We Learn to Live: Featured Poetry by Andrés Cerpa

We’re thrilled to begin a new series of poetry excerpts at The Millions. These poems come from selected new books that appear in our monthly must-read poetry column. Our first poem is from Andrés Cerpa’s heartbreaking debut collection, Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy. Like many other poems in this debut book, “The Lesson” churns with frustration—the desperation of a son whose father is living with Parkinson’s Disease. Cerpa’s poems are distilled charges of pure will: the simultaneous anger and sadness of losing a parent in so many ways, and how we long for some miracle or magic to “conjure a former self.” A necessarily bleak book illuminated by authentic and audacious feeling.

“The Lesson”

I say goodnight, smile, walk out the door then sit on the hill               above, & facing my father’s house, smoke anotherspliff & watch his, then my mother’s, windows go dim.

I believe that maybe in the streetlight which flickers & reflects              off the stop sign, at the plateaued road between us,a flutter, a baseball card in a wheel, will conjure a former self

to slip from my old window, to walk here & sit with me awhile,              with his shoulder to my shoulderas he takes a few drags, sighs then says, I’m going back home.

I wouldn’t say things get better. I’d say, We learn to live,               that, human beings can get used to anything. But he already knows this somewhere, though he’ll have to

throw bottles off rooftops, piss himself & sleep in the snow,               wake to his corruptible body & shame,withdraw, close one hand around his father’s throat

like a nail you’d hang a mirror on, as the right hand hammers              the Sheetrock & his mother tries to calm him, crying, blaming herself & holding her palms to her son’s cheeks

as he steps back, wipes his eyes until the Sheetrock damps                          against his veins. He’ll have to walkalone for years to thaw the ash & numb.

“The Lesson” excerpted from Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés Cerpa. Copyright © 2019 by Andrés Cerpa. Published and reprinted by permission of Alice James Books. All rights reserved.

Must-Read Poetry: January 2019

Here
are six notable books of poetry publishing in January.

Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne LauxThe final 20 poems of Laux’s book are written in memory of her late mother, and they are unflinching and resigned. “I am not deceived,” she begins the poem “Lapse.” “I / do not think my dead will return. They will not do / what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees.” Helpless but not hapless, she deftly writes of heartbreak—the absolute, gutting, severe loss of the one who brought her into this world: “go,” she writes to her mother, “where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow / your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies / of despair, your can of beer.” Laux is majestic here: “We never knew which way to run: / into her arms or away from her sharp eyes. / We loved her most when she was gone, / and when, after long absence, she arrived.” The elegies accumulate, settle into our throats, drill down—her selected poems are gorgeous to revisit, but these new pieces are symphonic—and they become a perfect coda of grief. “Soon she will be no more than a passing thought,” Laux knows. “Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus / her happiness, minus her grief.” She ends the book’s titular poem with transcendent precision: her mother belongs to the world now, but not all of her—not “her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms / of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers, / Lord her slippers, where are they now?”

The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala AlyanAlyan’s fourth book of poems arrives with the earnest ambition of a debut, but the care of a poet whose lines have earned their sentiment. Poems of sorrow and shame live next to verses of desire. In “The Female of the Species,” “They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases / full of spices and cassettes.” The narrator can “tell stories about the women I know. / They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.” She also thinks about her cousin, how “the best night of my life was the one // she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed, / and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.” The narrator thinks of her father in “The Socratic Method,” a man “as lonely as Wyoming, a perfect country for no one to see.” Sometimes, in the mornings, she will “clutch my chest and chant God forbid God forbid,” thinking of his death. The Twenty-Ninth Year bursts with lamentations, hopes, fears, and a weary but wide faith: “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon.”

Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés CerpaOne of the most moving books of family and illness in recent years, Cerpa’s debut is a force of poetic will. The narrator’s father is living with Parkinson’s Disease, and each successive poem feels like a step deeper into darkness. The narrator knows “the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old, // he is kind & clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle, he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” Bicycles turn and return throughout this book: They move the narrator and his father across the Bronx, across time. The narrator arises from his grief but never forgets its origin; not when he is in Barcelona and “burnt a cigarette into my wrist like a botched tattoo”; not when, with resignation and acceptance, he concludes: “Let the earth do what it will — / have me, spin the spokes until my memory fades to a ruthless spring.”

Oculus by Sally Wen MaoThe poems in this collection consider the detritus and delirium of digital life. In “Live Feed,” the narrator warns that “After I am dead, I will hunt you / day and night. // Pixelated ghosts / will haunt your ears.” Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door. The collection’s titular poem bends time and sense: “Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” Online we are dead, alive, temporary, and permanent. Mao’s serene descriptions are masterfully unsettling: “How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” Mao further examines our technological transfigurations in “Electronic Necropolis,” set in Guiyu Village, China, where ditched electronics are collected and recycled. Mao’s descriptions are precise and surreal, a next phase of evolution: “By slicing open dead circuitboards, / I cultivate rebirth. I douse / the hardware in pyretic acids / before it scrapes me, enters me, a lather of data / against my organs, bless them, / my warring insides.” An expansive book, but each poem bears careful reading.

Mothers Over Nangarhar by Pamela Hart“Dear one / From the yard I see Mars / While you keep watch in far-off deserts.” Hart’s collection begins with such a simple yet profound sentiment: We are so often mired in longing and distance, yet if we merely look up, we are together. Hart has said she has been inspired by lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Her son has served overseas with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and the poems in this book teem with domestic despair of many forms. A group of mothers speak in a Red Cross parking lot, after a meeting on PTSD. In “Sometimes We Talk About Nothing,” “Her son’s platoon / is moving / to a dangerous place // At the market Beth says / the strawberries / are huge // So sweet she eats / some / every day.” Eschewing punctuation and blending joy with fear, Hart captures the paradox of a service member’s family: Hope keeps them alive, but hope is exhausting. Hart’s book ponders the mixture of pride and love for a son, fear for his safety, anxiety and guilt over violence. “He was small and almost perfect at birth,” she writes. “Did I raise him up to be a warrior.” There is no question mark here because, Hart knows, there is no answer.

Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies edited by Harold Schechter and Michael WatersThis pocket-sized Everyman’s Library book is worth sneaking into the theater to browse during the coming attractions. A diverse selection ranging from the early days of cinema to auteurs and remakes, poetic cinephiles will find much to love here. Juliana Gray asks us to “Look closer” at Hitchcock’s Rope: “They’ve shut their secret in a chest, but failed / to lock it.” Virgil Suarez offers an ode to the late Harry Dean Stanton: “See it in the crow-black eyes, the stubble / And the way his lids sag as he belts out / The next sad song.” Chase Twichell thinks “Matinees are the best time / for bad movies.” Marcus Wicker writes a love letter to Pam Grier: “Even now I don’t know how / to love you right.” And Joseph O. Legaspi reminds us that the theater is always more than projector, screen, and sight: “My mother favors / tearjerkers in which women suffer in martyrdom, / fall from high grace, seek revenge, and reap moral / redemption. In this communal, cavernous space / celluloid glow outlines each solitary audience, / embraced by air-conditioning, drowsing into / forgetfulness.”

