The uncategorizable, the mongrel, the hybrid, the impure: I don’t consciously say I’m looking for any of those traits when I pick up a book, but I get excited by any piece of art that makes itself up on its own terms, that says no in its quiet (or loud) way to the call of obedience and conformity. I think all of the books on my list say no, as if that no were an affirmation, and I’m sure that’s why I’ll keep going back to them not just in the present, but 10 years from now.
While many contemporary novels restrict themselves to a tight focus, Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway gives itself permission to sprawl. Its characters come and go, live and die, lace together in startling, unexpected ways. Its sentences ring with insight and dark charm. Entire paragraphs feel like song, even those spotlighting a minor character—see the page featuring the woman who adopts wild animals and takes them into her bed. The thing is, there are no minor characters in McCracken’s work, and that notion is central to her vision: Everyone has a face, a body, a longing. I can’t think of a book that’s as queer, even if its queerness isn’t out front and center. Who would we be if we allowed ourselves to see that our closest ties aren’t blood ties but chosen? How would history change if we de-centered procreation as the measure of time and interconnectedness? The novel enacts those questions with increasing urgency and takes us to a place where the character we’ve known the longest doesn’t simply stop, but re-invents himself once more.
Speaking of things queer, some of the freshest books of 2019 have come from queer writers. I’m thinking of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Sentence by sentence, these books are alert and alive, written with exacting description and a musical ear. Most importantly, they take queerness into their structure. They refuse chronology as the only way to tell an immersive story. Instead, these are stories of moving minds, minds at work, as they try to shuck off the old narratives that want to shoehorn us into sameness and oblivion. For that, and more, I love these books the way I would love a person.
Finally? Poets. We must not ever forget the poets, those beautiful monsters. Source of all things good, at least when it comes to the word. Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, Toi Derricotte’s I, Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long, Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Be Recorder.
This year, through no initiative or orchestration of my own, I read in twos. I realize this only now, picking out from a hasty reading ledger those books I liked or kept thinking about, and it’s not like I read the twos consecutively, more that little symmetries keep making themselves known as I look back, titles pairing off into smaller dialogues, gonzo breakout sessions with improvised themes. I didn’t read more this year but I read longer, with a better attention span, this being the first year in almost 10 that I read more to read than to keep up with publishing, so maybe this is always happening and I just started noticing. I also have a brain that’s unrepentantly hungry for patterns, so who knows.
But for instance: the bookends of my reading year were The Tradition by Jericho Brown and The Shore by Chris Nealon. The latter is a book of likably freewheeling, breezily erudite “poem-essays,” which is a fair if dampening description; the former is a book of fucking poems, orderly and solemn and very robustly beautiful without any undue ornateness. Brown is formally exacting, yet the depth of feeling in his poems is breathtaking, at times literally; they’re at once messy, wounded and lusty and scared and prideful, and sublimely still, composed. Nealon is an anarchic writer-thinker flirting with the politics of anarchism, but I find a fully formed existential moment in his “tepid intellectual watchfulness,” as he puts it, a visceral anxiety no less visceral for the fact that his only move is to articulate it, piecemeal. Both feel something’s not right in the present, know some things have been profoundly wrong for a long time, and though they sense this at different distances from their lives and bodies they inhabit it equally fully, make it equally person-sized and real. Also The Tradition debuts a fixed form Brown calls the duplex, and it is perfect.
The Organs of Sense is the first novel and second dazzling book by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, a teutonically involuted, toweringly philosophical novel that is by some weird alchemy more fun for being teutonically involuted and toweringly philosophical. It pulls you painstakingly along into a telescoping nest of relations of conversations of recollections of revelations of remarkable psychological extravagance, and all the while the story—Leibniz goes in 1666 to visit an eyeless astronomer, is the elevator pitch—is so engaging and fanciful and sweet, and Sachs’s comic timing so dead-on, that all you see is the timeless folly of people being people. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that respect, except where that novel burrows deep into a single instant this one expands outward into the cosmos, or a seventeenth-century conception of it. I found The Organs of Sense paired well with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published in 2017, another engrossingly human tableau bound in a vaguely forbidding formal armature. (Oh! Telescoping. Just got that. You win again, Sachs.) The armature in this case is a staccato accumulation of run-on monologues that dilate breathlessly on the smallest sensory minutiae; the book’s magic is that this makes it thrillingly lifelike, thrillingly like life uninterrupted, somehow like swimming in a bloodstream. My grandmother, who as a rule brooks no experimentalist literary impulse, told me weeks after reading it that she was still thinking about the one passage that’s like ten pages of disquisition about pouring concrete.
