Come Closer and Listen: New Poems

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Must-Read Poetry: July 2019

Here are five notable
books of poetry publishing in July.

In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail

In her note to this
collection, Mikhail explains that she drafted these poems “from right to left
and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I
only wrote them twice.” Each text, then, is “born on the tip of another tongue”;
an original creation that carries a shadow. Her title is developed in the book’s
first poem: in Arabic, “Feminine words are followed / by a circle with two dots
over it. / They call this symbol the tied
circle, / knotted with wishes / which come true only when forgotten / or
replaced by the wishes of others.” This feminine sign becomes a source of
wonder and longing, permeating Mikhail’s entire collection. Her settings range
from Baghdad to Detroit, but are connected by sound and her Chaldean Catholic
sense. Are the explosions fireworks, or bombs? Is there a difference to the
ear? When in Baghdad as a child, “we played dead: / we killed each other / with
plastic weapons”; now those games are no longer played, and the children, “motionless
/ on the floor,” no longer “laugh / or hold life / and rise.” Mikhail’s
solemnity arrives in clean lines and shaped stanzas: “Like communion bread /
your words dissolve in my mouth / and never die.” A beautiful book.

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic

In the book’s title poem, Simic begins with birth: “I was born—don’t know the hour— / Slapped on the ass / And handed over crying / To someone many years dead / In a country no longer on a map.” The narrator wonders about life: “Blessed or cursed—who is to say?” Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States, continues to write terse, witty poems with funny moments that also carry a solemn touch. “Skywalking” is a poem aware of mortality: “Much grief awaits us, friends. / From this day on / We’ll be testing our luck / Like a man stretching a wire / Between two skyscrapers.” Out and up there, folly bound to the wind, “We are likely to forget the man / Waving his arms up there / Like a scarecrow in a squall.” Other poems sneak into the book with breathless, cheeky brevity, as with “Haystack”: “Can you find in there / The straw that broke / Your mother’s back?”

No Matter by Jana Prikryl

“I think right now readers
of all genres put a lot of faith in language and its capacity to
reveal—possibly because we live in a time of unhinged political mendacity, so
it’s very comforting to believe that literature can provide direct access to
someone else’s uncomplicated truth?”—Prikryl has followed that conjecture with
her own personal skepticism of language: “For me, the excitement of writing
something like a poem usually resides in prodding and questioning the words
that claim to represent what my brain claims to want to be saying.” No Matter is full of ambiguity and
discovery; poems that move around the linear and logical. Her surprisingly mellifluous
order comes, I think, from a spatial sense. From “Real”: “In which the studio /
grows L-shaped, with an alcove / for the bed, you modest dream, in which the
railroad / widens sideways.” From “Garden”: “I climbed to a railroad apartment
/ long in all directions, known as an open-plan office / the lights were out
anyway / to signify canapés, / at large but shouting / endless prayer.” From “Santo
Stefano Rotondo”: “Come, walk this path / between flapping tarps / holding back
on either side / construction sites // the way a bedsheet hides” labor; how, “Looking
back the path narrows / (memory a scarce resource) / and bends, takes on the
gentle / curve of the earth as if in the space / of that city it were given
your body / to feel for itself the four inches / up and four inches down / per
mile the planet swells.” A deft collection.

Feel Free by Nick Laird

Laird is by turns witty and sentimental, and I think that mixture compels me more toward poems of the latter mode, as in “Silk Cut”: “I was five and stood beside my dad / at a junction somewhere in Dublin / when I slipped my hand in his / and met the red end of a cigarette.” Years pass, cynicism and pain accrues, and then father and son get a pint. The old man’s “voice tears up a bit // about the emptiness in the house.” Later, “waiting / at the turn for the traffic, / when I find / I have to stop my hand from taking his.” Then there’s the moving lines of “Incantation”: “Depending where one stands, each circle / back is a possible fall, a fail, a spiral, / and I would like you to take a few seconds / to write me out one beautiful sentence / to carry now across the night and ocean.” Feel Free never feels maudlin, though, because Laird reminds us to not get too complacent, as in “Temple of Last Resort”: “I wanted the real God to turn and say //  I was just kidding. // About everything.”