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

I carried Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go with me for much of this year—the book lingers, and is as fine a work of longing as I have ever read. Ford is a poet of unique and deep emotion, and she is also a student of theology, and that union fills a need that I share with many readers. A space for wonder and doubt.
In my interview with Ford for The Millions, she felt that “readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere.” The poets who I am drawn to the most in this particular moment—Ford, Ada Limón, Jericho Brown, Traci Brimhall—encounter faith and doubt with refreshing sincerity. I have my own beliefs; I don’t look to poets for that. I look to poets for a language for a weary soul. I want to see how others envision the absence or presence of God, and I find poets particularly gifted in that practice.

Add to that list a book that I discovered this year: The Book of Trees by Sean M. Conrey. An interpretation of the life and hymns of Saint Columba, Conrey’s book brings us to the Druidic and Catholic traditions of Ireland. It is an otherworldly book; sincere in its own way, and admirable in its project.
What I like most about poetry is the second lap: the return, months and years later, to pages and sections. I suspect that I will return again and again to pieces like “Apple”: “On the days the winds blow ill I enter them, / and on the days they lift the world, too—.”
And “Vine”: “Weave the words into the world, / vines threaded through the trellis— / the cordon reaching out / like a brother’s call across the field, / clusters and tendrils, the occasional spur— / the Father is the gardener.”

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Must-Read Poetry: December 2018

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing in December.

Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins

Before the core of this book—a sequence that considers the pristine “Mary Sue,” a female character in fan fiction who often seems to be the “author’s idealized self”—Collins includes a gorgeous prose poem. “Sister, listen to me—tonight our father will pull open the heavy door of our home, walk with his large boots into the kitchen and drop a pig on the table. In the morning, peasants with children and glassy-eyed babies will enter, sniffing at us like animals, noting the absence of a mother who lays out cold plates, white bread.” It is folkloric, surreal, and suggestive of a poet who can channel new energies. In “The Engine” sequence, Collins writes: “On my walks I began to notice more bonfires than ever before. I was reluctant to speculate on a cause, but the hillside fields were plainly covered in scabs.” Sleepless and suffering, the narrator heads into the cold. She gets a tick bite. She finds “an empty shed with unbroken windows,” and sleeps in a dog bed. She dreams of dogs, and awakens to “a mongrel with cataracts” that “stayed looking for a moment before leaving, unhurried.” Somewhere among these dreams, nightmares, and fantasies Collins hits a spiritual longing, a place where bodies are not enough. From “A Course in Miracles”: “Sometimes a divinity is more / than a mortal can stand.” Collins’s debut is inventive, unique, dynamic.

Silence, Joy by Thomas Merton

In 1940, Merton’s mentor Mark Van Doren sent the monk’s first manuscript to James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions. Thirty Poems was published in 1944, and ever since then New Directions—admirably, and thankfully—has continued to publish Merton’s poetry and prose. Silence, Joy is pocket-sized, but bursting with what made Merton great: he could be simultaneously dark and audaciously sentimental. So many of his lines ring perfectly true, even 50 years after his death. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” he offers. In “Trappists, Working”: “Now all our saws sing holy sonnets in this world of timber / Where oaks go off like guns, and fall like cataracts, / Pouring their roar into the woods.” I admit to carrying this book around, sneaking glances to keep me honest: “We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.” We all need a voice like Merton, whose prose-poetic vignettes pair nicely with his sincere lines: “I am earth, earth // Out of my grass heart / Rises the bobwhite. // Out of my nameless weeds / His foolish worship.”

Petty Theft by Nicholas Friedman

“And so they reveled in self-luminescence, / sneezed lightning through the pitch of bedroom sky / and glowed like faint auroras in their beds.” “Undark,” a poem that memorializes the fate of factory workers poisoned by radium, captures Friedman’s distinctive style: his phrases turn on the porous border between the lush and barren, between the lyric and corroded. “Fear only turns the key on what it knows,” the narrator notes, as one woman “daubed her teeth to spook a lover / in the grin-lit dark.” A few poems in, and I’m already in Friedman’s poetic trust, ready for the switches and swivels of poems like “In Flight”: “the plane quakes suddenly / and dips us like a bobber. A light dings on. / I count the smooth blue seats, doing the math / they’ll use to make a headline out of us.” Dazed, chomping on peanuts, mishearing the flight attendant, the narrator looks out the window: “a river has bunched itself / into omegas, blinding where the sun / moves over them—while here, above all that, / the body shudders, and carries us along.” Friedman extracts the poetic out of the pungent, as in “A Cut Path,” when a couple feels a bit lost on a California trail: “The cows stand frozen / in portrait below, casting their doubles down the slope. / For us, a bit of wishful thinking has made / this hill a mountain, and we are now descending.” A strong, skillful debut.

Collected Poems of Robert Bly

When asked about Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), his first collection, Bly said “myth brings up a mystery that the rational mind doesn’t really faze.” Bly’s Collected Poems begins with that volume, and that Midwestern mythos. In “Three Kinds of Pleasures”: “Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin / Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles / One by one lift themselves out of the fence line / And slowly leap on the gray sky— / And past them, the snowy fields.” The haunting chill of “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”: “What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it. / The body is strangely torn, and cannot leave it. / At last I sit down beneath it.” Bly would emerge from his snowbound self for The Light Around the Body (1967), marked by poems of activism and frustration, yet also including introspective pieces like “Melancholia”: “There is a wound on the trunk / Where the branch was torn off. / A wind comes out of it, / Rising, swelling, / Swirling over everything alive.” A decade later, Bly would write to Tomas Tranströmer: “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them.” Bly’s Collected Poems are full of these incredible mysteries, on to his final works, as in “Longing”: “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven.

To Make a World of Words: ‘The William H. Gass Reader’

William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
He left us with this book.

Must-Read Poetry: November 2018

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in November.

Rosarium by Hannah Dow

“Mother, Father, I am trying to make my way / to you, but I have found no laws proving / the logic of a body that journeys without wings.” Dow’s graceful, pensive debut brings to mind the work of Allison Seay—both poets search the ambiguity of faith for a route forward. A series of poems with “postcard” in the titles allows Dow to create crisp epistles, as in “Postcard from Gethsemane”: “We want grief to be quiet, / something we can hold / all the way up and down / the mountain without letting / on.” Or “Postcard from York, Maine”: “Home is no protection from even / the smallest storms— / the boarding up of windows, / slight tearing of the sail.” Gardens (biblical, literal) abound in Rosarium—think garden of roses; think the litany of a rosary, the beads a string of bubbles leading us (like poetic lines) to contemplation. Yet perhaps even more powerful a feeling in Dow’s collection is the sting of grief—what a fantastically sharp emotion to see authentically shaped in this age—and the worry that faith is an imperfect machine. “In early depictions, Jesus carries his cross / like it’s made of feathers, without breaking / a sweat” begins “Postcard from the Kunsthistoriches, Vienna.” Only in the Middle Ages, the narrator explains, “did artists think to emphasize / his burden.” That attempt to imbue devotion in her heart is imperfect. She does not feel “in the hostile crowd.” Instead—and this is Dow’s spiritual skill in the book—“I only feel that I’ve swallowed something / small and alive—a bird whose wings / keep gravity from drawing me to my knees.”

