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A Year in Reading: Tommy Orange

What a year this has been. Do I mean it was really good or bad? It can’t just have been one of those. I just mean it was crazy. My novel There There came out and it’s hard to believe how well it’s been received. Because I had a debut come out this year, I met a lot of other debut novelists, and read a lot of debut novels. I want to mention three of these all at once because while they are very different novels, they were all written by authors who live or have lived in the Bay Area. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree are all beautiful, original and heartbreaking works. Each deal in different ways and to different extents: family, coming of age, and belonging.

There were three standout nonfiction books I read this year. The first is Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. It’s a powerful and important book I think everyone should read. Now. The second is Pam Houston’s Deep Creek (forthcoming in January). It’s an expansive meditation on our relationship to this earth through the experience of her owning and maintaining a ranch in the mountains in Colorado. The third is Rigoberto Gonzalez’s What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth, which is about his brother. The prose is plain and stunning and the story powerful and compelling.

I’m fairly new to poetry, and feel pretty mystified by it still, but I love it. Three books I read this year that I loved were Tommy Pico’s Junk, Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, and Ada Limón’s The Carrying.

I very much loved three short story collections this year, two debut, and one a possible very last—if there are no posthumous collections. I’ll mention the last one first, which is Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Denis Johnson is one of my favorite writers, and I had the extreme pleasure—mixed with extreme sadness—of finishing his collection while landing in Memphis; the collection ends with a story about Elvis. The other two are Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, which I reviewed for the New York Times, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People—which just blew me away, so smart and funny and poignant.

I also want to mention Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, which is impossibly smart and full of heart (forthcoming February 2019), and finally, two books I’m currently reading I already love and will regret to finish. The first is Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change. It’s about Terrence McKenna and psilocybin among other things. I think Terrence McKenna is a forgotten (mostly) genius, and I have a deep respect for psilocybin. Tao Lin does a fantastic job of exploring a subject not explored often enough. Lastly, I’m deliberately taking my time reading Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He is one of my favorite poets, and I always want poets to write novels, so reading his book is a dream come true. It’s devastatingly beautiful.

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A Year in Reading: Jacqueline Krass

This year I read not one, but two books about or by famous Russian male writers’ wives. If there are more of them, which I am certain there are, I would like to read those, too. The first one was Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and I found it via an interview with the writer, Stacy Schiff, in the Paris Review. She was discussing how difficult it was to write a book about someone who worked so hard to excise herself from a narrative—the narrative of her husband’s career, of his genius—and about the absence at the heart of this book about a woman who did not want to be found. Absence, presence, women—those are the words that set things off in my brain. Right away I ordered the book at my local bookstore, which was also at the time my place of employment, and although I do not usually read biographies I read this one and loved every page of it.

Then some other article somewhere sent me to Nadezdha Mandelstam’s brilliant, chilling, disturbing, insightful memoir, Hope Against Hope, and I wondered if I should devote my life to the study of books by famous Russian writers’ wives, because it was the best thing I’d read in a long long time. Nadezdha Mandelstam was married to Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, who died, under circumstances that were never revealed to Nadezdha, in a forced labor camp sometime in 1938. The account of life in Soviet Russia alone is devastating. But what struck me most about the book was the way Mandelstam watched and understood the people around her, her deep attention to the things that happen to individuals under totalitarian rule. One friend, she writes, “told me I should not allow anyone into the house unless I had known him all my life, to which I always replied that even such friends might have changed into something different. This is how we lived, and this is why we are not the same as other people.” One question this book begins to answer is: What does fear do, to individuals and to a society?

There are some connections to our own present moment that perhaps I do not need to spell out.

I also read some really good poetry this year: Morgan Parker’s fantastic Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night; Tommy Pico’s ecstatic, hilarous Junk; Danez Smith’s ravenous [insert] boy; Natalie Eilbert’s Indictus, which I’ve been thinking about nonstop ever since (and talking about to just about everyone I know). I bought José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal at his reading in Madison, Wisconsin, because of my boyfriend; I read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (not poetry) and was embarrassed by how much I loved and related to it. (One underlined quote, which I then copied out into my notebook like a true adolescent: “I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance.”)

