A few days past, I stepped into my town’s city council chambers to a sea of “Make America Great Again” hats and signs against “illegal aliens.” The council was meeting to decide whether the city would, in a largely symbolic gesture, oppose the idea of the Sanctuary City bill and sign onto the amicus brief suing the state.
One after one after one, men and women stood at the podium facing the council, donning red hats, draped in American flags, and snarled abuses about criminality and violence, about illegal aliens and rapists—the same vitriolic language espoused by the president. Those in favor of the bill were outnumbered, and a gentleman in the seat next to me would regularly turn to my mother and I to record our reactions to the vitriol—my mother, being a hijabi, was an easy target. If eyes are the window into the soul, and racism is a malignancy within it, those windows showed very clearly what was in front of us; I refuse to believe that the council members did not see it. As the night wore on, one line kept returning to me from Terrance Hayes, sitting at the edge of my tongue, that I wanted to yell: “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” It sat in my mouth, and I wished I could let it fly.
In a section of The Diary of a Bad Year called “On the Curse,” J.M. Coetzee meditates on how the fear of a curse is very integral to American literature, becoming in fact the central theme of Faulkner: “The theft of land from the Indians or the rape of slave women comes back in unforeseen form, generations later, to haunt the oppressor.” This idea of a curse, a uniquely American curse, is an anxiety reflected even earlier in Nathaniel Hawthorne:
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer as their representative hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back would argue to exist—may now be henceforth removed.
Even from D.H. Lawrence: “One day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the spirit of place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.” A question: the ghosts of whom?
By this point, it may be redundant to claim that the idea of an American curse is integrally bound up with race, with the machinery of its violence, and the way it occurs in any contemplation of whiteness. Now read:
America, you just wanted change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own. You share a fantasy with Trinidad
James, who said, “Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring,
Gold all in my watch” & if you know what I’m talking
About, your gold is the yellow of “Lemonade” by Gucci
Mane: “Yellow rims, yellow big booty, yellow bones,
Yellow Lambs, yellow MP’s, yellow watch.” Like no
Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants
Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.
May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents
Of Midas. I wish you the opposite of what Neruda said
Of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.
Terrance Hayes, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, the National Book Award, and a litany of other prizes, is one of the most gifted poets working in our language. His new book, a short volume of sonnets, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, is a gift in a fraught moment. These sonnets, existential, political, personal, retain a moral ferocity and urgency that propels that entire cycle forward.
These are not Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets, but what ought to be called Colemanian sonnets after Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, whose improvisational free jazz approach to sonnets is the starting point for these poems. Hayes builds upon this conceptual framework for an idea of an “American Sonnet.” Absurd, pun-filled, shocking and ironic, there is a freedom in these poems that comes marching forward in the same way Coleman’s poems still measure toward a common formal language. Hayes’ voice is level, and his penchant for formal experimentation—which led him to creating his own formal conventions in Lighthead and Hip Logic (such as the Pecha Kucha)—find him immediately at home. What I am trying to say is that if poems are a house, and sonnets are gothic architecture, then Terrance Hayes is our Antoni Gaudí.
However, more than an architect, Hayes is an alchemist whose poems can turn gold into copper or a house into a prison:
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed
These poems are acutely aware of the literary tradition Hayes works in, with as many references to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, to Derek Walcott and Langston Hughes, wrestling with the implications of blackness and literary tradition. Hayes’ inhabits the deeply troubling historical moment. But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future.
A motif that appears regularly in these poems is the term, “There never was a black male hysteria.” He explains in his notes, “Many years ago the poet Anthony Butts told me he was writing a book called Male Hysteria…alas, the book never came to be.” In a book unwritten, there is neither future nor past—only the possibilities of both. These poems puncture a hole in time, fragmenting a grief, a rage, a rebellion, an irony so deep that one can only call them blue. These poems are true; they were true before they were written and will be true in whatever future we are slouching toward.
Sitting in those council chambers, in front of this racism unmasked and parading as political theater, those lines sat on my tongue, and I wish—oh, how deeply I wish—I could have turned and said to each and every one of them, “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” I got home quite late that night but pored over these sonnets again and again, as if they were gospel.
Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.
In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.
One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.
Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.
I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.
While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.
This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.
While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.
I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!
A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.
Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too. Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.
When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.
Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!
So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:
Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
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This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Alison Bechdel may now be as well known for her “Bechdel Test“, a checklist for evaluating gender bias in movies, as she is for her genre-making graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Bechdel first came to prominence via her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, collected a few years back in The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. MacArthur calls her “a cartoonist and graphic memoirist exploring the complexities of familial relationships in multilayered works that use the interplay of word and image to weave sophisticated narratives.”
MacArthur did not honor any writers of fiction this year but several others in literary fields made the cut, including poet Terrence Hayes, whose Lighthead won the 2010 National Book Award; Samuel D. Hunter, a playwright best known for The Whale, a riff on Moby-Dick; and Khaled Mattawa, translator and poet, known for his work on Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction, as well as his own collections of poetry.
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. This year’s fiction list includes something of an invasion from overseas, with Peter Carey, surely the first Booker shortlister to also be a National Book Award finalist (but eligible for both because the Australian-born author is now a U.S. citizen), and Lionel Shriver, who, though a U.S. citizen is often more commonly associated with London, where she makes her home.
The nomination for Shriver validates a provactively titled piece that ran in these pages this year, Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?, which suggested that she deserves far more critical attention. Rounding out the fiction list are Nicole Krauss, recently lauded as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and a pair of relative unknowns Jaimy Gordon and Karen Tei Yamashita, each writing for small indie presses, McPherson and Coffee House, respectively. Also notable, the fiction finalist number four women versus one male author, and Jonathan Franzen and his blockbuster literary novel Freedom are nowhere to be found.
The other big name to note is rocker Patti Smith, who earned a nod for her memoir.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss (excerpt)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (excerpt)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (excerpt)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (excerpt)
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (excerpt)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (excerpt)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring (excerpt)
Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack (excerpt)
Young People’s Literature: