I Always Carry My Bones (Iowa Poetry Prize)

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A Year in Reading: Chet’la Sebree

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I was so excited to do this, to proudly list all the books I read this year. Then, after sitting down, I realized the list was shorter than I thought. I started to wonder if I should list instead all the books I started and have yet to finish. Apparently, some of the frenetic energy born in the doom-scroll chaos of 2020 is still festering in me. Even when I looked back at the syllabi for classes I taught in the spring, I realize I didn’t assign full poetry collections, recognizing in my students the same struggle with attention.

It wasn’t because I wasn’t excited about many of the books that I started this year; it’s not even because I don’t plan to complete them. It’s just because after sitting still for a year—since I am one of those people who could count on my hands the times I went inside of public spaces between March 2020 and March 2021—I wanted to get out into the world this year, excited to be with people despite my deep introversion, grateful for the opportunity to travel. Sometimes that meant putting down a book I was enjoying mid-read to take a two-hour drive for Chipotle in a park with a friend and his family in the Lehigh Valley, to mask up and hop on the train to D.C. for dinner with former colleagues turned close companions, to crisscross my way from Connecticut to California to see loved ones. 

And so, I’m giving myself a little grace, as we all should. Remote teaching, running a university literary arts center, having a book come out, and going on a 10-week road trip in the second year of the pandemic was no easy business. We are all doing our best; I keep reminding myself of this. 

That said, I’m grateful for the books I was able to complete this year and the places where I read them. I devoured Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut story collection Milk Blood Heat—which closes with an under-discussed but brilliant story about a dinner club feasting on some shockingly exotic “delicacies”—in the comfort of my home in central Pennsylvania. I listened to The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris while organizing my life into and out of boxes during a move this summer. I started and stopped and restarted Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America while my dad drove me through the Midwest, freaking myself out with some of the statistics as we visited historical sites and family. I inhaled Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, and I thought about interracial relationships and raising children, in a friend’s house in Illinois after the last drags of a stomach virus left my system. 

And when I needed to escape this world entirely, I dipped back into sci-fi and fantasy series of my teenage years—finally finishing the last book in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series but still not knowing if Elphaba lives or not at the end of Out of Oz. I’ve also been rereading The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, since the beginning of this year. (I’m not done, but plan to finish it, so I’m counting it here!)

Although I found myself reaching for prose during this year of movement, in the rare moments of stillness, I’ve been grateful for the patience of poetry—the propulsive force of Joy Priest’s Horsepower, the quiet intimacy of Felicia Zamora’s I Always Carry My Bones, and the poems about the makings of poems in Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse. Although I planned to participate in the Sealey Challenge—named for poet Nicole Sealey, in which you read 31 poetry collections or chapbooks in as many days—I sadly didn’t make it a week but enjoyed the marrow of narrative and memory in both R.A. Villanueva’s Reliquaria and Eloisa Amezcua’s From the Inside Quietly along the way. 

This year, I was particularly excited to read Shara McCallum’s No Ruined Stone, a collection that imagines the life of poet Robert Burns if he had left Scotland to serve as a bookkeeper in Jamaica, the country of McCallum’s birth. She imagines a world so close to having existed, one in which Burns has a great-granddaughter born to an enslaved Black woman who must navigate the convergence of race, violence, colonialism, and inheritance in her world. Shara and I have spent many years discussing research and the archive, so it was such a gift to finally see these poems come to life.

As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that several of the books I’ve read this year are written by people I know, perhaps to feel closer to my writing community than the world has allowed me to be in the past two years. When I wasn’t reading collections or novels, I was snuggled in bed reading a friend’s children book—Katrina Goldsaito’s The Sound of Silence—to my niece and nephew, who I hadn’t seen in 18 months. Or I was reading Martha Park’s graphic essay “Cast in Concrete” in Oxford American to feel closer to her in Memphis when I was a few hours up the Mississippi in St. Louis.

I am hopeful the next year will bring us all more time to see people we know and love but also more stillness to sit with more books like some forthcoming ones: Bright: A Memoir by Kiki Petrosino, Anthropocene Lullaby by K.A. Hays, and Girl’s Guide to Leaving by Laura Villareal. 

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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