This year, I read a lot on my phone. That’s a habit I’ve picked up from working gigs where you stand a bunch (watching kids on a swingset, watching adult children park their cars). Some folks don’t vibe with that, but those folks don’t pay my bills, and it meant I could read in doctor’s offices and train stations and airports and noodle bars and passenger seats. I read Alexia Arthurs’s How to Love a Jamaican, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Nik Sharma’s Season, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us, Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Okura’s That Blue Sky Feeling, Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Anita Lo’s Solo, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and the re-issue of Naoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys.
At a few points this year, I got inexplicably sick. I had strange professional developments. I traveled and I mostly stopped smoking but I drank an aggressive amount of milk tea. I gained weight. I cried, for the first time in years, after hearing Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” cover, and then again, a few months later, over something else. I also succumbed to joy. And there was, I think, this year, a pervading numbness, which isn’t even a little bit unique, so I won’t riff too much on it, and reading definitely didn’t eliminate or even diminish that ennui, but still, books provided their own heft of equal or greater emotion, and that more or less countered the void.
So I read at crosswalks. I read at the auto shop. I read in front of the cashier, waiting (praying) for my card to clear. I read Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and all of the lyrics for Mitski’s “Be The Cowboy.” I mourned The Awl, for months, and read all of the remembrances. I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Luís Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I reread Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, because I do that every year, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, because I think I’ll start doing that every year. I reread Diego Zuñiga’s Camanchaca, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and all of Paul Asta’s poems. I read everything Jia Tolentino wrote, and I reread this essay by Anshuman Iddamsetty, and this one by Vinson Cunningham, and this story by Chris Gonzales, and this story by Sheung-King. I read Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Kate Gavino’s Sanpaku, Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband, Chris Ying’s You and I Eat the Same, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, Sohui Kim’s Korean Home Cooking, Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
But, honestly, the main thing that stuck with me in 2018 is having read prayers. Or hopes. Whatever. I spent a good while this year in Tokyo, sort of visiting friends and sort of researching a long thing and sort of fucking around and sort of clearing my head, and a thing I did often was ride the JR line to the Meiji Shrine. It’s in Shibuya, a short walk from Harajuku Station, by this big-ass Gap and an Adidas. In the afternoons, a guy played the Hang in front of the shrine’s arches. When you walked through the gravel, past the barrels of sake, after you’d stepped under the shrine’s pillars, you could sort of amble your way to the arches, and that’s where plenty of people, from all over, left notes on votive tablets beneath an overflowing tree:
I pray my boyfriend’s parents accept me
Hopefully she comes home this year
I pray that the new job brings in enough money for the operation
This year I hope that she finds peace
I pray that his death brings us together
Stuff like that. Deeply personal things, like you’d find in a diary or a post-it stack. Some had smiley faces and cartoons. Others were written in cursive. I spotted French and English and Hiragana and Hangul and Spanish and Chinese and Arabic, and they all hung together, tied to their altar with string, sort of shaking in the wind, and if you sneezed they’d shift a bit before settling back into place.
Most afternoons, I rode the train from my place to see them. It took about 20 minutes. This year began with the absence of hope, and every week that’s passed seems to have added to that refrain, but folks had still taken—had actually bought, with currency earned by their labor—these little hunks of wood, and then they’d written down their hopes and dreams and wants, despite everything. Despite the world. That’s a little radical, when you think about it. That’s a lot of beautiful, when you think about it.
And, in a lot of ways, I think the books I read in 2018 elicited a similar emotion. No one asks us to write. There’s no assurance that anyone will see what we put down. If your advance is big enough, or the publication is halfway decent at social media, or your publicity team is swift enough, or if you’re young and white and you catch a wave then maybe they will. But they probably won’t. And we hang these words up anyway, because we have to, and we hope that someone will see them, although most of us will never know if they do, so they’ll just carry them around in their heads, the same way we will, and that’s how we’ll build a life together, just tacking up prayers.
But anyway. I’ve thought of those notes often. I hope some of them came true.
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Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August.
The Carrying by Ada Limón
For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year.
Perennial by Kelly Forsythe
Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.”
If You Have to Go by Katie Ford
“The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.”
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world.
The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand
Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.”
feeld by Jos Charles
“Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.”
How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach
Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.