Nina Leger’s Mise en pieces is a patient, thoughtful novel about a woman named Jeanne who keeps a memory palace of strangers’ dicks. The title (cleverly translated by Laura Francis as The Collection) means to cut into pieces but also to install in rooms, as art in a museum, and Leger writes with a kind of curatorial dispassion—but what she puts on display is the received logic of The Novel, structurally and sexually, dissecting and redistributing it into bigger or smaller boxes, objectifying it in the very way we were expecting it to objectify Jeanne. It’s brilliantly subversive but always more curious than militant. I also read a lot of Valérie Mréjen this year, in unwitting anticipation of her English debut, Black Forest in Katie Shireen Assef’s translation. The first thing I sat down with was Liste rose, a series of personal ads assembled from names cut out of a phone book, which turned out to be a good model for the way she works: even in more direct forms of storytelling—about a non-start romance, for instance, or about parents and children—her method is decoupage, fragmentation, intimate and clinical in alternating measure. Black Forest drifts intuitively from memory to fantasy to supposition, sifting through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances and people in anecdotes and people on Six Feet Under in a way that’s at once cold and sparkling with life. I’m not calling it a memory palace of deaths, but I’m not not.
I reread Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station early this year—still find it extraordinary, still not wild about how much Adam Gordon reminds me of me—and inhaled a friend’s galley of The Topeka School over a summer weekend. It excites me to watch Lerner at work, processing the present at a rhythm that feels authentically like thought, and even as he widens his scope to include more zeitgeist, more history, more dimensions in his characters and their relationships, I’m spellbound by his knack for the fundamentally introspective work of airing their reasonings and neuroses and inner negotiations, which seem rational and sympathetic until you realize—eventually for me, I assume very quickly for lots of people—that maybe their shit’s been part of the problem all along. I would have called Lerner unmatched in his ability to pull this off compassionately before I read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (also over a weekend, also a friend’s advance copy): a plottier, smaller-scoped novel that nonetheless ends up being an even-handed, piercingly wise referendum on love and marriage and sex and gender. Both books experiment gently with shifting perspective, Topeka deliberately and Fleishman more sinuously, and both feel like classically ambitious attempts to get at the crux of a knotty modern predicament, in this case the meaning and function of masculinity. I’ll be revisiting both, slower, down the line.
After not reading it for several years mostly because I thought the title was boring, I read Marie Chaix’s 1974 memoir-novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance, then promptly reread it in Harry Mathews’s translation, The Laurels of Lake Constance, just to keep the spell going. Chaix makes Lerner’s and Brodesser-Akner’s perspective jumps look elementary, darting between voices and tenses sometimes from one sentence to the next, not out of formal showiness but to grapple with the multitouch impact of World War 2, and her father’s collaborationist career, on her family. (She herself was born in 1942, and comes into the story as a narrator maybe a third of the way in.) I no longer remember which prepared me for which—as I said, it’s a hasty ledger—but I recognized the same sly chameleonic interiority in Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, Magical Negro, which tracks a sleepless mind’s path through a world of “Dylann Roof, Burger King, Urban Outfitters.” Parker’s is the cooler, nimbler voice—she sows devastating punchlines like landmines throughout her poems, while Chaix’s prose holds you pitilessly in the moment—but both model, unflinchingly, what it’s like to experience history as a simultaneously abstract and personal affliction. Parker: “And nothing rises up. And horror is a verb.”
I love environmental disaster movies and have an above-average tolerance for immersive theatre experiences, so reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in Paris during a record heatwave—“so intense that a weather map of France looks like a screaming heat skull of death,” according to a Business Insider headline—a headline!—felt about right. His work in synthesizing a massive body of scientific research is admirable; his willingness to lean into its monumentally terrifying conclusions, to use fear and alarm in a way scientists can’t or won’t, is crucial. Some time around then I also read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial, which expands on the excellent work the authors have been doing separately for over a decade cataloguing and decrying the harrowing trend of rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in U.S. criminal cases. May both books shake something loose, though I realize our failing to address the first issue will eventually render the second moot.
Everything about Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, a diaphanous little volume whose content is most expediently described as “silkworm giving a TED talk,” is strange and lapidary, right down to the obscurely troubling six-word description of how it was initially created: “written nanoscale on clear silk film.” There’s precedent for this kind of exploit—see for instance Christian Bök’s xenotext experiment, which encodes a short poem “into the genome of an unkillable bacterium”—but Bervin, whose previous works include erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Nets) and a sumptuous facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s envelope drafts (The Gorgeous Nothings), is concerned more with materiality than with spectacle. As the difference in titular textures suggests, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is mostly what Silk Poems is not: gritty, folksy, squalid and chatty, sexy and gross, aimed with care and craftsmanship at something earthlier and more astral at once. I came away from both feeling better in tune with the intangible, by way of the utterly tactile.
