I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in December.
Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino
“Who shall change my vile body into a glorious body / when I know there’s glory at the end of my prayer?” The first quarter of Witch Wife is bound by bodies: bodies plagued, bodies unsettled. “For this glob of a girl who feeds like a grub,” Petrosino writes, her consonants bubbling like the incantations suggested by her title. “Poor poorless receptacle for Presidential-fitness-test-sweat, poor pudding poured into too few pans.” The anxiety of the book’s first quarter turns and evolves into something like mist in the second quarter of the book, in poems like “Europe”: “I’ll never be so lonely again, or young enough / to weep in my clothes on the street.” Witch Wife offers that maybe all love stories are stories of bodies. We are within before we are without. Petrosino is a unique voice, churning a mixture of smirk and mirth: “My exes shall rise up from their Mazdas / & adorn themselves in denim.” Anne Sexton haunts the third quarter of this book: “Some ghosts are my mothers / neither angry nor kind / their hair blooming from silk kerchiefs.” Witch Wife is a weird wonder, something altogether new in its combinations. From the title poem: “Your gloves are green // & transparent like the skin of Christ / when He returned, filmed over with moss roses— / I’ll conjure as perfect an Easter.” The book’s final quarter shakes like the end of a folk tale, the other world and this world coming together: “It happens at my desk: a gathering in. As if the room were a forehead graying at the lid.” The sky collapsing; “Something happens but it doesn’t keep happening. This is a careful time.” We should believe it.
Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader
“Everything at the end of a bullet’s journey becomes conjecture,” writes Colum McCann in the introduction to this painfully appropriate collection. The bleak reality that McCann describes is all the more reason for a book whose conviction, he writes, “is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope.” “The long night begins,” ends a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca. “Seasons matter little to him,” writes Kyle Dargan of a Virginia farmer who sells a gun to the “tremulous hand” of a boy: “none of the guns he sells are grown from seed.” Ross Gay stirs me awake with lines I can’t forget: “The bullet, in its hunger, craves the womb / of the body. The warm thrum there. Begs always / release from the chilly, dumb chamber.” Bullets into Bells believes in conversation over false conversion, and in that spirit, includes responses to each poem—a unique, and often moving, element of the book. After Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”—in which he laments “this should not be the brick and mortar / of poetry, the moment when a black father drives / his black sons to school”—Tamir’s mother responds: “When I lost Tamir, I lost a piece of myself.” Poetry won’t make us whole again, but we need a form for our shouts and our cries. Follow Natasha Trethewey here: “And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there?
Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell
“Jesus, it is a disappointing shed / Where they hang your picture / And drink juice, and conjure / Your person into inferior bread— / I would speak of injustice, / I would not go again into that place.” Kinnell “sacramentalized experience,” Edward Hirsch says, alluding to how the poet’s youthful Catholicism became both a source of tension and nostalgia. His long poem from 1960, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” captures that synthesis. A beautiful, comprehensive, playful snapshot of the city: people, buildings, objects illuminated fresh: “In the pushcart market, on Sunday, / A crate of lemons discharges light like a battery.” Kinnell’s Collected also includes The Book of Nightmares, a book of quotable lamentations: “Let our scars fall in love.” There’s a considered gentleness to Kinnell’s verse, as in “Goodbye,” for when “My mother, poor woman, lies tonight / in her last bed. It’s snowing, for her, in her darkness.” By the time the poem ends, like with so many of Kinnell’s tales, we have been carried, and are placed, gently, somewhere else: “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we have learned, the embrace is all.”
Let’s Not Live on Earth by Sarah Blake
“You will lose your body to // sadness at a point / like a temperature // and then you will wake and wake / and wake and wake and wake to it.” Melancholy, by nature of its blurred edges and ambiguous heartbeats, is so difficult to capture with poetic precision. Blake gets close to that pained place through her recursive lines, her willingness to linger on moments. “I know people are judging me as a mother all the time,” she writes in a single line, like an exhale of the inevitable. Yet there’s a strength here, and it is often delivered with the humor that comes from frustration. In one poem, after the narrator is almost denied coverage for anxiety medication, she walks her son home in a stroller. It has gotten very warm, and once home, covered in sweat, she thinks what a relief it will be to simply sleep that night. To make it through life, and be given that small grace: “You might call it escapism but this is / how life works, trying to pull / us free, creating the break that we might // split ourselves upon.”
