Good Bones: Poems

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A Year in Reading: Chaya Bhuvaneswar

This year was bracketed by both joy and terror. I watched, scared, as people I love grew, learned, succeeded at various things—including me. What did it mean? Writing for years, coming close to getting published once before, then suddenly finding my book out in the world, cherished and loved by strangers who became friendly readers—and why now? Of all times, when our country is literally being burned down? And when, on a daily basis, I fear for our lives? All year, in response, I held on tight to books I love, remembering not only specific words, but the moments of real comfort I found in these books. Cherishing these.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a book I read in high school when it was first published, always one I “mean to” return to but found myself too dazzled and silenced by—this year was the year that, in my studio cabin at MacDowell Colony, I sat and read the book without interruption, making extensive notes on structure and strategy. Embracing the past to let it go. Sixty million and more. For the first time, reading Morrison’s hallowed words, I was delighted to find that I understood the book’s structuring, the unfolding, building of tension in specific scenes. For the first time I dared to hope that I would write a book, a real book, that could matter.

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, completely woke me up to poetry. What had I been doing, all this time? In high school too, I’d been lucky enough to be part of the Academy of American Poets workshop. I’d written poetry, “always” written it, I thought. Then stopped. This year, I couldn’t remember why, and so the poems came out, got revised, but not with any kind of condescending withering. “Citizen” taught me all too well—there’s already a world ready to hate. We must honor ourselves. I read Rankine’s bold, intellectually rigorous, extremely serious and vivid words and felt like she was saying to me, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t know what you know.” All the poems I published this year (19! And counting, including this one that received a Joy Harjo prize, and this one in THE SAME MAG where Maggie Smith published her poems (!), and THIS ONE where Natalie Diaz published poetry—and this essay I wrote even before reading all of Citizen this year, and being awakened to poetry again, in general, by the conflagration of hatred and terror that we are living through, somehow.

All my writing, engagement with any words and rhythms, had as its backdrop the feeling of being supported by poems by women and people of color, all the time. All year, while writing, I also “ate up” poetry quietly and gratefully—like Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith, which made me realize that I, too, was radiant from “panic” about the state of current affairs, like cold, lovely splashes of Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, which made me too shy to say hi to her when I saw her and she smiled back at AWP, and like surreptitious “sips” of My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, which made me question the simplistic dreams I’d had as a medical student of “volunteering on the rez,” realizing on a visceral level how there is SO MUCH MORE to it, to any kind of engagement with a brutalized and marginalized community when you “happen to have” services they need, through “accidents” of history (that are not really accidents, a la Marianne Moore, another poet I reread this year, loving her words and hating myself for how deeply ingrained her words are in my mind given that she was a person who supported Indian boarding schools for children. The poet who wrote “Marriage” was never who I dreamed she’d be).

My anger had to find some quarter, I suppose. Who could’ve guessed that it would be turned into appreciative laughter so easily? That I’d be so susceptible to charm? But it did and I was: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, even for the title story alone, which I read and then hugged tightly to myself like a puffy jacket I’d been coveting (reminiscent of another puffy jacket, from another great story, by Sana Krasikov talking about post-Soviet Russian consumerism in One More Year, also brilliant and another book that I reread this year).

To finish revisions on the novel that my agent will (I hope) submit to publishers in 2019, I read (what else?) This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley, and it is true that “luck favors the prepared mind” because, reader, I MET him in person at the Texas Book Fest not long after I read and took notes on that book, including 1) at least “touch” your novel for one and a half hours per day, even if all you do is read and reread what you have, just touch it so it doesn’t become foreign to you and 2) get the complete draft done. Just get it done. Tell the story. (Worry about “telling it slant” later). Then I MET WALTER MOSLEY! And so, I could honestly tell him, before I fled our 90-second “meeting,” “I adore you.” Upstairs in the building that Moseley was walking out of it, I said the same thing (again meaning each syllable, probably almost too fervently) to Alexander Chee, FACE TO FACE OVER HUEVOS RANCHEROS. His book Edinburgh that I’d read last year was as masterful and moving as How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which capped for me the trend in reading I realized I was pursuing, of reading a novel, then tracking down writing advice from its author, then devouring the essays by that author… about writing. Following this thread I read everything I could find on the Internet (and attended her talks too! Including at AWP) by Min Jin Lee—both Pachinko (for the first time, crying at the sad parts by a swimming pool where children thought the crying was from their ruthless splashing of me, and my paperback) and Free Food for Millionaires, which I also read for its immensely skillful plot structure, engrossing, yet unfolding at a stately 19th-century pace, though without any didactic digressions. (I eagerly, EAGERLY await Min’s book of essays about writing which, if not already in the works, I SO HOPE will now be in the works. Hint, hint.)