Spiritual Exercises by Mark Yakich

“For me, being irreverent
involves a much deeper understanding of reverence,” Yakich says. “It’s like
satire: how does one really fathom something? One makes fun of it in a serious
way.” I wouldn’t consider Spiritual
Exercises merely a jumpy jeremiad against the titular meditations from
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits—I think Yakich is a better
poet than that. His new book continues a tradition of Catholic irreverence (we’ve
seen it in fiction with James Joyce, John Kennedy Toole, and the legion of the
literary lapsed). The best poems in Yakich’s skilled book play with the porous
border between the profane and the sacred. The raunch realism of “Biblical”: “Just
shy of the surface, fish rise / And die, gleaming more / Beautifully when
belly-up.” The curious truths of “Empathy”: “It’s a bit unnerving, for
instance, / To watch someone else extract // A broken wineglass from the
garbage / Disposal.” And yet, how “oddly satisfying to / Dig out those same
shards oneself, / One by one, tenderly, until a finger’s // Pricked.” Empathy, “as
a method of penitence,” rarely “soothes”—but “As a display of // Affection, it’s
nearly foolproof.” Ignatius, smirking, would be proud.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Orner, Dermansky, Simic, Tate, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Peter Orner, Marcy Dermansky, Charles Simic, James Tate, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Maggie Brown & Others: “‘I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences,’ says the narrator of one of this collection’s 44 powerful tales, expressing Orner’s talent for crafting captivating character sketches that read like memoirs. Loosely linked by their shared settings (Chicago; Fall River, Mass.) and characters, the stories comprise a mosaic of lives remarkable primarily for an ordinariness—one character reflects that ‘his friends, his family, considered him a failure, he knew, not a spectacular failure, a mundane, run-of-the-mill failure’—that occasionally is thrown into sharp relief by a dramatic incident, such as a near car crash that reveals the narrator’s true nature in ‘My Dead,’ or a young man’s taunting, in the title story, of a disaffected roommate whom he doesn’t know is carrying a gun. The final story, ‘Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella,’ crystallizes the concerns of the stories that precede it in its account of a middle-aged Jewish businessman struggling to stay on top of what characters in another story think of as ‘a world with so little sense of order.’ Readers will sympathize with Orner’s characters and identify with their all-too-human frailties.”

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Very Nice: “The sly, deceptively simple and thoroughly seductive fourth novel by the author of The Red Car keeps a small cast of weirdly interrelated characters in constant motion. In the first few pages, as the academic year ends, clueless, dreamy college student Rachel seduces her passively willing creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, whose stint at her liberal arts college has just ended. He proceeds to hand off his standard poodle, Princess, to Rachel while he returns to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother, and Rachel takes Princess to her childhood home in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, where her mom, Becca—adrift after her own poodle has died and her husband, Jonathan, has left her for airline pilot Mandy—falls in love with the dog. When Zahid returns to pick up Princess, he falls for Becca and her poolside lifestyle, and drifts through the summer with her, while Rachel, ignorant of the affair, keeps trying to lure him into her bed. Intersecting their lives are twins Khloe, who works with Jonathan, and Kristi, a writer who offers a job at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the reluctant Zahid. When conflict between mother and daughter reaches a head, Zahid is caught in the middle and faces an eviction from the edenic existence he has been savoring. Bouncing between points of view, Dermansky confines herself to snappy, brisk paragraphs and short sentences, with much of the psychic action between the lines. Her sharp satire spares none of the characters and teeters brilliantly on the edge of comedy and tragedy.”

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Come Closer and Listen: “Pulitzer-winner Simic (The Lunatic) has mastered a deceptively simple and straightforward lyric style that has served him well over two dozen books of poetry. His latest is no different in this regard, noting (and plucking) ‘the cunning threads/ By which our lives are rigged.’ Simic’s world is a quiet one, though its quietness is haunted with echoes of wars, scams, loves had and lost, and a wry smile that seems to know the score no matter how dark the world gets. ‘They say Death/ Hid his face in his hood/ So he could smile too,’ Simic writes, ‘I like the black keys better/ I like the lights turned down low/ I like women who drink alone/ While I hunch over the piano/ Looking for all the pretty notes.’ These poems are often slyly funny, emotionally generous, and wrapped up in the lives of the people they depict—children at play, men and women in private moments, mythical figures and deities outside their myths. Some of the new poems, such as ‘The American Dream,’ arrive as premade classics, evoking times past in a stilted, twilit present and reminding readers of Simic’s keen eye for the restless, the absurd, and the enduringly human.”

The Government Lake by James Tate

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Government Lake: “In this imaginative second posthumous volume after Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Tate (1943–2015) offers his last absurdist fables, including one discovered in the writer’s typewriter after his death. If the poems of Tate’s career—which included winning the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize—have frequently invoked death as one among several transformations, its presence in these poems is particularly striking: a fox eats a house full of chickens, a snake kills and replaces a pet dog, and a nun spontaneously combusts and reappears at the edge of a crowd. The rest of the book investigates impermanence with Tate’s signature combination of sly humor and poignant sincerity. But the pivots of this collection are the workings of memory or language: ‘Not quite. Oliver sat in his chair like a man in a mudhole. Oliver sat in his chair like a pixie on a rosebud. I think that might be it.’ When Tate brings these linguistic shifts to the voices of his speakers, the poems are among his best, as in the title poem: ‘‘What about that man out there?’ I said, pointing to the tire. ‘He’s dead,’ he said. ‘No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,’ I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. ‘Now he’s dead,’ he said.’ These prose poems offer a familiar reentry into the humor and unexpectedness of Tate’s world.”

Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Semicolon: “In this impressive debut, Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, takes readers through a lively and varied ‘biography’ of the semicolon. She covers the punctuation mark’s history (which began in 1494 Venice, in a travel narrative about scaling Mount Etna) and changing grammatical function, from creating rhythm to separating two independent clauses, along with the love/hate relationship writers have long had with it. Watson argues, with growing passion as the book progresses, that the semicolon, and punctuation in general, must be deployed with flexibility, not rigid adherence to precedent, and even finds court cases to prove her point, including a controversy in 1900 Massachusetts over whether the semicolon in an onerously restrictive state liquor statute was meant to be read as a comma instead, thus making the law far more liberal. Watson lands an especially strong point with her takedown of the inflexibility and ‘rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types’ and especially of Wallace himself, for a ‘speech he liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be… ‘non-standard.’’ The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration.”

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Snakes: “Jones’s propulsive yet thoughtful fifth novel (after Fallout) grips readers from the first page. Bea Adamson is a 30-year-old psychotherapist living in a modest one-bedroom in London with her real estate agent husband, Dan Durrant, despite her moneyed background. Dan, who is of a much humbler background, dreams of becoming an artist. When Bea and Dan take three months off to travel, their first stop is France, where Bea’s older brother, Alex, runs a hotel. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a hotel devoid of guests other than the snake infestation in the attic and an erratic, newly sober Alex. When Alex and Bea’s extremely wealthy parents, Griff and Liv, unexpectedly arrive at the hotel, Bea, who has long cut financial and personal ties with her severe father and cloying mother, resigns herself to making nice. And with Griff and Liv’s arrival, Dan begins to understand just how well-off Bea is, no matter how much she wants to forsake her upbringing. However, when Alex goes out one night and doesn’t return, the Adamson family is upturned, and their secrets and twisted relationships with each other are brought to light. The campy ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book—but what precedes is a tightly crafted, deeply moving, and thrilling story about how money corrupts and all the myriad ways members of a family can ruin each other.”

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightest Object in the Universe: “A near-future apocalypse forms the backdrop for an intense, moving romance in Eisele’s smart debut. After the U.S. suffers runaway inflation, natural disasters, a flu epidemic, massive protests, and, finally, a nationwide cyberattack on the power grid, society breaks down. Somewhere on the East Coast, high school principal Carson Waller begins a cross-country trek in hopes of finding Beatrix, a woman he’d fallen in love with over email. Biking, walking, and hitchhiking, he slowly makes his way with the help of strangers who often talk about Jonathan Blue and the Center he leads, where food and amenities are provided for all who come. In alternating chapters, the story explores how Beatrix sows the seeds of a community through trade of goods and services with her West Coast neighbors. With no modern means of communication, Beatrix turns to the airwaves to share information, starting a radio show that becomes the center of a new group—and a beacon for Carson—that offers an alternative to the promises of Blue. Fans of Station Eleven will particularly enjoy this hopeful vision of a postapocalyptic world where there is danger, but also the possibility for ideas to spread, community to blossom, and people to not just survive, but thrive.”

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Golden Hour: “The stories of two remarkable women a generation apart are cleverly intertwined in Williams’s sweeping family saga. In 1941, Lulu Randolph, a 25-year-old widowed American journalist, is in Nassau, Bahamas, to write society articles about the duke and duchess of Windsor, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The duke—as governor of this island paradise with a dark side—and the duchess are portrayed as sometimes helping, but often contributing to, its problems of social inequality, racial tension, and corruption; they could also be complicit in the murder of gold mine owner Harry Oakes, and there are whispers of their Nazi sympathies. As Lulu’s royal access leads her deeper into Nassau’s shady political world and into a murky letter-passing operation with the duke and duchess, she falls in love with Benedict Thorpe, an English botanist with a mysterious background, who is captured by the Nazis in Europe. In the second story line, set in 1900, young German baroness Elfriede von Kleist suffers from postpartum depression; her sister-in-law banishes her to a Swiss clinic. She falls in love with an English patient, Wilfred Thorpe; their relationship takes many twists and turns as a result of Wilfred’s military career, Elfriede’s husband’s betrayal, and two tragic deaths. Past and present come together when a complicated family history becomes known to all. Williams (The Summer Wives) illuminates the story with exotic locales and bygone ambience, and seduces with the irresistible Windsors. Readers will appreciate the wartime espionage that keeps the suspense high.”

Inhabitation by Teru Miyamoto

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inhabitation: “The latest from Miyamoto (Kinshu: Autumn Brocade) has a surreal, promising conceit but never manages to wriggle free from banality. In the 1970s, college student Tetsuyuki moves to a dingy apartment on the outskirts of Daito in Osaka Prefecture, partly to avoid the underworld creditors hounding him and his mother. In a home improvement project gone wrong, Tetsuyuki inadvertently nails a lizard to the wall. Remorseful, he keeps the lizard alive, feeding it weevil larvae and other delicacies after his long shifts as a hotel bellboy. The lizard demonstrates a ‘tenacious vitality’ that the formerly shiftless Tetsuyuki begins to exhibit more in his own life. He asserts himself at work, confronts a rival for his girlfriend Yoko’s affection, and faces down his dangerous creditors. Moreover, he begins having fleeting visions of enlightenment, dreams in which ‘dying and being reborn, he continually passed through the cycle of life and death as a lizard.’ Throughout, the diction is overly stiff, whether it’s depicting Tetsuyuki challenging his girlfriend’s suitor (‘Can your intellectuality trump my baseness?’), violent gangsters administering a beating (‘Hey, hurry up and kick the bucket!’), or young men discussing the afterlife (‘I wonder why people die’). This tale of a young man seeking enlightenment fails to illuminate.”

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