Asymmetry by Adam Zagajewski (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)

This book is steeped in longing, as in “Wake Up”: “Wake up, my soul. / I don’t know where you are, / where you’re hiding, / but wake up, please, / we’re still together, / the road is still before us, / a bright strip of dawn / will be our star.” Ever since Zagajewski’s incomparable “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” I’ve gone to him for something near solace. He has said “poetry as literature, as language, discovers within the world a layer that has existed unobserved in reality, and by doing so changes something in our life, expands somewhat the space of what we are.” His is less a vision of poet as prophet than poet as patient observer. Poets, he writes early in Asymmetry, “understand nothing. / They listen to the whispers of broad, lowland rivers.” They “stroll along dirt roads.” Poets “bid the dead farewell, their lips move.” By placing poets as observers rather than oracles, he somehow enables them to be the latter. “Each poem, even the briefest, / may grow into a full-blown epic,” one narrator explains. The problem? Although “each poem has to speak / of the world’s wholeness; alas, our / minds are elsewhere, our lips are / thin and sift images / like Molière’s miser.” The poems of Asymmetry do both; they somehow speak so well to us, even if written to capture a single, narrow moment.

New Selected Poems by Thom Gunn

In his introduction to this volume, editor Clive Wilmer writes that as he began publishing in the 1950s, Gunn “appeared not to have a distinctive voice. Indeed, he appears to have no wish to find one. What he aspired to achieve in poetry was something he found in Elizabethan song”—a “certain anonymity of tone.” There’s a certain grace in this impersonality; a credibility, even. From “Vox Humana”: “Being without quality / I appear to you at first / as an unkempt smudge, a blur, / an indefinite haze, mere- / ly pricking the eyes, almost / nothing. Yet you perceive me.” Gunn’s lines seduce through metered sound, yet he could also stir us, as in “The Old Woman”: “Something approaches, about / which she has heard a good deal.” She senses it; her feet feel chilled, and she has “watched it / like moonlight on the frayed wood / stealing toward her / floorboard by floorboard.” There’s a sense of poetic patience to Gunn’s lines; they are conversational, but never quite casual. The poems from his last collection, Boss Cupid (2000), are a fitting end; consider “The Artist as an Old Man”: “Vulnerable because / naked because / his own model.”

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon (translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)

Forty-nine poems; 49 days of a wandering spirit before it evolves into reincarnation. Hyesoon’s book is unnerving, profluent, immediate. She begins the first day: “On the subway your eyes roll up once. That’s eternity.” The spirit is wavering, but the body remains. An old man steals her handbag. Middle-schoolers nudge her, take photos. “Death is something that storms in from the outside”—but soon her spirit leaves behind her body, and the poems move, a dizzying arrangement of meditations on that space between here and there, flesh and forever. There’s a purgatorial sense to Autobiography of Death—the uncomfortable feel is matched by what Hyesoon has called the bane of women’s poetry in Korea, a gendered verse unknowable “until you sympathize with how women painfully go through the experience of having these tattoos carved on their bodies … Female poets can finally step into the world of language after crossing this river of the grotesque; the words cannot gush out of their mouths until they cross the river of screams where you witness death like everyday affairs.” Autobiography of Death is a song to this grotesque sense. A spirit wandering, wailing: “Your body is now fog floating above sleep / Your face is a cloud floating above your body.”

Monument: New and Selected Poems by Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey is a poet to return to—we know she’s special, and then comes along the aptly titled Monument, and the evidence feels almost overwhelming. Her work is God-haunted, clothed with the small flashes of memory against despair. In “Graveyard Blues”: “It rained the whole time we were laying her down; / Rained from church to grave when we put her down.” The narrator raised her hand in witness as they lowered her mother to the ground. “I wander now among names of the dead: / My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.” Her poetry carries the weight of a region, a world whose scars remain fresh on flesh. You can feel it in her lines, which craft a history—of Mississippi, of the South, of her family. As in “Incident,” her stories return like liturgies (selected volumes of poems allow this to happen!). “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, / a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.” Grace-filled, with the sting of honesty, Trethewey is a true poet of ceremony. Monument contains one of my favorite elegies: the poet on her father’s passing. She thinks of fishing one dark morning with him, “awkward // and heavy in our hip waders.” She catches two trout and then releases them. “I can tell you now // that I tried to take it all in, record it / for an elegy I’d write—one day— // when the time came. Your daughter, / I was that ruthless.” Many of these poems feel in his shadow, the complex song of father and daughter. She ends “Elegy” with a dream of her and him in “the small boat // that carried us out and watch the bank receding— / my back to where I know we are headed.” One of the best collected volumes published this year.

Meghan O’Gieblyn Wryly Guides Us through the ‘Interior States’

In her preface to this often stunning, always measured debut book of essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn captures her essayistic identity in a quote from William James: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Interior States is an examination of the Midwest and the self—a wry, ambitious catalog of what happens when a writer abandons belief yet retains a religious language and latitude.

O’Gieblyn grew up in “a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell.” “Saved” at 5 years old, she entered Moody Bible Institute at 18. There, the Word was literal and absolute. But don’t fall for the “widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless.” Rather, the peculiar erudition of Christian literalism “is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth—the story of redemption—with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.”

A former evangelical whose audiences are primarily secular—think Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian—O’Gieblyn calls out the lethargy of contemporary American culture. “I developed a physical allergy to NPR,” she writes, suspicious of narratives that center the narrator and, in doing so, praise that narrator. She thinks they are somewhere between self-satisfied and self-congratulatory: “It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed our sins.”

As a pox against that mindset, O’Gieblyn would “unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” During those long drives home from her night class, charged by a cadence which stirred her, about a God in which she no longer believed, “I would slip into a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.”

That need for conviction—perhaps more its hymn than its literal message—enables O’Gieblyn to arrive at interesting and refreshing conclusions. She laments that “at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, Protestant churches have chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of being obsolete.” Here O’Gieblyn carries what she calls the evangelical Protestant tradition of public profession. These essays are her peculiar testimonies.

More than anything else, they are stories of the Midwest, where exists “a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” Her literal and metaphorical home, the Midwest has been “less a destination than a corridor,” a place where you can easily develop “an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.”

The Midwest breeds outward kindness and inward skepticism. “When you live at the center of the American machine,” she writes, “it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.” She’s a welcome guide through this machine. “Awareness is not the same as perspective; sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter”—aphorisms paint the atmosphere in this book. O’Gieblyn earns her pronouncements. In an essay about subtlety, that which she proclaims her “chronic foible,” O’Gieblyn shares “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind”—an evangelical world of impossible theologies, in which God was absent but longed for. “But as it turns out,” she knows, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.”

Rather than a jeremiad against the Christianity of her youth, Interior States asks her former faith to return to its previous authenticity, one lost to a consumerist sense of worship. O’Gieblyn retains what she calls “an abiding anthropological curiosity” to her past life, and it has created a curiously powerful result. She’s a writer who speaks in tongues—Biblically trained, and yet now her own—and who understands America from the middle.

After finishing Interior States, I returned to the William James essay that O’Gieblyn so appropriately quoted. He finishes that piece with a meditation upon the value of pragmatism: “Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism for her part is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.” O’Gieblyn is a writer worth trusting, a writer who audaciously, and stylistically, seeks truth.

Must-Read Poetry: October 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in October.

