—but a great short story has new contours when we return to it. I first read “Game” in the basement of a university library, among the dark stacks of nearly discarded issues of Popular Mechanics. But now, even reading the story in a brightly lit classroom, I can still appreciate how the bunker’s “pale green reinforced concrete walls sweat and the air conditioning zips on and off erratically.” Anaphoric, with the occasional aside and quirk, his sentences are like incantations—liturgical, even (not surprising—although he later lapsed, Barthelme had a nostalgia for Catholicism cultivated by his years at St. Thomas High School in Houston; think James Joyce sneaking into the back of churches, sentimentality tempering one’s skepticism). The narrator wonders if they are subjects of an experiment. Maybe. But we the readers are the experiment, so often, in Barthelme’s fiction. He pushes and strains the expectations we have for fiction. He asks us to play his game, with his rules. What is the syntax of a mind gone mad? Not just any mind—soldiers who can destroy cities. Mass destruction, “Game” suggests, is always in the wrong hands—because such power stains the soul. In Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Helen Moore Barthelme said that her ex-husband claimed the story had touched an official nerve: “According to Don, ‘Game’ evidently stirred considerable interest among the military. He said that ‘Game’ had knocked them all for a loop in the Pentagon, but ‘not because it was true.’ He later told me that although the story caused a small furor, he heard nothing further about it.” Neither Shotwell nor the narrator can sleep well at the end of “Game.” Two soldiers, close together and underground, cradle and rock each other to sleep. “Game” is a horror story. It is suffocating, and it is simple. We are in that bunker with these soldiers, and whatever postmodern games Barthelme was playing with language, the result is frightening. Sooner or later, the keys will be turned, and the bird will fly. Image: Flickr/B4bees
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in June. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes “I wanted to have my form and explode it too,” said Wanda Coleman of sonnets. Hayes names her with gratitude in this book. Athletic, punchy, sardonic, and swift, Hayes delivers his sonnets with a smirk—and also some sadness. Penned during the administration of the “failed landlord,” his poems are immediate, and though they are all titled the same as the book, they are varied. “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Our feelings and our fears bound in the box of a sonnet. “I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart. / Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.” We get the sense Hayes absolutely loves poetry, and yet: “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Poems, especially sonnets, suffocate. “My problem was I’d decided to make myself / A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly. / It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.” There’s blood in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, but Hayes reminds us: “Still, I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.” The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward A memoir in verse, powered by the strains of family separation, sexuality, and dreams. Daley-Ward grew up West Indian and West African in largely white Chorley, England—where her grandparents raised her in the Seventh-day Adventist faith. She longs for her mother’s love—“Mummy was soft. Warm-milk soft / and everything written in our paperworlds/ made hot, small sense”—but her mother needs to work nights, so she falls into a world of stern faith and high expectations. Grandma “is short and round, always cleaning the house to perfection.” Granddad “is ever so particular.” He “spends an hour deliberately washing his face and trimming his beard each night after dinner. His copper shaving kit is gleaming, his routine precious.” Their love is strict, and she wishes to be with her mother again. Daley-Ward is also beginning to be noticed for her appearance: by men, by teachers, by women. She knows from both Disney and the Song of Solomon that “beauty makes people stay...beauty makes people listen to you.” She loses control over her body, as she is photographed and judged and coveted. The Terrible unfolds as a verse drama: a feverish tale of the perils of modeling, of how our bodies get away from us. A reminder: “You may not run away from the thing that you are / because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you / breathe.” The Body Ghost by Joseph Lease “You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.” Joseph Lease’s description of his poetic technique is doubly accurate: It captures his own mode and method but also makes clear his connection to Robert Creeley. Perhaps possession is the better term, borrowing Susan Stewart’s idea of how there is a haunting of meter, rhythm, and feeling to lyric poetry that transcends the poet’s own hand. Lease’s poems, centered and evenly spaced, feel strangely eternal. There are peculiar and precise phrasings here like “the elegies / are taking off their clothes,” capturing the feeling of arising from mourning, but Lease’s most powerful poetic touch is his recursive energy. Lines and words overlap, their meaning turning as if they are a water wheel: “one story—the boy and the wren—the / wren and the night—the face in the / house—your lips slip the night—your / face slips your eyes—your eyes slip / your yes—love like flying—.” Esoteric in its essence, Lease’s poetry is flesh without the bone, a welcome, curious escape. Of Marriage by Nicole