Field Guide (Yale Series of Younger Poets)

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Must-Read Poetry: January 2020

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Your New Feeling Is the Artifact of a Bygone Era by Chad Bennett

“Isn’t every poem / for someone? Why not you?” Bennett’s songs of longing are clever and carefully rendered—smooth control over lines being only one defining element of this welcome debut collection. Poems switch between first and second person narrator, so that the audience feels like pursuer and pursued, a poetic inversion that is captured through syntax as well: “O light, music, poetry, plague: in a time to come who will remember us?” “Silver Springs,” a periodic poem about Fleetwood Mac and all other things fleeting, centers the collection (when you get to part #23, the page that simply reads “Do you know who you are?,” the question hits). In “Little Spell Against Future Woe,” Bennett again captures those punchy moments that we can’t quite let loose, although they are gone: “No you never recognized, in odd bodies, one who saw you, creature of a moment, unwinding the unmade bed to what pressed along your neck in the back of the cab to the red of your face at the edge of some ruinous night.”  

Little Envelope of Earth Conditions by Cori A. Winrock

Outer space and forest space: There’s a wonderfully varied yet unified bookending to Winrock’s new collection. “In a copse the deer’s body is glass / -felled, is still-beating / cross sections, is abrupt- / bladed. The deer’s body is my body.” Winrock’s narrators seek synthesis with the natural world, a way to understand mysteries and ghosts and visions. Later in that same poem, “Law of Diminishing Returns,” the narrator recalls “two white deer” seen “in the army depot in upstate, / against an apocalyptic sunset: splitting / a landscape into two perfect halves // of light and no light—they were real.” That feeling ascends to the dark heavens, where Winrock writes of spacesuits, distance, and drifting: “I veil my face to keep from beginning // To pre-breathe, to forgo the endless necessity // For nitrogen—our lady of gravity.” And between these planes, there are wonderful poems like “Aubade for Future Resurrection,” with lines that levitate: “The forest refuses to laurel / its leaves around our chalk outlines. And I’m not drunk // enough to admit this must feel like when God stops / talking to even the most devoured in faith.” 

Homie by Danez Smith

“o California,” Smith begins one poem, “don’t you know the sun is only a god / if you learn to starve for her?” The narrator stands at the ocean “dressed in down, praying for snow” because “too much light makes me nervous // at least in this land where the trees always bear green.” The narrator asks: “have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California? / the sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror // all demanding to be the sun.” Among Smith’s many poetic talents is the ability to thread elegy with ebullience—the sweet (maybe even bittersweet) spot between nostalgia and resignation. Maybe that’s why many of these poems route themselves through friendships lost, strained, pulsing, worthy of rediscovering? Smith’s lines will hypnotize you, but also wake you, as in “ode to gold teeth”: “forgive me, forgive me, citizens // of my papa’s dead mouth / i stole you from behind his cold / flap at the funeral, i knew you were / not teeth, but seeds.” As in: “i’m waiting for a few folks // i love dearly to die so i can be myself. / please don’t make me say who.” As in: “i did not come to preach of peace / for that’s not the hunted’s duty.” An excellent collection.

Summer Snow by Robert Hass

From Field Guide, his first collection, to this present volume, Hass has always been concerned with the “language and imagery of place”–and his stated affinity for Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder shines through in his own poetry about nature. The finest poems in this new book, his first in nearly a decade, carry these natural themes–and do so with not a small amount of self-awareness (from “Stanzas for a Sierra Morning”: “You couldn’t have bought the sky’s blue. / Not in the silk markets of Samarkand. Not / In any market between Xi’an and Venice. // Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. / Isn’t that, after all, what a stanza is for”). In “Cymbeline,” Hass offers his ars poetica on this point: “Everything we do is explaining the sunrise. / Dying explains it. Making love explains it.” It’s the type of an admission we see in later Yeats: the acknowledgment of form and function, that poetry can be both art and real. Hass is able to craft both with ease and skill, as in poems like “Dream in the Summer of My Seventy-Third Year,” a graceful consideration of death. In the narrator’s poem, he is “behind a funeral cortege on a mountain road / And decide to pass it.” Unable to, he becomes part of “the caravan / Of mourners.” Snow falls quickly, heavily, and then stops. The poem’s final lines offer a perfect pause: “nothing in particular happens / After a snowfall, except for the intense stillness / In the pine forest the road is winding through.” 

Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan

Longer poems seem the perfect form for Sullivan, whose methodical and melancholy lines tell wayward stories. In “You, Very Young in New York,” the first poem, second person creates a pointed intimacy. In this city, “nothing seems to happen. You stand around // On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed, / Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress / With one arm raised, waiting to get older.” Nothing seems to help. In a later section of the poem, the character spends another day inside in a “beige Lego-maze of offices,” steeped in tedium: “You have created a spreadsheet with thirteen tabs, / The manager is giving you hell, ordering sushi, cancelling cabs.” As the narrator says later in the poem, “The thing about being very young, as you are, is the permeability / Of one person to another.” Sullivan rewards the reader for following the profluence of her verse, and the end to the first poem is an elegy for unanswered love, coupled with the generous gift of surprise. Each of these three long pieces feels and flows differently, united by Sullivan’s talent for wit, as well as for the texture of observation: “And the day comes when it is time to visit the living, / When the garden was long with gooseberries / And lightning cracked the teacup of the sky.” 

A Year in Reading: Jesse Ball

Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson’s lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall’s best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful — even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser’s Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser’s selected stories. There’s a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is — most of it isn’t any good. That’s where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He’ll fix your modern day ills with ease.

I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass’s Field Guide (not an actual field guide).

At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus’s Delirious New York.

I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one:

Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears?

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