The Lumberjack’s Dove by GennaRose Nethercott
All praise to book-length poems. Nethercott’s yarn begins with a lumberjack who chops off his own hand. “The hand becomes a dove” and tries to fly away, but the lumberjack strings it to his belt. He “walks out of the forest, the airborne hand fluttering along behind.” The narrator tells us: “You know this story.” It’s part whisper, part command, all curiosity. How do we know this story? We know stories like it—folklore borne of the forest—and we know that our lives and souls are stories. It begins to add up. Nethercott’s narrator is gentle, quirky, playful, endearing: this is a book to read in circles around fires, under blankets, in dark and quiet room corners. Befuddled, the lumberjack wanders and wonders. He “clutches the absent space at the end of his arm.” His dove—his hand, his self—“looks back at him, already forgetting it was ever anything but sovereign.” Nethercott’s book is inventive, unique, and a welcome source of escape—or maybe inscape. The narrator frequently steps in and clears the white space of the page; these addresses are not interruptions, but soft reminders that stories are brought to us by mouths and hands. “Living creatures believe they own something as soon as they love it”: Nethercott’s book feels true as wind, a discovery worth embracing.

The Arrangements by Kate Colby
These are sharp elegies—not quite of the dead, but of the failures of language and connection all around us—delivered with smiles and smirks. To read “Wistless” is to miss summer, to enter the shape of mourning: “In-your-face blooms / now brown, drooped // into black / eyes of dying Susans.” In this space between seasons, we sigh: “Screen door squeaks, / buffeting whump of // unfast ceiling fan.” Colby’s columnar lines feel threaded, a lattice of letters that never feels choppy. The Arrangements carries us to someplace a little dark, a little comfortable. In “The Plunge,” we see: “Black evergreens / pre-dawn, it’s all / there before you.” In that place of “felt darkness,” there is love, picked “like splinters / of light from the light.” Colby is fresh and stirring—“Day doesn’t so much / progress as condense– // rain fills red Solo bowls / for feral cats in the yard”—yet her controlled language is fairly hypnotic, peacefully familiar: “There’s a first time / for everything and // now we’re in for it.”

Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez
Martinez has written of growing up Catholic in Greeley, Colorado, where the stained glass iterations of the Holy Mother blurred into the glass candles in a curandera’s room: Mariology as reflection, refraction. Language as litany, proving ground for poetry. Martinez’s poems are dynamic personal doxologies of Mexican-American tradition and inheritance. In “Family Photo—Mi Bisabuela Con Mi Abuela”: “Maria Beltran would peel the oranges / & all things on the earth’s surface / became navel & hearth.” His poems open and turn; his theme of family feels like a reclamation. In a later photo poem, the woman’s “wedding dress spills // lilies & lilies of sugar mornings”— those ls lifting the image out of memory. His second sequence in the book—a meditation on execution, bodies hung, bodies “unnailed in cross”—is masterful. Based on a postcard set by Walter H. Horne from Mexico, the images are striking: “the second / leans forward into crucifixion // arms upstretched as wingbones / wrought of tar.” Later: “Lined as background stick figures, / a crowd of children gathers dust // & shade beside the spectacle.” He gathers rhythm and reason toward the poem’s end: “if there are tears, there are no homilies; / if there is color, they are bronze; // if there is life, it is public domain; / if he had a name, it is now transnational // confusion / postmarked in relief.” Ambitious and historical, Martinez’s book earns praise.

Things as It Is by Chase Twichell
Twichell’s new collection brings us into the world of her poems through invitation, not interrogation. It is a calm, measured entrance. In “The Missing Weekly Readers,” the narrator and her cousins are at their grandmother’s house during the first big snowstorm: “We sat around the table / in an igloo: the dining room // darkened and hushed, / windows a swollen glow.” After lunch, they brave the storm to loot the next week’s magazines from a mailbox. Years later, still coated with guilt, she tells us: “If you someday find them / in a surprising place, with a note / from some kids admitting to the theft, // please keep it to yourself.” Such union—or communion—with the reader is an offering worth savoring. Yet Twichell’s work is neither innocent nor gentle. In one stanza she describes riding her bike through the ash piles of burned leaves; in the next, she writes of a dangerous man who “liked little girls.” She repeats little, and the horror becomes pungent. Poetic turns like that require real skill, and the awareness that beauty and terror often share the same air. In “Soft Leather Reins,” the narrator and her friend had to release horses tangled in barbed wire. They ride home together at dusk, and “There my knowledge ends.” Twichell lets her poems unfurl into the world, and it is a quiet joy to watch them evaporate.

With the Dogstar as My Witness by John Fry
Fry’s debut begins in the most appropriate way possible for the book that follows: “like a preacher’s son returned to God / —but never the church.” This book is a search for a soul, undertaken by one who has “looked for that angel unawares, / prodigal or pilgrim, saint or sinner, to ask” questions without answers, unless we look to the imperfections of faith. With the Dogstar as My Witness is a document of terrible longing that we are born for, so many hearts “promised benediction, our goodbyes / blackened our altars.” In poems spread across the page—syntactic breaks in breath and hope—Fry suggests that we are never truly content with divine absence. He looks not for substitute, but salves. He travels the wilderness, the desert of desire. He accepts the recognition that “even novenas / can’t coat a stomach already gone.” Fry quotes Fanny Howe in one section of the book, and she is an appropriate patron saint for poetic hearts straining, inevitably, toward God. “say I am:” the narrator writes, “otherwise agnostic, a believer / only when in unison / words are sung-said / beside another, stranger or / familiar, not alone.”

Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang
Marfa is lucky to earn such a quicksilver ode from Yang, whose poems are flexible, expansive, sonorously clever. From “Substation”: “Gray day faraway water-tower potentiometer // enclosed by a series of right-angle triangles, guy- / line hypotenuse cables lengthening to anchor / pole.” Among these manufactured moods, “A small town thrives in the desert.” Yang is so precise in his rendering of myths: “Sunrise over a dirt road / by a low-wire fence, birdsong, / a rooster crows, then distant church bells / pealing arpeggios in the thin air.” Peppered with paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes, Yang’s book is equal parts historical (diary and interview anecdotes from residents), folkloric (“They told us a story about the devil, / mala cosa, small in stature with a beard / whose face they could never see clearly”), and comfortable in contemporary wonder. In one poem, the narrator and friends “sought out the Lights / off an empty highway, not a soul but us four.” On the distant horizon, they see the magic: “hovering / eerily for a moment, chills at being chosen, / growing / brighter than disappearing.” The marvel ends when a police officer’s lights bring their gaze down to earth. His flashlight scans their faces, and he asks them: “You all’re Americans aren’t you?” Their response: “we lied and said ‘Yes.”—a reminder that even though you can capture a place in words doesn’t mean your language and self are understood there.

A Pained Intuition and a Palpable Longing: Katie Ford on Theology, Poetry, and the Unknowable

If You Have to Go, the new collection of poems by Katie Ford, is a book that conjures powers of possession. I feel that way about all of her books: Her poems bring me to a mystical plane somewhere between language and life. I’m left shaken. Her willingness—we might even call it her essence—to write seeking the untellable makes her work unique.

Ford’s new book is anchored by a sequence of sonnets, the first of which begins, “Empty with me, though here I am.” She’s a kenotic poet, and we can feel, in that emptying, an ardent desire to see the knobby and surprising routes of which poetry can be capable. Her books are ones to sit with and contemplate—much the same as I feel about her conversation.

Ford is the author of four books from Graywolf Press: DepositionColosseum, Blood Lyrics, and If You Have to Go. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and she holds graduate degrees in theology and poetry from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We spoke about poetry, theology, and what happens when language fails us.

The Millions: You studied theology at Harvard—your first and latest books are dedicated, in part, to Gordon D. Kaufman, who taught you there. Could you talk about him as a mentor? What did you learn from him? How does he remain an influence?

Katie Ford: Gordon D. Kaufman was the first theologian—living or dead—that I trusted in a thoroughgoing way. I had been studying Christian theology, mainly, because I wanted to learn how to articulate just where and how particular forms of Christian thinking proceed from flawed and/or injurious methodologies. Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method was formative to my thinking, as was everything he’s written from the 1990s onward. He disowned his earliest work. I remember being in his office with him, looking at the massive systematics he published in 1969—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—and he told me, “Don’t read that. I didn’t know how to do theology then.”

It wasn’t until he traveled to the East and had conversations with a broader range of religious thinkers and practitioners that he said he understood that all theology and religious language is an imaginative endeavor and a human construct. This may sound obvious to some, but it’s not very widely accepted that all of what has been written—including religious scriptures and normative creeds and prayers—is made by us and is, therefore, limited and flawed. That which is ultimately mysterious and ultimately real (I’m fine calling that ultimate reality “God”), is approached with human language, not a specialized language that is infallible simply because its content is theological. This recognition holds us responsible when that language goes awry, as it often does when it mixes with governmental or ecclesiastical power. We are responsible for creating metaphors and approaches that might remedy wayward, often authoritarian constructs.

More than that, though, this recognition begins in reverence for that which, by definition, is mysterious. And just because we are acknowledging human imagination in theological efforts doesn’t mean what we are directing that language toward—the ultimate reality—is “imaginary” or make believe. Some readers miss this point, sometimes willfully so, just to take Kaufman down.

I cannot overspeak Kaufman’s influence upon me, nor how dear he remains to me now. When I dedicated Deposition to him, I went to his house for a visit. He was developing dementia at the time, so I asked him, “Did you see that I dedicated my book to you?” And he said, “I did!” as if it had just popped back into his mind. “I scarcely know what to say,” he said. I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well. If You Have to Go, in part, made me feel like I was behaving as a theologian, and nearly everything conveyed theologically in it can be traced back to what Kaufman taught me, although I think it’s only now—20 years later—that his work has truly been integrated into my way of thinking and being.

The last time I saw him, I was with the writer Sarah Sentilles, who also was profoundly influenced by Kaufman. We sat in his back patio. I asked him if he remembered what he and I talked about years back. He said, “No, but I remember it was very important.” And it was.

TM: I’m always interested in the routes of poets. You first began writing poetry “seriously” when you were 19, studying under Tess Gallagher, no less, at Whitman College. Had you converted from prose—or was poetry your first writing genre overall?

KF: Poetry was my first genre. And only genre, really. I’ve written essays here and there, but prose isn’t my love, and I’ve never written long-form prose. Perhaps you’re thinking Whitman College was named for Walt? I wish. It was named for the Whitman missionaries. It’s a secular school but traces back to white religious colonization. In any case, Tess came to Whitman when I was a senior, and studying with her drenched me in her astounding sense of figuration and the lyric poem’s “singing line,” as she would say, which she likely learned from Yeats (Tess has much Irish in her, and is often living in Ireland), Akhmatova, and García Lorca. She sounds like this: “Terrible the rain. All night rain, / that I love. So the weight of his leg / falls again like a huge tender wing / across my hipbone.” Her mind moves with a brilliant, pure-gift originality, leaping and shifting, but always trustworthy, always returning us to ourselves anew. I was with her once in the Portland Japanese Garden, and we decided to write a poem together. I wrote a few lines, then she did, then I did … at one point she looked at a waterfall and started a gorgeous metaphor about a bear showing itself finally in the water as it fell. I looked at her and said, “How do you do that?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t know.” There was humility in her laugh, a recognition that however the gift comes, it’s the whence that’s inexplicable.

TM: What led you to study theology?

KF: I’ll let the fraught content of Deposition be the lengthy, 60-page answer to that. The book traces the aftermath of my own short but awful participation in a fundamentalist, evangelical sect when I was 18. When I was 22, I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I had a pained intuition that I needed to study the thinking and methodology that can cause Christian sects to be so devastating. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but that’s what it was. I went to Harvard Divinity School on that intuition, and then began studying the big guns of Christian thinking: Aquinas; Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Barth, Rahner, and so on. I ended up writing a major paper on how these theologians at times proceed, in their writings, with the same methodology as perpetrators of violence.

Perpetrators, for instance, begin by defining the reality of their victim. The victim’s life is redefined by an authority stolen away by the perpetrator. These theologians all begin in this way, defining reality (invisible and visible, the former of which is most problematic) in their own terms in order for others to have their lives defined and explained by a stolen authority. Once you yoke this starting point to image-making that doesn’t acknowledge, as Kaufman stresses, the utter mystery we stand before, I think theology becomes astoundingly misguided. I won’t go into all of what I traced between theological method and perpetration, but that’s what I was working on. I’ve had a desire to actually return to that paper and work on it further …

In short: Disturbance led me to study theology. And disturbance most often leads me to write poems.

TM: What were the differences between the lived, experienced Christianity of your youth, and your study of faith through theology?

KF: When you study theology and world religions, you can either end up in an internal schism of confusion and turmoil, or you can revere the human history of myth- and meaning-making, their aspirational, perplexed, reaching instincts. For me, a statement of faith would be a confession of not knowing. I believe that the more you admit you cannot know, and do not know, about the divine, the more “faithful” you are, although I don’t often use the word “faith” or “faithful.” The construction is useful here because I’m hoping to subvert its normative use. I was raised in a home that by heritage was Norwegian Lutheran. It was culturally so, even as it was religiously so. Both aspects, I have to say, were deeply good and fruitful—my parents are socially and politically liberal, the ethic was one of service to others, and we had rituals and customs that grounded us (I have a brother and a sister) in repetition and the mythology of our religion. None of my disturbance, as I mention above, was due to my childhood.

While at Harvard, I wasn’t known as a person of faith. I was profoundly wary of Christian doctrines, creeds, and interpretations of the world. My own experience had attuned me to how excruciatingly systems of belief can bear down upon one’s internal life. My orientation was toward the lived life—the daily burdens or sufferings—of the person living under Christian systems of belief. I should say, too, that I simply have an innate curiosity about human religion. To me, it is a vast field of fascinating inquiry. And the stakes are very high.

I’d like to say, too, that the study of one’s own religious tradition only is able to destabilize that which is inherently unstable, and only needs to be feared if someone doesn’t want instabilities of thought and heart brought to light. Such study can become the depths of religious practice.

TM: Your work brings to mind three other writers I adore: Mary Szybist, Fanny Howe, and Paul Lisicky (his prose poems, in particular). Who are writers that you are drawn to (curious about? inspirited by?) on spiritual/liturgical wavelengths?

