It’s been a long 2017. So much of being a poet as I understand it is about maintaining a permeability to wonder, and that’s been difficult work in a year spent in the long shadow of a fascistic regime, a year in which the earth has grown increasingly desperate in its attempts to warn us about the damage we’re doing to it. The (perhaps feeble ((but noble))) balm—a year of books, richer than any I can recall. It’s like the world of poetry knew we’d need it to rise up and carry us, to orient us toward our livable tomorrows. Poets are watchers, wonderers. And they have the magical ability to make us realer than we can make ourselves. Elizabeth Alexander writes: “We are of interest to one another, are we not?” I like thinking of poems as little empathy tablets, granting us access to (and compassion for) lived experiences unlike any we’ll ever know firsthand. Here are some new books (mostly poetry, listed in no particular order) from the past year that have helped me wander and wonder from one day into the next: Frank Bidart – Half-Light Anaïs Duplan – Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus Marwa Helal – I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return Traci Brimhall – Saudade Layli Long Soldier - Whereas Rachel McKibbens - blud Sahar Muradi – [Gates] Steph Burt – Advice from the Lights Maggie Smith – Good Bones Cait Weiss Orcutt - Valleyspeak Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular Nicole Tong – How to Prove a Theory Craig Morgan Teicher – The Trembling Answers Nicole Sealey – Ordinary Beast Danez Smith – Don’t Call Us Dead sam sax - Madness Javier Zamora - Unaccompanied Marcus Wicker – Silencer Alex Dimitrov – Together and By Ourselves Ruth Awad – Set to Music a Wildfire Bill Knott – Selected Poems William Brewer – I Know Your Kind Morgan Parker – There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé Carl Phillips – Wild Is the Wind Marie Howe - Magdalene Ghayath Almadhoun - Adrenalin Patricia Smith – Incendiary Arts Tyree Daye – River Hymns Gabrielle Calvocoressi – Rocket Fantastic Mai Der Vang - Afterland Sarah Browning – Killing Summer Alessandra Lynch – Daylily Called it a Dangerous Moment Chen Chen – When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities Adrian Matejka – Map to the Stars Finn Menzies – Brilliant Odyssey Don’t Yearn Eve L. Ewing – Electric Arches Shane McCrae – In the Language of My Captor Ghassan Zaqtan (trans. by Fady Joudah) – The Silence that Remains Franny Choi – Death By Sex Machine Laura Kasischke – Where Now: New and Selected Poems Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation Megan Stielstra – The Wrong Way to Save Your Life Hanif Abdurraqib – They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us Melissa Febos – Abandon Me Ta-Nehisi Coates – We Were Eight Years in Power Alissa Nutting – Made for Love Roxane Gay – Hunger Kevin Young - Bunk Wendy Xu - Phrasis 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 [millions_ad]
This year, especially the tail end of it, has been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good reading. I've felt sort of like how I feel at a dessert buffet—pressed to try everything, distressed that I can't possibly have room for it all, and urged to make space to just enjoy what I can without being sorrowful over what I can't. This is especially the case because in 2017 I was pushing to complete two books of my own—Electric Arches, which I was editing throughout February, and my second book When the Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History, and Discourse Amid Chicago's School Closures, which I have been writing since last fall in a process that feels roughly like army crawling across a gravel floor. Given that—and the overall dismal state of affairs beyond my own front door—I suppose I could have spent the year bent on escapism. Instead, I found myself drawn to authors whose work could sharpen my thinking about the world's miseries rather than pretending to offer me an exit route away from them. Who knows why. I spent a February in Georgia revisiting Patricia Smith’s incredible collection Blood Dazzler as I thought about the ways poetry can help us document and respond to horrific social failures. The book is a phenomenally imaginative recounting of the Katrina aftermath and it's helped me think through what documentation looks like in my own work. After this year, when people ask me if I've read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I can finally say an enthusiastic yes! Since I'm a fan of Haruki Murakami’s work and a runner, I get that question fairly often and have always felt a little chagrined about it. What an odd and compelling book. Like any great book about the daily routines of a disciplined person who is very good at what they do, it has lots of relevance for people who are not runners or writers, because really it's about setting oneself toward a seemingly ridiculous task and making it happen. I ran two half-marathons this year (my knees are not happy about it) and I found myself internally fixating on Murakami's image of the body not as an extension of the self but as a machine that I'm tasked with operating, easing its reticent mechanics into one more step. I also made time for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi this year, and it made me think about the way our tender places can be linked to trauma that lies beyond our immediate scope of knowing. It made me think about the nature of diaspora a little differently, the nature of kinship, and the silent wounds we care from year to year without ever knowing who hurt us. The brilliant Safia Elhillo gave us The January Children this year. It's a book that offers so much formal innovation and a new way of using music and popular stardom as an access point for thinking about memory and loss—both in the sense of losing something and of being perennially lost, suspended between here and there, unable to ground one's feet for long. It's a theme Safia has long explored in a way that has earned her a space as an incredibly important contemporary poet, and this collection was right on time. [millions_ad] Parable of the Sower, man. Parable of the dang sower. This book really messed me up this year (in the best possible way). Octavia Butler’s work is so prescient, and—beyond the "ain't it spooky" comparisons many have drawn between the waking nightmare of 2017 and the world of the novel, which was written in 1993—leaves us with lots of questions about the kind of world we want to live in and some provocative emotional tools for how we might get there. It's also just a fast-paced, engaging narrative work. 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
Eve Ewing recently released her debut poetry collection, Electric Arches, and we dubbed it one of our must-read poetry books last month. Year in Reading alum (and another Millions favorite) Kiese Laymon called her for a Guernica magazine interview and the result is a wonderful discussion on shea butter, Jordans, writing with young people as her primary audience and Assata Shakur as a literary inspiration.
