Earthling: Poems

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NBCC Announces 2017 Finalists

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The National Book Critics Circle announced their 2017 Award Finalists, and the winners of three awards: the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The finalists include 30 writers across six different categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Fiction, Poetry, and Criticism. Here are the finalists separated by genre:

Fiction:
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (The Millions’ review)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Improvement by Joan Silber
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Read our interview with Ward)

Nonfiction:
Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald
The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Read our 2017 interview with Gessen)
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

Biography:
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon
The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte

Autobiography:
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo

Poetry:
Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir
Earthling by James Longenbach
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by Contributing Editor Nick Ripatrazone)
The Darkness of Snow by Frank Ormsby
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović

Criticism:
You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano
The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History by Camille Dungy
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Review)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News by Kevin Young (Read Young’s Year in Reading)

For the three stand along awards, here are the winners: John McPhee won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to letters and book culture, exploration of widely varying topics, and mentorship of young writers and journalists. Author and critic Charles Finch won the Nona Balakin Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The John Leonard Prize—for a first book in any genre—went to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15, 2018.

Must-Read Poetry: November 2017

Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in November.

Saudade by Traci Brimhall
Gorgeous and searing, Brimhall’s poems are rooted in the marriage of myth, mysticism, and mystery. Collected with the breadth and power of a novel, but delivered in discrete scenes and dreams, Saudade is one of the best books I’ve read this year. In “The Unconfirmed Miracles at Puraquequara,” a litany of transformations come from the touch of a shrunken hand. A barren woman gives birth. Crops flourish. The narrator knows the hand’s secrets, and is silent at first: “The town / had waited so long for a miracle, and it was finally // here, enriching the poor, emboldening the meek, / carving acrostic mysteries into the trees.” Salvation soon turns sour, though, and death comes to the town, leading to a public ritual of cleansing that ends with “Startled pigeons roosting on the church / roof took flight when they heard the clapping.” In God-soaked Brazil, Brimhall’s characters can’t help but dance with darkness: “A sinner needs her sin, and mine is beloved.” There’s a causality, a profluence to these poems created by her lyricism, and her swift pivots. When we return to Puraquequara, a camera crew films a telenovela based on the miracles, and the narrator speaks: “An extra in my own story and envious of the ingenue’s unmuddied / shoes and air-conditioned hotel room, I say, Ajudar, ajudar, // and cry on cue.” Dreams bleach reality: “the mayor hangs himself and bequeaths / his second-best bed to his horse, I write romantic obituaries / and send his wife signed photographs of myself.” Disturbing, and masterfully done, Saudade will take you somewhere else, a place you know is true: “I hate to spoil it, / but the end of every biography is death.”

Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Speaking of her previous collection, The Boss, Chang said she wanted her poems “to propel themselves through language”—an equally accurate description of Barbie Chang, her latest book. Chang entrances with wordplay, but the dance never feels hollow: this is performance with poetic soul. There are two strands to her book that sustain each other: a woman both desiring and rejecting the urge to become part of a suburban community, and the woman’s life with her parents. Barbie sees “beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them they have // something to say doves come out of / their mouths that // explode splinters in the sky.” In Chang’s talented turns, mere phrases become fantasy. She’s mastered the art of recursive language, and Barbie Chang—woman, idea, performance—feels incantational as the book progresses. The Circle returns often: villainous, perfect in their plasticity. They are drunk at a school auction, “tossing coins in baskets.” The whole scene a mess, but Barbie “owed it to // her children to make friends to blend / into the dead end.” Background becomes foreground, as Barbie’s father is sick, and Chang’s eschewed punctuation begins to feel like halted breaths. Don’t miss the exquisitely crafted litany of linked poems in the middle of the book, evidence how quickly and precisely Chang can turn from comic to comforting to transcendent: “how in one / moment your hands collide as in clapping / how in some other moment they will rise / over my encased body touch in prayer.”

I Wore My Blackest Hair by Carlina Duan
Duan’s talents are many, but she’s an especially powerful poet of scene. The collection begins with her title poem, searing in action: “Father’s chopsticks crashed. He threw them.” Angered, “Father could not believe he had raised such a daughter.” He “coughed a mouthful of rice”; he was “extraordinary and old and Chinese.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s mother “does not own a / Laundromat or / a take-out restaurant.” She “is not / from your country, / and I am not / ashamed. // I slip my hands through her wise hair, // and keep.” Duan moves between affirmations of self and the inevitable struggle of difference; “my tongue // my hardest muscle // forced to swallow / a muddy alphabet.” Duan sketches these strained emotions with care and courage. This is a book of prejudice and expectations, and how they hurt in various ways. In “When All You Want,” the young narrator is at the piano. Above her, “Mrs. Liu with her / handsome mouth.” Mom watches “anxiously from the window.” A boy plays a violin in the next room. Duan turns back to Mrs. Liu, and the candies in her mouth: “clack, suck, clack, / again—here go all the noises you love.” I Wore Blackest Hair is a storm of senses, a chronicle of strained identity and a stance of power: “don’t mistake / me for a soft woman, / a shy mouth— / I can lash like the / hot, hot rain.”