What else? I was grateful for Damon Young’s essay collection What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, both supremely lucid, good-natured but unsparing inquiries into how race, which is to say racism, gets inside your head to make you question how successfully, how convincingly, you’re inhabiting a pigeonhole you didn’t opt into in the first place. I was enchanted by Max Porter’s Lanny and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, both of which wrap inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss. I took a difficult journey with Jeannie Vanasco as she navigates the deceptively prosaic semantic aftermath of sexual assault in Things We Didn’t Talk about When I Was a Girl, and another one with Irma Pelatan, in L’Odeur de chlore, as she maps her body cathexis against a childhood spent swimming in a municipal pool designed according to Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale. Janelle Shane’s futuristic op-ed about feral scooters is hands down the 1300-word sci-fi novel of the year, and—since I’m not about to abandon the pairs conceit this close to the end—the last great thing I read as of this writing was Émilie Faure’s interview, in the biennial high-art review Mémoire Universelle, with world jigsaw-puzzle champion Sophie de Goncourt. She’s a magistrate by day who can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 40 minutes, a pastime which requires, she says with an irresistible lack of guile, “neither agility nor precision. A piece fits, or it doesn’t.”
Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in February.
Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely
“You put your hands over everything / the throats limned, the tags snipped— / your throats snipped, your hands bit / the roses nip and nod.” Playful, punchy, clever, and strange, Ackerson-Kiely’s poems are on-rhythm and off-center. Her lines make me sit up and sort out: “The folding chairs are separated while mating”; “Inside the house the man’s voice / is a bed turned over by cops. / They find nothing but their own anger, / some old tissues.” These are northeastern pastoral songs, as in “The Grandmothers”: “In spite of what one pictures, / there is no bustle, no bonnet, / no consideration for the teats / swollen like trousers thrown / over a ladder in a soaking rain— / bedewed heifer stock-still in a particular pasture.” That phrase—“teats / swollen like trousers thrown”—stayed in my head, a curious consonance that turns the words inward. Come here for the language, but stay for the long prose poem sequence, “Book About a Candle Burning in a Shed,” a murder investigation that will make you want Ackerson-Kelly to narrate all mysteries. A woman’s clothes are found, her body possibly taken downriver: “Water’s high and full of silt, and it smelled like squash bugs and my ex-girlfriend’s neck when she worried about money.” The officer’s recursive vignettes of the case-in-progress are some of the most unique pieces you’ll read this year.
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
Parker’s poetic latitudes are impressive. She bounds from anaphoric threnody to soft, recursive lines. She writes of Diana Ross, after Zora Neale Hurston, and in response to the 200th episode of The Jeffersons. She writes of the body: desire, longing, impatience, aching. She is gifted with the severity of single lines, including: “My body is an argument I did not start”; “Even the sun yawns when I pray”; “Isn’t repentance always a question?” Her poems ride cadences by turns clever and cathartic, as in “Why the Jive Bird Sings”: “Because—come / through numb // waters, dragging rosaries / and years, mouthful // of salt and lemon / trees.” Whether she is writing of race or language, Parker reworks syntax and phrases; she is playing the line and the reader. Consider the end of “Black Women for Beginners Pt. 1”: “We get hurt so often we never / run. Every time we lick our lips / the day obeys and repents. // Glory glory hallelujah. / Hot comb on the stove. / Train tracks in the weeds.”
A Piece of Good News by Katie Peterson
Placed at the
first-quarter point of Peterson’s book is a masterful elegy for her mother
titled “The Massachusetts Book of the Dead.” Its stanzas arranged in concise
sections, the poem is foundational, a tonally divergent work that upends the
playful early poems of her collection and interjects an earned seriousness into
the work. “Sun, make yourself a silence on this house. / If my eyes are closed
I am not sleeping. If they / are open let them rest / in between / the delicate
snowflakes.” Her mother’s death freezes time, and is transformative;
contemplating her, the narrator thinks how “the past and the pastoral / are not
one sense. But past the outskirts / of the city, the fences fall away: /
foundations of a house, / occupied by moss.” Poems after her elegy carry a
melancholic touch, so that Peterson’s book evolves into a series of meditations
and unanswered questions: “Was birth the worst thing, or the first / time a
body left your bed?” An introspective and original collection.