Solve for Desire by Caitlin Bailey
Grete and Georg Trakl, sister and brother, pianist and poet, are given new life in Bailey’s debut collection. Plagued by addiction, scarred by war, driven to suicide, both are frozen in history, but Bailey offers Grete her voice. The siblings hold a connection beyond even love, some region possibly only accessible through poetry. “The most brilliant part of you exists to haunt me,” she writes. “Sometimes I can’t believe my heart, // how it continues. How it isn’t black and withered.” Bailey often delivers short poems like flashes; those can be held in your palm, however mysterious: “If a horse is allowed / to graze freely after a winter / in the barn / it becomes sick with pleasure.” Other lines, like “I am hostage to your absence,” bleed across the rest of poems, heavy in their chorus. Although Bailey is creating a fictional vision of two hearts, her words rest in that curious space between abstraction and touch, so this is a book to place upon one’s soul.
Let’s All Die Happy by Erin Adair-Hodges
In “Ode to My Dishwasher,” the narrator sighs: “It is late, my love, and you are loud / worrying at your work.” “To be a grown woman,” she thinks, “alone / and unclean is a powerful thing.” She thinks of her mother, who “had so many rubber gloves / I was surprised by the sight of her hands // which seemed to me old / even when she was young.” The narrator’s mother is a familiar refrain in Let’s All Die Happy, a book sustained by Adair-Hodges’s often darkly-comic voice. Lament is one of her main modes. She doesn’t quite look back in anger, but there’s a skepticism about the past. Like those years she “thought I loved God and His son,” which might have been because she “liked being good // at Church, A-pluses in verses, hymns.” “I loved Him,” she reflects, “like a savings account, feeling holy // in my asceticism but waiting for the day / I could go to the Bank of Eternal Good Things.” So often in these poems the narrator ends up alone, misunderstood, separated—after she’s opened her heart. In “The Trap,” she knows “There is no greater tragedy than to be young / and think you know what joy will look like / and so clunk and pigeon / through corridors and malls, flapping against the linoleum / of heartbreak.” A sweet book for hearts gone sour, Adair-Hodges skillfully moves between varying songs, and the book’s key lies in a single phrase: “I am graceless but I am not depraved.”
The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons: Volume 1 and Volume 2
From his 1955 self-published debut Ommateum with Doxology to the posthumous 2005 collection Bosh and Flapdoodle, these two volumes offer 966 poems from a poet whose complexities and personal labyrinths we have yet to fully understand. In her introduction, Helen Vendler alludes to a forthcoming biography, but for now, we have the poems. He began writing them while in the Navy. He continued writing while he was a scientific glassware salesman. His words hold an oddity and sublimity that sets him apart from even his experimental peers. In “Easter Morning,” on the tragic death of his younger brother: “I have a life that did not become, / that turned aside and stopped, / astonished: / I hold it in me like a pregnancy.” His brother’s young death paused his growth, and he’s remained chained to that moment where he can only “yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place.” Ammons is like some wild radical lover of language in old clothes; his tightly columnar poems are both playful and traditional. Timeless, probably. Often tongue-tied to truth: “Old men drain and dread and dream and dress / and dribble and drift and drink and drip and // drone and drool and droop and drop and drown / and drowse, dry, and dry up.” I love “Soaker”: “You can appreciate / this kind of rain, / thunderless, / small-gauged / after a dry spell, / the wind quiet, / multitudes of leaves / as if yelling / the smallest thanks.” I have never read a poet who brings me so close to infinity, where we are equally in awe and terribly afraid.