Riddles, Etc. by Geoffrey Hilsabeck
There’s a magic at work in these often tight, but never cinctured, poems. In “Remaking the Music Box,” the narrator has advice for us: “First unhurt the accidents. / Plant yourself in what remains.” After all, “No sadness just disaster / no meanness just thrift.” These poems often drift back to youth, when the narrator, “light and white as a candle,” still felt “my childhood pooling like wax at my feet.” Appropriate to the title, the collection contains 17 riddles, their answers revealed on the final page, but well-worth the poetic game of waiting. It’s a playful interlude that gives Hilsabeck’s collection an endearing bit of freedom: we can find the answers to our questions, or we might accept that in poetry, as says W.H. Auden, “you do not call a spade a spade.” Sometime it is enough pleasure to let our poets leave trails of language without firm destinations.

Thousands by Lightsey Darst
Imagine discovering someone’s notebook, the pages covered margin-to-margin with desire, anxiety, and fear, all wound together through association. Thousands is a raw collection, where each poem bleeds into the next, as if we are reading one long threnody. The effect, admittedly, is sometimes dizzying, and readers will want to devote time to this book, but the work is returned with gifts. Darst offers thanks to Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks here, but blazes her own trail with poem-stories that begin in Minneapolis, Minn., in 2011 and end in Durham, N.C., after 2014. The tension of a timeline opens so many themes: “How do I make this world yield what I need to get from it?” “How do you deal with the casual atrocity of the world?” Darst’s poems are running monologues of wonder and worry; in one way, they are a document of a poet’s struggle to give suffering context. “Do you keep a journal / why / why not // Keep one now / keep me in it”: Darst’s intimacy here is masterful: whether it is love, lust, pregnancy, or words: “The poem I can’t write persists.”

Helium by Rudy Francisco
“When you choose to be a poet // You become a place that people walk through / and then leave when they are ready.” The arrowed exhales of Francisco’s spoken word poems translate well to this debut. Lines flow with the rhythm of conversation, winding toward clever conclusions. True poems like “Mess” abound: “On the day you couldn’t hold yourself together anymore / You called for me.” Then, “I found you, looking like a damaged wine glass. / I hugged your shatter,” but “When it was over, you looked at the stains on the carpet / And blamed me for making a mess.” Maybe we can get people to chant the refrains from poems like “Chameleon”: “And we often forget that sexism is a family heirloom // that we’ve been passing down for generations / As men, it is important that we start asking ourselves // What will the boys learn from us?”

Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung
“Whatever one witnessed in battle became a silence carried within.” This anthology begins with a haunting foreword by Yusef Komunyakaa, a consideration of race, Southern identity, and family tradition—one that destined him for military service. A Vietnam veteran himself, Komunyakaa explains that soldiers carry home “echoes of our war…we carry with us the pathos, and our loved ones often inherit the caustic baggage.” Subtitled Poetry & Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, the anthology captures grief and guilt in turns, and its mixture of poetry and prose channels the range of emotions and expressions. In “The Lost Pilot,” a prefatory poem that sets the tone for the book, James Tate elegizes his father: “your face did not rot / like the others—it grew dark, / and hard like ebony.” This is a book about fathers, and rightly so, as Laren McClung notes: “the father is always a source of myth, but the father who has seen war, who has performed the complex work of violence, heroism, or survival, is in many ways inaccessible, a mystery to us.” Inheriting the War mines that mysterious space, how we pursue the soul of those we love who are torn by war, and how those wounds weather our own hands and hearts. We should consider the metaphors and myths, but there is more to encounter here: as poet Brian Ma considers, as a re-outfitted military plane carries him to his parents’ home of Vietnam: “as usual the boundaries are hard to discern. / The guilt is like a fog; in the fog there are people.”

Earthling by James Longenbach
“One of life’s greatest pleasures, / If I’m allowed the phrase, / Is packing a suitcase. // It’s not like building a fire, / When you want to leave space for air.” Longenbach’s poems occupy a strange yet perceptive place between the real and the unreal. I hesitate to call his verse surreal, because I associate that word with distortion; Longenbach gives his readers a route to follow, and its turns are precise. Poems like “The Dishwasher” drift on a wave of melancholy. A soft song on a Chevette’s radio becomes a hymn to search: “I wanted to hear it again. / I drove to the supermarket, then drove home.” We move to find where we’ve been, like when that character hears his mother’s voice, asking him a question that goes unanswered: “What kind of coffee do you like?” Poets will appreciate works like “Preface to an Unwritten Book,” in which the narrator knows he is supposed to be writing, “But you should realize I’d much rather spend my time / Reading or, since it’s the end / Of summer, sitting. / Our truest impulses are so immature.” There’s a quietude to Longenbach’s lines that is calming, and then there are long poems like “Climate of Reason” that shock me awake and breathless, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony: “In the middle of the desert / You might be anyone, / Except you’re never in the middle, / You’re at the edge.”

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