The uncategorizable, the mongrel, the hybrid, the impure: I don’t consciously say I’m looking for any of those traits when I pick up a book, but I get excited by any piece of art that makes itself up on its own terms, that says no in its quiet (or loud) way to the call of obedience and conformity. I think all of the books on my list say no, as if that no were an affirmation, and I’m sure that’s why I’ll keep going back to them not just in the present, but 10 years from now. While many contemporary novels restrict themselves to a tight focus, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway gives itself permission to sprawl. Its characters come and go, live and die, lace together in startling, unexpected ways. Its sentences ring with insight and dark charm. Entire paragraphs feel like song, even those spotlighting a minor character—see the page featuring the woman who adopts wild animals and takes them into her bed. The thing is, there are no minor characters in McCracken’s work, and that notion is central to her vision: Everyone has a face, a body, a longing. I can’t think of a book that’s as queer, even if its queerness isn’t out front and center. Who would we be if we allowed ourselves to see that our closest ties aren’t blood ties but chosen? How would history change if we de-centered procreation as the measure of time and interconnectedness? The novel enacts those questions with increasing urgency and takes us to a place where the character we’ve known the longest doesn’t simply stop, but re-invents himself once more. Speaking of things queer, some of the freshest books of 2019 have come from queer writers. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Sentence by sentence, these books are alert and alive, written with exacting description and a musical ear. Most importantly, they take queerness into their structure. They refuse chronology as the only way to tell an immersive story. Instead, these are stories of moving minds, minds at work, as they try to shuck off the old narratives that want to shoehorn us into sameness and oblivion. For that, and more, I love these books the way I would love a person. Finally? Poets. We must not ever forget the poets, those beautiful monsters. Source of all things good, at least when it comes to the word. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Toi Derricotte’s I, Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long, Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder.
The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award finalists today. Each category—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people's literature, and translated literature—has been narrowed down from the longlist 10 to the shortlist five. While many of the finalists have made the NBA shortlist before, none of them have won of a National Book Award in these categories. Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories, with bonus links where available: Fiction: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Read our 2019 interview with Choi) Sabrina & Corinas by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview) Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Read a profile of James) The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Read Lalami's 2018 Year in Reading entry) Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview) Nonfiction: The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview) Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview) What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer Solitary by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George Poetry: The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Read an excerpt from Brown's collection) "I": New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte (Read our 2019 interview with Derricotte) Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Featured in March's Must-Read Poetry roundup) Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Read an excerpt from Smith's collection) Sight Lines by Arthur Sze Translated Literature Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Read our review) The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview) Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston Young People's Literature: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview) Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby 1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler The awards will be revealed in New York City on November 20. [millions_ad]
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in August. Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague “Because without words what are we // but ourselves—inarticulate as the sky.” Teague’s poems, so often first anchored in singular moments, evolve into mazes of time and space, as with “The Giant Artichoke.” The narrator, thinking of herself as a child, remembers her mother reading highway billboards, her words filling the space left wide by grief. “I learned love,” the narrator says, “as rituals of hunger, a nest of thistles / around the heart.” Later, “Matryoshka (as Madness),” a poem perfectly suited for its columnar form, begins with conjecture: “If you could start / at the center: nest / a solid self inside / a safer self / like a house / so no one sees / all the ways you’ve / twisted open, copied / yourself.” Her narrow lines feel more insular than claustrophobic; walls in which the narrator must reflect herself. She is “trapped inside wood / inside air inside wood / like a prayer in a crucifix / you don’t know how to / believe in, the church / only as solid as / the ripped-roof blue / the congregation / stares into in Siqueiros, / their prayers like a windbreak: / pale trees in the sure belief / of storm.” Teague’s poems turn and turn, their lines moving about, I never feel lost in her work. One of my favorites in this accomplished collection is “Sketch: Charcoal and Body on Paper.” The narrator thinks about models—college students like her—“who posed for Beginning Drawing, / insecurity slipped off their shoulders / and draped over chairs.” She thinks about their “faces / when I’d pass them later in the hall, out of place, / too intimate to look at.” What she is really thinking about, though, is herself: “What I feared of my skin— / its proportion, perspective; the way I was always / and never really posing. How I wanted that beauty / that knew how not to care: let people / stare. Let them mismeasure, / smudge pages with charcoal, erase me.” 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney Heaney once said “my way of knowing that I'm being myself is to be displaced from home, and I think I've almost created conditions of being at home and not at home, at once. I think that's the way most people grow.” His legacy continues to grow. Six years after his death—and in anticipation of his forthcoming letters and biography—arrives this welcome collection of work that spans his entire career. There’s a nice personal touch here: the poems were selected and arranged by his family: “Perhaps inevitably,” his daughter writes, “the resulting selection is imbued with personal recollections of our shared lives.” The poem begins with his iconic “Digging”—a mainstay of classrooms, and yet still a poem that resounds. Another classic, “Blackberry-Picking,” feels fresh again. 