Begin with a Failed Body: Poems (The Cave Canem Poetry Prize Ser.)

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A Year in Reading: Kima Jones

I’ve been making lists since my father died in September. Lists of the things I need to do, lists of the things I need to finish, lists of business expenditures, lists for tax-season preparedness.  When my father was dying in the hospital I read poems to him. The breathing tube prevented him from speaking to me, but he would move his head from side to side or groan or widen his eyes to let me know he was cued into the recitation. Sometimes I wanted to be sure he really liked what I was reading so I would ask, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” That’s when he would smile. We read the Quran, and we read poetry, which is to say, I watched my father die for two weeks and for two weeks I read poems.

I read other books this year. I devoured Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, Renee Simms’s Meet Behind Mars, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration, Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Natalie Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It  Ends. That’s one list. A list.

Then there are the poems I read. They are not many. I read them to my father, and I read them for myself. I read them for strength. I read them because I have faith.

1. Ntozake Shange’s “my father is a retired magician”

In the shower I’d say the few lines I have memorized to myself. It was a kind of affirmation. Maybe the poem was just stuck there, in my head, but saying the words made me feel like my father would never die.
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
2. Surah 93: Ad-Duha (The Daylight, or The Dawn, or The Glorious Morning Light)

This is my favorite surah of the Quran. I get up before fajr and think about my father. I never sleep anymore. I watch the sun come up, I listen to Aretha Franklin’s Rare and Unreleased Recordings. “Fool on the Hill” is a perfect track. I love the way she fades into the last verse of the song. “The fool on the hill/ Sees the sun going down/ And the eyes in his head/ See the world spinning around.”

I think about being an orphan. This new world where this is no father for me.

3. “These Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

My father loved this poem. “What did I know, what/ did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Muslims do not bury their dead in caskets, we do not have wakes or memorials, there are no headstones. We use flat grass markers, a white shroud, oils. We pray, and we leave. I wore a red dress with pink flowers. They were the only flowers there. Muslims don’t bother with adornment.

4. Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”

Like Lee, I see my father everywhere. In paintings, in books, when I slice fruit, little black kittens, fat tabby cats, at Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit, in Arizona reading a Terrance Hayes poem dedicated to Ai. Sometimes when I am hurting, after I’ve cried, I say, “Oh, Hamzah.” I want him to know I’m getting his messages. I want him to know I see.

5. “38” by Layli Long Soldier

The first poem I read after my father died. Evidence that the world continues to turn, but I do not.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone

2017 was the year I was thankfully, happily consumed with poetry. I wrote about 49 new books of poetry for my monthly column here at The Millions. The refrain starts with packages and cardboard mailers that my daughters collect from our front steps. They are stacked next to my desk, and I read and read and read, and then I write. I try to find poems that move me, that comfort me, that make me afraid and help me see where I’ve become complacent. When I am finished with that month’s column, I carry the titles to my bookshelves in another room, where they rest until I read them again.

If I’m sentimental about books, forgive me. We need them.

Here are some more books of poetry that I read this year.

Maps by John Freeman: “If wind asked permission / we might wait and listen / as if night stopped its blue / curtain and wheat bent without scattering / its hope of what happens in the dark, / and happens by accident.”

Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair by William Evans: The nurse “bares my shoulder while saying / my, you are a big one, aren’t you. / My shoulder is a bronze /trophy in this nurse’s fingers / and I wait for the needle, wondering / how many bucks heard the wind / whisper how gorgeous they / were through the trees / of a perilous forest / before it carried the first / bullet with it.”

Begin With a Failed Body by Natalie J. Graham: “Your body is a jumble, a swarm held together with light. I want / a tangle of glossy leaves scattering light. I want, // perhaps, to hurt your buoyant body as it rises, to make // you feel.”

Book of Twilight by Pablo Neruda: “Blind old man, you cried when your life was / good, when your eyes held the sun, / but if the silence has already arrived, for what are you waiting, / for what are you waiting, blind old man, are you waiting for the pain?”

What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan: “I did not ask to be created, / yet here I wait for my creator to return.”

Urbilly by Michael Dowdy: “Their headlights rattled down cul-de-sacs, / scanning vinyl shrines skirting a highway / that twists over the hills like licorice / and slips into Tennessee’s puckered lips.”

In This Quiet Church of Night I Say Amen by Devin Kelly: “There is too much beauty here / for this to mean nothing. Believe me // when I say there’s a universe / where we can hold each other // in the palms of our hands, both at once.”

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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