KF: I love all of those writers and am honored to come to mind in their company. Fanny Howe’s lyric essay “Doubt” is a touchstone for me. I think Mary, Paul and I would all love to be in Fanny’s company to listen to her talk and ask her questions for as long as she’d allow. She’s one of the great poets of our time. What she asks of herself, and of all of us, are inquiries of unparalleled depth. I think Paul and Mary are after that as well.

If I had to narrow myself to a list of writers who bring a sense of spiritual resonance, I’d say these authors: Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frank Bidart, Ilya Kaminsky, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, James Wright, Li-Young Lee, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Robert Hass, John Berryman, and Shane McCrae. I’ll indulge in a few long-dead authors as well, naming John Donne (especially his sermons), Hildegaard of Bingen, and Basho. I’m also deeply nourished by the ancient noncanonical gospels and writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Today I finished the book Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, which includes a translation of “The Gospel of Judas” (by King) and an extended scholarly meditation on how this gospel reshapes our sense of the arguments and debates going on from the very beginning in the early Christian period. It doesn’t matter if someone believes what’s said in these noncanonical writings, at least not for me; what matters is an absorbed understanding that there was no singular “first” Christian community or normative set of beliefs and practices. The communities were wildly diverse from the start. This is a fact that disempowers present-day fundamentalists who argue, inherently, that there is “one true faith.” And it can undercut Christian Nationalism as well, which I find deeply perverse. Every religion, when desirous of or attached to governmental power, goes terribly awry. The subversion of such power is inherently Christian. It’s important for Christians to look this straight in the eye: They follow a politically and religiously subversive dissident who was executed by the state. It ought to be a protest movement of the highest order and intensity, wherever and whenever state corruption and brutality occurs.

TM: They appear in Deposition, your first book, but the lines “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” feel as if they permeate all of your work: a palpable sense of longing. Where does that sense come from? Does longing birth your poems, or is it a discovered place?

KF: Perhaps the 24-year0old who wrote, “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” should have regarded those lines as her own theological starting point. I suppose I couldn’t integrate that idea in its fuller manifestations for quite some time in my own life. Theologically speaking, I align myself with negative theologians who argue we cannot name the attributes of God but can only say what God is not. It simply cannot be found now. One might argue we can find traces, or feel them, or experience manifestations of it (God) via love and service to others, but I believe we are seeing “through a glass darkly.” Yet there is longing, yes. But I have grown more settled in knowing that human illumination is enormously partial. It doesn’t upset me, although during the composition of If You Have to Go, I was painfully startled by lonesomeness, and the suddenness of that—of being solitary after 11 years of marriage—gutted me. I had to build my life up again. And for me, that hollow cannot be satiated by some sense of communion with the divine. I’ve tried that. I need humans, and my longing is mostly reaching toward humans.

Longing is somatic for me. I feel it, right now, in my chest, shooting out for something, for someone, to hold onto. When I desire to speak from it, I desire to do so via poems. Emotions aching to attach to an idea, to an articulation—this complex compels me to write. The only requirement for me when I begin a poem is that I feel something deeply, but I don’t know what that “something” is. I’m inside of the poem to find out what it is, what the constellation of images, ideas, and human relationships is that has driven me to feel so upset, or desirous, or, at times, still. Stillness in a poem is more rare for me, but I believe If You Have to Go has a few still points where a reader can rest in a calm. “Psalm 40,” for instance, and perhaps “All I Ever Wanted.”

TM: “Belief and doubt on the form of faces. / Ask the faces / which is which?” You’ve discussed the curious reaction to Deposition, the misinterpretations of you as a fundamentalist Christian poet as perhaps being a result of the “deeply secular” world of poetry, how that world can misconstrue the appearance of faith and religion in verse. How do you feel about the secular, the spiritual, and poetry now—years later? How do you think the contemporary poetry world (and perhaps the world of poetry criticism) responds to faith and doubt on the page?

KF: Well, I’ll say right away that I know the risks of engaging religious language on the page, but I’m willing to take them. When I use religious language, it’s necessitated by the poems themselves and is a sincere articulation. It has never occurred to me to be ironic in my use of theological language, and what I can say about a reader’s response to faith and doubt on the page is this: I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere.

As tiresome to me as Christian fundamentalism is atheistic fundamentalism, which so very often utilizes religious language ironically, or worse, mockingly. Atheists can also succumb to fundamentalist fervor and rigidity of mind but can be unattuned to that risk. But to return to sincerity of religious language, I think readers are often intrigued and even nourished by original lines of poetry that use words like God, Lord, Allah, Christ, Buddha, the gods, enlightenment, and so on. Poetry is in a particularly strong position when it comes to such language, as poetry’s first demand is for original language, acute sensory renderings of the world, and subtle, internal interrogations. In the end, poetry is pressing as far as it can until it hits up against mystery, the unsayable. And coming to that limit, and feeling that limit, is an ecstatic experience. I suppose it’s as close to what I might call “religious” experience as I get. And readers are right to want that, and should put down books that aren’t pressing toward that limit, that are satisfied to offer articulations that are facile, general, or easily won. Such books are insults to the intricacy and subtlety of human experience. When such a book addresses belief and/or doubt in a facile way, it can feel like a higher offense, as the stakes are at a heightened pitch. So the poetry has farther to fall.

TM: If I were asked to name my favorite poem of yours, I would say, “All of them!” But if I had to choose, it would be “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There’s this wonderful poem, “Rosary,” by Franz Wright, that is so simultaneously narrow and grand: “Mother of space,— / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” I feel that way about your poem, which in six lines contains almost a hundred variations and vibrations: the woman, Christ, the cross, tenderness, folklore, and more. I return to it like a devotion. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can accomplish an incredible amount in a short space, so: Could you talk about the shorter poems that pepper your collections? Do they “arrive” differently? How do you see them working, or speaking with, your longer pieces?

KF: You’re very kind toward my work, thank you. I’m humbled that it might be a ritual piece for you, a devotion. Again, my very-younger self wrote that poem, and if I remember correctly (without going to the garage to rummage through my Deposition box), that poem was extracted from an abandoned longer poem. I often “find” a small poem within the body of a poem flailing about, as it’s very hard to sit down and successfully write a poem of less than, say, eight lines. Eight—the octave—is when, for me, an argument unwinds via detail and the development of a voice, and is simply roomier, more elastic.

I’m happy when my books have a variety of reading experiences, and often the very small poem offers a crystalline moment in a collection. “Still Life,” a short poem in Blood Lyrics, was written in one night (as is the rule at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra), and I felt brevity was a confine I needed, as I was deeply fatigued, I had my 2-year-old with me, and I was in my hotel room, a toddler staring at me from her crib, bobbing up and down, and a children’s song, “Down by the Bay,” was stuck in my head. So I wrote the phrase, “Down by the pond …” and then I asked myself what the most unexpected thing to find down by the pond might be—the farthest thing from “where the watermelons grow”—and I wrote “addicts sleep.” Perhaps showing the whole poem will be easier than explanation:
Down by the pond, addicts sleep
on rocky grass half in water, half out,
and there the moon lights them
out of tawny silhouettes into the rarest
of amphibious flowers I once heard called striders,
between, but needing, two worlds.
Of what can you accuse them now,
                                                      beauty?
The last sentence was something I forced upon myself: I was so fatigued (I like thinking of fatigue as a formal constraint!) that I simply said: Stop this poem. Then I had the amazing poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper in mind, which ends with the rather scolding, scalding question, “can’t find what you can’t see, can you?” I borrowed that tone of voice and grammatical cadence to write the last sentence. I knew it was risky of me, as I was claiming I had written these humans into a form of unexpected beauty. But when are people suffering addiction ever rendered as beautiful? So I decided to let it stand. That poem went through almost no revision after the first draft, which is entirely rare for me. Almost never does that happen.