Here are eight must-read books of poetry publishing in September. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar Akbar’s poems are liminal rides, earnest and authentic considerations of what it truly means to exist in this world. In “Do You Speak Persian?”, the narrator attempts to remember his native tongue, but admits he has “been so careless” with those early words. There’s the sweet texture of grief in Akbar’s poems—how “stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years // to die in the back of the eye. // Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” I love a poet who can talk of the stars and soot, who brings God to the ground without losing a burning sense of awe. This debut begins with a sharp line from W.H. Auden about addiction, and channels that earlier poet’s sense of grandness. Isn’t that one of the purest goals of poetry—to justify our breaths? To recognize that we matter? “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” How necessary and refreshing to see a poet truly wrestle with tradition and affirmation. In “Learning to Pray,” the narrator watches his father kneel on a janamaz. “Occasionally / he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring, // my too-big Packers t-shirt / and pebble-red shorts, / and smile a little, despite himself.” The boy looks at his father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” and “ached to be so beautiful.” Lines later in the book—“I live in the gulf / between what I’ve been given / and what I’ve received”—suggest a poet willing to do the hard work of self-examination, and finding the ambiguity of verse to be the perfect vessel. A gorgeous debut collection. Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing This book is a complicated love letter to Chicago, the memory of a girl’s dreams of magic while riding her bike block to block. Ewing’s book feels like late '60s/early '70s poetic mash-ups, when poets pushed to stretch the page, manipulate margins, break free (I love how some of these poems, particularly memories of racism experienced during youth, break into handwriting halfway-through, as if we can follow her sigh from machine to hand, mystical dreams where those who spew hate transfigure in some form of cosmic justice). “The work of the poet is not unlike the work of being black. / Some days it is no work at all: only ease, cascading victory, / the plenitude of joy and questions and delights and curiosities.” Other days, “you wonder if exile would be too lonely.” Ewing’s poems often return to the theme of a creation story, a re-imagining of her place in a world where others have tried to claim her. “How I Arrived” offers a litany of births: “in flight from a war for my own holy self, / clinging to a steamship” and “I fell out of the dirt.” Electric Arches reminds me that magic is made of asphalt and chain-link fences, the lives we painfully live in our childhoods where imagination offers us bodily escape. “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then” is tucked near the end of the book, a good spot because it contains an entire world, full of Ewing’s long but controlled lines. If you’ve ever lived a minute in a city, Electric Arches will make you nostalgic for those tight spaces—not nostalgic because your city is her Chicago, but because she’s so adept at pulling us back to our wide-eyed youths. “Sing, muse, of the science teacher / looking wearily at the stack of ungraded projects / leaning against the back wall.” Ewing sings of Javonte’s “new glasses, / their black frames and golden hinges.” Of Bo, moving a mop, “the pungent, alkaline smell of the water / and the slap when the fibers hit the floor.” The principal, whose door reads “Children Are My Business.” Where are they now? “Tell, muse, of the siren that called their joy sparse and their love vacant. / Tell of the wind that scattered them.” Silencer by Marcus Wicker Wicker is a virtuoso of poetic control: line, phrase, stanza. His range stuns, going from Tupac to God to the Charleston church massacre to how it feels when a drunk, older, white writer patronizes him: “You throw certain folks a rope / & they turn into cowboys.” He can be funny in poems like “In Defense of Ballin’ on a Budget,” and then painfully honest, as when a woman at a party says he’s “just so well spoken” or a waiter at a diner says “Sir, you ever been told you sound like Bryant Gumbel?” He thinks: “I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade— / a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath / my skin.” It’s difficult to not weep at the world Wicker eulogizes. “The world changes,” one poem begins, before ending like this: “No hoods / but neighbors. Just us. All of us left / with the age-old problem of how best to / love each other.” But then I land on a poem like “Plea to My Jealous Heart,” and I’m given hope in a whisper: “What’s funny is that you think I can stop praying . . . I want to look in your face & live this beautifully always. / O metacarpal, proximal, o distal phalange, all-powerful finger / in a breastplate, touch me light as a feather, please, jog in place.” In Silencer, we can hear the sighs in his smirks, the lament in his loves, the desire for something more. Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora This book demands to be heard. Zamora begins with “To Abuelita Neli,” part apology, part affirmation. “I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” His old friends think “I’m a coconut: / brown on the outside, white inside,” and to that he says, “Abuelita, please / forgive me, but tell them they don’t know shit.” The tension between two homes, two selves permeates this book, and births gorgeous lines: “Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb / will clean your beard of salt, and if I touch your volcanic face, / kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.” In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora documents the struggle of Salvadoran immigration. Twenty people are packed in each boat for the 18-hour trip to Oaxaca. “Vomit and gasoline keep us up.” A masterful poem with multiple mixes, it is a torrent of self-doubt. “You don’t need more than food, / a roof, and clothes on your back,” he hears. You always need more. I keep returning to “Instructions for My Funeral,” intoned strong: “Don’t burn me in no steel furnace, burn me / in Abuelita’s garden.” “Please, no priests, no crosses, no flowers.” Instead, put his machete-cut bones in a flask, “Blast music / dress to impress. Please be drunk / [miss work y pisen otra vez].” Finally, “forget me / and let me drift.” Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward The perfect title for a book that looks for that hard place between the will and the flesh. Bone contains long narrative poems that trace a narrator’s detachment from her Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, and bittersweet, truncated poems like “Wine:” “It’s never too late to be wise. / See how your spirit has been / fermenting.” Bone reminds us that we are born or bred into certain worlds, and because we can’t escape them, we can never truly escape ourselves. “Women who were brought up devout / and fearful / get stirred, like anyone else.” Even if the soul is willing, love turns us weak. “Some of us love badly,” she writes, because love “Turns wine to poison. Behaves poorly / in restaurants.” Love soured is still sweet, still strong: “Three years / and I can’t undo the problem of your scent.” Love “is never a / slither, never a little / it is a full serving / it is much / too much and real / never pretty or clean.” And yet. “If I’m entirely honest,” one narrator says, “I want to stay with you all afternoon / evening, night, and tomorrow,” pressed close “until I don’t know if the sweat on my / chest is yours or mine or ours.” Bone is a bounty of passionate and pained lines, narrators whose hearts have been turned, twisted, and sometimes stomped, but who remain open and willing—because how else could we live? Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith “if you press your ear to the dirt / you can hear it hum, not like it’s filled // with beetles & other low gods / but like a tongue rot with gospel // & other glories.” Smith is viscerally powerful line to line, conjuring a collection that begins midsummer “somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown / as rye play the dozens & ball, jump // in the air & stay there.” This is the world slowed down, lit up, a place where lives are always in danger, where “we say our own names when we pray.” In “dear white america,” Smith calls for a new freedom and faith, because “i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” He’s tired of the half-promises, “equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & I just don’t see race.” Smith’s book is like poetic rapture; one poem, “litany with blood all over,” is like a typographic psychotropic, a mind-spinning event that needs to be experienced mid-book, not here in preview. Read Don’t Call Us Dead start to finish, and if your breath takes a beat, that’s the point: Smith is here to call us out, wake us up, tear us down to what is raw. Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey “You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays / fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window. / They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” Sealey’s poems are sources of graceful disorientation; I can never predict where they will end, but I’m in awe of her route. Ordinary Beast reveals our tenuous states of existence: “My mother asks / whether I’d want to live forever. / ‘I’d get bored,’ I tell her. ‘But,’ she says, / ‘there’s so much to do,’ meaning / she believes there’s much she hasn’t done.” I was stopped often by Sealey’s pronounced lines, as in the cleverly arranged “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,” lines culled from various poems to create a harmonious, elegiac whole: “Dying is simple— // the body relaxes inside // hysterical light // as someone drafts an elegy // in a body too much alive. // Love is like this; // not a heartbeat, but a moan.” Ordinary Beast is finely encapsulated in the concluding lines to “In Igboland:” “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. // Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” The Essential W. S. Merwin This book spans from 1952’s A Mask for Janus to “Wish,” a poem from 2017, made of three perfect lines that I won’t spoil here (spend time with this collection and be offered that final poem as a wink, a dessert). Merwin’s an exquisite poet with a nearly unmatched career in the contemporary poetry world—how he perfectly shifts from short poems mapped with ethereal lines, to experimental work like “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field”—so I don’t need to sing general praises here. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that particularly stirred me. The humility and curiosity of “On the Subject of Poetry:” “I speak of him, Father, because he is / There with this hands in his pockets, in the end / Of the garden listening to the turning / Wheel that is not there, but it is the world, / Father, that I do not understand.” When, in “Learning a Dead Language,” the narrator becomes a mentor, telling us, “There is nothing for you to say. You must / Learn first to listen.” Merwin’s verse, I think, is beautifully optimistic, crafted with the hope that we are connected by souls or by words, or by some mixture: “To understand / The least thing fully you would have to perceive / The whole grammar in all its accidence.” He often reaches the calm, almost otherworldly perception of W.B. Yeats (think “Politics”) in “No Believer:” “Still not believing in age I wake / to find myself older than I can understand / with most of my life in a fragment / that only I remember.” Poetry should bring us to that other place and plane, as with these affirming lines from “The River of Bees:” “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”