100 Poems captures one of Heaney’s greatest gifts: the power of single lines. From “The Forge”: “All I know is a door into the dark.” From “Into Arcadia”: “It was opulence and amen on the mountain road.” The feathery sounds of “The Lift”: “A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.” And his words can still coax tears, as in his elegy, “Clearances”: “So while the parish priest at her bedside / Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying / And some were responding and some crying / I remembered her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives — / Never closer the whole rest of our lives.” Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith “What propels us back into the hard grind of art, of birth, is a remembering that, as writers, the becoming and re-becoming of our writing corresponds to the new becomings of ourselves.” Smith, whose prose is also a gift, feels like she captures that sense of new becoming in Be Recorder. Her poems often glance back toward childhood (our life’s first revision and becoming, and for Smith, the genesis of her narrative sense). In “Boy Crazy,” sirens, cicadas, and “the drunk boys who howl / into the trees at 2 a.m. infect / my window while I sleep” bring the narrator back “into a girl I once was, / calling for love into a sky transected / by power lines until sunrise when the town / tightened into itself.” The poem “Self as Deep as Coma” begins “When I was a girl, I thought clouds were God, / and that we dialogued about sin, / which mirrored my desires” and ends wonderfully: “When I was a girl, I collected reams of paper, soothed / by the white over and over, the hope of starting / from blank. I hoped to endure being well enough, / to conjure a new bright vessel because I wanted to live.” Be Recorder is full of such conjuring, including the titular, long poem centered in the book: “though I was born in America / I wasn’t born American / I know it’s hard to understand.” And, again, a return to her past: “I forget,” the narrator reflects, “my real vocation / not executive / not supplicant but / stepping back into daughterhood.” This long poem, at moments symphonic, is often wise: “let’s admit to our own complicity release into / the wound because imagine it’s like a rose / blossom of scarred red tissue not beautiful / but layers and layers of lesions / layered over with more scar then more wound.” [millions_ad] To the Wren: Collected & New by Jane Mead “I think I am by temperament inclined toward repetition as a structuring element, one that tempers the adventure, structures the movement toward the unknown”—Mead’s repetitive methods (call them anaphoric, incantational, or perhaps simply natural) are one of her most distinctive and hypnotizing features. Her poems churn, accumulate, and arrive. Mead complicates and expands the identity of an environmental poet—her natural subjects so often dressed in sadness. In “Sparrow, My Sparrow” she writes: “What is a prayer but a song of longing / turning on the thread of its own history?” The poem ends: “I feel myself loved by a voice in the wind— / I cover my ears with my palms. / The whole world rocks and still / the cold green river does not spill.” “Hint” continues her work on nature and grief: “There are geraniums / on the doorstep, bug-eaten // at the blossom and at / the leaf: you can pinch off / the dead parts, you can // water, you can turn away— / but you cannot stop yourself.” I like that tension in Mead’s work: how we live within a world we must care for, but which resists our urges. And yet we can’t help but rightly praise its beauty, as in “The Geese”: “Their call, both strange / and familiar, calls / to the strange and familiar // heart.” An expansive collection that reveals Mead’s talent. Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger Biddinger’s prose poems are eccentric, meandering, and surprising. The first poem of the collection, “Historical Achievements,” ends: “One year I wrote ‘mouth’ across my knuckles for Halloween and exited the pep rally before the microphone was switched on, flocks of balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.” The sentence is pure Biddinger: funny, dizzying yet specific, and grounded in a pleasantly wistful storytelling (her poems don’t often feel melancholy, but they do contain absences—incomplete stories—which offer pauses of sentiment within her play). Partial Genius is unlike any book of poetry that you’ll read this year; a credit to Biddinger’s voice, and the range of her interests. There’s much to quote here: “Let’s listen to Black Sabbath and inhale the rage of vinyl car seats”; “At christening I gripped chain crosses that relatives slathered around my neck. My mother refused the heirloom ankle bracelet, claiming it looked like bondage, but I don’t think she meant it that way”; “When I was declared free of scoliosis, something lifted out of me . . . At the Walgreens, I exhibited radically poor posture and bought candy cigarettes, which never made it out of my sock drawer.” A little joy can go a long way in poetry. The Only Worlds We Know by Michael Lee Lee’s poems often follow unique routes, as with “Hum,” which begins with a hovering fly “touching me lightly / before lifting off surprised, as I am, / by my warmth.” A little stunned, a little curious, the narrator is frozen: “this buzzing I cannot kill.” He can’t swipe the fly, but he also “cannot touch the ones I love // made small by love.” The poem gently moves to a second-person recipient—“I try to resurrect you here— // where you live now—on the haggard wings / of memory.” It’s an early poem, and a good indication that Lee has a careful, and yet open, approach. “The Study of Knives and Music” is a particularly inventive piece: “The knife / remembers when it was bone, when it lived // inside an elk or man and kept the rind / together until it didn’t, / until the body // was used against itself.” To follow that line with a question—“Do you see how / everything returns to its maker?”—reflects Lee’s method of turning his poems toward us. His flexible second-person returns elsewhere, as in “The Construction of Lies and Memory”: “Even if when you turn / to stare upon it, until your eyes / widen and dry, it feels / almost as if it’s staring back / and shimmers and blinks / like you, certain, but not.” A strong debut. [millions_email]
Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith. Her poems often reflect a narrator's childhood memory or perspective—and these glimpses into the past help sharpen the present. In this poem, Smith shows the pain of seeing a parent struggle, someone who was once "remedy and anchor" but is now disoriented, unsure. It's a moving poem of loss, love, and how both are "beautiful and sad and strange." “I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice” as if I were a hunger becauseit is our bleak and common futureto reverse the sphinx. I study the meanderof her logic for context. Sometimes it islike a poem that is not quite realizedfilled with hollows and bursts,a stranger’s grief and rage. She asksfor home when she’s home. She screamsfor the purse we haven’t hidden from her.Sometimes we circle the same spots,and I try to be as I know she was with meonce: remedy and anchor. I’m a fairto poor replica, yet still her proxy. That you didn’t know her is yourmisfortune: a hot planet’s core,late summer’s best light. As metaphorI evoke a pink, vulnerable jelly,translucent and containing the past.I hold it in my hand and against a lamp.This is our intimacy now. My nails tracethe brown spots that mark her losses.Beautiful and sad and strange, I say,because I’ve made her into something else. “I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice,” from Be Recorder. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Giménez Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org. [millions_ad]