Cooley The routes and ruts and rewards of marriage live in Cooley’s new book. “Marriage,” she writes, “over and over a re-telling. A dress to wear for days on end. A dress to shuck off, stuff under the bed.” Her long lines feel like stabs of perseverance: “When we fight. I make and unmake the bed, fold on the sheets with small blue flowers / in the shapes of stars to imitate the sky, unmake a space for us to slide inside.” In Cooley’s vision of marriage, memories are constant. The present is a reel of the past. To be married is to be bonded: “We’re roped // We’re stitched // with loose, looped yarn. We’re threaded. We’re the quilt still / unfinished, unbacked, unraveling, batting loosening.” Her play with language doesn’t neuter the word, nor does it diminish the beauty and surprise of its gift. Of Marriage moves from humor to sentiment, as in “Marriage, the Museum of Papermaking”: “Last glass case: here is a card composed of small dark windows. // Look into the stereoscope to see the future: / the light was cool and loose that day. My hands on your back. // Our old selves still unlocatable, written and crossed out.” [millions_ad] Her Mouth as Souvenir by Heather June Gibbons “Etched into each fallen leaf is a diagram of a bare tree.” A line such as that, direct and new, sits me up—and Her Mouth as Souvenir is filled with similar precision. From “Event”: “During the flood, I was robbed / in the church parking lot. / The monofilament bobbed / to the surface, but not before // I saw myself facedown in the river. / Before we lost our phone chargers, / but after the excommunication.” Confusion, corralled for the reader: “You used to think those lights / were signal mirrors flashed // by angels until you learned / they were just protein particles / suspended in the vitreous.” A little strange, a little surreal, these poems are moments of struggle. Some scenes exist without resolution. A sequence of love poems offers a little salve without salvation. The narrator of “Origami” laments, “I can pinpoint the exact moment / I become boring, but only in retrospect.” She thinks of other people, other windows—like the one an astronomer looks out, how “turbulence / makes stars shiver and wink.” Her poems often bound from place to space and back again, as in “Do Not Leave This Box,” which begins with a warning to avoid “heat and sunlight,” moves to a stockroom, where a woman “unbinds the plastic-bound / boxes from pallets that arrive in trucks,” the type of boxes that were “expertly assembled / in the Zhejiang Province.” There, a world away but connected by cardboard, a woman’s hidden ornamental boxes under her mattress: “On the lid of the smallest / is a woodcut of a crane, for luck.” Stranger on Earth by Richard Jones Gentle, conversational, introspective: Jones’s biographical, narrative poems exist without artifice and pretense. In “The Biscuit Tin,” he recalls his father’s Kodachrome slides: “I remember him sitting in the dark / behind the projector, the beam of light / shooting across the room, / the white screen filling with image after image, / the sound of locks opening.” Among an “audience of ghosts,” his father explains the photos. A genuine, earnest sense of wonder permeates Stranger on Earth. Melancholy and moving, “The Hidden Meadow” tells the story of how a boy would lie in high grass and “disappear completely.” There, “I made sorrow’s shape.” Jones is the type of poet to send readers outside, or even to look within ourselves for emotions that we’ve taken for granted. In “Nocturne,” “when the children / have gone to bed,” his wife sits at the piano and plays Satie, “the melody / a serene flowering / so quietly intense, / so lucidly palpable / the children in their beds / hold their breath.” A calming poet of family and feeling and optimism.
“We prayed in Arabic everyday,” the poet Kaveh Akbar once wrote, “a language nobody in my family spoke.” His family spoke Farsi and English. Prayer, then, was a transformation: “From an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that.” Akbar writes elsewhere of how another poet, Kazim Ali, explained that the Arabic word ruh “means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ and this seems absolutely essential to my understanding of prayer—a way of directing, bridling the breath-spirit through a kind of focused music.” Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. Peter O’Leary’s book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion. The subject matter is in capable hands. O’Leary’s a poet himself, but he also knows how to curate rather than perform—he offers a healthy amount of sample lines to let the poets shine. He’s also comfortable with God talk. Few things sour many contemporary critics of poetry more than authentic and earnest religious devotion. The problem isn’t always illiteracy of religious texts—and a working knowledge of theology might be a bit much to ask. There’s something else at play: doubt that skilled poets could be religious. The historical evidence towers in the other direction—and yet. The skepticism of these critics reflects the feelings of a fair amount of readers, for whom “the expression of religious convictions...can read as a nuisance or a vestigial remnant of a poet’s childhood faith.” O’Leary begins with a comparison. The contemporary religious poet is much like Moses in Exodus 20:21: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” According to O'Leary, the poet charged with religion approaches that “gloomy and ominous” darkness because “the divine is present, and there is the prospect of law, covenant, revelation, and genuine power.” Although his roster is narrow, O’Leary’s project is ambitious: “The work of these poets suggests