It’s easy to feel defeated these days. It takes more effort and conscious positivity to focus on the future, on the historic firsts. We elected a record number of women to the House this year, including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American Congresswomen. Florida elected their first openly lesbian mayor. There’s so much more. On a personal note, I teach high school students from across the United States. They all inspire me, but my female students in particular give me hope. From New York City to Detroit to Sioux Falls, they are canvassing, organizing community meetings and protests, creating change. I am flooded with strength as I look to the future.
So, in gazing forward while reflecting back on 2018, I want to highlight the women writers I’ve fallen in love with this year. I’ve read 35 books so far, and though some were written by men, we as a society need to #readmorewomen.
In poetry, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion both consider addiction, family life, dreams, myth, and cultural history. These powerful poems dismantled and surprised me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is stunning. Written in the voices of Korean “comfort women,” Yoon’s poems about sexual violence, gender, and oppression are brutal, incisive, and necessary.
My first novel was published in August, and with publication came an eventful book tour, which I’m profoundly grateful for. At the same time, book publication also brought the fear that I was speaking about myself, my writing process, and my novel too much. I found refuge in novels written by the wonderful writers I was lucky enough to do events with. I was drawn into the strange and magical What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine. In this dark, feminist novel a girl named Maisie has the power to kill and resurrect with her touch. I read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling in a packed, whirlwind of knock-out debut fiction. I loved Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, which alternates between Penelope, a young woman who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, and Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother in the Dominican Republic. In Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, four friends navigate their entwined careers, love lives, successes, and failures as a string quartet. Gabel’s descriptions of music, music-making, and auditory pleasure were absolutely beautiful.
Elsewhere in fiction, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time. What took me so long? I want to devour everything she’s written, and I want more books that reimagine our literary canon. I finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing while on a weekend break from book tour. It made me want to return to my writing desk immediately. Ward is a literary genius, and I will read everything she writes. In more recent fiction, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman both made me reconsider the body, food, consumption, and our desire to belong.
In nonfiction, Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about the adopted author’s decision to find her biological family moved me with its honest portrayal of the fears we have about belonging, identity, and motherhood. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson on a beach, staring at the blue of the ocean, the sky. One of my dearest girlfriends gifted me Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships, which reinvigorated me to reach out to all of my female friends, to strengthen those relationships even in adulthood.
I want to end with Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck Is My Duck because she is one of our best living writers. Her fiction precisely illuminates what it feels like to be alive, to wade through our world in its natural beauty and manmade devastation. Her writing is political and true, intimate and expansive.
I hope to read more in these last weeks before 2019 arrives. I’ve just started Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses. Toni Morrison’s Paradise awaits, as does Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is on backorder at my local bookstore. There is so much more to read and so much more to hope for, and I am grateful.
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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.”