Naturally (I felt) Lee’s use of the omniscient third had to lead me to novels like Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (whose prologue long ago inspired me to write this story in White Dancing Elephants, featured recently at Electric Lit). I loved Hardy, of course, and also dipped into Wuthering Heights again, on a long plane ride where sniffling was assumed to be something everyone was doing (and hiding), because of the dry air and so on (and dipped into it mainly because of the brilliant, hilarious, melancholy evocation of the book I’d heard read out loud in a piece at Sewanee Writer’s Workshop, by Shanti Shekaran, whose novel Lucky Boy I read once, utterly loved but couldn’t bear to read again, for how close it came to uncovering my own feelings about infertility and miscarriage, and how it described such heartache around attachment and loss and parenting, I just couldn’t bear it. But no 19th-century novel made as indelible an impression on me as Henry James’s Washington Square, which I listened to twice all the way through, driving to and from work, in the Librivox version beautifully narrated by “Dawn”, one of the many tireless readers who make these free audio books a widely accessible resource.

Perhaps it’s because, like the heroine Catherine’s father, I am a doctor too, but I felt so keenly for nearly everyone in this book (except of course the hapless Morris, whom Catherine never would have expected a thing from, had she not been so blinded and burdened by the painful, enmeshed, guilty, tormented relationship with her father). The perfect, Victorian-era “snark” of how the book sets up the cruel events that lead Catherine to lose her mother, implying just enough that the doctor-father was too detached, and simply didn’t act fast enough, to save his own wife and son from death– I felt the devastating wound of it, of how much people expect from doctors, yet how little compassion is extended to us when, like every other human being on this earth, we suffer loss. We grieve. We feel the limits of what humans can control, and what we can’t.

Strangely, though, the essay collections I read were not by doctors. Nor were the novels, though I did read an interview I really enjoyed, with gifted novelist and fellow psychiatrist Daniel Mason in The New York Times, for how the tone of the interviewer SO COMPLETELY ERASED any people of color or women from the identity “psychiatrist” so breathlessly parsed therein.

(Um, NYT dude whose name I think I had trouble pronouncing, no offense—not all psychiatrists are cishet white upper middle class males preoccupied with “affective containment” as an ultimate goal. That very limited, exclusionary, anti-public health/private pay vision of psychiatry pretty much ended in the ’70s. What we have now are “recovery communities” and “neurodivergence,” in case you didn’t realize. Like, psychiatrists who are women of color who can get down with The Collected Schizophrenias as forthcoming by Esme Waijun Wang, for instance, or who can clearly express compassion and caring for patients with eating disorders as detailed by writers with these conditions like Kathryn Harrison in The Mother Knot. Thanks for understanding, dude. No doubt.)

Instead, in reading as in life, I pursued a kind of lightness, an attitude, insouciance, coupled with breathtaking honesty, shrewdness. One might put all these book covers in a Twitter post and caption it MOOD. Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else, and Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me (yes, if she comes to AWP, I’ll get shy and girl-crush-struck and run away from her too, I don’t doubt it). Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. As a Rhodes Scholar, my voice caught in my throat reading her account of being “instructed” on how, as a woman of color, she could “assimilate” into various white elite spaces her intelligence and drive had helped her gain access to. She cut close to the bone.

Then to cap off the year, I read and took a lot of notes on story collections to help finish revisions on my second story collection, which only exists because it turns out I’m a writer literally with manuscripts in a drawer that I take out and revise and don’t send out anywhere for years (and not any of the stories that belong to this second collection were written recently, though excerpts were featured recently here and here). The jewels among the several collections that I read include (in addition to Friday Black, above, which I just read out of love, and not for work)—Florida, by Lauren Groff, reading again and again the particular story of a woman writer obsessed enough with researching her novel to have to go to France; anxious enough to take her children with, literally dragging them, making them walk in rain and cold, making them speak French, forcing them, making them, almost crying from the effort of trying to hold the structure together while staying dreamy enough to actually sit down and write. Sigh.