that a secular art, even in a secular age, is insufficient for representing reality completely. There must be sacred art. For poets, this means there must be religious poetry written.” They must: O’Leary’s poets are driven to write about God. He leads with Frank Samperi, a little-known poet whose collections were published in the 1970s. O’Leary acknowledges that Samperi is obscure, and the choice to begin with a relatively minor poet might frame such an inquiry in unfortunate terms: Perhaps religious poetry is provincial, if its examples are relatively unknown? No matter. Samperi’s lines are ardent, earnest, fractured. O’Leary describes his poetry as “epiphanic—it frequently resolves in radiant insights—it struggles through melancholic moods, a sense of rote and dreary stations, ones to which the epiphanies stand in sometimes stark contrast.” A Catholic, his “poems utilize a Latinate and church-inflected language...as well as delineating a usually mystical” sense of doctrine. O’Leary finds Samperi’s “principal innovation” to be his ability “to infuse the forms of modernist avant-garde poetry with the content and aspirations of medieval Christian theology.” From Lumen Gloriae (1973): “body in grass / elliptically formed / in turn inscribed / in square / in flame / flower / center / sustained / by / four / angels.” O’Leary is correct in describing Samperi’s mode as incantational; he’s not writing prayers so much as offering a new space for theology. That new space is a strange one—and Robinson Jeffers is on the same wavelength. O’Leary’s decision to follow Samperi with Jeffers is a good one. “Lyrically striking if frequently obtuse” could describe both religious poets, but Jeffers was prolific, famous, controversial, iconic, and Protestant. The “purity and the intensity of his religious convictions—pessimistic and damning but visionary and atomic—can make his work simultaneously so compelling and off-putting.” [millions_ad] Widely read during his lifetime, Jeffers now seems more like a “solitary genius” found more likely “in the pocket of a backpacker in the Rockies than in the satchel of a graduate student.” The subjects of his long, visceral poems were raw—murder, incest, degradation—and O’Leary cautions against academic attempts to sanitize him. Jeffers was coarse. He didn’t particularly like people. He wrote in fear of a “secular, godless, witless republic.” And he did so with the characteristic strangeness of earnest religious poets. “God is the least familiar thing about us but also the thing most native to us,” O’Leary writes, and Jeffers’s usage of strangeness is his defining poetic trait. In the unsettling poem “Hurt Hawks,” the narrator cares for a wounded bird for weeks. “I gave him freedom,” he writes, a bombastic proclamation that prefigures the morbid conclusion. The bird later returns, “asking for death,” and the narrator shoots him. The lines are particularly unsettling: I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. The pungent strangeness of Jeffers and the minor pyrotechnics of Samperi seem curiosities compared to the transcendent work of Fanny Howe. O’Leary’s chapter on the Catholic convert is the finest in the book: one of the best readings of an important poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose religion has affected her identity, worldview, and language. For O’Leary, Howe’s “expressions of her faith in the context of an experimental poetry lend her work an unmistakable aura of conviction and surprise and give to it a rare value in relation to much of the rest of recent American poetry.” O’Leary’s precision here opens Howe for, hopefully, a new group of readers. She is a poet of misfortune, yet one whose work is “inspired throughout by transcendental love, which comes mysteriously and unconditionally from God.” She’s not a poet of lyrical ramparts like Samperi and Jeffers; her smooth lines “coalesce into aphoristic or even gnomic statements or questions.” In “Plutocracy,” the homeless narrator thinks, “When you eat alone you don’t exist / for anyone but the dish.” There’s a sense of truth in Howe’s despair—the religious poet does not blink in the face of suffering; she documents it, weeps for it. “Catholicism is queer,” Howe says. “It is malleable and reaches extents of thought and culture that really can’t rest anywhere, in terms of nation or specific culture.” O’Leary demonstrates that Howe’s religious sense is marked by an electric, mystical theology, a veneration of the Eucharist, and a steadfast embrace of Catholic social justice. She is a poet of melancholy, a tradition inherited from the sad lines of Hopkins. O’Leary directs the reader toward “Catholic,” Howe’s long poem-essay. The work is an apologia for poets of faith. In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, O’Leary offers readers a reminder of the complexity of earnest religious poetry. He also offers critics a guidebook on how to examine religious verse: with the respect they should afford earnest subjects. If a poet chooses to believe, let’s hear her song. If we listen to Howe, we might hear this: “Doubt allows God to live.”