Reenactments by Hai-Dang Phan
In “Quiet Americans,” the narrator and his father are “spooning our chicken vindaloo” in River Falls, Wisconsin, while they watch the film based on Graham Greene’s classic novel. The other half of their family are in Đà Nẵng. The father and son “aren’t interested in the love / triangle or whodunit, but are spellbound / by old Saigon flickering in the rear window, / shadows of rue Catinet.” They long for a world left, but must settle for the peace of their shared moment: “Snow puts the night on mute. / We know how it ends.” Reenactments invites us into Phan’s mind with specificity of scene and memory, as well as skilled usage of second person. “Get to Know Your Ghost” offers good advice: if haunted, learn your spirit’s “habits, eccentricities, fetishes.” The narrator’s ghost “looks like a lost salesman” in a gray suit, “briefcase / bulging with the expired / driver’s licenses of strangers.” In addition to his own work, he offers translations of work from several other Vietnamese poets, including Phan Nhiên Hạo. “Regarding the Spiritual and Social Situation of Vietnam Today” begins “Having lost our senses, / we carry on the struggle of cooking maggot corpses / from a busted refrigerator.” Subtitled with a note that these thoughts come from poets, there’s a melancholy and sarcastic feel to the piece: “Hope is a gas station— / SOLD OUT. / Look at those few sorry daydreamers / pushing their scooters around / so tiresomely.” Phan’s mixture of original and translated work creates a unique debut that is both singular and anthological.
A Cry in the Snow by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu (translated by Luke Hankins)
poet of three languages, this is the first English-language edition of her
French verse, including Un Cri dans la
neige (A Cry in the Snow) and Journal
aux yeux fermés (Journal with Closed
Eyes). Her lines are smooth, yet surprising, as in “body to body”: “the
tree in place of my thirst // I plant it in my eyes // I send its roots / into
my veins.” Radulescu’s poems are full of these bodily transfigurations,
including “interior”: “I wake in my own body and then / in the other / waking
beside me / jealous that I stirred first.” The part-calm, part-delirium of the
lineated works evolve into the prose poems of the second section, making for a
diverse collection. “You can rearrange those pages. There is no order, no
sequence. You can erase lines, add others, switch out the events.” The narrator
is exasperated, exhausted, but firm: “It’s up to you. I won’t respond anymore.
Too busy staying silent.” There is recursive talk of an unfinished book here;
an ardent desire to write, the narrator’s voice an offering: “It’s three in the
morning, the dead in their graves. I think of them. Thought is alive, warm, it
gathers itself, forms a kernel that attaches itself to the world, and it begins
to move, to shift. / I give the dead this gift, the only one possible.”
33 Poems by Robert Lax
In 1959, Lax received a letter from his old friend, Thomas Merton, praising Lax’s limited-edition book Oedipus: “Picture, poem, picture poem, leave reader swimming in existentialist realization of what is this Oedipus. Short poem hath effect in inverse proportion to length.” Merton might be correct. Lax often swung wide, and while some of his poems ramble more than ruminate, others feel just right: “every / night / in the / world // is a / night // in the / hospital.” Of particular note: his long poem, “The Circus of the Sun,” a menagerie of folly and philosophy. “Fields were set / for the circus,” goes one section, “stars for shows / before ever / elephant lumbered / or tent rose.” Lax asks good questions: “Who is it for whom we now perform, / Cavorting on wire: / For whom does the boy / Climbing the ladder / Balance and whirl— / For whom, / Seen or unseen / In a shield of light?” A needed compendium from a dynamic poet.
Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Morgan Parker from her new book, Magical Negro. Parker’s previous book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, ends with the unpunctuated line “Why do you get up in the morning”—and Magical Negro offers playful and powerful answers. This ekphrastic piece follows conceptual artist Adrian Piper, whose “Everything” series pivoted from the poem’s enigmatic title. “Here are some ways in which,” Parker writes, “you are not free.” Her truncated lines often drift into our chests: we’ve been spoken to, and we want to hear more.
“Everything Will Be Taken Away after Adrian Piper”
You can’t stop mourningeverything all the time.
The ’90s, the black Maxima with a tail,CD wrappers, proximity to the earth.
Glamour and sweating in your sheets.Speaking tongues. Men, even.
You are a woman nowbut you have always had skin.
Here are some ways in whichyou are not free: the interiors
are all wrong, you are a droughtsprawling. When you see god
you don’t like what you see.It is never enough to be born
again and again.
You like it at church whenstrangers hold your hand.
You have a mouth men bless.You look good enough to bury.
From Magical Negro. Reprinted with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Morgan Parker.