Short poems have to have some guts. They are far riskier, I think, than their longer brothers and sisters. In the poem you cite, I remember feeling terribly uneasy with using the word “tenderness.” But there are times when even sentimentality must be risked. And I’ve had more response to that poem than to any other in Deposition. But you know what I think? I think, above all, poets have to guard against becoming cold.

TM: I like the occasional literary conversation about poetry and prayer. David Yezzi has said “poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions.” Jericho Brown talks about how “writing poetry has probably been the best teacher for me learning to pray.” More than any other poet I am reading now, I feel like I am sitting in front of prayers when I read your work: They are incantatory, solemn, otherworldly (when you end the poem “Flee” from Colosseum with “I gave you each other / so save each other,” it feels like God is talking—really). Could you talk about the connections, intersections, differences between poetry and prayer?

KF: Perhaps what prayer and poetry have in common is that they both must be revised. I think people need to witness what they are actually saying in their prayers. Is what they are asking for ethically sound? Do prayers of gratitude take, as their object, something granted via economic and/or racial privilege? These questions can make prayer fall silent for quite some time. I’m interested in when prayer falls silent, when it isn’t just another form of wanting. Prayers have human motives, and we need to approach them with critical suspicion. Is anyone out there wanting a prayer to say for the next year? Then pray for your trespasses to become known to you, and ask for nothing but the fortitude to bear the revelation and the strength to make amends. It’s a hard thing to ask for. I rarely dare it.

It’s intriguing to me that you say my work acts as prayer for you, as I’m very often desiring to subvert traditional Christian thought, although the chastening, godlike voice of “I gave you each other / so save each other” can easily find biblical correlatives. I knew I was taking on a godlike voice in those lines, but I had no belief at that moment that I was channeling. Nor did I feel like I was praying. I was making, and I felt myself to be the maker.

At times there is a religious desire to define all things as forms of prayer—art, writing, reading, parenting, walking, thinking, etc. But I resist this. It undercuts the inherent value of those pursuits and doesn’t allow them to stand on their own two feet as necessary human endeavors. I don’t want my mothering to have to be buoyed up in importance by calling it a form of prayer. It’s not. It’s mothering. And my poems are poems. I’m not praying, I’m writing. If a reader takes those poems in as forms of prayer, I’m honored. We all need to find language—as I have, for instance, with a revision of the prayer of St. Francis I’ve grown to love—that we direct outward toward the unknowable realities. But we also need to know that language is fallible, that it’s an effort. Fallibility isn’t necessarily an ugly human fact. It can be a rather beautiful, actually, if we name it as such. But then we have to try again, fail again, try again …

TM: As a reader, your new book If You Have to Go feels like a return to the world of Deposition, a place of spiritual longing, where past and present are joined. It is a fantastic book, grounded in a sequence of sonnets that accumulates so well (as you do with other formal moves in previous books). It feels, again, as a book of longing: “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” When I finished it, I felt physically and emotionally spent; it was a transformative experience. Could you talk about the writing of this new book?

KF: I was physically and emotionally spent myself! I felt like that sonnet sequence was going to kill me. Many things articulated in the sonnets came at great cost. At the same time, I felt I was in the middle of something artistic that would never, for me, happen again. It’s a time of my life I don’t enjoy looking back at, but I remember its insomnia, and how, at 4 a.m., I’d wake up, go down the path to the little studio our Los Angeles rental had beneath the main house, and I’d write for three hours, a little more, a little less, until I heard my husband and toddler daughter waking up, walking (and pattering) in the main house, and I’d stop my writing and walk back up to the house. I don’t remember the mornings very clearly after that initial window. The end of a marriage fashions its own dull, pained light. To articulate that light, I realized very easily that, in my writing, nothing could be ruled out or considered out of the question as artistically old-fashioned, tired, dead, worn out, or even archaic. In fact, I landed upon a form (it seemed comic, I remember lightly laughing when I began it) practiced by the poets of the 17th century—the crown of sonnets, a corona, in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. I just decided to try it. And each morning, I’d have the last line of the previous poem to start the next.

I wrote the sonnets sequentially—meaning I didn’t leave gaps and hop around, or write sonnets and then order them—and the first 20 or so came very fast. Two months or so. Then things slowed a bit, and the fluency of the beginning stage left me. Portions of the sequence were doggedly tricky, and I began to have narrative questions I don’t usually have as a lyric poet. For the sequence to end, I had to wait quite some time. How would it end? I had to wait for my own life to unfold. The poems in the book that are not sonnets were written when I knew I had content that needed other forms. Now that I’m truly done with the book and it’s in the world, I feel a bit bereft. I know I won’t ever be inside of those sonnets again.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2018

Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in September.

Like by A.E. Stallings
Stallings has described the “strange dream-logic connections of the rhymes themselves that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited. Rhyme is a method of composition.” Like, her fourth collection, is exactly the book needed in our time of neutered cultural language. Her poems are an antidote to the anodyne. We use the word “sculpted” to describe a well-formed poem, and Stallings earns that description: She’s adept at poetic control. In “Alice, Bewildered,” she brings the reader elsewhere—“Deep in the wood where things escape their names”—before alluding to a tale we know, of “likeness in the glass.” I love what she does next: “Yet in the dark ellipsis she can tell, / She’s certain, that her name begins with an ‘L’— / Liza, Lacie? Alias, alas, / A lass alike alone and at a loss.” A bounty of consonance and assonance to turn your tongue enough to taste what’s happening: She’s remaking language. Not with tricks, but with stretches and sprints. Like in “Bedbugs in Marriage Bed,” when the narrator wonders if “it’s best to burn the whole thing down.” Each morning, she checks “the seem of seams,” and there’s nothing for weeks and months—except paranoia. “When darkness blanches and the stars go grey. / Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams / Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good: / They are the negatives you cannot prove.” Subject becomes symbol becomes saying—it’s a clever movement for a poem. As in her other volumes, Stallings can bend to antiquity as easily as she can write of modern life. My favorite? “Dyeing the Easter Eggs.” Any poet who can deliver phrases like “chrism of olive oil” and “Punctilious as Pontius Pilate” is a gift.