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in May. Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr Scorched, palpable, sometimes pungent, sometimes brutal: Karr’s new collection is a mixture of tight narratives that end without resolution, hymns of unsettled suffering, and confused prayers. Writing years earlier about becoming a Catholic, Karr said “like poetry, prayer often begins in torment”—her own brand of poetic faith does not end in sweet redemption. Her poetry suggests that Catholics often live in extremes of devotion or doubt, swelled with something like poetic fervor, or sunk down to melancholy. In “The Age of Criticism,” the narrator shares a moment with what seems to be Franz Wright, “his face swollen from drink, his glasses / broken so a Band-Aid taped one wing on.” They smoked and “wondered who might be dumb enough / to print our books or read them or / give us jobs.” Downturned, they are “unable to guess we’d ever be anywhere / else, thick snow coming down and piling up, // sawhorses blocking all the small roads.” Karr’s all-but-accepted that life is full of wayward roads, but she’s dogged in following the routes that remain. In “Illiterate Progenitor,” the narrator thinks about her father, who, in a “house of bookish females, his glasses slid on / for fishing lures and carburetor work, / the obits, my report cards, the scores. / He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.” Yet she finds poetry in his pleasures, his moments, his sense of self. Tropic of Squalor is a catalogue of broken graces. How love can find us in the “predawn murk” of suburbia. How God’s speech is not “lightning bolt or thunderclap,” but rather “sights and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” Maybe we are sustained by what ails us, as the “jackhammer the man in the crosswalk wrestles with / He also leans on.” Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller “I’ve always been the girl in the wrong // clothes for spring, yet I understand my body / is a gift.” Miller’s book is a strange testament, teeming with some of the most original poems you’ll encounter this year. “When my mother slaps / my thighs to circulate the water in the blood, / the bruises still purple. I let blood work / itself small again.” Her work lives in the same world as Sarah Goldstein’s Fables: “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe in mist. We all saw the mother / gnawed to bone in upturned soil. I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” Metamorphoses saturate this book, suggest our bodies and souls are in flux. There’s a lot of wonder to get lost within here; this is a book to awaken the imagination. “When my grandmother fell through / the floorboards, she cupped her hands // to create an echo that crosses / five acres of cows, and they don’t know how // to listen.” When I hear ceremonial, I think ritual, significant, surreal, and Miller encapsulates all of those traits, writing of bodies made of flesh and fog. Bodies wedded to the earth: “What keeps you / tacked to me, my lone // saint of weeds? Maggot — / I mean, may we get // comfortable as suspects / or each other. May we slink // and croon across shrines with our soft bodies.” Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss Mark Doty has said “the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation.” Diane Seuss’s new book fits that description. In “Still Life with Self-Portrait,” she uses Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s as a fount, the genesis of wonder. She wants “to touch him,” though thinks he might have been “a bad man. / Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women / bad as well?” The narrator has lived within the space of bad men, and admits that she’s brought men into her own “badness” as well. Her recursive first stanza leans back into the painting, how Gijsbrechts created optical illusions. “He has offered you his backside and called it / his frontside, has offered you nothing / and called it something. You’ve known men / like Cornelius Gijsbrechts.” We can almost feel Seuss painting her way through this book, playing the page (and us) with her clever lines. But then she stops us and takes our breath, as in “Still Life with Turkey”: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes // are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” Or the elegiac “Silence Again”: “Now, when I embrace it, silence, / especially at night, in the dark, I see my father’s // name, as if silence were a canvas he painted, / and his signature there in the corner.” A skilled, inventive collection. Junk by Tommy Pico Frenetic, furious, exhausted, and exhausting: Pico’s poetry is like a syntactic tidal wave. His books are experiences, and Junk is a trip. There are no breaks here, but his stanzas are paced and one of his skills is how he manipulates our idea of lines: “The air is heavy feathers in mid- // summer, literally and metaphorically in my foul apt above the / chicken slaughterhouse where we wheeze awake.” In this stream, consciousness is a dizzy show, and among the refrains are the many permutations of the word junk, and what we look for in love: “Is it wrong 2 call yr partner a // mirror in the sense that when we’re together I’m with myself / in a way I can’t escape.” There’s more than one wink here: “Convention says a book shd be // this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want / to read in one sitting” and “Ppl are // too busy callin themselves ‘poets’ to notice the canary died.” Taken as a whole, “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Junk is fast and loud, but Pico is really a poet “looking to // connect & inhibit more than I want 2 slip away.” [millions_ad] Fludde by Peter Mishler “I’m embarrassed,” Mishler begins a poem titled “Mild Invective.” “Four deer step / onto the embankment / beside the Sunoco / at dawn, champing / and misting their breath.” The narrator’s “shaving in my car.” Those unusual but precise moments appear throughout Fludde, a debut expansive in subject and skilled in practice. In “To A Feverish Child,” the narrator imagines a child “with the chime of fever in your eyes.” A boy, sick, gifted with a nighttime word from his mother—“delirious”—and the fever dreams that follow. How the narrator dreams (or becomes? poetry has a way with magic) he feels that way, swelled with sickness: “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip / to watch my face among the neighborhood lights, / swallowed and renewed. I felt for one moment / insane and holy.” There’s an inevitability to these types of glimpses, how they return at just the right moments, as in “From the Overflow Motel”: “At quitting time, / I press my forehead / to the hallway’s ice machine, / and see a blood-red curtain / draped across a field.” Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser Poet of place, generations, elegies, spirit, and love, Kooser’s poetry deserves continual praise. He’s often noted as a poet for a broad audience, and certainly his two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and continued cheerleading for poetry attest to his appeal, but let’s not forget that he is also incredibly skilled. His poems are generous; their profluence nearly effortless. The gorgeous, stilled-heart lines of “A Letter”: “I have tried a dozen ways / to say these things / and have failed.” The feel of the moonlight and the cool November dusk, “and what these things / have come to mean to me / without you.” Kooser captures how we wear pain like clothing, how our everyday actions carry a silent song of grief: “I raked the yard / this morning, and it rained / this afternoon. Tonight, / along the shiny street, / the bags of leaves — / wet-shouldered / but warm in their skins — / are huddled together, close, / so close to life.” His lines make me believe in language again, as in “Applesauce”: “the way / her kitchen filled with the warm, / wet breath of apples, as if all / the apples were talking at once, / as if they’d come cold and sour / from chores in the orchard / and were trying to shoulder in / close to the fire.” A recurring theme in Kooser’s work is how all of us—the living and the dead—seek comfort in each other. This collection is a gift.
Digest, Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, begins with “Written by Himself”: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” His lines carry a mythic rhythm that originate with the self, and then extend out, as in “Problemata,” when neighborhood fireworks flare emotions: “My neighbor’s teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest / patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply / their roughly domesticated manhood, / they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle / rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war.” I like when poets write prose. Air Traffic, Pardlo’s new memoir, is a masterful consideration of manhood in contemporary America: the lies we tell ourselves, the struggle to find our own identity in the shadow of fathers, and the sweet perils of ambition. Pardlo is poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and teaches writing at Columbia University. We spoke about family, poetry, and the stories that, sooner or later, we have to tell. The Millions: Let’s talk about New Jersey, where we both grew up. Your family lived in Willingboro. In 1976, they bought their third home there, and with three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, it “meant the Pardlos had arrived.” There, in one of the three original Levittown communities, your “skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose.” You don’t live here anymore, but what of this state remains with you? Gregory Pardlo: New Jersey is all of America under a shrink ray. Colonial towns next to prefab towns next to shopping malls and farmland. Crumbling highways and curated bike paths lined with mulch and railroad ties. The McDonald’s is a venerable old institution in my hometown. Things that some might find kitschy or crude I take very seriously (which is not to say uncritically). Parts of New Jersey feel like they’re below the Mason-Dixon line while at the same time being the historical home of the black middle class. My concept of this nation—its flaws and potential—grows out of my life in the Garden State. The Isley Brothers are from New Jersey. (Mic drop.) TM: For a state that gets lampooned for other reasons, New Jersey has quite the literary tradition. You won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2015, and Peter Balakian, another NJ writer, got it in 2016. Is our state good for stories? What is it about New Jersey that might elicit good writing? GP: Stephen Dunn, a literary hero of mine, won the Pulitzer in 2000. William Carlos Williams won in 1963, the year that he died. The list of literary achievements in NJ is long, disproportionately so. Maybe it’s because New Jersey occupies that sweet spot between Philly, representing the aspirations of Revolutionary America, and New York City, representing the talent and dynamism of our immigrant soul. TM: Air Traffic is a memoir that arrives in essays. Each section’s discrete; each narrative feels somehow both complete and porous, leaning into the next chapter. How did this book grow (structurally, conceptually)? GP: The earliest drafts were written as straight-up memoir. I was trying my best to write a book the way I thought a book was supposed to be written. I wrote flat grammatical sentences that I hated and that had no relation to the way my imagination actually works. This went on for more than 300 pages. Out of frustration I admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing, and I went hat-in-hand to Columbia’s graduate nonfiction program, begging them to let me in. As a student in the program, I discovered I would much rather write essays that would allow me to think on the page while still aspiring to be literary, as opposed to scholarly. I began to cherry-pick chunks out of that original manuscript and develop them in terms of ideas and themes. My thesis had little more than a family resemblance to the manuscript I brought with me to Columbia. I spent another year or so writing new stuff, revising and reorganizing the manuscript with my agent. After we sold the book to Knopf, it went through another major overhaul. Some of the DNA from that ancestral manuscript is still in Air Traffic, but much of what might feel like porousness or consistency is the result mostly of edits, revisions, arguments, and compromises. TM: Story, narrative, performance, grandiosity: your father’s penchant for rhetorical presence is a theme in this book. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” He has many shades and identities in this book, and the metaphor of him as an air traffic controller is not lost—and yet you are the storyteller here. How does your sense of narrative differ from your father? How are they similar? What were the goals and desires of his stories—and what are yours? [millions_ad] GP: If there were some way to chart my father’s narratives and mine graphically, I think the curves would look very similar. They would differ in the sense that my father privileged sound over substance. He wanted to ravish his listeners more than he wanted to convey anything. My father would have been at home among irony-loving hipsters. He avoided public displays of sincerity. Maybe to be contrary, I crave sincerity although I distrust it. I am sincerely in search of truth and revelatory statements. What this has meant for the book is that as I found myself trying to reproduce his lyricism, his voice stayed with me as an editorial influence, amplifying my self-consciousness. I think this had a big impact on the tone of the book. TM: Your father looms in this book, of course, but your mother also comes alive in these pages. You share a birthday with her. “I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate,” you write. What did you learn, or understand, about your mother from writing this book? GP: Early in the writing process, my therapist kept asking me if I’d written about my mother yet. I realized I was putting it off because I didn’t trust myself to represent her fairly. I definitely couldn’t be objective. I knew I would have to sit down with her and interview her the way my teacher Phillip Lopate had interviewed his mother for his recent book, A Mother’s Tale. The conversation with my mom turned out to be less traumatic than I expected. This encouraged me to go back and look at the places where I had ducked or skated over references to my mom in the manuscript. When I thought I had represented her in a way that honored my own truths as well as hers, I let her read the manuscript. As you know from the book, she’s an artist. She would never tell me what or how to write. When she very gently suggested that I might have been a little hard on her “character,” I knew I had to do some soul-searching. She still gives me a little side-eye when we talk about the book, but I think she trusts that the way I present my own biases suggests to readers a margin of error that she can live with. TM: Before you join the Marines, there’s a great scene in the book when you’re sort of drifting between temporary jobs, having left Rutgers after a few semesters: “More than once I’d stood in line in the parking lot of some warehouse or tool-and-die shop to get a Saran Wrapped tuna fish sandwich, only to find myself overcome by a mild terror when I saw the workaday world rippling in the diamond-patterned stainless steel siding of the truck.” When I read those sentences, we see the poet living in the essayist. Or is it the other way around? What types of stories, scenes, and sentences bring you to poetry instead of prose? GP: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I remember clearly the internal war sentences like that set off in my head. The comp teacher in me was writing in the figurative margin, “how does this advance your argument, how does this help you reach your destination?” And the poetry workshop teacher in me was shouting, “whoo-hoo, we’re going off-road!” So I guess the two coexist, and it comes down to a series of intuitive indulgences in which I allow one or the other to predominate. There are also plenty of passages that are functional in their delivery of data in which I paid attention to the outcome of the argument rather than the pleasure of the language/moment. The goal is to find a balance or synthesis. If I’m trying to capture a nuanced emotion, I turn to poetry. When I suspect there is an insight to be gained that could potentially contribute to the discourse around a particular issue, I bring my essay game. TM: I’m torn between “Cartography,” “Tolle, Lege,” and “Behind the Wheel” as my favorite sections of this book—they are each perfect in their own way—but I want to ask about “Tolle, Lege” since it speaks to poetry. You’re a poet, an editor of poetry, a reader and critic of poetry. You talk about the power of turns in poetry, and how poetry doesn’t require “grand epiphany or catharsis,” but it should feel like “I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own.” Do you look for the same things in poetry as a reader, editor, and professor? GP: The “vicarious encounter” quality is pretty consistent, but each one of those perspectives changes my relationship to the work. As a reader, my needs are self-centered. I don’t care how a poem works for me, only that it does (or does not). As an editor, I’m interested in whether or not the poem rewards re-reading. I want it to work in the moment, but I also want it to work differently the next time I return to it. That way, I can be more confident it’ll speak