Also read, and studied (again, after reading the first story while in high school too—“The Chinese Lobster” when it first came out in The New Yorker) the whole collection by A.S. Byatt, so stunning: The Matisse Stories, and timely too—dipping into #MeToo themes as well as fundamental questions about “who gets to make art” which then took me, on a pleasurable digression, to Claire Messud’s thrillingly good, extremely entertaining, admittedly shrill book The Woman Upstairs, which I liked but I think was secretly wishing would talk more about the racism that a Middle Eastern family might experience in the Republic of Cambridge, MA (yes, even there). I got back to the stories, though, delightedly wading through Everyday People, the anthology edited by Jenn Baker and one that includes a detailed bibliography of works by women and nonbinary authors of color in the back.

All in all, the year of reading made me a little less afraid. Not really less afraid of our political futures. No. But less afraid of losing hold of what and whom I love. Much less afraid of forgetting any of what is most vital to me. Maybe memories do define who we are—a recent interesting and long thread of Twitter, and something I contemplated while reading a lot of press coverage about the fascinating Amazon Prime original with Julia Roberts, Homecoming (which draws directly from PTSD research and prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, modalities I’m trained in administering).

I also thought more about trauma and memories while reading Marlena for the first time, to interview Julie Buntin here—and thought about my family’s memories, coming to terms with my younger brother’s autism and disabilities, when I read (and wept with real gratitude) over Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success and how it represented a level of acceptance and love of a child with differences that I’d always wished myself and those I knew could feel and demonstrate more clearly, more spontaneously, without such hard effort and constant education of ourselves, to understand my brother’s perspective, to hear his voice. It may be true that our memories somehow define us—but I prefer to think that books are loving and beloved carriers of our memories, trigger the ones we need to remember the most, stimulate the memories that heal us.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Kaveh Akbar

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

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Must-Read Poetry: October 2017

Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in October.

For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel

Pimentel renders passion through crisp, cutting lines. In “The Kiss,” “I’m mad for gravity though / I’m bound, diagonally, to / you.” And: “Leave me // to wither while moss weeps / in the corners, our halo liquid / as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat / our divinity melting.” Later, in “Late September, When the Heat Releases”: “A sage brush flowers, / and all night long, your skin rippled, softening // through gaped window, the cathedral long / with bells.” For Want of Water is a hot book: life in the desert, desire laid bare. “We are learning how to lie down quietly / each afternoon, to let // whimpers fall over us, through / the air, and through // our skin, to forget our wet mouths, their hungry gestures.” A great book doesn’t need two narratives, but there’s a parallel current of pain in this book. “The wives in Juárez are used / to slumping their bellies to their knees.” This grief is thick: “The violins in our home are emptied / of sound, strings stilled, missing / fingers.” Love and struggle, lust and pain, all here under the same poetic roof.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Come for Smith’s viral title poem, but stay for her range as she builds a notable collection, one suffused with grace, and—dare I say it—hope. Poems like “First Fall” make her narrators feel like careful guides, each line a gesture, a lesson: “The first time you see / something die, you won’t know it might / come back. I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here.” This book is full of wonders. Of sky: “As you move through it, you make a tunnel / in the precise size and shape of your body.” Of the past: “The chairs are empty. The children / are unwrapping golden butterscotches / in the cool, shuttered houses.” Of the wisdom that comes from grief: “Where do you carry your dead? . . . what cut shape is made / whole by opening? I mean besides the heart.” Good Bones breathes mystical, pastoral wind, while also hitting notes of longing. The world has to be falling apart—it has to be a place where the narrator might ask “Where is your voice now…What has the land done to your tongue?”—in order for us and our words to lift it back up.

Civil Twilight by Jeffrey Schultz

“The calm refinement of civility, / A feeling that the worst of things happen beyond the bounds of us, / Happen, somehow, beyond us, without us, out in a world as wide / As it is unimaginable.” Civil Twilight is a surreal trip of a book. Schultz describes our world, but does so in a murky, tired tone—as if we have stumbled out of a daze to finally see the light. I felt somewhere in the range of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in these pages, my senses both bombarded and soothed: “We walked, the sky above us fig-flesh / And flesh and baton-black at the edges, and on the bus benches and fences // Around us the Graffiti Eradication Task Force’s patches of color, / Earth toned and muted, a sort of bland abstract expressionism.” The State has exploded into some nearly apocalyptic organism, and Schultz is like some haggard oracle—spent and disgusted with violence and obfuscation, turning to language—there to document the fall: “called here to gather / In memory of what by the end of this will have already been forgotten.”

