I didn’t read much during the first half of the year. Trying to finish up my own novel left me so exhausted, and at one point, so repelled by the creation of fiction that I could barely even look at a book. Which all seemed very much like something out of O. Henry: I’d started writing fiction because I love to read it and yet found myself unable to read because of what I was writing.
Funnily enough, the book that broke this curse was Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession by Mya Spalter. I picked it up because I aspire to project the appearance of self-possession—fake it until you make it, as they say. It’s a short book designed to remind its reader just how much power our intentions, habits, and rituals assert in our lives. I’m at my most functional when I’m fully engaged with this fact.
I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the idea of taking a full year off from my own life to sleep was so appealing that it made me a little worried. At the time, I was feeling exhausted from writing, from work, from the news, from the bizarre way that time seemed to behave in 2018—somehow the beginning of the year feels like it was an eon ago. And yet, I don’t feel that I’m allowed to waste my own time, which makes me wonder if I suspect it doesn’t really belong to me.
I read two books of poetry this year, the first of which being Maps by John Freeman. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a strongly setting-oriented collection, and the focus on location was pleasantly grounding for me, even when the poems dealt with violence, grief, and other difficult subject matter. The second book was a re-read: IRL by Tommy Pico, who has been my closest friend for the last decade and a half. I revisited this book because I miss him—for the first time since we met we are no longer living in the same city; his departure was a quietly cataclysmic event that dominated the emotional landscape of my 2018. I love this book as I love Tommy, who is just as insightful and funny in person as he is on the page.
This year, I finally finished The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I’ve been reading since 2014. It’s a deeply weird book—the devil and his entourage show up in Soviet Moscow to torture the literati class, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate also appear in a few chapters. I doubt I would’ve kept reading it had it not been recommended to me by some good friends of mine whose taste I really like and respect. There was so much affection for me in this recommendation and so much affection for my friends in my desire to see the book through to the end. Which I’m glad I did. As it turned out, I ended up really liking and respecting the novel as well.
I read There, There by Tommy Orange, which made me extraordinarily jealous—I don’t know how someone writes so convincingly from multiple perspectives. I feel I will never be able to do this well, so of course it’s a feature of the next writing project I’m planning. Because of this project, which features a con artist, I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters for inspiration. And I also read Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, because I think I’d like to set it in 1940s New York.
I bought The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling because when I heard her read an excerpt from it, I felt mesmerized by the prose. Kiesling is an arresting writer on the sentence level, which is a talent that makes me as jealous as the ability to write from multiple perspectives. I loved this book because of the way it depicts a mother’s love for her child: unsentimentally, honestly, and intensely. And as a form of love that can be lonely, even though the object of it is always present.
I read XX by Angela Chadwick, which is also about motherhood. I turned 34 this year, and don’t yet have children but want them, so I found myself thinking about motherhood quite a bit in 2018. In the novel, two women, Rosie and Jules, participate in a clinical trial that allows Rosie to get pregnant through a process called ovum-to-ovum fertilization—meaning that they’re both genetic parents to their child. In the world of the novel, as it would be in the real world, this is highly controversial for many reasons, not the least of which being that participants in the trial can only have female children. I love this premise and Chadwick plays it out through characters that are very emotionally compelling.
Earlier this month, I read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, as I was coming home from a trip to London to visit my grandmother, who’d had a small stroke earlier in the year (she’s fine). It is a short, light book about a woman who feels that nothing “normal” (marriage, children, professional ambition) is right for her. Instead, she believes that her reason for being is to serve the needs of the convenience store she works in and its customers. I loved this novel because it made me laugh when I really needed it.
2018 was an excellent year for new books. There were a few others that I remember reading and wholeheartedly enjoying: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley, Heavy by Kiese Laymon and a galley of Cygnet by Season Butler, which will be out in 2019. I read more than a dozen books in the second half of the year, which is a lot for me because I’m not a particularly fast reader. I read so much because I wasn’t writing, which means my year in reading illustrates something very true about me: I either go all out or I don’t go at all. In 2018, I became inescapably aware of this, and as the year comes to a close, I’m trying to develop better habits that will lead me toward a more balanced 2019. Here’s hoping.
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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July.
A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires
A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.”
New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich
In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.”
Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers
This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.”
The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander)
These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.”
Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman
“I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide…How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.”
Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin
“I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.
The ten winners of the 2018 Whiting Awards were announced tonight in a ceremony featuring a keynote by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison. Based on “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” the annual Whiting Award gives $50,000 to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. This year’s recipients are:
Patty Yumi Cottrell, debut author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (Read The Millions’ interview with Cottrell);
Brontez Purnell, author of Since I Laid My Burden Down
Weike Wang, debut author of Chemistry
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of the forthcoming The Collected Schizophrenias (Wang’s a Year in Reading alum)
Anne Boyer, author of Garments Against Women
Nathan Alan Davis, playwright of Nat Turner in Jerusalem
Hansol Jung, playwright of Cardboard Piano
Antoinette Nwandu, playwright of Pass Over
Eileen Myles meets Rihanna, and Grindr meets Muse in Tommy Pico’s debut book-length poem, IRL. The poem speaks through the voice of Teebs, a character who shares Pico’s nickname and similarly resides in Brooklyn after growing up on the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation. Teebs both yearns for and is haunted by Muse, an otherworldly abstraction and object of desire, as he navigates the simultaneously desirous and oppressive, simultaneously digital and material world (read an excerpt here).