When Rap Spoke Straight to God by Erica Dawson
Although broken into sections in the table of contents, Dawson’s book functions as a single, long poem. The stanzas brew and burst, but they build across pages. It feels like a book born to be read aloud. Dawson has said there’s “nothing wrong” with poetry that’s “difficult or strange.” Those descriptors can be applied, quite positively, to her new book: an athletically sure trip that begins with Wu-Tang and ends in an oneiric place, “a dark and empty heaven.” The speaker of Dawson’s continuous poem is witty, wise, hilarious, enchanting. She wonders about a Lady Jesus, who dares Peter to deny her. Who commands: “When I asked for grace / the dust hid all the stars and not / a single thing happened. But now/ I am the dust.” She concludes the section suggesting that now “the Holy Spirit finds its voice.” This voice has many varieties; some sections pun presidential, while others are satirical shreds of identity—“Let’s ball, / white boy. Next time I get exotic, I’ll call / You Hoss. Third person. You’re beside yourself.” Dawson’s fluidity is her function: When Rap Spoke Straight to God barrels across a wide plane. “You won’t believe what happened to the angels,” the narrator says. “They never speak the language of the body. / I have a dream I corner Gabriel and tell / him how, one time, I cored the moon and lived, / for a month of Sunday’s, warm inside its curve.” Read this book and you’ll want Dawson to sing of everything.

Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
“My parents fold like luggage,” Olivarez writes, “into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.” Above, “stars glitter against a black sky,” a sky from which “borders do not exist.” What folds them into that trunk is “the belief that the folding will end. // it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents / near breaking. broke.” This sense of passage and crossing bleeds throughout the collection, which includes interspersed, short pieces titled “Mexican Heaven.” In one, St. Peter is “a Mexican named Pedro.” He waits at the gate “with a shot of tequila to welcome all the Mexicans / to heaven, but he gets drunk & forgets about the list. / all the Mexicans walk into heaven, / even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals.” Olivarez’s humor often arises from a place of cultural anxiety: To be Mexican in America is to be talked about, to be labeled and debated, all so without being asked and respected. In one poem, the narrator dreamt he had “Armani suits / isn’t that what Harvard / was supposed to buy / where the border ended / in a boardroom.” An Ivy League education might unlock doors, but it doesn’t unlock stereotypes. What makes Citizen Illegal so pitch-perfect is the anxiety of expectations of immigrant families, the narrator who tries to be “a good Mexican son” but whose Spanish has begun to falter: “my mom still loved me. even when i couldn’t understand her blessings.” In another poem, the narrator is asked “what i am,” if he is really Mexican. I love how that poem ends: “i know i’m a questionable narrator / when it comes to my own life, i ask Jesus / how i got so white & Jesus says / man, / i’ve been trying to figure out the same damn thing myself.”

Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan
“Live streams, meanwhile, / pump night-green footage from Ferguson’s / punctured lung into our timelines. Flash / grenades gush like stars spangling from a flag / drawn and quartered. I feel a vicarious / smallness watching demonstrations flee. / A boy has been murdered again.” Dargan is a master of threnody: lines tensed and pulled so much that his poems shake the page. He’s writing within an American language that is broken. In “Poem Resisting Arrest”: “This poem is trying to compose itself. It has // the right to remain either bruised or silent, / but it is a poem, so it hears you’d be safer // if you stopped acting like a poem, ceased resisting.” Poem as resistance, reaction, rejoinder. In a later poem, Dargan writes about the problem of seeking joy from poets: “my struggles with writing / for you, friends, a poem / about gratitude—gratitude / which is all the rave / now.” He prefers poems of gratitude like “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa, where “the gods are blind / and so he praises / off-mark bullets / and butterflies / that kept him alive.” What, really, do we want of poets? What confessions? Who seeks penance? “You want / my private aspect / (joy) to be public. / You want my public / aspect (pain) to be / stowed beneath / my bed like a precious / something someone / might steal from me.” Those “peckish for a peek / at my cloistered, incandescent / revelry—were you as earnest / about my frostbite, my burns, / I would have opened / these hands, sated you all.” Anagnorisis is a book of the inevitable: “To be born human is to be tendered / this challenge to live larger than your woe.”

A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
Yoon’s book is anchored in poetic testimonies of “comfort women” of the Japanese Empire: women forced into military prostitution. Yoon envisions her channeled narratives as a way “to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them. I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too.” She succeeds on several levels. In poems like “Comfort,” she captures the rhythm of pain: “On Wednesdays, it rains // for the children they bore. For the children / they could not bear. For the children / they were.” Several pieces in the collection are titled “An Ordinary Misfortune,” suggesting that violence against women is endemic, threaded into culture, normal. “She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.” Yoon’s cadences accumulate in this particular iteration, with a stress on girls grabbed: stolen and kept. Another refrain across poems are the “reused condoms,” capturing a shared experience of suffering. Her powerful “Testimonies” section will make you weep—and wonder at evil. Other poems in the collection exist beyond the years of war; pieces like “Bell Theory” skillfully consider how language displaces us. “When I was laughed at for my clumsy English, I touched my throat.” The narrator wants to escape the mockery, but she can’t: One of the cruelties special to our species is how language—and its daggers—is often all we have.

Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers
“The (Im)Precision of Language” is the perfect poem to introduce this collection, a book in which clever wordplay, trauma, and transcendence live together. The narrator begins by wondering about how porous and flexible English can be: “How far the ring-necked dove is / from wringing a dove’s neck. The way / a stand of trees can hide a deer // stand, concealing the hunter who / will shoot the deer.” Then, she moves her mood: “Once, someone who was dear to me / threatened me with a deer rifle.” Words and wounds are close. “Language became a tricky game where saying / nothing meant everything, where saying everything // meant nothing left to fear.” Her conclusion, though it stings, works so well: “Which brings us back to the dove, / the difference between ringing // and wringing and where language leaves us / when someone controls every word we say, / when we have no one left to talk to.” The narrators of these poems seek other, better bonds, such as between mother and son. From “Last Night”: “Since Liam turned two, it has been less / and less. The gradual stretching and thinning / of the thread between us.” She thinks “about / before he was born, lying in that same spot / on the bed, watching him flip and roll under / my skin.” Her boy will be 3 in a few hours, “and I will remember sadly the night before / the last time I ever held him so close.” Despite all that these narrators have experienced, they retain hope—to do so is a power against despair.

American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time selected by Tracy K. Smith
I don’t often think of books of poems as potential gifts, but Smith’s volume could make the perfect present. Pocket-sized, long enough to offer a breadth of poets without becoming repetitive or overbearing, Smith’s collection is well-prepared—exactly what you’d hope for in an anthology from a poet laureate. In Smith’s introduction, she says these poems “bear witness to the daily struggles and promises of community, as well as to the times when community eludes us.” Her prefatory remarks, and the book as a whole, feel optimistic. There are some poems of pain within this bunch, certainly, but Smith has done a fine job of giving the reader poems of earned emotions. There’s a fantastic lineup here, but what follows are some special highlights. “’N’em” by Jericho Brown: “They said to say goodnight / And not goodbye.” “They fed / Families with change and wiped / Their kitchens clean.” (Brown’s poems of place and generation drill down, puncture the earth: if you’re looking for a poet of community, look no further.) The always great Vievee Francis with “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding”: “When it’s time to celebrate, something dies. / When something dies, we take it with the sweet.” The spiritual architecture of “After the Diagnosis” by Christian Wiman: “Change is a thing one sleeps through / when young.” And the prose poetry of Nathalie Handal in “Ten Drumbeats to God”: “Then I heard the drumbeats and remembered—like rain like song like light lit by old questions—there is no reason, there is god, drum, beat, there is what lingers and there is what comes later.”