to a variety of readers who will be bringing various needs and dispositions. As a professor, I want to figure out where a poem promises to take a reader, what route (that is, which “turns”) it takes, and (to triple-dip the metaphor) how close to that destination it arrives. TM: In the book’s introduction, you imply that your story—your life—is still a work in progress. You speak of failure often. Your story, as you say, contains “digressions and indulgences”—and there’s a literary power in your willingness to step aside from your story, smirk, and wonder at what to make of your life. What do you make of it now, as your memoir is set to be released? What does it mean to tell the story of your life—thoroughly, stylistically—in 2018? GP: For anyone to tell their story today is a political act. Our stories are not ours alone. I know it’s popular to defend against cultural appropriation, but you can’t tell the story of a culture exclusive of the cultures surrounding it (and I’m not agreeing that “a culture” is an isolable thing either). And it’s even less possible to tell one person’s story without telling the story of the world surrounding that person. On the one hand, to tell my story is to say, “I exist, and I my presence is relevant and meaningful in the social and political landscape.” On the other hand, my story is necessarily your story. It may be on the lower frequencies, but in a very real sense, I speak for you.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in April. Eye Level by Jenny Xie An excellent debut. Xie is particularly gifted with precise description; I want to linger on these poems. “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” is masterful and patient, expansive without becoming lost. She moves through this city “of a million young faces,” where there’s “new money lapping at these streets.” “In the backseat of a gold Lexus / a minister’s son lies, his eyes shut / dumb with honeyed sleep.” More: “slack lips of suitcases, lukewarm showers up to three times in a day. / Mosquito bites on the arms and thighs, patterned like pips on dice.” At night: “Alley of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers. / Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets.” Eye Level puts us there, with Xie’s sight. Her poems that span pages are nestled between single-stanza songs; consider the tightness of “Naturalization”: “It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap / silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother / to keep our telephone number close, / my beaded coin purse closer.” Her grandmother “prays for fortune / to keep us around and on a short leash. / The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” She also steps back and settles in, as in “Solitude Study”: “I know we can hold more in us than we do / because the body is without core.” And “Inwardly”: “We have language for what is within reach / but not the mutable form behind it. // Or else, why write.” Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku (translated by Ani Gjika) The narrator’s memories in “Almost Yesterday” begin this book. The midday sight of her father and mother “coming out of the barn / tidying their tangled hair in a hurry, / both flushes, looking around in fear / like two thieves.” Even now, she remembers the barn clearly; after all, “You cannot easily forget what you watch with one closed eye, / the death of the hero in the film, / or your first eclipse of the sun.” Negative Space is flush with wonderfully melancholic stanzas. “When a child is born, we name it after an ancestor, / and so the recycling continues. Not out of nostalgia, / but from our fear of the unknown.” “Where I come from, / there’s only one word for ‘grief’ and for ‘water’ / and both take the form of the containers that hold them: / each to their own fate, each to their own grief.” The title poem holds the scars of the Albanian Cultural Revolution. Churches were sacked. Crosses “were plucked from graves.” Icons and bibles were burned: “Witness stepped further back, / as if looking at love letters / nobody dared to claim.” Lleshanaku has a dizzying talent of capturing our notes of destruction. “And what could replace Sunday mass now?” the narrator wonders. “Nails in worn out shoes exposed stigmata / that bled in the wrong places— / a new code of sanctification, / of man, by man.” Strange Children by Dan Brady Brady’s debut opens with the dizzy, entrancing “Stroke Diary,” stanzas sifted across pages. The narrator’s wife, a few days after having their child, has a stroke. “Our life together, / like a great whale // breaching, or rather / as fast as a fish // picks a single fly / from the river water.” Shaken and wounded, the family emerges, but the stroke’s shadow holds. A trip to the cardiologist comes with a warning: “Given the risk of recurrence, / you shouldn’t get pregnant again.” Strange Children considers what happens when the certainty of our plans is replaced with a strangely comforting doubt. They wait for news about their adoption request, and the results are inspiring, among shaken lives: “I have lived a thousand lives / with these children and the grief / and joy of each one is a blessing to me.” Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil There are so many reasons to return to Nezhukumatathil’s poems—her affinity for the natural world, her ability to write a love poem that truly works, her humor that surprises and salves—and Oceanic reminds me of yet another: how she can offer readers so many routes within a single poem. “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” begins “Because we think I might have it, / you take the couch.” It’s a real change: “I can count on one hand / the times we have ever slept apart / under the same roof in our five years.” Two sick parents won’t work for a small son. What’s more, the narrator is pregnant: “I carry / a small grapefruit, a second son, inside me.” They are separated by only a room, but, “In bed, I fever for your strong calves, your nightsong breath on my neck.” He comes back to bed: “We decide it is worth it.” And how she ends this poem: “The child still forming / inside me fevers for quiet, the silence of the after, / the silence of cell-bloom within our blood.” Poets are reared to be strong closers, but I’d venture that Nezhukumatathil is the best: throughout Oceanic, we get the sense these poems have been felt through, spoken through, and paced to a precise beat. In “Letter to the Northern Lights,” she ends “I’d rather share sunrise with him and loon call // over the lake with him, the slap of shoreline threaded / through screen windows with him—my heart // slamming in my chest, against my shirt—a kind / of kindling you’d never be able to light on your own.” Added bonus: Nezhukumatathil’s poems will remind you (as did Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop) that wonder is a gift, and great words can get us there. [millions_ad] Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen “I’m always surprised how efficiently // regret can build a machine, a geared thing // charging through the narrow halls of your memory.” Not Here is a book of past pain bled into the present; of youth scenes that remain. In the powerful “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” the narrator’s father, confronted with his cheating, “slapped my mother, came to my room, threw my sleeping body / over his shoulder, & drove off.” There’s a fine shade of complexity at work in his poetics. “Who wouldn’t / beg for a story like this? A story to point & run toward / when asked to explain every decision you’ve ever made / regarding love. A story to blame when your hands rush / toward the exit.” Other stories in this book route toward the narrator’s mother, how “for the longest time, she knelt in front of a shrine & asked // to be blessed with a daughter & here I am: the wrong / monster; truck stop prom queen in his dirt gown.” In Not Here, bodies are imperfect works, subject to doubt, desire, and decay—in equal parts. “Standing in front of a mirror, my mother tells me she is ugly / says the medication is making her fat.” The son sees the mother “pull at her body & it is mine.” After all, “I truly wanted to be beautiful / for her.” In his dreams, he is thin: “I tell my mother she is still beautiful & she laughs. The room fills / with flies. They gather in the shape of a small boy. They lead her / back to the mirror, but my reflection is still there.” Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch by David Bottoms These poems live in the soft hours of late night and early morning. When a narrator takes out his dog “to piss in the yard” and the “bird feeders standing in the smudged shadows / of the maples / look like human skulls impaled on poles.” Or nights when the “trees on the bank are black and soundless, / a fat wall of darkness, / and the silence on the water feels like the voice / of a great absence.” His characters are a bit older. They’re content to listen, and to wait: “Nobody even bothered / to untangle the backlashed reel.” Bottoms’s poems are like dark rooms: we enter and exit through the same door, but we’re a little different on the way out—as with “My Old Man’s Homemade Dagger.” The narrator finds his father’s high school metal shop dagger: “bone handle, / blade cut from a metal file.” His father admonishes him to put it back in a desk, and he does, “but have held it for years in my memory, / just as he must’ve held it / in that desk drawer of rusted sockets and wrenches— // ugly, yes, but one of those things / so well made we could hardly let it go.” I’ve already gone back to the title poem a few times, and its wonder about death: “Maybe we rise again only to the good things—honeysuckle, / robins, mockingbirds, doves, / fireflies toward evening, and along the back fence // the steady harping of tree frogs. / On the prayer porch, among the icons, such fancy notions.” Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith Smith, who is set to begin her second term as America's poet laureate, recently said that she “felt from an early age that poetry was something mysterious, something playful and lilting. As I got older, poems began to offer me new and life-changing ways of looking at the familiar world.” We are in good worlds with Smith leading the poetic charge, as Wade in the Water attests. What range: poems crafted from letters and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War. Poems about motherhood, like “Annunciation:” a narrator tired of roads, bridges, steel, and lights: “Everything enhanced, rehearsed, / A trick.” She longs to feel, to be “confronted by the real, / By the cold, the pitiless, the bleak.” She ponders her son, “eyes set / At an indeterminate distance, / Ears locked, tuned inward, caught / In some music only he has ever heard.” Poems like “The Angels,” “Two slung themselves across chairs / Once in my motel room. Grizzled, / In leather biker gear. Emissaries / For something I needed to see.” They smell of “rum and gasoline,” and “one’s teeth / Were ground down almost to nubs.” But she feels guilty: “Think of the toil we must cost them, / One scaled perfectly to eternity. / And still, they come, telling us / Through the ages not to fear.” She never sees the angels again, but catches “sightings, flashes, hints” of them. A tree in the sun, wind swaying its branches. The strength of rain. The grace in a tired world.