In April 2014, Pico published Absent Mindr, the first poetry chapbook available as an app for smart phones and tablets (read interviews with . It is no surprise that his first full-length publication also experiments in incorporating new technologies of communication with reading practices. As the title immediately invokes, IRL situates itself in the intersection of the poetic and the often-belittled text-speak. The poem is peppered with the language of cyberspace and other forms of shorthand that have taken on a history and meaning of their own. The language showcases both the richness and cutting irony of text-speak that often manifest at the same time. Not only does Pico incorporate text-speak into the poetry, but the language of texting becomes poetry — beautiful and rich within its own right.
The content of the poem grapples with the at times angering, at times guilt-inducing layers of desire, trauma, and bytes of data that comprise contemporary life and that refuse compartmentalization. Teebs navigates his position as a single, queer, indigenous poet in America living within a world that demands an ordering of those words despite a simultaneous experience and singular body. This world is just as populated with the overlapping of text messages, Grindr messages, Instagram DM’s as it is with the daily violent effects of colonization, racism, homophobia in the Hamptons, on the Rez, in Brooklyn, all alongside a textually-mediated awareness of broader global crises.
Artist Jenny Holzer’s famous truism claimed “All Things Are Delicately Interconnected.” Indeed, Pico’s poem explores the intensity, unavoidability, and depth of interconnection yet complicates a vision of delicacy, an ease of the connection. IRL in its winding, non-linear narrative and associative language enacts just how interconnected each aspect of Teebs’s life is, as is ours, and perhaps increasingly so through new forms of communication and exchange. But this interconnectivity is simultaneous yet fraught with tensions, pain, and even humor.
IRL denies the reader the luxury of easily parsed-out moments, memories, violences, and even words — nothing exists entirely singularly. Teebs feels anxious about responding to an intrusive DM on Instagram, a stream of intrusive comments on his queer body just trying to walk to the train, an intrusive colonizing narrative that violently erases Kumeyaay language and history, and an intrusive guilt about feeling subsumed by these intrusions while simultaneously conflicts in Syria and conflicts back on the rez echo through social media in ways that bring these issues both closer than ever and serve as a guilt-inducing reminder of Teeb’s distance.
Just as Teebs exists as the sum of his experiences, identities, interactions, and social media accounts, the words within Pico’s short lines mirror how Teebs occupies and moves around these spaces, their ever-muddling borders and boundaries. The playful language constructs simultaneously humorous punchlines and serious meditations on how the moral, emotional, and social spaces we occupy break open and into each other. The poem asks, “Was it Sontag /or Sonic the Hedgehog / who said just dash dodge/ weave faster than you/ can think” Indeed, in this poem there is no either/or dichotomy, only the multiple and often conflicting layers that comprise the whole. And who doesn’t both chuckle at the pun and ache at the truth of language broken apart and multivalent in a line such as “We are reaching clima- / te change” or “Money is not a- / mused”? The digitized, the pop culture, the intimate, the political, and the literary all bleed together, revealing the connective tissue of language that often is as confusing as it is humorous. It is there that the genius of Pico’s puns and language-play live and reveal their cultural, etymological, and aural associations. Pico showcases the associativity of language to create the landscape of the poem, which soars when exploring the connective tissue of thought and experience. And he isn’t afraid to throw a joke or (admittedly cheesy) pun into the mix — a rare treasure in poetry.
But Pico’s writing reminds us: there are limitations. We travel through the poem one word, one line at a time, we follow Teebs’ line of thought that — just like us — can move from thought to thought but can’t quite think two thoughts concurrently. The line of thought is like the line of poetry — it bleeds into what came before and what came next but it simply cannot contain everything at one. The man at the bar discusses the controversy over articles on Patricia Lockwood’s writing yet neglects to discuss an article on the crisis in Syria. How does one heal from the impact of ongoing colonial violences on indigenous people, of queer-bashing street harassment, of an unresponsive Muse, when all the while online there’s a buildup of notifications about what has happened with Kim Kardashian, with the Tea Party, for the lost Nigerian schoolgirls, in Ferguson. These moments within the poem speak to a truth about the accompanying anxiety, pain, and even guilt of our limitations within a certain time and space. But within this, Teebs speaks a glimmer of hope — the potential of poetry and perhaps even enacted within the poem:
I like to keep trying new
ways of being staked,
which gives me context
to yr outlet, the Internet.
We know wanting to die
isn’t the coup in Thailand
and Muse isn’t Syria,
or ebola, or Craq / de Chevalier.
At my best
I have the luxury
of speaking for my-
self. I becomes
It is the medium of the “I” that reveals to us the patchwork world of the 98 pages of IRL. The “I” embraces and interrogates the complexities of what it means to live in real life in the 21st century. There is simply so much packed into this poem, while the poem maintains an energy, power, and velocity that carries the reader through to the end. The poem offers a politically sincere and sincerely political meditation on desire, oppression, language, history, and technology without one-note cynicism or kitsch.
Last month, Ed Simon discussed which works might be considered American Epic Poetry. Pico’s debut is America’s epic poem-text message that scrutinizes America, poetry, and digital culture. Tommy Pico’s IRL is an intimate and powerful commingling of the personal and the political and isn’t afraid to crack a joke; it is the intimately epic poem we need.