And I read a pocket-sized selected edition of W.H. Auden all winter and into the spring, for comfort and for elucidation, in times of fear and uncertainty and devastating politics and flights cancelled due to Midwestern March snowstorms. Back in Brooklyn, at a strange moment of in-between-ness, I stumped up and down the perimeter of mostly frozen Prospect Park and recited Auden to myself. These two stanzas about birds and flowers, from “Their Lonely Betters,” particularly got to me:

Not one of them was capable of lying,There was not one which knew that it was dyingOr could have with a rhythm or a rhymeAssumed responsibility for time.Let them leave language to their lonely bettersWho count some days and long for certain letters;We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:Words are for those with promises to keep.

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Must-Read Poetry: May 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in May.

Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
Scorched, palpable, sometimes pungent, sometimes brutal: Karr’s new collection is a mixture of tight narratives that end without resolution, hymns of unsettled suffering, and confused prayers. Writing years earlier about becoming a Catholic, Karr said “like poetry, prayer often begins in torment”—her own brand of poetic faith does not end in sweet redemption. Her poetry suggests that Catholics often live in extremes of devotion or doubt, swelled with something like poetic fervor, or sunk down to melancholy. In “The Age of Criticism,” the narrator shares a moment with what seems to be Franz Wright, “his face swollen from drink, his glasses / broken so a Band-Aid taped one wing on.” They smoked and “wondered who might be dumb enough / to print our books or read them or / give us jobs.” Downturned, they are “unable to guess we’d ever be anywhere / else, thick snow coming down and piling up, // sawhorses blocking all the small roads.” Karr’s all-but-accepted that life is full of wayward roads, but she’s dogged in following the routes that remain. In “Illiterate Progenitor,” the narrator thinks about her father, who, in a “house of bookish females, his glasses slid on / for fishing lures and carburetor work, / the obits, my report cards, the scores. / He was otherwise undiluted by the written word.” Yet she finds poetry in his pleasures, his moments, his sense of self. Tropic of Squalor is a catalogue of broken graces. How love can find us in the “predawn murk” of suburbia. How God’s speech is not “lightning bolt or thunderclap,” but rather “sights and inclinations leanings / The way a baby suckles breath.” Maybe we are sustained by what ails us, as the “jackhammer the man in the crosswalk wrestles with / He also leans on.”

Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller
“I’ve always been the girl in the wrong // clothes for spring, yet I understand my body / is a gift.” Miller’s book is a strange testament, teeming with some of the most original poems you’ll encounter this year. “When my mother slaps / my thighs to circulate the water in the blood, / the bruises still purple. I let blood work / itself small again.” Her work lives in the same world as Sarah Goldstein’s Fables: “Last week I hunted the blond boys / who hunted a doe in mist. We all saw the mother / gnawed to bone in upturned soil. I let out a dry cry. / Only the worms could hear me. / I’ve been that low.” Metamorphoses saturate this book, suggest our bodies and souls are in flux. There’s a lot of wonder to get lost within here; this is a book to awaken the imagination. “When my grandmother fell through / the floorboards, she cupped her hands // to create an echo that crosses / five acres of cows, and they don’t know how // to listen.” When I hear ceremonial, I think ritual, significant, surreal, and Miller encapsulates all of those traits, writing of bodies made of flesh and fog. Bodies wedded to the earth: “What keeps you / tacked to me, my lone // saint of weeds? Maggot — / I mean, may we get // comfortable as suspects / or each other. May we slink // and croon across shrines with our soft bodies.”

Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Mark Doty has said “the best ekphrastic writing makes use of a work of art as a kind of field of operation, something to keep bouncing off of, thinking through. It becomes a touchstone for meditation.” Diane Seuss’s new book fits that description. In “Still Life with Self-Portrait,” she uses Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s as a fount, the genesis of wonder. She wants “to touch him,” though thinks he might have been “a bad man. / Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women / bad as well?” The narrator has lived within the space of bad men, and admits that she’s brought men into her own “badness” as well. Her recursive first stanza leans back into the painting, how Gijsbrechts created optical illusions. “He has offered you his backside and called it / his frontside, has offered you nothing / and called it something. You’ve known men / like Cornelius Gijsbrechts.” We can almost feel Seuss painting her way through this book, playing the page (and us) with her clever lines. But then she stops us and takes our breath, as in “Still Life with Turkey”: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot, / the cord binding it just below the stiff trinity / of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes // are in love with it as they are in love with all / dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” Or the elegiac “Silence Again”: “Now, when I embrace it, silence, / especially at night, in the dark, I see my father’s // name, as if silence were a canvas he painted, / and his signature there in the corner.” A skilled, inventive collection.

Junk by Tommy Pico
Frenetic, furious, exhausted, and exhausting: Pico’s poetry is like a syntactic tidal wave. His books are experiences, and Junk is a trip. There are no breaks here, but his stanzas are paced and one of his skills is how he manipulates our idea of lines: “The air is heavy feathers in mid- // summer, literally and metaphorically in my foul apt above the / chicken slaughterhouse where we wheeze awake.” In this stream, consciousness is a dizzy show, and among the refrains are the many permutations of the word junk, and what we look for in love: “Is it wrong 2 call yr partner a // mirror in the sense that when we’re together I’m with myself / in a way I can’t escape.” There’s more than one wink here: “Convention says a book shd be // this long but I’m only interested in writing as long as you want / to read in one sitting” and “Ppl are // too busy callin themselves ‘poets’ to notice the canary died.” Taken as a whole, “I suppose Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Junk is fast and loud, but Pico is really a poet “looking to // connect & inhibit more than I want 2 slip away.”

Fludde by Peter Mishler
“I’m embarrassed,” Mishler begins a poem titled “Mild Invective.” “Four deer step / onto the embankment / beside the Sunoco / at dawn, champing / and misting their breath.” The narrator’s “shaving in my car.” Those unusual but precise moments appear throughout Fludde, a debut expansive in subject and skilled in practice. In “To A Feverish Child,” the narrator imagines a child “with the chime of fever in your eyes.” A boy, sick, gifted with a nighttime word from his mother—“delirious”—and the fever dreams that follow. How the narrator dreams (or becomes? poetry has a way with magic) he feels that way, swelled with sickness: “You can’t conceive that at dusk I drove my car / alongside the water to get my thoughts right, / and leaned my body over the reservoir’s lip / to watch my face among the neighborhood lights, / swallowed and renewed. I felt for one moment / insane and holy.” There’s an inevitability to these types of glimpses, how they return at just the right moments, as in “From the Overflow Motel”: “At quitting time, / I press my forehead / to the hallway’s ice machine, / and see a blood-red curtain / draped across a field.”

Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser
Poet of place, generations, elegies, spirit, and love, Kooser’s poetry deserves continual praise. He’s often noted as a poet for a broad audience, and certainly his two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and continued cheerleading for poetry attest to his appeal, but let’s not forget that he is also incredibly skilled. His poems are generous; their profluence nearly effortless. The gorgeous, stilled-heart lines of “A Letter”: “I have tried a dozen ways / to say these things / and have failed.” The feel of the moonlight and the cool November dusk, “and what these things / have come to mean to me / without you.” Kooser captures how we wear pain like clothing, how our everyday actions carry a silent song of grief: “I raked the yard / this morning, and it rained / this afternoon. Tonight, / along the shiny street, / the bags of leaves — / wet-shouldered / but warm in their skins — / are huddled together, close, / so close to life.” His lines make me believe in language again, as in “Applesauce”: “the way / her kitchen filled with the warm, / wet breath of apples, as if all / the apples were talking at once, / as if they’d come cold and sour / from chores in the orchard / and were trying to shoulder in / close to the fire.” A recurring theme in Kooser’s work is how all of us—the living and the dead—seek comfort in each other. This collection is a gift.

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