Who Reads Poetry edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share

Poetry is most often defended by poets, so this anthology is a welcome addition to the chorus from outside voices. From Neko Case to Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert to Roxane Gay, we hear spirited confessions of those converted to poetry. Ebert recalls his Catholic school assignment to memorize a poem. He never forgot William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., the fifty-sixth superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, sees poetry as an essential tool for communication “because it describes reality with force and concision” and “confronts cadets with new ideas that challenge their worldview.” Jia Tolentino is not a poet, and never talks about the form with others: “that, in the end, is what made me free” to observe, experience, and realize “I basically know nothing, and that acknowledging this position is a beginning and never an end.” Poetry is malleable and moving; a form that will never tire of importance. Who Reads Poetry is an invaluable testament to a simple truth: we all read poetry, in our ways. As Aleksandar Hemon says, poetry helps us understand “what it meant to live.”

Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burt

Advice from the Lights is buoyed by two themes: the imagination of youth, and the search for body: its shape, outline, expectations. “If I can’t be weightless,” Burt writes, “or glide among twigs, or sate / myself on dew, then let / my verses live that way.” We begin in 1979, when “I could have trusted my instincts if I had any,” when “I had become convinced / that character was fate.” A year when “My bedtime and I were both eight.” Soon Stephanie arrives in the collection, a second self whose first poem ends in a question, whose other appearances infuse poems with the anxiety of identity: “Because I can’t ever appear / as I would like to appear, / I once tried to make it so you couldn’t see me at all.” Yet there is young hope, as in “Fifth Grade Time Capsule”: “I dream of the day / when I am decoded and vaunted.” Burt’s year-by-year cataloging gives Advice from the Lights an immediacy within its nostalgia, a compelling ars poetica of self.

Madness by Sam Sax

“I’d say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you:” Sam Sax’s advice for writers applies to Madness, a book saturated with misdiagnoses, anxieties, fears, and the paradoxes of bodily desire. In “#hypochondria,” the narrator writes “if i lived two hundred years ago // i’d have been bled nightly, / i’d have slept at the foot of a holy man’s bed / i’d have lapped up his snake waters.” Sax’s book feels like a funhouse of debunked treatments, a suffering mind’s headlong dive into nightmare. In “Willowbrook,” the narrator’s father worked at an asylum: “something funny happens / when a person becomes a patient / the name changes & everything / that follows is bandages.” This book winds its way in and out of these institutions, their corridors and their darkest rooms. Madness wonders: “what does it mean to be descendant / of something monstrous?  / to still love the monster?” Can we ever escape unscathed?

Devotions: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver

Oliver’s religious sense has been considered before, but this volume is quite clearly curated and presented—from the title on to the selections—as a work of (Gerard Manley) Hopkinsesque devotion. It might seem like a small gesture of design, but as a hardcover, Oliver’s play with white space feels almost spiritual. It is affirming that a poet so widely read as Oliver feels new with this work. The selections are ordered from most recent, Felicity, on to No Voyage and Other Poems from the early 1960s. Among those earlier poems, there is the gentle yet ultimately firm “The Swimming Lesson,” where “the endless waves / Reaching around my life” force the speaker to swim. Or even better, to learn “How to put off, one by one, / Dreams and pity, love and grace,— / How to survive in any place.” My favorite is “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957”: “Once, in summer, / in the blueberries, / I fell asleep, and woke / when a deer stumbled against me.” She takes us, almost effortlessly, somewhere else. Oliver’s selected is the type of book to leave out on a table and hope somebody—perhaps those not yet converted to verse—will page through and find, inevitably, a voice they’ve been looking to find.

Small Gods by Matthew Minicucci

Minicucci offers readers a gentle slant on the observed world. In “Wedding,” the “tabernacle / door slides closed like some gilded / impossible hotel.” I linger on that image and drift to the opposing page, where, in “Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians,” “On resurrection: to the dead, the living seem so pointlessly busy.” Like his fine debut chapbook, Reliquary, Minicucci’s new book is suffused with religious nostalgia, a wonder welded to the culture of a Catholic sense, but distant from firm belief. The tension gives structure to the book. We read epistles. We hear of Aquinas. We see a poet clothe description with ancient cadence: “Aperture and embouchure of the living word. Speak, friends, if your mouths have tongues.” This lifts the language; gives Small Gods the song of myth. Tucked between the book’s mystical bookends are mathematical and astronomical works; it’s as if the poet is trying to find worthy forms, or trying to make his voice worthy of forms. There are no easy answers here, but the scars are reminders of struggle: “Yes, blessed are those who believe without seeing. But blessed more are those who must accept the silvered hangnail of this proof when pressed deep within the cavities of their own flesh.” Words can’t do the ineffable justice. Maybe “salvation is a missive I read backwards.”

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